HC Deb 11 May 1994 vol 243 cc321-6 3.30 pm
Madam Speaker

In view of the current comment surrounding the matter, I have decided to take the unusual step of informing the House of my decision on a privilege complaint that I have received relating to the statement in the House made last Friday by the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott).

My function in such cases is limited to deciding whether or not the matter should have the precedence accorded to matters of privilege. In the light of developments since I received the complaint—as a result of which the House is in possession of the facts and has received an apology—I have concluded that I would not be justified in myself granting precedence for this matter's further consideration. My decision in no way limits the right of hon. Members to pursue other ways of raising this matter.

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

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As I understand the ruling that you have just given, your decision as to whether precedence was given was determined by the fact that the Minister concerned made an apology to the House of Commons and that, in your view, the House is now in possession of the facts.

I put it to you, Madam Speaker, that a precedent has been set whereby Ministers can now come to the House of Commons and deliberately mislead the House in the knowledge that, if they are subsequently found out, they can come before the House and provide the House with the facts as they believe them to be. If that were to happen, contempt would no longer be of any relevance to the Commons. In fact, the last application for contempt may well have been brought, in so far as you have now opened the door for Ministers deliberately to mislead the House in the knowledge that they can simply apologise to the House.

With all the respect in the world to you, Madam Speaker, I have to say that I find your ruling utterly astonishing. It is of grave concern to many of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker, which relates to the previous one, but, in a sense, casts a whole new light on the affairs of last Friday.

I ask you, Madam Speaker, to look at the transcript of two radio programmes from this morning on which the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Social Security appeared. Their remarks throw a whole new light on what happened last Friday in the House. We on this side of the House believe that you should scrutinise those remarks because your decision today may have to be changed in the light of the revelations of the Leader of the House. What they said about how business in the House is manipulated as common practice was quite astonishing, and it goes against any tradition of private Member's business in the House.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Minister concerned is one of the most respected Ministers at the Department of Social Security that we have had, and he is recognised on both sides of the House as a great friend of the disabled. He came to the House and said that he did not knowingly mislead the House but that now, realising that he may have done—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is obviously trying to be helpful, but I must deal with these points of order. We cannot have a discussion about the matter.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Other cases of possibly misleading statements to the House have been raised. Have you anything to say about the role of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland)? Would not it be in the interests of the House if the Prime Minister were now to ask the five hon. Members to cleanse the Order Paper of the amendments, which we now know were not drafted by them, so that the Bill can make some progress on 20 May?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Arising out of your statement, it now seems apparent that Ministers are so arrogant—as they have been in power for 15 years—that they think they can get away with anything. They have now become judge and jury in their own court.

You should re-examine the evidence which has been given to you because, at some point, the Government have to be stopped in their tracks. As Speaker, you ought to bear in mind that you do not represent the Government; you represent everybody in the House, including Back Benchers.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Given that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has support from a clear majority of hon. Members who have signed early-day motion No. 2, that it has clear support from every organisation of disabled people outside the House and that the Government have provided assistance to their Back Benchers to sabotage it, what assistance can you give me to ensure that the motion passed by the House on 29 April calling for time to be provided for all the remaining stages is implemented?

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Was not the argument of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) slightly unworthy—I use the word carefully, as I have a high regard for the hon. Gentleman—by suggesting that any hon. Member would take a position on a Bill or a statement which he knew he could correct by an apology later? I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can really have meant that, and I do not think that that would happen.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I will not allow the House to get into a debate on the matter. I am dealing with serious points of order; we will not have a debate.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

Further to the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), Madam Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) to mislead the House—which I think was disgraceful—without coming to the House to make a statement?

Several hon. Members

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I will deal with all these points of order, but I hope that they will now be rather speedy.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I refer you to Monday's Hansard? The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I would like to make it absolutely 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."—[Official Report, 9 May 1994; Vol. 243, c. 23.] In view of what was said by the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People yesterday, the hon. Lady's statement cannot possibly be accurate.

As the Bill, which would have given aid to disabled people, was lost last Friday as a result of lying and cheating by the Government, should not further time be provided? It would be quite wrong if people who desperately need the measure which is being advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) were to be denied their rights purely and simply as a result of cheating and lying by Ministers.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. You know what lies at the bottom of these exchanges—the relationship between the activities of Tory Back Benchers and the private Members' Bill procedure. You will probably also know that my Bill, due for debate on Friday this week and unopposed on Second Reading, now has 108 amendments and five new clauses tabled to it. What protection do Back Benchers have from obvious Government interference in our time for getting legislation through the House?

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Did the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) notify my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) that he intended to mention her? Furthermore, should he have been allowed to use the word "lying", which I heard him say?

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Arising out of your response to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)—

Madam Speaker

Order. I have not yet responded to any point of order.

Dr. Reid

I am referring to your response to the letter that he sent you. May I comment on the implications of that response for the future?

As I understood it, your statement that you felt you should no longer play a part in this matter—although other options are open—was based on two premises: one, that events have moved on since you received the letter, which they certainly have; and two, that we have heard a personal statement, which means that the facts have been laid before the House.

