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Parliamentary Question

(Madam Speaker's Ruling)

3.30 pm

Madam Speaker : I have to give a ruling to the House in response to a point of order from the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) last Wednesday. I undertook to examine the circumstances in which a question was tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) to the Secretary of State for Scotland. I have established that a parliamentary clerk in the Scottish Office did in fact, as the hon. Member for Dumbarton suggested, send a question to the Table Office, and that the question was written on a question form pre-signed by the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside. Since the form was signed by an hon. Member, the Table Office behaved perfectly properly in accepting it. I hope, however, that any practice that may have grown up of pre-signing forms will now cease.

I must make it absolutely clear that the tabling of a question is a formal parliamentary proceeding which must be undertaken only with the specific approval of an hon. Member, if not by himself or herself personally. What happened was an abuse-- [Interruption.] Order. I have not finished. I have received apologies from the Secretary of State and from the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside, together with the undertakings that such an occurrence will not be repeated. In raising this point of order with me, the hon. Member for Dumbarton said that he was referring the matter to the Procedure Committee. It will be for that Committee to decide whether it wishes to consider any wider implications that this incident may have for the rules of tabling questions. For my part, I accept the apologies and the undertakings that have been given, but I make it absolutely clear to the entire House that there must be no recurrence whatsoever of this practice.

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Business of the House

3.32 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) : With permission, I should like to make ashort business statement.

The subject for debate on Thursday 21 January will now be "events in the Gulf and the Royal Air Force", on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I believe that that will be for the general convenience of the House. The House will also wish to know that, as I said last Thursday, the debate will be opened by my right and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and will now be wound up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) : I thank the Leader of the House for that announcement. He will know that we have been pressing for a meeting of the Security Council and for an opportunity for the House to discuss these matters. I am sure that the Leader of the House will understand, especially in the light of what was said during last week's business questions, that inevitably it is likely that the debate will concentrate on the position in the Gulf. I hope that he will bear it in mind that there may be a further request for a service debate on issues involving the provision of service by the Royal Air Force at a later date.

Mr. Newton : I note the hon. Lady's point. As I understand it, and subject always to the Chair, it will be in order for hon. Members to raise other points, but I have no doubt that the House will expect--as I do--that the main focus of the debate will be the situation in the Gulf.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the treasured single-day debate on the Royal Air Force will be largely about the Royal Air Force, because it is active in the Gulf?

Mr. Newton : That is a helpful point, and I think that it will command some assent from the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett).

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : In view of the answers we have been given, would it not now be intelligent to consider whether the debate on Thursday should concentrate exclusively on events in the Gulf, so that as many hon. Members as possible with an interest in that topic might have an opportunity to contribute, and whether, therefore, a separate and distinct day should be assigned for a debate on the Royal Air Force?

Mr. Newton : We can all agree that it is highly likely that the main focus of the debate will be the Gulf. However, as it is principally the RAF that has been involved in the Gulf, I am not sure that it would be right to rule out reference to other matters affecting the RAF.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : As the debate on Thursday will deal with issues affecting the lives of British soldiers and of people throughout the middle east, and will therefore be desperately important and will require the total attention of hon. Members, can the Leader of the House give us an assurance that the Government will not seek to make Members tired and harassed by expecting them to debate vital issues, like the social chapter, in the early hours of the morning--

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Madam Speaker : Order. I think that I can help the House. This is a very narrow business statement, which does not relate to that matter.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Is the Leader of the House prepared to give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that there will be no final decision to send British troops to Kuwait until Thursday's debate has taken place?

Mr. Newton : As the latest information that I received before coming to the Chamber was that no formal request of this kind had been received, the appropriate thing for me to say is that these are matters for discussion in the debate on Thursday.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset) : Will the motion be drawn sufficiently widely to enable us to consider what happens as we send troops and naval personnel to the Gulf? I am thinking in particular of the use of the flag officer sea training facilities at Portland, which have been used for every deployment to the Gulf and to other theatres of war, and of the quality of the training that is provided there.

Mr. Newton : All this will be subject to your views, Madam Speaker, as to what is in order. As I have said, the debate will take place on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. It could not be drawn more widely than that.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Defence will open the debate. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman be in a position to tell us what impact the deployment of troops in the Gulf area would have on the extra battalion in Northern Ireland?

