Select Committee on Public Administration Ninth Report



NINTH REPORT

The Public Administration Select Committee has agreed to the following Report:

MINISTERIAL ACCOUNTABILITY AND PARLIAMENTARY QUESTIONS

 

Introduction

  1. This is the fifth report published on Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions by this Committee or its predecessor, the Public Service Committee. In the mid-1990s our predecessor committee undertook a major inquiry into ministerial accountability and responsibility following the report of the Scott inquiry on the Export of Defence-Related Equipment and Dual-Use Goods to Iraq.[1] The Scott Report raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of the convention of ministerial responsibility. The Committee published its report in 1996 and made a number of recommendations.[2] It was this report which helped to prompt the House resolution on ministerial accountability which sets the standard for ministers' responsibilities to the House.
  2. An Instrument of Accountability

  3. In the context of 'Ministerial Responsibility and Parliamentary Questions', which is the subject of this report, questions provide one of several means by which Parliament holds the Executive to account. We note that the House has recently taken some steps to increase ministerial accountability. The introduction of debates in Westminster Hall, with a Minister replying, has increased the opportunity for Members to raise issues and for Select Committee reports to be debated. The recent changes, agreed by the House following recommendations from the Modernisation Committee, relating to Select Committees, should also help to improve parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.[3] The Prime Minister's twice-yearly appearance before the Liaison Committee is another welcome addition to parliamentary scrutiny. Members have resources such as the House of Commons Library and the Internet which can provide a great deal of information. However, parliamentary questions are arguably the most important instrument of sustained accountability available to individual Members, which is why they provide a focus for this Committee.
  4. In our Report on Parliamentary Questions last year we addressed some issues which went beyond the matters mentioned in the Table Office memorandum (which forms the basis of our report to the House), most notably those raised with us by Members dissatisfied with responses they received from departments.[4] In light of developments in the period since the Table Office memorandum was prepared, we intend to extend further our consideration of the issues relating to parliamentary questions. We do not, however, deal in detail in this report with the House's own rules in relation to parliamentary questions. This is a matter for the Procedure Committee, which has recently reported to the House,[5] and the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House.
  5. Parliamentary Questions

  6. Written parliamentary questions take two forms: ordinary and named day questions. Departments should endeavour to answer ordinary questions within a working week of the question appearing on the Order Paper. In 1971 the House agreed to a recommendation from a Select Committee on Parliamentary Questions that a system of priority written questions should be introduced.[6] Such a question should now be answered on a named day.
  7. In evidence to the recent Procedure Committee inquiry, the Principal Clerk, Table Office, provided a summary of the traditional definition of parliamentary questions. "Questions are formal proceedings in Parliament, addressed by Members to Ministers, and must relate to matters for which Ministers are responsible and on which they are accountable to Parliament. The basic rules are quite clear. Questions must either press for action or seek information and a question which has recently been answered may not be asked again".[7]
  8. Ministers' Refusal to Answer Written Questions

  9. One of the recommendations made by our predecessor Committee in 1996, when it considered practical measures to ensure that Ministers are as open as possible with Parliament, was the publication each year of a memorandum, prepared by the Table Office, listing cases where ministers have refused to answer written parliamentary questions.[8]
  10. A memorandum relating to the refusal to answer questions in session 1999-2000 is printed with the report in Appendix 1. We are grateful to the Table Office for providing it. We subsequently requested clarification from the relevant departments on the reasons why answers were refused, and we have printed our letter (and the replies we received) in Appendix 2.
  11. The Memorandum provided by the Table Office is derived from the notes on the pattern of answers kept by the Office mainly to ensure that a question is not asked again if the department has previously indicated that it will not answer it. It, therefore, mainly lists instances of questions which have not been answered for the following reasons:

  • the department concerned has said that either the Government is not responsible for the matter concerned, or else that department is not responsible;

  • a Minister has directly refused to provide information on the grounds that the information is, for one reason or other, confidential.

If a Minister declines to provide information in answer to a parliamentary question or refuses to take a particular action, the same question cannot be asked again for the next three months (again, unless there is a reason to believe that circumstances have changed). The Memorandum does not list instances of refusal to answer because the cost of doing so would be disproportionate, although this is a traditional ground for refusal. The Table Office's list shows that in many cases the reason given for refusal to answer a parliamentary question is a denial that Ministerial responsibility exists. Other reasons commonly given include commercial confidentiality, security, the need to protect the privacy of individuals and the confidentiality of law enforcement investigations. The Table Office list does not show occasions on which Ministers have given incomplete answers, or answers that may be interpreted as misleading.