I believe that the facts have not been laid before the House. For the House to ascertain facts, propositions purporting to be facts must be open to question and to criticism. Your statement today implied that a personal statement from the Dispatch Box, which cannot be questioned or criticised and thus cannot establish any facts, can lay such a matter to rest. That will be used as a precedent by future Speakers, who may say that the facts have been laid before the House in this way.

In response to the points made today, may I ask you to reflect further on this specific point, because I fear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington said, that your statement may undermine our rules of contempt?

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you have taken into account the procedure rules for Ministers which, in paragraph 27, state that Ministers have a duty not to mislead the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has made it clear in a letter to me that if Ministers knowingly mislead the House they should resign.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In an earlier point of order, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) said that his Bill had a great deal of support. Can you confirm that one of the reasons why the Bill did not make progress last Friday was the fact that 100 Members were not present in the House to vote for the closure?

Is it in order for Opposition Members to question your rulings in this shocking manner?

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)


Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)


Madam Speaker

Order. I shall take just two more points of order on this matter.

Mr. Flynn

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You are the defender of the rights of Back Benchers and the custodian of the reputation of this House. We all take pride in the quality of the democracy in this country. During the past couple of weeks, Bills that should have been fully discussed, without time limits, have not been discussed because spoiling amndts have been tabled, such as the 108 tabled in an attempt to wreck the Tobacco Advertising Bill.

Is there not a grave danger that our reputation abroad may be sullied and that the charge could be levelled—I do not make it myself—that hon. Members are abusing their elected office to further their own ambitions and financial interests?

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

No. I am not taking any more points of order.

Mr. Tony Banks


Madam Speaker

I will hear Mr. Banks.

Mr. Banks

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Since the whole House knows that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) is scarcely capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, it beggars belief that she could have drafted any of the amendments. It appears that she is in Malawi at the moment. Do you have the power to call her back so that she can answer the very serious points that are being raised?

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)


Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)


Madam Speaker

Order. I think that I have the flavour of the House. I do not want to curtail this, although it is not a debate; these are points of order to me. I will take points of order from two hon. Members—one on either side of the House—and that is all.

Mr. Alan Williams

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In the ruling that you gave, you made two points: first, the possession of a fact; and, secondly, the receipt of an apology. May I make the point to you, Madam Speaker, that possession of a fact may in no way exonerate what those facts reveal? You have not said "because of the facts". It is simply because they have been revealed. Our contention is that the facts still indicate that the House was deliberately misled.

Therefore, what you are in danger of doing—quite unintentionally, I am sure, because I know of your concerns for the rights of Back Benchers in the House—is establishing a precedent under which merely giving the facts, even when they are self-condemning, then apologising for the fact that what one did was wrong, in itself exonerates an hon. Member from further action. I think that that ruling needs reconsideration.

Sir Anthony Grant

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. When you come to respond to all these points of order, will you reiterate that it is the long-standing custom and tradition of the House that a personal statement made by a Minister is heard without question and without debate? Will you further emphasise that attempts to get around that tradition and custom by the use of bogus points of order is an abuse of the House?

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As someone who was here on Friday, I was upset by what happened, as are hon. Members who have intervened and who were not here on Friday. I accept what my right hon. Friend the Minister said. I am prepared to let things stand as they are. He is an honourable man; he has made a statement. I think that the House should accept it, and we should take it no further.

Madam Speaker

As the House knows, a personal statement should be heard in silence and not questioned later. As for hon. Members who believe that a new precedent is being created, that is not the case. I hope that there are no such incidents in future, but if there are similar incidents, of course, I will look at each case and determine it on its merits.

As far as the radio transmission is concerned, I have not heard it, although I am a keen radio listener. I shall certainly call for a recording of it.

The activities and comments of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) have been mentioned today. May I remind the House that only yesterday the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) raised a point of order with me, saying that he would be writing to me on the matter, because he believed that it was a question of privilege. I have not yet received any correspondence relating to that. [Interruption.] Order. This is a serious matter.

Other hon. Members have raised, in various ways, the question of the legislation, because they are now concerned about its future. The House will understand that the progress of legislation is not a matter for the Speaker; it is a question for the usual channels and for negotiations on the future of the Bill. Of course, hon. Members are well aware of how they can pursue the matter.

As far as the Prime Minister's actions are concerned, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) cannot hold me responsible for any actions that he might or might not take. I have sufficient responsibilities of my own in the matter.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

He is not responsible for his own actions.

Madam Speaker

Order. I am the custodian of the interests of the House. I have taken this decision— [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley makes light of a good many things. I take this matter very seriously indeed.

I have come to a decision about this after a great deal of consideration. As to precedents, I have seen a good deal of documentation. The decision has been made. It is mine and mine alone. My decision in no way limits the rights of hon. Members to pursue other ways of raising the matter.

May I end on this note? Sometimes—very often nowadays—the House becomes very bitter in its exchanges. We would do well to respect the different political parties here, and to respect each other. I ask hon. Members again to remember the words of "Erskine May", because we rely so much on that volume: Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language. I hope that we shall watch our language in all our exchanges in the future.