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Written Answers

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 4 December 2014

4. What guidance he has given to his ministerial colleagues about providing substantive answers to written questions. (906421)

The Office of the Leader of the House of Commons provides guidance to all Departments on the practice of answering parliamentary questions. The guidance advises Departments that Members should receive a substantive response to their named day question on the date specified and should endeavour to answer ordinary written questions within a working week of being tabled.

The Government’s official guidance on written questions requires answers to be both accurate and truthful, and not highly politicised. Yet written answers recently received from a number of Ministers, most notably a Minister of State from the Cabinet Office, have been of a party political character. Will the Leader of the House ensure that his ministerial colleagues are aware of the proper processes to be followed when answering questions?

If the hon. Lady has issues about the speed with which questions are being answered or their content, that is clearly a matter she can raise with the Procedure Committee. It is best that she provides the background information, but if she wants to provide me with the examples she has mentioned, I would be happy to follow them up with the relevant Secretaries of the State.

May I follow up that point and remind the House that in recent months the Procedure Committee has invited two Secretaries of the State and their permanent secretaries to appear before it to explain their lack of performance? If Members of any party have any concerns about the content or timeliness of their answers, they should bring the matter to the attention of the Procedure Committee.

I am grateful for that point of clarification or information. When Departments want to respond promptly, they can do so. I have frequently quoted the ability of the Department of Health, for example, to respond to 99% of questions within the appropriate time scales, and I am now happy to be able to refer to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has been able to respond to 100% of them within the appropriate time scales.

One of the Secretaries of State dragged to the Procedure Committee was from the Ministry of Justice, which provides one of the worst examples of Ministers dodging their responsibilities and parliamentary scrutiny. Under the current Lord Chancellor, fewer than one in five questions was answered on time in the last Session. That is because, as he has admitted, his own special advisers are vetting every answer. Do we not need more substance and less spin from Ministers?

I am sure that the Ministry of Justice is not dodging its responsibilities. I do, however, think that there is a very strong case for that Ministry to improve its performance quite significantly. I will raise that issue with the Secretary of State.