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Madam Deputy Speaker : Hon. Members are raising with the Chair matters of debate which are not points of order. I answered the crucial point of order by saying that, to Mr. Speaker's knowledge, no Minister is coming to the House this morning.
Ms. Short : Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is now a serious matter, and it involves you. We learnt this morning that the Home Secretary lied to us when he made his statement about Viraj Mendis.
Ms. Short : The Home Secretary led us to believe that he was giving an assurance, which has proved to be false. He sat there and told us-- [Interruption.] He gave an assurance to the whole House-- [Interruption.]
We are talking about a man who might be going to his death. It is a serious matter. In the past year, 700 people have been killed in Sri Lanka, and the Government of Sri Lanka cannot give assurances because a political movement is behind it. The Home Secretary gave us the assurance that there would be enough time to consider Viraj Mendis going to a third country. He is now moving so fast that that assurance is worthless. The Home Secretary has misled the House. He has given us a false assurance. The Leader of the House should tell us whether the Home Secretary will come to the House and explain how he misled us in that way.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members have already explained to the House the difficulty about raising Standing Order No. 20 on a Friday. There is also a
Column 614time-honoured custom in the House that hon. Members who are dissatisfied because there is no statement may raise points of order. I realise that that creates difficulties for the Chair, but it also creates some difficulties for hon. Members who have other important business. I am sure that you are aware that, on occasions, in various ways, hon. Members have raised points of order for anything up to half an hour or longer while the usual channels negotiate to see whether a statement can be made. Such attempts place the Chair in considerable difficulty.
Clearly, many Opposition Members feel sufficiently strongly about the matter to be tempted to continue trying to raise points of order in an effort to get a statement. Obviously, that procedure is unsatisfactory. When the Chair feels that a point of order has been put repeatedly, it is possible for the Chair to state that it would help the House if a statement were made. I wonder whether you would consider that point, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Madam Deputy Speaker : I have considered very seriously all the points of order that have been put to me. There may be time for negotiations to take place and for a Minister to come here in due course, but I can only repeat that Mr. Speaker has had no such application. To the best of my knowledge, no Minister is coming here to make a statement this morning. I can only say to hon. Members who have raised points of order that, as has been pointed out, the Leader of the House is here and has no doubt taken notice of what has been said.
Mr. Madden : Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is within the recollection of all of us that, on occasions such as this Friday, the Leader of the House has seen fit to intervene during exchanges to say that the Government would make a statement at a certain time. I plead with him. Mr. Mendis is due to be deported to an uncertain destiny in 45 minutes. I tried to mention the matter on Wednesday, but I was prevented. I raised it with the right hon. Gentleman yesterday, and he heard what I said. I have raised it with colleagues today. I appeal to the Leader of the House to tell us when the Government will make a statement about their intentions. Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) rose --
Ms. Gordon : Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Mr. Viraj Mendis was taken to Gatwick some time ago. We are entitled to a statement, as we were given an assurance that he would be given the opportunity to go to a third country. The House is entitled to know what is happening.
Mr. Cohen : On a different point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is plain that the Government will not respond to the issue and do not care a jot for people such as Mr. Viraj Mendis-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Cohen : All through the last series of points of order that all hon. Members were concerned about, there was a constant gabble from the Government side of the House--an outrageous gabble in the circumstances. I found it difficult to hear what some of my hon. Friends were saying. That shows what little interest Conservative Members have for the life of an individual.
Mr. Skinner rose --
Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West) rose --
Mr. Skinner : Before I give way, I must deal with the question about disqualifying offices. Luckily, as a result of the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras--I managed to get hold of a book on disqualifying offices, including being a Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend, the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and other hon. Friends wanted to know about it. There is a list--it is longer than I thought. It would be sheer repetition to read it out. However, one immediately comes to mind. In recent times, there has been a change in the number of disqualifying offices. It is on page 16 in the House of Commons--
We are now discussing whether the office of Commissioner should be a disqualifying office. In 1985 there was added to the list any member of a residuary body established by part 7 of the Local Government Act 1985 or is in receipt of remuneration.
That means that, notwithstanding our entry to the Common Market in 1973, the Government of the day managed to change the list or add to the number of disqualifying officers, as a result of the abolition of the GLC. Why has there been no attempt to add the office of Euro-Commissoner? The inclusion of a member of a residuary body means that the matter has been looked at, but not in respect of the commissioner. That is an anomaly.
