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Mr. Speaker: I undertook last Thursday to respond to the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about "spoiled ballot papers", as he put it, in deferred Divisions. The paper for deferred Divisions is quite simple to fill in. Members are highly experienced in matters of voting and there is no reason why any voting papers should be inadequately filled in or spoiled.
I have given instructions that any voting paper that is not clearly marked with a voting intention should be disregarded. The Chair has, in the past, deprecated the practice of voting in both Division Lobbies as a method of demonstrating a third position. On the other hand, deliberately voting in both Lobbies has long been an accepted way of cancelling out the effect of voting by mistake in the wrong Lobby. I am sure that the almost 80 right hon. and hon. Members who voted both "Aye" and "No" in the first deferred Division last Wednesday were not seeking to correct a mistake.
The circumstances last week may have been novel and exceptional, but the Speaker has a duty, where possible, to ensure that the House's reputation is not damaged. The House has empowered me by its order of 7 November to make the arrangements for recording deferred Divisions. I have therefore instructed the Clerks that, in future, the name of any Member who marks both boxes in a particular question in a deferred Division should not be recorded as voting on that particular question.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful for your advising the House of your thoughts on the matter. However, may I press you a little further, as it strikes me that in a vote, especially of the kind that we are having today--although that is properly in the Division Lobby, and is not a deferred Division--the result may be very close indeed? If, in a free vote in a deferred Division, any ballot papers were disregarded or set aside, presumably by the Clerks, and there was a discrepancy between those who had voted and the number of votes counted, would there be any appeal that Members could make beyond the Clerks--say, to you, Mr. Speaker? A close result could be affected one way or the other by the disregarding of papers held by the Clerks, with all their expertise and integrity, to have been spoiled. That issue could cause some difficulty.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to ask for your guidance on how to use the procedures of the House to obtain information from Ministers. I have recently tabled a number of questions asking for the unit of student funding in higher education for each of the next three years. I have received a reply to each of my questions, but I have yet to receive an answer. We may sing at this time of year about three ships that come sailing by, but all that I want to see sailing by are three figures. How can I get around the Government's stonewalling?
Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady was good enough to give me notice of that point of order. I can only tell her that I expect Ministers to provide full and accurate information in response to specific questions. If she is dissatisfied with an answer that she has received, she must use other means of pursuing her concerns.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Further to your ruling on deferred votes, Mr. Speaker. When you referred to the fact that hon. Members sometimes vote twice in the Lobby, you said that they usually did so to cancel out a mistaken vote. In fact, hon. Members often vote in that way because they want to register plainly that they are abstaining. Would you be good enough to keep that in mind if you review your ruling on deferred voting? Your previous remarks suggested that it would not be possible to indicate in deferred Divisions that one is making a deliberate abstention.
Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): It was the same point of order, Mr. Speaker, on whether it is possible to register positively an abstention. The practice enables constituents to see that hon. Members have made a positive abstention and have not merely failed to turn up to vote.
The regulations are made under section 45 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. That section provides for the regulations to be made under the affirmative procedures, which usually ensure automatic referral to Standing Committee for consideration. Debate in Committee is usually time limited to one and a half hours before the Question is put.
The Government were concerned to ensure that regulations such as these had proper time for debate and consideration. We have already made available 10 hours for debate in the Chamber both before and after the regulations were laid. We have also revoked the automatic referral of the regulations to a Standing Committee and have made prime time available in the main Chamber, as we have listened to the points made by hon. Members who are concerned about the issues. We feel that it is extremely important for Parliament thoroughly to debate those issues.
The motion provides for the debate to extend beyond the standard one and a half hours. If it is accepted, therefore, we will have a further three and a half hours of debate before the vote occurs at seven o'clock. I am not aware of any other statutory instrument that has received so much detailed scrutiny and debate on the Floor of the House. Indeed, the staff of the Journal Office do not know of any statutory instrument in their memory that has been accorded so much consideration.
Given the issues at stake and the strong views held across the House, I hope that hon. Members will accept a further extension of consideration of the issues on the Floor of the House. I commend the motion to the House.
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): Many hon. Members and many people outside will think that the debate is being curtailed too greatly--that we have had too little time between the publication of the final draft regulations and the move to legislate tonight. Many will also feel that it should have been a matter for primary legislation, rather than a statutory instrument which is unamendable. However, there is a great desire for us to continue with the substantive debate. I shall therefore take up the House's time on the issue of process later. We need to move to the issues, which are extremely important, not to take up time on the timetable motion.
I do not want to take up the House's time, but the difficulty on these occasions is that these are emotive issues where there are no official spokesmen for Back Benchers. Over the years I have been here, the tradition seems to have been that every hon. Member who wishes to speak--it is always a relatively small number of hon. Members who wish to speak--has been able to do so and the House has allowed that to happen. On occasions, such as the first capital punishment debate that I was involved in, the Speaker of the day, Speaker Weatherill, allowed the debate to run beyond 10 o'clock.
I am not quarrelling with the Government. I am just expressing regret that there is to be a time limit for those hon. Members who wish to speak. I therefore hope that you, Mr. Speaker, could give some guidance on the number of hon. Members who want to speak, so that those who feel strongly can fit their speeches in within the three and a half hours.