PASC 04-05 PN 11

Session 2004-05

Press Notice 11


Whitehall fails to meet targets on openness and efficiency

Home Office ministers perform poorly in responding to questions and letters from MPs, PASC-the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee-said today.

In its latest Report, Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions, (HC 449-I) PASC reveals that the Home Office has regularly broken a Whitehall pledge to give MPs detailed explanations for refusing to answer a Parliamentary Question (PQ). The Government requires all departments to quote a specific exemption in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information when refusing to answer a PQ. Yet the Home Office has only provided MPs with the precise exemption on 13% of occasions in the last four years, and performance is getting worse, with only 9% of refusals properly explained in 2003-04.

By contrast, the Ministry of Defence does well when it comes to explaining itself, citing the Code exemptions in 86% of cases on average. Overall, however, Whitehall only manages to quote the exemptions in 52% of cases, which leads the Committee to express its “concern” that “departments have failed to honour fully their undertaking”.

Performance is also patchy on other aspects of parliamentary work. The Home Office is again the target of PASC criticism for failing to meet the deadlines for replying to MPs’ ‘named-day questions’, which should be answered by a specific date. Figures provided to the Committee show that it met the deadline in only 41% of cases. Other weak performers were the Department of Health, with only 39% within the deadline, and DEFRA, with 21% answered in time. The MOD again did fairly well on this measure, with 65% answered within the target time. The patchy overall picture on named-day questions leads the Committee to demand an annual report on Whitehall’s performance in this area.

The Report also notes that the Home Office comes out badly in Whitehall league tables of performance in handling of correspondence from MPs and peers, taking longer than the target of 15 working days to respond to many letters. The Committee comments that the figures for some parts of Whitehall may indicate “systemic difficulties in certain departments over the handling of information”, although it may also reflect the weight and nature of their caseload.

The Committee also says that it will watch carefully in the next few months to see if the new Freedom of Information Act encourages MPs to use their new rights to information rather than asking PQs. 

Volume II of the Report (HC 449-II), containing the appendices with full details of the responses to Parliamentary Questions referred to in the Report, will be published at the same time.

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For further information please telephone Philip Aylett, Clerk of the Committee on 020 7219 3498

Tony Wright may be contacted for press inquiries on 020 7219 5583

Publications and evidence, including uncorrected evidence, is also available on the Internet at

For information regarding forthcoming meetings including venues and times please call the

House of Commons Committee Information Line on 020 7219 2033 (updated daily).

NOTE FOR EDITORS: The Committee was nominated on 16 July 2001.  Its terms of reference are to examine the reports of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsmen, and to consider matters relating to the quality and standards of administration provided by Civil Service departments, and other matters relating to the Civil Service.  The members are:

Tony Wright (Chairman) (Lab) (Cannock Chase)
Annette Brooke (Lib Dem) (Mid Dorset and Poole North)
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con) (Bridgewater)
Mrs Anne Campbell (Lab) (Cambridge)
Mr Gordon Prentice (Lab) (Pendle)
Sir Sydney Chapman (Con) (Chipping Barnet)
Hon Michael Trend (Con) (Windsor)
Mr David Heyes (Lab) (Ashton under Lyne)
Brian White (Lab) (Milton Keynes North East)
Mr Kelvin Hopkins (Lab) (Luton North)
Iain Wright (Lab) (Hartlepool)