HC Deb 03 July 1986 vol 100 cc1215-7 6.17 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government have just announced, in a written reply, the abandonment of a central plank of their political and economic strategy—their proposals to privatise Britain's water assets. The disgraceful and cowardly manner of the announcement is as despicable as the original proposals. It demonstrates the contempt with which the Government treat the House and the country.

The Government announced in a Green Paper their intention to privatise Britain's public water assets, and as recently as last week the proposals were confirmed in a debate in the House, in which the Minster with responsibility for these matters in the Department of the Environment said that he would reaffirm the Government's intentions. It is scandalous that the Secretary of State for the Environment has chosen not to announce this most important decision, which so damages the Government's credibility — indeed, the whole position of Ministers in his Department—that perhaps he should review his position.

Millions of people—indeed, the majority of people in Britain—will regard this as very welcome news, not only because it abandons what were in the first place ill-founded, ill-prepared and unacceptable proposals but because it heralds the increasing decline of this Government and their ultimate defeat at the next general election. We believe that there should have been a major statement on the issue. I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to safeguard the interests of the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I think that I had better make it clear to the House that the fact that there has been a written answer is not a matter for me. There has been no point of order so far upon which I can rule.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We cannot have "Further to the point of order" on something that was not a point of order.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The written answer of the Secretary of State for the Environment has been published late today, Thursday, and many hon. Members have left the House for their constituencies. In their written answer the Government have given no reason for changing their policy. They have treated the House of Commons with contempt. All that the written answer says is that, after consultation with the chairmen of the water authorities, it is not possible to proceed with privatisation. However, consultations with the water authorities took place before the Government announced that they intended to proceed with privatisation. The House has a right to know the real reasons for the Government's backing down.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will recall that earlier today an important statement was made that took up nearly an hour of important parliamentary time, and that dealt with the Government's response to the Peacock report. Despite all the questions, we were unable to ascertain correctly the Government's position. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has now told the House that the Government have responded in this contemptible fashion. It has been made quite clear that the lady is for turning. We want to know why. The Secretary of State for the Environment was proved to be wrong on more than one occasion when he was Secretary of State for Transport. Why has he not got the guts to come to the Dispatch Box to explain why this policy has now been turned on its head?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The method of giving information to the House is not a matter for the Chair. So far no point over which I have any jurisdiction has been raised.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A different situation has now arisen. The Secretary of State for the Environment, who has so far evaded his responsibilities to the House, is now on the Treasury Bench. The Leader of the House is also present. It is outrageous that, other than the Prime Minister, the one Minister in this Government who is most committed to privatisation has not had the guts to come to the House and make a proper statement at that Dispatch Box.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

All the matters that have been raised so far may be important, but they are matters for debate and there are ways and means of raising them. Until now no matter has been raised on which I can help the House.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the Leader of the House has just arrived in the Chamber, may I suggest that he should now prevail upon the rather tentative and reluctant Secretary of State to make a statement either later this evening or tomorrow morning.

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

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment needs no compliments from the right hon. Gentleman — [interruption] The nature of the right hon. Gentleman is such that he could not deliver an insult without it sounding like a compliment. I take account of the point that has been raised. It is a matter that can be looked at through the usual channels.

Mr. Walter Harrison (Wakefield)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I listened intently in an effort to hear what was said by the Leader of the House. No hon. Member was more intent than I, but I could not hear what he said. Some of my hon. Members have told me that they, too, could not hear what he said. I want to raise a point of order on the issue, because I have been very concerned about the privatisation of the water industry. Therefore, I should like the Lord Privy Seal to repeat what he said.

Mr. Biffen

I think that it would be for the general benefit of the House if we looked at this matter through the usual channels.

Mr. Harrison

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am very concerned about this important issue having been raised in this manner. As is well known, I made my second major speech on the subject of water.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

It was brilliant, Walter.

Mr. Harrison

I thank my hon. Friend. I never let any question on the water industry pass. That is why I listened intently to the Leader of the House. I do want more than an assurance that this matter will be dealt with through the usual channels. On the night of the Liberal party's debate on the water authorities—a Monday—I said that there had been banditry, but it was not even recorded in the Official Report. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Of course I said that from a sedentary position. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) accosted the Leader of the House, who gave him good advice about how to raise a subject on a subject on a subject. I am so concerned about this takeover and banditry—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows more than most hon. Members how the usual channels operate. He also knows that the merits or demerits of any announcement are not matters for the Chair. I am waiting for him to raise a point of order with me.

Mr. Harrison

I have always given full support to the Chair. On occasion, I have been the only one from my party in the Lobby against my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). On this occasion, the House has not been afforded the courtesy that it should have received on such a major issue as the privatisation of the water authorities. This matter is not just for the usual channels. That is not acceptable. There should be a proper statement, and negotiations should take place through the usual channels as to when a debate should take place.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a procedural matter. It has become a regular occurrence that major statements are made by the Government at times when that causes maximum inconvenience to hon. Members. I realise that neither you nor Mr. Speaker have any control over the timing of Government announcements, but surely it is in the interest of all hon. Members, and therefore of the House generally, for the Chair to advise Ministers that important statements should be made at times when all hon. Members with constituency interests in the subject can be present. Therefore, it is unacceptable for an announcement to be made late on a Thursday when, for a variety of reasons, hon. Members have left town to go to their constituencies. It is also unacceptable to suggest that a statement will be made on Friday, when hon. Members will still be out of town. If you cannot rule on it, at least you or Mr. Speaker could advise Ministers how to behave.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I certainly cannot rule on the time when Ministers should make statements.