HC Deb 22 January 1985 vol 71 cc879-82 4.36 pm
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 10, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the breakdown of talks between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers yesterday and the involvement of Her Majesty's Government in the breakdown.

I do so for three reasons. First, it has become public knowledge in the past week that the National Union of Mineworkers has widened its negotiating team with regard to seeking a settlement and has been in a position to say that it is prepared to meet for talks without any preconditions as to what will take place at those talks.

Secondly, it is obvious to any observer in the past two months that there are also people in the National Coal Board—and it is a very different National Coal Board from 12 months ago—who are seeking talks to resolve the present mining dispute.

Thirdly, it has become apparent to everybody in the country in the last 24 hours from the briefings that have gone on in the press room at Downing street—although the Prime Minister has tried to deny those briefings in the Chamber this afternoon—that, indeed, the Prime Minister does not want these meetings to take place. It is no coincidence that most of today's national newspapers carry the same front page story—that Margaret Thatcher is stopping the negotiations that are going on to try to settle the mining dispute. [HON. MEMBERS: "So what?"] Conservative Members say, "So what?" When the dispute is over and work starts again, one person less will be working in my constituency—the person who was found dead on Saturday afternoon after being bullied while coal picking on a coal waste tip in my constituency. If Conservative Members want to discuss what is happening in the coal dispute, I suggest that they, too, should make an application under Standing Order No. 10. They can then get on their feet and debate the cost of the strike and how it is affecting the country at present.

It is a question not just of the economic effect of between £90 million and £100 million per week being used in a crude attempt to defeat the NUM, but of the hardship suffered by communities in my constituency and many others who have been fighting for the past 10 months not out of self-interest, but for their dignity and right to work. [Interruption.] It is a great pity that Conservative Members who constantly interrupt make no attempt to listen to what has been said in the Yorkshire coalfield and in many other coalfields in the past 10 months.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you ask the well-heeled rabble on the Conservative Benches to remain silent while my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) is speaking? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There was a certain amount of interruption earlier, but not at this particular moment. I am listening very carefully anyway. [Interruption.] Order.

Mr. Barron

If Conservative Members feel so strongly about the coal dispute, they, too, should apply for time to debate it.

In constituencies such as mine, where thousands of people—the vast majority—are still on strike, after 11 months in some areas, the suffering involved justifies debate. As an individual Member of Parliament, I feel very strongly about the denial of Government time to debate an issue affecting so many of my constituents.

I therefore ask you, Mr. Speaker, to grant the debate for which I have asked in place of the business set clown for today because I and many others feel very strongly that the Government should answer for what is now openly going on in relation to the dispute between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing an urgent and important matter, namely, the breakdown of talks between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers yesterday and the involvement of Her Majesty's Government in the breakdown.

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I am in no doubt that at an appropriate moment, and when it will be helpful to the settlement of the dispute, we should have a debate on this matter; but, as he knows, my only duty in considering applications under Standing Order No. 10 is to decide whether the matter should be given priority over the business set down for this evening or tomorrow. I regret that I do not find that the matter that he has raised meets all the criteria laid down in that Standing Order, and I cannot, therefore, submit his application to the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take Mr. Benn's point of order first.

Mr. Benn

I am not challenging what you, Mr. Speaker, have said in respect of the application made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), but I rise to ask for your help in two respects.

Following the earlier dicussion on these points, I consulted the Library about the practice of previous Speakers in industrial disputes. I have today obtained the following information, which is, of course, available to any Member.

During the period that became known as the winter of discontent, there were debates under Standing Order No. 9—now Standing Order No. 10—on 22 January and 5 February 1979. In addition, there were private notice questions on 25 and 31 January and 1 February 1979. In other words, there were two emergency debates and three private notice questions within a period of two weeks. The Labour party was in government at that time, and the then Speaker allowed the Opposition to bring those matters urgently to the attention of the House under those procedures. I have not referred to any other type of debate.

My second point, Mr. Speaker, stems from your ruling today that it is not proper for a Member of Parliament to refer in the House or on the radio to the fact that a private notice question has been tabled. As you well know, I tried for one on Monday in relation to the rail strike. You, Mr. Speaker, did not allow it, so I did not raise it, and I appreciate that one cannot question your ruling on a private notice question. I had, however, told a mass of people that I intended to try to get a question on tie rail strike. When they asked where the question was, I replied, "Mr. Speaker disallowed it." I ask you to consider this very important point, Mr. Speaker. Are you seriously saying that Members of Parliament who try to use that mechanism of the House and fail are not allowed to tell anyone that they even tried?

