HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc717-8
23. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

What steps he plans to take to improve the speed and relevance of replies by Departments to letters and inquiries from (a) hon. Members and (b) the public. [93524]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

The Cabinet Office issues guidance to Departments on the handling of correspondence for Members of Parliament and the public. However, it is the responsibility of individual Ministers to ensure that their Department responds to all correspondence promptly and accurately.

Mr. Allen

It is very unfair to ask the Minister this question since his replies are prompt, full and an example to all other Ministers. Indeed, I believe that Sir Andrew Gordon, the chief executive of "Ofmin", may well consider making my hon. Friend a beacon Minister. May I tell my hon. Friend that the standard that he delivers does not necessarily apply across Government? There is increasing discontent among hon. Members on both sides of the House about the speed and fullness of some of the responses to Members. That must be writ large in terms of the public. Will my hon. Friend seek to ensure that his colleagues reply as promptly and fully as he does?

Mr. Alexander

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. Of course I acknowledge that there is concern in the House about this important matter. We have a responsibility to the House as Ministers to reply promptly. I pay tribute to the work done by the Select Committee on Public Administration on this issue, about which the Government have made clear their determination to improve standards. We are continuing to work towards those goals.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Given that MPs' letters are the last resort for many desperate constituents who have suffered severe bureaucratic delay and that, according to parliamentary answers, the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have between them 1,500 MPs' letters unanswered after six months, will the Minister bring the authority of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary to bear on the Departments that are not delivering, although I am not sure whether that will work with the Lord Chancellor, to whom I wrote on 8 October about the temporary closure of Berwick court and who still has not replied long after the court has reopened?

Mr. Alexander

I shall be happy to pass on the right hon. Gentleman's concerns to the relevant Ministers.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The hon. Gentleman will perhaps know of the proposal to use Caythorpe Court in my constituency as an emergency centre for refugees. Is he aware of the strong opposition to that in my constituency? Is he aware that, on 14 December, I wrote to the Minister of State responsible, but did not receive a reply until 17 January, after a parliamentary question asking for a reply? Is he aware that, on Monday last week, I asked for a meeting? I have been told that there are personal reasons why I cannot have a meeting until 11 February. Accordingly, I have asked the Home Secretary for a meeting and, so far, that has been declined. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that pattern of conduct is in accordance with the conventions and practices of Ministers or the House, or is in any way satisfactory?

Mr. Alexander

I can only reiterate that as the concerns raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman relate directly to the Home Office, I will pass them on to the Home Secretary.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is the Minister aware that one of the problems with ministerial replies to correspondence is not just the speed or fullness of the reply but whether the Minister answers the question? Is it possible to advise officials that it is not good enough to pull together a few standards paragraphs on a subject? It is helpful to read the letter and answer the question that the correspondent has put.

Mr. Alexander

The present guidance, "Handling Correspondence for Members of Parliament: Guidance for Departments" sets out the principles that Departments should follow when replying to Members' correspondence.

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