HC Deb 26 January 2004 vol 417 cc37-9 4.23 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald(Con) (North-East Hertfordshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given you notice of this matter. You will be aware of the serious allegations in weekend newspapers that Labour Members of Parliament who are members of the Council of Europe who intend to vote against university top-up fees are being refused Government authorisation for their travel costs of £600 for returning to vote tomorrow. Is it not the case that members of the Council of Europe are entitled to freedom from restriction of movement to and from the assembly and that that includes authorisation of their travel costs? Is it not also the case that proposing a financial penalty against a Member because of his conduct in Parliament has always been a serious contempt of Parliament, as has any direct or indirect attempt at intimidation to influence future conduct?

Mr. Speaker, are you prepared to make a statement deploring any attempt to fine or bully Members of Parliament? Will you also say what can be done to stop that sort of abuse of power?

Mr. Tam Dalyell(Lab) (Linlithgow)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that I wrote to you in my capacity as Father of the House expressing unease on this matter.

Mr. Douglas Hogg(Con) (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is clearly the case that the Government are seeking through financial pressure to influence the votes of its own Back Benchers. You will have seen pages 124 and 122 of "Erskine May", which make it quite plain that visiting pecuniary loss on any Member of Parliament as a method of influencing a vote is clear contempt. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that about 10 days ago, the House referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee the conduct of the Lord Chancellor, who is alleged to have intimidated witnesses. Against that background, would you entertain a motion referring the relevant Minister, probably the Government Chief Whip, to the Standards and Privileges Committee on the grounds that she is apparently in contempt of the House?

Sir Patrick Cormack(Con) (South Staffordshire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will confirm that the issue of a Whip to Members of Parliament is entirely a matter for the internal affairs of the party concerned. Members of Parliament are supposed to come to the House and may be in attendance when they wish. They are sometimes urged to attend by their parties, Mr. Speaker, but no party has the power to say how a Member shall vote. In the light of that convention, surely this amounts to a serious contempt of Parliament.

Mrs. Ann Cryer(Lab) (Keighley)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not wish to take sides in this argument. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Go on."] No, I really do not want to get involved. However, for six years I was a member of the Council of Europe. The rule was always that we were allowed only one return ticket to Strasbourg for the plenary session. I do not think that anything has changed.

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

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recollect that the House, mistakenly in my view, voted for Members to be able to travel to a continental destination twice a year.

Mr. Hogg

Three times.

Mr. Forth

It is getting worse. They could make those journeys at the taxpayer's expense and, importantly, they were authorised by the House, not the Government. If Members are under threat from the Government could they not use their parliamentary allowance to travel back and forth and say "Up yours" to the Government?

Mr. Edward Garnier(Con) (Harborough)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before they do that, could you invite either the Solicitor-General, as the only Law Officer in the Commons or, through the usual channels, the Attorney-General, to investigate whether this is not only contempt of the House but a breach of the criminal law?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that we need lawyers. Like the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), I definitely do not want to take sides. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) for giving notice of this matter. Any Members attending the current meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg are able to return to the House tomorrow if they so wish. The arrangements for the reimbursement of expenses for Members attending the Council of Europe are laid down in the administrative guide approved by the House of Commons Commission. If it appears that the rules do not meet the complexities of the position relating to Members in Strasbourg this week, I shall ensure that they are reviewed urgently and that they operate fairly for all Members. I repeat, however, that any Member is entitled to return to Westminster to vote tomorrow if they so wish.

Mr. Heald

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In your consideration, would you ensure that the ambit of inquiry includes a retrospective look at the matter so that nobody will be disadvantaged in any way? It would be sad if improper pressure was applied to a Member and we could only rectify the position for the future.

Mr. Speaker

The matter will be looked at by the House of Commons Commission, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, so perhaps he can put that case if we have a look at it.

Mr. Hogg

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am listening very carefully to your statement. I understand that you are saying to the House that no distinction should be made between hon. Members depending upon how they propose to vote in any one Division. Can you confirm that I have correctly understood your ruling?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has correctly understood my ruling that every hon. Member must be treated fairly, but I stress that no hon. Member in Strasbourg will be denied the right to return to the House tomorrow.

Chris Grayling(Con) (Epsom and Ewell)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that item 7 on the list of written ministerial statements in today's Order Paper is a statement on an independent review of the effect of the introduction of variable tuition fees in higher education. You may not be aware that although all the other written ministerial statements for today have been delivered to the Library, that particular one has not, which clearly symbolises the chaos in the Government in the run-up to tomorrow's vote. Will you tell the House whether you have information on when we can expect that urgent statement and use your good offices to ensure that it arrives sooner rather than later?

Mr. Speaker

What the hon. Gentleman says is correct. Notice has been given on the Order Paper and therefore it is not a matter for me as to when the statement will arrive in the Library. The appropriate Minister is acting within the rules of the House.

Mr. John Gummer(Con) (Suffolk, Coastal)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not in your purview to know that over this weekend I have been asked many questions about that issue. I hope that you will make it known in the right quarters that many of us want to try to understand exactly what the Government are proposing. If we do not have that document early enough, it will be very difficult to do our jobs as Back-Bench Members of Parliament.

Mr. Speaker

The appropriate Minister will have heard the right hon. Gentleman's comments.