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Points Of Order

Volume 128: debated on Wednesday 2 March 1988

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4.38 pm

Order. I will take the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) first.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This afternoon I received on the letter board a letter from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about equal opportunity legislation in employment, on which I had an exchange yesterday with the Prime Minister here in the House, which seemed to attract a fair bit of sympathy and support from Opposition Members. The letter refers to a statement which is being made today.

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you had any knowledge of any intention to make such a statement in the House earlier today? I ask the question because I understand that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland held a press conference at 3.30 this afternoon at Stormont, at which he answered questions from journalists. Is there any reason why the Secretary of State has avoided answering questions from hon. Members, and has that avoidance not constituted a contempt of the House?

I have had no notification of a statement today, and I know of none that may be forthcoming—but we will have to wait to see about that. I did hear what the right hon. Gentleman asked yesterday, and I heard — [Interruption.] Order. — and I heard the Prime Minister reply.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the Secretary of State for Scotland's statement, when you, Mr. Speaker, rightly, in the United Kingdom House of Commons, called one of the English hon. Members to ask a question—albeit that he had not been present for the statement— you said that this is the United Kingdom House of Commons. You may recall that, during the debate on the Inner London education authority, my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) and for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and I intervened. You reproved us, saying, "This is a debate on the ILEA and not on Scotland." On that issue, I wonder whether you will make it clear that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and that every debate, even the Welsh debate later on, is open to all Members of the House of Commons?

All right. I shall take care about that.

My second point, also arising from the statement, is that you, Mr. Speaker, will have observed that a large number of English hon. Members wanted to get in on the Scottish statement. Will you consider that, in spite of the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) helpfully wrote to the Leader of the House — the right hon. Gentleman said during business questions last Thursday that it was a helpful letter— about the Scottish Select Committee, the Leader of the House, who is here today, seemed to be unable to get any Conservative Members to sit on the Scottish Select Committee? That is a great paradox.

Order. Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's other point. I repeat that there is a Welsh debate today and that a large number of hon. Members wish to take part in it. Of course, what is sauce for every goose is sauce for every gander, and every hon. Member has an equal right to participate in the United Kingdom Parliament. I said what I said to the hon. Member the other evening because he was seeking to intervene from a sedentary position.

Yes, he was. I was present. It was in the middle of a speech, and the Minister did not give way.

Order. The hon. Gentleman was another. Both hon. Members were sitting on the Back Benches.

Order. The hon. Members did not seek to participate in the debate; they sought to intervene in a speech.

Mr. Speaker, I have to say that on that occasion I was trying to raise what I thought was a perfectly legitimate point of order in relation to that debate. I was on my feet raising a point of order when you made that comment. Every hon. Member is entitled to do that.

Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), Mr. Speaker. I was appalled that the Secretary of State should show contempt for the House by making a statement on equal opportunities to a press conference in Northern Ireland. When I was told that a statement was to be made, I assumed that normal parliamentary practice would be followed, and that a statement would be made to the House.

Therefore, through you, Mr. Speaker, may I urge the Government to produce the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box today, at no matter what time, so that he can be cross-examined about those proposals? We do not object to fair employment anywhere in the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State ought to say why he has not introduced — as I have always wanted — a Bill of Rights for the whole of the United Kingdom, and if not for Great Britain, at least for Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will have heard what has been said about that statement.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does it not appear that the Government have achieved a unique treble, in that they have insulted Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on the same day? It is very embarrassing for you, Mr. Speaker, but it is even more embarrassing for hon. Members for Wales who are being pushed to the end of the list on this debate. The Leader of the House is responsible for that muddle. When he arranged for the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement today, he must have known the uproar that legitimately would come from this side of the House. The Leader of the House must have known that the Secretary of State was going to sabotage the Welsh debate. What remedy can he give to the House?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. John Wakeham)

Far from insulting Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, we have scored three bull's eyes. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made a very welcome statement to the House today. As for Wales, we have arranged a debate today, 2 March. That is better than the Labour Government achieved. When the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) was Leader of the House, he failed to arrange any debate on Welsh Affairs in certain years. As for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend has answered a written question on that matter today.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Standing Committee on the Licensing (Retail Sales) Bill had its first meeting today and the Chairman of that Committee advised hon. Members to refer to you the actions of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) who has written to churches in the constituencies of hon. Members calling for prayers and fasting—

Order. That is a matter on which I have received a letter from the hon. Gentleman alleging a matter of privilege. I am considering the matter.

I apologise to Welsh colleagues on both sides of the House for raising this matter, but just over two hours ago, Mr. Speaker, you kindly called me on question No. 3 to the Foreign Office on the funding of the BBC. The issue of order is the habit of Ministers of saying that matters are the responsibility of another Department when the Table Office has rightly accepted a question of particular relevance for the Foreign Office. Alan Protheroe said:

"The BBC will lose its abilities to make programmes that are challenging, programmes that do expose issues that people, politicians, whoever, do not wish to have exposed"—

It is a point of order— [AN HON. MEMBER: "Cheeky."] It is not at all cheeky. The Minister said that that was a matter for the Home Office. That statement by the former assistant director general of the BBC was a matter for the Foreign Office. When, apparently, the BBC has to submit scripts if it is to have injunctions lifted, it is quite wrong for Ministers to shirk their responsibility on questions on the Order Paper. On the funding of the BBC, Mr. Protheroe was quite right.

