HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc36-8 4.27 pm
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance. As you will recall, the House received a serious admission from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 16 March by written answer that his Parliamentary Private Secretary had received, before its publication, a draft copy of the report by the Select Committee on Social Security on taxing child benefit. However, at the time, the Chancellor had not answered other questions about the involvement of his political adviser, or possibly his officials. Therefore, I asked that question again. However, on 19 March, the Chancellor's answer to that specific question was simply to refer me back to his answer of 16 March; in other words, he refused to answer the question.

My point of order is to refer the House to the clear guidelines that are set down in paragraph 1 of the ministerial code. The paragraph is taken from a resolution of the House, which says: It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament". It goes on to say that Ministers may refuse to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest".— [Official Report, 19 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 1047.] As the code is at one with the resolution that was passed by the House, is not the Chancellor abusing the House and the public whom Parliament serves by refusing to answer that question? Do you agree that the Chancellor should now come before the House, apologise for his failure to uphold that code—which the Prime Minister stressed in his opening remarks in the code—and answer, once and for all, the question whether his advisers or officials were involved in that leaked draft report?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you guide us on what redress is available to the House of Commons if we find, as we increasingly do—the example of my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) seems to exemplify it yet again—that Ministers refuse point blank to answer a question that has been accepted by the Table Office, and refuse on a second or subsequent occasion to give any further information? Is the House of Commons then simply left completely lost? Is there nothing that we can do? Are the Government now able, as they never were in the past, to stonewall and to refuse the House any information after a question has passed through the Table Office?

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I am a member of the said Select Committee: the Select Committee on Social Security. The facts are clear. The Chancellor has admitted that his Parliamentary Private Secretary received a draft report. I have tabled a question to ask from whom he received the draft report. I await the answer to that question anxiously.

Surely the answer is simple. It is inconceivable that one of your Clerks, Madam Speaker, gave the PPS that Select Committee report. It is unlikely that a Conservative Member provided the report. However, someone must own up to providing it. If the Executive received a draft report from the Select Committee and no one owns up to providing it, it is difficult to see how the system will be able to continue operating. The system will simply collapse. We therefore do need your help and guidance on the matter.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

On a different point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Let me deal first with the first point of order.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) for giving me a little notice of what guidance he was seeking. As the House knows, Ministers take responsibility for the answers that they give, and I cannot comment on the specific answer to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

In general, the House is entitled to expect—as I do—that all Ministers will comply with the resolution on ministerial accountability. Enforcement of that resolution, however, is a matter for the House and not for the occupant of the Chair. I am sure that hon. Members, using our procedures, will find further ways of pursuing questions. Moreover, Ministers will have heard the points of order that have been raised and will take note of my response to them.

I call Mr. Bercow.

Mr. Bercow

Thank you, Madam Speaker. May I seek your guidance on the implications for the House following a report—on page 2 of The Sunday Times yesterday, by Jonathan Carr-Brown—of a transport conference being organised by Professor David Begg, which is due to take place tomorrow and to be addressed by, among others, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions? The report states—the Department has not contradicted it—that the Secretary of State will make what is described as a "keynote speech" on bus policy, and that he is billed as launching the Government's White Paper on buses.

As the conference is advertised on that basis, and as charges—of between £175 and £275—are levied for attendance, is it not a matter of the utmost seriousness? Given that you have made very clear your views on the importance of informing the House first—and as Ministers might be hard of hearing—would you care to reiterate your views on this important matter?

Madam Speaker

I pay little attention to such newspaper reports, and am not in the least bit interested in keynote speeches made outside the House by Ministers. It is not a matter for me. Ministers know my views on the matter, and certainly the Deputy Prime Minister has an excellent record in coming to the House first before making announcements outside it. He also knows full well my views on the matter. If there is any new policy or a policy change, he is a Minister who usually comes to the House first before announcing the policy outside it.