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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must first answer the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). Certainly, Prime Minister's Question Time this afternoon was very lively; I think that we can both agree with that. At all times, I must be able to use my judgment. The Prime Minister does not change the rules of the House. The House changes the rules. I am the custodian of those rules. I heard many hon. Members shouting, "Disgraceful." I did feel that some of those remarks were directed at me. I accept the hon. Gentleman's explanation that they were not directed at me--that is fine--but some were telling me to intervene and to stop the Prime Minister.

I will use my judgment at all times in the House. It is for me to use my judgment. Let me put it on the record that the worst thing that can happen is for hon. Members to tell me to intervene, because in doing so they are telling me how to do my job. Believe me: I will stay put and I will not intervene in those circumstances. I will use my judgment.

The hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to add that, when the House gets very noisy, it is unfair to those who are asking and, indeed, answering questions. The noise level has been very bad. I expect co-operation from hon. Members on both sides of the House during Prime Minister's questions and other parliamentary questions. The noise level can be far too high.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I am glad that he was not directing his cries at me, but he and others were out of order when they were shouting far too loudly in the Chamber. That goes for hon. Members on both sides of the House. It would be best to leave it at that. It was a noisy day. There was more than one excited hon. Member.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given notice in correspondence with you of the point that I want to raise, which connects directly with the point on which you have just ruled.

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I had understood that the Prime Minister could only answer questions for which he was responsible and for which the Executive were responsible. We had a contentious case today. Six weeks ago, you ruled that a question on Short money to the Prime Minister was in order. But the House vote that pays for the Short money is not a matter for the Executive or in any way a matter for the Prime Minister. As you know, it is a matter for the House of Commons Commission, which you chair. I hesitated to raise this in the House on a point of order, so I wrote to you. If I may, I will read out part of your reply:

Yours is a quasi-judicial rule, Mr. Speaker. Like judges, you are not required to provide any explanation, but explanations are generally given by judges of their decisions and rulings. I am rising now to ask whether, on reflection, you think it would be helpful to say whether the Prime Minister may now be asked questions on subjects for which he is palpably not responsible.

Mr. Speaker: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that that would not be helpful. If he wished to have a private discussion with me, that might be helpful.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case, as Hansard will show, that previous Prime Ministers--Labour and Conservative--have used Question Time and every aspect of the agenda before them to try to defend the Government's record, and that the present Prime Minister has not departed from that? I refer you to 10 January, when the Prime Minister, quoting a Conservative candidate in Birmingham, said:

No Conservative objected to that. There were points of order--from what may be described as the usual suspects--but no Conservative objected to what the Prime Minister said. What has been said today has been said previously by previous Prime Ministers. Conservative Members--certainly those who are new to the House--should consult Hansard over the years to see what those Prime Ministers have done.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is not raising a point of order.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In common with other hon. Members, I am extremely grateful for the ruling that you have just given and the guidance that you have thereby provided.

On a different point, on several dozen occasions in recent months, at a time when right hon. and hon. Members have been asking questions, at best tangentially related, if related at all, to Ministers' responsibilities, right hon. and hon. Members have busily been chatting to you while you have been occupying the Chair. I wonder if I might put it to you that it would be extremely helpful to the efficient dispatch of business and the retention of good

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order if they did not do that, because we wish, of course, to have the full benefit at all times both of your personal attention and of your intellectual resources.

Mr. Speaker: That is a bit like the kettle calling the pot black, as the hon. Gentleman is one of the chatterers.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could it ever be in order for a Leader of the Opposition to be afforded special protection in this House during Question Time or any other occasion, no matter how exposed, vulnerable or pathetic that Leader might be?

Mr. Speaker: We now move on.


Banking (Inquiry)

Mr. Christopher Leslie, supported by Mr. Phil Hope, Mr. Terry Rooney, Mr. James Plaskitt, Ms Sally Keeble, Maria Eagle, Shona McIsaac and Ms Rosie Winterton presented a Bill to require the Financial Services Authority to carry out an inquiry into the operation of overdraft facilities provided by clearing banks and deposit-taking institutions; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on 11 May, and to be printed [Bill 91].

