HC Deb 26 October 1987 vol 121 cc74-80
Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In exchanges on a point of order earlier a request was made for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement to the House about the financial markets and their economic implications for the United Kingdom. The Chancellor of the Exchequer chose not to make such a statement, but in exchanges thereafter the Opposition made an offer to change the next debate to cover that subject and to enable the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take part — [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] That offer by the Opposition would have permitted the Chancellor to make a statement now and to tell the House what he should have told it earlier without having been forced to come here, but it has not been accepted.

I ask the Government, through you, Mr. Speaker, whether they intend to make a statement today. If there is no such intention, may we insist that a statement he made tomorrow at the latest? The Chancellor of the Exchequer has already spoken to the stock exchange, but he is accountable to the House of Commons, not the stock exchange.

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

It is open to the Shadow Cabinet to choose the subject for debate today. Following the earlier exchanges, there were discussions through the usual channels. I think that it would be wrong, and not in the interests of the House as a whole, to seek to change the business at such short notice.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a long-standing engagement in the City which I am certain he is right to fulfil. I cannot for one moment accept the Opposition's strictures.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Rumours are floating around the Palace of Westminster that every pressure is being applied to stop a statement being made and to prevent the Chancellor being questioned. It is extremely unfortunate that once again the House is being treated with contempt. The Chancellor is to make a statement later tonight on the subject on which we wish to question him, but he refuses to come to the House. In view of the importance of this subject to our constituents—[Interruption]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Winnick

The matter is of importance to our constituents in terms of their jobs, which the Opposition regard as crucial, even if the Government do not. Will you, Mr. Speaker, ensure that the Chancellor makes a statement at 10 o'clock tonight?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. It might be helpful if I repeat what the House already knows. I am not in a position to insist that the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes a statement.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is obvious that the Opposition are indulging in no more than synthetic outrage. If the Opposition are so concerned about the stock market, which sustained its biggest falls last week, why did the Leader of the Opposition not question my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House earlier? The Opposition show synthetic concern because they made a mistake in choosing the topic of debate for today.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. One of the changes that has taken place today in the fall of the stock exchange and the changes throughout the world is that it is reported that the underwriters have asked for the BP flotation later this week to be—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Rees

The underwriters and others have asked the Government not to proceed with this major part of their policy which was a major factor in the general election. this House ought to be told what the Government's response will be. Everyone else has been talking about it, but the Chancellor is not doing his duty by this House on this issue, and the Leader of the House ought to do something about it.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm the rumour that when the Shadow Cabinet met they failed to agree on today's debate because they could not reach a united view on anything to do with the stock exchange?

Mr. Speaker

I never confirm rumours.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have just been asked whether you could persuade the Government to make a statement, which is obviously very urgent. You replied that you were not in a position to force them to make a statement. However, will you confirm that you have control over private notice questions? I understand the convention of the House that you never allow a discussion about whether private notice questions have been submitted or whether the application was turned down. But will you confirm that it is possible for a private notice question application to be made at any time and not merely at Question Time? In that case, it would be possible for an application to be made that would enable you to decide that the Chancellor should come to the House at this stage and answer questions that hon. Members wish to ask rather than going off to the stock exchange. I hope that you will confirm that we can put these questions at this time.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) knows that I have no authority to extend Question Time to later in the evening. There are precedents for statements to be made later in the day, but never private notice questions.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I suggest that in the present situation it might be unwise, and probably pointless, for the Chancellor to make a statement until he has had time to reach agreement with his opposite numbers in the G7 countries? We would be most unwise to press him to make a partial statement at this time.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are one of the important people who safeguard the rights of Back Benchers, and the Opposition in particular, in a system of democracy that holds the Executive accountable here in this House. It is clearly a calculated act of political cowardice for the Government to refuse to come here to make a statement. It is therefore incumbent upon us and, I suggest, you to ensure that there is full accountability from a group of people in government who are not giving the information—

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Arrogant bastards.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Did I hear a very unparliamentary expression?