He may have been, but I cannot be responsible for answers given to questions.

I appreciate the difficulty of the House over applications to you, Mr. Speaker, on prima facie breaches of privilege, but some hon. Members are in a difficult situation on the Standing Committee on the Licensing (Retail Sales) Bill, to which reference was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham). Letters have been sent—

Order. That is the very matter on which I have received not one but several letters alleging a matter of privilege. The hon. Member and the House know that matters of privilege cannot be raised on the Floor of the House. I am dealing with the matter.

It may be, but the hon. Gentleman must not raise it as a matter of privilege on the Floor of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are in some difficulty in trying to discharge their duty as members of Committees for which they have been selected. They have a legitimate right to examine private Members' Bills, put down amendments and move new clauses in Committee. At present, they feel grossly inhibited by the actions of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and they are seeking an urgent ruling from you, Mr. Speaker. It is quite unreasonable for us to expect them to do their duty on those Committees while they are under such pressures.

It is an urgent and important matter, and I urge you, Mr. Speaker, to give a ruling as quickly as possible, or to ask the Chair of the relevant Committee — [HON. MEMBERS: "Chairman."] — to adjourn the proceedings until your ruling has been made; otherwise members of that Committee may feel abused simply for carrying out their ordinary tasks—[Interruption.] It is no good one of the Government Whips laughing at the embarrassment and difficulties of two of his hon. Friends. He should have some sympathy for their quandary.

Order. Some years ago the House changed the rules with regard to matters of privilege. They must now be raised by letter to the Speaker. I received that letter just before I came into the Chamber. I shall certainly consider the matter seriously.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There have been a number of statements recently, such as the one today, about privatisation. They raise a new aspect which the House has not considered before. It was revealed yesterday that in the Register of Members' Interests the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) is shown as the honorary adviser to British Aerospace plc which is involved in privatisation. The Table Office has accepted a question from me on the involvement of the right hon. Member for Chingford. It has been accepted because there has been an involvement, I understand. We have had a statement today. I think that it is incumbent on Ministers, when there is involvement among a wide range of business interests of Tory Back Benchers, who are very keen on privatisation to get their greedy fingers into the profits which are accruing, and Ministers—

Order. This is a day on which many hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) wish to participate in the Welsh debate. Will he come to the point of order for me?

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to use your authority to draw the attention of the Procedure Committee to the new set of circumstances so that there may be a Standing Order which makes it incumbent on Ministers making statements on privatisation to list in the Orders of the Day hon. Members who will make approaches to their financial advantage on the Stock Exchange?

Order. There is not at the moment a Procedure Committee, but when one is set up the hon. Gentleman could refer that matter to it.

As of 4.15 this afternoon, I would have wanted to be in the Public Accounts Committee which is taking evidence on the privatisation of Rolls-Royce, but I could not be there because of the rule which you introduced earlier last year, Mr. Speaker, whereby points of order could be taken only at this time of the day—

That is not the truth. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well the background. That it was not convenient to him to stay to raise a point of order, I fully appreciate, but he has to have regard to the convenience of the House.

That is precisely the point that I wish to raise with you. I wish to raise an article which was published this morning in The Guardian under the name of Mr. Andrew Rawnsley which has caused offence to many of my hon. Friends. [Interruption.] It is a very important matter. This scurrilous article, which will lead to representations being made to the editor of The Guardian, alleges in reference to—

Order. I have now seen the article. I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman and the whole House on the matter. In particular, I think I can help Welsh Members. I have been handed a copy of the article and I have received a letter from an Opposition Member alleging a breach of privilege. I shall give the matter most urgent consideration.

An hon. Member has raised it. I cannot go into the details, because it may prejudice my decision.

My point of order is not a matter of privilege. If other hon. Members wish to write to you on matters of privilege, that is their and your concern. I raise the position of hon. Members who have other duties. That is not a matter of privilege. The article refers to yesterday's proceedings.

Yesterday, I was in the Select Committee on Members' Interests. At 4.15 pm, there was not a quorum to enable that Committee to commence. I had a choice: I could either attend the Chamber or attend the Committee. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that in the event that journalists write articles suggesting that Labour Members of Parliament are drunk, lazy or incompetent — [Interruption.] — that may be a matter which my hon. Friends have to take into account when they decide on the allocation of their time to the carrying out of their public duties. I put it to you—[Interruption.]

Order. Will those on the Front Bench refrain from shouting across the Chamber?

I was placed in the same position today. At 4.15, I was faced with a decision: do I attend to my public duties in the Public Accounts Committee in questioning Sir Brian Hayes on the privatisation of Rolls-Royce, or do I wait here on the Floor to raise a point of order or to attend a debate? I look to you to advise the House today, and, indeed, the 500,000 readers of The Guardian, that this article is a totally unfair and unreasonable presentation of what happens in the House of Commons, in so far as it does not indicate to the country accurately the way in which Members of Parliament legitimately carry out their public duties.

