Working to make government more effective


Writing wrongs? Ministerial correspondence under the Coalition.

Joe Randall looks at the latest data on ministerial correspondence and assesses how government departments and their arm's-length bodies are doing.

Joe Randall looks at the latest data on ministerial correspondence and assesses how government departments and their arm's-length bodies are doing.

The ability of the public and their representatives to request information is an important mechanism through which government departments are held to account for their actions. Crucially, it allows MPs to provide answers to constituents’ queries and complaints about government’s actions. Whitehall Monitor looks at different ways that information is requested, including Parliamentary Questions, Freedom of Information requests – and the subject of this post: ministerial correspondence. Since ministers are accountable to Parliament, they have a responsibility to reply to letters and emails they receive from MPs and Peers (as well as correspondence from MEPs and members of the devolved assemblies). These representatives often get in touch with ministers to ask questions on behalf of their constituents, who know that if their MP writes on their behalf they are more likely to receive a helpful reply. Every year, the Cabinet Office releases a statement on correspondence from MPs and Peers, detailing how much each department (and some of their arm’s-length bodies) receive, and how quickly they respond to it.

In 2014 departments received less correspondence from MPs and Peers than any other year during the last Parliament.

This is the smallest amount of correspondence received in any year of the Coalition Government; however the broad trend remains stable back to 2003, when comparable data begins.

In 2014, ministers at the Department of Health received the most correspondence from MPs and Peers.

Because of the nature of their work, some departments simply receive more correspondence than others. However, since rates of correspondence fluctuate – particularly while departments are leading reforming initiatives, or because of external factors such as economic shocks – departments need to ensure that they are up to the task of responding to these requests for information quickly and effectively. In 2014, two departments received over 15,000 letters and emails from MPs and Peers: the Department of Health (17,932) and the Department for Work and Pensions (16,542). The only departments to receive fewer than 500 pieces of correspondence are the ‘territorial’ departments: the Northern Ireland Office (404), the Scotland Office (303) and the Wales Office (80). This reflects the fact that most of the issues raised in this kind of correspondence would be dealt with directly by the devolved governments.

This was the first year in the last Parliament that DWP didn’t receive the most correspondence.

Towards the end of the last Parliament, MPs sent fewer letters on behalf of their constituents to the DWP in 2014 than in any other year from the last Parliament. By contrast, correspondence to DH remained relatively stable over the course of the Parliament. The Home Office – a department that generally receives a high number of requests for information (in FoI and Parliamentary Question form) actually experienced a decline in correspondence from MPs over this period.

But when you include departments’ ‘agencies’, the Home Office is the clear leader in terms of volume of correspondence received.

One of the reasons that the Home Office appears to receive relatively little correspondence from MPs in comparison to other big departments is that the data release lists certain ‘agencies’ separately. This category includes some, but not all, arm’s-length bodies (ALBs) and some areas or units within departments. For this chart we’ve used the data release’s classifications, rather than our own. Collectively, some of the Home Office’s ALBs (‘Her Majesty’s Passport Office’ and ‘UK Visas & Immigration/Immigration Enforcement/Border Force’) received almost 50,000  (48,334) letters from MPs and Peers in 2014. When these types of bodies are included, both HO and DWP overtake DH in terms of the total volume of Ministerial correspondence received.

Of the core departments in 2014, DH and the Welsh Office shared the best record in meeting their turnaround targets, but DCLG missed its target in almost 60% of cases.

The Cabinet Office guidance on how departments should handle correspondence from MPs and Peers sets out a target of no more than 20 working days in which all routine correspondence should be answered, although many departments adopt shorter targets. Both the DH and the Wales Office answered 97% of correspondence within their targets – 18 and 15 days respectively. At the other end of the scale, DCLG only achieved its target in 42% of cases. Much of this may be explained by the fact that DCLG aims to respond to correspondence within 10 days – the shortest target of any core department. Unfortunately the only data the Cabinet Office releases is the percentage of correspondence answered within target, which makes it hard to compare overall performance between departments with short targets such as DCLG and those who adopt the maximum 20 day target.

The Department of Health has consistently been the best at answering correspondence on time, but the timeliness of both the Treasury and DCLG fell sharply in 2014.

Of the departments receiving a high volume of correspondence, the Department of Health has consistently performed the best in terms of replying within their target (18 days). HM Treasury fell sharply in 2014, answering only 52% of correspondence within their target (15 days), though DCLG timeliness fell the sharpest in 2014. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport shows that such falls do not have to be permanent: it bounced back in 2014, answering 85% of correspondence within its target (20 days), having previously dropped from 88% in 2012 to 51% in 2013. Of course government departments don’t only receive correspondence via MPs and Peers, but they are contacted directly by the public all the time. Often they will categorise this correspondence as ‘treat official’ and these letters will receive a reply from ministers themselves, or – particularly where they cover technical issues – they will be answered by officials directly. The Whitehall Monitor team would love to look at this kind of correspondence, but at the moment we don’t have the data, despite Cabinet Office guidelines advising that departments should publicly report on the volume they receive and their performance in replying promptly. With Freedom of Information in the news again after the announcement of a new review into the types of information should be released into the public domain, how government departments respond to requests for information is likely to be an important issue in the coming months. We will continue to report on these issues, and will update our cross-Whitehall ranking of departments in Whitehall Monitor 2015 when it is released in the autumn.  

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