HC Deb 12 December 2000 vol 359 cc494-6

4.25 pm

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will be aware, this House is under an obligation, as Britain is a signatory to the European convention on human rights, to ensure that all Bills put before the House comply with our treaty obligations. Indeed, that is written on Bills presented to the House. I asked the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), whether that was also the case in connection with the declaration of fundamental rights, which has now been incorporated into the treaty of Nice. In his reply, the Minister of State insinuated—somewhat worryingly and depressingly—that as a former chairman of our Back-Bench European affairs committee, I was better able to answer that question than he was. Although that may be true, it is surely a contempt of this House and of your office, Mr. Speaker, for Ministers not to tell the House the legal implications of the treaty obligations into which they have entered.

Mr. Speaker

Ministers are responsible for their own replies. However, I will read Hansard and contact the hon. Gentleman after I have done so. I hope that that is helpful to him.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the statement on the communications White Paper—and it has happened on previous occasions—the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said that people can read the answer to their questions in the White Paper to which he had referred. However, it is impossible for us to obtain copies of a White Paper—at least in theory—until the Minister sits down after his statement. Could you instruct Ministers that that is the case, Mr. Speaker, and either remind them that we have to ask questions about a White Paper because we cannot see it until the statement on it is made, or ensure that there is a change to the rules, so that the relevant White Paper is made available shortly before the statement is made? In fact, today, one person who asked a question already had the White Paper, suggesting that he had left the Chamber and re-entered it before he asked his question.

Mr. Speaker

Once again, I am not responsible for the answers of Ministers. However, Ministers should not make reference to documents that are not available at the time of the statement. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you might look at the rules about giving out White Papers. They are available as soon as the Minister stands up, but we are not allowed physically to leave the Chamber if we want to be called to ask a question. Would it not be more sensible for the attendants to hand out copies of the White Paper while the statement on it is being made? That would improve our ability to represent our constituents better.

Mr. Speaker

As I have just stated, perhaps Ministers should not make reference to chapters—

Mr. Bruce

They did.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let me answer in the best way that I can. Ministers should not make reference to chapters in White Papers until those documents are available to everyone in the House. I am the custodian of the rules, but if the hon. Gentleman is concerned about them, he, as a Back Bencher, is capable of changing them.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask that it should be your practice that in the event of a point of order in this House leading to a private exchange of letters between you and an hon. Member, that letter may be made public for the benefit of all Members of this House?

Mr. Speaker

I regret that the hon. Gentleman heard the point of order of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) while sitting on the Front Bench and then took the opportunity to raise a point of order from the Back Benches. When I write a letter to a Member of this House, it is up to that Member whether he wishes to make that document public. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have listened to what I said. Ministers are responsible for their replies; nevertheless, I will look at Hansard and communicate with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West. That is the way that I will do it.