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.
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. 
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.
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. 
|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.
The Care Quality Commission
Update: Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Greg Clark has issued a press release on this story.
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. 
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
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.
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."
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. 
"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. 
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?
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. 
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?
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. 
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."
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. 
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!
Kettering 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. 
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.
Shadow 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. 
"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. 
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.
In 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. 
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. 
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. 
That answer is absurdly brief, and pretty much tautologous.
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; 
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).
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. 
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|
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:
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."
"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. 
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."
In 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. 
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.