Dissatisfaction with replies
13. This year we decided to try to find out from
Members what displeased them about Ministerial replies to Questions.
Anecdotal evidence, and the personal experience of Committee Members,
suggested that incomplete answers might be a particular issue
and so we wrote to all Members asking for examples of these.
We received 39 replies, of which two expressed satisfaction with
the system and one said that the writer did not have enough information
to judge. The rest raised a variety of complaints by no means
restricted to incomplete answers. We accept that we are working
on a small sample, and take the point made by one Member (Dr Palmer)
that silence might imply satisfaction. However, we found the replies
we did receive illuminating and are grateful to those who took
the trouble to respond. Some of the replies are printed in Appendix
3; the remainder have been placed in the Library of the House.
14. We should point out that while the evidence
we received from the Departments relates to Session 1998-99, much
of the information from MPs is more recent.
15. The complaints we received fell into six main
categories: dissatisfaction with the rules or conventions of the
House regarding Parliamentary Questions and answers to them; complaints
that these were not being followed; complaints about partial or
misleading answers; complaints that questions were not being addressed
at all; complaints of discrepancies between Departments or within
the same Department over time; and complaints about delays in
answering letters to Ministers.
16. While refusing to answer questions on the grounds
of 'disproportionate cost' is not a convention of the House, it
is indubitably a convention used by Departments. It was drawn
to our attention by Mr Ainsworth, Mr Garnier and Mr Owen-Jones.
When a Written Question would cost more than a certain amount
of money to answer, the Departments have the option of giving
the answer that a reply would involve disproportionate cost. The
sum is periodically increased: from 21st July 1997
to 15th May 2000 it stood at £500 and is now £550.
This advisory limit is 'based on eight times the average marginal
cost for written questions, which is now £70, rounded down
to the nearest £50 for convenience'.
17. Only a small proportion of questions in reality
elicit 'disproportionate cost' answers. When they are given they
undoubtedly cause disproportionate annoyance. In 1997-1998, out
of 51,982 written questions, 1,441 received such answers; in 1998-1999
it was 732 out of 32,286 and in 1999-2000, 871 of 36,850. An analysis
by Department is printed at Annex 1. Variations may reflect a
number of factors including Department's remits and the interests
of individual Members who table particularly complicated questions,
and cannot necessarily be used as a criterion by which to judge
Departments. We hope that we, or our successors, will return to
the question of disproportionate cost in future sessions.
18. Perhaps inevitably, Members and others suggested
to us that 'disproportionate cost' is sometimes used as an excuse
for not answering. Dr Lowry, a researcher, drew our attention
to an exchange in the Chamber in which Mr Campbell-Savours said
Mr Garnier thought that it might hide bureaucratic laziness and
Mr Field gave an example of a question which originally received
this answer only to be answered after evidence before a Select
Committee made it clear that the information could, in fact, be
made available. We have already reported our views on the Freedom
of Information legislation,
and in particular our view that some of the exemptions are drawn
19. We recommend that when Departments are considering
refusing to answer a question on the grounds of 'disproportionate
cost' there should be a presumption that any of the requested
information which is readily available should be given.
20. Another convention which drew unfavourable comment
is that which limits the information available to Ministers in
answering questions about the previous administration though there
are exceptions: a question about the performance of cluster bombs
during the Falklands war was answered in November 2000.
Mr Bradley wrote of his experience of falling foul of this when
seeking information about the official engagements of Ministers
on overseas visits- information which he was later, after considerable
effort, able to obtain under the Code of Practice on Access to
Government Information (but only after the Foreign Office had
consulted the Cabinet Office about the propriety of revealing
it). His experience led him to suggest that it might be hard to
persuade civil servants to adopt Freedom of Information legislation
'in both principle and practice'.
21. One of the conventions that some Members feel
is being broken is that concerning the day by which written questions
should be answered. Briefly, if a question is tabled for ordinary
written answer, one clear day's notice must be given and the question
should be answered within a working week. If a more urgent reply
is required it may be tabled for a 'named day', in which case
two clear days notice must be given; an answer, even if only a
'holding answer', should be given on the day named and a substantive
reply within a month. Mr Boswell and Mr Tyler were two Members
who complained that these rules were being flouted; Mr Tyler said
in the Chamber that 'the number of written questions that are
not answered on the named day is increasing in a number of departments'
and followed this statement up with a letter to the Speaker in
which he noted that '60% of such questions to DTI were NOT answered
on or before the named day (12% took up to a month to be answered!)'
and '64% of such questions to the Treasury were NOT answered on
or before the named day (14% took up to a month to be answered)'.
It is of course possible that delays in answering named day questions
are due to a tendency among Members to table named day questions
for an early day whether the matter is truly urgent or not. We
note that the Procedure Committee has reminded Members that the
priority marking for written questions should be used sparingly
and selectively and 'that in no way reduces its effectiveness;
in particular, the earliest permitted date should be reserved
for those questions to which an urgent answer is genuinely required'.
