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Ministerial Accountability

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley, and I am pleased to see the Minister in the Chamber. The purpose of my debate is to focus on the way in which Ministers are held accountable by the House, primarily through written questions and statements.

As the Minister will know, I have been in correspondence with the Leader of the House over the rather poor performance of a number of Ministers in answering written parliamentary questions on a named day. Let me set out the reasons for my concern. I asked all the Departments how good they were at giving substantive replies to named day questions. Some Departments do extremely well, and it is fair to say that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House give a substantive reply to 100 per cent. of questions on the named day, which is very good.

Unfortunately, the same is not true at the other end of the spectrum, in Departments that cover important policy areas such as defence and work and pensions. Only 22 per cent. of questions to the Ministry of Defence received a substantive reply on a named day, while the figure for the Department for Work and Pensions is only 30 per cent. Interestingly, both Secretaries of State are part-time, as they are each responsible for two Departments. When the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) is wearing his defence hat, he manages to answer only 22 per cent. of named day questions on the due day, but when he is wearing his Scotland hat, he manages a much more impressive 85 per cent. In the same way, when the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) is operating in his capacity as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, he answers only 30 per cent. of questions on the named day, while the Wales Office, which admittedly has a much smaller number of questions to deal with, manages to answer them all on time.

Members have a limited number of ways of holding Ministers to account, one of which is questions, so it is not good enough for Ministers to answer only a fifth of questions on the due day. That is bad enough, but it is difficult to obtain data on the issue. I know from experience that Ministers do not miss the due date by a day or so; often, we do not receive a substantive answer on the given day, and we have to wait for it for a week or two weeks. Departments do not seem to take seriously the importance of answering Members’ questions on time and as fully as possible.

Although that may be due to changes in the machinery of government and to reorganisation, neither the Department for Children, Schools and Families nor the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—both Departments emerged from the former Department for Education and Skills—could give me the information that I sought, because they simply have no tracking system capable of telling them when they answered questions. I have written to both Ministers concerned, because if those Departments cannot monitor their performance, I do not see how they can be confident of discharging their responsibilities to the House.

I suspect that the Parliamentary Secretary will not be surprised to learn that the Home Office could not answer my question before prorogation, and still has not done so. Its performance in dealing with Members of Parliament is pretty lamentable at best, and it is the only Department that could not answer my question at all. That is not good enough, and I have raised the issue with the Leader of the House, who promised to take action. I would therefore be pleased if the Minister could explain what action has been taken and whether we are likely to see any improvement.

I have a couple of examples to illustrate the sort of questions that do not get answered, and which raise important issues about the way in which we are governed. We all know about the problems at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and about the loss of child benefit data. Over the weekend, on a much smaller scale, a similar problem was reported at the Department for Work and Pensions. Discs containing a lot of sensitive information about thousands of customers were left with an ex-contractor, who was no longer entitled to have them. The information was unencrypted and not kept securely, so there were clearly some lapses in information security. I tabled a number of questions about the issue to the Department for answer on a named day—Monday 26 November. I specifically asked the Secretary of State what procedures his Department had put in place to deal with the transfer of personal data, what personal data he has provided to bodies such as the National Audit Office, what personal data belonging to members of the public is stored by his Department and other agencies, and what discussions he has had with his Department’s agencies about how they keep information secure. I received a holding answer but, a week later, I still have not received a substantive answer.

They were not complicated questions, and the answers about the procedures that are in place should be available today. One would hope that, given the recent focus in government on information security, it would not be difficult for a Department such as the Department for Work and Pensions, which holds data on millions of members of the public, to answer some simple questions, and direct me to the document or website that sets out its procedures for looking after personal data. The fact that I have not had an answer—not even part of an answer—is rather poor, and shows that there is a gap.

