Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report


The Select Committee on Public Administration has agreed to the following Report:—


1. This is the fourth Report published on Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions by this Committee or its predecessor, the Public Service Committee. That Committee, when considering practical measures to ensure that Ministers are as open as possible with Parliament, recommended in 1996 that there should be published each year a memorandum, prepared by the Table Office, listing cases where Parliamentary Questions had been "blocked" because of Ministers' refusal to answer them.[13]

2. A Memorandum relating to questions "blocked" in Session 98-99 is printed with this Report in Appendix 1. We are grateful to the Table Office for providing it. We subsequently requested clarification from the relevant departments on the reasons for their "blocks", and we print our letter (and the replies we received) in Appendix 2.

3. We do not deal in detail in this report with the House's own rules in relation to Parliamentary Questions. This is a matter for the Procedure Committee and the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons. What we have done this year, which goes beyond what we have done previously, is to address some questions which go beyond the matters raised in the Table Office Memorandum, namely reasons why Members may be dissatisfied with the responses they receive. In so doing, we made no assumptions as to whether Departments have become any better or worse than in the past; the difference between this Report and its predecessors is that we ourselves are looking at the subject in more detail.

Table Office Memorandum

4. The House's principal rules on what may be asked in a written Parliamentary Question are derived from decisions by successive Speakers on individual Questions, endorsed from time to time by Select Committees on Procedure. They can be crystallised in three essential points:

  • Questions should be on matters for which the Government has responsibility, and should be directed to the Minister within the Government who is responsible; and

  • Questions should not repeat recently answered Questions.

5. The last of these points is one of the reasons for the operation of the system of what has been generally known as "blocking". A Question may not be asked if that same Question has already been asked and answered in the current Session (unless there is a reason to believe that the situation has changed). If a Minister declines to provide information in answer to a Parliamentary Question (or refuses to take a particular action, if that is what has been asked), the same Question cannot be asked again for the next three months (again, unless there is reason to believe that circumstances have changed). The system used to be considerably more elaborate (and included further categories of Question which could not be tabled), but was reformed following two reports by the Procedure Committee in 1991 and 1993.[14]

6. The Memorandum provided by the Table Office is derived from the index kept by the Office to ensure that a Question is not asked again if the Department has previously indicated that it will not answer it. It therefore mainly lists instances of questions which have not been answered for the following reasons:

  • the Department concerned has said that either the Government is not responsible for the matter concerned, or else that Department is not responsible;

  • a Minister has directly refused to provide information on the grounds that the information is, for one reason or other, confidential.

It does not list instances of refusal to answer because the cost of doing so would be disproportionate, although this is a traditional ground for refusal. The Table Office's list shows that in many cases the reason given for refusal to answer a Parliamentary Question is a denial of Ministerial responsibility. Other common reasons are commercial confidentiality, security, the need to protect the privacy of individuals and the confidentiality of law enforcement investigations.

7. The general guidance issued by government to civil servants concerning the answering of Parliamentary Questions stresses that departments should be as open as possible. It says that civil servants should draft answers to Parliamentary Questions "predisposed to give relevant information fully, as concisely as possible and in accordance with guidance on disproportionate cost". If civil servants believe that there is a case for not giving the information requested, they are told to indicate this in the answer "in equivalent terms to those in the Code of Practice, or because of disproportionate cost or the information not being available".[15] The Code of Practice concerned is the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which was introduced in 1994, and created a common set of standards governing the disclosure of information by government departments and agencies.[16] Once the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is in force we will expect reference to the appropriate exemption contained in it to replace reference to the Code.

8. The Table Office list does not show occasions on which Ministers have given incomplete answers, or answers that may be interpreted as misleading. These do not create a 'block': it remains possible for Members to seek further information on the subject.

