§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that yesterday the Home Secretary chose to announce his decision to refer the Guildford and Woolwich case to the Court of Appeal in an eight-page written answer rather than make a statement to the House on which he could have been questioned, as happened on the previous occasion when he considered the Guildford and Woolwich and Birmingham cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and I went to the Library at 3.30 yesterday afternoon to obtain a copy of that eight-page written answer. It was not available there. We then went to the Lower Press Gallery where we were immediately able to obtain a copy. In other words, it was available to the Press Gallery—whose members seemed aware of the decision four or five hours before it was announced in the House—but not in the Library.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. It certainly should have been available in the Library. I say again that I deprecate the press getting information before we do here.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is surely a serious issue here in that the Home Secretary announced in advance that he was giving a written answer—to a question which was planted in the first place by one of his hon. Friends—on an important issue, thus avoiding him having to face the House on that issue. He then apparently leaked—or it was leaked by his Department—the entire contents of that reply at 10 o'clock in the morning to The London Standard newspaper and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) pointed out, it became available to Members at 4 o'clock that afternoon.
Many of us welcome the fact that the case is to be referred to the Court of Appeal. We should have liked, and still would like, an opportunity to speak directly in the House to the Home Secretary on this issue and question him about further details of it. Do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that such an opportunity should be made available to us?
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker. As the Home Secretary is in his place and will have heard you deprecating his conduct and that of his Department, do you agree that the least he should do is to come to the Dispatch Box and give an explanation?
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely the most important point is that the Home Secretary has decided that the Court of Appeal may decide this issue. Nothing that might be said in the House can make any impact on what the Court of Appeal will decide. Surely my right hon. Friend's decision should be welcomed by Members.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. We have a heavy day ahead of us—an open-ended debate on a Committee stage and a three-hour debate thereafter.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Although I came into the Chamber after the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) made his comments, I have the general gist of the point.
174 I do not need to make an apology to the House for dealing with this matter in a written answer, partly for the reason which my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) gave. I have no knowledge of the source of the report in The London Standard, which I saw and which I regret. My intention was that it should be dealt with in an orderly way by informing the House first.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Home Secretary said that in some mysterious way these documents reached the Press Gallery without his knowledge, a situation which you deprecate, Mr. Speaker. Yet the right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say to the House about how it could have happened.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been in the Chamber on several occasions recently when you have deprecated the process by which it appears that written answers, and on some occasions even the contents of oral statements, have reached the press before being given to the House. I realise that when you say that you deprecate something, that is a strong rebuke to the Government that it should have happened. But that does not seem to be having any effect. Would it be possible for you, Mr. Speaker, through the usual channels, to take the matter a little further and get the practice stopped so that we do not find material being handed to the press before it is put through the correct channels for Members to obtain as a written or oral statement?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Allow me to deal with the matter, please. I heard the Home Secretary say that he had no idea how it occurred. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) made a sensible and helpful suggestion, and I shall certainly do as he suggested.
§ Mr. Skinner
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Home Secretary's comments about what appeared in the The London Standard gave me and other Opposition Members the impression that he did not know what had happened. There can be no question but that the Home Secretary answered by way of a written reply. He seemed to convey the impression that he was not sure how it got to the Press Gallery several hours before the written question was answered. If that is the case, it is important for the right hon. Gentleman to discover how that leaked information reached the press. Perhaps Bernard Ingham did it for him. If so, we should be told who is running the Home Office—Bernard Ingham or the Home Secretary. Who is running the show?
§ Mr. Speaker
We have to follow an open-ended debate on a Committee stage and a three-hour debate after that. Points of order take up a great deal of time and do a grave disservice to the hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He may get an advantage out of raising points of order in this way, but his hon. Friends suffer.
§ Mr. Mullin
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that on reflection you will accept the seriousness of this issue, which is of some public importance, as a glance at this morning's newspapers will reveal. The point I made, which the Home Secretary did not address, was that the copy, which I am holding, of the written answer was obtained by me from the Press Gallery because it was not obtainable in the Library.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I have already said that I shall be discussing the matter through the usual channels. I cannot help any more than that.
§ Mr. Corbyn
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not wasting time—remembering that this is an important issue. One of the four people concerned is a constituent of mine who has wrongly spent 14 years in prison. That is a matter of great importance, and I am glad that the case has been referred to the Court of Appeal.
If parliamentary answers are given in a written form, they are clearly the property of the House at the time they are given, which is supposed to be at the start of public business each afternoon at about 3.30. I am rather suspicious of the way in which the usual channels' operation goes on in this building. I would prefer you, Mr. Speaker, to give a clear ruling from the Chair that at 3.30 each day—or at the same time, whatever time that may be—all written answers are placed in the Library so that they are available to Members and are not deliberately leaked to the press in advance. While I accept the Home Secretary's assurance that he himself did not know that 176 this one had got into the hands of The London Standard, clearly his office knew that it was in the hands of the Press Gallery well in advance of being in the hands of Members.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I have already told the hon. Member and the House that answers to written questions should be in the Library at 3.30, and I hope that will happen in future.