THE Scotland Office has been accused of sleeping on the job after slipping behind on performance targets.

Alister Jack’s team has the worst record out of all home nations departments for answering questions from MPs and peers. It’s being comfortably outperformed by the Wales and Northern Ireland offices, UK Government figures show.

Pete Wishart MP, chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, said: “The Scotland Office aren’t entirely overburdened with things that they are taking up on behalf of the people of Scotland, it’s one of the sleepiest departments in Whitehall. This is really concerning that they can’t answer members’ questions and correspondence within the allocated time frame. We are wondering what on earth they are up to.”

The Scotland Office received 74 items of correspondence from members of the Commons and the Lords in 2020, including queries from and about constituents. These should be answered within 15 working days, according to the departmental target, but fewer than half – 48% – were responded to inside that timeframe.

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For a 20-working-day timeframe – the longest allowed across government – it managed just 65%.

In contrast, the Wales Office issued replies to 88% of enquiries within 15 working days and 98% within the longer period. It took in 63 items of correspondence over the piece.

The Northern Ireland Office achieved a 60% in-target response rate. It took in 467 articles of correspondence, but that number also includes other ministerial correspondence because the records don’t separate the material in the same way as the other teams.

The information was collated and published by the Cabinet Office. It will publish figures for last year “in due course”, according to Jack in a written answer to Labour MP Jessica Morden. He told her: “The government attaches great importance to the effective and timely handling of correspondence from MPs, either directly or on behalf of their constituents.”

The National:

Labour MP Jessica Morden

But currently available data shows the Scotland Office was also behind the other two home nations teams in 2018, when it responded to only 35% of its 48 enquiries within 15 working days. For the Wales Office, which had 23 approaches, the rate was 73%. For the Northern Ireland Office, which took in 507 messages, it was 78%. In 2019 all three were level on roughly 64%. But it’s now also far behind the overall government average.

The UK Government has said that “in comparison to 2019, 2020 saw an overall 81% increase in the volume of correspondence from Members of Parliament and peers across government, primarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with an average of 70% of correspondence responded to within the response targets set by departments and agencies”.

UK Visas and Enforcement/Border Force received the highest volume of correspondence from MPs and peers at 39,970 and still managed to hit 70% within its 20-day bracket.

The National Crime Agency and the Office of the Leader of the House of Lords both hit 100%, but took in far fewer enquiries at 20 and five respectively. And at 17% of missives handled within the target time, England’s Department for Education achieved the lowest performance.

It took in 15,790 messages from MPs and peers.

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The National asked the Scotland Office why it has performed less well than similar teams on this measure. We asked if it’s an issue of structure, staffing or capacity, and what other factors might be at play. We also asked if the Scotland Office agrees that it is not “overburdened” with business. In an almost word-for-word repeat of Jack’s written statement to Morden, a spokesperson said: “We attach great importance to the effective and timely handling of correspondence from MPs, either directly or on behalf of their constituents.”

However, a press officer then sent claims from the department’s own 2020-21 report, which covers the period until March 31 and was published two days before the Cabinet Office paper in July. It states that the department “received 1534 pieces of correspondence and replied to 1225 (80%) within the target time, in comparison to 718 (79.5%) in 2019-20”.

Last night the SNP’s Deidre Brock, who has repeatedly questioned the Scotland Office on its record, said: “Despite its soaring budget and vastly inflated team of spin doctors, the Scotland Office apparently struggles to match even the efforts of the Welsh Office in replying to queries. How is it that Scotland Office ministers and officials can find time to interfere in the fully devolved matters of the Scottish Parliament but can’t keep up with their correspondence?

“This zombie department should be closed once and for all and its generous funding pot given back to the people of Scotland to help them deal with a Tory-imposed Brexit and the cost of living crisis.”