HC Deb 17 April 1996 vol 275 cc713-6


Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

On a point of order on the rights of Back Benchers, Madam Speaker. At column 509 of the Official Report of Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, in answer to my Question 2, the Prime Minister claimed that Sheffield city council had an uncollected debt of £558 million. In fact, the £558 million is the Government-approved borrowing requirement for housing, schools and other important things. He also said that Sheffield was a "rubbish" city council, because of its bad collection record, yet the Department of the Environment admits that Sheffield is second from the top of the big six, and has a collection rate of more than 90 per cent.

Madam Speaker

Order. What is the point of order for me?

Mr. Michie

Is it in order for me to continue and raise the issue—

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)


Madam Speaker

Order. Just a moment. Let me deal with one point at a time. The hon. Gentleman is over-anxious, as always.

If the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) seeks to make a point of order, it must be a matter of procedure for me to deal with.

Mr. Michie

It is.

Madam Speaker

Then tell me how I can deal with it.

Mr. Michie

It is a matter of misleading the House. The problem is that everything that the Prime Minister said was totally untrue. He should be asked to withdraw those remarks, and apologise to the House and the people of Sheffield.

Madam Speaker

As the hon. Gentleman and the House knows, I have no responsibility whatever for the content of answers given by Ministers at the Dispatch Box, but the hon. Gentleman has made a point and he must pursue it by other methods. He can do that by means of the Order Paper and in many other ways of which I am sure he is well aware.

Mr. David Shaw

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It has been a tradition of the House that, if a major inward investment proposal comes to this country, the Deputy Prime Minister or the President of the Board of Trade inform the House that that is the case. Can you account for the fact that no Government statement appears to be in position, yet there is an article in today's Times that suggests that hundreds of millions of pounds of inward investment are coming to the Hartlepool area?

It appears that a Member of Parliament on the Opposition Benches has been to the far east to get hundreds of millions of pounds for his area. Why is none of this money coming to other constituencies? We would all like some of that money. Could we not have a Government statement on the position?

Madam Speaker

I have not been informed that any Minister seeks to make a Government statement today. I do not always believe what I read in the newspapers. Newspaper people are often inclined not to spoil a good story with the facts.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I raise a point of order concerning the rights of a Back Bencher. Madam Speaker, you gently rebuked me during question time when I sought to raise a question about Mr. Raphael of The Economist. How can I, under our procedure, ask the President of the Board of Trade to defend this most monstrous assault on press freedom, and, in particular, to get an assurance from him that no gagging order or further attempts against The Economist will be pursued?

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman tried to put his question in a supplementary question on question 12 which dealt with Internet terminals. He should try to put his question in the correct order, in the usual way—through the Table Office—to the appropriate Minister.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I raise a genuine point of order concerning the procedures of the House and the ability of Back Benchers to correct misleading impressions that are given in oral questions. Madam Speaker, on three occasions recently I have given you notice when information that has been given in answers by Ministers from the Dispatch Box has been untrue or at least highly misleading.

You will recall that, yesterday, I asked a question on a serious matter involving 200 deaths from the drug paracetamol. The Minister said that there were 45 to 60 deaths. I checked with the Library, and it confirmed that my figure is correct—that there have been 220 net deaths from paracetamol alone, and that there have been 585 deaths in which paracetamol was involved. This is a matter of enormous importance. My figure is far removed from the Government's figure.

The matter that I wish to raise—I have asked the Procedure Committee to look at it—is whether we could have a period during our day in which we can raise these matters, not under bogus points of order—as occurs in other Parliaments throughout the world. We would have the opportunity to raise issues and to correct untrue impressions that have been given from the Front Bench—inadvertently or otherwise.

Madam Speaker

I have been present in other Parliaments where they have the use of zero hours, which I assume the hon. Gentleman is seeking. I would not recommend it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have not finished my response—I have been asked a number of questions.

The hon. Gentleman has followed the correct procedure, since he has referred the matter to the Procedure Committee. He also wrote to me following the answer to his question yesterday. He followed the right procedure by writing to the Minister concerned setting out the detail, giving what he believes to be the correct figures, and asking for a correction. Perhaps he should now wait for the Minister to give a response to that letter as he wrote it only yesterday.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Order Paper, where he can table further parliamentary questions on the matter. He can also use the Order Paper to put down an early-day motion if he feels that he has been unfairly and incorrectly treated.

Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) ought to pursue his point in a different way. It is a matter for you, Madam Speaker, and for the Procedure Committee. It is a matter of procedure rather than substance in this case.

There is an entirely new practice in this House, whereby senior Ministers, particularly the Prime Minister, rubbish local authorities without having had the courtesy to check with those local authorities on the facts. I cannot talk about the particular case of Sheffield, as you would rule me out of order. However, there is the general issue of the elected Parliament treating elected authorities with maximum discourtesy. I think that is a matter for the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Madam Speaker

As I said in reply to the original point of order, the Speaker of the House—as the hon. Gentleman knows, and as all hon. Members know—has no authority whatsoever in relation to the content of answers and speeches that are made in the House, including those made by Ministers. If, through the usual channels, the hon. Gentleman seeks—and the House wishes to have—a debate on this matter, it might be a good way of opening up the issue about which he is concerned.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central)


Madam Speaker

Another one from Sheffield.

Mr. Caborn

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) raised is important for the integrity of the House. Examples of the House being misled have been given this afternoon. Will you guide the House by saying that you disagree with such deliberate misleading, and that facts should be checked, because the House is being brought into disrepute?

Madam Speaker

I have made it quite clear that the Speaker has no responsibility for the content of answers given by Ministers. The Order Paper is there to be used. If hon. Members wish to make it plain in an early-day motion that they feel that incorrect information has been given, it is there for them to use it to gain publicity and to press for debates on those matters. That is the only way to pursue such points, unless hon. Members want to refer the matter to the Procedure Committee.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you deprecate the suggestion that the House was deliberately misled, because that is out of order?

Madam Speaker

I certainly deprecate that, and it is not the case. Ministers, as well as hon. Members, are responsible themselves for the comments that they make here. It is certainly untrue that the House was deliberately misled yesterday. I would have deprecated it at the time had I thought that that was the case.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have not the exchanges involving my hon. Friends from Sheffield shown once again that the Government would not recognise the truth if it was sprayed on their eyeballs?

Madam Speaker

I do not recognise a point of order there, so we may proceed.