Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. As a result of the concerns expressed yesterday on the Disqualifications Bill, I sought advice behind the Chair as to whether there would be any opportunity to enable Members to challenge yesterday's motion on the timing of the Committee of the whole House.

We did not oppose the idea that the Bill should come to a Committee of the whole House--and nor, indeed, did other Members who were unhappy about the timing--so there was no objection to that fact when the Government moved the motion. There was opposition over when the Committee of the whole House should meet, but the Clerks advised me--perfectly properly--that there is no way of challenging the Government's choice of date for Committees on public business, as there is for those on private business.

I seek your guidance, or your consideration, Madam Speaker, as to whether there might be ways in which colleagues on both sides of the House, at any stage, could challenge the Government's inconsiderate decision as to when a Committee of the whole House might sit. Today's Committee might sit late tonight, or through the night, and many people will not have had a chance to consider yesterday's proceedings.

Madam Speaker: I should like to have had notice of the hon. Gentleman's point of order. I can tell him, briefly, that I know of no way of challenging the Government when they decide that business will be done the following day.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): Further to that point of order but not directly related to it, Madam Speaker. The Government are using their overall majority of 170 to override not only the interests of Back Benchers, but your traditional responsibility to Members of the House. I refer to the proposal, made last week, that a motion would be put to the House to circumvent the use of the Oath to admit Members to the House and, thereafter, to its facilities. I endorse the points of order made by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), and ask for your advice as to whether, when there is consistent abuse by Government of the protocols of the House, there are any means whereby Back Benchers' interests can be protected.

Madam Speaker: I see no abuse of the House. The British electorate gave one particular party a large

25 Jan 2000 : Column 151

majority; that is the democratic process. If I thought that there was abuse in any way, I would want to be the first to ensure that it ceased.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not want to cover the same ground again. However, earlier, you gave a ruling in respect of the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) in which you referred to decisions of Governments to make a statement, or to respond to a matter of importance to the House through a written answer. Bearing in mind the fact that the package on student fees in Scotland was decided by the coalition Government in Edinburgh yesterday--indeed, I took part in a "Newsnight" Scotland broadcast in which the details of the package were discussed quite freely--would it not have been appropriate and a courtesy to the House, either for a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box today to make a statement, or at least for there to have been a written answer in today's Hansard?

Madam Speaker: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some time ago.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I have dealt with all those points of order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I appreciate that reference has already been made to this matter, but about two weeks ago I asked a question about the fact that the Committee considering the Disqualifications Bill was to be held immediately after Second Reading. It has repeatedly been said, both yesterday and today, that there were no objections at the time. In future, will the House, which is proud of its record in protecting minorities, bear in mind, through its business managers, that there are more parties than the two main parties?

Madam Speaker: I always try to remember all the minority parties in the House, because they too must have a voice in all our proceedings.

Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is a completely separate point of order.

Madam Speaker: I thought it might be.

Mr. Bercow: I apologise, Madam Speaker, because earlier I expressed myself infelicitously, as a result of

25 Jan 2000 : Column 152

which you thought that I was trying, in a sense, to piggyback on my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton); I assure you that I was not.

I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker, on a point of order, of which, by virtue of the circumstances, I could not have given you advance notice. You will recall that I asked the Advocate-General for Scotland whether she had offered the Government advice on the impact of European Union law on the Cubie report and she declined to answer that question, saying that it was not custom and practice to do so.

However, given that a cursory reading of the newspapers over the past few days makes it clear beyond doubt that the Government and their officials have been briefing off the record to the effect that EU law would be breached if the Scottish Executive's proposals applied to Scottish students studying at English universities, is it not reasonable for an hon. Member to ask the hon. and learned Lady a question about the advice that was offered, in the confident expectation that she might actually provide an answer?

Madam Speaker: I am familiar with the exchange that took place at that time, but the hon. Gentleman will of course appreciate that I am not responsible for the answers that Ministers give in the House.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): On an entirely separate point of order, Madam Speaker. You will have noticed that, in the past week or two, there have been many exchanges in the House in connection with the provision of additional intensive care beds. That has been referred to variously by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health, who last week at Question Time adumbrated a list--which included, I believe, eight particular instances--from which he then broke off.

Is it not somewhat surprising, therefore, that when I asked the Secretary of State for Health, by tabling a question which was answered by written answer late last night, to list the 100--or whatever number--intensive care beds that were created during the calendar year 1999, he told me that the statistics were not collected in that form? That puzzles me. I seek your guidance as to whether, when Back Benchers ask for such information, they are told that it does not exist while Ministers of the Crown can simultaneously purport to give that information, perhaps drawing on sources that are not made available to Back Benchers who request them.

Madam Speaker: I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he pursues his questions by means of the Order Paper, perhaps by tabling further parliamentary questions--or he might write himself an early-day motion, making good publicity of the point that he has just made.

25 Jan 2000 : Column 151

25 Jan 2000 : Column 153

Parental Authority

3.42 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I beg to move,

The world has changed a great deal since you and I were young, Madam Speaker. Much of that change has been for the good and much has been for the bad. Rising violent crime, as illustrated in a report last week, and graffiti and loutish behaviour on our streets are certainly among the bad. There has been an astonishing change in attitudes to bringing up children. In 1993--only seven years ago--a judge had before him a mother of two on appeal against a conviction for assault. She had spanked her nine-year-old with a slipper after catching the child stealing. The judge quashed the conviction and said,

    "If a parent cannot slipper a child, the world is going potty".

