HC Deb 11 June 2002 vol 386 cc724-6 3.35 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are the guardian of this House and its Members. In that capacity, you must surely be aware of the distressing stories and rumours that are circulating about a rather sinister form of information that may well be held by Departments on Members of this House. In light of this matter, can you advise me as to what action you may be able to take in your role as guardian of Members of this House with regard to information on hon. Members being held in Departments and possibly being used in some as yet unspecified way by Ministers and Departments in the context of Members of Parliament doing their job in questioning them and holding them to account? May we please have your guidance on this very worrying matter?

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that these are not just rumours. As a result of the revelations secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), I have the actual Department for Work and Pensions document that is involved. It seems to be in direct conflict with your statement of 28 November last year and contrasts with the assurances given to me by a Minister in Westminster Hall on 21 March. Will you consider that matter in particular?

It seems that secret dossiers are being held on Members of this House and the other place, and especially on those Members who are considered to be "not friendly". Presumably, that will apply to some troublemakers on the Government Benches as well as on the Opposition Benches. Is it not in direct conflict with your advice and the code of ministerial conduct that civil servants—not special advisers or political advisers, but civil servants—have been asked to prepare the dossiers? Is it not totally inappropriate that all hon. Members are not being treated equally as true representatives of our electorate and that civil servants are discriminating between different Members?

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have read the article in this morning's edition of The Independent, to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has also referred. One of the serious allegations is that not only are files being kept, but Ministers are giving different answers to different Members. I hope that you would deplore such a practice, and confirm that any written answer should be a correct factual answer and should not be different for different hon. Members in different parts of the House.

Mr. Speaker

I shall reply to the shadow Leader of the House. The right hon. Gentleman has put his concerns on record. I have to inform him that the Chair has no responsibility on these matters, but, of course, I expect Ministers to give proper replies to all hon. Members.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When hon. Members table a question, we have to abide by the rules of order governing the form and content of questions. We are not allowed to present an argument when tabling a question, and the question must be devoid of spin. What confidence can hon. Members have that the answers that they get will be equally devoid of spin? Is it not time that we had rules of order on the form and content of ministerial replies?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter for me; Ministers are responsible for their replies.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you notice. You will, of course, be aware of the provisions of the resolution of the House made in the 1996–97 Session, which, among other things, states: it is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. I find myself in a difficult situation, because I know that when she was Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), whom I see in her place—I have discussed this matter with her—completely inadvertently and entirely unintentionally gave the House inaccurate information in the Adjournment debate on the Throckmorton asylum centre that you granted me on 23 May. She said: At peak capacity in 1976, 1,500 people were based there, so there is evidence to show that that number of people"— that is, the number of asylum seekers— can be absorbed into the local area and accommodated there. She went on to say: We are only expecting 1,000 people if it is a site of 750 people plus the 250 in local jobs."—[Official Report, 23 May 2002; Vol. 386, c. 498.] That information took me by surprise, but I made researches during the recess. I wrote to the hon. Lady on 28 May—I wish that she were still a Minister, because she was a very fine one. In the letter, I said: I have now spoken to Group Captain Richard Hampton who was the Commander of the RAF unit at the airfield until 6 months before its final closure. He was head of the Aircraft Department and worked with the Royal Radar Establishment and has an intimate knowledge of what happened at the airfield. In fact, contrary to what you said in the debate, there were only some 500 people working on the airfield and only a dozen or so of them lived there overnight because of the unsuitability of the area for residential accommodation. Most of the people who worked at the airfield lived on the Abbey Estate in Pershore, which was built specifically to accommodate RAF airfield personnel and was transferred to the local council for housing after the RAF left the airfield in 1976. I concluded: The important point about this is that to put 750 asylum seekers and 200–300 staff on the airfield would represent a doubling of the peak activity of the airfield in 1976. The curious difficulty that arises is that the Minister who, entirely unintentionally, gave the House that information is no longer a Minister, so she is not in a position to correct the record herself. What advice would you give me, Mr. Speaker, in these unusual circumstances?

Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is obviously a matter of great regret to me that one of the last things that I said from the Front Bench was inaccurate, as the hon. Gentleman says, and I apologise to the House for that. At the end of the Adjournment debate, when I stated what I thought was a fact, the looks of astonishment on the faces around me gave me some clue that I might not be on safe ground. I subsequently had my office researchers begin to check whether my statement was accurate, but unfortunately an event that I had not anticipated supervened to prevent me from putting the record straight from the Front Bench. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has been able to do so, and I pass on my regrets to the House for misleading it.

Mr. Speaker

It looks as though the record has been put straight. If I let this matter go on any longer, it will take longer than the Adjournment debate.

Mr. Luff

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I express my gratitude to the hon. Lady for her statement?

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I recall that there was a time, perhaps long ago, when, whichever party was in power, there was a custom—not a rule, but a custom—regarding Members asking written questions. If there was any difficulty about answering them, and the civil servants had to puzzle out why they were being asked, the Member concerned would ring the Minister's private office to explain the background. That saved a great deal of civil service time and led to better answers.

Mr. Speaker

I thank the Father of the House.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to return to your earlier ruling in response to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House that it is not a matter for the Chair that the Government keep secret records on Members of Parliament. If it is not a matter for the Chair, what advice can you give to Members about how they can get access to that secret information that the Government keep on us and are using against us?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should go to the Minister concerned.