Mixed results as MPs try outsourcing questions to Twitter

Mr Maude fielded questions from Twitter towards the end of a session on engagement with policy-making

Is an accusation of hypocrisy any less insulting when prefixed by a hashtag?

One MP has found a novel way to circumvent the arcane rules which dictate whether language is parliamentary or not: by outsourcing questions to users of social media website Twitter.

In a recent Commons committee meeting, members of the public were encouraged to raise questions for Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude using the hashtag #AskMaude.

One Twitter user, apparently a PCS union member, took the opportunity to ask why the minister was "pushing through pension cuts on civil service while own taxpayer funded pension has increased".

"#hypocrisy" concluded @PCSWestCroydon.

There were no objections from the chair as Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland directed this part of the tweet at the minister, although similar accusations have often been compulsorily withdrawn in the past.

Unflustered, Mr Maude answered the charge directly: "Ministers and pensions are subject to the same reforms with the same principles as all public sector pension schemes."

'Gobsmacked'

Meanwhile, Labour MP Paul Flynn adopted a slightly more conventional approach, using questions on Twitter as a springboard for unleashing more strongly worded opinions.

A string of Tweeters, @MrMoonX, @LordSplodge and @Vinthedawg, had asked why the government considered that police and crime commissioners had more of a democratic mandate than the results of "union ballots without a large turnout", he said.

Mr Flynn expressed dismay at the minister's replies, but Mr Maude said he couldn't understand "what point it is you are making".

Thanks to the involvement of social networking, the Labour MP was able to argue that public opinion would support his line of attack: "I am not making it. It is @LordSplodge and various others that are making this. They only want their questions answered."

The minister was making a "mockery" of proceedings, he said.

Not all committee members were as tenacious at following up questions as Mr Flynn.

"Have you done a risk analysis exercise on the outsourcing of policy? What were the top risks and how will you handle them?" @Puffles2010 had asked.

"I do not think there are any risks. What risks would there be?" Mr Maude replied.

@Puffles2010, "who sounds like an insider to me" according to the Labour MP who read out the tweet, Kelvin Hopkins, published a blog explaining why this response had left them "gobsmacked".

"The questioner suggests there are some risks," Mr Hopkins had persisted, but @Puffles2010 complained that his subsequent questions "didn't land" even though "Maude wasn't entirely on top of his brief ".

But the forum proved to be more fruitful for Mencap, a charity, which prompted a discussion on helping people with learning disabilities get more involved in policy-making. "I confess that I have not given very specific thought to that," Mr Maude said.

A Mencap representative told the BBC: "We really welcome this acknowledgement and will be getting in touch [with the minister] to advise accordingly."

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