HC Deb 29 April 1974 vol 872 cc780-3
Mr. Raphael Tuck

I wish to bring to your notice, Mr. Speaker, a matter which I submit is of great importance. I was proposing to appear before the Hertfordshire Family Practitioners' Committee on behalf of two of my constituents who were complaining of the conduct of a doctor who for several days failed to visit their three-years-old baby daughter, who subsequently died of acute appendicitis.

The statutory regulations up to 1st April of this year provided that no paid barrister might either appear before and address the committee or cross-examine witnesses. I was willing to appear as an unpaid barrister, and I so informed the Department.

Surreptitiously, on 29th March of this year a new statutory order was laid before Parliament which prohibited any barrister, paid or unpaid, from appearing before such a committee—obviously with me in mind.

I cannot complain to you of that, Mr. Speaker, but the statutory order was laid before Parliament on 29th March and came into operation two days later, on 1st April. I regard that as absolutely disgraceful back-door politics. In my young days any order that had the negative procedure applied to it had to lie on the Table for about 21 days to give Parliament the opportunity of negativing it if it wished. The timetable in this case provided no opportunity for Parliament to negative the statutory order. It was railroaded through without anybody's knowledge, and I suddenly received a copy of it from the Administrator of the Hertfordshire Family Practitioners' Committee telling me that I could not appear at all.

I should like your ruling, Mr. Speaker. Surely this was invalid. A statutory rule must lie on the Table to give Parliament the opportunity to express its opinion on it and to negative it if necessary.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Tuck) for having given me notice of his intention to raise this point and for informing me of its nature. Therefore, I have had an opportunity of considering it.

A Statutory Instrument may come into effect any time after it has been made. I understand that in this case the regulations came into effect three days after they were laid before the House. I understand also that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments is often interested in the dates on which delegated legislation comes into effect. No doubt the committee will, if it wishes, be able to consider the date of operation of these regulations. I would remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that it is open to him to table a motion praying that the regulations be annulled.

Mr. Graham Page

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The position is even more serious than the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Tuck) has explained to the House. In statutes, we pass the provision that orders should be laid before the House. The dates are given at the top of the order. However, there have been frequent occasions when we have been unable to obtain orders from the Vote Office because they have not been printed. In some cases it has been two or three weeks before the print of the order has been available to hon. Members.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

When you are considering this matter, Mr. Speaker, may I ask you to consider a related matter which could have general applicability and which in this case has applicability to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Tuck)? I refer to the rights of Members of Parliament. There are many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, who are paid or unpaid barristers. They have the right to carry out their duties to the House and to their consituents. An hon. Member may well wish to represent the interests of his constituents at one of these inquiries.

If, because an hon. Gentleman happens to be either a paid or an unpaid barrister, that rule is to be put into effect to prevent him from attending to represent his constituents, whereas in my case I could attend because I am neither a paid nor an unpaid barrister, that would be showing preferential treatment to the person who is not—fortunately or unfortunately —represented by a paid or unpaid barrister.

I should therefore like you, Mr. Speaker, to consider whether this may not be verging upon a breach of privilege, in that in such a case a Member of Parliament would be—and in this case one was—prevented from carrying out his duty to his constituents and thereby to the House.

Mr. English

I support what my hon. Friend said and ask you, Mr. Speaker, to report to us on this specific point. As you are aware, in the Sandys case it was made quite clear that even the Official Secrets Act did not mean quite what it said in relation to people giving information to Members of Parliament on matters of public interest. Surely if that is the case with the Official Secrets Act, a mere Health Service regulation designed, presumably, for the protection of the profession should not be allowed to stand between a Member of Parliament and his constituents.

Sir David Renton

Further to the point of order. You have given your ruling, Mr. Speaker, which has clarified the matter for us, but is this not essentially an occasion upon which we ought to have an explanation from the responsible member of the Government?

Mr. Tuck

Further to the point of order. You have been kind enough, Mr. Speaker, to remind me that I can pray that the order be annulled, but by the time the Prayer gets on to the Order Paper this case will have been heard. It is to be heard next week, on 8th May, and I shall be precluded from appearing before the committee.

Incidentally, the new rules relate to a barrister, paid or unpaid, whether a practising barrister or not. Therefore the situation is even worse than that which I described earlier. I should be precluded from appearing before the committee before the Prayer could be heard.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to those right hon. and hon. Members who have sought to assist me in this matter. I will consider very carefully what they have said and see whether I have any further guidance to give to the House.

Mr. Heath

Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that the Minister responsible will give an explanation about this matter?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

I cannot give such an assurance, but I will certainly look into the matter.