9. The proportion of questions 'blocked' by each Department in Session 1998-99 was as follows:

Totals of Written Questions to Departments 1998/99

Total number of
questions tabled
Church Commissioners
Culture, Media and Sport
Cabinet Office
Ministry of Defence
Education and Employment
Environment, Transport and the Regions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Home Office
International Development
Lord Chancellor's Department
Northern Ireland Office
Prime Minister
President of the Council
Attorney General
Scotland Office and Scotland Office
53 + 1,163
Social Security
Trade and Industry
H M Treasury
Welsh Office and Office of the Secretary of State for Wales
73 + 1,002 to
Welsh Office

*Source: Parliamentary On-Line Information System

Evidence from Departments

10. As before, we asked Departments to explain the reasoning behind their refusals to provide information in response to Questions, as identified in the Table Office Memorandum. In most cases, the information given by the Department is sufficient to explain the reasons why it was felt necessary to withold the information requested (although, as a number of them point out, in many cases the Department has not provided the information because it does not hold it, rather than because it has deliberately withheld it). The Lord Chancellor's Department challenged the suggestion that they had 'blocked' certain questions, pointing out (correctly) that they had merely abided by the conventions. We hope they will read with care the opening few paragraphs of this Report.

11. We have said in our two latest reports that in many cases, when a Department withholds information in response to a question on the grounds that the information is confidential, it fails to mention the relevant exemption of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. This happens despite the fact that the Government accepted a recommendation of the Public Service Committee in July 1996 that the relevant exemption should be specified when departments gave such answers.[17] Practice still does not appear to have improved much in this respect, although there are one or two departments which are quite punctilious in giving the specific exemption. The Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister in particular deserve praise in this respect, although it is also the case that they 'block' a high proportion of questions. Departments usually made reference to the relevant exemption in their responses to our queries. DfID, for instance, cited it in the original answer in only two cases out of five, but when the Permanent Secretary wrote to the Committee he cited it in four. In this context we were pleased to learn from Sir Michael Scholar at the DTI that he has 'asked the Parliamentary Clerk to make sure that all officials who draft answers to Parliamentary Questions are aware of the Code of Practice and the need to make reference to the exemptions whenever appropriate.[18] The Northern Ireland Office gave a similar undertaking.[19]

12. We continue to be disappointed by the failure of many departments to adopt a practice recommended by this Committee[20] and accepted by the Government, and recommend again that the Government ensure that where Departments withhold information under an exemption in the Code of Practice (or later under the Freedom of Information Act 2000) they invariably cite the relevant exemption.

Dissatisfaction with replies

13. This year we decided to try to find out from Members what displeased them about Ministerial replies to Questions. Anecdotal evidence, and the personal experience of Committee Members, suggested that incomplete answers might be a particular issue and so we wrote to all Members asking for examples of these.[21] We received 39 replies, of which two expressed satisfaction with the system and one said that the writer did not have enough information to judge. The rest raised a variety of complaints by no means restricted to incomplete answers. We accept that we are working on a small sample, and take the point made by one Member (Dr Palmer) that silence might imply satisfaction. However, we found the replies we did receive illuminating and are grateful to those who took the trouble to respond. Some of the replies are printed in Appendix 3; the remainder have been placed in the Library of the House.

14. We should point out that while the evidence we received from the Departments relates to Session 1998-99, much of the information from MPs is more recent.

15. The complaints we received fell into six main categories: dissatisfaction with the rules or conventions of the House regarding Parliamentary Questions and answers to them; complaints that these were not being followed; complaints about partial or misleading answers; complaints that questions were not being addressed at all; complaints of discrepancies between Departments or within the same Department over time; and complaints about delays in answering letters to Ministers.

16. While refusing to answer questions on the grounds of 'disproportionate cost' is not a convention of the House, it is indubitably a convention used by Departments. It was drawn to our attention by Mr Ainsworth, Mr Garnier and Mr Owen-Jones. When a Written Question would cost more than a certain amount of money to answer, the Departments have the option of giving the answer that a reply would involve disproportionate cost. The sum is periodically increased: from 21st July 1997 to 15th May 2000 it stood at £500 and is now £550. This advisory limit is 'based on eight times the average marginal cost for written questions, which is now £70, rounded down to the nearest £50 for convenience'.[22]

17. Only a small proportion of questions in reality elicit 'disproportionate cost' answers. When they are given they undoubtedly cause disproportionate annoyance. In 1997-1998, out of 51,982 written questions, 1,441 received such answers; in 1998-1999 it was 732 out of 32,286 and in 1999-2000, 871 of 36,850. An analysis by Department is printed at Annex 1. Variations may reflect a number of factors including Department's remits and the interests of individual Members who table particularly complicated questions, and cannot necessarily be used as a criterion by which to judge Departments. We hope that we, or our successors, will return to the question of disproportionate cost in future sessions.

