Sunday, February 29, 2004

Mr Speaker stifles the bovine TB inquisition

From The Sunday Telegraph (Christopher Booker)

I reported last week that the Tory MP Owen Paterson, a front-bench agriculture spokesman, was planning on Tuesday to break the record for the largest number of written questions on a single subject ever tabled to ministers on one day. The purpose of his 300 serious and carefully crafted questions was to obtain information crucial to a better understanding of the crisis that now threatens our cattle industry as a result of the epidemic of bovine TB in Britain's soaring badger population.

Following my report, which was widely picked up by the media, including the BBC Today programme, a serious row broke out behind the scenes when Mr Paterson was told that, on a ruling by the Speaker, Michael Martin, his 300 questions were not acceptable. On Wednesday, in clear breach of parliamentary convention, the questions did not appear on the Commons order paper.

This decision by the Speaker had serious constitutional implications. In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for MPs to call ministers to account or to get straight answers to questions. Oral questions can be so easily side-stepped that they have become a farce, and debates likewise, since these are now time-limited and ministers merely have to flannel until time runs out.

Written questions, to which ministers and civil servants are obliged to give considered answers under the rules of the House, have become almost the only remaining means whereby MPs can get the information they need to monitor the Government's performance.

After tense negotiations involving the Tory Chief Whip, a compromise was eventually arrived at whereby Mr Paterson was permitted to table his 300 questions on TB over four days. He may not thus establish any records. But his campaign to tease out the data necessary to assess the scale of the crisis facing Britain's countryside is back on track.

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