HC Deb 13 April 1994 vol 241 cc209-11 3.30 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek your help on a matter that concerns all hon. Members? It is the general question of how on earth Members can question Ministers about what they are negotiating in the European Union, and what arrangements and agreements they have reached. In particular, has the Minister of Agriculture given you notice of a statement on what was agreed—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

On fishing.

Mr. Harris

Indeed—on fishing in the Fisheries Council in Luxembourg yesterday. That is a matter of prime importance to fishermen in the south-west and all around the coast, yet we have no knowledge whatever of what was agreed. There are conflicting reports in the media.

Will you, Madam Speaker, use your great office to impress on Ministers the need to report regularly and promptly to the House on such matters? Moreover, should we not look at the great gap in our procedures which means that we cannot get at Ministers effectively immediately before or after such crucial negotiations?

Madam Speaker

I have a good deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am sure that those on his own Front Bench have heard it. May I refer him to written question 117 today, which may partially answer his point? Perhaps he can take the matter from there and pursue it through parliamentary questions.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

As I have now dealt with the matter, there is nothing further to say. As far as I am concerned, it is now finished. We do not continue points of order in debate.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I rise on a point of order, Madam Speaker, to ask your assistance on a matter that concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House. At 2.30 today, you announced, in accordance with normal practice, the death of a good friend of ours, Bob Cryer. Members do die from time to time, but there is no opportunity, save for famous Members of the House, for tributes to be paid.

In three weeks' or a month's time, the Chief Whip will move, That Madam Speaker do issue her warrant to the Clerk of the Crown for a by-election in the room of Bob Cryer. The matter concerns not just him, although it occurs to me now as he was a good friend of mine over a long period. But it would be friendly if the House could find an opportunity at 3.30 so that, when our colleagues pass away, Members who knew them well can stand up and say something about them. Will you consider that, because it would be in line with the feeling of hon. Members?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Mr. Skinner—does it relate to this matter?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Yes. May I raise just one additional point to what my right hon. Friend has just said? Only a few months ago, a statement was made—it was on the agenda—about the retirement of the head Librarian. Various people took part in paying compliments to the head Librarian.

I should have thought that, taking a line through that, it would make a lot of sense, in the case of people like Bob and others, for those who wish to pay him a compliment to be able to do so. Will you also consider, Madam Speaker, the precedent of making a statement regarding somebody's passing away, like Bob's, after Question Time when the House is full?

I do not think that the current procedure is quite appropriate; I have always considered that to be the case. I think that, if you take on board that suggestion and the one advanced by my right hon. Friend, it would suit everybody in the House on future occasions.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

On the same point of order, Madam Speaker. I associate myself, from the Government side of the House, with the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I am sure that you are aware that there are too few House of Commons people who are prepared to challenge the establishment and the Executive. Bob Cryer was one of those people, and the House will miss him. I hope that there will be an opportunity to pay tribute to a very distinguished parliamentarian.

Madam Speaker

I am pleased to hear such remarks from both sides of the House. The House will be interested to know that I have been approached privately by a number of hon. Members in the last few hours about this matter. It is a highly sensitive and emotional matter and I hope that the House will allow me to reflect upon it. I think that I have caught the spirit and the feeling of the House in the last five minutes.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that, on 29 March, the Prime Minister made a statement about various undertakings which had been given by the Commission of the European Communities in respect of the treaty of enlargement. The next day—the 30th—it was reported in the press that Mr. Delors had said, "No, no, no." I took the opportunity of asking the Foreign Secretary—the question appears in column 921—how he reconciled these matters, and he said that the assurances had been "reconfirmed".

I then put down a written question, which was replied to today and appears in column 20 of the current Hansard. The hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), a Minister in the Department, replied to my question concerning these undertakings: how they were written down, where they could be seen and by what means this reconfirmation had been made.

The answer he gave is as follows: The additional confirmation from the Commission to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred in his oral answer on 30 March took the form of contracts between his office and the office of Mr. Delors. That is strange, because the rest of the answer states: The undertakings in the social field announced by my right hon. Friend … were oral assurances and are not recorded in the documents. They will not therefore be incorporated, in whole or in part, in the draft treaty."—[Official Report, 12 April 1994; Vol. 241, c. 20.] I therefore infer, hope and believe that the word "contracts" should have been "contacts"—there may have been a telephone call. I ask you therefore, Madam Speaker —quite apart from the use of the prerogative which may be involved—whether that was so, in view of the great importance of these matters to the House.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. It is just a question of one word. The word that was used was "contracts", whereas the word that should have been used was "contacts". There is a world of difference between the two, and the amendment is now being made.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall, as I am sure the House does, the great importance that the Prime Minister himself attached to these assurances given by the Commission during his statement to the House on 29 March. We now know that those assurances were given in an entirely oral form. Surely it is right that the House should have a record of those oral contacts so that we can judge for ourselves just how binding, in practice, they may turn out to be.

Madam Speaker

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, that is of course a much greater matter than a simple slip of a word. If he wishes to pursue the matter to which he refers, he must do so through the usual channels.