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Questions for Written Answers

Volume 810: debated on Monday 22 February 2021


Asked by

To ask the Leader of the House what steps she is taking to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government provide timely answers to questions for written answer.

My Lords, Ministers take their obligations to Parliament seriously. In the past 12 months, the Government have answered more Questions for Written Answer than in any equivalent period going back to at least 2015. Since the onset of the pandemic, some departments—not least the Department of Health and Social Care—have quite understandably been asked significantly more Written Questions than usual. All departments are working hard to answer Written Questions as quickly as possible.

My Lords, Written Questions should be a critical tool for us, but responses, when they eventually arrive—one of mine took four months— just give information that is available elsewhere and do not answer the questions. Peers get just 30 seconds to ask an Oral Question and do not have the right of reply even when Ministers give incorrect information. This is no way to hold the Government to account. Does the Minister agree that this situation is just not fit for purpose and needs radical reform?

My Lords, it is clearly far from ideal that some Members of this House, including the noble Baroness, have waited as long as they have for Written Answers. In ordinary circumstances, it would be completely unacceptable. I am sorry that it has happened. All departments have been under pressure during the Covid emergency; even so, I can tell the House that in January this year 84% of Written Questions from your Lordships were answered on time. It is perhaps worth my saying that it is open to any noble Lord who is unsatisfied with an Answer they receive to ask a follow-up Question.

My Lords, I thank the Minister, but this is not just an isolated complaint; it has become more of an established pattern that is not confined to Written Questions, important though they are. Select Committee reports are now routinely overdue. I am afraid it cannot all be blamed on Covid-19; complaints about delays in Questions predate it, as do the consistent overruns in responses to Select Committee reports, from as far back as the 2015-17 Session. This is now a systemic problem. Will the Minister institute a thorough review into this matter and report back to your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and shall certainly take his comments on board and transmit them to members of my Front Bench and the usual channels. I am aware that there is concern about the matters he raised, which run more widely than simply Questions for Written Answer.

My Lords, a timely answer can be a strong enhancer of government policy. Will the Government further commit to using Written Answers as one of the important messages to counter any myths that anti-Covid vaccinations are dangerous to health, especially since these myths exist in certain sections of the BAME communities?

The noble Lord raises a very important point. I can tell him that Ministers use a number of vehicles to dispel myths about the Covid emergency and the vaccination programme in particular. I thank him for his question, which I am sure will resonate with colleagues in the Department of Health and more widely.

My Lords, there are a number of Ministers and former Ministers in this House. We all know how seriously they and their officials took and take the prompt and thorough answering of Written Questions. Surely, delays would have taken place only if there were more pressing matters at hand, and we have had to deal with the pandemic. While perhaps upbraiding them on their tardiness, should we not also recognise the service that our Ministers and officials have given during this time and the outstanding job they have been doing?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. It is worth noting that, in the Session to date, Ministers for the Department of Health and Social Care—principally my noble friend Lord Bethell—have answered 100 Oral Questions and 22 Private Notice Questions, as well as handling more than 40 Statements. In this House, we have also debated 56 sets of health protection regulations. It is not just through Written Answers that the DHSC has been accountable to this House.

I received a written response on 4 February, within the time limit, saying that

“The Department for Work and Pensions plans to respond shortly on this issue,”

which felt like a fob-off. Since then, nothing. What is the Government’s interpretation of the word “shortly”?

My Lords, we have debated this matter a number of times in this Chamber. Clearly, the noble Lord is entitled to expect a substantive answer within the space of a few days of the Answer he received. I shall follow up the matter he has raised but, as I said earlier, Ministers take their obligations to Parliament very seriously. My noble friend the Leader of the House regularly speaks to members of the Government Front Bench about the importance of timely responses to Written Questions, and her office actively chases late Answers.

What has the DHSC done to expand the number of people in its parliamentary branch to deal with the large increase in Questions tabled for Written Answer? I must admit, I put down a Written Question quite recently which was promptly answered, very impressively, by my noble friend Lord Wolfson.

My Lords, the Department of Health and Social Care has done so: the parliamentary team has expanded from nine civil servants to 17 and its ministerial correspondence team has more than doubled in size to 111 members of staff. The effort has been huge. I am happy to report that it is making a difference. Four or five months ago, the average turnaround time for a Question in the department was 23 days; it is now seven days.

My Lords, this situation goes back a long while; I understand that Mr Speaker has also expressed concern. While agreeing that timeliness is important—there is little point in belabouring that it took one year to answer a Question of mine—meaningful content would also be helpful. Does the Deputy Leader concur that it might be preferable if officials presented for ministerial sign-off the answer to a Question, rather than seemingly avoiding doing so? An example was the Question “Which francophone countries has the Trade Minister responsible visited to extol the undeniable virtues of British goods and services?”, to which the Answer was “Our Minister has visited Moscow, amongst other destinations”.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Viscount’s question will be noted in the relevant department. I endorse his general point; your Lordships’ House has resolved that:

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers should give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”

and that they should be “as open as possible” in answering questions.

My Lords, the noble Earl has been clear that he agrees it is fundamental to our democracy that all government Ministers be accountable to Parliament, which is the reason for these concerns. I put it to him that the noble Lord, Lord Frost, has been appointed to the Cabinet but is currently on leave of absence from this House and that three months’ notice is needed to return. The noble Earl will know that I have raised previously how helpful it would be for your Lordships’ House to hear from the noble Lord directly, and I have been disappointed that he was not here to do so. When will he return to the House? Can arrangements be made for him, at the very least, to answer Written Questions? Given the backlogs we have heard about, perhaps an extra pair of hands would be very welcome.

My Lords, I am advised that an exception has been made in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Frost, to enable him to return to full duties in this House at an early date.

My Lords, on 25 September last year I tabled a Question concerning deaths from Covid-19 in care homes. It was answered 131 days later, on 2 February. It revealed that in one six-week period some 11,155 elderly patients died, the equivalent of a small town such as Wetherby in Yorkshire. Was there a delay because the Government were not compiling statistics for care home deaths at the time, or was it a policy decision to delay publication of such a devastating policy failure? What assurance can the noble Earl give on ensuring rapid publication of data in future?

My Lords, I have asked the Department of Health and Social Care specifically about very long-delayed Answers, which I agree are deeply regrettable. The number is coming down; I understand that there are only a handful. Often the reason for such a delay is either the practical difficulty of gathering data or the rapidity with which the policy environment is moving, precluding an accurate answer being formulated.