HC Deb 30 March 1988 vol 130 cc1100-7 4.31 pm
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware of the correspondence between the Prime Minister's Secretary and his opposite number is the Secretary of State for Scotland's Office, which has been widely reported in the press.

It reveals a dangerous abuse of power, with the Prime Minister dictating policy and tactical detail. The Prime Minister has in effect instructed the Secretary of State to enter into a scandalous conspiracy with one of his own Back Benchers to introduce powers to allow schools to opt out of the education system.

That is offensive because there is no case for that alien innovation which will fragment the school system and make it more difficult to provide real opportunity to all children across the whole range of educational and social backgrounds.

It is doubly offensive because Ministers have repeatedly denied that there was any such intention. For example, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who I am glad to see is present, on 14 August 1987, at a press conference launching his discussion document on school boards, emphasised that the proposals for Scotland would not allow school boards to opt out of the local authority sector. On 21 March 1988, the same Minister speaking in the Scottish Grand Committee, claimed that the only circumstance in which opting out would be considered was if there was evidence of real and substantial demand".—[Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 21 March 1988; c. 37.] There is no such evidence, and it is a disgrace that on the very day that the Minister was giving what now seems to be a worthless assurance from a discredited source, the Prime Minister, presumably finding herself at a loose end for five minutes, was wishing on Scotland a dangerous nonsense, unwanted by parents and pupils alike.

This is a matter of great importance because it promises enormous damage to Scotland's independent and proud education system, and because it gives a chilling insight into the way in which the Prime Minister dictates to her Ministers in this case forcing a change of course despite undertakings freely given. There is a question here of faith and credibility.

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, the abundant evidence that, in connection with a recent education order on school closures, the Secretary of State was not master in his own office. That charge has been totally justified by this further example of the Prime Minister's malign influence. The Secretary of State has been forced to swallow his pride, and, much more seriously, the Prime Minister's policies. It is essential that those policies should not now be forced on Scotland's schools. The matter is urgent because we know from the correspondence that meetings are imminent. We fear that there may be an all too unequal contest between the Secretary of State's duty to represent Scotland and the Prime Minister's entrenched prejudice.

There should be a statement and an assurance that there will be an end to this unwelcome invasion of our affairs by the Prime Minister. That assurance should be given now, before the House rises. I appeal through you, Mr. Speaker, to the Government to give us that assurance and to act now to put an end to this nonsense.

Mr. Speaker

I have seen the reports and I listened to the radio at lunchtime. I understand the hon. Member's concern but, as he correctly stated, it is not for me to say whether there should be a statement. I am certain that those who are responsible for these matters will have heard what has been said.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the fact that we are to have an education debate during the first week after the Easter recess, would it not be perfectly logical for the Secretary of State to make a full statement during that debate so that hon. Members can make up their minds on the issue?

Mr. Bruce Milian (Glasgow, Govan)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We look to you to protect the interests of the House in this matter. What has been disclosed today is appalling in its sheer dishonesty. We have a major change of policy to be announced, in contradiction to a ministerial assurance very recently given, by means of a planted amendment to a Bill which has not even had its Second Reading. We know that the Secretary of State for Scotland has become the Prime Minister's lapdog, but that does not excuse him or the Prime Minister treating the House with utter contempt and dishonesty. We ask you, Mr. Speaker, to protect the House and to demand a statement from the Leader of the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

May I say to Scottish Members who are rising to intervene on this matter that there is not very much I can do about it. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) has said that there is a Bill. I was not aware that there was a Bill to be debated shortly after we return from the Easter recess. I have no knowledge of any amendments having been tabled. They have not yet been brought to my attention.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not high time that these bogus points of order, started by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) — whose child has been opted out of the state education system — are brought to an end so that we can get on with discussing the Housing (Scotland) Bill?

Mr. Speaker

I do not recognise the phrase that the hon. Member used. I know that this is a matter of high interest and concern in Scotland, but I must say to hon. Members that we have a heavy day of Scottish business before us, followed by the Merchant Shipping Bill. I ask that we get on with that, as there is not much that I can do about the matter.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will agree that it is of the utmost importance that hon. Members who are about to break for a brief recess to meet their constituents during the next 10 days, prior to debate on the education Bill which has been referred to, should go home with better information for their Scottish constituencies than mere newspaper reports, which are well-founded in that they emanate from 10 Downing street, and that we as Members of Parliament should have proper information in the form of a statement from the Minister, or indeed, the Secretary of State?

