HC Deb 23 November 1988 vol 142 cc111-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the county constituency of Epping Forest, in the room of Sir John Alec Biggs-Davison, Knight, deceased.—[Mr. Waddington.]

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I gave you notice, Mr. Speaker, that since this motion is, according to "Erskine May", pages 326 and 327, debatable, I hope, succinctly, to raise some issues on it.

I wish to ask either the Lord President of the Council or the Government Chief Whip why it should be that there is a writ relating to Epping Forest but that there is no suggestion of a writ relating to Richmond, Yorks. I think that I am entitled to ask that question. As has been pointed out, the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) is still a Member of Parliament, but that raises the whole question of the different treatment of constituencies that are vacated by death and those that are vacated by some of our number, be they Conservative or Labour Members of Parliament, going off to another job in mid-term.

I did not, uncharacteristically, give notice to my hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip that I intended to raise these questions, on the ground that this is a House of Commons matter, not a party matter. If I put it in those terms, Conservative Members may understand that I am not trying to gain any party advantage.

I want to raise the vital question of Members of Parliament going off in mid-term to another job and whether they should be accommodated and facilitated. Whether we like it or not, I suspect that the electorate does not. You, Mr. Speaker, will recollect the history of the matter. George Wigg, who represented Dudley, went off to the Horserace Betting Levy Board.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has a right to debate this matter, but he must relate it to this particular writ, not to a writ that is not before us.

Mr. Dalyell

I am asking whether there is any difference in the treatment of by-elections caused by death or by one of our number going off to what may be a very hard and daunting task, but one that is nevertheless seen too often by the electorate as a cushy number.

I am reminded of a number of cases—George Wigg, Herbert Bowden going off to ITV, Tom Fraser to the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, David Marquand to the European Commission, Roy Jenkins to the European Commission, Fred Peart to the House of Lords, and Matthew Parris. Before we go any further, the House of Commons should seriously discuss whether it is proper that those who are privileged to be elected, as we all are, ought to be allowed in mid-term to go off to other jobs. Death is excusable—[Laughter.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. It may also be inevitable.

Mr. Dalyell

Going on to another position is quite different. I should like to ask the Lord President in courteous terms if he will explain, before the House endorses the issuing of the Epping writ, why the Epping and Richmond by-elections are being treated differently.

Before the Richmond writ is issued, will the House have an opportunity for a serious discussion on whether we should accommodate a right hon. and learned Member who, like no other hon. Member during my 26 years in the House, has treated a Select Committee of the House, which has been asked by the House to do a job—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is going very wide of the Question. He must stick to this writ and why its timing is incorrect.

Mr. Dalyell

The timing is incorrect because it is mighty odd, given recent political history, that the Richmond writ is not before us but the Epping one is. Timing may well be something to do with that. As things stand, the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks is not a proper person for this House to send to the European Community. If he is a proper person—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is wide of the Question. The hon. Gentleman may argue that point at a different time.

Mr. Dalyell

This is a perfectly serious point. The House of Commons cannot have it both ways. Perhaps the cause of the delay arises out of the fact that, if a writ is to be issued for Richmond, the right hon. and learned Member must be a proper person to be sent to this very important job as Britain's vice-president of the European Commission. He has to be seen to be blameless. If he is blameless, then the Prime Minister most certainly is not.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced parliamentarian. I ask him to bring his remarks to a conclusion on this matter and not to go into the question of a writ for a by-election which has not yet been announced.

Mr. Dalyell

You do me the courtesy, Mr. Speaker, of saying that I am an experienced parliamentarian. It is precisely because of that and the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I have been here for 26 years that I care very much that the House of Commons should be treated properly. That is why I am doing this unusual thing—raising questions on the issue of a writ. I am anxious that Members on both sides of the House and all parties in it should be treated properly by its Members. The House is entitled to the truth from any and all of its Members. That is why I ask these questions of the Lord President.

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

I understand the sensitivity of an hon. Member for Scotland on the subject of by-elections in Scotland, but the simple truth is that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) is a Member of this House, and no questions about by-elections arise in his case until he ceases to be a Member. In that event, the normal practice will apply. The House knows that, when there is to be a by-election, the Chief Whip of the party which previously held the seat moves the writ within four months of a vacancy arising. That is what is happening today, and there can be no reasonable objection to it.

Conservative Members did not object when the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) moved the writ for the Govan by-election, although he might have thanked us had we done so. Sir John Biggs-Davison, sadly, died on 17 September. The electors of Epping Forest have a right to expect that the writ for the by-election will be moved within a reasonable time and that once again they will be represented in this House.

I hope that the House will now agree to the motion.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I do not wish to detain the House for long.

The House has suffered a sad loss with the death of Sir John Biggs-Davison. One of the things for which I best remember him was his total opposition to one-person-operated buses. It was a concern that we shared, and I sadly miss his assistance in trying to turn the Government from continuing a course that is unwelcome in Epping as much as it is in my constituency of Newham, North-West.

Epping is not a million miles from Newham, North-West in geographic terms—although it very well could be in economic terms. We should postpone consideration of the writ for one very good reason. Hon. Members and many people who live in Epping go to see West Ham United play football in my constituency, in the borough of Newham. Before we have a by-election in Epping, I think that we should wait and see the result of the Government's proposals for the introduction of identity cards. I understand that this highly controversial piece of legislation will start its process towards the statute book in the House of Lords. I think that that is absolutely wrong, and I am using this occasion to voice my opposition. We have heard a lot about Roy of the Rovers—from whom we shall hear a little more when he speaks from the Opposition Front Bench—but, frankly, the idea of Lord Bertie Denham of the Rovers does not seem appropriate.

I believe that we should postpone consideration of the writ until the electors in Epping have had a chance to see precisely what the Government are proposing and we have had an opportunity to have that controversial legislation started here. In many ways that could influence the outcome of the by-election in Epping.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Perhaps you, Mr Speaker, would consider one aspect arising from this debate. Had the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) been appointed Steward or Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, his seat would have been immediately vacated on the ground that it was an office of profit under the Crown. He has actually been appointed to an office of profit under the European Commission which, as anybody knows, requires him to take an oath to uphold the Community in all its proceedings. Therefore, the House will have to consider at some stage whether a political appointment with powers over the House of Commons, involving the taking of an oath that runs counter to the oath that he took as a Member of Parliament, ought to be considered as an appointment comparable to an office of profit under the Crown.

I am not asking you, Mr. Speaker, to rule on the matter now, but it has arisen in one or two cases. Roy Jenkins was appointed in similar circumstances and, as I recall, remained in the House for a period before the by-election which led to the filling of his seat. With great respect, since this is an innovation that we have not experienced in the long course of our parliamentary history, the Procedure Committee or the Committee of Privileges ought to give attention to whether appointments to the European Community—I am not talking about "Weekend World" or anything of that kind—should be ranked alongside offices of profit under the Crown.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is a matter which the right hon. Gentleman should send to the Procedure Committee, if he feels that that is the right course to take. Now I must deal with this writ.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the county constituency of Epping Forest, in the room of Sir John Alec Biggs-Davison, Knight, deceased.

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