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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 817-ii
house of commons
taken before the
Written PARLIAMENTARY question performance of the Department for Education
Wednesday 23 January 2013
Rt Hon Michael Gove mp, Chris Wormald and Sam Freedman
Evidence heard in Public Questions 151- 212
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Taken before the Procedure Committee
on Wednesday 23 January 2013
Mr Charles Walker (Chair)
Mr David Nuttall
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary, Department for Education, and Sam Freedman, Policy Adviser, gave evidence.
Q151 Chair: Secretary of State, thank you for coming, Mr Wormald, thank you for coming, and Mr Freedman, thank you for coming. Gosh, we have never had so many people in the public gallery. I am sure they are not here because of me, but perhaps they are here because of you, Secretary of State. Nevertheless, thank you for coming. You know why we are conducting this inquiry. You know why you are giving evidence. Your Department’s record on answering parliamentary questions is not good, and that is probably a fairly generous interpretation. Personally, I feel it is about accountability-how seriously your Department takes accountability to our Parliament and to the Members of that Parliament. There were parts of the evidence session that indicated that accountability was not taken that seriously, because if it was, questions would be answered in a more timely fashion and in a more complete fashion. Do you want to make an opening statement, Mr Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: Yes. You are being more than generous to me, Mr Chairman. I think that you cannot be bottom of the league table in Whitehall by such a wide margin as we are and be anything other than deeply disappointed at the incredibly poor performance of the Department when it comes to parliamentary questions. More than that, this weakness follows a weakness that we had with correspondence as well. I have been a Back Bencher, and I know how frustrating it is when parliamentary questions are not answered and correspondence is either answered late or sloppily, or both, so on behalf of the Department I would like to apologise to you, to the Committee and to the House. I hope, in the course of this evidence session, we can explain, without ever seeking to explain away, what has gone wrong.
Q152 Chair: That is very kind, and I would just say for the record that this has been an ongoing problem within the Department for the past four or five years, so there is no political motivation here. This has been an ongoing problem for a significant amount of time.
I have been assigned the first question, possibly because it is the least interesting, but could you just outline to us the process that the Department is going through to improve the situation? There has been some correspondence, but your understanding of what is going on-perhaps Mr Wormald would like to come in as well on that.
Michael Gove: Yes. I will give an overview, and I know that the Permanent Secretary will add some detail. In essence, almost every part of the way in which we answer parliamentary questions has not worked. Firstly, I think that I and other Ministers have not been clear enough about the need to answer questions fully and rapidly, so I think there has been an absence of clarity on that matter, which we have sought to correct by the Permanent Secretary and I sending a clear message to all the staff that the excellent work that the overwhelming majority of civil servants do is overshadowed by weakness in this area. I think that we have particular weaknesses in our parliamentary team. Not the Ministers, but those allocated responsibility for dealing with parliamentary questions in the Department were in a team that was too small and lacked the expertise to be able to make rapid and effective judgments. It is no criticism of the individuals. They were being asked to do a particularly difficult task. We did not staff or resource them appropriately.
Beyond that, within the Department, I think at every stage when individual directors and deputy directors were pursuing answers to questions, when people were drafting answers to questions, and indeed when they were being finally cleared, there was a lack of urgency. What made the whole situation worse was that we inherited an information technology system that had a number of weaknesses. I do not want to blame that system-that would be blaming our tools-but it complicated matters. If we had been operating at the top of our game, it would have been something that we could have taken in our stride. Because we were not, it exacerbated the problems. We now have a situation where we are essentially answering questions in a very traditional, paper-based way. The message that we need to improve has gone through. We are going to get a better system in order to deal with it. The system that was designed was supposed to make it easier both for experts in particular areas to answer questions and also for the private office to know who was dealing with any question at any particular time. There were flaws with that system, which I am sure we will explore.
Q153 Chair: Excellent. Mr Wormald, do you want to say anything?
Chris Wormald: Yes. The first thing I would like to do is endorse what the Secretary of State said about the Department’s overall performance. The view that it is unacceptably poor is one that we share in terms of the civil service management, as is our commitment to improve the situation now. The Secretary of State has outlined quite comprehensively the changes we are making. I think the only things I would add are that we have significantly upped the level of senior oversight in the system. Hilary Spencer, who you met last time you considered this, is a member of the board, and is the member of the board with direct responsibility to drive improvements in this area.
The other big change we are making on the non-IT side is to go over to a system where there is a single named individual who is responsible for tracking every single individual PQ as it goes through its whole journey through the Department. As I am sure we will come on to, a lot of the delays and problems were exacerbated by IT problems that the Secretary of State described, which I can go into more detail on if that is helpful. It was becoming lost between stages. When it became delayed, it was very difficult to pick up again, so there will be a person whose job it is to chase individual ones right through the system.
The third big non-IT change is that we are going to have much greater senior oversight when PQs first come in to agree strategy for answering this question. Another of the causes of the delay was civil servants doing a lot of work on a PQ, it then coming back to the seventh floor, the more senior people looking at it and deciding, "That is not the right way to approach this question. That is not what the MP was getting at", and that then causes a delay as it is redrafted. The idea is to have that discussion at the beginning of the process, rather than the end. Then, of course, the key to it in the long term will be a new IT system that is hopefully procured rather more successfully than the one that we did in 2009 to 2010. Getting that IT system in place and having it properly procured, properly "spec-ed" and then tested and implemented is quite a long-term thing, so we are not relying on new IT for the immediate improvements we want to drive. As the Secretary of State said, in the short term we will be managing this on a much more traditional, paper-based, e-mail spreadsheet basis, and then in the longer term we want to get back to a position where we have a proper IT system that tracks these things for us and produces the kind of management information that this Committee wants and seeks, and the Department needs to manage the process properly. That will then allow us to give Ministers the reassurance they deserve that the Department is doing this properly.
Q154 Chair: Thank you. Just before I bring in my colleague Mr Vickers, Mr Freedman, could you briefly outline to the Committee what your role is in the process, just so they are up to speed, so you can be involved in this discussion as well?
Sam Freedman: At the moment, all the PQs go through the adviser’s office; I am the adviser who looks at them. I am the Secretary of State’s Senior Policy Adviser on Schools. At the moment, I look at all PQs, and that is, I think, part of the process that has been questioned previously.
Chair: You are a member of the civil service.
Sam Freedman: I am a member of the civil service, yes, exactly.
Q155 Martin Vickers: Secretary of State, in your opening remarks you mentioned that you had inherited a poor IT system, which in effect means that the problem has now been going on for, what, three years plus. Why is it proving so difficult, and why are other Departments seemingly able to overcome these problems? Are the systems not in any way compatible?
Michael Gove: The first thing to say-I think the Permanent Secretary will say a little bit more-is that we couldn’t give you a full answer without talking about the IT system, but I must emphasise that it is much more than the IT system. To use an analogy from medicine, it is an already weakened system, so another thing going wrong forces it to collapse. A healthier system would have been able, as I mentioned earlier, to take this in its stride.