That was, of course, in the last century. We heard last week of Government proposals that could possibly send parents to prison for trying to discipline their children in that way. Many might think that common sense is being stood on its head, and that the world is indeed going potty.

The Government consultation document was entitled "Protecting Children, Supporting Parents". If anyone does not believe that political correctness runs wild in this Government, they should read the document. It is one of the most trite and condescending documents that they will ever see. Here is one short passage:

I am sure that we are all grateful for that perceptive insight into the joys of parenthood. The document gives various options for change, including a ban on the use of a slipper or a cane. It is likely that that may be enshrined in law, which means that, should a parent use a slipper against a child, that child will presumably be removed from the parent's custody and the parent will certainly be taken to court, with all that that entails, and may even be sent to prison.

I am quite sure that most parents would rather never strike their children, and preferably not with a slipper or a cane, but I would suggest that it must be for the parent to decide, in the circumstances, how best to direct and teach a child.

Let me give an illustration. Suppose that a 12-year-old boy beats up another child, smaller and younger than himself. The parents of the two children confer, and the father agrees to punish the boy. Because he is nearly a teenager, the father uses a slipper on his backside. The police and social workers are alerted, and the child is taken into care. The father, if not sent to prison, is put under a restraining court order. Is that really sensible? Is that really what the British public believe should happen?

In a recent case, a father in Suffolk tried to restrain his 15-year-old daughter from going out with a 25-year-old man. I understand that he was concerned that she had been spending most of the night out with him--a legitimate concern to him and to the law. However, when the daughter complained to the police, the father was arrested and she was put in care for the night--where, incidentally, she had her nose pierced in an act of childish rebellion. As far as I am aware, neither the police nor the social

25 Jan 2000 : Column 154

workers involved were interested in talking to the 25-year-old man, which suggests a strange sense of priorities.

The nannying new Labour Government now wishes to interfere even more in the relationship between a parent and a child. The Government believe that the state knows best, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. In Leicestershire, the case of Frank Beck remains notorious--a man given responsibility for running a children's home who raped, sexually abused and physically abused his charges, male and female, and some of his staff.

If that had been a unique case, perhaps one might trust the state to look after children in care. However, last year there were more than 200 allegations of sexual abuse of children in care against 138 individuals, and over 50 charges have arisen as a result so far.

Care workers are struggling with great difficulties in children's homes. I recall visiting one a few years ago in Leicestershire, and being told that staff had no power to prevent children from smoking. They could not, of course, restrain a child if he or she wished to go out in the evening. The house stank of cigarettes, 13-year-olds were becoming chain smokers and 14-year-old girls were encouraged to be on the pill.

I do not blame those social workers--indeed I blame the Children Act 1989 as much as anything--but who can doubt that a loving mother or father would not look after their children rather better than that? Sadly, it is true that a large proportion of children who are put into care go on to become homeless, and many go on to be criminals. My point is that the state is not necessarily the best body to determine how to bring up children. A parent almost certainly has more interest, cares more and loves a child more than the most dedicated social worker or police officer ever could. Surely we should support and trust parents in the challenging task of bringing up children, and we should support families as far as possible.

That is the profound wisdom of no less an august personage than the Prime Minister, who has admitted having to smack his children in the past.

If we believe in supporting families and parents, we should make their task easier, not more difficult. Not all parents are successful. Some are hopeless, some can be brutal and some can be downright evil, but generally parents are the best people to bring up their children.

An argument that is frequently used against corporal punishment is that violence begets violence. Leaving aside the report of a massive increase in violent crime last week--neatly published at the same time as the Government's consultation document--I suggest to those who search for the source of the violence and aggression in society that they switch on the television at any time of the day or night, go to a film in the west end, attend a professional football match or question the decision to allow Mike Tyson into the country. It is not parents reasonably chastising their children who have caused the massive rise in violent crime in our lifetimes.

There are already laws in place to cover physical harm to a child. The vast majority of parents would not wish to cause any harm to their children, and the existing law can

25 Jan 2000 : Column 155

deal with the very small minority who might. However, this nannying new Labour Government wish to interfere and disrupt the relationship of parent and child yet further. I can already imagine the court cases and the nonsense that will be spouted in court in future.

Of course, the Government will say that the proposal is nothing to do with them and that they are being forced to obey a directive from the European Court of Human Rights. Whether that court, which was set up with the good intention of preventing a repeat of the horrors of the second world war, should have any jurisdiction over such matters is a moot point. However, for the Government to slope their shoulders and blame others ignores the fact that they have given the European Court of Human Rights authority over our courts through the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998. Furthermore, the Government's proposals on page 14 of their consultation document show that they are determined to go beyond the court's ruling. They set out

Yes, they say, "further limited."

The Prime Minister is not someone whom I normally pray in aid. I am happier with this quote:

That has been passed down to us from the Book of Proverbs as, "spare the rod and spoil the child". Many parents bring up their children admirably without ever having to smack them and I congratulate those who do. For the others who feel that they may have to resort to smacking, the Bill gives some support.

I know that my sentiments in introducing the Bill will not find favour with the politically correct or with new Labour. Many in the House would like to explain why they know better how to bring up a child than a child's parents do. I hope that my contribution may have twisted a few politically correct tails and will goad somebody into explaining why the nanny state knows best. Indeed, Madam Speaker, I can see that somebody is trying to catch your eye.

Next Section

IndexHome Page