HC Deb 18 January 2001 vol 361 cc526-8 1.25 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As we all know, there have been too many occasions in the past three and a half years when Opposition Members, and many Labour Back Benchers, have had to complain about the Government's dereliction of their fundamental duty of accountability and basic courtesy to the House of Commons.

There was a bad case of that yesterday when the Government held a press conference on British participation in the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the joint strike fighter aircraft, a project of which we are very much in favour in principle. The Government did not make a statement to the House, despite there being no other statement yesterday, so they could easily have done so.

I fear that the Government's excuse will be that they answered a planted written question. and, in so doing, had the hon. Member to whom that answer was addressed been available at 3.30 pm he would have been in the same position as journalists in terms of knowing what was going on. I hope that you will agree that that is a thoroughly unsatisfactory way to behave, and that such minimalist, legalistic and cynical treatment of Parliament should not be encouraged in future.

There is a real practical problem here because there are some major issues in relation to this important project, such as the impact on the defence budget of more than £1 billion being allocated to it; such as the protection available to us if the new American Administration cancel the project; such as the availability of the new technology to British subcontractors and partners; and strategic export controls.

We cannot raise any of those matters and, what is more, many hon. Members on both sides of the House representing seats with aerospace facilities in them are naturally concerned about the implications of this for the future of their constituents and how the matter has been handled by the Government. None of that has been raised and the Government have buried it entirely and simply substituted a press conference.

Is there anything, that you, Mr. Speaker, can do to try to encourage the Government, at this 11th hour in this Parliament, to set slightly higher standards in discharging their responsibilities to Parliament in the future?

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that, on the previous occasion when the Government announced major procurement issues, I hose matters were to be found on the BBC website before they were discussed in the House? If that could happen, and if the Secretary of State for Defence could attend a press conference yesterday, why was not the right hon. Gentleman at the House last week for the statement on depleted uranium, or for the start of the Armed Forces Bill? Surely he should come to the House more regularly.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) gave me notice of his point of order. It is for Ministers to decide whether to make an oral statement or to give a written answer. There is a written answer in today's Official Report. I shall look into the timing of its release and the more general issue that he raised.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to a question that I asked the Home Secretary on 8 January, a leading Liverpool councillor, Richard Kemp, a senior member of the administration in the city, wrote a letter to you dated 10 January. I know this because he also sent it to local journalists in a press release, and I have now had a chance to see it. In that documentation, he accuses me of misleading the House on the basis of something which he alleges that I said here. However, I did not say it in the House. He also complains that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not do something which our Procedures would have prevented my right hon. Friend from doing in any event.

I consider it a discourtesy to you, Mr. Speaker, and therefore to the House to use your office as a way of making cheap points. It would have been clear from Hansard that I did not say what I am alleged to have said. A mere smattering of knowledge of our most basic procedures would have indicated to Richard Kemp that his complaints had no substance. Has your office received and dealt with that correspondence, Mr. Speaker? Can you give protection to Members of Parliament who are abused in that way and can you give ad vice to non-Members about when it is, and is not, appropriate to write to you about Members' conduct?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving notice of her point of order. She has placed her concerns on the record. It would not be appropriate for me to make any further comment on the substance of what she has said. I am, however, sad that a letter to me has been released to the press before I have had an opportunity to reply to it and, indeed, before it has even been received by my office.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter arising from the conduct of Trade and Industry questions this morning. I listened intently to the supplementary question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), and awaited eagerly the Minister's response. However, with the authority of the Chair, Mr. Speaker, you judged that my right hon. Friend's question was out of order. Naturally, all Members accept that ruling. As I would not wish to be subject to a similar ruling in future, I should be most grateful, Mr. Speaker, if you would advise me and other Members of why a question about the exclusion of the self-employed from the national minimum wage legislation is irrelevant to Question 7 about the national minimum wage.

Mr. Speaker

A lot has happened since that question was put. However, the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I will always seek to guide him.

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