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Public Accounts Committee

Volume 988: debated on Thursday 17 July 1980

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On page 4971 of yesterday's Order Paper entry 13 announced that the Public Accounts Committee was to meet in public session that day on the subject of "Cash Limits provisional outturn" with "Sir Anthony Rawlinson, KCB, Second Permanent Secretary, H M Treasury" as its witness, at 4.45 pm.

In the event, without notice to the House, the Public Accounts Committee chose to sit in private and not for the purpose declared both on the Order Paper and on official notices exhibited throughout the Palace of Westminster. I exercised my right as a Member of the House to be present at the private session of the Committee yesterday afternoon because I guessed that the Committee's true intention was not that of which it had given public notice, but was instead, and secretly, to examine Sir Frank Mc-Fadzean, chairman of Rolls-Royce (1971) Ltd. and to afford him the opportunity, inter alia, to refute the untrue and—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he will know better than most that he cannot refer to what went on in a private session of a Select Committee. I shall give him a ruling on his point of order afterwards.

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. I am reporting to you about my guess, before I entered the room, of what was to happen. I guessed that the Committee's true intention was not that of which it had given public notice but was instead, and secretly, to examine Sir Frank Mc-Fadzean, chairman of Rolls-Royce (1971) Ltd. and to afford him, inter alia, the opportunity to refute the untrue and disgraceful allegations made against Rolls-Royce under privilege on the Floor of the House and not withdrawn by a Front Bench spokesman for the Labour Party—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). I may not, of course, reveal whether my guess was correct.

I do not challenge the right of the Public Accounts Committee, by resolution, to exclude the press and the public from its proceedings by going into private session when the circumstances warrant that course. However, the most important protection against the abusive employment of the private session procedure is the right of hon. Members who are not members of the Select Committee to be present at its proceedings, including private sessions.

By exhibiting a false notice of its proceedings yesterday and by failing to give accurate notice of witnesses actually examined, the Public Accounts Committee, or whoever was responsible for giving such accurate notice to hon. Members, in effect prevented the attendance of many hon. Members who, in my judgment, would have wished to be present had they been made aware of the true business that the PAC intended to conduct at its meeting yesterday by exercising their right to be present and hearing the evidence that they were entitled to hear.

At this late stage the only action that can, even in part, remedy the damage done to the House by the false notice and lack of accurate notice of yesterday's proceedings in the PAC is for that Committee to report to the House forthwith the verbatim record of the examination of witnesses at yesterday's private session.

Apart from that, as you accept a general responsibility for the Order Paper Mr. Speaker, what protection does the House have from being further misled and abused by a repetition of yesterday's events?

The hon. Member gave me notice that he would seek to raise this point of order. For that I am deeply grateful. The hon. Member will not, of course, expect me to rule on his guesswork as to what went on in that Committee. I am even more ignorant than the hon. Gentleman of that. On his guesswork I cannot rule.

It is not for me to rule or to give guidance on the actions of particular Committees, and I do not propose to do so today. However, since the hon. Gentleman indicated that the form and substance of an entry appearing on the Order Paper is my responsibility, I should say that it has never been the practice of a Committee to show on the Paper the names of witnesses whom it proposes to examine in private. Indeed, the displaying of names of witnesses is a comparatively recent change, which has developed with the increasing tendency of Committees to hear evidence in public.

I can see no good reason why there should be any change in the practice in respect of evidence heard in private. Hon. Members will know that the Committee gave notice on the Order Paper yesterday that it was sitting in private as well as in public.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The notice about the private sitting referred only to a time between 4 o'clock and 4.45 pm. The Order Paper stated clearly that from 4.45 pm onwards the session would be in public. Even if it is not customary to give the names of witnesses in private sessions there can be no excuse for misleading hon. Members by claiming that one witness is to be examined when there is no intention of examining that witness, and another witness is to be examined instead.

I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. The witness named on the Order Paper was examined. Hon. Members were misled only to the extent that—as it sometimes is said that there will be a Division at 7.30 pm and it takes place at 8.30 pm or 10 o'clock—the private sitting went on a little longer than expected. The public examination and questioning of the witness named on the Order Paper did take place.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) was right to raise the matter. It raises questions in which the House will be further interested. For example, there is a question here, as I understand it, that although we do not know exactly what occurred we know that a witness was being called who might have given evidence that referred to further statements that have been made to the House by an hon. Member. He also, therefore, might be interested in what should have occurred. Whether the matter was to be transacted in public or in private would also be a matter of interest to him.

