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Points Of Order

Volume 404: debated on Thursday 1 May 2003

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1.27 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the context of the earlier exchange on telephone tapping, I found it a privilege to be called an ass because my master rode into Jerusalem on the coat of an ass. However, the whole House has been made an ass of in respect of what has just happened. The Leader of the House, a distinguished member of the Government who served in the Northern Ireland Office, told us that no decisions had been made; yet a junior Minister in Dublin confirmed to reporters that it was no secret that the elections were being postponed. That is bad enough, but the report also says:

"the Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy was due to make a statement in the House of Commons"
today and that the

"Prime Minister Tony Blair is to make a statement on Northern Ireland in 10 Downing Street at 2.30 pm, his official spokesman said".
Surely the mother of Parliaments in England should be standing by its citizens and this Parliament. This is a democratic forum which, as I understand it, passed a law stating that the elections should be held on 29 May.

Order. Let me answer the hon. Gentleman because it will assist the House.

I have been approached in the last 10 minutes and have agreed in exceptional circumstances, as the House will rise today for the long weekend, to a request from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement on the matter this afternoon. The statement will take place at a convenient moment after 2.30 pm.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for being so characteristically helpful, but I invite you to consider urgently what the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) just told us. If the Prime Minister intends to make a statement at No. 10 Downing street, may I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that you or your Office should urgently contact the Prime Minister and invite—I might even say instruct—him to come to the House to make a statement on this important issue? Welcome though the Secretary of State may well be in the House, surely it would be absurd and an insult to the House if the Secretary of State were to come here to make a statement while the Prime Minister was making a statement elsewhere and denying us the opportunity to question him on the issue. That cannot be right, and I ask you urgently to follow up the matter.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I cannot instruct the Prime Minister to come here.

The right hon. Gentleman put it to me that I should instruct the Prime Minister, and I am telling him that I cannot. The Northern Ireland Secretary is coming to the House to make a short statement. I further understand that there will be a fuller statement next Tuesday. That is the position, and I can say no more.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention the fact that Northern Ireland business will be discussed in Westminster Hall this afternoon? It will not have escaped anybody's attention that the core Members who are likely to be there are also likely to want to be here for the statement. Can you ensure that there is provision for a suspension of Westminster Hall, so that the great and the good and others can get here to hear this great statement? Otherwise, there will be a mass exodus from Westminster Hall and somebody will say, in parliamentary terms, "Oops, there's nobody here."

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said before, is that I am bound by the rules of the House, and it is not within those rules to suspend the proceedings in Westminster Hall while a statement is being made on the Floor of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. At the moment, under the law of this House an election has been called. What is more, I have contacted the authorities in Northern Ireland, and they tell me that, tomorrow morning, they are bound to take nominations for that election. How quickly will the House bring into conformity with the law what we are now being told is to happen?

I had assurances from the Secretary of State, over and over again, that there would be no change to the date. It was impossible for any Northern Ireland Member of the House to get anything out of the Northern Ireland Office today; we were fobbed off every time we rang. Now we have come to the House and we are told that we will hear a statement, but that is not sufficient—the law has to be changed, or else all the candidates must, under the law, submit their nomination papers tomorrow.

The hon. Gentleman should seek an opportunity to catch my eye after the Northern Ireland Secretary has made his statement, and he can then put his questions to the Secretary of State.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could the statement not at least be delayed until after 2.30 pm because of the position of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? Westminster Hall will meet at half-past 2 to debate its important report on terrorism. We need an opportunity at least to have some discussion about that. If there is no possibility of abandoning or holding up those proceedings, perhaps Westminster Hall could finish its business early so that Members could return to the Floor of the House. If the statement was postponed for three quarters of an hour, so that it started at 3.15 pm, it would be possible to accommodate Northern Ireland Members on the Select Committee who want to debate the report in Westminster Hall.

I must work on the basis of what is convenient to the House, and the House has always been keen to put it to me that Ministers must come here and inform the House. That is why I have made the exceptional decision to interrupt a debate to allow a Minister to come to the House to talk about a matter that is of great concern, particularly to Northern Ireland Members.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have always been most assiduous in protecting our rights and in ensuring that Ministers of the Crown, whenever possible, come first to the House to give statements on important matters. You said that the Northern Ireland Secretary thought that it would be convenient to come here this afternoon. Since his intention was known to the Government of the Republic of Ireland before business questions, would it not have been much more convenient for Members if the matter had been put on the annunciator in good time and we could have had the statement at the appropriate moment, namely, at the close of ordinary questions? We could then have had a full attendance of Members and this important matter could have been given the attention that it deserves. Can you bring to the attention of Her Majesty's Ministers the dissatisfaction of the House?

Let me explain that my decision is an exceptional one. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it would have been more convenient if due notice of the statement had been given so that it could have gone on the annunciator. However, I faced the problem that we are about to go into a long weekend, and to refuse the request would have been to deny the House the opportunity to question the Secretary of State.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Let me make my position plain. I understand some of the comments that have been made, and in view of my earlier remarks I wish to assure the House that when I entered the Chamber my information was that no decision to make any changes had been made. I would not want anyone here to think—not that anyone would—that I had in any way, inadvertently or otherwise, misled the House.

This is a difficult situation, and often things change literally by the minute. I ask for the indulgence of right hon. and hon. Members in understanding how fast flowing decisions in Northern Ireland can be when they are dependent on all sorts of discussions. I can tell the House that, in the previous 24 hours, I have discussed the matter with the Northern Ireland Secretary a couple of times, but when I entered the Chamber no decision had been made. Of course, had I any inkling that a decision was likely to be made in the three quarters of an hour during which I was here, I would have shared that with the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek to be helpful to the House, particularly to Northern Ireland Members, who will be very interested in the statement to be made by the Northern Ireland Secretary. Having said that, may I say that I had not for one moment doubted the integrity of the Leader of House? I do not think that a single Member doubted his integrity. He came here in total ignorance of what has subsequently happened.

You, Mr. Speaker, have talked about the convenience of Members, particularly those from Northern Ireland. Would not it be possible to have the statement either at half-past 5, when Westminster Hall ceases its debate, or at 2 o'clock or even a quarter to 2 today, to enable Northern Ireland Members to hear the statement and ask supplementary questions and to participate in what is, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said, a very important debate on terrorism in Northern Ireland?

What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that a Minister has asked to come to the House as soon as possible, and I have accepted that request. I know that it causes inconvenience in other parts of the House, but I have agreed to that request, and that is why the statement will be made at half-past 2.