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Ministerial Correspondence

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 17 February 1999

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

7.15 p.m.

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what criteria they apply to the timeliness and completeness of replies by Ministers and officials to correspondence from Members of both Houses of Parliament and the public; and whether they are satisfied that they are meeting such criteria.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it will not surprise your Lordships to hear that my asking this Question stems from direct personal experience of less than satisfactory correspondence with at least one government department, but principally one in particular.

Having spent several years as a Minister in a number of departments in the 1980s, I enjoyed—if that is the right word—many an hour, often well into the night, signing ministerial correspondence to parliamentary colleagues and others. I became acutely aware that, whoever had drafted the reply, the responsibility for it lay with me. Members of another place were, rightly, not tolerant of undue delay, inaccuracy or fudged answers. The same was true of many of your Lordships, and quite right too.

So far as I can recall, procedures varied from one department to another. In some departments, a ministerial correspondence section co-ordinated the preparation and drafting of replies. Elsewhere, correspondence was co-ordinated between the responsible Minister's office and the relevant section of the department concerned.

I well remember visiting the hard-pressed correspondence section of the then Department of Health and Social Security. Delays and inaccuracies used to occur and it was important to prevent them. We had to devise a way to do that. I used to stress to the correspondence section management and to those who worked there—they were an extremely hard-working bunch of people—that their correspondence was essentially the shop window of the department. Boring and tiresome though some of the work might be, the public and Ministers very often judged the efficiency of the department by the way in which the people in that section operated.

Together with senior officials, it was agreed that procedures had to be devised to deal effectively, accurately and timely with all ministerial correspondence, and some changes were made to effect that. I do not suppose, by any manner of means, that all problems were solved. What concerned me also—it still does—is that as parliamentarians in either House we can make a fuss and unreasonably demand explanations if things go wrong, if answers are inaccurate, incomplete, hugely delayed or simply go unanswered. But to the public at large I do not believe that the bureaucratic machine is as user-friendly.

Perhaps the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, can give us a few statistics. Can he say what is the volume of parliamentary correspondence to key departments, such as the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security? He may choose to answer that by referring to other departments, but whatever he says will help. Can he tell us what has been the increase, or perhaps—though I doubt it—the decrease, in volume over, say, the last five years? What about the volume of correspondence from the public which is to be treated officially? Has the encouragement to complain given rise to a substantial increase? If so, what mechanisms have been put in place across Whitehall to meet the new expectations of individuals?

As I explained at the beginning, my Unstarred Question is motivated by personal experience, and I can hope only that my experience is not the tip of an iceberg. I wrote directly to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office about an asylum case on 16th October 1998, on my own headed House of Lords writing paper, so there was no doubt from whom it came. No acknowledgement, let alone reply, was forthcoming. On 16th November, I wrote to the Minister, Mr. Mike O'Brien, but again there was no acknowledgement and certainly no reply. Somewhat exasperated, I telephoned his private office during the first week of January, insisting on a reply by close of play on Friday, 8th January. I need not go into details of the case, which stands and falls on its own merits, but the assistant private secretary, who did respond, helpfully, by the end of that week wrote:

"I am very sorry that it has not been possible to reply to you sooner".

Well, it would certainly have been possible for someone, somewhere to acknowledge both those letters. Why was no acknowledgement sent?

What procedures does the Home Office or the Immigration and Nationality Directorate have for dealing with correspondence? What about an acknowledgement? What about holding replies, or even further holding replies if a case is complex? I am certain that I and my ministerial colleagues in the 1980s regularly had to send holding replies and further holding replies if a case was complex and required a great deal of work, but such replies assured those with whom we were corresponding that the case was under consideration.

What about signatures by Ministers themselves so that it is known that they are personally aware of the case at point and of the inordinate delay, if that is the case, because that would give confidence to those writing that Ministers have taken ownership of the issue to hand?

What I am to make of the rest of that reply, which explains:

"As you may be aware, major changes to the organisation and working practices of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate are currently taking place which are affecting the service we are able to offer applicants and their representatives".

In referring to the case that I raised, the letter continues:

"transition arrangements are being made with a view to considering his case under the new provisions for dealing with the backlog of asylum applications announced at the time of last year's White Paper. Currently, his file is in transit with the old section and the new unit which is being set up to deal with this type of case. Unfortunately, it is therefore not possible to gain access to the file and give you a detailed reply at this stage. Please accept my apologies for this".

I certainly accept them. The letter continues:

"I will arrange for you to receive a detailed reply as soon as we are able to gain access on this file".

That was on 8th January; it is now 17th February and still there has been nothing.

I am sure that the backlog of work on asylum cases is substantial, but this case began, as far as I can tell, in January 1996, and three years later it has still not been resolved and the files have been "lost"—perhaps I may put it in that way. What on earth is going on? What are we and the public to make of what seems to be an embarrassing shambles? What am I to say to my correspondent? Does it not make the Government look pretty silly? Is it not really an absolute disgrace?

