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Points of Order

Volume 601: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2015

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may recall that, last Thursday, there was considerable disquiet across the House about the seven-year delay in the publication of the Chilcot inquiry and the fact that the Government chose not to make a statement on that. You invited those on the Government Front Bench to consider that position, but I now understand that the Prime Minister has declined to make a statement. This involves matters that are clearly the Government’s responsibility, including claims that the Cabinet Secretary delayed the release of documents, and matters that relate to the national security timetable, which has been built into the release of Chilcot. Given the need to avoid such a disgraceful situation occurring again and in the light of the seven-year delay, can you confirm that it would have been in order for the Government to make such a statement without prejudicing the independence of the inquiry? Do you also agree that the decision not to do so—given the considerable offence caused to the 179 service families waiting for answers from the inquiry—is a matter for the Prime Minister alone?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am happy to confirm that it would have been entirely orderly for a statement by a Government Minister to be made on this matter. The right hon. Gentleman is an extremely experienced parliamentarian, and he knows that that is an entitlement of a Minister but that it is not an obligation that the Chair can impose upon a Minister. In the absence of an offer of a Government statement, he will also be well aware that there is a range of options open to hon. and right hon. Members who seek to elicit from the Government a statement of their current thinking on the matter in question. He does not need me to provide him with the toolkit, but I am happy to confirm its existence.

I am keeping the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) warm. We will come to him in a moment. I call Ian Paisley.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Twenty-seven hours ago, the single largest announcement of job losses in Northern Ireland was made, involving the loss of the jobs of 860 people directly employed by Michelin in my constituency. There has not been so much as a squeak from those on the Government Front Bench: not a statement, not a press release—quite frankly, naff all. It bothers me that a convention appears to be arising in this House that Northern Ireland has once again become a place apart, and that Ministers think that because we have a devolved Administration they do not have a responsibility to get to the Dispatch Box as a matter of urgency to issue statements on important matters that affect us, including, in this case, those 860 people in Northern Ireland. Mr Speaker, can you assure us that no such convention will be allowed to arise under your stewardship of that important Chair, and that a Minister will be urged to come to the Dispatch Box tomorrow?

I am very sensitive to the important point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I very much hope that no such convention has arisen. Suffice it to say, without going into matters that should not be raised on the Floor of the House, there is sometimes competition for time in the House—a point to which I know that he will be sensitive, not least in relation to today, when we had an important statement from the Home Secretary, which I rightly anticipated would be heavily subscribed. However, there are other days and other opportunities of a variety of kinds, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek to take those opportunities. I can assure him, eyeball to eyeball and in front of all Members present in the House, that the Chair will be no obstacle to the pursuit by him and others of such opportunities.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, you ruled that you would seek consultation on the Prime Minister’s decision to take three long-serving, active and effective Conservative members off our delegation to the Council of Europe. Those members have now been removed—against their will, as I understand it—from the delegation. You said that you would consult on this and on their suggestion that Members of this House should consider the membership of the delegation. I have examined the proposed new membership of the delegation, and I am surprised to see that among the nominations is a Member of the other House who has twice appeared before its Standards Committee and been asked to make an apology to that House because of his links with lobbyists. Many of us would like to question the membership of the delegation on that basis. This could be a further reason why this should not simply be a matter for prime ministerial diktat. These people are representing Britain in Europe, and the membership of the delegation should be a matter that we can bring to this House so that MPs can debate it and vote on it.

I did indeed say yesterday, in response to a point of order on this matter, that I would reflect upon it. I have reflected upon it and I continue to do so. I also said to the House that it was my responsibility to be assured of the propriety of the process involved, but that it was not for the Chair to assess the merits or demerits of the individual prospective candidates for membership of the delegation. There may well be an opportunity for this matter to be considered by the House relatively shortly. I do not know that that will be the case, but it could be. In the meantime, I am happy to inform the hon. Gentleman that I have not sent the list of new proposed members of the delegation to the secretariat and that, pending possible consideration of the matter by the House, it seems prudent at this stage for me not to do so. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, I tabled eight detailed and specific questions relating to the proposed extension of the limit of restoration of electrical shore supply to nuclear submarines at Her Majesty’s naval base Clyde from 20 minutes to a maximum of three hours. I have been approached by my constituents and asked to raise this matter on their behalf. However, rather than answering my eight specific questions individually, the Ministry of Defence grouped them together and gave me one answer, in which it hid behind national security issues even though my questions related to health and safety. I firmly believe that nuclear safety at Faslane is not just a matter for the MOD and for Babcock, and that it is a matter of serious concern for my constituents. Their concerns should not be dismissed in this way. I would be obliged, Mr Speaker, if you could advise me of what, if any, recourse I have in these circumstances.

Let me first say to the hon. Gentleman that I feel his pain. He has tabled a series of serious questions, and he is dissatisfied by what he regards as a grouped and minimalist response. I remember as a Back Bencher once tabling several dozen questions to a particular Department and being more than a little aggrieved to receive a grouped and extremely minimalist response.

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice yesterday of his point of order. He has set out his concerns very clearly, and no doubt those concerns have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench, who will relay them to the Ministry of Defence. I must make it clear that the content of answers to questions is a matter for Ministers, rather than for the Chair. It is quite frequently the case, under Governments of different colours, that Members do not find the answers entirely satisfactory. While it is reasonable that the Government are unwilling to put into the public domain information that would damage national security or the effectiveness of the armed forces, there has long been a debate about whether the balance between security and transparency is appropriately struck.

The hon. Gentleman asked what recourse he can seek. If he wishes, he may refer the matter to the Procedure Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), as that Committee monitors the answering of questions on behalf of the House. Alternatively, he may use his ingenuity to pursue the matter through other avenues. The Table Office is always ready to advise hon. Members on the options open to them. I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman will be making the short journey to the Table Office ere long.

Bill Presented

Marriage and Civil Partnership Registration (Mothers’ Names) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Christina Rees, Huw Irranca-Davies, Dr Rupa Huq, Frank Field, Clive Lewis, Paula Sherriff, Cat Smith, Gerald Jones, Carolyn Harris, Jenny Chapman, Nick Smith and David T. C. Davies presented a Bill to make provision about the recording of the names of the mother of each party to a marriage or civil partnership for registration purposes; to make provision for requiring such information to be displayed on marriage certificates and civil partnership certificates; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 December, and to be printed (Bill 90).