HC Deb 19 April 1995 vol 258 cc222-5

4.5 pm

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish to raise with you a matter of which I have given you and the Secretary of State for Home Affairs notice. It relates to the proceedings of Standing Committee B on immigration and border controls on 22 March 1995, and the way in which the motion that was agreed by that Standing Committee was unilaterally amended, without advance notice being given to the House or to hon. Members attending the Committee by the Home Secretary.

That is a slightly complicated issue, as you know, Madam Speaker. I shall do my best to deal with it briefly.

The 29th report of the Select Committee on European Legislation recommended that the issue of European immigration and border controls was so important that it should be debated on the Floor of the House. The Government chose, for reasons of their own, not to debate it here but instead to send it upstairs to Committee. There, on 22 March, a vigorous debate did take place. A motion tabled by my hon. Friends was defeated by six votes to seven, and the Government motion was approved without Division.

Everyone assumed, in the terms of the face of Standing Order No. 102, that that motion, approved by Standing Committee B, would come before the House unamended and would then be voted on forthwith.

On 6 April, the day after the House had risen, I received in my mail—and I was there when it was opened—a letter from the Home Secretary's private secretary, to say that the Home Secretary had decided to amend the motion of Standing Committee B in three particulars.

Because of the way in which the letter from the private secretary is phrased, I assumed at least that I and other Members attending that Committee would be given advance notice of the Government's intention, but I subsequently discovered that the amended motion had been tabled on the Order Paper on 4 April, and had been nodded through without debate on 5 April.

The Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household (Mr. Greg Knight)

Where were you?

Mr. Straw

The Whip asks, where was I? In spite of the fact that I assiduously check the Order Paper every day, there was absolutely no indication on the Order Paper that the motion from Standing Committee B had been amended in the way that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary had proposed.

My point of order to you, Madam Speaker, is as follows. First, is it in order for Ministers to act in that way, unilaterally amending motions from Standing Committees? Secondly, even if it is in order, would you agree that it is unacceptable to treat hon. Members in the way that the Home Secretary treated hon. Members on both sides of the House, by ensuring that no hon. Member was given notice until after the motion had gone down? Lastly, would you accept that, if that practice is ever exercised again, there must be on the face of the Order Paper a clear indication that the Government are changing the terms of the Standing Committee's motion?

Madam Speaker

The matter raised by the hon. Gentleman is covered by Standing Order No. 102(9).

What has happened in this case may be unusual, but it is clearly within the terms of that Standing Order. In fact, the Standing Order does not lay down that the motion tabled in the House must be the same as that agreed to in the European Standing Committee. It does lay down that the motion in the House, and any amendment selected by the Speaker, has to be put forthwith without debate.

The procedure is, in fact, not unprecedented, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is flawed, or that it has irregularities, he may wish to ask the Procedure Committee to have another look at it in case of any future occurrence. Perhaps he will consider that very seriously, and adopt that course of action.

Mr. Straw

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I am grateful to you—my final point comes directly within your remit, not that of the Procedure Committee. Would you be willing to make it clear that, when Ministers act in that way, they should ensure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are told in advance?

Madam Speaker

I think that the hon. Gentleman and the House knows that I am always in favour of the House knowing precisely what is taking place in the House and in Standing Committees. I ask Ministers to give full notice to the House and those involved of what action is being taken.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

On a slightly less controversial point of order, Madam Speaker. May I express the relief which is no doubt shared on both sides of the House that you managed to escape from the mud of Morocco? You may well find that the mules that came to your rescue by swimming the river were easier to handle than some of the Members of Parliament.

Madam Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I returned in good form, as she is no doubt aware.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have here a letter from the Secretary of State for Scotland which has been circulated to a large number of individuals in the Perth and Kinross constituency. It states: Until a successor is elected, the hon. Michael Forsyth MP has been asked to represent your interests in Parliament. Can you confirm that, under the terms of our procedures, no one but an elected Member can represent a constituency in Parliament?

Given that it is now two months since the vacancy occurred, would it not be a better idea if the Government moved the writ for the by-election and let the people of Perth and Kinross choose who is to be their Member of Parliament, rather than attempting to foist the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) on an unwilling population?

