§ Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should be grateful for your guidance regarding the interpretation of Standing Order No. 86(2), which concerns the composition of Standing Committees, with particular reference to that appointed last week to consider the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.
On 2 April, the House was given an explicit assurance by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House that the composition of the Standing Committee upstairs would be decided after a decision had been reached on the Floor of the House on the issues of embryo experimentation and late abortion. None of us had any doubts about that at the time, and those two issues were debated in Committee in the Chamber.
The Bill contains many other provisions of concern to pro-life right hon. and hon. Members, who are to be found in all parts of the House. All the Bill's provisions are of concern to those right hon. and hon. Members. You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that of the 18 hon. Members nominated for the Committee, 15 voted for research involving the destruction of the human embryo and only two voted against. If the Committee is to reflect the pro-life element of the House as a whole, as expressed in those two recent relevant votes, those who oppose the present totality of the Bill's provisions should be represented by at least six members of the Committee.
Standing Order No. 86 refers specifically to the qualifications—I emphasise, qualifications—of the members chosen to serve on a Committee. Several right hon. and hon. Members who are extremely knowledgeable on the subject—including the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who himself introduced a relevant Bill—applied to be selected for the Committee but were turned down, so there are only two representatives on the Standing Committee of the pro-lifers in the House.
My long experience of the House has stretched over many Parliaments and over 40 years. I cannot recall a similar example of such blatant disregard of the composition of the House in the membership of a Standing Committee—it flies in the face of the terms of the Standing Order. I should be grateful for your guidance on how the House can redress that injustice.
§ Mr. Speaker
The right hon. Member knows that the duty of nominating Members to Standing Committees is placed on the Committee of Selection by Standing Order No. 86. It is not a matter for the Chair. Any comment regarding the membership of a Committee should be addressed to the Chairman of the Selection Committee.
§ Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House gave a specific undertaking to the House on the evening of 2 April—in column 987 of the Official Report—that, as the Father of the House has just informed us, the composition of the Standing Committee would reflect the outcome of debates at the beginning of last week. As the Father of the House has told us, the composition of that Committee will reflect less than half of the proportion of opposition expressed to the two major items that were the subject of debate at the beginning of last week. That is too big a discrepancy for the House to permit.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. It is difficult to say any more on the issue, other than to repeat what I have already told the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine).
§ Sir Bernard Braine
Further to that point of order. I understand that, Mr. Speaker, and in normal circumstances I would accept your ruling, but my first point is that I wrote to the Chairman of the Selection Committee and I received no answer. My second point is that the Standing Committee meets tomorrow. In other words, there is no way that the matter can be remedied, as the Chairman of the Selection Committee has not bothered to reply. In the last analysis, Mr. Speaker, you are the guardian of minorities. Based on my experience in the matter, I am stating that there has been a blatant disregard of the provisions of the Standing Order and I ask you to be so kind as to reflect on the situation which, as far as I am concerned, is totally without precedent.
§ Sir Marcus Fox (Shipley)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I have been mentioned, as the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, I must say to the Father of the House—and it gives me no pleasure to do so—that I received his letter on Thursday, and it was my intention to see him today, as I was not in the House on Friday, to explain the workings of the Committee of Selection. He said that there was a blatant disregard for the debate, but our duties are quite straightforward. That Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is a Government Bill and the Government are entitled to a majority on the Committee. We have no say over the size of the Committee. It is our duty to see that the Government have a majority. If my right hon. Friend does his homework he will find that, excluding Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries, two of the five Conservative Members chosen were hon. Members whom he would like to see on the Committee. If my Conservative colleagues on the Committee voted in that fashion—and it would be open to Opposition Members to vote as they saw fit—there would be a draw. I have no control over the nominations from the Labour party or other minor Opposition parties. That is the system.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. That is not a matter for me but for the Committee of Selection. The hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) and other hon. Members have heard what the Chairman has had to say on the matter.
§ Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have seen reports over the weekend that the Prime Minister is considering major changes to the poll tax and that new legislation could be introduced in the summer. Those reports have produced an all-too-familiar poll tax confusion with some Ministers flatly opposing any such change and others, including those most directly involved, professing no knowledge of any such change. At first, the Prime Minister's Office apparently confirmed the reports, but this morning they apparently briefed journalists that no change in the tax is to be expected.