For an analysis by department of the percentage of questions answered
on the named day (see Annex 2).
22. Sometimes the answer to a question takes the
form 'I will write to the Honourable Member' and in this case
it is expected that a copy of the letter will be placed in the
Library. Mr Tyler wrote 'perhaps I could draw attention to another
unfortunate development. Increasing use of 'answers' which simply
promise a reply in writing to the Member concerned is not really
satisfactory. Not only do such letters provide less accessible
information, for Members and others, than a reply in Hansard.
Indeed, I understand that such a response placed in the Library,
is not immediately available to the media in the same way as the
Sometimes again, Ministers reply that the information will be
placed in the Library. We recommend that when information is
deposited in the Library in response to a parliamentary question
a copy of it should always be supplied to the Member at the same
23. Departments vary in the extent to which they
answer questions on the day named. We reproduce as Annexes 2 and
3 to this Report a table produced by the Table Office showing
the variation in the time taken by various departments to answer
named day questions.
24. Sometimes the answer to a parliamentary question
is long delayed, and we have reason to believe that some are never
answered at all. It is, of course, open to Members to pursue the
matter by a question on the lines of 'when I may expect an answer'
but we believe this puts the onus unfairly on the Member. We recommend
that Departments should overhaul their systems for ensuring that
all questions receive a timely answer.
25. It occasionally happens that a Member tables
a question to which the answer is delayed until another Member
tables a similar one, in which case the second Member receives
a substantive answer and the first an answer by reference. We
deplore this practice and recommend that in these cases the Member
who tabled the earlier question should receive the substantive
26. We received, in response to our request to Members,
a number of responses complaining that part of a question had
been ignored. Miss Widdecombe, for instance, asked the Home Secretary
'what estimate he has made of the average cost to public funds
of a drug abstinence order made under Part III of the Criminal
Justice and Court Services Bill; what estimate he has made of
the number of orders that will be made annually; what estimate
he had made of the number of other community orders that will
include drug abstinence orders; if magistrates courts will be
able to make such an order; and if he will make a statement'.
She received the answer 'the average cost of a Drug Abstinence
Order/Requirement under community supervision is estimated at
£1,500. The new drug testing regime will be piloted in the
first instance. It is estimated that initial piloting in three
areas would result in 3,500 offenders being made subject to the
drug abstinence requirements'.
No mention was made of the magistrates courts. Mr Tyrie gave us
a number of examples of what he described as being 'fobbed off'.
His efforts to gather information about the cost of special advisers
travelling with Ministers repeatedly received the answer only
that the travel arrangements were 'consistent with the Ministerial
Other replies referred him to earlier PQs which did not answer
the question. In a number of cases part or all was ignored.
27. In some cases, failure to answer part of a complex
question results from the fact that an element of it falls outside
ministerial responsibility, or could only be answered at disproportionate
cost. Even so, we would expect that where this is so it will be
clearly stated in the answer. Failure even to address part of
a question is at best sloppy; at worst it may be symptomatic of
what Lord Phillips in his inquiry into BSE described as a 'culture
of secrecy'. A number of Members alluded to such a culture. Peter
Bradley spoke of 'a prevailing culture within many sectors of
the civil service which leads them routinely to withhold information'.
Mr Garnier thought that 'some civil servants 'swear by the card'
and give an answer which though not dishonest is obviously partial
and designed to fob off the questioner'. Dr Marek felt that two
answers he had received were designed to provide 'as little information
as possible'. Mr Griffiths drew on his experience as a Minister
to write 'my first experience as a Minister was in very poor civil
service drafting of answers. This did not really improve over
the course of the year and I found that my private office and
I still had a lot to do - mainly incorporating background information
into the answer. Frankly the culture of hoarding information seems
to be endemic'. He thought the problem could be resolved by 'an
agreed approach among Ministers'. We deplore the practice of
answering part only of a question and ignoring the rest, whether
it arises out of policy or slackness; we recommend that Departments
should introduce stringent checks to ensure that all parts of
a question are addressed.
28. A persistent Member can sometimes elicit the
required information by tabling 'pursuant'questions, but we believe
that this should not be necessary and it must in itself entail
further civil service costs.
29. Some questions receive partial answers; others
receive answers which are almost insulting. Mr Loughton asked
'how much of the change in the figures for carbon emission savings
from fuel duties, set out in the Pre-Budget Report, relies on
(i) reduced mileage travelled by vehicles and (ii) reduced emissions
resulting from technological improvements in car engines'. He
received the reply 'the Pre-Budget report set out that the fuel
duty escalator from 1996 to 1999 is estimated to produce carbon
savings of 1 to 2.5 million tonnes of carbon by 2010'.
This is an answer not to the question asked but to one which the
Table Office might well have refused to accept on the grounds
that the information was readily available.
