Speaker attacks Ainsworth’s “rank discourtesy to the House”

October 15, 2009 at 7:32 pm Leave a comment

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The Speaker of the House of Commons has launched a blunt attack on the tactics of the government.

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth was personally upbraided by the Speaker for releasing a report highly critical of the minstry of defence’s procurements practices just an hour before a defence debate in the Commons.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox raised the issue in a point of order before the debate.

“About an hour ago, the Government published the Gray report, the very important report into acquisition which has been suppressed throughout the summer recess,” he said.

“Only this week we were told in an answer that the report is expected to be published in the autumn.

“Now, an hour—or even less—before a debate on defence, Members are asked to read and digest 296 pages of non-stop damning criticism of Government procedure.

“This is an insult to the House; it is a despicable and cowardly act and indicative of a Government who care more about their own reputation than informing the House.

“As the Secretary of State is present, may I ask, Mr. Speaker, that we get a separate statement on this tomorrow? If the Government do not provide a separate statement, the Opposition will certainly ask for an urgent question.”

Fox’s strong words were met with even stronger language from the Speaker, and a personal rebuke for a secretary of state.

“The laying of documents, including the timing of when they are laid, is a matter for Government,” he said.

“However, I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said and in the light of the fact that, as I understand it, the report was completed some time ago, I say to members of the Treasury Bench that, frankly, it can be regarded as a rank discourtesy to the House that it has been published only an hour or so before the next debate.

“As the Secretary of State for Defence is present, I invite him to respond to the point of order.”

The Treasury bench is a reference to the frontbench on the Speaker’s right, where government ministers sit.

When he was running for election in June, Speaker Bercow promised MPs that he would hold the government to account and end the practice of policy announcements being made in the press before the Commons is informed.

Bob Ainsworth did not apologise, but instead insisted the report was not completed some time ago.

“That is why it was not published before the recess, and I think the House would have been damning of me had I published it during the recess,” he said.

“I have published it at the earliest opportunity in the House.

“I sincerely regret that we were not able to get it to Opposition Members earlier this morning, but it is now available for everyone to examine, and we will be able to do that in the months ahead in the run-up to the Government’s Green Paper, where we will have to address acquisition reform and many of the issues raised by Bernard Gray.”

The Speaker was not prepared to let it lie, telling Ainsworth that while he had “listened with interest and respect to his response. I must say to him that publication a matter of an hour before the debate is regarded by Members as a discourtesy, and I confess that I myself also regard it as a discourtesy, and I hope that this will not happen again.”

Tory MP James Arbuthnot, chair of the defence select committee, rose to contradict Ainsworth.

He said he was “surprised at what the Secretary of State has just said” as he read the report in July.

“I have just read it again as fast as I could, and it has changed by a few words but its entire structure and basis are exactly the same, so for the Secretary of State to say that it was not complete before the summer recess surprises me.”

Mr Speaker said he was “grateful” for Arbuthnot’s “helpful elaboration of the issues” but declined to be drawn further.

“I have said what I have to say, and I think that what I have said is very clear.”

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