HC Deb 27 November 1995 vol 267 cc940-2 4.10 pm
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order of which I gave prior notice to you, the Home Secretary, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee and the shadow Home Secretary.

On 21 November, the Home Secretary, referring to the Procedure Committee's recommendations relating to Standing Committees, said: In its second report in the 1989–90 Session, the Committee said clearly that the procedure was appropriate for Bills that were not controversial in party political terms."—[Official Report, 21 November 1995; Vol. 267, c. 555.] On checking the Procedure Committee's recommend-dations, I found that it said: we recommend that it"— the Government— should, starting with the 1990–91 Session, make a serious effort to ensure that a reasonable proportion of the legislative programme (and in particular those Bills which are not controversial in party political terms) is referred to Special Standing Committees.

Madam Speaker

Order. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of the point that he wished to raise today. The matter has been raised endlessly in numerous debates on the Queen's Speech. I am afraid that I cannot help him in continuing his discussions with the Home Secretary about the interpretation of the reports of the Procedure Committee on the subject of Special Standing Committees, as that does not constitute a point of order.

However, I want to be helpful. I direct the hon. Gentleman's attention to Standing Order No. 61, in which he will see that it is open to any Member of this House to move after Second Reading of a public Bill that that Bill be committed to a Special Standing Committee. The House can then decide forthwith whether or not to agree to such a motion. Therefore, the bottom line is that this House itself determines whether a Bill will go to a Special Standing Committee or not.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On 5 November, I tabled three parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State for Transport for answer under Standing Order No. 18(4), relating to priority written questions. In answer to the questions, the Roads Minister said that he would write to me. On 8 November, the Minister indicated in a three-line letter that the matter would be referred to the Highways Agency chief executive, Lawrie Haynes. Two days later, I received a letter from Mr. Haynes which answered one of my questions. However, two of my questions have still not been addressed.

I regard that as a total contempt of this House, and certainly a contempt of our Standing Orders. Further to the query about the roads programme, Madam Speaker, your position may have been compromised by Ministers, but I will not raise that matter in public until I have had an opportunity to speak to you. However, I would like the question of the contempt of this House by Ministers to be addressed.

Madam Speaker

Yes, indeed. If I understand correctly what the hon. Gentleman says, I have a great deal of sympathy with the point he makes. He is not receiving the service to which he is entitled from Ministers. I remind him and Ministers that Ministers remain fully accountable for the work of their Departments, including that of executive agencies.

It is for the relevant Minister to decide whether to refer a question to the chief executive of an agency for a detailed answer, but it is also up to the Minister to see that any hon. Member receives a reply within reasonable time to questions that are put to him. I hope that those on the Government Front Bench are making a note of the comments that I have made, and will see that the hon. Gentleman and any other hon. Members who are not receiving the service to which they are entitled do so.

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

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Could I raise with you, for perhaps the fifth time, the rights of Members in tabling questions to the Deputy Prime Minister?

When I last raised the issue, you asked me to approach the Chairman of the Procedure Committee. He has replied to me. Perhaps I can draw your attention to his letter. It casts the matter back into your court to some extent. He says: As I understand it, several oral questions that you have tabled to the Deputy Prime Minister have been transferred, despite the fact that in oral supplementaries he has responded on very diverse issues beyond the strict agreement of his declared responsibilities. This is from the Chairman of the Procedure Committee. He continues: As you know, Ministers can transfer questions should they wish and only the Speaker can control the subject matter of oral supplementaries in ministerial answers. While it is evident that a problem does arise for an apparent mismatch between the scope of Mr. Heseltine's formal responsibilities and the matters which are raised with him in oral supplementaries, I"— that is to say, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee— cannot see any scope for useful intervention at this stage by the Procedure Committee. It seems to me that the responsibility has been put back in your court to rule on the matter.

May I make a 'suggestion? It is that, when the Deputy Prime Minister next answers questions at the Dispatch Box, the moment he moves out of his departmental responsibility, you intervene and ask him to take his place. Then we shall see—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am prepared to deal with the matter. It does not get us any further when letters of which I have not had sight are quoted at me across the Floor of the House. I should like to have had sight of the letter.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I am sorry.

Madam Speaker

I cast no aspersions. I simply say that it uses up the time of the House to quote letters in full which I have not seen and on which I cannot give a ruling at this stage. If the hon. Gentleman will refer the whole matter to me, I will certainly take a look at it, bearing in mind the suggestions that he has put to me today.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The next few days are engaged with the Budget on Tuesday and the debates which follow. As I understand it, our first opportunity to question the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be on Thursday week. Many of us are deeply concerned about the crisis in what one hopes will be the continuation of the peace process, and the possibility that it will be broken and terrorism will resume. In those circumstances, will there be an opportunity for hon. Members to question a Minister on Northern Ireland developments before Thursday week?

Madam Speaker

The Budget makes little difference to our procedures here. The hon. Gentleman is right when he says that Northern Ireland questions come on 7 December. Of course, there are opportunities to submit private notice questions to me. I understand the seriousness of the situation, and the interest which the hon. Member and many others in the House have during this period.