HC Deb 19 March 2003 vol 401 cc951-3

1.8 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to stress that in asking for the urgent question today we knew that the Secretary of State was on her way elsewhere. I hope that I made that clear. Is it in order, however, for the Department that is the focus of the urgent question to pass on the responsibility for answering to another Department? I have to say that I found all the answers profoundly unsatisfactory. I repeat my request for an urgent statement from the Secretary of State, and I will keep on asking for it until we get it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am going to answer the point of order. It may be, once I have answered it, that the hon. Gentleman will not have to raise anything further.

It is up to the Government which Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to respond on such matters.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have observed, as I have, that the Minister from the Department for International Development, who is in her place, spent almost the entire time briefing the Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What puzzles me, no doubt the House, and perhaps even you, Mr. Speaker, is that, if the Minister who obviously knows about this matter is sitting silent, and the Minister who does not seem to know very much about it is attempting to answer questions but is being briefed by the Minister who does, what sort of attitude on the part of the Government does that display to the House and to you, Mr. Speaker? Why do we have to have this musical chairs act when we are engaged in discussing a very serious matter and should be getting proper answers from the proper Department—the Secretary of State having apparently fled the country?

Mr. Speaker

I say to the shadow Leader of the House that we must move on to the protected business. The matters that have been raised have nothing to do with the Chair.

Are there further points of order? I want to move on from the urgent question, as it has run for long enough.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have heard reports, as yet unconfirmed, that Tariq Aziz has defected to northern Iraq, to territory held by the Kurdistan Democratic Party. If that report is confirmed, it would be useful to have a statement.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the appropriate Minister will have heard.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We too have heard these rumours. At this point, they have not been confirmed. We are seeking confirmation.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Is it on another matter?

Glenda Jackson

It is, Mr. Speaker. The Government are advising the citizens of this country to lay in stores including tinned food, bottled water, a torch and blankets, yet there is no further detail as to why they should be laying in such stores. If no Minister has asked to come to make a statement on this matter, I would like your advice, Mr. Speaker, on how best to prise from the Government rather more detail on what is a somewhat bizarre piece of advice.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Lady is a very experienced Member of Parliament and I would have thought that her first move would be to phone the Minister concerned and ask him.

Glenda Jackson

Which Minister?

Mr. Speaker

I am not inviting her to do so, but she might start at the top and then work her way down.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Further to the point of order that was raised by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), Mr. Speaker, to which the Minister responded a moment or two ago. May I suggest through you that, if the rumour is confirmed, the Minister be invited to make a definitive statement later today?

Mr. Speaker

The Minister will have heard.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

indicated assent.

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Further to the point of order that was raised by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley, Mr. Speaker, and further to the Minister's intervention during that point of order. May I suggest to the Minister that, throughout the coming conflict over the next few days, if he does have information that may be of benefit to the House, this side of the House, through the usual channels, will be very willing to facilitate the interruption of business at any sensible and convenient hour, or to stay later than the normal hours, so that the House can be kept fully informed, where appropriate, of information that is not militarily sensitive?

Mr. O'Brien

We will try to keep the House informed. We need to be careful about rumours, because rumours often sweep through. The rumour—and I want to emphasise that it is no more than a rumour at this stage—is from a Bulgarian source. [Interruption.] It is no more than a rumour, but it is that Tariq Aziz may have been killed. There are rumours at the moment but we do not know whether they are true. We will seek to clarify the situation. Once we have clarified the situation, I will be sure to keep hon. Members on the Opposition Benches informed.