Guidance for Officials in Drafting Answers to Parliamentary Questions

  1. In its response to our Second Report 2000-01, the Government included the 'Guidance to Officials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary Questions', which we published in our Fourth Report 2001-02.[9] In addition to this guidance individual departments have their own internal guidance (an issue to which we will return later in this report). The central guidance issued by the Cabinet Office to civil servants stresses that departments should be as open as possible. It states that civil servants drafting replies should "Approach every question predisposed to give relevant information fully, as concisely as possible".[10] If civil servants believe that there is a case for not giving the information requested, they are told to "draft an answer which makes this clear and which explains the reasons in equivalent terms to those in the Code of Practice, or because of disproportionate cost or the information not being available".[11] The Code of Practice referred to is that on Access to Government Information, which was introduced in 1994, and created a common set of standards governing the disclosure of information by government departments and agencies. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 will replace the Code of Practice and we expect the appropriate references from the Act will replace those from the code. However, we note that the Government has delayed much of the implementation of the Act until 2005 and that the code will remain in force until then.
  2. The proportion of questions which ministers have refused to answer by each Department in session 1999-2000 was as follows:
  3. Total of Written Questions to Departments Session 1999-2000

     

    Department

    Total Number of questions tabled*

    Percentage refused

    Cabinet Office + Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

    624 + 65

    0.73

    Church Commissioners

    57

    1.75

    Culture, Media and Sport

    1540

    0.91

    Ministry of Defence

    2755

    2.90

    Education and Employment

    2592

    0.23

    Environment, Transport and the Regions

    4367

    0.25

    Foreign and Commonwealth Office

    2551

    1.06

    Health

    3483

    0.23

    Home Office

    4130

    0.70

    International Development

    901

    0.33

    Lord Chancellor's Department

    630

    1.27

    Northern Ireland Office

    909

    4.51

    Prime Minister

    650

    2.15

    President of the Council

    139

    0

    Attorney General

    169

    1.18

    MAFF

    1894

    0.48

    Scotland Office + Advocate General

    393

    4.83

    Social Security

    2193

    0.41

    Trade and Industry

    2809

    0.89

    HM Treasury

    2548

    0.75

    Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

    532

    3.20

    *Source: Parliamentary On-Line Information System

    Evidence from Departments

  4. As in previous years, we asked departments to explain the reasoning behind their refusal to provide information in response to questions, as identified in the Table Office memorandum. The original letter from the Clerk of the Committee to departments was sent in May 2001 requesting a response in June. Partly no doubt because there was a general election in 2001, we had only received replies from seven departments by November. In that month we sent a second letter to the remaining thirteen departments requesting a response by December. It was not until March 2002 that we received the final departmental response. Notwithstanding the intervention of an election, it should not have taken departments up to ten months to respond to a relatively simple request, especially as some were able to respond to our original deadline of June 2001.
  5. In our Second Report 2000-01 we expressed the hope that the intervention of the Cabinet Secretary would improve departmental responses.[12] In its Response to our report the Government said that it "attaches importance to the prompt and efficient handling of Members' correspondence". It added "The Government aims to continue to improve performance and to raise standards of all departments to those of the best".[13] The time taken by departments to respond to our requests appears to be lengthening rather than shortening. Our last report on Parliamentary Questions (for questions answered in the session 1998-99) could not be published until January 2001. This report deals with questions from the session 1999-2000, a gap of two years. Our letter to departments covering the session 2000-01 will be sent out before the House rises for summer recess. A new Cabinet Secretary will be in post in October and we will write to him expressing our concerns and stating our expectation that this issue will be effectively addressed.
  6. We note that the Government has targets for responding to Members' correspondence within 20 days and that last year performance against that target rose by 4 per cent.[14] By convention, the Government should respond to Select Committee reports within two months. We see no reason why departments should take so long in responding to our request and believe that this is completely unacceptable. We recommend that departments respond to our letter concerning ministerial refusals to answer questions within the Government's own twenty day target for responding to correspondence.
  7. Citing the Relevant Exemption

