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DHSC Answers to Written Questions

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on his Department’s performance in answering written questions from right hon. and hon. Members.

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, Mr Speaker 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is timeliness: we have met a rapidly, almost daily, changing situation, and answers drafted by officials are sometimes out of date shortly after they are drafted.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 our 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, who 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.

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.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which was born of extreme exasperation. I thank my hon. Friend for his response, his contrition and his apology, and for his offer to do better in the future.

If other Departments can answer 90% of named day questions on time, why cannot the Minister’s? Will he set a date for the clearance of the backlog to which he referred and guarantee future compliance with the rules and the spirit of the rules? This is not just about timeliness; it is about the quality of the answers. Since this is the week of resets, will the Minister now tell his ministerial colleagues and officials to abandon their tactic of, basically, dumb insolence towards those of us who ask challenging questions?

Does my hon. Friend accept that these questions and answers increase public trust in our democracy, and should be a catalyst for improving public policy? If his Department is in the lead in suppressing liberty in this country, is it surprising that there are more questions to his Department than to others? Because issues of liberty are at stake, surely it is all the more important that these questions are answered quickly.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he will be aware, other Departments, while they have heavy workloads, are not leading the response to the pandemic. In response to his final point, he will not be surprised that I do not characterise it in that way. Instead, I would characterise it as the Department of Health being in the lead in saving lives and protecting the NHS in this country.

My hon. Friend asked two other substantive questions. I think his language was a little intemperate in respect of the serious efforts that officials undertake every day in trying to provide accurate and timely answers. There is no suggestion that they seek to stonewall or to avoid responding. They do their best, but it is difficult and the situation changes day by day. When answers are deemed to be inadequate, hon. Members often revert to me directly or table their questions again, and we endeavour to fulfil our obligation to provide accurate answers.

On my hon. Friend’s question about recovery, we have set a trajectory for each month in order to recover performance over the coming months. Of course, that depends to a degree on the workload of officials in responding to the pandemic, as well as in providing answers, but I do not see it as an either/or; we intend to recover performance in parallel with tackling the pandemic.

I thank the Minister for his response and for the hard work he and his Department put in. However, as he acknowledges, the performance here, as in so many other areas, is just not good enough. We know it is tough, but there comes a point when it begins to look like departmental scrutiny is being used as a cover for evading giving answers.

This morning, I looked at the Department’s response times for my own written questions over the past six months. I have had to wait over one month for an answer 29 times, over two months 11 times and over three months four times. I was actually thinking of putting in a question asking for the average response times for questions, but then I thought I would just be waiting a long time for that answer as well. I have even had to wait five months for the answer to what I thought was a pretty simple question asking what tests for covid-19 had been used. One hundred and sixty-eight days later, I received this utterly unrevealing answer:

“A large number of different tests have been used throughout the programme.”

I was lucky; my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) waited 18 weeks for an answer to a question on tests, only to be told:

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

Why did it take so long just to say that? Do Ministers even read the answers that they sign off?

This is not just about the time; the quality of the answers that we get back also needs improving. On dozens of occasions, I have been told that the Department does not hold the data, or no real attempt is made to answer the question that was asked. I accept that sometimes the information may not be easily acquired, but too often it looks as though the Department wants to keep us in the dark. I remind the House that the ministerial code requires Ministers to be

“as open as possible with Parliament”,

even when that may be inconvenient to them. In the spirit of openness, will the Minister also look at restarting NHS England and NHS Digital publications?

We all understand that the Department is dealing with many pressing issues, but scrutiny is important. Accountability matters, and if the pandemic is used too often as an excuse for standards to slip, that is how we go from questions not being answered to major policy changes being announced by media leaks, until we end up with the shameful spectacle of spivs and cronies pocketing millions from PPE contracts. Government must do better.

I was going to say that, as ever, I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tone, right up to almost the end of his remarks. On his substantive points, when it comes to accountability to the House, he will know from our regular double acts at the Dispatch Boxes and in Committee that I and fellow Ministers do not shy away from our accountability to this House in all its forms.

On volume, as I have said, during the same period last year we received 4,000 written questions; this year, the figure has been 8,000. That cannot be addressed by increasing administrative resource alone, because the technical expertise of policy experts is required to provide accuracy in the answers that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members seek. The same policy officials are dealing, day to day, with all aspects of the response to the pandemic.

The hon. Gentleman talked about accuracy, and he is right about the importance of accurate and timely answers. Given that we have answered 8,000 parliamentary questions between March and, I believe, October, some may, sadly, not live up to his expectations. I know that he will hold me and other Ministers to account when that is the case.

