HC Deb 28 February 1992 vol 204 cc1243-53

11 am

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the fishery decommissioning scheme he announced on 27 February.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)

I refer the hon. Member to my pursuant reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) yesterday evening. I explained that my fellow Fisheries Ministers and I are proposing a programme of closely linked measures to reduce the over-fishing which is posing serious problems for many stocks vital to the long-term future of our fishing industry. You will remember, Mr. Speaker, that I have pointed out on numerous occasions that there is no way in which we can safeguard the future of our present fishermen and of their sons and daughters without serious conservation moves.

The object of the proposed programme will be to reduce fishing effort over the period up to 1996. An essential feature of the programme will be the introduction of direct controls on fishing effort. Initially, we plan to freeze effort in 1993 at its 1991 level, with the permitted level of effort then decreasing in 1994 to 1996. How much we will have to reduce effort will depend, in part, on the outcome of forthcoming European Community discussions about the 1992–96 multi-annual guidance programme and, partly, on the impact of the other measures that we also propose to introduce.

The other proposed measures include a decommissioning scheme to operate over two years with provision for expenditure of up to £25 million. That scheme will be cash-limited and subject to tight controls and will be designed to take out the maximum amount of fishing effort. No decommissioning payments will be committed until measures to control and reduce fishing effort are in place, which we intend to seek to achieve in 1993.

In addition, we are proposing changes in our quota management and licence transfer rules, so as to encourage fish producers' organisations to play a more active part in rationalising the fleet and to increase the pressure to reduce the size of the fleet. Further, we intend to extend restrictive licensing to vessels of 10 m and below in length so as to prevent expansion in this sector of the fleet undermining the effectiveness of our other measures. Finally, we propose to make it possible for fishermen to trade their days at sea entitlements along with fishing licences.

We shall shortly be consulting the European Community Commission and the fishing industry about the details of this important conservation package. When parliamentary time permits, the Government will introduce the primary legislation that will be needed for some elements of the package, such as the arrangements of trading days at sea entitlements.

My right hon. Friends and I are putting this important programme forward now following a series of discussions with industry interests, in which we have made it clear that we would be prepared to introduce a further decommissioning scheme only as part of a package that would have real conservation benefits. The package is a careful combination of payments to industry, encouragement to voluntary action and some compulsory effort reduction. Reducing fishing effort is crucial to the long-term interests of our fishermen as well as the fish stocks. We look forward to constructive discussions with the industry about our proposals.

Mr. Salmond

That is a useful statement from the Minister, bacause it contrasts sharply with the bullish assessment given by the Scottish Office yesterday evening. Can the Minister tell the House whether the funding proposed for the decommissioning scheme is fully comparable with that which has been available to other European fleets in the past few years, and if not why not? Can he specify exactly what extensions to the tie-up regulations he is proposing? If he is going in for transferable, viable and sellable quotas, how will he avoid the concentration of ownership in a few hands in the fishing industry, to the detriment of the family-run industry in Scotland?

Would the Minister be prepared to join me in appealing to the chairmen of all the major clearing banks to suspend repossessions of fishing boats until it can be worked out whether the scheme will help fishermen in that position to leave the industry with dignity?

Finally, does the Minister have no sense of shame or regret about his obduracy and his role in stopping such a scheme during the past few years and causing so much grief and heartache in our fishing communities?

Mr. Gummer

You will have noticed, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the word "conservation" once during his questions. One of the serious sadnesses of the discussions is that the Scottish nationalists appear to think that the only thing that we need to do is to hand out money to people and not to protect the stocks. Again and again I have asked for the Scottish nationalists' support for conservation. On every occasion they have refused to do anything to seek it, except to demand that taxpayers' money should be paid, without question, for the decommissioning scheme.

First, I am not going to compare this scheme with any other. I would not have given the private notice question the title which the hon. Member suggested. The most important thing about the scheme is that it is intended further to conserve stocks of fish, to conserve the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish fishing industries for today and tomorrow. I am sad that the Scottish nationalists have not joined me in that.

I have only one sense of shame—shame that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan has not taken the opportunity to thank us for this package.

