HC Deb 25 April 1989 vol 151 cc805-11 3.32 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning the Secretary of State for Education and Science published a consultation document proposing that university and college tuition fees should more than doubled. Under the guise of measures allegedly aimed at bringing market forces into higher education, the Secretary of State's announcement marks the beginning of the end of free tuition—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I want to know what the point of order is for me.

Mr. Straw

I am just coming to the point of order, if I am allowed to do so. The hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) seems to think that she is the Speaker.

That announcement marks—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must hear what the point of order is.

Mr. Straw

That announcement marks the beginning of the end of free tuition in higher education, as the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), said.

The Secretary of State held a press conference this morning at 10 o'clock, at which he said that those changes were "big and exciting".

Have you, Mr. Speaker, had any intimation of an oral statement by the Secretary of State? Do you agree that if big and exciting changes are to be announced, before any press conference is called the Secretary of State should come to the House—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must be allowed to hear what is being said.

Mr. Straw

Is not the Secretary of State's failure to come to the House to make a statement one more example of the way in which Ministers increasingly seek to avoid their responsibility to the House, the elected Chamber, and through us to the public?

Mr. Speaker

I have had no indication that there was to be a statement, but I am aware that a consultation document has been issued and that it is in the Library.

Mr. Straw

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, You, have responsibilities to the House for the rights of hon. Members on both sides of the House who are not in the Government. According to the Secretary of State, there are "big and exciting" change. My point of order is: should announcements like that be made at a press conference seven hours before they could be made in the House? Should the Secretary of State then avoid his responsibilities by refusing to make a statement in the House where he could be questioned on the changes?

Mr. Speaker

I am aware that a consultation document was issued. I always deprecate the fact that statements are made to the press before they are made in the House. That is not my responsibility, but I hope that it will not occur.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Obviously this is no reflection on the Chair, but as the months pass we witness Ministers having to be dragged to the House to make important statements. We all bear in mind the inner cities statement, which eventually we got made in the House, and last week's Prime Minister's Question Time when the Prime Minister started to read what was obviously a statement. Will you take advice from senior Members on both sides to ensure that we do not have a repetition of constant contempt for the House by Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have witnessed two appalling abuses of the system. If the Labour party wishes to bring to the attention of the House important matters, as is its right, the proper way to do it is through a private notice question. Anything else is sheer laziness.

Mr. Speaker

A private notice question is a matter for me.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When an hon. Member gets up to make a point of order, he may be right or wrong. That is a decision for you. Will you draw to the attention of hon. Members, particularly those on the Government Benches, the fact that when the Reichstag decided to shout down every opposition Member it led eventually to no freedom, no democracy and a form of Fascism—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, and I wish to hear it.

Mr. Heffer

Equally, the same thing happened in Italy under Mussolini. I do not intend—[Interruption.] What is happening now is an example of what I mean. Will you, Mr. Speaker, explain to hon. Members that democracy means freedom of speech and that in the last analysis you are the judge of what is a point of order, instead of hon. Members screaming their heads off because they do not agree with it?

Mr. Speaker

We have a very heavy day ahead of us. Many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen wish to participate in the Second Reading debate on the Finance Bill. Points of order will delay the debate and will mean, unhappily, that some hon. Members will not be called.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Baldry. It must be a point of order that I can answer and not a comment upon what has been said.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Further to the point of order of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller), Mr. Speaker. Because of the brouhaha to which he referred, it was difficult to hear whether the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was objecting to the fact that the Government intend to provide more funds for higher education, increase participation in higher education and increase access for higher education.

Mr. Speaker

It is a well-known practice over many years for the Chair to be asked on a point of order, whether there has been any indication that there is to be a statement. That is what I was asked. That is in order. What is not in order is to do that with a long preamble. In the circumstances I do not believe that it was an over-long preamble today. I listened to the point of order and I ruled upon it.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not clear that the Chair is being constantly embarrassed by a practice which you, Sir, and the Committee on Procedure have deplored? You, as you rightly say, have very limited powers, but I suggest that you have two powers which could perhaps strengthen your approach to the Government about Ministers and their duties to the House. Will you make it clear, in backing up what you have said in deploring Ministers' actions, that when Ministers ignore the House, as the House was ignored this morning—you will use your powers to grant PNQs and SO20 applications? In this way you will give back to the House the rights of which the Government are trying to rob it.