In answer to another of the hon. Gentleman’s question, yes, I and other Ministers read not only the answers and the questions, but the background to those questions. If we do not, we will quite rightly end up at the Dispatch Box, being asked those questions again and being challenged on the Floor of the House. In view of that, and in view of our obligations to the public and under the ministerial code, it is absolutely right that we take the answering of written parliamentary questions very seriously.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point about NHS Digital and the publication of data and so on, I am happy to take that away and look at it for him.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), who is a fellow member of the Procedure Committee. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Department takes the answering of questions seriously, because the answering and the monitoring of written questions and correspondence from MPs will help Ministers to identify problems in the implementation and roll-out of their policies.

The Procedure Committee, which I chair, has granted some leeway to the Department in recognition of the pressures that it faces, but I invite my hon. Friend to come to the Committee in the next few weeks to explain how he is going to address the backlog.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As a former member of the Procedure Committee, I recall that she kindly appeared before the Committee to answer questions on parliamentary questions at the Home Office. I look forward to the reversal of the position in the coming weeks.

I would say that she gave exemplary answers, which fully satisfied the Committee. I have received the letter that she recently sent to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are grateful for the pragmatic and reasonable approach that her Committee has adopted. She will, quite rightly, want to scrutinise performance, and I look forward to appearing before her Committee to answer detailed questions on the matter.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer at the beginning of the debate. I initially thought that it was perhaps a tad unfair to single out his Department in the circumstances. In my experience, others have been worse—I hope his Treasury colleagues are listening. However, I will confine my remarks to his Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), the SNP health spokesperson, was delighted yesterday to receive an answer to a named day question that she had tabled on 22 June. It referred her to a table of data that, unfortunately, was absent from the answer. Perhaps the Minister could ask his colleagues to get that table over to her, rather than her having to wait six months for a response.

I am, again, grateful for the tone that the hon. Gentleman adopts. We have adopted in our recovery plan an attempt to deal with the oldest questions first, to try to get as up to date as we can. If he or the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) lets me know the detail of that question, I will be happy to look into the matter and to get that table to her.

No one could underestimate the challenges that the Department of Health and Social Care faces at the moment. I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has engaged with me and other colleagues during this time. However, there are clearly operational challenges as a result of this pandemic. My hon. Friend talked about the review that the Department is undertaking. Will he ensure that he shares the lessons learned from that not only with Members but across Government? We will have to look at being diverse in our operational structures, particularly within Government, to ensure that we expediently answer Members’ questions.

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. Perhaps the best mechanism by which lessons learned can be shared will be through my written response—in due course—to, and my appearance before, the Procedure Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). If appropriate, Mr Speaker, I will of course share that response with you and with the Leader and shadow Leader of the House.

On the plus side, because I have the Minister’s and the Secretary of State’s mobile numbers, when I really want an answer, I just text them. To be fair to them, they have been phenomenally helpful at key moments. I think many hon. Members feel that. At the same time, to be honest, the comms strategy this year has been a complete mess and a disaster. I urge the Minister to go back to the Department and say that Parliament should be used not only for accountability but to try to speak to the people of this country and to get across clear messages in a timely fashion. In that regard, will he tell us when he will publish the national cancer recovery plan, because lots of people have major anxiety at the moment about when their cancer will be treated?

I am always pleased to receive messages and inquiries from the hon. Gentleman. He raises two important points. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) is working on the national cancer recovery plan at pace. I am happy to return to the hon. Gentleman when I have had an opportunity to speak to her. On his broader point, he is right that it is important that we in this House recognise that, in our democracy, people consent and comply because they are persuaded. It is important that we use the House and all the mechanisms within it to persuade and bring the public with us.

We have all had enormous increases in constituency correspondence during the pandemic, so I can only imagine what it must be like at the Minister’s Department. However, in looking at how his Department responds to MPs’ questions, will my hon. Friend reassure the House that any changes will not come at the expense of his Department’s excellent parliamentary engagement and briefings for Members with Ministers and scientific experts that allow us to question advisers on detailed scientific and medical matters?

My hon. Friend highlights that the workload from constituents has increased for all Members. I recognise that. It is important that we do our bit in trying to answer questions in as timely a fashion as possible, to assist colleagues in the House with responses to constituents. In response to his second point, he is absolutely right. As I have indicated, it is not only through attending the House and through its mechanisms that Ministers have been accountable; as a Department, we have sought to use multiple channels—briefings to colleagues, WhatsApp and a whole range of newsletters and other mechanisms—to get messages out and to communicate with colleagues and answer their questions.

I thank the Minister for his departmental response to covid-19 and many other issues. As one of the Department’s most prolific questioners, I am aware of the pressure on the Minister’s Department to respond to a vast array of complex medical and social issues. Perhaps to assist the Minister, his team could work closely with the health trusts to provide up-to-date data in a timely manner.

