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Points Of Order

Volume 168: debated on Wednesday 28 February 1990

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have noticed in today's Hansard a written answer by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) in reply to a question from me in relation to possible local income tax rates in Scotland. I received that answer at 7·15 last night, after leaving a Committee. I know that it was not available on the board at 6 o'clock because I took other mail from the board at that time. I have here a news release from the Scottish Conservative party in the name of Mr. Brian Meek, the leader of the Conservative group on Lothian regional council. It starts by saying:

"Commenting on the approximate rates of local income tax released today".
That clearly relates to the question and answer that are in Hansard today and which I received at 7·15 last night. The press release is timed just after 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon.

It is quite clear that the Scottish Conservative party and Mr. Brian Meek were given before I got it the information that was meant for me. That is a serious breach of parliamentary etiquette. It is not the way in which Ministers should act.

It also raises the more important constitutional issue of the very worrying relationship between the Scottish Office press department and the Tory party press office in Scotland. While a mistake may have been made on this occasion, it could only have been made if the press office in the Scottish Office gave special privileges to the Tory party in Scotland that it does not give to any other political party in Scotland or to any organisation there. I should be grateful for any help and guidance that you can give me on this matter, Mr. Speaker.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland
(Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) is correct in thinking that a mistake was made yesterday. I am glad to repeat to the House the apology that I have already made to the hon. Gentleman. There was a breakdown in communications. It was believed that the written question had been answered and that the information was in the public domain. I therefore very much regret that the written answer did not arrive on the board until 6.45pm last night and at the Library at 6.30 pm. I shall take steps to ensure that this mistake is not repeated.

Order. I am not certain after that apology whether there is much more to be said.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not making something out of nothing. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for his apology. He made it in personal terms which I entirely accept. However, I am genuinely worried about the possible repetition and what is suggested about the methods that are used. It would be in the interests of everyone if we accepted the principle that a written answer is the property of the hon. Member who put down the question until the time that the answer is in his hands. We want an assurance that the Scottish Office will look closely at its methods and make very sure—cast-iron copper-bottomed sure—that the Scottish Conservative party is not getting the kind of flier that clearly occurred in this case.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I sought yesterday at Question Time to catch your eye on five questions but was unsuccessful. Having listened to your response to the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) when he disrupted questions today with points of order, may I take it that, if I had disrupted questions yesterday, you would have given me advice as to the question on which I might be called?

The hon. Lady is being a little too sophisticated. She obviously does not come very often into Scottish questions, during which there is a good deal of chat between both sides of the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am glad that the Leader of the House is in his place, because this point concerns the transfer of questions from the Scottish Office to other Departments. It is difficult to understand what is going on. You were kind enough to call my hon. Friends the Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), who had questions on the Order Paper for answer today. My hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston tabled the following question:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland, how many old age pensioners in Scotland"—

Order. Is this not just an extension of Question Time? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Order. I say to the House and to the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) that I am constantly being urged to speed up the rate of progress in Question Time, and I try to do that, in the interests of those who have questions high on the Order Paper. I cannot possibly expect to get in every hon. Member who wishes to be called.

The point that I am making, Mr. Speaker, is about the transfer of this question by the Scottish Office to another Department. If I repeat the question to you, I think that you will agree that it is pertinent to the Scottish Office and has nothing to do with any other Department. It was:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many old age pensioners in Scotland are liable to pay only 20 per cent. of the poll tax."
That question was transferred. Neither I nor my hon. Friends understand that.

That decision was conveyed to my hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston in a letter from somebody called Catherine McGoldrick. That is a highly improper practice. The question was in order and should have been dealt with by the Scottish Office. It is not acceptable for Scottisl. Members to be treated in this way when other questions are being tabled by English Members.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his say. This is not a matter for me to understand, either. I do not transfer questions—that is a matter for the Ministers concerned. I am not responsible for such things.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Notwithstanding what you said about Scottish Question Time, because of the numerous points of order from Opposition Members, we reached only question No. 14, which is unfair for those in the first 25. Will you make it clear to the Opposition, Mr. Speaker, that all points of order will be taken after questions, not during them?

Points of order are taken at the correct time, which is after applications under Standing Order No. 20. Points of order arising during Question Time must be taken then if they need my immediate attention. I am sure that the House will accept however that, in a way, they are self-policing.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you to reflect further on the inevitable difficulties caused to our procedures if, as is the case, a junior Minister in the Scottish Office is also chairman of the Conservative party in Scotland, because he is covering the same geographical area. In those circumstances, what confidence can hon. Members have that other political parties in Scotland are being treated equitably with the Conservative party by the Scottish Office?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This relates to written questions. An interesting suggestion was made—that written questions should be the property of the hon. Member who has tabled the question until such time as that hon. Member has possession of the question. You will be aware that hon. Members often do not pick up written questions until late in the day, and that questions are also supplied to the media. Therefore, before making a decision on that suggestion one must recognise that that system would not work because of the way that this place operates, and consequently that is a request which cannot be honoured.

The point that was raised was about the availability of the question—that the question should have been available at 3.30.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are aware that I would not raise a point of order with you unless it arose out of a serious intervention, as was the case at Question Time. It was suggested that I had an interest to declare. Normally I would have brushed that aside, but in view of the strictures levelled by a senior Committee of the House on the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) and the fact that our proceedings, especially at Question Time, arc well televised and noted by the electors of Scotland, I wish wholeheartedly to declare my interest, which is——

Order. It is not necessary for interests to be declared during Question Time.

My integrity was impugned by a Conservative Member. I am happy to declare that I am withholding payment of the poll tax, as is Mrs. Douglas. We are doing so in the interests of standing beside those who cannot pay.

Order. What I say to the hon. Member—I say it to the whole House—is that if we have supplementary questions from a sedentary position, Ministers tend to answer them, and that delays our proceedings.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Question Time, the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) raised the question of the treatment of defaulters under the community charge. He is a well publicised defaulter. Should he not have declared his interest?