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Points of Order

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2010

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, on 15 July, in Department for Communities and Local Government questions, in reply to a question about the future of the Government office for the north-west, the Secretary of State said:

“We are currently discussing this with interested parties, including the trade unions.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 1076.]

However, in a letter he sent nine days earlier to the Deputy Prime Minister, dated 6 July, he said that his colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), and himself had met formally to discuss the abolition and proposed

“to move to an early announcement of the abolition of the remaining eight offices.”

Mr Speaker, is it in order for the Secretary of State to say one thing in the House about continued open discussions when he has already written elsewhere about it being a done deal?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving me advance notice of it.

I shall come to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment.

I have not been informed that a Minister wishes to make a statement in the House today on this subject. However, on the wider issues, there is an opportunity later today—this point was flagged up by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—in the Back-Bench business debate for the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) and others to express their concerns about the matter. I have a feeling that some of them might be tempted to take that opportunity.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you give us your guidance on the appropriate procedures for a Minister to come to the House and correct factually inaccurate statements made in the Chamber? On 22 June, the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that the reason the Sheffield Forgemasters loan was not approved was that the company’s owners

“did not want to dilute their own shareholdings in the company”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 148.]

On 1 July, the Prime Minister repeated the point, saying that

“there was opportunity for them…to get more equity into the business if they wanted to…dilute their own shareholding”.

Yet this morning’s newspapers reveal that, in a letter to the company’s chief executive on 2 July, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“You explained to me the composition of equity holdings in the company including your own stake and made clear your own willingness to dilute your equity share”.

Mr Speaker, this letter clearly contradicts statements made by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister to the House, and I am sure that you will agree with me that it cannot be right for factually inaccurate statements to be made publicly in the House and then corrected purely by means of a private letter. Given that today the company has announced that it is suspending work on the 15,000 tonne project for which the loan was proposed, what is your advice on when it would be appropriate for the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House and admit publicly that the Government’s justification for this decision has been admitted by him to be wrong?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As he knows, and as others will be conscious, I am not responsible for the content—including the accuracy—of statements by Ministers. That said, if a Minister makes a factual error in a statement to the House, it is preferable, as far as I am concerned, that he or she should correct that error in the House. The right hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity very forcefully to register his point on the record, and it will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench. I do hope that if such instances arise again, the general guidance that I have just offered will be followed, for the simple reason that it makes sense and is fair.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We all appreciate what you have just said, but I should like to raise another issue. I received replies on the board yesterday from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to a number of my questions. I shall not go into that, but the replies included a background note. That is quite a novelty, as you will know—it has certainly never happened previously, in all my experience over the years of receiving answers to parliamentary questions. I was given one answer along with a background note, which says:

“Mr Winnick has asked several other questions of IPSA,”

about whether it should do this, that or the other, and the same applied with another answer. I do not mind—presumably the background note is saying, in effect, that I am a nuisance and that IPSA wishes that I would go away—but what I want to know is whether supplying a background note will become standard practice for Ministers. Indeed, I would like to see the background notes provided by civil servants to Ministers who are due to answer my questions, so perhaps on this occasion IPSA should be congratulated on setting a commendable trend.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what is, pretty much, a novel point of order. Whether those who penned the background note ever intended it to be seen by him is something that I rather doubt. I do not think that the Speaker should get into the business of dictating the precise form of answers to questions. However, in general terms, I am inclined to say that the answer should be the answer, and that should be all that is required. The idea that some supplementary text is either required or desirable seems to me to be wrong.

Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), Mr Speaker. I listened with gratitude to the answer that you gave my colleague, the shadow Minister, on Sheffield Forgemasters, but the gist that I caught was about those on the Treasury Bench conveying your sentiments, so that such things would not happen on future occasions. Would it not be appropriate to ask those on the Treasury Bench to convey that message to the Deputy Prime Minister, so that he can come to this House and right the matter, rather than—so it appears—being left in the clear, with only future transgressors affected?

That is a sophisticated point of order, which is what I suppose one would expect from someone who has served for a long time in the Whips Office. On the whole, it is not a good idea for me to get into the business of advising on the means of transmission of pieces of information or advice from one part of Government to another. That said, the hon. Gentleman has made his point, and perhaps it will be heard and heeded by people on the Treasury Bench.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In outlining the benefits of the Office of Tax Simplification, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury explained that tax simplification would result in greater revenues to the Treasury. However, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), he said that the effects of simpler taxation would be revenue-neutral. Given that the Minister is still in his place, would it be in order to ask him to reconcile those two positions?

Unfortunately the hon. Gentleman spoilt it a bit, as he was not able to keep a straight face towards the end of his attempted point of order, for the simple reason that he knows perfectly well that he was simply seeking to continue the debate.

I am conscious that we will shortly—not just yet, but shortly—have a ten-minute rule motion. The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) is waiting patiently—as, to be fair, is the Minister on the Front Bench—and we need to get on to that business before too long.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I will be brief. It was drawn to my attention this week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited my constituency—a matter of which I was not made previously aware. In order to be able to welcome senior members of the Government properly to my constituency in future, will you clarify for me your guidance, Mr Speaker, on such ministerial visits and what local Members should be made aware of?

The short answer to the hon. Lady is that if the Minister was undertaking an official visit—that is to say, on public ministerial business—the hon. Lady should have been informed by the Minister before that visit took place, preferably with reasonable notice. That is the answer.

bill presented

parliamentary Standards (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Adam Afriyie presented a Bill to amend the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 to require the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to reduce the cost and change the schemes of payment of Members of the House of Commons; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 October, and to be printed (Bill 60).