HC Deb 23 November 1988 vol 142 cc116-8 2.52 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that when I intervened in the speech of the Prime Minister yesterday about a matter relating to the possible visit of the Queen to the Soviet Union, the Prime Minister said that it was hypothetical and that the matter was not discussed at all. On 6 July 1981, in answer to a question from her hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), the Prime Minister said: The basis of advice to the Royal Family is confidential. A visit should promote the interests of the United Kingdom, be welcome to the hosts, and in keeping with the duties and dignity of the Royal Family."—[Official Report, 6 July 1981; Vol. 8, c. 8.] We have read reports in the past few days in which Bernard Ingham has been giving information to members of the press, many of whom are in the Press Gallery today, explaining that the Prime Minister, in a manner of speaking, is giving advice through the Lobby system telling the Queen not to go to the Soviet Union.

We must know exactly who is telling the truth. Is it the Prime Minister or Bernard Ingham? He has admitted to briefing the press on this matter. Who does he work for? Does he work for himself or for the Prime Minister? Has he told the Prime Minister that he is talking about this on a non-confidential basis? Something is wrong in No. 10 Downing street.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If there is, I do not see how it is a matter for me. What is the point of order for me?

Mr. Skinner

It is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, because over many years, and on 6 July 1981, we have been told that matters affecting the Royal Family are not to be dealt with in the House. You have many times prevented hon. Members from raising the issue, as have your predecessors. When we are continually told that the Prime Minister's Office says that the Queen, representing the House of Windsor, should not form a union with the House of Gorbachev, we are bound to come to the conclusion that the Prime Minister is behind it. Bernard Ingham has said that he has briefed the press. Who is telling the truth?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot see what this has to do with me in any respect.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. It is not a matter of order for me. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to apply in his chairmanship the same principles that I have to apply in mine. Come to the point of order and I shall deal with it.

Mr. Skinner

The point of order is simple. Perhaps some people are not bothered when the Prime Minister misleads the Opposition; but she should not mislead the Speaker, and that is what is happening. This information is given to us. We know that it is not true. We can stand that—we deal with it day by day. If the Speaker of the House is told that these matters are confidential but someone from No. 10 in a position of high authority briefs the press about them, that is misleading the Speaker.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a point that is highly relevant to the House. The ruling in 1981 to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referred categorically stated: The basis of advice to the Royal Family is confidential."—[Official Report, 6 July 1981; Vol. 8, c. 8.] The ruling does not say that it is confidential in the House; it says that it is confidential, and that applies in the House and out of it.

Under the rules of the constitution, any Minister is ministerially responsible to and answerable to the House of Commons for the antics and utterances of any of his or her officials. We have a clear admission from Mr. Ingham that he gave the briefing over the weekend that led to the outrageous headlines that have so embarrassed the Palace. I suggest that we need tomorrow a statement from the Prime Minister explaining how she reconciles her statement in 1981 with the conduct of her most trusted official over the weekened. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will agree that if the Prime Minister has changed that ruling in so far as it applies to her officials, we will want to change the ruling in so far as it applies to the House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker

I heard what was said about this matter yesterday. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who is now the shadow Leader of the House, may wish to raise it himself with the Prime Minister. What has been said has been heard by the Leader of the House and I am sure that he will have noted it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If hon. Members wish to raise legitimate points of order, of course I shall hear them. However, there is a long list of hon. Members who wish to take part in today's debate, many of whom sat through yesterday's debate and were not called. I have had some pretty distressed letters from them. I shall hear points of order if they are legitimate.

Mr. Winnick

My point of order is related to the point that you have just considered. You have often deprecated the way in which information is given to outsiders, and to the media, before it is given to the House. As you know, yesterday the Prime Minister denied that any decision had been made on whether the monarch was going to the Soviet Union.

You may have seen the Sunday newspapers, Sir. Every Sunday newspaper carried the same story. Undoubtedly there had been a briefing. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned Mr. Ingham. Whether by Mr. Ingham or by someone else, information has been given to the media before being given to the House. Every Sunday newspaper carried the report that the decision had been made that the Queen should not go to the Soviet Union, yet when the Prime Minister was asked about it yesterday she denied that the matter had been raised.

If the Queen is to learn, as a result of a press briefing and not as a result of information given to the House of Commons, that the Government have reached a decision, I suggest that the Prime Minister is being very discourteous to the monarch.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You asked to what extent this matter was your responsibility. I put it to you that you are responsible in so far as it is in your name that the right to use the facilities of the House is extended to those outside. If it can be proved, as happened yesterday, that the courtesy that you extended has been abused, surely it is a matter for you. You will know that the Prime Minister denied the need to make statements on these matters at the Dispatch Box whereas, but a few hours earlier, upstairs behind the wooden walls of the Chamber, her lackey made those very statements. Is that not an abuse of the courtesy that you extended?

Mr. Speaker

I must repeat that what is said from the Front and Back Benches is the responsibility of those who say it. Provided that it is in order, I must let it happen.

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