  8. One of the reasons why departments may refuse to answer a parliamentary question is that the information required falls within the exemptions to the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. The fifteen exemptions are listed in Part II of the code. In our report last year we expressed our disappointment that many departments continued to fail to cite the appropriate exemption when refusing to answer questions. We repeated a recommendation from a previous report, which the Government had previously accepted, that departments adopt the practice of always citing the relevant exemption.[15] The Government again accepted our recommendation when it replied to our last report in December 2001.[16]
  9. In our report last year we expressed the hope that "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".[17] However, we once again have to return to this issue. Despite twice having our recommendation accepted by the Government, we have to report that departments continue to fail to cite the relevant exemption to the code.
  10. Some departments are better than others. Despite the large number of questions it refuses to answer, the Ministry of Defence cited the relevant exemption for each one.[18] Both the Prime Minister and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) refused to answer questions concerning the Dome, but while the Prime Minister's office cited the relevant exemption DCMS did not.[19] In the list provided by the Table Office DCMS did not once cite an exemption. However, in their reply to our letter about their refusal to answer questions, DCMS stated the relevant exemption in every case.[20] Similarly, the Home Office did not originally cite any exemptions under the code, but cited each exemption when replying to the committee.[21] It should be normal practice for departments to cite the relevant exemption when replying to the original question. The Committee will continue to monitor departments and intend to publish a league table of their performance in citing the relevant exemption under the code.
  11. Indeed the failure to cite the relevant exemption at the proper time is not limited to parliamentary questions. In his Annual Report 2001-02 the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, or Ombudsman, Sir Michael Buckley said "The bad habit of citing exemptions for the very first time at a very late stage of an investigation has reappeared".[22] Our frustration on this matter is easily gauged by the fact that this is the third time we have made such a recommendation. Despite twice recommending this before (and twice having it accepted by the Government), we recommend again that where departments withhold information under an exemption of the Code of Practice they cite the relevant exemption in their written answers.

  12. One major change was introduced during the session 1999-2000. In October 1999 the House agreed to a resolution which meant that, subject to certain caveats, questions may not be tabled on matters for which responsibility has been devolved by legislation to the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales.[23] In her written evidence to the Procedure Committee, the Principal Clerk, Table Office said that "detailed written questions on devolved matters are now generally not possible".[24] This change accounts for the relatively high percentages of refused answers for the Scotland and Wales Offices. For example of the 17 questions refused by the Wales Office 14 were matters for the National Assembly for Wales.[25]
  13. The Continuing Dissatisfaction of Members

  14. In our last Report on Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions, we sought to ascertain from Members what displeased them about the inadequacy of Ministerial replies. Although we did not circulate a questionnaire, as last year, we have continued to receive correspondence from Members who have concerns about the responses they receive from departments. As part of its separate inquiry into Parliamentary Questions, the Procedure Committee conducted a survey amongst Members. Its survey found that while 60 per cent of Members thought written questions were effective in bringing information into the public domain, more were dissatisfied with the speed of answers (45 per cent) than satisfied (44 per cent), and more were dissatisfied with the quality of answers (28 per cent) than satisfied (21 per cent), although 36 per cent expressed no opinion one way or another.[26] In the succeeding paragraphs we cite examples given to us by Members to highlight some issues which remain a concern.
  15. The need for prompt responses from departments to questions is of continuing concern to Members. Cheryl Gillan MP wrote to the Department for Work and Pensions in October 2001. The correspondence was transferred to the Home Office and then to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Mrs Gillan had not received a reply by January 2002.[27] The problem of delays in responding to Member's questions was also raised in the Westminster Hall debate on last year's report. Brian White MP said that the Government's initiatives for more joined-up government had led to more delays because departments were passing round correspondence. He added that the Government needed to consider how best to address this problem.[28] The Government should consider more effective use of the Knowledge Network (the internal system for sharing information across government) as a possible solution to providing answers to questions relating to cross-cutting issues.
  16.  

