HC Deb 20 February 1978 vol 944 cc1001-3
28. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Lord President of the Council what was the estimated cost of providing answers to the 212 Written Questions for Monday 6th February; and whether, in view of the need to curb public expenditure, he will propose an upper limit on the number of such Questions which any hon. Member may table per month or per Session.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

The average cost of preparing a reply to a Written Question is currently estimated at £18. On this basis the cost of the answers to the Written Questions on 6th February would be £3,816. These figures are necessarily only approximate, and the cost of preparing individual answers varies widely. Any proposal for an upper limit on the number of Written Questions tabled by an individual Member would, in the first instance, be for consideration by the Select Committee on Procedure.

Mr. Hamilton

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that today there are 235 Questions for Written Answer? On the basis he has given, the cost will be £4,000-plus. Does my right hon. Friend realise that by this method the taxpayer is providing research facilities for organisations outside the House? Will he refer this matter to the Select Committee on Procedure for an early decision because it is some time since hon. Members were rationed for Oral Questions, to the great benefit of the House as a whole?

Mr. Foot

As my hon. Friend recognises, it is a matter for the Select Committee on Procedure in the first instance to make recommendations to the House. Any question of altering the procedures that we have accepted over recent years and the number of Questions allocated is a matter of concern to the whole House. The whole House would, therefore, have to hear what was proposed before any change was made.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Has the right hon. Gentleman any figures to show how many Questions were being tabled daily before research assistants were provided to Members and how many since such assistants have become available?

Mr. Foot

I have no figures which show that. Hon. Members must take responsibility, and do take responsibility, for the Questions which they put down. I repeat that the right of Members to put Questions is a matter of great importance. It should not, of course, be interfered with by the Government, and it is a question on which the House itself would have to decide.

Mr. English

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his answer shows that the real cost of answering a Question has declined since the matter was raised and an answer given in the 1964–70 Parliament? Does he realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), who asked this Question, is a Member of the European Assembly, the head of whose Civil Service is paid more than three times the sum paid to the head of our Civil Service? Does my right hon. Friend, therefore, accept that the cost of answering British Questions must be considerably lower than the cost of answering European Questions?

Mr. Foot

I dare say that my hon. Friend is right in the second part of his supplementary question. As for the first part, relating to what has happened in recent years, it is obvious that the quality of answers has greatly improved, whatever may have happened to the quantity.

Mr. Ridsdale

Does the Lord President realise that one of the reasons why there are so many more Written Questions is that Ministers are slow in answering letters? Has he any estimate of how much it costs to answer a letter?

Mr. Foot

I shall certainly answer the latter question if the hon. Gentleman will put it down. There has been an increase in the number of Questions, and that takes a longer time. If there are delays in answering Members' letters, I shall do my very best to look into the matter and see whether we can improve the situation.

Mr. James Lamond

Since the number of Oral Questions is limited, is it not right that the number of Written Questions also should at least be considered? Has my right hon. Friend noted that on today's Order Paper there are the names of Members with up to 15 Written Questions down, some of them to every Department, asking for example, about canteen facilities, the answers to which, I am sure, could be found much more cheaply by other methods?

Mr. Foot

If there is a general desire in the House that we should look into this matter, I should be prepared to refer the question to the Procedure Committee, but, obviously, the House would want to look with care at any change in the system and the rights of Members to put Questions.

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