HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc423-5 5.35 pm
Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. If an hon. Member or a Minister finds himself this evening or tomorrow in receipt of an advance copy of a Select Committee report which has not been published or given to the House, what would be your advice? Should the Minister or hon. Member sit on the document, or should he immediately report having received it?

Madam Speaker

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is trying to continue questions on the statement.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman trying also to continue the questioning of the Foreign Secretary?

Mr. Wilshire

I am seeking clarification, Madam Speaker. if I understood the Foreign Secretary correctly—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sorry, but we have had quite some time on this matter. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understood the Foreign Secretary correctly. That is not a matter for me. If he has a point of order, I will listen to it. However, I do not want an interpretation of what he thought the Foreign Secretary said.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)


Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber when the Foreign Secretary started his statement.

Mr. Wilshire

Madam Speaker, I believe that this is a genuine point of order. I heard it said that reporting a leaked document to the House amounted to a breach of privilege. Could you confirm whether that is a correct interpretation of the rules of this House?

Madam Speaker

I will have to have notice of that question, as I want to be clear and careful in my answer. If the hon. Gentleman will not mind, I would like notice of the question.

Mr. Wilshire

Thank you.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

It can hardly be further to it, because I cannot answer it.

Mr. King

I understand that you do not want to prolong this matter, and I entirely understand your answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward). However, may I suggest that you address his point in the same way as you have decided to address the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire)? This is a serious matter, and the House is entitled to ask for the Speaker's guidance on the correct procedure. Will you reflect and report to the House on what the response should be?

Madam Speaker

I do not undertake to report to the House, but I will reflect on the matter. I quite understand that, from time to time, the House needs the Speaker's guidance, and I am willing to give it. Over the past few days, I have considered this matter carefully, and I am aware of our procedures according to "Erskine May". I will take the advice of the right hon. Gentleman and look into the matter.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), as you rightly observed, was assuredly not present in the Chamber for the start of the statement on Kosovo, but he categorically insists—simply for the record—that he was present in the Chamber for the start of the Foreign Secretary's second statement. I can vouchsafe that he is telling the truth, because he has been sitting next to me throughout.

Madam Speaker

I accept the hon. Gentleman's word. I always watch hon. Members on both sides of the House who appear late for a statement, and then try to ask a question or raise a point of order. I accept that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) was not here for the first statement, but was here for the second, and I will take his point of order.

Mr. Brady

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Could you give some guidance to the House and to Ministers on the correct procedure for answering written questions? Is it sufficient merely to answer with what is deemed to be the most narrow definition possible within the question, or should the answer seek to give the information that is required by the questioner?

Madam Speaker

I fear that I cannot advise Ministers or their offices as to how they might answer questions.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I refer you to page 221 of "Erskine May", which refers to the publication in Hansard of written answers given by Ministers? I understand that there has been guidance from the Editor of Hansard that he will not publish answers of more than five pages. Will you consult the Editor, or look into the matter?

I was given an answer two days ago by the Minister for Local Government and Housing, which went on to five pages. However, one page contained very little information. Therefore, the Minister stated that the requested information had been placed in the Library of the House. The question was about educational expenditure across all local authorities.

We often see full lists of local authorities published in Hansard, because that is a way of giving comparisons. I could have split the question to ask about shire counties and unitary authorities separately, but the Table Office would probably have told me that I should put down one question rather than two. It is important that the answers should be available in Hansard and we should not have to go to the Library for the information. I hope that you will ask the Editor of Hansard to reconsider the ruling, and will give it some consideration yourself.

Madam Speaker

I had some indication of the hon. Gentleman's point of order. The House knows that the substance of replies to questions is a matter for Ministers, not for the Chair. However, Speakers have ruled that there should be a limit of four A4 pages to replies, to avoid Hansard being filled with a few long answers each day. That is sensible and the Minister's action in this case is reasonable. That is the ruling that Speakers have given in the past. Because I knew of the hon. Gentleman's interest in the matter, I had an opportunity to look up the ruling.