Radio Broadcasting (Written Answer)

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 20th January 1988.

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Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook 3:31 pm, 20th January 1988

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It concerns the rights of the House and the Government's conduct of business in the House. Yesterday, the Home Secretary gave a written answer — No. 150—on the future of the BBC. In his answer he described what he was proposing as a "major change" in policy and went on to justify that claim with descriptions of the introduction of national commercial radio and deregulation of local radio. The significance of that announcement is obvious and clear, and I do not think that the House would argue about its importance.

This major statement — "major" by the Home Secretary's admission and description—was provided by means of a written answer which was available to hon. Members several hours after it was available to newspapers. I do not make a great point about the usual courtesies offered to the Opposition, but the Opposition's copy was delivered at 10 o'clock this morning, whereas the Press Gallery copy was available some time during the middle of yesterday afternoon. It is a denial of our proper rights if a statement of such major importance is issued by way of a contrived written answer when, according to all the standards of normal parliamentary procedure, the Home Secretary should have had the courage to make the statement in the House and subject himself to parliamentary inquiry and proper parliamentary scrutiny.

I make the point of order in the hope that two forms of progress will be possible. First, I hope that we will begin to consider guidelines by which there is a distinction between those subjects that can be announced by written answer and those that are so important that they must be the subject of ministerial statement. Secondly, I hope that, if that general rule cannot be pursued by you, Mr. Speaker, or some other authority, the Leader of the House—who has an obligation to us all, not just his own party—will tell the Home Secretary that a statement described by him as a "major change" in policy should not have been made by way of written answer and suggest that the Home Secretary remedy his mistake by offering a statement to the House so that we may comment on it.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

This matter was raised yesterday and I said then that the alternative would presumably have been a statement, which is not under my control. I can only say that, because there was no statement yesterday, about 25 Back Benchers were able to take part in the debate. However, a further 30 still failed to get in. I suppose that it is question of balance.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I am on my feet.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will have heard what has been said; but this is not remotely a matter of order for me.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I am not taking the hon. Member.

Photo of Mr Norman Buchan Mr Norman Buchan , Paisley South

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have to consider your well-furnished duty of protecting hon. Members' rights as well as any technical aspect involved. I was sacked over this issue. I learned about the written answer only at half-past 10 last night. I would hope that, in the interests of hon. Members — quite apart from the technical courtesies of the House—you would make known your view on the conduct of major matters of policy such as this.

As we see it, the proposals represent the destruction of the public service concept of broadcasting, which has been the great jewel in the crown of Britain in the world for the past 60 years. They would mean the handing over of much of our broadcasting to potential monopolies such as those of Maxwell, Murdoch and Stevens in the public press. They would mean a lightly regulated broadcasting system in which the participants competed in trivia and would end any genuine diversity of programmes—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I called the hon. Gentleman because of his former direct interest in this matter.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I am not taking any more points of order.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. This is not a matter of order.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

It is not a matter of order. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Spark brook (Mr. Hattersley) addressed his question not to me but to the Leader of the House and the Government.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

It is a matter of order.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

It is not a matter of order. I am not in control of—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

No. I shall take the Front Bench spokesman. Mr. Hattersley.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

I believed that I was making a genuine point of order for you, Sir, in asking you to protect the House from the Government's behaviour. However, I take your point and I have no wish to argue with you. You will recall that such points of order have often been used as an opportunity for the Leader of the House to respond. It is the right hon. Gentleman's duty to respond in some way. He knows that this is a genuine problem and that a major statement—the Government's own description—has not been made in the usual way and he owes it to us to say something, even though it may not be adequate.

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

I have heard what the right hon. Gentleman has said and I shall look into the matter. I believe that the Home Secretary acted entirely properly, but I remind the House that we have business questions tomorrow.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I am not having a point of order on a point of order.