Mr. Tony Banks : My hon. Friend knows much about the subject. If a Member of Parliament has accepted an office of profit under the Crown, which is one of the disqualifying offices, and he leaves--that is why we are having a by-election in Richmond--at some later stage is it possible for that person to stand for election and return to the House? That is the first point.
If there were any difference, could it be that a Commissioner has not been added to the list of disqualifying offices, for the simple reason that the establishment believes that it is most appropriate for a commissioner who gives up being Commissioner to come back to the House of Commons. I should like my hon. Friend to clear up that point.
Column 616Market is of the establishment orientation it does not want to tread on any toes and stop these people returning. It is important to recall-- [Interruption.] It does not matter. Hon. Members do not want to listen.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I receive many letters from constituents saying how unhappy they are about what goes on in this Chamber and I seek your guidance on what I should say to them. They dwell on many issues, not least the fact that every time a motion on abortion appears various tactics are used, such as moving the writ this morning, to prevent a free debate and a free vote. Will you allow us to move to a vote on this matter? Clearly, for a by- election writ to be discussed for an hour and three quarters is an abuse of procedures.
Madam Deputy Speaker : The hon. Gentleman has raised two points. I am extremely flattered that he has asked my advice on responding to his constituents' mail. I should have thought that he was capable of replying himself. Secondly, several hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, and I cannot accept a closure motion at this stage.
Mr. Wigley : Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you say whether it would be possible for the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) to move the closure motion when an hon. Member is moving a motion such as this?
Mr. Skinner : It is not for me to get involved in applications for motions from Conservative Members. Hon. Members on both sides of the house have had letters of complaint about Members of Parliament who want to queue -jump from seventh to first place. There is no argument about that.
Mr. Skinner : No. I shall deal with the question why the Euro- Commissioner is not included in the list of disqualifying officers. The establishment of this place has decided that it would be good if people went out there and came back. Woy Jenkins of the wadicals did exactly that. [Laughter.] he got a job as a Commissioner, then became the President and then came back as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead. Commissioners are not included simply because in the past people have gone to the Common Market and reserved the right to be re-elected as a Member of Parliament, if they can get in. In this case, Leon Brittan has expressed the wish to reserve the right to return.
If members of the London residuary body or any other residuary body are disqualified for taking that job, I would have thought that a Commissioner should also be disqualified. If they could return, so be it. That does not matter. It is not the important question. My question is what happens at the beginning.
Mr. Dykes : Is it not wrong of the hon. Gentleman to introduce personalities? Should he not stick to technical, constitutional and legal points? Is he right or wrong in saying that a Commissioner post is an office of profit under the Crown in the conventional sense? Does it come under the original conventional list in its intention or the present list? The hon. Gentleman may be right in saying--
Mr. Dykes : With respect, Madam Deputy Speaker, and forgive me for saying this, because I always like to take your guidance and advice, this is an important and interesting question. Many parliamentarians would not know whether a Commissioner holds an office of profit under the Crown in the conventional sense or a new post created by a treaty to which this country acceded later, so it is only indirectly an office of profit under the Crown because the United Kingdom has acceded to that treaty and the Crown is the representation of our signing that treaty. The hon. Gentleman is wrong, but perhaps he thinks that he is right.
Mr. Skinner : I come down on the opposite side to the hon. Gentleman simply because Commissioners receive British taxpayers' money. They do not get all their money from Britain. The money is put into one pot and they get £97,000 out of it. Their salary has been increased. They get taxpayers' money and in simple, straightforward, legal terms that means money from the Crown.
Moreover, Commissioners also swear an oath of allegiance to the Common Market. A member of the London residuary body does not do that. That is a second reason why the Speaker's Conference should examine this. It should examine this on remuneration grounds and on the question of taking the oath of allegiance to the Common Market. That is why this is an important matter, as the hon. Gentleman rightly suggested.
Mr. Dalyell : Is my hon. Friend happy about the comparison between Roy Jenkins and Leon Brittan? Leon Brittan did something quite different. He negotiated the resignation correspondence. Never in the history of our country has resignation correspondence from the Prime Minister of the day ended by saying,
"I hope it will not be long before you return to high office to continue your ministerial career."
