HC Deb 15 December 1988 vol 143 cc1098-102

4.9 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that during Question Time the Home Secretary reached question No. 7, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), regarding a national identity scheme after 1992. The question was quite specific. It was in no way allied to the scheme for football that is proposed by the Minister with responsibility for sport. Question No. 73 on the Order Paper relates specifically to the football identity card scheme.

It is a well-known practice—indeed, a rule—in the House that when a Minister is answering questions, so as not to cause embarrassment to anyone or to cause difficulties to the House, he shall not answer questions further down the Order Paper. On question No. 7, at the end of his last answer to the supplementary questions that had been asked, the Home Secretary referred to the football membership scheme. I drew that to your attention immediately, Mr. Speaker, for the very good reason that that practice must be stopped. It should not be allowed because it would provide much more room for manoeuvre for any Government, irrespective of colour.

It is important to raise the matter now as a point of order as it should be drawn to the attention of the Home Secretary, who may not have been aware of the mistake that he was committing. When such occasions arise, there is a perfectly reasonable and proper practice for doing what the Home Secretary might have wished to do, and that is to approach Mr. Speaker earlier in the day saying, "I wish to answer question No. 73 about a matter which I regard as important." The Home Secretary did not use that procedure. He thought that he could get away with it without anyone noticing, but we have caught him out.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that I can deal with the matter, although of course I shall call the Home Secretary if he so wishes. If that did occur—I shall look carefully at Hansard—perhaps I should have drawn the attention of the House to it. But I must say that it had escaped me. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I go through the Order Paper carefully and try to ensure that those with questions lower down the Order Paper have an opportunity to be called. I had not linked that question on the Order Paper. I had linked question No. 37 with question No. 7. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Perhaps I should in future be stricter in listening to supplementary questions. The hon. Gentleman is frequently very close to the mark.

Mr. Hurd

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I entirely accept the principle to which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has drawn attention. I understand its importance, and I would not have tried anything out either on him or on you, Mr. Speaker, but I say emphatically that I was not trying to answer question No. 73. I am ashamed to say that my reading of the Order Paper had not got that far. Now that I have studied question No. 73, I see that it is about legal disqualification under the football membership scheme. It does not mention identity cards. The answers that I was giving to a series of supplementary questions were all about identity cards, and I believe that tomorrow Hansard will show that there is only a glancing relationship between the answers that I gave and the answer that I would have given to question No. 73 had it been reached.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you give me guidance on how we can, within the rules of order, raise the matter of the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) who, according to a report today, works for a company appropriately known as Grafton Interaction and has offered his services for the sum of £2,900 a month to a Danish company. in the run-up to privatisation of electricity"? It is reported that the hon. Gentleman used his position as a member of the Select Committee on Energy to offer his services to the Danish Board of District Heating, an organisation representing about 30 communal central heating firms. The letter from Grafton stated: We can supply confidential reports of political activities, discussions with UK Government Ministers and the thinking of the specialist groups in Parliament. Is it in order for a Member of the House to prostitute himself and to try to sell, for personal gain, specialist knowledge obtained through his membership of the House and through dealings with Ministers?

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the position described by the hon. Gentleman remains hypothetical at present. Should the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) acquire a declarable interest, I am sure that he will declare it. Wider matters to do with the registering and declaring of interests are within the terms of reference of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. I cannot rule on an individual case in response to a point of order.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Normally we inform hon. Members if points of order relating to them are to be raised in the House. Did the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) inform my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) that he intended to raise this point of order? If not—

Mr. Speaker

Order. As the House knows, the Chair can impose the rules—there are not very many of them—but convention is a matter of honour between Members on both sides of the House. It is certainly a convention that we do that.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. For some time now there has been a change in the way in which points of order are raised. There was a time when a point of order could be raised immediately on an issue that might have been of great interest to the House and it would be taken at that time. Now we are always told that points of order must be taken after questions or statements, when the impact of the issue has usually gone. It may serve to calm the atmosphere, but that is not the point. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to reconsider the convention that has grown up. Perhaps it is an old-fashioned view, but I believe that when someone wishes to make a point of order, it should be taken there and then. May we return to the former practice?

Mr. Speaker

I do not need to reconsider the matter because I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. If a matter of order arises at any time, it should be raised immediately with the Chair. If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) had raised that matter immediately, I would have dealt with it at the time. That would have been the correct way of dealing with it. He sought to raise it at the end of Question Time as arising out of questions. That is a practice upon which I ruled on 12 February 1987. Matters that need immediate attention from the Chair may be raised at once.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order is much more domestic and in search of guidance. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are becoming increasingly worried about the lack of taxis coming into the House during the day and especially at night. Will you use any influence that you have to ensure either a greater supply of taxis or that alternative arrangements are made? On some nights, hon. Members may stand for 50 minutes waiting to go home.

