GOVERNMENT MEMORANDUM IN RESPONSE TO THE SECOND
REPORT FROM THE PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION SELECT COMMITTEE ON (SESSION
2000-2001) ON MINISTERIAL ACCOUNTABILITY AND PARLIAMENTARY QUESTIONS
a) We continue to be disappointed by the failure
of many departments to adopt a practice recommended by this Committee
and accepted by the Government, and recommend again that the Government
ensure that where Departments withhold information under an exemption
in the Code of Practice (or later under the Freedom of Information
Act 2000) they invariably cite the relevant exemption.
The Government agreed, in response to a recommendation
from the Committee's predecessor, the Public Service Committee,
that where Ministers withhold information in response to a Parliamentary
Question they should explain their reasons for doing so and the
reasons should relate to the exemptions laid down in the Code
of Practice on Access to Government Information. This continues
to be the Government's position, and is stressed in the Guidance
to Officials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary Questions.
In the light of the concerns raised by the Committee, the Government
has reissued the Guidance, reproduced at Annex A, and reminded
Ministers and civil servants of their responsibilities in this
b) 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
The revised Guidance on Answering Parliamentary
Questions, reproduced at Annex A, states that, in future,
when Ministers refuse to provide information on the grounds of
disproportionate cost, there should be a presumption that any
of the requested information which is readily available should
c) 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 time.
The Government agrees that in future when information
is deposited in the Library for the first time, in response to
a Parliamentary Question a copy of the information should, wherever
practical, be supplied to the Member at the same time. Departments
have been reminded of the need to observe this courtesy.
d) We deplore the practice of leaving a question
unanswered until another member tables a similar question and
then answering the second question first and the earlier one only
by reference, and recommend that in cases where two similar questions
are tabled the member who tabled the question first should receive
the substantive answer.
The Government is committed to providing prompt and
accurate answers to Parliamentary Questions. The normal procedure
remains to answer Questions as soon as possible after they are
tabled, and therefore in date order. Inevitably, some questions
cover similar ground. On occasion, it is more helpful to answer
a later but more wide-ranging question and to refer an earlier
question to that answer.
e) 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.
The Government attaches the highest importance to
the duty of Ministers and civil servants to provide full and accurate
information to Parliament and the public. This point is stressed
in the Ministerial Code and the Civil Service Code.
The Guidance to Officials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary
Questions makes it clear that departments should approach
every Question predisposed to give relevant information fully,
as concisely as possible and in accordance with disproportionate
cost. This continues to be the Government's position. Ministers
are accountable to Parliament for their decisions and actions,
including answers to Parliamentary Questions. If a member is unhappy
with a response to a Parliamentary Question, he or she should
raise the matter with the Minister concerned.
f) 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.
Like the Committee, the Government attaches importance
to the prompt and efficient handling of Members' correspondence.
The Government recognises that the right to raise constituents'
cases and other issues directly with Ministers is an important
part of the democratic process and underlines the accountability
of Ministers to the House.
All departments report regularly on their performance
in replying to correspondence from Members. The most recently
published figures, which cover the year 2000, show that, during
2000, around 8,000 more letters were replied to within the target
times set by departments than in 1999, an improvement of 4 per
cent in overall performance.
The Government aims to continue to improve performance
and to raise the standards of all departments to those of the
best. To this end, the Cabinet Office has collated and published
examples of good practice in handling correspondence - both from
Members and from the general public - so as to promote best practice
across Whitehall and ensure that departments learn from each others'