It is clear that no newspaper would ever bother to use the headline “Politician fails to answer a question”, simply because we all have too much experience of Politicians ignoring questions and providing the answers they want too give on our radios, TV screens and through our newspapers. It might be more newsworthy if the few Politicians who do answer straightforward questions, with straightforward answers were occasionally to be profiled. Sadly they are few in numbers and it is not easy to capture those moments. In any event, surely the point of having elected representatives is for them to respond to questions with open and honest answers, so why would that be newsworthy? However Parliament is intended to be a place where the executive of our Government are scrutinised by the rest of the members of this elected group of people. As someone who follows Prime Ministers Questions I have come to accept that the questions are usually simply asked to score political points, and the answers are in the same vein. The truth is that PMQs are part of the high theatre of our Politics. However there are many other ways in which questions can be asked and if we want to measure the effectiveness of our Parliament perhaps these are the ones to observe for their answerability.
On 14th July our Parliamentarians asked the Government a number of written questions, and the Government responded. I have selected this pair of questions on the subject of the Arts, purely because I follow the statements made by all Sussex MPs and Francis Maude is MP for Horsham. I cannot tell if this is a typical type of question and answer process, but based on this example it is hardly a surprise that some of us despair at the cost of running a private members club which does essentially as it wishes.
Firstly the questions coming from two different Labour MPs:
Jonathan Ashworth: To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office what the cost to the public purse was (a) in total, (b) of wine served at, (c) of food served at and (d) of catering staff working at the Best of British Creative Industries reception on 30 June 2014; and which ministers attended that event.
Mr Bradshaw: To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office how much was spent from the public purse on (a) wine and (b) food served at the Best of British Creative Industries reception on 30 June 2014; what the other costs to the public purse were of hosting the event; how many catering staff were required to facilitate the event; and which Ministers attended the event.
You will have noticed that whilst cost is a key component of these questions, they are far more extensive than to ask the cost of the event. However when Mr Maude and his staff responded this is what they wrote:
Mr Maude: The Prime Minister holds a wide range of events for a range of sectors in the UK economy and meets leaders from all areas of industry. The creative industries employ nearly 1.7 million people and are worth £70 billion to the UK economy, and the Prime Minister is keen to find out how we can do better still in this area. The cost of the reception for approximately 400 guests from across film, music and theatre was £8,860.
It is of course perfectly reasonable for Mr Maude to justify this £20 a head reception for these people, based on what they contribute to society. I confess that I have been to 10 Downing Street, albeit by accident, and I eat food and drank orange juice and coffee. Its not something I am ashamed of, and there was clearly a cost to the taxpayer for that. However cost is only part of Ben and Jonathans questions. Why can’t people like Francis answer questions in their entirety. We need a Government willing to justify their actions and be held accountable by Parliament, not one that chooses which questions it answers and which it ignores.