On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On behalf of my constituent Mr Peter Hitchens, I wish to raise concern about the remark made about him in this House in the Syria debate on 29 August by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark), who said, in reference to an article by Mr Hitchens:
“Peter Hitchens wrote recently, in support of the Assad regime, that the Syrian Government were not lying and that it made ‘more sense’ for the opposition to poison and kill more than 1,000 of their own people.”—[Official Report, 29 August 2013; Vol. 566, c. 1503.]
Mr Hitchens has raised this matter with your office and directly with the hon. Member for Braintree, as have I, but it remains unresolved. Mr Hitchens does not support the Assad regime, and it is clear from his articles that he does not. He is concerned that this allegation currently rests on the Hansard record without challenge or correction. I am sure that you would agree, Mr Speaker, that it is important, in debate, that we argue on the basis of what those who disagree with us actually say, rather than what we might choose to attribute to them. I hope through this point of order to have corrected the record on behalf of my constituent.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it, as well as for sharing his intentions by letter and e-mail with the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). For my own part, speaking from the Chair, I would not seek for one moment to interpose myself in a dispute or altercation between the hon. Member for Braintree and Mr Peter Hitchens. I think that the point stands as the right hon. Gentleman has made it, and I would just like to say that the hon. Member for Braintree said what he judged and judges to be right. He was perfectly entitled to do so, and I make no criticism of him. Mr Peter Hitchens is well known to me. I have been acquainted with him for a great many years and disagreed with him for almost all of those years on almost all matters under the sun, but it is a matter of almost uncontested fact that Mr Hitchens is a man of both provocative talent and unimpeachable integrity. We will leave the matter there.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you will indulge me with the benefit of your extensive expertise in all things procedural in this Chamber. I was pulled out of the shuffle for questions to the Deputy Prime Minister tomorrow but have subsequently been notified by the Cabinet Office that the DPM is refusing to answer my question on constitutional reform. Can you offer me guidance as to how I may challenge that decision, so that the Deputy Prime Minister is held accountable by Members of this House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving notice of his intention to raise it with me. I simply say to him that it has always been for the Government to decide which Minister is responsible for answering questions. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, but as far as I can see from the material available to me nothing disorderly has occurred. It is often the case that a question put to one Minister can be judged, perfectly reasonably, to be more within the purview of another. If such a judgment has been made, it is not for the Chair to quibble with it. I do not seek to engage the hon. Gentleman further at this time, so he should not spring to his feet and recite to me the question he had posed. I think it is fair to record that in his otherwise unexceptionable letter to me on the matter dated today he does not say what the question was. I have at this stage to conclude that the transfer, though from his vantage point frustrating, was, as I say, not disorderly. But he is nothing if not a perspicacious terrier, and I feel sure that he will use all his intellectual and political resources to test the Deputy Prime Minister in another way on a different occasion. We will leave it there, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not being able to give you notice of this. The highly acclaimed Ensemble Al-Kindi from Syria was due to appear next week in Cardiff at the world music exhibition but have been denied visas, despite the fact that the following week they will be performing in Helsinki at the Savoy theatre and have visas for the Schengen area from France. Is there any means by which I could draw this case to the attention of Ministers for their urgent consideration today so that they can look at it with a view to reviewing it?
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that he has found his own salvation. He has just drawn it to the attention of those on the Government’s Front Bench. The Government Chief Whip, the Patronage Secretary, is in his place, as are other distinguished and senior Ministers. I cannot say that I am familiar with the ensemble concerned, and I have no responsibility, of course, for migration or visa policy. I can say only that if the ensemble is anything like as good as the hon. Gentleman when he is playing in MP4, the people of Cardiff will be sorely deprived by the absence of the said ensemble. We will leave it there for now.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Sadly, this is one of my points of order that will not find its own salvation. You will be aware that it is very unusual for the head of the Security Service, MI5, to make a public statement about a leak of information, and in this case he has said that it has done extreme damage to the security of this country. Given that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has made a pronouncement that The Guardian has acted in the public interest in its role in leaking this information, have you had notice of any intention to have a statement from a Cabinet Minister on whether the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility still applies?
I have received no indication that any Minister intends to come to the Dispatch Box to opine on that matter. Whether knowledge that the hon. Gentleman is keen for one or other of them to do so would act as an incentive or a disincentive to do so, I leave the House to speculate. We will leave it there for now. I hope that the appetite of the House is now about to be satisfied by the hon. Member for Rhondda.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am afraid that I need salvation from you, because on 24 May I tabled two questions to the Minister for Immigration at the Home Office, numbers 157647 and 157648. They were named day questions, which were meant to be replied to on 5 June. They were actually replied to on 8 October. That is not the worst of it. I tabled another named day question on 16 May to the same Minister, which was meant to have been replied to on 21 May, and it has still not been replied to. The Minister sends flummoxing answers.
May I make some suggestions on how we might deal with the Home Office that you might be able to take up? First, we could print every reply that is late in red on the Order Paper, so that we all know quite how often the Home Office is late. Or we could introduce a late answer penalty of £100, taken off a Minister’s salary, for every question that is answered late; I do not think that the Home Secretary would be receiving any salary at all this year. Or you could give them all a dressing-down.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who not only raises a problem but proffers a solution, which it is extraordinarily generous of him to do all in one go. My own response is rather prosaic I am afraid. In the immediate term, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman—and I mean it very seriously—that he takes the matter up directly with the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the Chair of the Procedure Committee. [Interruption.] He says that he has already done that. I should have thought that the Procedure Committee would be dissatisfied. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position that he has written to me, and I am advised thus by my secretary, but I have not yet seen the letter. When I have done and a reply is penned, it will wing its way to the hon. Gentleman.
All of those proposals will be reflected upon, but on a serious note, I do say to Ministers that it is deeply unsatisfactory, and should be a source of some shame to Ministers, including those who have overall responsibility for conduct, when delays of this kind take place. Quite apart from considerations of efficiency, it is simply rude. I know that it is not something that the Chief Whip would ever want because he is among the most courteous people in the House, but it really should be gone. I say in fairness that when the Government Chief Whip was Leader of the House he was always most solicitous in pursuing these matters with Ministers, and I feel sure that the Leader of the House, who is temporarily unavailable to us for a very short period, will, when he returns, get on to the matter without delay. I know that if that does not happen, the hon. Gentleman will be on to me again, so we must find a solution.
National Insurance Contributions Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary Vince Cable, Mr Secretary Duncan Smith, Danny Alexander, Mr Sajid Javid, Mr David Gauke and Nicky Morgan, presented a Bill to make provision in relation to national insurance contributions; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 112) with explanatory notes (Bill 112-EN).
Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill (Ways and Means) (No. 2)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, it is expedient to authorise the charging of fees which–
(a) relate to applications under Part 5 of the Police Act 1997, and
(b) are of an amount determined in a way that takes into account the costs associated with such applications in cases where no fee is payable.—(Damian Green.)