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Points Of Order

Volume 170: debated on Thursday 19 April 1990

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

4.5 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The point of order relates to the Procedure (Debate on Matters Awaiting Judicial Decision) resolution, which the House passed on 23 July 1963. You may recall that yesterday the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said:

"I cannot answer detailed questions without prejudicing the rights of people who may be on trial."—[Official Report, 18 April 1990; Vol. 170, c. 1429.]
In spite of that, this morning, the Yorkshire Post reported that Customs and Excise are "not actively considering prosecutions".

However, this is not a matter for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry because, on the date to which I have referred, the House passed, without Division, a resolution setting out the circumstances in which matters awaiting judicial decision can be referred to. It states:
"matters awaiting or under adjudication in all courts exercising a criminal jurisdiction …should not be referred to … from the time that the case has been set down for trial or otherwise brought before the court".
Therefore, there is a clear definition, The resolution also states:
"such matters may be referred to before such date unless it appears to the Chair that there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of the case."

There therefore seems to be a responsibility on you Mr. Speaker, where a Minister tries to abuse the resolution and to escape the accountability of the House over matters that are his responsibility, that you should make it clear whether it appears to you
"that there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of the case"
if a Minister attempts to seek that excuse. However, as there is no case and no trial, no Minister could possibly use that excuse. Surely, therefore, it is incumbent on the Chair to ensure that the terms of that resolution are properly carried out and that a Minister does not try to evade his responsibilities.

There is no question of that matter being sub judice. That was not raised with me yesterday. The hon. Gentleman has quoted Hansard to me, but he will also note that I said at column 1437 that

"I understood that it was the judgment of the Secretary of State himself"
that he could not answer those questions. I never said that it was sub judice.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are in danger of creating an unwelcome precedent in the House as a result of the conduct yesterday of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who abused the procedures of the House to avoid answering very important questions, to which hon. Members of all parties are entitled to candid, frank and urgent answers. The conduct of the Secretary of State yesterday has been described in one prominent newspaper today as either incompetent or dishonest.

As these matters go right to the heart of the integrity of this Government when answering for their actions in he House of Commons, I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will not simply let this matter slip away, so that such a precedent will have been established. We should have the ability, without an artificial hindrance placed before us by Ministers, to obtain answers to such important questions.

The whole House knows—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) got it right—that I said yesterday that, provided what Ministers or any other hon. Members say is in order it is not a matter for me. It is not for me to say if the Secretary of State's judgment was correct. I never said that the matter was sub judice, and it is not.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you give the House your guidance on the second motion relating to the main business of the day, the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Bill? You will note that the Order Paper contains a motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition:

"That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House."
Wholly different, separate and important considerations attach to that motion and hon. Members might take a different view on it than on the Second Reading motion. Will there be opportunities for a separate debate on the second motion?

No. The hon. Gentleman has been here a long time and he has often seen these motions on the Order Paper. It is not debatable, but it is certainly votable. I will now take Mr. Skinner. I hope that his point of order will not delay an important debate. The position has marginally improved. Now, only 48 hon. Members wish to take part.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) and subsequently to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and the Shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), you said that it was not your responsibility, notwithstanding the points that have been made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South. It is pretty clear to Opposition Members that yesterday we had a Minister present who used the opportunity to cloud the issue and wriggle away from his responsibilities. If in future you spot that and realise that a Minister is trying to use the sub judice rule wrongly, perhaps you could consider giving extra time to hon. Members who want to grill the Minister, instead of allowing him to escape his responsibilities.

I know what the hon. Member is trying to return to—the question of how long I allowed the statement to run yesterday. I hope that some of his hon. Friends who could not speak in the subsequent debate yesterday as a result of points of order had a word with him.