18. Perhaps inevitably, Members and others suggested to us that 'disproportionate cost' is sometimes used as an excuse for not answering. Dr Lowry, a researcher, drew our attention to an exchange in the Chamber in which Mr Campbell-Savours said as much.[23] Mr Garnier thought that it might hide bureaucratic laziness and Mr Field gave an example of a question which originally received this answer only to be answered after evidence before a Select Committee made it clear that the information could, in fact, be made available. We have already reported our views on the Freedom of Information legislation[24], and in particular our view that some of the exemptions are drawn too widely.

19. We recommend that when Departments are considering refusing to answer a question on the grounds of 'disproportionate cost' there should be a presumption that any of the requested information which is readily available should be given.

20. Another convention which drew unfavourable comment is that which limits the information available to Ministers in answering questions about the previous administration though there are exceptions: a question about the performance of cluster bombs during the Falklands war was answered in November 2000.[25] Mr Bradley wrote of his experience of falling foul of this when seeking information about the official engagements of Ministers on overseas visits- information which he was later, after considerable effort, able to obtain under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information (but only after the Foreign Office had consulted the Cabinet Office about the propriety of revealing it). His experience led him to suggest that it might be hard to persuade civil servants to adopt Freedom of Information legislation 'in both principle and practice'.[26]

21. One of the conventions that some Members feel is being broken is that concerning the day by which written questions should be answered. Briefly, if a question is tabled for ordinary written answer, one clear day's notice must be given and the question should be answered within a working week. If a more urgent reply is required it may be tabled for a 'named day', in which case two clear days notice must be given; an answer, even if only a 'holding answer', should be given on the day named and a substantive reply within a month. Mr Boswell and Mr Tyler were two Members who complained that these rules were being flouted; Mr Tyler said in the Chamber that 'the number of written questions that are not answered on the named day is increasing in a number of departments'[27] and followed this statement up with a letter to the Speaker in which he noted that '60% of such questions to DTI were NOT answered on or before the named day (12% took up to a month to be answered!)' and '64% of such questions to the Treasury were NOT answered on or before the named day (14% took up to a month to be answered)'. It is of course possible that delays in answering named day questions are due to a tendency among Members to table named day questions for an early day whether the matter is truly urgent or not. We note that the Procedure Committee has reminded Members that the priority marking for written questions should be used sparingly and selectively and 'that in no way reduces its effectiveness; in particular, the earliest permitted date should be reserved for those questions to which an urgent answer is genuinely required'.[28] For an analysis by department of the percentage of questions answered on the named day (see Annex 2).

22. Sometimes the answer to a question takes the form 'I will write to the Honourable Member' and in this case it is expected that a copy of the letter will be placed in the Library. Mr Tyler wrote 'perhaps I could draw attention to another unfortunate development. Increasing use of 'answers' which simply promise a reply in writing to the Member concerned is not really satisfactory. Not only do such letters provide less accessible information, for Members and others, than a reply in Hansard. Indeed, I understand that such a response placed in the Library, is not immediately available to the media in the same way as the official record.'[29] Sometimes again, Ministers reply that the information will be placed in the Library. We recommend that when information is deposited in the Library in response to a parliamentary question a copy of it should always be supplied to the Member at the same time.

23. Departments vary in the extent to which they answer questions on the day named. We reproduce as Annexes 2 and 3 to this Report a table produced by the Table Office showing the variation in the time taken by various departments to answer named day questions.

24. Sometimes the answer to a parliamentary question is long delayed, and we have reason to believe that some are never answered at all. It is, of course, open to Members to pursue the matter by a question on the lines of 'when I may expect an answer' but we believe this puts the onus unfairly on the Member. We recommend that Departments should overhaul their systems for ensuring that all questions receive a timely answer.

25. It occasionally happens that a Member tables a question to which the answer is delayed until another Member tables a similar one, in which case the second Member receives a substantive answer and the first an answer by reference. We deplore this practice and recommend that in these cases the Member who tabled the earlier question should receive the substantive answer.

