HC Deb 18 January 2000 vol 342 cc687-8 3.30 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have given private notice of this point of order both to you and to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), to whom it refers.

Yesterday, I received a letter from someone in Northern Ireland, who had received it from the hon. Member for North Antrim. It described the new education Minister as "a terrorist".

Whatever the merits of strong feeling in the House, we try to contain our feelings within the normal courtesies of language. Although those words were not used in the House—had they been, Madam Speaker, I am sure that you would have rebuked the hon. Member who used them—they were conveyed in a House of Commons envelope, paid for by the state, and related to a Member who is also an education Minister.

I do not want to make too much of this, Madam Speaker, but I wonder whether you feel able to say anything at this point about the use of language. Terrorism is a criminal offence, and to use such language at a time when the peace process is developing in Northern Ireland might merit the Chair's consideration.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Is it related to the earlier point of order?

Dr. Lewis

Yes, Madam Speaker. Can you tell us whether you have received any notification from the Serjeant at Arms or the security advisers of the House that, if two members of Sinn Fein are to be offered facilities in the House, there will be arrangements in future for Members' cars not just to be checked for bombs on the way into the car park, but to be checked for such devices on the way out of it?

Madam Speaker

I never discuss security arrangements across the Floor of the House.

Let me respond to what was said by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who, with his customary courtesy, gave me notice of his point of order. I am afraid that the circumstances that he describes— those involving private correspondence between a Member and his or her constituents—do not call for a ruling from the Chair. I cannot intervene in correspondence between a Member and a constituent.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have written to you about it, and have sent a copy to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster).

During Prime Minister's questions last Wednesday, the hon. Gentleman began by praising the staff of the Conquest hospital. That is not in dispute, but the hon. Gentleman then told the House: no one in need has been turned away".—[Official Report, 12 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 275.] On Friday, I checked with the chief executive of the Hastings and Rother NHS trust, who told me that all elective surgery at the Conquest had been stopped for 10 days by then. More than 100 of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and my constituents, with appointments in January for surgery that they need have been turned away. As of yesterday, elective surgery was still suspended, so yet more people are being turned away.

Are you able to advise hand-wringing Government Back Benchers that if they wish to be bullied by their Whips and Alastair Campbell that is a matter for them, but if they are to peddle downright untruths at Prime Minister's Question Time to make the Prime Minister look more effective—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sending me a long letter about this matter, but I must again make a point that I made earlier in the week. What the hon. Gentleman has said is not a point of order, but a matter of argument. If he feels that the matter needs to be corrected, there are ways and means of doing precisely that in the House, and putting it on record.

Back Benchers in the House of Commons have greater opportunities than members of any other democratic Parliament. They have opportunities to raise matters in Adjournment debates, and through all sorts of other methods. I advise hon. Members that if they have an argument with each other because of the catchment area involved, that is not a matter for a point of order, or for the Chair; it is a matter to be corrected by means of a normal Adjournment debate, an early-day motion or some other method. The Chair should not be involved in squabbles—and that is what this is—between Members on either side of the House.