HC Deb 28 June 2004 vol 423 cc23-4 3.33 pm
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that two major announcements that affect the New Forest have been made in recent weeks—one a couple of weeks ago about the non-development of Dibden bay as a huge container port, and one today about the creation of a national park for the New Forest. You have expressed concern on many occasions in the past that announcements should be made first to the House. I am delighted that, in the case of the Dibden bay announcement, Transport Ministers were punctilious in that respect and no one had the faintest idea of what the announcement would be until it was made at 9.30 am in a written statement. But I am sorry that, today, Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have once again fallen short in that respect, and I discover that, as late as last week, people in my constituency were being told by the BBC what the result would be and were being invited to give interviews. Indeed, there was a live interview on the "Today" programme this morning. How many times must we raise in the House the failure of Ministers to make announcements to the House, rather than leaking them to the press without the hon. Members concerned and the whole House being informed in the proper way?

Mr. Speaker

I notice that there is a written statement on the Order Paper regarding this matter. Therefore, the Minister concerned has made a statement to the House.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Friday, I received notice that somebody called Jill Hope, who holds herself out as the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in my constituency, had e-mailed the political affairs department of the Leicester Mercury along the following lines: Someone I know has just heard Harborough MP Edward Garnier's Conservative party agent Margaret Richards on a local radio station saying how brave the MP is for carrying on even though he has cancer. I have not got cancer; I have not even got a common cold. However, is there some procedure that is available to us as Members of the House and to you as Speaker that will deal adequately with this sort of allegation? My agent has been defamed because the e-mail suggests that she has told lies about me or has breached my confidence in speaking about my health on a radio programme. She has certainly done none of those things. It is, of course, also a malicious falsehood about me.

I understand that it is not uncommon for members of that particular party to behave in this sort of way and I dare say, in the excitement of a by-election in my neighbouring constituency and with a general election likely within the next 12 months, we will get more of this from members of that party. However, can you, Mr. Speaker, advise me whether this sort of behaviour is contempt of the House that should, for example, be referred to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges or is it something that we just have to live with and deal with on the campaign field? I look forward to your considered advice on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for giving me notice of his point of order. The matter that he raises, however serious it may be in his eyes, does not affect the privileges of the House and so is not something on which I can rule. Because he is learned, the hon. Member is better able than I am to make a judgment about the legal implications of this incident. I have no doubt that he will do so.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Monday to Thursday every week, you preside over Question Time. This is meant to be an opportunity for Members of the legislature to question members of the Executive on policy, to seek information from members of the Executive and to press for action by the Executive. However, over the past few years, the standard of answers has declined to such an extent that Question Time appears to many to be an exercise in evasion, misrepresentation and obfuscation. Indeed, I would argue that too many of the answers given to parliamentary questions are designed to deceive rather than to illuminate the decisions of the Government. This, I am sure you will agree, damages Parliament and demonstrates contempt for the principle of democratic accountability.

I would therefore like you, Mr. Speaker, to consider whether, with the permission of the House, you can be given additional powers to remedy the situation. Specifically, if a Minister gives a manifestly inadequate answer to a question, you could direct the Minister to answer the question again and give a more informative answer. The very existence of such a sanction would, I believe, encourage civil servants to draft answers that seek to assist the scrutiny of Government rather than, as at present, frustrate the very proper and essential examination by Parliament of the Government of the day.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member uses his point of order to make a radical suggestion, namely that I should be authorised to adjudicate on the quality of answers and direct a Minister to try again if I judge an answer to be inadequate. This is a matter for the House, and he may wish to put his suggestion to the Procedure Committee. However, I cannot say that I am enthusiastic about such a proposal. I also observe that the quality of an answer is often influenced by the quality of the question.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you are not suggesting in any way that a mere ministerial written statement smuggled on to the Order Paper in the dead of the morning is any substitute for a Minister coming to the House to give a proper oral statement on which questions may be asked by Members of Parliament. It would be regrettable if you had left any impression whatever—however inadvertently—that you believed that a written ministerial statement is a proper substitute for an oral statement with questions.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Member knows me well enough to know that I enjoy Ministers coming to the Dispatch Box to give an account of their stewardship. However, we cannot have oral statements all the time; sometimes there will be written statements. That is not too bad when they give good news, and the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) received good news on this occasion.