Mr. Speaker

It has long been the convention that information should be given to the House before it is given to anyone outside. I hope that that will continue to be the case. I have made my views known very clearly on this point.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall take one more point of order from each side.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you were aware that the objection was not to the reference by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to lodgment in the Library of statements about new policy but to the highly charged political preamble to the point of order which he made and to which Government Members quite rightly objected.

I want to ask a question which is linked to that but perhaps raises a more important point of order. Is it not the convention that when hon. Members cannot be here they let your Office know so that you do not have the embarrassment of calling their questions? Further to that, there appeared to be—unwittingly on your part perhaps —a certain amount of confusion when you called my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed), who was not here, and then did not go on to call the next Member with a question on the Order Paper but called another hon. Member to ask a supplementary question on the previous question.

Mr. Speaker

As to the first point, I suspect that what happened was that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) heard the news at 1 o'clock in which it was stated that a Government statement had been made outside the House. I also heard that. I think that that was what his point of order related to.

As to the second point, I decide who is called at Question Time. I do it as fairly as I can to ensure that every hon. Member, particularly those who have not yet had an opportunity to put a question to the Prime Minister, shall be able to do so rather than call those who have perhaps been able to ask several questions.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that yesterday I managed to table three early-day motions relating to the phone-tapping activities by Mr. Coghlan on behalf of Lonrho against the A1 Fayeds. Today I went to the Table Office and was told that a motion written in precisely the same terms could not be accepted on the basis—indeed I had been told last night that there was some concern about these matters—that it summarised statements made by persons outside the House.

I understand, Mr. Speaker, that you are in the course of a period of consultation and that it is likely that, following upon that consultation, you may seek to change, or reinterpret, the rules governing the tabling of early-day motions in such a way that I would be unable to table the motion. I regard any attempt to interfere with my right to table a motion of this nature as an intrusion on my rights as a Member of the House. I am joined in that view by many of my hon. Friends, whom I consulted this morning and who feel very strongly about this matter.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should not have raised this point of order today when, as he correctly said, I am considering the whole matter. The hon. Gentleman has three motions on the Order Paper today which quote extracts from speeches made by others outside the House. It is not the function of an early-day motion to have written into the record speeches made by persons outside the House. An early-day motion, by definition, must be capable of debate. Long quotations from speeches by people outside the House are not capable of debate. I am, as I said, considering the matter. It is not a question of denying the hon. Gentleman's rights. I am trying to protect the rights of the House by ensuring that the Order Paper is not abused.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are aware of the difficulties that we have had in this Parliament over the staffing of Scottish business Committees, including Select Committees and Standing Committees. I seek your advice and guidance.

This morning in the Scottish Standing Committee considering the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Bill, a Labour Back-Bench Member was also serving on another Committee—not an unusual situation; I have had to do it many times myself. A Division was called in the other Committee which was debating purely English business and a Division was simultaneously called in the Scottish Committee. The proceedings in the Scottish Committee were held up and the Chairman had to keep the doors open to allow the Labour Back Bencher—[Interruption.] This is very important, Mr. Speaker. I have been locked out of Committee Rooms in similar circumstances.

I want your guidance, Mr. Speaker. Hon. Members from Scottish constituencies are serving on two Standing Committees. This morning the hon. Member concerned was the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) and the Committee doors were kept open to allow him back to vote in the Division. I want a clear ruling from you, Mr. Speaker. Does that apply to all hon. Members? I would like that practice to be extended to me when I am serving on two Committees at the same time.

Mr. Speaker

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am not responsible for what happens in the Committee Corridor. I can see that the hon. Gentleman may have a serious problem. He should refer it to the Procedure Committee.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Further to an earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the question of early-day motions, would it be a preferable alternative to refer the matter to the Procedure Committee instead of accepting the entire responsibility yourself? That is the advice that you usually give if difficulties arise on the Floor of the House.

As you will appreciate, the early-day motion procedure is a very important and much cherished means of raising issues which we know will never be debated, although there is the saving grace that there is a possibility of debate. However, no early-day motion has been debated since I have been in, or out of this House, since 1974.

I recall when the Consolidated Fund gave rise to a genuine debate and was not arbitrarily divided into Adjournment debates. That change was not brought about by the Procedure Committee submitting its recommendations to the House. It was arrived at by dealing with the various Back-Bench groups. As Back Benchers have over the years lost a significant number of opportunities in this House which has traditionally always provided opportunities for individuals to raise issues, it would be better if the early-day motion matter went to the Procedure Committee and for the House to consider its report.