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Bereavement Payments (Entitlement Conditions) (Amendment)

4.24 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I beg to move,

My Bill would require a change in the provisions of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Regulations, laid on 14 March 1997. These regulations--which apply to widows' benefit and widows' payment, or bereavement allowance, as it became on 9 April this year--reduced from 12 months to three the prescribed time limit within which a claim for benefit may be made. The clock starts running, effectively, from the date of death of the spouse.

The need to change those regulations was drawn to my attention by the tragic case of my young constituent Mrs. Corinna Smith. I raised this matter in an Adjournment debate more than a year ago, on 6 April 2000, and I therefore propose only to give a summary of the details. On 2 June 1999, Alan Smith of Margate was working with highly inflammable chemicals which caught fire, inflicting terrible burns, from which Mr. Smith subsequently died on 18 June, leaving a 19-year-old widow, Corinna.

Mrs. Smith was required to identify her husband's body in the Broomfield hospital, Chelmsford and then, for a second time, at the Buckland hospital, Dover, to which his remains had been transferred and where a post mortem was carried out. Alan Smith's corpse was subsequently released by the Dover coroner, who provided to the undertakers the burial order necessary for a funeral to take place on 8 July 1999.

A postponed inquest into Alan Smith's death was eventually held on 12 October 1999 and the Chelmsford registrar was finally able to issue a death certificate on 14 October. That was posted to Mrs. Smith with a covering letter, saying:

That was the first official document that Corinna Smith had received since the death of her husband four months earlier.

As Mrs. Smith was under 45, she did not qualify for a widows' pension and so she claimed the £1,000 widows' payment--the only assistance available to women facing her tragic circumstances--that she needed to help to repay money borrowed to pay for her husband's funeral and related expenses. In a pro forma notice issued by the local DSS she was told that

she would receive no money. A subsequent appeal to a tribunal delivered the decision that

I regarded, and continue to regard, the denial to Mrs. Smith of what was clearly a payment that should have been hers by right, as a considerable injustice and as an affront that added insult to dreadful injury. I engaged in an exchange of letters with the Secretary of State and

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the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley). I received much jargon and avowed sympathy for my constituent's plight, including the crass assertion that the Minister could

together with a rigid adherence to the book, which says that no payment will be made if a claim is made outside three months.

Given that the death certificate and letter of advice were not sent to Mrs. Smith until after the three-month deadline had passed, I assume that my constituent was expected either to read the fine print of every document in the DSS office or to have second sight in order to know of her entitlement. Without the necessary documentation and information it was not, of course, possible for her to claim in time.

My purpose in raising the matter in an Adjournment debate was not to win retrospective benefit which the Government were clearly determined, under rigid adherence to the regulations, to deny to Mrs. Smith, but to urge the Secretary of State to change the regulations so that no other woman would have to suffer, in similar circumstances, the indignity suffered by my constituent. In response, the Government Department charged with the duty of protecting the most vulnerable in society made it plain that, not to put too fine a point on it, my proposed and simple solution was "not thought of here", and it would not budge.

Replying to the debate, another Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle)--who, I am pleased to see, is in her place this afternoon--acknowledged that

and that

The Minister also offered, again, the helpful observation that

the first priority. But the Government's bottom line was that, as the three-month time limit is

This House of Commons has been devalued by an arrogant Executive, but if it has one useful purpose left it is, when necessary, to challenge and to change absolute rules--and that is what this Bill is about. I have made it plain that the regulations were laid by the last Conservative Government. They have been implemented and enforced by the present Government. As we all know,

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in politics there is a law of unintended consequences, and I do not for one moment believe that the authors of this nonsense intended to deny the thankfully very few Corinna Smiths of this world a pitiful bereavement benefit in their hour of need.

When I began this crusade I did not seek to apportion blame. However, it has become apparent that this Secretary of State and his Ministers are determined to perpetuate the injustice.

On 9 April, the widows' payment was replaced with the bereavement benefit, and the amount involved was increased from £1,000 to £2,000. It would have been easy to change the regulations at that time and, instead of starting the three-month clock running from the moment of death, to start it from the time when the death certificate--and the vital advice that goes with it--is issued.

That would have been easy, but this Secretary of State has chosen not to do it. It is to bring about that very simple change, and to make sure that others in the future are not denied Corinna Smith's widow's mite, that I seek leave today to introduce this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mrs. Helen Brinton, Mr. Ian Bruce, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. Nigel Jones, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Rev. Martin Smyth, Mr. Ian Stewart and Mrs. Ann Winterton.

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