26. We received, in response to our request to Members, a number of responses complaining that part of a question had been ignored. Miss Widdecombe, for instance, asked the Home Secretary 'what estimate he has made of the average cost to public funds of a drug abstinence order made under Part III of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill; what estimate he has made of the number of orders that will be made annually; what estimate he had made of the number of other community orders that will include drug abstinence orders; if magistrates courts will be able to make such an order; and if he will make a statement'. She received the answer 'the average cost of a Drug Abstinence Order/Requirement under community supervision is estimated at £1,500. The new drug testing regime will be piloted in the first instance. It is estimated that initial piloting in three areas would result in 3,500 offenders being made subject to the drug abstinence requirements'.[30] No mention was made of the magistrates courts. Mr Tyrie gave us a number of examples of what he described as being 'fobbed off'. His efforts to gather information about the cost of special advisers travelling with Ministers repeatedly received the answer only that the travel arrangements were 'consistent with the Ministerial Code'.[31] Other replies referred him to earlier PQs which did not answer the question. In a number of cases part or all was ignored.

27. In some cases, failure to answer part of a complex question results from the fact that an element of it falls outside ministerial responsibility, or could only be answered at disproportionate cost. Even so, we would expect that where this is so it will be clearly stated in the answer. Failure even to address part of a question is at best sloppy; at worst it may be symptomatic of what Lord Phillips in his inquiry into BSE described as a 'culture of secrecy'. A number of Members alluded to such a culture. Peter Bradley spoke of 'a prevailing culture within many sectors of the civil service which leads them routinely to withhold information'. Mr Garnier thought that 'some civil servants 'swear by the card' and give an answer which though not dishonest is obviously partial and designed to fob off the questioner'. Dr Marek felt that two answers he had received were designed to provide 'as little information as possible'. Mr Griffiths drew on his experience as a Minister to write 'my first experience as a Minister was in very poor civil service drafting of answers. This did not really improve over the course of the year and I found that my private office and I still had a lot to do - mainly incorporating background information into the answer. Frankly the culture of hoarding information seems to be endemic'. He thought the problem could be resolved by 'an agreed approach among Ministers'. We deplore the practice of answering part only of a question and ignoring the rest, whether it arises out of policy or slackness; we recommend that Departments should introduce stringent checks to ensure that all parts of a question are addressed.

28. A persistent Member can sometimes elicit the required information by tabling 'pursuant'questions, but we believe that this should not be necessary and it must in itself entail further civil service costs.

29. Some questions receive partial answers; others receive answers which are almost insulting. Mr Loughton asked 'how much of the change in the figures for carbon emission savings from fuel duties, set out in the Pre-Budget Report, relies on (i) reduced mileage travelled by vehicles and (ii) reduced emissions resulting from technological improvements in car engines'. He received the reply 'the Pre-Budget report set out that the fuel duty escalator from 1996 to 1999 is estimated to produce carbon savings of 1 to 2.5 million tonnes of carbon by 2010'.[32] This is an answer not to the question asked but to one which the Table Office might well have refused to accept on the grounds that the information was readily available.

30. Some Members drew our attention to discrepancies between Departments or within the same Department over time in their approach to answering questions and letters. As an example of the first case, Mr Ottaway drew a comparison between Prime Minister and Ministry of Defence in terms of willingness to place a speech in the Library while on the second Mr Willetts provided evidence that in 1998 replies had been given to questions about the number of lone parents who had found employment under the New Deal for Lone parents but subsequently gone back onto benefit whereas in 2000 he had been told the information was not available.[33]

31. Six of the replies we received complained of delays in answering not parliamentary questions but letters to Ministers. Bill O'Brien wrote 'I enclose a card of acknowledgement that I received from the Department of Social Security on 8 November in response to a letter dated 3 November and I write to advise that on 20 March I am now sending a reminder to the Under-Secretary of State'. Mr John M Taylor wrote ' I am certainly getting some very slow replies to letters to Ministers. Had I been asked to sign such letters myself when I was a Minister in the last administration, I would have demanded an explanation from my officials'. Mr Garnier wrote 'my biggest the long delays, and they are worse under this Administration than the last, to answer MPs' correspondence'. Mr Pendry wrote 'I enclose a letter from the Minister of Sport dated 22 March 2000 in response to two letters which I sent on 22nd December 1999 and 11th January 2000.[34]

