To be published as HC 817-i




Procedure Committee

Written parliamentary Question Performance of the Department for Education

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Elizabeth Truss MP and Hilary Spencer

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 150



This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.


The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 12 December 2012

Members present:

Mr Charles Walker (Chair)

Nic Dakin

Helen Goodman

Mr James Gray

Tom Greatrex

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Martin Vickers


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Elizabeth Truss MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education, and Hilary Spencer, Director of Strategy, Performance and Private Office Group, Department for Education, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Minister, would you like to make a brief statement before we start? You do not have to.

Elizabeth Truss: Maybe it is best to start with the questions.

Chair: Right. Well, I will say hello.

Elizabeth Truss: Hello.

Chair: Thank you for coming here to see us.

Elizabeth Truss: Not at all.

Q2 Chair: I think it is a bit mean that you have been offered up as the sacrificial lamb bearing in mind you have only been in post for a couple of months, but thank you very much for agreeing to do it. Well, we do not know whether you did agree to it; you might have been instructed to do it, but thank you for being here anyway.

Elizabeth Truss: I am saying nothing on that point.

Q3 Chair: To be honest, Minister-and I will call you Minister, is that all right?

Elizabeth Truss: Yes.

Chair: I will call you Minister. Minister, I think the Committee and colleagues are concerned that the performance of the Department for Education is pretty poor compared to your peer group in other Departments. It really is a cause of concern, as I have said, and we would like to explore over the next half hour, 45 minutes, why it is so poor and what can be done to improve it. Without further delay, I shall ask my colleague Mr Gray to open up proceedings.

Q4 Mr Gray: Minister, I think the Chairman asked the first question, in a sense. First of all, would you accept that the Department for Education is significantly worse in this regard than everybody else?

Elizabeth Truss: Yes.

Q5 Mr Gray: Can you think of a reason why that should be the case?

Elizabeth Truss: Well, there are a whole series of reasons why that is the case. I agree that the performance is not what it should be completely. That is evidenced from the-I wonder if Hilary might-Hilary is overall in charge in the Department of the PQ process.

Q6 Mr Gray: Do you run the parliamentary Department?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, the parliamentary team is one of the teams that reports to me. There are a number of reasons.

Q7 Mr Gray: I am sorry; I am being a bit dim. I have not read my papers properly. Would you mind just introducing yourself properly?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, of course. My name is Hilary Spencer. I am the Director in charge of Strategy, Performance and Private Office Group in the Department.

Mr Gray: Strategy, Performance and Private Office. Thank you.

Hilary Spencer: As to the reasons why the Department’s performance is poor, I do not think anybody is disputing the fact that the performance in the Department is objectively poor in terms of our response rates to parliamentary questions and comparatively poor with other Government Departments.

The reasons for it being poor in the Department for Education are several. One is that there is a bit of a cultural issue around the way that people approach parliamentary questions. They are so keen to get the detail right and accurate that quite a lot of-oh, dear, I fear that I have just pre-empted the next question. I do think there is some nervousness around not getting the detail right in questions. I think we have had particular problems with our IT system. There have been two particular points in time where the entire IT system has failed-one in February 2011 and one in June this year, which has caused a particular problem.

This is one of the things. You will be aware that we have recently published the DfE review; one of the key things that we are saying as part of that is that the Department needs to get better in terms of its poor functions as a Government Department, one of which is these types of things.

Q8 Mr Gray: That is not a reason. Let us unpick the first two reasons you gave there, if I may. First of all you said it is a cultural matter and the Department for Education are particularly keen to get the answers right and detailed. I have two difficulties with that. One is that, presumably, every Department of State is trying to get the answers right.

Hilary Spencer: You would hope, yes.

Q9 Mr Gray: Therefore, I cannot see why it should take you any longer than anybody else.

Secondly, a couple of examples we have in front of us that we will be testing the Minister on in a moment do seem to me to demonstrate that the Department for Education specialises in producing waffly, Sir Humphrey answers that provide no useful information at all. I have one in front of me. Shall I give you an example, Minister, and perhaps you could comment?

Elizabeth Truss: Yes, go ahead.

Q10 Mr Gray: This, funnily enough, comes from someone who was a Minister in the Department until recently-Tim Loughton. He tabled this question on 22 October to ask the Secretary of State which youth projects firstly he, the Secretary of State, and, secondly, each Minister of the Department, had visited since May 2010. Pretty simple. It is just a list of youth opportunities that you have visited in the last two years.

That was answered on 6 December, a month and a half later. Bearing in mind that parliamentary questions are supposed to be answered within three days, a month and a half is not brilliant. It was a very factual question: which youth clubs have you visited in the last two years? The answer comes back, "Since May 2010 the Secretary of State and his ministerial team have visited a wide range of settings and establishments working with and for young people". Either you, Minister, or Hilary-do you think that actually answers the question at all?

Elizabeth Truss: I am happy to answer. It perhaps does not go into the level of detail you might expect.

Q11 Mr Gray: Minister, you cannot be serious. This is not an episode from Yes Minister. The question was extremely specific. The question was which youth project has the Secretary of State and other Ministers visited: a very, very specific, factual question. The answer bears no relationship at all to the question. You say it is short on detail, but there is no detail of any kind at all. Don’t you think that brings the whole issue of parliamentary questions into disrepute?

Elizabeth Truss: I do not think it does. There is a whole continuum of questions the Department gets asked. I agree with you-this is what I was trying to say in my answer, Mr Gray, that I absolutely agree with you that that does not go into the level of detail that one might expect.

Can I just come back on some of the points Hilary has outlined? We do recognise that there is a problem here and an issue here in the length of time the internal process is taking within the Department. Essentially, what Hilary is saying is that the Department for Education review is all about changing the Department from one where it does go through quite a lot of steps in the process to a much cleaner process that is more focused on outcomes and more focused on getting good responses.

We are well aware of this problem. This problem is discussed at both the management board and the DfE board of the Department and we are working on solutions-so both a solution in process terms but also a solution in terms of the IT problems that Hilary outlined. I think those are the two key issues from the Department’s point of view. I acknowledge that it is a problem and the evidence is clear that it is a problem.

Q12 Tom Greatrex: You referred to process problems just then. Maybe it would be helpful for the Committee to outline the process in your Department from when you receive a question from a Member to when an answer goes out. What process does it go through?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, I am happy to answer that. At the point at which the PQ arrives in the Department it is then-there are two issues with this. We have a PQ tracking system, which is the system that has failed and we have taken it out of service from June this year. The process that we were following up to that point was at the point at which a PQ came into the Department, it gets logged electronically; it gets fed into the system; it is allocated by 10.30 that day to the lead drafter and to the responsible deputy director, who has overall responsibility for making sure that the content of the parliamentary question is correct and timely. They then return that to the parliamentary branch at midday the next day, and that then is passed on to our adviser’s office, which clears all of the parliamentary questions that come into the Department and all the responses that come out of the Department. It then goes the following day through to one of the Ministers’ offices. Some of our PQs are cleared by two Ministers, depending on which House they go to or which topic they relate to.

Q13 Tom Greatrex: Right. If you had a very straightforward question with a straightforward, factual, simple answer, that could take three days to go from start to finish?

Hilary Spencer: Yes.

Q14 Tom Greatrex: That example that Mr Gray quoted from was six or seven weeks.

Hilary Spencer: Yes.

Q15 Tom Greatrex: In those types of examples, which bit takes the longest?

Hilary Spencer: It varies. If it is a very straightforward question, about 40% of our PQs at the moment are answered on time. In general, they are the most straightforward.

