§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter which is of great concern to all right hon. and hon. Members, and which cannot wait until after business questions.
My point of order arises out of two answers that were given at Question Time on Tuesday, one by the Minister for Health, and the other by the Prime Minister. In reply to a question that I asked about the appropriate penalty, under new legislation in the United Kingdom, such as was imposed on the Scottish brothers for pushing glue solvents, to ensure that such people could be dealt with, the Minister for Health replied:My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security has been studying closely the problem of glue sniffing and hopes to make a statement in due course."—[Official Report, 13 December 1983; Vol. 50, c. 826.]Later the same day, the Prime Minister gave a further assurance to the House and said:The Government will be making a statement later on glue sniffing. We are watching the Scottish case carefully. —[Official Report, 13 December 1983; Vol. 50, c. 840.]Today, written answers Nos. 159 and 160 refer to glue sniffing, and I am given to understand that they were to be answered at 3.30 pm; so, instead of a statement to the House, there would be written answers.
Worse than that—on a matter about which all right hon. and hon. Members are concerned, a matter which is of deep concern to all of us who face this problem in our constituencies and who are not prepared to be fobbed off by voluntary codes — instead of a statement to the House, as promised, a press statement has been issued saying that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, and the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, will be holding a press conference at 3.30 pm in the House. Instead of coming to the Chamber to answer questions put by hon. Members on both sides, they are going to Committee Room 6 of the House of Commons to meet the press where—and I quote—they will be announcing details of Government measures which are going to be taken to tackle the problem of solvent abuse, which is generally known as glue sniffing.I suggest that that is an abuse of the House. I am sure that neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister for Health sought to mislead the House. I am sure that they would not want to act in a way that was contrary to the spirit of the House, but certainly this is one of the most potent snubs to the House that we have had on a matter which is not a party matter but one which concerns us all and about which there are hundreds of names on early-day motions to show that concern.
I ask two things. I want an assurance that, in the period between 3.30 and now, no Minister has gone up to the press to give this information, because I gave notice to the Department of my intention to raise this matter. I also ask whether, as the Minister for Health is on the Front Bench, he might now give a statement to the House here, and not to the press in a Committee Room of the House.
§ The Minister for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is indeed true that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social 1170 Security today answered a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) about glue sniffing. That was the intended statement of policy that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I had in mind. I am sorry if the use of the word "statement" misled the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) into believing that it meant an oral statement, but I believe that one can find plenty of precedents for the repeated use of the word "statement" to mean written or oral statements to the House.
I assure the hon. and learned Member and the House that the answer to that question, which became available at 3.30, was the first public announcement of the Government's policy. The hon. and learned Gentleman is clutching an announcement of an intended press conference, at which further details will be given. By now, it has probably started——
§ Mr. Clarke
—but it started after the question had been answered and became available. With respect, it is no good the hon. and learned Gentleman working himself into a great lather about a frequently followed practice. The policy was first stated to the House in the written answer. Now, subsequent to that answer, it is being explained to the press. I do not believe that anyone has been misled. However important the subject may be—and I share the hon. and learned Gentleman's concern—I do not believe that it would justify an oral statement in the middle of a crowded day's business, before a debate subject to a guillotine.
§ Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not think that the Minister or the Government realise the seriousness of this matter. The Government are treating the House in a cavalier fashion. A majority of 144 does not give them a God-given right to ride roughshod over the views of elected Members of Parliament. They must realise the extent of feeling in the House and throughout the country among the electorate. We are not prepared to be fobbed off with a pussy-footing regulation without the force of law that will merely appeal to people to stop this miserable business of drug-pushing. The pushing of solvents amounts to drug-pushing. The House deserves at least a verbal statement on this issue.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There has been a serious abuse of the House. When a major statement is made on a matter of great controversy and the statement is made to the press, Members of Parliament are deprived of the possibility of asking questions and the Minister is unable to fulfil his function of being responsible to the House. To make such a statement to the press at the very moment when the House is sitting—no statement was promised—and for the Minister to fail to apologise for this appalling conduct is to add to the natural fury that exists. We should have from the Minister for Health a strong apology for what he has done and an absolute guarantee that this sort of behaviour will not be repeated.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke
The statement of Government policy was made available to the House before it was made available to the press. As every hon. Member knows perfectly well, statements of Government policy fall into two categories. First, there are those statements which are 1171 judged by the usual channels and by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to be serious enough to merit an oral statement.
§ Mr. Clarke
The second category consists of statements which, however important, are usually announced by way of written answer to a parliamentary question. The Government's policy on glue-sniffing has fallen into the second category.—[HON. MEMBERS: "So it is not serious."] No advance, embargoed copies of the statement have been given to the press. Had we made an oral statement and followed the usual practice adopted by previous Governments, the press would have been clutching embargoed copies of some of the documents before the oral statement was made in the House. A written answer was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and copies have been available since 3.30 to every hon. Member. That is the way that was chosen to announce the policy.
If my phrase on Tuesday in answer to a parliamentary question inadvertently misled the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Janner) into believing that I was talking about an oral statement, I apologise to him. I do not think that other hon. Members were quite so conscious of the imminence and importance of a statement on glue-sniffing until a few moments ago, but if I misled others into thinking that I was talking about an oral statement, I apologise to them. The Government have followed the practice that has been followed for as long as I have been in the House by Governments with majorities of 170 or one or even with minorities. We all know that it is the usual practice to be followed.
§ Mr. Speaker
No. For good reasons, I called the hon. and learned Member to make his point of order before I really should have done, and he has made his point.
§ Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)
On a new point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that a few days ago a point of order was raised on the vexed question of written copies of oral statements being made available to the Press Gallery. Did you notice today, Mr. Speaker, that the Minister for Health, in seeking to defend the making of a statement in a written answer, sought to suggest that that was much better than having an oral statement, which would be made available to the Press Gallery? Does this not show that even in Government circles it is thought that the system of giving oral statements in written form to the Press Gallery before we hear the statements is a bad way of working?
§ Mr. Speaker
As the House well knows, I have my own strong views on this issue. However, the subject has, I think, been adequately aired this afternoon, and I think that we must leave it at that.
§ Mr. Brown
It is a different point of order, Mr. Speaker, arising from the intervention of the Minister for Health. It will be in your memory, Mr. Speaker, that a few minutes ago the Minister said that before the press conference referred to by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Janner) had started, the replies to written questions Nos. 159 and 160, which embody the Government's thinking on glue-sniffing, were in the Vote Office in sufficient quantities to enable all hon. Members — [HON. MEMBERS: "He did not say it."] I have been to the Vote Office and I have found that copies of the written answers to written questions Nos. 159 and 160 are not available. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that the Minister of State has grossly misled the House. I ask you to rule on this issue.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Brown) will know that the answers to written questions go to the hon. Member concerned and also to the Library, but they will not be found in the Vote Office.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have just made a statement about the usual practice for supplying written answers. One copy goes to the Member concerned and one to the Library of the House. Had the Minister said that, that would have been sufficient for the House, although we would have been angry and upset. However, the Minister said that there were sufficient copies for all Members of the House. That is about 630 copies, and they are not there.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. This exchange has probably been worthwhile, because it may prevent something similar from happening again.