Honesty in politics should involve a good deal more than the employment
practices of MPs. It should also encompass Government obeying the
rules, including the vital one for effective Parliamentary democracy,
of answering Parliamentary questions. In this context consider the
following sequence of events.
On July 11th last year Henry Bellingham asked Gordon Brown at Prime
Minister’s Questions about the case of Mukhtar Ibrahim, the ringleader
of the July 21st terror attacks in London. The Prime Minister replied
that “He applied for citizenship of this country and received
citizenship because all his offences as a juvenile had been wiped off.
That would not happen now, and he would not get citizenship of this
country.” He also said that “under the news laws he would have been
deported from this country.”
I thought this was new and interesting, so on July 16th I put down a
written question asking for the legislative basis for these two
assertions. A few days later Downing Street wrote to me saying the
questions had been transferred to the Home Secretary.
Fair enough. The Home Office is the responsible department. But as so often there followed a period of silence. When Parliament returned after the summer recess I asked again (on October 30th) for an explanation. The immigration Minister Liam Byrne replied “I will write to the Honourable Member.” By November 29th I had still not had an answer so I asked when I could expect a reply. This time Liam Byrne told me “I will reply as soon as possible.”
I was not holding my breath over Christmas. On January 8th I put down a question to be answered by a named day, in this case January 14th. Once again Liam Byrne said “I will reply as soon as possible.” Yet again this has been followed by silence.
We are now eight months on from the Prime Minister’s original response. The Government has yet to come up with an answer to what was originally a simple factual question. There can be one of three explanations. Perhaps the Home Office is as useless at tracking Parliamentary Questions as it is in tracking illegal immigrants. Or the Home Secretary hopes that I will go away and stop pursuing this. Or the Prime Minister was being, how shall we say, flexible with the truth and the embarrassment of failing to answer a Parliamentary Question is less bad for the Home Office than dropping Gordon Brown in the mire.
Whatever the reason it is a disgrace and makes a complete mockery of Parliamentary scrutiny. Next time you hear a Government Minister make a sententious speech about modernising the constitution, or improving “citizens’ access” to Government, remember that they can’t, or won’t even provide a standard evasive answer to a Parliamentary Question when it suits them not to.