HC Deb 05 March 1985 vol 74 cc782-7 3.40 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice and assistance in your role as guardian of the rights of the House. You will recall that last Thursday, in the guise of an answer to a planted supplementary question, the Home Secretary announced the setting up of an inquiry by Lord Bridge of Harwich into certain aspects of telephone tapping. I asked, in the light of that inquiry, that the Interception of Communications Bill should not be proceeded with. The Home Secretary replied that that was a matter for the Leader of the House.

Accordingly, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised the issue at business questions that same day. The Leader of the House replied: I understand the importance which the right hon. Gentleman attaches to the Bridge inquiry — I am sure that the whole House believes it to be important—and the desirability of his findings being available before the Second Reading of the Bill. We shall keep an eye on that matter through the usual channels. The right hon. Gentleman made similar responses to other hon. Members. For example, in reply to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) he said: The hon. Gentleman will have noted the tone of my reply to the Leader of the Opposition and I hope that he will have been encouraged by it. To my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), he said: The Leader of the Opposition has made representations to me about the desirability of having the Bridge report before Second Reading, and I responded to that in, I thought, a forthcoming fashion." — [Official Report, 28 February 1985; Vol. 74, c. 471–2, 475, 479.] The Interception of Communications Bill is down for Second Reading tomorrow. The Bridge report has not yet been made available to the House, and, as far as I am aware, will not be made available to the House until tomorrow, only a few hours at best before the Second Reading debate starts. At Question Time this afternoon—

Mr. Speaker

Order. With the greatest respect, the right hon. Gentleman knows that I am not responsible for the business put before the House. If he would kindly make a point of order that I can answer, I shall do my best to answer it.

Mr. Kaufman

That is what I am seeking to do, Mr. Speaker, but I thought it only proper to put before you and the House the evidence on which I wish to base my point of order.

The Prime Minister, at Question Time only this afternoon, confirmed that she has already received the report and that she will be studying it this evening. The Government will have the time and the opportunity to study the report before preparing their arguments for the debate, but the rest of the House, of whose rights you, Mr. Speaker, are the custodian, will not have the opportunity of studying that report while preparing for the debate. Therefore, the balance of the debate and of the House will be disturbed because other Members of the House, apart from the Home Secretary, will be placed at an intolerable disadvantage in relation to the Government.

The spirit of the assurances given by the Leader of the House on the matter, which I quoted, will have been violated. As a result, the debate will be seriously distorted. It is essential that this controversial Bill, whose content and circumstances are fundamental to freedom in our society, be properly debated by all Members of the House of Commons on either side. Therefore, I ask for your advice on how we can secure the postponement of the Second Reading of the Bill until the House has had sufficient time properly to study the contents of the Bridge report.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman asks for my guidance on this matter. As I have already said, and as the House will know, it is not a matter for me. The right hon. Gentleman answered his question by directing it to the Leader of the House, who is present. It is not a matter on which I can answer.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As we understand the position, it is your wish to protect the rights of Back-Bench Members. You have said so on numerous occasions, and you said it when you were elected to the Chair. The position with which we are faced—this is why we are seeking your advice—is that tomorrow, when we debate the Second Reading of an important and controversial Bill, a document that is very much related to the content of that Bill and to the debate will not be available until the debate starts. It is right to say that hardly ever, when we have had a Second Reading debate, has a document that it is necessary for right hon. and hon. Members to read and understand not been available until the debate starts. In those circumstances, surely you will agree that it makes a mockery of our procedure and of the debate that is due to take place tomorrow. Therefore, as we have tried the Leader of the House and all possible channels, in the last resort we appeal to you, because you are there, as you have reminded us, to protect our rights. Our rights are being abused, and it would be completely wrong for the Bill to be debated tomorrow. [Interruption.]

It is all very well for Conservative Members to jeer, but when the civil liberties of our people are at stake—we know of the widespread abuse by MI5 and the special branch — it is all the more important that the entire House should be concerned about this matter, not simply the Labour party.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that, at Question Time today, the Prime Minister referred to the Bridge report. Is it not a convention of the House that once a Minister refers to a document, that document shall be laid on the Table so that all hon. Members can consult it? As the Prime Minister said that she had a copy of it, and used it in reference to her answer, is it not her duty now to lay a copy on the Table so that hon. Members can consult it?

Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)


Mr. Speaker

Order. Allow me to deal with that point of order before I call the hon. Lady. A document must be laid before the House only if it is quoted by a Minister, not if it is merely referred to.