My point of order for you, Mr. Speaker, is that significant changes to the poll tax at this stage would be of great interest to local electors as they try to make up their minds before next Thursday's local elections and to local government which faces the prospect of gearing up to yet another major change within just a month of the poll tax 739 being introduced. The prospect of new legislation is also of the greatest interest to you and to the House as a whole: it would have considerable significance for the remainder of the legislative programme.
If Ministers and their civil servants can brief journalists and say that there will or will not be any change, why can they not make a similarly clear statement to the House? Have either the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for the Environment approached you about a possible statement? If not, when do you expect to hear and, through you, when can the House expect to hear whether legislation on this vital matter is to be expected?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I do not need too much help. Like all other hon. Members, I have read what was said in the newspapers. I listened, furthermore, to last Wednesday's debate. If hon. Members will refresh their memories by looking at the Votes and Proceedings of 25 April, they will see that the House specifically resolved that the Government proposedto listen to constructive suggestions for improving the new system with a view to prompt implementation of any necessary changes".I am not surprised, therefore, that discussions are taking place.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would not it be for the convenience of those who will be casting their votes on Thursday if they could have a clearer idea of the Labour party's roof tax proposal, about which there has been the most monumental confusion for months?
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Scottish electorate has a particular interest in these matters. We want to know whether there will be a U-turn by the Prime Minister or whether she will give a V-sign. Particularly in the light of the shambles that ensued after the Budget statement, in which the Secretary of State for Scotland trailed along after the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I must ask you whether you have had any request from the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement so that when people vote next Thursday they will know whether they are voting for the poll tax, or for another form of poll tax or for no poll tax at all.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have received no request from the Secretary of State for Scotland for a statement to be made. The Prime Minister will be at the Dispatch Box tomorrow. That will be the moment when hon. Members can raise matters of this kind.
§ Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on the application of the sub judice rule in this high court of Parliament whenever there isa real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of the case.in another high court, the High Court of Justice. I refer to "Erskine May", page 378.
On Friday, the Court of Appeal decided that the case of Regina v. Cullen and Others was overwhelmingly prejudiced by statements made at the time by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The right hon. 740 Gentleman replied in a written answer on 20 October 1988, issued a press statement the same day and went on television, as the Court of Appeal saidto express himself in strong terms at a critical stage in the trial that a failure to answer questions or give evidence was tantamount to guilt.By this time the accused had made it clear that they would not give evidence, the trial having begun on 10 October. On the same day, 20 October, the then Home Secretary, also in a written answer, confirmed that he had reached a similar conclusion to that reached by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: that there was a strong case for the law to be changed in England and Wales. As the trial judge said:It would have been far better, putting it at its lowest, for the comments of the Northern Ireland Secretary not to have been made.Apart from the obvious question of where was the common sense of the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for the Home Department, the question that arises is how Ministers and, indeed, Members should conduct themselves when controversial or other trials are in progress. Hence the sub judice rule. As the Court of Appeal stated:As could easily have been foreseen on so controversial a matter the media were immediately and intensely interested.The trial was at a critical stage, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was the alleged victim of a conspiracy and obviously followed the course of the trial day by day. What advice did he receive? Was the Attorney-General consulted by either Secretary of State, and if not, why not? Was the Attorney-General not volunteering advice or was not it the case—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Morris
I am coming to my point, Mr. Speaker. Was not it the case that only a fool would have wanted advice in those circumstances? What the House is anxious to know—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must address a point of order to me; I have not yet heard any reference to one.
§ Mr. Morris
I thought that it was important that the facts upon which the alleged breach of the sub judice rule came into play should be known. I am asking for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, because the House is anxious for your guidance about how we should conduct ourselves if Ministers are seen to be riding roughshod over those rules. After advice from the Attorney-General and your own counsel, will you, Mr. Speaker, consider where the sub judice rule now stands? What steps should Ministers, who are obviously in breach of that rule, take to explain themselves to the House?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I do not think that I need any help—[Interruption.] Order. Allow me to deal with this. As far as the case to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred is concerned, I do not think that the sub judice rule was called in doubt at that time. It is now two years ago, but I do not think that the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred to that specific case. The whole House well knows that the sub judice rule bites upon specific cases.
