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20 Nov 2002 : Column 645—continued

Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In March this year I tabled a written question to the Department for Work and Pensions asking for information on the position of disabled people in hospital. The written answer stated that the information was not available. As you know, I then used my rights under the Data Protection Act 1998 to obtain internal Department for Work and Pensions paperwork, which demonstrated that the Department did have the information—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly? There is a point of order in progress.

Mr. Webb: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As you know, subsequent to that, when the information became known to the press I received an apology from the Department, but not before. Were that an administrative oversight, I would let the matter rest, but I believe that there was a deliberate decision by the Department to withhold information from Parliament and thereby to mislead Parliament. I should be most grateful for your guidance.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I understand that the Minister has apologised to him, as well as apologising through me to the House. As I have frequently made clear to the House, and as is also stated in the ministerial code, Ministers are expected to be as open as possible with the House. It appears that on this occasion the standards expected of Ministers and Departments have not been met. I look to the Department to review its handling of parliamentary questions to ensure that that does not happen again. The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) may also wish to draw the matter to the attention of the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, which reviews aspects of ministerial answers to parliamentary questions.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, on a separate but related matter, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that on the Order Paper today there were eight of those new-fangled written ministerial statements. I have just checked in the Library, and you will no doubt be as distressed as I am to learn that as at

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2.30 pm, only five of those previously notified statements were in the Library and available to Members. Is there anything that you can do to protect the House against such patent abuse, whereby Ministers appear to know the day before—in other words, in time to put it on the Order Paper—that they have a ministerial statement to make, yet fail to make it available to the House even as late as 2.30 pm? Surely that is not what was intended by the new device, and something should be done about it, and quickly.

Mr. Speaker: On the day of Prime Minister's questions, other things cause me distress, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that those statements have only to be printed in Hansard. That is the rule. Perhaps he should check with the Leader of the House and with the Clerk of the House.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Monday, you made an important and dignified statement about the conduct of questions and answers in this House of Commons. It is quite plain from this afternoon's performance that no copy of that statement was given to the Prime Minister. Would you be good enough to assure the House that you will ensure that the Prime Minister sees a copy of that statement and confines his answers to the essentials? Secondly, will you do what you can to discourage some of our less confident colleagues who feel it essential to use props during questions?

Mr. Speaker: The facts speak for themselves—we reached Question 9 on the Order Paper. [Hon. Members: XTen."] My apologies; we got to Question 10, although we got to Question 9 by 3.30. I think that Ministers are taking the hint since I made my statement. If they do not, they will be cut short.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Government to alter the terms of questions on the Order Paper? Yesterday, I received a holding reply from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to a question that I had asked her about the number of car parking spaces available to employees of her Department. When I received that reply, the following words were added to my question: XRound Robin—Guidance Expected". Is it in order for the Government to change the terms of questions?

Mr. Speaker: Those matters have absolutely nothing to do with me.

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20 Nov 2002 : Column 647

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Sixth Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [13 November],

Question again proposed.

Home Affairs

Mr. Speaker: Before we start the debate, I should inform the House that I have selected for debate the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Standing Order No. 33 provides that on the last day of the debate on the motion for an Address to Her Majesty, the House may also vote on a second amendment selected by the Speaker. I have selected the amendment in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democratic party for that purpose. The vote on that amendment will take place at the end of the debate, after the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition has been disposed of.

3.38 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at the end of the Question to add:

As I have said on previous occasions both in the House and outside, the Home Secretary bears a heavy responsibility. The integrity and energy with which he discharges that responsibility continue to evoke admiration in all parts of the House. As we enter what may be dangerous weeks and months due to the operations of unseen and malign forces, he and the officials and agencies that work with him will have the unswerving support of the Opposition in their efforts to protect the British public from those threats. I hope that we may soon be given a full statement on the nation's preparedness.

I am hopeful about the Government's proposals on child protection and sexual offences. I believe that there is much common ground, as we said yesterday, and I

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hope that we shall arrive at a consensus on many of the proposals that we have made to tighten the law protecting children. I feel confident also that the House as a whole will agree on many measures in the criminal justice Bill. It is a matter of consensus that we require new codes on criminal offences, sentencing and court procedures, and that we need a new working relationship between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts.

It is a matter of consensus that we need more thorough protection and support for victims and witnesses. We need to explore means of preventing the ludicrous position whereby people are often more frightened to be witnesses or victims in court than to be accused in court. Witness intimidation should attract the stiffest penalties, and using violence to pervert the cause of justice should be viewed as striking at the heart of our legal system's integrity.

However, there is a danger that the Government will present measures that fail to tackle the most genuine problems, such as lack of neighbourhood policing and the conveyor belt to crime that leads our young people to hard drugs and persistent offending. There is a danger that the Government will conceal that failing by introducing measures of questionable practical utility in the fight against crime that nevertheless score headlines because of their illiberalism or lack of sufficient attention to fundamental liberties.

We shall carefully consider the Government's proposals on trial by jury, double jeopardy and the disclosure of previous convictions during criminal trials. We fully acknowledge the truth behind Lord Justice Auld's statement that criminal justice is not and should not become a game. Like the Home Secretary, we want the guilty to be convicted, but we remain inalienably attached to the principle of the presumption of innocence. That also applies to the principle that the prosecution should continue to have to show beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.

We will scrutinise with energy and in detail the provisions of the criminal justice measure that deal with those matters. We shall seek agreement and constructive solutions, but we will use every parliamentary means at our disposal to prevent the enactment of measures that contravene or threaten the fundamental principles that I described.

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