HC Deb 04 December 1987 vol 123 cc1271-7 2.30 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should be grateful if you could give us some help. In his efforts to protect the interests of the House earlier, Mr. Speaker agreed to grant a private notice question on the Government's injunction against the BBC Radio 4 programme, because the Government had refused to make a statement. In deference to Mr. Speaker's efforts to protect our interests, we did not want to prolong the questions following that private notice question, especially as private Members' time would have been eaten away.

We have been pressing for the Attorney-General to make a further statement, not just because of what he said in his reply, but because he was talking about the culmination of a number of substantial efforts by the Government to interfere with the independence of the BBC. This is not an isolated incident. There have been political appointments to the board of governors and, rather more extraordinarily, political appointments at a lower level in the BBC, where in effect Government appointees are seen as spies on what is going on. We have seen overt pressure from the chairman of the Tory party——

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Name one.

Mr. Dobson

If the hon. Gentleman will wait, he will hear.

We have also seen the Government's efforts to prevent the Zircon film from being shown to Members. We have seen the raids on the BBC in Glasgow, which were related to that. We are in danger of the rest of the world seeing the BBCs reputation as so besmirched that it becomes the British State Broadcasting Corporation.

The Attorney-General said this morning that the Government had to intervene so late in the day because they had read about the nature of the programme in the gossip column — the "Peterborough" column — of The Daily Telegraph. We should like the right hon. and learned Gentleman to explain why, if the Government behave with such vigilance when they see references in The Daily Telegraphto spy programmes, they did not respond when they read the pre-reviews in the weekend newspapers on the programme's content.

One reference stated that the first programme would examine the roles of MI5, MI6 and the Government's communication headquarters and that next week it would cover "yesterday's spies and today's politicians." The Observerassured us that what would be broadcast today would be "an opening delve" behind the scenes of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and the question would be: "Why do we need them?"

All the information that needed to be available for the Government to mount any legal action has been available to them for a long time. The Opposition find it difficult to believe that the security services did not know that there was to be a programme about the security services. If they did not, they are totally incompetent. We should like to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you have had any representations from the Leader of the House or the Attorney-General to the effect that they intend to make a statement, preferably today or, if not, on Monday.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

I have heard the hon. Gentleman's long point of order. He will understand that the Chair is not responsible for the lack of early response which he claims that the Government could have made. However, I can tell him that Mr. Speaker has not received any application from either the Leader of the House or the Attorney-General to make a statement.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I should like to underline some points about the timing and contents——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. May I guide the hon. Lady? She must make a point of order and not a debating point. Will the hon. Lady please make a direct point of order to the Chair?

Ms. Ruddock

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I believe that the Government have a duty to make a statement to the House about the banning of that programme. I believe that because I was a participant in the programme and know something of its content.

My invitation to appear on the programme was given to me verbally in September. It was followed up by an open letter that came through the post to the House of Commons. At every stage, this matter was completely open and available to everybody, and I was free to tell everybody that I was participating. The programme covered an exploration of matters that are absolutely fundamental to the House of Commons, such as whether the citizens of this country have a right to know the way in which this country is governed, and whether the media, and especially the BBC, are free to inform the citizens of this country——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady is not making a point of order. I shall give her another minute to come to a point of order. I know that she has a lot to say and if, within a minute, she comes to a point of order, I shall try to deal with it.

Ms. Ruddock

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I repeat that, because these are fundamental matters, we have the right to know. Therefore, the appropriate representative of the Government must make a statement so that we can understand. What we have been told is clearly inadequate and inaccurate and does not serve the purposes of the House of Commons. It does not reveal to us the reason for the banning of the programme. That suggests that the Government will be politically embarrassed by something in the programme and that it is not a matte of state——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has stated a matter of opinion, which, I fear, is not a point of order. However, she will have heard me say that it is not for the Chair to request or require Ministers to come to the House to make a statement. The Chair must wait for that application and request to be made.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Further to the point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The House recently debated what I believed to be a fundamental transgression of justice, when the pass of my research assistant Mr. Ronan Bennett, was suspended by the House. Many allegations were made at the time about the security services and the need to take the lid off them.

