HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc553-5 3.31 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On Monday, I took off the letter board a parliamentary reply, dated 6 March, from the Secretary of State for Health. It was a fairly straightforward reply, referring me to an answer that he had given on 20 January. What makes this reply remarkable is that the question was put down on Thursday 15 January. This is the worst but by no means the only example of questions taking an inordinate length of time to be answered, especially when they are totally straightforward. It suggests either that Ministers' offices are in such disarray that we should be anxious about the quality of government, or that they are treating Members of Parliament with considerable contempt. Could we have some guidance to Ministers on treating us properly?

Madam Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of his point of order. I have indicated to the House before that I do not intend to comment on the quality of ministerial replies. I regard it as important, however, that Members of Parliament should receive replies to written questions within a reasonable time frame. In this case, it is difficult to discern from what the hon. Gentleman says any reasons for the delay. I expect that he has made his own inquiries—I would hope that he had and would know the reasons. However, I hope that the Minister concerned will look into the matter—there are those on the Government Front Bench who will make a note of this, no doubt—and let both me and the hon. Gentleman know precisely what has occurred. However, I expect hon. Members to make their own inquires and not to expect me to be their administrative officer.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In her supplementary question, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait)—who has since left her place, unfortunately—read out a list of councils, accusing them of corruption and sleaze, and included among them the city and county of Kingston upon Hull, which I am happy to represent. At no time have the district auditor or the police found any fault in the administration or services of the city and county of Kingston upon Hull. That was a despicable thing for the hon. Lady to say about people of integrity.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I caught your comment about your becoming a guardian and trying to get answers from Ministers.

Madam Speaker

No, I did not say that at all. The hon. Gentleman had better make his point of order to me precise and clear, because I am precise as to my position.

Mr. Bruce

Indeed. As you will know, I have been pursuing with the Leader of the House the matter of getting answers from Ministers. She wrote to me some weeks ago and then had to admit that her office had lost the letter that I had sent, in which I gave chapter and verse on what was going on, so how can we get answers from the Leader of the House without your helping us?

Madam Speaker

Perhaps there should be a new filing system. It was rather better when there were no computers. We all knew where the papers were.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand that, last night, at St. Stephen's entrance, it took members of the public 20 to 40 minutes to clear the security procedures and get into the House. Security is important, but so is access. I believe that the delay arose because, after 7 o'clock, the security screening facilities are reduced from three screens to one. Can you examine that matter, because it is important that our constituents have a right to approach hon. Members and to attend meetings and other activities that take place here?

Madam Speaker

I shall certainly look at the matter, as it is quite serious. I see the Serjeant at Arms each morning about such matters, and he would have reported it to me had it been as serious as the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, I shall certainly take up the matter and see what the situation is.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), Madam Speaker. I ask in general terms what your reaction is to those who make unsubstantiated assertions, to the detriment of local authorities and often without any grounds whatever. Will you reflect on whether there should be guidelines on what is said about local authorities in the House, off the cuff and often without any substantiation whatever?

Madam Speaker

There are, of course, guidelines in "Erskine May" on the language to be used in the House. Too few hon. Members pay attention to our procedures, but "Erskine May" lays them down clearly. We have tremendous privileges in the House in terms of freedom of speech. I have always encouraged and tried to persuade hon. Members to temper that privilege with responsibility. The privileges that we have are enormous, but hon. Members must take on board the responsibilities that come with that privilege. I hope that, after this exchange, hon. Members will take to heart what has been said on the matter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek clarification. Am I right that all hon. Members are responsible for what they say in the House? Hon. Members should be concerned and careful about what they say—which may be detrimental to other people or bodies outside the House and do them great damage—when there is no substantive evidence to back up what they may have said.

Madam Speaker

That is precisely what I said. What we say in the House must be tempered with responsibility. Too many hon. Members do not recognise that responsibility.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You may recall that during Northern Ireland questions there was a passing reference to the White Paper on employment equality, which was one of the three proposals in the Labour party's manifesto with regard to Northern Ireland, and was consequently a significant proposal. The White Paper was, I believe, launched at a press conference in Belfast this morning. I understand from what happened here today that the Government have made no effort to make a statement to the House, so that hon. Members can know the details of this important policy and ask questions.

I draw this matter to your attention because the Government have done that too often, and the people of Northern Ireland have been left with the feeling that the Government are more interested in the two Members who do not attend the House than in the other hon. Members who were necessarily here today, but who were unable to find out about the press conference in Belfast.

Mr. McNamara

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I draw your attention to the fact that the White Paper has been available in the Vote Office since early this afternoon? I got my copies long before Question Time.

Madam Speaker

That answers the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).