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13 Mar 2003 : Column 443—continued

Mr. Cook: I appreciate what my hon. Friend says about the progress that has been made, and I echo his commendation of his local police force. I am sure we all appreciate the fact that we can make more progress in fighting crime now that Britain has a record number of policemen.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must now take points of order.

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Points of Order

1.18 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The very first recommendation of the International Development Committee's report, published yesterday, calls for an immediate statement, yet this morning we were given a written statement that failed to address the report's 23 recommendations. Indeed, it raised more questions than it answered. The Secretary of State for International Development has said that her assessment of the "overall level of preparedness" for humanitarian contingencies in Iraq is

It is left there, with no opportunity for us to question the Secretary of State in the House about that serious level of concern.

The Leader of the House said in business questions that the Secretary of State had come here to make a statement very recently. That was six weeks ago today, when the Secretary of State responded to an Opposition day debate on the subject. Six weeks is a long time in the present crisis. The House allows us certain procedures, such as urgent questions. How can we use those procedures if the Government sabotage our legitimate right to a debate by publishing a ministerial statement that fails to answer our questions?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady mentioned urgent questions. She submitted one this morning. I do not give a reason for refusing such questions, but there will be other days and other occasions on which I might be more disposed to agree to her request.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are the defender of Back Benchers' rights to raise issues of the day. One issue of the day is the new benchmark tests that the Government are producing at the United Nations. They have sprung from nowhere, and they are effectively new triggers for war. Why cannot Back Benchers have the right to raise that in the House?

Mr. Speaker: That is really a point of disappointment, because I did not call the hon. Gentleman earlier.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, I tabled a written question to the Prime Minister for answer tomorrow—before the leader of the Liberal Democrats raised the matter at Prime Minister's Question Time—regarding the legal basis of the war against Iraq. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the shadow Leader of the House, "Erskine May" is very clear about the question of confidentiality. Will you, at a later date, give a written ruling on the confidentiality of Law Officers' opinions?

Although the Attorney-General, regrettably, is in the House of Lords, he has personal rather than collective responsibility for the legal advice that he gives the Government. He gives advice not only to the Government, but to the nation and to the House. It is a matter for the Prime Minister to give a proper answer to the question that I tabled the day before yesterday and to reply to my request for the basis of the legal advice

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regarding war with Iraq, but he cannot do that by hiding behind an improper use of the so-called "doctrine of confidentiality".

Mr. Speaker: I make no commitment, except to say: let me think about that matter. That is the best commitment that I can give the hon. Gentleman today.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there a parliamentary point of order in the procedure by which the Prime Minister calls the Leader of the Opposition to Downing street, and the Leader of the Opposition then makes a statement outside Downing street that apparently is a shift in Government policy? In terms of order, can we introduce to our proceedings a means by which we can question the Leader of the Opposition on what is or is not Government policy, or does the Prime Minister speak only to the Opposition leaders who he thinks will agree with him?

Mr. Speaker: Those matters are nothing to do with me.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), Mr. Speaker. Do you understand the considerable anger that there will be in the country at the failure of the Secretary of State for International Development to come to the House to answer questions from across the Chamber in response to the publication of the International Development Committee report? Non-governmental organisations as well as constituents of mine will see that the only reason why she is not coming is base political motivation—it is to stop her saying things that would clearly embarrass the Government. That is not good enough when there are so many important issues at stake, on which we are being denied an opportunity to question her.

Mr. Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), Mr. Speaker. Are you aware of any precedent where the immediacy of a demand by a Select Committee has been met by the Government, but where the political urgency of the situation, bearing in mind what is happening in Iraq, has been so woefully misunderstood as to produce a written rather than the imperative oral statement?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is drawing me into the argument.

I call Mr. Clifton-Brown.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful for the acclaim.

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to have to raise a point of order on a different matter entirely. I had understood that it was the convention of the House that when a matter in one's constituency was to be raised by another Member of Parliament, the constituency Member of Parliament should be informed first. I have been sitting here since before business questions started. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), with whom I have very cordial relations, saw me sitting here. He could have easily come over to me and informed me that he was going to raise the sensitive matter of the B-52 bombers at Fairford, and I would have been happy for him to raise it, but it was discourteous of him to raise it without informing me.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is right about the courtesies of the House, but I think that the matter could be sorted out between both hon. Members. That would be the best thing.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you consider the matter of the Attorney-General's advice, if you come to the conclusion that the advice itself should not be put in the public domain, will you please ensure that the Attorney-General, and the Solicitor-General in this place, come to the House to confirm that they believe that the actions that the Government are taking are fully compliant with international law in all respects?

Mr. Speaker: Those matters are not for me to deal with.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the shadow Attorney-General, Mr. Speaker. It now seems extremely unlikely that there will be a second resolution at the United Nations and, therefore, that the legal validity for war will effectively rest on the interpretation of UN Security Council resolution 1441. You have already undertaken to reflect on the point raised by the shadow Attorney-General. May I ask you to include it in those deliberations that, given the critical importance of that resolution, it must surely be right that there are exceptional circumstances, as defined in "Erskine May", whereby that legal advice must be made available to the House of Commons before we vote on a substantive motion? Will you please bear that in mind in your deliberations?

Mr. Speaker: All that I shall say to the hon. Gentleman is that he has been in the Chamber and heard what I had to say to the shadow Attorney-General. I will leave it at that.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Should not a Government Minister come to the House and give assurances that the Government have indeed received written legal advice on the legality of war with Iraq, and that that has been shared with all members of the Cabinet?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady is capable of asking the Minister concerned herself. She does not need me to give a ruling on the matter.

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Northern Ireland Assembly Elections

Mr. Secretary Murphy, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Robin Cook, Mr. Secretary Blunkett and Mr. Desmond Browne, presented a Bill to make provision about the date of the poll for the election of the next Northern Ireland Assembly, and for disregarding certain days for the purposes of the period after a poll within which an Assembly must meet; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 74].

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