Government accused of “dumping” written ministerial answers in session’s final days

July 16, 2009 at 3:30 pm Leave a comment

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The Shadow Leader of the House of Commons has accused Harriet Harman of “rather taking the mickey” over the “absurd number of written ministerial statements published today.”

Speaking at Business Questions, Alan Duncan told MPs there are 53 on today’s Order Paper, “which means that we have had 90 published this week.”

“We know full well that the whole process is designed to dump everything on us at the last minute before the recess and so forestall Members’ ability to hold the Government to account,” he said.

“The right hon. and learned Lady will know that I wrote to her, and all members of the House of Commons Commission, to ask whether we might introduce a new system during the recess of having what has been described as a “virtual statement” from a Minister.

“The swine flu outbreak is bound to require further comment over the summer.

“Might we allow the Secretary of State to make a formal statement online and then allow the Opposition to ask questions that are then given a formal response?

“That could be a very simple and sensible innovation that allows formal scrutiny without the excessive mechanism of recalling Parliament.”

Ms Harman, Leader of the House, said that “obviously it would be better” if written ministerial statements could be spread more evenly.

“But there is something about the summer recess that concentrates Departments’ minds to ensure that, if they have material that they have to make accountable to the House, they do it before the House rises.

“If they have put out some ministerial statements today—rather than doing it on the last day—that is some time before the House rises, which is important.”

She siad the Secretary of State for Health “hopes to update the House before it rises for the recess, by way of an oral statement.

“He is considering how he will keep hon. Members informed during the recess.

“That will include all hon. Members getting a weekly update on figures in their constituency from the strategic health authority and/or primary care trust, so hon. Members will be given the figures as a matter of routine, without their needing to ask for them.

“Any new technology, such as telephone conferencing or the online activity that the shadow Leader of the House suggested, will be used.

“In fact, last summer, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did exactly that and communicated with those hon. Members who represent areas that were flooded.”

Mr Duncan said he welcomed the reappointment of Trevor Phillips as head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“However, this week it was briefed from her office that she wants to bring more northerners on to the boards of Government quangos and to break the monopoly of southern, white men,” he said.

“Given her wish to be an equalities role model, that puts her in a slightly difficult situation: she benefited from a private education, she hails from the aristocracy and she is a product of the south.

“It is a great relief, however, that at least she is a woman—and a champion one at that.”

Ms Harman relpied:

“I was slightly baffled by the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that I had said that there should be more northerners on quangos, not because it is not a good idea, but because I cannot remember ever having said it.

“However, I am sure that if he says that I said it, I must have done. I remember that there was lots of shouting about northerners during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday.

“I wondered what it meant, and I think that I have worked it out: the problem is that there are not enough northerners on the Conservative Benches—and long may that remain.”

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