HC Deb 22 March 1988 vol 130 cc201-2 3.41 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, arising not from today's business but from observations of what has been happening over the past few weeks, and more particularly during the Budget debate.

By custom and practice, civil servants are allowed to sit in a Box on the same level as hon. Members so that they can help members of Her Majesty's Government by providing information which enables Ministers to answer questions and points which have been raised in debate. Observations over the past few weeks, and more particularly last night during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), showed that information supplied by civil servants in the Box was being handed to Government Back Benchers, who were then using it to intervene in the speech of my hon. Friend.

This is not the first time that this has happened and it would seem that the privilege rightly extended to civil servants who need to be here to advise Ministers is now being abused. I hope that you, Sir, will take steps to restrain the practice.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter. Civil servants are admitted to the Box to be at the disposal of Ministers. They should not distribute papers direct to other hon. Members. That should be done either through the Vote Office or on the letter board, in the normal way.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you tell the House precisely what civil servants are allowed to pass from the Box into the hands of Ministers, or, as usually happens, into the hands of the PPS, sent to the Box to receive information? There has been reason to complain in the past—for example, in Standing Committee, where there has been a much freer flow of information from civil servants to Ministers and then to Back Benchers. Of course we want to ensure that we all argue from the point of view of perfect information and knowledge, but if we are to have civil servants who are supposed to be impartial, they should not willingly involve themselves—it appears to be willingly in many cases—in party political conflict.

Mr. Speaker

I find it difficult to answer that question, because I have never been in that position, although I have occasionally heard Ministers state, having received a message, that a blinding light has struck them and that they can answer a question that has been asked of them.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that I was one of the hon. Members who intervened last night in the speech of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown). I did so because, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), the hon. Gentleman referred to Hansard of 24 January. I went out into the Lobby and discovered that 24 January was a Sunday, so the reference could not be correct. I have since discovered that the reference related to 18 February. However, far from relating to an authoritative statement of what the adjudication officer may or may not have said, it related to the remarks of another Opposition Member. Could we find out from the hon. Gentleman the source of his original quotation?

Mr. Speaker

That happened last night and is certainly not relevant to a debate on the Education Reform Bill today.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is significant that the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) has not denied the charge that has been made—namely that— [HON. MEMBERS: "He has."] It was sleight of hand; that is all. Like other civil servants, the civil servants in the Box are supposed to be impartial. It is not their job to supply briefs to Tory Back Benchers. They are supposed at all times to act for the Executive and the Executive alone. The Prime Minister seems to think it right and proper to go up in the air when civil servants are alleged to have leaked information, and on one occasion—perhaps two—serious action has been taken against them. But it looks as though the Prime Minister and Ministers do not care tuppence when the same civil servants leak information in a different fashion to the Government's supporters. Surely, what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I am not sure that it helps much, but I shall take it.

Mr. Pawsey

It seems from what my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke, (Mr. Bennett) said that he went outside to obtain the information, so all these points of order are based on a misconception. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the question arose from an inaccurate quotation by an Opposition Member.

Mr. Speaker

I accept the explanation given by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) that he went outside to get the information, and I have already stated the rule about civil servants.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Pembroke, (Mr. Bennett) honoured the conventions of the House by notifying my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) in writing that he intended to raise a point of order relating to him.

Mr. Speaker

We should always keep to the conventions of the House. We must move on, as today's debate is subject to a guillotine motion.