We should not have to go home to our constituents—my constituents have already been on the phone to me this morning—and explain to them, on the basis of newspaper reports, what the Prime Minister has leaked to the newspapers. That information is not only highly alarming to Members of Parliament and our constituents but seeks to destroy the fundamental education system in Scotland and will deeply damage our educational system by integrating it with the English system. That is why a statement is needed today.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham)

I have no new policy to state, but I hope that it may be helpful if I state the position as I understand it. The Government's policy on the involvement of parents in the management of schools has been clearly spelt out. That policy is given effect in the School Boards (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced on 16 March and which is to have its Second Reading after Easter. That Bill does not contain provisions for opting out and the Government do not propose to include such provisions in the Bill. As for future policy, the Secretary of State and the Ministers have made it clear on several occasions that opting out may be considered for future legislation, but no decisions have yet been reached.

Mr. Dewar

Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker. It is unsatisfactory for the Leader of the House to say that no decisions have been made, when, according to press reports, there has been actual correspondence with the Prime Minister's office that makes it absolutely clear that a decision has been taken in principle and that it is merely the tactics of implementation that have to be considered. The credibility and honour of the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) are very much at stake. He has given repeated assurances that the Government will not go down that road. All that the Leader of the House did was make it even more imperative that there should be a statement from a responsible Minister to clear up this mystery and allow us to put the point that this nonsense must be taken off the agenda now.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that we can take the matter any further today. I am not responsible for whether Ministers make statements. The Leader of the House has already stated the factual position concerning this newspaper leak. I do not think that there is any way in which I can assist the House.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Leaving aside the damaging policy implications, a much more important underlying revelation in the newspaper articles is the subversion of the policy-making role of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Scottish Members do not have the advantage of a Select Committee that can summon Ministers and civil servants before it to get to the bottom of the matter. The Leader of the House should therefore consider what should be done about it this afternoon.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Did the Leader of the House make a statement or an intervention? If it was a statement, we should be entitled to question the Leader of the House.

Mr. Speaker

I think that the Leader of the House rose to give the factual position in an effort to assist Scottish Members who have important business to discuss today by giving an indication of the business after we return from the Easter recess. I think that the Leader of the House was seeking to suggest that that was the appropriate time for this matter to be discussed.

Mr. O'Neill

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What is the position when a Bill has received its First Reading and there is clear evidence to the effect that a substantial change is to be made before the Bill receives its Second Reading? Can you explain to me how we can properly debate the contents of that Bill if we do not know the exact nature of the policy changes?

Major changes are often made in Committee, but normally that is done on the understanding that circumstances have changed. There is ample evidence to show that the Government's policy has changed since the Bill was published. The House is entitled to guidance from you on the procedural significance of a change between the First Reading and the Second Reading of a Bill. We cannot have a proper Second Reading debate if the contents of the Bill have not been made known to the House.

Mr. Wakeham

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when I gave my previous answer, but I shall repeat what I said in one sentence. The Bill does not contain provisions for opting out and the Government do not propose to include such provisions in the Bill.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With the greatest possible respect, will you not reflect on the fact that the Leader of the House has made a business statement? A business statement is normally followed by questions. The Leader of the House has been courteous and has given a further explanation. I respectfully ask you to say that Opposition Members, particularly from Scotland, should be allowed to probe further the Government's thinking on this very important issue. That is a reasonable request, in the absence of the Secretary of State for Scotland coming to the House to make a statement.

Mr. Speaker

In seeking to be helpful to Scottish Members, I am not certain that the Leader of the House is in a position to answer factual questions. That is surely not a matter for him. The original point of order from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) contained a request for a statement. It was perfectly legitimate for him to ask for a statement, and the Leader of the House gave the factual position. I do not think that we can take the matter any further.

Mr. Millan

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following the points that you have fairly made, could not the matter be resolved if the Leader of the House gave an undertaking that the Secretary of State for Scotland will make a statement tomorrow? That is what we are asking for. Why can we not have such an undertaking?

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm your responsibility for the protection of the business of the House? You must be becoming aware, as we are, that there is a plot on the other side of the House to use bogus points of order to prolong business that is not on the Order Paper, thus preventing the House from considering very important legislation. It must be within your power and discretion to prevent abuse of the House by bogus points of order and to let us get on with the business.

