HC Deb 09 August 1972 vol 842 cc1723-5
37. Mr. Jessel

asked the Minister for the Civil Service if he is now able to announce the results of the analysis of the cost of answering parliamentary Questions.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

The costs incurred in Government Departments in preparing answers for 1,385 Questions tabled for Oral Answer and 1,515 Questions tabled for Written Answer during the period 10th April to 5th May, 1972, have now been analysed. The average cost for those for Oral Answer has been calculated as £16 and for those for Written Answer as £10.

Mr. Jessel

What is the largest number of Questions put by any hon. Member in the present Parliament, and what is the cost to the taxpayer?

Mr. Baker

The House will probably know who has asked the most Questions—the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis). He is the last of the big askers. I regret that the hon. Gentleman is not present. Normally he does not miss Question Time.

Mr. Kaufman

He is writing them.

Mr. Baker

The cost of the hon. Gentleman's Questions in the first half of this Session was £13,296 and probably for a full Session it is between £25,000 and £35,000. That is roughly equivalent to the employment of about 12 clerical officers in my Department.

Dr. Marshall

Why is the cost of answering Questions tabled for written answer so much less than the cost of answering those for Oral Answer?

Mr. Baker

Because officials in each Department have to prepare a much fuller brief on Questions for Oral Answer. This practice has continued for some years. This is the real cost. For Questions which are not answered orally less of a brief has to be prepared.

Mr. Crouch

Will my hon. Friend note that some of us are having difficulty in knowing what Questions were asked and what answers were given on 31st July this year due to the fact that HANSARD for that day has not yet been published?

Mr. Baker

There was a short industrial dispute in the Stationery Office which led to the failure to produce HANSARD; but the staff are catching up on the publication of HANSARD. In replying to my hon. Friend's Question rather obliquely, may I point out that the full cost of Question Time over a Session is between £350,000 and £400,000. That is a very small price to pay for one of the basic ingredients of the British parliamentary system.

Mr. Sheldon

While agreeing with the hon. Gentleman's last comment, may I ask him whether he accepts that it is no part of anybody's duty to criticise any hon. Member for tabling Questions which he believes to be necessary in the interests of his constituents and that these matters can be judged only by the Member concerned? The information about cost which the hon. Gentleman has given is very interesting to us, but does he not agree that Questions are a very valuable means of obtaining the kind of information which it has become increasingly difficult to obtain? Despite the Government's protestations about open government, we have had very poor answers this Session. This point should be put on record.

Mr. Baker

That is a very unfair point to make. I agree with the first part of what the hon. Gentleman said. Question Time is one of the greatest safeguards of the liberties we enjoy in this country. The number of Questions tabled has increased enormously since the last survey in 1965. In the sample periods the number of oral Questions has increased by 57 per cent. and the number of Written Questions by 126 per cent. I pay tribute to the Officers of the House in the Table Office who handle all our Questions.