HC Deb 08 March 2004 vol 418 cc1276-7 5.26 pm
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, of which I have given prior notification to Mr. Speaker. Last Thursday afternoon, it appears that I was the subject of not one but two points of order from Labour Members. On Friday morning, I received a letter from the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) informing me that I was to be the subject of a point of order on the previous day. Apparently, the hon. Gentleman took issue with a visit that I made to his constituency as a shadow Health Minister, at the invitation of local residents and of Mr. Douglas Carswell, the excellent Conservative parliamentary spokesman in that constituency. The hon. Gentleman was told about my visit, as is my custom—a courtesy that has never been extended to me by any Labour Ministers or Liberal Members of Parliament visiting my constituency.

In Mr. Speaker's response to that notified point of order, he referred to a convention about Members being involved in colleagues' constituencies or those of other Members. However, when my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) pointed out that I was visiting as a shadow Health spokesman and that it was common practice during the previous Conservative Government for Labour Front Benchers to ask questions about the constituencies of other Members, Mr. Speaker said that that was an entirely different matter.

There thus seems to have been a degree of confusion as to what hon. Members can or cannot do outside their own constituency. Given the practice, especially of the Department of Health, of answering questions tabled by my hon. Friends and me by saying that information is not collected centrally, thereby requiring us to ask for information about individual constituencies or primary care trust areas, it would be exceedingly damaging to the availability of information to Opposition Members if we were unable to ask such questions. Perhaps, Madam Deputy Speaker, you can give us some—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. I think that we have heard the point of order that the hon. Gentleman is making.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich) (Lab)


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. May I first respond to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)?

I really have nothing to add to the rulings that Mr. Speaker gave on Thursday, when he said that these things are best dealt with between Members and not on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Gale

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Mr. Speaker had occasion to rebuke me for seeking to raise this point of order earlier during what I had forgotten was an answer to an urgent question, not a ministerial statement, for which I unreservedly apologise.

Earlier this afternoon, a Minister of State quite disgracefully criticised civil servants in her Department for failing to inform her until yesterday of matters that she should properly have heard about in January. Madam Deputy Speaker, you would immediately rule that it is up to Ministers to take responsibility for what they say—I understand that—but could you reaffirm the convention that Ministers should take responsibility for their actions, and the fact that it always has been the convention of the House that Ministers do not come to the Dispatch Box and criticise civil servants who do not have the opportunity to answer for themselves?

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

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I invite you to go somewhat further than my hon. Friend suggests in extending the protection of the Chair in the Chamber to civil servants who are unable to protect themselves—indeed, they are unable to speak for themselves—when attacked by their own Ministers? Surely that is something for which the occupant of the Chair can rightly and honourably take responsibility. Today, we had the most disgraceful example of a Minister of State dumping on her own officials. Surely that is unacceptable.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I have to tell right hon. and hon. Members who have raised that point of order with me that the way in which Ministers answer urgent questions is entirely their responsibility. It is not the responsibility of the occupant of the Chair.

Mr. Henderson

Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), Madam Deputy Speaker. If the hon. Gentleman had gone to the notice board on Thursday afternoon, during Question Time, he would have seen his letter there. I am not responsible for when he receives his mail in his office. If he, like other hon. Members, had contacted the hon. Member responsible when issues are raised on behalf of constituents, he would have got the answers that he required, including on the £7 million investment in the primary care trust in my area.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I repeat what I said earlier. Mr. Speaker gave his ruling in the House last Thursday. I have nothing further to add—certainly, nothing on the matter of when Members do, or do not, collect their post.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)

Further to the point of order that was raised by Opposition Members, Madam Deputy Speaker. There has been a long tradition—this may be unwritten, but it is very important—that the House does not attack those who cannot answer back and that the use of privilege is carefully protected because it involves a very great responsibility. We have the right of privilege. We are able to say what we think here and to be protected. I hope that the House will be reminded from time to time that that tradition includes not having a go at those who cannot protect themselves.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I can only repeat what I said earlier: the responsibility for replies to urgent questions lies with Ministers themselves.