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Council Of Europe And Western European Union (Delegations)

Volume 982: debated on Wednesday 2 April 1980

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry that I was unable to give notice of this point of order. It has arisen as a result of our inability to conclude agreements in other ways. On 3 April 1979 the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) raised a point of order about the procedure used to nominate the British parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe and to the North Atlantic Assembly. In rather graphic words he said that Front Bench Members had acted illegally for the past 28 years by using the device of a written parliamentary question in order to appear to have conveyed the will of the House to those Assemblies on the composition of any British delegation. He made that point in some detail. He said that article 25 of the Statute of the Council of Europe, quoted in full in our manual of procedure, provides that:

"the Consultative Assembly is to consist of representatives of member states elected by the several national Parliaments or appointed in such manner as those Parliaments direct."
In every case, with the exception of this Parliament, the confirmation of that fact is given by the Speaker's signature, or that of an equivalent person, on the names and credentials of the delegates concerned. That does not apply to the delegation from this country. Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you will confirm my next point in a later ruling. However, I do not think that you have ever been asked to sign the credentials of the delegates.

I suspect that a written parliamentary question will be tabled, if the precedent of the past 28 years is anything to go by, and that an answer will be given to that question with a speed that is normally denied to Back Bench Members. I suspect that a question will be tabled tonight and that an answer will appear tomorrow. I also suggest that that answer will not reflect any agreement between hon. Members of different parties about the composition of that delegation.

The rights of Back-Bench Members in particular are very much affected by this matter. In any other matter, where the composition of a body is at stake, it appears on the Order Paper in a form to which Members can object and to which they can submit amendments. In that way hon. Members can attempt to secure that the will of the House is given effect to. At times, Back-Bench Members will find that their will is defeated in the end by the size of the Government's majority. However, at least procedures exist by which their will can be expressed. As you, Mr. Speaker, protect our rights, you can ensure that they have been protected.

It appears that an attempt will be made to reduce the size of the Opposition's delegation in the Council of Europe by means of a written parliamentary question. When it appears it will be too late to do anything about it. As a result, the credentials of the delegation can be challenged in the respective assemblies. The attempt to have your name as a signatory on the list of speakers, Mr. Speaker, was an attempt to get round that difficulty.

Unless the bodies to which such delegations are sent are sure that the delegation has the full authority of the British Parliament, at the first meeting—whether of the Council of Europe or of the Western European Union—questions can be raised about the credentials of the delegation. The whole delegation—no doubt sent at the taxpayers' expense—can be sent back home. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to give the issue further consideration.

When the issue was raised by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury you said that you felt that it could be resolved by agreement between the Whips. However, no progress has been made over the past year and no satisfactory alternative has been proposed. It is therefore time for you to give further consideration to this question and, perhaps, to rule on it tomorrow. Perhaps you will also indicate to those Front-Bench Members concerned, particularly the Government Front Bench. that it would be wrong to try to slip in a parliamentary answer before you have given that ruling.

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the clarity with which he submitted his point of order. I will look into the matter and make a statement tomorrow. I am sure that the hon. Member's latter remarks will have been observed by members of the Government. The interests of the House are involved. I am sure that that will be borne in mind.

Bills Presented

Gas

Mr. Secretary Howell, supported by Mr. Secretary Joseph, Mr. Secretary Nott, Mr. John Biffen, Mr. Hamish Gray, Mr. Norman Lamont and Mr. John Moore, presented a Bill to provide that the supply of gas to any premises at an annual rate in excess of 25,000 therms shall be subject to the special agreement of the British Gas Corporation: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Thursday 3 April and to be printed. [Bill 184.]

Licensing (Amendment) (No 2)

Mr. Neville Trotter, supported by Sir Bernard Braine, Mrs. Sheila Faith, Mr. Ivan Lawrence, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. W. E. Garrett, Mr. Ron Lewis, and Mr. David Watkins, presented a Bill to amend the Licensing Act 1964 in relation to grant of special hours certificates and the extension of existing on-licences to additional types of liquor: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 18 April and to be printed. [Bill 189.]

Sittings Of The House

Ordered:

That this House do meet tomorrow at half-past Nine o'clock, that no Questions be taken after half-past Ten o'clock, and that at half-past Three o'clock Mr. Speaker do adjourn the House without putting any Question provided that this House, shall not adjourn until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]