HC Deb 25 March 1991 vol 188 cc722-4 10.45 pm
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I regard this as a fundamental and serious point of order. Is it a breach of the procedures of the House for the Minister for Roads and Traffic to circulate a letter to the member of European Standing Committee A—as he has—saying that he will not place before the House an amendment passed unanimously by that Committee on 13 March?

To my knowledge, this is the first time in the 900-year history of Parliament that a Minister has declined to report to the House of Commons a decision arrived at unanimously by a Committee, and has done so through what appears to be a misinterpretation of a new rule, Standing Order No. 102, approved by the House of Commons on 22 January this year.

Our 13-member Committee unanimously passed a very minor amendment saying that, in our view, an EEC proposal was contrary to article 75 of the treaty of Rome, because it included road safety within the competence of the Community. We felt that there was no doubt about the matter: the Select Committee spelled out—stated quite sincerely—that the Minister had asserted that, while Community competence was undisputed on vehicle standards, it did not extend to pure safety measures that had little or no relevance to the Community's primary objectives.

It has always been the practice of the House that, if a Committee comes to a decision, it reports it to the House of Commons, which can then either accept or reject it. Surely it is a complete breach of the house's procedures for the House not to be told what the Committee did. We have just set up these Committees, allegedly, to give proper scrutiny to EEC legislation. Our Committee sat for two and a half hours, considering the issue carefully and came to a conclusion. Surely it makes nonsense of democracy, and our procedures, for the House not to be told what we have agreed.

If this were some spurious point advanced by one or two members it would be understandable; but, after two and a half hours of debate, Conservative, Labour, Ulster Unionist and other Members all agreed. I appeal to you, Mr. Speaker. This has never happened before in the history of Parliament. Surely we can prevent what appears to be an abuse of a new rule.

If we want to change the position, we can put down an amendment to the Government motion, but if we do that there can be no debate, and no explanation to the House of why we reached our decision. All that will be possible is a vote at the end of business. This is a breach of democracy and a breach of privilege. Something must be done, or we may as well shut up shop.

Mr. Speaker

I have received a copy of the letter to which the hon. Member has referred. I refer hon. Members to Standing Order No. 102(9), under which the Government are free to table a motion in connection with any European Community document. As the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) has pointed out, hon. Members are free to table any amendment to such a motion. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman give that course of action very serious consideration.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Member who leads for the Opposition on European Standing Committee A, I have to express grave concern about the situation to which the hon. Member for Southend East (Mr. Taylor) has drawn attention. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Committee debated an amendment at length, and ultimately agreed it unanimously. The Minister for Roads and Traffic at least had the courtesy to send us a copy of his letter to the Chairman of the Committee; otherwise, we should not have known that the motion agreed to by the Committee had been changed. To spot the change, we should have had to scrutinise the Order Paper.

It makes nonsense of the procedure of any Committee to spend time debating issues and coming to decisions if those are not the decisions that are put before the House. Of course, the Government have the right to move an amendment. Committees are taking the place of the House in scrutinising important European legislation. These Committees are new, and if the Standing Orders are wrong, they should be amended very speedily.

The current position in unsatisfactory and unacceptable. The procedure should be quite clear. If a Committee comes to a decision, that decision should be incorporated in the motion before the House. Any change should be the result of an amendment accepted by the House.

Mr. Speaker

I do not disagree with what the hon. Member has said, but I am bound by the Standing Orders. The hon. Member ought to approach the Leader of the House, who is monitoring the new procedure, with a view to having changes made.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You, Sir, have cited Standing Order No. 102, as amended on 22 January 1991. Surely the words If any motion is made in the House must be read in conjunction with paragraph (8), which deals with procedure in the Committee. That paragraph ends with these words: The Committee shall thereupon report to the House any resolution to which it has come, without any further question being put. Surely the motion that should be put to the House is the one to which the Committee has agreed after its deliberation.

Mr. Speaker

The Committee has reported to the House. The hon. Member must read on. Under paragraph (9), the Government may put down any motion. I accept what the hon. Member has said. This is a new procedure, and the matter that has been raised needs to be considered, but I am bound by the Standing Orders as printed.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Standing Orders are intended to ensure that we follow the proper procedure. One thing that has to be protected is free speech. I do not think that any Committee of the House has unanimously agreed the wording of a resolution and reported it to the House, only to have a Minister change it before debate on the Floor of the House. If the practice is not to be protected by the Chair, the House of Commons is in great danger.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Lady knows well where my sympathies lie. However, I am bound by Standing Orders as they are printed.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. It seems that the difficulty in which the House finds itself, and in which you may find yourself, is that the technical reporting of a conclusion of a Committee, which may be on an amended motion, is placed on the Table. The Standing Order is as you have stated, and the Minister is left to table a motion. The understanding during the discussion which preceded the Standing Orders was that the Minister would table the motion that was passed by the Committee. I think that you have put your finger on the nub of the issue in saying that the Standing Order permits what the Minister has done, but that that was not the understanding of the House when the Standing Orders were approved.

Mr. Speaker

It is clear that these matters need to be further considered. The occupants of the Opposition Front Bench should perhaps discuss them as a matter of urgency with the Leader of the House.

Mr. Devlin

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I have already heard the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Devlin

I am sorry to trouble you again, Mr. Speaker, but may we be clear whether an amendment tabling the original words as agreed by all members of the Committee would find favour in being discussed on the Floor of the House in due course?

Mr. Speaker

I cannot announce my selection before I have seen the amendments.