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Points of Order

Volume 518: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2010

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that you are aware that on 19 March 1997, the House passed a resolution that included various provisions, one of which is that it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, and another that Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and refuse to provide information only when disclosure is not in the public interest.

Yesterday evening for some hours, we debated whether the next general election should be held in 2015 or 2014. Of material relevance to that debate were the Government’s intentions in relation to the combining of polls in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with the general election in 2015. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), sat in the Chamber throughout the debate but said nothing until the very last moment at 9.30 pm, when he revealed that he intended to write to the devolved Administrations—I understand that that has already happened—to ask whether they would like a new power.

That materially affected every single aspect of yesterday afternoon’s debate. I believe not only that it was a gross discourtesy to the House for the Minister to have operated in that fashion, but that it offends directly the resolution of the House of 19 March 1997. He said that he will write to the devolved Administrations, and therefore relied on that for part of his argument. Will you, Mr Speaker, ensure that he makes all such letters available in the Library of the House? I realise that it is not within your power to tell him that we cannot have Report stage of the Bill until such time as amendments on elections can be tabled in the elected House—before they can be made in House of Lords—but can you look into whether there has been a breach of that resolution?

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that ordinarily—as he would expect—the precise contents of the resolution of 19 March 1997 are firmly imprinted on my mind almost as firmly as they are on his. Nevertheless, I am happy to refresh my memory on that matter.

On the face of it, however, I have a slight suspicion that the hon. Gentleman, who is a very assiduous parliamentarian, is continuing the debate. I am not saying that there is not something upon which I need rule, but that I am not clear whether there is. Ministers can speak when they wish in relation to those matters, including when winding up debates. I sense that the hon. Gentleman is extremely dissatisfied with ministerial silence when he expected a ministerial response. That may be a matter of a point of frustration, and there might even now and again be discourtesy, but it is not apparent to me as yet that there has been a breach of order.

I know how persistent a terrier the hon. Gentleman is, and I will look into the matter and revert to him, but I do not think that he needs to make another long point of order just yet.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would be the first to make a point of order had my hon. Friend the Minister released in writing something that should properly have been put before the House—as it was—by him in a debate on the relevant subject. I can think of no better illustration of the proper way for Ministers to behave in relation to the House.

I hope that colleagues will understand if I say that at this point, pending any further study, I feel confirmed in my suspicion by that exchange that we are having a continuation of the debate. That may be stimulating, but it is not really within the realms of points of order. Someone who I am sure knows about the realms of points of order on the strength of his 26 years’ service in the House is the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash).

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am extremely grateful to you for reminding me of that.

What happened last night was somewhat affected by the fact that the Minister’s statement came at the end of the debate. Would it not have been far more convenient and courteous to the House if he had made that announcement at the beginning of the debate? The announcement affected proceedings and the status of amendments that were not debated.

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that that may or may not be so, but unfortunately, it is not a matter of order. If he or other hon. Members are seeking to increase the powers of the Chair, they must find ways to do so—if he is asking whether I would strenuously resist, the answer is almost certainly no—but within the powers that I have, I cannot do anything about the matter other than to allow him, within limits, to expatiate, which is what he just did.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today we heard the Prime Minister pledge that the Government would stand ready to help the flood victims in Cornwall. That pledge is similar to one that he made to my constituents when we had a terrible gas explosion two weeks ago—200 households were evacuated, and a dozen people were injured, including one very seriously.

When I tried to follow up on the Prime Minister’s pledge to my constituents, his officials said that no help was forthcoming. Is it in order for the Prime Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box in Prime Minister’s questions pledging the Government’s support to victims of explosions or floods when his officials have no intention whatever of offering any support?

Of course, action should always follow words, but if we were to establish that as a total precedent in the House, it would probably create some difficulty. The hon. Lady has put her thoughts very clearly on the record. It was not really a point of order, but she is a pretty ingenious Member, and I have a feeling that she will find other ways, in debate and questioning, to air her views on that subject. I look forward to her doing just that.