HC Deb 14 March 2001 vol 364 cc1037-9 4.34 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given you notice. At 9.30 this morning the Department for Education and Employment launched its proposal to replace the costly, ineffective and bureaucratic new deal with an even more costly, ineffective and bureaucratic new deal mark 2. At that point, the document in question was available to the press, but it was not available in the Vote Office. When I asked the Vote Office when it expected to have it, I was told that it was making strenuous efforts to obtain copies of the Green Paper, but had been told that it would not be available until 4 pm. In the event, I gather that after heroic efforts it secured copies by lunch time.

Will you, Mr. Speaker, confirm that it is a gross discourtesy to the House if Ministers publish documents and give them to the press before they are made available to hon. Members, particularly if they are prepared to go ahead with a press conference when hon. Members cannot have sight of the document?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order, which has enabled me to investigate the circumstances.

I understand that the Command Paper in question was laid in the proper way this morning and that a written answer was given at the appropriate time. To that extent, parliamentary requirements were met. Copies of the Command Paper, however, were not available in the Vote Office until lunch time, although copies could be consulted in the Library of the House. In that regard, the expectations, and, indeed, the requirements, of Parliament, were not met.

I have received a letter of apology for this from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment which I shall cause to be printed in the Official Report. The essence of this is that the copies of the Command Paper intended for the Vote Office were inadvertently sent to the wrong destination. It is manifestly the responsibility of Ministers to make sure that such mistakes do not happen.

Following is the letter: I am writing to offer my sincere apologies to you for the difficulties caused by the fact that copies of the Green Paper 'Towards Full Employment in a Modern Society' (CM5084) laid before Parliament and placed in the Libraries of both Houses at 9:30am this morning were not more widely available at that time to Members in the Vote Office. The Stationery Office advised us yesterday evening that due to printing difficulties they were unable to satisfy our full order for copies to be delivered this morning. My officials therefore made arrangements for sufficient copies to enable us to deliver 100 copies to the Vote and Printed Paper Offices by 9:30am. I regret that these copies were misdirected. As soon as they were located, my officials made arrangements for them to be delivered to the Vote Office and I believe they arrived there shortly after 12.30pm. We did make copies available this morning to the main Opposition spokesmen and I can only apologise that due to the delivery of the copies intended for Parliament to the wrong address, Members of Parliament did not have access to the Green Paper as early as they should have.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you advise me what is appropriate conduct for a Department in replying to written parliamentary questions? I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what representations he had received from other Ministers on a planning matter concerning a business school in my constituency about the timing of his decision or its announcement.

I received a holding answer last Friday. On Monday, the local new Labour Millbank operative, who is also the prospective candidate for the constituency, received a copy of the substantive reply, which she lodged with local journalists that day, well before the answer appeared in Hansard on Tuesday morning and before I received the reply on Tuesday. The answer that I received yesterday was dated Monday and addressed to "Dr. Evan Harris, MP, House of Lords". I am not sure whether that was flattery or wishful thinking, but it was either incompetence or a deliberate attempt by the Department to deny the House and the questioning Member of Parliament rapid access to the Department's response, and stands in stark contrast to its rapid release and availability to a Labour party activist.

What advice, Mr. Speaker, can you give the Minister to ensure that departmental officials know that Members of Parliament are to be found in the House of Commons, not the House of Lords? Furthermore, what advice can you give me to ensure that Back Benchers are able, through parliamentary questions, to hold the Government to account, and that parliamentary answers are not released to Government party politicians by the Government before the House and the questioning Member are notified?

Mr. Speaker

I have already responded to the hon. Gentleman in writing on the matter. I have no grounds for intervening further.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the BSE crisis, there was justifiable criticism that food safety and agriculture were the responsibility of the same Ministry, and, at times, Ministers from the Department of Health came to the House to deal with public safety issues. Those responsibilities have now been separated, but we have yet to hear about the food safety aspects of foot and mouth disease. You kindly told the House that you expect the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to answer questions in the House tomorrow. Will you inquire about whether a Minister from the Department of Health will deal with the food safety issues? Everyone says that there are no human health risks with food and mouth disease, but we were told that about BSE, and it is important that we should have an opportunity to question a Health Minister on issues concerning the Food Standards Agency.

Mr. Speaker

That is up to the judgment of the Minister involved. The hon. Gentleman can, of course, table written or oral parliamentary questions.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I would not expect any further points on that matter. I have given an answer and I do not wish to intervene further. The hon. Gentleman should ask the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) whether he can look at the letter that I sent.