Ofgem has apologised after failing to respond to four out of five letters it received from MPs and peers on time this spring while the UK energy crisis deepened.
Of the 181 parliamentary queries sent to the energy regulator between April and June, only 21% got a response within its 15-day target. By day 20, Ofgem had still only responded to 39% of the correspondence.
Ofgem had the worst response rate of any government organisation in the second quarter of 2022, according to the latest figures. Across government, just 44% of parliamentary correspondence was responded to on time, mostly due to HM Passport Office, UK Visas and Immigration, Immigration Enforcement and Border Force failing to keep up with a deluge of correspondence.
MPs can write to Ofgem on constituents’ behalf about an issue with an energy company, or to raise broader issues such as the impact of the rising energy price cap.
Concern over energy bills shot up when the price cap rose in April, and again in May when Ofgem chief executive Jonathan Brearley warned the cap could hit £2,800.
In 2021, the regulator answered 88% of MPs' and peers' letters within 15 days. Response times dropped to 49% in the first three months of this year, before falling further.
An Ofgem spokesperson acknowledged the department had a “very low response rate” in the spring months. “This was a time of change in the relevant department and several key positions at a range of levels needed to be replaced,” they said.
The organisation’s external affairs team is now back up to full capacity. “Subsequently, the response rates have improved massively, and we anticipate the next dataset will put us up towards 90%,” the spokesperson said.
“We take parliamentary correspondence very seriously, we are sorry for the previous slow performance and we are working hard to fix it.”
Passport office, UKVI, Immigration Enforcement and Border Force drag down cross-government response times
Government organisations each have their own targets for responding to politicians’ correspondence – ranging from a week to 20 days.
They are “advised to consider setting more challenging deadlines than 20 working days to ensure a better minimum service level”, according to the Cabinet Office, which says the government “attaches great importance to the effective and timely handling of correspondence”.
But across the board, only 44% of parliamentary correspondence got a response within departments and agencies’ target timeframe in the second quarter of 2022. Just under half – 48% – received a response within 20 days.
In the previous three months, 57% got a response on time and 64% within 20 days.
The overall figure was skewed by a poor response rate by HM Passport Office, UK Visas and Immigration, Immigration Enforcement and Border Force – which received well over half the 88,963 letters MPs and peers sent to government organisations.
Together, the four Home Office divisions responded to only 30% of their 50,034 queries within their 20-day time limit.
Between April and June, the four organisations fielded more than double the previous three months’ 22,188 letters from MPs and peers – just over half of which got an on-time response.
The huge increase meant the volume of correspondence to government organisations swelled by nearly a third from 68,210 to 88,963.
Asked about the overall figures, a Cabinet Office spokesperson pointed out that with the four Home Office divisions removed from the total, the on-time response rate across government rose to 70%.
The surge in correspondence came as HMPO was under pressure to speed up passport processing, after a glut of applications following the Covid pandemic caused a backlog.
In a June select committee hearing, Labour MP Carolyn Harris said her office had spent several fruitless hours on the phone to the passport office's MPs’ hotline trying to resolve a constituent's case. “If that is the service MPs are getting, how on earth can you justify the level of service that the general public are having?” she said.
A Home Office spokesperson said the department has directed extra resources to handling telephone and written queries, and launched a national programme of engagement events for MPs along with other measures to improve its performance.
“Responding to MPs as quickly as possible is an ongoing priority for the Home Office to ensure we can best support them and their constituents in a timely manner. We are working to resolve all outstanding correspondence as a priority,” they said.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was the worst-performing ministerial department in both Q1 – when it answered 26% of its parliamentary letters within its 20-day deadline – and Q2, when it answered 30% on time.
Also faring poorly this spring were Building Digital UK – DCMS's broadband delivery agency – which responded late to two-thirds of correspondence from MPs and peers. The Treasury, Ministry of Justice, Northern Ireland Office, Equality Hub and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency all missed their target in more than half of cases.
The National Crime Agency only responded to half of its letters within its 10-day timeframe – despite receiving only six – and the Cabinet Office’s Cop26 team missed its 20-day deadline on four of its eight letters.
By contrast, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, Ofqual, National Archives and the Serious Fraud Office responded to all their enquiries on time – although they received between three and 12 letters apiece – and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency answered 99% of its 240 letters within its 10-day target.
In a letter to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee ahead of the figures being published, Cabinet Office minister Edward Argar said he recognised "there is a need for government as a whole to improve its timeliness with regards to responding to MPs and peers".
"My officials at the Cabinet Office will be speaking with correspondence teams in other departments over the coming months to look at what has impacted performance in 2022 so far and where improvements can be made," he said.