If the nature of the business was altered in that way, surely it is a matter for consideration. Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you could give us a further ruling—not necessarily today—about what may be the position of the hon. Member involved in such circumstances, because he, surely, should have the right to know what was to occur before such a Committee, particularly because he has, of course, been insisting for a long time that he wished to give his evidence to such a Select Committee.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you would be good enough to clear up a minor point arising out of your ruling. The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) referred to your responsibility for the Order Paper of the House and in your ruling you referred to the list of Committee sittings as being part of the Order Paper. Will you confirm that they actually are such a part of the Order Paper, or are not, despite the fact that the running title in the print covers them?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I in no way disagree with the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) about the need for the House, perhaps, to decide whether we should pursue existing rules. I am delighted that you were at least able to put the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) in his place as to the existing rules.

In fairness to myself and the members of my Committee, I think that I should put the facts right both as to what the hon. Gentleman told the House today and what he, apparently, told The Times yesterday. The accurate version of what took place yesterday is that the hon. Gentleman was not ejected from my Committee. He left voluntarily when we were having a deliberative session, returned when we were in private session—I am glad to see him nodding—and was certainly not ejected. He sat there throughout. The time when we go into public session, as you know, Mr. Speaker, is flexible, depending on when we finish with witnesses in the private session.

That is what happened. The hon. Gentleman left when we went into public session. He obviously does not know what happened then. Obviously, for reasons that everyone will understand, I cannot comment on what went on in the private session.

May I say in reply to the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), before we get mixed up and complicated, that I am quite sure that every Select Committee in the House would bear in mind that if any hon. Member were under scrutiny of any sort that hon. Member, of course, would be notified in accordance with the ordinary courtesies by which we notify each other? We do not know what went on in the Committee, but we normally notify each other.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know. I take a somewhat different view about Select Committees. I have, on occasions when these matters have been dealt with, voted along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot). Is this not another, and dangerous, example whereby this kind of sloppy consensus, which is the basis of the activities of the Select Committees, can find it comfortable to avoid calling people who might be prepared to stick their necks out on some occasions? This occasion showed distinctly that an hon. Member who was prepared to state certain things that were widely examined in public, and on which he was prepared to give evidence to another Select Committee, should have been told, forthrightly, by everyone on that Committee that he had an opportunity to be present. He should have been told exactly what was taking place. On this matter many of us take a different view from the sloppy consensus view that has formed around what is known as "the Rooker case".

Let me say to the House that we must not get embroiled in the details of what goes on in the Select Committees, because I am not answerable for them here.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a member of that Committee, and without in any way disclosing what took place at the private session, I ask whether it is not right that if any member of a Committee, or of the House, had it in mind to raise the question of the activities of any hon. Member in front of any witness, the obligation would be upon him to inform that hon. Member, regardless of whether the Committee sat in private or in public.

That course of action is one of our normal courtesies in the House. It is a matter of courtesy even if one hon. Member intends to refer to another. If possible, a message is sent to the hon. Member concerned.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If I may detain the House for a moment, we are entering into a new aspect of the business of the House of Commons. The Committee that we are discussing is one of two long-established Committees. However, we have appointed many more, and the point raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) is basically that with the new Committees examining more people than ever before we should take a fresh look at the adequacy of the notification to hon. Members, so that we can exercise our rights to attend Select Committees.

There will be occasions when an hon. Member might well ask a question about another hon. Member, on the spur of the moment and without preparation, and will not be able to conform to the convention. Indeed, the complexities of Committees is growing to such an extent that that sort of convention may be a little too complicated to obey in the event. I would have thought that a great safeguard would be to give as much detailed information and notice to hon. Members so that they could go to private sessions and exercise their right of safeguard, as I am sure would have happened to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker).

I believe that the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has done the House a service in raising a very important matter—not for the first time. However, I think that this is a matter for the usual channels to talk about and to discuss.

I have listened to the exchanges with great interest. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) have raised an extremely important matter. If it is of assistance I shall look into the matter to see whether there is something wrong that needs to be put right. Of course, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is the right of any hon. Member to attend a meeting of a Select Committee, whether it is in private or in public. An hon. Member can be requested by the Chairman to withdraw, but he cannot be expelled.

The Votes and Proceedings of yesterday's Committee are not available in the Vote Office, but I assume that the Public Accounts Committee—as is normal with Select Committees—has reported its Votes and Proceedings to the House and that they are lying on the Table. Is it, therefore, still the case that the identity of the witness is a secret?

The Select Committee has reported the minutes of part of the public evidence but not the private part.