HC Deb 10 March 1999 vol 327 cc380-3 4.18 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have given your office notice of it.

I seek your advice, Madam Speaker, about an irregularity that occurred in the European Scrutiny Committee on 10 February. I do not know whether this is a matter for you or for the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, or whether we should just shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, ministerial standards have declined, and we must just accept that."

As hon. Members know, when Ministers give evidence to Select Committees, officials provide members of those Committees with briefs containing a list of questions that the Committee concerned may think it appropriate for them to ask. On 10 February Lord Donoughue, the Minister responsible for fanning and food, was giving evidence to the Committee in public. At one point, he hinted that he was aware of the questions that were to follow. When I challenged him, he implied that it was impertinent of me to suggest that there had been any impropriety.

Subsequently, the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood)—whom I have given notice of my point of order—instigated an inquiry that resulted in the discovery that there had been collusion between Committee officials and officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In short, a question had been leaked.

I want to make it plain that I am making no criticism of the hon. Member for Clydesdale, who conducted himself with his usual propriety; nor do I criticise the officials, who, if I may say so, made an error of judgment. The Minister, however, was involved in a cover-up that requires further investigation. I should be grateful, Madam Speaker, if you could advise me on how we can best proceed.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I am delighted to do so. A question has been put to me by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), but two other hon. Members seem to want to raise points of order. I am a very tolerant Speaker and I shall listen to them, provided that they are not long and I am able to deal with them

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I was at the Committee to which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) referred. Indeed, I was sitting behind the Minister and able to observe over his shoulder that he had not only the questions, but the answers.

I have served with great pleasure on the Select Committee and enjoyed the interchange between Members of Parliament and Ministers, but if Ministers come to Select Committees with not just the questions, but the answers, it makes a mockery of the whole Select Committee procedure. All Members of Parliament might as well engage just in correspondence with the relevant departmental officials, for all the good that having Ministers before us would do.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

No. I have a point of order already. I am very capable of dealing with the matter. I just want to listen to what is being said.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I have been on that European Select Committee, now the European Scrutiny Committee, for about 14 years. I have never seen such an event. What concerns me is that, on yesterday's "Today" programme, one of the ex-Clerks of the Committee—I think that his name is Philip Hensher—suggested that it was by no means an unusual event.

If it were true that, in other Select Committees, Clerks of the Committee, for whatever reason, were supplying Ministers in advance with the questions that were being asked, it would undermine the democratic accountability of those Committees. If it were prevalent, that would not only put the democratic accountability of the Committees at risk, but could cause grave doubts as to whether the claims that we make for them should be so great.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I make two points as the Chairman of a Select Committee. First, I have never found it possible to ensure that any questions are asked, or not asked, by members of the Committee.

Secondly, to ensure that well-briefed Ministers come before us, it is not unreasonable for Committees to identify the areas of concern that might arise. That is totally different from providing crib sheets for Ministers, and I do not think that that has happened, even in the case of the European Scrutiny Committee.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Cash

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. We are not having a debate on the matter. I am ready to respond to the point of order and have been since it was first raised, but I see that the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), who is Chairman of the Committee, is seeking to raise a point of order and I shall listen to him.

Mr. Hood

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. That matter came before our Committee. It has considered it and made a decision on it. It was acceptable to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who has raised the point of order. I cannot for the life of me understand why he has raised it with you today.

Mr. Cash

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

How many more points of order will the hon. Gentleman try to make? He is like a yo-yo.

Mr. Cash

I raise the following point because of the remarks by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), for whom I have the greatest respect. It would be a matter of grave concern if the House accepted that Ministers should have advance warning of questions that were to be asked. If one thinks about it, it gives them an opportunity to arrange the answers to questions, which, in relation to the procedures in those Committees, gives them an unfair advantage.

I ask you, Madam Speaker—it is the main burden of my further point of order—to institute an inquiry within the Clerks Department to ensure that those things are done properly, in line with the spirit, as well as the actual terms, of the Standing Orders setting them up.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who raised the original point of order with me, asked which Committee was responsible for these matters. I think that he knows full well that it is the European Scrutiny Committee because Committees in the House regulate their own affairs.

In the case of the European Scrutiny Committee, I understand that an explanation had already been given to the Committee, of which the hon. Member for Totnes is himself a member, and that the Committee unanimously accepted the explanation. Moreover, there is a written question on the Order Paper on the issue, which has been tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend).

The hon. Member for Totnes, knowing full well, as a long-standing Member of the House, how we deal with such a matter, which has already been to the Committee, should not have brought it up on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I ask that you, as Speaker, consult with the Solicitor-General to determine whether his statements in open court this week—in the case involving Mr. Al Fayed, Neil Hamilton and The Guardian—might be placed in the Library? I am not trying to raise the issues of the case, but it might be useful if a statement that has been made that is relevant to Parliament is available to hon. Members.

Madam Speaker

At this stage, the House might well wish to know that I have requested the Law Officers to intervene in the case on behalf of the House, to assert the House's right that its proceedings should not—to quote the Bill of Rights—be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament". In response to the hon. Gentleman's point of order, I shall be happy to do what I can to place the arguments advanced on behalf of the House in the Library just as soon as it is proper to do so.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker; I seek your guidance. This morning, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges published its report into a complaint that I made about the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), and concluded that he breached several rules of the House. Madam Speaker, I wonder if you have had notice from the right hon. Gentleman, who is in the Chamber, that he will today make a personal statement of apology?

Madam Speaker

I have not yet seen the Committee's report and cannot respond to the hon. Member.

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