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Points of Order

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2016

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Justice questions, I was alarmed to see the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is in his place, dissenting from a quote I ascribed to him from the Justice Committee this morning. I now understand why: the quote was correct, but it was uttered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), not the hon. Member for Cheltenham. Having known and liked the hon. Gentleman for many years, I am anxious to correct that error, while noting that it shows his independence of thought that I could have credited him with the quote, and his magnanimity in trusting me to set the record straight.

It is very good to note that the hon. Gentleman has been both gracious and willing to admit to error. We are deeply obliged to him, none more so than the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk). Honour is served.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for your advice on how we can determine the Government’s policy on a time-sensitive issue. Following the flooding in my constituency at the beginning of December, I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to formally apply for funding from the European Union solidarity fund. Applications to this fund must be made within 12 weeks of flooding taking place. As it was time-sensitive, I also submitted a named-day written question to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, asking if the FCO would make it its policy to apply for funding. On the last day before the House rose for Christmas, the Foreign Office replied that it would not be able to answer in time. On 20 January, however, I finally received an answer from the FCO, saying that that was not its responsibility and that the matter was one for the Department for Communities and Local Government. It took more than a month for the FCO to tell me that it was not its responsibility.

On the same day, 20 January, I received a letter from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, saying that the Prime Minister had forwarded to it my original correspondence, but that it was not a matter for DEFRA. Why would the Prime Minister transfer my correspondence to a Department that does not have responsibility for the matter at hand? Since my original correspondence, six weeks have passed and my constituency and many parts of Cumbria are again flooding today. We are coming closer and closer to the deadline for applications to the European fund. If I was unkind, I would suggest that the behaviour of the Government appears to have been to delay my query until it was too late to apply for assistance. Can you advise me, please, how an individual Member of this House can scrutinise Government policy if the Government will not tell us what it is or if they do not have one?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving me notice of it. It appears that he has received a most unsatisfactory response from the Government to his written question and to his correspondence on a matter which is clearly of urgent interest to his constituents. Although it is for the Government to decide which Department has lead responsibility for a matter, it is clearly important to parliamentary scrutiny and to public accountability that the Government are clear and consistent on where responsibility lies. What the hon. Gentleman said will have been heard on the Treasury Bench and will, I trust, be conveyed to the relevant Ministers. If he wishes to pursue the specific matter of the unsatisfactory response to his parliamentary question, he may wish to write to the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), because his Committee monitors these important matters. I hope that that will serve the hon. Gentleman for now and be a useful guide to Members across the House.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a point of order about the rights of Back Benchers to be heard in this Chamber. You will know that some of us are very good attenders at business questions on Thursdays. Last Thursday, contributions from the Front Benches took 25 minutes. I know you are very generous and we carry on with our questions, but the predominance of all three Front Benches went on for a very long time, which squeezes the genuine Back Bencher. On the Labour Benches, we genuine Back Benchers are fighting for space all the time against the Front Benchers who are also Back Benchers part-time. Perhaps you could have a word. Also, I have never known such nasty, acrimonious jousting as there was between the two Front Benches last Thursday. It was not funny and it was not nice.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about never having witnessed such unpleasantness in exchanges. I have never witnessed, in nearly 19 years in the House, the hon. Gentleman being squeezed by anybody; he almost invariably gets in. However, I take on board the very serious point he makes. Although I do not think that in the end Members are squeezed if they have the time to stay, because the record shows that I almost invariably let business questions run until everybody has had a chance to contribute, which was not always the practice in the past, I do accept that Members have time constraints and might have to go elsewhere to attend to other duties, including, of course, constituency and parliamentary duties. It is therefore important that they should not have to wait an excessive period of time.

My own view is similar to that of the hon. Gentleman. I think that the exchanges between the Front Benches do take too long, and they have recently started to take longer, not only on account of the involvement of the Scottish National party, which is a very legitimate and proper involvement, but because the exchanges between the Government and the official Opposition Front Benches are taking too long. Front Benchers have now been duly chided, and not just from the Chair, but, very importantly, by an hon. Member who will in May have had 37 years’ uninterrupted service in the House—namely, the hon. Gentleman. I hope that message will be duly heeded, starting this Thursday. I will have the point in mind as I hear the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the House. I hope that is helpful.

Well, it seems only yesterday that the hon. Gentleman entered the House, and he scarcely seems old enough to have been here for 37 years, but it will nevertheless be a fact in May. [Interruption.] Man and boy, indeed.