HC Deb 04 December 1985 vol 88 cc305-8
Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should be grateful for advice on how I should deal with what I consider to be a serious abuse by a Minister. He has released to the press confidential correspondence between me and one of my constituents.

As you will know, Mr. Speaker, an argument has been going on for some time between the Minister of State, Home Office and several Opposition Members since he alleged, when he lost control of himself at Question Time, that Opposition Members had been abusing their powers as Members of Parliament to make representations in immigration cases. Since then, the Home Secretary has climbed down and called it only a misuse of power.

We have received a letter from the Minister requesting us to release our correspondence, saying that he simply wants examples of the problems that we face. We responded by saying that we would give permission for the correspondence to be released, without the names, only if we could debate the issue so that our side of the case could be put fairly.

Since that time, without communicating with me, the Minister has released one of those letters to the Daily Telegraph. It was referred to yesterday and part of it was printed. That must be wrong, Mr. Speaker, and I should like your help in making sure that the Minister is appropriately reprimanded.

Mr. Speaker

It is not my function to reprimand Ministers, or to advise the hon. Lady on parliamentary tactics, but there are opportunities to deal with the matter. She might try to obtain an Adjournment debate or raise the matter during business questions tomorrow.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The main business for today is the Bill dealing with the accession of Spain and Portugal to the European Community. That arises out of the treaty of Rome. We understand that there were discussions in Luxembourg yesterday dealing with the treaty of Rome that suggested small or large amendments to the treaty. We have not had a statement from the Front Bench. There is no copy of the communiqué in the Library and no copy of it will be made available tomorrow. The treaty could change the relationship between Britain and the Community, or Spain and Portugal and the Community. How can we debate the issue of Spain and Portugal joining the Community unless we know what they are about to join?

I beseech you, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of democrats in the House, so that we can consider the subject properly, that today's business should be delayed until we have the fundamental and basic information that we need.

Mr. Speaker

I had expected a point of order from the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) on this matter. Does he wish to say something about it?

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I wish to speak about it, Mr. Speaker, because it is directly related to today's business and I regard it as a serious matter.

We are aware that what appears to be an important agreement was made in Luxembourg last night, to make decisions on the extension of majority voting and to make changes in the treaty of Rome. We cannot discuss the merits of those proposals on a point of order, but I feel that the rights of Back Benchers are affected by the text of the agreement not being available to hon. Members, while members of the press have apparently been fully briefed on what is happening in Luxembourg.

When I telephoned the Foreign Office this morning, I was advised that it had only a text in French and was unwilling to take the responsibility of translating it. I also contacted the London office of the European Communities Commission and was told that it did not have a copy and did not know when one would arrive. The House of Commons Library, in its conscientious way, was in touch with the Government first thing this morning saying that it had been unable to secure any text. Surely we are entitled to at least the same information as representatives of the press on vital issues affecting the rights of the House of Commons. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, as protector of Back Benchers, to make inquiries and to ensure that information on such important agreements is made available.

Finally, is it proper and fair to Back Benchers that we should be asked to proceed with a Bill to extend the membership of the Common Market by two nations when we have no information on the agreement that has already been made to extend the rights of majority voting? Obviously, as we do not know the details, we cannot say to what extent it will affect the Bill or our consideration of it. Surely it is grossly improper for us not to have the text that is directly relevant to the Bill when the agreement has been made and when the text is available to others.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You said to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) that the matter that she raised could be dealt with in an Adjournment debate. With the greatest respect, will you give further thought to what she said? As I understand it, correspondence that we have with Ministers concerning constituents must be confidential. If such information is disclosed to the press without our permission, it must be a matter of concern to the House. The only way that we can raise it is with you, Mr. Speaker.

If the position stated by my hon. Friend is true, as it must be, surely the Minister should be asked to explain how he has disclosed information to the press concerning an hon. Member and her dealings with a constituent. I do not believe that it can be left purely and simply to my hon. Friend to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate; it is a House of Commons matter.

