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Written Questions

Volume 82: debated on Wednesday 10 July 1985

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3.32 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to draw your attention to, and ask your advice about, written question No. 104, which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), which appears at page 4454 of the Order Paper and which, according to the note on the Order Paper, was tabled only yesterday, but nevertheless will be answered immediately today. That question, clearly put down at the instance of the Home Secretary, asks

"the Secretary of State for the Home Department, whether he has decided on changes to the immigration rules to comply with the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights."
It is clear that the Home Secretary is using this planted question as the occasion to make an announcement about his decision on the matter.

On 3 June I moved a Standing Order No. 10 motion that we should debate this subject, but you, within your discretion, decided that that was not the occasion for such a debate. A month later, the Home Secretary, speaking about the matter, said:
"I made it clear at the time of the decision that we would take whatever steps were necessary to ensure that we were complying with the convention as interpreted by the Court. I hope to announce our plans for doing so shortly."—[Official Report, 4 July 1985; Vol. 82, c. 508.]
The implication to a large number of people of a statement such as that by the Home Secretary must have been that he would make an announcement to the House about the Government's decision on a matter of enormous constitutional and human importance to many thousands of women in Britain.

What will now happen is that a written answer will be made available to the hon. Member for Westminster, North and to the press. It will be available to the news media for the rest of the day and be subject to the news management of the Home Office during that period. However, the House will not have an opportunity to question the Home Secretary about his decision.

I am therefore asking you, Mr. Speaker, in your role as guardian of the rights of hon. Members to explain how we can secure a statement to the House by the Home Secretary in oral form so that we may question him on a decision of very great importance indeed.

The right hon. Gentleman well knows that it is not for me to summon Ministers to make statements. I have no authority over that. It is some three or four years since I heard the phrase "planted question", so I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman means by that, either. Copies of written answers are always available in the Library, so the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who are interested in the subject—I know that many are — will have an opportunity of seeing the answer to this question.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Planted questions answered by putting the replies in the Library does not give Members of the House of Commons an opportunity to pursue this highly important—

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the answer that the Minister will give is a matter of law and might require a change in the immigration rules, would it be in order for him to make a statement, as he must before such changes can be put into operation, so that he can be questioned and these matters can be debated on the Floor of the House?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The shadow Home Secretary raised a point of order, but are we not just being presumptuous, because many times when we table questions we get a holding answer saying that the Minister will make a statement shortly? How on earth can we now discuss what might be in an answer when we have not yet seen it?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. This procedure is within the rules of the House, but Ministers are aware of special interest. I received letters this morning from two Mr. Patels, which are fairly typical of my mail. They have fiancée problems. The Home Secretary is aware that certain areas and certain hon. Members have a specific interest. Is it not your experience, Mr. Speaker, that when this kind of thing has occurred the Minister concerned has informed individual Members and given them the opportunity of contacting the Minister's private office on the matter?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I acccept what you said, that this is not a point of order, but may we have your advice on the matter? Giving a written answer to a question, whether planted or not, is giving information to Parliament, and is within the rules. However, this is a most important matter, and for the Government to proceed in this way is wrong. We need to discuss it.

Order. None of this is a matter for me. I also am a constituency Member of Parliament, and I have an interest in the matter, too. I have not seen the answer to the question. I shall be sending to the Library also. It is not a point of order for me.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have stated that it is not a matter for you, and we understand that. No doubt Ministers will argue that the procedure is in order. However, would I not be right in saying that when a matter is controversial, hon. Members should be able to question Ministers? Does not the procedure that has been adopted illustrate the contempt that Ministers have for the House of Commons?

Order. We do not know whether the matter is controversial. I have not seen the answer.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will appreciate that I have asked several questions on the issue recently. I was contacted by the press this morning and virtually told the answer. Many newspapers are running this as an important issue in their evening editions. I recognise that a planted question is not an issue for you, Mr. Speaker, but if the answer is known, and has been given to the press, is that not a matter for you?

The House well knows my oft-repeated comments on this matter. If the press has information that is embargoed, it should never make use of it before hon. Members have had an opportunity to see the answer.

Order. I cannot take any further points of order on this matter. The House well knows that it is not a matter for me. It will have to be pursued in other ways.

Thank you, Sir. May I put this to you, in the presence of the Government Chief Whip? Since I raised my point of order, evidence of concern in the House has manifested itself—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—and it is clear that if you had not decided to curtail any further points of order it would have manifested itself further. That being so, may I say, in the presence of the Government Chief Whip, that I hope that the Government will take account of what has been said this afternoon, that they will consider the comments carefully and that they will come back to the House with a response.

It is adjacent to the matter that is being discussed.

On Monday there was a fairly considerable change in the Government's policy — for which they are, of course, not responsible. The Government decided to relax trade with Argentina. The information came in the form of a written question and answer. Some would say that it was a planted question and a planted answer. However, we are not into that, because we have heard enough about it.

I should have thought, Mr. Speaker, that you, as the custodian of our affairs, would want the House of Commons, at all times when this is possible, to be able to debate the issues of the day. On Monday, I and others said, "Is it not a scandal that we have a written question and answer on trade with Argentina being relaxed?" At one time, that was a big affair. Today, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) has raised another issue. I took only a passing interest in chat matter. The Home Secretary made a promise to the House—not just to my right hon. Friend, but to Mr. Speaker—that this matter would be dealt with in the House. He was saying that you, Mr. Speaker, would be in charge of the proceedings when the matter was raised.

The last thing that we want is for the Front Bench continually to be heaping insults upon the Chair. I make a suggestion along the lines of your statement last week, after you were faced with a problem. You gave an off-the-cuff response, but came back a few days later—I do not want to have to repeat this story, because it is difficult to remember and difficult to digest—and said, "In future, I shall look at matters in a more studied fashion."

You have heard the complaints about the Government's growing practice of abusing the form of written questions and answers. I suggest that you examine this matter and return with a statement on a future occasion.

Order. It is plainly not a question on which I can make a statement. It is nothing at all to do with me. The House well knows that this is a matter for the Government. Whether statements are made, whether answers are given and whether written or oral questions are asked has nothing to do with me.

On a separate point on the same issue, Mr. Speaker. May I put it to you that you are the guardian of Back Benchers' rights in the Chamber? We respect your task. Some of us have many cases relating to the particular problem of the immigration of fiancées. The problem is that, once the issue is raised in the press as a result of a reply to a written question, a number of our constituents will come to us with different parts of the reply. If we have no opportunity in the Chamber to ask the Minister questions on the different aspects, we have no way of answering our constituents' questions. Is it not part of your duties, Mr. Speaker, in protecting the rights of individual Members who are faced with these problems, to ensure that the information comes to the House in the proper way?

Order. The House has never given the Chair that responsibility. It is not a matter for me.