We inherited a situation where the previous Government had entered into a contract with Capita to provide a variety of IT functions. It must be stressed that many of those functions have been delivered in a way that has been entirely to the satisfaction of the Department and to that of the various other individuals and agencies upon which the Department relies. But there were particular problems with the parliamentary questions application that they provided for us. It was in the nature of the deal that they did care and maintenance overall for IT, and then if we required a new application we had to go to them first. They had first refusal on the design of that.
In the process of designing a system, which came in in 2009, to answer parliamentary questions, the design of the specification was given to the private office. Naturally, they reflected what Ministers wanted, and, to be fair to Ministers at that time, they wanted a lot from it, so the private office request was what IT people might call over-engineered or over-specified. The IT people said, "We will try to provide that", but in the end essentially what should have been a clean and clear process was over-specified and, as a result, the product at the end of it under-performed to the extent that a series of errors led to its crashing on two occasions. When it crashed, it meant, in effect, that it was impossible to know where parliamentary questions were in the system and how to answer them-an appalling situation-and for that reason we have gone back to a traditional, paper-based method of answering them. We are seeking to ensure that we do have an IT answer-I hate using these phrases, but you know what I mean-that is appropriate. Earlier this week-and I have to say stimulated by this Committee, but it would have happened anyway-the Permanent Secretary and I talked to the people in charge of IT procurement in our Department to walk through the weaknesses in the system that we had inherited and what would be required in the future.
Chris Wormald: I should say it is Capgemini, not Capita.
Michael Gove: Sorry; Freudian slip.
Chris Wormald: Yes. The story, again, is exactly as the Secretary of State describes it. The intention of the tracking system that was introduced in February in 2009 and 2010 was to address previous weaknesses in the PQ system, and I understand it is quite difficult because there was very little correct management information. From what we can see from the numbers, performance has not been great in this Department-as I think you said at the beginning, Chair-for quite some time. The PQ system was supposed to be part of the answer to that system. As the Secretary of State said, it was over-specified. In practice, it did not sit well with the rest of the IT architecture of the Department. The other thing that happened was-again, it is quite difficult to tell because the data is so poor-it appears that post the Election the number of PQs the Department received, in line with lots of Departments-this was not special to us-went up quite a lot, which exacerbated the problems of an already weak IT system.
I meant to say right at the beginning, as the Secretary of State said, that these are explanations, not excuses. None of them excuses the Department’s performance, but in order to explain to the Committee, what happened, as the Secretary of State said, was that it crashed. It crashed first in, I think, February 2011-sorry, a bit before that-and my predecessor Permanent Secretary launched a programme to improve the handling of PQs. The system was put back together, and there was then a period, which I arrived in the middle of, when PQ performance was improving within the Department. It went up from 17%, which was its low point, to somewhere around 40% on time. Still nothing like good enough, but what we were seeing, both at ministerial level and senior-official level, was every month things getting slightly better. At that point we did believe that progress was being made and we were heading in the right direction, from a very low base.
In June 2011, the system crashed again and our performance collapsed, and at that point we moved over to the paper-based system and e-mail-based system that we are currently using. We then spent several months attempting to fix that system, which in hindsight was a mistake made by me and my senior colleagues. We should have taken the decision at that point that this system was never going to work properly and chosen to replace it at that time. We spent several months attempting to repair that IT system. We took the final decision that the system would have to be replaced, not repaired, in November 2011, and, as I say, one of the mistakes we made was to not make that decision to go for an entirely new system early enough. Now, as the Secretary of State said, we have made a big push around the Department, and we will be improving our current system while we procure the new one.
Q156 Martin Vickers: Thank you for that. I am still not clear why your Department is seemingly unique in terms of its IT requirements, compared to, say, the Health Department.
Chris Wormald: It shouldn’t be, and, as I say, I am not attempting to excuse the Department’s flaws. There is nothing unique about the Department’s situation that led to this position. We had an expansion of PQs; so did others. We have a number of PQs that is roughly similar to Departments of our size, and I have certainly seen no evidence that they are any more complicated in our Department than in the others. I cannot give you a, "This is what was different at DfE", other than, clearly, that the procurement of that IT system did not go well, and then we should have done our remedial action quicker. The difference you are looking for is in the decisions made by the Department, not any externality.
Q157 John Hemming: Here is something I prepared earlier for the Secretary of State, because it makes it a little bit easier to follow. As people probably know, I am a bit of a techie. Don’t try to read the first bit; it is just to demonstrate things. I thought, after the last meeting of the Procedure Committee looking at things in December, that Parliament had a system that tracked parliamentary questions and that it should be possible from that system to find out which ones have not been answered, and indeed that is the case.
In the afternoon following the meeting, I found out which 61 questions had not been answered after one month, and those are the ones listed on the first sheet. The good news is that when I did the calculations this morning and got the list-I have done it, so it can be read on pages 2 and 3-there are now only 36 questions that are over one month old, which is obviously a lot longer than it is supposed to be. Interestingly, one of them is from Edward Timpson, and now he is the Minister I do not think he is too bothered about answering his own question. I did notice Lisa Nandy putting in a question asking when her question of 23 May 2012 would be answered, and her question is a very, very simple one, about how much money is spent on one particular person’s expenses. There could be an answer; "We won’t answer that", or whatever it may be. The first one on here is 9 May, due to be answered on 14 May, and it is asked by Lisa Nandy. There is no sense going through all the details, because they are all there. The basic question is: why don’t you use Parliament’s IT system just to track which questions are not answered and chase them on the back of that?
Chris Wormald: I should clarify what I said about PQs getting lost. The problem is not not knowing which questions we have not answered; it is tracking the PQ while it is in the Department that is quite difficult to do-or certainly without the labour-intensive process that we are putting in now-without a properly functioning IT system. We know which questions we have not answered. Once it has left our parliamentary section the, "Who has it been e-mailed to?" "Who has that person forwarded the question on to?" and "Who is currently responsible for it being answered?" are having to be done manually. That is not ideal, but your basic point is correct. We know which questions we have to answer.
Q158 John Hemming: This is not IT. This is a very basic thing. We know we can get a list of all the questions that have not been answered, and some of them just have not been touched. You could have just asked them again within the Department. There is no need to find out where it went to before. I think this is absurd.
Interestingly, on page 4, you are now not the worst in terms of questions over one month.
Chris Wormald: Some good news.
John Hemming: I did a summary for all the Departments, and DCLG is top at 47, MoJ number two at 43, and the Department for Education is now only 36 on questions that have taken more than a month to answer. But frankly the answer that you know which questions is just not acceptable.
Chris Wormald: As I will add in every answer, I am not attempting to excuse the Department’s flaws. The process you are describing is exactly the one we are now going through. The problem is we are starting from too far back.
Q159 John Hemming: We had a discussion about this on 12 December, when, one would presume, it was clear that people were not happy with the performance of the Department. It has improved a bit, but it has not improved that much.
