Written questions

2 Jun 2009 11:04:11

Government department refuses to publish guidance on financial interests

Caroline Spelman MP Regular readers of this page know that I am forever publishing examples of the Government refusing to answer questions for no good reason.

The Prime Minister recently insisted "I've been as open as I can, as transparent as I can" and that he has ended the culture of spin. This is of course satirical beyond description. It also chimes like a broken bell with a written answer to a question from Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Caroline Spelman:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if she will place in the Library a copy of the guidance in her Department's staff handbook on the declaration of gifts, hospitality and financial interests.

Mr. Khan: Our staff handbook has been developed as an interactive publication delivered through the Department's intranet. It is not held in a format which allows it to be easily exported and therefore could be provided only at a disproportionate cost."

The handbook could surely be printed off bit by bit and placed in the House of Commons Library. Or they could cut and paste it into a Word document. Or maybe it should have been produced in such a way that it could be "easily exported" - you know, in the interests of transparency and all that.

Tom Greeves

13 May 2009 10:56:32

A further twist in the Damian Green saga

Francis Maude Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Francis Maude (right) has uncovered some Government hypocrisy through written questions.

Back in December 2008, Mr Maude was told that the Security Commission - a Cabinet Office body dedicated to investigating security breaches in Whitehall - had looked into two cases since 1997. Reports were published. One of these was about the Ministry of Defence; the other related to Buckingham Palace. 

However, the Treasury was oddly unconcerned by another event:

"Mr. Maude: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will request the Security Commission to undertake an investigation into the unauthorised disclosure of information relating to taxation measures in the Pre-Budget Report 2008. [272070]

Angela Eagle: It has been the policy of successive Administrations not to comment on the initiation of, content of, or outcome of any such inquiries."

And yet the Security Commission has actually published reports of other inquiries.

Details of the 2008 Pre-Budget Report were widely trailed in the media. Martin Broughton, President of the CBI, said "The Treasury appears to be leaking like a sieve". Bookmakers stopped taking bets on major policy changes before the Report officially came out.

All of this contrasts rather strikingly - and indeed suspiciously - with the East German approach taken to the Damian Green case.

Tom Greeves

11 May 2009 11:32:31

How many people have had compulsory electro-convulsive therapy?

Anne Milton I've developed an interest in the Government's inability to get its hands on health data. Guildford MP and Shadow Health Minister Anne Milton has uncovered another case with a written question:

To ask the Secretary of State for Health on how many occasions electro-convulsive therapy was administered to a mental health patient (a) in total and (b) as part of compulsory treatment in each of the last five years. [271724]

Phil Hope: The data requested on occasions when electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) has been administered to a mental health patient in total are in the following table.

Total and average number of procedures for electro convulsive treatment per patient where the relevant operative procedure code (OPCS-4 code= A83) recorded in either main or in any of the secondary operative procedure fields 2003-04 to 2007-08, England

Total Procedures Patient count Average procedures per patient





















Hospital Episode Statistics; Outpatients, The NHS Information Centre for health and social care

We do not have the data requested about ECT and compulsory treatment. However, patients who are detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 cannot generally be given ECT without their consent, unless it is authorised by a Second Opinion Appointed Doctor (SOAD). The following table shows the number of second opinion requests in England and Wales for ECT received in each calendar year followed by the percentage of those requests that resulted in the Second Opinion Appointed Doctor issuing a statutory certificate authorising ECT.

We do not know how many of these allocations were acted on.

2004 2005 2006 2007 2008

Number of requests for ECT second opinions






Percentage of requests where SOAD certified treatment






The Care Quality Commission

So the Government doesn't know how many people are being electrocuted against their will. Outrageous.

Tom Greeves

6 May 2009 11:33:20

Government sends two ministers and 45 officials to conference on climate change

Update: Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Greg Clark has issued a press release on this story.

John Redwood MP Rather like rock stars who take a private jet to play at an event condemning the evils of climate change, Whitehall departments sometimes fail to practice what they preach, as John Redwood has uncovered:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change how many UK Ministers and officials attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznan on 13 December 2008; and what method of transportation each used. [246697]

Joan Ruddock: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Poznan in December 2009, known as the 14th Conference of the Parties (or COP14) was attended by two Ministers and 45 officials. Delegates attended from different Departments across Whitehall to ensure the full range of issues could be addressed by UK experts. Of the total, 33 delegates attended from the Department of Energy and Climate Change

The Ministers in attendance were Secretary of State Ed Miliband, and Parliamentary Under-Secretary Joan Ruddock.

