Ministers agree to publish 'Next Steps' answers

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Indy Politics
MINISTERS are to cave in to a two-year campaign to have written answers from chief executives of 'arm's length' civil service agencies published daily in Hansard, the official report of the House of Commons.

William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is expected to announce the move as part of his 'open government' initiative as soon as Parliament reassembles in the autumn.

The change follows bitter complaints from MPs, academics, journalists and pressure groups that detailed information about a range of government activities - including employment and social security statistics - have effectively disappeared from sight.

That happened as ministers shifted large parts of the civil service into the Next Steps agencies. To emphasise their operational independence from ministers who remain responsible only for policy and target-setting, it was decided that questions from MPs about agency activities should be answered by the agency chief executives, not by ministers.

Now an MP asking a question merely gets a written answer from the minister stating that it has been referred to the relevant agency. The MP is written to and the answer placed in the House of Commons library. It is not otherwise published. Members of the public have only indirect access to the library and no means of knowing when the answer will be filed.

There are also worries that less easy public scrutiny could lead to key series of figures, showing trends over time, being changed or lost from sight. The effective disappearance of what had been public information led to critical reports from two senior select committees of MPs following a sustained backbench campaign by Dave Nellist, MP for Coventry SE, before he was expelled from Labour and lost his seat at the general election, and Paul Flynn, the Newport West MP, who won a Freedom of Information award for personally publishing a range of answers.

Ministers had argued against printing the replies on grounds of cost, volume and a blurring of the distinction between operational and policy matters which the agencies were meant to make clear. Campaigners argued that as such answers had been printed before, cost could not be used to justify effectively withholding the information.

Just before Parliament rose, the Commons Administration Committee told the Cabinet Office that from the autumn such replies should again be printed daily in Hansard, beneath a standard form of ministerial reply.

Mr Waldegrave, as the Cabinet's 'open government' minister, is to back printing the answers. He and other senior Cabinet ministers believe the change has been indefensible. A spokesman for Mr Waldegrave said a formal decision had yet to be taken, but that the minister 'is not inclined to say no' to the committee's recommendation.