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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Ministers' red box bill tops 50k
Gordon Brown as chancellor with his red budget box
The most famous red box of all
More than 50,000 has been spent on the famous "red boxes" used by government ministers over the past few years, according to an MP's survey.

Of those who responded, the DTI - now Department for Business - spent the most at 13,337.50 for 18 boxes.

Prices of the boxes, which are used to store government papers securely, ranged from 385 to 750 each.

Figures were collected by John Hemming MP who criticised those departments which "squirmed" out of answering.

All ministers are entitled to red boxes, which weigh up to 30lbs and are built to withstand most accidents.

Transport - 8,853
DWP - 6,588
Defra - 1,500
DCLG - 7,420
Scotland - 1,620
DCMS - 1,598
DTI - 13,337.50
Innovation - none
Foreign Office - 6,990
Wales - none
Treasury - 1,899
Defence - 6,108
International Dev - 1,346.55

They have been made the same way for centuries - a wooden base covered in roan deer leather, or cloth. The cost varies, depending on size and finish.

They are best known for being used by ministers to take their work home with them - and are also used to pass important documents from one department to another.

The total amount spent on the boxes between May 2002 and May 2007 was 57,260.05, according to a collection of answers to questions and Freedom of Information requests submitted by Mr Hemming.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said, with seven ministers, it had one of the biggest teams of all departments.

"The number of boxes ordered by this department reflects the fact that it has one of the broadest remits - and therefore one of the largest ministerial teams in Whitehall," she said.

Lowest spending

The next highest spender, according to the results was the Department for Communities and Local Government - formerly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - at 7,420 for eight boxes.

The Foreign Office had bought more, but spent less, although it only had figures from 2004, since when it had bought 15 boxes at a total cost of 6,990.

The lowest spending department was the Wales Office, which has only two ministers now many powers are devolved and hasn't ordered any new boxes in five years.

If you don't try to improve government by getting people to answer questions you might as well just give up
John Hemming

Liberal Democrat MP Mr Hemming asked how many boxes had been bought, at what cost and what tendering process had been used, as part of his campaign to get ministers to answer factual questions.

"It's quite a serious problem because it's one of the reasons you end up having so many disasters in government, because they just hide problems rather than getting them fixed."

'Embarrassing' question

He said he wanted to ask all departments the same question to see which would respond.

"The point about this question is the answer is slightly embarrassing because the boxes are quite expensive," he told the BBC website.

"My overall impression was some departments are quite cavalier in their willingness to respond, to answer proper parliamentary questions.

John Hemming
Mr Hemming wanted to see which departments answered the question

"It really does demonstrate that there are quite serious problems at the heart of government under the current prime minister."

Among those he accuses of "squirming" out of a response are the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice - both said it would cost too much to answer the question as the information was not easily accessible.

He used the Freedom of Information Act to ask them to justify their response by disclosing the advice they had been given.

But they argue Section 36 (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) "provides that information can be withheld where disclosure would make officials less willing to seek or offer free and frank advice would inhibit the frankness and candour of guidance in future."

The Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (formerly education) replied that they ordered boxes "as and when they are needed", but failed to say how many.

The Cabinet Office said it had only "partial records" and the "specific information requested for the last five years could only be provided at disproportionate cost".

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said the way it held its financial and procurement information meant it was not possible to answer Mr Hemming's request, without "breaching the cost limit for answering Parliamentary questions" - which is 700.

But Mr Hemming said it would cost "about 20 quid" to answer the question - "if you don't try to improve government by getting people to answer questions you might as well just give up."

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30 Oct 06 |  UK Politics

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