Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 9th May 1991.

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Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth , Cannock and Burntwood

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for reading my mind.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth , Cannock and Burntwood

I remind you, Mr. Speaker, that I and other Conservative Members have waited patiently for 53 minutes to raise our points of order. We did not seek to press you at the beginning of business questions because I understand that, during Agriculture questions, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) raised a point of order——

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

Order. Let me just clear that up, because the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) blew his top about it. It is perfectly legitimate for an hon. Member who disagrees with the answer to his question to say that he will seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment if the question on the Order Paper is his own. That is exactly what happened. I stopped another hon. Member, who said that he would raise the matter on the Adjournment because his point of order was on a supplementary question, which is quite a different matter.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth , Cannock and Burntwood

I am most grateful that the precedent has been set that points of order may be raised now.

As I think that you, Mr. Speaker, will anticipate, my point of order relates to the disgraceful behaviour that occurred yesterday afternoon during the Division on the Asylum Seekers and Refugees Bill—a ten-minute Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). I do not know whether you have had a chance to read the exchanges, which are recorded in Hansard, in columns 749 and 750.

I was telling for the Ayes, and the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, (Mr. Nellist), who is in his place, was behaving in the customary menacing and contemptible manner which he frequently displays in the House. It is clear that, yesterday afternoon, some of my hon. Friends might have voted against the measure had it not been for the menacing and thuggish remarks of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, whose complete lack of a sense of humour is well known to the House. He was behaving in a thoroughly intimidating fashion.

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

What is the point of order for me, though?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth , Cannock and Burntwood

The point of order for you, Mr. Speaker, is that Mr. Deputy Speaker, while deprecating what took place, took no effective action——

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

Order. Let me deal with this. I have received a report of the incident, and I wholly support what Mr. Deputy Speaker said about this yesterday. He said that such conduct was strongly to be deprecated. He established that there had been no physical obstruction of hon. Members, and the Division was able to proceed without interruption. The Chair has no power to require the withdrawal of words spoken outside the Chamber, and furthermore nothing that occurs on one day may be dealt with by the Chair under disciplinary powers on a subsequent occasion.

Following Mr. Deputy Speaker's strong condemnation of yesterday's incident, I hope that the matter can rest there. I do, however, absolutely deprecate language and words of the sort used yesterday, which would have been dealt with strongly if they had been made in the Chamber.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth , Cannock and Burntwood

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for what you have said, but the point about the behaviour of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East relates not so much to what he said—which was his usual fatuous nonsense—but the manner in which he said it. The Serjeant at Arms is present, armed with his sword, to deal with thugs and villains like that.

Several Hon. Members:

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

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

Order. I do not think that swords are called for. I call the Father of the House.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Castle Point

I rise with some reluctance because I do not like criticising any hon. Member, from whichever party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) has raised a point of great substance—yesterday, an attempt was made to ventilate it. I understand perfectly, and entirely agree with you, Mr. Speaker, that no criticism can be made of the Chair. Mr. Deputy Speaker, by virtue of being locked in the Chair, cannot be cognisant of what happens outside the Chamber, and I could not quarrel with one word that he said. However, the fact remains that that little area between the doors——

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

There was nothing as vicious as during the abortion law debates which the right hon. Gentleman led.

Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Castle Point

My point is of far greater importance than anything that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has raised, either today or any other day—it goes to the heart of the liberties and rights of the House.

That little area and the two Division Lobbies are an integral part of the decision-making process for which the House exists. What happened yesterday was disgraceful.

I do not wish to repeat in detail what I said yesterday, but in my 40 years in the House I have never witnessed any behaviour like it. The behaviour of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) was intimidating and offensive. He barred the way to certain hon. Members who were trying to get into the Lobby. Indeed, it alarmed some hon. Members, who turned away. If such behaviour had taken place in the Chamber, it would have resulted in Mr. Deputy Speaker disciplining the hon. Member straight away.

This is a serious problem. Mr. Deputy Speaker could not be cognisant of what had happened. I am supporting my hon. Friend because abuse of privilege outside the House is rightly taken seriously by all hon. Members. But abuse of the voting procedure of the House is far worse. Behaviour of that kind cannot be tolerated.

I shall not pursue the matter further now, but I hope that you will consider it, Mr. Speaker, and see what restraints can he put upon such behaviour, either by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East or by any other hon. Member.

Several Hon. Members:

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker——

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

Order. We have a very busy day ahead of us. May I say to the Father of the House and to the whole House that I entirely accept what he said; such behaviour is unacceptable. The Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair at the time sent to find out if there had been obstruction, and it was reported to him that there was no obstruction. Therefore, there was nothing that he could do about a matter that had taken place outside the Chamber. In order to clear the matter up, the hon. Member who was concerned is present in the Chamber, and if he would like to give an explanation, we could get on with the next business.