Madam Speaker : Order. That question also is far too wide. The Leader of the House has made a very narrow

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statement about a simple change of title. He has paid the House the courtesy of informing it of the change and of letting it know which Secretaries of State will handle the debate. I must ask hon. Members to restrict the questions to those matters.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) : Will my right hon. Friend explain why he did not consider linking this matter with the deployment of British troops in the Yugoslav theatre--

Madam Speaker : Order. I refer the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to "Erskine May", which, on page 297, makes it very clear that questions arising from a supplementary statement of this nature should be very narrow. I shall take only a few more questions.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Can the Leader of the House give us an assurance, first, that no further military attacks involving British forces will take place before the debate ; and, secondly, that it will be possible to move an amendment to the Adjournment motion so that those who are opposed to the use of force will be able to register their opposition?

Mr. Tredinnick : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Order. I take points of order after statements.

Mr. Newton : As you, Madam Speaker, above everyone, know, questions about what would or would not be in order are for you rather than for me. However, my understanding is that amendments to motions for the Adjournment would not normally be in order. As to the earlier part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I repeat what I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South about not seeking to pre-empt the debate on Thursday.

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Points of Order

3.40 pm

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have been trying to follow the ruling that you have just given, and I do not want to transgress in any way, but it occurs to me that perhaps the deployment of forces in the Iraq theatre is related, in that the numbers of troops--

Madam Speaker : Order. I am trying to help the hon. Gentleman and the House. I will read the two lines from "Erskine May" that relate directly to what has just taken place :

"The Speaker has ruled that when a narrow business statement is made,"--

which is exactly what has taken place--

"changing only one item of business, supplementary questions are confined to that item."

The Chair will allow a wide debate. It is a debate on the Adjournment and, as the Leader of the House has said, it could not be much wider than that.

Several Hon. Members : On a point of order.

Madam Speaker : Order. I am quite capable of seeing and hearing hon. Members.

The House has been delayed by points of order that are simply points of frustration.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : I hope that my point of order is entirely relevant. The debate on Thursday, now merged, means that the detailed consideration of a number of aspects of the problems and conditions of the Royal Air Force will now not be able to attract the attention or be given the time that would otherwise be available ; problems such as contractorisation, career prospects and procurement will all be diminished.

I know that you cannot instruct the Government on how they should structure business, Madam Speaker, but my point of order is this. Every year, for so long that a precedent has been established, the House has had the opportunity for regular debates about each of the three armed forces. The abuse of this precedent--that is what it is--means that proper consideration of the service in question will be minimised.

I ask you, Madam Speaker, or, if you cannot give a ruling, the Leader of the House, to give an assurance that there will not be a long delay before the House has an opportunity to have a debate in which the detailed considerations and anxieties of the Royal Air Force can be considered.

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman is aware that I cannot rule on that matter. It seems to me to be the sort of subject that he might put to the Leader of the House during business questions at some time.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Yesterday there were a number of points of order arising out of your response to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) when he made a Standing Order No. 20 application about Iraq. I think that it is fair to suggest that your reply left the door ajar. It seems to me--I would like you to respond to this if that is possible--that this business statement today is some recognition of that half-open door, but that a debate has been produced that is unsatisfactory not only to my hon.

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Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who wanted to speak about the Air Force in detail, but also to those of us who would have liked a proper vote in respect of Iraq and the bombing, and the lapdog attitude of the Government to Bush, that man who is drugged to the earholes. We all wanted to take part in a principled debate, but I am afraid that it is like the curate's egg : it is a bit of both and it is not the right answer that you promised yesterday.

Madam Speaker : I promised nothing yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he looks at Hansard. He must draw his own conclusions.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you confirm that an Adjournment motion will not allow substantive amendments to be tabled? This seems unsatisfactory to whole range of opinion in the House, as many hon. Members would have liked to submit amendments on the degree of United Nations sanction for any action that might be taken.

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman and the House are aware that no amendments can be tabled to an Adjournment motion.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Can you confirm, Madam Speaker, what I think you just said--that it will be possible to have a vote on Thursday evening so that those of us who do not support the Government's policy in the Gulf may have an opportunity to register that dissent, as opposed to the consensus that has been presented to the whole country until now?

Madam Speaker : I did not say that at all. I made the point that it was a motion on the Adjournment. The hon. Gentleman knows what that means as well as I do : there can be no amendments to it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it possible for you to use your good offices to persuade the Leader of the House to review what he has just told us? A number of hon. Members who have spoken are opposed to what has been happening. Those of us with different points of view, with reservations, nevertheless believe that it is necessary to have a debate on what is happening in Iraq and what should or should not be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover and other hon. Friends have made the good point that no one will be absolutely certain about the debate : will it be mainly about Iraq or the situation in Iraq? Why not simply have a debate on Iraq?