Hon. Members


Mr. Cryer

In fact, it is an erosion of our democratic principles when the Government fail to come to the House when every other source of public communication in the country and abroad is discussing these very issues. Parliament is being denied the information, and that is an outrage to our parliamentary democracy.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before tempers rise too much, will the hon. Member who made that unparliamentary expression now withdraw it?

Mr. Sedgemore

Certainly, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Opposition's sudden concern for the stock market and their apparent forgetfulness of the importance of the national curriculum may strike you as odd, as it does me. On a more substantive point, has not the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) given the game away with his usual felicity of expression when he said that my right hon. Friend had lost a few bob last week? In other words, there is no urgency about this matter. Had there been, could not the Opposition have applied to your office before 12 o'clock today to do something about it?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I think you will recall, Mr. Speaker, that on Friday several attempts were made with regard to another important issue to get the Attorney-General to the Dispatch Box to answer charges that had been made the day before. As a result, and it was almost unprecedented, the Attorney-General had to come here at 2.30 pm to answer questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the ANC plot. It was important that those questions were put. I am not so sure that we got very satisfactory answers, but that is another argument.

On this occasion the Chancellor has ignored all the pleas to come to the House to answer questions about the serious crisis in the stock exchange and the casino economy generally. You, Mr. Speaker, know that these matters were raised earlier last week. At the time when I did so the Chancellor was on television preaching to Reagan and telling him to get his house in order, yet he is not prepared to come to the House and to deal with the matter here. It would not be a bad idea if pressures were put upon the right hon. Gentleman, because he is treating Mr. Speaker with contempt as well. He is going off to the stock exchange with a £40 dinner in front of him no doubt, yet the House of Commons is not allowed to question him when there will be unemployment and cuts in social services as a result of all this. Those are the matters about which Labour Members are concerned, and the Chancellor ought to be made to do his duty to the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. None of this has anything to do with the Chair. This is an Opposition Supply day and an important debate is to follow in which a large number of hon. Members wish to take part. There will be opportunities to discuss this matter later this week. There will be Trade and Industry questions on Wednesday and the Chancellor himself will be present for Treasury questions on Thursday. There will be opportunities then to question him, but I can do nothing about it now.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that as late as last Thursday the Opposition had the opportunity to determine the subjects for today's debates, yet not until today have they suddenly taken it into their head, and to their great surprise, that there are problems on the world exchange markets. Will you confirm that it is thoroughly mischievous for the Opposition to raise this today when they know perfectly well that it is simply an attempt to switch the business in order to embarrass the Government and Ministers? Given that it has taken until today for the Opposition to notice that there is a problem on the stock exchange, is not this an example of their trying to disrupt the business quite gratuitously?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I confirmed the hon. Gentleman's initial point earlier this afternoon.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a new Member who is very naive in the Chamber, I find it difficult to understand why, when one third is wiped off share values, the Chancellor should go to the City of London rather than coming to the House to make a statement. Can you offer me some guidance on how serious an economic crisis has to be before the right hon. Gentleman comes to speak to the House?

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

It is far more responsible for the Chancellor to try to calm the nerves of the City than to try to calm those of Opposition Members, whose every utterance is damaging the economy.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Many hon. Members — perhaps even a majority — are now in favour of televising the proceedings of the House. The purpose of that would be, presumably, to show the world outside how immediately relevant our proceedings are to what people are discussing outside. May we assume, in pressing for a statement in a bipartisan attempt to solve the problem, that all hon. Members — including the many Conservative Members who are so anxious that our proceedings should appear to be relevant — are equally anxious to hear a statement on this matter that everyone is discussing?

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Opposition maintain that there is a crisis now, and are asking for a statement. I understand that the stock exchange closed 111 points down. At 12 o'clock, the closing point at which Opposition Members could have put down a private notice question, it was substantially further down. It was their choice—

Mr. Speaker

Order. As the House knows, hon. Members should not refer to any application that may or may not have been made.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will not the Leader of the House help you, Mr. Speaker, and the whole House by saying that he is prepared to see the Chancellor between now and 10 pm to make arrangements for a statement to be made then, so that we may proceed with the business? Would it not be seriously misleading both the House and the country for anyone to be given the impression that — necessary though it is to secure accountability — the making of a statement by the Chancellor, either here or in the City, will do anything to ease the position on the markets?

