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Points Of Order

Volume 264: debated on Monday 23 October 1995

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4.9 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It relates to questions today, in particular Question 12 in my name, relating to crossrail, and Question 5 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby).

You will recall that I wrote to you at the end of last week intimating that Question 5 related to matters at RAF Northolt that are of acute concern to my constituents, because that RAF base is in my constituency. I said that, if possible, I would seek to catch your eye to ask a supplementary question. Your secretary, with great courtesy, did me the favour of telephoning me this morning to suggest that, were I to catch your eye for a supplementary to Question 5, I would not have the opportunity to ask a supplementary to my primary Question 12 on the crossrail project.

As you know, I was lucky enough to catch your eye, and I asked a supplementary about RAF Northolt. However, I was surprised when you judged that I had withdrawn my primary Question 12 about crossrail. That most certainly was not the case.

Is it not a fact that an hon. Member can withdraw a question only if he writes to that effect to either you, Madam Speaker, or the Table Office? What I suggested to your secretary—and there may have been a misunderstanding—was that I was quite happy to forgo the opportunity to ask a supplementary to my Question 12. Would it not be the case that, in those circumstances, the primary question would be put?

Whether an hon. Member exercises the option, which is entirely his, to ask a supplementary is for him alone. No precedent can be set in this matter, because it would be wrong for hon. Members not to be able to put a supplementary question relating to matters in their constituency if doing so deprived them of asking any primary question that they might happen to have on the Order Paper on that day.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. He did have Question 12 to the Department of Transport on the Order Paper today. He let it be known to me that he wanted to ask a supplementary to an earlier question which he said had a bearing on his constituency, which indeed it has. I let it be known to the hon. Gentleman that I did not look favourably upon hon. Members asking two questions within a 40-minute question period when there was great pressure at Question Time.

Therefore, I let it be known that it was a question of choice—we hear a great deal about choice in this House—and that either the hon. Gentleman asked a supplementary to the earlier question, in which case his Question 12 would be unstarred and would receive a written answer, or I would not call him on the earlier question and he would put his Question 12. The choice was his.

If there has been some misunderstanding, that is to be regretted, but I believe it right to uphold the system that I have always adopted, which is that hon. Members put only one question during Question Time. That is especially the case with the pressure during a 40-minute question period from Members who want to ask two questions.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Just over 18 months ago, when this House was debating the Sunday Trading Act 1994, the Sunday Hours Reform Council—which includes all the major retailers—gave an unequivocal commitment to the House that it would maintain existing premium payments, including double payments on Sundays. That commitment clearly influenced and persuaded many hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the Bill.

Asda has just announced that it is unilaterally reneging on that commitment for newly employed workers after 1 November. As that flagrant breach of promise means that many hon. Members were deceived, I ask for an opportunity for this House to re-debate the matter and to secure whatever regulation is required, if the retailers cannot be trusted to deliver their promises.

From what the hon. Gentleman says, I am not certain whether anyone has acted illegally, but if so, it is a matter for the courts. The hon. Gentleman may be anxious to raise the matter again, but it is a question of the Government allowing the necessary time. On Thursdays, business questions can be put to the Leader of the House; the hon. Gentleman may find an opportunity then to ask for time to debate the matter.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. We are talking about Sundays, and last Sunday, the lamp posts outside the House of Parliament were festooned with advertisements pointing out that apartments were available for sale in county hall. Surely it cannot be in order for a firm to have used the immediate environs of the House for that purpose. I borrowed a penknife from a courteous police officer and cut down the advertisements, of which I have sent you an example.

While on the subject of how the flats are being advertised—I am not questioning whether county hall should have been made into flats—I notice that, in the advertisements being circulated, in this country and abroad, constant use is made of the Houses of Parliament's icons. For example, something approaching a portcullis is used on the advertisements, and there is a superb view of the Houses of Parliament, purporting to have been taken from one of the flats.

I know county hall like the back of my hand, and I know that one would have to be suspended from the roof to have got such a picture. It is rather like the old east London song which states that one could see the Hackney marshes
"if it wasn't for the houses in between."
Surely such use is wholly improper. I hope that you will tell the firm involved that it should not use the Houses of Parliament to sell its flats.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the future use of county hall. I have seen the notices to which he referred, as he sent me one, but as they were not attached to parliamentary buildings, it is not a matter for me. I have also seen the logo to which he refers, which is, in fact, quite distinct from the Crown portcullis, which is the emblem of the House. I think that it is in rather bad taste; nevertheless, I do not consider that its use can be interpreted as reflecting adversely on the House.

Even so, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I have asked the Serjeant at Arms to point out to the firm involved that, to avoid the possibility of any misunderstanding, it would be preferable that it discontinued the use of that particular logo. I have high hopes that it will do so.

I do not usually allow hon. Members to make a further point of order, but I shall of course allow the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) to do so.

I am grateful for the opportunity to ask a supplementary. As guardian of Back-Bench interests, Madam Speaker, I am sure that you are concerned about this.

When an hon. Member tables a question, he has no idea what other questions may be found, perhaps with one's own, among the first 12 or so on the Order Paper. If it so happens that a question tabled by another hon. Member, but relating to one's own constituency, is among the first 12 or so, one is on occasion honour bound to ask a supplementary question. In those circumstances, is it not entirely wrong that one's own primary question should automatically lapse?

Is it not the case that, for a question to be withdrawn, the hon. Member involved must write to inform the House authorities—the Table Office and/or you, Madam Speaker—that he is withdrawing it? I did neither of those things, happy in the knowledge that, were I to forgo my supplementary, the Minister's reply would be on the record. As it related to hybridity, it would be of interest to the House as a whole, and other hon. Members might or might not have been able to catch your eye thereafter.

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I had always understood from your predecessors that it was considered most inappropriate for an hon. Member ever to lobby the Speaker about being called to ask a supplementary question to another hon. Member's question at Question Time. Frankly, I think that that should be your ruling.

Let me respond to the first part of the question asked by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). At Question Time, many references are made to other hon. Members' constituencies. There is no way that the Speaker can pick up those hon. Members in order to allow them to ask a supplementary question. It is reasonable for hon. Members to discipline themselves: if they are keen to ask a supplementary question to another hon. Member's question, they cannot ask a primary question further down the Order Paper. The wise thing to do is to unstar the question, because, by that method, hon. Members get a written answer from the Minister. That is the reasonable way to do it.

As for lobbying me, I am lobbied by all sorts of people and hon. Members in the House. I listen to them all, but I make up my own mind. Without commitment, of course, I listen to hon. Members. I want to be helpful if I can. I have been a Back Bencher myself. Anyone can lobby me, but the bottom line is that I make up my own mind what to do about it. I think that we should now move on.

Next time anybody rings you up like that, Madam Speaker, you want to look at the number on the Order Paper. The question of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) was No. 12. Anybody who knows anything about this place knows that, if the question is No. 12 and Question Time finishes at 3.10, the chances of being reached are on the margin. So if Members are smart, they think that, by ringing up the Speaker, they can get a commitment on No. 5 and play both horses in the race. That is roughly what happened: he wanted his cake, and he wanted to eat it as well.