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Points of Order

Volume 514: debated on Thursday 22 July 2010

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Deputy Prime Minister, when trying to justify the recent decision by the Government to refuse the proposed loan of £80 million to Sheffield Forgemasters said that the decision taken by the last Government had been made knowing the funds were not available. He said:

“Lord Mandelson was writing out cheques to companies like Forgemasters, which he knew would bounce”. —[Official Report, 21 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 343.]

But I am in possession of a letter sent to me a few days ago by the permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills commenting on the financial controls in place during the time that the decision to approve the loan was taken. That letter says that

“when a new project or policy is considered the Department provides thorough advice to Ministers, including on the following aspects: value for money, legal implications, delivery of policy objectives, stakeholder and media reaction and available sources of funding. When funding cannot be identified from within existing departmental budgets it is agreed with HM Treasury.

I confirm that the process above was in place while you were a Minister here”.

In other words, the permanent secretary, an official for whom I have the highest regard, is clear that it was not the case that the previous Secretary of State approved financial decisions for which funds were not available. The Deputy Prime Minister has already got his facts wrong on the directors’ shareholdings. We also have the news that a major Tory donor wrote to the Government specifically on this point and appealing for the loan not to be granted. Now the permanent secretary’s letter shows that the Deputy Prime Minister has got his facts wrong again, this time on the issue of financial approval of the loan itself.

I ask you, Mr Speaker, how can we ensure that when the Deputy Prime Minister next speaks at the Dispatch box, he does not simply spray around unfounded accusations but gets his facts right on this crucial issue?

The straightforward answer to that point of order is that—if memory serves me correctly—there will be an opportunity to question the Deputy Prime Minister on Tuesday next week. If hon. Members wish to put questions to the Deputy Prime Minister on the matter to which the right hon. Gentleman has just referred, they will have an opportunity—not least in topical questions—to do so.

So far as the wider comments the right hon. Gentleman made are concerned, I can only reiterate what I have already said about the correction of errors and underline the importance of Members using their own devices to pursue those matters. I cannot be drawn into the debate. The right hon. Gentleman has stated his position and I have indicated what opportunities there are for the pursuit of the matter.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier this week I raised a point of order with you about the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government saying in the House that he would not make any announcement about the abolition of Government offices and he was currently discussing that with interested parties—despite the fact that he had written to the contrary to the Deputy Prime Minister nine days previously. On that occasion you said that you had had no indication that the Secretary of State would come to the House to make a statement.

This morning, a written ministerial statement by the Secretary of State has announced that 1,700 posts in 10 Government offices are to be abolished. That follows a meeting that he had last night with trade union representatives when he said that he would reflect on the issues and discuss them. That is the second time in a week that the Secretary of State has indicated one thing and done another. Is it not reasonable that he should now come to the House to make a formal statement on an important issue that will affect governance and on which he has ducked and dived by making that written ministerial statement this morning?

The Secretary of State has chosen to disclose his policy through a written ministerial statement and it is open to any Minister from any Department to do that. The hon. Gentleman and others may be dissatisfied with that, and it is open to them to interrogate the Secretary of State about whatever contradictions they believe that his course of action has embodied or caused. But it is not for me to rule on whether there should be a written ministerial statement or an oral statement. The hon. Gentleman has aired his concern and I have a feeling that he will continue to air it.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Monday, the shadow Education Minister, the hon. Member for Gelding (Vernon Coaker), who is in his place, told the House:

“Just last month, the Swedish Education Minister warned the UK against adopting the free school model, stating:

‘We have actually seen a fall in the quality of Swedish schools since the free schools were introduced’”. —[Official Report, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 124.]

I believe that he was referring to an article in The Sunday Mirror on 30 May 2010. However the Swedish education Minister Bertil Ostberg said the next day in a Swedish publication Varldenidag:

“The article is very biased. It is taken out of context and misleading. I have not warned the British Government against introducing Free Schools. As for the Swedish Free Schools, I clearly said to the newspaper that the Swedish Free Schools are here to stay and it is something positive”.

The shadow Minister’s statement on Monday was therefore inaccurate. Will there be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to come to this House and correct that inaccuracy?