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There must be something wrong when we hear the Opposition championing capitalism. For Opposition Members to talk about trying to defend capitalism is hypocrisy of the highest order. What the House needs is for those of us who really care about the world outside the stock market to get on with our work and leave the country alone. The Socialists help no one else; they only try to help themselves.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It will be within your recollection that at half past three this afternoon I raised the precedent of Mr. Speaker King granting a private notice question application against the wishes of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Callaghan—as he now is—on what was, at the time, a rumour of a loan. There is also the precedent, in 1976, of Mr. Speaker Selwyn Lloyd granting private notice questions on delicate financial matters. Has there been a change of policy by the Chair on granting private notice questions on what are, admittedly, delicate financial matters when the markets could be affected?

Mr. Speaker

Of course, every application is considered carefully on its merits. I have now had an opportunity to look up the precedent. It was at a time when the Government were seeking a loan. and I do not consider that the situations are comparable.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It may be for the convenience of the House to know that I attended most of the seminar at which the Chancellor was speaking today. It was not for members of the stock exchange, but for a large group of leading industrialists whose companies are quoted on the stock market. It was a long-standing engagement. whose cancellation would have caused considerable dismay in the City and among manufacturers and industrialists throughout the country. Surely there was much more purpose in my right hon. Friend's speaking to those industrialists than in his responding to the braying and baying of Opposition Members.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not the Chancellor of the Exchequer insulting the House by refusing to come here and make a statement on what is clearly a matter of grave significance for the economy? Not only does the right hon. Gentleman physically resemble Nero, but he is clearly adopting the same attitude. Will you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that you have the power to order the fat hounder to be dragged here from the dinner table?

Mr. Speaker

First, I have not that power. Secondly, I dislike that expression, which I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw.

Mr. Banks

In that case, Mr. Speaker, I shall say "the corpulent gentleman".

Mr. Speaker

That is almost as bad.

Mr. Banks

Is it possible, then, for the corpulent and right hon. Gentleman to be brought here in a tumbril? May we, moreover, have an assurance from the Leader of the House that the recently-announced resignation of the Lord Chancellor is in no way connected with this matter? Perhaps he holds shares on which he has lost money.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you explain why Opposition Members seek to invite my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to make a statement about the current effective and efficient running and growth of the British economy? If they are seeking clarification on what to do with their shareholdings and exposed option positions, perhaps they should telephone their stockbrokers.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that, despite any opposition that might be placed before you by the Government Chief Whip or any Minister, you have a right under private notice question procedure to grant a debate? In the event that a private notice question was submitted by my hon. Friends tomorrow — I am not saying that it will be — will you confirm that you would be free of pressure to decide in favour of an expression of opinion by my hon. Friends who are in the Chamber this evening?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is a hypothetical question at the moment; the hon. Gentleman must wait until tomorrow.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you recall for the benefit of the House whether in January 1975, when the FT index was standing at 146, the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) came to make a statement to the House about how he had managed to reduce confidence in the British economy to a point at which the index stood at one tenth of its present level?

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you are aware of the anxiety of the small, rather than the large, investors, who are of as much concern to us as to the Government. Is it not incumbent on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to the House to try to explain the effects of the Government's policy today on the dramatic fall in the stock exchange, and the effect on those small investors? Will you, Mr. Speaker, use your good offices to ensure that the Chancellor comes to make that explanation, not tomorrow, but today?

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will know through the usual channels, the Opposition have been pressing the Chancellor to come to the House and make a statement since the House reassembled last Wednesday. While my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was referring to the attendance in the Chamber of the Attorney-General on Friday, Conservative Front Benchers said that he had volunteered. Our problem to date is that we depend on the Chancellor's volunteering to make a statement. Will you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that we do not have to depend for ever on the Chancellor making a statement, because it lies within your powers to accept a private notice question that would require his attendance in the House?

Mr. Speaker

I look carefully at every private notice question application and consider it on its merits.

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