HC Deb 27 November 1991 vol 199 c552W
Dr. Cunningham

To ask the Lord President of the Council how the Government propose to improve access to the replies given by agency chief executives in response to parliamentary questions.

Mr. MacGregor

In its recent White Paper—Cm 1761 —published in response to the seventh report of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, "The Next Steps Initiative", the Government stated that they were considering how access to the replies given by agency chief executives to parliamentary questions could be improved.

The arrangement whereby chief executives reply direct by letter to written questions on operational matters is intended to recognise their direct responsibility for matters which have been delegated to them by Ministers and to ensure that replies about the carrying out of Government business are full, prompt and as helpful as possible. The arrangement has worked well in those respects. However, it has become apparent that there have been some practical difficulties with the procedure—which my predecessor announced on 31 October 1990—of making the letters public by placing them in the House of Commons Library and its Public Information Office.

The Government have therefore decided to propose to the House authorities that the House should publish all replies from chief executives which are placed in the Library. The Government consider that the replies should be published regularly and frequently, so that the information they contain is current and useful; that the publication should be available to individuals and organisations outside the House on a similar basis to the Official Report; but that the replies should not be published as ministerial written answers in the Official Report. A separate weekly publication for the replies would meet these criteria, although the precise form of publication and the resource implications will be a matter for the appropriate Committee of the House, to which the Government will put their proposal at the earliest opportunity. I very much hope that it will be possible to introduce new arrangements quickly to meet the concern which has been expressed. I shall inform the House as soon as a decision has been reached.