DHSC Answers to Written Questions DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Edward ArgarMain Page: Edward Argar (Conservative - Charnwood)
Department Debates - View all Edward Argar's debates with the Department of Health and Social Care
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 thank the Minister for his response and for the hard work he and his Department put in. However, as he acknowledges, the performance here, like 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 to 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 to 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 the 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 that 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?
In conclusion, 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 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 shown 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 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 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.
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.
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 not be used 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?
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?
I thank the Minister for his departmental response to covid-19 and many 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.
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 have been 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?
In my time in this 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?
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? In my case, I have had to submit often detailed letters to Ministers because WPQs basically do not supply the information required. Some 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 have not been good enough, so will he look at those two aspects, please?
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. He 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 refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in terms of 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?
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 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?
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 kickstarting our aviation sector and its supply chain?
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?
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 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?
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 those kinds of 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 thank the Minister, because he has been courteous in the way that he has dealt with this matter. He certainly has had 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.