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Points of Order

Volume 513: debated on Thursday 8 July 2010

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I draw your attention to what appears to be a major defect in our procedures in the House? Our sister Parliaments in Canada and the Netherlands—countries that have made similar sacrifices to our country in blood and treasure in Afghanistan—have debated and voted on the deployment of troops to that country. Of course, our deployment took place in 2001, before the precedent was set, prior to the Iraq war, for a vote in the House before troops are deployed. At this turning point in our involvement in Afghanistan—the welcome announcement of our withdrawal of our soldiers from north Helmand and the announcement of a possible exit date—would it not be appropriate that we debate and actually vote to decide whether we want to continue to send our soldiers to Afghanistan?

The hon. Gentleman is ingenious, but he knows very well that he is seeking to inveigle me into making what is essentially a political pronouncement, and I must not do that. He has made his point very clearly. How such matters are addressed is a matter for the House. In an earlier incarnation, I had views and expressed them on this matter; in my present role, I do not have views, and therefore will not express them. However, he has expressed his views very clearly, and I have a feeling that he might want to apprise his constituents of the fact of what he said.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Numerous media reports today and yesterday have suggested that the Government intend to change the date for digital radio switchover, and that they will announce that in a speech being made this afternoon by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). Have Ministers given any indication that they intend to pay Members of this House the courtesy of informing them of this significant change in policy, which will affect millions of people and businesses in Britain, or is this the latest example of the new Government treating Parliament with complete contempt?

Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have certainly received no indication from a member of the Government that he or she intends to make a statement on this matter. The point of order that he raises will have been heard very clearly by those on the Treasury Bench. It is a matter into which I am very happy to inquire. The right hon. Gentleman, who is always keenly abreast of events, will know that I have made my views very clear about the requirement for policy statements by Ministers to be made first to this House and not—I repeat not, for the benefit of those listening on the Treasury Bench; if I could attract the attention of the Minister for Immigration, I should be grateful—outside this House.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In business questions, the Leader of the House frequently directed hon. Members to seek debates in Westminster Hall, so is it in order to ask you to investigate the apparent reluctance of a large group of Departments to answer Adjournment debates there? The same group of only nine Departments that answered debates this week are answering next week, and in the week beginning 26 July. The other larger group of 15 Departments, including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Treasury, are answering for only one week in four—the week beginning 19 July. Can Members seeking a debate with Ministers from one of those 15 Departments be told just why those Ministers are becoming less and less accountable to the House?

I say to the hon. Lady, first, that there was—I believe that I am right in saying—at one time a system of alternation, whereby one set of Departments would answer debates in Westminster Hall one week and the other would answer in the subsequent week. Strictly speaking, it is a matter for the Government to decide how to respond to issues, but in so far as the hon. Lady is airing a concern that issues which Members wish to raise are not being responded to, I am happy to look into it. I shall revert to her when I have further and better particulars.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have been advised by the Table Office, which has otherwise been incredibly helpful to me in every respect, that I am not permitted to use the word “democratic” in the title of an early-day motion. Given that we are in possibly the greatest Parliament in the world and one of the oldest democracies, do you agree that it is unusual that I should not be allowed to use that word? Would you review the rules so that that word may be allowed its rightful place in this House?

The hon. Gentleman is a new Member, although I have known him a long time, so I am sure that he will not be offended if I say that, on the whole, matters of this kind—that appertain to the Table Office and the staff of the House—should not really be raised in the form of a point of order. The hon. Gentleman is certainly entitled to appeal to me, but it is the sort of matter best dealt with not on the Floor of the House.

However, the hon. Gentleman has raised the point and, having had no previous knowledge of what he intended to say, I would respond thus. He pleads the case for being allowed to use the word “democratic” in the title of an early-day motion, but it all depends on the detail—therein lies the devil. I do not know what title he had in mind, but ordinarily the title of an early-day motion, in order to be acceptable to the Table Office, is supposed to be strictly factual. It is not supposed to be argumentative or disputatious. If an hon. Member is unhappy with the advice from the Table Office, he or she can write to me and I will consider the matter.

