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Points of Order

Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 29 June 2010

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning we lost an hour and a half of valuable debating time in Westminster Hall on the issue of apprenticeships, when the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), whom I informed that I would raise this point of order, did not turn up at the appointed time. Incidentally, the Minister for apprenticeships, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), was not present at the appointed time either, and the debate fell. To lose one Member might be considered unfortunate; to lose two seems like carelessness.

Is there anything that you can do, Mr Speaker, to reinstate the valuable time for that debate so that hon. Members such as myself who took time to prepare a speech can have the opportunity to deliver it to the House and have it recorded in Hansard? Could you also have a word with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to see whether it will allow Conservative Members to claim for alarm clocks?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving me advance notice of it. I understand that Members are disappointed to have missed the opportunity to debate the national apprenticeship scheme. I have received a letter of profuse apology from the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), which I appreciate and I think the House will appreciate.

The smooth conduct of business requires keeping to set times for the start of debates, and it is important that all Members grasp that at the outset and keep it in the forefront of their minds. It is perhaps an object lesson for all of us early on in the new Parliament. I note the request that the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) made for the matters in question to be aired on another occasion. I cannot commit at this point, but I hope that there will be another chance for those important matters to be debated in the House.

As the hon. Member for Gloucester is in the Chamber, I think we would be pleased to hear from him.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I offer the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and the House the same unreserved apology that I gave you earlier for my poor timekeeping this morning?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that quite enough has been said. [Interruption.] Order. Members are getting ahead of me—or they think they are—but I know what I was thinking and they do not. They will now see what I was thinking, which is that it would be helpful for the House to hear from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who is in his place. I know that he will be happy to comment.

That was literally irresistible. Of course, I should have been in my place as well. I arrived as the sitting was suspended by the relevant member of the Panel of Chairs. I apologised to him then, and I have also dropped a note to you, Mr Speaker, as you know.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I note that the particular bird has flown, but is it in order for a Member on the Front Bench to berate, scoff, scold and hiss at the Chair when a Member is trying to ask a question? Do you recognise that it is disrespectful to the House and the Chair, and, importantly, it also impedes a Member from asking a question and getting a sensible answer from the occupants of the Front Bench? Will the Speaker make it clear that his order covers not only Back Benchers but Front Benchers?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the last point. The writ of the Chair applies to all Members, irrespective of whether they sit on the Back or the Front Benches. On his particular point, I must say that nothing was recorded. I was focused at all times on the questions being asked, those seeking to ask them and Ministers answering them. However, respect for the Chair is important, and respect by one Member for another’s right to be heard without interruption is extremely important. I hope that it will not be necessary in the course of the new Parliament and the new politics for that point to have to be made again from the Chair. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting an important matter.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week in the Budget statement, the Chancellor said:

“Today there are some families receiving £104,000 a year in housing benefit. The cost of that single award is equivalent to the total income tax and national insurance paid by 16 working people on median incomes. It is clear that the system of housing benefit is in dire need of reform.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 174.]

In order to drill down into that—I promise I will get to the point of order in a second—I asked, with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), a parliamentary question of the Department for Work and Pensions. I had a reply today, which said:

“The information requested is not available.”

Has the Chancellor sought to rescind his statement about the £104,000 housing benefit? It has become common currency in the debate about reforming housing benefit, yet the Department tells me, as a Back Bencher, that the information is not available.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her point of order. I think that she is continuing a debate with some force, eloquence and insistence. She is an experienced Member and a distinguished former Minister, and the opportunity exists for her to table follow-up questions. I have a hunch that it will not be long before she avails herself of it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) referred to the question on that subject that was tabled in my name. In fact, I have tabled a written question today asking the Chancellor to give the evidential basis for the statement that he made in the Budget last week. Could you urge him to give a speedy answer to that question, in order to reassure the House that his assertions in the Budget speech were based on fact?

I do not think that it would be right for the hon. Gentleman to seek to draw me into these interesting exchanges. He has tabled a question, and an answer might be forthcoming. I note his reference to the importance of evidence, and I simply note in passing that we would be establishing a new precedent in the House if we were to regard it as mandatory for a Minister to provide evidence for the arguments that he or she was making.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you or your office been notified as to whether the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will be coming to the House to apologise for the distress that his unacceptable comments about the Hillsborough disaster have caused to the families of the 96 who died, and to people right across the political and football divide?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I understand the very strong feelings—including those of constituents—that will have motivated him to raise it. In response, I would say that the remarks complained of—which I am neither justifying nor condemning—were not made in the House, and that my clear understanding is that the Secretary of State has apologised for them. He has made a public apology, and the question of whether he seeks to make an apology or any other comment on the matter in the House is a matter for him. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for raising the matter, and I hope that he feels that I have given him at least an informative response.

On an earlier point of order, Mr Speaker. In the previous Parliament, the Procedure Select Committee decided to establish a process whereby hon. Members could approach the Committee if they were unhappy with the nature of the answers that they received to written questions. I understand that, in this Parliament, we will continue to offer such an opportunity for people to put their complaints to the Committee, once it has been created.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that important announcements have been made today on the abolition of the regional development agencies and the setting up of new local government structures to replace them. May I implore you, sir, to use your good offices to press Ministers to make statements of that nature in the House first, so that they can be properly debated?

I can say to the hon. Lady that I am aware of concerns about this matter, and there will be an opportunity to explore it. On the procedural point that she raises, I am conscious of and looking into the matter. I hope that that is helpful.