HC Deb 26 January 1989 vol 145 cc1201-5
Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

You will remember, Mr. Speaker, that yesterday I raised a point of order regarding the first oral question, which was about council house sales. Instead of giving me the answer that I wanted which everybody could hear, the Minister referred me to a written question that had been tabled the day before. It must have been tabled very late, as it was the last one on the list. I wanted that answer, because it would have some effect on the business in here and on my supplementary question, and I looked in Hansard. The question was not there. Therefore, it seemed to me that the Minister had referred me to an answer that did not exist. This was completely wrong, and there is a deep principle involved here, as I said yesterday. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and I know that you have looked into this. I wonder whether you can do something about it.

Mr. Speaker

I undertook yesterday to look into the matter which the hon. Gentleman raised with me concerning question No. 1. I can give the House an assurance that no rule was contravened at any stage, nor, as I made clear yesterday, was the answer given by the Minister in any sense a blocking answer of a kind described at page 342 of "Erskine May".

As I said yesterday, it is not for me to comment upon answers. It was, however, unfortunate that the written answer referred to by the Minister had not yet appeared in Hansard. Perhaps Ministers would be good enough in future to check on this point before giving oral replies of this kind and consider giving a more substantive reply in cases where they discover that the relevant answer has not yet been published in the Official Report.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for that clarification, particularly on the blocking point. In view of what you have just said about the duty being on the Minister to ensure that the answer has been published, may I ask whether in your interpretation of your ruling on points of order you would he willing to accept a point of order, during or immediately after Question Time, although not continuing into the time allowed for statements? Would that be in order in a situation where, say, my hon. Friend had Hansard with him and received the same answer as he received yesterday, and then checked and found that there was no such information in the published Hansard? Would that be within the scope of your discretion, which you have said you are willing to exercise?

Mr. Speaker

I take points of order at the proper time, which is after statements. In order to clarify this matter, yesterday the answer, which I had not seen, contained a list of figures. I am satisfied that nothing untoward took place.

I hope that in future, if the situation were to occur again, Ministers would ensure that a substantive answer was given so that the hon. Member concerned would have an opportunity to put a relevant supplementary.

Mr. Flannery

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Grateful as I am for your answer, it still leaves a great and serious problem. It is a strange coincidence that exactly the same question as mine, which had been put in a fortnight before, was from a Sheffield Tory MP and clearly took precedence. It was the duty of the Minister to find out that answer. He has left everybody thinking that he prompted that question in order to avoid answering my question properly.

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

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry that I was slow in getting into the Chamber when you started your statement, and so did not hear the beginning of it. But I can say that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment answered the hon. Gentleman's question he believed that he had properly answered the question and the question had been delivered. It had not been published in Hansard. He was unaware of that fact. The publishing of Hansard is, of course, a matter for the House authorities and not for him. He very much regrets any inconvenience.

I take the point that Ministers should check whether the House authorities have managed to publish the answers in Hansard, and if not they ought to refer in more detail to the answers that they have already given. My hon. Friend regrets any inconvenience to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Alan Williams

I must say how grateful I am, Mr. Speaker, to the Leader of the House for having looked into this and given that information. Can I make the point that every Department has a parliamentary office, which exists specifically for this purpose. Therefore, there should be no problem for any Minister in ensuring that by the time he comes to the House at 2.30 pm Hansard has been checked.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that there is nothing in the rules against one hon. Member putting down a question that another hon. Member has put down, and which has been drawn out for oral answer on a particular day. But I am sure that you agree that it would not really be in the best interests of the House if, as a regular practice, hon. Members looked through what was drawn out for a fortnight hence, and two or three days later put down the same question for written answer. That would bring our proceedings into disrepute. I hope that, although it might not be out of order, you would make it clear that you do not approve of the practice of someone slipping in a written question later which replicates an oral question that is already on the Order Paper.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Sometimes the oral question begets a reply that is very lengthy and, therefore, is probably not best delivered in the form of the Minister coming to the Dispatch Box and reading out a range of figures. If we are to take the Leader of the House's statement at face value, that there was no intention to conduct a bit of sharp practice on my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), surely the best thing would have been for the Minister to have had the courtesy to supply a copy of the written reply to my hon. Friend. The Minister could have gone to the Dispatch Box and said, "I refer the hon. Member to the written reply that I have given him a copy of." That would have enabled us to proceed. There are times when it would be tedious for a Minister to read from a great slab of statistics. If the Minister was intent at the time on meaning no discourtesy, that would have been the best way of handling this matter. But, as it seems to us, this was a bit of sharp practice that went badly wrong.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have often made it clear to Ministers that you do not like long answers. If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary had read out yesterday all the figures from 1975 to 1986, which is 11 years of figures, you might well have said that that was a long answer, and complained to the Minister for giving such a long answer.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that when Ministers answer a question which gives statistics they say that it will be printed in the Hansard of the day's proceedings? I should like you to rule whether it is right for a question to be received at the Table Office that has already been tabled for answer on a particular day.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, that has always been in order. I think the whole House would appreciate that, because a question has to be on the Order Paper a fortnight in advance, it would be a dangerous practice to sterilise questions for that period. Something might arise that needed an answer earlier.

