Open Lines

Tony LynesAvailable online – the complete set of 11 issues of a historic publication.

This publication played a major role in restoring public access to a large amount of information provided in answer to parliamentary questions.  It was edited and published by Tony Lynes, research assistant to Paul Flynn, MP, in monthly instalments between July 1991 and August 1992.  Each issue contained an introduction by Paul Flynn.  In the first, he wrote:

Open Lines“One of the most effective ways in which Parliament can probe the actions and policies of Ministers and their Departments is through Parliamentary Questions.  In recent months, this vital constitutional procedure has been undermined by the creation of a large number of ‘executive agencies’ (50 at the end of April 1991) to perform important functions of government.  Ministers refuse to answer questions relating to those functions.

“Instead, the question is passed to the chief executive of the agency, who writes to the MP.  The reply is no longer published in Hansard, but a copy is placed in the House of Commons Library where, in theory, it can be seen by other MPs and members of the public.”

In that issue of OPEN LINES, 23 letters written to MPs in June 1991 by the agencies’ chief executives or their subordinates were published.  Referring to a recommendation by the House of Commons Procedure Committee that such letters should in future appear in Hansard, Paul Flynn wrote:

“The Government’s response to that eminently sensible proposal is now awaited.  Meanwhile, the letters . . . are piling up unread in the Library.”

A year later, in the introduction to the July 1992 issue of OPEN LINES, he wrote:

“In successive issues of OPEN LINES, I have called for a return to the traditional practice of Parliamentary questions being answered by Ministers themselves, not by officials.  There is no sign of that happening.  Ministers are, understandably, very happy with the new arrangement by which, under cover of the ‘Next Steps’ agencies, they can avoid responsibility to Parliament for a wide range of public services.

“But there is good news to report.  The House of Commons Administration Committee, responding to the demand voiced by over 200 Members in an Early Day Motion, has decided that letters from agency chief executives in reply to Parliamentary Questions should be published daily in the section of Hansard containing Ministers’ written answers.  This arrangement will commence when the House returns in October after the summer recess.  In terms of public access to information, it will no longer matter whether a question is answered by a Minister or by a chief executive.

“After a final issue covering the month of July, therefore, its main objective having been achieved, OPEN LINES will cease publication.  In its modest way, it will have contributed as much to the preservation of our constitutional rights as many more august publications.”

PDF copies of the complete set of 11 issues and an index are available online.

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