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Points of Order

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the Foreign Secretary’s reply to my question earlier on British arms to Syria, may I seek your advice on how what is clearly a cross-party concern to have a vote on a substantive motion in the House prior to any action being authorised can be facilitated, certainly before the recess, which is barely a month away? Would it not be a disappointment if the House had to be brought back from the recess? Could an Opposition motion be tabled which could get cross-party support, including among the leading signatories, and be debated in Opposition time? Would that be in order?

There are a number of parliamentary opportunities potentially open to the right hon. Gentleman and others. First, there is the vehicle of the debates that take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. That would be one opportunity. Secondly, it is open to the Opposition to use an Opposition day and to proceed with the matter in that way, either with an exclusively Opposition-signed motion or a motion signed more widely. I must say I have the sense that the Government are hinting that they would not dream of executing a policy decision of the kind that is being considered without first seeking a debate in the House and a vote on a substantive motion. That would obviously be the democratic course. I think it is the democratic course on a substantive motion that the Government have in mind. I am not sure that there was any other idea ever in their mind, but I feel sure that if it was in their mind, it was speedily expunged as undemocratic and inappropriate.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is there any way within the rules of order that I can place on the record that the Foreign Secretary was nodding vigorously during your remarks?

The hon. Gentleman has done that. He and others will take that as an explicit commitment by the Foreign Secretary that there will be no implementation of such a decision without the prior assent in the form of a vote on a substantive motion in this House of Commons. I think we are now clear. Happiness is now universal in the Chamber—well, almost universal.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I think we could complete that happiness. When the Foreign Secretary answered my earlier question, which was further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), as he sat down he was heard by Members on the Opposition Benches to have audibly said, “Yes.” If we could record that in Hansard, that would be very helpful, even though it was said from a sedentary position.

I think I will command universal assent when I say that the Hansard writers are expert, professional public servants of unimpeachable integrity who would not be bettered in any part of the United Kingdom in any professional capacity. [Hon. Members: “ Hear, hear.”] Good. We are agreed on that.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, of which I have given you notice. As you are aware, I have been pursuing the matter of sex offences and police cautions over many months now, and on 23 April, in pursuit of that I tabled a question to the Justice Secretary, which unfortunately fell with prorogation. I then retabled it on 13 May. When by 4 June I had received no response, my office contacted the Ministry of Justice and was told that the question would be answered “shortly”. When there was still no answer by 13 June, my office again contacted the Ministry of Justice and was told that it was “awaiting clearance from special advisers.”

There are two points to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. The first one is, and I hope you will agree, that the delay that I have experienced in getting an answer to the question is unacceptable. Secondly, is it acceptable that special advisers, whatever their responsibilities, can be used as a means of delaying response to a written parliamentary question? If you can satisfy me on those two points, joy will be unconfined.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer to his twofold question is yes and no. I agree that it is unacceptable that he should have had to have waited for as long as he has done for substantive answers to his question, and secondly, it is not acceptable that anyone should be involved in a process of effectively delaying ministerial answers to hon. or right hon. Members.

The right hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate that answers to parliamentary questions are not a matter for me directly, but I do deplore, in the most explicit terms, any failure to provide substantive answers in a timely manner. I also remind the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the Procedure Committee, under the distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), is monitoring departmental performance in this area. The right hon. Gentleman might wish to draw his particular unfortunate experience to the attention of the Committee. I hope that that is helpful and that the appetite for points of order has now been met.