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Tue, 27 October 2020

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Peers Say They Can't Scrutinise What The Government Is Doing Over Coronavirus Because Their Questions Are Being Ignored

Peers Say They Can't Scrutinise What The Government Is Doing Over Coronavirus Because Their Questions Are Being Ignored

Peers say they are struggling to get answers from government on Covid-19 (Credit:PA)

3 min read

Peers claim they are unable to hold the government to account over the coronavirus pandemic because ministers have been ignoring their questions for months.

One opposition member in the House of Lords told PoliticsHome "the idea of active scrutiny is nonsense, we are simply not getting the information", as records show the government has failed to answer more than 70 written health questions in the last five months. 

Former Labour minister and ex-Lords chief whip Steve Bassam said he had waited weeks for the answers to several questions, before being presented with a "round robin" letter sent to several peers before the start of the summer recess. 

"I can see that's a very convenient thing for a minister to do, but it does somewhat defeat the object of a written question," he said. 

"Written questions are very much in the public domain and easily accessible and a letter in the House of Lords library is not a readily accessible document.

"I've concluded that government ministers are using this approach as a way of avoiding the directness of questions.  It seems to be part of a pattern and it's not good enough."

Lord Bassam, who served as a government Home Office spokesman under former prime minister Tony Blair, added: "I had to sign off plenty of written questions as a minister, and they were not always easy or convenient questions - but we still had to answer them.

"My questions were all perfectly reasonable, to do with testing statistics and turnaround times which are very much in the public interest. 

"This is a matter of high public concern and if MPs and peers aren't able to ask questions about Covid policy, we are not able to do our jobs properly."

It comes after parliamentary databases revealed dozens of MPs' questions had also gone unanswered, including some submitted by shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth and Lib Dem health spokesperson Munira Wilson.

Among them were requests for the timeframe for data sharing on positive Covid-19 tests between GPs, local councils and NHS trusts; how many people have been offered tests more than 75 miles from their homes and how many NHS trusts are offering antibody tests for staff.

"It took three attempts a few days ago to get a straight answer on whether domiciliary carers are being provided with PPE," another Labour peer said.

"And it's not just Labour, it's questions from Lords from all political parties and crossbenchers.

"It's as if ministers go into some kind of mantra, repeating the lines on how they've done squillions of tests when a totally different question has been asked. 

"And if they get stuck because they can't actually answer the question, it moves on to how hard everyone is working, which seems to be the fallback.

"Nobody is disputing that - we're all working hard - we just want the answers to the questions we have asked."

Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle reminded ministers earlier this week that they had "a responsibility" to provide MPs with information in good time. 

"It does not help the department, it does not help MPs to represent their constituents," he said.

"Members matter, MPs are elected and I expect those responses early, not at their convenience."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We have an exemplary record of providing accurate and timely answers to written parliamentary questions and correspondence from MPs as we take parliamentary scrutiny very seriously.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic we have received an unprecedented number of written parliamentary questions and correspondence from MPs and have responded to thousands of parliamentary questions and letters.

“We continue to work hard to ensure that members’ written parliamentary questions and letters are answered as a priority.”

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