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Immigration (Members' Representations)

Volume 91: debated on Wednesday 12 February 1986

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

3.38 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that yesterday, Mr. Speaker, following a point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), who had been contacted by a journalist before 1 pm about a written answer that it was expected would be released that day, you said during the ensuing exchanges:

"I would deprecate the giving of a written answer to the press before it has been given to the hon. Member concerned. That is clearly in breach of our conventions."—[Official Report, 11 February 1986; Vol. 91, c. 793.]

A written answer was provided yesterday, by the Home Secretary and not by the Minister of State. It was not a casual written answer, for it had attached to it a five-page document of 19 paragraphs setting out completely a new policy to be folowed by the Home Secretary. The contents of the document included a number of matters which the journalist who had spoken on the telephone to my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood had told her would be included in the written answer.

There seem to be only two alternative possibilities, both of which are discreditable. One is that there was a leak from the Home Office to the press. The second possibility is that the Home Office—this must have been via the Home Secretary—deliberately committed what you described yesterday, Mr. Speaker, as a "breach of our conventions", which you deprecated, and supplied a written answer to a journalist two and a half hours before it was the property of Parliament.

As the Leader of the House responded, towards the end of those exchanges, by saying that he would draw the attention of the Secretary of State for the Home Department to the allegations, and as the Opposition have sought today from the Home Secretary a statement to the House of Commons—which is the proper way in which a major new statement of policy ought to be made—I ask you, Mr. Speaker, firstly to give us your advice about what we can do in future when there is a breach of our conventions and secondly to assist us in obtaining a response from the Leader of the House, following the undertaking that he gave yesterday.

That is not a matter for me. I have nothing to add to what I said yesterday in the column of Hansard that was mentioned by the right hon. Member.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does not this depend upon whether or not the document was embargoed?

I know nothing about that. I repeat to the House what I said yesterday: that it is a bad practice for members of the press, or for anyone else, for that matter, to be given information before Members of this House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that a press officer at the Home Office was rung up yesterday morning and asked about the question on the Order Paper. The questioner was told that an answer was to be given that afternoon. No answer was given to the journalist.

Order. Now we are going down a track that we hit on Friday. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) quite rightly drew to my attention the fact that we are getting, in effect, statements on points of order. Since that was, in effect, a statement, I shall have to treat it as such.

May I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that as the answer was given in the name of the Home Secretary, not the Minister of State, it would have been proper for the Home Secretary to come to the House to make a statement this afternoon and not to send his junior Minister? May I put it to you, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.] Well, may I put it to the Minister that this journalist, to whom his press officer spoke, must have been a person of amazing invention and telepathic ability. After having, apparently, only been told by the Home Office press officer that an answer would be given, he was able to conjure out of his imagination a good deal of the content of the answer.

It was passed by the journalist to my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood because the journalist wished to have my hon. Friend's comments. They were then passed by my hon. Friend to me, which meant that I was in possession of that information, too. This is a very curious way of keeping Parliament informed. After the sieve-like nature of Downing street and Government Departments in the last few weeks, will the Minister pursue the matter of a leak by a press officer which seems, like the one from Miss Collette Bowe and Mr. Bernard Ingham, to have been an authorised leak?

Order. I said that I shall have to treat this as a statement, so I cannot answer that question.

I do not think that I can add anything to what I have already said. I have told the House that my understanding is that this journalist rang up the Home Office. I have also told the House my understanding of what he was told. I cannot take the matter any further.

May I add one further matter for correction in the internal workings of the Home Office? When we debated last night the Home Office precept order for the police—

Order. What the hon. Gentleman says must relate to the Minister of State's response.

It does relate to it. We were told by the Minister of State, who is on the Treasury Bench, that earlier that day there had been an announcement—not to this House—of an increase in the police grant from 50 per cent. to 51 per cent. and of an increase in rate support grant of £22 million. Is it Home Office policy now to pre-empt matters to be announced in the House by a few hours through procedures other than those of the House—statement or question? If that is so, people outside the House will yet again be given information before the House about material which is highly relevant and which is about to be debated in the House. Hon. Members may well not know the information that the Government have let into the public domain from a Department when it is relevant first to the Order Paper.