§ Mr. John Morris
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Court of Appeal interpreted the comments of the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in such a way as to make it obvious that it was an inference and did, in fact, prejudice the case, I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, further to consider where the sub judice rule now stands and what further guidance should now be given to the House.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I am not responsibile for the interpretation of the appeal judges. That is not a matter of order for me. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is alleging—I hope that he is not—that I should have stopped the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland responding to that question, that is a different matter, but I am afraid that he will have to pursue it in the proper way.
§ Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)
Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker. I should be grateful for your guidance on this matter, because the sub judice rule means that if the House is considering a criminal justice Bill, for example—and some recent such Bills have been extensive, covering many subjects—our discussions are bound to impinge on certain cases going through the courts. The whole purpose of a criminal justice Bill is to improve the standards of our justice in this country. Therefore, I should be grateful if you would reconsider this matter, Mr. Speaker, because some of our comments may lead to judges taking an adverse view of certain cases in the future.
§ Mr. Speaker
There is no implicit sub judice rule when we are dealing with legislation. That is another and a different matter.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Some of us who have been here for a long time think that it extraordinary that, after two of the events of the weekend—both of which have been raised on previous points of order—no Minister has volunteered to make a statement to the House. First, there is the question of the poll tax confusion; secondly—equally important in a constitutional sense—other extraordinary events have taken place. Surely it is unprecedented for the responsible Minister not to be prepared to make a statement to the House the following Monday.
May I put the matter the other way round Mr. Speaker? If the Government do not think that it is necessary to report to the House on those matters, can you give us any idea what extraordinary, almighty botch the Government would have to achieve before the Minister would have to report to the House?
§ Mr. Speaker
Botches made by either side of the House are not included among my many responsibilities. Each case must be judged on its merits. I am not aware that the Government have said that any statement will be made, but what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly have been heard by the Leader of the House.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on how Back-Bench Members can be protected from a phenomenon that has developed recently—possibly because we are being televised. It concerns the number of Members who are 742 really Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen on matters such as the community charge in Scotland. This afternoon, for instance, a Labour Front-Bench spokesman raised what I considered to be a spurious point of order, simply to draw attention to what he was saying in election week.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Further to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), Mr. Speaker. On behalf of hon. Members who are not lawyers, may I suggest that the Attorney-General or another Law Officer should come to explain what has happened, even if the Minister responsible—the Secretary of State for Defence—will not do so? Are we not entitled to that? Before the present Government came to power, it was accepted by Governments of both parties that Law Officers should come to explain such matters. Why has that practice stopped?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. That is a completely different matter. It is a matter for the Government, and I am sure that it will have been heard by them.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Chair to allow the motion that we are about to consider, which relates to European Community document No. 4963 under Standing Order No. 102(3), to be put before the House? You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that Standing Order No. 102(3) allows any European document to be considered on such a motion—there is no limitation or restriction. However, Standing Order No. 46 says that any measure that has consequences for public expenditure must be specifically recommended by the Crown. In the papers attached to the motion, the Paymaster-General says that the consequence of the document will be an increase in our EEC contribution of £115 million next year and £195 million in the following year.
It could be said that these are merely proposals. Clearly there is nothing wrong in referring to a Standing Committee proposal with financial consequences, which may be rejected or approved. Sadly, however, the Government's second paper states that the proposals have already been approved, on 22 March. Therefore, it is a direct charge on the taxpayer.
I have read the proposals in today's Order Paper. They are dynamic proposals, which will have serious consequences for public expenditure. How is it possible to refer that to a Standing Committee under Standing Order No. 102(3), when it involves a substantial increase in Britain's public expenditure without any recommendation from the Crown? Will you, Mr. Speaker, consider the matter and invite the Government not to move the motion? Alternatively, could we have a sensible way of dealing with what is a great deal of money—an extra £200 million—which must be paid to the European Community as a direct consequence of that document, the principle of which has already been approved in Brussels?
§ Mr. Speaker
The motion is in order, but the hon. Gentleman will know that if 20 hon. Members rise in their place when I put it, the Noes will have it, and it then becomes a matter for debate on the Floor.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I understand it, on several occasions you have deprecated the way in which Ministers tell the media what is intended but not the House. As you 743 said, since Friday the media have been full not only of discussion and quotes from Ministers but of reports on legislation on the poll tax coming before the House, possibly in July. Why are Members of Parliament being denied the opportunity of hearing statements from Ministers, who are busy telling the press what they intend to do?
