How MPs' questions are left unanswered

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The Independent Online
Despite plans for a Freedom of Information Act there are some questions an MP is simply not allowed to ask. The Tory MP John Redwood last night accused the Government of `furtive' behaviour. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, uncovers the details.

MPs are no longer allowed to ask questions about individual companies, John Redwood says. Last week, the Conservative MP was refused permission to table a written question about the affairs of New Statesman magazine, which is owned by the Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson. He also had efforts to dig out information rejected on the grounds that his inquiries were "hypothetical". In both cases, similar questions had been answered by the Tory government.

On Thursday Mr Redwood, Tory trade and industry spokesman, tried to ask two questions about why the New Statesman had been given an extension of the time permitted to file accounts, and what Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, intended to do about its failure to file them within the extra month it was given.

He was told the Government would not answer such questions and was referred to a similar question about the Dixons store group which had been rejected on the grounds that it was about an individual company.

However, he points to numerous examples when the previous government answered questions about companies such as Guinness and Polly Peck.

He was also told he could not ask questions about the Government's forecasts of employment changes caused by the minimum wage. These were hypothetical, he was told. However, the Tories planted identical questions just before the election and were given information showing that a higher minimum wage would mean fewer jobs.

"This Government becomes ever more furtive," Mr Redwood said. "It is the ultimate cynicism to block off whole areas of legitimate enquiry at the same time as publishing a Freedom of Information White Paper ... the Government should be in the dock for giving far less information about itself and its deeds and misdeeds than any previous government."

Although government departments are not allowed to influence decisions taken by the House of Commons table office, a spokesman for the office said that if a government department refused to answer a question there would be difficulties in tabling a similar one in future.

There were similar gripes about the last government from Llew Smith, the Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent, who has been a long-term campaigner on the issue. But he, too, has had recent difficulties in getting questions answered. An inquiry about the movement of radioactive material by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd was rejected - on grounds of commercial confidentiality rather than for the reason given to Mr Redwood. Shortly afterwards, David Clark, the minister responsible for freedom of information, told Mr Smith there should be greater openness on such matters in future.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said Mrs Beckett had been asked about the New Statesman by Mr Redwood during oral questions and had promised to write to him.

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