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26 May 2004 : Column 1631

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you had an indication from Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister or, indeed, the Department for Constitutional Affairs that they are prepared to make a statement, before the House rises, on the emerging chaos in the distribution of postal ballots? That is particularly important in my region, where, as with other regions in the north of England, an all-postal ballot will take place for the European and local elections. I have received notice from my returning officer today—other returning officers in the north-west region replicate this view—that, owing to problems with the printing of postal ballots, there may be a delay of up to a week in sending them out. Of course, that may have a catastrophic impact on the election. Have you had any indication that the Government will make such a statement?

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There has been huge concern in the House over the past few months about the Government's decision to proceed with this very large-scale postal voting pilot in the face of clear advice from the Electoral Commission that it was not safe to do so. It now appears that Conservative Members' worst fears have been realised and that the process is already descending into chaos. Is there anything that you can do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ensure that the responsible Ministers come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity to explain?

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I do not think that this is an opportunity to enter into a debate on this matter. The straightforward question to the Chair is whether I have received an approach that a statement be made. The answer to that is no; I have no notice of such a request. However, hon. Gentlemen have clearly raised what appears to be a serious matter, and I hope that those on the Government Front Bench have noted it and that we shall see the consequences of that.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House rises tomorrow. A few weeks ago, a Minister from the Dispatch Box gave the House an absolute assurance that everything was all in order for the postal
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ballot pilots to go ahead. I have heard in my constituency that the postal ballots have not gone out in Amber Valley because of the same problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) mentioned. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, should possibly communicate to Mr. Speaker that it is unacceptable for us not to have a statement on this issue at 7 o'clock tonight, so that the Government can inform us what is happening. The Prime Minister said today at the Dispatch Box that he was making urgent inquiries. If he was making urgent inquiries, the House should also be told what is going on in this shambles. The timetable is very tight.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That was essentially the same point of order. Nothing that the hon. Gentleman has said has detracted from the importance of the matter that has been raised, but it is not a matter that the Chair can rule on. The answer is that there has been no approach to the Chair as yet for a statement, but I am sure that those on the Government Front Bench will have noted what has been said and the record will be considered if a decision has to be made as to whether any further action is to be taken before the House rises. I cannot add to that.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have ruled on the point of order. I can rule on a fresh point of order, but I cannot take the same one.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): It is a fresh one.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I will give the right hon. and learned Gentleman the chance to dispel my scepticism.

Mr. Hogg: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are right to be sceptical, but you have done me a slight injustice. You will know that the Chair has the capacity to take an application for an emergency question. As you know, such an application is normally made in the morning before half-past nine, but there is a discretionary power to take an application for an emergency question later in the day. Do you have the discretion now to take such an application?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I would never knowingly do an injustice to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. If he or any other Member wishes to pursue that line, it would be a matter of approaching the Speaker's Office in the normal way. It is not a matter on which I can rule from the Chair.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have made my ruling. Unless there is a new point of order, I do not think that there is anything more to be said.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that those of us who debated this issue heard Ministers give categorical assurances from the Dispatch Box that all would be
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well, what opportunity is there for Ministers to correct the record of the House if they do not make a statement today?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is plainly not a fresh point of order that I can rule on. The matter has been aired and its importance is clearly understood. There are opportunities for action to be taken in response, but there is nothing further that I can say now. I do not believe I am justified in holding up further progress in the proceedings on the Order Paper.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have dealt with this matter.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): On a new point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be original.

Peter Bottomley: I have seldom been accused of being anything else.

There is a procedural point: it is open to the occupant of the Chair to suspend proceedings so that discussions can take place between the usual channels to find a way of getting a statement or a debate. I have already voted in the European elections; I have been treated more fairly than other people.

Suspending the House for five or 10 minutes, so that the Government can make a statement about how they intend to proceed, might be the most useful way of resolving the problem. This is not just a party game played out here; it is a matter, in the east midlands, of people not being guaranteed a vote in a form that the Government dictated they should have it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but there is no case for suspending the sitting of the House, which has business before it. There is absolutely nothing to stop the most intense traffic between the usual channels, if that is seen as a way of progressing the matter.

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Town Planning

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.21 pm

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