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10 Mar 2010 : Column 299

Points of Order

12.32 pm

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition did not mean to mislead the House when he said that Michael Foot was a friend of the Soviet Union. Michael was a staunch anti-Stalinist and a critic of the Soviet Union. When I was put in prison by the communists in Warsaw for supporting Solidarity, Michael Foot came to support my release, at a time when Margaret Thatcher was denying visas to Poles who were trying to escape from communism. We need to learn some history, which the Leader of the Opposition is wholly incapable of.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his attempted point of order. With his customary force and clarity, he has put his views on the record. I must say to him and to the House that I was, of course, listening very carefully to what the Leader of the Opposition said-I always listen carefully to what every right hon. and hon. Member says-and my distinct recollection is that he referred to his disagreement with the views of Mr. Foot on the subject of nuclear disarmament- [ Interruption. ] Will the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) let me finish? [ Interruption. ] Order. I will deal with this. The right hon. Gentleman has asked me for a ruling, and he is going to get it. He ought to listen to my ruling, which I hope the House will do as well. The Leader of the Opposition said that he disagreed with Mr. Foot's views on nuclear weapons and on the Soviet Union, but he certainly did not accuse him of supporting the Soviet Union-

Mr. MacShane rose-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not want to get into any further debate on the matter, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman seriously expects me to do so.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can we celebrate an unusual occasion-namely, an apology from a Secretary of State? Is there a way of putting it on the official Hansard record? The Speaker will know that-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry to cut the hon. Gentleman off; it is always a pleasure to listen to his mellifluous tones. Even as he is delivering his attempted point of order, however, he is barely able to conceal his smile, for the simple reason that he knows perfectly well that what he is saying does not constitute a point of order-

Michael Fabricant rose-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has put his views on the official record- [ Interruption. ] Well, he has as far as I am concerned, and he is not going to have the opportunity to do so any further. I have made my position clear, and I shall brook no contradiction.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you, as a defender of Back-Bencher rights, to help me? I wrote to the Prime Minister on 14 January about Lord Paul, who you may remember, Mr. Speaker, drove the Armstrong pension fund into deficit, robbing thousands of their rightful pensions. I wrote to the Prime Minister on
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behalf of my constituents asking how that man could become a Privy Counsellor when he fulfilled none of the criteria required to become one. As I said, I wrote on 14 January with a legitimate question about someone who sits in the other place, but, as far as I can see, has no right to be a Privy Counsellor. I have had no reply, so can you help me, Mr. Speaker, to elicit a reply from a Prime Minister who will not answer questions?

Mr. Speaker: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous attender and is frequently inclined to raise points of order, but I am afraid that what he said was not a point of order, but a point of frustration. Let me make two observations for his benefit and for that of the House. First, I remind the hon. Gentleman that Members should not criticise Members of the other place other than on a substantive motion. I have had reason to make this point before, and I hope that I shall not have to keep repeating it. [Interruption.] Order. I am trying to help the hon. Gentleman; he should be grateful to me, although he shows no sign of it. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman refers to a letter that he has sent. I know that he attaches enormous importance to his letter, and so do I, but a letter is not a parliamentary question, so it does not constitute a parliamentary proceeding.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Fabricant will have to wait a moment. He has already had one go and I will give him another in a moment.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is on a similar matter and I wonder whether you can help me. I wrote to the Prime Minister on 11 November about a serious matter-what I believe to be prima facie evidence of a serious breach of the ministerial code by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I have had one acknowledgement. I subsequently wrote to the Prime Minister again on 19 January and 9 February, but he shows no sign of wishing to respond to this serious matter. There is every indication that he wants to get past the election before replying. Can you help me, Mr. Speaker, in any way to secure a proper reply to this most serious issue?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman rarely requires any help in the pursuit of his political campaigns. I had an advance inkling of his intended point of order, but the problem is that it is not a point of order for the Chair. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman why not. First, it relates to a letter. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) attaches as much importance to his letter as does the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) to his, but it does not constitute a parliamentary proceeding. That is the first point. The second is that I am not responsible for the ministerial code. The hon. Member for Lewes may well think that I should be, and I am grateful to him for his support and encouragement, but I am not.

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has apologised to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in a letter-not my letter, but his letter. How can it get broader publicity and be recorded in the House?