32. A Members' dissatisfaction with responses from Departments was taken up by the last Speaker. On 18th April she said 'Hon Members asked me to look into the fact that questions were not answered on the named day...and...into the long delays in correspondence from Ministers...I have had a long discussion with the Cabinet Secretary...and with the Minister for the Cabinet Office..I am totally convinced that they are doing everything possible to try to bring about improvements'.[35] As a result of this Sir Richard wrote to all Departments.'[36]

33. The Cabinet Office published a table showing for each Department and Agency the number of letters received annually from MPs, the targets set for answering them and the extent to which the targets were met. There were many variations: for instance the Home Office received in 1999 16,826 replies and answered 45% within its target of 15 working days while in the same year the Department of Health received 18, 346 and answered 47% within 20 days.[37]

34. We hope that following the intervention of the Cabinet Secretary and the Minister there will be improvements in departmental responses to Members in the next Session of Parliament.

35. In the light of Sir Richard's letter, we should like to draw attention to some circumstances arising out of his appearance before the Committee on 9 February 2000. At that meeting he was asked to supply the Committee with a list of the Prime Minister's visits, with an addendum showing who accompanied him on each. Correspondence subsequently indicated that the information would be circulated in May. It was not, in fact, until June- in itself an unacceptable delay- that information was received detailing numbers of staff and purpose of trip; details of accompanying staff were never supplied.


36. We have found the extended exercise carried out this year to be of interest, and we hope the House will too. We would hope that we, or our successors, will return to the matter in future sessions; in particular it might be appropriate to take oral evidence from Departments whose records as far as answering Members' questions are concerned are either particularly good or particularly bad.

37. We believe that in general civil servants work hard to comply with the requests of Members for information or action. Nonetheless, there are some areas of weakness which we should like to see addressed. In particular, we should like to see more consistency both between and within Departments, and we hope that next session we shall not again have reason to complain that Departments are not citing the Code of Practice (or equivalent) when they decline to provide information.

13   The Public Service Committee made the recommendation in its report on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility (HC1995-96) 313-I, para 68). The first such memorandum was published in its First Report of last Session, Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility (HC (1996-97) 234. The second was published by the (HC (1997-98) 820).  Back

14   HC (1990-91) 178, paras 110-114; HC (1992-93) 687, para 53. Back

15   Guidance to officials on drafting answers to Parliamentary Questions, published in HC (1996-97) 67, annex C. It is also published in the Cabinet Office's 1997 Open Government Monitoring Report, Appendix 9. Back

16   The Code covers these bodies covered by the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman) and includes some NDPBs as well. Back

17   "The Government agrees that in future reasons should invariably be given when information is being refused in response to a Parliamentary Question and that... these reasons should relate to the exemptions laid down in the Code" [unless it is because providing a response would involve disproportionate cost] HC (1996-97) 67, pp. xv-xvi. See also HC Deb, 12 May 1998, col 82W. Back

18  Appendix 2 Memorandum 16 Back

19  Appendix 2 Memorandum 11 Back

20  Fourth Report of Session 1997-98 HC 820, para 9 Back

21  Appendix 2 Memorandum 21  Back

22  HC Deb 15 May 2000 col 47w Back

23  HC Deb 2 Feb 1999, col 736w Back

24  First Report of Session 1999-2000 HC 78 Back

25  HC Deb (1999-2000) 27 Nov col 428w Back

26  Appendix 3 Back

27  Appendix 3 Back

28  HC 1992-93 687 Back

29  The Procedure Committee addressed this problem in its Fourth Report of Session 1999-2000 HC 734 Back

30  HC Deb (1999-2000) 22 March, col 560w Back

31  HC Deb (1998-99) col 403-4w Back

32  HC Deb (1999-2000) 24 Nov col 339w Back

33  HC Deb (1999-2000) 2 March col 356w and HC Deb (1997-1998) 19 March col 738w Back

34  Appendix 3 Back

35  HC Deb 18 April, 830 Back

36  Appendix 3 Back

37  HC Deb 17 April col 386-8w Back

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