  17. Another Member highlighted the use of the 'holding reply', which also serves to delay responding to questions. The Rt. Hon. Frank Field MP informed us that out of ten questions which he had tabled to the Treasury between January and March 2002, nine had received a holding reply. In our last report we noted that occasionally 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 by reference. Although we have received no correspondence from Members on this issue, some Members have indicated in person to the Committee that this practice is continuing. We continue to deplore this practice and urge Members to write to the Committee with any examples. We will continue to monitor this. Mr Field also raised the issue of 'in the Library' responses, which refer a Member to material deposited in the House of Commons Library rather than putting the information on the parliamentary record.[29] We very much agree with Mr Field and recommend that wherever practicable the full answer should be placed on the official record.
  18. The Influence of Commercial Confidentiality

  19. Norman Baker MP recently produced a report on the use of 'commercial confidentiality' as a reason for refusal to answer parliamentary questions. Exemption 13 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information relates to information whose unwarranted disclosure would harm the competitive position of a third party. Citing the commercial confidentiality exemption can effectively stop a Member from raising the question again for the rest of the session. Since 1997 there has been an increase from 0.26 per cent to 0.4 per cent in the number of questions Ministers have not answered on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Mr Baker noted that when he asked departments how many answers to questions had been refused on the grounds of the commercial confidentiality exemption most departments refused to answer on grounds of disproportionate cost. Mr Baker undertook the exercise himself. He told us a manual search through Hansard took him four hours.
  20. The issue of commercial confidentiality is of particular relevance at this time due to the Government's plans for reform of public services, an issue upon which the Prime Minister said he will be judged at the next election. The Government want to use private sector finance and knowledge to improve public service delivery. The main vehicles for this process are Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). These projects use private sector finance as capital and then the private sector earns profit from managerial efficiency or ownership of the capital project after a period of time. The contracts for these projects are long-term, up to 30 years. The length of the contracts means that once they are signed there is little chance for public influence. The Capita Group, one of the major private companies involved with PPPs, has estimated the market to be worth 50 billion.[30] This indicates to us that the public interest is best served by as much information as possible being made public before the contracts are signed.
  21. We recently published the first report in our on-going inquiry into public service reform.[31] In 'The Public Service Ethos' we said that there was a need to promote a public service ethos and recognised that accountability within the public service is different to that in the private sector. One of the Seven Principles of Public Life is Openness, which the Committee on Standards in Public Life define as "holders of public office should be as open as possible about all their decisions and actions they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands".[32] We re-iterate our support of openness in public life and call on the Government to ensure that the public interest is put above all other considerations by increasing the openness of parliamentary answers.
  22. The Quality of Responses

  23. The quality of responses from departments is another issue of concern for Members. Peter Ainsworth MP informed us that he tabled a question following the Second Reading of the Animal Health Bill in November 2001. Initially he received a holding reply. The substantive reply, received in December, referred him to the Secretary of State's comments in the debate, which had initiated his question in the first instance.[33] The Chairman of the Committee, Tony Wright MP, wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him if collective cabinet responsibility would apply in a referendum on the single currency. The Prime Minister replied referring him to an answer to a question concerning the conditions for a referendum on euro entry. The referred answer did not address the substantive question asked by Dr Wright.[34] Dr Wright also asked the Cabinet Office to list which public bodies are required to report to Parliament. The response from the Minister said that where a body is required to report to Parliament it is set out in the relevant statute and that a future annual report on public bodies should provide summary information on the arrangements for ensuring greater transparency. Dr. Wright wrote to the Minister, Christopher Leslie MP, asking why he had not answered the question. The new Minister in the Cabinet Office, Douglas Alexander MP, promised to supply Dr. Wright with a full response before the summer recess.[35] Norman Baker MP tabled a question about radioactive waste, to which the response was that the department did not hold the information. It transpired that an almost identical question was answered by the department in 1997.[36]
  24. Members' concerns about ministerial replies to questions have also been raised a number of times in the Chamber. This was most frequently done on a point of order, as on 21 and 28 November 2001,[37] which prompted the Speaker to set out the expectations of the House. On 28 November the Speaker said "The House's legitimate expectations are contained in the 1997 Resolution on ministerial responsibility. It is the duty of a Speaker to do what can properly be done from the Chair in support of the resolution. It is the duty of Ministers to act in the spirit of the resolution".[38]
  25. The resolution says:

    "Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, which should be decided in accordance with the Government's code of practice on access to Government information".[39]

    The Speaker also said that Members "should seek advice—the Table Office is always ready to help—and then they should persist". He added that Members could also contact either this Committee or the Procedure Committee if they were dissatisfied (an issue we will return later in this report).[40]

