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Open Lines

Open Lines No. 8 – Letters sent to Members of Parliament in March 1992

Introduction by Paul Flynn, MP:

OPEN LINES was first published by my research assistant, Tony Lynes, in July 1991. There have now been eight issues, each containing letters received by Members of Parliament in the previous month in reply to parliamentary questions.

The need for such a publication resulted from Ministers’ refusal to reply to parliamentary questions on the work of the agencies set up since 1988 under the “Next Steps” initiative, which now run most of the services provided by government departments. Such questions are referred to the agencies concerned, and the answer takes the form of a letter from an official, usually the chief executive of the agency.

By the end of this month, 72 agencies will have been set up. In terms of public concern, reflected in the number of questions tabled by MPs, the most important of these are the Benefits Agency, which now administers the whole range of social security benefits other than for unemployed people, and the Employment Service which administers Jobcentres and unemployment benefits.

Whether an MP’s question is answered by a Minister or by a senior official may seem unimportant, but the new arrangements mean that a great deal of information which used to appear in Hansard, in the form of written answers by Ministers, is no longer available in any official publication. Copies of the chief executives’ letters are placed in the House of Commons Library; but the Library is not open to the public. Without OPEN LINES, therefore, few people would ever see them.

Nearly a year has passed since the Select Committee on Procedure recommended that chief executives’ replies to parliamentary questions should be published in Hansard. Five months ago the then Lord President, John MacGregor, announced the Government’s acceptance of the principle of publication, leaving it to the Commons Administration Committee to consider the practicalities. Still nothing has been done.

The value of OPEN LINES has been acknowledged by many people, including the then Minister for the Civil Service, Tim Renton, who in a letter to me dated 14 February 1992 wrote “I applaud your enterprise in acting to meet the demand for such a publication”, and the Campaign for Freedom of Information which in January conferred a Freedom of Information Award on Tony Lynes and myself. But it is an affront to the democratic process that publication of information of this kind should have to be undertaken by a private individual subsidised by a public-spirited foundation. The newly elected House of Commons should insist on urgent action to bring this shameful situation to an end.

Paul Flynn, M.P.
House of Commons

Editorial note

The first two issues of OPEN LINES were produced at Paul Flynn’s expense. Since then, the cost has been met mainly by a generous grant from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

The 28 letters reproduced in this issue are, as in previous issues, those from executive agencies in the social security and employment fields. Other letters of which copies are in the House of Commons Library, including two on social security matters relating to individual constituents of the Members concerned, 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.