Mr. Speaker

I have no authority for dealing with taxis. That matter should be raised with the Services Committee.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Of course I shall hear points of order now, but there is a long list of speakers for the subsequent debate. I fear I shall have to place a limit on speeches between 7 o'clock and 9 o'clock. I do not like doing that, but in the circumstances I shall have to do it.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether I could have your advice. Some time ago, as you will recollect, you said that a debate about the sale of old people's homes in Bradford was sub judice as a result of a High Court case. Strangely, that did not stop Bradford council deciding, on Tuesday, to hire private management consultants to negotiate the sale of those homes on the basis of the life expectancy of old people living in them. I attended the High Court case in London this morning and the High Court has reserved judgment. It is not known when the judgment will be made.

Mr. Speaker

In that case, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should not pursue his point of order. As the matter is sub judice, I cannot deal with it.

Mr. Madden

That is precisely the point, Mr. Speaker. In view of the present situation, will it be permissible for myself and other hon. Members who are anxious about it to raise the matter? It has been debated extensively in our own council chamber whereas we are denied the opportunity to debate it in Parliament. Would we be in order next week to raise this matter, which is important to our constituents, in view of the fact that the High Court has reserved judgment and it may be weeks before its judgment is delivered?

Mr. Speaker

In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I shall look into the matter and communicate with him. I repeat that we have a heavy day ahead of us.

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

Further to an earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I revert to the point of order that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson)? Will you confirm that, if the allegations about the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) are true, he has complied with the rules of the House? He is entitled to act in that way under our rules because they do not preclude people from doing so, if they register. They can then do what they want.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter for me. I am not prepared to rule on a hypothetical matter.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The key issue is the position of the Chairman of the Committee of Selection. A general principle is involved here. When the interests of a Member change after that Member has been appointed to a Select Committee of the House, the responsibility is placed on the Chairman of the Committee of Selection to reconsider that selection. if the hon. Member for Erewash, or any hon. Member had declared an interest prior to his selection, he might not have been selected.

Mr. Speaker

I have already said to the hon. Gentleman that issue is hypothetical. He has abused the time of the House. The matter should be drawn to the attention of the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, if the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about it. I have aleady made that point.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have heard earlier in exchanges with the Leader of the House of his regret that he has removed three hours of opportunity for hon. Members to debate matters on the Consolidated Fund Bill on Monday. Will you confirm that the Standing Orders of the House require the Consolidated Fund Bill debate to be completed at 9 am, on Tuesday, but that there is nothing to stop the Government tabling a motion to extend the debate by three hours, thereby restoring to Back Benchers the opportunity of further debate? Perhaps, as guardian of Back Benchers' rights, you would at least consider using your influence to press the Government to consider that.

Mr. Speaker

That is a matter for the Leader of the House. However, I do not disagree with what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The honour of one of our colleagues has been most disgracefully impugned this afternoon and he is not present to defend himself. I merely seek guidance about whether we can seek information about whether our colleague was informed, in accordance with the conventions of the House, before the statement was made.

Mr. Speaker

The matter has been raised previously. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman was not so informed, or he would probably have been here. I believe the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) quoted from a report in a newspaper. But I hope that all of us will always stick to the conventions of the House, which have served us well over the decades.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). May I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, with respect, that the matter is not hypothetical. I agree that whether money has changed hands is hypothetical—clearly it has not in this case. What is not hypothetical is that a letter has been written. In view of that, may I put it to you that the hon. Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) should be asked to explain himself to the House. Such activity brings the House into disrepute?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman is alleging a contempt of the House, he must draw my attention to it by letter, in the proper way.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I am sorry to press the point, but in view of the, I imagine, legitimate points of order made by other hon. Members, would it not be incumbent on the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson)—who is unfortunately leaving the Chamber at this moment—to say whether he notified my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost) of what he intended to say? Does that not raise serious issues about the tradition of notifying an hon. Member that he will be referred to in an attack of that kind?

Mr. Speaker

That is correct, but, as I have already said, it is not within the power of the Chair to compel hon. Members to adhere to the conventions of the House, although it is a great pity if they are not adhered to.

Mr. Ashby

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have, of course, a duty to protect hon. Members. Is it right that Opposition Members should he able to make slanderous statements against other hon. Members, under the guise of a point of order, and then walk out before they can explain themselves? Are not hon. Members entitled to the protection of the Chair?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have conventions in the House. I have already said that I think that it is a great pity, and lowers the reputation of the House, if we do not stick to the conventions, which have served us well over the years, indeed over the centuries.