HC Deb 15 February 1989 vol 147 cc333-418


Considered in Committee [Progress, 2 February]

[MR. HAROLD WALKER in the Chair.]

4.33 pm
Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

On a point of order, Mr. Walker. I understand that you have decided not to select new clause 11. I have no intention of challenging your decision on that, but I seek your guidance on a point which involves the House of Commons and which may be of constitutional importance.

During the Second Reading debate on the Official Secrets Bill, my hon. Friend the Minister of State gave me certain detailed assurances relating to the publication of memoirs by members or former members of the secret service. It later transpired that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State sent me a letter which appeared to repudiate those assurances. I shall not go into detail, but I do not think that my right hon. Friend would wish to repudiate assurances given in detail over about half a column of the Official Report without some explanation.

The purpose of new clause 11 was to discover whether he wished to repudiate or modify the assurance which my hon. Friend has given. If the new clause is not selected, I do not see how he will get the opportunity to explain to the House what has happened. I do not think that anyone in the Committee would accept that a single letter to an individual Member of Parliament would suffice as a repudiation of those assurances.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Walker, as to what should be done. If the new clause is not selected, may I have an assurance that it will be selected on Report? How is this matter to be cleared up? A long list of assurances was given in good faith, covering half a column in Hansard, and an apparent repudiation was contained only in a letter to me and not to the House and has not been made in any statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. How do we get out of that difficulty if we do not debate the new clause in Committee or on Report? I should be perfectly happy if you were to say that the new clause will be considered on Report.

The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr. John Patten)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. I have listened with great care to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). The issue was referred to not only during the debate on the guillotine motion a night or so ago but in Committee, when new clause 6 standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) was debated.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. I am rather surprised by the Minister's intervention, because he seemed to be discussing the merits of the matter, but we are discussing whether new clause 11 should be selected for discussion. Anyone who listened to the debates over the past few days would be most astonished that we are not to have the chance to debate this subject on the basis of the new clause that the right hon. Gentleman has tabled.

I am astonished that new clause 11 was not selected, because it raises a particular matter of special importance which was raised during previous debates. Whatever anyone thought about the argument, we went away from that discussion fully imagining that there would be a chance to debate the issue. We certainly did not imagine that a Government Front Bench spokesman would say that there was any good or satisfactory reason for not having such a debate. Therefore, if that new clause, or something that achieves the same result, is not selected for discussion now, I seek your assurance that there will be immediate discussions, as is the normal process, so that by tomorrow at least we shall have an absolute assurance that there will be the possibility of a discussion on new clause 11.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. May I draw to your attention a parallel problem? Questions were raised in Committee about the relationship between solicitors and their clients, and it became clear that the assurances given by the Government were inaccurate in every particular. As the discussion continued, the Minister of State intervened—I think it was from a sedentary position, but we all heard him—to say that a chance for clarification would be provided.

I make no complaint, but I understand that the amendment on that subject is not to be discussed in Committee. Were we not subject to a guillotine we would press all these matters on clause stand part, but the guillotine makes that impossible. I wish to record my belief that a matter as important as that raised by the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) will be ignored unless special consideration is given on Report.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. We are in some difficulty when undertakings and interpretations are given by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Floor of the House and subsequently repudiated. That denies us the possibility of an authoritative statement. You will recall that my hon. Friend the Minister of State gave clear assurances to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) which were subsequently repudiated. We have a series of such instances within the timetable. It is difficult to identify things that my right hon. and hon. Friends have said as the basis of the Bill, and the timetable constricts that.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thariet, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. In support of the point of order made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), I would emphasise that the present state of affairs is unsatisfactory in the eyes of those of us who wish to explore this matter further, and that it should be so in the eyes of the Government. The uncomfortable fact must be faced that, if matters are left to stand in their current unsatisfactory position—and there is not a proper correction of the record in Hansard—it will regrettably leave my hon. Friend the Minister of State perilously vulnerable to a serious charge of having misled the House.

It is not satisfactory for assurances to be given in private correspondence between my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion. We have now had a reversal of those assurances in correspondence and surely the Government and the Minister of State would wish to acquit themselves completely of any charge of having double-crossed the House and would instead make it absolutely clear that there is a repudiation and that it is on the record as part of our proceedings.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Harold Walker)

It is difficult for me to see how these points arise on matters of my selection or non-selection of amendments or new clauses which have been tabled.

Mr. Aitken

I shall explain why. I understand that part of the Chair's thinking in deciding not to select this new clause may have been because it was to some extent covered in the debate on amendment No. 71. If that is true, I submit—

The Chairman

Order. We cannot have a debate about what may or may not have been the considerations which I took into account in determining my selection. The hon. Gentleman and certainly right hon. and hon. Members will know that I am required not to give reasons for my selection or non-selection of amendments.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. Is not the basic trouble that there is a remarkable absence of good will from Home Office Ministers? There is a fundamental problem. We are in Committee and the occupant of the Chair is likely to jump down my throat. Surely in Committee, when those who have been here throughout and who have taken the most interest in the Bill on the Back Benches of both sides of the House are almost uniformly unhappy, is it not reasonable that there should be some explanation, because a similar thing has happened over the serious degree of harm—

The Chairman

Order. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is unhappy, but these are not matters for the Chair. Those grievances lie not with the Chair but with Ministers. I listened, as we all did, to the earlier exchanges about the amount of guillotine time that had been taken by questions on the statement. It appears that we are now resurrecting the very matters about which complaints were made.