Perhaps I may humbly suggest some procedures that might help. Can the noble and learned Lord ensure that the acknowledgement of letters is invariably almost immediate in every case? A postcard would suffice. Some departments are very good and already acknowledge by postcard. Can the Minister arrange across Whitehall for substantive replies to be sent to Members of both Houses, signed in every case by a Minister, within two weeks as a matter of policy? Perhaps that could even apply to letters answering points raised in debate which Ministers have promised to send. If an issue is particularly complex, can the Minister arrange for holding replies, explaining the nature and reason for the delay, to be sent at a two-week point? Can the noble and learned Lord ensure that Ministers' private offices take ownership of procedures? After all, it is their Ministers who will catch the flak if their systems do not work.

Efficiency should be Whitehall's watchword. Will the Minister consider league tables for government efficiency in dealing with correspondence, and perhaps even the awarding of charter marks, with the results possibly being published? Would not such an imaginative approach give some comfort to the public at large that Whitehall cares about their correspondence and that the rhetoric encouraging them to complain when dissatisfied means something? Would not that demonstrate that large departments of state, somewhat amorphous to the public at large, really can be user-friendly to their customers who ultimately pay their wages?

7.25 p.m.

My Lords, when the Government were elected, they committed themselves to openness, transparency and listening. Like other noble Lords and the Government, I receive correspondence by letter, e-mail, fax and in other ways. With the use also of the internet and websites, people's expectations of gaining a response to their queries are now much higher.

I should like the Government to set targets for replying to correspondence, not only to Members of Parliament, but also to members of the public. That should happen across departments. Some departments reply to correspondence within 10 days without any problems. They do so not only to correspondence from Members of Parliament, but to that from members of the public—and they do so even on complicated issues.

However, other departments perhaps suffer from the same disease as some of our friends who never reply to letters unless pushed.

It Is important to have best practice. Letters should be answered—and not only by a holding postcard. They are useful in the first two weeks, but one gets a bit fed up with receiving such postcards again and again when tying to follow up a matter.

I am not even asking for special privileges for ourselves or for Members of the other House. I am asking for best practice generally and for correspondence targets for those outside because we have encouraged them by saying, "We want to hear from you. We want your views. If you aren't happy, please write to us." They should get a reply.

7.26 p.m.

My Lords, there is in our constitutional life an event which, happily, very rarely visits us, but it is an event of high importance. I refer to the accession and coronation of a new sovereign. Your Lordships will be well aware that at the very centre, the very canon, of the sacrament of coronation, Her Gracious Majesty took a series of oaths. They were taken in the most solemn circumstances, before her God, her Peers and her people. In summary, the two oaths were "To serve my God and to serve my people." Ministers of state and, indeed, members of departments of state are there to serve the sovereign, as we are. Ergo they also have that same duty to serve the people.

If I may so describe my noble and eloquent friend, we have heard a sorry story of a derogation of power from him. He used the word "disgrace". I would go a little further. I think that it is a contempt of Parliament; still worse, it is a contempt of his supplicant; and, still worse, it is a contempt of the Minister's own oath.

Bearing that in mind, I ask the Minister to be good enough to give an undertaking to this House to ensure at least that his ministerial colleagues and his colleagues in his department of state have this debate drawn to their attention, not least because they should be reminded that they are in the public service, not in the self service. If the noble and learned Lord cannot do that—and it is purely a matter of will; it is not a matter of his capabilities or abilities, of which there is no doubt whatever—I wonder whether he can simply apologise to my noble friend and, indeed, to his supplicant. Even that might be of help.

7.29 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps I may start by offering my thanks to my noble friend for introducing this Question; indeed, I think that he put the case very well. I hope that I can be as brief as my noble friend Lord Morris and the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, so that we can then listen to the Answer from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. I am sure that he will be at great pains to explain exactly what the Government are doing and how they are improving the way in which Ministers manage to answer correspondence.

Like my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, I served in a number of different departments in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, up until May 1997. For example, I served in the Department of Social Security, the Department of Employment, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Education and Employment. Like my noble friend, I found that every department had its own different way and different systems for dealing with correspondence to Ministers and that coming direct from members of the public. The latter was normally described as "treat as official" and was answered by officials rather than Ministers, whereas Ministers dealt with correspondence from Members of either House. Some departments had a proper correspondence section while others, as my noble friend put it, left it to ministerial officers who then delegated the drafting of the reply to the appropriate section within the department.

Again, there were different systems for dealing with letters from Members of Parliament and those from members of the public. Obviously, as a Minister, I rarely saw—though one did on some occasions—those letters from members of the public. Therefore, I have a less good idea of how the system worked in those cases. Although there were different systems, I remember that virtually all Ministers recognised the importance of getting correspondence right and dealing with it in the appropriate amount of time.

