HC Deb 09 May 1994 vol 243 cc21-3 3.30 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it not an abuse of the House for a question to be tabled on a Friday for answer on the following Monday when the issue is not an emergency? I refer to question 1167 on today's Order Paper, tabled by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva), in which he asks the President of the Board of Trade when he expects to be able to publish the consultative document on the opening up of the domestic gas market; and if he will make a statement. The issue is of vital importance to the millions of gas consumers, particularly those on low incomes, who are not likely to benefit, and those living in remote areas, whose charges will almost certainly rise. The issue has been the subject of great interest and controversy since last September, when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission first made its recommendation in a report on the domestic gas industry—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing Member of the House. He knows that he cannot make a speech on a point of order. Will he now come to his point of order for me?

Mr. O'Neill

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker. May I make the point—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—that the Government's first response was made on 21 December, after the House had risen? Thereafter, we expected a full statement to the House. Instead, the Government are hiding behind a written answer two days after the by-election defeats. It was delayed to avoid the elections, and has now been hidden from the gaze of the House and questioning by that technique. Is that in order?

Madam Speaker

To answer the last question first, it is perfectly in order. As the hon. Gentleman knows—I have made the point that he is a long-standing Member of the House—it is for Ministers, not the Speaker, to determine whether statements should be made by means of an answer to a written question or by an oral statement at the Dispatch Box. I have no authority in such matters.

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

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I want to raise an important matter, and it is very much a genuine point of order.

Madam Speaker

I thought that the last one was quite an important matter, too.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I am sure, but this is an important matter.

Last Friday, the House considered the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. After the debate was concluded, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who tabled a question to Ministers about help with the drafting of amendments, received an answer from the Leader of the House saying that amendments tabled on Tuesday 3 May 1994 were drafted by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. That means that all the amendments on paper No. 1295, Consideration of Bill, by four hon. Members—the hon. Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), for Bristol North-West (Mr. Stern) and for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh)—were tabled by parliamentary counsel.

That raises two very important issues for the House. First, in future will all hon. Members have access to parliamentary counsel when they wish to draft amendments? As I understand it, we are all equal in this House, and you, Madam Speaker, adjudicate on these matters. I want to know whether I and all my hon. Friends have that right.

Secondly, in light of the statement made by the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People in reply to an intervention of mine, when I asked him Have he or his Department been in any way involved in the drafting of any of the amendments or the new clause tabled by the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam", the Minister said: No part whatever in the drafting of any of the amendments and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody in my Department has been involved in the drafting of any amendments in this area."—[Official Report, 6 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 991.] That clearly suggests to the House that, if the Minister was not responsible for giving the instruction to parliamentary counsel to draft those amendments, and civil servants were not involved, four Members of this House must have extra-special control and influence over parliamentary counsel in their decision to proceed with the drafting of those amendments.

I wonder whether you, Madam Speaker, would establish who gave that instruction. Was it a Minister? At least then we will be able to establish where there is consistency in the answer given by the Minister, when I asked him about the arrangements relating to the drafting of those amendments.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Madam Speaker

Does it relate to the previous point of order?

Mr. Skinner

Well, it does, yes, but it relates to a slightly different point as well. As you will know, Madam Speaker, a week last Friday, the House carried unanimously a decision calling on the Government to give more parliamentary time to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. The Government seem to have totally ignored that decision. The Minister was completely wrong in his summing up in relation to that resolution. The point about the Standing Order should be drawn to the Minister's attention.

On the Friday in question, the motion that was passed called on the Government to give the Bill time. However, the Minister told us that the reason why the Standing Order was changed was to prevent the Government from giving time. That is totally wrong. The Standing Order was drawn up to stop motions being transferred into Bills and the House sitting over a weekend.

I therefore submit that, on that count as well, the Minister went beyond the Standing Order. That is why I am absolutely convinced that this matter should be brought before the House again.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

On the same point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

No, I think that I understand the feeling of the House on this matter. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) raised on Friday a point of order which was barely a point of order, and I answered him then.

However, in response to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), I believe that he is mistaken in some respects. Amendments were not tabled by parliamentary counsel. Amendments are tabled by hon. Members. [Interruption.] Just a moment. Hon. Members are, of course, free to ask Ministers for assistance in drafting amendments to Bills. However, if the hon. Member for Workington would allow me to consider precisely what he has said, I should like to look further into it.

Ms Lynne


Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)


Madam Speaker

No, I have dealt with that matter. We will now move on to the Orders of the Day. [Interruption.] Just a moment. I have dealt with the matter raised by the hon. Member for Workington, which I think deals with a number of issues, and I want to look at it.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)


Madam Speaker

Does it relate to that point, or is it quite different?

Lady Olga Maitland

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I would like to make it abundantly clear that I raise my own amendments. I sought consultation, but it would be totally unfair to suggest that they came from any other source. It seems that disabled people are being used as a political football for political purposes by the Labour party.

Madam Speaker

When I am very tolerant and sympathetic, the House runs into these problems. The hon. Lady has given an explanation. That is not a point of order. I think that we had better move on.

Mr. Alfred Morris


Madam Speaker

Does the right hon. Gentleman have a point of order that I can deal with, and not an explanation?

Mr. Morris

Madam Speaker, as you know, I very rarely raise points of order. What concerns me is that it may be necessary, before the outcome of your inquiry, which all of us welcome and appreciate, for a right hon. Member, and perhaps at least one hon. Member, to come to the House to apologise for having made what seem to many of us to have been misleading statements here last Friday.

They purported to make it absolutely clear that they drafted the amendments. We now have it from the Leader of the House of Commons that all 80 amendments that appeared on the Order Paper last Wednesday were drafted by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. They were drafted on Tuesday and tabled on Wednesday in the names of five Conservative Members.

Madam Speaker

I appreciate the point made by the right hon. Gentleman. As I said, I will look into the matter.