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Points of Order

Volume 534: debated on Monday 31 October 2011

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have made it very clear on a number of occasions that Government announcements should be made first to this House. Over the weekend, there were a number of stories in the media, complete with quotes from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, about the contents of today’s written statement about council tax on empty and second homes, which was made available only in the last hour and a half. This is the second time in a week that Communities and Local Government Ministers acting in this way has given rise to a point of order. Do you think such actions are acceptable and, if not, what can be done?

I would say two things to the right hon. Gentleman. First, I shall look into the specifics of this case, and in particular into what he has just said about attributed quotes. Secondly, let me reiterate a point that, as he rightly observes, I have made on innumerable occasions: it is a matter of straightforward courtesy and parliamentary propriety that statements of policy should first be made to this House, not elsewhere, and not by nods and winks or by leaks. I hope that is clear.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a statement on the eurozone crisis. As the Prime Minister has now returned to the country, many people would have expected him to come to the House today to give his report on the recent summit, and especially on the proposals for the creation of a two-tier Europe. To my knowledge, this is the first time that the Prime Minister has not appeared before the House in such circumstances. Will you take such steps as are necessary to urge him to do so on this vital question that affects not only this House but the whole of the country?

The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member with 27 years’ service in the House, so he will know better than most of his parliamentary colleagues that whether Ministers make statements—and if so, when—is a matter for Ministers, not the Chair. However, through making his point of order, he has made his point, which may possibly have been his intention.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I make it clear that the topical question that I asked earlier about the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was about the ministerial code, which was altered last year, and which

“obliges ministers to declare all hospitality accepted in a ‘ministerial capacity’ and all meetings with external organisations”?

If that means that a Minister can decide, on an unknown basis, whether he is meeting someone in a ministerial or a personal capacity, it makes a nonsense of that alleged improvement.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and let me level with him: when he asked his question in DCLG questions, it was not clear to me—perhaps it should have been; perhaps the fault was mine—that the question was framed around the Minister acting in his ministerial capacity, with reference to the relevance of the ministerial code. It was because I thought as I did at the time that I ruled as I did. However, since then the hon. Gentleman has come along with, from my point of view, further and better information. I am grateful to him for explaining the point, and I hope he will accept my response in the spirit in which it is intended. It is always a dangerous enterprise to joust with somebody who has written a book about how to be a Back Bencher.

Yes, and a good one as well, as the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) helpfully points out, albeit from a sedentary position.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Thursday morning, I discovered that my substantive oral question to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the impact of levels of bank lending on small and medium-sized businesses, which had been accepted by the Table Office and drawn first in the shuffle, had been removed from the Order Paper at the instigation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which claimed that it was a Treasury responsibility. I was informed by the Table Office that I had been written to by the Department on Monday evening. I regret to inform you that neither my constituency office, nor my Westminster office received any such letter. Neither was I e-mailed or contacted by telephone by the Department, with the result that the first I was made aware of the question being transferred was through its absence from the Order Paper on Thursday morning and my subsequent inquiry at the Table Office.

I was most grateful to be able to catch your eye during topical questions, Mr Speaker, but the behaviour of the Department raises real concerns about the high-handed way in which the Government are treating legitimate questions raised by right hon. and hon. Members. Can you offer any advice on how Departments should behave in such circumstances in future to ensure that the fundamental democratic right of this House to hold the Executive properly to account is protected and that Members are treated with the courtesy they should expect when raising matters on behalf of their constituents? Have you received any indication from the Business Secretary regarding his intention to come to the House to make a statement on why he is no longer prepared to answer for the Government’s record on bank lending, although he was prepared to respond to such questions as late as June?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The short answer to his question is that of course transfers are a matter for the Department concerned, but the Department that makes a transfer of a right hon. or hon. Member’s question should do so at the earliest possible stage and should accept responsibility for directly notifying the Member well in advance of the fact of that change. Failure to meet that test is a discourtesy, both to the hon. Member and to the House. I think it is helpful, and probably not entirely coincidental, that as the hon. Gentleman has raised this important point of order, he has done so in the presence of the Leader of the House, who I know will have such communications with his colleagues as are necessary to secure an improvement in conduct.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you could give me some guidance on whether the Secretary of State should come to this Chamber to answer urgent questions, such as the one we heard on feed-in tariffs—

Order. I do not mean to be discourteous to the hon. Gentleman in any way, but it was obvious where his question was headed. The short answer is that the choice of Minister to respond to an urgent question is exclusively a matter for the Government. Members can have an opinion about it, and they may have wanted Mr Secretary Huhne to be here this afternoon as opposed to Minister Barker, but that is a judgment entirely for the Government. It is not a matter for the Chair.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you will know, ever since Edward II was removed by Parliament as King, the royal succession has been a matter for the whole of Parliament—for both Houses—to determine. I wholly welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has gone off to Australia and announced that he is going to bring in some changes in respect of the royal succession, but he has not brought them to this House first. In particular, he has referred to one element of this—the matter of the male preference primogeniture—but has made absolutely no reference to the issue of how the succession should be dealt with in relation to Catholics and marriage to Catholics. Will you make sure, in so far as you are able, and as previous Speakers have done when such matters have arisen, that this issue is brought to the Floor of the House, either in the form of a statement or by some other means so that we can all inform the Prime Minister exactly how we approve of what he has done and how we would like him to go further?

I have no idea what my predecessors did or did not do in relation to comparable matters, and the history books would have to be studied by me with some intensity and speed in order for me to answer that point made by the hon. Gentleman. But his wider point I take, and he has registered it—I think that was probably his main purpose for today. Wherever the Prime Minister is, there is a real prospect that the verdict of the Voice of Rhondda will be made known to him. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman rather pessimistically chunters from a sedentary position that he thinks that that is unlikely, but he should live in hope; we all attach importance to his words.

If there are no further points of order, we will move on to Mr Secretary Clarke. We have been saving him up.