by Stephen Tall on January 24, 2009
That tireless Parliamentary terrier, Lib Dem MP Norman Baker, has been doing what he does best, once again: demanding answers to awkward questions. The man who forced Peter Mandelson to quit the cabinet last time around has now turned his attention to two new bete-noires:
The issue of openness is crucial for democracy. We touched on it in the previous debate about MPs’ expenses. After all my years in politics, both nationally and in local councils, my strong view is that being open and accountable for our actions is not only a requirement for all of us; it also leads to better government. It is in the interests of the ruling party or parties for there to be openness. Sometimes, it does not seem that way, but in the medium to long term, that is undoubtedly the case.
I am sorry to say that, over the past 11 years, there has been some slippage in that openness, accountability and willingness to answer questions frankly. I suspect that that is not unusual in a Government. The longer they are in power, the more they feel responsible for themselves and the more they feel an obligation to hide things. It is perhaps a human reaction, but it is also a wrong reaction, because once they hide something, they then have to hide the fact that they have hidden it, and there begins a vicious circle that can end up with a Government becoming defensive and not releasing information that should properly in the public domain, even though they had started out in a different vein. … However, it does not seem to me that the principle in [the Freedom of Information Act] has been followed through in the practices of all Ministers when they answer parliamentary questions. …
The worst practice in Government, I am afraid, relates to the Prime Minister, and to the answers that he signs off to parliamentary written questions addressed to him.
(In parentheses, can I add there’s then a rather nice exchange between Norman and Chris Bryant (deputy Leader of the House):
I should like to think that the Prime Minister was not personally responsible. I should like to think that it was a matter for the spotty apparatchiks who occupy the back of No. 10 and draft the answers for him.
Chris Bryant: They are not spotty.
Norman Baker: The Minister says they are not spotty; presumably that means that they are indeed apparatchiks.)
And Norman concludes:
I have asked the Prime Minister 23 written parliamentary questions in the last 12 months. … but I think it fair to say that only 17 per cent, of them—four out of 23—have been answered in any way satisfactorily, while 83 per cent, have not been answered properly at all. That is not good enough. How are these questions not answered properly? What techniques are used? Sometimes the Prime Minister will provide irrelevant information: he is asked one thing, but his reply bears no relation to the question he was asked. Sometimes he provides information that is so vague that it cannot be used in any shape or form. Sometimes he answers the bit of the question he likes, and leaves unanswered the bits that are more difficult to answer. These techniques may be well established—perhaps they are not unique to this Prime Minister and have been employed by other Prime Ministers, and also by other Ministers. I do not wish, therefore, to pretend that the this Prime Minister is a lot worse than any other, but these are not techniques to be proud of, and nor do they bear close scrutiny. I hope that he and the Deputy Leader of the House will recognise that it would be better if proper answers were given to parliamentary questions.
2) The Royal Family’s 100-year-old convention that their wills may be kept secret – as reported in today’s Times the convention is to be reexamined by senior judges:
Sir Mark Potter, the leading family judge in Britain, is to set up a committee that will review the policy allowing royal wills to remain “sealed” as part of a wider look at the rules on probate. The move was announced yesterday by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, in a parliamentary answer to Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes.
Mr Baker said: “There should be one rule that is the same for everyone. If other people’s wills have to be published so should those of the Royal Family who are in receipt of large amounts of public money.”
If Norman Baker didn’t exist, we should surely need to invent him.