HC Deb 22 January 2003 vol 398 cc320-2 1.32 pm
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is the second time when a debate that Ministers have urged Back-Bench Members to utilise to raise their constituents' concerns about a possible war in Iraq has been eroded by ministerial statements. Important though they may be and inevitable though the policies may be, they are by no means imminent. If the Government keep their promise to the House that there will be a debate on a possible war in Iraq on a substantive motion, is there anything that you can do to ensure that the time of that debate will not be limited?

Mr. Speaker

Those are matters for Ministers. On statements to the House, I am on record as saying that I want Ministers to come here and explain what is happening with regard to their Departments and policies. I therefore have no complaint about any Minister coming to the House to make a statement.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. From the middle of last week, the contents of the statement that we have just been discussing were extensively trailed and discussed in the media. This morning, on the BBC News website, there was a headline saying "University Funding Shake-up Unveiled". May I once again appeal to you to use your good offices to try to ensure that it is this House that hears first about such important matters and that we do not see the continual trailing and leaking of this vital information before the House hears it at first hand?

Mr. Speaker

I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern about this matter. He has written to me; I shall investigate and report back to the House.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have made it clear that you want to maintain an hour-long framework in which statements should be made. Obviously, that is reasonable to the House. However, may I draw your attention to a tendency in the years during which you and I have been in Parliament—the growing length of statements and the replies, rather than questions, of the two Opposition parties? Could there be some control of these over-lengthy statements?

Mr. Speaker

The statement lasted 17 minutes, which is far too long. I am looking for a maximum of about 10 minutes. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That puts a responsibility on the Opposition Front Bench, as well as the Liberal Front Bench. It is unfair that only about 20 minutes have been available for Back Benchers to question the Secretary of State. I want more Back Benchers to get in and I am grateful for the point of order.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hate to see the Speaker of this House put under duress by something as imperfect as the Modernisation Committee. I would be grateful if you could advise me how much longer you will have to sit in sway to the Committee and allow only an hour for statements. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber needed to question the Secretary of State closely on the matters that he brought before the House today, not least because they had been trailed in the papers so far in advance. Is there any reason why we cannot suspend the 7 o'clock rule tonight and allow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) to have her way?

Mr. Speaker

The fact is that the House accepted the report of the Modernisation Committee and I must pay due regard to its wishes.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

Further to the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), Mr. Speaker, I accept your ruling, because you are bound by the decisions of the House. Surely, however, there are occasions when the ministerial statement has to be of considerable length given the nature and complexity of the issue at hand. When a White Paper of the character of that which was introduced today is being presented to the House, regardless of how much of it was trailed in the press, it is only fair that the Minister is given time and that we as a House are given the chance to deal with it, so in matters of that nature, the 60-minute rule is, frankly, unreasonably inflexible.

Mr. Speaker

Hon. Members can read the White Paper, and Ministers have got to aim for 10 minutes. We do not have stopwatches—I am not in engineering any more—but there is a big difference between 10 minutes and 17 minutes.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are about to have a debate in which there will be a time limit on Back Benchers' speeches. The points of order are eating into their time.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for that. You rightly said that it is important for Ministers to come to the House when they have important announcements to make. Have you had any indication from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that he intends to come to the House later today to speak about the right-to-buy changes, which will penalise the many because of the abuses of the few?

Hon. Members have referred to the modernisation rules, and my understanding was that written statements dealt with administrative matters, but a major policy announcement has been made. If the Government are going to kick away the property ladder for the poor, this House should have a right to examine the matter.

Mr. Speaker

The important thing is that the Minister has told the House. In this case, he has done that in the form of a written statement. I have no complaints about that.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Further to the points of order made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), Mr. Speaker, could you help us on the Back Benches by advising us whether it is possible—and if so, how—to move that the 7 o'clock rule be suspended in cases such as this?

Mr. Speaker

Only a Minister can do that and only with notice, so the usual channels have more powers in these matters than me. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should make a representation to his Chief Whip.