Parliament & Politics: Ministers still blocking questions

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MINISTERS ARE still blocking MPs' questions despite commitments to freedom of information, a Commons committee said last night.

The Public Administration Committee said MPs may find it just as difficult to get information from the Government after the Freedom of Information legislation becomes law. Ironically, members of the public will have more right to know than MPs, who might have to abandon their system of written questions, resorting instead to paying a fee for information as the public will do under the new law.

The committee surveyed 120 questions that ministers refused to answer in 1996-97, but when it asked departments to explain why, all but two refused on the grounds that they could not comment on the actions of the previous government. The reply from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg - one of the respondents who did try to explain - showed that in most cases Labour ministers would have blocked the questions just as their predecessors had.

"In most cases the minister's response would have been the same in this session as it was in the last session," the report said. "In general, the responses do not seem to sit well with the commitment of freedom of information to which they all refer."

The MPs' system will remain broadly the same under the new system, but the public will have much more access to information, so ordinary citizens might be in a better position, the report said. "It would be absurd if the private request should be a better method of obtaining an answer from the Government than the public request in Parliament. Ministers should continue to be held to account in Parliament," it said.

The committee also complained that government departments were still failing to cite the relevant part of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information when refusing to answer MPs' questions. Usually they cited commercial confidentiality, security or the confidentiality of law enforcement operations, it said.

"We are disappointed by this failure by many departments to adopt a practice accepted by the Government," the report added.

Among the subjects on which the previous government refused to answer questions were class sizes, student housing and the number of dentists who were re-training.

Among the issues regarded as commercially sensitive were the amount of coal shipped through each port and the findings of inspectors on off-shore oil and gas rigs.