I am also sad that the industry has not introduced the package, but I respect the large number of fishermen who will fully support the package, which is the right balance between asking the industry to make a substantial contribution—which is what I have been asking for for 18 months—both in the new job of the fish producers' organisations, which will be able to play a part in decommissioning, and in the fact that there will be further tie-ups. I have tried to create a situation in which there are only so many days at sea. We shall freeze that effort, as I suggested in 1991, from the beginning of 1993 and we shall reduce the effort, as is necessary to conserve stocks.

I repeat that the intention of the scheme is to conserve stocks. The idea of trading days at sea entitlement is to give some flexibility between fishermen all over the United Kingdom. It is something that fishermen in Scotland will especially welcome, because it will mean that they will be able to adapt their fishing according to their needs in a way which would not otherwise have been available to them.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

These measures will be warmly welcomed by my fishermen in Fleetwood, especially as my right hon. Friend has taken on board the need for a decommissioning scheme to be part of an overall protection package. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to introduce that decommissioning scheme, provided that agreement is reached with the rest of the industry on other protection measures?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend say more clearly what he is proposing to do about licensing of boats of less than 10 m? Finally, will the scheme that he has proposed encourage a newer, smaller fleet and encourage some of the older vessels to leave the fleet?

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The intention is to conserve stocks for the present and future. It is unlikely that the conservation measures that I have outlined will be agreed by the Commission and be in place in the fishing ports in advance of the dates that I have suggested. However, I shall certainly look at my hon. Friend's proposition. I cannot encourage him, simply because, having realised how complex a matter it is, I think that his aim is unlikely to be achieved.

In all the talks that I have had with representatives of the fishing industry, it has been clear that they have taken an increasingly serious view of the need to restrict efforts. I am pleased that the general tone of the fishing industry has been to welcome the sort of package that we have put together and presaged in a series of debates, both in the House and elsewhere. I shall certainly consider the other points raised by my hon. Friend to see whether there is any further action that we can take.

As for the licensing of smaller boats, the intention is to meet a demand of the fishing industry, members of which have become more and more concerned that the 10m boats and below are increasingly fishing stocks, so that they are unavailable to the more professional fishermen. Some such boats are very professional and keep just below the limit. I do not want that to continue. Such action is particularly prevalent in fishing ports such as my hon. Friend's, where times have been extremely difficult.

I very much respect those who have stuck to their guns and determined to keep fishing. They have felt that their stocks had been purloined by those fishermen not subject to the same restrictions. In future, those fishermen shall be so subject.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Minister agree that such a matter would have been more appropriate for an oral statement than for a written answer and the chance of a private notice question?

Approximately what proportion of existing fishing vessels over a certain length are likely to be decommissioned as a result of the scheme? Will the Minister assure the House that he believes that there is an equivalence of surveillance of catchings, as distinct from landings, of fish throughout the EEC? Will he enlighten us as to why, twice yesterday at—column 1118 in answer to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), and at column 1123 in answer to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)—the Leader of the House said that there would not be a statement, despite the accusation that the matter was imminent?

Does not the fact that the subject occurs in columns 612–13 of Hansard, published in the early hours of this morning, and was issued to the press at 5 pm yesterday, mean that the Government are at sixes and sevens with the House and the fishing public on this vital issue?

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The likelihood is that the proposal might reach about 12 per cent. of the fleet. The decommissioning part of the plan is only one part of it, and the earlier part of my statement is perhaps the most important, as it commits the Government and the fishing industry to a significant restriction on effort in order to protect the future, by protecting the stocks. The hon. Gentleman will know that the United Kingdom has the largest proportion of fishing stocks in the European Community. It is perfectly true that, due to that fact, our surveillance is tougher, better and more extensive than any other Community country.

I want to improve the surveillance that other countries have over their boats. Therefore, it was my job when I was Minister of State successfully to press the Commission to set up an inspectorate of inspectors and extend that inspectorate on the second occasion. I hope that we shall improve that further, as there is no doubt that the Commission has complimented the United Kingdom on the quality, extent and integrity of its surveillance. We shall continue to uphold those standards in this country. We hope to spread them to the rest of the Community.

