Ministerial Statements

– in the House of Commons at 6:01 pm on 14th June 1988.

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Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams , Swansea West 6:01 pm, 14th June 1988

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a different point of order. It arises from a ruling that you gave yesterday, but it is different from yesterday's point of order.

You will recollect, Mr. Speaker, that yesterday, at the end of the statements, I pointed out that the Secretary of State for Wales had been carrying out a briefing and was planning a press conference today in advance of a statement that was due to be made in this House this afternoon. I shall quote two sentences from your ruling because it is important, but my point of order is completely different from yesterday's. You said: I believe that the House of Commons should always be given information in advance of the press or anyone else…I am sure that what has been said will be carefully noted by those on the Government Front Bench."—[Official Report, 13 June 1988; Vol. 135, c. 36] On the basis of your ruling on the briefing that took place yesterday, when you said that it was out of order, I seek clarification on a new process that appears to have occurred today. Yesterday I pointed out that the press conference in the valleys was being held at 10.40 am, although we would not have the opportunity to have the statement until, at the earliest, 3.30 pm this afternoon. Instead of cancelling the press conference, the Secretary of State put into the Vote Office not the statement, but documents that contained some of the information, but not all of it, which was available in his statement and available at the press conference.

Will you clarify what the House should understand—I thought I was clear on what you meant—by always giving information in advance to the House? Is the mere laying of documents in advance of a statement sufficient justification for a Minister then to go ahead with intensive briefing outside the scope of those documents in anticipation of a statement and before the House of Commons has even heard that statement?

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

I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman heard my answer to his former question, when I said that I have no authority to postpone press conferences. It is not a matter for me.

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

Order. I cannot say more than I said yesterday. I do not believe it is right for the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) to use my comments in support of his argument. It was not a ruling; it was a reasonable feeling that such things should not happen.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams , Swansea West

You will recollect, Mr. Speaker, that when you took office you undertook—I know that you have tried firmly to sustain that undertaking—to protect the interests of Back Benchers. One of the important interests of Back Benchers is that we should have the proper right to interrogate Ministers and that Ministers should observe the conventions and rules of this House. It is every bit as important that they observe the rules as that we should observe the niceties of the symbols of state. Anything that undermines the status of the Chair damages this House. In that case, I think that it is a matter for you as to whether the placing of documents constitutes—according to your judgment yesterday—providing to this House advance information that is adequate to let a Minister escape the convention that he should make his statement before he briefs the press.

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

The House knows that I have no authority to dictate to the Government whether press conferences should be held or not or whether press releases are placed in the Library or the Vote Office. What I said yesterday was intended to be helpful to the House—that I had been informed that in advance of the press conference, information would be released in the Vote Office today. I believe that that happened.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

Further to that point of order Mr. Speaker. I raise the same matter because I believe that it is of great importance. I shall start by referring to the Mace and what happened some weeks ago. The fact is that neither "Erskine May" nor the manual of procedure requires that an hon. Member does not drop the Mace on the Floor. It is a practice that we deprecate because we know that it is wrong. We do not need a rule of this House to tell us that this is so. We do not do such things because we know such actions are unacceptable.

I believe that the actions of a Secretary of State who contravenes your view, if not your ruling—you have already said it was not a ruling—and also contradicts the will of the House in the sense that he knows that it would be the will of the House for a statement to be made, are as bad as dropping the Mace on the Floor. Both actions are an affront to our institution. Although they do not contravene the procedure, they contravene the spirit of what Members expect of other Members.

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

Order. We have a busy day. The hon. Gentleman takes a long time to get to his point. Will he please get to it?

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

It may appear to you that we have a busy day and that I am taking a long time, but these matters are important. We spent several hours discussing the dropping of the Mace. I submit that the dropping of the Mace is less of a crime than a Secretary of State refusing to make a statement to Parliament because he wants to run a public relations campaign in Wales. That is why this matter is important.

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

I am not saying that this is not an important matter. The House knows that Mr. Speaker has an obligation to ensure that the rules of the House are kept. It is not within his authority to ensure that all the conventions are kept. This is a self-disciplining Chamber and I hope that the conventions of the House will always be kept.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

I understand that this is a self-disciplining Chamber, but what happens if you make repeated statements from the Chair requiring Ministers, wherever possible, to come to the House to make statements prior to making those same statements outside the House, but they simply ignore your requests? What happens if year after year, month after month, occasion after occasion, they persist in carrying out such actions? What happens then?

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

If conventions are consistently broken, I believe that the Procedure Committee would look into the matter, and as a result, we shall probably get more rules. I am in favour of few rules and strongly in favour of keeping to the conventions of this self-disciplining Chamber.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that the Secretary of State made a statement to the House at the first opportunity that was available to him after the documents were issued?