Mr. Speaker

That is what I am seeking to do. However, the hon. Member does not represent a Scottish constituency. He may not know the background to these points of order and he may not therefore understand the concern of Scottish Members. The Leader of the House has been very helpful and has stated the factual position. I do not think that we can take it any further this afternoon. The time to raise it is tomorrow during Prime Minister's Questions or at business questions. Today the House has to consider further very important Scottish business following a very late night and also the Report stage of the Merchant Shipping Bill.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry that the Leader of the House has left the Chamber. I apologise for the comment that I am about to make in his absence. He tried to be helpful to the House, but I have to advise you that the Leader of the House repeated word for word what the Prime Minister recorded at 1 o'clock today in a television interview in Scotland that is to be broadcast tonight. My view is that the Leader of the House is protecting the interests of the Prime Minister. It is well known that there will be another row tomorrow because of what the Prime Minister has gone to Scotland to say today.

As for the Bill to which the Leader of the House referred, according to the Glasgow Herald the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) is to be given an amendment to that Bill and the Government are to use it to set out their policy. In a sense, that is much more acceptable than the shabby way in which the House and the Secretary of State have been treated. I have a lot of sympathy for the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is becoming an object of pity. Because of the activities of the Under-Secretary of state for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), the Secretary of State for Scotland can hardly turn his back now.

My point of order for you, Mr. Speaker, is the accuracy of the record. The Scottish Grand Committee met in Edinburgh on 21 March. The letter from the Prime Minister's private secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland is dated 14 March. The Minister must have known on 21 March the contents of that letter when he made a statement in the Scottish Grand Committee which is now on the record and clearly shown to be untrue.

Surely you, Mr. Speaker, as the custodian of the report's accuracy, are under an obligation to act on the way in which it has represented the matter, when something completely different was going on behind the scenes.

Mr. Speaker

The Chair has no idea of what is going on behind the scenes, and I cannot be held responsible for what Ministers say. Nor can I be held responsible for what is in letters that are leaked to the newspapers.

I fully understand the concern of Scottish Members about the matter, but I say to them again that I do not feel that anything further can be said about it today. No doubt we shall return to it during Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow, and, as the Leader of the House has been present today, we may have a further opportunity to discuss it then. Today, however, in the interests of the whole House, we would be well advised to get on with the Report stage of the Housing (Scotland) Bill.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Time is getting on, but I am in the hands of the House. If Scottish Members wish to pursue the matter in this way, they may do so, but they must take the consequences.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The problem could be solved. Three Scottish Office Ministers are present, including one who is directly involved in the argument that we have been having today. He can clear the whole matter up. He can let us know whether it is true that there was a planted question, and that he was aware of the exchange of letters when he made his statement to the Scottish Grand Committee on 21 March. He can tell us that he or the Secretary of State is prepared to come here tomorrow to make a clean breast of the whole matter.

It must be kept in mind that the school that occasioned much of this, although the whole of Scottish education is now affected, was in Paisley, involving my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, North (Mr. Adams). The matter was raised by the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who has already been endeavouring to distort any sane and sensible solution for comprehensive education in Paisley.

You have handled the matter, Mr. Speaker. We must thank you for allowing us to say what we have said. But this is a crucial issue: the present position cannot continue.

Strathclyde region is now discussing the future of the schools. If we are now told that there will be a planted question to change the proposed Bill, that future can be altered. Strathclyde region now needs to know whether the Government intend to go ahead with what the Under-Secretary has been conspiring with the Prime Minister to achieve. Will he tell us today either that he will make a statement, or, perhaps, that the Secretary of State intends to resign? He has been sufficiently humiliated; I believe that he is prevented from resigning only by his knowledge that the Under-Secretary would take his place, and has put his country before his honour to save us from that prospect.

The Leader of the House has spoken. Why cannot one of the three Scottish Office Ministers make a clean breast of the matter, so that we know where we are?

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have here an episode that is probably more corrupt and devious than anything that those of us who have been Members of the House since last June have witnessed in Scottish affairs—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Accusations of corruption in the House are not parliamentary. I ask that the hon. Gentleman withdraw that.

Mr. Wilson

I used the word in its dictionary sense, but I shall withdraw it if it has been taken in another way.

