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Points Of Order

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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4.21 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will have heard, as will the House, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say about an hour and a half ago that it is essential that the political neutrality and integrity of the civil service is maintained. I understand that your attention was drawn to an incident during the debate—the Liberal Democrat debate—on public services on Monday, when a note was passed from the box occupied by civil servants to a Government Back Bencher, who then used that material in the debate. The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) drew attention to that at the time, and the occupant of the Chair took note of it, so I am sure that it has come to your attention.

Can you give us an assurance that that practice will be discontinued immediately, and that the person responsible will be identified? Can we be given some indication as to whether it was a civil servant or a political adviser?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising his point of order, because it gives me yet another opportunity to remind the House of the conventions that relate to the officials box. I made a full statement about this matter a year ago, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, but it is apparent that some Members and officials need to be reminded of the salient points. I am happy to take this opportunity to do so.

The officials box is intended for civil servants and political advisers with civil service status whose attendance is deemed essential by the Minister concerned. Their admittance into the box is by my permission, and their function is to provide information and briefing to Ministers as required.

The only Members who should be in communication with officials in the box are the Minister concerned, the Parliamentary Private Secretary or, in the latter's absence, another Member operating with the Minister's authority. Officials in the box should not provide information to any other Member, nor should Members engage in social discussion with officials in the box.

Those in the box are required to conduct themselves discreetly at all times, and should on no account show any partiality while they are present.

I regret to say that, in recent weeks, there have been instances of every one of these requirements being breached. I trust that there will be no recurrence.

As regards the particular incident to which the hon. Gentleman refers, my investigations have revealed that there was indeed a breach of the conventions. The Minister concerned has expressed his regret to me, and I accept it.

I am drawing this statement to the attention of all parliamentary clerks and to the Cabinet Secretary. I do not want to see any recurrence at any time.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I always take responsibility for matters for which I am responsible. I was one of those Members who, when in opposition, used to draw attention to this rule frequently. The person who breached the rule on Monday was one of the my political advisers. It was not his fault. I had failed to draw this rule to his attention. I apologise to the House. It will never happen again.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance—not for the first time—on two points.

First, is it in order for the Prime Minister to refuse to retract an incorrect statement about another hon. Member, even when his error has been drawn to his attention? Secondly, although I recognise—as, I think, does the House in general—that, since 1 May, the format of Prime Minister's Questions has been changed, I was not aware that it was in order for the Prime Minister to ask an hon. Member to answer a question during Prime Minister's Question Time. If it is in order, is it in order for me to answer that question now—or has the Prime Minister forgotten that he is Prime Minister, and does he mistakenly think that I am?

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Perhaps I can bring the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) up to date. I sat on those Opposition Benches for 18 years and asked all sorts of questions, some of which were difficult to answer. Sometimes, when a Minister was asked a difficult question, he would ask me one. I understand that, and the hon. Gentleman must understand it. In the real world, he must get used to the idea of being on the losing side. I have been inured to defeat for many, many years. I say to the hon. Gentleman: stop whingeing, stop whining and get on with the job.

Perhaps I might respond to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), as he asked me a question. I shall deal first with the second part of his point of order. Of course, all Ministers are responsible for the decisions they make. They are the ones who should be responding to questions; they should not be asking them. The Executive are responsible to the House, and should be answering questions.

May I finish my answer first?

In answer to the first point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham, let me say that all Ministers—indeed, all Members of Parliament—are responsible for the comments they make. That has nothing whatever to do with me.

Well, I am not going to allow a debate on the matter, but, if the right hon. Gentleman is raising another point of order, I must accept a point of order from the Secretary of State.

As I understand it, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) objected to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's saying that he had been a special adviser to Mr. Jonathan Aitken. My right hon. Friend was relying on the current copy of Dod's guide to the new House of Commons, published in 1997, which states that clearly. If the hon. Gentleman objects, he should take the matter up with Dod's.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have a dreadful suspicion that I may be on the losing side, but let me try in any case. It is a matter of whether the House of Commons should have a say before important events take place, rather than being presented with a fait accompli.

You may recall, Madam Speaker, that you were kind enough to call me at Prime Minister's Question Time. I asked about Madeleine Albright and her visit to the Arab states. On 20 November, a vital meeting will take place between our Foreign Secretary and those of China, Russia, the United States and France. The issue may be military action or not military action.

Would it not be a matter for the House of Commons if the Foreign Secretary at least asked if he could make some kind of statement before attending the critical meeting in Geneva, which may affect what happens throughout the middle east? Should not the House have an opportunity to have a say before a decision is made?

The hon. Gentleman is never on the losing side—as far as I am concerned, he is usually on the winning side. I remember granting his Standing Order No. 24 application for three minutes only a few days ago, when he was able to raise this issue—an issue about which I know he feels passionately. He has also made other submissions to me about it.

I was delighted to be able to call the hon. Gentleman today. He was one of the few hon. Members whom I had discretion to call at Prime Minister's Question Time, when he was also able to raise the issue. If the Minister wishes to come to the Dispatch Box and make a statement about a meeting that he may attend tomorrow or on Friday, I will, of course, be in the Chair to hear it; but it is for the Minister to determine whether he wishes to make a statement.

I am sorry, Madam Speaker, to have to interrupt the proceedings of the House to raise a matter that is of great concern in my constituency—

I must make it clear, because I want to be helpful to hon. Members, that a point of order does not have to be on a serious matter, but it must be a matter to which I, as Speaker of the House, can respond. I must have some responsibility.

My point relates to a missing fishing boat with four fishermen. I know that the House will be as concerned as I am about this matter. I seek a ministerial statement on this incident and on the searches that are being carried out to ensure that the boat is found.

I quite understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. He is asking me whether a Minister has given me notice that he wants to make a statement on that matter. The answer is that I have not been given notice of a. ministerial statement, but those on the Government Front Bench will have noted the hon. Gentleman's concern, and I hope that they will pass on his comments.