§ Mr. Speaker
I undertook last Thursday to respond to the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about "spoiled ballot papers", as he put it, in deferred Divisions. The paper for deferred Divisions is quite simple to fill in. Members are highly experienced in matters of voting and there is no reason why any voting papers should be inadequately filled in or spoiled.
I have given instructions that any voting paper that is not clearly marked with a voting intention should be disregarded. The Chair has, in the past, deprecated the practice of voting in both Division Lobbies as a method of demonstrating a third position. On the other hand, deliberately voting in both Lobbies has long been an accepted way of cancelling out the effect of voting by mistake in the wrong Lobby. I am sure that the almost 80 right hon. and hon. Members who voted both "Aye" and "No" in the first deferred Division last Wednesday were not seeking to correct a mistake.
The circumstances last week may have been novel and exceptional, but the Speaker has a duty, where possible, to ensure that the House's reputation is not damaged. The House has empowered me by its order of 7 November to make the arrangements for recording deferred Divisions. I have therefore instructed the Clerks that, in future, the name of any Member who marks both boxes in a particular question in a deferred Division should not be recorded as voting on that particular question.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful for your advising the House of your thoughts on the matter. However, may I press you a little further, as it strikes me that in a vote, especially of the kind that we are having today—although that is properly in the Division Lobby, and is not a deferred Division—the result may be very close indeed? If, in a free vote in a deterred Division, any ballot papers were disregarded or set aside, presumably by the Clerks, and there was a discrepancy between those who had voted and the number of votes counted, would there be any appeal that Members could make beyond the Clerks—say, to you, Mr. Speaker? A close result could be affected one way or the other by the disregarding of papers held by the Clerks, with all their expertise and integrity, to have been spoiled. That issue could cause some difficulty.
§ Mr. Speaker
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, hon. Members can always appeal to the Speaker, which is why we have so many points of order at this time of day.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the armed action involving KFOR 208 forces and British troops in Kosovo, have you received any indication from the Secretary of State for Defence that he might like to make a statement about military action and the involvement in shooting by KFOR and British troops?
§ Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to ask for your guidance on how to use the procedures of the House to obtain information from Ministers. I have recently tabled a number of questions asking for the unit of student funding in higher education for each of the next three years. I have received a reply to each of my questions, but I have yet to receive an answer. We may sing at this time of year about three ships that come sailing by, but all that I want to see sailing by are three figures. How can I get around the Government's stonewalling?
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Lady was good enough to give me notice of that point of order. I can only tell her that I expect Ministers to provide full and accurate information in response to specific questions. If she is dissatisfied with an answer that she has received, she must use other means of pursuing her concerns.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)
Further to your ruling on deferred votes, Mr. Speaker. When you referred to the fact that hon. Members sometimes vote twice in the Lobby, you said that they usually did so to cancel out a mistaken vote. In fact, hon. Members often vote in that way because they want to register plainly that they are abstaining. Would you be good enough to keep that in mind if you review your ruling on deferred voting? Your previous remarks suggested that it would not be possible to indicate in deferred Divisions that one is making a deliberate abstention.
§ Mr. Speaker
I refer to Speaker Thomas, who said in a similar ruling that he deprecated the practice of voting twice if it was used to record abstention. I share his view on that matter.
Does the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) have a point of order?
§ Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)
It was the same point of order, Mr. Speaker, on whether it is possible to register positively an abstention. The practice enables constituents to see that hon. Members have made a positive abstention and have not merely failed to turn up to vote.