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Points Of Order

Volume 126: debated on Monday 1 February 1988

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

4.28 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that we are not allowed to challenge your judgment on individual matters relating to Standing Order No. 20. All hon. Members accept that. We have spent 20 minutes discussing the Moonies on a day when, for the first time in history, nurses in Britain have been driven by desperation to industrial action. It is possible, with great regret, to challenge the Speaker on a substantive motion. I say that because I am probably the only Member of the House who has moved a motion of censure on the Speaker. That was in relation to the refusal of an emergency debate that I sought to raise on the bombing of Oman about 30 years ago.

I beg you, Mr. Speaker, to reconsider the criteria of urgency. When the National Health Service is so poorly funded that nurses are out on strike, it must take precedence over the Moonies and the Licensing Bill. I ask you to reconsider the criteria.

If the points of order are concerned with the same subject, I will take them together.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely on a day when the two main issues are the day of action in the National Health Service and a report from the Government on the Anglo-Irish discussions, it is astonishing that the Government should use an unusual parliamentary procedure to initiate a long discussion on the Moonies and to have a half-baked statement from a half-briefed Minister on the flogging off of the Crown Suppliers. Is it not also astonishing that it was two of my hon. Friends who had to make applications under Standing Order No. 20 for debates on the National Health Service and on the Anglo-Irish talks?

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to review your decision. Surely the selection of the question to facilitate the statement on the Moonies was done only with your permission. If that was not the case, the Select Committee on Procedure should consider the matter because surely it gives enormous power to the Executive if it can choose an obscure written question on which to make a major statement on a day when applications from the Opposition show that the overriding preoccupation of hon. Members is with the day of action in the National Health Service and with the Anglo-Irish talks.

Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I ask you to reconsider the applications that were put to you. If it is to be relevant to the public, the House must reflect the preoccupations and concerns of the people. Today those preoccupations are not with the Moonies, and they are certainly not with the flogging off of the Crown Suppliers.

Order. I will deal with this matter straight away. When it was put to me that a written question should be answered in the House, the procedure was new to me. However, the hon. Gentleman will find that "Erskine May", on page 332, states:

"on a request by a Minister being made a question upon the paper for written answer has been answered orally at half-past three."
It is a rare occurrence, but it has happened before.

I have to have regard always—I said this yesterday and I do reflect every day with great care— to the criteria laid down under Standing Order No. 20: that is to say, whether to give precedence over the Orders of the Day for that day or for the succeeding day for an emergency debate. I also have to have regard to the other opportunities that exist—that is specifically laid down in the Standing Order—and not to give my reasons for so doing. It is a difficult judgment to make every day.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to investigate the circulation of the Order Paper and of Hansard? Last week, during an important Adjournment debate on the Health Service, not one Member of the Opposition was present. Therefore, their anger today must be totally synthetic.

Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), Mr. Speaker. An enormous number of people throughout the country are expressing reasonable and legitimate concerns about the Health Service. I think that you would be the first to wish that Parliament was able — [HON. MEMBERS: "Where were you last week?"]— to reflect their anger and that Members of Parliament were able to represent their constituents. My point of order is that this afternoon a large number of Health Service workers, mainly nurses, went to Trafalgar square from the hospitals where they had been working or picketing. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is the point of order?"] It is an important matter—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am raising an important matter. It is a question of the access of people to Parliament to lobby Members of Parliament. When the group of nurses sought to leave Trafalgar square and walk, not in procession but as normal citizens, down Whitehall to Parliament, in order to enter the building and lobby Members of Parliament, they were prevented from doing so by a cordon of police across the road. So the nurses were unable to move freely to Parliament to lobby their elected representatives. I understand that some of the nurses have now managed to reach the House and will be lobbying Members of Parliament. Presumably Conservative Members will wish to hear their points of view since they are not prepared to go to the hospitals to listen to them. [Interruption.]

The Minister has a nerve to sit there pontificating.

Order. The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) must contain himself.

