Many people will be familiar with the weekly theatre of Prime Minister’s Questions – the weekly theatre, where the Leader of the opposition party and a small number of MPs, chosen by ballot get to put questions to the Prime Minister. It regularly features in the national broadcast and print media. I know that some people – including many overseas - watch it on the Parliamentary TV channel.
Far less attention is given to other Parliamentary questions and, more importantly, answers– both written and oral – which MPs ask to get information about policies and performance. Sometimes, this is like a game of cat and mouse, as Ministers try to find ways of avoiding giving answers which they know are embarrassing or unhelpful.
Here are some examples of questions I’ve asked and answers I’ve received recently, which shine some light on the real impact of government policies and show where the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality.
Eric Pickles – the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – has been telling us for nearly two years about the massive public clamour to keep or return to weekly refuse collection services. So, I asked him how many people had written to him about the issue from South Yorkshire. Well, just two from Sheffield – and one of those was Nick Clegg; I wonder who the other one was; perhaps it’s a case for Sherlock Holmes! – and no-one from Barnsley, Doncaster or Rotherham.
I also asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer how many households in Sheffield and South Yorkshire will lose their entitlement to working families’ tax credit from 6 April 2012 due to the government’s change in the minimum working hours’ criterion – from 16 to 24 hours per week. The answer is 2200 families in Sheffield and 5000 in South Yorkshire. And they are going to lose more than £75 p wk – a massive cut in the income of some of the lowest income working families.
I also asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plans she has to bring forward new legislation to deal with rogue companies who are offering to – or sell the equipment to - clock the recorded mileage of motor vehicles. Thousands of buyers of second-hand cars are being ripped off each year by unscrupulous sellers and dealers who cut the recorded mileage. She told me that she’s going to do nothing more, although MOT test certificates will in future show the recorded mileage at the last three tests. Not good enough!