Tom Greatrex: It is 18% of the time.

Hilary Spencer: Which statistics are you looking at from there?

Tom Greatrex: Parliamentary written questions 2010 to 2012.

Hilary Spencer: Yes, so that is the first two years of the parliamentary session. That relates to May 2012. At the moment our latest statistics for October were that 43% of our Commons ordinary written PQs met the deadline.

Q16 Tom Greatrex: Which would still be significantly worse than every other Department.

Hilary Spencer: No, I agree; I am not disputing that. I am not disputing the relative performance and I not saying it is good enough, but I think if 40% of our PQs were reasonably simple that process does work reasonably effectively for a straightforward PQ. Some of the delays occur in the process where a request is more detailed. The process of trying to get a list of all the youth centres that every Minister in the Department has visited over the last two and a half years involves every diary manager in each of the Ministers’ offices tracking back through the diary to locate it.

Q17 Mr Gray: The diaries being electronic?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, but it would take-

Q18 Mr Gray: I cannot think of anything simpler. That would seem to me to be an incredibly simple thing to do-go through an electronic diary and state when you visited. Apparently, the Minister himself, Tim Loughton, thinks it should be pretty simple. Why is that complicated? Why is that difficult?

Hilary Spencer: It is not inherently complicated. It would take a diary manager about at least two hours to do an electronic search to check that.

Q19 Tom Greatrex: Not seven weeks?

Hilary Spencer: No, it should not take seven weeks, I agree.

Q20 Tom Greatrex: Which bit in those types of questions takes the longest? Is it the bit to get the ministerial sign-off? Is it the bit when the adviser is clearing it?

Hilary Spencer: Well, the truth is it probably varies. On some questions, the assembling of the information is difficult. In other areas, particularly where something is politically more controversial-obviously, Tim Loughton is a former Minister of the Department-our advisers and Ministers would want to be careful about it. But I do not see that that is a particular reason. Our system has failed. The electronic system has failed and that is causing quite a lot of upheaval.

Q21 Chair: But given your not answering his very simple question-it was an extremely simple question-you must tell us why a decision was taken in the Department not to ask the diary secretaries to produce the information. Am I right in thinking he has lodged an FOI for this information now?

Hilary Spencer: I am not sure; I do not know about that.

Q22 Chair: I think he might have. Can you please just explain to my colleague why a decision was taken within the Department not to ask the diary managers to go through their diaries?

Hilary Spencer: A decision would not have been taken. The diary managers would all have been asked to go through the diaries.

Q23 Chair: But why is the information not furnished here? The information is not here. What, they went through the diaries, provided who with the information, and then a decision was taken not to give it to Mr Loughton?

Hilary Spencer: I am not sure about the details of that specific one. Can I look into it and provide you with a report on what happened on this specific PQ?

Chair: Have you finished, Tom?

Tom Greatrex: Yes.

Q24 Nic Dakin: I think we have all had answers from Education similar to this one, which take longer than they should. I think you recognise the failure in terms of quality standards on that, but then I think we would all agree that this does not answer the question. If in seven weeks you have been assembling the list of things and that comes out after seven weeks, okay, it is late but at least the question is answered. It fails on the standard of timeliness and fails on the standard of quality of answer. Would you agree?

Elizabeth Truss: Yes.

Q25 Nic Dakin: I think Tom was trying to tease out where the blockages in the system might be. One alternative, one possible solution, one possible explanation might be that it is the political adviser area where a blockage lies because there is sensitivity and there is pause there. It is reasonable for us to ask if that is where the blockage is. Can you give us some confirmation or challenge to that test?

Elizabeth Truss: I personally do not have a view. I do not think we have the data on where in the system it has been blocked.

Q26 Nic Dakin: This has been going on for a couple of years. The performance has improved but it is still the poorest across the whole of Government, but you do not have the information on where it is. I ran a college for many years and if I did not have that information at my fingertips in terms of where the problems were, then I would be quite properly criticised by the Department.

Hilary Spencer: Yes, and it is worth saying that there were significant improvements in the Department’s performance between January and April this year, which is when we got much more detailed management information, which did allow us to track to the hour how long different parts of the process take.

Q27 Nic Dakin: So you could share that management information with us?

Hilary Spencer: At that point we did. We had it for four months between January and April, then our electronic system started having problems in May and we have not been able to retrieve the same level of management information since then. I am very happy to share with you the data for the beginning of the year, which does set that out in more detail.

Q28 Nic Dakin: I think that might be helpful. The other thing that strikes me is that if you look at Health, which is not a dissimilar area of political activity in terms of controversy and so on, Health is performing astoundingly well, which is to their credit. I just wonder what the Department has done in terms of trying to learn from Health’s experience.

Hilary Spencer: Yes, we have. Our parliamentary team has conducted visits to the Department for Transport, DFID, DECC, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Health, and DCMS to try to understand what they do that enables their performance to be so much better.

Q29 Nic Dakin: What has it learnt from those visits?

Hilary Spencer: The key thing we have learned is that most Departments do it in slightly different ways. Some of them have a reasonably large parliamentary team who manually go round. They have a big central team that goes round and chases people to make sure they meet deadlines. There are other teams that have better IT systems, which enable more consistent tracking.

I hesitate to walk into the area we have covered before, but there are some Departments that give much shorter answers than other Departments. The Cabinet Office, I think, is an example of one of those. I think a lot of it is to do with the management information; as you say, management information that allows you to identify at which point the blockage is occurring in the system because then you know what to do to tackle it.

Q30 Nic Dakin: You are not convincing me that you have the management information now to address the problem.

Hilary Spencer: I would not try to. At the moment, I do not think we have because our IT system has failed. Our management committee signed off at the board meeting in October the procurement for a new IT system, which should be live by Easter 2013.

Q31 Nic Dakin: So we have another year to go before we get proper delivery in terms of parliamentary answers?

Hilary Spencer: Well, I think we will be able to see significant improvements faster than a year. The specific problems we have had with the system collapsing in May and June were that we had no management information and we have been running it off a manual system. That was a crisis measure while we tried to fix the system.

We have concluded that as the system currently stands, it is not possible to fix it and we have looked at the options of importing IT systems from other Government Departments that have worked more effectively. Our conclusion has been that we cannot do that, but in the meantime we have strengthened the manual process. We have put extra staff into the parliamentary team to try to cope with that so that where we cannot do things electronically we have at least a bit more human resource into trying to fix the system.

Q32 Nic Dakin: Final question from me, then. What sort of level of performance would you expect to have between January and March next year?

Hilary Spencer: Between January and March?

Q33 Nic Dakin: What are you aiming for? You seem satisfied-well, not satisfied, but from 18% we are now talking about 40%, you tell us, although you are also saying your management information is not good enough to give total assurance around that. I am just interested in what sort of level of performance improvement you expect to have in the first quarter of 2013.

Hilary Spencer: Well, I would hope that we are somewhere between 40% and 50% in January, February and March.

Q34 Nic Dakin: Which would still put you pretty much at the bottom of the league, would it not?

Hilary Spencer: I agree. I am not claiming that that would bring our performance to a good standard. I think it would be acceptable. It would be better than it is now, but it would be disingenuous of me to say that with no further improvements to our IT we will suddenly be as good as a number of other Departments.

Q35 John Hemming: I have two areas I would like to look at. One is particularly the question here about what places have people visited. I do not know who is the appropriate person to ask there, but given that the question is about each Minister and which places they visited and given that that information would be available from the electronic diary, would it be accurate to say that none of the diary secretaries looked up the information?

Hilary Spencer: As I said, I just do not know enough about the details of this particular case.

