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Departmental Written Questions

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what methodology her Department used to determine whether answers to Questions in the formulation “if she will set out with statistical information related as directly as possible to the tabling hon. Member’s constituency the effects on that constituency of her Department’s policies since 1997” could be provided without incurring disproportionate cost; and if she will make a statement. (323876)

When deciding whether a response to a parliamentary question is likely to incur disproportionate cost, DWP staff follow the guidance set by the Cabinet Office which is as follows:

Disproportionate cost

7.26 There is an advisory cost limit known as the disproportionate cost threshold (DCT) which is the level above which Departments can refuse to answer a PQ. The current disproportionate cost threshold for written questions (the limit does not apply to oral questions) is £800 (from 20 January 2010)6.

7.27 Since 1991 the disproportionate cost threshold (DCT) has been set by HM Treasury at eight times the average marginal cost of answering Written Parliamentary Questions. Marginal cost is judged as the direct cost of civil servants’ time. Average marginal cost is based on a one-month sample of all Written parliamentary Questions answered by those departments with the highest volume of questions. Such samples are taken on a quinquennial basis. In years between quinquennial samples, the Treasury applies indexation to the DCT, but only increases it in £50 steps to avoid the need for frequent small changes. HM Treasury has established the average cost of answering of a written PQ as £154.00 and an oral question as £425.00.

7.28 Where officials are recommending that a question is not answered due to disproportionate cost, a note setting out the reasons, justifications and the full costs should be provided to the responsible Minister. The cost estimate should be based on a calculation of the cost of civil servants of the relevant grade working for the required length of time to assemble the information. Cabinet Office guidance for officials drafting answers to PQs refers to the fact that ‘where information is being refused on the grounds of disproportionate cost, there should be a presumption that any of the requested information which is readily available should be provided.’ A Minister may still decide to answer a question, even if providing the answer results in costs above the DCT, for example, on public interest grounds.

7.29 It is practice in some departments to agree to provide a Member information initially refused (on disproportionate cost grounds) by paying the balance over the disproportionate cost threshold. However, this option may not be available if the relevant officials would not in practice be available to do the work.

7.30 It should be noted that the ‘disproportionate cost’ answer is intended to be used where the information is held in an accessible form but is expensive to identify. It is not for cases where the information is not held at all (in the latter case the answer would say ‘the information is not held’ or similar).

7.31 The suggested wording for a disproportionate cost answer is:

“The information is not readily available/held centrally and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost.”