HC Deb 20 May 2004 vol 421 cc1115-7 1.26 pm
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I apologise to you unreservedly for confusing the role of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood)—who speaks on behalf of the House of Commons Commission—with your role as Chairman? My question to the Commission spokesman was not starred for inclusion on the Order Paper. Having spoken to the hon. Gentleman, I am sure he did not intend to mislead me, but assumed that I knew his role. He asked me to write to him, in his capacity as the Commission's representative. I have furnished you with the letter, Mr. Speaker, to which he replied on 28 April.

I hope you will accept my apology, Mr. Speaker, and that the promise of briefings for Members and their staff will be kept so that Members know what to do in times of crisis.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman need not apologise. It is just that I have a good memory, and I always remember when I have written to him.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given that only 6,000 of the 1 million disabled people who want jobs have been helped in any way by the new deal, is it in order for the Leader of the House to pretend that the Conservatives want to wind down help for the disabled? In fact we want to increase it, rather than wasting money on people who would have had a job anyway.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has some privileges, but they do not include a second go at business questions.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the last hour I have received an extremely unusual and very disturbing e-mail from Zimbabwe. It was sent by Sekai Holland, the former Secretary for International Relations to the Movement for Democratic Change, and states The unfolding story is that … zanu/pf thugs are being bussed into Harare … to then find their way to Parliament where they are saying that they want to kill MP Roy Bennet … and then they will bomb the MDC … headquarters … please pass this to parliamentarians all over the world now.

Is there anything that this Parliament can do to support the remnants of parliamentary democracy that are left in Zimbabwe, or is there any way of sending a message to the Government—who have acted well over this—perhaps via the Leader of the House?

Mr. Speaker

As the hon. Gentleman will know, that is not a matter for me, but many Back Benchers on both sides of the House are doing what they can to raise the case of Zimbabwe.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have here a printout from the website of the Conservative party, which has launched an attack on me for withdrawing the Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill. That comes as something of a surprise to me. In fact, this excellent Bill is due to be debated further on Friday 16 July instead of tomorrow, which I think would have been inauspicious in terms of its chances of further progress.

Another curious aspect is the fact that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan), who is named on the website, did not manage to sign early-day motion 937, in which 42 Members on both sides of the House demand parliamentary time for my excellent Bill.

Is there anything you can do, Mr. Speaker, to protect the House from misleading websites that report our proceedings—or, for that matter, from the blundering incompetence of novice Conservative Members who do not read the parliamentary monitor?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has broad shoulders, and I am quite sure that he can take criticism. From time to time, he has had criticism from me, but that was at another time and on another day.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice on a point of order of which I have given you notice. As you know, robust debate is in the nature of politics and no one, least of all you, would want to inhibit that. However, I hope that you agree with me that there is an important distinction to be made between matters of argument and the deliberate misreporting outside this place of proceedings within it, including the doctoring of quotes fromHansard and the invention of votes by hon. Members on motions that were never moved.

My point of order, Mr. Speaker, is to say that that is what has been happening in Birmingham, where a Conservative councillor, Peter Douglas Osborn, distributed a leaflet misreporting aHansard quote from the Minister for E-Commerce, Energy and Postal Services in respect of the Post Office urban reinvention programme. You will also be aware that Councillor Douglas Osborn, together with Liberal Democrat Councillor Holtom, has written to a third party alleging that I voted against a motion that did not exist regarding a post office in my constituency. Those documents follow allegations made by the leader of the Liberal Democrats on the city council in leaflets distributed in my constituency., also alleging that I and other Labour colleagues voted for a number of propositions concerning local post offices that were never put to this House.

May I therefore seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, on what can be done to protect the integrity of the parliamentary record and to safeguard the reputations of hon. Members of all parties against those who seek to falsify them?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of his point of order. He has raised a significant matter, which should be of concern to the whole House.

On 16 July 1971, the House resolved not to entertain any complaint of contempt or breach of privilege in respect of the publication of its debates or proceedings, but that resolution in no way removed the constraints on those who, for whatever reason, choose to misrepresent the proceedings of the House or to publish false or misleading reports of our debates.

As "Erskine May" makes clear, since at least 1699 the House has regarded the misrepresentation of its proceedings not only as a contempt, but as

destructive of the freedom of Parliament". Nothing in the 1971 resolution alters that view.

I can therefore advise the hon. Gentleman and the House that the deliberate or reckless misrepresentation of the debates and proceedings of the House is potentially a contempt of the House, against which the House may wish to proceed. Moreover, those who act in this way are unlikely to be protected in the courts by the unqualified privilege which normally attaches to the reporting of our proceedings.

I am sure the that House will take, a serious view of the situation if the conduct which the hon. Gentleman has described continues.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for responding in that way to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It certainly illuminates a number of remarks that might be made about any of us, at any time. However, is it not the case that many Labour Members voted for the network reinvention scheme on 15 October 2002, and that it is under that scheme that many urban post offices are threatened?

Mr. Speaker

That has nothing to do with the point that I made regarding the point of order of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden).