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But answers came there none

Dianne Hayter on the government’s aversion to questions

What is it about Prime Minister Boris Johnson which makes him hate questions? Some of us remember Mrs Thatcher at the despatch box, batting away dissent with arguments, and even confessing “I’m enjoying this! I’m enjoying this!”.  

For many, here and abroad, the British PM at the despatch box, at times of war, of anxiety, of success – on the sporting field or elsewhere – expresses the essence of our democracy. The country’s Leader, answerable to the House of Commons and accountable to MPs. Everything changed with a PM happy to appear on Have I Got News for You, but less keen on answering to Parliament.

Mr Johnson has made big announcements to the press, and now plans a Presidential-style televised briefing from within Number 10. The problems with this approach are manifold. Firstly, he (or his spokesperson) selects the broadcaster to ask questions – and they, regrettably, ask a short one to be used on their news channel that night. The PM namechecks them in the reply – effectively ensuring his words are carried on the airways. The lack of follow up, and other journalists’ unwillingness to probe answers given to rival outlets, allows Downing Street to get away with almost anything – unlike the Commons chamber were inadequate responses can be challenged.

While No.10 is a government building, the statements amount to party political broadcasts. So, it will be interesting to see what facilities are given to the Opposition to have a right of reply – like the six questions allowed at PMQs each week. It is extraordinary that Mr Johnson claims such televised sessions would improve "accountability and transparency" when they will do exactly the opposite, by removing the scrutiny essential to our system.

Major announcements of government policy should be made in Parliament, where the Opposition (and government backbenchers) can question and comment. In the Lords, ministerial statements are repeated then questioned – something the new format will carefully wash away.

The unwillingness to involve Parliament has been particularly acute with regards to the ongoing trade negotiations with the EU. In contrast to the various Ministers who were once accountable on this issue, the government’s chief negotiator, David Frost – a government official - is not. Meanwhile, his political cypher, Michael Gove, feels no need to step in and engage MPs on how the discussions are progressing. 

It has taken Urgent or Private Notice questions to get reports to either House – which means limited opportunities to influence one of the most crucial issues of the day. Indeed, there will be no Lords debate on the negotiations until September. A point when, according to the government, everything should be completed.

It has been no better trying to get answers from across government via Oral or Written Questions. Unfortunately, the Hybrid Parliament makes sudden interventions impossible, leaving ministers to get away with dismissive answers.

It is not just our Parliament they shun. The devolved administrations have been repeatedly shut out on areas of vital interest. Just recently, Scottish and Welsh Ministers pulled out of a conference call after Mr Gove pre-empted any discussion of the UK requesting an extension to the Brexit transition period. 

This deafness to the ‘Devolveds’ was repeated over the Northern Ireland Protocol, where a promised joint approach never happened – even with Wales, whose ports handle Irish imports and exports, and thus additional checks and perhaps tariffs.

Engagement with them on the EU negotiations has also been tokenistic, with no advance sight given of the legal texts tabled and no opportunity to feed in on issues which will fall to them to implement. And they have been excluded from the planning for any exit from the transition without a trade deal, despite the impact on their economies. Business organisations, incidentally, feel very much the same way.

Our well-established democracy is built on ministers’ accountability to Parliament. The PM’s preference for carefully controlled media appearances should be halted right now, with MPs demanding statements to the Commons and broadcasters refusing to play ball.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Shadow Deputy Leader of the Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 10th July 2020

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