Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report

Letter from the Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service o all Permanent Secretaries

Ministerial correspondence and dealings with Parliament

The Cabinet Office is preparing the annual report to Parliament on Department's handling of correspondence from Mps. I am afraid that despite some encouraging trends, the report will show that the overall performance of Departments (including Agencies) in replying to letters from MPs remains poor and Madam Speaker has yet again taken up with me the unhappiness of MPs at the service which they are getting. This is disappointing and I am writing to remind colleagues of the need to improve our handling of correspondence from MPs.

More generally, I have received a warning from Madam Speaker about the number of recent cases where Departments have mishandled their dealings with Parliament, which I think we would be wise not to ignore.

The report will show a modest increase of 5 per cent in the proportion of letters receiving a reply with target in 1999. This is moving in the right direction, but it still means that only 60 per cent of all correspondence from Mps to Ministers received a reply within the target period. The report will also show that although there has been a small improvement in the performance of many Departments and Agencies, most continue to perform poorly. One third of the larger Departments and Agencies failed to meet their targets in over 50 per cent of cases. This means that in these Departments and Agencies the majority of replies to letters from MPs to Ministers are now routinely late. This simply cannot continue.

I recognise the excellent work which is being done in some Departments and Agencies to improve performance; and I appreciate that external factors such as an increase in correspondence or an internal reorganisation may have had an impact on correspondence systems. However, MPs and Madam Speaker remain extremely concerned that some Departments and Agencies appear to have made no significant improvements in performance across the board; and I will be writing again to any Department or Agency which reports a deterioration in performance.

The report to Parliament on Departments' and Agencies' handling of correspondence from MPs will be published later this month by arranged PQ. The Central Secretariat in the Cabinet Office (GTN 270 1868) will inform your office as soon as we have a firm date. They will also provide advance copies of the PQ.

I should perhaps say that poor performance on correspondence is only one of a litany of recent failures by Departments in their treatment of Parliament which Madam Speaker has taken me through. She has conveyed to me a growing sense in Parliament that either the Civil Service attaches less importance nowadays to getting right the Government's dealings with Parliament or that for some reason there has been a sudden loss of collective memory in Whitehall about how business on such simple matters as placing papers in the Library of the House should be conducted. For the most part this is seen as a failure on the part of civil servants rather than of Ministers (although separately there are frustrations with Ministers on such matters as answering oral Parliamentary Questions briefly and to the point). I shall be writing to individual permanent secretaries about some of the cases; and have done my best to reassure Madam Speaker that the cases - roughly ten in the last couple of months - are the sort of most unfortunate coincidence which occur from time to time in large organisations and that they certainly mark no intended disrespect to Parliament on the part of any of us. I have also promised that we will organise centrally some form of training for staff in Parliamentary branches and elsewhere who have regular dealings with Parliament to address the main rubbing points and ensure that there is a good grasp of essentials. But there is a basic message for all of us behind these cases which I think we would be wise not to ignore.

Sir Richard Wilson, Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service

7 April 2000

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