Home Page

Column 321

Complaint of Privilege

3.30 pm

Madam Speaker : In view of the current comment surrounding the matter, I have decided to take the unusual step of informing the House of my decision on a privilege complaint that I have received relating to the statement in the House made last Friday by the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott).

My function in such cases is limited to deciding whether or not the matter should have the precedence accorded to matters of privilege. In the light of developments since I received the complaint--as a result of which the House is in possession of the facts and has received an apology--I have concluded that I would not be justified in myself granting precedence for this matter's further consideration. My decision in no way limits the right of hon. Members to pursue other ways of raising this matter.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As I understand the ruling that you have just given, your decision as to whether precedence was given was determined by the fact that the Minister concerned made an apology to the House of Commons and that, in your view, the House is now in possession of the facts.

I put it to you, Madam Speaker, that a precedent has been set whereby Ministers can now come to the House of Commons and deliberately mislead the House in the knowledge that, if they are subsequently found out, they can come before the House and provide the House with the facts as they believe them to be. If that were to happen, contempt would no longer be of any relevance to the Commons. In fact, the last application for contempt may well have been brought, in so far as you have now opened the door for Ministers deliberately to mislead the House in the knowledge that they can simply apologise to the House.

With all the respect in the world to you, Madam Speaker, I have to say that I find your ruling utterly astonishing. It is of grave concern to many of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker, which relates to the previous one, but, in a sense, casts a whole new light on the affairs of last Friday.

I ask you, Madam Speaker, to look at the transcript of two radio programmes from this morning on which the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Social Security appeared. Their remarks throw a whole new light on what happened last Friday in the House. We on this side of the House believe that you should scrutinise those remarks because your decision today may have to be changed in the light of the revelations of the Leader of the House. What they said about how business in the House is manipulated as common practice was quite astonishing, and it goes against any tradition of private Member's business in the House.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Minister concerned is one of the most respected Ministers at the Department of Social Security that we have had, and he is recognised on both sides of the House as a great friend

Column 322

of the disabled. He came to the House and said that he did not knowingly mislead the House but that now, realising that he may have done

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is obviously trying to be helpful, but I must deal with these points of order. We cannot have a discussion about the matter.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Other cases of possibly misleading statements to the House have been raised. Have you anything to say about the role of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) ? Would not it be in the interests of the House if the Prime Minister were now to ask the five hon. Members to cleanse the Order Paper of the amendments, which we now know were not drafted by them, so that the Bill can make some progress on 20 May ?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Arising out of your statement, it now seems apparent that Ministers are so arrogant--as they have been in power for 15 years--that they think they can get away with anything. They have now become judge and jury in their own court.

You should re-examine the evidence which has been given to you because, at some point, the Government have to be stopped in their tracks. As Speaker, you ought to bear in mind that you do not represent the Government ; you represent everybody in the House, including Back Benchers.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Given that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has support from a clear majority of hon. Members who have signed early-day motion No. 2, that it has clear support from every organisation of disabled people outside the House and that the Government have provided assistance to their Back Benchers to sabotage it, what assistance can you give me to ensure that the motion passed by the House on 29 April calling for time to be provided for all the remaining stages is implemented ?

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Was not the argument of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) slightly unworthy--I use the word carefully, as I have a high regard for the hon. Gentleman--by suggesting that any hon. Member would take a position on a Bill or a statement which he knew he could correct by an apology later ? I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can really have meant that, and I do not think that that would happen.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Speaker : Order. I will not allow the House to get into a debate on the matter. I am dealing with serious points of order ; we will not have a debate.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale) : Further to the point of order raised by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), Madam Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) to mislead the House--which I think was disgraceful--without coming to the House to make a statement ?

Several hon. Members : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Column 323

Madam Speaker : Order. I will deal with all these points of order, but I hope that they will now be rather speedy.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I refer you to Monday's Hansard ? The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said :

"On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I would like to make it absolutely clear that I raise my own amendments. I sought consultation, but it would be totally unfair to suggest that they came from any other source."--[ Official Report , 9 May 1994 ; Vol. 243, c. 23.]

In view of what was said by the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People yesterday, the hon. Lady's statement cannot possibly be accurate.

As the Bill, which would have given aid to disabled people, was lost last Friday as a result of lying and cheating by the Government, should not further time be provided ? It would be quite wrong if people who desperately need the measure which is being advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) were to be denied their rights purely and simply as a result of cheating and lying by Ministers.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. You know what lies at the bottom of these exchanges--the relationship between the activities of Tory Back Benchers and the private Members' Bill procedure. You will probably also know that my Bill, due for debate on Friday this week and unopposed on Second Reading, now has 108 amendments and five new clauses tabled to it. What protection do Back Benchers have from obvious Government interference in our time for getting legislation through the House ?