  26. The continuing concern of Members was raised in the Westminister Hall debate on our Second Report of 2000-01.[41] In its recent report, the Procedure Committee recommended that we should address Members' dissatisfaction at the quality of ministerial answers. The Procedure Committee asked us to give consideration in particular to cases where Ministers do not give a full and satisfactory response.[42]
  27. At present the only options, as outlined by the Speaker in his statement, for dissatisfied Members are to pursue the minister themselves or pass their concerns on to either this Committee or the Procedure Committee. We encourage Members to raise their concerns with either Committee. In addition, Members can pursue a more satisfactory answer to their question by requesting an adjournment debate or raising it by way of an Early Day Motion. Where Members are dissatisfied with the answer to an oral question, notice is sometimes given that in view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, the Member intends to raise the matter in an adjournment debate. In evidence to the Procedure Committee, the Principal Clerk, Table Office suggested that where a Member did not receive a substantive answer to a named day question on the due date, priority may be given to the Member in a forthcoming ballot for adjournment debates.[43] The Procedure Committee were attracted by this proposal, but considered that it would be better to see whether their other recommendations, if implemented, were effective before agreeing to introduce this sanction. The Procedure Committee may return to the proposal in a future report.[44]
  28. However, if a Member has pursued all the options currently available within the House and remains dissatisfied, there is no avenue for a complaint to be pursued any further (apart from the Ombudsman in cases of alleged breaches in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information). The inability of the House to impose any sanctions on Ministers was raised frequently in the recent Westminster Hall debate, in which a number of options were put forward by Members. These included expanded roles for the Ombudsman, the Cabinet Secretary, the Speaker and this Committee.
  29. We believe that it would not be appropriate for either the Speaker or the Cabinet Secretary to have an expanded role in pursuing complaints. The Speaker made a statement to the House last year setting out clearly his views on the subject. He said "It would be unwise for me to express a view on the adequacy of a particular ministerial answer. There are bound to be two views on that, and neither is a matter for me. So I cannot ... sit in judgement on particular answers".[45]Any decisions made concerning the quality and content of replies would at the final complaint stage require the Speaker to make a judgement. As many complaints are likely to come from opposition Members, this would potentially involve the Speaker in taking sides between Government and opposition.
  30. Similarly the Cabinet Secretary is required to be politically impartial. As we said in our report last year, we welcomed the Cabinet Secretary's intervention, which we hoped would lead to an improvement in the service Members received from departments. However, the Cabinet Secretary is not best placed to make judgements on ministerial replies and impose sanctions. This is a role for Parliament.
  31. The Ombudsman, currently has a role to play in dealing with certain issues arising from parliamentary questions. The Ombudsman acts as the guardian to the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. The Code requires bodies (listed in Schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967) to release information, both pro-actively and on request, unless that information is covered by one or more of the fifteen exemptions under the Code.
  32. The Ombudsman's role is to investigate complaints referred by Members of Parliament that information that should have been provided under the Code has been withheld. The office of the Ombudsman therefore already has experience in handling sensitive papers and making decisions based upon judgement. Much of this work is informal, trying to resolve problems before any formal process is entered into. However, there are potential drawbacks to greater involvement by the Ombudsman. Firstly, that in 2005 the Information Commissioner will become responsible for the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Secondly, the Ombudsman has reported that departments are less willing to co-operate with his office in relation to both investigations and findings.[46] In addition, any substantial change in the Ombudsman's role would require legislation.
  33. As part of a series of parliamentary questions to Secretaries of State, Andrew Robathan MP asked the Home Secretary on how many occasions declarations of interests had been made by ministers under the Ministerial Code of Conduct. The Home Office refused to release the information citing two exemptions under the Code of Practice. Mr Robathan referred a complaint to the Ombudsman, who upheld the complaint, ruling that the exemptions cited by the department were not relevant. The department refused to comply with a ruling of the Ombudsman, the first time a ruling under the Code has been refused.[47] This case highlights the problem with the role of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman can only report to Parliament, to this Committee, and has no powers or sanction to require ministers to comply with an investigation or a finding.
  34. Before considering an expansion of the role of the Ombudsman (or indeed the creation of a new independent office), the House should consider the possibility of enhancing its existing internal processes. We believe that a possible option could be for the small minority of Members, still dissatisfied after pursuing all options open to them, to refer their complaint to the Chairman of this Committee. The Chairman would write to the Department concerned asking why the information had not been provided. The Chairman would not make a judgement and have no additional powers, but act merely as a conduit. The Committee would publish these letters in the same way that it currently records ministers' refusals to answer questions, thus continuing to report to Parliament on the quality of answers. In addition, the Committee would be able to call Ministers to appear before it and question them on their record on answering questions. We therefore recommend that this Committee, through its Chairman, should be asked by the Speaker to refer unsatisfactory answers to questions to the Department concerned if requested to do so by a Member, and if such answers are deemed appropriate for such a referral.
  35. We welcome the increased opportunity to debate Select Committee reports provided by sittings in Westminster Hall. However, it was noted by Members in the debate on 21 March 2002 on our last report on Ministerial Responsibility and Parliamentary Questions, and the Government's Response, that many Members wanted to contribute, but other important matters were under discussion in the Chamber. We have said that parliamentary questions are a key instrument of accountability. This is an issue which affects all Members of the House and should be the subject of the primary attention of the House. We hope that this report, and those in successive sessions, on parliamentary questions will be debated in the House, either in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber, and encourage all Members to participate in this important scrutiny exercise. We hope that our recommendations will go some way to reducing dissatisfaction among Members. However, if they do not, we will return to this issue in the future and explore further the options for an independent complaint process.
  36. Other Developments

