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Points Of Order

Volume 300: debated on Monday 10 November 1997

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3.59 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I tabled Question 28 to the Minister without Portfolio. Is it not unreasonable that we had only five minutes of his presence in the Chamber when it has taken us six months to get him here? During that five minutes, he managed to answer only one question. Would not democracy be better served by the Minister without Portfolio coming to this Chamber regularly, so that we could hold him accountable for his actions?

The time allocated to various Departments is not a matter for the Speaker; it is a matter which is arranged through the usual channels. I share, however, the hon. Gentleman's disappointment at not having his question called, although it was only the second question to the Minister without Portfolio. He will recall that on Question 27, to get a minority voice heard—I am sure that it is right that minority voices should be heard in the House—and to allow a Conservative Front Bencher to speak, I had to call four supplementaries. Often, that is where the time goes.

It is for the usual channels to determine the length of time for which Departments answer questions. I hope, however, that we can make better progress, because we are not making the progress that I would like to see at Question Times for all Departments.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is there not a point of principle for the House of Commons? Is not the implication of the reply to the private notice question by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office that force could be used? Even if a British force is not committed, we as a country are endorsing the use of force. Is it not, therefore, right for the House of Commons at least to have the opportunity to express a view on the background to a complex situation, which was set out in the questions and by my hon. Friend the Minister? Would you, Madam Speaker, therefore hear an application for a debate on the dangerous situation in Iraq under Standing Order No. 24?

I judged an application for a debate under Standing Order No. 24 earlier today and thought it right that, rather than have such a debate, which was also applied for last week, the Minister should be brought to the Dispatch Box today. He has given the House a very full explanation of the situation.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that last week, I raised with you the refusal by the President of the Board of Trade to answer a written question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). On that occasion, I undertook to give you further details of the situation about which I was complaining and which I was inviting you to rule out of order. I wrote to you and you kindly replied to me indicating that you did not think that it was a matter in which you would become involved.

You, Madam Speaker, will not, however, be surprised to know that I have undertaken further research into this important matter and into what I consider to be a neglect of the rights of right hon. and hon. Members. I put to you, in the hope of securing a different ruling, the fact of which right hon. and hon. Members will be conscious. On 19 March this year, the House agreed a resolution on ministerial accountability, the third paragraph of which specifically stated:
"Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest".
Those terms were reproduced in subsection 4 of the first paragraph of the ministerial code, which was republished—[Interruption.] It was republished, not least for hon. Members' benefit, in July 1997 with the enthusiastic endorsement of the Prime Minister. In those circumstances, the refusal by the President of the Board of Trade to tell us when she was working during the summer recess might be judged to be out of order. Can you guide me, Madam Speaker, on how I can obtain an answer from the right hon. Lady?

I do not need to take further points of order on the matter. Ministers are not accountable to the House for the hours they spend in their Departments. They are accountable at the Dispatch Box for policy decisions. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) seems to have got the bit between his teeth and to be very interested in procedure, as I am. He might like to apply for an Adjournment debate on a Wednesday or one evening, in which he may get the full answer he seeks.