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Points of Order

Volume 536: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2011

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to make a point about the scheduling of this annual energy statement on an Opposition day when we have two extremely important debates with very short time limits for speakers. The statement was not a time-sensitive one and I hope that you will agree with me and deplore the fact that it was scheduled in Opposition time. Secondly, the timing of the statement was tweeted to the world by The Guardian environment correspondent at 9.37 this morning, 32 minutes before Opposition Front Benchers were informed that there would be a statement. Thirdly, the contents of the statement were extensively leaked to the same tweeting Guardian correspondent and appeared on its website at 10.35 this morning. Mr Speaker, I seek your rulings on these issues, which show grave discourtesy to the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, and I shall seek to the best of my ability to respond to each of her three points in turn. First, the timing of Government statements is a matter for the Government and I do not want to get into the merits or demerits of choosing a particular day, but the point will have been heard by the Deputy Leader of the House and, at a distance from the Chamber, by the Leader of the House. Secondly, let me emphasise that notification of an intended statement should first and foremost be to other hon. and right hon. Members and the shadow team. It should not be to members of the press. That is disorderly and discourteous. Thirdly, I listened intently to the Secretary of State, as I always do, when he responded to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). He assured the House that he had not spoken to journalists about the contents of the statement, and of course I accept without hesitation what he says on that point. However, I would just gently—or perhaps not so gently—remind the Secretary of State that it is not just a question of Ministers not talking to the media. Ministers must not encourage, facilitate or permit any of their team, officials or advisers to do so either. This is the second time this week that there has been an instance of substantial information in a statement being conveyed first to the media. It will be a pity if further measures have to be contemplated and adopted for dealing with situations of this kind. I hope that the Secretary of State will take what I have said as a deterrent against any future such occurrence.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 2 November the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a statement to the House regarding the Government’s latest offer to unions on the public sector pensions issue. In the statement and in the document he published, he included examples of the pensions that public sector workers would obtain under his proposal. Later that day, the Prime Minister told the House—he has repeated this today—that on that basis, low and middle earners would get more from their pensions. The Cabinet Office subsequently published on its website a pension calculator on which people could check what pension they would receive under the Chief Secretary’s latest announced offer. As was revealed on “Channel 4 News” last night, the calculator demonstrated that the Chief Secretary’s original examples were simply wrong, and that his statement and the Prime Minister’s comments were simply incorrect. The calculator showed that low and middle earners would get less at comparable retirement rates. The calculator has since been taken down from the website.

Three million public sector workers may go on strike on 30 November unless the dispute is resolved, so it is vital that accurate information be provided to the House and to the general public. The Chief Secretary has unwittingly conveyed inaccurate information to the House and, through you, Mr Speaker, I would ask that he be requested to return to the House to correct the error and provide an accurate assessment of the Government’s pension proposals.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, both for his point of order and for providing advance notice of it. All hon. and right hon. Members, including Ministers, are responsible for the content and accuracy of the statements that they make. If a mistake has been made, a Minister should correct it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who is an exceptionally clever chap, will understand if I am reluctant to trespass beyond that, because the detail and minutiae of these matters are probably well beyond my limited competence.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, I simply want to disagree with you regarding the phrase “an exceptionally clever chap”.

Well, he is certainly a modest fellow, although not with much to be modest about. We will not discuss that any further, but what I would say is that disputes about the impact of the Government’s most recent offer on pension levels are an appropriate matter for debate, and arguments over calculations and hypothetical examples are not tantamount to any deliberate misleading of the House. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced—not an old—hand who has put his concerns forcefully on the record.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you received an approach from the Health Secretary to say that he may have misled the House yesterday in Health questions when answering a question from me about the risk register for his NHS reorganisation? He told the House:

“I have been very clear and published all…risk information relating to the modernisation of the NHS”.—[Official Report, 22 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 149.]

He has made the same argument to the Information Commissioner who, in a legal decision, said that

“he does not accept the argument and considers that disclosure would go somewhat further in helping the public to better understand the risks associated with the modernisation of the NHS than any information that has previously been published.”

Will you advise the House, Mr Speaker, on how we can correct the record and get to the truth about the risks that the Government’s policies on NHS reorganisation pose to our NHS?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, but there is not much that I can offer by way of encouragement or comfort. He is an experienced Member of Parliament, and he has put his interpretation of those matters on the record. I said a moment ago that the contents of answers are a matter for Ministers, but answers to parliamentary questions are not themselves covered by the statutory provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. If he thinks either that the Minister has erred or that I have erred in my exegesis of his point of order—or, indeed, both—no doubt he will return to these matters and will require no encouragement from me to do so.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful if you could advise me how I can put on the record the fact that following the Deputy Prime Minister’s reply to me on 15 November, recorded at column 679 of Hansard, in questions on changes to the law on the succession to the throne, the right hon. Gentleman helpfully wrote to me to clarify that he was in fact referring to his conversation with the Scottish First Minister, not the Northern Ireland First Minister. He further advised me—again, very helpfully—that he has placed a copy of his letter in the Library. I am grateful to his office and to other Ministries for the way in which the matter has been handled.

The hon. Gentleman wanted to put that matter on the record, and he has done so with his customary courtesy. If there are no further points of order, we come to the ten-minute rule Bill, which the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) has been waiting patiently to introduce.