HC Deb 11 April 1989 vol 150 cc743-6 3.41 pm
Mr. Tom Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Arising out of the Prime Minister's answer to the Leader of the Opposition, can you give us guidance about ministerial responsibility? Of course, the Prime Minister is quite right in saying that she is not responsible for prosecutions. But is she not head of the Civil Service? Therefore, are not questions about the behaviour not only of the most senior civil servants but her own intimate personal civil servants, working for her, like Mr. Charles Powell, matters for the Prime Minister?

Mr. Speaker

It is certain that they are not matters for me.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is about the contempt in which the House is being held by the Secretary of State for Transport. I understand that at this very moment he is making an announcement at the Department of Transport about the Carlisle-Settle railway line. I welcome the decision to keep the line open, under the control of British Rail, which proves to be a defeat for British Rail who wanted to close the line, and a defeat for the Government, who wanted to privatise it. If we look at Hansard, we see that announcements about the Carlisle-Settle line have been made on the Floor of the House and hon. Members could question the Minister on them. Will you, Mr. Speaker, adjourn the House and bring the Minister from his press conference to the Despatch Box to answer the questions that many of us would like to put to him?.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The matter is worse than has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) because there appears to have been a deliberate conspiracy to avoid accountability to the House.

The question on page 3084 of today's Order Paper for written answer was handed in only yesterday. I understand that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) issued a statement this morning commenting on the reply to that question. That suggests that some information has been circulated exclusively among Conservative Members about a matter which has been the subject of several debates and more than 30 petitions from all parts of the United Kingdom and from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

When the Secretary of State for Transport said last year that he was minded to close the line, he made a statement to the House following Transport Questions. He deliberately picked out two questions which he could refer to at the end of Question Time through the usual arrangement. This railway is of great interest to many people and many hon. Members have referred to it in oral and written questions. It is monstrously outrageous that we should be denied the right to question the arrangements which the Secretary of State has entered into. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, deprecate such a shoddy conspiracy by the Government.

Mr. Speaker

I was unaware that any statement was being made outside the House. The House well knows that I feel very strongly that statements should first be made in the House.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

No. I am still speaking.

Today is an Opposition day and it could well be—although I have no knowledge of this—that arrangements have been discussed through the usual channels about this matter to protect the day's business.

Mr. Snape

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Having listened to the exchanges, and bearing in mind your ruling, it seems that two points arise directly. First, the Secretary of State for Transport held a press conference that was scheduled to start at 3.30 pm. Perhaps you can look into this, Mr. Speaker. Is it not unprecedented, that the Secretary of State is so punch-drunk that he is too terrified to come to the House to announce good news, let alone bad news?.

Mr. Speaker

I have never travelled on the line, but I hope that it is good news. I have heard a lot about it.

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

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning the Select Committee on Procedure held a press conference at 11 o'clock and precisely this abuse of the House was raised in justification of those who seek to frustrate our procedures. If you were to rule that this practice was improper, Ministers would act accordingly and change their practices. When we were asked at the press conference to justify what has been happening, this type of example was raised. The matter is in your hands, Mr. Speaker, and you can resolve it.

Mr. Speaker

It is not in my hands. The House is aware that I am not responsible for organising the business. However, it may well be that an Opposition day is not considered to be an appropriate day to make a statement. I frequently receive representations from hon. Members who complain about not being called because a statement was made on a day when the Opposition had chosen the subject for debate. It is a question of balance. I do not organise the business.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that you would agree that one of the roles of the House of Commons, certainly a role of the Opposition, is to identify where abuse and misconduct have occurred and to raise such matters on the Floor of the House. Yesterday I raised a question with the Attorney-General. I do not question your decision, Mr. Speaker, because you must decide these matters. However, yesterday, with regard to his role in the Westland affair, you said that the Attorney-General should not reply because it was not relevant to the question on the Order Paper. As you know, Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister gave a very evasive reply.

If we know that there was deception, lying and dishonesty over the Westland affair, certainly by Mr. Ingham and Mr. Powell, how can we raise the issue on the Floor of the House? When such deception, dishonesty and outright lies occurred in January 1986 over the Westland affair, why are we silenced and not allowed to raise the matter?.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman will be the first to appreciate, because he has been a Member for a long time and is very experienced, that if he looks at yesterday's Hansard his question had no relevance to the main question on the Order Paper.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Further to those points of order, Mr. Speaker. The two points of order relate to each other. You must have gathered by now the profound frustration that is beginning to be felt in the House at the way in which Ministers feel able to ignore the normal conventions and responsibilities. My hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) have just outlined one matter which, on previous occasions, has led you to say that Ministers should make statements in the House rather than outside. However, your advice is continually ignored. In that respect, Mr. Speaker, what do you intend to do to assert the rights of the House?.

That matter relates to the first point of order that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). When does the House have the right to investigate and question the Executive? That power can be operated only if Ministers are not allowed to stand at the Dispatch Box and blatantly say that a matter is not their responsibility when clearly it is. As protector of the rights of the House of Commons, Mr. Speaker, how do you intend in future to ensure that where officials of the Prime Minister. the Head of the Civil Service, have created a major constitutional abuse, the House has the right of interrogation that the Prime Minister and her Ministers are attempting to deny it?.

Mr. Speaker

I am surprised that the deputy shadow Leader of the House should put a question in those terms to the Chair. He knows perfectly well that it is not the role of the Chair to organise the business. Furthermore, he is part of the management, through the usual channels of the House. Today is a Supply day and he could have chosen that topic for debate had he wished. It is for the Opposition to choose the subject for debate—he has those opportunities. I am not responsible for what is said from the Dispatch Box, provided that it is in order.

I have deprecated more than enough the fact that statements are made outside the House. I should always prefer statements to be made in the House before they are made to the press, but, equally, the right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that that is likely to impinge on Opposition time. That would undoubtedly have been the case today if there had been a statement. These are not matters for me but for the management of the House.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Some of us in the Chamber this afternoon are hoping to listen to the debate on pensions. I am becoming concerned that the Labour party intends to continue making bogus points of order until 10 pm in order to disguise its appalling record on that subject when in government and to disguise the weakness of its policies today. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will put a stop to all this nonsense and let us get on with the debate.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As one of the privileges of the House is that we can attend and vote safely, will you use your good offices to ensure that hon. Members who are hurrying from Norman Shaw and crossing Palace Yard do not suffer the fate that almost befell me of being mowed down by a Government car speeding in through the narrow entrances, a matter which I raised with the relevant Minister at the Department of the Environment last night? When the Division bell goes, one accepts that Ministers and Government cars have to come in, but someone should tell them about speed limits because there is a serious danger to hon. Members and the staff of the House who could well be injured by motor cars whose drivers do not know how to drive and who appear to be in an unnecessary hurry.

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman gives me further details of that incident, I shall have it looked into.