The secret of 'open' government

Edward Garnier wants to know why he can't get a straight answer from Minister of State, Geoff Hoon. Edward Garnier is Conservative Party spokesman on legal affairs.

On the 26 January, I asked the Minister of State at the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD), Geoff Hoon, a perfectly simple question: “Under the Access to Justice Bill, the Lord Chancellor has taken on 17 new powers. Will the minister justify three of them?” [Hansard cols 137-138]

You might be forgiven for thinking that since, as the minister is so fond of proclaiming, he wrote the Bill, he would be able to justify all 17.

To ask him to justify only three was, you might think, a sensible and economic use of parliamentary time, enabling the public to gain some understanding of the Government's policy in the field of legal reform.

The modernisation of justice was, after all, one of the Labour Party's main manifesto pledges.

The Prime Minister has made it clear, in statements to the media and other extra-parliamentary audiences, that his is a “listening government”. No longer is the arrogance of power that cloaked, and eventually brought down, the last Conservative government going to hold sway. Openness and candour in all things is to be the motto of this Government. The public is entitled to know what the Government thinks, and what its plans are.

What better way to demonstrate this than by answering the dolly of a question I put to the minister? Do not hold your breath.

His answer indicates the high watermark of ministerial arrogance, incompetence and indolence. “The Honourable and learned gentleman knows full well that, once the Access to Justice Bill has made its way through the House of Lords, he will have every opportunity to raise such questions on the floor of this house. I am sure we can discuss this at the appropriate time. “

Does this mean ministers should only make themselves accountable to Parliament when they choose to? Does it mean that Hoon, despite claiming to have written the Access to Justice Bill, cannot remember its terms, or why he once thought it appropriate for Parliament to approve this huge and unprecedented increase in executive power over the legal system? Does it mean that having been twice thwarted in his ambition to become Paymaster General and escape the tedium of the LCD, Hoon has given up bothering? Does he fear saying something in the House of Commons that will conflict with something which has already, or may subsequently, fall from the lips of the Lord Chancellor?

At least that great statesman seems to have learnt something over the past two years. He appears to have taken the trouble to listen to the arguments put forward against his Bill in the House of Lords. He has promised to amend the Bill to reflect concerns raised by current and former judges, cross-benchers, Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers. The Lords report stage, which took place on 11 February, not only saw amendments being tabled by opposition parties, but there were also a considerable number from the Lord Chancellor himself. I wonder if Hoon knows what they are, or did he draft them himself?

If ministers in the Commons cannot be bothered to address themselves politically – let alone intellectually – to the legislation that they have drafted, they have no business being in office, and should consider carefully whether they have followed the right calling in life.

Hoon's arrogant, but inept, refusal to answer my simple question tells us more about New Labour than any number of vacuous press releases.