HC Deb 19 January 1995 vol 252 cc862-6

4.9 pm

Madam Speaker

On Monday, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) raised two points with me about written answers. He first asked that I should make it clear that a written answer should not be made available to the press before it has been given to the Member who asked the question. I can readily confirm that that should be the case.

The present practice, which is well established, is that written questions may not be answered before 3.30 pm on the day for which notice has been given. Soon after that time, copies of the answer are sent by the Department concerned to the Official Report, the Library, the Press Gallery and the Table Office, as well as, of course, to the Member who tabled the question. It may sometimes be the case that the Member concerned is not in the House and that, therefore, he may become aware of the answer from press inquiries made before he has seen the text, but, in general, the Department should continue to make every effort to ensure that the Member gets the text of the answer no later than the press.

The hon. Member also asked that a Member whose constituency is directly affected by an answer should be informed of the answer as the same time as the Member who has asked the question and the press. There are no hard and fast rules about that, but I hold the firm view that, when a constituency or constituencies are specifically and directly affected by an answer, Ministers should seek to ensure that copies of the answer are given to the Members concerned at the same time as they are given to the Member who has asked the question and to the press. I hope that all Ministers will make every effort to observe that common courtesy in future.

It would also be a useful courtesy if any Member tabling a question directly affecting another's constituency—something which should not be done lightly in any case—took care to inform that Member of the action that he or she has taken.

A further related point was raised with me on Tuesday by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), namely whether, when a Member raises an issue in the House that affects another Member's constituency, he should inform the other Member that he intends to raise it. There is, in fact, a slightly broader issue to consider, namely whether Members should give advance notification when they refer to other Members in the Chamber.

There is, as I stated on 23 November 1994, at c. 598, a clear convention based on courtesy that notice should be given where such reference is intended to be made. I expect Members to observe that convention during debates and at Question Time when their reference is premeditated. There will, however, be occasions, especially at Question Time, when such a reference arises spontaneously and on the spur of the moment. In those cases, advance notification is unlikely to be practical, but Members should always consider whether reference to a colleague without notice is fair.

The House will have noticed that I am frequently—too frequently—called upon to deal with complaints on matters of that kind. That would not be necessary if, as I remarked on Monday, Members, including Ministers and their Departments, exercised a little more common sense and forethought. I look to all concerned to do just that in future.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Thank you very much, Madam Speaker, for that ruling, which I am sure all colleagues will regard as supporting the rights of all Members in holding the Executive and civil servants to account. May I ask a supplementary question on a matter which is not covered by your ruling but which touches the same general issue? Perhaps you can deal with it now because it is on the same issue and it is a matter that you have dealt with before. It relates to ministerial announcements and it is topical today because there was an example only this morning. It seems right to raise it now rather than to let it go by.

This morning in an interview on BBC radio the Secretary of State for the Environment refused to answer questions about his air pollution initiatives because, he said, he had first to give information to Parliament. In the event, there has been no statement, no answer in Parliament, and no written answer. In fact there was a press conference and a statement was made by the Department. I have heard you say before, Madam Speaker, that matters for Parliament should come here first, so it would be helpful if you added to the package that you have announced today a confirmation that when Ministers make statements about impending legislation, as happened at the press conference, the announcement should be made either to this place or by way of an answer in this place, before the press and the rest of the world are told.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is not quite correct. The Secretary of State acted properly, and revealed in a written answer yesterday that copies of the Government policy document on air quality would be placed in the Vote Office and the Library at 9 o'clock this morning. That has been done. However, it is for Ministers to decide whether to make an oral statement to the House and whether to give press conferences or interviews to the media. In this instance the Secretary of State properly informed the House of his plans before holding a press conference.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

Further to that point, Madam Speaker. I acknowledge what you have said, in that technically the Secretary of State had ensured that the House was informed, but you will be aware that, as often happens, the written answer that the Minister gave yesterday was not published in Hansard today. Although the Secretary of State may have been technically correct, he was not acting in the spirit of informing Members of what was going to happen. There is a problem when answers cannot be published in Hansard the following day, because Members are not then aware that a statement has been made, so they do not expect the information.

Madam Speaker

I think that the Secretary of State certainly acted in that spirit, as the hon. Lady said-—and the House is aware that a written answer cannot always be published on the day in question. This was one of those cases. But I believe that the Secretary of State acted properly in the matter.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I ask you, in your capacity as the person with overall responsibility for the running of the House, to investigate an extraordinary waste of taxpayers' money. As I expect you do not know, the sign on the door of the gents' toilet in the Members' Corridor was recently repainted. This morning a member of staff spent three hours removing the recently repainted sign only to put it back with letters ¼ in. smaller, for the sake of some aesthetic judgment made by somebody. That is an extraordinary waste of taxpayers' money; will you look into it, Madam Speaker?

Madam Speaker

Yes, of course.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will be aware that I have written to you about my view that the Prime Minister misled the House on Tuesday regarding the contents of the Government's Disability Discrimination Bill. I am grateful for the time that you will spend considering my letter. Can you yet say when you may be able to respond?

Madam Speaker

No; as a matter of fact I have not seen the letter, and I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman had written to me. Correspondence between me and individual Members should not be raised in points of order across the Floor of the House. When a Member writes to me I should be given the opportunity to read the letter and to respond, as I always do, as soon as possible.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Further to the points of order arising from your statement, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that it is part of the conventions and courtesies of the House that when shadow spokesmen visit the constituencies of Conservative Members of Parliament they notify the Member concerned of their visit?

Madam Speaker

Yes, indeed; I have made that very plain. The custom relates not only to shadow Ministers but to all Members of the House of whatever party—Back Benchers and Front Benchers, including Ministers. I made that clear earlier this week, and I am constantly doing so. As I said at the end of my statement, I hope that all concerned will apply a little more common sense and behave reasonably and courteously towards each other.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance on what appears to he a change in your policy on parliamentary language. A word that, when it was used by Members, was described as unparliamentary by the previous Speaker, was used yesterday in the House and appeared in Hansard. I believe that you know what the word is; my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) used it to describe seagulls' droppings. Are more colourful parliamentary proceedings, with the use of that word in all its forms, now in order, or can it be used only as a noun and not as an adjective or an expletive?

Madam Speaker

As I have explained before, the English language has a very rich vocabulary. I would prefer some other word to be chosen, I am sure that most hon. Members can find other ways of explaining precisely what they mean. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) had used the word before I realised it, but he is such a courteous Member that I know it was not offensively intended.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As you know, I raise points of order in the House only rarely. I seek your guidance on an issue that concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House. I refer to the difficulty that hon. Members encounter when trying to find ways of replying to inaccurate statements.

This week my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) was accused, as a former Government Minister, of voting to restart live animal exports, which had been stopped in 1973. I have consulted Hansard, and it appears that on 12 July 1973 the motion that stopped live animal exports was a Labour Opposition motion, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East. Live animal exports were restarted on 16 January 1975, following the O'Brien report, with the support of the then Conservative Opposition spokesman on agriculture.

The House was thus misled by the allegation made by the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave). In such circumstances, how can hon. Members put the record straight?

Madam Speaker

There is always the Order Paper, either in the form of questions or of early-day motions. If the hon. Gentleman consults the Clerks, he may find other methods too—although he has already corrected the record.