Speaker sides with Simon's beef

FOLLOWING concerns raised in the Commons by Chelmsford West MP Simon Burns, the Speaker is expected to crack down on the growing practice of government departments treating MPs as second class citizens to journalists.

FOLLOWING concerns raised in the Commons by Chelmsford West MP Simon Burns, the Speaker is expected to crack down on the growing practice of government departments treating MPs as second class citizens to journalists.

Before being admitted to hospital with heart problems, Speaker Michael Martin promised Mr Burns, on a point of order, that he would “investigate the matter.”

MPs jealously guard their rights and traditions and the Chelmsford West MP was seething when he received information from the Department of Health, in response to a priority, written question, 24 hours after it had been given to a weekly newspaper journalist.

He accused government of a growing contempt for MPs by supplying newspapers first with the answers.

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“On January 31, I submitted a priority named-day written question about a constituency private finance initiative scheme.

“Eleven working days later, I rang up the relevant minister's office - the staff were very helpful and provided my answer in the evening.

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“You can imagine my amazement that it took so long to receive that reply . . . and I discovered that on the Monday - the day before I received my answer - a journalist had telephoned the Department of Health's press office and asked exactly the same question.

“The answer was e-mailed to him on Monday afternoon, but I did not get a reply from the minister to the same question until Tuesday.

“I think that is a gross abuse. What can you do, as the defender of back benchers' rights, to stop such abuses,” Mr Burns asked the Speaker.

Mr Martin replied: “I am very angry that information should have been given to a journalist before it was given to the hon. Member. I shall investigate.”

The point may seem frivolous, but given the Blair government's marginalising of parliament by making major announcement on policy to the media before MPs, it is another example of the erosion of parliamentary tradition.

Although Speaker Martin has his critics, especially on the Tory benches, he has started to snarl at the way ordinary MPs are by-passed and he may now read the Riot Act to Health Secretary Patrician Hewitt and her civil servants.

The Speaker, who is 60, has been admitted to the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow suffering from chest pains and later underwent an angioplasty. In his absence, the main responsibility for chairing the Commons has fallen to his principal deputy, Saffron Walden Conservative MP Sir Alan Haselhurst, who is Chairman of Ways and Means, and who on delighted the Wednesday zipped through Questions to the Prime Minister at a rate rarely seen.

Until the Speaker returns to his duties, an extra parliamentary burden will fall on the other two deputies Sylvia Heal and Suffolk Central and Ipswich North MP Sir Michael Lord.

POLITICS may be a messy business, but even in the midst of the fiercest disagreements, it's nice to note that pleasantries are observed.

Conservative leader David Cameron was congratulated by Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions on the birth of his son, Arthur, on Valentine's Day last month.

As Mr Cameron returned to front bench duties after paternity leave, he told Mr Blair: “Can I thank you for the flowers you sent to my family.”

Alluding to the widely held belief that Gordon Brown is, in effect, jointly in charge of the Government with Mr Blair, Mr Cameron said to Tory laughter: “You may not know that I received flowers from No 10 and No 11. So I'm delighted to be the first man in history to get bunched by both our Prime Ministers.”

Mr Blair said: “Let me congratulate you very much on the birth of your child and wish you and your family well.'

To further laughter, including that of Gordon Brown, he added: “Can I also say thank you to you for your thanks to me for the flowers.

“I'm glad the Chancellor was immensely generous in sending flowers to you also. Whether he'll be as generous in the Budget or not, I don't know. I certainly hope that's the limit of his generosity to you!”

BAD news for the Liberal Democrats last week in a by-election in Chelmsford borough council's Bicknacre, East and West Hanningfield ward. The Tories polled 736 (up 2 votes from May 2003), the Lib Dems 151 (down 180) and Labour 70 (down 77), a catastrophic swing of 18.1% swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories.

BURY St Edmunds Tory MP David Ruffley will today officially open the A14 Rookery improvements at Rougham, which eliminate dangerous crossover junctions east of Bury on the trunk road from Felixstowe to the Midlands. Construction is expected to start next year on another major A14 scheme in Mr Ruffley's constituency - straightening out the notorious Haughley bends near Stowmarket.

CONSERVATIVE Party Chairman Francis Maude visited Suffolk Coastal Tories last week, meeting more than 200 activists and councillors in Woodbridge, Halesworth and Southwold.

THE number of people in Suffolk and north Essex who receive their pensions and benefits through the new Post Office card account is 85,300.

Broken down by parliamentary constituency, the figures in the round are:

Braintree 5,000; Bury St Edmunds, 5,900; Chelmsford West 4,300; Colchester, 5,600; Essex North 5,100; Harwich 10,900; Ipswich 7,800; Maldon & Chelmsford East 4,500; Saffron Walden 4,100; Suffolk Central & Ipswich North 7,300; Suffolk Coastal 6,300; Suffolk South 5,700; Suffolk West 5,300 Waveney 7,500

EARLY Day Motions, beloved of MPs because they can show their constituents that they care about subjects ranging from soccer to mental health, are in reality not worth the paper they are printed on.

Although EDMs attract support from MPs from all parties, they are usually ignored by governments because there is no formal mechanism for acknowledging them.

That might be about to change. The Commons Procedure Committee, chaired by Yorkshire East's Tory MP Greg Knight, is holding an inquiry into EDMs which will look at the possibility of debating them on the floor of the Commons rather them allowing them to languish and die out when Parliament is dissolved for a general election.

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