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Open Lines

Open Lines No. 5 – Letters sent to Members of Parliament in December 1991

Introduction by Paul Flynn, MP:

This issue of OPEN LINES, covering the month of December 1991, brings to 164 the total number of replies to parliamentary questions, in the form of letters from government agencies, which have been made available in this way to interested organisations and individuals in the past six months.

Less than two years ago. all these questions would have been answered by Ministers and the answers would have been published in Hansard. Now, without OPEN LINES, a great deal of information about public services of major importance to every citizen of the United Kingdom would be available only to those with the time and patience to search through a pile of copies of letters deposited in the House of Commons Library.

The Government has at last accepted in principle the need to publish these letters, probably as a supplement to Hansard – but not in Hansard itself, which would imply acceptance of the principle of ministerial responsibility for the actions of government officials.

That principle, however inconvenient, lies at the heart of our system of parliamentary democracy. The extent to which it has been undermined was shown by a recent written answer to a parliamentary question, which revealed that, with the launching of the Central Statistical Office as an executive agency on 19 November, the number of agencies had risen to 57, covering almost 40 per cent of the civil service, with more to come (Hansard, 2 December 1991, column 28). Ministers, therefore, are now refusing to answer for the actions of nearly half the civil service.

As well as being wrong in principle, the current arrangements are chaotic in practice. If an M.P. asks for statistical information, e.g. about social security benefits or contributions, it is a matter of luck whether s/he gets an answer from a Minister or a letter from an agency. When Nicholas Brown tabled two questions about the numbers of national insurance contributors, the figures for Great Britain were given by the Minister and published in Hansard (16.12.91, column 86); but the information for Northern Ireland came in the form of a letter from the Social Security Agency (see pages 8-9 of this issue of OPEN LINES). A series of questions by John McAllion about Treasury, Defence, Health and Agriculture agencies were referred to the agencies’ chief executives for reply (see Appendix on page 12), while identical questions relating to the Welsh and Scottish agencies were answered by Ministers (Hansard, 13.12.91, columns 570-572, and 19.12.91, columns 296-298).

Such inconsistencies merely confirm the lack of any principle underlying this erosion of the rights of Members of Parliament and their constituents. It is totally unacceptable that Ministers should draw arbitrary lines between those activities of their Departments for which they are prepared to answer to Parliament and those for which they are not. No arrangement for publishing letters from agency officials can alter that fundamental fact.

Paul Flynn, M.P.
House of Commons

Editorial note

This is the third issue of OPEN LINES for which generous financial support has been received from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

As in previous issues, the letters reproduced are those from executive agencies in the social security and employment fields. There were 33 of these in the month of December 1991. Letters on other subjects are listed in the Appendix.

In every case, the main body of the letter and any attached tables are reproduced in full, only the formal opening and closing paragraphs being omitted.