§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
On a point of order Mr. Speaker. As you know, Back Benchers who table questions can find themselves at your door if there is any argument about the way in which they have been tabled. Since April this year, the Government have increasingly adopted the practice of hiving off employment questions to a fellow by the name of Michael Fogden, the chief executive of the Employment Service. It is bad practice for the Government not to answer questions but to send them instead to a civil servant to answer. The result is that, when the Low Pay Unit and other bodies look for the information in Hansard, all that they find are the words, "Mr. Michael Fogden will reply to the hon. Gentleman."
I should have thought that Hansard—in which you, Mr. Speaker have some interest—should be able to pass on the information, not just to Members of Parliament but to other interested people outside the House, especially the Low Pay Unit. I ask you to deplore the Government's growing practice of not answering questions but sending them to someone who is not a Minister or even a Member of Parliament. They ought to put an end to that practice.
§ Mr. Speaker
I think that I have the correct reference here. In answer to a question on this matter, the Prime Minister said that questions about agencies were passed to the chairman of the agency concerned.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
When agencies have been debated in this place, the Opposition have always asked who is going to answer for those agencies. In every case Ministers have asserted that there will be no diminution of responsibility to this House. They have said that Ministers remain responsible and inevitably that means that they are responsible for answering written and oral questions in this House. That is an important principle which none of us wants to see eroded, but the Government appear to be doing just that. Therefore, I invoke your support to prevent that, Mr. Speaker.
§ Mr. Speaker
It is a very important matter, and I should like to look into it to refresh my memory as to what has been said about it. I agree that questions to Ministers in the House should be answered. I am aware that some letters written to Ministers are transferred to the chairmen of agencies. That is a different matter from parliamentary questions.
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I welcome your statement that you are going to look at the matter. It is important that hon. Members pursuing constituency interests and other important matters of policy have the absolute right to answers to their questions from Ministers. Otherwise, the whole purpose of this House is nullified. It is a facet of Government behaviour at the moment that, in answer to questions and to letters about constituents, the responsibility is being deflected to agencies and civil servants in a way that I want to make clear the Opposition believe is unacceptable.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe)
May I, by way of reply, draw the attention of the House to the fact that there have always been arrangements for questions on certain aspects of Government behaviour to be answered by the agencies concerned rather than by Ministers. That kind of balance has always been necessary to maintain a sensible distribution of the work load between Ministers and other Government agencies. The proposal for the establishment of agencies has in general been welcomed by all parties in the House. Obviously I will look, as you will, Mr. Speaker, at the point that has been raised, but it should be considered in that context.
§ Dr. Cunningham
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We cannot accept that. The Leader of the House says that the point is one of balance, but the point is that the balance is being altered. Whatever the Leader of the House may say about agreement about the creation of agencies, there is no agreement about Ministers wriggling out of their responsibility for policy matters and deflecting questions to those heading the agencies. That is a matter for the House. Questions should be answered directly between Ministers and hon. Members.