Three Scottish Ministers are sitting on the Front Bench, one of whom is at the centre of this web. One Minister has been exposed as having colluded with the Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) to achieve an end with the specific purpose of deceiving the House. The hon. Member for Stirling — Mr. Forsyth Limited—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members do not refer to each other in that way either.

Mr. Wilson

When the Scottish Grand Committee met recently in Edinburgh, the Under-Secretary — the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)—spoke twice, at the beginning and at the end of the debate. Surely he, as a central figure in this squalid affair, can now come to the Dispatch Box and answer for his role in it.

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) talked about a conspiracy. I agree that there is a conspiracy. You, Mr. Speaker, have a responsibility when there is a conspiracy involving what I would describe as a corruption of power by the Executive.

This is a serious matter. When an hon. Member has been discovered to be economical with the truth —although he may well have been in error — he has a responsibility to come to the Dispatch Box. The House is always very generous, when people err, about any statement that they may make in Parliament; and, after all, the Scottish Grand Committee is an adjunct of Parliament.

This is not a criminal matter. If power corrupts a Government and the Executive try to corrupt power, Mr. Speaker has responsibility in that regard. He must examine the matter closely.

There are 50 Members of Parliament in Scotland—a quarter of the Opposition. They cannot be treated in such an arrogant and conceited way. It was not sufficient for the Leader of the House to come and make a statement. He made a statement, and then he left. We sympathise with your difficulty, Mr. Speaker, but we want an undertaking from the Treasury Bench that the Secretary of State for Scotland will come to the House tomorrow and make a statement. The Government have been found out, and, in all honesty, they should apologise to the House and make a statement to clarify the position.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is this not a clear abuse of the procedures of the House, and is it not patently obvious that, on education matters, the Government have the Opposition on the run? In view of that, should we not now move on to housing policy, and give the feeble 48 a little time in which to recover?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have already said to the House, and I believe that the whole House accepts it, that there is nothing that the Chancellor can do about this matter. I understand the strong feelings of hon. Members. They have vented those strong feelings, and they are asking for more information. But the Leader of the House has stated the factual position, and I think that the time has come to move on to the next business.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Well, I am in the hands of the House.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on what may be a breach of parliamentary procedure. Today, in Scotland, the Prime Minister said in an interview conducted by Miss Fiona Ross on Scottish Television that the school boards' proposal was simply a stepping stone on the way to an opting-out policy, and that legislation would be introduced soon. Should not that statement have been made from the Dispatch Box by a Minister responsible for Scottish education?

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—if it was a point of order, which I somehow doubt. You said just now that you were in the hands of the House in this matter. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that the House is in your hands, in the sense that if points of order are not genuine, or are merely tedious repetition—if they have already been made and made again, and nothing new is being said—there is no need whatever for you to continue to take points of order.

Mr. Speaker

As ever, the right hon. Gentleman has made a very helpful comment.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The contribution from the chairman of the 1922 Committee was pretty tasteless, and in view of his ancestry he should be ashamed of it. I ask for a ruling arising from something that you said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), when you referred to those responsible.

I believe that the good name of the House of Commons is at stake, in that when politicians are apparently responsible for unauthorised disclosures little or nothing happens, but when civil servants are responsible they can, like Clive Ponting, land up at the Old Bailey. There is a genuine argument relating to the good name of politicians as a whole. When civil servants are blamed, by innuendo or otherwise, one law applies, but when a disclosure is made apparently on political authority it is different. The Leader of the House has an obligation to tell the House on whose authority the letter was disclosed and whether there will be a leak inquiry.

In the past four days, on seven separate occasions, on two of which you, Mr. Speaker, were in the Chair, I quite legitimately raised the subject of the correspondence between Mr. Gray and Mr. Jeffrey as it affected educational testing and the Department of Education and Science. On each occasion, there was a light-hearted acknowledgement from the Secretary of State for Education and Science and no one said that I was wrong when I made the specific accusation that it had been done on the authority of the Prime Minister's secretary's press office.

The question—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot see any point of order for me in what the hon. Gentleman has said so far. Perhaps he will now come to his point of order and I will see whether I can deal with it.

Mr. Dalyell

My point of order is that the good name of the House of Commons is involved and that a leak inquiry should be announced tomorrow.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that all the Scottish Members have had their say. I am not taking any more points of order on this Scottish matter.