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Points of Order

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 3 April 2008

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Just now, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and I both raised with the Leader of the House the absence of a statement from the Minister for Housing about eco-towns. There may be all sorts of reasons why a Minister does not come to the House to make a statement, and I appreciate that it is up to the Government to decide which Ministers come to give which statements to the House.

However, one would have thought it appropriate for a Minister to come to the House on a matter as important as the one that I have mentioned. Is it not of interest that on this last day of term, business appears to be relatively light and there is plenty of opportunity for the Minister to explain herself? It is significant that yet again bad news is being buried on a day convenient for the Government. May I ask you, with the greatest—

I am asking Mr. Speaker, not the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); I dare say he has other qualities that will come before us in due course.

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you could use your influence on the Government and not allow them to abuse the House—and, more particularly, our constituents—in this way? Our constituents have every right to expect Ministers to explain their policies, especially ones that touch as hard as this one does on the constituents that my hon. Friend and I represent.

Well, if I answer the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point of order, perhaps the hon. Lady will not have one. She does not know what I am going to say, does she?

I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that I understand the deep concern about constituency housing that every hon. Member has, including myself. The issue is very important to us all. I am being asked on a point of order to raise the matter with a Minister. All I can really say is that that is not a point of order. However, I am sure that the Minister concerned will have heard the hon. and learned Gentleman’s deep concern.

I am most grateful, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance on behalf of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and myself? Is the Leader of the House saying that ministerial statements are now regularly being replaced by conference calls? I have never been invited to take part in a conference call before and I would not be given the opportunity to question.

Furthermore, Mr. Speaker, will you give guidance on why I have not been shown in writing whether the specific eco-town in the Vale of York is going ahead—a city region is referred to—whereas details were provided to the press last night?

I am not responsible for the words of the Leader of the House or of any Minister. Therefore, such issues are not a matter for me. On the other matters that the hon. Lady raised, once again all I can say is that she has brought her concerns before the House through her point of order. The fact that she and the hon. and learned Gentleman are deeply concerned about the matter will be recorded.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention a written statement on disability benefits and the European Court of Justice made by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)? It is due to publish information, but only online. I know from your previous responses that you prefer information to be placed before the House, by way of written statement or in the Library. It is much better to have a permanent record of important information. Finally, I should say that just before I came into the Chamber for business questions, the information that I mentioned was still not available online. I should be grateful for some helpful guidance.

The hon. Gentleman should seek an answer through methods other than a point of order. Perhaps he should go to the Table Office to express his deep concern and see what can be done. I think that the Clerks will be able to help him.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on the number of replies to Members’ written questions that refer Members to websites. Given our busy schedules, we do not always have the time to look at websites. If the information has already been published by other Departments, or if there has been a similar reply to a similar question, there is no reason why the Departments cannot print the reply in full. That is not a party political issue, but one for the whole House.

It is for Departments to decide how they answer questions; the important thing is that they do answer questions. We live, of course, in an electronic age and we use computers. If the hon. Gentleman has a deep concern about how written questions are answered, he should take the matter up with the appropriate Minister. I have always been on Ministers’ cases when they do not answer hon. Members’ questions. However if the hon. Gentleman’s issue is about the method of answer, he should pursue that himself.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it correct to describe a reference to a website as a written reply? It seems to me that that changes the procedures of the House in a fundamental way.

It is a written reply. If the hon. Gentleman does not like the reply, there is nothing that I can do to help him. He must pursue the issue again and again.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that I am right in recalling that at business questions last week, the Leader of the House gave a very satisfactory response on exactly this point. She explained that she believed that written answers should give the full information, not simply refer to a website. Could you ask the Leader of the House to make a statement after the recess to explain what action she has taken to ensure that that will happen?

Once again I say that there are things for the Speaker to do and things for Ministers to do. The Leader of the House is a Cabinet Minister, and there we are. She spoke about the issue last week in business questions. I do not always listen in detail to what the right hon. and learned Lady is saying, as I have to look around for who I am going to call next. The matter is in Hansard and it is being looked at.

Mr. Speaker, your answers to these points of order have been very helpful. However, because the Leader of the House is here, she might take on board the concerns that people would still like to receive answers in the traditional and conventional way, rather than electronically. I hope that she will give some response to those concerns.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that when someone in a Department is answering a question, if it refers to a previous answer they should not just give the Hansard reference but repeat the previous answer, because they have it in front of them and it saves hon. Members from having to do work that the Department could put in front of them.

As regards a reference to a website, if a small bit of information is being referred to, there is no excuse for referring to the website—they should extract it from the website and put it in the answer. If what they are doing, having answered the question, is making a reference to a more general, bigger document of 200 pages, that is fair enough. However, it is not fair enough for parliamentary answers just to be signposts in six different directions—they should attempt to meet the Member’s point and be accountable. I agree with the specific points that hon. Members have raised. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and I are on the case, and I ask for specific bits of information in respect of this to be given to us, and we will follow them up with Departments. Departments are responsible for running the Government policy for which they have responsibility, but they are also accountable to the House.

It might be helpful for the House to be reminded that the Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry into written questions, and all this information will be helpfully put before it to further that inquiry.

That is a very good point which allows me to move on to the main business—a topical debate on the drug strategy.

Topical Debate