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Did the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) notify my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) that he intended to mention her ? Furthermore, should he have been allowed to use the word "lying", which I heard him say ?

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Arising out of your response to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)

Madam Speaker : Order. I have not yet responded to any point of order.

Dr. Reid : I am referring to your response to the letter that he sent you. May I comment on the implications of that response for the future ?

As I understood it, your statement that you felt you should no longer play a part in this matter--although other options are open--was based on two premises : one, that events have moved on since you received the letter, which they certainly have ; and two, that we have heard a personal statement, which means that the facts have been laid before the House.

I believe that the facts have not been laid before the House. For the House to ascertain facts, propositions purporting to be facts must be open to question and to criticism. Your statement today implied that a personal statement from the Dispatch Box, which cannot be questioned or criticised and thus cannot establish any facts, can lay such a matter to rest. That will be used as a precedent by future Speakers, who may say that the facts have been laid before the House in this way.

Column 324

In response to the points made today, may I ask you to reflect further on this specific point, because I fear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington said, that your statement may undermine our rules of contempt?

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you have taken into account the procedure rules for Ministers which, in paragraph 27, state that Ministers have a duty not to mislead the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has made it clear in a letter to me that if Ministers knowingly mislead the House they should resign.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In an earlier point of order, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) said that his Bill had a great deal of support. Can you confirm that one of the reasons why the Bill did not make progress last Friday was the fact that 100 Members were not present in the House to vote for the closure ?

Is it in order for Opposition Members to question your rulings in this shocking manner ?

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) rose

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) rose

Madam Speaker : Order. I shall take just two more points of order on this matter.

Mr. Flynn : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You are the defender of the rights of Back Benchers and the custodian of the reputation of this House. We all take pride in the quality of the democracy in this country. During the past couple of weeks, Bills that should have been fully discussed, without time limits, have not been discussed because spoiling amndts have been tabled, such as the 108 tabled in an attempt to wreck the Tobacco Advertising Bill. Is there not a grave danger that our reputation abroad may be sullied and that the charge could be levelled--I do not make it myself--that hon. Members are abusing their elected office to further their own ambitions and financial interests ?

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Speaker : No. I am not taking any more points of order. Mr. Tony Banks rose

Madam Speaker : I will hear Mr. Banks.

Mr. Banks : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Since the whole House knows that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) is scarcely capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, it beggars belief that she could have drafted any of the amendments. It appears that she is in Malawi at the moment. Do you have the power to call her back so that she can answer the very serious points that are being raised ?

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) rose

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West) rose

Madam Speaker : Order. I think that I have the flavour of the House. I do not want to curtail this, although it is not a debate ; these are points of order to me. I will take points of order from two hon. Members-- one on either side of the House--and that is all.

Column 325

Mr. Alan Williams : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In the ruling that you gave, you made two points : first, the possession of a fact ; and, secondly, the receipt of an apology. May I make the point to you, Madam Speaker, that possession of a fact may in no way exonerate what those facts reveal ? You have not said "because of the facts". It is simply because they have been revealed. Our contention is that the facts still indicate that the House was deliberately misled.

Therefore, what you are in danger of doing--quite unintentionally, I am sure, because I know of your concerns for the rights of Back Benchers in the House--is establishing a precedent under which merely giving the facts, even when they are self-condemning, then apologising for the fact that what one did was wrong, in itself exonerates an hon. Member from further action. I think that that ruling needs reconsideration.

Sir Anthony Grant : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. When you come to respond to all these points of order, will you reiterate that it is the long-standing custom and tradition of the House that a personal statement made by a Minister is heard without question and without debate ? Will you further emphasise that attempts to get around that tradition and custom by the use of bogus points of order is an abuse of the House ?

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As someone who was here on Friday, I was upset by what happened, as are hon. Members who have intervened and who were not here on Friday. I accept what my right hon. Friend the Minister said. I am prepared to let things stand as they are. He is an honourable man ; he has made a statement. I think that the House should accept it, and we should take it no further.

Madam Speaker : As the House knows, a personal statement should be heard in silence and not questioned later. As for hon. Members who believe that a new precedent is being created, that is not the case. I hope that there are no such incidents in future, but if there are similar incidents, of course, I will look at each case and determine it on its merits.

