HC Deb 19 March 2002 vol 382 cc170-1 3.35 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am afraid that I have to draw your attention to one more case of Parliament being bypassed on a very serious matter.

Yesterday afternoon, there was a break-in at Castlereagh police station in Belfast. A number of people broke into the Special Branch office and subsequently made good their escape. It is not known what they took, or what information they obtained, but it will be clear to the House that any breach of the security of special branch, particularly in Northern Ireland, is an extremely sensitive matter. The information held by special branch, and the identity of the people who may have made that information available, is crucial to policing operations.

I understand that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said this afternoon that the operations of Special Branch are crucial not only for the safety of people in Northern Ireland but for national security more generally. The trouble is that he made that statement not here in the House but to the press. He has answered questions from the press, but he has not made himself available to answer questions in the House.

This is not the first time that I, or other colleagues, have had to bring to your attention, Mr. Speaker, abuses of this kind by this Government over the last few months. Under the powers available to you, can you do anything to bring home to the Government their responsibilities to Parliament? Given that I cannot see on tomorrow's Order Paper any question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that would provide the opportunity for us even briefly and superficially to get to grips with this serious matter, can you do anything to give Members a chance to ask vital questions about the unfortunate situation following the break-in?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has put the matter on the record; the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will therefore be aware of his concerns.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I bring to the House's attention the fact that the break-in at special branch's office at Castlereagh occurred on Sunday evening, not yesterday? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was in America at the time, and returned only this morning. In the interim, there has been extreme speculation about the origins of those who committed the break-in. The Secretary of State spoke to the Chief Constable this morning—it was the right thing to do in the circumstances—and ordered that a review be conducted in conjunction with the criminal investigation that had already been ordered by the Chief Constable.

In his press interview, the right hon. Gentleman declined to give details of the break-in, saying: I think you will understand that I may have to make further details available to Parliament. He will have an opportunity to do so at Question Time tomorrow, and I hope that you will agree, Mr. Speaker, that that would be an appropriate time for him to address what he has acknowledged to be a very serious breach of national security.

Mr. Speaker

I heard what the hon. Lady had to say, and it is not a matter for the Chair. Once again, however, I am sure that the Secretary of State will take note of the concerns that have been expressed.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is clear that this break-in represents a catastrophic failure of security. It is not an everyday occurrence, or one of those ordinary run-of-the-mill situations in Northern Ireland that we have learned to live with over the past 30 years. It is a total failure of security in the most sensitive area of Government policy in Northern Ireland.

I understand your situation exactly, Mr. Speaker, but would it not be possible for you to issue—even in the most veiled terms—a direction to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss the matter when he comes to the House tomorrow?

Mr. Speaker

The best thing I can say is that, obviously, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will involve himself in a full investigation. I am sure that when it has been completed he will come to the House.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are entering into a debate about this matter. There is not much more that I can say about it.

Mr. Gale

The issue directly concerns your own powers, Mr. Speaker, and the defence of the privileges of Back Benchers.

It is clear that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has sheltered behind the opportunity to make a statement to the House. Surely it is open to you, as Speaker and as defender of Back-Bench privilege, to say to the Secretary of State that the opportunity is available to him to come to the House tomorrow and make the statement that he has already indicated to the press he is willing to make.

Mr. Speaker

There is no evidence that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has shown the House any discourtesy. I repeat that he will endeavour to be involved in a full investigation, and I am sure that he will come to the House. I think that the matter is now best left alone.