    Events at the Department of Health

  37. During the current parliamentary session a serious problem came to light concerning parliamentary questions within the Department of Health. Paul Burstow MP tabled an Early Day Motion criticising the length of time the department was taking in answering questions.[48] In February, the Secretary of State, the Rt. Hon. Alan Milburn MP, was informed that a number of questions, some dating back to June 2001, remained unanswered. Mr Milburn, made a statement, by way of a written Parliamentary answer, in response to the number of outstanding questions for answer.
  38. Mr Milburn's answer of 5 March recorded that the department received 45 written parliamentary questions per day (double the level of the previous session) and that 411 were currently outstanding.[49] After investigating these matters Mr Milburn said "evidence came to light of what appears to be systematic falsification in recording the handling of parliamentary questions in the Department's parliamentary section. This included recording questions as having been answered when no such reply had been given to the Member or to the Official Report". He added that the department is "fully committed to supporting the system of accountability to Parliament which underpins our democracy. We aim to provide timely and accurate responses to parliamentary questions. There has been a serious failure in honouring that commitment which I deeply regret".[50] An official within the department was suspended and an internal investigation launched.
  39. Mr Milburn made a further statement to the House, again by written answer, on 25 March following the departmental investigation. The total number of questions which the department's database recorded as being answered but had not been answered was 210. The investigation concluded that one person was responsible for the falsification of the database, but that the system was open to abuse. This problem was exacerbated by the growing workload of the parliamentary section (although we should note that other departments had also seen an increase in the number of questions without running into the same sort of problem). It also concluded that there was every indication that falsification had also occurred in previous Parliamentary sessions. The investigation also established that the department had not been following the normal practice of sending all questions answered by letter to the Library of the House, a practice it will follow "assiduously in the future", according to Mr Milburn.[51]
  40. The Secretary of State announced a number of steps which the department would introduce immediately. Ministers' Private Offices will be more closely involved in preparing answers to questions. Additional staff were provided for the parliamentary section to deal with the backlog (along with a review of the long-term staffing implications) and new accommodation provided. New arrangements within the parliamentary section would be established to ensure that the process cannot be manipulated by any one individual. This would include additional external checking through the Library of the House and the new arrangements for quarterly reviews of outstanding questions introduced by the Leader of the House in March (see paragraph 41).[52]
  41. We welcome the Secretary of State's endorsement of the democratic importance of parliamentary questions and his commitment to ensuring that the department answers them in a timely and accurate manner. We also welcome the steps he has announced to improve the process for answering questions within the department, especially the use of external validation. Indeed this is something that other departments could imitate. We hope to take evidence from the Department of Health on these matters in the next session.
  42. Following events at the Department of Health, the Leader of the House, the Rt. Hon. Robin Cook MP, issued a memorandum to all departmental Parliamentary Clerks. Mr Cook reminded departments, that the Commons Library must receive a copy of all answers and supporting documents. In addition he urged that all 'I will write' answers to questions should be followed up as quickly as possible. He also expressed his concerns about the number of questions that remained unanswered at the end of a session and at the reliability of systems in departments alerting Ministers to unanswered questions. He introduced two changes to address these concerns. A quarterly report will be compiled of 'I will write' answers and unanswered questions. These reports will be given to Secretaries of State so that they are aware of the situation in their department. So far the Leader of the House has resisted calls for the new quarterly reports to be made available. We believe that publishing these reports would improve transparency and ensure that Members were more aware of the performance of departments, thus allowing Parliament to gauge more effectively the performance of departments in answering questions and enabling them better to hold the Executive to account. The Scottish Executive publishes its own detailed quarterly audits of written questions and in addition it publishes reports covering four week periods.[53] We recommend that the Leader of the House reconsider his decision and publish the quarterly reviews of unanswered and 'I will write' questions in Parliament.
  43. The Cost of Parliamentary Questions

