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Points of Order

Volume 498: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have already given you notice of this point of order, which concerns the transfer by Departments of oral questions after they have been printed on the Order Paper, after the Department has been recognised as having departmental responsibility, and after approval by the Table Office—I realise that that is not a foolproof service. Last week I tabled an oral question to the Department for Communities and Local Government, which appeared on the Order Paper on Wednesday 21 October as Question 2. By Thursday the question had been withdrawn and transferred to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. My question was about local authority care homes and the security of those in their care. I need your help, Mr. Speaker, as to whether there is a way in which, before oral questions are shuffled, the relevant Department’s parliamentary team can see the list and transfer any question at that point. However, once a question is printed on the Order Paper for oral answer, I believe that the Department should be stopped from denying responsibility to answer.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his point of order and for giving me advance notice of it. I note what he has just told me, but there is a procedure in these matters, of which I think I should remind both the hon. Gentleman and the House. I appreciate the difficulties that Members have in identifying which Minister is responsible for certain issues. However, it is for Ministers and not for me to decide who will answer a question. Whether it will please the hon. Gentleman or not is uncertain, but I must suggest to him that he seeks the advice of the Table Office in drafting questions for oral answer to reduce the risk of those questions being transferred.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There has been mention outside the House, as you know, of senior Ministers in the House of Lords answering questions from Members of this House. There has been no discussion whatsoever in the House, but some of us have followed with interest the discussion that has occurred. I take it that if such questioning of senior Ministers who are Members of the House of Lords took place—obviously there would have to be a debate in the House first—it would be in Westminster Hall, and certainly not in this Chamber. If such a procedure took place, there should be no stopping the Department concerned from being subject to questions in the ordinary way, or of replies to questions from being given by Ministers who are Members of this House.

That is a most interesting point of order from the hon. Gentleman, but there are quite a lot of ifs in it. What I must say to him is that he will be aware both that this is a matter under active consideration—I am happy to confirm that—and that it has also been the subject of an earlier point of order, not least raised the other day, if memory serves me, by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), to which I had the opportunity to reply.

I can say to the hon. Gentleman not what form a change would take, but that the issue is under active consideration and that before any change were made, the House would of course have an opportunity to consider it. I feel sure that he would want to contribute to that consideration.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you say it is “under active consideration”, do you mean it is before a Committee? I have checked, and it is not before the Procedure Committee. Is it before the Modernisation Committee? Who, precisely, is considering it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his supplementary point of order. Unless I am much mistaken, I think he first entered the House in 1966, so he has vast experience of matters appertaining to the House, and indeed to the country. He will therefore know that a matter can be under active consideration in a whole variety of ways, including by people within Government Departments and in other respects than simply in the form of consideration either on the Floor of the House or by a Committee. I leave it to his very versatile imagination to consider in what way these matters might be being addressed.

Further to my earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. I clearly did not make the situation clear enough. I not only consulted the Table Office, but it actually drafted my question. The situation was nothing to do with the drafting, because I went to the Table Office beforehand and my question was actually drafted there. However, the Table Office could not guarantee that it would stick. I am saying that once a question goes on the Order Paper and once there is an agreement by the Table Office and the printer to print it, the Department should be stopped from moving it. It has become a norm for Departments not to answer questions by constantly moving them.

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is as follows: first, my understanding is that he—I am being very helpful to him, so he should be pleased with this—was advised that the risk of the transfer of his question was low. It is true enough that the Table Office is not able to offer, and never has done, a guarantee that a question will not be transferred. He was advised that the risk was low, but the risk nevertheless existed, and risk is that of the hon. Gentleman, not that of the Table Office.

Secondly, there is no current plan to adopt the change of policy that the hon. Gentleman wants. It is a matter that could be considered by the Procedure Committee and a request to that Committee could be made by any Member. I just have a hunch that he might want to be in the queue to make that request.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I asked a named day question of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for answer yesterday—the question, quite simply, was what planning controls there are on the erection of mobile telephone masts—so that I could follow it up today at oral questions. Instead of getting a proper response, I got this:

“I will answer this question shortly”,

which of course would be too late for today’s Question Time. Are you able to help me, Mr. Speaker, in getting proper answers on time?

I am not entirely clear off the top of my head what was the time lag between the tabling of the question and the provision of what might be described only as a holding reply, and that makes it difficult for me to give an answer that would be to the satisfaction of the hon. Gentleman. It is nevertheless an opportunity for me to reiterate that in general terms, and certainly after a period of days has elapsed, it is frankly unsatisfactory for Ministers simply to provide holding replies along the lines of, “I will reply as soon as possible.” What we want, as quickly as possible, is a substantive reply from the Minister to the hon. Member who has tabled the question. I hope that that at least partially satisfies the appetite of the hon. Gentleman.