HC Deb 26 November 1997 vol 301 cc973-5 3.31 pm
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish to raise certain reports in The Scotsman of yesterday and again today suggesting that four Government members of the Treasury Committee, including the Chairman, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice), held a prior meeting outwith the normal cycle of Committee meetings, which one member described as a caucus meeting. The Committee is discussing Scottish funding and the Barnett formula, but no Scottish Labour or Scottish National party Member is on the Committee.

At one level, if there is some sort of anti-Scottish cabal at work on the Committee, it would be as well to flush it out. On another level, it is surely not customary for Select Committees to hold caucus meetings of this kind. I have served on Select Committees under two distinguished Chairmen who have never held part-meetings with selected members of their Committees, as far as I know.

If that is taking place, will it not devalue the whole concept of Select Committees: people reaching a consensus decision based on the evidence, as opposed to political decisions based on caucus meetings? If it continues, will not the practice devalue not just the Treasury Committee's report on the Barnett formula but all Select Committee reports?

Madam Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order and for sending me at least one of the newspaper reports in question. I was surprised to read in that report that Select Committee meetings are taking place on party lines. If that is true—it is only a newspaper report, and I do not always accept what I read in the newspapers—I would deprecate such meetings. This is not a matter for me, but I offer the caution that it must be sorted out by the Committee concerned. I want to hear no more of these reports.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that it is the expectation of this House, if not the rule, that Ministers answer questions or give some semblance of answering them? I am sure that if you study Hansard, you will find that the Prime Minister made no attempt to answer the question that I asked him.

Madam Speaker

The right hon. Lady is quite correct. All Ministers are accountable to the House for answering questions. Indeed, there are guidelines in "Erskine May" to that effect, as well as guidelines concerning the content of questions to Ministers.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would you be kind enough to remind right hon. and hon. Members of the simple courtesy that we are supposed to observe: that when we visit each other's constituencies, we let the sitting Member know? The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) came to my constituency some months ago—I have no complaint about that—but he failed to let me know that he was doing so. I sent him a letter pointing that out, but never received a response. On Wednesday last week, he returned to my constituency; again, I was pleased to see him, but, again, he failed to let me know that he was coming. I consider that to be a matter of great discourtesy and I hope that you, Madam Speaker, will encourage right hon. and hon. Members to return to observing that courtesy on every occasion.

Madam Speaker

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that matter. Numerous times from this Chair I have made the point that there are common courtesies to be observed and that Members of Parliament should let each other know when they visit each other's constituency. That has been a long-standing convention, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter in this way. I hope that the point has been noted by hon. Members on both sides and all Benches of the House and that such incidents will not happen again.

Now, can we have a new Member?

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Oh, what a shame to keep a lady waiting. Of course the hon. Gentleman can raise a point of order.

Mr. Brady

I do apologise, Madam Speaker.

Yesterday, I asked a simple and direct question of the Foreign Secretary about the reasons why youth unemployment in this country has fallen rapidly over the past four years, whereas it has risen rapidly in the other major European countries. He gave me an answer that was utterly misleading. In his view, the reason was simply that the number of people in that age group had fallen, but the figures I have obtained from the Library demonstrate that the percentage of that age group that is unemployed has fallen dramatically for the past four years.

Madam Speaker

That is a matter of argument, not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Brady

indicated dissent.

Madam Speaker

No, there is a distinction between something that the Chair can answer and a policy matter. I cannot respond on a policy matter. The hon. Gentleman might have a strong point—I do not know—but he has to find some other means of putting it to the Ministers involved, so that they can either rectify the matter or comment on what he has to say.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), Madam Speaker. Following on, but separate to, your answer to the hon. Gentleman, will you also make it clear that when Ministers come to constituencies on what is clearly business connected with their ministerial responsibilities, they cannot claim to be on a private visit? Will you also make it clear that they are required to tell the constituency Member of Parliament and that, as I understand it, it is traditional that that Member is invited to accompany them?

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is correct. It is my understanding and my experience that Members are courteous enough, at least to me, to let me know when they are coming to my constituency, and I hope that that applies to all Ministers when they visit constituencies in their ministerial capacity and not to see their relatives.

Forward to