HC Deb 15 November 2001 vol 374 cc1009-11 2.12 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, of which I have given Mr. Speaker and the relevant Minister prior notice. I wish to address the manner in which the Government have announced a relaxation of the rules banning hunting in areas that are free from foot and mouth disease.

Yesterday afternoon—Wednesday—I received from the Minister for Rural Affairs a substantive response to three questions from three hon. Members, including a question from me that had already received a holding reply. My copy appeared on the board after 6 pm. The answer clearly implied that it would be some time—I took that to mean at least a few days—before an announcement on the matter would be made. Driving home last night, however, I heard on the BBC Radio 4 10 o'clock news that an announcement would be made today, Thursday. That news came just four hours after I had received my answer. I believe that earlier bulletins carried similar reports although I did not hear them myself.

The policy was confirmed in an interview with the Minister on this morning's "Today" programme. Indeed, I have now learned that a press conference to announce the decision was held this morning, and that invitations to that press conference were issued shortly after lunch time yesterday. Although the Minister tells me that he regrets the fact that the decision itself leaked, the fact remains that the outside world was being told a very different thing from the information given to hon. Members.

Although my constituents will be pleased with the decision itself, I am left with the clear impression that the Government sought to avoid making the announcement to Parliament and indeed came perilously close to misleading the House. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will deplore the seriously incomplete statement made in answer to my question—the answer should have indicated that publication was due today—and accept that it is compelling evidence that the Government now routinely prefer to communicate their policy to the media rather than to the House.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

(Sylvia Heal)

Is it on the same topic?

Mr. Gray

Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker. On 25 October, I asked a parliamentary question on the very same subject—when the risk assessment would be published—and received a holding reply on 30 October. Although I have heard no more from the Minister since, on Monday morning, I was amazed to read in The Daily Telegraph an extensive briefing, which turns out to be extensively correct, on precisely what would happen when the risk assessment was received. I have still not received any response from the Minister to my perfectly legitimate question on the risk assessment. That seems to be clear evidence that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) has correctly said, the Government are more determined to spin the story in the press than to inform hon. Members. Is that not disgraceful?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Mr. Speaker has made inquiries about these matters and has authorised me to make the following observations on his behalf. I understand that copies of the papers published by the Minister this morning were placed in the Vote Office at 9.30 am today. As Mr. Speaker has told the House before, he deprecates the making of announcements of new policy to the media before the House has had an opportunity to be informed. In addition, in this case Mr. Speaker has asked me to say that he deplores the fact that Ministers did not take the opportunity when replying to written questions on the subject yesterday to indicate that an announcement was to be made today.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you know, many of my colleagues see you and your colleagues in the Chair as the guardians of the interests of the House and of hon. Members, so I seek your guidance on how we should respond to questions of accuracy in relation to ministerial statements to the House.

The House will be aware that on 5 November the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions made a statement to the House in which he made it clear that at a meeting on 25 July with the chairman of Rai1track, the chairman of Rail track had sought extra financial assistance from the Government. However, in further comments in the Chamber on Monday and in specific evidence to the Transport Sub-Committee yesterday afternoon, the Secretary of State made it clear that no such request had in fact been made. In a case like this, where there is prima facie evidence at the very least that the Minister has made a misleading statement to the House, how should hon. Members such as myself respond?

Madam Deputy Speaker

That matter should really be directed to the Minister himself—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Where is he?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There are ways in which the hon. Gentleman can pursue this matter and I am sure that he will be advised of those by his colleagues.