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Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is abusing points of order. I have the highest regard for the hon. Gentleman, but when he talks about how to achieve wider publicity, he knows that he has achieved his objective. He should not abuse our procedures any further.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not know whether you noticed in this morning's obituary columns the passing of Andrée Peel, who was known as "agent X" in the second world war and saved the lives of many hundreds of allied servicemen before being tortured and put in a concentration camp. There seems to be no clear mechanism by which Members can pay their respects to the passing of great people such as this gallant lady, so I wondered whether you, Mr. Speaker, would give some consideration to providing such a mechanism in the future.

Mr. Speaker: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we debated parliamentary reform last Thursday, but it is of course a matter of continuing business. I am very open to suggestions from the hon. Gentleman and others, but in the short term, it is open to him to table an early-day motion to express his admiration for the deceased individual. In the light of what he has said about her, he might well find that he could muster quite a lot of support.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for calling me. I was getting worried because my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) has had two points of order and I had not had any. Over the last 13 years, I have asked you, Mr. Speaker, your predecessors, the Cabinet Secretary, almighty God and just about anyone I can think of to try to get the Government to answer questions-not letters, but questions, which are parliamentary proceedings, Mr. Speaker. What recourse do Back Benchers have against the Government from the Prime Minister downwards when Ministers are determined not to answer questions?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her point of order. What I would say to her is this. First, we introduced, very recently, a tracking system whereby information on which questions had been answered by Departments and which had not would be publicly available. It was my hope, and that of others in the House, that that mechanism of transparency would be a sufficient spur to trigger speedier responses than Members had been receiving. I think that the right hon. Lady should exercise a degree of patience-

Miss Widdecombe: I have not got long.

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Lady has a long time left on the planet, albeit probably not much time left in the House.

I hope that that system will have the desired effect. However, let me also say to the right hon. Lady and to Ministers that when Members table parliamentary questions, they are entitled to speedy and substantive replies.

The right hon. Lady should know that I have often discussed this matter with the Leader of the House. I know that the Leader of the House attaches great importance to it and constantly drives Ministers to
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respond more quickly, but we will clearly have to step up our efforts. If the right hon. Lady is asking me whether I am open to the idea that new measures might be required in a subsequent Parliament to bring about improvement, I can assure her that I am as open-minded about that as I am about most other matters.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have noted that earlier, during the heated exchanges that characterise Prime Minister's Question Time, a number of Labour Back Benchers said that Cross Benchers in another place-specifically Lords Guthrie and Boyce-were Tories. They attributed to distinguished public servants political partiality. May we have a ruling on the appropriateness of Members of this House accusing Members of another House who are distinguished public servants of speaking from a partisan position, when all that they have ever done throughout their careers is stand up for the principle of public service?

Mr. Speaker: I note what the hon. Gentleman has said-with his usual alacrity-and my response is that I think that, albeit with the most public-spirited motives, he is seeking to continue an earlier argument or debate, and I do not think that that would be seemly today.

Let me add for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman that the utterances to which he was referring were delivered from a sedentary position. The Members concerned were not on their feet, and it was not easy for me-particularly given the amount of noise and hubbub-to see precisely who was guilty. But I will keep an eye on it, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will encourage me in my efforts to do so.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Chope has been very patient. We must give him a go.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I am normally very patient, Mr. Speaker.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, may I draw your attention to motion 7 on today's Order Paper, which stands in the name of the Financial Secretary? It calls on the House to authorise the amazing sum of £23,893,853,000, which represents excess expenditure by the Government in the year ending 31 March 2009. I think that that is probably the largest sum of money that any Government have ever spent in excess of any supplementary estimate or authorisation of the House.

As you will know, Mr. Speaker, this matter goes to the heart of the purpose of being in this legislature, which is to hold the Government to account on issues of expenditure. How will we be able to hold a debate on the motion under the rules of the House, given that it has been tabled in a form that precludes debate and only allows it to go through on the nod or following a vote? It has been said that it would then be incorporated in a Consolidated Fund Bill, but it would not be possible for us to debate that either.

