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Points Of Order

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2003

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1.13 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you and the Ministers concerned prior notice. You will have seen that, in today's Order Paper, notice is given that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will make a written ministerial statement about housing benefit. You will have been as surprised as I was to see in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail this morning reports that set out the details of that statement and contain direct quotations from it by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, a press release containing full details of the announcement appeared on the Departmental website this morning, well before the statement had been deposited in the Library. Is it in order for Ministers to brief the press the day before and allow themselves to be quoted using exactly the same words as appear in the statement, so that the precise text of the statement is available publicly in the morning papers before it has been made to the House? Is that not a discourtesy to the House? Can you offer any guidance? What is to be done about such things?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. Written ministerial statements may be made at any time from 9.30 in the morning. It is of fundamental importance that they are not given to the press before they are made available to the House. In this instance, it appears that at least two newspapers had a copy of the departmental press release in time to print details this morning. Departments must not pre-empt the House in that way, and I look to Ministers to ensure that it does not happen again.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) has made a very serious and fair point. I wish to offer my sincere apologies and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the fact that news of our announcement on housing benefit sanctions became public before Parliament had been informed. That was a genuine error, and I assure the House that there was no intention to be discourteous. We gave notice yesterday that we would make a written statement this morning to announce that we would issue a consultation document on those proposals. A press release was prepared with the intention that it would be sent out after the written statement had been issued. I very much regret that the press release was mistakenly issued last night. We take our obligations to Parliament very seriously indeed and normally—as I hope you will agree, Mr. Speaker—we observe the protocols of the House when we make such announcements. I can only say how sorry I am that that did not occur on this occasion.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Not that long ago during questions in the House, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office made the astonishing assertion—he made it not once but a number of times—that Her Majesty's Opposition had not taken up the full allocation of time under yesterday's very tight guillotine on business. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that column 798 of yesterday's Hansard not only shows beyond doubt that a Government Back Bencher was speaking when the time expired, but it says:

"It being six and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, MR. SPEAKER put forthwith the Questions necessary".
That was at 10.2 pm, which was the expiry of the time allowed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apologise to the House and to Her Majesty's Opposition for that error and that perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you will consider re-running that part of Question Time, so that the hon. Gentleman can give accurate answers to the questions that we asked him.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The information given by the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office was clearly incorrect, as even a cursory glance at Hansard would reveal. However, in case there is any glimmer of doubt in the hon. Gentleman's mind about our determination to pursue the arguments arising from the Criminal Justice Bill for as long as necessary, is there any opportunity, Mr. Speaker, even at this late stage, for the hon. Gentleman to table a manuscript programme motion that will extend the time available for debate this evening, so that we can properly consider the very many new clauses that the Government have tabled to the Criminal Justice Bill, without allowing them to pass to the other place without proper scrutiny?

Further to that point of order, the two hon. Gentlemen are both entirely right, and perhaps I can take this opportunity to apologise to them, to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House. The debate on the Criminal Justice Bill did indeed go the full six and a half hours last night. In response to the last point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), may I say that it remains the case that three full days' debate on the Floor of the House on Report is unprecedented for such a Bill?

Order. I hope that it is not on that matter; the Minister has apologised.

No it is not. I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me and I seek your guidance. Further to your very welcome ruling on the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that relates to advance briefings and leaks—the latest in a series of welcome rulings on this matter—can you offer any reassurance to the House that, when breaches of this kind occur, they will as a matter of course result in a requirement for the Minister formally to apologise to the House? Most Members would greatly welcome what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say today, but if it were understood that a Minister would always be required formally to apologise at the Dispatch Box, such incidences probably would not occur anything like so frequently.

The Minister came to apologise to the House, and in this instance, the matter has ended.