First, I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). Secondly, I have no responsibility for Swedish Ministers, Swedish schools, Swedish policies or Swedish newspapers.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am genuinely sorry to have to bring this point of order to your attention and to seek your clarification and guidance. I had hoped to receive clarification from the Leader of the House earlier, but did not do so. It is a fundamental point, not about individuals or personalities but about the procedures of this place. As a shadow Minister, when I step up to the Dispatch box I speak for the shadow ministerial team and I speak collectively. I did the same as a Minister when I spoke with the authority of Government and I had a responsibility to speak on behalf of the Government.

It seems this week that we have had several situations in which statements that have been made have not been prefaced with the phrase “I speak in a personal capacity”, but spoken as the Deputy Prime Minister or other Minister. Can you provide guidance on that point, for both the shadow Cabinet and the Government? Alternatively, can you show us how we can trust that statements made at the prestigious and honoured position at the Dispatch Box are Government statements, not individual views? If we wanted to give our individual views, we could go on “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Ministers speak from the Dispatch Box as Ministers, not as individuals or on behalf of parties. Ministers are responsible for what they say, and I must assume that they speak in the House on behalf of the Government.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister suggested that Lord Mandelson was going around the country with a cheque book giving out tens of billions of pounds. I now understand, from research in the Library, that the figure is hundreds of millions of pounds—a factor of 100 times less. What steps will you take, Mr Speaker, to ensure that this grotesque misleading of the nation and Parliament is corrected on the Floor of the House?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is: none. That is for the simple reason that he is seeking, and has sought, to continue a debate.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would welcome your clarification, not least in the light of the debate that was held here on Tuesday about the pre-release of statements prior to the Minister coming to the Dispatch Box. I do not have Superman’s X-ray vision, and I stand to be corrected on this, but I saw a Government Parliamentary Private Secretary come to the House and distribute among Government Back-Bench Members a document that looked very much like the statement that the Minister then went on to read. Can you offer your guidance, Mr Speaker, so that that sort of thing does not happen in the future, if indeed it happened today?

When a statement is made and has been delivered, copies are made available to all Members. That is the proper way in which to proceed. I hope that is clear.

I am not sure it requires it, but we shall see. We shall give the hon. Lady another bite of the cherry.

The document in question, which may or may not have been a statement, was distributed during business questions, although it might have been something else.

What I have already said in response to the hon. Lady’s point of order stands. I am happy to reflect further on the point, but I am not sure I want to get into the issue of precisely at what point these statements are distributed. If anything further is required on that matter, no doubt she will come back to me, and I will be happy to seek to respond. But that will do for now.

Further to the point of order by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), whom I much admire, may I, through you, Mr Speaker, reassure her that the pieces of paper to which she referred contained nothing more noxious than a few helpful suggestions of questions that might be asked—a practice that, while not entirely to be praised, is not unknown on both sides of the House, whether in government or opposition?

I am sure that the House is enriched as a result of that point of order. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have been reflecting on your guidance to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) about the position of the Deputy Prime Minister in relation to remarks attributed to him on a personal basis. Given your guidance to the House, Mr Speaker, do you think it appropriate that the Deputy Prime Minister should now come back to the House to clarify his statement yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions that the war in Iraq was an “illegal” war?

My response to the hon. Gentleman is that he is pushing his luck. I have ruled on this matter, and I have nothing to add.

Bills presented

Fixed-term Parliaments Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

The Deputy Prime Minister, supported by the Prime Minister, Sir George Young, Mr Mark Harper and Mr David Heath, presented a Bill to make provision about the dissolution of Parliament and the determination of polling days for parliamentary general elections; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 26 July, and to be printed (Bill 64) with explanatory notes (Bill 64-EN).

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

The Deputy Prime Minister, supported by the Prime Minister, Sir George Young, Mr Mark Harper and Mr David Heath, presented a Bill to make provision for a referendum on the voting system for parliamentary elections and to provide for parliamentary elections to be held under the alternative vote system if a majority of those voting in the referendum are in favour of that; to make provision about the number and size of parliamentary constituencies; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 26 July, and to be printed (Bill 63) with explanatory notes (Bill 63-EN)

Equitable Life (Payments) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mark Hoban, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Vince Cable, Mr Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Danny Alexander, Mr Francis Maude, Mr David Gauke and Justine Greening, presented a Bill to provide finance for payments in cases where persons have been adversely affected by maladministration in the regulation before December 2001 of the Equitable Life Assurance Society; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 26 July, and to be printed (Bill 62) with explanatory notes (Bill 62-EN)