Skip to main content

Points Of Order

Volume 281: debated on Wednesday 17 July 1996

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.30 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I know that you have tried very hard to encourage Ministers to answer questions, but it now seems virtually impossible to get a factual reply that does not include the latest asinine slogan and that bears very little relationship with the responsibilities of Ministers. May I ask you to encourage not only Ministers but Opposition Front Benchers to realise that the purpose of Question Time is to question Ministers about the Government's responsibility? It would be quite nice if the House of Commons could occasionally hear the odd answer that relates to the question asked.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I am sure that she has expressed sentiments held by all hon. Members. Some weeks ago, I pointed out to Ministers and to Back Benchers their responsibilities at Question Time. Ministers are of course responsible because they comprise the Executive. They are responsible for answering questions and for Government policy, and questions should be answered clearly. This is all laid down in "Erskine May". I ask Ministers and hon. Members to read "Erskine May". I hate to be tedious and repetitious, but, occasionally, I am afraid that it is necessary.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker, of which I have given you and the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), notice.

At columns 823 and 824 of Hansard on 15 July 1996—during the proceedings on the Asylum and Immigration Bill—the Minister of State said that Chinese women who were victims of forcible abortion, sterilisation or genital mutilation or who were fearful of such torture could apply for asylum in the UK by going to the British embassy in Beijing. She said that the merits of their claims would be considered.

As you will know, Madam Speaker, it has been the long-standing policy of the Foreign Office to refuse asylum applications from overseas. It is clear that the Minister's statement on Monday was extremely misleading, and clearly it persuaded some hon. Members in their voting intentions on the relevant amendment. Unless the Minister of State's statements are withdrawn, I fear that the voting intentions of those in the other place, who are due to consider that Bill again on Monday, could be equally influenced. Therefore, I should be most grateful if you could use your good offices to persuade the Minister to withdraw the extremely misleading statement that I am sure that she made inadvertently on Monday.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. The hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate that I cannot allow further debate to take place on the Bill, which the House considered on Monday and which another place will consider again shortly. What the hon. Gentleman has said today has not only been heard in this House, but, no doubt, will have been noted elsewhere.

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker, but with regard to a different Minister. During proceedings on the Asylum and Immigration Bill, the Secretary of State for Social Security, in response to speeches that some of us made on the trauma of rape and the three days in which to seek asylum, also gave some rather specific assurances. What my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) has said about the Minister of State, Home Office, surely also applies to the Secretary of State for Social Security. Whereas you, Madam Speaker, say that the matter will be noted, with Parliament going into recess, is it sufficient simply to note something that has really been misleading to the House of Commons?

As the hon. Gentleman and the House are aware, Ministers speaking from the Front Bench are responsible for the Government's policy and the comments that they make. I made the point that what has been said will be noted elsewhere, because, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the House are aware, the matter is shortly to be considered again in the other place.

Further to my point of order yesterday, Madam Speaker, concerning the kind letter that I have received from the hon. Member for Swindon, signed "Yours ever, Simon Coombs", the large ministerial conference Room which was booked is available only for Ministers of the Crown and is, therefore, a privilege provided by the House for ministerial purposes. It is clear that it has been used for party political purposes in order to arrange the business of the House. That seems to cross the line that should be carefully maintained between ministerial activity and party political activity. I hope, therefore, that you will consider carefully the way in which ministerial Rooms in the House are being used in order to ensure that they are used correctly for ministerial, not party political purposes.

I shall certainly do so and I shall also ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the matter.

On a new point of order, Madam Speaker, but connected with the Asylum and Immigration Bill. Tomorrow morning, new immigration rules and changes to the current rules will be presented to a Committee and they will be debated for an hour and a half. Will you ask the Clerks to consider the propriety of such a Committee meeting to consider those questions in advance of Royal Assent being given to that Bill and the debate in the House earlier this week not yet having been resumed in another place? Is it not precipitous to be bringing forward yet more changes in immigration rules in an obscure Committee while Parliament is considering that major piece of legislation?

I am not fully aware of the matter which the hon. Gentleman raises, but I shall certainly consider it. He seems to have made an important point and it is up to me to examine it as soon as I can and I shall do so.

On a point of order relating to that raised by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). When a Minister clearly fails to answer a question, in the manner in which the Minister for Industry and Energy turned a question from the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) into a comment upon a book release, is it a matter which you, Madam Speaker, might consider would give rise to a second supplementary question being asked, or might the matter appropriately be considered by the Procedure Committee, as used to be the practice some years ago?

Whether a Minister answers as he should is not a matter for me. As I said earlier, it is the Minister who is responsible for his comments. However, while we can have a joke or two across the Floor of the House—we all enjoy a little humour—serious questions must be answered seriously. Ministers are responsible for answering questions and I hope that they will take to heart what I have said today.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is some years since we have asked any stranger to come to the Bar of the House to apologise, but is not there a case to ask one individual to do so for a vicious and entirely unjustified attack on the Secretary of State for Wales. For his work in attracting 6,000 jobs to my constituency, the Secretary of State has been described by an individual in an article in The Sunday Times as "deluded" and "simple minded", and his work in attracting those jobs has been described as "pimping for Britain". Should not that man, the Conservative candidate for Newport, West, be called to the Bar of the House to apologise to the Secretary of State for Wales?

If the statement was made outside the House and the Minister concerned takes objection to it, the matter is in his own hands: he can go to litigation. Perhaps he will do so.

Further to the earlier point of order about the use of Rooms in the House of Commons, Madam Speaker, and your reference to the Serjeant at Arms, would it be sensible to refer to him the fact that there are several meetings around the Palace of Westminster which are not open to Members of Parliament generally but are designed to save the bacon of a member of the shadow Cabinet who is under threat? Could the Serjeant at Arms investigate that misuse of the facilities of the House of Commons?

I think that we are getting down to frivolities. We have more work to do than that.