Coming further on, unsurprisingly I suppose, two of my questions that have been outstanding for a long time were answered on Monday, which would be sensible, given that you were coming to the Committee meeting on Wednesday. As the Minister is aware, I am concerned about foreign Governments who are complaining about the UK child protection system. I asked the question: "Have you had any complaints from foreign governments in any form?" I got the response: "Ministers are aware of no representations received from Governments relating to foreign national children being adopted in England without parental consent". I have spoken to the Minister about it previously. On page 6 of the document, we have a public statement by the Slovak Republic. On page 7 of the document, I have a letter from the Czech Republic saying there is a problem. On page 8 of the document, I have a letter from the Spanish Government saying there is a problem. On page 9 of the document, I have a letter from the Nigerian Government saying there is a problem, and then I have a letter from the Minister who I sent the Nigerian Government’s letter, saying, "Thank you for sending me the Nigerian Government’s letter." On page 14, I have a translation via Google of a Slovak news story, where a Slovak Minister spoke to William Hague at a foreign conference, complaining about our child protection system. My thought would be that if the Foreign Secretary was complained to, he would pass it to the Department as an issue to be looked at. The basic question is, having rapidly got a question out of the way for this particular Committee meeting, is that a fair answer on page 5?
Michael Gove: Speaking for myself, I would have to read all of the submissions. For example, I am not denying that there is a problem here, but, for example, the Czech letter confirms that the Czech Government has had concerns and is grateful to you-as I think we all are-for raising it, but it does not say that the Czech Government had contacted the British Government.
John Hemming: No, the one where I get the letter from the Minister that answered the question.
Michael Gove: Is Nigerian.
John Hemming: I wrote to the Minister enclosing the communication from the Nigerian Government that complains about the system, and then the same Minister answers the question saying they are not aware of anything. One wonders what is going on. If we just look at page 5-
Chair: John, I do not want to look too hard at this, because it is a personal issue you have. I would like the Minister to respond to the question: how are you going to deal with John’s specific concerns on this?
Michael Gove: Of course.
Q160 John Hemming: If we can have a letter on that, we would be grateful.
Michael Gove: We certainly will. I would say one thing. There is a tension sometimes between speed and accuracy. There is a-
John Hemming: Yes, but this one was slow and inaccurate.
Michael Gove: Indeed, but one of the points I would make is that a superficial-and it is only superficial-reading of the letter from the Nigerian Government raises a number of issues of serious concern about child protection, but they do not relate, so far as I have seen in my superficial reading, specifically to adoption.
John Hemming: Except I know that they do.
Michael Gove: On the basis of the letter, one cannot know that.
John Hemming: Yes. I do not think we can resolve that in this particular hearing.
Michael Gove: No, but the case is important. They deserve to be dealt with appropriately. On the basis of the question answered, I think that the answer is fair, but given the importance of this issue, the most appropriate thing would be for either me or Minister Timpson to meet you and to run through these cases.
Q161 John Hemming: It sounds very good. On a final point, going back to the meeting of 12 December, I have extracted on pages 15 and 16 some points from there. We have the IT issue and the issue about the Department being slow because it wanted to be accurate, but frankly I do not think that is what is going on. We looked particularly at a question from the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. In fact, one part of that is about the care system losing children, which is the thing I go on about a lot, but in question 64 on page 16, I asked the Department to send us copies of the documentation relating to the answering of the question by the Member for East Worthing, and nothing has happened on that. We have had a letter, but what we have not had are the background papers. Under the Freedom of Information Act we would get all of those papers. Is there any problem giving us those papers?
Michael Gove: I don’t think so, no. I know that a letter arrived with an explanation from my colleague, Hilary Spencer, and I do take your point. I will seek to ensure that all background papers are there. One thing I should say, with respect to that question, is that the answer that you were given is that I attended no visits to do with youth centres or youth activities. That is actually inaccurate, because the question was answered without asking me. Quite rightly; the private office dealt with it. They contacted my parliamentary office. I know that I went to, to mention just one example, the Etihad Stadium as a guest of the Football Association to present awards to those who were involved with the K.I.C.K.S. Initiative, which is an explicit youth initiative-not educational, not explicitly sporting, but youth-and I did so in order to show my support for it. That was not recorded. It is just another example where, of course, the question makes me look bad-tant pis-but the point is that it was inaccurate. I think one of the tensions sometimes is between speed and accuracy. We need to do better on both.
Q162 John Hemming: Yes. I just make the point that we were promised these papers at that Committee meeting and they still have not arrived.
Michael Gove: I take your point. It is a fair point.
Q163 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I want to clarify that that is all it is, Secretary of State. It was agreed that we would get essentially all the papers relating to the answer of one specific question which we thought might be illuminating in regard to how other questions were answered. If that in fact could be provided, I know the Committee would be very grateful.
Michael Gove: It is an entirely reasonable request, and we will accede to it.
Q164 Chair: What we did get was a letter from Hilary, explaining the process around the question tabled by Tim Loughton on 12 December, but nothing beyond that.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Not the details.
Chair: Not the details.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Internal versions.
Michael Gove: Absolutely. Because I only knew about this question when I read the transcripts of this Committee’s deliberations with Hilary and with Minister Truss, I was not aware of the process so therefore I am speculating; I think that quite a lot of it would have been conversational and some of it would have involved looking through my diary, my ministerial and my constituency diary. Some things in the ministerial diary would be listed in general terms-"Trip to Manchester"-without necessarily the specificity that would help answer the question accurately, but of course all relevant papers we will share with the Committee.
Q165 Mr Nuttall: Thank you, Secretary of State and Permanent Secretary, for your answers so far. Could I turn now to the backlog and what is being done to clear it? First of all, when do you think the backlog will be cleared? A simple question. Secondly, what do you think is an acceptable length of time for a non-named-day question to be answered? Thirdly, when will it be that named-day questions, all of them, are answered on the named day that they are meant to be?
Chris Wormald: Non-named-day questions we are supposed to answer within five days, and that is the target that we aim for, which we are a long way from, as you know. I do not have a target date for when we will reach an acceptable standard, because in this kind of area what you want to do is to improve every single month. There is not one Department that is at 100%, which is what we should all aspire to. The challenge we are putting ourselves under is to improve all the time, so I do not think it is the kind of process where you say, "Right, it is finished now. Our system now works", and so on. We will not have our-I don’t quite know how to describe it-ideal system, our IT-based system, fully up and running until the autumn, so we will certainly not reach our peak efficiency performance until then, but in terms of timeliness we will be aiming to get our performance up much quicker than that, basically by spending more staff time. What we are doing to both clear the backlog and improve the day-to-day performance is investing quite a lot more staff in this area so that they can both work through the backlog and improve performance to a level that is, in the first instance, much more in line with the Whitehall average, and then, in the longer term, hopefully towards the kind of performances that all Departments should aspire to.
Mr Nuttall: I understand that the performance is improving at the moment.
Chris Wormald: Yes.
Q166 Mr Nuttall: At the current rate of performance improvement, how long, assuming that rate continues, will it be before you achieve the accepted target?