The hon. Gentleman is indeed a prolific questioner, but his questions are always welcome and to the point. He highlights an important aspect that affects the response of the Department, which is that a significant number of questions, and the information required to answer them, is held not within the Department but by various health trusts, NHS England or other external bodies, which can occasionally introduce additional slight delays in the system. We are working closely with them to minimise that and get answers as quickly as we can to hon. Members.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for raising this matter, and I recognise the importance of parliamentary questions for their role in parliamentary scrutiny, but it is only right that we recognise the substantial weight on the shoulders of the Department of Health and Social Care as it leads the charge against this pandemic. I personally be blown away by the readiness and willingness of Ministers to engage through a whole range of communications, including Zoom, email and WhatsApp. I am grateful, in particular, for their engagement when it looked as though Bishop Auckland residents might have been teetering on the edge of tier 3 over the summer, which we thankfully avoided. Can my hon. Friend confirm that efforts are being made to clear the PQ backlog, but that other communication channels will remain open for MPs and their engagement?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to the officials in the Department, who are working hard to clear the backlog and who do take this very seriously. As I say, we are trying to clear the older PQs first, and then get back up to the performance we had before. She is absolutely right to highlight the other methods of communication. I may not be the most technological Minister in this House, but we have been seeking to use every means we can to try to answer colleagues’ questions and give them the information they need.

In my time in the House, I have campaigned alongside women and families affected by sodium valproate. Many of the victims of this scandal have felt for decades that Governments have tried to push it under the carpet, so can the Minister understand the frustration and suspicion that these victims feel when written parliamentary questions about the Cumberlege review, which was published on 8 July, continue to take a long time to answer—and when those answers come, they are very poor—and their frustration that since July there has been no progress, beyond the apology in this House, in implementing that review? Can the Minister update the tens of thousands of victims of the Primodos, surgical mesh and sodium valproate scandals and assure them that their campaigns for justice remain high on his Department’s agenda?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tone she adopts on what is actually a very sensitive and very important issue. I can reassure her that that issue does remain very high on the Department’s agenda. At the risk of tempting fate, if she wishes either to write to me or to table a question to me, I will endeavour to get it answered very quickly so she has something on the record on that.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can my hon. Friend also look at the quality, and at the repeat questions that have to be asked to clarify the answers that are given to written parliamentary questions? I have had to submit often detailed letters to Ministers because WPQs basically do not supply the information required. Some answers that are now coming back after six months of waiting have been about, for example, offers to supply PPE to the national health service, and people who have had tests but not actually got the results—and I could go further. The reality is that the quality of the answers to WPQs, as well as the quantity, has not been good enough, so will he look at those two aspects, please?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who landed his question very effectively. He is absolutely right to talk about the balance between speed and accuracy. In some cases where the issue is complex, a letter may be more appropriate for getting detailed information, rather than the short factual response to a parliamentary question. Sometimes the delay can be because Ministers—this goes to the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders)—on reading the question and the answer, and looking at it as a constituency MP as well, may realise that they want to send it back for redraft because it does not answer an hon. Member’s question. That can cause delays, but we endeavour to provide accurate answers as swiftly as we can.

I absolutely understand and appreciate the pressures on the Minister’s Department. However, it does grate that I regularly hear, in debates in this Chamber, Conservative Members saying how quickly and easily they can get direct responses from Ministers. The Minister himself referred to a WhatsApp group a few moments ago, and I suspect that that is for Conservative Members. For those of us on the Opposition Benches, written questions and letters are often the only means to scrutinise, secure detailed information and hold the Government to account. Over a third of replies to my questions have been delayed for more than a month, and the longest delay was 190 days. I have had replies to letters outstanding for up to five months. Do my constituents have any less of a right to a response? Does the Minister have any advice for me as an Opposition spokesperson about how I can get more timely and detailed information?

I am a little bit surprised by the hon. Lady’s tone, because she and I speak regularly, and she has very easy access to me around the House, which she regularly uses, as do all Members. She has been on various briefing calls and other calls in which we answer data questions and any question that Members wish to ask, and this House is for that purpose. Her constituents have exactly the same right to answers as anyone else, and they get exactly the same response as those of any other Member. Although this urgent question is about written parliamentary questions, I would flag the fact that the Department has received more than 63,500 pieces of correspondence so far this year, compared with just 30,000 in the entirety of 2019. We have increased resourcing for that team, as we have for the PQ teams, and we are getting through the backlog as swiftly as possible.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to support for my local party association. I have recently tabled written questions on suicide prevention on the railways; earlier in November, a person in my constituency sadly died after being hit by a train. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to Land Sheriffs, a Harlow-based security company which, through its railway security programme, has intervened and prevented close to 300 suicides on the railways across England?

As my right hon. Friend mentioned, he has recently tabled a number of written questions on this issue, to which I look forward to responding in a timely fashion. I am happy to pay tribute to Land Sheriffs in his constituency for its impressive work in helping to tackle and prevent suicide on the railways. I know that the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention will be very interested to hear about its work.

