HC Deb 20 November 2002 vol 394 cc645-6 3.31 pm
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In March this year I tabled a written question to the Department for Work and Pensions asking for information on the position of disabled people in hospital. The written answer stated that the information was not available. As you know, I then used my rights under the Data Protection Act 1998 to obtain internal Department for Work and Pensions paperwork, which demonstrated that the Department did have the information—[Interruption]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly? There is a point of order in progress.

Mr. Webb

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As you know, subsequent to that, when the information became known to the press I received an apology from the Department, but not before. Were that an administrative oversight, I would let the matter rest, but I believe that there was a deliberate decision by the Department to withhold information from Parliament and thereby to mislead Parliament. I should be most grateful for your guidance.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I understand that the Minister has apologised to him, as well as apologising through me to the House. As I have frequently made clear to the House, and as is also stated in the ministerial code, Ministers are expected to be as open as possible with the House. It appears that on this occasion the standards expected of Ministers and Departments have not been met. I look to the Department to review its handling of parliamentary questions to ensure that that does not happen again. The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) may also wish to draw the matter to the attention of the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, which reviews aspects of ministerial answers to parliamentary questions.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, on a separate but related matter, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that on the Order Paper today there were eight of those new-fangled written ministerial statements. I have just checked in the Library, and you will no doubt be as distressed as I am to learn that as at 2.30 pm, only five of those previously notified statements were in the Library and available to Members. Is there anything that you can do to protect the House against such patent abuse, whereby Ministers appear to know the day before—in other words, in time to put it on the Order Paper—that they have a ministerial statement to make, yet fail to make it available to the House even as late as 2.30 pm? Surely that is not what was intended by the new device, and something should be done about it, and quickly.

Mr. Speaker

On the day of Prime Minister's questions, other things cause me distress, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that those statements have only to be printed in Hansard That is the rule. Perhaps he should check with the Leader of the House and with the Clerk of the House.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Monday, you made an important and dignified statement about the conduct of questions and answers in this House of Commons. It is quite plain from this afternoon's performance that no copy of that statement was given to the Prime Minister. Would you be good enough to assure the House that you will ensure that the Prime Minister sees a copy of that statement and confines his answers to the essentials? Secondly, will you do what you can to discourage some of our less confident colleagues who feel it essential to use props during questions?

Mr. Speaker

The facts speak for themselves—we reached Question 9 on the Order Paper. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ten."] My apologies; we got to Question 10, although we got to Question 9 by 3.30. I think that Ministers are taking the hint since I made my statement. If they do not, they will be cut short.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Government to alter the terms of questions on the Order Paper? Yesterday, I received a holding reply from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to a question that I had asked her about the number of car parking spaces available to employees of her Department. When I received that reply, the following words were added to my question: "Round Robin—Guidance Expected". Is it in order for the Government to change the terms of questions?

Mr. Speaker

Those matters have absolutely nothing to do with me.