Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 11:57 am on 21st December 2000.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment) 11:57 am, 21st December 2000

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In a written answer given to me yesterday—it can be found at column 228W of the Official Report— the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), confirmed that a 15-person delegation from Britain and British overseas territories had attended the November triennial conference of Education Ministers in Halifax, Canada. It was led by Mr. Jack McConnell. He is not a Member of either House of this Parliament; he is, of course, a member of the Scottish Executive, and a Minister in the Scottish Parliament. I note from an earlier parliamentary answer that on at least one occasion a Scottish Minister has led a British delegation to a European Council meeting.

As the House will know, I have an interest in Commonwealth education, and have served as an education Minister with responsibility for, among other matters, international affairs. I was used to leading—I hope, successfully and amicably—multi-territorial delegations to international meetings. While I do not criticise the individuals who made up the delegation to Canada, I regret that no Ministers in the House of Commons ordered their diaries in such a way that they could attend the meeting.

More seriously still, Mr. Speaker, I invite you to consider how we can achieve the accountability to the House of persons who speak in the name of the Government. This is not simply a matter involving unelected civil servants or officials, who can speak, or are responsible, through their Ministers; it is a question of a person, purporting to speak for the United Kingdom, who holds a partial mandate in one part of that kingdom.

Education is a sensitive cultural matter. Although I have not checked, I do not think that the delegation to Canada can possibly have been led by the Education Minister of the province of Newfoundland, let alone that of, for instance, Quebec.

My substantive point is this: whoever was selected, if that person was not a Member of Parliament here, we have no possibility of questioning him here. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to reflect on the propriety and wisdom of the situation that Ministers have created.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I am afraid that I cannot help him, as it is a matter for the Government as to who represents them at overseas conferences. However, the Government remain accountable to the House for the choice of the delegation and for the outcome of the conference as it affects United Kingdom interests. The hon. Gentleman can therefore pursue his interest in the conference by using the usual procedures of the House.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would be grateful for your guidance on whether it is in order for Departments to refuse to supply information which is available to them by using the device of providing blocking answers to named-day written questions. I refer specifically to the announcements on type 45 destroyer procurement which were made this morning and to three named-day written questions that I had tabled for answer last Friday.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

The answers or lack of answers from Ministers are not a responsibility of the occupant of the Chair. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration. By raising his point of order, he has put the matter on the record, and I am sure that the appropriate Minister will note his concern.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You heard, as I did, the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and the Leader of the House about facilities of the House being used for apparently racist reasons. May I ask whether any checks are made on whether facilities of the House, such as meeting rooms, are used for purposes that could be considered to be, for example, racist? If so, can any action be taken to stop such use? Although I appreciate that meeting rooms are booked by hon. Members, I think that it is totally unacceptable that—if my hon. Friend is right—such facilities should be used to spread racist poison. Would it be at all possible for you, Mr. Speaker, to make inquiries into the matter?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Every hon. Member booking such facilities should always be careful about how the facilities are to be used and ensure that they are used only by reputable organisations. We have domestic Committees, and I am sure that they—particularly their Chairmen—will note the comments of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). I dare say that they will look into the matter. Certainly if it were ever proved that such an organisation was operating in the House, I would take a very serious view on it. I hope that that is of assistance.