asked the Lord Privy Seal whether, in view of the increased numbers of questions tabled for written answer in the last few years, and the increasing cost of answering them, he will bring forward proposals to limit the number of such questions which can be tabled by hon. Members.
I have no immediate plans to do so, but I note the hon. Gentleman's concern.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my figures show that during the last Session there were more than 42,000 written questions, compared with 21,000 four years ago, and that the cost of answering them came to £1·68 million? Is he also aware that there is some evidence that the system is being abused by outside bodies? I can tell him that there are two Conservative Members now in the House who are in the pay of drug companies. During the present Session they have tabled 70 written questions to the Department of Health and Social Security compared with a total of 23 from those two hon. Members in the last four years. Does that not demonstrate a prima facie case of gross abuse whereby the taxpayer is asked to foot the bill for the research of private companies outside the House?
I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's concern about the increasing use of written questions which, if they are adjusted on a sittings day basis, have risen from 139 for the Session 1980–81 to 188 in the current Session—an increase of about 43 per cent. I suggest that the specific matters mentioned by the hon. Gentleman touch more on the declaration of interests of hon. Members and that he should refer his remarks to the corresponding Select Committee.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that another factor responsible for the explosion in the number of questions is the increase in the number of hon. Members' research assistants? Is he aware that one hon. Member of whom I know has had at least five research assistants at one time, most of them provided by American universities?
The Services Committee has recently reported on this matter. I hope that its report will be available to the House fairly shortly.