John Hemming's Web Log John's Reference Website
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
  Politics in the UK is Broken and this is one reason why
The link is to the evidence session from the Procedure Select Committee. Questions are being asked of Chris Bryant MP (Rhonnda) who is Harriet Harman's deputy (ie the Deputy leader of The House).

The enquiry is into written questions. In essence what he says is that if a minister refuses to give a proper written answer to a question then the solution is to beat the government at the next general election.

This issue about the refusal to explain the details of policies is at the nub of how things go wrong so many times. Apart from using the Freedom of Information act it is difficult to find out precisely what is going wrong by using parliamentary procedures. If we don't know what is going wrong then we cannot fix it.

The theory is that the legislature holds the executive to account in between elections. To hold to accounts requires asking questions and getting answers. However, at times the government simply refuses to answer.

Here is an extract
Q70 John Hemming: I think it is known that I am concerned about the issue of unsatisfactory answers. Generally this means the occasions when people do not answer the question. I did a round robin test of different departments by asking them about red boxes. In itself it was a relatively trivial question, but it identified that some departments answered the question and others avoided it. When you compare and contrast that with freedom of information there is an appeals process under that mechanism but no formal appeals process for written parliamentary questions. If you really want to get an answer and people will try to resist it the trick is to ask a written parliamentary question and a freedom of information question. If the WPQ does not provide the information you can take the freedom of information through the appeals process which is subject to deadlines and timing. What would you regard as an unsatisfactory answer to a question?

Chris Bryant: To make the position clear in relation to freedom of information, if the department has the information and it knows that it will have to give it under a FOI request it should give it in a parliamentary answer - full stop.

Q71 John Hemming: But they do not.

Chris Bryant: They should.

Q72 John Hemming: How do you make them do it?

Chris Bryant: But there is a difference between that and the situation where they do not hold it but other agencies do. I have written FOI requests to my local police force since I have been a minister to find out statistics, facts and figures and so on, so I am quite conscious that there is a sharp distinction. I am closer to being atheistic than agnostic on the issue of having an adjudication process to decide whether or not a question has been adequately answered. I think that in the end ministers and the government are accountable to the electorate when it comes to a general election.

Q73 John Hemming: You are quite happy to have a system where if you are a citizen you can appeal through freedom of information for a failure to answer a question but basically if they do not answer a written parliamentary question that is just tough?

Chris Bryant: An MP also has the same right as a member of the public. On top of that, the MP has the opportunity orally to question a minister in the Chamber and try to get an adjournment debate on an individual issue. I have already answered three adjournment debates on parliamentary matters to do with correspondence with ministers, questions and so on.

Q74 John Hemming: You say you can try to get an adjournment debate but you do not necessarily get it. You can try to raise business questions and there is a higher probability that you will be called. But you feel that it is entirely reasonable to have a system of government where the powers of members of the legislature to obtain factual information from the executive are weaker than those of an ordinary citizen?

Chris Bryant: They are not weaker because they have exactly the same powers as an ordinary citizen. On top of that they can exercise a series of other powers. What I am hesitant about is that even if that is not the best of all possible worlds I do not see how you can create a better one because I am not sure what adjudication system you have. Even if you had a system whereby a Member could say he was unhappy with a previous answer and therefore he would ask another question the enticement would be for every single question should end up becoming that kind of question. I do not think that would provide greater truth for Members.

Q75 Chairman: You made a very interesting statement a moment ago on which we would all agree. You said that if ministers held the information they should always give the same information in answer to a question as they would to a freedom of information request. I think there is evidence that that is not happening. The ministerial guidance or code refers to the key elements in a minister's job of openness and accountability. I think that it refers to debate but not written questions. Do you think there is a case for putting this beyond doubt by having a reference to written questions and saying that ministers should always give whatever information is in their possession?

Chris Bryant: I have a desperate hope that I am about to be handed a copy of the ministerial code of conduct from which I shall be able to provide a complete and adequate answer in a timely fashion, but I do not think I am in that position. I will just have to busk it by giving my understanding of the position. If I am incorrect I shall write to you. My understanding is that there is an expectation written into the code. The ministerial code refers to "all dealings with Parliament", so it does not differentiate between one form of dealing and another. If you are asked a question in the House in the middle of a debate you should be helpful, honest and accurate, just as you should be in answering a written parliamentary question.

Q76 John Hemming: How do you enforce that?

Chris Bryant: There is an assumption that we are all honest. I think that in politics that is a good premise from which to start. As to whether or not ministers have been adequate, enforcement is through the electoral system, that is, the ballot box.

Q77 John Hemming: In essence, you are saying that if departments through their ministers refuse to answer written questions it is up to the electorate to chuck them out at the next election?

Chris Bryant: If a minister has misled the House either in a written question or in any other way-------

Q78 John Hemming: I am not talking about misleading the House but just not answering questions. Refusing to answer a question is not misleading; it is just saying, "I am not going to tell you."

Chris Bryant: I look through the answer book every day. An awful lot of answers are provided. I know that we are focusing on those areas where Members are not satisfied with the answers they have received and that sometimes a question is worded in a way that seeks to trip up a minister rather than necessarily to elucidate the world. In those moments when ministers catch a whiff of politics in the air the temptation is to answer with politics.

Q79 John Hemming: To take the example of tax credits, if people's annual returns are lost in the post they have to pay back all of those tax credits. Your boss accepted at business questions that that is the case, but the department steadfastly refused to give any indication about how many people are affected by it or how much the government saved by asking people to repay money merely because their annual returns were lost in the post. That is the sort of scrutiny of the executive that a written or oral question is in place to achieve. Yet the failure to have any system of appeals means that basically Parliament is powerless compared with the executive.

Chris Bryant: But I am not sure to whom you would appeal. Do you appeal to the Speaker, in which case you put him in a completely invidious position?

John Hemming: You appeal to a departmental Select Committee. You can do that now but codifying it has merit. You can say that the first step is a pursuant question to say you do not like the absence of an answer; the second step is to go to the departmental Select Committee. You can do all of this at the moment. There is merit in saying: why not do this? When you have a point of order the Speaker allows you to ask the question again, which is futile. It is really a matter of having a system that guides you potentially towards an adjournment debate. That is delivered on the basis of a Select Committee considering that a particular question has not been sufficiently answered and there should be an adjournment debate on it.

Q80 Chairman: If we can provide you with examples of where ministers have given away less in answer to a parliamentary question than they have in answer to a FIO request would you be prepared to write to them pointing out that they are not really following the spirit of the ministerial guidance?

Chris Bryant: It would be helpful to see instances. Quite often I hear people talk of instances and then I never see them. We knew when the Freedom of Information Act came into force that it would pose a challenge to the relationship between that legislation and parliamentary questions and, for that matter, correspondence with MPs and the public, so it is important to get this right.
 
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