On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to the point of order that I raised last week, I wonder whether you have had an opportunity to look at the advice provided. I understand that there is a convention of the House that members of the Panel of Chairs who chair Bill Committees and report them to this place are supposed to remain neutral and are not supposed to object. It was therefore wrong for the objection to the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) to be taken.
I am grateful—[Interruption.] Order. I can look after these matters myself, I assure the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). It is important that the Member about whom a complaint is being made is given reasonable notice. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who says that she left a note—
In a minute.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for confirming that she has done that, and for raising this matter. I am well aware that objections to private Members’ Bills on Fridays are often the cause of frustration. It has not hitherto been the practice of the House to require the identification of an objector at that time or on other occasions. At this stage, I am not aware that anything disorderly occurred.
On the specific point about whether the Chair of a Public Bill Committee could or should object to a Bill proceeding, if that is what happened—and I emphasise the word “if”—I suggest that that is a matter for study by the Procedure Committee. As the hon. Lady has raised the matter with me, I will discuss it further with the Chairman of Ways and Means.
On the future progress of the hon. Lady’s Bill, I am sure that she will seek the advice of the Public Bill Office.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.
The House is a sovereign body and is entitled under our constitution to make decisions unfettered by anything, I understand. Therefore, I ask for the decision made on Friday—that further consideration should take place this Thursday, 18 March, which was agreed to by Madam Deputy Speaker, was not objected to by the Conservative party, and was printed in Hansard—to be adhered to. We should then have enough time for a vote on the Bill.
The date to which the hon. Lady refers is not a private Members’ day. Therefore, it is not immediately obvious to me that the situation is as she describes. I think that the fairest thing that I can say to the hon. Lady, whose two points of order I have listened to very attentively, is that I will inquire further into the matter, and I am happy to revert to her and other Members raising points of order on it, and indeed to the House as a whole.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been a Member of the House for a considerable number of years, and never have I come across a situation in which a person who has been Chairman of a Public Bill Committee through which a Bill proceeded on a Tuesday comes down to the House of Commons on a Friday to object to a Bill of which he was in charge in Committee. I will not go into the fact that that Bill was supported by all three political parties whose MPs were members of that Committee, but it strikes me as unprecedented, and unparliamentary, for the Chairman of a Committee to block the Bill whose proceedings he chaired. In view of the fact that we may have very little time in which the Bill can go through its stages, it is essential that the matter be dealt with speedily—and, frankly, that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) be called to order, because he seems to me, rather than being in charge of parliamentary procedure, to be in need of psychiatric help.
Thank you. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He expressed himself with the freedom and force for which he is renowned in all parts of the House. I hope that he will understand if I simply sound a cautionary note at this point. It is not clear that the hon. Gentleman who is “accused” of objecting to the Bill did so; I do not have that information. It is right that the matter be looked into further. I understand what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said about precedent, the chairmanship of Committees and subsequent performance, or non-performance, at the later stages of Bills, and that is clearly on the record. I reiterate very clearly for the right hon. Gentleman, whose point of order I take very seriously, that I will look further into the matter. I will discuss it as appropriate and I will revert to the House as a whole speedily, to use his word.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you accept that private Members’ Bills Fridays are a shambles, and that, as one of our most public-facing means of communication, they should be, to use your phrase, referred to the Procedure Committee, as was recommended by the Wright Committee—the Reform of the House of Commons Committee—so that we can look at the matter in the round, as well as at the behaviour of a member of the Panel of Chairs on Friday?
I said what I have said about the possible locus of the Procedure Committee in relation to at least a part of the matter. The hon. Gentleman is a highly active and very experienced parliamentarian, and I know that he is extremely exercised about the issue; I understand that. I have ruled on the matter, and I know that the hon. Gentleman would not for one moment seek to inveigle me into a debate in which I should not join.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I absolutely take the point that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is a senior Member of this House and will be well aware of the convention relating to members of the Panel of Chairs. However, my understanding is that the other two Opposition Members who were present in the House, and who might equally have shouted “Object”, are members of the Opposition Front-Bench team. A way of removing the aspersion cast on the hon. Member for Christchurch forthwith would be for one or other of those two Members to admit now that it was them who shouted “Object”.
I do not think that it is my suspicious mind; I have now come to the view that there is an attempt to inveigle me into further participation in this debate. I feel sure that the attempt was an inadvertent one, and I am sure that it will not persist. I have been very fair on the subject. I have said clearly what I intend to do, but I really cannot properly or safely add to what I have said.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have no wish to inveigle you into any further involvement in today’s discussion, but I want to draw to your attention and that of the House the fact that the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) was not the only one blocked on Friday. The Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill, which I have been taking through its later stages—it was introduced initially by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor)—also had all-party support but was also blocked, despite having completed all its stages other than Third Reading.
The right hon. Gentleman has made his own point in his own way, but I know that he will understand, and others will accept, that the point of order procedure cannot be an occasion for individual complaints about the failure of particular measures to progress.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a young and relatively inexperienced Member, may I say that I am looking forward very much to discussing in this House the important subject of defence? I am getting worried that we will be unable to do so because of these ludicrous points of order. If the Government wanted the Bill, whatever it was—I do not even know what Members are talking about—to go through its stages, they could have found time to enable that to happen on some other day during the week, and not through the private Members’ Bill process, could they not?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last Thursday, the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) came to the House and informed all Members of “alarming stories” of the diversion of aid from the Department for International Development into the pockets of Ministers in Sierra Leone. That hugely damaging statement was totally inaccurate and, moreover, the DFID office has just been subjected to a rigorous National Audit Office audit, which went very well. Will you advise me, Mr. Speaker, what means exist to enable Members to correct wholly inaccurate statements in the House, particularly that statement, which has unnecessarily damaged reputations and undermined the good work and offices of the presidential and DFID offices in Sierra Leone?
I am genuinely sorry to have to say to the hon. Lady, having heard her remarks, that that is not a point of order. It is a very real expression of concern, but what she is considering and commenting on is ultimately a matter of debate. She has, however, very clearly put her thoughts and concerns on the record, which will be there for everyone to see.
If we have no further points of order—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the House had not decided to suspend Standing Orders and reduce the number of days available for private Members’ Bills, there would be more time. Unfortunately, the Members who have raised points of order today all voted for that suspension.
The House has decided what it has decided—to which, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have nothing to add. If the enthusiasm for points of order has been exhausted, we shall proceed to the main business, which is a general debate on defence in the world. I call the Secretary of State for Defence to move the motion.