The 47 delegates travelled to and from Poznan in the following proportions:


By air to Warsaw and rail to Poznan


By air to Poznan, including both Ed Miliband and Joan Ruddock


By rail from the British embassy in Warsaw


All emissions resulting from DECC's international commitments are offset. In April 2006 the UK developed a Government Carbon Offsetting Fund (GCOF) as part of the wider UK Sustainable Development Strategy to meet the commitment to offset emissions arising from official and ministerial air travel."

What with all the hot air that will have been expended at the conference, that's quite a contribution.

This country used to run half the globe with a handful of Classics graduates.

On another note, there can be little doubt after the last few months that John Redwood should serve in the next Conservative Cabinet.

Tom Greeves

Greg Clark commented:

"The Copenhagen talks later this year are clearly vitally important for getting an international agreement on tackling climate change. But it is astonishing that the Government would need to fly out 46 delegates to represent Britain, not least because of the carbon footprint.

The creation of a Department for Energy and Climate Change was meant to co-ordinate the Government's approach to this important issue. Clearly this is not yet working as a third of the delegates were from other Government departments."

30 Apr 2009 10:29:52

The Government doesn't know about several national health trends

Anne Milton There have been a couple of troubling written answers from Health ministers recently.

Shadow Health Minister Anne Milton asked about the availability of cognitive behavioural therapy, a crucial element in treating mental ill health:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many people received cognitive behavioural therapy in each of the last five years. [271737]

Phil Hope: This information is not held centrally."

Labour MP Ashok Kumar wanted to know about nursing levels:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Health what the average ratio of nurses to patients was at each hospital in (a) England, (b) the North East and (c) the Tees Valley in each of the last 10 years. [271347]

Ann Keen: This information is not collected centrally."

I am staggered that the Government doesn't know these figures. And they are just two recent examples - I will be on the lookout for more.

How can ministers consider national health trends if they don't have the raw material to hand?

Tom Greeves

1 Apr 2009 17:58:09

Is Scientology a religion?

Bob Neill Bob Neill, Shadow Minister for London, has posed an intriguing question:

"Robert Neill: To ask the Minister for Women and Equality whether the Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises the Church of Scientology as a religion or faith. [264850]

Maria Eagle: The Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises all religions, faiths and beliefs in terms of its duties to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. It is up to the courts to decide whether Scientology is a religion or faith within the terms of the Equality Act 2006."

That reply suggests that there is no settled answer. What do readers think - should Scientology be treated in a reverent way? Should any religion?

And are any of you Scientologists? Hot on the heels of the Conservative Humanist Association, could a Conservative Scientologist Society be next?

Tom Greeves

30 Mar 2009 14:16:30

Thousands of Cubans in prison because they "may cause a crime in the future"

John Bercow MP There are a handful of interesting answers in the latest Hansard.

Buckingham MP John Bercow reminded the useful idiots that Cuba is not Paradise, but rather a dystopian nightmare:

"John Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what reports he has received of the number of people convicted of the crime of social dangerousness in Cuba in each of the last five years. [265458]

Gillian Merron: We are very concerned about the use of charges of "social dangerousness" in Cuba to arrest those whom the Cuban authorities believe may cause a crime in the future.

During Cuba's review at the Human Rights Council in February 2009, the UK recommended that Cuba refrain from using such laws to restrict the rights of freedom of expression and association.

The Cuban government does not publish statistics on the number of people convicted on these grounds, but the non-governmental Cuban commission for human rights and national reconciliation, estimates that there are currently between 3,000 and 5,000 people in prison in Cuba convicted of “pre-criminal social dangerousness.”

Our embassy in Havana has requested these figures from the Cuban authorities and I will write if we receive a reply."

Continue reading "Thousands of Cubans in prison because they "may cause a crime in the future"" »

27 Mar 2009 13:55:45

Should the Government spend more on clean energy research?

Greg Barker MP Shadow Enviroment Minister Greg Barker has asked the Government an interesting question about clean energy:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change what his Department’s research and development budget in support of research into clean energy is in the next 12 months. [255178]

Mr. Lammy: I have been asked to reply.

The Department for Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS) provides funding to the Technology Strategy Board and the Research Councils to support research and development.

The Research Councils planned expenditure on energy research and related training is expected to exceed £300 million over the period 2008-11.

The Technology Strategy Board has a current portfolio of 76 collaborative projects (worth ca £140 million) on emerging low carbon energy technologies. Following two recent calls in Carbon Abatement Technologies and Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Technologies, further funding will be committed in the next 12 months. It is also expanding its portfolio in areas relating to the low carbon agenda through a range of initiatives including Innovation Platforms—one focused on Low Carbon Vehicles is coordinating over £100 million of public sector support to accelerate the market introduction of ultra low carbon vehicles.

In addition, DIUS has committed to provide up to £50 million pa (through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Technology Strategy Board) to the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), to be matched by industry partners. ETI is establishing a portfolio of development projects in low carbon energy technologies.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change also provides some funding through the Environmental Transformation Fund (ETF) for clean energy research. The annual budget for the ETF and its component programmes, including the Carbon Trust, will be agreed in due course."