As my noble friend put it—and it was a good way of putting it—the correspondence sections were very much the shop windows of departments. They showed departments as they were. Indeed, I remember that some departments (and this may still be the case) were better than others. The noble and learned Lord, with all his authority in the Cabinet Office, and with a brief that extends over all departments, will probably have some idea as to which departments are better than others. I should not embarrass him by asking which departments he thinks are better or worse than others.

As I said, most Ministers took correspondence very seriously indeed. I accept that there were occasional failings. I certainly had some myself. In particular, I received letters back from Members of another place saying, "The answer sent to me is completely unsatisfactory". From the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, looks at me now while nodding his head, I suspect that he might have sent some back to me on occasions. I might then have revised those letters. I also accept that there are some Ministers who were better than others.

I can remember one particular Minister—and I shall not embarrass him by naming him—from whom virtually all correspondence was removed because he agonized over each letter for so long that none ever came through the mill, as it were; indeed, very few were answered. But, in the main, most of them did their task conscientiously and made it their good practice to sign letters which were good ones and to do so in good time. I very much hope that that is still the case, despite the very disturbing example put before the House by my noble friend Lord Glenarthur.

I also remember that we had targets. I believe that the targets in terms of time originally varied from department to department. However, in the latter years, we had a fairly standadised rule which went through government, which I believe was something of the order of two weeks. With most departments it meant that, if one exceeded that target of two weeks, some sort of note was sent out to apologise for the delay. Again, I hope that most departments were, by that stage, also sending out acknowledgement postcards as soon as they received such letters. However, I appreciate the complaint of the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, that one does get rather sick of receiving postcards when they come on a regular basis once every two weeks.

Having outlined the case when we were in government, I must confess that I do not know what procedures the present Government have adopted. Therefore, I should like to conclude my remarks by simply asking the noble and learned Lord, in view of all the authority he has as Minister of State in the Cabinet Office, to tell us what time limits now operate. Further, can he tell us whether these are generalised for the whole of government or whether different departments have different time limits? Can he say whether there are procedures in place for when letters exceed such time limits and whether procedures are in place to ensure that acknowledgements are sent out at appropriate times? Finally, perhaps the noble and learned Lord could deal with the question of letters which come direct from members of the public rather than those which come from Members of this House—that is to say, those that inevitably have to be treated as official and have to be replied to by officials rather than Ministers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, said she wished that all letters were treated with the same diligence. Obviously, for reasons of time, Ministers cannot devote their entire life to signing letters. However, certainly in my time in the Department of Social Security there were times when it felt as though every moment of my life was devoted to signing letters from the likes of the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle.

7.35 p.m.

My Lords, I am genuinely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, for giving the House an opportunity this evening to discuss this important subject. I am also grateful to all speakers who participated in the debate. I have in mind my noble friend Lady Goudie, the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Henley.

Noble Lords, MPs and members of the public are entitled to receive a prompt and full reply to their enquiries. I believe this to be a fundamental part of our democratic process. I entirely agree with the designation given by the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur; namely, that it is the shop window of the Government. Although the Cabinet Office issues guidance on the best practice, it is individual departmental Ministers who are ultimately responsible for the way in which their correspondence, and that of their officials, is handled. It is also individual Ministers who are responsible for setting targets and monitoring performance.

I believe I should set out the key principles which departments and agencies should follow when hardling correspondence. They are as follows: first, all correspondence should receive a substantive and timely reply; secondly, where a substantive reply is likely to be delayed, an interim or holding reply should be sent; thirdly, every reasonable effort should be made to reply to correspondence within the target time set on Ministers; and, fourthly, target times, together with departments' performance against targets should be published. It seems to me that those are the essential principles and the ones to which this Government seek to live up. I do not believe that there will be much dispute about the validity of those basic principles.

Given the huge volume of letters received by government, it is easy to identify cases where things have gone wrong. It is never excusable when things have gone wrong, but it is understandable in the great volume of correspondence that, from time to time, things go wrong. In parliamentary Answers we have published the detail of the level of correspondence, both from Members of Parliament and from members of the public, that departments are receiving. The Answers were printed in Hansard of the other place on 31st July 1998 at cols. 644 to 646. I shall not go through all those Answers, but perhaps I may give your Lordships some indication of the scale of correspondence that Ministers receive.

In 1997, Ministers received overall about 200,000 letters from Members of both Houses. That obviously divided differentially between departments. However, to give noble Lords an indication of the scale involved for each department, I can confirm that the Home Office, which has been mentioned, received 16,831 letters to Ministers from Members of both Houses during the calender year of 1997, which compared with the previous year's total of 12,072 letters. In 1997 the Department of Health received approximately 14,500 letters while the DSS received 17,500 and the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions received just under 32,000 letters from Members of Parliament. That is the sort of scale we are dealing with as regards correspondence with Members of Parliament.