That matter has nothing whatsoever to do with the question that was addressed to me and the matter with which I was dealing. I shall communicate to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary what the hon. Gentleman has said.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is this absolutely necessary? This morning we were not advised that there would be a statement. It is not a statement, with respect, but a point of order. Is it necessary for my hon. and learned Friend the Minister to answer questions?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present last week when, on two occasions, points of order were used as a basis for a sort of statement. After the events of last Friday I said that if this happened again, I would have to treat it as a statement, and I am afraid that I must do that.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that when we are to have a statement we need to be informed in advance, so that we can question Ministers? Since there has been no information in advance, surely these proceedings are out of order?

Order. That is the normal practice. It is unwise of Ministers to answer points of order with a statement because that means that hon. Members are not given the opportunity to question them properly.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the substance of the matter is of far more interest to hon. Members, who must deal with large numbers of immigration cases, than the method of disclosure? Will he accept that the proposals of our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reflect such basic common sense that anyone of reasonable intelligence who is well-informed could have put them together? They are certainly welcome to me and, I suspect, to my right hon. and hon. Friends who must operate these procedures.

Order. I hope that the point of order is not on the same subject because—

Surely it was not my hon. and learned Friend the Minister who raised a point of order, as you suggested, but the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)?

I did not say that. I said that we were tending to get into the bad habit of using points of order to obtain statements.

Order. Since the Minister in effect answered the point of order and as I said on Friday that if that happened again, I would have to treat it as a statement, I must do so.

Mr. Speaker, I seek your guidance because I was hoping to raise a point about questions at the conclusion of Question Time—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If these occasions arise in future, is it necessary for my hon. and learned Friend the Minister to answer the questions put to him? He may want to answer them, but is he required to do so? Can you rule on that for the future? [Interruption.]

Order. I am not responsible for the way in which Ministers answer questions, but I am responsible for keeping to the rules of the House. If, in effect, statements are made on a point of order, they must be treated as statements. I hope that it may not happen often. I call Ms. Clare Short.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As we are now having a statement, could you direct that the monitors show that we are having a statement from the Home Office on immigration rules, for the benefit of hon. Members who are not in the Chamber?

This is a serious matter and it has been going on for some time. It started with the Minister making wild allegations at Question Time and was followed by his Department leaking to the Daily Telegraph private letters that I had written to constituents, and information about representations that various hon. Members had made on behalf of their constituents. That must be a breach of the Official Secrets Act. All this has been going on, but we have had no chance to debate or discuss it in the House.

The Minister then came up with a series of proposals to deal with what he alleged was an abuse. We do not accept that it was an abuse, yet we have never had a chance to say so. The Minister made a statement through a written answer—that was inappropriate—and journalists were told in advance of the broad contents of the proposal, although I do not believe that they had the whole answer. It is proposed that, in future, Members of Parliament will have to start acting like immigration officers, ringing Heathrow airport. and so on to get the full story.

No, I shall not. The journalist concerned knew all this. He had approached me for a comment. I was unable to make one, having been—[Interruption.] Seriously, this cannot be a reasonable way of proceeding in the House. The Leader of the House should look at this as an example of hon. Members being put into a position where they are not allowed to answer properly for themselves. He should give undertakings that this use of a written answer for leaking to the press will not happen again.

I am asking for your guidance, Mr. Speaker. Will you enlighten me? A Member such as myself who wishes to raise a point during questions is not permitted to do so. You prefer the matter to be put at the end of Question Time. Will you be kind enough to tell me, in view of today's events, how I can raise with you the point that Opposition Members' questions were far too long and suggest that, as a retaliatory measure, you call two Conservative Members to one Opposition Member?

The hon. Lady is always very helpful. I have already told her that I shall call her point of order after this exchange. She is second in the queue.

Perhaps inadvertently; but the words he uttered in the point of order, which has now become a statement, gave information to hon. Members about what was said to the journalist in question which was not correct. That is the point I am putting. It is an extremely serious point. I should have thought that the Minister would want to answer it.

If the hon. Lady is now putting a question to me, let me state absolutely categorically that no answer to no parliamentary question was given to that journalist.

The draft regulations which the Government announced yesterday by means of a written answer affect the rights of Members of both Houses of Parliament. Will the Minister of State confirm that there has been no consultation between the Government and the parties represented in the House? Will he, therefore, in the absence of proper consultation, withdraw the draft regulations to enable consultation to take place?