Perhaps your Clerk is advising you, Mr. Speaker, that the matter is under the control of the Public Accounts Committee. I am advised that the Public Accounts
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Committee was told that it had no authority to do anything other than allow the motion to be tabled on the Order Paper and to be nodded through.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that I have heard enough of what he has to say to be able to formulate a coherent response. I am grateful to him for his attempts at lip reading, or simply at hearing the advice of the Clerks, but I am afraid that on this occasion he is mistaken in his supposition as to the views of the Clerks. I know that the hon. Gentleman has both an active mind and a fertile imagination, but in this case he is getting ahead of himself. We have not got to that matter yet. We will get to it in due course. I know that the hon. Gentleman deprecates the fact that there will be no opportunity for a debate on it, but it will be conducted in accordance with the agreed procedures of the House. The hon. Gentleman is nothing but an enthusiastic proceduralist and so there will be an opportunity, if he remains dissatisfied, to divide the House. That is something on matters of this kind to which the hon. Gentleman is no stranger.

Mr. Chope: Further to that point of order-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting very excited. I shall take a point of order from him once more, but I appeal to Members to calm down-there was a point at which I thought that the House was going to have a collective fit. The national health service has enough responsibility as it is outside this House.

Mr. Chope: I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you will appreciate the difference between having a chance for a debate and just having a vote. Since this is, as you rightly say, an issue of procedure, should Government excesses of the order of £23 billion appear on the Order Paper in future, would you recommend that the Procedure Committee should look into the issue to decide whether it should be subject to a debate rather than going through on the nod or on a vote?

Mr. Speaker: What I would say to the hon. Gentleman-this becomes curiouser and curiouser-is that I am well aware, because I made the point myself, that the matter is subject to a vote but not to a debate. I am genuinely a little surprised and even tickled that the hon. Gentleman should suggest that I invite the Procedure Committee to consider this matter. The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished and celebrated member of the said Committee and he has never before required any encouragement from me to press for a Committee of which he is a member to consider a matter.

Mr. Chope indicated dissent.

Mr. Speaker: There is no point in the hon. Gentleman shaking his head in evident disapproval of what is being said from the Chair. The procedure on this matter, I should emphasise to all attending to our proceedings, is a procedure of the House on which the House has agreed. It was not decreed by me. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not want to convey any contrary impression.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am glad that the Leader of the House is in her place-or nearly in her place-for this point of order. Last Thursday, historically,
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the House agreed without a Division to set up a Back-Bench business committee in time for the start of the next Parliament. Will you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that the only way that can be done is if a Standing Order is passed in this Parliament to do that job? Will you further confirm that, at least for the time being, that Standing Order can only be put on the agenda above the line by the Government? Finally, will you confirm that, given that the House has spoken overwhelmingly in favour of the matter, it would be a block to necessary and voted-for reform and would, indeed, defy the will of the House if that Standing Order were not brought forward by this Government in this Parliament to be passed and to implement the will of the House as voted for last Thursday?

Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the House is present and may want to respond, but the hon. Gentleman's supposition about the Standing Order is, in my judgment, correct and work is in hand. I know that he is by nature-perhaps rightly-of a suspicious disposition, but I do not think that he should be too suspicious. If the Leader of the House wants to comment, she is welcome to do so but she is under no obligation.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Further to that point of order, I can reassure the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that of course we will not defy the will of the House. We are completely clear that once a resolution is passed by the House that requires Standing Orders to put it into effect, that is what will happen next. Throughout all this, there has been a climate of unwarranted suspicion. We should all be pleased and gratified with the progress that has been made and the hon. Gentleman should be confident that further progress will be made.

Several hon. Members: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I should say that we have other business to which to attend and I think that people will realise that I have been very generous. I have been very generous to the hon. Member for Lichfield, but I think that I am going to make him wait a little.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the Indian Parliament and Canadian Parliament, they have a period, known as the zero hour in the Indian Parliament, in which Members can raise any subject they wish for a limited time-about a minute. We have just spent nearly 20 minutes on points of order, very few of which were genuine points of order. In your consideration of reform of Parliament, should we not have our own zero hour where people can raise any matters they wish for a limited period?

Mr. Speaker: Yes, I think that one point is noted and that the other is for the Procedure Committee. I am grateful on this occasion, as I am always to the hon. Member, for his helpful point of order.

Mr. Graham Stuart: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Yes, but I hope that we are getting near to the end. I think that people might be interested in hearing other matters debated.

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