Chris Wormald: We have made quite a big improvement in the last month or so. I think it is very unlikely, given that we were going from a very, very low base at that point, we would continue that rate of progress. I think we went up by about 20 points, from our absolute low point, but of course the easiest thing to do is to get off the absolute floor-but we would be hoping to improve by, yes, five or 10 points a month, I would guess. I am slightly reluctant to put numbers to these things, because what we are really trying to do is create a system that actually works and is sustainably working. As I said, my and my senior colleagues’ own mistake in that period from January to June was to be over-optimistic about the quality of the whole system because the numbers were getting better every month. My and my senior colleagues’ test has to be: not only are the numbers improving to a level that this Committee and Parliament in general finds acceptable, but have we created a system that can sustain those levels of performance over a period of time, rather than do what we have done over the last two years, which is slightly yo-yo up and down.
Q167 Mr Nuttall: Is there a process in place to ensure that in the desire to meet targets there is no loss of quality in the answer? As the Secretary of State said, there is often a pay-off between answering it quickly and getting the answer right.
Chris Wormald: Yes. One very important bit, which I have mentioned before, about how we want to improve the process is right at the beginning when more senior staff and advisers, and in some cases Ministers, look at the question not when the answer was being drafted but as it comes in, so that more senior people can be saying, "I think what the MP is really getting at here is the following". That would seem to me key to setting us off on the right foot towards a quality answer.
Q168 Chair: Thank you. Just before I call Tom, there is a lack of precision in the Department that worries me. I have a letter here from the Secretary of State on 17 November, which clearly the Secretary of State does not write, because he is a very busy man. In the final substantive paragraph it says, "One of my ministerial team will be attending your Committee on 12 December, and I hope you will be reassured that my Department will do everything possible to return to providing the level of service Members rightly expect". There was no level of service to return to, and I am concerned that in your Department there are people who just have not grasped this. I know this letter was written a couple of months ago, but there is a lack of precision there. I am addressed as the Right Honourable Charles Walker, Nick Gibb is referenced as the Right Honourable Nick Gibb; there is a lack of precision in how this is being dealt with and a lack of understanding that I think is causing me and the Committee concern. I just wanted to interject that.
Chris Wormald: Yes. Sorry, one comment: those are fair comments, and the reason that the Secretary of State and I put out the message, the whole Department and the new process that we did last week as some sort of January offering to the Department, was to explain the new system that we want to put in place, but also to get over to everyone involved in this process-as the Secretary of State said, the problems are throughout the organisation-the importance of getting it right. On your base charge, as well as how have our systems not worked, have we not taken it as seriously as we should have done over those years, I think that is a fair comment.
Q169 Tom Greatrex: Could I ask the Secretary of State when he became aware that there was a problem with PQ answering? Was it almost from the start when you became Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: Yes, I knew that we had inherited a problem and that the old predecessor Department, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, had an issue with it. I had, for the most part, relied on the decisions being made by, firstly, Chris’ predecessor, David Bell, and then subsequently by Chris in order to address it. One of the sources of particular concern to me, which of course the Chairman has just referred to, early in the life of the Parliament, was correspondence, and I was more acutely aware of problems there than I was aware of the scale of the issue that we had with PQs.
Tom Greatrex: But you were aware there was a problem in terms of speed of answering from pretty much early on in your-
Michael Gove: Speed and accuracy, yes. I think that the speed and accuracy issue related most acutely to PQs, but I think it also related to correspondence. I knew the correspondence issue more, or was more familiar with it, because there was a brief period when I myself would clear certain PQs, and I did so primarily in order to give people an understanding of the importance that I placed on accuracy, clear English, full answers and appropriate context, so that Members were well served. I only did that for a relatively brief period, but in my box every night there are letters for me to sign. Therefore, when I see that it is 17 January and I am replying to a letter from 24 October, I express my unhappiness, and then when I see that the letter I am just about to finish signing refers to Essex when it should refer to East Sussex, then I think, "It is going to take another 48 hours for someone who has already been through this to deal with it". So I was much more conscious of and reminded every day of some of the problems that we had with correspondence, and the exchanges that we had on correspondence were much more-what is the word?-protracted.
I was not as aware of the detailed problems that we had with PQs. I knew the situation was far from perfect and, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had intervened in a more determined fashion at an earlier point.
Q170 Tom Greatrex: I presume other Ministers in your Department will have been aware of that at the same time.
Michael Gove: I think they expressed their frustrations both about correspondence and PQs to officials within the Department, and, as the Permanent Secretary has laid out, there were efforts to deal with the situation at each point. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, none of those efforts was sufficient to the scale of the problem.
Chris Wormald: Yes, and to reiterate the point I made earlier, the Ministers will of course have seen the same information that we did, so for a good chunk of this period what they were seeing was a steadily improving performance, and I do not think it is unfair for a busy Minister in that situation to think, "Right, the medicine is working. We are on the right track now". So I don’t think it is fair to say, certainly in that period up until June 2011 when, as I say, from a very low base it was improving, that we could have expected Ministers to be saying, "But I still think there is an underlying problem".
Q171 Tom Greatrex: They would have been aware presumably therefore that there was a problem to start with?
Chris Wormald: Absolutely. That was, as I say, well-known and my predecessor talked-
Q172 Tom Greatrex: You say it is well known, but we have one of your former Ministers, Secretary of State, making clear to us that he was never made aware there was a problem with PQs-
Michael Gove: It depends how-
Tom Greatrex: In the speed of answering, possibly?
Michael Gove: Yes, one of the things there is that each Minister when they answer a PQ will be able to see the date on which the PQ was put in, and will obviously know the date on which they are signing it off. It may well be that any individual Minister is more concerned with the accuracy of the answer, and it is entirely possible that they may not pay the same degree of attention to the time. It is not the case that this information will be veiled or hidden, but it may well be the case that for a busy Minister the most important thing to do is to make sure that the answer that he or she is giving out is full and fair, and I think in the brief period when I was looking at PQs, for me the most important thing was accuracy.
Q173 Tom Greatrex: All right. It seems remarkable that you were aware almost from the start when you became Secretary of State, and one of your former Ministers seemed to suggest that he was not aware there was a problem with speed. It just gets to this point that the Chair was making about being unclear as to the accuracy of what is happening in your Department. Can I ask the question I was supposed to ask? When Hilary Spencer came before us in December, she made the point, "I have looked at different options for reporting IT systems from other Government Departments but it was not possible to do that." Why is it not possible to use the PQ system from another Department? There are plenty of examples where, if that was the issue, they are performing much better than your Department.
Michael Gove: Once the decision had been made to invest in Capgemini and then to ask them to pursue a particular application, then that would be followed through. You are absolutely right. There are other Departments that have a better, and have had-almost all of them-a consistently better, approach to this matter. There has to be a balance, I think, between being absolutely rigorous where a Department is falling down-no Department is perfect-and where it is strong. I will not bore the Committee by running through all the areas where I think the Department is strong and in some cases exceptionally strong, but I want to stress that because I know that there have been some suggestions that Ministers are critical of the performance of the civil service overall. Not at all. It is because so many of those areas are so good that this area stands out like a sore thumb, and the reason why it irritates me, I suspect almost as much as it irritates everyone here, is that it gives a very poor account of what the Department is doing overall and it is a disservice to you because you are serving your constituents in holding the Department to account. Few things infuriate me more than things that are sloppily or poorly written; poor English is evidence of poor thought and, therefore, a lack of care in a sensitive matter. So I wanted to stress that for balance, to apologise again, before handing over to the Permanent Secretary on the specific point about IT. The specific IT problem arose, as I said, in 2009 when a previous set of Ministers, who wanted to do the right thing and had a private office that also wanted to do the right thing, over-engineered the process.
