Speaker joins critics of HMSO sell-off

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The Government is to press ahead with its controversial plan to sell off Her Majesty's Stationery Office in spite of concerns expressed by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the Commons.

Roger Freeman, the public service minister, told MPs that the privatisation of the 200-year-old HMSO - to be renamed The Stationery Office - should be complete by next summer.

Labour spokesman Derek Foster protested that the move was the result of "Tory dogma" and ministers' wish to privatise as much of the public services as possible before they were "driven out by the electorate".

Ms Boothroyd has questioned the future reliability of the service and there is also some unease on Conservative benches. Sir Patrick Cormack, MP for South Staffordshire, said there were Tory MPs "who are not necessarily excited by this proposal, who do not necessarily believe that it is in the best public interest".

He urged Mr Freeman to consider making Parliament responsible for its own publications and being voted funds to do so.

Every night, when Parliament is sitting, HMSO's south London plant prints the order papers, daily Hansard, and other documents vital to the work of MPs.

Mr Freeman published a letter to the Speaker saying he was "confident" the measures to ensure accountability and integrity "can be made strong enough to satisfy the House". He told MPs that HMSO's turnover had fallen in recent years and cuts were likely in the 2,900 workforce unless it was able to seek new sales opportunities.

Ms Boothroyd may have collected another black mark with her critics on the Tory benches when she gave extra latitude to protests at the Government's handling of benefit cuts for asylum seekers.

Social security orders withdrawing benefit from 13,000 asylum seekers come into effect on 8 January, but the procedures used leave MPs scant chance to debate the move. David Alton, Liberal Democrat MP for Mossley Hill, has written to the Speaker complaining of a "blatant abuse of Parliament".

Normally at least 18 days are allowed between orders being laid before Parliament and their implementation. The orders are due to go down on Monday, but MPs break for Christmas two days later and do not return until 9 January.

Thousands of refugees will beleft penniless. Mr Alton said the burden would fall on charities and local authorities as an estimated 10,000 people were made homeless. Labour MPs Max Madden and Paul Flynn said Parliament was being treated with "outrageous" contempt.

The clampdown is part of the controversial Asylum and Immigration Bill which is now before a standing committee.

Replying to the points of order, Ms Boothroyd said she had allowed more than one MP to speak because of the seriousness of the situation.

The chair could not interfere with the Government's use of its order making power, she said, but then added: "I hope the strong expressions which have been made in this House will have been noted by those on the Treasury front bench."

It was a clear message of disapproval of the Government's tactic. And it was a sign that Ms Boothroyd, elected as a Labour MP, has not been cowed by complaints of "bias" by Tory backbenchers.