As to the comments of my right hon. Friend, he knew that I would produce a statement as quickly as possible. He did not know that I would be able to do so as quickly as I did. My speed surprised even myself.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

When my right hon. Friend the Minister came to Norfolk last year, he will have heard some of the problems of the Wash shell fishermen who are concerned about conservation, and conserving stocks of shrimps, cockles, whelks and mussels. The Minister will have heard about how the industry plays a crucial part in the local economy. He will also be aware of the concern about the EC shellfish directive and various closure orders in the Wash, and about the threat of larger boats coming into the Wash and fishing for the inshore stock.

To what extent will today's statement affect the inshore Wash shell fishery? Could we include in today's proposals measures to alleviate the problems caused by large boats coming in and taking the stock that local fishermen believe to be theirs?

Mr. Gummer

I very much understand what my hon. Friend has said, not least because I, like him, have a fishing constituency with a proportionately large number of fishermen who are longshoremen and have precisely those problems, although the species are different. I do not believe that we can take measures under the proposals specifically to address my hon. Friend's concerns, but I am looking at ways in which the present system bears upon the smaller fishermen, particularly in relation to shellfish, where there are real worries.

May I correct an answer I gave earlier to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—[Interruption.] There is no need to worry—I shall state absolutely clearly that it would be more accurate to answer the question about the effect of decommissioning to say that we think that 10 per cent. of effort will be removed by the decommissioning as it stands.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Does the Minister recognise that for all of us, from all quarters, who have been pressing long and hard for the Government to concede the principle of decommissioning, the Government's concession—their deathbed conversion—is welcome? But the industry's suspicions are likely to be aroused by the uncharacteristic reluctance of this Minister, of all Ministers, to come to the House to tell us of his departmental activities?

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the statement issued by the Secretary of State for Scotland yesterday, when he spoke of the £25 million that was to be put into decommissioning? Is the entire decommissioning scheme to be Government funded, or will it involve an anticipated contribution from the industry? Will he take this opportunity to respond to the anxiety felt on both coastlines in the north of Scotland—that of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and mine —over the repossessions currently taking place? Will he influence the respective chairmen of the clearing banks involved to urge them not to proceed with that policy?

In his announcement, the Minister placed emphasis on the other measures—tie-up days, transferrable licences and so on. When he quite properly speaks of the need for continuing constructive discussions with the industry, will he bear in mind the particular problems that such measures pose for smaller fishing communities? Will he consider the lack of support that those measures have generated within some sectors of the fishing industry?

Mr. Gummer

I acknowledge that, in contradistinction to others, the hon. Gentleman has always made a major point about conservation and has always accepted that it had to be part of any scheme that we proposed. It is perhaps unfair of him to suggest that we had to concede the principle, as I accepted it 18 months ago, but on the condition that there was a substantial contribution by the industry. The Government's contribution is £25 million, most of which will be paid by the British taxpayer. The industry's contribution is a serious one and there will be a heavier weight attached to it due to conservation reasons and tie-up days.

In future we shall provide fish producer organisations with the ability to discover in what spheres they may seek to rationalise their own local problems at their expense. That will not be enforced, but will take the form of voluntary action if they are prepared to do so. The whole industry will be affected by the more general conservation measures that will arise partly due to the extension of the licensing of boats of 10 m and below.

That is the industry contribution and it is the one with which I hoped that it would come forward. All the elements of that contribution have been suggested by those within the industry who are concerned about it. I think that it strikes the right balance. In the past, the hon. Member has suggested that he was not unwilling to see such a balance achieved. The £25 million is the Government contribution and there is no question of taxing or raising money from the industry to contribute to that.

I very much agree with what the hon. Member said about smaller communities. Unless we do something significant about conservation, it is those communities which will be most obviously affected. The hon. Gentleman will know from his part of the United Kingdom how much antagonism between communities has arisen because of the shortage of fish. It has not been a pretty sight to see the way in which different parts of Scotland, let alone Scotland and England, and different parts of England have argued among themselves because of the extremely limited amount of fish available. I hope that the proposed scheme will help those communities in the long run. I shall consider carefully the way in which the burdens of that scheme fall upon individual small communities. I have such communities in my constituency and I understand their concerns.

