HC Deb 08 March 1994 vol 239 cc151-3 3.30 pm
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker, arising out of Question Time. You will have heard that on question 12, in accordance with your strictures, I asked one simple question concerning the justification for the expenditure of more than £1 million on the refurbishment of four houses for four members of the top brass of the armed forces at a time when there were infantry cutbacks. The response that I received from the Minister was, "I refuse to answer," in spite of the fact that his own officials are already answering questions on the same subject from Sunday newspapers, including The Mail on Sunday. Is it in order for Ministers to refuse to answer limited and legitimate questions which do not affect national security while their own officials are doing so?

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The hon. Gentleman did not ask one specific question; he asked two specific questions. I answered the first half. He did not give me notice that he was going to ask the second half, and it was not relevant to the first. May I say, Madam Speaker— [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


Mr. Hanley

There has been some very unfair press speculation, but the matter is being considered by legal experts and no doubt we will report to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Madam Speaker

We will leave the matter there.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is the first time that I have raised a point of order in a career of 20 years in the House because—

Madam Speaker

I have never raised one in 21 years.

Mr. Garrett

—because I regard most of them as spurious, but I think that for the one that I am about to raise you, Madam Speaker, are the only possible point of reference.

This morning, in a hearing of the Treasury Select Committee, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster refused to allow the Treasury Select Committee to undertake a direct survey of civil servants. He quoted in evidence, as his authority, a civil service management code which has no force of law, which has never been approved by the House and which was simply written by his civil servants. I think that that is an affront to the House, and that the distinguished Treasury Select Committee should be allowed to inquire into the opinion and attitudes of civil servants. I think that you, Madam Speaker, should rule against that abuse of power by the Chancellor of the Duchy.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may not know, but it is in fact an internal matter for the Committee, and it is for that Committee, if it wishes to do so, to make a report to the House. The Chair does not intervene in Committee proceedings. It is for the Committee, if it is not satisfied with those proceedings, to report the matter to the House and we then take it from there. Those are the procedures.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is not the first point of order that I have ever raised, but it is important.

It may not be immediately apparent to you, Madam Speaker, that on a regular basis throughout Prime Minister's Question Time, to your right and behind you, alongside the civil servants' Box, a number of people, usually Government Whips, are stationed standing and operating as professional hecklers. I do not complain about hecklers in the House as it raises the atmosphere, but, apart from the rudeness of blocking the civil servants' view, is it not totally out of order to heckle from a standing position? Is it not time that the Government got a grip on their Whips?

Madam Speaker

There are occasions on which I do have eyes in the back of my head. I am perfectly aware of what is happening behind me. Professional people may be standing there, but you also have a professional Speaker in the Chair. I have dealt with them from time to time and I shall continue to do so whenever necessary.

Dr. Reid

Further to my earlier point of order, Madam Speaker. In the light of what the Minister said—[Interruption.] It is a genuine point of order. The first answer which the Minister gave was a blocking order, which means that, when we attempt to table questions at the Table Office, they will not be accepted because the Minister had told the House that he would not answer questions. He said, "I have nothing to add. I will not answer that." However, he has subsequently come to the Dispatch Box and given an explanation in exchanges on a point of order.

Will you, Madam Speaker, rule on whether questions on the expenditure of £1 million to refurbish four houses, legitimately placed at the Table Office, will be blocked or unblocked in the light of what the Minister has said?

Mr. Hanley

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I remind you, with great respect, that the main question was, What is the current average emergency tour plot interval for an infantry battalion? The hon. Gentleman abused our procedures by referring to RAF accommodation, and it was on those grounds that I refused to answer.

Madam Speaker

Order. We must end the matter there. All those matters are and will be taken into account by the Table Office when questions are tabled. I cannot allow an extension of Question Time at this stage.