05 March 2004
Watchdog MPs have called on the government to remedy a bizarre situation in which MPs asking official Parliamentary Questions have less chance of extracting information from Whitehall departments than members of the public.
The Commons' public administration select committee said the anomaly had arisen because, under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, questioners refused information can demand to know why. If dissatisfied, they can seek an internal review or referral to the parliamentary ombudsman.
But if a minister cites a code exemption as their reason for refusing to answer an MP's question, no explanation need be given and the same question cannot be asked again for the rest of the session.
If a minister refuses to answer a question on grounds of the disproportionate cost in finding the answer, it cannot be asked again for three months.
The committee's report found 'a significantly rising trend' of MPs using the code's provisions rather than asking Parliamentary Questions.
It pointed out that the 'public' route might become even more attractive to MPs once the Freedom of Information Act takes full effect in January 2005.
The report said: 'There is a disjuncture between the requirement under the code to remind individuals of their right to a review, and the convention that members should not table a question for a period of time after a department has refused to answer the original question.'
Ministers were also castigated for delays in answering questions. Committee chair Tony Wright waited 109 days for an answer about a complaint from independent MP Richard Taylor over getting information from the Department of Health.
'Significant problems' in the timeliness of replies arose in the Home Office, Department of Health and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs during 2002, the committee said.