DHSC Answers to Written Questions

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Thursday 19th November 2020

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department of Health and Social Care
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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(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.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister for Health (Edward Argar)
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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is timeliness: we have met a rapidly, almost daily, changing situation, and answers drafted by officials are sometimes out of date shortly after they are drafted.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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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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 to try 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. Where 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.