As far as the radio transmission is concerned, I have not heard it, although I am a keen radio listener. I shall certainly call for a recording of it.

Column 326

The activities and comments of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) have been mentioned today. May I remind the House that only yesterday the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) raised a point of order with me, saying that he would be writing to me on the matter, because he believed that it was a question of privilege. I have not yet received any correspondence relating to that. [Interruption.] Order. This is a serious matter.

Other hon. Members have raised, in various ways, the question of the legislation, because they are now concerned about its future. The House will understand that the progress of legislation is not a matter for the Speaker ; it is a question for the usual channels and for negotiations on the future of the Bill. Of course, hon. Members are well aware of how they can pursue the matter.

As far as the Prime Minister's actions are concerned, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) cannot hold me responsible for any actions that he might or might not take. I have sufficient responsibilities of my own in the matter.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : He is not responsible for his own actions.

Madam Speaker : Order. I am the custodian of the interests of the House. I have taken this decision-- [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley makes light of a good many things. I take this matter very seriously indeed.

I have come to a decision about this after a great deal of consideration. As to precedents, I have seen a good deal of documentation. The decision has been made. It is mine and mine alone. My decision in no way limits the rights of hon. Members to pursue other ways of raising the matter.

May I end on this note ? Sometimes--very often nowadays--the House becomes very bitter in its exchanges. We would do well to respect the different political parties here, and to respect each other. I ask hon. Members again to remember the words of "Erskine May", because we rely so much on that volume :

"Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language."

I hope that we shall watch our language in all our exchanges in the future.

Column 327

Points of order

3.50 pm

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This morning, the Government published a report by Professor Alan Wilson on complaints and redress procedure. I leave aside the fact that its criteria excluded the impact of national health service changes introduced in 1990, and the operation of professional misconduct procedures. An important report of that kind, dealing with issues of great moment to people using and working in the NHS, would normally have been presented to the House in the form of an oral statement.

What I wish to raise, however, is an aspect of the report's publication that I would expect hon. Members on both sides of the House to consider important. In the press release put out by the Secretary of State for Health when she launched the report this morning--at public expense--five individuals were quoted. At least one of those individuals, as chief executive of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, has a direct interest in the outcome and recommendations of the report. They had seen it before its publication, and the Department had allowed them to place their comments on record, for publication, before hon. Members-- including the official Opposition--had had access to it.

I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker. Does not that extraordinary action by the Department of Health--finding a way around allowing hon. Members the privilege of seeing reports at the time of their publication and enabling those with an interest in such important matters to comment on them at that time--infringe the privilege to which I have referred ?

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman and the House are well aware of my strongly held view that statements on Government policy, and other important statements, should be made in the House in the first instance, whether they are made orally or by means of written answers. It is for the Minister concerned to determine the category into

Column 328

which he or she wishes the statement to fall. I am informed that, in this instance, the Secretary of State has written to all hon. Members, and that copies of the relevant document to which the hon. Gentleman has referred have been placed in the Vote Office and the Library.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is a completely different point, although it concerns a Minister misleading the House.

A few moments before the exchanges about the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, the Minister for Energy implied in his reply to my question that I had supported opencast. I know that the Minister has not the guts to come back and admit that he misled the House. The truth is that --as can be seen from the record of the Report stage of the Coal Industries Bill a few weeks ago--I have opposed every opencast application in my constituency since I came to the House 24 years ago ; but I do not suppose that the Minister has the guts to withdraw what he said.

Madam Speaker : That was not a point of order ; it was more like a personal statement.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 97 (Matters relating exclusively to Scotland),

That the Matter of law and order in Scotland, being a Matter relating exclusively to Scotland, be referred to the Scottish Grand Committee for its consideration.--[ Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

Question agreed to.


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


That the draft Local Government Act 1988 (Competition)(Defined Activities)(Housing Management) Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.] Question agreed to.

Column 329

Public Records (Amendment)

3.53 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the transfer of certain records in the custody of the Registrar General to the Public Records Office.

One of the unsung glories of the United Kingdom is the wealth of archives that this nation has at its disposal. In western Europe there is nowhere, except possibly the Vatican, where documentation illustrating the history of our nation survives, representing so many different institutions and encompassing the history of so many centuries.