  44. One of the reasons given by departments for not answering a question is that the information is not held centrally and could only be provided at a disproportionate cost. Guidance on the costing of answering parliamentary questions is provided to departments and agencies by the Treasury,[54] although the final decision rests with individual departments, some of which have their own guidelines. The last major survey was carried out in 1991, which found the average cost of answering a written parliamentary question was 87. The cost of answering questions has been updated annually by indexation using the retail price index and the civil service earnings index. The current average cost of answering a written question is 129. The 1991 survey was reviewed in 1999. This review concluded that the original costings continued to provide a sound basis for calculating the average cost figures and setting the Disproportionate Cost Threshold (DCT). The DCT does not override any other valid reason why an answer to a question may be refused. Departments are not obliged to adhere to the Treasury guidance and can have their own internal costing systems. However, as Christopher Leslie, the then Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, said "The final decision on how to answer the parliamentary question rests with the individual Minister concerned who may decide that a full answer should be provided irrespective of cost".[55]
  45. The issue of cost has been the subject of debate both within the House and in the media. In the period from 9 June 2001 to 29 January 2002, 41,366 parliamentary questions were asked at a cost of 5 million.[56] It was reported in the House that between 9 June 2001 and 9 July 2002, one Member had tabled 4,382 questions at a cost of 565,278.[57] The Procedure Committee commented that "a further increase in the number of questions being tabled may lead to an erosion of the quality of responses and delays in responding".[58] The Government, in evidence to the Procedure Committee, commented that "the sheer volume of questions that are currently being asked is inhibiting the speed with which answers can be prepared".[59] The Procedure Committee, the Table Office and the Government are of the same opinion that the system of named day questions is not working as it was originally intended. The Procedure Committee, therefore, recommended that the House impose a daily quota per Member of five named day questions.[60] We concur with the Procedure Committee and hope that such a recommendation should lead to an increase in the quality and speed of answers and urge the House to implement their recommendation.
  46.  

  47. At a time when the number of questions to departments is rising and complaints from Members are growing, each Member must consider the need to ask so many questions. We share the Procedure Committee's view that it is the right of Members to ask questions, but if Members, quite rightly, require quality responses, they must understand the demands they are placing on departments. We hope that the recommendations of that Committee are implemented and prove beneficial to Members.
  48. Departmental Guidance

  49. In addition to the central guidance issued by the Cabinet Office, individual departments have their own instructions to officials drafting answers. Information relating to internal departmental guidance has been the subject of recent comment in the House. Members raised their concerns in a series of points of order in the House in June 2002. Paul Tyler MP quoted from the internal guidance of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) claiming that civil servants were instructed to determine whether a Member was 'friendly' before deciding how to respond. The Rt. Hon. Andrew MacKay MP joined Mr Tyler in condemning departments for responding differently to different Members.[61] In response to a number of written question, the new Secretary of State at DWP, the Rt. Hon. Andrew Smith MP, said "Guidance notes have been produced for many years to assist officials who help prepare answers to parliamentary questions. Until now they have been produced by officials without clearance by Ministers. The reference in the guidance notes to the question being 'friendly' is not appropriate and has been deleted".[62] Mr Smith also placed a copy of the guidance in the Library. As the Secretary of State signs off all answers to parliamentary questions it is vital that any internal guidance is approved by the Secretary of State. We welcome the action of the Secretary of State for DWP and would encourage all Secretaries of State to follow his lead and ensure that all departmental guidance has the approval of the appropriate Secretary of State.
  50. We have taken no evidence on this matter but re-iterate what both the Speaker and the Government have recently said. In response to the point of order of 11 June, the Speaker said that "Ministers are expected to give full and open answers".[63] The Guidance on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary Questions makes it clear that civil servants should approach each question on the same basis and during the recent Westminster Hall debate, the then Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Christopher Leslie MP said that "It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful answers to Parliament".[64] We hope that when a Secretary of State approves the internal departmental guidance he or she ensures that it is consistent with the expectations of the Speaker and the central guidance published by the Government.
  51. We believe that Members have a justifiable concern that the standard of answers to parliamentary questions may vary between departments, and potentially, may vary between different Members. The risk arises largely because of the existence of separate departmental instructions. We intend to examine the separate guidance produced by departments to see if each is consistent with the central guidance issued by the Cabinet Office. We will report our findings as part of our next annual report on parliamentary questions.
  52. Conclusions