Ms. Harman

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not only Lord Bridge's report that is not available and that should be considered before we debate the Bill tomorrow; I have not received a reply to my letter to the Prime Minister of nine days ago. Since I have not been able to obtain answers, I cannot table questions if they mention MI5 and it is impossible for me properly to consider the Bill unless I know whether my telephone has been tapped and what is in my MI5 file. The Prime Minister is obviously so busy reading my file that she does not have time to answer my letter.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If it is difficult to protect the rights of Back-Bench Members — I understand the difficulty — could I appeal to you to protect the rights of former Home Secretaries? The Prime Minister properly asked former Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries whether they would agree to have telephone-tapping arrangements in their period of office considered by Lord Bridge. Of course, the report will go first to the Prime Minister. It is on her desk and she will not read it until tonight. The debate, which is tomorrow afternoon, will consider a period of office other than that of the Prime Minister. The report will not be available until tomorrow morning. Surely the Leader of the House will make a statement. This is not just any other little piece of business; this is a constitutional Bill which will be debated entirely on the Floor of the House. We must have the right to see that report in exactly the same way as the Prime Minister has the right to see it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that about a fortnight ago the Government foolishly tried to telescope two stages of the Transport Bill and attempted to take the Committee and Report stages together. That attempt resulted in a series of points of order being raised by hon. Members who felt that an injustice was being done, especially as insufficient time had been provided for the tabling of amendments.

It appears that the House is now being placed in a similar predicament. You will recall, Mr. Speaker—because you were heavily involved in the matter—that when statements were made about a change of business, you felt it necessary to remain in the Chair—not to allow Mr. Deputy Speaker to take over—because you thought that the House of Commons was being placed in some difficulty.

I will not go into the detail of what happened after those points of order had been raised on that occasion. You will have gathered from what has been said today, Mr. Speaker, that many of my hon. Friends feel that we are about to witness tomorrow the Second Reading of a Bill which we shall not be able adequately to debate because of the absence of the document to which reference has been made, and therefore the inability of hon. Members to digest its contents.

While I am unable to forecast what may occur, it is clear that many hon. Members who are hostile to the very process of tomorrow's debate feel that it is an affront, not least to you, Mr. Speaker, that the Leader of the House, who can change the business of the House eight times in three weeks—and do so at various times of the day and night, including at 10 o'clock—should not have the guts and decency to stand at the Dispatch Box now and make the matter clear.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Once again I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for his concern for my position—[interruption] I mean it. I do my best to defend the interests of Back Benchers. Among the many responsibilities which I bear, the organisation of the business of the House is not one. There is therefore nothing I can do about that; the matter is in other hands.

Mr. Kaufman

Further to my original point of order, Mr. Speaker, and in relation to what you have said in answer to me and to other points made by my hon. Friends, I recall that, at an earlier stage of this series of points of order, you gave what appeared to be a broad hint—I apologise for saying so, if such a matter never crossed your mind — that the House could be helped out of its difficulty by the Leader of the House making a statement from the Dispatch Box about the Government's intentions. The right hon. Gentleman sits in his place. I think he is awake. I suggest that it would be courteous to you, after what you have said, if the right hon. Gentleman now rose and announced that the Bill will not be proceeded with tomorrow.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not able to do what the right hon. Gentleman suggests, and I hope that any facial expressions of mine do not betray my emotions. I may have private thoughts, but I do not express them.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I wish to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a point of order which relates to a letter that I received today from the Home Secretary. It is on the subject of the tapping of hon. Members' telephones. The letter states that the rules governing the tapping of our phones were laid down in a parliamentary answer on 17 November 1966, when the then Prime Minister, now Lord Wilson of Rievaulx said that he had given instructions that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament; that remained the policy of the Government, and that, if there was a development which required a change in the general policy, he would, at such moment as seemed compatible with the security of the country, on his own initiative make a statement in the House about it. The Government regard this undertaking as applying to both postal and telephone interception. My understanding is that that reply puts the Government in a position in which they are not required to make a statement about the tapping of an hon. Member's phone.

When, a few days ago, in a supplementary question to a question asked by the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) I asked what the current position was, the Home Secretary appeared to be changing the rules, when he replied: if such telephone interception were to become necessary or desirable, a statement would be made to the House before it was done."—[Official Report, 28 February 1985; Vol. 74, c. 461.] To many of us, that clearly meant that a change in the rules was occurring, and we left the Chamber in the belief that the Home Secretary was making a concession. In the letter which I received this morning from the Home Secretary, he has re-established the original rules and has asked me to table a question to elicit that response from him.

