Skip to main content

Points of Order

Volume 453: debated on Monday 20 November 2006

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last Thursday, the Leader of the House responded to a question from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) regarding the reported use of a traffic lights coding system in the Department for Work and Pensions to code questions according to the level of embarrassment that they would cause the Government. The Leader of the House answered that the coding system was used

“to ensure that difficult questions requiring a full answer received one on time.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 134.]

The original story was prompted by an anonymous call to my office by somebody in the Department for Work and Pensions. My experience has been rather different from what the Leader of the House indicated. I received answers to 18 questions, including one tabled in February, on the day that the House was prorogued. A further 20 questions, tabled in July, remained unanswered. Most of those questions were by no means classifiable as difficult. In view of the importance of the allegation that questions are being coded with a view to delaying, or even simply not answering, those that are most embarrassing to the Government, I wonder whether you could use your authority, Mr. Speaker, to investigate what is happening, whether the system is operating in the interests of Members or against them, and whether it extends beyond the Department for Work and Pensions, across Government.

In the past I have made it known to Ministers that I expect replies to be timely. However, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) states that there is some sort of system being worked in a certain Department. I was present when the Leader of the House responded to the original question, and that told me that Ministers—the Leader of the House being a Minister—are prepared to respond to the question that is being put by the hon. Gentleman on a point of order. Given that, I think that there would be absolutely no harm in his putting a written or an oral question to that Department to seek a reply. Once the Speaker starts getting into the field of the quality of replies, that can be seen to be sending a signal that perhaps he is not pleased with the response that Ministers give. Of course, the Speaker is always pleased with any response, and any question.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter of some importance to me, and I hope to other right hon. and hon. Members. Following weekend news talk about the possible dispatch of a new and mixed United Nations/African Union force to Darfur, we have observed further and authoritative weekend news reports that the Government of Sudan have launched fresh attacks on civilians in Darfur and exported terror to neighbouring Chad. In the circumstances, Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether you have had an indication from the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for International Development that either of them intends to come to the House to update Members on Government thinking and to subject herself or himself to proper scrutiny?

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s deep concern about that very troubled part of the world. I understand that there is a foreign affairs debate on Wednesday. That will be helpful to him. Perhaps he will have an opportunity to raise those important points.