There are two broad categories into which the archives might be divided. First, there are the records of the courts of law and the institutions of government. They are held today in the Public Record Office in its buildings at Kew and in Chancery lane, supervised, ultimately, by the Keeper of the Public Records, accountable to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. Secondly, there are the records of births, marriages and deaths held at St. Catherine's house in Aldwych in the custody of the Registrar General, accountable to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

The history of registration in England can be dated back to September 1538, and anyone who, like myself, has imbibed his history at the feet of Sir Geoffrey Elton will know that the modern administrative history of our land began during the ministry of Thomas Cromwell. It was in 1538 that Cromwell's injunctions instructed every parson, vicar and curate to keep a book to record the wedding, christening and burial of every inhabitant of the parish. The parish was bound to provide

"one sure coffer with two locks and keys"

one for the incumbent and one for the church wardens--in which to house the register. A fine of no less than three shillings and fourpence was imposed on anyone who failed in his statutory duty to maintain the register.

In 1597 an effort was made to bring the system of registration on to a national basis with a statute ordering that a parchment copy of each parochial register should be sent to the diocesan authorities. In later centuries the history of registration became bound up with the various efforts to establish a system of civil marriage in England and Wales.

Eventually, in 1833 a parliamentary Select Committee reported to the House that a national civil register of births, marriages and deaths should be set up. That gave rise in 1836 to the General Register Act. The significance of that measure could be seen by the fact that the Bill was introduced in the House by the then Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, the debate was replied to by the Conservative spokesman, Sir Robert Peel, and the Bill was introduced in the other place by the then Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne. The original purpose of the national system of registration was primarily to enable individuals to prove their identity, to prove rights of succession, and, in particular, to prove title to land. In recent years there has been a new surge of interest in the records of registration, largely as a result of growing and widespread public interest in family history.

In 1993 there were no fewer than 435,000 applications for certificates at the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys at St. Catherine's house and at Southport. That

Column 330

development of family history has brought to light an operational problem. The public have access not to the registers themselves but only to the indices to the registers. In practice, that means that, if I go to St. Catherine's house and wish to search for the marriage certificate of my great-grandfather, I need to identify an entry in the index of what I believe to be the appropriate year, find what looks like the right name and roughly the right date and in what I believe to be the right district. I then have to pay £5.50 to obtain a copy of the original certificate enrolled in the register. I must then wait four working days for the copy to reach me. Alternatively, I can use the 24-hour service from the OPCS, but I must pay £20 for that privilege. If I am mistaken and I obtain the certificate of the wrong man, I am not entitled to a refund.

The only option left open to me is to make a further journey to St. Catherine's house or to write a further letter to Southport and to work again from the index. Someone with my surname probably has a 90 per cent. chance of getting it right from the index, but my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who is sitting in front of me and for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), let alone the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith), might find it more difficult to be certain that they were chasing the right name through an index without access to the original registers. Many amateur family historians who pursue their genealogical researches as a hobby and not as the means of making a living face inconvenience and immense cost in time and money. My Bill intends to make those records available by transferring registers that are 100 years or more old from the Registrar General to the Public Record Office. There would be no logistical problem involved in making registers available ; microfilms of the original registers already exist.

My Bill is not the first attempt at such a reform in Parliament. My noble Friend Lord Teviot piloted a Bill through the other place in 1983, but the intervention of the general election in that year meant that no progress could be made in the Commons and the Bill lapsed. At that time, his Bill had support from the Government and the formidable support and encouragement of the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone.

More recently, in 1990, the Government issued a White Paper on registration which acknowledged the problem, but, sadly, no action was taken to put its proposals into effect. The White Paper proposed an alternative route for making registers publicly available. It suggested establishing a central library separate from the Public Record Office because it was unlikely that suitable premises could be found in central London for a public search room and for the storage of the original registers. If my Bill is unsuccessful, I hope that the Government will press ahead to secure the wider public access promised in 1990 and that they will consider again the means to encourage such public access because, since 1990, things have changed.

In 1996, the Public Record Office extension at Kew will be completed, which will enable mediaeval and legal records at Chancery lane to be transferred to the new building at Kew. That will leave vacant the elegant Victorian building at Chancery lane, the first purpose-built record office in the modern world. It would be appropriate to turn that building into a national centre for the study of family history. The census rooms in the Public Record Office at Chancery lane already attract about 82,000

Column 331

searchers every year. It would be logical to use the space made available in 1996 to make the registers publicly available on microfilm in search rooms in Chancery lane. Any genealogist would tell us that the two categories of record are complementary. This is a common-sense Bill, which will do some good for some deserving people, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Lidington, Mr. David Sumberg, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. Alex Carlile, Mr. Derek Enright, Mr. Bob Dunn, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, Mr. Bernard Jenkin and Mrs. Cheryl Gillan.

Next Section

  Home Page