Order. How can I hear what the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) is saying if the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, who is sitting next to him, persists in shouting into the same microphone?

I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, to rule that in accordance with the Sessional Orders that were passed by the House at the start of the session and of the new Parliament, the streets leading to Westminster are kept free and there is no let or hindrance to any person who wishes to come to the House to lobby a Member of Parliament. It is clear that the police action was in breach of the Sessional Orders. I should be grateful if you would confirm that the Sessional Orders were approved, and communicate that fact to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police so that he can ensure that they are carried out.

The Sessional Orders are concerned with the rights of Members of Parliament to come to this place. I will look into the matter that the hon. Member has raised. I had no notification of a lobby of the House today. I normally get such notification on the day when a lobby is taking place.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware that there has been a great deal of obstruction and intimidation of hon. Members in getting to the House today to attend Parliament? Hon. Members have been obstructed by a flag-waving group of militants and Socialist Workers party supporters, with very few nurses among them, which prevented some of us from attending Question Time and part of the proceedings of the House today.

Will you please send a message to the police controlling that crowd that they should permit the access of hon. Members of Parliament to the House freely so that, having been elected, we can carry out our democratic job of trying to ensure through democratic means that the nurses and the National Health Service are properly looked after by Parliament? Does the attempt to disrupt Parliament by force not prove that the nurses are being cynically and politically exploited by the Opposition and by their supporting unions, COHSE and NUPE, and that this has nothing to do with the care of patients?

I have already said that I will look into the question of any obstruction that has been caused, and certainly of obstruction caused to hon. Members. That would be contrary to the Sessional Order.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You called my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) to order. I am not saying that you did so wrongly, but I should like to put it to you that my hon. Friend made his interjection because of the loud-mouthed comments from the hon. Lady who is supposed to be a Minister and who has consistently tried to intimidate Opposition Members and who, incidentally, is an absolute disgrace to the city of Liverpool.

One of the problems that I face in the Chamber is that I hear what goes on through a microphone positioned above the hon. Member who is speaking, which is channelled to an amplifier in the wings of the Chair. I am afraid that I did not hear anything else.

Further to the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), Mr. Speaker. You will recall that in 1976 the Labour Government announced cuts of 30 per cent. in the hospital building programme. Over five years, the pay of nurses decreased in real terms.

Did the right hon. Member for Chesterfield ever make an application under Standing Order No. 20 during those five years?

You have quite properly said, Mr. Speaker, that you are guided by criteria that have been used by your predecessors. We did a little research a short while ago on what were Standing Order No. 9 applications — now Standing Order No. 20 applications—to see when they were granted. We found that, in the run-up to the so-called winter of discontent in 1978–79, when there was a Labour Government, many applications for debates under Standing Order No. 9 were made.

I do not know whether the criteria for accepting such debates were marginally different or whether Mr. Speaker looked at them differently, but our research in the Library shows that five applications were made by Tory Members—many of them to do with the NHS—and they were granted. I remember sitting over there, where Conservative Members now sit, watching them make their applications.

All I am asking is whether you will have a look at the criteria used then and see whether they have changed and whether the climate now is just as important, and to consider the environment outside this place as compared with our discussions about the Moonies and pub opening hours. Will you consider whether it is important to discuss what is after all, an historic event—thousands of nurses and other health workers going out on strike? Will you consider whether that meets the criteria for an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 20?

I shall certainly look up what happened, but the criteria have not changed. I have a clear memory of what happened at that time—it was a very different situation.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. While you are looking at the criteria, will you examine the criteria by which the Opposition are able to use Supply days and the criteria by which they can put down censure motions? Is it not a fact that what we have witnessed today is the possible leadership bid of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), as all the complaints have come from Back-Bench Labour Members? None have come from the Labour Front Bench.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) has blundered onto an important aspect of the problem. Never during the time to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referred, which I admit was a period of crisis, did nurses come out on strike. Nevertheless, applications under Standing Order No. 9 were granted, as were private notice questions. I respectfully submit that it is important to consider what happened during that time and to compare it with what is happening now. The situation now is much worse and ought therefore to be treated in a much more considerate manner.

