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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Madam Speaker: Point of order--Mr. Hughes.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): I have a loud point of order, Madam Speaker.[Hon. Members: "Short, we hope."] Following the Prime Minister's answer yesterday to the question about the Commissioner for Standards, and knowing that you have said from the Chair in this Parliament that you were very keen that all Members' interests and reputations and that of the House in general be protected, may I ask your advice as to whether there is any way in which, by your direct or indirect authority, if the Commissioner for Standards indicates that he can complete his report before Parliament is dissolved, the House, in the proper way, can have the opportunity to consider it; and, more important, whether there is any way in which the interests of Members, whether or not they are featured in the report, can be protected?

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) rose--

Madam Speaker: I think this is a similar point of order.

Mr. Benn: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker--I am sorry that I have not been able to give you notice--I have been giving consideration to the point that has just been raised, on this basis. The prorogation of Parliament is entirely for the Crown and the Prime Minister, and does not relate in any way to your responsibilities; but the House continues to sit, as a House of Parliament, until 8 April.

During that period, Sir Gordon Downey, along with the Clerk of the House and the Editor of Hansard, remains an Officer of the House, and you, I put it to you, have the authority to instruct an Officer of the House to make available information that he has gathered at the request of the House, even though the House is prorogued and not able to meet.

Madam Speaker, you did make a great statement, in my opinion, about the standing of Parliament and the relationship of this matter to the standing of Parliament in the public mind. As we approach an election, that question will undoubtedly be a factor in the public mind, so I would ask you to consider very carefully whether you do have the authority, as I believe you may have and do have--and would be ready to exercise that authority--to allow the wishes of this Parliament to be fulfilled: namely, that Sir Gordon Downey's intentions be acted on, inasmuch as his report be published even though the House and the Committee were not able to consider it.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) rose--

Madam Speaker: Does it relate?

Mr. Jenkin: It does, Madam Speaker. I put it to you, contrary to the view that has just been expressed, that we are dealing here with the livelihoods of hon. Members. What we want is a dispassionate and fair appraisal of the facts of the case. Can that really be achieved by the Opposition parties forcing the issue now for their own political purposes?

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. It will be within your recollection

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that, during business questions and at other times, some very specific, rather narrow questions have been asked, particularly about Mr. Mohammed Al-Fayed. Does the Committee, or do you, have the power to order the publication of an interim report on those narrow questions, as opposed to the wider issue that may be absorbing most of the time and energies of the Committee? Are you entitled to require the publication of interim reports?

Mr. David Shaw (Dover) rose--

Madam Speaker: Does it relate?

Mr. Shaw: It relates indirectly--

Madam Speaker: No.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I must ask all hon. Members to resume their seats. I am not asking for points of order on this matter, but if Members have genuine points of order for me, I want to hear them. I do not want to hear any false ones; this is a very serious matter. I am almost ready now to respond, but I will hear any further genuine points of order that hon. Members may have.

Mr. Shaw: My point of order, Madam Speaker, relates to the Standards and Privileges Committee and to its work on this report. The real issue is that that report is holding up other reports on at least three Labour Members. There are allegations that filibustering has been going on during preparation of the report in question, so that the reports on the three Labour Members cannot be considered.

As I understand it, new complaints cannot be considered by the Committee, but on today's Order Paper there is an early-day motion signed by 47 Labour Members who are benefiting to the tune of £1 million in sponsorship and support from the Co-operative Movement. I should like to refer that to the Standards and Privileges Committee, but I do not believe I can, because the Committee is no longer scheduled to meet.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I can deal with that point of order immediately. If the hon. Gentleman has any such complaints they should go to the Commissioner for Standards--right away.

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

Madam Speaker: I cannot go on with these points of order, as I am now ready to respond. Does anyone have a new point of order? I see the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) trying to catch my eye; he is a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The comments of the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) are a fabrication.

Madam Speaker: I have already dealt with those comments. If the hon. Member for Dover has any evidence, he knows how to proceed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. On 14 October last year,

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you made a statement to the House in which you called these allegations "very serious", and said that they had undoubtedly worried the public as well as the House itself. You went on:

    "I would not be doing my duty as Speaker if I allowed this situation to pass without saying that I believe very strongly indeed that these matters must be resolved as soon as possible."--[Official Report, 14 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 463.]

I put it to you that the issue does not simply concern the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), who incidentally has stated that he wants the report to be published as quickly as possible. The House has been affected by continual allegations of sleaze, and it is important for the reputation of the House, not for the benefit of any single Member, that, before Parliament comes to an end, the report should be duly published. Are we to go into a general election campaign with this matter hanging over us?

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I am now ready to respond to these points of order; I shall take others later.

The House itself established the Standards and Privileges Committee, and required it to undertake an inquiry into the allegations of Mr. Al-Fayed. Only the Committee can be the judge of whether it can produce a report on those matters. Hon. Members may regret that it has been unable to do so, but I know that it is not for want of trying, and I pay my own tribute to the Commissioner for Standards, the Chairman and members of that Committee for the hard work they have put into their consideration of this and other matters.

As to the suggestion that the Committee should continue its work after prorogation, I have to tell the House that, constitutionally, it is simply not possible. Although the Committee has the power to sit during a normal recess, the effect of prorogation is to terminate all the current business of Parliament, including the work of Committees. I refer hon. Members to page 60 of "Erskine May", which says:

There is nothing that I can do as Speaker to alter that.

In answer to a direct question, I have no authority, either, to instruct the Commissioner to publish his report. That report must be given to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East): On a different point of order, Madam Speaker. I was wondering whether you could give me guidance on whether you have received any messages from Ministers at the Department of Health about the possibility of holding an urgent debate on the dire situation at Edgware general hospital, given that the position there is rendered more perilous by the delays of Barnet hospital's new developments and the problems at Northwick Park hospital. As you know, I have been trying to raise the matter in the past few days in some form, including an Adjournment debate. I should be grateful for your guidance.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has raised that point of order with me twice today. I have not been informed that a Minister seeks to make a statement on the matter.

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