HC Deb 05 March 1997 vol 291 cc911-3 3.58 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I should like to correct an answer that I gave yesterday in response to a question from the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston).

Referring to Bristol councillors' allowances, I said: They are raising their own pay by up to 66 per cent."—[Official Report, 4 March 1997; Vol. 291, c. 702.] I should have used the past tense.

According to a reply to a question to the chairman of Bristol city council's policy and finance committee, the increase in special responsibility allowances for 1995–96 was from £19,200 to £30,600. That is a 59.4 per cent. increase. A press report on that increase points out that annual allowances for the five chairmen increased from £1,200 to £2,000, which is a 66.67 per cent. increase.

I apologise, Madam Speaker. It was certainly not my intention to mislead the House.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will be aware of the controversy surrounding the remarks of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans), which maligned women in general but were particularly insulting to female Members of Parliament. Many hon. Members believe that his behaviour has brought the House into disrepute. Is there a relevant or appropriate Committee to which the matter may be referred in order to resolve it?

Madam Speaker

No. As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, there is no appropriate Committee of the House to which the matter could be referred. As Speaker, I have no responsibility or authority regarding speeches or comments made outside the House. My task is to keep my ears open for comments made in the House—and I think that I have enough to do in that regard without concerning myself with remarks made outside it.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My point of order concerns the rights of constituents to approach Members of Parliament. Some constituents who are concerned about the closure of the Rotherham benefits agency came to my surgery on Saturday, and I shall take up their case with the relevant Minister. However, I was astonished when they gave me a top-level circular that was issued to all Benefits Agency staff threatening them with disciplinary action or dismissal if they contacted Members of Parliament about the matter. I believe that the Benefits Agency director, Peter Mathison, should be made to come to the Bar of the House on his knees to apologise for that threat to the right of British citizens to contact their Members of Parliament. I seek your ruling, Madam Speaker, so that no constituents of mine or of any other hon. Member need fear contacting their Members of Parliament about any issue.

Madam Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me a little notice of the matter. Without necessarily commenting on a particular case, I confirm that I am strongly of the view that constituents should not be prevented by their employer or anyone else in a similar position from taking matters of public or personal concern to their Member of Parliament. The House and all its Members are here to represent the people, and we cannot do that properly if people's grievances and complaints are stifled.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), Madam Speaker, will time be made available for the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House about the disreputable remarks of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans)?

Madam Speaker

If a Minister wishes to make a statement, I have no alternative but to hear it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My point of order is not about the racist and sexist clown whose utterances have disgraced this House. Madam Speaker, like your predecessors, you have said on many occasions that statements about policy should be made first in the House. I draw your attention to the fact that today both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Social Security made very important statements about the future of the state earnings-related pension scheme that will affect millions of people in this country. Clearly no statement will be made about the matter in the House today, although the announcement was made publicly and has been reported on radio and television. Does that not demonstrate a contempt for the House of Commons? Madam Speaker, although you are not responsible for whether statements are made, I ask you to let it be known not only to Government Members but to the whole House that statements on important matters of policy such as this—although the measure will not be implemented because the Government will not be re-elected—should be made to the House of Commons first rather than to the media or the general public.

Madam Speaker

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I repeat that, when there is to be major change of policy, a statement should be made first to the House. I noted the comments that were made this morning, and I made it my business to find out when questions could be asked about the matter. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that he will be able to put down such questions to Social Security Ministers on 11 March.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I think that many hon. Members—particularly those on Opposition Benches—feel particularly outraged that today's briefing came from Tory central office and that the announcement was made from Downing street. The Government are proposing an epoch-making change in pensions policy that will affect millions of people. It is an abuse of Parliament if we cannot have a statement in the House about such an important matter, particularly during an election period. If there is to be a string of such announcements in the run-up to the election, I suggest that the Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. If he wants to announce Tory party policies, let him do so from central office. He should not be allowed to abuse the dignity of his office by refusing to come to the House to answer questions.

Madam Speaker

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members could take the opportunity at business questions tomorrow to press for a statement or a debate next week on those matters.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I ask for your guidance on whether it is normal practice, in the weeks before a general election, for parties to give their thoughts and ideas on what they may do after the election? That becomes policy only after the election.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has made some wise comments.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. You suggested that questions to the Secretary of State for Social Security could be tabled for 11 March. However, that gives only five sitting days, and 10 sitting days are required to enable the Secretary of State to answer oral questions in the House on that matter.

Madam Speaker

Questions should be tabled on 11 March for answer on 25 March.