Chris Wormald: Yes, and, as I said at the beginning, it is a specific question and we will get to the end of my technical expertise quite quickly in this conversation. However, as it was explained to us, there were two problems with the system that we procured in 2009. One was its over-specification, which basically meant they had too much data in it, and that eventually overloaded the system and caused it to crash. The second was it did not map well onto the overall IT architecture of the Department, and that was one of the problems. It was the interface between our PQ system and the rest of the Department’s systems. Therefore, just to take a system and import it straight into the Department might be possible, but you risk the second of those problems: that again it will not integrate well with the overall system, and the problems will replicate. Just to be clear what those problems are. In an ideal system, what happens is you have a system that tracks where the PQ is and is automatically sending e-mail alerts to the people who need to do things at particular points. So the PQ is tracked through the bespoke system, and then what appears in your e-mail box is the automatic thing that says, "You are now late with this question. Do something about it". So the integration between that system and our overall IT system is quite an important part of the process, because it is much more difficult than you would think just to import a system from another Department, because you risk those problems.
Michael Gove: Very briefly, one of the features of the system that we inherited is that in effect, as though you had a Google doc, you would have the document accessible to someone. Ideally, you should know who was filling out the answer at any given time. When it collapsed, we did not know. Theoretically, it could have worked even better. Cloud technology allows us to design a system which should-fingers crossed-be significantly better. I am no expert on this. I have become more knowledgeable over the last few weeks. The other thing is I am not doing my job if this situation carries on in this way, and the Committee is absolutely right to demand better performance. Very briefly, just following on from Mr Nuttall’s point, we have a long way to go, but if the Department of Health, similar in the scale of questions-the number of questions-and the challenges that it has, can get 97% of all their written PQs on time and 100% of named-day PQs on time, then so should we. I can’t tell you how quickly we have to do it, but that has to be the target.
Chair: John, a very short question, because we are making such tedious progress.
Q174 John Hemming: I can provide advice on how to get information off the Parliamentary intranet if you would like. Your parliamentary office-if they contact me, I can help.
Michael Gove: They would be grateful.
Q175 Jenny Chapman: I couldn’t not take the opportunity to say that there are 450 very highly-skilled and capable staff in Darlington who would be very happy to support you in this task. However-
Chris Wormald: A point for another discussion.
Jenny Chapman: It is, yes. But just again on the Department of Health, Chris, you said that there was no Department who achieved 100%, but the Department of Health gets damn near at 99.6 on named-day questions, which is about as close to perfect as you can ask of anybody. You say, I expect quite correctly, you cannot just transplant an IT system from one Department to another, but I suspect that is not just about IT-
Chris Wormald: Absolutely.
Jenny Chapman: It is also about the culture and the processes. Maybe they do not have an adviser looking over every question when it comes in to see how the MP might like it responded to most appropriately, and they may treat things on a more factual basis. I do not know. Have you looked at the wider way that other Departments deal with this, not just IT?
Chris Wormald: Yes, we have; we have looked at a lot of the high-performing Departments, and what you say is completely right. As we have said all the way through, IT is a contributory factor to this problem, but it is not the full explanation. All aspects of this process were weak. Had the IT been better, then the problem would not have been as bad and we would have been able to identify it more quickly, and we would have the management information that would allow us to spot more easily where in the systems the problems were. But the problems, as you say, go wider than that and the Departments who perform well do exactly as you say. It is as much in the culture of how this work is done as it is in the technical process, and I think that was one of the problems with the original IT system and how it was procured and specified. As with many of the problems the Government has had with IT contracting, which are well documented, part of the problem is when you think of them as an IT solution rather than as a part of a process that involves various human beings. You have to see it as an end-to-end thing. Certainly from how it was explained to us, it was very much, "Here is the IT system that will solve the problem", as opposed to the kind of approach that you are rightly pointing to, and I am sure that my hugely professional staff in Darlington will be keen to assist, as you say.
Q176 Nic Dakin: I am very heartened by the openness with which you recognise the IT is not an excuse. I want to focus on culture. We have a Department, Secretary of State, where you yourself are in trouble with the Information Commissioner. Your performance is always eloquent and engaging. At questions this week you were somewhat cavalier in your attitude towards leaking to the press. We have had a briefing against former Ministers this week. So there is a suggestion that maybe the cultural explanation is that this is a Department that is a bit free and easy around information, and that the problems here are part of that cultural approach rather than about IT or anything else.
Michael Gove: I think it is fair to look at the issues through different prisms. I would separate them in different ways. Firstly, the leaking: I have been more spinned against than spinning in that respect, and I hope I have developed a sense of equanimity when I am on the receiving end, but as I outlined to the Education Select Committee today, if anyone in the Department engages in leaking or briefing in a way that is directed towards others, particularly those who have been and are distinguished in public service, that is unacceptable, and I hope I have made that clear. With the Information Commissioner, essentially there was a complex relationship between a set of questions being asked by an outside organisation, the Department and the Information Commissioner. It is a sui generis matter, and one again that I would be happy to discuss in greater detail if this or any other Committee wanted to. On the broader question about accuracy with correspondence and PQs, it is a situation that we inherited and I think there have been problems in the Department that require to be addressed.
One further thing that I would say, which you are generous enough not to mention, is of course that the role of adviser has been raised. I should stress that Mr Freedman is a member of the civil service and his principal role is to make sure that there is coherence, so that we do not give answers where, because different parts of the Department have given slightly different wordings to things, a hare is set running about policy change. Sometimes it is the case that context will be provided-additional information-in order to make an answer more intelligible. A majority of Government Departments have advisers playing a role in clearing questions and that is certainly the case in the predecessor Department, in the DCSF, but advisers cannot relinquish their responsibility to do things rapidly and accurately as well. One of the areas where I will freely acknowledge that I had been insufficiently clear across the Department was the vital importance of making sure that we respect everyone with whom we deal, Parliament most of all.
Q177 Nic Dakin: Given that latter point about advisers, why has there been a reluctance to allow political advisers to come and give evidence to this session?
Michael Gove: Essentially for two reasons: one, the person who clears the PQs, all PQs, and therefore who is master of the process and can most illuminate it for this Committee or anyone else’s benefit is Mr Freedman; secondly, my interpretation, and it is open of course to critique, of the Osmotherly Rules is that Ministers answer for special advisers and that ultimately when the Committee calls a Minister or in particular a Secretary of State to speak, it is I who am responsible for their actions, not they, and therefore our special advisers do not ordinarily appear before Select Committees. But again, if I am in error, I apologise, and I would be happy to clarify matters.
