At Business Questions in the Commons yesterday a succession of Conservative MPs exposed the failure of ministers to answer their questions in a timely way.
Chris Bryant MP, The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons: "The Cabinet Office produces guidance for Departments on handling correspondence from Members of Parliament, Members of the House of Lords, Members of the European Parliament and Members of devolved Assemblies. All Departments should set targets, which should not exceed 20 working days."
Andrew Selous: "First, let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. I am aware of the guidance and I have a copy of it. As he rightly says, the figure is 20 days, but I wrote to the Department of Health on 28 July on a serious matter with national implications for the treatment of NHS patients. Seventy-four days—10 and a half weeks—have passed and my office has chased the matter up 10 times to try to get a reply, but we have not had one. Will the hon. Gentleman help me to get a reply and will he remind all Ministers that replying to Members’ letters is not just something that they should get round to, but a constitutional duty to perform out of respect for our constituents?"
Chris Bryant: "I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind comment at the beginning of his remarks. What he describes is clearly not acceptable, and I shall ensure that he gets an answer as soon as possible… While 204,925 letters a year are answered by Ministers, the Department of Health is one of the better-performing Departments, with 92 per cent. of letters responded to in time."
Paul Goodman MP: "On 22 January, I wrote to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on behalf of my constituent, George Young. My office chased the letter up four times, and I finally received a reply on 8 September. I welcome the Minister to his new post, but will he encourage the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to send one of his minions to the Dispatch Box to make a statement confirming that that delay and others like it are completely unacceptable, and that the Department will remove its collective finger from wherever it may happen to have inserted it?"
Chris Bryant: "The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I will not go down that route. It is clear that hon. Members must have swift answers. Those who are elected to the House should get swift and substantive answers to the questions that they ask on their own behalf or on behalf of their constituents."
Mark Harper MP: "I too welcome him to his post. I acknowledge the work of the Leader of the House in chasing up Departments following my letter to her. Having said that, I am still waiting for answers to 17 questions tabled a week before the summer recess. Of the 85 named day questions that I tabled, 55 were not answered on the named day, and on average the answers were 19 days late. That is not acceptable. What will the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. and learned Lady do to ensure that Ministers deliver on their promises to the House?"
Chris Bryant: "My gratitude continues, this time to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. He has shown the House that he is an extremely assiduous Member, including during the recess. Many members of the public might think that Members of Parliament work only when the House is sitting, but he was assiduous in tabling questions even during the bank holiday week. During the three days in September, 807 questions were tabled. That is a good innovation, but it is clear that further work is necessary to ensure that a greater number of questions are answered more swiftly and substantively. As the hon. Gentleman has taken a long-standing interest in such issues, with two debates in Westminster Hall on ministerial accountability, I am happy to take forward some of those issues jointly with him."