HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1059-61
2. Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

If he will undertake studies into the quality and timeliness of replies by civil servants to members of the public. [43496]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)

Departments generally have arrangements in place to monitor the timeliness and quality of replies to correspondence from the public. I intend shortly to place in the Library information on the performance of the main Departments and agencies in handling such correspondence and against the five other service standards for central Government. This will be the first time that such information has been made available. That shows our commitment to open government and to reporting transparently on our performance.

Mr. Pickthall

I welcome my hon. Friend's reply. Is he aware that some responses from civil servants in some Whitehall Departments to members of the public have taken the form of standard letters that are so old as to be irrelevant or are not attached to Government policy? As part of the programme that he outlined, will he encourage monitoring to ensure that replies from civil servants to members of the public are rapid, relevant and at least congruent with Government policy?

Mr. Kilfoyle

As my hon. Friend knows, responsibility lies with the Departments and agencies involved, but if there are such instances—rare, I am sure—and he can give me details, I undertake to ensure that his views are brought before the Ministers responsible for the correspondence concerned.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

After the truly repulsive sycophancy of the question from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), does the Minister agree that it is not civil servants from whom our colleagues have trouble getting replies to letters but Ministers? In his review, which we welcome, will he undertake to draw it to the attention of Ministers and Departments when their standards fall lamentably short of those required by the common decency and courtesy of the House of Commons?

Mr. Kilfoyle

We intend to ensure that Departments that are not meeting their own targets are reminded of them: hence the publication of information about those targets, which is an increasing feature of the openness of this Government. Civil servants, in the main, act according to the directives given them by their political masters. Responsibility falls fairly and squarely on elected politicians to ensure that targets are met and that civil servants are duly motivated.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My hon. Friend is right in his last remarks. Will he therefore examine carefully the habit, into which some Departments fell under the previous Government, of diverting correspondence to several agencies? That is not a good idea and not to be encouraged. Members of Parliament who write on behalf of their constituents are entitled to ministerial replies.

Mr. Kilfoyle

As my hon. Friend asked, I undertake to bring to the attention of the responsible Ministers issues in which she is not getting the satisfactory form of reply that she has every right to expect.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I stress to the hon. Gentleman that it is the timeliness and quality of ministerial replies, which are, after all, often drafted by civil servants, that is causing widespread concern throughout the House. Will he undertake to investigate the time scale in every Department? I had a letter from the Home Office last week in reply to one sent in February. Such delays are unacceptable. Will he make his inquiries as wide-ranging as possible?

Mr. Kilfoyle

We shall continue to monitor and evaluate the performance of Departments. I stress that, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the responsibility of Departments to ensure that the performance targets that they set are met.