Labour MPs’ staffers have described a “massive failure of accountability on the part of the government” as they reveal that normal parliamentary procedures used to scrutinise the government are not working.
Employees in MPs’ offices have spoken to LabourList after a communication breakdown with ministers. They say responses from government figures have been delayed by “months and months” during the pandemic.
Parliamentary workers have said MPs have waited as long as five months for formal ministerial replies to letters. According to Cabinet Office guidance, they should receive an answer within 20 working days.
One staffer told LabourList: “Anything to do with a ministerial response – so letters and written questions in the main – have been really slow coming back… We’re talking months and months in some cases.
“We wrote a letter in early April to the Department of Transport and it came back last week. So, what, like five months later? By which point, the issue that the letter was originally about is not even relevant anymore.”
LabourList has seen five ministerial letters sent to a Labour MP following their queries, made since April this year, that have all taken between three and five months for the government representative to respond.
In one instance, the member had written to a cabinet member on April 8th about a specific policy issue affecting taxi drivers. The official response from the minister came back to the Labour MP on August 28th.
Employees working in Labour MPs’ offices have also noted a decline in the standard of the answers being received, with several highlighting that ministers are “just sending bulk responses” to their enquiries.
One said: “Say you’ve written about the furlough scheme. They will write a bulk response, and you can tell it’s been written in response to lots of different people because it doesn’t answer the nuances of your question.”
The staffer added: “Nobody is really talking about this. But this is a massive failure of accountability on the part of the government.”
Labour MP for Stockton North and shadow justice minister Alex Cunningham has taken to social media to express his frustration, writing: “I am sick and tired of Tory ministers taking weeks on end to answer letters I write on behalf of constituents.”
Parliamentary workers have told LabourList that they have also seen a marked increase in the number of letters signed off by civil servants rather than the relevant minister. This normally only happens in a small minority of cases.
Cunningham added: “The latest to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak has taken six weeks and he delegated it to a civil servant. He should at least sign the letters off.”
One staffer described how the Department for Health and Social Care has sent out responses from a civil servant, with a covering letter explaining that minister Helen Whately has too much correspondence to sign off.
Guidance is clear that “all correspondence to ministers from MPs should be signed off at an appropriate equivalent ministerial level”. Where this is not possible, it says a ‘duty minister’ should “sign in his or her absence”.
It adds that civil servants should only sign off letters in “exceptional circumstances” when dealing with a large volume of letters, or if it has been “decreed that under certain circumstances an official reply would be more appropriate”.
The MP’s staff member added: “The Treasury do the same without the covering letter, it’s just some member of staff having to sign off with his own name on some poorly written stuff that doesn’t answer the questions put to the Chancellor.”
The same staffer also told LabourList that, for the first time in her two years’ experience working for the MP, a civil servant attempted to return a query to the member by suggesting it should be sent to another department.
The usual process for correspondence sent to the wrong minister is for it to be forwarded internally. The staffer added that in this particular case the official had made a mistake and seemingly not read the letter.
The guidance for officials handling correspondence sent to the wrong department states that the teams involved should resolve who must send a reply within three working days, or five in exceptional cases.
She concluded: “I get the impression that they either don’t have capacity to answer everything to a reasonable standard, or don’t care what goes out any more.”
Boris Johnson has been repeatedly criticised for avoiding scrutiny – including his prorogation of parliament last September and delaying his appearance in front of the liaison committee, which he attended for the first time as PM in May this year.
It was also reported following an investigation by the The Times that the Prime Minister had missed five of the government’s emergency COBRA meetings in the early stages of the pandemic.
Parliament went into recess early due to the pandemic after passing emergency legislation, handing government powers to shape its response to the crisis. For several weeks, members of the government only faced questions at press briefings.
Unlike many local councils, for example, the government was slow to make alternative scrutiny arrangements such as holding usual meetings over Zoom – leaving no opportunity for backbenchers to hold ministers to account.
At the time, Labour leader Keir Starmer called for “urgent talks” on recalling parliament and said that government decisions needed to be “challenged and subject to scrutiny” to avoid mistakes.
A government spokesperson said: “Every effort is made to provide a substantive reply to correspondence within a reasonable timeframe.
“Ministers receive large volumes of correspondence, exacerbated during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. While departments endeavour to answer all correspondence in a timely manner, occasionally this is not possible.”