I think that you will agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is disturbing that, when the BBC was apparently about to take the lid off the security services and their undemocratic behaviour, the Government have sought to use draconian powers to prevent those programmes from being broadcast. My point of order to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, is this. If the Government are not prepared to apply through a Minister to make a further statement to the House, or to arrange for a debate in Government time on the security services, will you advise us by what means we can ensure, immediately or as soon as possible, that a full debate is held on the question of the control, or lack of control of the security services and the way in which public money is being spent by the Government to prevent the BBC from broadcasting information about the security services in just the same way as they prevented the broadcast of the films about Zircon, and the way in which they are spending vast sums of money to prevent the publication in this country of Peter Wright's book on the security services?

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must not attempt to drag the Chair into debate. This is not a matter for the Chair. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will note that the Leader of the House is in his place and may well have noted his comments.

Mr. Holt

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said that the programme was intended to blow the lid off the security services——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order. I am dealing with specific points of order and I have been fairly generous. Mr. Skinner.

Mr. Holt

I have not yet reached my point of order——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have called Mr. Skinner.

Mr. Holt

On a point of order ——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. I shall return to him. I can hear only one voice at a time.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

According to section (4) of Standing Order No. 11, which deals with Friday sittings, At eleven o'clock Mr. Speaker may interrupt the proceedings in order to permit questions to be asked which are in his opinion of an urgent character and relate either to matters of public importance or to the arrangement of business, statements to be made by Ministers, or personal explanations to be made by Members". It goes on and on, and I shall not read it out.

Earlier today, the Speaker was placed in a somewhat embarrassing position. It would have been straightforward and easy for the Government to comply with Standing Order No. 11 and tell the Attorney-General to make a statement about the freedom and liberty of the British people in relation to the gagging and censoring of the BBC by a party whose friends own and control most of the press, and which has a majority of 100 in the House. The Speaker was placed in a predicament from which he could hardly escape. Although he allowed several questions on the private notice question, because the matter was of such major public importance, he could not allow questions to continue much beyond half an hour.

You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that several weeks ago we had a similar situation on not such an important matter. The Attorney-General had to be brought to the House at 2.30 pm to explain himself and several hon. Members took the opportunity to ask him questions. With the censorship and gagging of the BBC— God knows where it will end with this Government—and with the apparatchiks stuck inside the BBC who somehow could not tell the Government: about this programme that was about to be broadcast on Radio 4——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman coming to his point of order?

Mr. Skinner

Yes. In accordance with Standing Order No. 11, it would have been far better for this pathetic Government to tell the Attorney-General to make a statement. Because he has not made a statement but has put the Chair in this predicament and been dragged here kicking and squealing for a private notice question, he should be brought here now.

Hon Members


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There are no procedures by which any Minister can be brought to the House now. [Interruption.] Order. I have heard the hon. Gentleman's point of order and he is correct in saying that under Standing Order No. 11 a private notice question can be asked or a statement made at 11 o'clock. Mr. Speaker wisely chose to accept the private notice question.

Mr. Holt

In accordance with our Standing Orders, we had a private notice question this morning and the Attorney-General came to the House and answered it. There is absolutely nothing further to add. Hon. Members will recall that, if the BBC had made available the information sought by the Official Solicitor, the Government would not have needed to seek an injunction, nor would we have needed a private notice question. All these points of order are wholly spurious, including mine.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I wish to raise a different point of order, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that the Speaker has been placed in an embarrassing position. It may have been because of the atmosphere at that time that I was unable to make myself understood and I should like to raise the issue of an hon. Member's ability to represent the interests of his constituents and others who refer matters to him or her as a Member for Parliament.

When we had problems in the past about obtaining clear answers to clear questions directed at Ministerial Departments and when Mr. Speaker received complaints about that, he said that there were other ways of investigating the issues. Very wisely, he never specifies those but says that other hon. Members may well advise the unfortunate Member who is in difficulty. One of those ways is the investigative journalist, and by gagging investigative journalists the Government are restricting the ability of hon. Members — especially Opposition Members—to represent their constituents.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I have heard the point of order made by the hon. Gentleman. This is becoming a debate, and I shall now accept only direct points of order.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

If the Attorney-General chooses to come to the House to discuss this matter, will it be in order for Conservative Members to raise with him the unhealthy obsession of the Opposition and perhaps some people in the BBC with our own security services, while they do not seem to be interested in the activities of the Russians?

Madam Deputy Speaker

We will see what happens when the time comes.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Further to that point of order. I appreciate the difficulties that you are in, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I do not wish to add to them. I know that Mr. Speaker was in similar difficulties earlier. This is not the first time that something like this has occurred when a matter of considerable public interest has been raised and when it has been impossible for the House to discuss matters in the form of a ministerial statement—even when those matters have been widely discussed outside the House in the media and among people generally.

