HC Deb 19 May 1999 vol 331 cc1074-6

4.5 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is not the first time important changes of Government policy have appeared in the press before they were announced to the House. That has the effect of undermining the role of the House and making it more difficult for Parliament to hold the Executive to account. What steps are open to you, Madam Speaker, perhaps in consultation with the Procedure Committee, to ensure that this insidious practice comes to an early end?

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. There is a consideration that you might like to bear in mind. I have noticed that this practice tends to happen most often when the policy announcement to be made involves a reversal of the Government's previously declared policy. I wonder whether you would bear that sort of case in mind as one for which oral statements are particularly appropriate.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Is it related?

Mr. Baker


Madam Speaker

I did not call the hon. Gentleman in Question Time, so let me hear it.

Mr. Baker

Thank you, Madam Speaker. The explanation given for why the issue turned up on Radio 4 this morning and on the front page of the Daily Mail is pathetic. The wafer-thin explanation was that the newspapers telephoned and asked for an explanation, or for answers to their questions. I ask many questions of the Government and receive no straight answers from them. Why should the Daily Mail get a straight answer?

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The Government have been caught red-handed in a particularly blatant case of abuse of Parliament. An attitude of slight contrition might have been rather more appropriate from the Minister, rather than one of defiance coupled with multiple and unconvincing excuses.

What can we do about this? What can you do about it, Madam Speaker? I am afraid to say that if nothing is done about this systematic abuse very soon, you will be seen in retrospect to have presided over a period of fundamental erosion of Parliament.

Madam Speaker

That is a very serious allegation.

Mr. Davies

It is no criticism of you, Madam Speaker. I am simply saying objectively—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. He must remember that I granted the private notice question today. The House knows that I deprecate statements that are made in the written press or in the media before they come to the House. I do so very much again today. I have been asked by right hon. and hon. Members to do whatever I can to ensure that the leaks or information given to the media cease. I have been involved in this for very many months and I shall continue to use my best endeavours.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. So that we have a little balance in these matters, will you confirm that there were similar practices hundreds and hundreds of times under the 19 years of the previous Government?

Madam Speaker

Yes, I am aware that Governments of all colours tend to use the media when they feel that it is to their advantage to do so. I am quite wise to what happens in the House; I have been a Member for a quarter of a century.