I shall consider the matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has not prejudiced what I will do.

Order. [Interruption.] Order. Let me say that all of us recognise that hon. Members have other responsibilities as well as attendance in the Chamber.

Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), Mr. Speaker. May I ask whether you accept the implication in the statement made by the Leader of the House, that an answer given to a planted question by a Conservative Back Bencher is equivalent to a statement made on the affairs of Northern Ireland?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask for your guidance on a matter relating to the use of House of Commons stationery and pre-printed envelopes. Evidence arose in a Committee this morning which I do not believe is a matter of privilege but may be a matter for yourself or the Serjeant at Arms. An hon. Member may have written, or may have caused to have written, a large number of letters to the constituents of other hon. Members, unsolicited, the letters being in a standard form. There is much evidence to suggest that the letters were on House of Commons headed notepaper and used House of Commons pre-printed envelopes. If this were the case, can you guide me as to whether this is something which I should refer to you or to the Serjeant at Arms? I believe that there is strong evidence that an hon. Member has abused his privilege and the facilities of the House in order to stir up trouble among the constituents of other hon. Members.

Order. If the hon. Member can produce evidence of that, he should certainly refer it to the Serjeant at Arms, because there are strict rules about the use of stationery.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) is referring to letters which I sent out, I can assure him that the stationery and envelopes which were used by me were paid for with the Serjeant at Arms.

Further to the point of order which was raised earlier, I should like to raise a new point of order which concerns a prayer vigil which was held in Norwich recently. I refer you to the Eastern Daily Press of 16 February which described a prayer vigil which had taken place the night before as being broken up. What happened—

Order. I find it extremely difficult to see what point of order can arise for me, as Speaker, about a prayer vigil which took place in Norwich.

The point of order is a clear one for you, Mr. Speaker. It is that the protection of hon. Members is a matter for you. When mobs are incited to break up prayer vigils, when mobs picket the homes of hon. Members, and when mobs picket their surgeries and impede their normal parliamentary business, is that not also a matter of privilege, and is that not also something which should be referred to the Privileges Committee?

If the hon. Gentleman alleges that he has been impeded in his duties, he should certainly write to me.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Were you notified by the Serjeant at Arms about what happened yesterday? [Interruption.]

Order. I would be grateful if hon. Members would refrain from having private conversations when I am listening to points of order.

Were you, Sir, notified by the Serjeant at Arms and the police authorities of what occurred yesterday? Three groups of people lobbied Members of Parliament, and between 3 and 4 o'clock there were literally hundreds of people outside—mainly teachers, who were rightly lobbying against the Education Reform Bill. Did the Serjeant at Arms inform you of the number of green cards that came in for hon. Members and the number of hon. Members who rightly responded by going to see their constituents, many of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to put their point of view?

Perhaps you, Sir, will guide us. In those circumstances, was it not right for hon. Members to be absent from the Chamber to attend upon their constituents? Surely hon. Members' constituents should be able to lobby this place when they have strong feelings.

I was aware of a lobby yesterday. I understood that the meeting took place in the Grand Committee Room. I was not notified of any problems about green cards.

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), Mr. Speaker. Has the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) applied you to make a personal statement on the ground that he has written to the constituents of a number of hon. Members, myself included, I believe, on House of Commons paper making completely and utterly unfounded allegations—

He says not, but I had a letter from an organisation called the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children which was circulated widely in my constituency. The letter began, "I believe you have received a letter from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill," or words to that effect. Whatever else has happened, unfounded allegations have certainly been circulated widely in my constituency and I believe that this is an attempt to impede me in my work as a Member of this House. I resent deeply and bitterly tactics such as this and hon. Members' going behind other hon. Members' backs. It is a pity, because, actually, I have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's Bill.

If the hon. Gentleman alleges that, he too should write to me. I shall consider his letter together with the others that I have received on this matter.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not know which hon. Member has written to you about the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). However, it seems appropriate to make it clear—even before you have had an opportunity to consider the representations made to you—that my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), who was named as being inexplicably absent from the Chamber yesterday, had been ill since the weekend — to the knowledge of Opposition Members and the Whips. Most hon. Members — even those who mock us from time to time — will agree that it is in the interests of all of us to expect the Press Gallery to exercise professional standards and find out the truth before they vilify hon. Members.

When you have considered the letter that you have received complaining about Andrew Rawnsley and his appalling article, Sir, will you make a statement to the House about it? Most of us would want to follow up this matter one way or another once you have made your decision.

I shall follow the procedure laid down in dealing with matters of privilege.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is now after 5 o'clock. There is only one day in the year for Welsh affairs. Therefore, can we have "speaking-up time" or an extension?

There is a lot of business after this. However, as the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter. I must say that I have great sympathy for Welsh Members. I hope that those who are called will speak briefly.