I turn now to the position relating to members of the public. Obviously such letters vary in their type; and, indeed, the number ranges from 6,226 received by the Cabinet Office to 85 million received by the Inland Revenue. Therefore one can see that perhaps different procedures might apply in different departments.

What are we doing in order to ensure that the procedures are followed? We know that performance overall can be improved. We are not complacent and we are determined to address this matter. We now publish annual statistics on the handling of ministerial correspondence. The parliamentary answers I have referred to contain those statistics. The statistics include particulars of what the target period is for each department, whether it is 15 days, 20 days, or whatever. They also contain particulars of what percentage of correspondence both from Members of Parliament and from members of the public meet that particular target. That transparency is obviously an important discipline as regards making departments reply within the guidelines that are set.

This is the first time that such information has been available. All departments and agencies have been asked to include this information in their annual reports to Parliament. We have also circulated detailed guidance to every department setting out the procedures to be followed when handling correspondence, and to spread best practice. This guidance which is available now in the Library of the House and also available to the public on the Cabinet Office website deals with points such as who is responsible for monitoring that targets are met; what is to be done if targets are not met; and which senior officials are to be responsible if things go wrong. It deals with the kind of issues that the noble Lords, Lord Glenarthur and Lord Henley, have raised.

In addition we wish to spread best practice throughout Whitehall because, as noble Lords have rightly said, performance varies from department to department. There will be a workshop in the spring which will bring together staff from ministerial correspondence units across Whitehall to share ideas and to promote best practice. I believe that individual departments are playing their part as well. Most have developed tailored guidance for their staff and have put systems in place to monitor the quality of replies. Ministers are taking a personal interest in ensuring that their departments live up to the standards they have set themselves. I believe individual Ministers are aware that their reputation both with fellow Members of Parliament and with the public at large depends upon the quality of the replies they give. They are aware that no one out there thinks that an official is responsible. They know that the buck rests with Ministers.

I touch briefly on the point raised by my noble friend Lady Goudie. Increasingly, correspondence is coming in over the Internet. The widespread use of e-mail poses a new challenge for departments in managing their correspondence. It makes government more accessible for many people and raises expectations. E-mail, like the telephone, is often seen as a quick and easy form of communication. We believe that the response targets which apply to traditional forms of correspondence should apply also to e-mail correspondence. The informal nature of many e-mails will usually mean that a quick reply is possible, but it is important that this is not at the expense of quality. We recognise that the increasing use of e-mails raises difficult issues. The Cabinet Office is therefore preparing guidance for departments on the effective use of this medium. I shall ensure this guidance when finalised is placed in the Library of the House and on the Cabinet Office website.

I wish to deal with two final issues. I have mentioned that interim replies should be sent. If a department believes that it will not meet its target date, the policy is that an interim reply should be sent explaining this to the person who has written to the Government. I refer to the specific case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur. The noble Lord was kind enough to alert me in advance to the fact that he would raise it.

It would be wrong for me to go into the detail of the substance of the case but the chronology that the noble Lord gave was entirely accurate. The reason it happened is—as I think is well known—that major changes are occurring in the organisation and working practices of the immigration and nationality directorate in the Home Office. Although that is no excuse, it is at least some explanation. I apologise to the noble Lord for what has happened. His account concluded with the fact that on 8th January he contacted the office of the relevant Minister and a letter followed fairly shortly. The letter indicated that they had not yet been able to locate the file and that a substantive reply would follow. I have made inquiries with the Home Office and I am told that the noble Lord can expect a substantive reply within the next week.

I can do no more than apologise but I ask noble Lords to bear in mind the following. First of all, as the noble Lord and everyone will know, there is a huge volume of correspondence. We are genuinely trying to do our best. We recognise the importance of it and we shall continue to recognise that it is in effect the shop window of government.

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, I wish to raise one point that arises from what he has said. As he will be aware, an efficiency survey of ministerial correspondence was carried out by the Cabinet Office efficiency unit in 1990. From the figures given in that report and from the figures the noble and learned Lord has given this evening, it appears that the annual volume of letters from parliamentarians to Ministers is maintained at about 200,000 letters. It is interesting to note that the excellent efficiency unit report also identified the cost of responding to correspondence. Given that the volumes have remained the same, can the Minister comment upon cost and whether there have been efficiency savings in terms of the cost of the exercise itself?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that the level of correspondence from MPs and Members of this House has remained broadly static. I believe that the level of correspondence as regards members of the public has increased. The question the noble Lord has raised about costs is an important one. I do not have the figures at my fingertips, or indeed anywhere near any part of my body. I hope I may write to the noble Lord with an answer to that question.

House adjourned at fourteen minutes before eight o'clock.