Published: 14/03/2002, Volume II2, No. 5796 Page 10

An official from the Department of Health's parliamentary section has been suspended on full pay pending an investigation into what health secretary Alan Milburn has described as the 'systematic falsification' of responses to parliamentary questions.

Officials uncovered a backlog of over 400 unanswered parliamentary questions following complaints from several MPs of different parties that their questions had not been answered.

NHS chief executive Nigel Crisp expressed 'deep regret' at his department's 'failure in honouring the commitment' to providing Parliament with the information it required.

He has given a commitment to answering all 411 outstanding queries by 12 March.

A DoH source said that there was no question of the official being involved in the kind of allegations of political spin associated with the departure of Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith from the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

'It is not that anyone fiddled answers or refused to answer questions from specific MPs or parties, or ignored questions on specific topics. I understand it was a combination of personal problems and coping with the stress of work, ' he said.

Mr Milburn told Parliament that the falsification meant that ministers and officials were wrongly led to believe that MPs had received replies when they had not.

'Several members have raised concerns about unanswered questions and the length of time it has taken for questions to be answered. Last week in the course of dealing with these inquiries evidence came to light of what appears to be systematic falsification in recording the handling of parliamentary questions in this department. This included recording questions as having been answered when no such reply had been given.

'We aim to provide timely and accurate responses to parliamentary questions. There has been a serious failure in honouring that commitment which I deeply regret.'