On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It would be helpful if you could clarify the comments you made, and, dare I say it, the impression you gave in reply to the point of order raised at the beginning of the statement by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). You told my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that he had deviated from the script of his statement with which you had been provided, which presumably was also provided for the Opposition spokesman.
It has always been my understanding that an hon. Member has to clear a personal statement with you beforehand, and is not then permitted to deviate from it. However, I was unaware of anything in "Erskine May" which suggests that a Minister making a statement such as that made by my right hon. Friend this afternoon is allowed only to stick to the script, which, as a matter of courtesy, is distributed to the Opposition and to others.
It would be unfortunate if it became a convention, or if the impression was given, that a Minister must not deviate from the precise terms of a statement that has been circulated as a matter of courtesy. You know, Madam Speaker, having been in the House for about the same amount of time as me, that, when the House is in a somewhat excited frame of mind during a statement, many highly politicised comments fly backwards and forwards across the Chamber. Given that, it would be most unfortunate if a Minister was not permitted to respond off the cuff to rather excited comments thrown at him by the Opposition in the middle of a statement.
During a statement, Ministers must of course be allowed to respond off the cuff, but only very briefly, to comments from both sides of the House. However, I do expect such responses to be brief, and not to be a great diversion from the statement that a Minister is making. In that respect, I refer the right hon. Gentleman to page 297 of "Erskine May", which says:
Explanations are made in the House by Ministers on behalf of the Government regarding their domestic and foreign policy … announcing the legislative proposals they intend to submit to Parliament; or the course they intend to adopt in the transaction and arrangement of public business.
I have already said that Ministers often make quick responses in the excitement of the moment and that is perfectly acceptable. Equally, the Minister is making a statement of Government policy—that is what the Minister is doing at the Dispatch Box. Ministers should not at any time attempt to transform that statement into a speech or an attack upon the Opposition, minority parties, or anyone else for that matter. I repeat, statements are the enunciation of Government policy from the Dispatch Box. I hope that that clears the matter up.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek your advice on an
important matter? At Prime Minister's Question Time last Tuesday, the Prime Minister made a specific reference to me which was not based on the truth, when he asked my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition whether he would
publish the earlier, secret report held by the Labour party into Monklands council, which the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) has consistently refused to make public?"—[Official Report, 20 June 1995; Vol. 262, c. 149–50.]
I raised a point of order last Wednesday, pointing out that that was not true, and that the Prime Minister had written to me later that day indicating that it was not true. He wrote to me saying:
Although a report may have been published as a result of your party's internal inquiry".
The Prime Minister has not clarified that point in writing or orally, and he has not apologised to the House for it.
Given that, in that same Question Time, the Prime Minister said:
Ministers who deliberately mislead Parliament should resign".— [Official Report, 20 June 1995; Vol. 262, c. 149.],
I wonder if you can tell us what advice is contained in "Erskine May" for situations such as this, when a Prime Minister has said that I have not done something, when in fact the report to which he referred was published in March 1993; and, when he is asked on pain of his integrity if he will clarify the matter and apologise to the House, he still does nothing.
Surely there must be some protection for hon. Members, wherever they sit and whoever they are, from other right hon. or hon. Members making statements that are simply not true, and when that right hon. or hon. Member is unwilling to come back to the House, admit the truth and apologise.
As the hon. Gentleman said, this is the second time that he has used a point of order to raise this matter. The hon. Gentleman may use the Order Paper and try to table questions about the matter. Also, I remind him that we have a local government debate later this week—I am sure that that has been noted by those on the Treasury Bench—and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to catch my eye during that debate, I shall do my best to call him so that he might obtain an answer from either the Prime Minister or a Minister on behalf of the Prime Minister.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I recognise that one of your overriding concerns and wishes is always to protect the rights of Back Benchers. Given the fact that the Prime Minister was not available to answer questions today, I wonder whether you received an approach from the new Back Bencher, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), saying that, given the electoral contest within the Tory party, it might have been fair and more appropriate for him to answer questions at Prime Minister's Question Time.