The tie-up is difficult, but it is better to have a tie-up under the current proposals than under the unsatisfactory proposals that were previously forced upon us by the Commission—even after we had changed them to an extent. The much more flexible proposals were British initiated and they were hard-fought for by the Parliamentary Secretary and myself. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that they are a great improvement.

I shall talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland about specific examples of repossessions. If the hon. Gentleman or any of his hon. Friends wish to inform me of particular cases I would be happy to take them up individually.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this issue is a matter of balance? The answer my right hon. Friend has given strikes the right balance between the short-term interests of the fishermen and the long-term issue of conservation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Scottish National party should recognise that unless we preserve the fish stocks, there will not be any fishermen in the future?

Mr. Gummer

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sad that this is not a matter of universal agreement in the House. The written answer that I gave yesterday seemed to me to be so obviously a balanced one that it could not cause any kind of controversy. The fact that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) seeks to make it controversial shows that, once again, conservation that costs something—all effective conservation does—is not something that the Scottish National party is ever prepared to support.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The Minister has placed you, Mr. Speaker in an invidious position today, whereby you felt that you had to grant a private notice question because this is the first opportunity to ask questions following the statement published this morning in Hansard. I believe that the statement made at the Dispatch Box today is designed to snooker my hon. Friends with responsibilities for fisheries who are unable to be here today because they are busily involved in constituency engagements. What the right hon. Gentleman has done is a breach of parliamentary faith and that is wrong.

What will be the position of the small boats of less than 10 m that will be decommissioned? Will they be destroyed? Will they be burnt, broken up or put to alternative use? Is it possible that some of those boats could be used as part of Britain's aid programme and sent to overseas countries where they could be put to good use in underprivileged fishing communities?

I give the statement a cautious welcome. I should like to know how it will precisely impact on communities such as my own of Maryport in my constituency. To find the answer I shall have to make contact with some of my fishing colleagues, such as Mr. Madine and Mr. Harold Musgrove, who is a Maryport resident. They will quickly inform me of the value of this particular statement. Therefore, although I give a cautious welcome to the statement, I reserve some judgment on it.

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his cautious welcome, and I should be happy to talk to him about the specific problems of Maryport—an area which faces difficult economic problems in any case. Obviously I hope that my statement will make a contribution, at least in the medium term, to the resources and abilities of his constituents to fish.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's fishermen will tell him that the announcement is good as far as it goes, but that they wish that the burden of conservation did not have to be borne by them. That is one of our problems. We are asking today's fishermen to take on a considerable burden, because of the over-fishing of the past, to provide for real fishing in the future. I recognise that fishermen find that extremely difficult, and it is for that reason that I believe that the significant sum of taxpayers' money should be part of the deal. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's fishermen will find that satisfactory.

I do not believe that I put you, Mr. Speaker, in any difficult position, but, if I had done so, I would have been the first to apologise. I do not believe that to be the case, because the private notice question technique is a standard part of the House's methods of communication. The hon. Gentleman was able to put his question and I was able to answer it. I, too, had constituency engagements today, but if others had wished to be here, I am sure that they could have been present.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is there not another reason why this statement has been made this morning in answer to a private notice question? It is because the right hon. Gentleman has been locked in mortal combat with the Scottish Office, and other sections of the Tory party, for the past three years.

There is another way of looking at this statement. It is not all sunshine, because the right hon. Gentleman has really said that we shall have fewer fishermen and fewer boats getting fish and that the price of fish will go up. We are a maritime nation, an island in the Common Market, but ever since we went into that tinpot Common Market, our fishermen have been told that they cannot catch as much fish as they did before, because it must be surrendered to the other 11 EC countries. A number of hon. Members have complimented the Minister today. What for? He is being complimented for sacking people, stopping them working and throwing them on the dole. What a carry-on.