Q36 John Hemming: In other words, you need to come back on this particular question?

Hilary Spencer: Yes.

Q37 John Hemming: Obviously, one would presume that at least one person is sufficiently competent within the Department to look up a diary and list the appointments within the period of time it took to answer the question and that somebody took a decision not to provide that information. Say it comes from a diary secretary and the diary secretary produces the information. Where does it go next?

Hilary Spencer: If it is something that relates to Ministers’ diaries, the collation of that would then go to the principal private secretary as the senior civil servant in charge of private office.

Q38 John Hemming: It goes to the principal private secretary. Does it go to anyone else?

Hilary Spencer: The principal private secretary would be responsible for clearing the accuracy of the information and making sure that the overall-

Q39 John Hemming: Once the principal private secretary has looked at it, does it just get then sent to the House?

Hilary Spencer: No, the process I outlined in response to an earlier question-it then goes on to our advisers and to the Minister’s office before it goes back to the House.

Q40 John Hemming: It goes to an adviser, so basically somewhere on that point if any information was provided to start out with and it has been stopped, who would be likely to have stopped it?

Hilary Spencer: I am reluctant to say more about this when I am not completely sure of my facts.

Q41 John Hemming: Without investigating the individual question.

There is another issue I would like you to go away and look at as well. I had a real battle with the Department that involved lots of references to the Procedure Committee about two years ago when the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was, in fact, in office. A lot of it related to what is happening to children in care.

There is a thing called the SSDA903 return. I accept that that is the specific responsibility of the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, but it is still the Education Department. We got a compromise where I would e-mail backwards and forwards with the statisticians, because I had been previously banned from talking to the statisticians under the previous Government. But because I understand how the database works I know the questions to ask.

My concern about it is that a number of children are lost by local authorities each year. That includes toddlers who are lost; 180 babies that leave the system and nobody knows where they go. I just wonder whether the acceptance of that by the Department for Education would be seen as complacent-that children disappear from the care system for other reasons and we do not know where they have gone. There is an equivalent system in American called AFCARS, which tracks children that run away. Now, a baby running away is a bit difficult, really. I just wonder whether you think that is reasonable.

Hilary Spencer: I am trying to compute the bit of my brain that has been geared up to talk about PQs with this specific question.

Q42 John Hemming: It is about the issue of accountability. My worry about it is that the Department is complacent about accountability in general. Now, obviously, these things I was handling through parliamentary questions and we got a compromise when there were so many things flying around that we would handle it through e-mails directly rather than through parliamentary questions. I wonder if you could come back with a detailed written response from the Department as to whether it is reasonable to have children completely disappear from the care system and not know what has happened to them.

Chair: John, I hear where you are coming from, but we are here to talk about PQs.

John Hemming: Well, it is all a question of accountability. These were PQs at one stage and I have asked these in PQs as well, so it is relevant. But it comes down to this question of process and accountability and whether the Department is complacent in the sense that it does not matter whether or not you answer questions.

Chair: There is a lack of willingness to share information.

John Hemming: A lack of willingness to share information. It seems quite clear.

Q43 Helen Goodman: On 1 November, I put down a question to the Secretary of State to ask which newspaper and other media proprietors, editors and senior executives he has met since 1 July 2012. I am sure the Minister will recall this because she sent me the answer on Monday 10 December. The answer was that the Secretary of State had met the following media executives since 1 July 2012: in July, Anne McElvoy of The Economist; in July, Louise Rogers, the TES; in August, David Wooding of The Sun; in October, Gary O’Donoghue and Vicki Young of the BBC; and in October, John Micklethwait, Joel Budd and James Astill, The Economist. There was a further sentence in the answer that the Minister signed off: "This does not include media executives who may have been in attendance at lunches or events also attended by the Secretary of State". Do you think that that was a complicated question to answer?

Elizabeth Truss: No.

Q44 Helen Goodman: Why do you think that it took six weeks to get an answer?

Elizabeth Truss: Well, I think we are back to this process question here, which is that as a Minister signing off the question I see the end of the process but not the whole process. I completely agree with what Hilary is saying about absolutely we need proper information about each leg in that process. At the moment, it is a black box and that is not ideal. What we are saying here first of all is that the Department is having an overall review of its processes, which is the DfE review, which is all about having a more efficient Department that is focused on outcomes and proper processes.

At the moment, more broadly than PQs, my observation as a Minister is things are going through more processes than they need to. Certainly at DfE boards I feed that into the Permanent Secretary, who is overall responsible for the efficient working and running of the Department. I think as you can hear from Hilary and my responses, there certainly is not complacency at the DfE. We absolutely recognise this is not what it should be. We are asking other organisations in the education world to be efficient and we want to be efficient as well, which is why the DfE review is being conducted, which is why we are sourcing this new IT system. Absolutely I would love to have the management information on the process that question went through and how long the stages are, but I am afraid I do not.

Q45 Helen Goodman: I must say I am sure you would love to have the management information, but I think that the idea that questions cannot be answered swiftly and people cannot do what they need to do because you do not have an adequate tracking system does not entirely hold water.

Elizabeth Truss: I did not just say the tracking system, by the way; I said the process as well.

Q46 Helen Goodman: The process. I asked the same question to four other Departments. They all replied within five days, not the six weeks that it took the Department for Education. How can it possibly be that your process is so complicated that it takes seven times as long in your Department as it does in four other Departments?

Elizabeth Truss: What I am saying is that there is clearly a problem with the process, which needs to be improved. Absolutely.

Q47 Helen Goodman: There is one problem here that is about time. The other, which we have surfaced but I want to ask you a little bit more about, is content. We have here a list of people whom the Secretary of State met and then a general disclaimer, "This does not include media executives who may have been in attendance at lunches or events also attended by the Secretary of State". Do you think that he will have met more media executives at lunches and events in that time than had formal meetings?

Elizabeth Truss: I honestly do not know.

Q48 Helen Goodman: Because I can think of seeing photographs-

Elizabeth Truss: It sounds like Hilary does know.

Q49 Helen Goodman: I have seen photographs of the Secretary of State at media events with media executives in the newspapers. For example, I have seen a photograph of him at The Spectator lunch. I think it is pretty clear that there will have been a large number of people. Do you think that this answer is sufficiently forthcoming to make parliamentary accountability meaningful?

Hilary Spencer: I think I can probably help explain why the question was answered in this particular way. The searches I was talking about earlier, when we have a specific request about who a Minister has met, the information that is contained in the diary invitation on the electronic system will say, "Minister meeting with XYZ". They will be named in there, which is how you would do a search on it. It is unlikely that-

Q50 Mr Gray: Even though it did not, but theoretically it could have done, yes.

Elizabeth Truss: It was in this case.

Hilary Spencer: But it is unlikely that the electronic bits in the calendar would also have a list of all other attendees.

Q51 Helen Goodman: You have said that you are reviewing your processes and you want to become a more efficient Department.

Hilary Spencer: When you say "you", that is the Permanent Secretary’s role and that is what he is working on at the moment. That is the whole purpose of the DfE review.

Q52 Helen Goodman: Okay. Ministers have taken decisions to reduce the amount of resource they are putting into running costs in the Department for Education, have they not? Could you just remind the Committee what percentage cuts in running costs your Department has agreed with the Treasury?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, we have agreed a 50% cut in our administration budget from May 2010 to May 2015.

Q53 Helen Goodman: Now, an agreement on the size of administrative cuts is the responsibility of Ministers. It is not the responsibility of officials. It is Ministers who undertake the negotiations with the Treasury. I would like to ask the Minister whether she believes that if there is a 50% reduction in resource it is likely that the Department’s efficiency with respect to handling PQs and correspondence from parliamentarians will improve, stay the same or get worse.

