Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 4:14 pm on 31st March 2008.

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Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence) 4:14 pm, 31st March 2008

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am conscious, as is the whole House, that you are extremely vigilant in seeking to protect the interests of the House to ensure that important announcements made by Ministers are made first to the House rather than to the media. This morning, the Ministry of Defence announced by way of a written ministerial statement that it has signed a contract with a consortium called AirTanker for the future strategic tanker aircraft. That contract was foreshadowed in 1997 as the largest private finance initiative the Ministry of Defence has produced, worth about £13,000 million.

The MOD announced in February 2005 that it had selected AirTanker as the preferred bidder, yet it was only today that it issued a written ministerial statement. In fact, there was a press conference to tell the press all about the matter at 2 o'clock last Thursday. I wonder whether you could advise me on what I might do, Mr. Speaker. I learned that there was to be such a press conference at 1 o'clock when I was attending a conference organised by the Society of British Aerospace Companies. I asked my office to check with the Ministry of Defence, and the noble Baroness Taylor sent me a letter, in which she said:

"Due to the rapid pace of the final stages in closing this complex commercial and financial deal, it has not been possible to follow the normal parliamentary protocols in making this announcement."

However, the fact is that not only has this process been in gestation for 10 years, but the company concerned, Thales, produced a draft press release last Wednesday, in which there was a reference to the Secretary of State for Defence—

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point of order. I strongly disapprove of press conferences on matters that should come to the House first. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am going to look into the matter; I take it very seriously. I shall get back to him and, of course, the House.

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Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I thank you very much for that? There will be occasions on which there are contractual difficulties, but in those circumstances Opposition spokesmen and others concerned ought to be advised by telephone—

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. In a sense, the hon. Gentleman should not push his luck. The Speaker is agreeing with him, and when the Speaker agrees with him, he should leave it at that.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I believe that we are just about to move on to the housing legislation. I seek your guidance on what we might be able to do to extend the amount of time we have to debate it. Currently, given the limitations of time and the enormous number of amendments that have been submitted, we have 73 seconds per amendment. Is there anything that we can do to give the Government a kick so that we have enough time to ensure that the housing crisis is not compounded by a crisis of scrutiny of one of the most important pieces of housing legislation that we have ever discussed?

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, but as he might know, certain things are within my powers, and certain things are outwith them. He should take up such matters with the usual channels. Housing is very important in my constituency, and I well understand how he feels.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I heard exactly what you said, Mr. Speaker, but further to the point raised by my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik, you were in the Chair when the Leader of the House said twice that, when significant numbers of Government new clauses and amendments were put forward on Report, she would look at whether there could be injury time, as it were. She repeated that last Thursday. I think that I am right in saying that there are 18 Government new clauses and 18 Opposition new clauses, but more Government amendments than Opposition ones. Have you had any indication, Mr. Speaker, that the Leader of the House is willing to come back to the House today, and would you allow her to come back as soon as possible to make a statement about proposed changes so that we do not have such a nonsensical procedural mess again?

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

The hon. Gentleman's complaints strengthen the case that I made. This is a matter for the House and for the Leader of the House. He should be taking it up with her. As far as statements are concerned, the Leader of the House is always welcome to come and make statements, but that is up to her.

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