I thank the Minister for his answers today. I understand the pressure on his Department—I really do—but of the 28 questions that I have tabled to the Department of Health and Social Care, 86% were answered late, and if those due today are not answered, that figure will rise to 88%. I have to say that the quality of some of the responses is pretty poor too. Will he consider starting up the NHS England and NHS Digital statistical publications that were paused during the pandemic, so that we can get some of the information ourselves?

I think the hon. Gentleman has four parliamentary questions outstanding. By his timely intervention, he may find that when I get back to the Department this afternoon, I will ensure that the figure does not rise to 88% overdue. His substantive point is the same one made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, which I said I would take away and look at.

I understand that since the start of the pandemic the Secretary of State has made 16 oral statements in the House on coronavirus and there have been seven urgent questions and five general debates on the topic. It is, of course, important that Members receive timely responses to inquiries, but does my hon. Friend agree that there have been significant opportunities for Members to raise concerns on the Floor of the House and to seek answers from Ministers?

I think it is fair to say that no one could accuse Ministers in the Department, including the Secretary of State, of not being willing to be accountable to Members in a multitude of ways. But of course, it is not an either/or, so we will endeavour to continue to perform well in attending this House and also to improve performance on written parliamentary questions.

Some might argue that it is the number of urgent questions we have allowed in order for debate.

Openness and transparency around the sharing of data is key to ensuring that the public and the business community buy into the draconian measures that we have introduced in the fight against covid. I genuinely thank the Minister for his and the Department’s efforts in ensuring that we get timely information, but on 21 October, I asked the Health Secretary for data relating to positive cases among those who had not been in the UK 72 hours before their test, and I still have had no answer. Will the Minister agree to provide that data, which will be key to informing the full reopening of our airports, getting our airlines flying again and kick-starting our aviation sector and its supply chain?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. My understanding is that there are, I think, five outstanding written answers due to her, dating from November. She mentions one from October, so I will check whether that has been answered overnight. If not, I will go back to the Department and look into that particular written question.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing so many urgent questions and statements, which allow so many Back Benchers to ask questions? I am very grateful for that.

All Departments have had a higher volume of questions, not least the Department of Health and Social Care, because of the health pandemic. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the uptake of other forms of communications that have been made available?

My hon. Friend rightly raises the other methods of communication with right hon. and hon. Members and the other ways they can access information—not as an alternative to written questions and scrutiny in this Chamber— which appear to have been extremely popular with Members on both sides of the House. We intend to continue to make such briefings and access available to all right hon. and hon. Members.

Does the Minister accept that questions are sometimes tabled to Departments in response to issues raised by our constituents, and that by failing to engage with Members in this way—I understand all the reasons why it is taking longer—it is ultimately the public who suffer the consequences?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I refer her to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). We recognise both the increased workload on hon. Members from their constituents and the importance of timely answers to written questions in helping them to discharge that obligation to them.

I thank the excellent Minister for his response, but may I suggest that the covid situation is allowing the Government to dodge issues they do not want to answer? On the Floor of the House, I asked the Secretary of State how many tests with false positives and false negatives there are. He dodged that question, so I tabled a named day question on 21 October, asking for his estimate of how many tests with false positives and false negatives there are. Yesterday, I received a response saying that they had no idea. They must have known they had no idea on 21 October, so it seems to me that that delay had more to do with not wanting to put that information out than any other reason. Can we have accurate and timely answers, not politically motivated delays?

It is always a pleasure to see my hon. Friend and to be questioned by him, both at this Dispatch Box and in other forums. I have to say to him that I do not think it is a fair reflection to suggest that the Government or others are dodging answers. We are at this Dispatch Box regularly. We do answer questions regularly. I will look into the particular question he raises, but often to answer we require information from external bodies or other NHS bodies, which can take time.

The Minister emphasises other means of engagement to written questions, delays to which I, too, have experienced far too often. In April, I wrote to the Minister for Care, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) with the concerns of a constituent of mine over personal protective equipment for care homes. I received a response in October. Will the Minister acknowledge that such delays undermine the confidence of my constituents in the Government’s public health measures? Will he commit, which I do not think he has done so far, to putting in place the capacity and resources to respond to constituents’ concerns in a timely manner, in whichever format they are expressed?

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but we have already put in place that capacity. We have doubled the capacity for parliamentary questions and I have significantly increased capacity for correspondence. The only thing I would say on correspondence, which she alluded to, is that at any normal time we have 850 pieces of correspondence open. Reflecting the volume that comes in at the moment, that is about 10,000. We have increased the capacity in the Department, but, of course, as long as volume remains high it will always be a challenge to keep up with that demand. We are doing our very best.

I thank the Minister, because he has been courteous in the way that he has dealt with this matter. He certainly drew the short straw.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.