Elizabeth Truss: Well, I think we have to improve. I think that Parliament is due answers in a much shorter timeframe than we have been doing as a Department. I think that is imperative. One of the issues I pointed out with the process, which as discussed has more of a black-box element than I would like at the moment, is that it is going through a lot of stages.

I think we need to simplify things and make them more efficient-and that is a general point about the Department and the way we use IT, the way we deal with correspondence. It is a classic case of process re-engineering that needs to happen across the board. I do think that the problems we have at the moment are not caused by a lack of resources, financial or human. The problem we have at the moment is not having a clear process that is properly tracked and understood. That is the issue. Just can I-

Q54 Chair: I will let you ask one more question and then we will bring someone else in.

Helen Goodman: One more question.

Elizabeth Truss: Oh, I was just going to reply to-

Chair: Okay, finish your answer, Minister, sorry, and then one more question, Helen.

Elizabeth Truss: I was just going to reply to a previous question. The negotiations with the Treasury are not my specific responsibility within the Department, so I cannot really answer you on that point.

Q55 Helen Goodman: Okay. We have heard that initially a question goes to the policy area or the person responsible for the issue under question. Obviously, it has to be finally sent off to a Minister, by definition. There are two other processes in between that: going to the parliamentary unit and going to special advisers. If one is looking for shortening the process, presumably it is the two middle points where things can be shortened. You cannot really shorten it at the beginning or at the end.

Elizabeth Truss: No, I would not necessarily agree with that because I think one of the issues is it can go to multiple policy officials. One of the changes in the DfE review is to have a more flexible, multifunctional approach rather than having officials working on absolutely micro areas of the portfolio.

Q56 Helen Goodman: Well, that may be so but-

Elizabeth Truss: The idea is if you could have better accessible information and a more flexible structure, then that enables you to do things more quickly rather than a process that goes to multiple people, which it does at the moment. I think the point is in the process Hilary outlined there are sub-layers to that process, which is what is taking the time. It does not just go to one policy person and then on to one parliamentary person. It is going round.

Helen Goodman: That may be so in some cases, but in the example I have given you it can only have gone to the Secretary of State’s diary secretary. There is nowhere else in the Department where it can have gone. I do not have any further questions.

Chair: Right. I know lots of colleagues want to get in, but I will take them in order.

Q57 Martin Vickers: I think it has already been mentioned. In your opening remarks, "culture" was the word that you used. I am sure it is the culture of your Department and every Government Department, if they were asked, that they would say, "Yes, we want to be as open and transparent as possible". Would you agree that if we take the example of the question that we have been talking about-I am sure there are hundreds of others we could point to-if we assume that the Minister himself did not approve that answer, then either the special adviser or the official clearly does not understand the culture of openness and transparency?

Elizabeth Truss: Which question are you referring to?

Q58 Martin Vickers: Well, I was referring specifically to the one that we have been talking about, the reply about visits to youth projects.

Elizabeth Truss: I think the point is that we need to investigate the details of how that question went through the process because we do not know.

Q59 Martin Vickers: But would you accept that whoever approved that answer was unaware that you wanted to be as open and transparent and helpful as possible? Would he or she have been under ministerial instruction to be as helpful or as unhelpful as possible?

Hilary Spencer: Again, I am really wary of giving you misleading information by not being on top of the detail.

Q60 Martin Vickers: Well, I am not asking specifically about this question; I am just using that as an example. Is it ministerial instructions to special advisers and officials to be as open and transparent as possible?

Elizabeth Truss: Absolutely.

Q61 Martin Vickers: And informative? So whoever approved this was not aware?

Elizabeth Truss: We want to be informative in the answers that we give to our questions.

Q62 Martin Vickers: It would appear that some officials or advisers are not aware that that is your intention.

Elizabeth Truss: We do not know the cause of how that answer has come into being. That is the point I am making. We do not know what happened to result in that answer. That is a question we do not have the answer to. I think Hilary has already committed that she is going to come back with the details of that.

Q63 Martin Vickers: Indeed, but are your officials and advisers under instruction to be as helpful and open and transparent as possible?

Elizabeth Truss: Yes.

Q64 John Hemming: I apologise because I need to go another Select Committee-

Chair: Martin, I will come back to you.

John Hemming: I think to assist the Committee, it might be best if the Department simply provided a copy of all the correspondence and e-mails relating to the answering of this question. Is there any problem with that?

Hilary Spencer: I do not think so. I will check.

Q65 John Hemming: If you do that, then we can understand exactly who provided what information to whom and how it was edited. That seems a very simple solution because that way we will understand why a very simple, straightforward question ends up with a nonsense answer. That is a very good solution. I apologise because I need to go.

Chair: Martin, back to you?

Martin Vickers: No, it is okay.

Q66 Mr Nuttall: Where does one start? First of all, can I ask a really straightforward, simple question? Would I be right in thinking that all the staff within the DfE are able to communicate with each other by e-mail?

Hilary Spencer: Yes.

Q67 Mr Nuttall: They can. They are all on an e-mail system and they can all communicate by e-mail-very simple, good. Consequently, presumably, assuming that the system works on a daily basis, there is no delay in one member of staff being able to talk to another member of staff? Send them an e-mail and they either ignore it or they reply?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, I guess, subject to other things that they are doing, but yes.

Q68 Mr Nuttall: Well, subject to other things, but that is the truth, isn’t it? They get the e-mail; they read it, they either respond there and then or they wait. We are told by the Secretary of State in a letter to the Chairman on 17 November that the previous IT system collapsed. Could you just explain to me because I do not quite understand? I could understand how a building collapses; I am not quite sure how an IT system collapses. Could you explain how it collapsed to my very simple brain? What happened? How did it collapse?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, I can do. That is referring to February 2011, is that right? That is that reply?

Q69 Mr Nuttall: It said since June 2012.

Hilary Spencer: Yes. So, as I said at the beginning, there have been two points where the PQ system has failed. One was February 2011 and the other one was in June 2012. You are right; "collapse" does sound like a building metaphor so perhaps we could think about our drafting on some of that.

Basically, what we have had is a freestanding PQ system that does not interact with our e-mail system. It is a contact record management system where things are logged electronically and are then transmitted. In order to access a PQ, you as a drafter, someone who is trying to write the responses, would need to log into the system to get what the PQ is and then draft your answer in the system, close it, save it. It would then get sent to your manager or the deputy director for approval and then, once they had approved it, it would then get sent electronically through this internal system to the parliamentary team and so on and so on through then the rest of the process. That system stopped working.

Q70 Mr Nuttall: Right. It stopped working.

Hilary Spencer: Yes.

Q71 Mr Nuttall: I am still not quite sure why it stopped working. Presumably-

Hilary Spencer: If I knew that, I would have fixed it.

Q72 Mr Nuttall: Did the IT people just say, "That is it, the system has shut down" and all the information on it was lost?

Hilary Spencer: No. It started first having some initial problems in April, which our IT team manager fixed. It is a system built by Capgemini. In May they sent in a number of people to try to help us restore the system. The intention was to try to fix the system. They put in some temporary solutions, which did restore it a little bit. The specific problems that occurred in it were that it was taking a huge amount of time to download the questions when they first came in. Things were taking two hours to get into the system per question to download.

Q73 Mr Nuttall: Excellent. That brings me back to my original point, because you can see where this is going, can’t you?

Hilary Spencer: No, I agree.

