When paying for questions makes sense: Those who want official information should bear the cost. But there is no need to involve MPs, argues Stephen Ward

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The Independent Online
THE DEBATE following the exposure of MPs Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick has so far only muddied the waters of parliamentary privilege, and it is easy to see why. For years the definition of what is abuse of Commons machinery has come down not to any issue of high principle, but to what you can get away with.

Dozens of MPs ask questions on behalf of firms or interests for whom they openly act as consultants. Although they don't (we tended to assume) get paid by the question, they have a financial relationship with the people who want the information, and they use Commons procedures to get answers. Why, they say, shouldn't they ask questions to help a firm in their constituency? It is not only defensible but desirable that the taxpayer should be oiling the wheels of commerce, they argue.

Even in a completely uncommercial world, MPs would enjoy being able to do favours to friends who wanted a question tabled. Like giving somebody a lift in your company car, it costs you nothing and makes them happy and grateful. There is no limit to the number of written questions an MP can put - on the contrary, the more MPs table, the harder- working they appear. Of course, not everybody is friends with an MP, and not every company can afford to keep one tame with a consultancy fee. So there are professional lobbying firms that can obtain the service - at a price - for outsiders. This, again, doesn't imply corruption; it is the system.

In fact, everybody goes on getting away with it because everyone is avoiding the real problem. Why do MPs need to be asking these questions at all? Why not miss out the middlemen and women altogether?

Suppose you do the unthinkable. Mr Dodgy Businessman (to take the Sunday Times's example) no longer has to visit Westminster and leave a pounds 1,000, or pounds 200 cheque under the Commons teapot. Instead, he can write to or telephone the Department of Health, and ask straight out what they know about which ever wonder drug he is interested in.

No one knows how many of the now notorious 50,000 written Parliamentary Questions tabled every year would be rendered obsolete by this. If you look at the pages of obscure backwaters explored in this way every day in Hansard, it is virtually impossible to say what generated each query about fishing quotas or grant maintained schools. But at an average pounds 97 a time cost to the taxpayer, it would be a useful saving if even one question in 10 did not go through the Commons.

In place of the nods, winks, old boy networks, favours and backhanders, the relationship would become a straightforward one between the customer asking the question, and the supplier - the Whitehall department - asked to provide it. If the research costs pounds 1,000 of civil servants' time and photocopying paper, then the business pays for it directly, as it would to, say, a relocation consultant revealing how much it would cost to move a factory to Milton Keynes. If it concerns unpublished material available only to MPs, then the House of Commons Library can similarly be used (still on payment of a fee). For the customer, as we now call them, such a system has the considerable added advantage that the information is not made public in Hansard.

So why not do it? There is a constitutional convention that in the United Kingdom the only accountability of civil servants is to Parliament through their ministers, and this relationship must not be tampered with. But this convention existed long before the welfare state, before income tax, before modern technology, before it became impossible to keep track of a hundredth of what goes on. In 1994 it is transparently nonsense. If you take away the commercially driven Parliamentary Questions, you could let MPs get back to the serious business of scrutinising things they believe are important, without disenchanted electors suspecting they might have an ulterior motive.

It needs no great leap of principle to open Whitehall to the real world. The Waldegrave Open Government intiative, designed to pre-empt calls for a freedom of information Bill, has already conceded the principle of direct access to civil servants. Since March, every department has had to have a section dealing with public queries. It is supposed to answer questions within 20 days, and if it refuses unreasonably, there is an ultimate appeal to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Departments may even charge for their time. Currently, the procedure is virtually unknown outside the offices of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, but that could be changed easily enough.

More seriously, before it could rival the efficiency of the Commons Question, which is usually turned round inside a week, the commercial question process would need seriously speeding up. And to rival the usefulness of the already confidential written question by an MP to a Minister of the same party, or the quiet chat in the Commons tea-rooms, the commercial process would need to remove or weaken the current catch-all excuses for stonewalling used by Whitehall, that information is commercially confidential or 'a matter of national security'.

The present Government is reluctant to do it, of course, for two reasons. On principle, although it would stop dodgy backhanders, it would subtly shift the basis on which official information is dispensed. If it is once accepted that the information is for sale rather than the property of government, they would find it harder to keep secrets. And on a more human level, backbench MPs would lose (in some cases) a slice of income, and a large part of their power.

But they should know they are in danger of looking like a vested interest protecting itself. MPs of all parties should realise that by establishing the principle that information is for sale, they can make the point that they are not.

(Photograph omitted)