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Points of Order

Volume 502: debated on Thursday 10 December 2009

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In response to a freedom of information request for papers relating to Cabinet Committees dealing with devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Information Commissioner determined that those papers should be released. Today, Sir, the Lord Chancellor has laid a written ministerial statement indicating that he has used the veto that Ministers possess to prevent the release of those papers. In nine years, that veto was not used; it has now been used twice in one year. In this instance, it has been used before the matter has gone to an information tribunal, and the Lord Chancellor has not, as he did previously, come to the House to explain his decision in an oral statement.

I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Information Commissioner is likely to undertake a special report to Parliament. May I seek your guidance—perhaps if you cannot give immediate guidance, you might ask Mr. Speaker—as to how this special report, which is obviously of crucial importance, can be placed before the House for debate, because it is clearly inappropriate that such a report, which criticises the action of a Cabinet Minister, should be in the hands of the same Cabinet Minister in determining whether it should be placed before the House?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The papers referred to, which date from 1997, relate to devolution to Scotland and Wales, and also to the English regions. I have in my hand a certificate that the Secretary of State placed in the Journal Office today in which he takes the view that the public interest favours the continued non-disclosure of all the information concerned. Bearing that in mind, could we, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) requested, have some clarification as to the procedure for ensuring that any report that the Information Commissioner makes is not withheld by the Secretary of State but is made available to the House, because so far it does not appear to be accessible?

I have no prior knowledge of the point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) have raised. Clearly, it is a very serious matter. It is not something that I can rule on now, but the House has certainly heard what they said, and it is clearly on the record. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench, and Mr. Speaker too, will want to look at the matter very carefully and decide precisely what course of action to take.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you heard whether there is to be a Statutory Instrument Committee meeting today to scrutinise the Flood Risk Regulations 2009, which are due to come into force today? Is it the Government’s wish for us to scrutinise them in the normal way?

I have to say the same thing to the hon. Lady. I have no knowledge that any statement of that kind will be made today, but again, the point that she has made is firmly on the record and I am sure that those responsible for these matters will take note of it.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you give me guidance on what the legal position is if a statutory instrument is not properly laid before Parliament, has not been properly consulted on with outside bodies and has not been properly scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament? Is that legal? Can such an instrument come into effect?

I think the hon. Lady is tempting me into all sorts of hypotheticals that I would be well advised to avoid. She has made the point, and as I said, I am sure that those who respond to these matters will look at it.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Concern has been expressed in various quarters of the House today and earlier about the treatment of private Members’ Bills and the time available for them to be discussed and processed in this Session. Can you do anything to ensure that they are properly debated and that proper time will be made available to deal with them?

I understand that the Leader of the House is looking very carefully at that situation to see precisely how it can be resolved. It is a very important matter, and it needs to be cleared up without delay.