HC Deb 27 June 1974 vol 875 cc1745-9
Mr. Arthur Latham

On a point of order. I wish to raise a matter of which I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker. I know that time is pressing, but I am also aware that many other hon. Members are concerned about the matter that I wish to raise. Today seems the only appropriate time at which this can be done.

On Monday of last week, 17th June, I raised a point of order with you, in which I said: … the Serjeant at Arms in some respects is responsible to you", and further asked you whether you would see to it … that hon. Members are both consulted and informed about arrangements and are not confronted with arbitrary decisions over which they seem to have no control and about which they have no information, to the embarrassment of themselves and their constituents. You, Mr. Speaker, kindly replied: If action is taken … it must be by my authority, but I prefer that the House itself should exercise that authority. These are basically matters for the House and it is for the House to resolve what should or should not be done. But if, in an emergency, I have to take immediate decisions, I do so upon the advice of the Services Committee, if possible. I then asked: But you will inform us, Mr. Speaker? You replied: I or the Leader of the House will certainly inform the House of what measures have been taken."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th June 1974; Vol. 875, c. 44.] In the light of difficulties that I have experienced three times in the last week about interference with arrangements which I have made to receive visitors, on my behalf a request was made to the police to quote the authority on which they were acting. It was certainly not intended to challenge the conduct of the police. In support of the rule that the police were enforcing there was produced a letter addressed to the Chief Inspector of Police, Houses of Parliament, and the Superintendent of Custodians, Houses of Parliament, signed by the Serjeant at Arms, which said: During the time that the Staff Canteen, Westminster Hall, is out of action, no guests may be entertained in the Strangers' Cafeteria before 8 p.m. Inquiry to your office, Mr. Speaker, revealed that you apparently had no knowledge of this, further inquiries showed that the Services Committee had no knowledge of it and inquiries to the office of the Leader of the House revealed that there was no information about the matter there either.

I understand that what was conveyed in the letter was a mistaken interpretation of an intention and also that a new decision is to be announced in the near future. But the point that I am making is not a storm in a teacup. It concerns an important matter of principle—that of who runs this place and for whom it is run, and whether my impression that the basic intention is that it should be run for the benefit of Members and their constituents is correct, or whether there are other interests to be taken into account.

I want to ask you, Mr. Speaker, to rule on two points. First, can you please repeat and see that there is enforced the ruling that you gave to me last Monday week? May I also ask that any announcement which is made shall state on whose authority the instruction is given? Second, would you take steps to see that hon. Members are informed of these decisions and are not put in the embarrassing position of having no knowledge of them, and of not even knowing who is responsible for the instruction which is given?

Mr. Dunn

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to apologise to the House for any inconvenience which any hon. Member may have suffered from a misunderstanding that has arisen because of imprecise communication with the authorities within the House, namely the Catering Department and the Serjeant at Arms.

It was never decided by the Catering Sub-Committee, nor were instructions given, that this notice should be published. However, it would be true to say that in the anxiety and concern that the facilities of the House should be made available to all, including members of staff, there were some difficulties to be overcome. In that anxiety the imprecise language left some room for concern. I have looked at the correspondence and I do not believe that any one person is responsible for the imprecise language in that correspondence.

Instructions have been given that until such times as the Catering Sub-Committee reaches a decision and conveys it through the usual channels, no person can assume to act in the Sub-Committee's name. In consultation with the authorities of the House I asked that this notice be withdrawn. That request was made yesterday. There has been difficulty in communicating this position to every hon. Member, particularly to those who are involved.

For my part I sincerely regret any inconvenience which may have been caused.

Mr. Skinner

The power which the Serjeant at Arms wields is considerable. One acknowledges that some of that power is due to the authority given to him by the Services Committee and to some extent by you, Mr. Speaker and your department. However, there is a matter for concern regarding special permits for visitors from our constituencies. In this respect we are coming up against a block which means that for the period of June and July none of these visitors is allowed to come along the Palace route. But upon investigation, and upon trying to circumvent the problem by booking an interview room to enable me to take visitors through a few at a time, I find that the place is swarming with tourists. Perhaps we have to encourage tourists to come to London and to look at the House of Commons in order to help solve the balance of payments problems. On confronting one of the tourist hostesses I was informed that special permits are not gained through any of the offices of any Members of Parliament on either side of the House, but are gained apparently through other offices.

If the Serjeant at Arms can allow batches of American tourists from Miami to visit this place, as was the case yesterday, while at the same time electors from my constituency and other constituencies are thwarted from entering the House of Commons and having a look around, there must be something sadly wrong. My guess is that the Services Committee did not know of this practice which is taking place.

It may be that the idea of having some restriction on our own visitors in June and July is sensible, but this cannot be satisfactory when we see a lot of other visitors floating about in this place while we are unable to get passes for our visitors for the remainder of the parliamentary Session.

May I remind you, Mr. Speaker, that as a result of running into this problem head-on yesterday I was politely informed by one of the people within the House that if I carted round the House of Commons and the House of Lords visitors on behalf of someone from the other place I would not need a permit—and on Thursday week I shall be doing precisely that.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot prevent hon. Members raising points of order and I shall carefully consider what has been said. There has to be a certain amount of consultation as well as give and take in the House. We are in difficult times. I knew nothing of either of the problems which have been raised. Had I known about them I should have done my best to try to resolve them.

It is my intention that nothing should be done which has not my authority, or my authority upon the advice of the Services Committee, or unless it is something which has been decided by the Leader of the House, after consultation in the usual channels.

It will be of assistance to the House and will save time on the Floor of the House if I am asked in other ways to deal with specific problems when they arise. I shall do my best to do so.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Further to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm your ruling that hon. Members shall be notified, and see that your ruling is enforced?

Mr. Speaker

I will certainly do my best.