§ Mr. Speaker
We had a long debate on this matter last week and many such statements were put to the Government. The Government specifically stated in the Votes and Proceedings that they would listen to what has been said in the House.
§ Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your help with speculation that appeared over the weekend about changes to the poll tax legislation? I have it on reasonable authority that Northern Ireland Conservatives are pressurising the Government to force the poll tax on the people of Northern Ireland. I should like your help in persuading the Minister to make a statement about that, as there is grave anxiety in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Gentleman specifically used the word "speculation". I am concerned not with speculation in the press but points of order in the House.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. We have a busy day ahead of us, with 26 groups of amendments. I will call the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett).
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you give further thought to written questions and the sub judice rule, especially the problems with planted questions" In the past, I have tabled at least two questions to which the sub judice rule might have applied. Your office and the Clerks had to make extensive inquiries, some of which involved asking questions of the Department to which the question had been tabled, about whether the sub judice rule was likely to be breached. Eventually, I was told that one question would appear on the Order Paper but that the other would have to wait. The problem is the practice that we refer to as "plants", whereby Departments find a sympathetic Member to table a question, often late at night and sometimes minutes before the House rises for answer the following day. That presents a problem for your office, because it has little time to decide whether the question is sub judice. The assumption is that because it has been tabled to a Department—we all know how planted questions come from Departments—it cannot be sub judice. Clearly, on this occasion the Department made an almighty blunder. Will you give this further consideration so that in future there is some safeguard other than the Department and to prevent the Department and the procedures of the House from getting into difficulty? The purpose of the sub judice rule is to protect the House from making just such a mistake. Clearly, on this occasion we all got it wrong.
§ Mr. Speaker
As the hon. Gentleman sensibly said, problems arise when written questions are tabled late in the day. I will certainly reflect on what he has said.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the general 744 question of ministerial statements, over the past few months you may have noticed an increasing tendency for statements to be made by some Departments, of which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is an example, on relatively uncontroversial issues, yet they are reluctant to make statements on controversial issues. When there is a furore and dozens of points of order are made, taking up much of your time, you always say that you are not directly involved in decisions and that it is a matter for the Government. Will you give consideration to changes to involve you, as Mr. Speaker, and the Opposition in the subjects on which statements are made, or give more generous consideration to requests for private notice questions so that there can be some balance?
§ Mr. Speaker
As the hon. Gentleman knows, whether a Minister makes a statement is not a matter for me. I am responsible for private notice questions, and the criteria for granting them are clearly laid down in the Standing Order.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that on Friday I raised the confusing statements emanating from various Ministers, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. You were in the Chair at 9.30 am and I raised it subsequently, but we did not get a Minister here. We now have a Minister here—the Leader of the House. Last Thursday, he told us what the business would be for this week. You said during a debate on Wednesday, and you repeated today, that the Government have plans to change the poll tax. However, on that same day a reply was given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Southampton, lichen (Mr. Chope), that no poll tax changes were contemplated. Therefore, we had two different statements being made on the same day. Ministers are giving a nod and a wink to the idea that there will be changes, but a parliamentary written answer says that there will be none. The Leader of the House should drag himself up and tell us what the score is.
§ Mr. Speaker
We cannot go over that again. I know that the hon. Gentleman studies Hansard and the Votes and Proceedings carefully, but I draw his attention to what is stated on page 540 of the Votes and Proceedings for 25 April.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)
Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether the motion that the Leader of the House is about to ask us to vote on is contradicted by Standing Order No. 46, which is entitled:Recommendation from Crown required on application relating to public money"?It is clear from the motion and the explanatory notes accompanying it that we are being asked to increase Government spending by £115 milion this year and by £195 million next year, in breach of the ceilings on agricultural spending in the EEC, which we were told by the Prime Minister were legally binding. It would appear that, without recommendation from the Crown, by nodding through the motion we are being asked to pass an increase in public spending by subterfuge. Although you have said that it is in order, have you fully considered the constitutional implications of the clash with Standing Order No. 46?
§ Mr. speaker
Everything that appears on the Order Paper is carefully considered and I am satisfied that the motion is in order. I have already told the hon. Member for Southend, East(Mr. Taylor) what he should do if he does not like it.