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Points Of Order

Volume 408: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2003

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12.32 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention to the astonishing reports that are emerging that the Scottish Executive were not consulted on plans for a new UK supreme court prior to their announcement by the Prime Minister in his statement on the reshuffle last month? Given that the proposals will have a direct and significant bearing on the administration of justice in Scotland, which is, of course, devolved, does that not reflect a breathtaking contempt on the part of the Prime Minister towards the Scottish Parliament and democracy in Scotland? Does it not also amount to a breach of the UK Government's internal guidelines, including the devolution guidance notes issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2002? They state inter alia that

"The Memorandum of Understanding and Concordats are intended to promote exchanges of information and prior notification, so as to minimise the scope for surprises both north and south of the border."
In view of the gravity of the situation, would it not be in order for a Minister at the new Department for Constitutional Affairs to come before the House to make an urgent statement?

That has nothing to do with the Chair. The hon. Lady is discussing devolved matters. There is nothing to prevent her from asking a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box or from tabling questions, but it has nothing to do with me.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave you notice that I wished to raise a point of order on the legislative mess in which the Government have left the House following last night's proceedings on the Hunting Bill. I ask for your guidance on two items in particular. The first is on the proceedings concerning the recommittal of the Bill to a Standing Committee. As the House will have noted from the terms of the programme motion on the Order Paper, the Government intend to ram through those further Standing Committee proceedings by the close of business next Monday 7 July.

In that context, are you, Mr. Speaker, able to respond to the question raised yesterday at column 42 by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff)? He asked Mr. Deputy Speaker whether the former Standing Committee would simply be reformed to consider the amendments agreed yesterday and their implications, or whether the Committee of Selection would have to meet later this week to appoint a new Standing Committee, perhaps with—or perhaps without—the same membership. Your response to this point, Mr. Speaker, clearly has implications for the Government's planned rapid timetable for consideration on recommittal.

Secondly, Mr. Speaker, I ask for your guidance on whether the Committee will be able to consider issues arising out of new clause 14, which the House also agreed last night. It states:
"Registration under Part 2 shall not be effected in respect of the hunting of mink."
It is identical, other than giving the name of a different species, to new clause 11, which dealt with foxes. I would have assumed that it had the same consequence as new clause 11 in requiring that the matter be referred back to a Standing Committee for further consideration, yet the recommittal motion agreed last night would appear to exclude the Committee from considering any matters arising from new clause 14 because it refers only to new clause 11.

Will you advise us, Mr. Speaker, whether the Committee will be able, within the bounds of order, to consider issues arising out of new clause 14, or do the Government have to introduce a further recommittal motion to put right another bit of a mess that they have made for themselves?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Order. The point of order of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) was so long that it would help me if I could be allowed to respond to it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. Last night, the House agreed that the Hunting Bill be recommitted to the Standing Committee to which it previously stood committed. I think that that answers his first point

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the recommittal motion authorises the Standing Committee only to make such amendments as it considers necessary in consequence of the addition of new clause 11. There is no reference to new clause 14 relating to mink.

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, the Bill is now significantly different from the Bill that was considered by the Standing Committee at some length, and which came before the House yesterday. As you know, we were given no notice of the Government's volte face on their own amendment, new clause 13. Is it not unprecedented and a discourtesy to the House and to you, Mr. Speaker, for the Government to railroad the Bill through so quickly? Would it not be more sensible for the Government to give one other week for this process?

This is now a matter for the Standing Committee. It is not a matter for me.

Further to the point of order of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), Mr. Speaker. Given that the Bill is so different now—it is almost an entirely new Bill, proposing a total ban rather than regulated hunting—and given that it is to be discussed in less than a week by the Standing Committee and for only two hours, as I understand the programme motion, on the Floor of the House, one hour of which will be presumably Third Reading, can you give us any guidance on the exercise of the Parliament Act in circumstances in which the Bill will have been so little discussed in the House?

The programme motion is to be debated later today. The hon. Gentleman may wish to raise these matters then. I would not wish to comment on the Parliament Act today.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, the Department of Trade and Industry made an announcement via a written statement on civil partnerships. Given its nature, it should have been made first to the House. Indeed, you reiterated that point to the Department on 9 December. However, the announcement was extensively trailed in The Observer, including quotations from the Minister for Industry and the Regions, who then appeared on the "Today" programme before the written statement was available. The hon. Lady talked extensively about the content of the consultation document. Even then, copies of an 88-page document were not available throughout yesterday from any of the Vote Offices. When I entered the Chamber today, it was still not available, despite multiple requests by many hon. Members through the Vote Office to the responsible Department. Can you do anything to reiterate your urging on behalf of Back Benchers and Front Benchers who wish to know the content of these announcements in good time, and, indeed, to stress to Departments that such documents must be available to hon. Members through the Vote Office in the normal way, instead of being kept back, apparently for the purposes of media management?

The House knows that I deprecate statements being made to the media about new policy announcements before they have been made to the House. In the case of the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I understand that what was published yesterday was a consultation paper, and that its publication was made known to the House in a written statement yesterday by the Deputy Minister for Women.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will know, the Government were defeated last night when the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly to call on them to revoke the Food Supplements (England) Regulations 2003 and renegotiate with the European Commission. Have you had an indication from Ministers, Mr. Speaker, about whether they want to clarify the Government's position? The need for such a statement is given greater urgency by the astonishing claim by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), during health questions today that supplements are being removed because they are unsafe, and it would give Ministers a chance to explain that supplements will remain on sale until they are banned by Europe.

As the hon. Gentleman said, that was raised in Question Time today, and there is nothing to stop any hon. Member putting questions to the Minister concerned.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given you prior notice of my point of order, and have advised the Members concerned. I wish to draw your attention to remarks by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) in last Monday's debate on student fees. At column 730, he said

"when we asked the House of Commons Library to comment on the Conservative proposals, it said:
`We couldn't understand the logic'."—[Official Report, 23 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 730.]
That point was reiterated in a debate last Wednesday by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) at column 1081 and outside the House in the pages of the Romsey Advertiser by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley).

I was concerned that the Library, which has a hard-won and universal reputation for scrupulousness and accuracy, should have been quoted in such a way. I today received a response from the Librarian, who rightly preserved the confidentiality of exchanges between herself and the hon. Member in question. However, she concluded that
"the response as a whole was balanced and gave a fair assessment of an admittedly complex policy area."
She also commented that she was
"satisfied that Mr Willis misquoted somewhat selectively and out of context from the information we gave."
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who is not here at the moment, may wish in due course to set matters straight, but I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, can remind all hon. Members that the absolute integrity and independence of Library briefings should not be compromised in any way.

I should like to consider this matter. I will look into it and reply to the hon. Gentleman.