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Points of Order

Volume 454: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you advance notice. You will have seen the speculation in the media over the weekend and today about the thousands of post offices that are due to be closed, on which an announcement is expected in due course. You will be aware that that could have a devastating effect on communities, particularly in rural areas. It is absolutely clear that the Department of Trade and Industry has been briefing the media over the weekend on the scale of cuts, the compensation that would be made available to post offices that do close and the continuing amount of subsidy. We understand that a statement is to be made to the House before Christmas, but do you not think that the information should have been made available to the House before being made available to the media?

I will not be drawn into the hon. Gentleman’s argument, except to say that I recall the Leader of the House mentioning last Thursday that a statement was going to be made. Today, I received such information from the Department. I would hope that that statement would be made some time this week—although the Department has said that it will be before Christmas, I would prefer it to be this week. I know the anxiety that he and many other Members have about post offices. The issue affects not just rural areas but city areas such as my constituency. I put it to him that I am expecting a statement this week.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a similar subject—on which I have notified the Department for Constitutional Affairs—I have a named day question due for answer today, which, I understand is with the responsible Minister, about progress on military inquests. Unfortunately, however, the Minister’s press office notified The Daily Telegraph of information that will be contained in that written answer about the number of inquests still outstanding. Yet again we have an example of the press being briefed before the House. Can you suggest any measures that we can take to ensure that Ministers are accountable to the House, not the media?

The hon. Gentleman has made the case that information has been issued which was due to be in a parliamentary answer given to him and, of course, the House. I hear from the Government Front Bench that that is not true. Perhaps I can offer to look into the matter and contact the Minister concerned.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that at business questions last Thursday, grave concern was expressed by many Members that there would not be a statement from the Prime Minister this week—preferably today—on the results of the Iraq study group’s report. Have you had any indication that a Minister—preferably the Prime Minister—will come to the Dispatch Box this week to make a statement? If not, have you any suggestions on how we can ensure that these matters are properly discussed?

Let me respond first to the point of order from the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). The hon. Gentleman may no longer need to raise his own point of order after that.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is a system for urgent question applications on which I am able to exercise discretion. What I cannot do is specify the Minister who will come to the House. I received some indication that Foreign Office Ministers would not be available today, and that weighed on my judgment regarding an application submitted by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). All I can say is that tomorrow is another day, and it is up to right hon. and hon. Members whether they make applications. I shall go no further.

Is that of any help to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)?

You are always helpful, Mr. Speaker. But, further to the point of order, is it not a matter of concern that great events have been taking place in Washington, yet the Prime Minister has not made himself available today? Is it not an issue of accountability to the House that he should be available at the appropriate time?

Further to the first point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Leader of the House is present, would it not be for our mutual convenience if he told us when the Post Office statement will be made?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It had always been my understanding that the thrust of “Erskine May” and the ministerial code of practice was that Ministers should answer questions in the House in an accurate and timely fashion. I should be grateful for your confirmation that my memory is not deficient in that respect, in the light of the answer that I received to an oral question that I put to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence. When I asked him about Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft and Saudi Arabia, the answer I received referred to the joint strike fighter. I am not certain whether the Minister’s hearing was deficient, but I hope that my understanding of accuracy in answers to questions is correct.

I am responsible for many things in the Chamber, but not for the quality or accuracy of ministerial answers. I will not take the blame for that.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I say to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) that I will ensure that my right hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence are fully aware of his concern about Saudi Arabia and Typhoon, as well as his entirely separate concern about the joint strike fighter?

As you said, Mr. Speaker, I told the House last week that there would be a statement on the Post Office this week. There will indeed be a statement later this week, and the House will not be sitting on Friday.

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), Mr. Speaker. I tabled a question for named-day answer, to which—on the basis of the latest search—I do not think that I have received a reply, asking how many people had been murdered by people who had been released halfway through their prison sentences during the period in which they would otherwise have been in prison. As I have said, I do not think that I have received an answer to the question; yet a great deal of information has—no doubt coincidentally—been released to the press on that very topic. I am beginning to wonder what is going on.

If the hon. Gentleman waits for the reply, we will see whether it ties in with the press statements. Then I can look into the matter.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a new, separate and entirely unrelated point of order, I seek your guidance. Given that the United Nations last week airlifted no fewer than 82 of its own staff out of Darfur as a result of the latest terror induced by the Janjaweed militias and that no fewer than an estimated 224,000 people in Darfur have been entirely cut off from essential aid supplies on account of the intensity of the violence, have you had any indication, Mr. Speaker, that either the Secretary of State for International Development or the Foreign Secretary intends to come to the House to make a statement about what the Government intend to do to address this very serious situation?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given that in the last Parliament more than 400 Members put their signatures to an early-day motion on post offices signed by the chairman of the all-party group on sub-post offices, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and myself, the secretary, and that more than 4 million signatures were delivered to No. 10, do you not agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is just not on for the Government to brief the press and for the Leader—

Order. The hon. Gentleman heard what the Leader of the House had to say on that, and I am sure that he will be present for the statement. I remind Members that we have the main business of the House to move on to.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Back in June I tabled a question to the Home Secretary asking how much money had been paid in compensation to asylum seekers. Six months or so later, I received a letter saying somebody would write to me. Nobody has. I contacted the Library. The Library was told by the immigration and nationality directorate that it was not prepared to give out the information. I would just like to say to the Home Secretary that if he is not prepared to tell Members of Parliament, I would be delighted to read about that in the press.

You flatter me, Mr. Speaker. On a point of order, may I remind you of what you know already? Where a Minister—the Leader of the House in this instance—rises and speaks in response to a point of order, it is within your discretion to treat it as a statement so that we can ask questions of the Leader of the House. We are entitled to know when the Post Office statement will be made. There are only three days when it can be made. Under precedent, we are now entitled to ask the Leader of the House when it will be made.

Business questions are on Thursday and the Leader of the House can be questioned then—as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, as he always questions the Leader of the House on Thursdays.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is a genuine and helpful point of order. A helpful and full statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was given to nearly all the media yesterday. Has the Secretary of State indicated when he might have the courtesy to share the contents of the statement—which was on the Child Support Agency—with the House?