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Point Of Order

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 15 May 2003

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1.16 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I rise to ask what you can do to force Government Departments to follow the normal convention in the House that statements are given to Opposition spokesmen a reasonable time before they are made by a Secretary of State in this House. The statement that is about to be made was faxed through a mere 15 minutes ago. That is not the fault of the usual channels or of the Leader of the House's office. I believe that staff there were in despair that another Government Department had not given reasonable notice to the House authorities that an important statement was coming.

The statement has been in the pipeline since January. We all saw on the news last night that a huge press conference was planned for today; journalists are en route there at this moment. We were told that this statement was going to be made, and in those circumstances there is no justification for giving the text to Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen a mere 15 minutes beforehand.

Finally, Sir, I must warn the Government that if they persist with this behaviour, as Opposition Chief Whip I will have no option but to find what measures Standing Orders allow me to take to buy some time for Opposition spokesmen to read a statement. I may have to disrupt procedures accordingly.

I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to disrupt procedures but, if what he says is true, I am very disappointed indeed. I was informed that a statement would be made this morning before my conference at 10.30 am. Therefore, I would have expected Opposition parties to be given at least an hour to examine the statement, so that they are able to put a decent case from the Dispatch Box. I shall have to investigate the matter but, if the circumstances are as described, I hope that it does not happen again.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Of course we will take your strictures to heart on this matter. However, I hope that you will understand that it is possible to give notice of a statement days or months in advance, but not to decide its exact terms until the Cabinet has discussed the issue. We have collective Cabinet discussions of issues, in the course of which—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must allow the right hon. Gentleman to state his case.

This is an important point about how we govern the country. Opposition Front Benchers are the first to declare at every opportunity that there is no collective Cabinet discussion. There is such discussion, and it results in decisions. Even when such a decision is known to have been reached some time in advance, its terms can still alter. The Cabinet meeting finished two hours ago. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has been finishing the final version of the statement that she is to make in that period.

Finally, I do not know on what evidence the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) based his statement that I was despairing this morning. First, I am not the type to despair and, secondly, that certainly did not happen this morning.

I do not wish to prolong the argument. I can well understand that the Cabinet has to take a decision and that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport then has to prepare a statement to the House. However, the statement does not need to come before the House until circumstances allow the Opposition to be given at least an hour's notice, so that they have time to examine the statement. That is what I am saying today, and I would be very disappointed indeed if what I have heard were true. I remind the House that, less than a week ago, I used my discretion to allow a Minister to make a statement to the House at a rather strange hour. By all means allow the Cabinet to take a collective decision, but Opposition parties—I am not referring to the Conservative party alone—must be allowed an hour to examine a statement.

I am sure that the House is grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for your response. Quite apart from the startling revelation that this morning's Cabinet meeting lasted all of 20 minutes, the key point for the House—and for you, Mr. Speaker—is that the problem is partly due to the ridiculous new hours that we are forced to sit. The fact that there is now a conflict—