Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 12th February 2013.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee 1:15 pm, 12th February 2013

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rarely raise points of order, but this one is about a reply I received to a question I put to the Home Secretary, which was answered by the Minister for Immigration. I tabled a question asking how many times the Home Secretary has visited Romania and Bulgaria, and how many meetings she has had with Romanian and Bulgarian Ministers on the subject of immigration—a fairly standard question. Over the past 26 years, I have tabled questions to Ministers asking about their visits to other countries and have always received a factual reply. On this occasion, however, I received a reply stating that Home Office Ministers have meetings with a number of partners, but ending with these words:

“As was the case with previous Administrations, it is not the Government’s practice to provide details of all such meetings.”—[Hansard, 5 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 123W.]

I have served in government and since receiving that answer I have talked with others who have served, and none has said that they refused to disclose a meeting between a Minister in this country and a Minister in a foreign country. I have friends in the Romanian and Bulgarian Parliaments and I can ask them to table questions asking how many times the Home Secretary has visited, but this is the bread and butter of the work of Members of Parliament.

There is a question about whether Parliament has been misled, even inadvertently, by the answer given. I like the Minister for Immigration and I am sure that he would not have done that deliberately, but we should be able to ask Ministers how many times they have been to foreign countries and about the overall nature of discussions. We do not want to know what the Home Secretary did in Bucharest, whom she met or what she discussed; we just want to know how many times she has visited Romania and Bulgaria. That is a simple question to answer and it is one that every other Government Department is able to deal with. Mr Speaker, I seek your guidance on whether the answer is in order, or whether this is a new practice.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow 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 response the right hon. Gentleman received has clearly provoked his curiosity and, in a notably mild-mannered Member of the House, a degree of consternation. I will happily offer a statement on the matter, but as the Home Secretary has courteously remained in the Chamber during the point of order relating to her Department, she is very welcome to offer a remark, if she so wishes.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow 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

She does not wish to do so. In that case, I will say to the right hon. Gentleman that the content of ministerial answers, notwithstanding the practice in previous Parliaments, is not a matter for the Chair. If he is dissatisfied with the answer he has received, or what he regards as the lack of an answer, he may wish to raise the matter with the Procedure Committee.

I note in passing that, on the back of his nearly 26 consecutive years of service in the House, the right hon. Gentleman is as canny as most in the deployment of opportunities open to Members to eke out of Government information that is important to him. Moreover, as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, he may be aware of other means by which Ministers may be held to account, and is perhaps in a position himself to apply those means. We will leave it there for now.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister did not intend to mislead the House when he incorrectly claimed, in response to my question at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions this morning regarding the local government settlement to Newcastle city council, that it was shutting all arts venues in Newcastle. That is blatantly not true. Owing to the very difficult local funding settlement, the council has proposed a variety of cuts to grants awarded to arts organisations, which represent roughly 15% of the funding stream, which is no doubt a difficult decision, but it is far from shutting all arts venues in the city. Given the alarm that such a statement could raise among my constituents in Newcastle upon Tyne, could you advise me on how best I may go about correcting the record in regard to the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow 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 hon. Lady for her point of order. I can say with confidence that the Deputy Prime Minister would not deliberately mislead the House, for that would be a serious transgression and I know that he would not commit it. Whether he has done so is not altogether obvious to me, but the Deputy Prime Minister will have heard, or if he has not done so, will very soon come to hear of the content of the hon. Lady’s point of order, and if in light of it he judges that the record needs to be corrected, it is open to him to do so. On top of that, she has put her concerns on the record and it is open to her, if she judges it necessary, to pursue the matter with the right hon. Gentleman in correspondence and in other ways. That is the best guidance I can give her for now.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it not the case that by asserting that Newcastle is closing all its arts venues, the Deputy Prime Minister is insulting the people of Newcastle and our long tradition of supporting the arts even in the worst of times and under the worst of Governments? Would it not therefore be in order for the Deputy Prime Minister to offer an apology to the people of Newcastle?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow 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 question whether the people of Newcastle, whom we are not in a position now to consult, feel that they have been insulted or affronted is a matter for the people of Newcastle. In answer to the hon. Lady’s inquiry whether it would be in order for the Deputy Prime Minister to apologise, the answer is that it would be if he judged it appropriate to do so, but it is not for me to decree that he should. I hope that is helpful. All points of order on the matter have now been exhausted.