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Committee report on written parliamentary questions reveals worrying pandemic impact on Government answering performance

18 July 2021

A new report released by the Commons Procedure Committee lays bare the impact of the pandemic on ministerial accountability in the House of Commons, as a decade of steady improvement in answering written parliamentary questions went into reverse.

The research found that in the 2019-21 session of Parliament, there was a decline of 15% in the rate of timeliness of answering named day questions, and a 13% decline in the timeliness of answering ordinary questions. The drop was primarily caused by a huge increase in the number of questions addressed to the Department of Health and Social Care.

Parliamentary interest in the work of Government soared during the session, with an average of 331 written parliamentary questions being tabled each day in the 2019-21 session, an increase of 18% on the previous full parliamentary session (2017-19).

The Committee supported a recommendation from the Leader of the House that establishing a ‘league table’ system of real-time reporting of answering performance across Government departments could be of merit.

The Committee also agreed to consider whether improved guidance to Government departments could improve the quality of answers and consistency in answering practice and committed to making recommendations later this year on revisions to the Guide to Parliamentary Work.

Chair's comments

Chair of the Procedure Committee, Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP, said:

“Parliamentary questions play a vital role in scrutiny of Government policies. At the heart of it, this is a question of Ministerial accountability.

“As a former Minister, I know just how crucial good responses to parliamentary questions are, having had to tackle poor answering performance during my time in both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office.

“While the timeliness of responses is of importance to Members, the quality of those answers is just as vital. When MPs put questions to the Government, they do so on behalf of the British public, so they should receive full, accurate and timely answers.

“This will continue to be the focus of the Procedure Committee’s work in this area, and we look forward to seeing improvements from Government departments in the coming months.”

Evidence session

The report comes ahead of a Procedure Committee evidence session on Monday [19/07/21] where Health Minister Edward Argar MP will be questioned about the Department for Health and Social Care’s efforts to improve its answering performance on written parliamentary questions. The session will be broadcast live on Parliament TV from 16:15.

Image: © UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor