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DHSC Answers to Written Questions

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Statement was made on Thursday 19 November in the House of Commons.

“Parliamentary questions are a key element of Parliament’s ability to scrutinise Government on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom. As the House would expect, we take them very seriously, and as you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members will know, I take seriously all aspects of my and the Government’s accountability to this House. Prior to the pandemic, my Department had an exemplary record of providing accurate and timely answers. In the last full parliamentary Session, despite receiving more PQs than any other Department, we had the highest response rate in Whitehall. However, as hon. Members will be aware, DHSC, its Ministers and officials have been at the forefront of responding to this pandemic, with the attendant additional workload that has brought.

As such, it is a matter of regret that we have been unable to sustain previous PQ performance, for which I rightly apologise to you and the House. However, it is explicable in the face of a trio of concurrent challenges. The first is volume: between March and October this year, we received over 8,000 written parliamentary questions across both Houses. This compares with 4,000 for the equivalent period last year. The second challenge is timeliness: we have met a rapidly, almost daily, changing situation, and answers drafted by officials are sometimes out of date shortly after they are drafted. We have been prioritising accuracy of response to Members over speed, but this can mean that responses have to be redrafted, with attendant delays.

The third challenge is policy input: despite increasing the administrative resources to respond to parliamentary questions, it remains the same policy officials who are responding to the pandemic operationally and drafting regulations and are the only people with the requisite policy expertise to input into parliamentary questions and responses.

That said, Mr Speaker, although we continue to field exceptional volumes of parliamentary questions, I want to reassure you and the House that we are not making excuses in providing these explanations, and are taking every possible step to recover our performance. We have instituted a parliamentary questions performance recovery plan and are delivering against it by increasing resource where we can and clearing the backlog, focusing on the oldest parliamentary questions first.

More broadly, throughout this challenging time the Secretary of State and Ministers have sought to make themselves regularly available in the House to be questioned and held to account. Between March and October, the Secretary of State made 18 statements and answered seven urgent questions. We have also seen seven general debates on Covid since March, and that is not including junior Ministers’ appearances in the Chamber. This is not an alternative to written parliamentary questions, but it is an important reflection of our accountability to this House.

To conclude, written parliamentary questions will continue to be a top priority on which I am briefed weekly. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members for your and their patience and recognition of the exceptional circumstances of recent months. In the weeks and months ahead, we will work hard to restore our leading performance, which hon. Members have a right to expect.”

My Lords, earlier this week, there were 149 outstanding Written Questions addressed to the Department of Health and Social Care on the Lords business paper. My first question, therefore, has to be: when will they be answered?

One has to wonder about the quality of the Answers. On 21 July, my noble friend Lord Bassam asked a perfectly reasonable Question about

“how many COVID-19 tests have been sent by post and subsequently returned to laboratories, for each day since the scheme began; and how many of the tests sent by post have been discounted because swabbed material was not collected correctly.”

The Answer arrived today—25 November. It says:

“The information is not collected in the format requested”.

You have to wonder why a non-answer took so long to arrive. Does the answer possibly lie partly in the existence of the Cabinet Office clearing house? Are Written Questions subject to a clearing house process—something that many regard as part of a wider obstructive approach to disclosing information? Can the Minister tell the House whether he and his department are involved in referring things to the clearing house at the Cabinet Office?

My Lords, the very large number of questions which have been put to the Department of Health is completely unprecedented. We had 577 in the whole of 2019. So far in 2020 we have had 1,783, of which 799 have been answered on time and the rest are late. I apologise for that; it is a matter of huge regret. I ask for the forbearance of the House, as the pandemic has put enormous pressure on the department.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, quite correctly alluded to one aspect of the answering of questions: the questions themselves often address novel challenges. Traditionally, we get questions about things that the department has been doing for years and years, where it is easy to pluck out an answer from the database or from the encyclopaedia of answers. The noble Baroness gave a good example of a question where it is difficult to elicit an answer. I know the exact question she referred to, because I have sought really hard to provide an answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. The question of how many swabs have not been returned by post is much more complicated than it might look. There are different types of swabs; different schemes—ONS, REACT, clinical trials—send in the swabs. Inconveniently, they do not pool all the answers. Also, some swabs may sit on a bench or in a cupboard at a house for a long time and it is not possible to know when they are, or are not, sent back.

I cite that as an example of the kind of challenge that we have faced in answering questions from noble Lords. I am not trying to detract from the inconvenience of questions not being answered on time, but I assure the House that we have put in considerably more resources. We have upgraded the quality of the people who are answering the questions and have an absolute commitment to trying to answer them on time.

My Lords, I remind Ministers that the instruction to be brief applies to their answers, as well as to questions from other Members.

My Lords, I do not underestimate the pressure under which the Department of Health has been put and pay tribute to my noble friend for the number of times that he comes here to answer Questions. However, the data behind this virus is hugely important. I put down a Question asking about the number of NHS workers—doctors and nurses—who have been killed by the virus. The answer that came back was: “We don’t know”. Surely, we must know this. I have also asked a question in this Chamber, not a written one, about what the strategy is without vaccinations. A vaccine has now come, but we must know what the strategy is. Are we going to go into another lockdown if the infection rate rises again? Perhaps the Minister can answer that now?

My Lords, matching the data on deaths with the HR records of the NHS is actually very difficult. It cannot be done easily, or even accurately. Our strategy is crystal clear: to protect the NHS, keep the schools open and encourage the economy while we wait for the vaccine to be deployed.

My Lords, I am grateful for the answer from the health department on 24 November to my letter of 8 June about the disparity of health outcomes from Covid-19 for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, although it did not answer our specific questions and was sent only to my cosignatory, Kate Green MP, not me. Will the Minister please answer my question of 21 October, due to be answered on 4 November, asking whether the Government would recognise International Stammering Awareness Day, now long past, with better technological provision for speech and language therapists, which is sorely needed?

My Lords, I would be glad to track down the noble Baroness’s letter and get her the answer that she so desires.

My Lords, I have every sympathy with the unique pressures being placed on the Minister and his department this year. It was inevitable that mistakes would be made, but the crucial thing is to learn from them, not least because, however encouraging recent news has been, there are still considerable challenges to be overcome before the country can return to normal. When Ministers refuse even to address questions asked of them, it hardly encourages belief that they are prepared to learn lessons from recent months. I have asked many questions about the failure to utilise efficiently the much-needed capacity provided by the partnership between the private sector and the NHS. The responses were a masterclass in a wilful refusal to answer questions. Does the Minister not recognise the damage done by such public denial of the facts?

My Lords, I regret enormously that the noble Lord feels that we have, in any way, avoided the facts. We are absolutely committed to learning the lessons of Covid, which will be profound. I note that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was in front of the House of Commons Select Committee on health for two and a half hours yesterday, answering exactly those questions. It was an illuminating and important discussion and I very much hope that this House will have an opportunity to do the same.

My noble friend is, I am sure, aware of the frustrations that the House has just heard. Here is a question to which I do not expect an answer, perhaps, at the moment. How many officials are actually involved in having to provide these answers? Does my noble friend agree that accuracy of responses is more important than speed?

My Lords, before the pandemic the parliamentary affairs team was made up of nine people; it has grown to 15. The ministerial correspondence and public inquiries team has grown from 51 people to 111. I think the noble Lord would agree that, at a time when we are trying to deal with test and trace along with programmes on therapeutics, restart, seasonal flu, PPE and vaccines, having 111 people working on correspondence seems the outer limit of what would be proportionate.