  53. We have extended our inquiry into ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions this year. There have been some significant recent developments to which we hope to return over the course of considering our next annual report on this issue. We welcome correspondence from Members on these matters. We have already received the Table Office memorandum upon which next year's report will be based. We hope that departments take note of the comments made in this report and respond promptly to our request for information.
  54. We firmly believe that parliamentary questions are a key instrument for Members in holding the Executive to account. We urge that the recommendations made in this report, and those of the Procedure Committee, should be implemented to enable Members more effectively to perform their vital scrutiny role. We will continue to monitor developments and look at ways in which the process of holding ministers to account can be further improved.

 


1  
HC (1995-96) 115 Back

2   'Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility' HC (1995-96) 313 Back

3   HC Deb 14 May 2002, Col 648-731 Back

4   HC (2000-01) 61 Back

5   HC (2001-02) 622 Back

6   CJ (1972-73) 84 Back

7   HC (2001-02) 622, Ev 82 Back

8   HC (1995-96) 313, para 68 Back

9   HC 464 Back

10   Ibid, Appendix Back

11   Ibid Back

12   HC 61, para 34 Back

13   Fourth Report HC (2001-02) 464, Appendix  Back

14   HC Deb 21 Mar 2002, 175WH Back

15   HC 61, para 12 Back

16   HC 464, Appendix Back

17   HC 61, para 37 Back

18   Appendix 1 Back

19   Ibid Back

20   Appendix 2 Back

21   Ibid Back

22   HC 897, para 1.18 Back

23   HC 622, Ev 81 Back

24   Ibid Back

25   Appendix 2 Back

26   HC 622, para 63 Back

27   Appendix 3 Back

28   HC Deb 21 Mar 2002, 147WH Back

29   Appendix 3 Back

30   HC 263-v, Q299 Back

31   Seventh Report HC (2001-02) 263 Back

32   First Report, 1995, Cm 2850 Back

33   Appendix 3 Back

34   Ibid Back

35   Ibid Back

36   Ibid Back

37   HC Deb 21 Nov 2001 Col 319-21 and 28 Nov 2001 Col 971 Back

38   HC Deb 28 Nov 2001, Col 971 Back

39   CJ (1996-97) 328 Back

40   HC Deb 28 Nov 2001, Col 971 Back

41   HC Deb 21 Mar 2002, Col 137-182WH Back

42   HC 622, para 65 Back

43   Ibid, Ev 81 Back

44   Ibid, para 77 Back

45   HC Deb 28 Nov 2001, Col 971 Back

46   Annual Report 2001-02, HC 897, para 1.18 Back

47   'Access to Official Information: Declarations made under the Ministerial Code of Conduct' HC (2001-02) 353 Back

48   EDM 869 Back

49   HC Deb 5 Mar 2002, Col 275W Back

50   HC Deb, 5 Mar 2002, Col 275W Back

51   HC Deb, 25 Mar 2002, Col 756-759W Back

52   Ibid Back

53   HC (2001-02) 622, Ev 132 Back

54   'Costing Parliamentary Questions: a Guidance Note for Departments', HM Treasury, 1999  Back

55   HC Deb 8 May 2002, Col 253W Back

56   HC Deb 17 Apr 2002, Col 929W Back

57   HC Deb 10 Jul 2002, Col 997W Back

58   HC (2001-02) 622, para 67 Back

59   HC 622, Ev 64, para 7 Back

60   Ibid, para 73 Back

61   HC Deb 11 Jun 2002, Col 724  Back

62   HC Deb 17 Jun 2002, Col 96W Back

63   HC Deb 11 June 2002, Col 724 Back

64   HC Deb 21 Mar 2002, Col 179WH Back

 
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