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who said that matters relating to the RAF will not be adequately raised, surely there is a case for having a proper debate, as always, on the services including the RAF. Will the Leader of the House consider changing his mind?

Madam Speaker : Such questions must be put to the Leader of the House during business questions. It is not a matter for the Speaker of the House, who has no responsibility whatever for arranging the business programme. It is for the Leader of the House and the usual channels, as the House knows.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I raise a matter of greatest importance

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which has come to the attention of the House during the past quarter of an hour, and I seek your advice. Although I do not want to deal with the specific case on which you rule, there is a wider case, which is the politicisation of the civil service. It seems that, over the past 14 years, there is a possibility that the objectivity of the civil service, which is precious, is now in question. How can we have a full examination of that matter by the House?

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman can try to achieve that by putting a question to the Government during business questions. He can achieve it either through debate or by questions in the House.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My point is that--this is from the Front Benches--the change of title of Thursday's debate has changed the whole character of the debate. In practice, it will be a debate on Iraq. During the three previous debates on the Gulf in the last Parliament, in a consensus, supporters for the Government, mostly Privy Councillors, were wheeled out on both sides, largely to the exclusion of any significant extent of dissent.

There is a significant extent of dissent among Opposition Members towards the Government's supine support of American policies. I hope that, with your fresh occupation of the Chair, Madam Speaker, bringing a new view to the House, the consensus which prevailed in those three debates on the Gulf will not prevail on Thursday.

Madam Speaker : That is hardly a point of order for me. The debate on Thursday is in the hands of the House itself.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. For the benefit of the House, could you rule whether the previous five points of order put to you were points of order or points of frustration?

Madam Speaker : They were certainly not points of order. I will not attempt to describe what they were, but they certainly were not points of order.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You and the House will know that I am a member of the Select Committee on Defence ( Hon. Members :-- "Very important."] I agree, and if anyone thinks differently, they are fairly stupid. Arrangements have been made for the Select Committee on Defence to visit Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe on the day of the debate. I do not need to go into great detail except to say that that will mean that many of the members of the Select Committee

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will be excluded from the debate because they are required--[ Hon. Members :-- "You can choose."] I will continue-- [Interruption. ]

Madam Speaker : Order. I am trying to find out what the point of order is. The hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly come to his point now.

Mr. Cook : I am trying to remove some of the ignorance and short- sightedness which is evident on the Government Benches. If an hon. Member is to fulfil his duty to the Chamber, I must be present on the Select Committee visit. For us to get back from the visit in time will mean that probably only one hon. Member will be able to contribute to the debate. My point of order is whether you, Madam Speaker, can prevail on the usual channels to institute some device that will ensure consultation to include members of a Select Committee on a particular topic, rather than exclude them. It is a perfectly reasonable question, after all.

Madam Speaker : Hon. Members who speak in the House must first catch my eye, irrespective of whether they are members of a Select Committee, Standing Committee or whatever.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Would you ask questions in the right places about the abuse of the letter board yesterday by the Secretary of State for Education?

Madam Speaker : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give me more information and come to my office. I always try to help Members on such matters.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : As someone who served in the RAF in Iraq, do I stand a chance of being called on Thursday?

Madam Speaker : That is the most pertinent point of order that has been put to me today.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Liverpool Housing Action Trust

That the draft Liverpool Housing Action Trust (Area and Constitution) Order 1993 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

Question agreed to.

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Telephone Entertainment Services (Supervision) 3.51 pm

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a statutory body for the supervision of telephone entertainment services. I return again to the issue of filthy phone calls and, most specifically, those which take place in premium-rate services, about which I have spoken to the House many times. Recently, I spoke in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill at great length. Therefore, I have no desire to go into the sordid cases again. Instead, I wish to deal with the detail of how such services are regulated at present under the system of self-regulation.

I welcome the concern expressed by the Leader of the House. He is in his place for the debate, as he promised at business questions last week. That gives me an opportunity to clarify my question to him. I mentioned that, like other right hon. and hon. Members, he had daughters. I felt that that would give right hon. and hon. Members a different perspective on the offences against some young ladies which I have raised in the House over the years and the consequences of allowing the services to continue.

The Leader of the House seemed to be under the impression that I was suggesting that the daughters of Members might have been involved in the lines. I was not. I am worried about the safety of women away from the services that we are discussing--on the street and in public places. I want right hon. and hon. Members who are members of the Government and have powers over such matters to think along those lines. It might be educative and informative for them to speak to their wives and daughters about the issue that I have raised, about which there have been mountains of publicity in the past six or seven years.

