HC Deb 07 July 1992 vol 211 cc274-5 10.12 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker, relating to the manner in which Secretaries of State present reports to Parliament. You may be aware that, last August, the Secretary of State for Transport published a report by the marine accident investigation branch into the "Marchioness" tragedy. It precipitated some controversy, because of the nature of the report and its failure to mention six accidents involving the dredger "Bowbelle". Subsequent parliamentary questions and requests led the Secretary of State to appoint a Mr. Hayes to report on river safety in general.

That report was published today. I had given evidence, and had tabled a question asking when the report would be published. This afternoon the Secretary of State for Transport published an extensive press release relating to the report, a copy of which is in the Library. I understand that the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, Lord Caithness, has given television and radio interviews on the subject.

According to the press release, Mr. Hayes recommended that there should be an early review of the rescue arrangements and equipment on the Thames. The Government has given careful consideration to the recommendation but has concluded that further review of this kind would not be justified. My point of order is that, having asked the question as to when this report would be published and having submitted evidence to the inquiry, neither I nor the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who is the constituency Member concerned, was informed about this report, or about the press conference, or about the statement that is in the Library. We were told about it by, ironically, Thames Television. If a report is made to Parliament, it is surely made to Members of Parliament. In particular, it should be available to those who have some concern about and knowledge of this matter, as well as to the generality of hon. Members. I ask you, Madam Speaker, so to rule.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I confirm everything that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has said. He and I have discussed the issue since these matters were drawn to our attention early this evening. There is no difference between us.

The points that I should be grateful if you would also consider are these. First, when any hon. Member tables a question that specifically asks about the publication of a report that is either known to be or is believed to be imminent, is it a proper procedure or an abuse of procedure for a planted question subsequently to be tabled so that the question is then asked by somebody who has no constituency or previous interest in the matter? That appears to be a breach of the traditional link between a constituency Member, or a Member with a wider interest, and the Department concerned.

The second matter relates to the sequence of events once a decision has been made to produce a report to Parliament. I understand that there may have been an appropriate time of day when that report could be published, but, like the hon. Member for Newham, South, the first knowledge I had that the report had been published today was a telephone call to my office at about 5.30, two hours after it had been confirmed by Thames Television that it had been published. I was out of the House. I asked that inquiries should be made of the Department as to the contents of the report. The anwer that was given to my assistant was that that information could not be divulged because a press conference was at that very moment going on. I had to wait until after the press conference was over before I was allowed to have the information contained in the press release that had been issued earlier in the day.

There have been similar sequences of events on other issues. I hope that you, Madam Speaker, will feel it appropriate, either now or at an early opportunity, to rule on the proper procedure so that all Departments and all Members can believe, on behalf of those whom they represent, particularly in the case of tragedies such as this, that the proper procedures have been observed. I hope, too, that an appropriate apology will be made regarding what has happened today.

Madam Speaker

I take the view that those Members who are directly involved in such incidents should be the first to be informed when there is any statement to be made, but I also take the view that I am biased in favour of this House in its entirety being informed when the Government have something to say to the House and that statements of such a nature should not first be made outside it. We in this House have the right to know first.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not know whether you witnessed the quite disgraceful incident that took place on the previous vote. What I saw—it may be confirmed by a large number of colleagues—was two Opposition Members trying to get through the door after you, Madam Speaker, had ordered it to be closed. What then followed was the attendant—doing his duty as the servant of the House—trying to hold the door closed while those two hon. Members tried to force it open. They were not able to do so, but only after a protracted struggle and, no doubt, a great deal of energy having been expended by the servant of the House who was following your orders. One of the most disgraceful aspects of this incident is that those hon. Members who are sitting on the Opposition Front Bench saw this incident, but have not seen fit to come to the Dispatch Box and apologise for the behaviour of those two hon. Members. I respectfully ask, Madam Speaker, that, having seen that incident yourself, you will do something about it, because it is totally wrong that such an incident should go unredressed.

Madam Speaker

I sit here very quietly and watch what goes on at the door once a Division is called. I saw precisely what happened tonight. Members who were going through the door did so in a very leisurely fashion, and I feared that they would not get through in time. However, hon. Members know the rules of the House, and there is nothing I can do about that, other than, when I instruct the Doorkeepers to close the door, to see that they obey my instruction. I deprecate the incident that occurred tonight when two Members forced their way through the door. I hope that this is the last time that I shall sit in this Chair and see anything like that happen. The Doorkeepers are, like me, servants of the House. We all know the rules. Let us now proceed with our business.

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