Mr. Speaker

An early-day motion on the Order Paper must be capable of being debated. It is an abuse of the Order Paper to table three early-day motions which effectively writes someone else's speech into the Order Paper. I am considering the matter and perhaps the Procedure Committee should look at it. The sadness is that, if the Procedure Committee considers it, it may make the procedure more restrictive than I would by bringing it back strictly to what it always was.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that you will agree that Members of Parliament can hardly be expected to carry out the onerous functions of their office if they are dying of thirst. Therefore, you will have every sympathy with the three Labour Members who brought the Leeds to King's Cross express to a halt at Huntingdon last week—

Mr. Speaker

Order. They may have done, but they did not do it in this Chamber. That has nothing to do with me, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Mr. Hamilton


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not having that; I am sorry.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to revert to the matters raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). Will you, Mr. Speaker, make clear for the sake of accuracy and the record, that the three early-day motions under consideration do not directly quote anyone and, clearly, in their present form are capable of debate? I ask you, Mr. Speaker, not to take any decisions on this matter in principle until you have had the opportunity to consider a further early-day motion from my hon. Friend the Member for Workington. If the motions were in order, as they clearly were when accepted, it would be unfair and a removal of our rights if you changed the rules overnight.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman was not present when I discussed with the hon. Member for Workington, his early-day motions. He is well aware of my views on the other two motions, which he did not table last night—and he agreed not to proceed with them.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Any move by you to restrict the number of early-day motions would be most welcome to the vast majority of hon. Members.

Mr. Speaker

I am seeking to restrict not early-day motions, but the use to which they are put. I have come to no firm conclusion about this, and am still considering the matter. It is certainly not my intention to make matters more difficult for Back Benchers. As the House knows, I believe that Back Benchers should be given every opportunity, within the rules.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has attempted to table a further early-day motion today—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may have done, but I have not seen it yet.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that what I have to say is of general interest to the House. When the Leader of the Opposition seeks to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, he always does so, which is quite right. When the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal party, who is one of the more boring and irrelevant politicians in this place, seeks to catch your eye, he always seems to do so—be that as it may. What concerns me is that when the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), the leader of the Social Democrats, who, although we may disagree with him, normally has something interesting to say, seeks to catch your eye, he is not always called. On behalf of the House, may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to be more sympathetic with your eye to the leader of the SDP than to the leader of the Liberal party?

Mr. Speaker

The House would be wise to proceed with the Finance Bill debate. I have the difficult task of deciding who is called at Question Time. I seek to be as fair as possible.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. If my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) or anybody else decided to put down what is known as a take-note early-day motion, may I take it that, providing that it contained no exact quotations, it would be allowed? As some of the take-note motions put down by the Government are of that kind, would you, Mr. Speaker, say how many words attributed to statements would be allowed? Would it be 20, 30, 40, or what? Will you assure me that, if I signed those three motions today, the names would be accepted because they are on the Order Paper? Will you bear in mind that my hon. Friend's new motion does not contain any quotations?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished chairman of another assembly, and I shall take note of what he has said. Whether he signs the motions will not have any direct influence on my decision, but I shall take note of what he has said.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We live in a somewhat authoritarian political climate. You have the unique responsibility of defending the rights of Members. Sir, you and I have been friends for some years now —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that this point of order may be helpful.

Mr. Faulds

I say with my usual love and admiration for you, Mr. Speaker, that your responsibility in these particularly difficult times is not to allow Members' interests and rights to be diminished but to try to extend them.

Not having spoken in the House since 30 November last year, I rise today to say that I must make the comment, with all charity—this is very relevant—that there has been a change in the conduct of matters within the House. You, Mr. Speaker, have changed the taking of points of order; you have allowed quotations in supplementaries. Sir, when you and I had a slight tiff at the end of last year, I wanted, having damaged the door and having immediately agreed to pay for it—which I have since done, by kind permission of my bank manager—to make a statement to the House apologising personally to you, Sir, and to my colleagues for my slight tantrum. The door, of course, had suffered damage on previous occasions; it was only my Scottish shoulders that actually budged it. But you, Sir, did not allow me to make a personal statement when I very much wanted to do so.

Now that I am on my feet again, and intend to rise frequently on a number of occasions, I think that the conduct of these matters—which has changed, Sir, under your Speakership—should really be examined by the relevant Procedure Committee—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is very helpful, and I am touched by what he has said. He wrote me a very full letter of apology, and I was grateful for it.

I must stress to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that I am not in the business of changing the rules; I am in the business of upholding them. If there is an abuse of any matter in the Chamber, it is my undoubted duty to look into it carefully, and that is exactly what I am doing.