HC Deb 20 February 1990 vol 167 cc786-8 3.56 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you notice. Question 74 in my name on today's Order Paper was submitted to the Department of Health on 6 February, but I discovered that it had been transferred to the Northern Ireland Office. I told the Table Office that that was wrong, but I was informed that that was the Department of Health's decision. I pursued the matter, and I have finally received an apology today. It is ridiculous that. if a Northern Ireland Member who takes an interest in the affairs of the kingdom writes to a Department, the matter can be referred to the Northern Ireland Office. Is that, intentionally or unintentionally, another attempt to make Northern Ireland an appendage of the Kingdom rather than a full party to it?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order, because it has enabled me to look carefully into the matter.

As the House well knows, I and my predecessors in the Chair have frequently ruled that the transfer of questions from one Department to another is a matter for Minister, and that the Chair cannot intervene.

However, on this occasion, the Department of Health has clearly recognised that it made an error in transferring the hon. Gentleman's question to the Northern Ireland Office, since it has reappeared on today's Order Paper addressed to the Secretary of State for Health in its original position in the shuffle.

I understand also that Question 135 from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was about to be transferred in error to the Secretary of State for Scotland, but it was kept after representations from the hon. Gentleman. Question 142 from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) was similarly transferred to the Secretary of State for Scotland without apparent justification, and has not been re-transferred.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has not in the end suffered from the erroneous transfer, but it does appear that the Departments concerned, in particular the Department of Health, have not taken sufficient care over the transfer of questions which hon. Members have a right to expect. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has received an apology from the Department of Health.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order relates to the Education (Student Loans) Bill, and it is one of which I gave brief notice to you and to the Under-Secretary of State with special responsibility for higher education.

Last night, the Secretary of State for Education and Science issued a press statement announcing that he might amend the Bill to force or coerce university and college authorities into what he described as "co-operating" with the administration of the already discredited student loan scheme. That would mark a further major departure from the scheme's administration as approved by this House.

As the Secretary of State must have contemplated that idea for many weeks, do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that the right hon. Gentleman has yet again shown contempt for this House, by waiting until after the Third Reading before making his announcement, and by making a press statement rather than a statement to the House? Have you received any intimation whether the Secretary of State intends to make a statement to the House, as he should?

Mr. Speaker

I have not received any such intimation—and I am, of course, aware that the Bill is currently under consideration in another place.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House will be aware of the dastardly attack made on the Father of the House at the weekend. He is not at all well today, and cannot take his usual place in this Chamber. Would it be in order for you, Mr. Speaker, to send him, on behalf of the House, good wishes for his health and for his speedy return?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the whole House shares the hon. Lady's sentiments. I sent the Father of the House a message on Monday, but was unaware that he was so unwell today. I shall do as the hon. Lady suggests.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the news to which my point of order refers only broke after 12 o'clock, it was not possible for me to table a private notice question on the decision by British Steel to close Ravenscraig, the steelworks in my constituency, for another week from 25 March. Such a decision, arising from a short-term reduction in demand, greatly angers the steel workers and the public in general in Scotland, and is capable of gross misinterpretation if Ministers cannot be called to account immediately and make a statement. Has the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry or the Secretary of State for Scotland sought leave to make a statement, to allay any misunderstanding that might arise?

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) makes a very good point. The production pause to which he refers is a bad decision, dictated by short-term considerations. I emphasise to you, Mr. Speaker, how important it is for the Government to keep the House informed of developments. A great deal of anxiety is felt about the future of the steel industry in Scotland.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the remarks of both hon. Gentlemen will be conveyed through the usual channels.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I refer to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner). You will be aware, Sir, that the incident at the Royal Albert hall last Saturday night involved acts of violence against several right hon. and hon. Members. During the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), a smoke bomb was thrown, and various flour bombs were thrown throughout the proceedings—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Those events took place in another chamber—the chamber of the Royal Albert hall. I share the hon. Lady's concern, but they are not strictly a matter of order for this place.

Miss Widdecombe

My point of order, Mr. Speaker, is that those incidents were part of a picket by a group called the "Stop the Amendment" campaign. Various hon. Members are closely associated with that campaign. Do you, Mr. Speaker, think that it is honourable conduct for hon. Members to be associated with such a campaign?

Mr. Speaker

If anything of that kind occurred in this place, I would take a very poor view of it.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Further to the points of order raised by the hon. Members for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) and for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), Mr. Speaker. The whole House will have been disturbed that the most senior figure in this House, the Father of the House, was left after a cowardly attack on Saturday night with his arm in a sling and with a blackened eye, having been pushed to the ground and his head crushed against a lamp post. He had been explaining to a perfectly proper public meeting the details of a Bill currently before Parliament.

That must certainly be a matter for you, Mr. Speaker. Are you prepared to call upon the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to investigate that incident? Do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that it has implications for right hon. and hon. Members who go about their proper duties in pursuit of parliamentary democracy and who, in the course of doing so, are subject to thuggery and intimidation? Surely that cannot be right.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the whole House will judge that to be an absolutely reprehensible episode. However, I cannot have responsibility for the safety of Members when they are outside the Chamber. Of course I have great concern for the Father of the House. As I have already said, I have sent him a message, and I shall do so again today.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to what the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) said, obviously all hon. Members deplore what happened at the weekend. However, surely it cannot be in order for the hon. Lady to stand and impugn other hon. Members of the House and to say that somehow they endorsed or had some knowledge of the attack that took place, or knew that it was going to take place. That is to impugn the integrity of those who happen to disagree with her. Surely she should withdraw that imputation?

Mr. Speaker

I think that we had better get on with the Opposition day debate.