Q74 Mr Nuttall: If I was an operative there, I would say, "Well, this system is rubbish, but I will tell you what, I am just going to send them an e-mail".

Hilary Spencer: That is indeed the system we are now operating. It is our emergency system.

Q75 Mr Nuttall: We established at the outset that an e-mail more or less goes instantaneously to the new person.

Hilary Spencer: Yes.

Q76 Mr Nuttall: I am not quite sure-an e-mail is instantaneous-why when this new IT system comes on board it will be any faster than sending somebody an e-mail.

Hilary Spencer: Because it will be integrated with Outlook so it will be exactly the same system. You are completely right. It was a system that was procured before I took over responsibility for this. It does not work. It is not functional. It has had two major malfunctions, which have rendered large parts of it inoperable. It does not work. It is not fit for purpose and so we are operating at the moment on a system where we are using e-mails. It is proving in some instances easier for people to use it. In other instances it is harder because it means you cannot see where things are at different points in the system because it is all happening through people’s inboxes. The new system that we are procuring will be fully integrated with Outlook. We have learnt the lessons from that and the new system should do that.

Chair: One last question.

Q77 Mr Nuttall: One last question. Okay, I will try to phrase it as one.

Chair: It can be a long question.

Mr Nuttall: It is all to do with WPQs, though obviously there are two sorts of WPQs: ordinary and named day. So far in this session we have not really explored in what way the Department prioritises named-day questions. It seems to be that we have only ever heard of one process, and yet I would have thought that the fact that when a Member puts in a named-day question they are expecting a speedier answer, that somehow there must be some sort of expedited system within the Department that will result in a faster answer being given.

Although looking at the statistics, which show that named-day questions were only 1% behind those of an ordinary written question, it appears that there is no prioritisation at all. In fact, it seems to be that, according to this PQ performance chart, ordinary written questions were 18% on time; named-day questions were 17% on time. You were probably better off-

Hilary Spencer: That is a proportion of how on time they are.

Elizabeth Truss: Yes. That is referring to the overall statistics-

Q78 Mr Nuttall: Yes, I am sure you are going to tell me that things have improved. I hope so.

Hilary Spencer: They have. I can give you the statistics.

Q79 Mr Nuttall: What are the latest figures?

Hilary Spencer: For October, Commons named-day PQs were 22% on time and Commons ordinary written were 43% on time. That does not really help me address the question that you asked, though, does it? Almost the contrary.

Q80 Chair: I will say, Ms Spencer, you are doing very well. I genuinely mean that because I think this is difficult and I think you are taking it with good grace.

Hilary Spencer: Right.

Chair: We will come back to this at the end just where we take this, because I suspect this will not be the last time we have a brush with the Department for Education unless things improve dramatically.

Q81 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Minister, thank you for coming in. It seems to be a splendid chance, good fortune, that the improvement in the Ministry’s performance coincides with your arriving there, which allows me to get on to the issue of ministerial responsibility. It seems to me that this is an area where officials are valiant but it is actually a fundamental part of a Minister’s responsibility to Parliament and, therefore, process is not particularly relevant. It is day-to-day ministerial responsibility.

My first question is about how important you as a Minister feel accountability to Parliament is in your overall role. Is it the most important part of your role? Is it secondary to being a servant of the Crown? Is it third to being a political figure? Where do you put being accountable to Parliament in your role?

Elizabeth Truss: I think it is very important.

Q82 Jacob Rees-Mogg: You think it is very important?

Elizabeth Truss: Can I just comment on the process, though? I think the issue here, which we have gone into, is that at the moment the process does not work as it should. That is not just the IT process. Clearly, officials are manually intervening in running a process that there is not visibility of. As a Minister, I do not necessarily have the information I would need. Absolutely I want things to happen on time, but in terms of why they are not happening on time, that information is not available to me. I would point out that in terms of the administration of the Department that is very clearly the responsibility of the Permanent Secretary. Ministers do not have the power to hire and fire, as you are well aware, in the British system.

Q83 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am well aware. At what point do you know that a parliamentary question is your responsibility?

Elizabeth Truss: When it arrives on my desk to sign off.

Q84 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Okay. Is it up to you as a Minister to say that when a question comes in that is in your area of responsibility it should be brought to your attention as soon as it is in Hansard? Or could you, in fact, look in Hansard to see if any of the questions belong to you as a Minister?

Elizabeth Truss: I do not know how I would gain a front-end view of the process, really.

Hilary Spencer: Yes. The way the system and its broken bones are working at the minute, we could build-

Elizabeth Truss: That would be extremely helpful information, Jacob. You are telling me it is in Hansard.

Q85 Jacob Rees-Mogg: It is in Hansard every day. Sorry, it is in the questions book. It is on the Order Paper every day. Every day you can see that there are questions and for which ministry. You will know as a Minister whether they are in your area of responsibility or not. What really puzzles me is that these rotten answers that come-I quite understand how a Minister six weeks late will sign off a question because you must at that point feel it is better to say something than go back to the beginning of the process and be three months late.

Elizabeth Truss: That might be correct, yes.

Q86 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I would have thought that as a Minister you would want to know the day a question is down that it is your responsibility, which means you can then say to your officials, "Where is the answer?" Just doing some very simple maths, there were 4,398 ordinary questions. That is 15 per sitting day in the first two years. There are what, five Ministers? That is three per day per Minister.

Elizabeth Truss: Yes, although the distribution is not equal between Ministers and I sign off a fair few of them.

Q87 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I appreciate that, but this is only per sitting day and Ministers obviously work on other days as well. It is not an unmanageable amount for a Minister to know on day one and to take charge of the process. The process, yes, of course, the writing of the answers, the checking of diaries, is something to be done by the civil servants. The accountability to Parliament is the job of the Minister and, therefore, to ensure that the job is being done is the job of the Minister. I just wonder whether you as a new Minister-you are not at fault for what has happened in the period we are really looking at-were now to take complete charge of the questions that came to you, you could conceivably show your colleagues how it could be done.

Elizabeth Truss: Well, that is absolutely right. You have said that there is a distribution between the Ministers. As I say, the distribution is not equal by any stretch of the imagination, so I would find myself probably looking at rather more than 15 a day. The issue here, though, is who is responsible for managing processes in the Department. Because there is one thing about the style, the fact that I want the questions that I answer to be open and transparent and give full information and be properly on time. That is absolutely a ministerial responsibility and that is what I have said to the Permanent Secretary that I want to see. Likewise on correspondence, which you may be aware the Department also has an issue about. New Ministers have been very clear that we also want to see improvements on that front.

However, if a Minister tries to manage every single process that is going on, whether it is the answering of parliamentary questions or policymaking processes, the critical thing is the machine has to work. Fixing the machine is critical to making this work because then Ministers can have proper oversight of the process. I would completely agree with you, Jacob, that it would be very helpful for me to see, to be able to monitor exactly which questions have come in that relate to my area.

Sometimes it is not obviously clear which area the questions are in and sometimes they can be in multiple areas as well, as we have seen with the question about youth visits. It has to be a departmentally managed process. It has to be under the responsibility of the Permanent Secretary, but absolutely Ministers have to have much better information about what is happening and what is going through the process. We have just had a board meeting of the DfE board where we have been through all this because at present the information-let us be clear, it is the responsibility of officials to provide that information to Ministers. We have to operate over a number of areas, all of which are extremely important.

I absolutely believe in accountability to Parliament. I do not think the performance is good enough and I want to see an improvement in PQs and correspondence, but also we have to make sure that we get things like the National Curriculum out by the time we have said we will get it out. Lots of different processes to manage and it is the responsibility in the British system of the independent Civil Service to manage those processes. Yes, I need to have information about it, but to actually take charge of managing every single part of the Department would require me to become a civil servant, which I am not.

