HC Deb 22 May 1989 vol 153 cc691-2 4.21 pm
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I remind you of the exchanges in the House on Thursday, which occur in column 487 and 500 of the Official Report? I mentioned the non-availability in the Library of the answer to written question 221, in the name of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). I went to the Library at 9.45 pm that day to discover that the answer was still not available. Later that evening I learned that the Secretary of State for Scotland had held a press conference, not in Edinburgh, as I had earlier supposed —not even at Dover house in Whitehall—but, at 2.45 pm, in a ministerial conference room virtually in the Chamber.

We all understand why such things happen, but 1 put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that it is intolerable that Ministers should arrange for questions to be put down and for answers to be made available to journalists before the time has even come to make them available to Members of the House—and, indeed, that seven hours later, more than six hours after that answer should have been available to Members, it should still not be available to them.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to reflect on how you can help hon. Members. That strikes me as a blatant example of gross manipulation of the procedures of the House and of the media, and an insult to hon. Members. We are entitled to be told what is being said, for the benefit of our constituents. It is not dignity that makes me raise the issue, but the fact that on Thursday I was debarred from making any sensible comment, or asking any sensible question, on behalf of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends in other parts of Scotland.

Mr. Speaker

I have had an opportunity to look into the matter, and I understand that there was an embargoed Lobby briefing on the Scottish aspect of the statement at 2.45 pm last Thursday. Subsequently the text of a written answer arrived late in the Library, and, I understand, was not available until about 6 pm.

I can only repeat what I have said many times before: I regard it as important for Members to be the first to be informed of any Government announcement.

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

I agree with the points that you have made, Mr. Speaker. It was clear that arrangements to brief the press at the proper time were not made in this case, and I apologise to the House for the error.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It relates to the scrutiny of European issues and legislation. There was a time when Council meetings were followed by a statement or private notice question in the House. Since Mr. Delors said that 80 per cent. of our laws would be decided in Brussels, that practice seems to have come to an end, perhaps to prove his point.

Last week the wise men of Europe and the unelected institutions decided what was best for our health and what should he written on the fag packets of the people of the United Kingdom. This may seem a piffling little issue, but many people would want to ask the Government what is Europe's competence in that regard, and whether, if it has no competence, it should be challenged. If it is not to be challenged, what precedence does it have? This is very relevant to the powers of the House in future over health matters. Let me give another small but important example——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not go into detail. I think that I have got the drift of his point of order, with which I have some sympathy. May I deal with it?

The matter was raised at Prime Minister's Question Time last week. I understand that the Select Committee on Procedure is looking into how we are to deal with EEC matters in future, and until we have that report it is difficult for me to say anything else.

Mr. Marlow

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. At the weekend an important meeting took place in S'Agara to do with financial matters, including taxation, a matter that the House takes very seriously. Various undertakings were given and various documents were signed. We do not know what those documents and undertakings were. I feel that the House should have the opportunity of having a Minister before it to make a statement or perhaps answer a private notice question on such an important matter, so that at this early stage we can examine what is being done. At a later stage it might be quite impossible for the House to uncover the ground that has already been covered.

Mr. Speaker

I am deeply concerned that the House should not be bypassed in any way, and I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said. He will have an opportunity, which he may try to take, to raise the matter at greater length later this afternoon.