HC Deb 16 July 1990 vol 176 cc685-90 3.38 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since the House last met, a very senior and, we hear, much-loved-by-the-Prime-Minister member of the Government has resigned in the most disgraceful circumstances, due to outdated xenophobia.

You have just ruled that the House cannot debate the matter under Standing Order No. 20. The Prime Minister has neither the guts nor the candour to come here and make a statement. There ought to be circumstances, through either those procedures or other procedures of the House, in which the Opposition have the opportunity to cross-question the Prime Minister about this state of affairs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) has made clear, British Ministers are currently embarked upon exercises to try to restore the credibility of the country and the Government in the European Community, NATO and elsewhere. Ought we not to have an opportunity to discuss this matter? Will the country understand that these matters can be discussed in Brussels and Strasbourg but not in the House of Commons when the Prime Minister, who has a duty and responsibility to build up the reputation of the country in a widening and developing Europe, displays attitudes of bigotry and malevolence?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Allow me to put my view on this matter. I have to take into consideration all sorts of matters when taking decisions on Standing Order No. 20 applications. One of them is other opportunities that the House may have for discussion. There is such an opportunity tomorrow at Prime Minister's Question Time and possibly an opportunity later this week on an Opposition Supply day.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Even if it is not within the knowledge of the shadow Leader of the House, is it not within your knowledge that the Prime Minister will be submitting herself to cross-examination in this place tomorrow and the new Secretary of State will be submitting himself to cross-examination by the House at Question Time on Wednesday? Is it not further the case that Wednesday is an Opposition Supply day when they could perfectly well choose to debate this matter? Indeed, many Conservative Members hope that the Opposition will choose to debate this issue on Wednesday.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, I also submitted a request for a debate today on grounds not dissimilar from those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), but he was chosen first to make his application. These are completely new events that have come to light since the House last met. There is the document and the resignation. This is a day, as has been said, when the Foreign Secretary is speaking for us in Brussels, and tomorrow the future of Germany is to be discussed.

It is always open to the Opposition to use their Supply days, but this is an immediate occasion when all the news media in the world are allowed to discuss the issue but not the House of Commons. With great respect, Mr. Speaker, we have surrendered our legislative power to Brussels in many respects. Now, evidently, we are to surrender our right to be what we were originally—the great forum of the nation.

I beg you, Mr. Speaker, to defend the right of Parliament to have a voice. There are many different opinions on both sides of the House on these matters; there is not unanimity on the Conservative Benches or on the Opposition Benches. It is not true to say that the only choice is between nationalism and federalism. There are people who take a wholly different view about the future of Europe. It is all very well to say that we can cross-examine the Prime Minister for 15 minutes tomorrow or that the Opposition can change their business for Wednesday when we are supposed to be discussing care in the community. Dare I say it—I demand that the House be allowed to express a view when its survival is at stake and when the media are concerned with what may be exciting but secondary matters compared to the function of the House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman is correct: the public may not understand the criteria laid down under Standing Order No. 20—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nor do we."] Hon. Members do understand the criteria and they also know that I am precluded by the Standing Order from giving the reasons for my decision. In fact, they have been stated by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow).

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). An important point arises from the seminar which was held on the racial characteristics of the Germans.

For the past 20 or 30 years, we have all been taught that there are no differences between the nations of Europe, that we are all the same, and that we must all become as bland and as similar as possible. The seminar was based on the proposition that there are distinct racial characteristics and that, from time to time, the nation states may represent a threat to each other. We may have heard such statements in private discussions—rather like kids going behind the bike shed for a smoke—but no one has heard them in public. We are all so shocked by the revelation that there are such things as nation states that perhaps my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will explain why she talked privately about such wicked things.

Mr. Speaker

That may be so, but it is not a matter for me.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Hon. Members will face a difficulty if we try to find out precisely what happened at the seminar. I hope that you can help the House. I think that, if hon. Members tabled questions to find out what advice was tendered at the seminar and whether the leaked reports were correct, the Table Office would refuse to allow them on the ground that they were about advice tendered to Ministers. If we wanted to ask questions about what the entire resources of the Foreign Office were telling the Prime Minister about the state and characteristics of Germany, and if that advice were completely different from and much better put together than the advice at that extraordinary seminar, we would not be able to table questions because it would be ruled that we were asking about advice tendered to Ministers.

As it is now apparent that the Prime Minister is seeking some extraordinary advice and is looking mainly for advice that confirms her prejudices, this leaves a gap which makes it difficult for us to challenge what is going on. I wonder whether in some way we can be allowed to table questions on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

That is a hypothetical matter at the moment. If the hon. Member were to table questions, we would look at them.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may have noticed that Her Majesty's Opposition have allowed the Leader of the Opposition to leave the country to travel to the United States on an official visit. Will you confirm that, traditionally, a leader of a major political party who is travelling abroad never indulges in attacking the Government and Prime Minister of his country? Is there anything that you can do to remind the Leader of the Opposition of his responsibilities?

Mr. Speaker

I am responsible for order in the Chamber, not for what any Member of Parliament says when he is away from this place.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The unusual feature of this matter is that yesterday the Foreign Secretary discussed on television a memo of a Cabinet meeting at Chequers. He did not deny it but went through it point by point. It is outrageous that the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister do not come to the House so that we can discuss that matter and the resignation of the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has asked to make a statement tomorrow. The House should be allowed to discuss these matters today.

Mr. Speaker

I have no authority to order the Prime Minister to come to the House, but she will be here on Tuesday and Thursday this week and on Tuesday next week.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is an unusual turn of events and the House would like to discuss them. As I understand it, there will be an opportunity to do so on Prime Minister's questions and a further excellent opportunity to do so on Wednesday, which is an Opposition Supply day. Should we not ask why the Opposition will not take advantage of that excellent opportunity?

