The Government are determined to improve the response time to letters from hon. Members. We are making steady progress to that end. Within the next month, a table will be published that compares the timing of departmental replies against the targets set for each Department.
The Minister will know that every table on the subject published by the Government shows that things are going backwards, not forwards. I am sure that every hon. Member will recognise the example that I shall give. A Mr. Newsham of Weymouth wrote to me on 9 January 1999. I sent a two-page letter off to him on 11 January, and I also sent a copy to the Minister, which was acknowledged on 14 January. A delegation—
Order. That is enough of the example. The hon. Gentleman should now ask the Minister how long it took to reply to the letter. That is the bottom line.
If the letter is as long as the question, it is probably still being read. The hon. Gentleman said that matters are going backwards. I think that he will be pleasantly surprised when he sees the tables to be published later this year. I think that he will be pleased at the progress being made.
I am sure that the Minister will accept that hon. Members of all parties have similar horror stories, and I shall not quote another to him. However, does he accept that being encouraged to table parliamentary questions is not a satisfactory alternative when the delays in answers to letters are so long? Hon. Members are put in an invidious position. I have figures showing the number of written questions on a named date that are answered in time. Responses are getting distressingly late. Although only a third of Cabinet Office responses are late, the figure is two thirds for both the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry.
Does the Minister accept that, although some Departments have made some improvements, the general position is deteriorating?
I do not accept that the general position is deteriorating. In fact, it is improving. However, I agree that the targets set by the Government are not being met at present. The Government are doing everything possible to improve response times.