HC Deb 14 November 1991 vol 198 cc1246-8 4.23 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given notice of my point of order to you and to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who is in his place. It relates to the Education (Schools) Bill which is due for its Second Reading next Tuesday. Page 382 of "Erskine May" concerns the citing of documents not before the House and makes it clear that a Minister may not read or quote from a despatch or other state paper not before the House, unless he is prepared to lay it upon the Table. It is well known that the Education (Schools) Bill, which seeks to privatise the schools' inspectorate, is a matter of great controversy. The Bill is based partly on an internal review of Her Majesty's inspectorate which the Secretary of State has refused to publish. I disagree with his refusal, although I realise that he is entitled to take that position. He says that it is a confidential document.

That document was today leaked in part in The Independent and the newspaper also contained my allegation that the Secretary of State may have misled the House in relation to figures that he quoted last week in the House. Normally, when Ministers face the problem of leaked documents, they refuse to make any comment on the content of the document or, sometimes, on its existence. In doing so, they maintain clear security from the contents of page 382 of "Erskine May". In this case, the Secretary of State has today issued a public statement disputing various parts of the report in The Independent and he has sought to quote from other aspects of the internal review which he has said is so far confidential. If I may——

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is not a point of order. It would be more correct to raise the matter in debate. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here earlier, but a question on the matter was raised with the Leader of the House during business questions and he answered it. It is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Straw

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, you may wish to take time to consider the point of order and it is, indeed, a point of order. By his statement today, the Secretary of State has shown his readiness selectively to quote from the review outside the House. Hon. Members of all parties may wish to quote inside the House next Tuesday what the Secretary of State has said. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will no doubt wish to quote from the report. In those circumstances, and given the readiness of the Secretary of State to quote from the report outside the House, surely it is incumbent on him now to lay the report on the Table. It is a point of order for you, Mr. Speaker—although you may wish to take time to consider it—because page 382 of "Erskine May" makes the position absolutely clear. If a Minister wishes to quote from a report or state paper, he must lay it on the Table.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I will explain briefly to you, to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and to the House why the hon. Gentleman is mistaken in what he has just said. I announced to the House in reply to a parliamentary question that we were carrying out the review of Her Majesty's inspectorate. I made it clear that it would be an internal review carried out by my officials and that it would remain confidential on the usual basis that advice to Ministers remains confidential.

As the hon. Member for Blackburn correctly said, there appears to have been an unauthorised leak to The Independent——

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

As opposed to an authorised leak?

Mr. Clarke

Not an authorised leak, but a very unauthorised one.

Not surprisingly, I have commented on the newspaper article. My comments address the article and point out that the proud possessor of the leaked document has drawn some fairly ridiculous conclusions from what he had in front of him.

The question whether I misled the House has been raised. The hon. Member for Blackburn has previously bandied about the numbers. He refers to numbers that were put forward for the size of the inspectorate, which The Independent says come from the review carried out by officials on the basis of their proposition. I have given the House the figure of 175 members of Her Majesty's inspectorate, based on the opinion of the senior chief inspector and myself about the number of people required to carry out my policies. The independent, all-powerful HMI needs 175 people to carry out its duties. That figure remains accurate and perfectly straightforward. I have not misled the House in any way and the hon. Member for Blackburn should not make such ridiculous statements.

Mr. Speaker

I think that this is all part of the debate that will take place next week. It is not a matter of order for me. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is."] I repeat that it is not a matter of order for me. It has absolutely nothing at all to do with me. I did not issue the document.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

We are entitled to seek your advice, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has been quoting from the report and the rules in "Erskine May" are clear—if Ministers refer in the Chamber to documents or to reports, they should table them. Is not the best way to clear up the matter in the interests of the Secretary of State and of parents whose children will be affected—of whom I am one—for us all to see the report?

Mr. Clarke

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish that the Opposition would at least listen to what I say. The hon. Gentleman will find that I did not quote the report, and I advise the Opposition to concentrate not on nonsense in The Independent but on the policy of the Bill which will be debated next Tuesday. It will create a stronger and more powerful inspectorate and will introduce regular reports to parents on the results of its inspections. The Opposition should stick to the issue rather than to silly legalistic nonsense.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a simple fellow, I seek your ruling on a simple question. If it is in order for a male member of the House for the most honourable reasons to take his dog into the Division Lobby—the dog looking after him—why is not it in order for a female hon. Member to take her baby into the Division Lobby? After all, hitherto at any rate, women are the only things that bear babies.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not responsible for such matters. I think that I shall leave it at that.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice on early-day motion 142 which has been tabled by 17 Opposition Members and which criticises my conduct in an issue in my constituency. Are we to allow a situation to arise in which two local councillors, one of whom will be my opponent in the general election, can instigate on the Order Paper without any investigation an early-day motion that criticises me and which is signed by 17 Opposition Members, none of whom has taken the trouble to talk to me about the rent rises—[interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will allow the hon. Gentleman to finish.

Mr. Hind

If that is to be allowed, it will mean that, with his colleagues, every Conservative candidate for a Labour-held seat could initiate early-day motions that could equally be signed in ignorance by Conservative Members and we shall have 650 early-day motions every day. They would blight the Order Paper and abuse the system. Is not it time that the matter was sorted out and that members of the Opposition talked to other hon. Members instead of stabbing them in the back for political purposes?

Mr. Speaker

I deprecate the use of the Order Paper for personal attacks on hon. Members, but the early-day motion involved was in order. If it had not been in order, that would have been brought to my attention by the Table Office but that was not the case. We had better proceed.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice on this morning's Hansard. I refer to columns 1061–78 and to oral questions. Some Scottish Back Benchers have every sympathy with your earlier strictures on the need for Front-Bench spokesmen and Ministers to offer concise answers to questions. If one reads the exchanges between the Front Benches, one sees that that is where most of the time was taken up. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, at the beginning of Scottish Questions next month, to remind Front-Bench spokesmen and Ministers of your earlier strictures.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has done that himself. In the interests of Back Benchers, I must stress that lengthy questions and answers from the two Front Benches take time from the Back Benchers, and I hope that that will be borne in mind.