Q178 Helen Goodman: Secretary of State, I was a civil servant in the Treasury for 17 years before we had these complicated IT systems, and I do not think we ever found ourselves in the situation in which your Department has found itself. I feel this whole discussion is becoming increasingly like a performance of The Government Inspector, with ludicrously long and overly complex questions and explanations. One of the things that certainly did not happen when I was an official was that every question went through a special adviser, and I wonder on reflection, given what you have said about ministerial responsibility, if you do feel that sometimes Ministers-particularly perhaps junior Ministers-shuffle off their responsibilities on to special advisers?
Michael Gove: I don’t.
Q179 Helen Goodman: You do not; good. In that case, can I ask you whether one very simple way of cleaning up your process would not be not to pass all of these questions and answers through the special advisers?
Michael Gove: I will draw a distinction between special advisers who are free to operate in a political way for a variety of reasons and other people who have a policy adviser role, some of whom may be appointed on a fixed-term contract and others of whom are members of the career civil service. In our case the overwhelming majority of questions that go to the advisers’ office are seen and passed by an official who is not a special adviser and not free to operate in that way. The overwhelming majority of Government Departments do have special advisers. There are other special advisers. The role of Government Departments has changed. The volume and frequency of questions is higher. The nature of communication between Departments, Parliament and the public has changed. One thing should not change and that is the vital importance of respecting Parliament, getting things right and being fast. So I would say that there is no necessary reason why passing them through advisers or not passing them through advisers should either excuse or explain a failure to be fast and accurate. You can ensure that they are seen by everyone who needs to see them and still answer on time. That is what we have to get right.
Q180 Helen Goodman: Could you just tell the Committee whether you think that your decision to agree with the Treasury to a 50% cut in your administration resources is going to help you in achieving that objective?
Michael Gove: Yes, is the short answer.
Q181 Helen Goodman: Could you say why that is?
Michael Gove: I think because our Department will be more efficient as a result of the DfE review, the reduction in administrative costs is part of the DfE review process and the size of an organisation is no guarantee of its efficiency.
Q182 Helen Goodman: I accept that, but do you not think that when the initial answers are being drafted-and obviously answers to questions are always factual because we are not allowed to ask other than factual questions-then people having a certain level of expertise is in fact the most useful thing?
Michael Gove: Sometimes facts are data that are held in a variety of ways. Sometimes the Table Office allows questions to be asked and what constitutes a fact in the eyes of the Table Office and the eye of the person asking it may, when it comes to the Department, require a degree of thought and consideration. A specific point: the question asked by the former Minister, Tim Loughton, perfectly properly, about visits to youth facilities/clubs/activities. What is a youth facility/club/activity? There is an element of ambiguity there, and there has to be an exercise of judgment. The most important thing, though, is that everyone in the process should get on with it, and that we should have a management information system that ensures that we know where the blockage is. One of the problems that we have with the Department that we inherited-though many, many strengths-is that we did not have an effective management information system that meant if there was a blockage or there were people in the system who were not operating in the way that they should, that we could locate that and take steps to deal with it.
Chris Wormald: I have one point on the DfE review; I might come back to adviser roles at some point as well. One of the things the review identified, and we have been public about, is that overall our decision-making processes in the Department are too slow and involve too many people. That is true across the board, it is true when we are making policy, true when we are doing implementation, and it is true in this case. I do not think in this circumstance there was anything at all between the numbers of civil servants and the quality of the performance delivered. The Treasury, of course, is an interesting case; it is quite a small Department that delivers an enormous amount, frequently very swiftly. So I do not think that the numbers you quote ought to affect this question at all.
Q183 Helen Goodman: The Secretary of State was implying that questions are getting trickier than perhaps they were 20 years ago. I wonder whether he thinks that the question I asked him in the autumn-which newspaper and other media proprietors, editors, and senior executives he had met in the previous months-was a particularly tricky question.
Michael Gove: No.
Q184 Helen Goodman: Why did it take six weeks to answer?
Michael Gove: In order to make sure that we were not inadvertently misleading you or the House because a social event that either I or my wife, as working journalist, might have attended might have involved meeting someone who was a newspaper executive and the conversation might have been beyond simply a fleeting one. So it requires a check of my diary held in the private office, my constituency diary, and cross-checking a variety of events in order to be accurate, because the Prime Minister has issued, as I have issued, these lists and then we have subsequently checked and discovered something had been omitted, and people say, "Ah ha, this was a secret meeting that you were preventing us from knowing about".
Helen Goodman: I would find that answer slightly more convincing if the final sentence of the answer I eventually got had not read, "This does not include media executives who may have been in attendance at lunches or events also attended by the Secretary of State".
Michael Gove: My wife is a working journalist and sometimes occasionally invites some of her colleagues to dinner at our house; probably more of an ordeal for them than anything else, but we needed to be accurate about that. Sometimes it would be the case that all my private office knows is that I am having dinner at home; on a couple of those occasions there have been executives from the BBC and indeed from News International who have been there because they have been former colleagues of mine or current colleagues of my wife. So there is a difference between, as I did last night, bumping into the current editor of the Times Literary Supplement who was at a Shakespeare schools festival, a former editor of The Times, someone I used to work with, 30-second conversation not worth recording, and a dinner at home with a Times or BBC executive, including people who are parents of children at the school that my children go to. There is a distinction. We try to exercise our judgment in such a way, given some of the exchanges between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister about conversations with senior media figures at suppers and parties and so on. I want to err on the side of transparency.
Helen Goodman: I am very grateful to you. I am not sure that your answer to my question did include country suppers. If there have indeed also been some country suppers and you would like to add a supplement to the answer that I received after six weeks on 10 December, I would be very grateful.
Chair: I am sure the Minister will try to be as helpful as possible. Jacob, last but not least, in this initial skirmish.
Q185 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I must say I have great sympathy for you being expected to record every time you meet your wife, which seems an unreasonably onerous request from Parliament. In the letter you kindly sent jointly with the Permanent Secretary there is a bullet point: "A risk assessment model of triage developed with advisers and Ministers to identify and focus early on tricky cases." What would you describe as a tricky case?
Michael Gove: One where if we answered in a slipshod or inaccurate fashion, people would quite rightly feel that they had been let down, or where the question of which information should be included was not at first sight obvious. The aim would be to give those civil servants who are involved in the drafting process clear instructions.
Q186 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Could this to some extent be politically tricky, or is it purely factually tricky?
Michael Gove: I hope factually tricky. I think one of the things that I have learned is that it is always, always worse to delay bad news. Get it out as quickly as possible, and if someone asks a question that is going to lead to an answer that you may consider to be politically inconvenient, if those are the facts, get them out.
Q187 Jacob Rees-Mogg: If I may bring Mr Freedman in-as you have sat here very patiently, and we certainly want to hear your thoughts-when questions come to you for approval, because you are career civil servant you can only look at them from a factual point of view; you cannot give any political advice?
Sam Freedman: Yes, absolutely.
Q188 Jacob Rees-Mogg: The special advisers who look at parliamentary questions are purely the civil service?
Sam Freedman: I look at all of the parliamentary questions that come in and clear the vast majority of them without any changes. If I have changes they would be purely factual or because I thought a policy statement did not reflect Department policy properly. Then if I think that I need to make special advisers aware that a particular question has come through and it might be newsworthy, I might show it to them, but that would happen extremely rarely.
