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Points of Order

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 6 July 2006

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday you intervened on a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), ruling that he could not discuss the Deputy Prime Minister’s links with an American businessman while that is being considered by the Parliamentary Commissioner. All of us in the Chamber naturally accepted your ruling as definitive. Since then, however, the Deputy Prime Minister has broadcast for 25 minutes on the “Today” programme on the issue. I should be grateful if you now ruled, first, whether in so doing, he was acting within the spirit of your ruling, and secondly, now that he has done so, whether the House should be free to discuss the matter. I raise this because I know that you, like me, believe the Chamber should be the pre-eminent place that holds Ministers to account and discusses issues of concern to our constituents, and it would be bizarre if, as an unintended consequence of the rules of our House, we alone were not able to discuss what the rest of the nation and the broadcasting media are free to debate with the Deputy Prime Minister himself.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. He gave me some notice of the point of order. The Deputy Prime Minister’s radio interview has no bearing on my ruling yesterday, which related only to a particular question. Perhaps I can take the opportunity to clarify matters.

The House has established a mechanism for examining complaints relating to the code of conduct for Members. While those procedures are being followed, it is not appropriate for such complaints to be pursued in the House. The ministerial code is a separate matter, for which the Prime Minister is responsible, and questions on the application of the ministerial code in particular cases may be raised. I hope that helps the right hon. Gentleman.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I suspect that you are a devotee of the Radio 4 “Today” programme and might well have heard the rather long interview between Mr. John Humphrys and the Deputy Prime Minister. I hope you appreciate our frustration when we listen to such a debate, but cannot take part in it ourselves. Is the way round this for you to persuade the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and make a statement so that, like John Humphrys, I and other right hon. and hon. Members can ask him questions?

To clarify matters, Mrs. Martin is a devotee of GMTV, and upstairs she is the boss. Seriously, I think I have clarified matters. On the code of conduct for Members, it must be borne in mind that I am seeking to protect every hon. Member, whether it be the Deputy Prime Minister or the two new Members who came into the House only a few days ago. If there is a complaint against them, we, the House, have set up the procedure of the Parliamentary Commissioner. I seek to protect everyone so that they at least get a fair hearing before the Parliamentary Commissioner. During that period, the matter is not pursued on the Floor of the House. As I said to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on the ministerial code, questions can be asked and there is nothing to prevent hon. Members from putting down questions at the Table Office, and I understand that that has already been done. There is no problem in seeking answers from any Minister of the Crown if they have a responsibility under the ministerial code.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am glad the Secretary of State for Defence is present while I raise this point of order. I know that you have previously advised disgruntled Members on a number of occasions that the Chair is not responsible for the adequacy or otherwise of ministerial replies. Nevertheless, I draw your attention to the reply that I received yesterday to a question to the Secretary of State for Defence, asking

“whether he was informed of the proposed content relating to retention of the nuclear deterrent in the long-term of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Mansion House speech, prior to its delivery.”

The reply that I received states simply:

“I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on a range of issues.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1107W.]

Do you agree that that does not even attempt to answer the question? In asking the question, I was well aware of the fact that the Secretary of State for Defence has those discussions. If he does not wish to answer the question, it would perhaps be more courteous to state that he refuses to do so.

I will not be drawn into an argument about the quality of ministerial replies. The hon. Gentleman knows that he can always ask the Secretary of State for Defence another question.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I want to raise the issue of answers to parliamentary questions. On Wednesday 29 March, I tabled a question asking the Secretary of State for Health

“how many and what percentage of people were registered with an NHS dentist on 31 March 2006 in each constituency in England.”

I received the following response:

“The number of people registered with a national health service dentist by constituency as at 31 December 2005 has been placed in the Library.”—[Official Report, 18 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 209W.]

I have that information here. On Wednesday 28 June, I tabled precisely the same question, to which I received the reply:

“This information is not collected in the form requested.”

I believe that the information is not collected in the form requested because new contracts came into force on 1 April. Ministers are trying to avoid responsibility for the fact that many people are not registered with NHS dentists. How can I get the Minister to respond to the same question that I tabled six months earlier, even if the response is embarrassing?

It is not for me to tell the hon. Lady how to frame the next question. Perhaps she will obtain a response if she asks the Minister why she has been so inconsistent.


Extradition (United States)

Mr. Nick Clegg, supported by Mark Hunter, Lynne Featherstone, Mr. David Heath, Simon Hughes and Tim Farron, presented a Bill to require the presentation of prima facie evidence to a judge before a person can be extradited to the United States of America: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 July, and to be printed. [Bill 211].