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Parliamentary Questions

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011

3. What recent estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of parliamentary questions for written answer. (70620)

The average cost to the taxpayer of a question for written answer is estimated at £239. In the financial year 2010-11, a total of 46,825 written answers were published, at an estimated total cost of about £11.2 million.

We would all agree that written parliamentary questions are an important way of holding the Government to account, but what steps is the Deputy Leader of the House proposing to take to limit exposure to the public purse? Should hon. Members be in more control of this process?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I really do not think it is for the Government to limit or try to ration the supply of questions, because, as he says, it is very important that hon. Members have that opportunity to hold the Government to account. However, I do think that hon. Members, like other public servants, should consider the impact of their activities on the public purse. It is particularly important to recognise that the right to table questions belongs to hon. Members, and hon. Members alone.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that if he is to fulfil the Prime Minister’s pledge to

“increase the power of Parliament”,

he should be worrying less about the quantity of questions and more about the quality of the answers? What is he going to do to ensure that Ministers give full and timely responses to Members, and that they end the increasing practice of giving holding answers to named day questions and transferring orals at very little notice? Or is this going to go the way of other prime ministerial pledges, such as those for more free votes on Bill Committees and text updates on the progress of Bills?

The hon. Lady has a very short memory span if she really thinks that this Government are performing worse than the Government of whom she was a member. I recall that many times her Government were quite incapable of providing timely, or indeed adequate, responses to questions. We always try very hard within the Departments to make sure that people get their questions answered properly and on time. If Departments fall short of those ideals, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I are very happy to chase up those Departments to see whether we can improve the performance. However, I have to say that I do not think the performance is lacking at the moment.