There are slightly more amusing responses that show the seriousness, or lack of it, with which Ministers deal with the House. I tabled some questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the support provided to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who also has responsibilities in the Government Equalities Office. I asked the Secretary of State some straightforward questions about what discussions he had had with the Leader of the House on the Under-Secretary’s ministerial role, and what support was available to her from the Department. The Under-Secretary herself responded with a holding answer—perhaps reasonably; she may not know what discussions the Secretary of State has been having with the Leader of the House.

The other questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the Under-Secretary failed to answer on the due day, however, were very straightforward; they were about which Government Department is responsible for the Government Equalities Office, and what ministerial responsibilities the Under-Secretary has in the GEO. I received a holding answer. I received a holding answer, too, when I asked which Department was responsible for her ministerial salary and for the provision of ministerial support. It is pretty poor if a Minister cannot even tell me of which Department the Government Equalities Office is part, what her ministerial responsibilities are, who pays her salary and which officials support her, as that information must be available. The fact that I did not receive an answer on the due day—and it was not a complicated question that required months of research—shows that some Ministers in some Departments do not take their responsibilities to the House seriously at all.

I want to touch on one or two other issues, but perhaps not in quite as much detail. However, before I leave the topic of written answers, I should like to raise something with the Minister. The two worst performing Departments are the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Ministry of Defence has 229 press officers. The Department for Work and Pensions has 180. Clearly, both Departments put a high priority on dealing with the press. The Leader of the House promised me that she would speak to her colleagues “forcefully”, so may I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that if some resources were shifted and some press officers fired, more resources could be put into dealing with this House, so that Departments could prioritise their accountability to Parliament, rather than to the media. We might then find that the performance of those two Departments in particular would improve considerably. I put that idea out in a generous spirit, and perhaps the Minister would tell me what she thinks of it.

I want briefly to touch on the importance of making statements to the House before the matters in question are announced to the media. The shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), has already raised some examples with the Leader of the House. The Secretary of State for Transport made a written statement about the expansion of Heathrow, yet the news was announced on the “Today” programme before the statement was given to Members of the House. The Secretary of State for Justice made a statement on constitutional arrangements in Britain, but we heard all about it on the “Today” programme. The Ministry of Justice also published things on its website about its organisational review that might affect the National Offender Management Service before a statement was made to the House.

In another example involving the Department for Work and Pensions, which seems to be a bit of a whipping boy in this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) challenged the Secretary of State during oral questions about his briefing on incapacity benefit assessments and why it had been made to the media on the “Today” programme well before being made to the House. The Secretary of State admitted in a written answer to me that although copies of the report had been placed in the Vote Office, they had not been made available to Members in the Library until the afternoon. Information had thus been given to the media and discussed at length well before Members could obtain the details of the statements. The Leader of the House herself said that it was her job to be the “policewoman” who makes absolutely sure that statements are made to the House before they are made to the media.

The final issue that I wish to raise is topical debates and parliamentary questions. With the changes in Departments and the expansion in the number of Departments entitled to a full hour of questions, which I support, questions now operate on a five-week rota. There are slightly fewer opportunities to question each Department, although that has been offset somewhat by the welcome innovation, on which I congratulate the Government, of topical questions for Departments with a question time of more than 30 minutes. It is an advantage and stops us going through contortions to fit topical questions into the questions that happen to be on the Order Paper. I am sure all Members have faced that challenge from time to time. The Leader of the House tried in her own small way to make the rota a little more flexible; I understand that she tried to get rid of questions to the Leader of the House, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead batted that proposal away.

I leave the Minister with this thought about topical debates: they should be genuinely topical. There was a general feeling in the House last week that the debate on apprenticeships and skills—important as the matter is—was not the most topical debate that could have been chosen. At this very moment, the Leader of the House is meeting my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and the Liberal Democrat spokesman to discuss how the choice of topics for topical debates can be made more transparent to Members. I welcome that and hope that the meeting is fruitful.