When I speak of the need to improve regulation, it is obviously a criticism of the existing system of self-regulation under the so-called Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services. I have long believed that the system is inadequate, and have said so on many occasions in the House. Events in recent weeks and months prove the point that I have made. The committee is compromised, because it is funded by the industry which it is supposed to police. It is compromised because its chairman is on record as saying that he does not see anything wrong with pornographic conversations between two people. He ignored all the other problems of which Members of Parliament will be well aware.

The premium rate services started in 1985. ICSTIS was set up following growing public disquiet in 1986. What has it achieved? It has achieved one or two good things, but has done so always by the back door, picking away at the periphery and never attacking the heart of the problem. ICSTIS did not deal directly with the huge bills that youngsters were running up for their families or that employees were running up for small businesses. It established a fund, made providers of such services put up a bond of £50,000, appointed a retired High Court judge and established a bureaucracy to vet claims.

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My view then, as now, is that, if a service being sold in the marketplace is useful and people want to buy it, there is no need for such a fund. Why try to sanitise something before it is delivered to the marketplace? That process should have been attacked, but that did not happen.

All the chatlines that caused problems with high bills have now gone because the providers of such services would not put up the increased bond, and because I and many other hon. Members encouraged people to apply for compensation from the fund, which killed it. Why go through all that trauma? Why punish families with debt? Why let all that continue without attacking the problem?

The only sanction that ICSTIS can apply is--after tortuous procedures--to recommend to British Telecom that the provider of such a service should be disconnected. I and several newspapers have given evidence to ICSTIS and to other people that the system does not work. As soon as the providers are cut off, they set up somewhere else and usually provide even worse services than before.

In her latest investigation, Denna Allen, a national journalist from The Mail on Sunday, said :

"British Telecom pulled the plug on Michael Allen's firm EasyBreak last week following revelations that girls were breaking the law by talking dirty.

But wealthy Allen has been advertising a new Best Live One-To-One' sex line called Greetland in The Sport newspapers.

So as EasyBreak lines were silenced, Greetland numbers were humming with callers."

Both companies share the same Manchester adddress and Allen, whose wife's firm Comtel was originally cut off, is carrying on in business. Comtel was owned by his wife and was closed down three years ago when I was instrumental in getting a BBC journalist into its offices--I had to get her down via a fire escape because things were getting risky, but that is another story.

ICSTIS can demand tapes which are often doctored--as the providers have admitted--and can cut off the providers, who then go somewhere else and perhaps nominate their spouse as the next owner of the business. Such providers still employ people in Dickensian conditions, and they still corrupt and demean which is against section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984.

Parliament cannot touch the people whom I have been complaining about for so long, and there is something sinister, demeaning and wrong about the whole process. I want to bring the subject back into the public arena, so that Parliament can restore its authority over such matters. The Telecommunications Act is ripe for fresh consideration, as people have been able to skirt around section 43 willy-nilly. ICSTIS cannot help, OFTEL will not help and Parliament should reconsider the whole subject and do something about it. As the list of sponsors shows, I have all-party support for the Bill. Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Terry Lewis, Mr. Don Dixon, Ms. Ann Coffey, Mrs. Ann Winterton, Mr. Roy Beggs, Mr. Peter Hardy, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Terry Rooney, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. William Ross and Mr. George Howarth.

Telephone Entertainment Services (Supervision)

Mr. Terry Lewis accordingly presented a Bill to establish a statutory body for the supervision of telephone entertainment services : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 5 February and to be printed. [Bill 115.]

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Orders of the Day

European Communities (Amendment) Bill

Considered in Committee [Progress, 18 January]

[Mr. Michael Morris

in the Chair ]

3.59 pm

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside) : On a point of order, Mr. Morris. Is it still a convention of the House for hon. Members to give notice to other hon. Members when they propose to make personal attacks on them in the Chamber? I have in mind column 71 of yesterday's Hansard. Is it also a convention for the hon. Member who makes the attack to give way to the recipient? I have in mind column 73.

I do not seek to detain the House for long, Mr. Morris, and I know that you will decide whether the conventions were observed last night. Let me say, however, that I do not think that they were observed ; let me say also--as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) repeatedly refused to give way last night--that her assertion was completely untrue.

The Deeside Toyota engine plant formed the centrepiece of my election address. The general managers of Toyota UK and Toyota Deeside wrote separately to thank me, suggesting that my co-operation and support, and my visits to the engine factory, had been much appreciated. It is a magnificent factory, and I feel that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South behaved in a rather shabby manner last night.

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