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Electoral Registration

3.31 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Hon. Members leaving the Chamber should do so quietly and very quickly. We have business to attend to.

Mr. Barnes: I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

This morning, electoral registration figures for constituencies in England and Wales were placed in the Commons Library. The House now holds electoral registration figures for each constituency in the United Kingdom. The total registration figures are 44.2 million--a marginal increase of less than 0.5 per cent. on last year, which is easily accounted for by the growth in the population of over 18-year-olds. The figures can be added to only by the numbers on the supplementary lists, which close today.

The figures for the 1997 general election are as bad as the figures in recent years. They show a 2 million shortfall against relevant population figures, but that 2 million shortfall should be cut by half a million to accommodate residents from overseas other than Ireland and the Commonwealth. That would mean a 1.5 million shortfall in the registers--if the registers were up to scratch.

Survey work shows that some registers are dated when they are initially published. They include people who have died, names that are just carried over from previous registers, people who have been double-counted by being on more than one register, and many who have moved and will not be able to get hold of their postal vote or use it.

When all those factors are taken into account, we see that 3 million to 4 million people are missing from the registers. They are not a random sample of society; missing names are especially likely among Commonwealth citizens, black people, those in bed-sitter land, young people and city dwellers, especially those in London and particularly inner London. Given that we now have a general election, this matter, confirmed by today's figures, should be debated before we depart for the hustings.

Madam Speaker: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I have, of course, to give a decision without stating the reasons for it. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20 and I cannot, therefore, submit the application to the House.

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1076

Points of Order

3.36 pm

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise for not having given you greater notice of the matter; I was notified only at 2.27 pm of your provisional selection. I notified your secretary immediately to say that I would try to raise the matter.

There is an amendment on the Order Paper tabled by members of the Procedure Committee of all three parties following a unanimous decision by the Committee on the naming of Standing Committees. It is a simple amendment which suggests that Standing Committees dealing with public Bills should be known as Public Bill Committees so that the name shows the meaning of the Committee.

There is hardly any need for a debate--indeed, it was at the suggestion of the Leader of the House that such an amendment was tabled. Would you, Madam Speaker, between now and the moment when the matter comes before the House, reconsider the issue? Senior Members serve for many months on Committees considering matters of no real benefit to themselves. When they come forward with a unanimous view and that view is not allowed to be tested in the House, it is immensely depressing. Members may be discouraged from serving on Committees in future.

There is no need for a debate on the matter; there is merely a decision to be made. Apparently, the only opposition is emanating from the Chairman of Ways and Means. The House should be allowed to make the decision and I hope that you, Madam Speaker, will allow that when you reconsider the matter.

Madam Speaker: I considered the matter carefully this morning. I do not give reasons for the non-selection of amendments. I appreciate very much the work that the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee have done on procedure; it is very much unsung. He has, however, hit the nail on the head himself. He said that the House should be allowed to decide the matter. Under our procedures this afternoon, the House will not be allowed to debate the matter. When it comes to changes to Standing Orders, it is absolutely right that the House has an opportunity to debate the matter. I have given a reason for my decision; it is right that I should do so because it is an issue that concerns the entire House.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I have your help? I understand that the Minister for Railways and Roads has issued a press statement relating to the widening of the M25. I complain on two counts. First, when the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), was Secretary of State for Transport, he made a statement in the House about the widening of the M25. Subsequently, Ministers reneged on that statement in the House--I do not say that provocatively--when they amended the decision.

Under the cloak of the great sweep of history taking place today, the Minister for Railways and Roads is issuing a statement, although he is not coming to the House to do so, announcing that the widening of the

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1077

M25 between junctions 12 and 15 should be increased to 10 and 12 lanes. I also believe that he will announce it by way of an answer to a parliamentary question that I asked.

When I came into the Chamber, there were no replies for me on the board, yet the press and journalists are aware of the announcement. That is wrong on two counts. First, the Minister should tell the House and the people--especially the people of Surrey--about the widening proposals and not try to sweep them through under the smokescreen of today's constitutional events. Secondly, if he is using my parliamentary question to make the announcement, I should have had the courtesy of a reply and the press should not have had it first. To be fair, Madam Speaker, I am not certain about the latter, but I suspect it.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Member should not raise the matter if he is not certain about it. How can I answer a point of order on something about which he is not certain? Of course, I deprecate the fact that any Minister makes a statement by press release before letting the House know, either through an answer to a question, as the hon. Member said, or at the Dispatch Box--it is up to the Minister concerned. I can make no comment on the fact that the hon. Member suspects that the Minister is going to do something.

Mr. Mackinlay: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Yes, it is convoluted. Go on.

Mr. Mackinlay: I did not fully elaborate on the fact that Cabinet rules are operating. The Minister of State, Scottish Office rightly referred to that in the House yesterday, when he said that he could not make any executive decisions because the general election had been called, yet that constitutional principle is being breached by the Minister for Railways and Roads this afternoon.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Am I not correct in assuming and stating to the House that, even after the date of the general election has been announced, it is in order and in accordance with the procedures of the House and Parliament for a Minister to answer parliamentary questions? I believe that that is what has happened.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is correct.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): A final appearance.

Mr. Faulds: Sadly, yes. The House will miss me. May I make as my last contribution, Madam Speaker, after 31 years of the most distinguished service, a valuable contribution to the proceedings of this august Chamber? When I first came here--

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): "Friends, Romans, countrymen".

Mr. Faulds: Shut up, you silly little boy.

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1078

When I first came here 31 years ago, the custom was never ever to thank the Speaker for catching someone's eye. Can I implore you in the next Parliament--I do trust and pray that you will be where you are now--to instruct Members not to go through that rather placatory practice of thanking you for simply doing your duty? This is a new development and it really is not a very pleasant practice.

Madam Speaker: I would not dream of agreeing to what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A report was published this morning--not the one that has already given rise to some heated exchanges--by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, on the cloning of animals from adult cells. That report raises a number of important issues and seeks to reassure the public in the context of the fears that have been expressed in the media. Part of that report referred to the funding of the Roslin institute--an important scientific institute--by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In the report, the actions of MAFF were described as being damaging to British industry and science--

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