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that an internal inquiry is taking place in the Home Office into the apparent breach of the Official Secrets Act 1911 by the management of the immigration service or officials in his department in disclosing information to the Daily Telegraph about the representations of Members of Parliament on immigration matters which was published on 3 December? Has that inquiry been completed? If not, will the hon. and learned Gentleman ensure that the matters that have been raised through today's statement are investigated in the same inquiry?

The draft guidelines have been published so that there can be consultation. I have written to the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members inviting them to give their comments. That is obviously, I submit, the correct way to proceed. The other matter raised by the hon. Gentleman has nothing to do with the question that has been raised this afternoon.

Does the Minister accept that the House is suffering this afternoon from a dose of leakitis brought about by a dose of strong helicopteritis a few weeks ago? Will the Minister confirm that there is a close working relationship between the press in the House of Commons, hon. Members, Ministers and shadow Ministers? Therefore, is it not right for the press, which does its job lawfully and properly, at times to deduce and make assumptions about what might be in a Minister's mind? Is this not fair work by the lobby correspondents? What is all this fuss about?

I really do not know. I raised the matter this afternoon because, under the guise of a point of order, a serious allegation was made. I replied to that allegation and said that it was absolute nonsense.

Does not the Minister agree that this discreditable shambles in which he has been involved could have been avoided if the Government had responded to today's formal request from the Opposition for a formal, properly made statement which hon. Members would have known about and on which they could have asked questions? We are not satisfied with the Minister's evasive answer about the leak. I make it absolutely clear to him that there is no way in which Opposition Members will agree in future to make representations to a civil servant who is responsible to the Minister rather than to the Minister.

I am surprised, after the time the right hon. Gentleman has taken up this afternoon, that he should prolong proceedings any further. He started out with a point of order in which he must have known there was no substance. It followed a point of order he made yesterday and to which I understand a detailed reply was given through the usual channels. Therefore he knew, before he raised the matter this afternoon, that there was no substance in it.

I wish to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, what happens when Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) ask long questions, thus precluding other hon. Members from doing so. Would it not be possible and salutary in such circumstances to call two hon. Members on the opposite side in succession to those who have erred?

That is not possible, but I balance it out in different ways. If the hon. Lady looks at Hansard tomorrow she will see that I did that.

Since the Minister has seen fit to criticise your ruling, Mr. Speaker, allowing the statement to be made, may I ask whether there are not two separate and unrelated issues here? One important matter raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to the leak. The other matter is equally important and, perhaps, Mr. Speaker, concerns you as a constituency Member as much as it does the rest of us. What is proposed will undoubtedly—

Order. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to pursue the statement on a point of order, because that would get us into serious trouble.

No. This is an Opposition day and we are eating into it. The hon. Gentleman must reserve what he wishes to say on this matter until we have a debate, and that goes for the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds).

Order. It is not a point of order. The hon. Gentleman is trying to continue the questions on the statement. I am sorry that I was not able to call him, but he will have to find another way of being called. Mr. Skinner.

Today we have witnessed a little bit of history-making, in the sense that during the past week you, Mr. Speaker, quite properly said that the Government had twice used a point of order to make a statement. The Government would deny that, of course, but that is what it looked like.

You have done the House a service, Mr. Speaker, by telling the Government that when they do this a third time the matter must be debated properly in the House. It would appear from the Minister's last remark that the Government are not taking kindly to points of order being turned into statements.

We on the Opposition Benches welcome that, even though some of us did not get called. In view of the current misunderstandings that are taking place on the Government Benches, the leaks and all the rest of it, we welcome the fact that, when this takes place in the future, we shall have an opportunity to do the same to bring the Government to heel.

I do not think that we need to pursue this. The hon. Gentleman raised this matter twice last week and I think he was entirely correct.

I had hoped to get in on the statement to ask a question which would have made some sense. As we have not heard—

No, I was simply trying to make the point that some of us try to get in on questions and do not abuse points of order. I am now forced to use a point of order. It is quite clear that the exchanges on these issues have been extremely unsatisfactory. Can we now have an assurance that the Home Secretary will come to the Dispatch Box, but not on a point of order, to make a statement to the House so that these matters can be properly pursued?

Ballot For Notices Of Motions For Friday 28 February

Members successful in the ballot were:

  • Sir William van Straubenzee
  • Mr. Andrew Rowe
  • Mr. Gary Waller