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Telephone Tapping

Volume 978: debated on Wednesday 6 February 1980

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker I ask you to give this matter consideration and rule upon it later, if necessary.

You may recall that on 31 January I asked the Home Secretary about one warrant being used for a multiplicity of telephone tappings The Home Secretary's reply was
"I shall take refuge…in saying that it would not be in the national interest for me to make any further comments."—[Official Report, 31 January 1980; Vol. 977, c. 1545.]
The effect of that, Mr. Speaker, following a Select Committee report of 1972, as I understand it, is to prevent any further questions of a detailed nature for a period of three months.

However, on 1 February, in response to a letter from an hon. Member, the Prime Minister wrote a letter elaborating in some slight detail the position relating to telephone tapping by VAT inspectors and other investigative agencies. The letter, which has been widely reported in the press, concluded by saying that law-abiding citizens had no need to fear any of these actions.

I attempted to place further questions, particularly about the number of warrants and the number of tappings, because those questions were not answered but were referred to in the letter that followed the comments of the Home Secretary. I also tried to place questions about the disposal of the tape recordings, but that was also declared to be within the three-month rule.

I think that you, Mr. Speaker, would regard it as undesirable—as I do—if a practice grew up whereby the Government answered questions and provided information by going around Parliament and writing direct to hon. Members. This is particularly so where the Government write to their own Back Benchers. I make no imputation on this occasion, because I am sure that it was done in good faith. Quite obviously, however, if information is diverted around Parliament, it is not placed on the record and it is left to the discretion of the Government and the Back Bencher involved whether it is published. In fact, information could be withheld or presented in a false way, which is not possible to such an extent in answers to questions, which are subject to scrutiny.

Will you, Mr. Speaker, examine the situation in which letters are published relating to matters that are subject to the three-month rule? Will you consider whether questions can be asked about the letter, provided it is published, and will you consider whether you could treat the interpretation of that letter as generously as possible, bearing in mind that this House should retain some sort of democratic scrutiny of the Executive, particularly as we move towards 1984?

I am obliged to the hon. Member for the way in which he submitted his point of order. He is aware that I had no prior notice and therefore he will not be surprised that I want a little time to read carefully what he said and to study the implications. I undertake to give the House a ruling in the near future.