Q88 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I think there is a difference with things in Parliament and things outside Parliament. The implementation of the National Curriculum-the policy decision is yours; the implementation is the Civil Service’s. As far as Parliament is concerned, an answer that has your name on it and a question that comes to you is entirely your responsibility. If that question-

Elizabeth Truss: That is not entirely so. Ministers are ultimately accountable-

Q89 Jacob Rees-Mogg: They are accountable-and very directly, for what they say or write to Parliament.

Elizabeth Truss: Absolutely, which is why I sign it off.

Q90 Jacob Rees-Mogg: You could, if you wanted to, take every question that came in that you thought was for you and do a manuscript answer and give it in to the Table Office. You would be constitutionally absolutely correct. You cannot put it off to process. The Civil Service may be letting you down, but this is so fundamentally ministerial responsibility.

Elizabeth Truss: But take the question about which youth projects have Ministers visited in the last six months. That is not a question that I could give a manuscript answer to unless I was making it up.

Q91 Jacob Rees-Mogg: You could have said, Minister, how many you have visited and allowed your other ministerial colleagues-it could have been answered by every Minister individually, which might have been the easiest way to do it.

Elizabeth Truss: But if you multiply that-because we have said there are 15 questions per sitting day-

Jacob Rees-Mogg: You might get a few more but it is-

Elizabeth Truss: -and let us say, for example, that I might do twice as many or three times as many as that. There is a proper way of managing things, which all other Departments manage. This is not some pie in the sky idea that is not possible. As has been pointed out by members of this Committee, DCMS, the Department of Health, manage to answer parliamentary questions on time without having to have the process you are suggesting.

I think it is important to get the answers on time, but I do not think that means that Ministers should take up the role that is properly the role of civil servants, which is making the process work. I am absolutely responsible for the content of the answer; I completely understand that. I am also responsible, with the Secretary of State, for making sure that the Department is prioritising the right things. One of the other factors about the DfE review is that there is going to be more effort to focus on ministerial priorities, which I think is absolutely critical.

We are working on all those things, Jacob. In my view, the answer is not to give answers that would not be proper answers. A lot of the questions are quite technically detailed, so it is how many academies and free schools were set up in this particular borough. It is not the kind of thing that I can summon up.

Q92 Chair: With the greatest of respect, Minister, how many academies were established in the borough of Broxbourne could be done, as my colleague Mr Nuttall said, with a simple phone call. None of this is rocket science.

Elizabeth Truss: I personally-

Chair: No, you could not do it, but-

Elizabeth Truss: I can tell you, Mr Walker, that I would not know who to phone to get the answer to that question.

Chair: That is because they are keeping you in the dark.

Q93 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Minister-the reason I would encourage you to do this. If you started giving some answers that had not been through all this beastly process and gave them on time, that might gird the civil servants who are not giving the answers, and perhaps some other people involved, into action because they would prefer to get their answers out on time rather than have your perhaps more independently-minded answers appearing rather earlier. Sometimes taking what is your responsibility into your own hands may be a way of forcing the system to work.

Elizabeth Truss: I think we need to terminate this session before I get too much encouragement, Mr Chairman.

Q94 Mr Gray: I want to focus on one little part of the process, if I may. First of all, Minister, do you accept that parliamentary questions by definition must be absolutely factual and must be replied absolutely factually?

Elizabeth Truss: Well, there are different ways of giving a factual answer. Obviously, they should not be fictitious so what is-

Q95 Mr Gray: No, the distinction is not between facts and fiction. The distinction is between facts and opinion. Parliamentary questions by definition, under the law of the land, must be factual.

Elizabeth Truss: Yes, in which case I agree with that, yes.

Q96 Mr Gray: If I ask a factual question, you may only answer it factually. You may not put your opinion there. You may not spin it. You must answer the factual question I have asked factually. Do you accept that is the case?

Elizabeth Truss: Yes.

Q97 Mr Gray: Right. Given that is the case, a moment ago-perhaps I could turn to Hilary-you said that one of the hold-ups was that some of the questions are politically more controversial and they may take longer. What did you mean by that?

Hilary Spencer: In some instances, where a Member has asked a question about something that is shortly to be announced, then there is the provision to hold off, or a commitment that a Minister needs to make announcements to the House first, but it is reasonable not to-

Q98 Mr Gray: That is not political. A reasonable delay is fine if some announcement is to be made, but that is not politically more-the word you used was "controversial". You said very often questions can be delayed because they are politically more controversial. What sort of question might be politically more controversial?

Hilary Spencer: I will try to think of a reasonable example of this.

Q99 Chair: Can I help you here?

Hilary Spencer: Do.

Q100 Chair: I think you have drawn the short straw. The reason they are controversial is that a special adviser gets involved and holds the whole process up. Can you explain to Mr Gray and the Committee what your relationship is with the special adviser and perhaps, Minister, you could talk about the role of the special advisers in answering questions. Because I think it is a little unfair that you are having to cover for the political practices within your Department. You talk about the role of the special adviser and then the Minister will talk about the political role of the special adviser in answering ministerial questions.

Hilary Spencer: Yes. I suppose this question about what is politically controversial or not, some of it is to do with the content of the question that is asked. Some questions are asked by Members of Parliament that are completely factual and are asked in that spirit. I think we all know that is the case. I think there are some questions that come in from Members of the House that are intended to achieve some sort of political effect or obtain some sort of information that could be used for political purposes.

Q101 Mr Gray: Well, they are all used for political purposes, but they are factual. Every single question has a political purpose behind it, of course it does. For example, you would not be allowed to put down a question that would say, "Would you agree the Conservative Party has wrecked education?" That would be controversial; you cannot do that.

Hilary Spencer: No, I agree.

Q102 Mr Gray: All you can ask for is the number of schools and visits. These are factual questions. How could they not be answered factually? What the Chairman is getting at, and I think he is absolutely right, is if I am right-I am right because the rules of the House are absolutely plain: you can only ask a factual question and it must be answered factually. If that is the case, why do they go to special advisers at all? What role does a special adviser have in answering a factual question?

Hilary Spencer: Well, it is reasonably standard practice across Whitehall for parliamentary questions to go to advisers.

Q103 Mr Gray: It was not when I was a special adviser. I never saw a PQ once. Why do the special advisers see PQs?

Hilary Spencer: Partly to make sure that they are consistent. They are a point in the process. Our special adviser would see all of the parliamentary questions. They would make sure that they were consistent in terms of a response that came out of the Department in a way that there is not an official who does exactly the same thing because they-

Mr Gray: Consistent?

Q104 Chair: But you said the Permanent Secretary had total oversight. What is the Permanent Secretary’s involvement with the special adviser-a political appointment?

Hilary Spencer: I am not quite sure I understand that.

Q105 Chair: In answering the questions, the Minister and yourself, the Minister said the Permanent Secretary has oversight for the running of the Department and the process. I was not aware that special advisers reported to Permanent Secretaries, so the Permanent Secretary does not-

Elizabeth Truss: No, they advise Ministers.

Q106 Chair: But the special adviser is part of the process, so how can the Permanent Secretary have overall responsibility for the process if the special adviser, by your own admission, is part of the process? What we are trying to get at is it seems to me that the special adviser is part of the problem here. What do you do, for example, when the special adviser puts a red line through a part of a question? Does he send it back to you or does he send it to the Permanent Secretary, the Minister? When a special adviser redlines a question, as they do, what then happens? What do you do when that happens?

