HC Deb 25 July 1990 vol 177 cc500-3 5.49 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you and the Secretary of State for Education and Science brief notice. It concerns the rights of Parliament in respect of its duties to protect the public purse and to ensure that there is no abuse in expenditure of money voted by Parliament.

You, Mr. Speaker, will be aware that a detailed code of conduct has been laid down by the Cabinet Office in relation to expenditure on Government publicity. For example, paragraph 2(c) of that code says that Government publicity should not be, or be liable to misinterpretation as being, party political. Paragraph 2(d) says that it should be produced in an economic and relevant way. Paragraph 5 says: it is no less crucial if government publicity is to remain acceptable within the conventions, that it avoids any doubt about its purpose". Paragraph 6 states: Image building, whether explicit or implied, whether by Government as a whole or by Ministers, is not acceptable. Paragraph 10 says: in each case, those responsible must be able for the purposes of the expenditure to give a persuasive reply to the following questions…Is it necessary to have a publicity proposal which goes beyond what can be achieved in the normal way (eg Parliamentary announcement, Ministerial speech, regular publication)? Annex A says: distribution of unsolicited material should be carefully controlled.

It has come to my notice that the Secretary of State for Education and Science has had printed and distributed 76,500 copies of a little pink book which, according to the front, contains A summary of messages from recent speeches by the Rt. Hon. John MacGregor, OBE, MP, the Secretary of State for Education. The cost, which will have run into thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money, plainly breaches the code.

Moreover, it comes oddly from a Secretary of State who in February made a speech saying that he was taking measures to cut the burden of paperwork caused by the Education Reform Act 1988, and proclaimed that he had reduced the paperwork by 150,000 sheets, to allow 1,680,000 sheets of paper, paid for by the taxpayer, to be used in the production of such a booklet.

Given what I have read out from the code—that image building is not acceptable and that publicity, where there is any doubt about its purpose, is not acceptable—and given that the Secretary of State has already made those speeches and received a perfectly fair press in respect of them, there can be no doubt that the expenditure of thousands of pounds of public money clearly breaches the code. In addition, it smacks of the kind of the practice of some of the regimes to the east of Britain which have just collapsed.

I understand, Mr. Speaker, that your powers are limited, but Parliament has a duty to control such abuses of expenditure. As you are the guardian of Parliament's rights and duties, I put it to you that, before the House rises, the Secretary of State—not the Under-Secretary of State—must have an opportunity to come to the House to make a statement about how he came to waste thousands of pounds of Government money on what is explicitly party-political propaganda when cuts in education and schools are occurring throughout the country. The Government have clearly breached the dividing line between legitimate Government information and party-political propaganda.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. As he correctly stated, it is not a matter that I can deal with on a point of order. It is a matter for the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor-General. I am sure, however, that what the hon. Gentleman has said has been heard by those on the Government Front Bench, and we may hear more about the matter tomorrow.

Several Hon. Members

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

There is no point in saying anything further about it, because there is nothing that I can do.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I too have received complaints from governors, parents and teachers in my contituency about the booklet. I realise that this is not the time to debate the spending priorities of the Department of Education and Science which, to the consternation of my constituents, prefers to spend money on printing the Secretary of State's speeches rather than on textbooks for under-resourced schools. The Public Accounts Committee has recently recommended that accounting officers in Government Departments should not only consider the propriety of such publications, but record the results of their considerations. Is there any way in which we can discover the views of the accounting officer at the Department of Education and Science without waiting for the files to be opened in 30 years' time?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter of order for me. It is not a question that I can answer.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Is it a different point of order?

Mr. Madden

It is on the point that this blatant party political propaganda was unsolicited by the schools which have been deluged with booklets. I have received many complaints about schools having to charge playgroups for the use of facilities this summer because of the new budget arrangements forced upon them by the Government. They will be shocked and dismayed to receive thousands of copies of this party-political propaganda, for which they have not asked, at a time when playgroups and many other users of school buildings have been placed in great difficulty. As we are approaching the recess, is there any way in which, you, Mr. Speaker, can pass on the concern of hon. Members about the matter to the Public Accounts Committee so that at least some investigations can be made during the summer?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should do that himself.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is not a point of order."] That is for you to decide, Mr. Speaker, not for Conservative Members.

It is increasingly the case that the Government twist and cheat the taxpayer in the interests of their own party-political propaganda. This is only the latest in a series of such disclosures. It is a matter on which the House should have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Who has authorised this expenditure and how can it possibly be justified, especially at a time when many children in schools throughout Britain arc short of basic educational materials? I place the matter on the record because I hope that we can have your assistance, Mr. Speaker, in obtaining later today or tomorrow a statement from the Secretary of State so that the House can ask him those important questions.

Mr. Speaker

It is not for me to grant a statement. The Chair does not have that authority. As the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Gentleman's best course would be to have a word with the Leader of the House himself to see whether a statement could be made.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for me to complain that I have not had a copy of what is clearly a valuable document? I hope that the Secretary of State will send me one.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be pleased to know that it is a different point of order, for the simple reason that the Minister responsible for education in Scotland would be dead scared to send us a copy of his speeches.

You, Mr. Speaker, heard the exchange between the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself during his statement, in which he said that I owed him an apology. You, Mr. Speaker, know better than most that I am always pleased to apologise, especially when I am wrong. I wish to put it on record that if the Secretary of State had not withheld the information that I sought I would willingly have apologised, but he chose to withhold the information.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not wish to pursue the point about booklets which come more or less direct from Tory central office being published at public expense.

I assume, Mr. Speaker, that you have not received a request from a Minister to deal with the tense situation in the middle east and the military threat by the Iraqi regime against Kuwait, because had you done so there would have been a statement. As it is important that hon. Members on both sides of the House should express their points of view about this dangerous situation which arises directly from the criminal regime which rules in Iraq, has serious consideration been given to recalling the House at the first instant should the situation become more tense and the British Government decide to take action of any kind?

Mr. Speaker

I do not initiate a recall of the House during the recess, but no doubt what the hon. Gentleman has said will be taken into account if anything serious were to occur. In that event, I am sure that what he has suggested would happen.

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