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Points of Order

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2012

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Prime Minister’s questions on 24 October 2012, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)—I have given her prior notice of this point of order—made the serious accusation on the Floor of the House that a relationship existed between:

“Virgin Care donations to the Tory party, the number of Virgin Care shareholders on clinical commissioning group boards and the number of NHS contracts that have been awarded to Virgin Care”.—[Official Report, 24 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 919.]

That assertion appears to have been picked up from a blogger who has since apologised and withdrawn it. The hon. Lady’s remarks carry a very serious and clear insinuation of a potentially corrupt relationship between Virgin Care, the Conservative party and the award of NHS contracts. However, when I checked the Electoral Commission’s online register of political donations, I found no record of any donation by Virgin Care to any political party. Is it not the tradition for a Member who has perhaps inadvertently made false claims or assertions on the Floor of the House to come to the House at the earliest opportunity to set the record straight?

What I say to the hon. Gentleman is twofold. First, I hope and am confident that the hon. Member has given proper notice to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) of his intention to raise this point on the Floor of the House.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. Secondly, with specific reference to the hon. Gentleman’s question, right hon. and hon. Members must take responsibility for the accuracy of what they say in the House—the Chair cannot take over that responsibility. His point will have been heard by the hon. Member and by others, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting it on the record.

We are not going to have a debate about the matter that the hon. Gentleman could not raise. However, if he wants briefly to raise a point of order, he can.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand your concerns about raising matters in this House that are sub judice, and I would never put you, as the Speaker of the House, in that position. My question was going to be that whatever the outcome, every eventuality should be afforded to the families and that the Secretary of State should be considering a possible outcome in which the families would need support from the public purse for any inquest that might follow on from any decision in the High Court tomorrow. That is all I was asking.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is asking and what he describes as all he was asking, but I am afraid that the operation of the sub judice rule is not undertaken or applied on a selective basis entertaining various hypothetical scenarios. If a matter is sub judice, and I am so advised, it is sub judice. It is not open, in such circumstances, for a Member to pick upon an aspect of the matter that he thinks it timely to raise. The ruling I gave was on the basis of advice at the time, and I believe it to be correct. If I were incorrect, I would be very happy to say so to the hon. Gentleman. He is indefatigable in the pursuit of this issue and properly so, but he will accept that we must operate on the basis of the rules. He has said his piece, I respect that, and that is the end of it.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It might be helpful to say that my Department is mindful of the financial pressures faced by the Hillsborough families. We all recognise the very difficult circumstances they have been through, and they are certainly in our consideration.

That is not sub judice; it is a relatively unusual way for the Secretary of State to voice the Government’s thinking on this matter. I thank him in the spirit in which his comment was made. There is no doubt that if the Government have got further and better particulars on the matter, at some point that will become clear. We will leave it there and I thank him.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have never raised a point of order before, but I feel that I must today. I tabled a question for today’s questions regarding the family justice review. The question was approved by the Table Office and successfully drawn as No. 5 in the ballot, but it was withdrawn by the Ministry of Justice, because it deemed it to be irrelevant to its Department, despite the fact that it had been corresponding with me on this matter since last June. My constituent, Mr Neil Brotherton, who is trying to improve children’s access to their family when their parents separate, was to have been here today to hear the Minister’s answer. Will you advise me, Mr Speaker, on what course of action I may now pursue, not just for Mr Brotherton, but for other constituents?

I am happy to oblige the hon. Lady. I am sorry that it was her first point of order, but I am quite certain it will not be her last. My response to her point of order is twofold. First, my understanding—I do not wish to be pedantic, but I think it is factually correct and an important point—is that the question was not, as she put it, withdrawn, but transferred. Secondly, on how she should proceed, I would say that she is an ingenious Member and will know that there is plenty of scope for tabling questions, seeking Adjournment debates and raising matters during oral questions, and there are also the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, so there are plenty of facilities open to her.

Although the Table Office seeks to advise hon. Members where there is a risk of an oral parliamentary question being transferred, the prediction of the allocation of ministerial responsibility is not an exact science. It is for the Government to decide where responsibility lies for answering a question, and I do not intervene in such decisions. I recognise that they can be the source of frustration or irritation, but they are not matters for the Chair. Furthermore, for the hon. Lady’s benefit and that of the House, I must make the specific point that nothing disorderly has occurred.

I am not sure there is a further to that point of order, but the hon. Lady has been in the House 25 years, so we ought to give her the benefit of the doubt.

I, too, had an oral question down for answer during Justice Question Time, but was told at the last minute that it had been transferred to the Cabinet Office, because the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is now dealing with it, was unable to answer it as part of the Justice Front-Bench team. Will you have regard to the difficulty of raising issues on behalf of our constituents owing to internal transfers within the Government?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, but my earlier statement still applies: it is a matter for the Government. I say that not least because we are in the presence of the esteemed Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)—[Interruption.] No, there is no need for him to rise from his seat at this point, though it is always a pleasure to listen to him. Nevertheless, I attach great importance to early decisions on transfer. If a question is to be transferred, it is for the convenience of the Member and the House as a whole that the decision be taken and the Member notified at an early stage. After his 42 years in the House, I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be the first to assent to that uncontroversial proposition.