Hilary Spencer: As I outlined the process, a senior civil servant would sign off the draft of the parliamentary question in their area, including the background note, and that would then go back to the parliamentary team and then on to an adviser.

Q107 Chair: An adviser or special adviser?

Hilary Spencer: It could be either.

Q108 Chair: What is an adviser?

Hilary Spencer: We have policy advisers in the Department.

Q109 Chair: Are they a political appointment?

Hilary Spencer: No, they are short term.

Q110 Chair: Who are they?

Hilary Spencer: They are senior Civil Service appointments.

Q111 Chair: Right. When do they go to the special adviser?

Hilary Spencer: Each day the advisers’ support office, the advisers’ private office, has a list of all the parliamentary questions that they are being asked to clear, and they will decide between them, quite often depending on workload and who is available that day.

Q112 Chair: But what happens when a red line is put through part of an answer? Does it get sent back or does it just go out?

Hilary Spencer: In truth, it depends what they have put a red line through. If they have put a red line through an apostrophe or a comma or there is some grammatical change, obviously it will just get changed by their office and that will go straight on. Sometimes they ask for more information to be included, and if they do that then it will go back to the drafting team.

Q113 Chair: What happens when they ask for less information to be included?

Hilary Spencer: It depends on what type of information they are asking to be removed. If the information they are removing changes the factual basis of the answer that has been signed off by a senior civil servant, it would go back to that senior civil servant so they can guarantee its factual accuracy.

Q114 Mr Gray: I want to ask the Minister about this, if I may. What added value do you think the special adviser places on a PQ? What is the purpose of the special adviser seeing a PQ answer?

Elizabeth Truss: I just wanted to-because you are asking the question.

Mr Gray: No, no. Answer the question.

Elizabeth Truss: It is the same answer. I am honestly answering your question. You ask why the Permanent Secretary does not appoint the special adviser. No, the special adviser is there as an adviser to the Minister. That is the point. That is why they are involved in the process.

Q115 Mr Gray: Yes, precisely. The special adviser’s job is to-

Elizabeth Truss: As Mr Rees-Mogg has outlined, the Minister has to be happy with the answer to the question and they have to answer the question. We talked about fact and not fact earlier, but if the question is what is the Government’s policy on this issue-let us say that this is a matter on which the Government has never opined before.

Q116 Mr Gray: Then it would not be a PQ. That would not be an allowable PQ.

Elizabeth Truss: No, there can be. It is very interesting you should say that.

Q117 Mr Gray: Hang on a minute; I do want to focus now. You are not answering the questions I am putting to you at all.

I do not understand why it should be that in recent years-it did not used to happen when I was a special adviser-special advisers have become involved in the parliamentary question system. If you accept that parliamentary questions are factual questions demanding factual answers-no spin involved, no discussion, no explanation, just factual answers to factual questions-surely it could be argued that the special adviser whose job it is to provide a political insight into something-the special adviser job is to provide those things that civil servants are not allowed to do because they are political. Surely that means that we are moving into a position in which the parliamentary questions are becoming not factual but political.

Elizabeth Truss: I do not think that it is that easy to draw the line between fact and things like policy, which are what the Minister plans to do on something, for example. It could be a question on whether the Government plan to remove this special allowance or something like that. Now, either the Minister is planning to do that or not planning to do that, but that is a policy decision.

There is not a clear line on those things. The questions that you highlighted earlier are very much factual questions, but there are other questions that are asking for a policy position, in which case I think it is perfectly proper that a special adviser should advise a Minister-because, let’s face it, there is quite a lot of policy-on what the position might be on that particular policy.

Q118 Mr Gray: There may be some. There may be some delicate and sensitive parliamentary questions that require the special adviser’s very clever, politically astute, sophisticated input. That would be something for the Minister to ask the special adviser to have a look at-"Have you seen this one? Have a look at this and let me know what you feel about that". That would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

What we are talking about here is that every single parliamentary question is going through a special adviser. I am a former special adviser and I have been there. I know they are bigger and more important now than they were when I was doing it, but he is sitting there with one secretary. Piles and piles and piles of parliamentary questions come through. We have heard-we are told anecdotally-that the blockage in the system is because special advisers are sitting on them. Is that true?

Hilary Spencer: I think it would be unfair to say that the special advisers are the cause of the blockages in the whole system.

Elizabeth Truss: There are a lot of issues, and I have alluded to this earlier, in assembling the information from the policy teams.

Q119 Mr Gray: No, you cannot get away with a load of waffle around the thing. Let us stick with this question about the special advisers. You think they are not the blockage. How quickly would you-

Hilary Spencer: I think probably sometimes they are a blockage in a way that sometimes, even when our system works on e-mail, if it is sent to someone and they are out of the office or they do not read it and they are not in a meeting, that might also be a blockage. All I am saying is I think it is perfectly possible that the advisers are at points a blockage, but so, too, are a number of other things.

Q120 Mr Gray: Let us be clear about this. How quickly would you expect the special adviser to clear a PQ?

Hilary Spencer: The process I outlined at the beginning-a five-day process that allows us to answer things within the parliamentary timetable is that they clear it within 24 hours.

Q121 Mr Gray: Quite clearly they do not. Some of these questions have taken two or three months.

Elizabeth Truss: That is not necessarily that they were sitting in the special adviser’s office.

Hilary Spencer: That assumes that all other bits of the process work perfectly.

Q122 Mr Gray: Not necessarily, but I am just asking whether it was or not. If what you are saying is that the Department is taking three months to answer these questions and you can guarantee-and it is all on the record. We are broadcasting here. This is a parliamentary inquiry. You are saying that delay that we are looking into, PQs taking three months, you are guaranteeing to us formally as evidence before Parliament-it is not your opinion; it is evidence-that the special advisers are not delaying PQs in the Department for Education at all. Is that right?

Hilary Spencer: I am not saying they are not delaying it at all. I think I have been quite clear about that. I am saying it is highly likely there are points where the special advisers delay things in their office for reasons as much of administration as anything else, as, too, do other parts of the Department.

Q123 Mr Gray: A moment ago you said they do it in 24 hours. Are you saying that sometimes they do not?

Elizabeth Truss: No, that is the ideal.

Hilary Spencer: I said that is the expectation-that they do it within 24 hours.

Q124 Mr Gray: So how long does it take?

Hilary Spencer: It varies. Sometimes they do them within two hours, sometimes longer.

Q125 Tom Greatrex: Minister, you have made clear your view of who is responsible for the process, but just in terms of your role, when you get given an answer to sign off you are presumably aware of the date when the question was tabled?

Elizabeth Truss: Yes.

Q126 Tom Greatrex: I know you have only been a Minister for a relatively short time, but from the numbers that you have alluded to, you seem to get more than an equal share, amongst your ministerial colleagues, in the Department. When you have looked at the dates to see that a date you are signing off will be six or seven weeks after the date it was tabled, have you gone back to ask why that is the case?

Elizabeth Truss: Yes.

Q127 Tom Greatrex: What have been the reasons?

Elizabeth Truss: Well, the list of reasons that have been outlined. As I say, this is not just an issue with PQs. This is an issue with correspondence as well and overall systems and processes within the Department.

Q128 Chair: Do special advisers see correspondence before you sign it off?

Hilary Spencer: Not generally.

Elizabeth Truss: Sometimes. Sometimes, because it is a different issue but I also take correspondence from parliamentary colleagues very seriously and want to get back to people as quickly as possible with a good answer. I do not think it is satisfactory, and other Ministers do not think it is satisfactory, when correspondence is not completed in a reasonable timeframe as well. There is a general issue that the Permanent Secretary has very recently identified about the overall processes in dealing with these kinds of issues within the Department.

