DHSC Answers to Written Questions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:32 am on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 10:32 am, 19th November 2020

I thank the Minister for his response and for the hard work he and his Department put in. However, as he acknowledges, the performance here, like in so many other areas, is just not good enough. We know it is tough, but there comes a point when it begins to look like departmental scrutiny is being used as a cover for evading giving answers.

This morning, I looked at the Department’s response times to my own written questions over the past six months. I have had to wait over one month for an answer 29 times, over two months 11 times and over three months four times. I was actually thinking of putting in a question asking for the average response times to questions, but then I thought I would just be waiting a long time for that answer as well. I have even had to wait five months for the answer to what I thought was a pretty simple question asking what tests for covid-19 had been used. One hundred and sixty-eight days later, I received the utterly unrevealing answer:

“A large number of different tests have been used throughout the programme.”

I was lucky; my hon. Friend Gill Furniss waited 18 weeks for an answer to a question on tests, only to be told:

“The information is not held in the format requested.”

Why did it take so long just to say that? Do Ministers even read the answers that they sign off?

This is not just about the time; the quality of the answers that we get back also needs improving. On dozens of occasions, I have been told that the Department does not hold the data, or no real attempt is made to answer the question that was asked. I accept that sometimes that information may not be easily acquired, but too often it looks as though the Department wants to keep us in the dark. I remind the House that the ministerial code requires Ministers to be

“as open as possible with Parliament”,

even when that may be inconvenient to them. In the spirit of openness, will the Minister also look at restarting NHS England and NHS Digital publications?

In conclusion, we all understand that the Department is dealing with many pressing issues, but scrutiny is important. Accountability matters, and if the pandemic is used too often as an excuse for standards to slip, that is how we go from questions not being answered to major policy changes being announced by media leaks, until we end up with the shameful spectacle of spivs and cronies pocketing millions from PPE contracts. Government must do better.