The Leader of the House has said that the whole point of the House of Commons is to hold the Executive to account, and she made it clear that parliamentary questions are important in that respect. When I raised the matter with her at business questions on 15 November, she was good enough to thank me for the information that I gave her from my league table—for want of a better description—and to say that she would raise the matter “forcefully” with her ministerial colleagues. Will the Minister tell us to what extent the Leader of the House has had an opportunity to be forceful? Most importantly, when will we see an improvement in Departments’ performance in answering questions, particularly the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions, both of which cover policy areas that are important to members of the public? Both Departments need to make a huge improvement to the way in which they deal with the House and with questions from Members of Parliament. I look forward with great interest to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this debate. The issue is undoubtedly of fundamental importance. In our well-known and long-standing system of parliamentary democracy, it is crucial that the Government are properly accountable to Parliament. Day in and day out, Ministers come to Parliament to account for the Government’s actions and decisions, answering letters and parliamentary questions from MPs and peers. In view of the comments made, it is worth giving a bit of context before I come to the hon. Gentleman’s particular points.

First, the setting is that the principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament is a convention of some long standing and is clearly set out in the ministerial code, which is a guide to the principles and practices expected of Ministers. In publishing the code in July the Prime Minister confirmed that:

“The acceptance of Ministerial office brings with it a serious responsibility and duty to the nation.”

In setting out this responsibility and duty, the code goes on to state that

“Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies”,

and that is what we are discussing.

Through the resolutions that were carried in 1997 both Houses made explicit how they expect Ministers to discharge their responsibilities to Parliament. I reaffirm the seriousness with which the Government take their responsibility to account to Parliament. The terms of the resolutions are reflected in the ministerial code, and the constitutional convention of ministerial accountability to Parliament, through a range of means to which I will refer, is, in my view and experience, alive and kicking.

Both letters and parliamentary questions are worth a mention, and the hon. Gentleman has referred to the latter. To give an idea of scale, in 2006, excluding freedom of information requests, Departments received 226,427 letters from MPs and peers, compared with 203,734 in 1996. The Government have an absolute commitment to providing informed and timely responses to letters from hon. Members, which are one of the means by which Ministers are held to account. In 2006, the last record that I can refer to, 77 per cent. of such correspondence was replied to within the targets set by Departments, compared with 72 per cent. in the previous year. We have therefore seen an improvement. In my experience, Departments are far from complacent. They do recognise the importance of dealing with inquiries and being held to account, and they seek to take steps further to improve their performance.

On the issue of parliamentary questions that the hon. Gentleman raised, the number of written questions has increased enormously, almost doubling since 1997—up from 214 per sitting day to 396 per sitting day for 2006-07. The introduction of the written question procedure in the September recess shows, if one looks at how it is used, that hon. Members are more than willing and more than able to hold Ministers to account even during a parliamentary recess. I welcome its introduction by the Government. It is worth noting that answering an oral question is estimated to cost around £385 and a written question £140.

I welcome the innovation of being able to table and have answered written questions in September. In terms of the growth in scale, perhaps I am being unfair but I do not understand the disparity in performance within Government. The Department of Health, which was asked in the last Session 1,615 named day questions, almost double what the Ministry of Defence was asked, managed to answer 63 per cent. on the named day. The Ministry of Defence achieved just a third of that performance. I do not buy the idea that just because more questions are being asked that should lead to poor performance. Some Departments are clearly very good at answering, and some are not.

The difficulty, if I can put it that way, with the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that it makes very straightforward comparisons across Departments. It is not a directly comparable matter. Not only do Departments receive different volumes of correspondence and parliamentary questions, which it is important to consider, but they have different targets for replying. That is legitimate, to reflect the nature of the Department.

I would urge caution in making comparisons, because the nature of Departments’ business varies greatly, as does the nature of the questions. Of course, Departments will have to do a greater or lesser amount of work in greater or lesser detail, depending on the question. As a Minister responsible for responding through both correspondence and parliamentary questions, I am keen to ensure full and comprehensive replies. The matter is not directly comparable, but it is worth saying now—I was intending to refer to this later—that there have been some notable successes. In terms of its performance in dealing with correspondence, the Home Office is up by 14 per cent. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is up by 9 per cent. with a particular improvement by UKvisas, and, of course, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is up by 13 per cent. That should convey the fact that nobody is complacent, and that we intend to push forward in a systematic way.

