HC Deb 26 June 1991 vol 193 cc1005-6 4.13 pm
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. An important feature of this afternoon's debate is the revised draft treaty for the union of the 12 European Community states. Despite a question to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last week, the Library obtained the draft treaty, which is 134 pages long, only at lunchtime today from a private, unattributable source. I understand that the Foreign Office was unable to obtain clearance from Brussels to place that document in the Library.

As guardian of this House, Mr. Speaker, will you please write to the President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, and inform him that this House is elected by the British people to form this country's Government? That is still the case, and if there are draft proposals to remove the power from this country to Brussels, will Mr. Delors kindly ensure that we hear about them as soon as possible?

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I raised that matter in the House last Thursday and, with his usual courtesy, the Leader of the House sent me a letter, which I received today, saying that the document would not be available. However it has been in the possession of the Foreign Office since 20 June, and plenty of time has been available for it to be translated, placed in the Library and made available to Members.

It is an insult to this House that the very meat and substance of today's debate, which affects this Parliament and the people of our country, should be denied to this House until a few hours before the debate takes place. Surely that must be changed. It is a matter to be decided not by Brussels but by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the common practice of the House that, if an hon. Member or Minister refers to a document, that document must be laid? This is not the first time that this problem has arisen. In denying the House the document which is in his possession, the Foreign Secretary, not the Commission, is responsible for denying the House the information to which it is entitled by ancient right and practice.

Mr. Michael Grylls (Surrey, North-West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In support of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), I would point out that the only document available earlier was one dated 3 May, the early draft of a treaty which was marked on the outside as a non-paper—that was not very encouraging to hon. Members. That was the only document we had to work on until 1.30 pm today, and it is intolerable to embark on a debate in which we all want to be as well informed as possible with such short notice and inadequate documents that are out of date and have been wildly revised.

Mr. Speaker

I do not underestimate the seriousness of what has been said to me, but it is not in order for me to communicate directly with Mr. Delors. I shall be meeting the Speaker of the European Parliament in due course and will doubtless raise the matter with him, but this is an issue for the Government, not the Chair. If documents are known to be available when debates are planned, they should be made available to the House so that we can have an informed debate, but, sadly, that is not a matter for me. Nevertheless, I hope that what I have said will have been heard by those responsible.

Mr. Benn

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is in order for you, Mr. Speaker, to instruct the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is not a state paper.

Mr. Benn

I am sorry to return to this point, but with great respect, Mr. Speaker, it is an ancient practice of the House from time immemorial that, if a Minister refers to a document, the House must have it. This is an internal matter which has nothing to do with Mr. Delors. You are in a position to instruct the Foreign Secretary to make photocopies of the document available before the end of today's sitting.

Mr. Speaker

I think that the documents are now available, but before we have debates of such magnitude and importance, which are of great interest not only to hon. Members but to the whole country, we should have the relevant documents before us in good time.