My point of order is, would it be in order for the Leader of the House, who is present, and whom perhaps I can address through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make some statement about the affairs that were discussed this morning by way of a private notice question? Perhaps he could give an assurance that, in future when a matter of grave public concern that is clearly of interest to the House is raised outside the House, he will use whatever good offices he can to ensure that the appropriate Minister comes to the Dispatch Box?

Madam Deputy Speaker


Mr. Banks

My point of order——

Madam Deputy Speaker

I thought that the hon. Member had made his point of order.

Mr. Banks

I was going to conclude my point of order be saying that what we witnessed this morning was the Opposition doing their job and that it is generally accepted that we do that adequately and well. We had to raise on a private notice question a matter that should have been the subject of a ministerial statement. The Attorney- General spoke about the horse leaving the stable. It is not the horse t at we are concerned about, but the mess that is left in the stable, and that is why, to make sure——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have got the hon. Gentleman's point of order, which was, would the Leader of the House make a statement? The answer is no. Points of order are for the Chair to deal with and I shall deal with them.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

This is a point of order specfic to you, Madame Deputy Speaker, about the events of this morning. This is not the first time that we have seen a steady erosion of the rights of the legislature in the face of the Executive. They have consistently refused to come to the legislature and explain themselves and hold themselves accountable. It is made clear in the pages of "Erskine May" that one of our privileges in the legislature is freedom of speech.

My specific point of order to you, Madame Deputy Speaker, is that the usual channels exist. Mr Speaker this morning, and you this afternoon, are constantly placed in embarrassing situations. The way out of that embarrass-ment is through the usual channels that Mr. Speaker has, you may have to explain to the Government that it is not good enough for the legislature to be treated in this fashion.

Madame Deputy Speaker

I am sure that that point of order has been heard on the Treasury Bench and in all parts of the House.

Hon. Members

Come on, make a statement.

Madame Deputy Speaker

Order. I call Mr. Allen.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Further to that point of order, Madame Deputy Speaker. I had the great privilege of being one of the draftsmen or authors of the very renowned document on the security services that currently constitutes Labour party policy for debates. Of course, that was before I entered the House. As a new Member of the House, I had obviously assumed that the security services could be discussed in the House. I find that I cannot table questions at the Table Office——

Madame Deputy Speaker

Order. This point of order does not at all relate to this matter.

Mr. Allen


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should listen to me for a moment. Unless his point of order directly relates to this matter, I must ask him to resume his seat.

Mr. Allen

There is no departmental Select Committee overseeing the security services, and we cannot even examine the moneys that are allocated to those services. Therefore, we depend wholly upon the freedom of the press, so-called — [Interruption] — to examine these matters. I find now that we cannot even listen to a BBC radio programme. I was looking forward to the programme, as I cannot ask questions in the House on security matters, I thought that I might learn something from outside. I ask that the Leader of the House or the Attorney-General — again, there is no departmental Select Committee to oversee the work of the Attorney- General — make a statement to Parliament rather than through the pages——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There has been no application made to Mr. Speaker for a statement today.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I appreciate fully the difficult position in which Mr. Speaker was placed earlier this morning as a result of the Governmenfs failure voluntarily to make a statement. Mr. Speaker generously allowed more time than he would normally have done for a private notice question. However, I and several of my colleagues who wished to question the Attorney-General were unable to do so because of the time constraint which Mr. Speaker was under.

There are major issues at stake involving the relationship between the Government and the media and the Government and their own servants, civil servants. Also involved is the degree of accountability to which a Government and their actions can be held by the general public in a democracy. These are all important issues, and one of the mechanisms that is open to us to pursue them further is to apply for an emergency debate on Monday.

I ask you, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether Mr.Speaker or yourself will be able to view favourably an application, if it is tabled on Monday, for an emergency debate to discuss these grave issues which arise from the Governmenfs——

Madam Deputy Speaker

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern but he has raised a rather hypothetical point. The hon. Gentleman must wait until Monday.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Will the tape of the programme that the Government have prevented from being broadcast be made available to hon. Members so that we can make a reasoned judgment about the programme, either through the good offices of the Government in their contacts with the BBC, if they have any, or through Mr. Speaker's Office? If the tape is made available to hon. Members themselves, will they be permitted to play it in the House?

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter for the Chair. It is certainly not a matter to which the Chair can respond.

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