Mr. Foot

On a point of order, Mr. Walker. My previous point of order was a matter directly addressed to you and not to the Ministers, and my point of order now is addressed directly to you. I have heard this happen many times in Committee stages of Bills. We have seen the selection you have made and we have seen what we believe is a grave deficiency in that selection. We are not asking you to give the reasons, because that is understandable, but on behalf of many right hon. and hon. Members I am asking that you should reconsider the matter and see whether we should not tomorrow have a proper opportunity to discuss this matter. I believe that would be the satisfactory way of doing it. It is certainly a matter of procedure that I am entitled to raise with you.

The Chairman

Perhaps I should try to give the Committee a considered view from the Chair. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that, if I were persuaded that I had grounds for reconsideration, I do not believe that it would help him and other right hon. and hon. Members, because I believe that the very matters which he seeks to discuss could not be raised until the very end. It is highly likely that, given the circumstances and timing of the guillotine, we should be able to exhaust all the proposals on the Notice Paper.

The Ministers and others on the Government Front Bench will have heard the exchanges. It is not for me to anticipate or pre-empt what Mr. Speaker may select for debate on Report, but doubtless these matters will be considered and there may be an appropriate opportunity when the points can be dealt with in a manner which will be satisfactory to hon. Members.

In the light of my comments, perhaps we can make some progress.

4.45 pm
Mr. Amery

Do I understand from what you have just said to the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), Mr. Walker, that in your view this could and perhaps should be raised on Report, if not before? Otherwise, if the clause is not to be called, how do we extract from Home Office Ministers whether they have repudiated, or whether they want to modify, the assurances given by my hon. Friend the Minister, which occupied half a column of Hansard? If it cannot be done in this clause, what other way of doing it would you recommend to the Committee?

The Chairman

The right hon. Gentleman is showing the accumulated Housecraft of the many years that he has been here. I have been here a few years, too, and I shall not be lured into the trap which I believe he is setting for me. However, if it is any encouragement, I shall ensure that Mr. Speaker is made fully aware of these exchanges. I am sure that Mr. Speaker will share my anxiety that, so far as is possible within the time parameters that have been set—both at this and later stages of the Bill—there should be an opportunity for the House to satisfy itself on matters which are clearly of considerable importance.

I have noted that Ministers, too, are responding sympathetically and I hope understandingly—[Interruption.] I understood their heads to be going up and down rather than from side to side. I think that up and down is more encouraging than from side to side.

Mr. Hattersley

You anticipated, Mr. Walker, the nature of my point of order. I was about to say that all these matters are in the hands of the Government. The Government have been unhelpful about many matters concerning the procedure of this Bill. All that the Home Secretary has to do is to indicate his intention to do his best to make these debates possible, and then we can proceed.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

Further to the point of order of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), Mr. Walker. I wonder whether your reply means that your customary and entirely proper exorcism of the martinet in matters of relevance means that you were indicating that you would be less of a martinet in terms of what is not relevant to the clauses which we are discussing.

The Chairman

If the hon. Gentleman were to interpret my remarks as suggesting that I would convey to Mr. Speaker the anxiety that has been expressed on this occasion and the hope that, before the Bill completes its proceedings in this House, there will be an opportunity for these matters to be cleared up on the Floor of the House, he is interpreting me correctly. I hope that that is helpful.

Sir Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham)

On a point of order, Mr. Walker. As one would expect, you are seeking to help the Committee, for which we are most grateful. Obviously I would not question your reasons for not selecting the new clause of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), because I would find the reasons unfathomable anyway. When a serious point has been raised by a right hon. Member who is experienced in these matters, and contradictory things have been said, it is extraordinary that the Government should not seek to clear those matters up straight away. I honestly do not believe that it is good enough to wait until Report. I should have thought that the Government would wish to satisfy the anxieties of my right hon. Friend straight away.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

On a point of order, Mr. Walker, and responding to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said. This matter was discussed on the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion on Second Reading, then in Committee on a new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State responded. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion, through no fault of his own, was not there. It was raised, too, by my right hon. Friend on the timetable motion, and I replied to him then.

However, we are not in any way party to the decisions of the Chair on the selection of amendments. On behalf of the Government, I am happy that the matter should be aired again, if that is the view of my right hon. Friend, when it is procedurally in order to do so. If that is on Report, as you have suggested, Mr. Walker, we will fall in with whatever arrangements suit the Committee.

Mr. Aitken

Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. I should like to respond to the comment made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Whatever may or may not have been said during the first day of the Committee stage in response to the amendments moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) is largely irrelevant. If I have the date right, I believe that those exchanges took place on 26 January; but the correspondence from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary repudiating the comments of the Minister of State was dated 31 January. Therefore, it was several days later, and the repudiation could not have been debated.

The Chairman

We are straying from points of order into the substance of the matter. I hope that the hon. Member will find the earlier exchanges helpful in respect of that matter and that he will accept that there may be the opportunity for debate which right hon. and hon. Members have sought.

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. I would appreciate your guidance. I understood that the Committee stage was supposed to provide an opportunity to study legislation in detail. I am not privy to correspondence between the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) and the Minister. However, I was in the Chamber when the Minister commented at length and gave assurances about the arrangements for allowing ex-members of the security services to publish their memoirs. I understand from the points of order that the Secretary of State has repudiated those assurances. At the time—

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Lady is repeating the error committed by the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). She is discussing the substance of the matter rather than the question whether an amendment or a new clause should be selected and debated.

  1. Clause 1
    1. cc338-58
    2. SECURITY AND INTELLIGENCE 11,486 words, 2 divisions
  2. Clause 2
    1. cc358-99
    2. DEFENCE 23,691 words, 1 division
  3. Clause 3
    1. cc399-418
Forward to