What do you think? Should this be left to the market? Or should the Government be investing more? Are other forms of energy cleaner than they are given credit for? Is 'clean energy' a meaningless term?

All feedback welcome - I'm an ignoramus when it comes to science! 

Tom Greeves

9 Mar 2009 11:41:10

The Government doesn't know how many kids drop out of school

Philip_holloboneKettering MP Philip Hollobone has received an extraordinary written answer:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families how many pupils dropped out of school before the age of 16 in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England in the last 12 months. [261672]

Jim Knight: Information on pupils dropping out of schools is not collected, nor can it be accurately derived from the data currently collected on pupils."

It is quite staggering that the of all the statistics ministers swim in, this one is not available to them. It is surely a key measurement of the effectiveness of their education policy.

Tom Greeves

27 Feb 2009 16:56:01

Is Lord Falconer going to get a monster pension?

Francis_maude_mpShadow Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude has pressed the Prime Minister over the rather fraught issue of Lord Falconer's pension. In November 2007 the Telegraph reported that Lord Falconer was ready to sue Gordon Brown over the size of his pension. Lord Chancellors have historically had generous arrangements to reflect the fact that they have to give up legal careers when they assume the role. Lord Falconer was reported to believe that he was entitled to a pension twice what the Cabinet Office had in mind, i.e. £52,193, according to the Telegraph.

A £100,000 plus pension would not go down well in the current climate, if ever.

Mr Maude has asked the Prime Minister about Lord Falconer's pension:

"Mr. Maude: To ask the Prime Minister pursuant to the answer of 28 January 2009, Official Report, column 541W, on Ministers: pensions, whether Lord Falconer of Thoroton is to receive (a) a pension equivalent to that received by other Secretaries of State in the House of Lords, (b) a pension entitlement derived from the provisions of the Lord Chancellor’s Pension Act 1832 as amended or (c) a pension settlement on another basis in respect of his service as Lord Chancellor; and if he will make a statement. [258692]

The Prime Minister: I have nothing further to add to the answer I gave the right hon. Member on 28 January 2009, Official Report, column 541W."

The 28 January answer referred Mr Maude to an answer Gordon Brown had given to Mark Hoban in October 2007, which had referred Mr Hoban to an answer Tony Blair had given to Oliver Heald in 2003!

"Mr. Heald: To ask the Prime Minister whether the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs will receive the pension entitlement of the Lord Chancellor (a) during the planned transition period before the proposed abolition of the office and (b) subsequently, if the office is abolished; and if he will make a statement. [120022]

The Prime Minister: No. The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs has elected to receive only a salary and pension equivalent to that received by other Secretaries of State in the House of Lords."

It would be helpful - for the public if not the Labour Party - if a specific figure could be put on Lord Falconer's pension entitlement.

Tom Greeves

Continue reading "Is Lord Falconer going to get a monster pension?" »

13 Feb 2009 14:10:10

Gordon Brown's grumpy and inadequate answers to written questions

Gordon_brownIn the latest edition of Hansard, the Prime Minister gives some rather terse responses to written questions put down by Conservative members.

Chichester MP Andrew Tyrie asked about special advisers:

"To ask the Prime Minister how many expert advisers, excluding special advisers, have been commissioned by his Office since June 2007; and on which topics they have advised. [254741]

The Prime Minister: I have nothing further to add to the answer I gave the hon. Member on 12 January 2009, Official Report , column 53W."

Here is that answer:

"Mr. Tyrie: To ask the Prime Minister what expert advisers have been commissioned by his Office since 1997; on what topic each was commissioned; and whether the adviser so appointed made a declaration of political activity in each case. [246970]

The Prime Minister: Since 2003, the Government have published on an annual basis the names and overall cost of special advisers and the number in each pay band. Updated information will be published in the usual way."

Shadow Environment minister Greg Barker wanted to know - perfectly reasonably - what the Prime Minister's team is doing about energy and climate issues:

"To ask the Prime Minister what work the No. 10 Policy Directorate (a) has undertaken and (b) plans to undertake on energy and climate-related matters. [255042]

The Prime Minister: The No. 10 Policy Unit covers all Government policy, including energy and climate-related matters."

That answer is absurdly brief, and pretty much tautologous.

Continue reading "Gordon Brown's grumpy and inadequate answers to written questions" »

15 Dec 2008 16:32:39

Eric Pickles asks the most written questions in 2007-08


Update: Some more examples of Mr Pickles's written questions have been added, to give a fuller flavour.

