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Points of Order

Volume 539: debated on Thursday 2 February 2012

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We look forward to debating the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill, which is being presented by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs today. It will certainly be good finally to have some Government business to discuss. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, whether it is normal when a Bill is introduced outside the legislative programme, as this one has been, for the Opposition to discover its existence through leaks from the other place? Can you further advise whether it is normal for a Secretary of State when approached by her opposite number to state, “I’m not speaking to you; I don’t have to speak to you,” which was the response of the Environment Secretary when I approached her yesterday? I am not sure whether she was feeling a little out of her depth. When I informed her office, at 6.15 pm last night, that I would raise this point of order about the lack of usual courtesies, I received an e-mail from her 20 minutes later finally informing me of the Bill’s presentation in the House now. May I ask you, Mr Speaker, to use your good offices and the usual channels to ensure that the Opposition are kept fully informed of any future urgent business and that the Government do not just drip-feed information to us?

I will say a number of things to the hon. Lady. First, on the whole it is probably unwise for the Chair to rule on the matter of normality, which the hon. Lady raised early in her point of order. I shall eschew any temptation to say anything about that. Secondly, she has regaled the House with a racy and intoxicating account of the recent sequence of events which apparently perturbs her but about which I do not think any further comment from me is either necessary or helpful.

Of course, I will happily hear the hon. Gentleman. I did not know he was seeking to come in, but he will have his opportunity in a moment.

Thirdly, on the face of it, at this stage, the way in which this matter has been handled is not a matter for the Chair. All I can do, and must do, is ensure that proper notice is given to the House, and it has been. The rest of the matters may continue to be unsatisfactory in the hon. Lady’s mind, but she has given eloquent expression to her dissatisfaction.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to get on the record that the Secretary of State has written to the Opposition spokesperson, as well as to the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved Ministers, which I believe is the normal courtesy in these matters. We are very keen to work with both sides of the House to make sure that legislation is taken through in as consensual a way as possible, and we look forward to working with you and Members on both sides to make sure that that happens.

I am most grateful to the Minister. Two sides of this have been heard, and I think we will leave it there for today.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In relation to the urgent question, is it in order for Ministers to put up a spokesman who obviously does not know the answers to the questions that Members are putting to him when the Minister who does know the answers is sitting next to him?

Who the Government put up on a matter of this kind is a matter for them. As to the content of answers, whether they impress the hon. Gentleman or not and what their quality might be, that is very murky territory, certainly for the Speaker, so I shall keep away from it. I do not think the hon. Gentleman really expected an answer to his question; I think he simply wanted to give vent to his views—and that he has done.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will know that previous Speakers have ruled that when a Minister relies on a document for their argument, they are then required to publish it to the House. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury earlier referred to documents that he had signed, so surely he should publish those to the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. My understanding of the position on the question of reliance on a document and its consequent publication is that that applies where state papers are concerned, but whether it applies in this particular context I am not at all sure. I do not advance a strong view on the point. I think he is seeking to rev up or simply repeat a point that was made earlier.

The hon. Gentleman professes his innocence and says it is a new point, but even if it is, it has been clearly made and has been heard. I shall not rule on it, because I do not think it is, at this stage, a matter for the Chair to rule on, but the Leader of the House will have heard it and I have a pretty strong sense that it will percolate through to the relevant Ministers. If the hon. Gentleman is still dissatisfied, I feel sure, knowing him for the sort of upmarket terrier that he is, that he will raise the matter again at the earliest opportunity. And in case he is going to ask me whether that was a compliment, as he did the other day when I paid him a compliment and I assured him that it was, it was. We will leave it there.

Bill Presented

Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 50)

Mrs Secretary Spelman, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Vince Cable and Richard Benyon, presented a Bill to make provision for the giving of financial assistance for the purpose of securing the reduction of charges for the supply of water and the provision of sewerage services and in connection with the construction of, and the carrying out of works in respect of, water and sewerage infrastructure.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 6 February, and to be printed (Bill 299) with explanatory notes (Bill 299-EN).