Order. We have a heavy day ahead of us—we have two major Bills to debate. I shall consider all the points tht have been put to me. I have no doubt that the House will wish to return to this matter during Social Services questions on Tuesday.

If I may by the way respond to Conservative Members who are suggesting that I have been smoked out—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You know that it is usual for the Front Benches to speak towards the end of these exchanges. We recognise the dilemmas that you face. They have been made more acute today by the gross insensitivity of the Government who have used a fairly unused and archaic method to get the Moonies on the agenda. They have also made a statement about the Crown Suppliers on a day when, indubitably, the bulk of the British people are depressed at the thought that nurses have come out on strike for the first time in the history of that profession. That being so, my right hon. and hon. Friends will remain extremely worried and look to the support of the Chair such as the then Opposition Members received in 1978–79 in circumstances which we do not believe were any more severe than those which prevail today.

Order. One at a time please. I shall call the three hon. Members who have been rising and then move on.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The protection of the reputation of the House is one of your prime duties. I cannot compare the 1970s with the late 1980s except to say that I was just as involved then in opposing cuts as I am now. There is one difference about today. For the first time in, I think, 800 years, St. Bartholomew's hospital nurses are on strike. I know that you will not explain why an application under Standing Order No. 20 was not acceptable or why a request for a statement could not be met, but I would like to back up the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), particularly as we can spend 20 minutes on a written answer about the Moonies and we can enjoy the company of the junior Minister for health who, while my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said thousands were out on strike, contradicted him, but was not prepared to get to the Dispatch Box to put those facts, as she sees them, before the House and be cross-examined on them. You, Mr. Speaker, are the only one who can judge the criteria and whether the Moonies and pub opening hours, or the hundreds of nurses outside the building and the thousands more throughout the country, count more in the public's attention.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, if you do not make a decision today—although today is the day on which the strike is taking place—to come back tomorrow and say whether the criteria applied in the 1970s were different from those applied in the 1980s. It looks to me—

It looks to me as though the Government have used the Moonies and the Crown Suppliers to cover up, through you, the fact that they are not prepared to answer questions on the Health Service.

I do not decide whether the Government use the procedure to make a statement or to answer a question at the end of Question Time. That is not a matter for me. Provided that it is in order, it is done. It is not a decision over which I have any discretion at all.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to consider the traffic implications for this building which arise from the demonstration? I have visited four hospitals in my area today. Nurses and hospital staff have had a poster made which says:

"Hoot if you support the NHS and the nurses."
Car after car hooted. I can confirm that it is only the Tory Government who do not give a hoot for the NHS.

If the nurses and lobbyists come to the House with that poster, will they be allowed to show it? As an opinion poll shows that well over 90 per cent. of the British public support the NHS and the nurses in this campaign, it will be very noisy out there. May I have your assurance that there will not be a problem and that they will be allowed to show the poster?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I will keep this short, and I think that it is a genuine point. Surely, when a request for a statement comes to your office, you have to give your permission for the statement to be made. Do you acquaint yourself with the contents of that statement and decide whether it is worthy of being made that day?

It does not seem to make much sense that we can have this peculiar statement, using an arcane device, to hear all about the Moonies and to have a statement about the Crown Suppliers that left more questions unanswered than it answered, when a genuine desire for a statement on grave disputes in the National Health Service does not find favour. So that we can assist you, will you tell us the criteria?

I have discretion in regard to Government statements. If the Government say that they will make a statement, we have to accept that. Similarly, if a Minister wishes to answer a question at the end of questions, as happened today, that also is not a matter for my discretion.

Order. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman once. I said that I would hear the three other hon. Members who had been rising. We must now go on to the ballot for notices of motions.

Order. It may be, but I said that I would hear the three other hon. Members who were rising. The hon. Member was not one of them. We must move on to the ballot for notices of motions.