I have looked into this in considerable depth because I was concerned that nothing untoward should have taken place in respect of Question No. 1 yesterday, and I am satisfied that it did not.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Earlier this afternoon you heard matters raised with the Leader of the House during business questions about the press conference at the Department of Transport. May I raise further matters that have come to light now, which go against the practice that you have indicated you frown on, in terms of the order of release of information to the House, and outside the House?

This morning I made inquiries of the Secretary of State's office and the office of the Minister of State, Department of Transport, about how the central London rail study would be given publicity. I was eventually told that there would not be a statement in the House but an answer to a written question, which was tabled yesterday by the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler).

I was eventually told that the matter would be made public in the Vote Office, through my pigeonhole, by the board and in other ways at 3.30 pm. I have subsequently learnt that the press were given all this information at 1 o'clock. The press conference was held at 4 o'clock. At 4.30 the document had still not arrived on the board, although the Secretary of State's office had assured me that it would arrive.

On previous occasions, you, Mr. Speaker, have said to Ministers that, although the conduct of their Departments is not in your direct control, none the less the proprieties are that the House is given information before outsiders and the press. Will you say in the strongest terms, and invite the Leader of the House to respond if he is able, that to inform the press two and a half hours before the first likely time of publication of information to the House, and thereafter to fail to comply with undertakings given to hon. Members that they would receive information at that time, is a gross abuse of the relationship of Ministers to the House and should be discouraged forthwith?

Mr. Speaker

I am concerned always that hon. Members receive information at least at the same time as the press and not afterwards, and, if there is an embargo on it, that the press should not use the information or ask questions of hon. Members in the corridors outside about a document that hon. Members have not seen.

I was told at about 4 o'clock that a copy of the booklet entitled "Transport in London" had been deposited in the Library, that 50 copies were in the Vote Office and that a copy would be sent to each London Member.

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

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the light of developments today in the House, I want to raise with you the question that I raised with you yesterday. You will recall that I put it to you that those six Conservative Members of Parliament who, in the words of the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), were "fingered by MI5" because they might be security risks, might have access to Select Committees which study and examine classified material. I put it to you that we must find some way of blocking access to those hon. Members in the event that they have been blocked by the Whips or the Prime Minister for ministerial appointment. There can be no inconsistency in the position.

I took your advice, Mr. Speaker, and I asked the Leader of the House a question. He hid behind the traditional reply that these matters cannot be discussed in the House of Commons. We are now in a position where I go to you, Mr. Speaker, you advise me to go to the Leader of the House and the Leader of the House says that he cannot discuss it; and yet this inconsistency of approach to classified material remains.

This is a serious matter on which I seek your guidance. Where do I go now—because I will not let go?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member must go to the Procedure Committee. I myself regard all Members of the House as honourable and treat them as such.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot have a debate on procedure this afternoon. I have told the hon. Gentleman that he should take it to the Procedure Committee.

Mr. Tony Banks

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not wish to tax your patience but, going back to the question of the central London rail study, during business questions the Leader of the House said that he did not feel that it was appropriate at this stage for the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the study.

I realise that the sort of subjects that we discuss are not your responsibility, but it makes a nonsense of what we are doing here today, for example, for the Secretary of State to have put into the Library a written reply that begins: I am today publishing a booklet entitled 'Transport in London', setting out the Government's policy aims for transport in London and the steps being taken to achieve them". That is a wholly approporiate subject for the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on in the House today. It is a matter of major concern, not only to those who live in London but to others throughout the country. But instead of discussing in the place where we should have discussed it something which will be in the newspapers tomorrow we had a statement on yuppie car phones.

I know that you are not responsible for business, Mr. Speaker, but it is about time that the Government started treating this place seriously.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has said it himself—it is a matter for the Government and not for order.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Speaker

No, I am on my feet.

I am about to draw the ballot for motions on 13 February. The point raised by the hon. Gentleman would be an admirable subject, it seems to me, for the hon. Member who is successful in the ballot to choose.

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