HL Deb 07 December 1999 vol 607 cc1152-5

3.7 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, perhaps I may ask the Leader of the House if she will assist the House on a matter that has arisen which is, I believe, of procedural importance.

This morning I sought to ask a PNQ on what the Government have been saying to the Government of Russia about the war in Chechnya, where an ultimatum has now been issued to the citizens of Grozny. The Leader of the House declined that PNQ request. She is entitled to do so and I advise the House to accept that.

However, I have asked a PNQ for a second reason in addition to the intrinsic importance of the matter. In the other place there is a procedure known as a Deferred Question. That is a rare procedure. This afternoon the Foreign Secretary has chosen personally to use that procedure to answer an Opposition Question on Chechnya couched in precisely the same terms as my PNQ. The convention is clear: that, when a Statement or PNQ is offered in another place by the Government, it is also offered here. If the usual channels request it, it is repeated.

Therefore, my question to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House is this. I believe that, ideally, matters should be dealt with by a Statement. But if they are not and if the Deferred Question procedure is to be used again, how will she protect the right of the House to be offered information given to the other place by the Government? If a matter is important enough for the Foreign Secretary or another senior Minister to use that procedure to inform another place, surely it is intrinsically important enough also to be heard in this House. Does the noble Baroness agree that this is a procedural issue warranting careful consideration? In the light of what I have said, will she consider the case for a Statement to be made at the very earliest opportunity tomorrow on the unfolding situation in Chechnya?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that we all agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the situation in Chechnya is serious. If he considers what he has said and looks at what has happened in another place today, I believe that he will be aware that the request to have a Private Notice Question or Statement was refused by Madam Speaker in the other place. Therefore, the procedures which he quite rightly says are normally followed here do not need to be followed. He rightly points out that we do not have the rather different procedure of a Deferred Question.

He will be aware that Foreign Office Questions have taken place in another place this afternoon. Therefore, the Foreign Secretary was there in order to answer a Question which, as I understand it, was rather similar to the one which was afterwards tabled as a PNQ and, indeed, as I said, turned down by Madam Speaker. Again as I understand it from the other end of the Corridor, the reason is that the Foreign Secretary suggested that that might be dealt with under the rather arcane procedure, if I can call it that, of the Deferred Question simply because he did not want the whole of Foreign Office Questions to be devoted to the Chechnya question, as they feared might happen if he took the Question as originally scheduled in the line-up of Foreign Office Questions this afternoon.

Therefore, I believe that the situation is slightly more complicated than the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition suggested. I suggest to him that the procedure for Private Notice Questions in this House has worked well in the past, continues to work now, and I see no particular reason for revisiting it. At least the noble Lord has not suggested, as I rather feared he might, that we should attempt to change our procedures on this matter in the light of the passage of the House of Lords Act.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us have considerable sympathy with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde? I believe that the matter is worthy of consideration at the next meeting of the Procedure Committee. Is she aware that many of us recognise the difficulty facing any Leader of the House when Private Notice Questions are tabled? I certainly do not believe in challenging such decisions.

However, is she also aware that many noble Lords are not as satisfied as she appears to be about the way in which the matter has been handled in the past? Many of us can recall arguments in the last Parliament when Private Notice Questions were turned down, in the view of many of us, entirely unreasonably. Finally, is she aware that many of us take the view that, if the Leader of the Opposition tables a Private Notice Question on a matter of considerable public importance, it should be allowed?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am not sure that I necessarily agree with everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Harris; nor am I sure of what precisely he does not accept. If he does not accept that this House has a different way of dealing with Private Notice Questions to another place, that is an issue which should be dealt with under the organisation of the procedure of this House. If he is concerned about the particular circumstances of today, I hope that in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I drew attention to the different position in which the other place is dealing with Foreign Office questions. It is simply a question of where a particular issue—I agree of seriousness—is taken in that context.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am sorry to disagree with the noble Baroness. My understanding is that the Government have deliberately used a procedure which exists in another place to avoid the necessity of either making a Statement to the House or, indeed, answering a PNQ. The authority I have for that is taken from page 291 of Erskine May, which states: Although there is no explicit provision for such procedures in Standing Orders, these practices have by convention been allowed as being subsumed within the provisions for making ministerial statements". That is my point. Clearly, an answer which is being subsumed into a ministerial Statement is being given to the House of Commons and being denied here.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I can only repeat what I said to the noble Lord when he made the point earlier. The Private Notice Question in another place was refused by Madam Speaker. It is the case that it is Foreign Office Questions this afternoon. The decision was taken to use this procedure. As I understand it, though his information may be slightly different to mine, as may his sources of information, that was done to make it possible to discuss Chechnya without it dominating the whole of Foreign Office Questions.

If we are being pernickety, I would point out to the noble Lord—I would not do so except that he has returned to a point which I thought was satisfactorily answered—that I understand that he tabled his PNQ one minute before the deadline this morning. Indeed, he did not inform me, except in an indirect message, that he intended to raise this matter on the Floor of the House.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little further. Can she confirm that it is the intention of the Government to make a Statement on the situation in Chechnya in this House tomorrow?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

No, my Lords, I cannot. As the noble Lord will he aware, matters concerning the operation of Business in this House are always decided through the usual channels. It would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt, from the Dispatch Box, any decisions about the Business of the House in that way.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the Minister referred to the fact that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde tabled a Question one minute before the deadline. It is, therefore, within the deadline. How many minutes, hours or days before the deadline does the Minister think is acceptable to take Private Notice Questions?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Earl makes an insubstantial point. I simply pointed out that if the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, felt this to be an extremely serious matter, as he obviously did, his Question could have been tabled earlier. That would have enabled more time for discussion. Indeed, as I have said, he could have discussed it with me personally. That was my only point.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House keep an open mind on the possibility of a Statement tomorrow, particularly when she has read what has been said not only by the Foreign Secretary but about possible revelations concerning Foreign Office contacts with what one might nowadays call "dissidents" in that country?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an entirely relevant and important point about the substantive nature of the issue we are discussing: that is, the serious issue of what is happening in Chechnya. Of course I keep an open mind. My response to the earlier question was simply to abide by the normal understandings that these matters are not decided by one Minister or the Leader of the House at the Dispatch Box, but through the usual channels.