30. Some Members drew our attention to discrepancies
between Departments or within the same Department over time in
their approach to answering questions and letters. As an example
of the first case, Mr Ottaway drew a comparison between Prime
Minister and Ministry of Defence in terms of willingness to place
a speech in the Library while on the second Mr Willetts provided
evidence that in 1998 replies had been given to questions about
the number of lone parents who had found employment under the
New Deal for Lone parents but subsequently gone back onto benefit
whereas in 2000 he had been told the information was not available.
31. Six of the replies we received complained of
delays in answering not parliamentary questions but letters
to Ministers. Bill O'Brien wrote 'I enclose a card of acknowledgement
that I received from the Department of Social Security on 8 November
in response to a letter dated 3 November and I write to advise
that on 20 March I am now sending a reminder to the Under-Secretary
of State'. Mr John M Taylor wrote ' I am certainly getting some
very slow replies to letters to Ministers. Had I been asked to
sign such letters myself when I was a Minister in the last administration,
I would have demanded an explanation from my officials'. Mr Garnier
wrote 'my biggest complaint...is the long delays, and they are
worse under this Administration than the last, to answer MPs'
correspondence'. Mr Pendry wrote 'I enclose a letter from the
Minister of Sport dated 22 March 2000 in response to two letters
which I sent on 22nd December 1999 and 11th January 2000.
32. A Members' dissatisfaction with responses from
Departments was taken up by the last Speaker. On 18th
April she said 'Hon Members asked me to look into the fact that
questions were not answered on the named day...and...into the
long delays in correspondence from Ministers...I have had a long
discussion with the Cabinet Secretary...and with the Minister
for the Cabinet Office..I am totally convinced that they are doing
everything possible to try to bring about improvements'.
As a result of this Sir Richard wrote to all Departments.'
33. The Cabinet Office published a table showing
for each Department and Agency the number of letters received
annually from MPs, the targets set for answering them and the
extent to which the targets were met. There were many variations:
for instance the Home Office received in 1999 16,826 replies and
answered 45% within its target of 15 working days while in the
same year the Department of Health received 18, 346 and answered
47% within 20 days.
34. We hope that following the intervention
of the Cabinet Secretary and the Minister there will be improvements
in departmental responses to Members in the next Session of Parliament.
35. In the light of Sir Richard's letter, we should
like to draw attention to some circumstances arising out of his
appearance before the Committee on 9 February 2000. At that meeting
he was asked to supply the Committee with a list of the Prime
Minister's visits, with an addendum showing who accompanied him
on each. Correspondence subsequently indicated that the information
would be circulated in May. It was not, in fact, until June- in
itself an unacceptable delay- that information was received detailing
numbers of staff and purpose of trip; details of accompanying
staff were never supplied.
36. We have found the extended exercise carried out
this year to be of interest, and we hope the House will too. We
would hope that we, or our successors, will return to the matter
in future sessions; in particular it might be appropriate to take
oral evidence from Departments whose records as far as answering
Members' questions are concerned are either particularly good
or particularly bad.
37. We believe that in general civil servants work
hard to comply with the requests of Members for information or
action. Nonetheless, there are some areas of weakness which we
should like to see addressed. In particular, we should like to
see more consistency both between and within Departments, and
we hope that next session we shall not again have reason to complain
that Departments are not citing the Code of Practice (or equivalent)
when they decline to provide information.
13 The Public Service Committee made the recommendation
in its report on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility
(HC1995-96) 313-I, para 68). The first such memorandum was
published in its First Report of last Session, Ministerial
Accountability and Responsibility (HC (1996-97) 234. The
second was published by the (HC (1997-98) 820). Back
HC (1990-91) 178, paras 110-114; HC (1992-93) 687, para 53. Back
Guidance to officials on drafting answers to Parliamentary Questions,
published in HC (1996-97) 67, annex C. It is also published in
the Cabinet Office's 1997 Open Government Monitoring Report, Appendix
The Code covers these bodies covered by the remit of the Parliamentary
Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman) and includes some
NDPBs as well. Back
"The Government agrees that in future reasons should invariably
be given when information is being refused in response to a Parliamentary
Question and that... these reasons should relate to the exemptions
laid down in the Code" [unless it is because providing a
response would involve disproportionate cost] HC (1996-97) 67,
pp. xv-xvi. See also HC Deb, 12 May 1998, col 82W. Back
2 Memorandum 16 Back
2 Memorandum 11 Back
Report of Session 1997-98 HC 820, para 9 Back
2 Memorandum 21 Back
Deb 15 May 2000 col 47w Back
Deb 2 Feb 1999, col 736w Back
Report of Session 1999-2000 HC 78 Back
Deb (1999-2000) 27 Nov col 428w Back
1992-93 687 Back
Procedure Committee addressed this problem in its Fourth Report
of Session 1999-2000 HC 734 Back
Deb (1999-2000) 22 March, col 560w Back
Deb (1998-99) col 403-4w Back
Deb (1999-2000) 24 Nov col 339w Back
Deb (1999-2000) 2 March col 356w and HC Deb (1997-1998) 19 March
col 738w Back
Deb 18 April, 830 Back
Deb 17 April col 386-8w Back