Q129 John Hemming: There is a database that records the parliamentary questions asked, all of them, and whether they have been answered or not. Do you make any use of that database?

Hilary Spencer: I am sure the parliamentary team does.

Q130 John Hemming: I am just thinking that if you can get access to this you can get a list of all the questions that have not been answered by your Department and somebody can then go through it and say, "Well, those ones are a bit old". It is not that difficult, is it?

Hilary Spencer: No, and also our internal system would allow us to do that. When it is functioning, it ought to be able to.

Q131 John Hemming: All I am saying is there is a system that functions today that you could use and I am just suggesting you might try to use it, that is all.

Hilary Spencer: Yes, and I think the parliamentary team has explored that. Again, I will refer that.

Q132 John Hemming: "Explored" meaning what? It is there. It works at the moment, as far as I know. It might be a useful thing to respond to the Committee on, on the basis that you have looked at it, used it. It is on the intranet and it just says which questions have not been answered by the Department, so you could just find out.

Elizabeth Truss: Yes.

Q133 Martin Vickers: Hilary, a moment ago in reply to James you said that replies went through a special adviser to ensure that they were consistent. That is right, is it not? But, Minister, you just said a moment ago that correspondence does not go through an adviser. So correspondence could be inconsistent?

Elizabeth Truss: Well, I have to say that I do show special advisers a lot of my correspondence for precisely that reason-to make sure it is consistent.

Q134 Martin Vickers: If there is a logic to PQs going to a special adviser, surely the same logic would apply to correspondence.

Hilary Spencer: Can I say a bit more about that? I have the dubious pleasure of also being responsible for our ministerial correspondence, so I can probably say a bit more about the processes that attach to each of those.

The example I gave in terms of a parliamentary question, quite often questions come in that do not fit conveniently into one division or one senior civil servant’s area of responsibility. We have a number of things that are quite cross-cutting. It could be that the balance of a question falls mostly in one division, so they would draft an answer to it based on lines that they have from other colleagues or best intent, and then another question that is on quite a similar topic but is not phrased in exactly the same way, the balance of the question means that it gets assigned to another division, who again would answer it to the best of their knowledge and then provide an answer. One of the functions that a single unit of advisers looking at those two different PQs can serve is that they are one point of contact that looks across everything that is coming out. That would be where they would add some value in terms of consistency.

In terms of the way the ministerial correspondence works, firstly, the volume is really different-we answer somewhere between 200 and 300 letters a week in terms of ministerial correspondence-but also the staffing around it is such that we have a lead drafter for each Minister. There is there a point of contact who is seeing everything that goes into the Minister so is providing that checking and consistency function.

Q135 Chair: How many members of staff are there doing parliamentary questions?

Hilary Spencer: There are now eight.

Q136 Chair: There are 15 questions a day; that is two questions per person on average. It is never as simple as that, but that is two questions per person per day.

Hilary Spencer: There have been eight people since about a month ago. We have upped the staffing in response to-

Q137 Chair: What was it before?

Hilary Spencer: It has been five up to May 2012. We have then put in two extra members of staff at more senior grade.

Q138 Chair: It is just not extraordinarily onerous, 15 questions a day spread among five people. Is it, Mr Rees-Mogg?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That was my point earlier.

Chair: It is just not that difficult. Perhaps I could second a member of my staff over to help because they deal with a lot more cases than three a day.

Hilary Spencer: Again, as we started on this, I am not defending the quality and timeliness of the PQs that we are giving back to you. We are not complacent about this.

Chair: I do not think that you are the problem, nor do I think the Minister is the problem. I think the people you work for are the problem.

Q139 Mr Nuttall: It is all about the backlog, really, isn’t it, now? There must be a backlog of questions sitting there waiting. Do you know what that backlog is today? How many questions do you have unanswered at the moment?

Hilary Spencer: No, I cannot tell you exactly for today, no, but I can do if that is helpful.

Q140 Mr Nuttall: When was the last time you checked?

Hilary Spencer: Well, the figures for November.

Q141 Mr Nuttall: Okay, that is fair enough, yes. Was that the last day of November?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, at the end of November we had 81 Commons named-day PQs that were due for answer and 56 were answered by the end of November. Commons ordinary written PQs, 159 were due for answer and 137 were answered.

Q142 Mr Nuttall: Well, that does not sound like the backlog, does it? That just sounds like an interim figure.

Hilary Spencer: I do not think it is a huge backlog. We have had points with a significant backlog, particularly after June or July where we have had a significant backlog. There was a bit of a build-up immediately after the ministerial reshuffle, which I think is common to quite a lot of Departments when you have new Ministers coming in. I think there has been a bit of a backlog following the reshuffle, but no, I think we are in a slightly better position now in terms of questions being answered. I still think we are not getting them out as fast as we ought to.

Q143 Chair: Right. All Governments have problems with questions. What was it like at the Department for Education in the last year of the last Government? You were obviously there before the general election.

Hilary Spencer: I was actually in Washington DC.

Q144 Chair: Oh, right. Do we have any idea what it was like in the year before?

Hilary Spencer: In what sense? In terms of overall performance?

Q145 Chair: Was the performance as bad as it was after the general election?

Hilary Spencer: Yes, it was on average about 20%, 25%.

Q146 Chair: You see, I just do not understand why you have been sent with a junior Minister who has been there for two months to come and talk to us. Really, to be honest, I am disappointed-not in your performance, because I do not think we could have expected anything more. I think you have been given a hospital pass, as it is known. I think we need to get the Secretary of State here. I think we need to get the Permanent Secretary and we need to get the special adviser, because the evidence you have given suggests that your Department is wholly dysfunctional.

As you have stated, the Permanent Secretary is ultimately responsible for the process. I really do not think that either of you is equipped to answer the questions that we have asked today. You have done it to the best of your ability but, as I say, Minister, you have been there for two months. With the greatest of respect, you are junior to your Permanent Secretary. If this has been going on for three years, then actually there is a cultural failing within your Department. I think the Committee needs to go into session after this and discuss whether we invite the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary to come and see us. Colleagues, how do you-

Mr Gray: And the special adviser.

Chair: And the special adviser. All right?

Q147 Mr Gray: How many special advisers are there?

Hilary Spencer: Three.

Q148 Chair: It is just not good enough, is it? Twenty per cent. in answering questions, 40%, "We may get there in the end", when you have Departments out there getting into the 70 percentile. This has been going on year after year after year. Has it not been extremely depressing for you to be there over the last two and a half years, just working around a culture of deprioritisation of parliamentary questions?

Hilary Spencer: I think I probably ought to say that our current Permanent Secretary has been in post since April this year.

Q149 Chair: Well, great, he can come and tell us what his great vision is for the Department. But the Secretary of State has been there for two and a half years and he can perhaps tell us why this has not concerned him more. Because what we have is Parliament being bypassed at the moment. That is really what this amounts to-that the concerns of parliamentarians do not really warrant serious attention by the Department for Education. That is pretty shameful and a pretty poor reflection on the Department. Colleagues, does anybody want to ask a question before we let these good people go?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Just to say that Health is at 99.6% on named-day questions on the named day in 2010 to 2012.

Q150 Chair: Can I thank you both for maintaining your good humour?

Hilary Spencer: Not at all.

Chair: You are both a credit to your organisation and I am sure you will go on to do great things. You are being held back by those ahead of you in the food chain, but thank you very much.

Hilary Spencer: Thank you.

Chair: I am sure you enjoyed it as much as we did.

Prepared 18th February 2013