How on earth would she have written that, given the events of Westland, for which Leon Brittan was the scapegoat, unless there had been--
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the motion before us is whether or not a writ is issued for the county constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire, and he is straying far from the point.
Mr. Skinner : We were discussing the number of disqualifying offices and I said that I was surprised that the long list does not yet include EEC Commissioners, which would be a likely addition at afuture Speaker's Conference. I was saying that Commissioners take an oath of allegiance and get remuneration which is partly paid by the British taxpayer--and we know what the Prime Minister thinks about taxpayers' money, except apparently on this occasion. I was about to refer to some other matters, including the surprise to me that one of the disqualifying offices is that of the Parliamentary
Column 618Commissioner for Administration. I can see why when I think about it, but I wonder whether the list will include the new ombudsman for The Sun as well. I can hardly believe that he qualifies as an ombudsman in the real sense. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West wants to talk about residuary matters.
Mr. Tony Banks : No, I do not want to talk about the residuary body. I look forward to the day when I can walk over to county hall and personally deliver the dismissal note from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) as Prime Minister to Godfrey Taylor, the present chair of the London residuary body, but that is another matter and I can wait a few more months.
Technically speaking, there is no need to have a by-election in Richmond, Yorks because the position of Commisssioner is not an office of profit under the Crown. It has nothing to do with the Crown in that respect. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said that it was an office above the Crown when one thinks about the EEC. Technically, it was not necessary for Leon Brittan to resign. He could have remained as the Member of Parliament for Richmond, Yorks and been on his nice little earner over at the EEC . It is not a question of the EEC taking Britain's taxes, but of Brittan taking Britain's taxes.
Mr. Skinner : In strict theoretical terms, that is absolutely correct. Unquestionably if the office of Commissioner is not on the disqualifications list, obviously Leon Brittan could have continued. It is true that it is possible for some Members of Parliament to have a dozen other jobs moonlighting while carrying on as Members of Parliament. It is conceivable that they could be Euro-Commissioners such people resign because, in the first instance someone in that position resigned. Once the practice was established, it would have been frowned upon to act otherwise.
Let us clear the matter up. It has been valuable for me to draw these points out this morning in moving the writ because hon. Members on both sides of the House, including Front Benchers, will be able to consider again whether a person who swears an oath of allegiance to another body and who receives, in part, taxpayers' money for taking on the job should be equated with a member of a residuary body, an ombudsman or whoever else is on the list.
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : My hon. Friend is getting close to an interesting question. Why is he moving a by-election writ? Is it not within the rules of the House of Commons that being a Commissioner of the European Community is incompatible with being a Member of Parliament. The rules of the EEC make it impossible for such a Commissioner to be a Member of a national Parliament, because that person cannot take the oath of loyalty to the European Parliament and forget his British loyalties. My hon. Friend has got it the wrong way round.
Mr. Skinner : That is another aspect of study that I would have to develop if I were moving a writ in the Common Market. I shall never do that --it is just not my scene. It is worth while examining that point, and I shall do so after the debate. If that is true, it means that the Government are concerned more with Common Market rules than with the rules of Parliament. That is an interesting point. We have long argued that the Common
Column 619Market has laws which are over and above those in this country. If my hon. Friend is correct, we have discovered in that narrow area another reason why the Common Market can superimpose its views on what is commonly called the Mother of Parliaments.
Mr. Stern : I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but the debate is moving so fast that I want to take him back to an important point that he made just before 11 o'clock. I should like to clarify this point because it is important in terms of how the subsequent debate develops. I think that the hon. Gentleman said that, if his motion to move the writ failed, it would not be possible to move the writ again this Session. Did he say that? I had intended, if I were fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye later, to oppose the motion on the ground that it was premature. If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, I shall have to attempt to persuade him instead to withdraw the motion rather than merely bring it to a vote. I should be grateful for clarification.
