HC Deb 06 January 2004 vol 416 cc188-9

2.5 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You may remember that on 11 November, I raised a point of order concerning News International. Since then, I have written to Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of the parent company, seeking clarification of some points. However, as a result of that point of order, other matters came to my attention that I felt I should draw to the attention of the House and on which I felt that I should ask Mr. Speaker to offer a ruling.

I have been aware for a couple of years that a small number of journalists tape record conversations with Members of Parliament. Although I am raising this issue in relation to Members of Parliament and other people who work in the House, I shall also raise it with the Press Complaints Commission, as the point on which I seek Mr. Speaker's guidance is the question of conversations recorded without consent in this House.

May I suggest that anyone in the House of Commons should tape record a conversation in only one of two circumstances? The first and most normal circumstance would be where they have gained the consent of the person involved to making the tape recording. The only other circumstance, which should be extremely rare, is where the tape recording is made without such consent in order to reveal a serious wrongdoing, by which I do not mean some minor matter of personal relationships that are not of significance. I am advised that if a tape recording were made without consent and a third party were then allowed to hear it, a criminal offence might have been committed by the person who made the recording.

The final point that I should like to draw to your attention, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that following my earlier point of order on 11 November, an approach was made to me on behalf of a News International newspaper suggesting that I should state "my negotiating position". Make what you will of this, but I have no negotiating position other than to get News International to deal properly with its internal problems and not to try to warn off MPs while they are properly investigating problems in the newspaper industry. The suggestion made to me is rather difficult to understand and a bit worrying. I understand that News International people have also been suggesting that the figure that I mentioned when I raised my point of order and referred to a £500,000 payment that it made was incorrect. New International is suggesting that the figure was only £80,000, but I think that it should be put on record that it is not my understanding that that is a true reflection of the costs.

My aim in raising this matter is to ask Mr. Speaker to consider it and perhaps to come back to the House on the recommendation concerning tape recording. May I also suggest that it might be useful to discuss the matter with the chairman of the Lobby journalists?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, and I have no doubt that Mr. Speaker will give serious consideration to the points that he has made.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that you will agree that this too is an important point of order. Last night, this House passed a programme motion on the Traffic Management Bill providing that proceedings should be completed by Thursday 12 February and that the Committee should have leave to sit twice on its first day, thereby implying some sense of urgency. Although Opposition Members would have liked more time, we understood that there would be at least five weeks, or 10 days, of Committee proceedings, starting next Tuesday, 13 January. I have now been told that the Government will not allow the Committee to begin until Tuesday 3 February, which will give the Bill just two weeks in Committee rather than the five that we had expected. Under Standing Orders, as the guardian of Back Benchers, do you have any power to order the Committee to meet sooner? The Government's behaviour on this Bill is particularly cynical and manipulative, because by having an early Second Reading they prevented the Select Committee from scrutinising it. They are now intent on preventing the Standing Committee from doing its work of scrutiny. We are familiar with this Government's guillotines truncating the torsos of Bills, but they are now, by guile, extending the guillotine to the legs as well.

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has made a point that is now on the record, and I suggest that he pursue the matter through the usual channels.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is there no protection that the Chair can offer the House in circumstances such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has outlined? If the House is asked to vote on a programme motion immediately following a Second Reading on certain assumptions, or even understandings, the Programming Sub-Committee will meet fairly soon after that, presumably on the basis of those assumptions. If the Government are then free to move the start date of the Committee as my hon. Friend suggests, does that not make nonsense not only of the whole concept of programming, but of any kind of relationship that may or may not exist between the usual channels? I ask this because if the situation that my hon. Friend outlined is the case, and if there is any chance of its being repeated, the House is now completely at the mercy of the Government, who, it seems, can do anything they like, notwithstanding motions passed by this House.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I confirm what I have already said—that the matter raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) could be pursued through the usual channels. As for the right hon. Gentleman's other point, that could well be raised in the Second Reading debate.