HC Deb 21 July 1997 vol 298 cc703-6 4.19 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have given notice of this point of order to you and to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. May we have some clarification of the procedures of the House? Following requests from hon. Members from all parties, you have commented in recent weeks about the way in which the Government impart information in respect of their decision making which would lead to primary legislation being taken on the Floor of the House.

May I draw your attention to the fact that the Dearing report—which is due to be published this week—was the subject of much media comment at the weekend, particularly in respect of students' tuition fees? In particular, the Radio 4 news bulletins at 8 am and 9 am yesterday stated clearly that the Government have confirmed that they intend to end the principle of free higher education for all and that Ministers have accepted the Dearing review. The bulletins gave the Government's response to a report which has not yet been brought to the House.

If parliamentary procedures are to be changed and such information is to be made available to hon. Members at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning on Radio 4, I can assure the House that members of Her Majesty's Opposition are ready to man their radios. However, this seems to be a contradiction of the way in which such matters have been brought before the House in the past, and I should be grateful for your clarification.

Madam Speaker

I am ready to respond to the hon. Lady, whom I thank for giving me notice of her point of order. I, too, have carefully examined the media reports to which she referred. It seems clear to me that these were based on very heavy briefing on the contents of a report which, as she points out, has not as yet been published and on the likely ministerial response to it.

The practice of briefing in advance of a ministerial statement by Whitehall sources or ministerial aides has been current for quite a long time. My impression is that, over the past 20 years, it has progressively developed to the point where the rights of the House are in danger of being overlooked. The House is rightly jealous of its role in holding Ministers to account. If it is to fulfil its function properly, it must be the first to learn of important developments in Government policy. I deprecate most strongly any action taken that tends to undermine this important principle, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising her point of order today.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Further to the point of order that I raised with you on Friday, Madam Speaker. Have you had any indication from the Government that they are to make a statement on the reported sale of Hawk jets to Indonesia? It is important that such a statement should be made before the recess so that we are aware of the precise situation, which appears to show a contradiction in Government policy.

Madam Speaker

I have not been told today that any Minister is seeking to make a statement on that matter. I clearly recall the hon. Lady raising a point of order with me on Friday, and I am aware of her keen and continuing interest in this matter. Perhaps I might advise her that if she has an opportunity to do so, she might apply for an Adjournment debate before the House rises. There may still be time for that.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In answering my points earlier, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said that I had had the White Paper some hours before he rose to deliver his statement. For the purposes of clarification—and to raise a wider point—I should say that I had half an hour to study the White Paper before he stood up and that I received the statement itself two minutes before he stood up. This makes it difficult to respond in a satisfactory way, and I hope that that will be dealt with satisfactorily by a Government who are prepared to listen to these concerns.

Madam Speaker

I see that there is a Minister from that Department on the Government Front Bench. Perhaps he did not hear the beginning of the right hon. Gentleman's comments, but I am sure that note will be taken of them. The point that was being made was that Opposition Front-Bench Members are receiving White Papers and statements rather late in the day, which gives little opportunity for them to prepare their response.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

On a separate but connected point of order, Madam Speaker, arising from questions to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. There are questions on the Order Paper today, not least No. 3, from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), which relate to the millennium, yet the Minister without Portfolio has not been present in the Chamber. I have received a written answer from him to say that he would answer oral questions on matters within his responsibility, in which he specifically includes matters to do with the millennium.

The Minister without Portfolio has not, as far as I know, been in the House to answer questions since 1 May. He has a large budget, he clearly has a lot of power behind the scenes, and he has specific responsibilities for matters that were answered this afternoon—most ably, no doubt—by the Secretary of State. I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker. There is a danger that the Minister without Portfolio is bypassing the Chamber and Parliament and acting in a way that is discourteous to you and to the House.

Madam Speaker

It is not a matter for me which Minister answers questions at the Dispatch Box. There is something known as collective responsibility, and any Minister from that Department may answer questions.

I see the Secretary of State. Is he trying to raise a point of order?

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The questions on the Order Paper today were about the millennium in general; I have responsibility in the Government for the overall celebration of the millennium. If a question is specifically about the exhibition at Greenwich, it will be answered by the Minister without Portfolio. Indeed, had we reached a question much further down the Order Paper, he would have been here to answer it.

Madam Speaker

I have the Official Report for 7 July, in which, at column 324, the Minister without Portfolio says that he will answer questions on the millennium dome.

Mr. Baker

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Question No. 18, which I tabled, was specifically about the millennium dome, and we had a reasonable expectation that we might reach it.

Madam Speaker

Order. As the Secretary of State said, we did not reach it. It would be nice sometimes if we could get to Question No. 18. I constantly press ministerial Departments to reach questions that are further down the Order Paper. If we had reached No. 18, the Minister without Portfolio would have answered it.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You may or may not be aware of many credible sources that now claim that The Scotsman newspaper will publish on Wednesday morning details of the Government's White Paper on devolution for Scotland, a full day ahead of its publication and availability to Members of Parliament. Given what you said in answer to a previous point of order, would not such a deliberate leak in advance by the Government be quite contemptuous of the House and, given this advance warning, does it not fall on the Government to use all their facilities to ensure that such a publication does not happen before the House receives properly the Government's White Paper?

Madam Speaker

I take seriously the point of order that the hon. Gentleman is making, although it is hypothetical. I have no information that any newspaper will publish such information. If it intends to do so, there is nothing that I, as Speaker, can do to stop it. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. It is for the Government, who may well wish to take out an injunction. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence—and one needs evidence—may I suggest that he presents it to the President of the Council?

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. First, I declare a financial interest, as I have three daughters currently at university who would, of course, be affected by the leaked proposals to raise additional moneys by loans for tuition fees.

We are about to discuss the Education (Student Loans) Bill, yet we have had leaks over the weekend about proposals on student loans of which the House does not have official knowledge. How can we have a proper debate in the House on that important issue when the Government have leaked information to the press and told everyone else but the House? Surely it would be out of order to speculate what will be in the Dearing report on Wednesday as it has not been published. This debate ought to be postponed until we have seen that report.

Madam Speaker

I have done my best to deal with that matter, which was raised earlier. We must get on with the debate.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), you made it clear that you deprecated what had happened over the weekend in connection with the Dearing report. In the past few moments, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has come into the Chamber. Given what you said in your ruling, I wonder if he will take the opportunity to launch an inquiry in his Department as to whether it is true—as reported by the BBC's education correspondent—that Ministers had accepted Dearing's argument and decided on a certain course of action and whether it is true that Ministers gave the BBC that briefing over the weekend. In the light of your ruling, if it is true, the Secretary of State should come to the House to apologise for that fact.

Madam Speaker

I am not prepared to allow debate on that matter. The House has heard how strongly I deprecate those very heavy briefings, given either by Ministers, civil servants or Ministers' aides. I think that that stands in Hansard and I am sure that it will be read by people in the Department concerned and other Departments, who know how much I totally disapprove of what has taken place in the past few days.