Mr. Skinner : This exercise has been one of testing opinion. I said at the beginning of my speech--I think that the hon. Gentleman has been here all the time--that writs are an aspect of parliamentary practice that are owned by the Front Benchers. Most hon. Members except for the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), who moved 17 writs in two minutes--
Mr. Skinner : Apart from the hon. Gentleman, most of us have never dealt with this aspect of parliamentary practice. This morning, apart from moving the writ, I was trying to gauge opinion. If I have tested the water correctly, I believe that some hon. Members have some reservations. But I am not sure yet. Obviously, we shall reach a point when the matter will pan out and we shall get a feeling as to whether it will be possible to carry the writ into practice. Make no mistake--I am not one of those people who would thwart the opportunities of the electors in Richmond, Yorks by being foolhardy and wanting to carry matters to the Nth degree. That is not my scene. Many hon. Members, including me, managed to pick up on the road this morning a few points on how writs are dealt with, what that is all about, whether it is satisfactory, whether we should add to the list of disqualified officers and whether some should be brought back. Those questions have emerged this morning-- [Interruption.]
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : Does my hon. Friend agree that a dangerous aspect of the rules of the House is being disclosed? My hon. Friend has told us that he would not risk defeat of the motion, but perhaps not everyone would act as responsibly as my hon. Friend intends. I am extremely worried by the disclosure that, if the motion is defeated, it will fall for the rest of the Session. I strongly feel that this is the wrong time of year to embark on the Richmond, Yorks by-election. If I were faced--
Mrs. Wise : My hon . friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is miserly in his willingness to give way to me, so I have to take the opportunity to intervene on the rare occasions he gives way. Will my hon. Friend examine the point which I have raised? I accept that he said that he will not press the motion to a vote, but he may change his
Column 620mind during the debate and those of us who want to oppose the motion could be left in an embarrassing position. If we oppose the motion now--
Mr. Skinner : I did not give way earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston because my attention was distracted by Bertie Wooster, who had just come in. I thought that he was going to come round with the Croft Original. The Minister for Trade is standing at the Bar. I was distracted when I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He is looking leisurely and I have no doubt that he is dressed for the occasion. He has Richmond clothes on--I shall rephrase that, he has Richmond Tory clothes on.
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Alan Clark) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is a sportsman and doughty adversary whose qualities I have recognised for many years, but it is a bit off to criticise a Member when he is on the other side of the Bar and cannot answer back. I am in the Chamber, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows because he follows parliamentary affairs attentively, because I an answering for the Government in an Adjournment Debate at half-past two.
Mr. Madden : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am concerned less about Bertie Wooster, who has just come in, than about Mr. Mendis, who may be going out in less than 20 minutes. You have just taken the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Leader of the House has been in and out of the Chamber several times in the past few minutes. You will not know that, earlier this morning, a number of us pressed the Leader of the House to make a statement on Mr. Mendis, who is due to be deported from Britain via Gatwick airport at 12 o'clock.
Mr. Tredinnick : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has made a somewhat humorous attack on the Minister for Trade claiming that he is rather strangely dressed. But, whereas most of us have appeared in the Chamber today dressed in suits--
Mr. Flannery : First let me thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and not only to me. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) : I think that my hon. Friend has been very generous in giving way, and I know that he will continue to be so. I want to raise a point about which many people are concerned. We are learning today about Commissioners. Is it always the Prime Minister--who, as Prime Minister, has an office under the Crown ; I know that the
Column 621Commissioner's job is not an office under the Crown--who alone has it in her gift to nominate a Commissioner? That does not seem a very democratic practice.
Mr. Skinner : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The question of how patronage is abused in the House of Commons, particularly by the Prime Minister of the day, would entail another five-hour debate. Many Opposition Members would argue that one of the things that a future Labour Government should do is get rid of much of that patronage and dwell more on the question of accountability. My hon. Friend has spotted exactly what goes on. It all adds to the problems of the electorate and the Back Benchers, and I hope that it will be a consideration in the Richmond by-election. The question of being a Member of Parliament vis-a-vis being a commissioner is bound to crop up. The election may turn on it : who knows? This issue of patronage as opposed to accountability is very important, and there may in the end be a verdict on my hon. Friend's point. We shall never be able to decide exactly what amalgam of points decides elections, but one thing is certain : the question whether patronage is a good thing and should be allowed will be part and parcel of the issue in the elector's mind.
Mr. Flannery : Hitherto in by-elections the anger of the electorate has been clearly shown, sometimes to the detriment of Labour Members. It is characteristic of the electorate to record its anger in its vote. In Ashfield, for instance, a Labour majority of over 20,000 disappeared because the electorate was clearly angry that anyone should be given such a job and that one person should be able to say who should have it.