Mr. Gummer

The House will have noticed the hon. Member's eloquent support for Labour party policy on the EEC—

Mr. Skinner

I am not surrendering to the Germans.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman appears to be fighting battles long over.

Mr. Skinner

I will win in the end.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Gummer

He does so with scant connection with the facts. The problem is not our Community partners, but the fish. I know that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is far removed from the sea—

Mr. Skinner

We have to buy fish.

Mr. Gummer

The reason that there is a shortage of fish is not the European Community but the fact that we have over-fished in the past. We have the largest amount of European fish and it is our over-fishing, as well as that of others, that has caused the problem.

It would be wrong to suggest that we can blame this problem on others. We have fished too much and we must hold back on our fishing. We will do so to give our next generation the opportunity to fish in what is the largest sector of EC fisheries. Thank goodness we have a common fisheries policy, because that is the only effective safeguard for the conservation of our fish stocks.

The hon. Gentleman is fighting long-lost battles, and the sadness about it is that he misleads the House by suggesting that an alternative policy would reap any better results.

Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

Will the Minister accept that his statement this morning that he will talk to Labour Members or to the Secretary of State for Scotland will not help the immediate repossessions that we are seeing now and that will come about later in the year in the fishing industry? It is not just a problem for Scotland—it exists in Redcar and up the north-east coast, in the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends. Will he make a commitment to talk to the clearing banks about the difficulty, because next year, as he and I know, will be too late for many of those fisheries people?

Mr. Gummer

In case others are not aware of this, I should make it clear that, although the specific cases which no doubt the hon. Lady would like to bring to my attention, although she has not done so so far—I do not believe that I have had a letter from her asking for support on this—

Ms. Mowlam

It is not up to the Minister; the clearing banks make the decisions.

Mr. Gummer

If the hon. Lady has a particular case that she wants me to take up, I have always shown myself extremely willing to talk to Members of Parliament about individual cases. The hon. Lady has not so far contacted me, but if she were willing to do so, I could take it up with the clearing bank concerned.

In general, the fishing industry's returns have kept up with inflation, because, although the numbers of fish that have been taken are smaller, as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has told us, the price of fish has also risen. Therefore, it is untrue to say that the fishing industry overall is enduring general repossessions. There may be individual cases, and in those cases I am happy to do whatever I can to help. If the hon. Lady has such a case —it will of course be in England, as her constituency is in England and will therefore be my responsibility—I should be happy to take it up at the moment that she gives me the details.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

To pick up a point made by the Minister, my hon. Friends who normally speak on the fishing industry are in their constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) is 300 miles away, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) is 200 miles away. They are absent not only because of the assurances given by the Leader of the House yesterday but because of the assurances given late yesterday by the private offices of Ministers that a statement on this matter would not be made in the near future. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to apologise for that information, which came directly from his Department.

Is the Minister aware that the Labour party generally welcomes the decommissioning scheme that he has announced? He should not be surprised at that, because Labour colleagues both north and south of the border have been pressing for this action for many years. We recognise that a balance has to be struck between guaranteeing the livelihood of those involved in fishing today and conserving stock for the fishing communities of tomorrow—the whole principle of sustainable development that I wish was introduced in other Departments.

Does the Minister think that the £25 million that he has announced—there seems to be some confusion about the amount of reduction in capacity that that will bring—is adequate to deal with the problem? How does he react to the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, which believes the sum to be inadequate?

Does the Minister agree that had this scheme been introduced two years ago, as the Labour party demanded, there would have been greater stability in the fishing industry today and we could have avoided the need for the other and more draconian restrictions that the Minister also announced today? Is it not a fact that this is a cynical deathbed conversion, which has more to do with the date of the election than with the Minister's concern with the fishing industry?

Mr. Gummer

This scheme could not have been introduced two years ago, because the arrangements under which the European Community operated would not have given us the opportunities to take the conservation measures that we now have.—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady has asked a question and I will answer it politely. She will then no doubt be able to intervene if she thinks that I have not answered it adequately.

In the past 18 months, we have spent a great deal of time working in the European Community to get the system that makes possible what I announced yesterday. That is why it could not have been done or announced before. In any case, the reason for the announcement at this time has to do with the agreement that we have to enter with the European Community about our multi-annual guidance programme targets.