While Ministers are responsible for their own answers to parliamentary questions, I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as I have said, the Government have an active and deep-rooted commitment to the issue of ministerial accountability to Parliament. There is also a duty on Ministers, set out in the ministerial code, to be as open as possible with Parliament. The guidance to officials on drafting answers to parliamentary questions repeats those obligations. The Public Administration Committee has published a number of reports on ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with those. In response to the last such report, which the Government were glad to receive, we set out a number of initiatives designed to disseminate good practice across Departments. If hon. Members are dissatisfied with the response that they have received to a parliamentary question, they can, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly done, take the matter up with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

The Procedure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into written parliamentary questions, and we look forward to receiving its recommendations. For the context that I want to give, it is important to note that there been many improvements and changes in accountability to Members of Parliament since 1997. First, that we are even sitting in Westminster Hall is testimony to the fact that the Government have increased opportunities for scrutiny, and therefore the accountability of Ministers to Parliament, through the introduction of Westminster Hall debates. The Speaker also has discretion over urgent questions in emergency debates. In October this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House set out in more detail a number of measures that the Government seek to introduce following the report of the Modernisation Committee, “Revitalising the Chamber: the Role of the Back Bench Member”—evidence, I believe, that we are seeking to be more accountable. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will draw this debate and the points that have been made to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

Furthermore, in terms of increased scrutiny, the Government have recently introduced topical questions and topical debates to increase opportunities for accountability. Going still further in respect of openness, transparency and accountability, we are now going to be the first Government to publish an annual list of gifts given and received by Ministers and an annual list of visits overseas by Cabinet Ministers. From next year, details will be published of all Ministers’ travel overseas. This Government was the first to publish an annual list of special advisers’ numbers, names and costs, as well as a code of conduct and model contract for special advisers. It is important to remember that our previous Prime Minister was the first to initiate appearances before the Liaison Committee, and to hold a monthly press conference. I suggest that all those points reflect greater accountability, openness and transparency, and we have made a significant difference to the amount of information available about the activities of Departments and Ministers through the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

That commitment to openness and transparency is certainly reflected in the changes seen to the ministerial code in July this year. The code has been strengthened so it now clearly sets out the principles that all Ministers must follow. In publishing the ministerial code, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also announced the appointment of an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and an annual statement covering those interests that will be published.

I would also refer the hon. Gentleman to the “Governance of Britain” Green Paper, published in July, setting out our plans in a number of areas for a new relationship between the Government and the citizen. We need to look not only at the steps that have already been taken but at the commitments to go still further. As for the hon. Gentleman’s allegation that Government statements are made to the media before they come to Parliament, the ministerial code is absolutely clear. When Parliament is in Session, the most important announcements should be made in the first instance to Parliament. I would assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers take this most seriously. I will of course make sure that the points raised in this debate will be drawn to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman suggested a bit of reorganisation of press officers. In terms of answering parliamentary questions, there are many officials across Departments who are going about their everyday work serving the public. In the course of that work, they are answering parliamentary questions. So while I note his suggestion—and I am sure that he would not wish that we stopped communicating on matters of importance to the public, such as the take-up of benefits or campaigns on drink and drug abuse, or the latest news on foot and mouth—I do not agree that simply moving people around would improve the situation.

On procedures for data transfer at the Department for Work and Pensions, it is worth remembering that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary have both set out in recent weeks a number of reviews that will be conducted into the security of data storage and transfer within Departments. It is indeed the case that this matter has been open to considerable scrutiny and will continue to be so.

In conclusion, the Government are absolutely clear and open about how Ministers should be held to account by Parliament and the public. It is something that we all take seriously and work to our best endeavours to achieve with our Departments. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers in this Government are completely committed to both the principle and the practice and are always trying to improve still further.