HC Deb 31 March 1993 vol 222 cc353-5 3.31 pm
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Scottish Office informed me by telephone today that the Secretary of State would be making a statement on the transfer of the Scottish prison service to an executive agency; that would be done in my constituency tomorrow at Polmont at the Scottish prison service college. The impression was that the statement and the framework document would be available to the House for discussion. It appears that once again the Secretary of State is using a planted question to provide the information. It is on the Order Paper but the answer will not be available until after today's sitting is finished. Is that not once again an abuse of the House by the Secretary of State for Scotland?

Madam Speaker

On about three occasions in the last 10 parliamentary days I have made it clear to the House that it is for a Minister himself to decide how an announcement is made. Whether it is done at the Dispatch Box or by means of a written answer is up to the Minister. It has nothing to do with the Chair. I am sorry that I continually have to repeat myself on these matters. I regret that a point of order is used for that purpose.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On 19 January, at column 261 of Hansard, you responded to a point of order by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), deploring the practice of civil servants putting in questions on behalf of Ministers. I have a letter, of which a copy has been made available, in which the private secretary to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment not only asks the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) to table a question but encloses the answer. The question was tabled subsequently by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman). I should like your guidance on whether it is an abuse of the House when the Government and civil servants conspire to stitch up the business of the House.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman will know that, in my earlier ruling, I deprecated the action referred to, on the sound grounds that the question itself had not been signed by the hon. Member. As I understand it, that is not so in this case. There is nothing wrong with a question being tabled for written answer, so long as the question has been tabled properly. The hon. Gentleman should not confuse this with the earlier incident; it is not the same. In the earlier instance, the question form was pre-signed. In this case, there is nothing wrong with it, so long as the question has been signed and tabled properly.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have received a letter from the Minister of State, Home Office, which says: Following the practice agreed by the House in relation to other executive agencies, written questions about matters that fall within the Director-General's delegated responsibilities will normally be referred to him for reply. That is about the question of the prison service, and the letter is an explanation of the new circumstances.

As Speaker, you are in charge of the procedure for allowing questions to be submitted and the provision of answers. I am concerned that there may have been a practice, albeit a controversial one, in which questions have been allocated by Ministers to the directors-general of various executive agencies. Surely that was limited to those specific executive agencies which have to some degree been agreed by the House, albeit with great reluctance.

It now appears that the Home Office is simply allocating responsibilities to a new director-general for prison services without any consultation with the House, and presumably without any consultation with you, Madam Speaker. In that way, a serious erosion is taking place of the accountability by the House for Government administration, because, at the end of the day, the Government will still have responsibility for those executive agencies. The Minister is shifting responsibility to the executive agency by allowing questions to be answered in this way.

I ask you to examine the matter, because it is a creeping erosion of accountability and a serious removal of powers from hon. Members, especially those on the Back Benches.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has raised a long point of order and has not, I regret, done me the courtesy of letting me see the letter. I have not seen the letter. If he sends it to my office, I shall look at it.

Mr. Cryer

Certainly, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You have made yourself clear, following the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty). The Secretary of State, who has not remained for further points of order, must be aware that it is entirely unacceptable for him to make major announcements on the Forestry Commission by way of a pointed question to the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Monklands (Mr. Knox) yesterday and the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) today.

With your normal sensitivities, Madam Speaker, you will know that the Scottish prison officers, among others, are concerned about Government policy and that the Government should simply leave a paper in the Vote Office at 3.30 and tell the House nothing whatever. That is an abuse of the House and of the Chair, and you have our support on that.

Madam Speaker

Order. I fear that the hon. Gentleman is now moving into matters of policy, over which I have no authority. As he said, I have made myself clear on this issue not only today but on numerous occasions in the past two weeks.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will remember that two days after the previous Scottish questions, the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) raised a point of order on a Friday morning complaining that one of our Ministers had challenged him on all sorts of funny goings on in Monklands council. Can you confirm that, following today's Scottish questions, he will not be able to do that, because he had every opportunity—

Madam Speaker

Order. I always knew that points of order were getting out of hand, but this is certainly going over the top.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received a request from the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on the reported deaths and chaos on the humanitarian convoys out of Srebrenica? The mayhem which is apparent again today clearly demonstrates two urgent requirements: first, the United Nations must arrange a regular relief lifeline to not only Srebrenica but Gorazde and other enclaves—

Madam Speaker

Order. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to pursue that matter across the Floor of the House. He has rightly asked me a direct question. I must answer him: no, I have not been informed today that a Minister wishes to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on the matter.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have been receiving letters from my constituents in which they complain about a letter which they have received as a result of a direct mail shot from the Secretary of State for Scotland. He has sent thousands of letters to my constituents, in which he has asked them to write to him. I agree, of course, that they can write to Conservative central office, but I am concerned that they will be writing to the Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, where civil servants will be employed to respond to them. How can I raise the matter in the House, Madam Speaker? The letters are an abuse of my right to represent my constituency.

Madam Speaker

We shall soon begin a number of Adjournment debates. The hon. Member might try to raise the matter in one of those debates.