Q189 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Quickly as well? Because you would be near to them and would just be able to show it to them quickly and say, "This may be newsworthy", so it would not be a cause for delay.
Sam Freedman: No, the vast majority of questions pass through our office very quickly.
Q190 Jacob Rees-Mogg: The second point I want to go on to also relates to the letter. Delays occur at every point along the line, within the multitudes of demands on people. PQs have sometimes slipped down priority lists, including in private office as well as elsewhere. I want to come back to the issue of ministerial responsibility, because there seem to be about 20 questions to your Department every sitting day, and there are quite a lot of Ministers-I am not exactly sure how many but it is about three questions per Minister per day. Does it not seem reasonable to expect Ministers to take control of this process rather than expecting it to be in the hands of civil servants, to make sure that they are completely on top of the questions as they come in, and then ensuring that they get rapid answers?
Michael Gove: Yes.
Q191 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Is that what is now going to happen? Because when we were speaking to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary she said that she did not know which questions were hers until the answer came to her. Should that not be reversed so that everyone knows which question he or she has at the beginning of the process?
Michael Gove: Yes.
Q192 Chair: Secretary of State, there are eight people, we are informed, now working in the PQ-answering Department. Is it only PQs that they deal with, or is that in the ministerial correspondence?
Chris Wormald: That is the total staffing of our parliamentary branch, so they deal with all our parliamentary business, whether it is PQs or debates or Select Committee appearances.
Chair: And letters?
Chris Wormald: There is a separate correspondence unit that deals with all letters to the Parliament.
Chair: They do not do letters; they do speech writing.
Chris Wormald: No.
Chair: Beyond PQs, what do they do?
Chris Wormald: They are the main interface with this place. They are the people who commission work for the rest of the Department on things like debates, oral PQs-the full range of our parliamentary business. But their job is to commission and manage the work-flow rather than-
Q193 Chair: What do they do for debates, though? I am struggling. If they do not write speeches-
Michael Gove: A case in point might be, for the sake of argument, that prior to oral questions, it might be that there is an oral question in an area that is part of the Department that has not received many parliamentary questions recently, and where there may be new officials. For example, there might be a parliamentary question about school transport. They would contact the transport team who are experts in that policy area and say-for the sake of argument-"The Minister will need to have information, not just about the general policy area but also about transport in Dorset, given that it is a Member from that county who is asking the question, and parliamentary answers for oral questions need to be typed in this way", and so on. They will provide that support for people who may be deep experts in transport policy but are not familiar with the demands of Parliament. Again, one of the things that I think most Government Departments appreciate is how important Parliament is and how important for Ministers. But the rules of this place can sometimes seem arcane to people in the civil service, therefore, part of the responsibility for Ministers, for the private offices, and for the parliamentary team, is to reinforce how important it is to get that procedure right. Similarly, if there were an urgent question it would be the parliamentary team that would be in contact with the Speaker’s Office to explain why we thought it was appropriate to accept or appropriate to reject. They would then explain to the policy team the briefing required and the format required.
Q194 Chair: I suppose what I am driving at is that eight people are an awful lot of people to deal with 20 questions a day; it is two-and-a-half questions per person. I am just not sure that is a demanding workload, and this note you very kindly gave us a copy of that went around to all your team-some of its prose was almost Churchillian. This is not a difficult thing we are asking for. It is not difficult. The Department of Transport was struggling last May; they are now up to 95%. You talk about triage; it makes it sound a bit like a hospital. There is this great rallying cry, "We have beaten them on the beaches, we have beaten them everywhere else, we can do this". This is not difficult; why are you making it so difficult? I do not understand. What is the culture that makes this such a challenge? "The board has faith in the Department’s ability to make this change, we have done it before on ministerial correspondence and it is no more daunting a challenge than the policy challenges teams rise to and overcome every day. Director Generals will identify directorate leave to join the project board and drive the work at local level while the Permanent Secretary and the management committee will oversee progress." This is a bit Yes, Minister-ish. It is almost comical, and I do not want to sound rude, but really this is such a simple thing to do; can we just crack on with it and not talk too much about IT systems, and just do it?
Chris Wormald: Yes; I am sorry, this bit I do not accept at all. This Committee has rightly said that they do not think we have been doing well enough on this and that we have not got the message over to the Department about the seriousness of the issue. In order to get over to the Department the seriousness of the issue we jointly felt that sort of message was appropriate to send around all 3,700 civil servants in the Department. In terms of the specific thing you raised about triage, it was exactly because of some of the points raised by this Committee. We currently have a process where every single PQ at the end of its process goes through the advisers in the way that we have described. In line with some of the suggestions made by this Committee, what we are looking to do is to significantly reduce the number of PQs that go through the advisers by spotting the ones that we need to be interested in on the way. So we can’t be in the position where we both are trying to respond to the valid points made by this Committee in terms of what we then tell the Department to do, but without being allowed to tell the Department what those things are. That is a bit tricky.
Q195 Chair: Clearly nobody has a sense of irony or humour within the Department. It is just very amusing that you have to write in such flowing terms as opposed to calling in your eight people who have responsibility for parliamentary questions and saying, "Pull your finger out; get it sorted".
Chris Wormald: Sorry, I want to be clear because, as the Secretary of State said at the beginning, it is very important we do not blame the individual civil servants who work on the parliamentary business. Answers are drafted all over the Department by the people who are experts in that area. So it is not a question of those eight individuals working harder or working better; it is a question of everyone in the Department who has a responsibility in the process. You want the answers to be drafted by the people who are actually expert in the question. All those people have responsibilities, alongside all their other responsibilities, and so do the people in parliamentary, so do advisers, so do Ministers, and so do I and my board. To get that culture across it is necessary to tell people what it is they should be doing. I can see that you do not like our language.
Chair: No, I would just use slightly different language; it is not that difficult.
Chris Wormald: But the message, I would have thought, was very much in line with what the Committee was asking for.
Q196 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Could you just tell me very quickly what on earth these eight people are doing? They are not writing the answers, eight of them, for 20 questions a day; they are just putting the answers into parliamentary language. I would have thought the Ministers could do that in three seconds.
Michael Gove: They are closer to being air traffic controllers, in that they direct. I can sense you probably would not want to fly into that country. But to be fair, it is their responsibility to chase progress with parliamentary questions but also to ensure that Ministers are prepared in all of the essentially procedural ways in which we interact with Parliament.
Q197 Jacob Rees-Mogg: But Ministers should know the procedures of the House anyway. Come on, Secretary of State, you must have known these since long before you arrived.
Michael Gove: There are some things with which I was and am familiar. There are other areas where it is undoubtedly the case that the expertise of the civil service helps me. Then there are sometimes some tasks, for example, drafting a response to the Speakers’ Office in respect of UQs and so on.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: But eight of them, it just seems-
Chris Wormald: I ought to say, this is a model that exists all over Whitehall, in every single Department of which I am aware that has a parliamentary branch.
Chair: But their model is effective.