Is it not an abuse of procedure for the Home Secretary to ask an Opposition Member to place a question on the Order paper so that he can re-establish a policy to which a majority of the House would take wholesale exception?

Mr. Speaker

I cannot say that that is an abuse of the House, but perhaps it is unusual.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

Further to the point of order. It seems from what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and others, and from undertakings given last week about the nature of the debate and the discussions that would take place, that the House will be in an extraordinary position when we embark upon the Second Reading of the Interception of Communications Bill tomorrow. We shall not know the Government's response to all the appeals that have been made. Secondly, we shall not be aware of what is in the Bridge report, which is bound to be involved in the debate.

I put to you, Mr. Speaker, a matter which I am sure it is within your province to consider. In view of the exceptional circumstances, the background to tomorrow's debate and the fact that great sections of the House will be denied the right to debate the Bill properly, I ask that at an early stage in the debate you consider a motion for the Adjournment of the House. That would be a matter for you to consider, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

That is something that I shall consider at the time.

Mr. Gregor MacKenzie (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

I appreciate that the business of the House does not lie with you, Mr. Speaker, but there is a matter that I wish to add to those which have been raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and some of my hon. Friends. It seems that we are not to have before us a valuable report that will become the property of Parliament. It appears that it will be available to us only a few hours before tomorrow's important debate. A number of us have felt offended over a number of years by the growing practice of handing out reports with press notices long before the reports become available to hon. Members. As you are the guardian of our rights, Mr. Speaker, I suggest that it is for you to ensure that no hon. Member is denied a privilege that is given to someone outside this place. Members of the press should not be given reports before they are given to hon. Members.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman has raised a matter on which I have frequently given my view in the past. If information is given to the press and it is embargoed, it should not be used before hon. Members have it in their possession.

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I recognise, as I did last week, the desire throughout the House that the Bridge report should be made available ahead of the debate tomorrow. I shall ensure that it is available to the House tomorrow morning. Perhaps the matter could be discussed through the usual channels.

Mr. Kaufman

The Leader of the House has intervened in an attempt to defuse the justifiable concern of the House. However, the House remains in the same difficulty. The Government are in possession of the Bridge report and members of the Government, including the Home Secretary, will be able to study the report this evening. They will be able to prepare for the debate in the full knowledge of the contents of the report. At an unspecified hour tomorrow, with only a short time to pass before the debate starts, the Government will condescend to consider whether and at what time they will place the report in the hands of the other 649 Members. That sort of approach is not satisfactory to the House of Commons. If the report is not to be made available to Parliament until tomorrow, the Second Reading of the Bill should not take place tomorrow.

Mr. Speaker

Unfortunately, I can do nothing about that, as the matter is not in my province. Representatives of the usual channels are present and I am sure that the matter will be resolved satisfactorily.

Mr. Foot

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What the Leader of the House has said does not resolve the situation at all. In some ways, what he says makes it worse. The right hon. Gentleman is aware that there has been strong pressure that the debate should be postponed. That case is all the stronger now that we are told that a report is to be presented at some unspecified time.

I know, Mr. Speaker, that you cannot solve the problem for the House. I am sure that you would if you could, here and now. However, I put it to you that it would be possible for some hon. Member, at the beginning of the debate tomorrow, to move that the debate should be adjourned. The question whether that motion were accepted would then rest with you. I ask you to give sympathetic consideration to such a motion, if it is moved at the beginning of the debate, so that the overwhelming and just desire of the House should be met through your action.

Mr. Speaker

At the moment, the right hon. Gentleman's proposition is hypothetical. I have already said that, should that eventuality arise, I would of course consider it. In the meantime, there is a hopeful sign that the matter will be discussed, and I hope resolved, in the usual way in which we do such things.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I told my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the other day that I thought that we should be given the report before the debate. The Government should be congratulated on having the report produced so quickly. The report has been produced in a few days—more quickly than any other during my time in the House.

There are very good printing machines in the House. I suggest that since the report is now before the Prime Minister, we might do better than tomorrow morning. A certain number of copies might be printed tonight and given to Front Bench spokesmen and any other hon. Members who cared to go to the Vote Office. The number might not be large, but some reports would be made available later this afternoon or early this evening.

Mr. Speaker

That is a very good suggestion, as long as the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that I should do the reproduction.