HC Deb 18 June 1981 vol 6 cc1188-9
Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I wish to raise a point of order, Mr. Speaker, about the remarks last Wednesday on the Third Reading of the Education Bill by the hon. Member for Wokingham (Sir W. van Straubenzee). I could not do so last week because I was away on parliamentary business. I have not done so this week until today because I wished to take advice about how I should proceed. The hon. Member has since informed me in writing that he would still have made the remarks that he did even if he had known that I was away.

In effect, the hon. Gentleman publicly accused me of political bias in the Chair of a Committee of this House, at a time when I was not able to be present to answer such a charge. I wish now to repudiate the hon. Gentleman's remarks as tendentious and scurrilous and his implication of bias as wholly without foundation. I was appointed to chair the Special Standing Committee personally by you, Mr. Speaker. The Chairmen of Select Committees agreed to undertake this new role solely because your Chairmen's Panel felt unable to undertake a task that would involve it in questioning witnesses. The matter was discussed at the Liaison Committee where it was made clear that the Chairmen, as well as the members, would be expected to ask witnesses questions to elucidate points.

The implication by the hon. Gentleman that every question asked by me as Chairman contained political bias is unsupported by any evidence at all. In my view, the new system of Special Standing Committees is a good innovation, which is working well. If hon. Members wish to criticise it, they should do so directly rather than through scurrilous attacks on the Chair.

I seek your guidance in this sense, Mr. Speaker: I had thought that it was not in order to denigrate either you or any Chairman on the Floor of the House except on a motion to that effect. Is there any way in which you can give a ruling on this matter, so that the unfair and offensive remarks of the hon. Gentleman do not remain on the record unchallenged?

Sir William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the point of notice, are you aware that I deeply regret that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) was not present. I gave notice by way of a letter marked "Immediate" at midday on the day in question—a letter that I know has now reached the hon. Gentleman. I sought to find him at both the telephone numbers given in our telephone directory. I hope, therefore, that I may be excused any imputation—I am grateful to see the hon. Gentleman nodding—of doing it behind his back, which I would certainly not wish to do, however strongly I felt.

Secondly, although my actions and remarks are my responsibility and mine alone, I took advice, from those who guide us so admirably, on the question whether, in principle, it was in order—this being a totally new procedure—to raise the matter on Third Reading, and I was given guidance that it was.

Thirdly, I remain unrepentant on the point of criticism. I think that the hon. Gentleman has done a grave disservice to the new procedure.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Wokingham (Sir William van Straubenzee) would not have received that advice from me. A Chairman of a Standing Committee appointed by Mr. Speaker may be criticised only if there is a motion on the Order Paper. It is wrong to use a debate to that end. I know that that ruling will be accepted by the hon. Gentleman and by the House.