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Written Questions

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009

3. How long on average it took to answer parliamentary questions for (a) ordinary and (b) named-day written answer in the last five years. (250012)

I am afraid that I must disappoint my hon. Friend. Collating the 73,357 questions to 29 Departments, and working out a mean, median or indeed average reply rate has not been possible. However, Departments know that they should answer written parliamentary questions within a working week, and named-day questions on the day that they are for answer. I want to know about it if they are failing to do so. As it happens, the office of Leader of the House has answered 100 per cent. of named-day questions on the day that they were for answer, and 200 out of 202 other questions within five days.

Computers have been around for 60 years, for goodness’ sake. Departments are required to answer questions accurately, promptly and truthfully, but their performance is often deplorable, as I know from my protracted attempts over the past year to extract information about the recording of hospitality for senior civil servants. Does my hon. Friend support my recommendation that Secretaries of State should have their salaries reduced by, say, 5 per cent. for every day over the two-week target that their Departments take to answer the average written question?

I am not sure that I can entirely support my hon. Friend in that suggestion—although perhaps if all Secretaries of State were paid the same as Deputy Leaders of the House that would be an interesting point. The important point that I think he is trying to make is that every Department should answer questions promptly, fully and without any form of obfuscation, and I want to ensure that that is what they do.

The Deputy Leader of the House is being unusually intransparent—if that is a word; I like to make things up—untransparent. [Hon. Members: “Opaque.”] Indeed. Anyway, the point that I am making is that it is beyond belief that an average could not be worked out by taking a sample of questions. My view is that the Government are hiding something. Does he agree?

Funnily enough, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I do not think that I am being opaque. I certainly do not think that I am being intransparent. The important point is that we should ensure that Departments in every area of government answer questions properly on the named day or within the time scale. The vast majority of questions are done so. He may not be happy with every answer that he gets, but the one thing that I undertake to take on—I have been working closely with ministerial colleagues in every Department—is for instance, before Prorogation, to ensure that Ministers do not just suddenly say, “Oh well, prorogation is coming up; we’re not going to answer any questions.” We did better last year than the year before. I also want to ensure that, if there are pinch points in individual Departments and we are not getting sufficient answers swiftly enough, we deal with that.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but is it not disgraceful that some of the questions that were not answered had been tabled months before Prorogation? It is a device to allow Departments to get away with it. I retabled all my questions in the new Session, but I hope that he will look into this, because it is not right.

That matter was raised before the last Prorogation, and I wrote to Ministers at the time laying down the rules that govern it. I am very happy to provide a copy of that letter to my hon. Friend and to place one in the Library.

The Deputy Leader of the House tells us that he wishes to be informed where there are lapses. Perhaps he ought to be aware that, at the end of the 2007-08 parliamentary Session, nearly 500 questions, tabled for more than a month, did not receive a reply at all—not even the usual Prorogation reply. Will he look into these serious lapses and tell us what he proposes to do to ensure that, in future, all written questions receive a substantive reply in good time?

The shadow Deputy Leader of the House takes a keen interest in what happens before Prorogation. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I wrote to Ministers before Prorogation to try to ensure that, if anyone was thinking of using such a device to get out of answering a question, they should not do so. Perhaps my letter was sent a little late, and this year we will try to make a better fist of this.