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Points of Order

Volume 513: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2010

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you aware that the BBC is reporting that the Education Secretary is to apologise for the inaccuracies in the information given to this House on Monday about cuts to the school building programme? Are you aware of such an apology and has the Secretary of State made any representations to you about making it to the House? I ask this because the BBC reports that the apology is to be in the form of a letter to you, Mr Speaker. Surely any such apology should be made in this Chamber. Chaos on Monday has turned into farce on Wednesday.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and for a few minutes’ advance notice of that point of order. In response to his first point about whether I am aware of the BBC news report, the answer is an unequivocal yes, for the simple reason that he apprised me of his point of order. The second point that I would make is that I have had no communication from the Secretary of State on this matter, so I am reading the report in the way that anybody else might read it. It is of course always open to Ministers to come to the House to make statements, including to make apologies if they deem it appropriate. I have a sense already that it would be regarded by Members as more helpful in these circumstances and perhaps more apposite if the relevant Minister were to seek to come to the House to make a statement. I should emphasise that we have an important Opposition day debate to follow, and that such a statement, if it were to be made today, would have to be made after the Opposition day debate.

As for revealing matters to the media before revealing them to the House, including revealing an intention to say something at a later stage, my ruling stands. If people have things to say, they should come to the House to say them. The House expects to hear before anybody else does. I hope that that is a satisfactory response.

The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) looks as though he is overflowing with enthusiasm. I am quite concerned about him and I think we had better hear what he has to say.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for your customary indulgence. Further to that point of order, is it in order for me to inquire whether the shadow Minister who raised that point of order informed the Minister concerned that he was going to mention him from the Dispatch Box on this occasion?

The hon. Gentleman may ask that. I do not know the answer, but there is no breach of order if a Member comes to raise a point of order about someone else without notifying that person first. The hon. Gentleman is a very courteous man—I will have known him for 27 years in October of this year—and he might well expect that as a matter of courtesy there would be advance notification, but there is no obligation to notify. He has put his views on the record and contributed enthusiastically to our exchanges.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, a number of schools in my constituency have been affected by this misleading information. I tried to phone the Secretary of State yesterday, but he was not courteous enough to return my call. I heard Mr Andrew Neil announce that the Secretary of State was going to apologise for this matter and I assumed that he would do so to the House. Do we have any remedy to try to ascertain what the Secretary of State is doing? I have already cancelled a meeting to come here and it would be unfair and discourteous if he made Members cancel any other meetings.

There are a couple of points to make in response to the hon. Gentleman. The first is that the Secretary of State is an extremely busy person and it is not for me to comment on the nature or frequency of telephone conversations that he has. I can say only for myself that if the hon. Gentleman were to telephone me, I would always be delighted to hear from him and would regard it as a matter of some priority to have a telephone conversation with him. Secondly, I think that I have made the overall position very clear and people on the Treasury Bench will have heard it. What I am saying, in short, is that if the Secretary of State has something to say to Members, he should say it here. If he has something to say to me, he could usefully say it here and it would be a jolly good thing if he came to the House to make a statement at a suitable time—that is, at or shortly after 7 o’clock.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During his statement on Monday, in column 35 of Hansard, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), the Deputy Prime Minister indicated that the reason why he had not consulted the devolved Administrations about the parts of his constitutional proposals that affect the devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom was that it was necessary for him to announce them to this House first. That was repeated today by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time. Will you confirm, Mr Speaker, that it is perfectly in order—on a Government-to-Government basis through the UK civil service, which exists for that purpose—for the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister to discuss proposals affecting the devolved Administrations with Ministers on a ministerial basis prior to making an announcement to this House? In fact, in the case of Northern Ireland, if they did not do that, one could not imagine the consequences.

I am very sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but although I listened with interest to his point of order the truth of the matter—he might think it a sad truth—is that it is not a matter for the Chair.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that you will be aware that the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 stipulates that only 95 Ministers, including Whips, may sit and vote in the House of Commons at any time. In addition, “Erskine May” recognises only two kinds of Whips: Government Whips and Opposition Whips. Until yesterday morning, only 95 Members were Ministers, but three additional Lib Dems were appointed as Whips yesterday. That takes us to the number of 98. The Act makes it very clear that those additional three people cannot sit or vote in the House of Commons—unless they are not Government Whips, but Opposition Whips.

As always, I am engaged, not to say fascinated, by the product of the hon. Gentleman’s lucubrations. I will look into the matter, but I am sure that the House will eagerly await, with bated breath and beads of sweat on its collective brow, any thoughts that I may have thereafter. The appetite for points of order has now been satisfied.