Two further considerations arise. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] These are very important matters which may affect any Member at any time. In the absence of debate in the House of Commons you, Mr. Speaker, know what happens. Tomorrow the House of Lords, which is not elected, will be discussing matters, including the miners' strike, on television. In the absence of parliamentary debate, Mr. Bernard Ingham tells Lobby correspondents every morning what the Prime Minister wants them to know. The reports are then published anonymously, and the Lobby correspondents do not even admit that they go to No. 10.

I submit most respectfully, Mr. Speaker, that there is at this moment and on this issue a question concerning the defence of the rights of constituents—we merely represent other people—and our ability to bring urgently to the notice of Parliament the real hardship being suffered by good people, which is not allowed to be discussed on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Speaker

On private notice questions, there is a long-standing convention that applications which are disallowed are not mentioned in the House. That would equally go for not mentioning them on the radio.

With regard to the granting of debates under Standing Order No. 10, the right hon. Gentleman should read the Standing Order carefully as I am limited by what is set down in it. The right hon. Gentleman is surely not suggesting that I should be wholly responsible for what is debated in the House. That is the implication of his question. There exist the usual channels through which debates and the time of the House are discussed. That is a matter for people other than myself. I am responsible for ensuring fairness in the calling of Members who rise to ask questions and the protection of Back Benchers. I do not deny that the right hon. Gentleman has a right to put the interests of his constituents, but that is exactly what we did at Prime Minister's Questions today.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Benn

Further to that specific point, Mr. Speaker. Would you please clarify the situation for Members in my position? I put down a private notice question and I told people that I intended to do so. When they asked why it had not appeared, I told them that it had been disallowed. I mentioned that fact on the radio when I was asked why I did not use the normal mechanisms of the House. That is a specific question which arises from Monday. Are you, Mr. Speaker, now saying—it is important that this is made clear—that I am in breach of your ruling if I tell anyone that I intend to table a private notice question or that the intended question has been disallowed? That is distinct from not questioning the matter on the Floor of the House. No one is arguing about that because we all know the position in that respect. If it is now to be a breach of your ruling to tell anyone what one is trying to do and why it has not worked, that is a substantial expansion.

Mr. Speaker

It has always been so. [Interruption.] I am merely following what has happened in the past.

With regard to private notice questions, I am bound to take into account other opportunities that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) or any other Member may have to raise matters in the House.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you gave your ruling on the Standing Order No. 10 application made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), you used what could loosely be termed code language in saying that you would not accept the application this time and referring to an "appropriate" time. Between you and me, Mr. Speaker, I should like to wheedle a more simplistic answer from you as to what you really mean. Are you saying that if we persist in this matter we may eventually make it, or that if an Opposition Front Bench spokesman made the application it might be granted? We need to know because we want to fire a few more shots from the locker. If it is possible that we may obtain the debate through these other methods, so be it. We shall not make a fuss about that. Could you, Mr. Speaker, tell us precisely what you meant when you talked about an "appropriate" time? We should like to know.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member should not read too much into codes. I have followed strictly what is said in Standing Order No. 10, which states: In determining whether a matter is urgent Mr. Speaker shall have regard to the probability of the matter being brought before the House in time by other means. In my preamble, I said that I hoped that at the appropriate time there would be a debate on this matter. The Speaker would be put in an intolerable position if he had to decide every day what should be discussed. That is a matter for the usual channels.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Without wishing to challenge what you said earlier, I ask you to consider the number of hon. Members who, during the past 10 months, have made Standing Order No. 10 applications to debate the miners' dispute because of the grave disquiet outside the House.

I believe that you, Mr. Speaker, should consider an important point of democracy. If the Front Benchers do not wish to debate this critical matter but the Back Benchers do, it is important that you, Mr. Speaker, should protect the rights of those Back Benchers by agreeing to a debate, so that the issues of the appalling hardship in the coalfields, the waste of public money and the deterioration of civil liberties because of the Government's actions during the dispute are aired in this place. That would enable a full, open and free debate to take place and we would not have these coded attempts to suffocate debate in the media and in the House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Member's memory is at fault, because some time ago I granted a Standing Order No. 10 debate on this very subject. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member is not accusing me of not taking these matters too seriously. I believe that this is a serious matter, which should be debated at the appropriate moment. I think that the whole House would wish to debate this matter at a moment when such a debate would be helpful rather than unhelpful.