Mr. Skinner : There are many examples, but we do not want to get into an argument with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on grounds of repetition. Since I have been in Parliament there have been about six cases in which it could be said that one of the ingredients of by-election defeat has been the connection with the Common Market. The patronage issue is another element. I have no doubt that if, rather than being endowed by patronage, the job was obtained through some form of election, electors' views would be completely different. The point is that it is handed out on a plate by the Prime Minister of the day--and that also applies to Labour Members who are given jobs. Although recommendations can be made, at the end of the day it is the Prime Minister who hands out the jobs.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : All these constitutional points are interesting, but will my hon. Friend return to a question that he has been dodging all the morning--whether it is suitable to hold a by-election in Richmond in such inclement weather? Has my hon. Friend made any inquiries of North Yorkshire county council about its present policy on road gritting, and how much it has had to spend? My impression is that the council has cut back, and that on polling day, in late February or early March, road conditions could be very treacherous. Would it not be wiser to leave the by-election until April, when the weather may be better?
Mr. Skinner : By-elections take place all the year round. We had one recently, and it could have snowed. The fact that there are people who say that we shall not have snow because of the breakdown of the ozone layer is neither here nor there. I cannot control the weather, and my hon. Friend must not ask me to control it. The Prime Minister might be able to help him, but I cannot sort that job out. All I can say is that by-elections have often taken place at this time of year.
My hon. Friend may not know that a council by-election was held in my constituency last night. On a very old register, there was a turn-out of 33 per cent. The SLD vote went down to 125, and there was a large swing to Labour. The people in Gillespie ward, where Jenny Sands was elected as a councillor, were determined to come out whatever the weather because they hate the Government so much. They wanted to show their support for Labour and they did.
Mr. Tony Banks : I want to bring my hon. Friend back to the question of why we need to move the writ today. I thought that we had established that it was possible under House of Commons rules for an EEC Commissioner to remain here as a Member of Parliament : we now understand that it is EEC rules that prevent that. No doubt the EEC will be rewriting "Erskine May" for us before long.
It seems wrong to me--I am sure that my hon. Friend will feel the same--for someone who has recently stood in a general election and offered himself to the electorate, as Leon Brittan did to the electors of Richmond, and who has then been returned, to leave that electorate, as it were, in the lurch. I feel that we should look at our rules again. When an hon. Member dies, as happened in the case of Pontypridd, the circumstances are simple and straightforward and we know exactly what we need to do. But once a Member of Parliament has entered into a contract with the electors, I think that he should fulfil that contract until the next general election.
Mr. Skinner : The situation is best summed up in this way. We have heard about four or five different inadequacies in the system for issuing writs, about disqualifying offices, and about the grey area of a link with the Common Market. Now that we have heard all those things, we must do something about them. We can talk all morning about why the Common Market should take precedence over the House of Commons. We could spend a lot of time and bore the Deputy Speaker. However, we must educate and organise ourselves. I refer to all the Committees in which the parliamentary Labour party and Conservative Members play a part, because some right hon. and hon. Government Members have been listening as well. We must use the evidence we have and make an imput into the Committees so that eventually, it gets through to the electoral law conference organised
Column 623intermittently by Mr. Speaker. In that way, changes will take place, there will be more accountability, and the Common Market mess will be cleared up.
This morning's discussion will enable us to take the evidence we have into the various byways and highways of parliamentary Committees of one kind or another--including all-party Committees, which are not my scene, but are for some right hon. and hon. Members--and strictly partisan parliamentary Committees, so that we may change the system. One can include other matters. One can introduce a procedural system to prevent people queue- jumping with Bills. That is important, but it is not what we are discussing this morning.
As I draw to a close the analytical part of my argument, I repeat that we must use the ammunition we have been given this morning. That is not to say that I want everybody to bury their heads in "Erskine May". Some right hon. and hon. Members will do that, while others will impart other information to the rest of us. That is the lesson to be learned this morning.
Mr. Morgan : This morning, we have heard a great deal about the by- election procedure. Five minutes ago, I thought that I was about to learn more about the physical structure of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was speaking, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Sir C. Smith) entered the Chamber and sat at the other end of the same Bench occupied by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who was seated at the other end. If that Bench were a see-saw, the hon. Member for Mossley Hill would have shot skywards and come down again, with snow on him. That might have required another by-election. We have learned that the structure of the Benches in this Chamber do not allow that to happen. That is one thing that we do not have to worry about.