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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.

Michael Ancram asked a straightforward question about quangos:

"Mr. Ancram: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many agencies were sponsored by his Department in (a) 2007-08 and (b) 1997-98. [228502]

Mr. Hoon: The ‘Next Steps Report 1997’ (Cm 3889) provides information on all executive agencies as at 31 December 1997. Copies are available from the Library of the House. The present Department for Transport was established in 2002. The most up-to-date list of executive agencies is published in the Cabinet Office publication ‘The List of Ministerial Responsibilities’. The latest version, incorporating recent ministerial changes, will be published shortly. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of the House."

The request was for a total, not a list. OK, perhaps the list is about to be updated. But it should be possible to say how many agencies the Transport Department sponsored in 1997-98 and to give the most recent available figures.

Nicholas Soames asked about National Insurance:

"Mr. Soames: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (1) how many national insurance numbers were issued to dependants of work permit holders in each year from 2002 to 2007; [227448]

(2) how many national insurance numbers have been issued to dependants of work permit holders in 2008. [227450]

Mr. McNulty: A holding reply was sent on 16 October 2008.

The requested information is not available."

Why not?!

Andrew Rosindell wanted to know about Gibraltarian armed forces personnel:

"Andrew Rosindell: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many Gibraltarians are serving in the UK armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. [229131]

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Deployment figures are currently provided at aggregate levels based on manual returns which do not record the nationality of personnel. They are not available in central individual level databases. As such this information could be provided only at disproportionate cost."

Really? Or could it all be done by computer within a day? There'd be time to meet all Gibraltarian soldiers personally in a day.

Labour MP Eric Illsley asked about the glass industry:

"Mr. Illsley: To ask the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform what recent assessment he has made of the competitiveness of the British glass industry; and if he will make a statement. [229228]

Ian Pearson: No such assessment has been made recently, however the most recent figures show that the glass industry contributes £1.2 billion to the UK economy, and employs around 28,000 people directly."

So just how recent / ancient are these figures? And might not an up-to-date assessment of an important British industry's health be a good idea?

Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Willott asked about civil service pensions:

"Jenny Willott: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government how many civil servants working in her Department and its agencies have pensions with a cash equivalent transfer value of over £1 million. [229557]

Mr. Khan: It is not appropriate to disclose pension information for civil servants other than board members whose details are shown in the remuneration report in annual resource accounts. A copy of Communities and Local Government’s resource accounts for financial year 2007-8 can be found in the Library or accessed electronically using the following link

Er, the taxpayer might have a different view on whether it's inappropriate to state how many civil servants in a department have a pension worth more than a million quid.

Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green asked about the use of opinion polls and focus groups:

"Damian Green: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how much (a) her Department and (b) the UK Border Agency and its predecessors spent on polling and focus groups in each of the last five years. [226058]

Mr. Woolas: During the past five years, spend on opinion polling by the Home Office and the UK Border Agency and predecessors has been as follows (IND and BIA were the UKBA predecessors):

Spend on opinion polling (£)


HO (Inc. IND)



HO (Inc. IND)





Home Office





Home Office




We are unable to answer the question relating to focus groups on the grounds of disproportionate cost."

It would not be disproportionately costly to record how much the Home Office has spent on focus groups. That figure should be readily available in-house. It also seems unlikely that the same statistic could not be calculated for the UK Border Agency.

Mike Penning, a Shadow Health Minister, asked about waiting times for cancer treatments:

"Mike Penning: To ask the Secretary of State for Health what the average waiting time was for cancer treatment in West Hertfordshire Hospital Trust area in the latest period for which figures are available. [228364]

Ann Keen: Information is not held in the format requested. The cancer waiting time standards of a maximum wait of 31 days from decision to treat to first cancer treatment and a maximum of 62 days from an urgent general practitioner referral to the start of cancer treatment were introduced for all patients from December 2005. The latest figures, for quarter one 2008-09, show that West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust’s performance against the 31 days standard was 100 per cent., and its performance against the 62 day standard was 99.3 per cent."

If it was possible to calculate the Trust's performance against a 31 day standard and a 62 standard, surely that means that figures exist which can be used to calculate an average. The figures provided can only be arrived at if you know how long each patient waited.

David Simpson (a DUP MP) asked about overnight accommodation for civil servants:

"David Simpson: To ask the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills how much was spent on overnight accommodation by his Department’s civil servants in the last 12 months. [228773]

Mr. Simon: The information is not available in the form requested and can be obtained only at disproportionate cost."

Several other departments have managed to answer the same question!

Conservative backbencher Ann Winterton asked about offences by foreign nationals:

"Ann Winterton: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice for which categories of offences those foreign national prisoners who have been released in the UK without being deported in the last five years were originally convicted. [228633]

Mr. Hanson: The information requested is not available and can be obtained only by cross-referencing records held by the Ministry of Justice and UK Border Agency at disproportionate cost."

Couldn't a bright fourteen-year-old with a working knowledge of Microsoft Excel do that cross-referencing in a few hours?!

Other questions were answered with a promise that something would be placed in the House of Commons Library (i.e. not in Hansard for the public to read), and one on China was partially unanswered on the grounds that it would harm international relations.


Update from Tom Greeves: "I should acknowledge that most documents deposited in the Commons Library are now available online at: http://deposits.parliament.uk/ "


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