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Leader of the House

Volume 575: debated on Thursday 6 February 2014

The Leader of the House was asked—

Written Parliamentary Questions

4. What recent assessment he has made of Departments' performance in answering written parliamentary questions. (902436)

My office collates departmental performance information for ordinary and named day parliamentary questions for each Session, which are submitted to the Procedure Committee. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons provided data relating to the last Session to that Committee in July 2013. Those data are available on the parliamentary website.

I have received particularly poor responses to recent written questions to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister on whether they would raise human rights issues during business trips abroad. For example, the Prime Minister took more than two weeks to reply to named day questions, with no holding answer. Does the Deputy Leader of the House think that it is wrong of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, in particular, to show such contempt for Members who are simply seeking to find out what they do when they go abroad at public expense?

I certainly agree that it is possible to achieve a very high quality of response. For instance, the Department of Health achieves a 99% response rate. If the hon. Lady would like to send me the details of the questions she refers to, I would be happy to look into the matter.

As a member of the Procedure Committee, perhaps I can help the Deputy Leader of the House. Will he use this opportunity to remind right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House that if they are unhappy with a reply to a written question, because of a delay or the content, they can submit it to the Committee and we will look into and chase up those questions?

Indeed; I am very happy to encourage Members to do that. The Procedure Committee looks at this matter in detail. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, if there are specific concerns about how Departments handle their replies, they are required to explain to the Procedure Committee why they have been unable to respond promptly.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House look particularly at the performance of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and will he deprecate the consistent attempt to reveal as little information as possible in answers to parliamentary questions? I will gladly furnish him with some recent questions that I have had “answered” in a fashion.

I am happy to convey the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to the Department. He might want to know that one of our responsibilities in the Leader of the House’s office is to ensure that best practice in responding to questions is circulated. For instance, we have encouraged Departments not to respond to questions by providing links to websites. We are requiring them to provide the hard figures to make it easier for Members to assess the response.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that we would have fewer parliamentary questions if we had more time to debate important issues, such as the Immigration Bill? One great thing that the coalition Government promised was a business of the House committee, so when will we get it?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is slightly off the mark, in relation to handling responses to written parliamentary questions, but I am sure that his concern will have been noted in the appropriate places.

If it is to do its job of scrutinising the Executive efficiently, Parliament must be able to rely on timely answers from Government Departments. After the Procedure Committee highlighted last year’s atrocious performance, the Leader of the House committed the Government to establishing a new electronic system for Departments across Whitehall to improve responses. Can the Deputy Leader of the House tell us whether that is now in place and whether we can expect to see an improvement in response times when the Procedure Committee publishes an update next week? Will he set out what he will do if there are Departments that have failed to improve their performance and if some have deteriorated?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She might not be aware that over the past Session there has been an improvement: more Departments have been improving their responses than have been deteriorating. I certainly agree that the electronic system will ensure that Members get a better response and that there will be much less dependence on paperwork circulating throughout the system. I have just seen the progress that has been made in that system and am confident that when it is implemented Members will be very pleased with it and that it will save substantial sums of money.