Chris Wormald: I am sorry, I will come back to that. Ours is currently larger because we have staffed it up to deal with exactly the problems that this Committee is dealing with. We are doing a lot of things by hand, recording on spreadsheets, sending things by e-mail, that most Departments that have a working IT system have now done automatically. So we do have a large-
Q198 Jacob Rees-Mogg: You have so many people you could pluck the feathers from a goose to write out these answers with a quill pen and still have time left over by the end of the day.
Michael Gove: That might encourage a greater degree of concision and precision in their writing.
Q199 Chair: I think we have reached an area of great concern. Members of Parliament have very busy private offices; we have three people and we get dozens of letters and e-mails every day, most of which are responded to within a week or at most two weeks. It just does not sound plausible that you have eight people who are responsible for parliamentary questions and your performance is so poor. Then we are hearing you are not going to get a new IT system until the autumn. This is just not difficult stuff, as my colleague Jacob says, and I think we just need more sense of urgency, less of this, "We operate in a no blame culture" and just more urgency, "This is going to be done and when we come and see you in October, as I am sure we will want you to, we are going to be up at about 90% to 95%".
Chris Wormald: I am sorry, we have not at any point said that we operate in a no-blame culture, and I think-
Chair: Well, you kind of do.
Chris Wormald: No, the challenge we have set ourselves is how will we improve this performance across the Department, which I think is the challenge that this Committee set us. All I am seeking to explain is that it is a challenge that does go across the whole Department and has to affect every team in it.
Michael Gove: I am now going to make an offer, which I have not cross-checked with the Permanent Secretary beforehand, so he may kick me; I am sure he will not. The Education Select Committee Members asked if they could come into the Department and have a look around, and we are delighted for them to do so. If it would assist the Committee to see how parliamentary questions are handled-any member, or all of the Committee-can see what happens as they come in and so on, then of course that would be open. We have nothing to hide and everything to gain from your developing a proper understanding so that you can question us more effectively in the future and hold us to account.
Chair: A very generous offer, and we will take it into consideration.
Q200 Tom Greatrex: We will try to ask a couple of questions effectively prior to that visit. Mr Freedman, when Hilary Spencer gave her evidence back in December she talked us through the process of allocation. Can I just understand in terms of your role that you would get the questions probably a day or so after they come in routinely? How long does it take you to then clear them? Do you look at them all, every single one?
Sam Freedman: I look at every single one, and I try to do it the same day. I try to do it within a few hours; obviously, I am in a lot of meetings and so on, so nearly all of them I look at the same day. Occasionally I will slip into a second day if I have been away from the office. I never go beyond a second day.
Q201 Tom Greatrex: Do you then have interaction with special advisers, distinct from other advisers, on the questions at that point or before then?
Sam Freedman: Very, very rarely; a couple, but less than 1%.
Q202 Tom Greatrex: So, the questions as draft answers before they are finally signed off: do they go to special advisers after they have been through your office?
Sam Freedman: No, I sit in an office with the special advisers. They come to me, I look at them, I make some changes, most of them are fine, and they then go out to ministerial offices.
Q203 Tom Greatrex: So special advisers do not have a role?
Sam Freedman: Special advisers have no role in the process. As I say, occasionally I would show one of them to them if I thought they would be interested in it, but in most weeks they would not look at any.
Q204 Tom Greatrex: What type of thing do you think they might be interested in?
Sam Freedman: If I think, for instance, that we are publishing some data that hasn’t been in the public domain before I would show it to them to say, "Well, I think this is going to come out, and you need to be aware this is going to come out".
Q205 Chair: We are going to start wrapping up. Committee, if you have any burning questions get them in in the next eight minutes. Sam, you are going to be leaving the Department in February, and I understand a young man called Henry Cook who is a special adviser is going to be taking a keener interest in this. Do you want to expand on that very briefly?
Sam Freedman: Just to go back to something that was mentioned earlier, early on in the Parliament it really was necessary for someone who had a full understanding of this Government’s policy agenda to be looking at all of the answers, because when a lot of new policy is being developed things change very fast; people are not necessarily sure about things. Now we have reached the stage where it is not necessary for advisers to look at every answer, and as I leave I think the process will change so that, as the Permanent Secretary said, not everything will go to the advisers’ office, and there will be a process.
Q206 Chair: Sam, I need to ask you a question. As you are aware there was an issue around a question asked by Mr Loughton with regards to visits to youth projects. There is concern in some quarters that this information was made available to your office very quickly, but because the information suggested that the Secretary of State has not visited any-perfectly good reasons, I am not making judgment on that-perhaps a special adviser decided this was not a very helpful bit of information to put into the public domain, and that it was not helpful politically. Can you assure me that did not happen?
Sam Freedman: Yes. The main interest was taken by the Secretary of State’s private office, who were trying to collect the information. There were quite a lot of discussions about what constituted a youth project and what diaries would need to be checked and so on and so forth. But it was not, "We cannot give out the information"; it was just a, "We are not sure how to define this question".
Q207 Helen Goodman: The Member for East Worthing and Shoreham also put in a question asking what proportion of named-day questions from himself had been given a substantive answer within five days since September. The answer he got from Elizabeth Truss was, "I will reply as soon as possible". Is this not reaching the realms of absurdity now?
Sam Freedman: Yes, obviously that should be easy to answer.
Helen Goodman: Good.
Q208 Chair: Minister, I want to be perfectly clear; that is why you have junior Ministers who do other things. People have a responsibility to do other jobs. That was not an attack on you. I suppose the concern is that some of the Committee would say you have a very protective private office, of political special advisers who are protecting you in a way that perhaps you would not want to be protected, and perhaps are interfering in the process and interfering in, perhaps delaying, the process of answering questions. You would not want that to happen on your behalf, would you?
Michael Gove: I certainly would not. Absolutely no. I know exactly what you mean. One of the principles in the civil service overall is to protect the principal, but as I mentioned earlier, and your question gives me an opportune to restate, I would rather that people had the picture, warts and all.
Q209 John Hemming: Would you find it surprising that the six questions that have been outstanding for the longest are all Opposition questions?
Michael Gove: I would have to look at those six questions to offer a commentary on them.
John Hemming: You cannot comment on it now.
Q210 Chair: Secretary of State, thank you for coming to see us. Can I conclude by saying that I and this Committee take parliamentary accountability very seriously. We think it is absolutely fundamental to a healthy democracy. So I hope when you go back to the Department there is not a high-fives in the private office, "Yes, you bested that Select Committee, we got through that, phew". I hope there really is a determination to sort this out and to get to a level where you can be proud of the performance of your Department in delivering answers to parliamentary questions.
Michael Gove: You quite rightly, when you were going through the message that the Permanent Secretary and I sent out, had your own critique of the way of doing it. The fact that it went out is, I hope, some evidence of our determination to meet the challenge that you have rightly set. There will be other ways in which you will measure our performance and we must do better.
Q211 Chair: Thank you very much for coming before us. Thank you very much, Mr Wormald. Sam Freedman, that is probably an hour and a half of your life you are never going to get back again, but thank you very much for your patience and good nature. Thank you very much.
Michael Gove: I thank you, Mr Chairman, and the Committee.