Mr. Speaker

I was seeking, perhaps unwisely, to be helpful to the hon. Lady by advising her on tactics. If the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is alleging that it is a matter of privilege, he should draw it to my attention in the usual way.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We cannot let the matter stand as it now is. This is a very grave incident indeed. I cannot recall any occasion when hon. Members' private correspondence has been released without their permission to members of the press. I should have thought that, as the Leader of the House was present throughout these exchanges, he would take on board the suggestion that the Minister of State should make a statement to the House tomorrow about his conduct.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I suggest a compromise, which may attract you as defender of our rights? I suggest that you make private representations that the Prime Minister should address the House on the matter, because all of us wish to know whether it is her opinion that the addition of two members to the EEC will make for more efficient and more cohesive considerations in the EEC, and whether there has been a complete muddle over the past two days, with nothing but eyewash coming out at the end. If that is her view the House may not wish to agree to the treaty. I hope that you will have a private word, Mr. Speaker, and, when you have done so, will consider delaying the proceedings until we have heard the Prime Minister's view.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not misunderstand me when I say that I do not buy that helpful suggestion. I have sympathy with what the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) said, but, of course, it is a matter for the Government whether papers and translations are made available. Perhaps the Minister will be able to say something about it in his speech.

Mr. Teddy Taylor


Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Speaker

No. I shall take the point of order of the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor).

Mr. Taylor

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of your sympathetic and kind reply, would it be in order for you to invite the Leader of the House to make a statement, as it is a matter of only 24 or 48 hours, postponing consideration of the European Communities (Spanish and Protuguese Accession) Bill for only a day or two so that we can get the text of the agreement, which fundamentally affects the Bill?

Mr. Marlow

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There are certain areas of policy over which the Government and the Council of Ministers have a veto. We have power over Ministers as Parliament. According to today's press, the Government have considered doing away with the veto on certain areas of their responsibility. That means that Parliament possibly will lose some of its powers. If Parliament loses some of its powers, that is a matter for primary consideration before we look at the business before the House today. I must reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). The Leader of the House should carry out his suggestion.

Mr. Speaker

The Leader of the House is present. It is not for me to comment on that.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is rather strange that you, Mr. Speaker, have been tolerating points of order about a text from over the water. We are concerned about the texts of letters bandied about in the press, when hon. Members believed that the Minister would use them only in general terms.

The Leader of the House and you, Mr. Speaker, should discuss this matter with a view to finding an appropriate way of ensuring that justice is done. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was perverting the course of justice, was turned out of the Chamber for doing so, within 10 days almost every man and his dog in the nation were saying, "Mr. Sedgemore got it right".

The complaint of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) has been dismissed as though it were of no importance. The matter is important and should be dealt with by you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House. The Minister must explain himself at the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Speaker

I did not suggest to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) that the matter was not important. That was not what she asked me. She asked whether I could give her some advice on the matter, and I did.

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I hope that it will be helpful to the House if I say a few words about the two issues raised in the points of order.

On the matter raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), I am not sure whether the implication is that there is a breach of privilege. If that is her view, the remedy available is well known. I take note of your comments, Mr. Speaker, that the subject might be raised on next week's business. I realise the feeling that is invested in the topic, and I shall treat it seriously.

Regarding the issue raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), I appreciate that it would be to the advantage of the House to have available the text relating to the recent European Council meeting. I am assured by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that it will be available shortly.

However, we live in a less than ideal world. Today we are to discuss but the Second Reading of the legislation and I would have thought that we could at least proceed with our present knowledge, and with the assurance that the document will be available for subsequent stages.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The reply of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was unsatisfactory. On Second Reading we vote on the principle of the Bill. We are being asked to extend to the Governments of Spain and Portugal certain rights that affect Britain regarding the end of majority voting, but we do not know what they are. That fundamental point will not be met by the publication of the document after the debate.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter for me.