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Oral Parliamentary Questions

46. Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): If he will bring forward proposals to improve the effectiveness of the system of oral parliamentary questions. [57426]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The Procedure Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into parliamentary questions. I am sure that the House looks forward with interest to its recommendations. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has already made it clear to that Committee that he would like to make oral questions more topical.

Mr. Lazarowicz: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the more the House does to make Question Time a more effective way of scrutinising Government, the better for democracy and the reputation of the House? Does he also agree that one of the problems with the system of oral questions is that the notice requirement makes it difficult to raise topical issues, and it is difficult to deal with issues in depth? May I invite him and our right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to make representations to that effect to the Modernisation Committee, so that it can make proposals for change as soon as possible?

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend is right; there is a widespread feeling in the House that we could make oral questions a lot more topical and relevant. A number of useful and interesting ideas are being discussed, as he

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said, including shortening the tabling period; electronic tabling, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said; adopting topical questions, as has been done in the House of Lords; and having fewer questions, so that those which we discuss can be discussed in much greater depth.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): As the Minister indicated, the Procedure Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, is likely to produce a report on parliamentary questions in the next fortnight, and some of its recommendations will be constructive, radical and almost revolutionary. Will the Minister, following discussion with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, assure the House and me that the report will be debated at an early date, perhaps with a report of the Modernisation Committee, which is also relatively imminent?

Mr. Bradshaw: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his excellent chairmanship of the Procedure Committee, to whose recommendations we very much look forward. I am glad to hear that they may be radical and revolutionary—not always labels with which the hon. Gentleman likes to be associated. I am sure that the whole House would like his Committee's recommendations to be debated as soon as possible.

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Fisher Foods

3.31 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

Three hundred and fifty-one redundancies will take place at once, and there will be a knock-on effect because a cold store next door to the factory will lose 84 employees, and it has been estimated that, for every job lost in the plant, four other jobs will be affected. That will have a profound impact on contractors and hauliers and, indeed, the agricultural sector in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). There may be as many as 1,500 job losses, which would double unemployment in our constituencies.

The Albert Fisher Group, the parent company, went into receivership a fortnight ago, and KPMG allowed just two weeks—an incredibly short time—for a buyer to be found for the business. We have a loyal group of staff, some of them third-generation employees, who are gutted because they have been treated with contempt by a heartless and arrogant receiver.

The company started business in 1965, and is a key, flagship local employer. It processes 84,000 tonnes of product; indeed, one in four packs of vegetables, including peas, rice, potatoes, carrots and beans, sold in our supermarkets are processed and manufactured by Fisher Foods. Since Albert Fisher took over the business from AGA in 1996, £30 million has been invested in a new packing plant and equipment. The infrastructure is superb, unique and among the best in Europe. Last year, £3.2 million was invested in a new pea-packing line. It would be a tragedy if that state-of-the-art business was closed and, even at this late stage, I hope that there is a chance of a management buy-out. I shall certainly ask to see the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to discuss with her any help that her Department can give by providing advice and expertise on MBOs.

There is a particular problem with peas. The firm's contracts with local growers for 24,000 tonnes of peas on 15,000 acres will be cancelled. The UK now has capacity for processing only 4,000 tonnes of peas, so 20,000 tonnes of peas will end up in the ground, which is another disaster. The contractors will not be paid on completion of their contract and will not be able to pay the farmers from whom they have rented land, which will have a profound impact on agriculture in my constituency and surrounding constituencies.

The problem is both immediate and urgent—obviously, it is a bleak, grim and depressing day for west Norfolk—and I very much hope that you will allow an emergency debate on it, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said and I must give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that he raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, and I cannot, therefore, submit the application to the House.

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Points of Order

3.35 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are the guardian of this House and its Members. In that capacity, you must surely be aware of the distressing stories and rumours that are circulating about a rather sinister form of information that may well be held by Departments on Members of this House. In light of this matter, can you advise me as to what action you may be able to take in your role as guardian of Members of this House with regard to information on hon. Members being held in Departments and possibly being used in some as yet unspecified way by Ministers and Departments in the context of Members of Parliament doing their job in questioning them and holding them to account? May we please have your guidance on this very worrying matter?

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that these are not just rumours. As a result of the revelations secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), I have the actual Department for Work and Pensions document that is involved. It seems to be in direct conflict with your statement of 28 November last year and contrasts with the assurances given to me by a Minister in Westminster Hall on 21 March. Will you consider that matter in particular?

It seems that secret dossiers are being held on Members of this House and the other place, and especially on those Members who are considered to be "not friendly". Presumably, that will apply to some troublemakers on the Government Benches as well as on the Opposition Benches. Is it not in direct conflict with your advice and the code of ministerial conduct that civil servants—not special advisers or political advisers, but civil servants—have been asked to prepare the dossiers? Is it not totally inappropriate that all hon. Members are not being treated equally as true representatives of our electorate and that civil servants are discriminating between different Members?

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have read the article in this morning's edition of The Independent, to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has also referred. One of the serious allegations is that not only are files being kept, but Ministers are giving different answers to different Members. I hope that you would deplore such a practice, and confirm that any written answer should be a correct factual answer and should not be different for different hon. Members in different parts of the House.

Mr. Speaker: I shall reply to the shadow Leader of the House. The right hon. Gentleman has put his concerns on record. I have to inform him that the Chair has no responsibility on these matters, but, of course, I expect Ministers to give proper replies to all hon. Members.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When hon. Members table a question, we have to abide by the rules of order governing the form and content of questions. We are not allowed to present an argument when tabling a question, and the

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question must be devoid of spin. What confidence can hon. Members have that the answers that they get will be equally devoid of spin? Is it not time that we had rules of order on the form and content of ministerial replies?

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