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Points of Order

Volume 497: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2009

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to raise a chain of events that may be of some concern to the House. Today The Guardian reported that it had been prevented from reporting a written question tabled by a Member of Parliament. This morning I telephoned The Guardian to ask whether that MP was myself. The question was printed on the Order Paper yesterday and relates to the activities of Trafigura, an international oil trader at the centre of a controversy concerning toxic waste dumping on the Ivory Coast. The question also relates to the role of its solicitors, Carter-Ruck. I understand that yesterday Carter-Ruck, quite astonishingly, warned The Guardian of legal action if the newspaper reported my question. In view of the seriousness of this, Mr. Speaker, will you accept representations from me over this matter and consider whether Carter-Ruck’s behaviour constitutes potential contempt of Parliament?

In a moment.

Let me first say to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) that I think that he has just made representations. I am grateful to him for his point of order and for courteously giving me advance notice of it. A written question has indeed been tabled, as he said, by the hon. Gentleman himself. It is not sub judice under the House’s rules. It has already been published on the notices of questions, and it is also available on the Order Paper and, indeed, on the parliamentary website. There is no question of our own proceedings being in any way inhibited. If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue this as a matter of privilege, there is of course, as he will doubtless know, an established procedure for raising it with me in writing. Furthermore, I now understand that an injunction is no longer being sought. I hope that that reply is helpful both to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.

I also wish to speak about the matter raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), because it seems to me that a fundamental principle of this House is now being threatened by the legal proceedings for an injunction and the consequent proceedings for contempt of court in respect of injuncted material. As you know, we have enjoyed in this House since 1688 the privilege of being able to speak freely. We have also developed the right of British citizens to know what we say in this House and have it reported freely. Is there an opportunity for a wider debate on what I think is a very substantial matter, either through a consideration of privilege or on the Floor of the Chamber?

There are usually further opportunities, as the hon. Gentleman, as an experienced parliamentarian, can testify. I hope that he will not mind if I point out that one suitable opportunity to raise the matter might be at business questions, in relation to which he himself enjoys a privileged position.

You, Mr. Speaker, are the defender of our rights and privileges in this place. This is a new class of injunction, a so-called super injunction, in which the press are not even allowed to report the injunction itself and the existence of the case. That is how Parliament’s reporting has been stopped by it. Could you undertake to the House to do two things? First, will you take legal advice to see whether the courts can be instructed not to grant injunctions that close down reporting of this place? Secondly, will you seek a meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, who I know is sympathetic to this—it is not a party matter—to see whether the Government can act to achieve that same aim?

I am not sure that I can accommodate the right hon. Gentleman in relation to his first question. I am not sure that it would be right to interfere with a legal process in the way that I think his question would invite me to do. I would like to reflect further upon the second point that he has very reasonably put to me.

On the same point of order, Mr. Speaker. While you are reflecting on that point, may I ask you also to reflect on whether the increasing habit of solicitors of seeking injunctions in advance of publication, not only in this case but in others, might regularly prevent newspapers from reporting such questions? Given that the efforts of John Wilkes MP in the 18th century to provide for the reporting of parliamentary proceedings were such an important breakthrough, and indeed led to the disuse of sedition laws against this House, would it be possible for you to reflect on that and see whether something urgently needs to be done to control the habit of law firms of seeking to prevent the reporting of this House?

It has always been my pleasure to reflect on any observations put to me by the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that he is seeking to inveigle me into a wider debate than I should enter this afternoon. I think it is fair simply to reiterate the point that the proceedings of the House have been, and will be, in no way inhibited. For today, I would like to leave it at that.

On a point of order on an entirely separate subject, Mr. Speaker. In a spirit of optimism, when the House rose in July, I put down an extremely short question for named day answer to the Secretary of State for Defence, simply asking

“what discussions he has held with his US counterpart on vulnerability to electromagnetic pulse attacks; and if he will make a statement.”

I am tempted to say that that is hardly rocket science, but maybe it is. Nevertheless, I tabled that question at the end of July, and yesterday I had my named day answer: “I will answer shortly.” Surely to put down a named day question in July and get a holding answer in October is utterly unacceptable, even with the Ministry of Defence?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As he will know, the content of answers is of course not a matter for me, and answers must be handled by the relevant Minister, but he makes his point with his customary force and alacrity. Who could disagree that the delay that he has experienced is frankly unacceptable? I hope that Members on the Treasury Bench will have heard the point. I did exhort Ministers to respond in a timely way to questions, and I do believe that I emphasised in exchanges just before the recess that simply to respond with a holding answer several weeks later, along the lines of “I will respond shortly,” does not meet the spirit of what I have said and is frankly resented by Members in all parts of the House.

On a different and somewhat more restricted point of order, Mr. Speaker. You rightly take to task Ministers who let material go into the public domain in advance of a report to Parliament. Would you consider the position of statutory bodies that have an obligation to report to Parliament? I ask that question because the Committee on Climate Change, published an excellent report yesterday in Parliament. The full report including full documentation was released at one minute past midnight yesterday and was presented to the House later that day. Should other bodies that report to Parliament also ensure that they do not release material of any substance until Parliament has had a chance to receive the report in question?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I will look into it and come back to him on the matter.