Eric Pickles, Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary and MP for Brentwood & Ongar, has come top of a league table. He was followed closely by Mark Hoban, MP for Fareham and a Shadow Treasury Minister. In 2007-08 Mr Pickles asked 2,190 written questions. Mr Hoban asked 2,097.

This story comes courtesy of the Yeovil Express, as local Lib Dem MP David Laws came a distant third.

Written questions certainly tie up civil servants and cost money. But these MPs are assiduous, and should therefore be congratulated for their efforts. Admittedly this is just one measure, but they are clearly working very hard.

The following written question represents one of Mr Pickles's greatest hits. When John Prescott left his grace and favour Whitehall pad, he left a hell of a mess:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs pursuant to the answer of 6 February 2008, Official Report, columns 1158-9W, on Admiralty House, (1) what minor works were undertaken; [189572]

(2) what the cost was to the public purse of the minor works. [189588]

Meg Munn: In line with normal procedure a one-off deep clean of the property was undertaken at change over of tenants. This included cleaning of lights, curtains, nets and windows, at a cost of £3,319.67, including value added tax (VAT).

A pelmet, tracking and curtains for one window was supplied and installed at a cost of £1,030.16, including VAT.

Two bedrooms, an adjacent corridor and one bathroom were repainted and a washer dryer, a tumble dryer, fridge freezer and mixer taps were supplied and installed. The cost of these works and equipment was £9,322.92, including VAT."

Mr Pickles exposed the fact that flytippers - who dump rubbish and run - are not being held to account.

"To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how many prosecutions were (a) undertaken and (b) successful in relation to fly-tipping incidents in 2006-07 in (i) absolute terms and (ii) as a percentage of the total number of fly-tipping incidents. [176541]

Joan Ruddock: Prosecution data are taken from Flycapture, the national fly-tipping database. In 2006-07, local authorities and the Environment Agency submitted the data in the following table.

Prosecutions figures are only cases taken through the court system and do not include wider enforcement action.

In 2006-07, local authorities recorded an additional 378,974 enforcement actions, consisting of warning letters, statutory notices, fixed penalty notices, duty of care inspections, vehicle seizures and formal cautions. Excluding Liverpool city council, this figure was 172,042.



Local authorities Environment Agency

Total incidents



Total incidents (excluding Liverpool city council)



Total prosecutions undertaken



Successful prosecutions



Total prosecutions as percentage of total incidents



Total prosecutions as percentage of total (excluding Liverpool city council)



Successful prosecutions as percentage of total incidents



Successful prosecutions as percentage of total incidents (excluding Liverpool city council)



Continue reading "Eric Pickles asks the most written questions in 2007-08" »

30 Oct 2008 14:28:34

Round-up of written answers

There are a few noteworthy written answers in the most recent copies of Hansard.

In the Lords' answers, crossbencher Lord Laird was informed about prison costs:

"Lord Laird asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the average cost of keeping a person in prison in England for one week in the last year for which figures are available. [HL5847]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): The latest year for which figures are available is 2007-08. I refer the noble Lord to my Answer of 15 October (Official Report, col. WA55). The overall average cost per prisoner per week in England and Wales in 2007-08 was £750. This excludes prisoners held in police and court cells under Operation Safeguard. The figure includes some estimation and is given to the nearest £50. Figures are not calculated separately for England and Wales. Expenditure met by other government departments (eg for health and education) is not included. The prisoner escort service is included."

In the Commons' written answers David Taylor, Labour MP for North West Leicestershire, received confirmation that the Government still supports the controversial Barnett Formula for funding Scotland:

"David Taylor: To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the operation of the Barnett formula; and if he will make a statement. [229811]

Ann McKechin: I have had recent discussions with the First Minister on a variety of matters. This Government believe that the Barnett formula has delivered stable and transparent settlements for Scotland under successive administrations for almost 30 years."

Continue reading "Round-up of written answers" »

24 Oct 2008 16:55:13

The Government continues to dodge written questions

ParliamentIn the latest copy of Hansard, several more written questions have been inadequately answered.

There will be times when the Government really can't answer a question, or when it would be undiplomatic for it to do so, or when pulling the information together would be excessively costly. But those occasions are comparatively rare.

This post is longer than normal, but with good reason. It's time to spotlight what appears to be indefensible obsfucation. If anyone can suggest good reasons why the answers below were in fact satisfactory, we'd be delighted to see them.

There are some real gems, including this one from Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Harwich:

"Mr. Carswell: To ask the Prime Minister how much champagne was ordered by the Prime Minister’s Office for consumption at events at (a) 10 Downing Street and (b) Chequers in each of the last six months. [226474]

The Prime Minister: The information requested is not held."

If this isn't a lie, and they really don't know how much they spent on bubbly, that's actually more horrifying than trying to cover it up.

Continue reading "The Government continues to dodge written questions" »