HC Deb 26 April 2001 vol 367 cc474-6 2.24 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that at business questions before the Easter recess, I drew to the attention of the House the fact that Members were using written questions to seek information about other Members' constituencies when one could not clearly identify a reason for the question to be asked. I named the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), who had engaged in that practice. Since then, it has been drawn to my attention that the hon. Gentleman—I gave him notice that I intended to name him—has tabled no fewer than nine questions to nine Departments about my constituency. So probing and wide-reaching are those questions that one Department has had to draw up an answer of four pages.

The cost to the public of answering such questions is enormous. Surely they are an abuse of parliamentary privilege by Members. As there is an election coming and these questions are clearly asked purely for party political purposes and the production of election literature, I wonder whether this is a matter in which you could intervene, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady's concerns. There is nothing in the rules of the House to prevent Members submitting questions that relate to another Member's constituency. However, if Members choose to ask such questions, I expect them as a matter of courtesy to give notice in advance to the colleague whose constituency is the subject of the question. If a question of that nature has been submitted without notification, I deprecate that. More generally, I hope that Members who are contemplating such action will consider carefully whether it sits well with the purpose and spirit of parliamentary questions and answers.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I crave your indulgence briefly to make two separate points of order. The first is simply a matter of the record. Today, in relation to oral Question 9 to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, which was about specialist schools, I, in a perhaps somewhat feline fashion, inserted the phrase "selective schools". The Secretary of State chose to suggest to the House that it was a Freudian slip. I gather that he now accepts that I meant what I said.

The second point of order is much more serious because it involves people's livelihoods. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that this morning there was news of approximately 1,000 redundancies at the British works of Timken, manufacturers of bearings and related products, in Northampton. That will have a considerable effect because almost all those jobs will be lost by people in the constituencies of the hon. Members for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) and in my constituency, where there is also a small Timken facility. That is a major blow to the economy of our area and severs a long-standing relationship with a well-respected United States-sourced firm. Have you, Mr. Speaker, received any representations from Ministers to make a statement on the matter? If not, will those who are now on the Treasury Bench take note of what has been said and communicate it to their colleagues, because the matter is of concern in our area?

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry to hear of men and women losing their jobs, but it is not a matter for the Chair, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would like to pay tribute, through you, to the parliamentary clerk in the Ministry of Agriculture, who has assisted Ministers in producing, throughout a very busy time, many outstanding answers to written questions that I have tabled. However, a number remain unanswered, and I would like to reinforce, through you, the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) for an opportunity for all questions to be answered in advance of any Dissolution or recess.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture is still in his place. My experience is exactly the same: I had many priority written questions on matters of great importance to my constituents, relating to foot and mouth disease, down for answer before the recess. A week after the recess, I have still received only holding answers to all those questions. Is there anything that I can do to encourage the Ministry to give my constituents the information that they so desperately need?

Mr. Speaker

I hope that the Minister has taken note of the concerns of both hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Throughout the entire crisis we have not had a full day's debate in Government time on foot and mouth. We have had several statements but, Mr. Speaker, you will have noticed that today a considerable number of Conservative Members wished to ask a question when the statement came to an end. May I ask you to use your usual understanding so that, should we have another statement from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, you will give preference to those unable to ask a question today?

Mr. Speaker

I heard some mutterings and it is understandable that those who were not called are disappointed. However, on several occasions, I have asked the Minister to come to the House to make a statement and, indeed, have kept him at the Dispatch Box for over an hour and a half. Today he was here for well over an hour, and I must give some consideration to other business before the House. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's point, I assure him that notes are taken and those who were not called today and were disappointed will not he disappointed next time.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I take the matter a step further? You will recall that before the recess, I pointed out that the Prime Minister himself had indicated that he was taking personal charge of the foot and mouth crisis because it went across all Departments. Indeed, from the answers given by the Minister of Agriculture this afternoon it is apparent that a number of issues are the responsibility of other Departments. Is there any way, Mr. Speaker, that you could make representations to ensure that the Prime Minister himself came to the House, not for a debate which, frankly, would be of lesser use, but simply to answer the questions that some of us want to ask about interdepartmental responsibilities?

Mr. Speaker

Those matters are not for me, as the hon. Gentleman knows. However, I am sure that someone will take note of what he has said.