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Points Of Order

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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

2.12 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Having witnessed the Government's production of act II scene ii of "Iolanthe" this afternoon, I want to ask about questions to the Lord Chancellor's Department.

When I went into the Table Office—this was the day for tabling questions to the Lord Chancellor's Department—I was informed that such questions would now be under the rubric of the Secretary of State of Constitutional Affairs. Not only is the Lord Chancellor now a shadow Lord Chancellor, however; the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs has no statutory functions. How, then, can a spokesman for the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs be accountable to the House of Commons in respect of budgets and other matters arising from the Consolidated Fund and so forth? I am thinking in particular of the salaries that are so relevant to the independence of the judiciary in relation to the Supreme Court Acts from 1891 to 1981.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but the issue is far too detailed for me to handle. I suggest that he table a very detailed question to the appropriate Minister.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Yesterday—this can be found in column 233 of Hansard—the Leader of the House told us that the designation "former Scotland Office" that appeared on the Order Paper had been drawn up by House authorities rather than the Government. Under persistent questioning, he repeated that a number of times. The same was said by the Secretary of State for Scotland to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee yesterday.

I have good reason to believe that the designation came to the House authorities from the Scotland Office, probably last Friday. If that is the case, is it not reasonable to raise a point of order about protection of House officials from suggestions by Ministers that they were responsible for an inaccuracy—and also about protection of Members from being misled? No doubt the misleading was inadvertent, but the Government do seem rather desperate to conceal the confusion and chaos that lay at the heart of the reshuffle.

As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is difficult to ask specific parliamentary questions about such matters because of our terms of reference. Can you advise me on how we can establish from the new Leader of the House whether what I say is accurate?

May I deal first with the point raised by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)? The Order Paper is drawn up by officials of the House acting on information that they gather from a number of sources. I cannot say more than that at this stage. As for the second part of the hon. Gentleman's point of order, I suggest that he consult the Table Office, which I am sure will be able to help him.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a very substantial point of order, particularly as it relates to civil servants who may not be sure to which Minister they are responsible.

Perhaps there is a shortage of clarity in the House at present, but it is not for me to comment on that.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think you know that I am very much in favour of robust exchanges in the House, which bring it to life. You may also know, however, that today, during the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition following the Prime Minister's statement, there was an unusually high—some might say unacceptable—level of orchestrated barracking from Labour Members on your side of the Gangway. Worse than that —you may not be aware of this, Mr. Deputy Speaker—a number of Government Whips were placed strategically on the Back Benches, and seemed to be playing a leading role.

If all that turned out to be true, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would you or Mr. Speaker be able to do anything to prevent the Government from using paid Ministers—for Whips are Ministers—to orchestrate the attempted silencing of the Leader of the Opposition, or indeed any other Member? This is a serious matter. I observed what happened, as did many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. We really need to know whether we collectively, and the House as a whole, can be protected against such abuse by the Government and by Ministers.

I think that any organised barracking of the kind described by the right hon. Gentleman would always be deplored by the Chair. I am sure that the Chairman of Ways and Means, who was in the Chair earlier, dealt with the matter adequately, but I think that all of us—the occupant of the Chair, and the House of Commons as a whole—should take seriously what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At Question Time today, the Prime Minister was asked yet again about the appearance of Alastair Campbell before the Foreign Affairs Committee as a witness. As I think Hansard will confirm, the Prime Minister told the House that officials did not appear before Select Committees as witnesses.

You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is patently not true. We learn from page 2305 of today's Order Paper that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is to take evidence from Sir Brian Bender, permanent secretary to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and that the Treasury Sub-Committee is to take evidence from Sir Nicholas Montagu, who is—

Order. I wanted to deal with the point of order fairly quickly. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether it is normal for officials to appear before Select Committees, the answer is yes.