Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham 12:32 pm, 10th March 2010

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.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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 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-

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

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-

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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-

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

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 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?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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:

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Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

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?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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. Norman Baker attaches as much importance to his letter as does 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.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

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

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

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.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. I was getting worried because my hon. Friend 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?

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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-

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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 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.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

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?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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:

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

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 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.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Further to that point of order-

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

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?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

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, 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?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Further to that point of order, I can reassure 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.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

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.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

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?

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Further to my earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker-thank you for the decision that you made then-may I ask for your help regarding the fact that, last week, the Leader of the House, who is almost in her place, made entirely unwarranted and unfounded allegations about the noble Lord Ashcroft, who has entirely met all the promises-

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. I have been extremely fair in taking a lot of points of order and in trying genuinely to respond in detail to them. It is not right to abuse the procedure of making points of order to develop, extend or start debates. We have important matters to consider. May I just say that I have appreciated a lot of good humour, and I have also noted some bad temper, but that we really ought to have some regard in this House to the way in which we are perceived by the voters whose support we shall shortly be seeking and who pay our salaries? They do not want this House to behave in a disrespectful or abusive way, or to waste time.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you could explain something. If an hon. or right hon. Gentleman inadvertently misleads the House in the Chamber and subsequently admits outside the Chamber that he has inadvertently misled the House, how can that be put on the record? If something is not published in Hansard in detail, explaining what has been said and what was subsequently admitted to be wrong, surely it will be giving a misleading and wrong impression to the public whom we wish to serve.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

The difficulty with the hon. Gentleman's point of order is that he is expressing himself in hypothetical terms. [ Interruption. ] Order. It is not reasonable therefore for him to expect me to reply. [ Interruption. ] I have seen a letter on this matter, but I am not sure that it quite warrants the description that he has just offered. [ Interruption. ] Order. He should calm himself. What I would say to him is that if he is genuinely interested in exploring this matter further, it is open to him-and perhaps I encourage him-to write to me about it. I will study his letter with care and if anything disorderly has taken place, he will learn about that.

I was genuinely sorry to see the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness in a state of some angst and obviously feeling that he had a justified grievance. I do not think that he did have, but I am going to be fair to him. If he wants to have one more go, he can, but he had better not take any liberties.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I am extremely grateful, Mr. Speaker. That is most kind. You rightly ruled that Members of the other House should not be maligned in this place without a substantive motion coming before the House. When that happens, however, and it seemed to me that it happened last week to the noble Lord Ashcroft at the hands of the Leader of the House, of all people, is there anything that can be done to rectify it? Perhaps I am being unfair, but it feels as though a Back Bencher such as myself would be fallen upon very quickly and very hard, but that the Leader of the House was able repeatedly to malign the noble Lord Ashcroft in, to my mind, an entirely unfounded and unwarranted way.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

Members of this House should use their privileges in a responsible way. What I said about the substantive motion stands. The hon. Gentleman will be the first to accept that I cannot rewrite or excise the record, and it would be totally wrong and improper for me to do so. I can only reiterate that people should behave in a proper way. If I intervened to stop someone from saying something, it was because I judged that the line had been crossed, but it is not always a straightforward, yes or no, black or white matter. Many things were said of which the hon. Gentleman might have disapproved but which were not disorderly. I hope that he will regard me as a fair-minded referee who is doing his best to protect the rights of Members of the House. I think that is enough said.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that it is in no way out of order for matters to be discussed in this House that are the subject of big controversy outside the House? Is it not the case that you have sought to make what we debate in the House more topical and better matched to issues of public concern? Is it not also the case that there is no way that this House, or any hon. Member in it, should be prevented from putting a question of fact to the House and talking about facts? Will you confirm that the facts that I put forward-that an assurance was given that tens of millions of pounds would be paid by Lord Ashcroft, and that it then came out that tens of millions of pounds was not paid-were matters of fact?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. What I would say to the Leader of the House is that Members from the most senior in the Government to the most recently arrived Back Bencher are perfectly free to air their views and concerns about public issues, subject to two important caveats. First, they must do so within the rules of the House. Secondly, and relatedly, they must do so when the issue in question is a matter of Government responsibility. I said what I said last week, and I am not going to be drawn or inveigled by any Member into criticising a Member who spoke last week. I have not done that and I am not going to do that. I sense that some Members are trying to get me to take sides against particular answers that have been given, but I am not going to do that. I will judge matters on a case-by-case basis. I have no objection either to what the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness has said, or to what the Leader of the House has just said.

I think that there will be a general sense in the House, and certainly beyond, that we really ought to move on to other matters, and specifically to a very important matter-as is being chuntered from a sedentary position by the person whose interest it is. Mr. William Cash will present his Bill.