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Points of Order

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2009

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was wondering whether you could help me in defending Back Bencher rights against the office of the Prime Minister in relation to written questions. A few years ago, I tabled a parliamentary written question to the previous Prime Minister asking that he instruct Ministers, Departments and Government agencies to stop responding to MPs’ constituency letters—such letters are written on House of Commons paper and have a House of Commons address, thus suggesting that the office of the MP in question is in the House of Commons—by replying to either the office of the political party of the MP in their constituency or what they assumed was the MP’s office, unless the MP had specified that that was where they wanted responses to constituency casework to be taken up. The previous Prime Minister replied to my written question, saying that it was wrong for Ministers and Departments to take that approach, unless it had been specified by an individual MP.

Unfortunately, as I have found in my experience, the habit is starting again, so I tabled an identical question earlier this week to the current Prime Minister asking him if he, as head of the Government, would instruct Ministers, and their Departments and their agencies, to write to MPs at the House of Commons only, unless they had been told to do otherwise. Given that I assumed that only the Prime Minister, as head of the Government, can instruct his Ministers, I was rather disappointed to receive a letter from No. 10 in the past 40 minutes stating the following:

“The Prime Minister has asked me to inform you that he is transferring the following questions”—

about this matter—

“for…answer…to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.”

To my mind, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, if he agrees with my hypothesis, does not have the same authority as the Prime Minister to instruct Ministers. Surely the Prime Minister should be replying to this and taking action if he agrees with me, as the previous Prime Minister did. Is there anything you can do, Mr. Speaker, to stop the transfer of the answer to this question, as that will possibly dilute the effectiveness of getting action taken to ensure that replies to MPs’ correspondence are sent here, if that is where the relevant MP’s office is and where they wish the reply to be sent?

It seems that in this point of order the hon. Gentleman is comparing the previous Prime Minister with the present one. The best way of answering that is by saying that Prime Ministers are a bit like Speakers: no two work the same way. The Prime Minister is entitled, if he so wishes, to pass the legitimate question that the hon. Gentleman has tabled to one of his Ministers, and that is what he has done, just as the previous Prime Minister decided that he would answer the question himself. They both have a different way of working, and it is up to the Prime Minister.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek guidance on one specific point. As the Head of Government, a Prime Minister has the power to issue a blanket instruction to Ministers to behave in a certain way. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is not the Prime Minister, so would he have the authority to order all Ministers to do this?

The Prime Minister has ordered the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, and that seems reasonable. The Prime Minister has delegated the power to one of his Ministers, as he is entitled to do. We can go no further.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You can imagine my surprise this morning on finding an early-day motion titled with the name of one of my constituents and referring to his ongoing case, with which I am still dealing. It was tabled by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). Have you not made it clear that hon. Members should stay out of the cases of other hon. Members? The hon. Gentleman did not even do me the courtesy of telling me that he intended to table this early-day motion today. Swarthick Salins won his immigration case because of the hard work of my office and the constituency campaign of the people of Perth. It had nothing to do with the hon. Gentleman or the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy). Can you restate your ruling that hon. Members should stay out of the cases belonging to other hon. Members?

Another little thing is that the Chair should not be drawn into these matters and people should use their common sense. An early-day motion can be tabled by any hon. Member, even if it relates to somewhere else or someone else’s constituent. However, the courtesies suggest that hon. Members should get in touch with the other hon. Member involved. If any hon. Member wants to take on any immigration cases, I probably have more asylum seekers in my constituency than anyone else in Scotland, so I am prepared to farm out some of that work.