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Points of Order

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw a matter to your attention and seek your advice? On 4 July, I received a written answer from the Home Office in response to a question that I had tabled on 30 March. My first point is that that is lamentably slow. Secondly, if one looks at the content of the answer, there are good grounds for concern. My question was:

“To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many inmates were being held in open conditions who had previously been Category A or Category B prisoners on 31 December of each of the last 10 years.”

The answer from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), was:

“This information is not held centrally and could only be obtained by examination of individual records at disproportionate cost.”

It seems to me that that is precisely the sort of information that should be held centrally and that should be retrievable by the Home Office if it is to run a proper Prison Service. Furthermore, what on earth does the expression “disproportionate cost”—it keeps being thrown back at us—mean? It is entirely subjective. I appreciate that you, Mr. Speaker, are as frustrated as we are in having to deal with these issues, but surely the Government should at least occasionally condescend to become accountable to the House.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is seeking to debate some aspects of the answer, which I cannot do. However, on the question of the length of time Ministers take to answer parliamentary questions, I answered the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on a similar point of order yesterday. The Leader of the House and I are seeking to ensure that Ministers get replies to the House timeously. I have had the full co-operation of the Leader of the House on that matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful for your answer, which I find extremely helpful. In your discussions with the Leader of the House, could you ask him to ask his ministerial colleagues to explain the basis on which they use the expression “disproportionate cost”? Unless that is explained and unless there is some factual basis for using the expression, it has no meaning.

I have a background in the trade union movement and I recall that there was always a rule that the electrician did not do the plumber’s job. Similarly, the Speaker does not do the Back Bencher’s job. It is for the hon. and learned Gentleman to pursue the matter in parliamentary questions and it would be a good idea if he did so. Otherwise, I am doing his job, which would go against my trade union principles.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that I can raise my point of order without appearing to challenge your authority, as I am conscious of the consequences of trying to do so. During Prime Minister’s Question Time today, you stopped my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) from finishing his question. I do not wish to question your ruling in any respect, Mr. Speaker, or to seek in any way to open up the subject matter of that question. However, as I thought about what happened, I saw something that seemed to me to be new, as I had not encountered it during my 19 years in the House. I sensed two separate issues: one was the code of conduct for MPs; the other was the ministerial code. While I entirely accept your ruling, Mr. Speaker, it raised an approach that I have not come across, as I said, in my 19 years. Would you be willing to reflect on my points and decide whether it would be appropriate to provide some general guidance on how we should or should not approach Question Time in the light of what happened today?

In a sense, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order, which helps me to explain the position. He mentioned how long he has been in the House and he will know that I have been a Member for 27 years and it is important to note that we have not always had a Parliamentary Commissioner, who is a new officer. We must recognise that every hon. Member is entitled to natural justice, which means that when Members put a matter before the Parliamentary Commissioner, they should leave it with him. Until such time as the commissioner reports back, it is inappropriate to raise the matter with the Prime Minister or any other Minister. We should bear it in mind that the question put to the Prime Minister was about a specific Minister—the Deputy Prime Minister—and that there is nothing to stop any Member raising with the Prime Minister general matters relating to ministerial conduct or the conduct of an hon. Member. I say again that when it comes to specific cases, if any Member has a complaint before the Parliamentary Commissioner, it is only fair—and the House would expect me to say this—to leave the matter to the commissioner.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I say that I find what you have just said very helpful indeed and I hope that my colleagues will also find it to be useful guidance?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you effectively saying that in respect of complaints that are before the commissioner, you will treat the matters that they deal with as though they were sub judice?

Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. As far as I am concerned, the matters are sub judice, so in specific cases they should not be put before a Minister of the Crown while the Parliamentary Commissioner is looking into them.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to the issues raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) about the delays in answers to Home Office questions, I know that you are well aware of our concerns. Indeed, I have experienced considerable delays in getting my own questions answered. I tabled a question on 25 May asking the Home Secretary how many written questions tabled before 5 May remained unanswered. I received a holding response on 15 June, but I have still not received a substantive response a month later. That highlights the fact that it is impossible to evaluate how many questions have not been answered. I wanted to bring the matter to your attention, Mr. Speaker, and to underline our concerns about delays, particularly in the Home Office, in responding to parliamentary questions.