HC Deb 23 July 1997 vol 298 cc967-70 4.26 pm
Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My concern is that I discovered that the Scottish press had been enabled to get hold of copies of the Dearing report at 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon. The report was embargoed until this afternoon. I have no doubt that equal opportunities were given to the London and English press. I do not object to members of the press having an advance copy so that they can write a sensible article about it; I am suggesting that Members of Parliament are equally trustworthy and that we could get embargoed copies, so that we could make intelligent comments and so that when, for example, I am asked to speak—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Mr. Gorrie

In my case, the Scottish media are interested in a Scottish reaction to the Dearing report. They had copies of it and I did not, which seems to be unreasonable. I suggest that, in future, Members of Parliament should be regarded as being as trustworthy as journalists and should be given embargoed copies of such documents.

Madam Speaker

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. It is intolerable when a Member of the House is asked questions by a journalist about the contents of a Government document that has been made available to that journalist on an embargoed basis and is not available to the Member.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, who is new to the House, that it has been a long-standing and accepted practice that advance copies of Government documents are issued to the press on an embargoed basis, as he says himself, in order to assist them in their subsequent reporting. The terms of the embargo do not permit the press to make other use of the document in advance of its availability to the House.

It seems to me from what the hon. Gentleman has said that in this case, the terms of the embargo have not been respected. That will no doubt be as much a matter of concern to the Secretary of State as it is to me. Ministers are being let down by the press when they do not respect an embargo. It happened with the previous Government; it is now happening with this Government. The Secretary of State will no doubt wish to consider the implications of this incident for the practice of advance release on an embargoed basis. In any event, he might consider what action should be taken in respect of the journalist concerned.

Mr. Tarn Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Do you intend to bring your statement to the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland? Tomorrow's publication of the devolution White Paper could be the litmus test of what you have said to the House.

Madam Speaker

I hope that those on the Government Front Bench, whose job it is to bring my remarks to the attention of Secretaries of State, will do precisely that.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. First, may I welcome the strong line that you are taking in protecting the House from Government statements being leaked before they reach the public domain? The point that I wish to raise, of which I gave you notice but to which I do not expect an answer today, relates to the same matter.

Yesterday, the No. 10 press office gave a full briefing that a new Cabinet consultative Committee was to be set up, that Opposition Members were to be on it, and that they would be subject to the Official Secrets Act. No statement was even due to be made today on the matter. Whether the idea is good or bad is a matter for the parties concerned, but it greatly affects the position of the House of Commons, where there are really only two categories of Member: Ministers who represent the Government; and Members of the House who are members of the legislature. If the Government can co-opt members of the legislature and give them private information on a wide range of issues, are they any longer an Opposition able to enjoy the rights of opposition? That is the point that I want to make. I am not talking about the merits of the matter, but simply saying that we now have a semi-move towards a coalition, even though we are told by the No. 10 spokesman that this does not involve collective Cabinet responsibility for Liberal Democrat Members who are invited to serve on the Committee.

This point may seem remote, but I do not believe that it is. First, I believe that it is of great importance that statements of that kind should be made to the House. As you will have heard when I asked the Prime Minister this question earlier, I looked up the precedents and found that, when Liberals were brought in before, the Prime Minister of the day made a statement in the House. I cited the two cases of which I knew. Secondly, in what way can you take account of the fact that the Liberal Democrat spokesman may well be asking questions with knowledge not open to others, but which he cannot disclose to the House or even to his own colleagues, because he has acquired that knowledge through contact with the Government of the day?

I do not expect you to respond, Madam Speaker, but this is another issue on which a vigorous defence of the House against the Executive, the press and everybody else is required.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

My point of order, of which I have given you notice, Madam Speaker, is similar to that of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Clearly, the decision to include Liberal Democrats on a Cabinet consultative Committee means, in effect, that Liberal Democrats are moving from the Opposition Benches to the Government Benches. That has an important impact on the role and status of Liberal Democrats in this House. For example, when they seek to catch your eye, should not they be treated as Government Back Benchers, and when they seek places on Committees of this House, should not they be treated as sitting on the Government Benches?

The matter goes further. Who represents the minority parties? Surely not the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who is in effect on the Government Benches. Indeed, it goes even further than that. For example, there are the questions of Short money and of party political broadcasts. That is a matter on which you, Madam Speaker, might wish to summon a Speaker's committee so as to ensure that allocation to Liberal Democrats came out of the allocation that would otherwise go to the Labour party.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I am happy to listen to points of order. One day we might have a debate on these matters.

Mr. Forth

I welcome your advice, Madam Speaker. Following the point of order of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), may I ask whether you were consulted before this rather unusual and, as far as I know, unprecedented step was taken? Was your advice sought with regard to the implications for the House of what is apparently being done in terms of the status of Members of Parliament and political parties in the House? If not, certain rather arrogant presumptions seem to have been made by both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, taking the rest of us—perhaps including you, Madam Speaker—entirely for granted.

Madam Speaker

There is no need for any Government to consult me on such a matter. The relationship between the Government and another political party is not a matter for me, nor do I think that it is a matter that requires a statement to the House. However, I have noted the points of order raised by hon. Gentlemen, as no doubt have Ministers. Perhaps at business questions tomorrow, other hon. Members may seek to catch my eye, so that they may put questions to the President of the Council.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Further to the point of order of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), Madam Speaker, of course there is an issue as to access to Government facilities. If the matter is to be debated or listed for the public and the House, I hope that you, Madam Speaker, will ensure that all the facilities to which the official Opposition have access—cars for the leader, civil servants in the Whips Office and additional resources—are listed. We are happy for resources available to Opposition parties to be listed.

The two points that must be recorded clearly are, first, that I have not said anything to suggest that a constructive dialogue with the Government is not available to all parties, if they ask for it and if they are willing to come to an agreement about it. Secondly, for all the years that I have been in the House and longer, facilities have been afforded in different ways by different Governments to Opposition parties and funded by the state. We would rather have access to information than access to goodies.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Further to the point of order relating to the statement, given that the Dearing committee set up a special sub-committee to examine the position in Scotland, given that there were only two lines relating to Scotland in the ministerial statement, and given that the grant system in Scotland has always been in the purview of the Scottish Office, rather than of the Department for Education and Employment, may I ask whether the Secretary of State for Scotland has applied to make a statement on the Dearing report?

Madam Speaker

The simple answer is no.

Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have just been to the Vote Office to get a copy of the Dearing report, and I am told that only a 54-page summary will be available to hon. Members from the Vote Office. It is a pretty skimpy summary. Those of us who want to study the full report during the recess expect to be in our constituencies, not in London. I was told that the only way of seeing the full report was to go to the Library. I hope that I have been misinformed, but if that is correct, I hope that you will make it clear that the Dearing report will be available through the Vote Office to hon. Members in the usual way.

Madam Speaker

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is correct. I know that up to 1 o'clock today 250 copies of the summary were available in the Vote Office, but I would expect the full report now to be available. I will see to it when I leave the Chair, when I am allowed to. It is right that the full report should be available to hon. Members.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm, on the basis of reports that you have seen, probably in the media, that the debate going on about the position of the Liberal Democrats is being wildly exaggerated? They will not form part of the Executive. They are simply being drawn into a forum where they are being consulted. As a Member, I cannot see what is difficult about that proposition.

Madam Speaker

That is not a point of order for me, and I am a wise enough Speaker never to make comment about media comments.