HC Deb 25 February 1998 vol 307 cc369-72 3.32 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in what circumstances a copy of a consultation document on the right to roam became available to the Ramblers Association before it was available to Members of Parliament, to whom else the document became available, and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

The House will be aware that we have published today our consultation document, "Access to the Open Countryside in England and Wales". I held meetings with four national organisations yesterday to outline the Government's thinking in broad terms. In view of the complexity and detail of the issues, I allowed each organisation to have a copy of the document to examine overnight. I emphasised that it was for personal use only and that the contents were not to be disclosed to anybody else.

The organisations concerned were the Country Landowners Association, the Moorland Association, the National Farmers Union and the Ramblers Association, all of which have been involved in extensive discussion with my Department on this issue.

I completely understand the hon. Gentleman's concern that non-governmental organisations should have had copies of the document before it was available to the House. I have discussed this matter with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and apologised to him. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I will have hon. Members keep quiet when an important statement of this nature is being made to the House. I am sorry, Mr. Meacher.

Mr. Meacher

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that he regarded what has happened as unacceptable, and I share that view. He accepted my wish to make a full and unreserved apology to the House, and that I now do.

Mr. Yeo

I welcome the fact that the Minister has made an unreserved apology, and I was interested to hear his explanation of the circumstances. The facts are these: a policy document was in preparation for months; the timing of its release was entirely under his control; and he chose to give it to four outside organisations a full day before it was available to Parliament—presumably in order to try to buy off criticism in advance.

Does the Minister accept that he should have made a statement about the policy here in the House, so that hon. Members, including those who, like myself, are opposed to his policy, could question him on it? Does he agree that this is further proof of how power has gone to the heads of Ministers? From the Prime Minister—who, characteristically, has not waited in the Chamber to hear this exchange—downwards, Ministers refuse to answer questions in the House, they decline to debate issues in the House, and they refuse even to meet hon. Members to discuss issues of concern to our constituents.

Spin doctors and soundbites may be what the Government depend on, but parliamentary debate is what democracy depends on. Parliamentary traditions have been centuries in the making. Men and women have given their lives for them, yet they are now being consigned to the gutter by the Labour Government. Does the Minister understand that his behaviour is an insult not only to the House of Commons, but to every one of the men and women who elected us?

Mr. Meacher


Hon. Members:


Madam Speaker

Order. We need order in the House for these exchanges.

Mr. Meacher

I have already made it clear that I apologise to the House, and I have to say that, in that rant, the hon. Gentleman has completely overreached himself. The fact is that it is not a policy document; it is a consultation document. In addition, I have already answered a written parliamentary question today.

I should also point out that the previous Government routinely made major policy statements without any recourse to Parliament. One example was the basic pensions-plus document just before the election. It was leaked to the press overnight and published on 5 March at a Government press conference in Downing street, and Ministers refused to make a statement in the Commons. If there is a desire on the part of the House to have a further debate on this document, we shall be pleased to do so.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on doing the honourable thing and coming directly to the House to make his apology? Will he simply confirm that it has long been the practice of Governments to release not only consultation documents, but policy documents on an embargoed basis to interested organisations and the press—including that lot opposite, when they were in government?

Mr. Meacher

I have made my position clear on that. It is certainly the case that the previous Government on many occasions did exactly what my hon. Friend has said. If I am to be condemned, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and other persons on the Opposition Front Bench should also apologise to the House.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

Given, as the Minister said in his statement, that it was perfectly proper that the request for the private notice question should have been made and then granted by you, Madam Speaker, does he acknowledge that most of us will probably think of the common-sense advice our parents tend to give us when we are growing up—that there are occasions when one should apologise, but there are also occasions when one should, with grace, accept an apology? This afternoon is a good example of that.

Going back to a question by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) during Prime Minister's questions, could not this issue and other countryside concerns be addressed by a royal commission, which would enable all the groups to make their input more openly? It would certainly enable the House to consider and reflect on any legislation which may come forward in due course. It would also give the parliamentary Conservative party the chance to make a more considered response to the document than it managed this afternoon.

Mr. Meacher

I am most grateful for the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, with which I fully agree. The whole point of a consultation period is that there should be open and genuine consultation of all the relevant parties. I expect the Country Landowners Association, the Moorland Association, the National Farmers Union and the Ramblers Association to discuss the matters fully. They will certainly be listened to with great care before we come to our decision.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Following some of the requests from the Opposition in the past few weeks as they have launched a campaign against members of the Government for making statements outside this House, I decided to do some research in advance of this statement. Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have already counted 41 occasions during the 18 years of Tory government when requests were made for statements, but the Tory Government had made them on the media? That is 41, and still counting.

Mr. Meacher

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. He is a diligent Member of this House, and is well known for his research. The hon. Member for South Suffolk may, in due course, rather regret raising this point.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

The whole House will have noted with approval the handsome apology made by the Minister. Although what he did was wrong, his coming to the House has been the right thing to do. Does he agree that the House should establish a rule whereby Ministers and Departments are forbidden under convention and by code of practice to put such documents before other people before they put them before the House?

Mr. Meacher

I listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful for his earlier comments. His proposal could be considered, but it is a matter for the House as a whole.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Minister has come to the House with a total and unreserved apology, and the House should accept it. Would you, Madam Speaker, protect the integrity of this House and give guidance to Government—of whichever party—about this practice, and express your view that it should be deplored?

Mr. Meacher

That is a matter for you, Madam Speaker, rather than for me.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

While we welcome the unreserved apology from the Minister, did we not hear him on "Today" this morning, discussing this matter? He said that, unless landowners entered voluntary agreements, there would be legislation. We heard today that there would be full and open consultation of a genuine nature. Which is the truth? Is the former Government policy? If it is, is it not remarkably like bullying?

Mr. Meacher

The two matters are entirely consistent. I would expect someone with the legal and logical mind of the right hon. and learned Gentleman to be able to see that.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am concerned that the instance of disrespect for the House that we have just heard is not isolated. When the primary school class sizes money was announced, the information was given to Labour Members the day before other hon. Members, together with a press release for them to send out, and a suggestion that they go to a primary school in their constituency to get the credit for that spending of public money. Do you share my view that that is not in order, and not an appropriate way for the House to proceed?

Madam Speaker

It is a party political matter. It is nothing to do with the Speaker of this House.