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Speaker's Statement

3.32 pm

Mr. Speaker: I have a short statement to make about Adjournment debates. In Westminster Hall on Tuesday mornings this Session, there have been three one-hour debates followed by three half-hour debates. The Modernisation Committee's report, which was approved by the House on 20 November last year, allows a measure of flexibility. In the light of experience, I have decided that, from Tuesday 27 February, the three one-hour debates should be replaced by two one-and-a-half-hour debates.

There is a further point about Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall and the Chamber. I find an increasing tendency for hon. Members who apply for debates to be selective about the day of the week on which they want to hold them. That complicates the administration of the ballot and can lead to unfairness for those who make no such stipulations. In future, my office will give priority to applications from hon. Members that contain no date restrictions. In addition, any hon. Member who withdraws from an allocated Adjournment debate will not be permitted to re-enter the ballot for a period of four weeks.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given you, as well as the relevant Department, notice of my point of order.

Today, the Government published their much-trailed White Paper on industrial competitiveness. First, is it right that such an important subject should be launched by written parliamentary answer at 8.30 this morning rather than by oral statement, which would allow hon. Members to scrutinise its content?

Secondly, the relevant documents were not available until ten past 12 this afternoon, after the press conference that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry called to present his view.

Thirdly, the entire contents of the White Paper were reported in this morning's newspapers. The reports contained accurate quotes from the text of the document. Is not it a clear abuse, and contempt of the House, for the Government again to leak in detail their policy proposals to the press when denying hon. Members the opportunity to see the documents or to cross-examine the Government on them?

We look to you, Mr. Speaker, to stand up for the rights of the House against a Government who are determined to avoid critical scrutiny of their policy proposals. I ask you to do that in this instance.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let me respond to the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). I am grateful to him for giving me notice of his point of order. He has raised a number of issues.

It is, as he knows, for Ministers to decide whether they make announcements to Parliament by means of an oral statement or a written answer. I have no comment to make on the Secretary of State's decision in that regard.

I understand that the answer was available at 8.30 this morning, and that copies were placed in the Library and the Vote Office. Copies of the White Paper should have

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been in the Vote Office from 11 o'clock, but there was a delay in their delivery. I am sure that the Secretary of State would wish to establish how that delay occurred, and to ensure that it does not happen again.

I take very seriously indeed the right hon. Gentleman's concern that the content of the White Paper appeared in the press this morning. It seems to me that there is a close correspondence between the White Paper and the press articles. I think, therefore, that it would be reasonable for me to ask the Secretary of State to undertake an investigation into how this occurred, and to report the results to the House.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): On a point of order arising from your original statement, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that some Members belong to organisations such as the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. When applying for Adjournment debates, they normally inform you of the dates on which they do not expect to be in the House. They do so in order not to show disrespect to the House by having to refuse a particular date, rather than to seek privilege. From what you have said, it seems possible that hon. Members who are also members of such bodies might, to a degree, be placed at a disadvantage.

Mr. Speaker: It seems to me that Thursdays and Fridays are the unpopular days for Adjournment debates.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you received any request from the Secretary of State for Scotland, or from one of her Ministers, to come to the House to make a statement about her involvement and that of her Department in the cancellation of the Taoiseach's visit to Scotland last weekend, and about the subsequent resignation of her Parliamentary Private Secretary? The right hon. Lady has spent part of today making pronouncements away from the House about her role, or lack of it, in the matter, but has suggested that questions in the House could be answered by anyone, not necessarily from her own Department.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The answer to that is no. The hon. Gentleman applied for a private notice question on this matter, which I refused. I had hoped that that would be the end of it so far as I was concerned.

Mr. Skinner: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not know about you, but in the course of the past few weeks, we have had Tories getting up and saying that they want statements, and you have had to reply to them. Sometimes you have had to do a bit of research to provide an authoritative answer. We know that the Tories are changing their policies on everything, and yesterday they demanded that a Minister should not make a statement to the House. I know that you have to respond to these idiots, Mr. Speaker. One day they want a statement, the next day they do not. Today, they want one again. Where the hell are we going?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman uses such terms against the Opposition.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): He used to be Dennis Skinner.

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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) always comes up with points of order and tries to give me advice, for which I am always grateful.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to your statement on Adjournment debates, almost all of which I heartily welcome, may I ask whether your restriction on the priority in ballots will apply when Members are concerned about their Fridays for the simple reason that many of them fill up their Fridays will constituency engagements, including constituency surgeries? Those of us who regularly apply for Adjournment debates know only at very short notice whether we have been successful, and, if we have not, it could be too late to do useful work for our constituents on the Fridays in question.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will know by now that it is entirely up to him if he wishes to attend to his constituents in his constituency. If he wishes to apply for an Adjournment debate, which I take to be of benefit to at least one of his constituents, he must make a judgment. It is all a question of judgment.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that the whole House awaits, with fitting concern and apprehension, the report of the inquiry into the Hinduja affair. You will also know that there has been some speculation about the Cabinet Secretary's involvement, and that he has felt it necessary to write to a newspaper today on the subject.

The whole House wishes to safeguard and protect the independence and integrity of the civil service, including that gentleman's. He says that there is a note of his meeting with the Hindujas. Would you, Mr. Speaker--as our champion, and the personification of all that is good and noble about the House--ask the Prime Minister to ensure that a copy of that note is placed in the Library immediately, to avoid any further speculation about the Cabinet Secretary's involvement in these affairs?

Mr. Speaker: In spite of the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks, the answer is no.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that the

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Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall that took over an hour each were largely tied to Select Committee reports. Such debates have been increasingly used as a means of bringing a wide debate on various Select Committee reports to the Floor of the House. Further to points that have been made this afternoon, may we now take it that if there are to be more half-hour debates on Members' particular interests in future, we shall have the opportunity to debate more Select Committee reports in the Chamber?

Mr. Speaker: Perhaps the hon. Lady misunderstood. Instead of three separate hour-long debates, we shall now have two debates lasting an hour and a half. That is my explanation.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for your ruling in relation to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Can you tell us within what time scale he will have to carry out his investigation, and whether, when he reports back to the House, he will do so by means of an oral statement or by some other means?

Will you make it clear to those who might be less familiar with our procedures, Mr. Speaker, that there is a big difference between what happened yesterday, when the Government insisted on making a statement on a Green Paper in Opposition time, and what happened today, when the Government refused to make a statement on a White Paper in Government time?

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