The other week I asked what "disproportionate cost" actually was in relation to questions that go unanswered in Parliament. I have since discovered that basically, if the question will cost more than £700 to answer it is considered to be at "disproportionate cost".
Now, besides that being an excellent way of avoiding answering politically sensitive questions, you have to wonder how they calculate when a question will actually cost more than £700. The reason I say that is because of two unanswered questions that seem so simple as to beggar belief that they will cost too much to answer.
Both questions were put to the Ministry of Defence, the first asking which of the 10 consultancy fees charged to the MoD since May 1997 "were most expensive", and the second simply asking what how much was "spent on the Territorial Army in the last period for which figures are available; and what percentage that figure represents of total defence spending in that period."
Both responses start with the line that the information is not held centrally. Can this really be true? Does the MoD really not have a single budget ledger listing the figures it spent on 10 different consultancy charges? Is it genuinely conceivable that the MoD, the central organisation, does not keep a record of how much money it allocated to non-regular Army provision?
If it is true that these figures are not held centrally, then doesn't that imply a fundamental and serial failure in accountancy management in the Ministry of Defence? Wouldn't a call to the Treasury be able to access the figures for less than £700? If a business acted in this sort of way it would fall foul of all sorts of FSA rules wouldn't it?
I can accept that sometimes there will be difficulties in answering some of the granular questions that are submitted about matters of accountancy. However, these two questions are brilliant examples of very non-granular questions that should be able to be answered quite quickly. Hell, the question about the Territorials only asked for the last set of figures available, it gave massive leeway for the failure to provide information and yet still the question wasn't answered.
Given yesterdays news regarding body armour and the fact that the Secretary of State has to sign off things (and failed to do so), is it not fair to ask whether the MoD is fit for purpose when it comes to fiscal accountability? Or perhaps I'm being naive and that question should be asked of the entire Government?