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You decided, as is your right, not to allow the Standing Order No. 20 request; but many hon. Members have friendships with people in the Federal Republic of Germany and feel grossly embarrassed by the insulting language used by the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. In the absence of the opportunity for the House to debate the issue, can you make it known to Dr. Rita Süssmuth, the president of the Bundestag, that the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) are held not by anything like a majority of Members of the House?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting the president of the Bundestag, but I met the East German Speaker this morning and had a conversation with her. I shall be visiting Berlin and Bonn during the summer recess—in a private capacity.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Most unusually, I rush to the assistance of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). My right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) gave the House a graphic warning about the way in which its powers were being taken away by the unelected reject politicians of the Berlaymont building. We know that the Conservative party has a coherent European policy, agreed by all members of the party; we are Europeans and we want to do the right thing, sensibly and cautiously, with regard to Europe.

If we had a debate on this subject, the Opposition would be able to bring forward the myriad strands of their policy on Europe. We know that Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen go grovelling for the nearest crumbs from the Commission's table, whereas the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield take a diametrically opposite view.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The minutes of the meeting held on 24 March were confirmed by the Foreign Secretary when he was interviewed yesterday. As I understand it, if a document comes into the public domain it should be placed in the Library. There is no doubt that there was a meeting. It is somewhat of a surprise that the Cabinet discussed the national characteristics of other countries, but the meeting on 24 March was devoted to the German character. The document was leaked—rightly or wrongly. It has now been confirmed that such a meeting took place. Can you, Mr. Speaker, arrange for the minutes of that meeting and all supporting documents to be placed in the Library? If the document has been leaked and can be read in the press, surely we should be able to look at the minutes to see whether there is any conflict between what was leaked to the press and what was in the minutes?

Mr. Speaker

Our rule would preclude that. Our rule is relevant to state papers quoted in the House, but not to papers quoted on television.

Dr. Cunningham

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is my understanding that the Opposition, through the Leader of the Oppostion, would usually have the right to ask a private notice question in these circumstances. Will you consider—while my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is abroad winning friends for Britain and the Prime Minister stays at home sulking and losing friends for Britain—whether it would be possible for the deputy Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), to ask such a question tomorrow?

Mr. Speaker

The rule is clear. The Leader of the Opposition never puts a question on the Order Paper for oral answer, and if he submits a private notice question the factor of urgency is not insisted upon. That is clearly stated in "Erskine May", on page 297. No such privilege is automatically given to any other hon. Member.

Dr. Cunningham

That is what I am asking you to re-examine, Mr. Speaker, because my right hon. Friends and I are very unhappy about the circumstances in which Parliament is being denied the opportunity to discuss this matter. For all any Conservative Member knows, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition may have been ill at this time or so far away—as he is—that he is unable to return to Paliament in time. The Opposition's constitutional right is being denied. That is what I am asking you to examine, Mr. Speaker, and to report on tomorrow.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Allow me to deal with one point at a time.

I have already considered this matter in some detail this morning. I am quite clear that the concession—the privilege—that is given to the Leader of the Opposition, for the reasons that I have already stated, does not apply to any other hon. Member. Of course, the cause of the Leader of the Opposition's absence at any time—for illness or for any other reason—would be a factor that I should have to take into consideration. However, that does not apply in this case.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

If this matter is as important as the Leader of the Opposition says—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is."]—and if it is of such national moment, why has the right hon. Gentleman decided to go to America to sell his country short instead of doing what he would call defending his country at home?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that, although you cannot tell us the criteria for accepting an application for a Standing Order No. 20 debate, one of the considerations that would be uppermost in your mind would be whether it was a matter that could not be agreed between the usual channels? On this occasion, I think that we can safely say that the matter falls within that category. I expect that the chances are that Members of the German Parliament would have an opportunity to debate this matter if they wished.

As people are now complaining about the Common Market, many of us look forward to hearing why people such as the ex-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—and other Conservative Members, and perhaps even some Opposition Members—are now changing their views about the Common Market when we told them all this 20 years ago.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is always helpful on matters of procedure. I am, of course, very much in favour of the usual channels coming to agreements about the management of business in this House.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am sure that the whole house has sympathy with you, Mr. Speaker, in the problems that you face in dealing with Standing Order No. 20 applications. We know that you cannot give your reasons to the House, but today you almost suggested that a remedy lay in the fact that questions will be put to the Prime Minister tomorrow. I am sure that you will agree that the opportunity to ask four or five questions in 15 minutes is totally inadequate for dealing with an issue of this gravity.

When you have turned down Standing Order No. 20 applications in the past, you have, on occasions, stated that you might consider an application on the following day unless various things happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has said that there would be an opportunity for the usual channels to rearrange the business so that there would be a debate. Will you give careful consideration to whether, if such a debate does not take place, arranged by the usual channels, you might be sympathetic to a Standing Order No. 20 application being made tomorrow, on the basis not only of the grounds set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), but also because we have failed to debate the subject today?

Mr. Speaker

I consider every application under Standing Order No. 20 on its merits, but if tomorrow I were to grant a debate for the following day, I should be taking the decision away from the Opposition, whose day it is.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

Why are we beating about the bush? We all know what has been going on. I have no doubt that the people in Croydon feel just like my constituents in Ashfield. My ears are sore with listening to what has been happening in the past few days. The person responsible lives in the flat upstairs at No. 10. We want her to be here,. We want her at the Dispatch Box so that she can answer to Members of the House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker

I took the opportunity to go to my constituency on Friday and Saturday, and again yesterday where I heard many views expressed about the matter.