HC Deb 18 December 1969 vol 793 cc1550-2
Mr. Farr

May I raise a point of order of which I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker?

Yesterday afternoon, after Questions, the Minister of Agriculture made a statement relating to the Wilson Report. You were good enough to deal with one or two points of order relating to that statement thereafter.

The further point of order I wish to raise today is that this particular report was issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, at a Press conference at Church House at 10.30 yesterday morning. It was carried in the Press Association release at 11.07 and appeared in detail in the 1.40 edition of the Evening News. Yet several of my hon. Friends and myself went to the Vote Office between 2 o'clock and 2.30 yesterday afternoon and were unable to obtain copies of the report.

The point I wish to raise is that it is quite impossible for hon. Members to protect their constituents' interests adequately if they are treated in this cavalier manner. It is not the first time that this has happened and I raise this point of order in the hope that you will tell me how I can best safeguard my constituents' interest in future.

Mr. Speaker

May I deal with the specific part of the point of order first. This matter was raised yesterday. The Minister made an apology when he said, at column 1355: It was my clear understanding that copies of the report were available at the Vote Office at 11 o'clock this morning. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If that was not the case, I apologise to hon. Members on both sides, because I agree that this is a complex matter. I will make inquiries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th December, 1969; Vol. 793, c. 1355.] As a general rule, the House accepts the word of any hon. Member or right hon. Member and certainly would accept his apology. Since then I understand the three hon. Members concerned have received letters from the Minister of Agriculture—I have received one, too—in which the Minister said: I have made some inquiries here. I understood that the Department of Education and Science placed the Report in the Vote Office without an embargo. Later, the Vote Office spoke to an official in one of the branches of his Ministry. He says he told the Vote Office that there was a Press conference by the Chairman of the Committee at 11 a.m. and that I was making a statement"— that is, the Minister— at 3.30 p.m. He did not request an embargo, but there seems to have been some misunderstanding. This is the position as far as the Minister is concerned.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise this. It is the general feeling of the House that the House would want to know first what is to happen and that the House would always want to be able, if possible, to be in possession of a document which would enable hon. Members to question Ministers on statements which they make.

Mr. Stodart

Further to that general point of order. May I thank the Minister for the letter he sent me explaining this matter.

May I put, to the Leader of the House perhaps, the point that this is certainly the second time in the last month—when we have had reports of an agricultural nature which the Minister has himself said are complex. Would it not be possible for hon. Gentlemen to have copies of the report—it is not a habit that they should have—when they are complex? It seems that the exchanges would be that much more intelligent if reports were available beforehand.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Fred Peart)

Further to that point of order. I have great sympathy with the point of view put forward by the hon. Member. Without wishing to add anything more, I will say that I will examine it.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Business Question. Mr. Heath, Mr. Iain—Mr. Maudling. [Laughter.] Order. My profound apologies, in case I have to deal with another point of order tomorrow morning.