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

I understand that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was present. Let us hear what he has to say about it.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

And I was present on the previous day when there was a vote on a ten-minute Bill, and I heard someone shouting, "Vote this way for porn videos." It was not exactly that. I have been around many times when I have seen Tory Whips shoving hon. Members into the Lobby to vote when they have not wanted to. What happened yesterday was that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry. South-East (Mr. Nellist) saw some Tory Members who were goose-stepping on their way into the Lobby. He thought that he would make a few apposite remarks because they were anxious to vote against the measure. The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) has been referred to many times in the House as a Member of the goose-stepping tendency—and saying that is not prevented by "Erskine May".

The truth is, as you know, Mr. Speaker, that on many occasions there has been a little bother beyond that line. I remember, as I am sure you do, when Tom Swain got hold of the neck of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). Some people asked, "What is going on?" Hansard could only say that it was an altercation. He nearly throttled him. Someone said, "Somebody had better stop him." The deputy Chief Whip at the time, who is not a million miles away from the Chair, had to go and sort them out. But it did not get in Hansard, and I did not hear any Tory Members raising a fuss about it. The right hon. Member for Chingford had to send a letter of apology to my hon. Friend.

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

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

Order. The hon. Gentleman reminds me of things that I have witnessed in the Division Lobbies. I am bound to say that I have heard some rough things said in the Division Lobbies. Let us leave it now. The whole House knows that we should behave with decorum. Comments made outside the Chamber, which are clearly designed to raise the temperature, which, I have to say bluntly to the hon. Member, are offensive, and which would be dealt with strongly if said inside the Chamber, are to be deprecated. I think that we should move on.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, on another matter. I am sure that you will have seen a number of reports in the Today newspaper this week that are causing concern to hon. Members. You have always sought to protect the reputation of the House.

In one article on Tuesday Today said: the evidence confirms that Britain's MPs are the laziest in Europe. It goes on to say: Britain's lazy MPs are to award themselves a Summer holiday which could last up to four months. You know that that is not true, Mr. Speaker. We do not award ourselves holidays; we have a recess, and during it some of us manage to eke out perhaps one or two weeks' holiday, but the great majority of hon. Members are hard at work in their constituencies.

More importantly, the editorial in Today states: Televising parliament allows us to see that apart from Prime Minister's question time, the chamber is usually at least nine tenths empty. Do the Hon. Members honestly expect us to believe the rest of them are all working away busily? No reference is made to Select Committees or Standing Committees, both of which are heavily attended by Members and deal with legislation. No reference is made to Back-Bench groups, the meetings of which are heavily attended. Nor does the newspaper refer to policy meetings of all the parties in the House or to meetings with Ministers, constituents and other Members. We are within an hour and a half of a meeting, which will be well attended, with a delegation of Commonwealth parliamentarians who are in the House. The record must be set straight, and the British people should be given some indication from the Chair about what is happening.

Under a headline which asks: So just how hard does your M P work for you?", there is a list of more than 600 Members and their voting records. It is significant that, at the bottom of the list, is a Scottish Member who has had a lung transplant. A little further up the list is the name of a Liverpool Member who is deeply ill, an illness that is of concern to many hon. Members. Further up the list there is a reference to Mr. Norman Buchan, who was a close friend of many hon. Members and who died quite a long time ago. Somehow his name is included in the list in the context of his voting effort, but clearly he was not in a position to vote in the House.

The bottom of the list refers to Ministers, who are often in different parts of the country carrying out their public duties, and to Front-Bench members of my party, who can be in all parts of the country carrying out engagements. The first 100 names contain a heavy concentration of Conservative Members but, of course, we all know—there is nothing wrong about it—that the Government have to maintain a majority in the House and Conservative Members are detained here.

That list is supposed to be an indication of the effort made by hon. Members in carrying out their public duties. The article is clearly a disgrace. It is a misrepresentation of what happens in Parliament. Although Mr. John Craig is a good friend to many hon. Members, if pressure was exerted upon him by his editors to write the article, he should at least protest and perhaps indicate his protest to Parliament as a whole. Let us express the hope, as I do on behalf of my hon. Friends, that Today will be wise enough to print an apology for this gross misrepresentation of the democratic process in the United Kingdom.

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

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

Order. I have allowed the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) to make his point of order at some length, because it is important that the truth about Members of Parliament and their work load in this place should be known to the public. This country has a free press and there is no way in which any of us would seek to muzzle it. As the guardian of the reputation of the House of Commons and its Members, I deprecate what has been said. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown), who is present in the Chamber——

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

Do not get up yet, please.

In a debate which I well remember about a year ago, the hon. Gentleman said, if I may paraphrase him, that one could sum up some of the modern press in three short phrases—"Make it brief, make it juicy, make it up."

