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Written Ministerial Replies: MPs raise the issue in the house, again.

The pressure upon Ministers to answer written questions, accurately and on time, is growing. During Points of Order yesterday anuother tranche of MPs attacked Ministers and the answers they had recieved. Ministerial answers are crucial to holding the government to account, but The Speaker is powerless to asist. This is a serious issue, with no obvious solution.

Points of Order
1.39 pm
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, there have been exchanges between hon. Members and Mr. Speaker about parliamentary answers. On 10 July, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he had made of the frequency, scale and sophistication of Taliban attacks on British forces in Helmand province. In reply, I was told what we knew already—that attacks had increased with the deployment of British troops in the south of Afghanistan. However, the end of the right hon. Gentleman’s answer was extraordinary. He said that neither the Taliban nor the range of illegally armed groups currently posed a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. That is exactly the opposite of what the House has been told over recent months. This country has deployed troops to Operation Enduring Freedom and to the NATO mission precisely to secure the long-term stability of Afghanistan. Can you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, ask Mr. Speaker to use his good offices to ask the right hon. Gentleman to come to the House and explain what he meant by that answer, which hon. Members will find as perplexing as it is disturbing?

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Sir Michael Lord): As the hon. Gentleman knows, Mr. Speaker has no direct responsibility for the quality of ministerial replies to questions. If he consults the Table Office, I am sure that staff there will be able to assist him in following up answers that he regards as inadequate. I am sure that Mr. Speaker will have noted again the points that the hon. Gentleman has made today, as they will be on the record.

James Duddridge(Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During questions to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister this morning, I asked a question about casinos. In his reply, the Deputy Prime Minister accused me of receiving money from casinos via my Conservative association. That is wholly and totally untrue; it is a very concerning accusation that has no substance. What advice can you give about how I can place it on record that the accusation is untrue? Does Mr. Speaker have the power to call the right hon. Gentleman back to the House of Commons to set the record straight?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think that accusations of any kind, from any side of the House, should be thought through very carefully before they are made. They should not be made as often as they are, but the hon. Gentleman has succeeded in putting the matter on the record.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On 28 June, I asked the Prime Minister a question about infant class sizes. I put it to him that he had not met the pledge on that subject that he made before the 1997 election. He said:

“As far as I am aware, the infant class pledge has been met.”—[ Official Report, 28 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 259.]

Yet Government figures reveal that nearly 30,000 children are being taught in infant classes with more than 30 children. I have written to the Prime Minister
19 July 2006 : Column 341
telling him that he inadvertently misled the House, but he has not replied. What further steps can I take to oblige him to correct the record, as this is a serious breach of his responsibilities to this House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I trust that the Prime Minister will reply in due course, and that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with the answer. When figures such as those are bandied about, they are often less a matter of record than of debate.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Through you, may I thank Mr. Speaker for an intervention that he made in respect of a parliamentary question that I tabled on 25 May? I finally received a response yesterday. The question asked how many questions tabled to the Home Office before 5 May had remained unanswered by 25 May, and yesterday’s answer put the number at 565.

This is a hugely important matter, and I am grateful for Mr. Speaker’s intervention. I understand that the Home Secretary has said that the problem will be resolved by 9 October and that questions will be answered appropriately. However, parliamentary questions are very important to Back-Bench Members who want to put the Government under scrutiny. Will you urge the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that he fulfils his pledge?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The whole matter of questions to Ministers and their answers is clearly extremely important. The House is already aware of Mr. Speaker’s interest in the matter, and the hon. Gentleman has placed his concerns clearly on the record.

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R v SUSSEX JUSTICES ex p McCARTHY [1924] 1 KB 256

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