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16 Feb 2006 : Column 1576
 

Points of Order

12.28 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing me to make a point of order, of which I have given you prior notice.

In recent years, the Government have been encouraging—some would say bullying—benefit recipients to take benefits through direct payment to banks or through a Post Office card. I was involved in that debate and I cannot remember at any stage receiving a letter or reading anything in Parliament to say that the card was anything but permanent. I even had a constructive meeting—I took one of my postmasters—with the Minister for Pensions Reform, who was then the Minister responsible, and I cannot remember anything being mentioned to suggest that the card was anything but permanent.

That was until yesterday, when we had a spirited debate in Westminster Hall and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), whom I am delighted to see in his place, read out the contract between the Government and the Post Office in 2002. He said:

he was speaking to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper)—

I do not think anybody in the country, apart from those who were privy to the contract, knew about that. There has been the most enormous deceit perpetrated on literally millions of benefit recipients. There are 4.3 million cardholders at the moment, and they took on these cards not knowing the facts.

Incredibly, the Minister went on to say,

It seems to me to be deceitful of the Government to have perpetrated this on millions of benefit recipients. The Minister was pressed to say that he would put the full contract in the Library. It says on page 441 of "Erskine May", under the heading, "Citing documents not before House":

      

The Minister has quoted verbatim a selected piece from a Government document. That document is relevant to millions of benefit recipients and to the 14,400 post offices whose future is now in jeopardy. Could you please rule, Mr. Speaker, that the Minister, contrary to what he said in Westminster Hall, should place this vital document in the Library so that Members of this House and the citizens of this country can read it?

Mr. Speaker: I have studied the record of the debate to which the hon. Gentleman refers. "Erskine May"
 
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does indeed say that a Minister of the Crown must not quote from a state paper unless he is prepared to lay it upon the Table. However, "Erskine May" goes on to say that a document cited by a Minister ought to be laid upon the Table

In this case, the Minister stated clearly that most of the contract was "highly commercially confidential". However, I see no reason why the Minister could not place in the Library a copy of the document with any sensitive material removed.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Clearly a freedom of information application should get out of Government whatever other non-confidential discussions they had with the Post Office on this issue, outside of the contract. Would not it be more elegant if the Government, given the rightful fuss about this, volunteered to make such documents available without having to be pushed into doing so?

Mr. Speaker: I have ruled in this matter and I have looked at it in detail. I think that it is best that I say no more, because I believe that the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) is satisfied with my ruling.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House was challenged on this matter two weeks ago at business questions, when he was asked to confirm that the original arrangement had been a temporary one. He said that it was not a temporary arrangement but an interim arrangement. I took the trouble of looking up the word "interim" in a dictionary, where it is defined as "temporary". The Leader of the House, inasmuch as he inadvertently described it inaccurately, may wish to correct the record in the normal way.

Mr. Speaker: I will not say any more on the matter.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have heard the exchange between the leader of Plaid Cymru and the Leader of the House in relation to item 49 of the remaining orders and notices and the reply given to the House by the Leader of the House. Item 49 is signed by 159 Members of this House from five parties, including eight Privy Councillors. I understand that you cannot interfere in the affairs of Government, but as the custodian of the rights of Back Benchers, I wonder if you could find it in yourself to invite the Leader of the House to your apartments and gently explain to him that this is a matter that the House considers very seriously. We want a Select Committee.

Mr. Speaker: It is what the House wants and it certainly may be what a number of Members in the House want. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Speaker cannot interfere in these matters, and it would be inappropriate for me to try to support the case of a number of Members in this House.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader
 
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of the House is in a very special position because he is a Government Minister but also has a wider responsibility, in terms of the rules of the House, to the whole House. The motion under discussion, in asking the Leader of the House to allocate time for it, gives him a particular difficulty, because it calls for an examination of Government policy and Government Ministers, and the Leader of the House, in his previous high office, was one of those Ministers. Does not that place the Leader of the House in the invidious position of having to judge whether to allocate time to an inquiry by a Select Committee of Privy Councillors, supported, as was said, by 159 Members of this House, which would inevitably involve an inquiry into his own actions? Is not that a difficulty and a conflict of interest?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of this House for a long time. Not only this Leader of the House but other Leaders of the House have been in that difficulty, and the House has been able to live with it, as, indeed, have the Leaders of the House.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter on which I have tabled parliamentary questions but on which the Government have thus far refused substantively to answer. It is a matter of the utmost importance. The facts, very simply, are these, and I am worried about them. Charles Munyaneza, who is a former Rwandan Government official suspected of the orchestration of the mass killing of civilians in Rwanda, has already been publicly exposed—it is not before the courts—as living in Bedford. It is not disputed that in 2002 the Government gave him unlimited leave to stay in this country. The international criminal tribunal on Rwanda, headed by the UN, has already indicated that it would provide to Britain all the evidence that it has on the man if Britain wishes to bring him to justice. What I want to know are two very simple things that the Government refuse to tell me—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the hon. Gentleman, because what he wants to know might be information that the Government have, but it is certainly not information that I am privy to. I noticed that he missed out in business questions, but perhaps he could try to raise the matter next time round. However, it is certainly not something that the Chair would rule on, and I must therefore stop him.

Mr. Paterson: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I thank you for your ruling, which was most helpful?


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