We now know that our fleet will overshoot those targets and we have to negotiate with the Commission on the basis of what target we should have, how we will keep our fleet within those targets and the effort within those targets over the period 1992–96. The hon. Lady does not normally speak on this subject, so she will understand if I say this directly—this is the timing that is inevitable given the European Community's timing.

As to the hon. Lady's colleagues, I have made no further announcement today that was not clearly put in the answer to the written question that I gave last night. I am answering this private notice question today—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady wants an answer and can no doubt return on the matter if she wishes to. Her synthetic anger will be seen by all. There is a private notice question today and I am answering it. Every hon. Member who is present has seen that I have given no further information than that which was already in the hands of the House in the perfectly sensible, public answer to a written question which I made yesterday.

The hon. Lady said that the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations thinks that this amount of money is inadequate. I suspect that, whatever figure had been placed on this, those who are the recipients would have liked more. I believe that this is the right balance and I should like to thank her for her willingness to say that, if there is to be a decommissioning scheme, it must be part of a package. However, the difference is that that is a balance which we have achieved, which she has supported but which, up to now, her hon. Friends have not pressed for. Like so many others, they are keen on emphasising the scheme that puts money into people's pockets without accepting the other half, which is very tough, which the fishermen recognise and with which I concern myself because it is hard for them.

Mr. Spearing

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Your name has been mentioned in relation to embarrassment; I would not know whether that is so and I would not ask. However, is it not clear from the exchanges that we have just had that certain hon. Members, including those on the Opposition Front Bench, have been embarrassed today by the turn of events? You will have just heard my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) ask for an apology from the Minister. You will know that, yesterday, when he was asked whether a statement was imminent, the Leader of the House—no doubt in good faith, because I know him—said: I am not yet in a position to say when conclusions will be reached."—[Official Report, 27 February 1992; Vol. 204, c. 1118.] You will know, Mr. Speaker, that at that very moment an envelope must have been on the way to give the hon. Gentleman who had asked the written question his answer. Therefore, is it not a fact that there has been a breach of order or of courtesy and that some apology is required? The Minister has not yet given it. Can we ask whether the apology is due from the Leader of the House—I do not think that it is, knowing his general conduct—or from the Minister of Fisheries—I think that it might be—whose conduct we have just witnessed?

Mr. Speaker

This is a private Members' day, and there are other motions on the Order Paper. I was not embarrassed by this matter. I consider private notice questions on their merits, and that is the basis on which I granted the private notice question today.

Mr. Gummer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It would not be in my nature to be curmudgeonly. If any hon. Member feels that he could have been better served by me or my Ministry, I am sorry that he does feel so. I shall try to ensure that he does not feel so in future.

Mr. Speaker

After that handsome apology, I do not think that there is anything more to be said.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I wonder whether you might comment, Mr. Speaker, on what happened yesterday. The Leader of the House gave—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have already said that I cannot comment. It is not for me to comment on these matters. As I have said, this is a private Members' motions day. The hon. Member knows—he has often been in this position himself—that it would be unfair to take up time with points of order that I cannot answer.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

At the same time that the Leader of the House was telling the House that there would be no answer, a letter was winging its way to an hon. Member including a parliamentary answer that was entirely at variance with an undertaking being given by the Leader of the House. Surely that shows that there was some congestion in Whitehall.

In your ruling, Mr. Speaker, you said that you consider whether a private notice question is important enough to be granted. There is an additional factor that you are required to take into account, and that is whether it is the first opportunity to raise the matter. Will you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that this is the first opportunity to raise the matter and that only on this day would you be prepared to grant the private notice question? If an hon. Member such as myself had come to you on Monday, you would have said, "The first opportunity was last Friday." Is it not clear, therefore, that there was very little that you could do other than allow the private notice question today, given that the answer was given yesterday and published in Hansard this morning? Is not that the reality?

Mr. Speaker

Of course that is true. The hon. Member correctly states the criteria against which I judge applications for private notice questions.