HC Deb 25 January 2000 vol 343 cc149-52 3.30 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In an answer to my question earlier this afternoon, the Secretary of State for Scotland helpfully told the House that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment intended to make an important announcement this afternoon on student fees. Notwithstanding the fact that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment may, by written answer, announce to the House an intended change of policy, if the right hon. Gentleman does not come to the House, and to the Chamber, how can my hon. Friends and I, on behalf of our constituents, ask him questions about that important change of policy?

Madam Speaker

I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that, when there is a change of policy or any policy is initiated, it is for the Secretary of State concerned either to come to the House to announce it at the Dispatch Box or to do so by means of a written answer. That is entirely a matter for the Secretary of State.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On Monday 17 January I tabled, under Standing Order No. 17, 11 named-day questions for answer by the Department of Trade and Industry. On Tuesday 18 January I tabled a further eight questions that should have been answered yesterday. Given that all 19 questions have been responded to by the Secretary of State saying that he will reply as soon as possible, and given that all the questions relate to TransTec, Hollis Industries and related matters—and this is now a matter of great public concern—could I ask your advice as to how I may extract substantive information, some of which must already be in the records of the Department of Trade and Industry, to get some answers to my questions?

Madam Speaker

That is a very difficult point of order from the hon. Lady. There are Ministers present who will no doubt have noted her point of order, and I hope that they will see that the terms of the Standing Order are fulfilled.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your advice and protection concerning the Disqualifications Bill, which will be considered by the House in Committee and on Report later this afternoon. When the Bill received its Second Reading yesterday, many hon. Members on both sides of the House expressed concern and asked questions about that Bill. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) kindly agreed to consider those concerns and queries.

My point of order relates to the fact that the Disqualifications Bill is not emergency legislation; it is not urgent. Yet Second Reading took place on Monday and we are now being asked to consider the Bill, in Committee and on Report, on Tuesday. Additional amendments have appeared on the amendment paper only today, which we have therefore had very little time to consider. My hon. Friends and I believe that that is an abuse of the House. We seek your protection and guidance as to what we can do to have more time to deliberate on the Bill rather than rushing it from Second Reading on Monday straight to Committee and Report on Tuesday.

Madam Speaker

I do not determine the urgency of any legislation in the House, and have no responsibility for the daily agenda. I quite understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is for the business managers and the usual channels to deal with these matters. I would have thought that that might have been done over the preceding weeks.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. As a result of the concerns expressed yesterday on the Disqualifications Bill, I sought advice behind the Chair as to whether there would be any opportunity to enable Members to challenge yesterday's motion on the timing of the Committee of the whole House.

We did not oppose the idea that the Bill should come to a Committee of the whole House—and nor, indeed, did other Members who were unhappy about the timing—so there was no objection to that fact when the Government moved the motion. There was opposition over when the Committee of the whole House should meet, but the Clerks advised me—perfectly properly—that there is no way of challenging the Government's choice of date for Committees on public business, as there is for those on private business.

I seek your guidance, or your consideration, Madam Speaker, as to whether there might be ways in which colleagues on both sides of the House, at any stage, could challenge the Government's inconsiderate decision as to when a Committee of the whole House might sit. Today's Committee might sit late tonight, or through the night, and many people will not have had a chance to consider yesterday's proceedings.

Madam Speaker

I should like to have had notice of the hon. Gentleman's point of order. I can tell him, briefly, that I know of no way of challenging the Government when they decide that business will be done the following day.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Further to that point of order but not directly related to it, Madam Speaker. The Government are using their overall majority of 170 to override not only the interests of Back Benchers, but your traditional responsibility to Members of the House. I refer to the proposal, made last week, that a motion would be put to the House to circumvent the use of the Oath to admit Members to the House and, thereafter, to its facilities. I endorse the points of order made by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), and ask for your advice as to whether, when there is consistent abuse by Government of the protocols of the House, there are any means whereby Back Benchers' interests can be protected.

Madam Speaker

I see no abuse of the House. The British electorate gave one particular party a large majority; that is the democratic process. If I thought that there was abuse in any way, I would want to be the first to ensure that it ceased.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not want to cover the same ground again. However, earlier, you gave a ruling in respect of the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) in which you referred to decisions of Governments to make a statement, or to respond to a matter of importance to the House through a written answer. Bearing in mind the fact that the package on student fees in Scotland was decided by the coalition Government in Edinburgh yesterday—indeed, I took part in a "Newsnight" Scotland broadcast in which the details of the package were discussed quite freely—would it not have been appropriate and a courtesy to the House, either for a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box today to make a statement, or at least for there to have been a written answer in today's Hansard?

Madam Speaker

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some time ago.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I have dealt with all those points of order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I appreciate that reference has already been made to this matter, but about two weeks ago I asked a question about the fact that the Committee considering the Disqualifications Bill was to be held immediately after Second Reading. It has repeatedly been said, both yesterday and today, that there were no objections at the time. In future, will the House, which is proud of its record in protecting minorities, bear in mind, through its business managers, that there are more parties than the two main parties?

Madam Speaker

I always try to remember all the minority parties in the House, because they too must have a voice in all our proceedings.

Mr. Bercow

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is a completely separate point of order.

Madam Speaker

I thought it might be.

Mr. Bercow

I apologise, Madam Speaker, because earlier I expressed myself infelicitously, as a result of which you thought that I was trying, in a sense, to piggyback on my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton); I assure you that I was not.

I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker, on a point of order, of which, by virtue of the circumstances, I could not have given you advance notice. You will recall that I asked the Advocate-General for Scotland whether she had offered the Government advice on the impact of European Union law on the Cubie report and she declined to answer that question, saying that it was not custom and practice to do so.

However, given that a cursory reading of the newspapers over the past few days makes it clear beyond doubt that the Government and their officials have been briefing off the record to the effect that EU law would be breached if the Scottish Executive's proposals applied to Scottish students studying at English universities, is it not reasonable for an hon. Member to ask the hon. and learned Lady a question about the advice that was offered, in the confident expectation that she might actually provide an answer?

Madam Speaker

I am familiar with the exchange that took place at that time, but the hon. Gentleman will of course appreciate that I am not responsible for the answers that Ministers give in the House.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

On an entirely separate point of order, Madam Speaker. You will have noticed that, in the past week or two, there have been many exchanges in the House in connection with the provision of additional intensive care beds. That has been referred to variously by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health, who last week at Question Time adumbrated a list—which included, I believe, eight particular instances—from which he then broke off.

Is it not somewhat surprising, therefore, that when I asked the Secretary of State for Health, by tabling a question which was answered by written answer late last night, to list the 100—or whatever number—intensive care beds that were created during the calendar year 1999, he told me that the statistics were not collected in that form? That puzzles me. I seek your guidance as to whether, when Back Benchers ask for such information, they are told that it does not exist while Ministers of the Crown can simultaneously purport to give that information, perhaps drawing on sources that are not made available to Back Benchers who request them.

Madam Speaker

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he pursues his questions by means of the Order Paper, perhaps by tabling further parliamentary questions—or he might write himself an early-day motion, making good publicity of the point that he has just made.