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Points of Order

Volume 545: debated on Monday 21 May 2012

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank you personally, and also thank the whole House—whose opinion was expressed in an early-day motion sponsored by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) in the last Session—for supporting me in connection with the prosecution brought by the Northern Ireland Attorney-General? It is perhaps no coincidence that common sense finally prevailed last week and the Attorney-General dropped the prosecution, but issues of free speech for Members and the ancient offence of scandalising a judge are still unresolved. Will you consider, Mr Speaker, how the House could present proposals to give greater protection to freedom of speech for Members over contempt actions—whether or not statements are made in the House or outside—and make recommendations to the House?

Further to the point of order, Mr Speaker. As you might imagine, since the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) has been suffering this burden, a number of us have been looking into the possibilities. If you are able to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question in the affirmative, will you tell us whether the House could also consider recommending legislation to the Government, given that it is almost certainly necessary?

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) for his point of order, and for notice of it. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for his follow-up. Let me first say, for the benefit of both the right hon. Member for Neath and the House, that, as he will recall, my concern was that Members who wish to table an early-day motion upon this matter should be free to do so in terms that reflect their beliefs—and it was then up to them to seek support from other Members of the House, which, indeed, was forthcoming in very substantial number. I note the thanks the right hon. Gentleman has given, but I simply thought I was doing my democratic duty by the House.

Secondly, I may disappoint the right hon. Gentleman by saying the following, but it remains a fact: it would not be for me to recommend any such course of action in relation to the ancient offence to which he referred. That is not a matter for the Speaker, but the right hon. Gentleman, or any other non-ministerial Member, is free to propose legislation by way of a private Member’s Bill. Moreover, the right hon. Members for Neath and for Haltemprice and Howden and other Members are very well versed in the use of the procedures of this House to highlight what they judge to be a continuing omission or an area of policy that requires, let us say, corrective action. Knowing the right hon. Member for Neath and his track record of public campaigning on matters big and small over four decades, I doubt that he will require any further encouragement from the Chair.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 19 March 1997, the House passed a resolution which said, among other things:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.

Recently, I tabled the following question to the Prime Minister:

“To ask the Prime Minister whether he was aware at the time that on 13 December 2010 Rebekah Brooks had discussed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB.”

If ever there was a question that required a yes or no answer, that was it. I accept entirely that, like your predecessors, you, Mr Speaker, have always said you have no responsibility for ministerial replies—and I am sure you are very pleased about that. However, the Prime Minister replied:

“I had no role in the BSkyB takeover nor did I seek to influence the decision.”—[Official Report, 17 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 246W.]

I never asked him that; I asked him the question I have quoted. I therefore wonder whether the Prime Minister is in some way in conflict with the resolution passed by the House on 19 March 1997.

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order is that I am not aware that there is any conflict with the terms of the resolution. As the hon. Gentleman also noted in his point of order, the Chair is not responsible for the content of answers. The obligation upon a Minister is to provide an answer to the question posed. Whether it is an answer of sufficient quality to satisfy Members, and in this instance the hon. Gentleman, is, sadly, another matter. However, the hon. Gentleman may wish to return to this matter, and it is open to him to do so in a variety of ways—which, as he first entered the House 46 years ago last March, he will not require advice from me to identify.

Local government Finance Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Ordered,

That the Order of 10 January 2012 in the last Session of Parliament (Local Government Finance Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

1. Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the Order shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the following order: New Clauses and New Schedules relating to council tax; Amendments to Clauses 8 to 12; Amendments to Schedule 4; New Clauses and New Schedules relating to nondomestic rating; Amendments to Clauses 1 to 7; Amendments to Schedules 1 to 3; and remaining proceedings on Consideration.

3. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.—(Robert Neill.)