I hope that that is a helpful answer—it is certainly a comprehensive one—but if the hon. Gentleman has a proposal for a general change to the House’s procedures on these matters, his request should be directed to the Procedure Committee.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During business questions, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) raised the issue that IPSA’s byzantine procedures may have constituted a breach of parliamentary privilege. My concern is similar. It is that IPSA is markedly failing to pay in any reasonable time the duly accredited invoices presented to my office by those small and medium enterprises that provide services to me and to those small community organisations and charities that furnish me with a room. It may well be that their only recourse is to attempt to bring bailiffs into this House to remove objects from our offices to meet their outstanding payments. Would that constitute a breach of parliamentary privilege? Those small and medium enterprises must have some avenue by which they may receive what is duly theirs.

I have just been advised that page 167 of “Erskine May” applies in this context, and I feel sure that the full details of that are well familiar to the hon. Lady. She conjures up a lurid spectacle that will concern many hon. Members, and she does so on the basis of experience, and that is respected. She will be aware that all sorts of discussions take place between Members of Parliament and representatives of IPSA, and that is perfectly proper. However, I am sorry to have to tell her that as things stand it is clear that matters of privilege cannot be addressed by being raised on the Floor of the House in this way. If she wishes to write to me with an argument about a potential breach of privilege, it is open to her to do so. I shall look in my mailbag.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is my maiden point of order to you, so I hope that you will be gentle if I get the wrong approach. Have you any further information about the encampment in Parliament square? On Saturday some guests attending a function in the House went to see the statue of Winston Churchill. They were from abroad and thought that the encampment was a summer fete. They were approached by people from the camp who asked them for money and when it was not forthcoming they were subjected to racist abuse. They could not call the police because the camp is on an island and they did not know that the police could cross the very busy road. Do we know when the camp is to be removed? I have read in the newspapers that the Mayor of London had taken out an injunction but that it had been appealed against. It would be helpful if Members knew what progress had been made.

I am very sorry to learn of the experiences that the right hon. Gentleman describes. The short answer to his question is that the issue has been the subject of legal argument. Until that argument is fully resolved, I should be very cautious in what I say. I am keen, as I know others—including the Mayor of London—are keen, that this issue should be resolved satisfactorily in the interests of the public, including visitors to our country, as quickly as possible.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This must be a day for maiden points of order. We have just heard from the Home Secretary about the importance of the Government’s responsibility to protect the public. Can I ask you, therefore, whether it is acceptable for the Leader of the House deliberately to ignore the question that I put to him during business questions on the safety of children and looped blind cords? The response by the Leader of the House will be seen by families who have lost children in that manner as grossly unacceptable. Is such a practice appropriate?

There is no procedural impropriety concerned. I can almost smell the hon. Gentleman’s anger on behalf of his constituents, but he is seeking to continue the debate. Indeed, many Members might conclude that he has already successfully done so.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are of course the servant of the House of Commons and it could be argued that you should not make any statements without the authority of the House. However, in a rare exception, I ask whether you feel that you could raise your voice about the act of outright barbarism proposed by the Iranian Government. A 43-year-old woman is to be stoned to death. Her son has pleaded for clemency. Her offence is alleged adultery. I know that it is rare to ask the Speaker of the House of Commons to raise his voice, but a number of leading figures in the international community have done so already. We have been discussing civil liberties in our country, but let us imagine a person being stoned to death for an offence that she denies in any case. It is so primitive, so evil. In the circumstances, I wonder whether you could make a rare exception and, as the Speaker, raise your voice in protest.

The hon. Gentleman has served in this House, at this mid-point in his career, for 35 years, if memory serves me correctly, and he knows the real limitations on what the Speaker can say. My concern is that, although the issue that he has raised is a matter of real concern and humanity, it is almost certainly not a point of order. I feel strongly about the protection of civil liberties and human rights, and I take the gravest exception to their abuse.

The hon. Gentleman describes a truly horrific matter. I do not wish to treat anything that he says with levity—and I mean that—but he mentioned how several leading members of the international community had already condemned this prospect. I therefore seek to extricate myself from any difficulty by saying that whatever else the hon. Gentleman thinks of me, I am sure that he would not promote me to the level of a leading member of the international community. He has put his concerns on the record, and I have tried to be as helpful as I can. I hope that we in this House are in favour of human rights, not of their grotesque abuse.