Photo of Mr James Couchman Mr James Couchman , Gillingham

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not have the advantage of having the article in question to hand, but I did read it carefully yesterday, and I should like to endorse everything that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has said. The article was run under a headline that suggested that we have voted ourselves a four-month break during the summer, and it went on to question the work load of hon. Members. Perhaps we should be interested in the work load of members of the Press Gallery, but that might be mischievous. Just because this House does not sit in the summer months does not mean that our duties end there. I have no doubt that the person who wrote the article would be the first when in trouble to get in touch with his Member of Parliament—if necessary at midnight on Christmas day—to solve his problem.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

On the same point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you agree that the House of Commons should not be immune from criticism, and that journalists have as much right as anyone else to criticise us? It would be most unfortunate if we ever did anything to stop people criticising us. But is there not an important distinction between informed and uninformed criticism? I am sure that we all disapprove of the sort of trashy criticism that brings the House into disrepute.

Tabloid newspapers are read by a large number of people, and if some people look on the House of Commons with contempt as a result—I hope that they do not—does not that undermine our democratic liberties? This House is the custodian of the democratic liberties of our people, and to the extent that it is brought into disrepute by valueless criticism of this sort, that is unfortunate, to say the least.

It might be useful if we compared the working hours of most Members of Parliament with the working hours of the journalists who have written some of this trashy criticism.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

Further to that point of order——

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

Is it the same point of order?

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

Yes, Sir.

The right point to emphasise is the use of information. When an article clearly contains glaring errors and insulting remarks, as described by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), it should be exposed in public, but we should be careful about trying to remove from newspapers their right to be wrong. It is important that we have a free press and that, when newspapers are wrong, people should be able to raise the matter.

That should be the end of it, except for one suggestion that may be outside the rules of the House. Perhaps one of the cameras could be turned for one minute every hour on the Press Gallery, and the resulting photographs printed and made available to Members of Parliament and to the editors in charge of those who report our proceedings.

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

Is it the same point of order?

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

Yes, Sir. I am grateful for your response to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). Do you agree that, at the very least, the editor of the relevant newspaper should send his profuse apologise to Mrs. Janey Buchan, the widow of our late and dear friend, Norman Buchan?

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not defend the inaccuracies in the article, but you may recall that, at one time, the attendance and voting records of Members were published every year in an independent publication, which gave a much better idea of our work load because it covered oral and written questions tabled by Members as well. Do you agree that, although we can criticise inaccuracies, a number of Members of this House do not exactly shed lustre on our proceedings when we are criticised in respect of attendance by holding so many outside interests, many of which they acquired when they came here——

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

Order. That is widening the point of order; we do not want to debate that now.

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

Order. I have mentioned the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith, but I call Mr. Marlow first.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

I do not think that we should be over-sensitive or over-precious about this. One of the roles of this House is to seek to sustain the interests of the people of this country, and from time to time we have to take on vested interests and lobbies. So it is not very pleasant if we are seen as being lobbyists on our own behalf, as we seem to be at the moment.

It is certainly true that many hon. Members work as hard and are as dedicated as anyone in the country, but that is not true of everyone in the House. It is fair and proper that the press should criticise. Sometimes that criticism is not as impartial as we should like it to be, but the press is free, and long may it remain so. Let us not be too precious about it.

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Edinburgh Leith

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Your paraphrasing of my statement showed what all of us feel—that the press should not make up a story.

We are of course open to criticism. It annoys me, however, that a certain tabloid, the Daily Record and the Edinburgh Evening News, recently made up a story that I had forged signatures on an early-day motion. That goes on all the time, even though no such criticisms about me or anyone else have come to your notice. Have I to your knowledge, Mr. Speaker, forged signatures on early-day motions about any issue, sensational or otherwise?

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

I am certain that that is quite untrue.

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

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

Order. I will take one question from Northern Ireland since we have not yet had a comment from there; then we must move on.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth , Belfast South

I appreciate being called, Mr. Speaker, although I was trying to catch your eye before this matter was raised, but what I have to say is linked with the earlier issue.

I support those who defend the right of the press to be free, but the press should give the whole facts. For example, some of us have abstained in person in votes because we were not prepared to vote for or against some motion, so the voting record has distorted what goes on here.

I regret that the Leader of the House is no longer present but I seek guidance from you, Mr. Speaker, following the right hon. Gentleman's response to my question about the extradition treaty in Europe. He said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would explain the Government's position to us. I was actually asking for a statement in the House so that the House would be given responsibility. We learned about this from the Daily Mail yesterday—that is why I said that this was an associated matter; sometimes the media inform us about things that Ministers do not tell us about in the House—and I am not aware that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is responsible for dealing with extradition in Europe. The Minister responsible should come to the House so that we can debate the matter with informed minds.

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

I am sure that those on the Government Front Bench will have heard that.

I have allowed this matter to go on for some time because it is important that the public know the facts about the House of Commons—the fact that Standing Committees meet at 10.30 in the morning, so we do not sit only in the afternoons; the fact that there are Select Committees, so that the work of Members of Parliament does not go on only in the Chamber; and there is constituency work as well.

We all agree that we must have a free press in this country; we also want a responsible press. What has upset a number of parliamentary colleagues today is the fact that some hon. Members, for reasons that they could not help—in one case, a death and in others, illness—were mentioned adversely in a newspaper report. That draws attention to the fact that journalists should do their homework just as we do.