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that no one can represent a constituent in Parliament unless he or she is an elected Member. Whatever arrangements may be made locally in the area or by political parties are not a matter for the Speaker of the House.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

You will know, Madam Speaker, that for some time I have been attempting to get the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, my private Member's Bill, into Committee. That has now been achieved, and the Bill will be in Committee next week. But that is not the end of the procedural problems I face. You will also remember that last year, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill faced considerable problems on the Floor of the House, which led to criticisms of two hon. Members in particular.

Following the conclusion of the Committee stage of the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill, the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) did not, as he was entitled to do, select this Friday for the Report stage of his Bill. Instead, he chose the following Friday—the fifth Friday, the final Friday, for the Report stage of private Members' Bills.

If my Bill, which is going into Committee next week, were able to complete its Committee stage in that time, I could have asked for it to be dealt with on Report on that Friday, so that it could then go to another place. That now becomes unlikely, as my Bill will be placed in second position by the actions of the hon. Member for Rochford. That is as serious as the blocking measures that took place last year, and is part of a procedure that has been taking place in a number of Committees, including Standing Committee C, in order to prevent other Bills from making progress.

Are the matters that have taken place in Standing Committee C, especially in connection with the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill, in order? If they are, are such practices seen as acceptable, or should we look for another method, so that private Member's who do well in the ballot, and whose measures are well supported in the House and in the country, are given the opportunity for those measures to be debated and voted on in the House?

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Let me respond to the point of order.

I think that I understand what the hon. Gentleman is concerned about. As far as I am aware, what has taken place in Standing Committee C is perfectly in order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the delay being experienced by his Bill. I can tell him honestly that there is virtually nothing that I as Speaker can do. He and other hon. Members in the House are well aware of the ways and means of getting things done and not getting things done in the House. It is matter for the business managers of the House. If I can help the hon. Gentleman, I shall certainly try to do so.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sure that the whole House wishes to thank you for what you have just said. I think that you will recall that the House did not distinguish itself last year when we witnessed the disgraceful behaviour of the Government Front Bench and of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland).

The Government are clearly manipulating the functions of the House for a third year so that they can block the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. There is no reason why the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) could not have put his Bill, which left Committee this morning, before the House on Friday. That would have allowed the House to consider both his Bill and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). Is it not an absolute abuse of the Parliament for the Government and their supporters to behave so shamefully in stymieing civil rights for disabled people?

Madam Speaker

I believe that I have answered the earlier point of order. Whether manipulation has occurred is not a matter for the Speaker to determine. Bills must take their turn when going into or coming out of Committee, and we are all familiar with the procedures of the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A few moments ago, you responded to a problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) brought before you, by saying that you would deprecate the way in which Ministers were using the parliamentary system.

In view of the Jopling changes and the complications surrounding the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and other legislation, do you agree that it seems a little odd that the Government have never tackled the question of Private Members' Bills in the House? Do you not think that a little word from you in the right direction might make a difference? If changes are to be made, perhaps under new Labour—new, improved Labour—we ought to turn our attention to doing something about that problem, which affects honest-to-goodness Bills which aim to help disabled persons, wild animals and so on.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Member is well aware that I cannot concern myself with the politics of a Private Member's Bill—or even a public Bill, for that matter. I am concerned about the procedures of the House: I want to help the House in general, and I want to help hon.' Members, who work very hard on their Private Members' Bills. In the end, it is a matter for the business managers, and I will do all I can to be helpful.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your advice following a report which appeared in this morning's edition of the Financial Times. It stated that British Gas will lose its chartermark for high quality services unless it improves customer relations. The report also said that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster does not intend to come to the House to make a statement about the matter, but will report to the House by providing a written answer.

In view of your earlier comments about protecting the interests of hon. Members and of the House, I wonder whether you could provide some advice as to how we might persuade the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to come to the Chamber to answer questions about the matter.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Member may use the Order Paper to direct questions to the appropriate Minister. I am not sure whether he is aware that it is entirely up to the Minister concerned whether he answers a question by way of a written answer or comes to the Dispatch Box to make an oral statement. The Minister must determine by which method he will inform the House of any policy changes or statements he wishes to make; it is not for me to decide.