On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to ask for your advice and guidance on an apparent contradiction between what the Secretary of State for Scotland said in his statement to the House last Thursday and subsequent information that has come to light.
Last Thursday, the Secretary of State made a statement about the grave outbreak of the bacteria E. coli 0157 in Lanarkshire, which has left five people dead, a dozen seriously ill and more than 100 hospitalised. The statement took place six days after the outbreak, and a number of hon. Members were concerned to find out from the Minister why it had taken five long days for the authorities to publish the list of outlets supplied with the infected product. That delay could have led to more people buying and consuming produce that contained the bacteria, and there is anger in the area at the denial of information.
On Thursday, I asked a specific question of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I asked:
Was the Scottish Office behind the decision to withhold information about outlets, as the Minister's statement seemed to suggest that the Department was involved all along?
The Secretary of State specifically responded to that question by saying:
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Scottish Office was behind the decision. No, it was not. Indeed, I was informed yesterday evening that there was some concern about making the information available, and I suggested that it should be published if possible.
The Minister then continued in a fairly offensive and patronising way to deal with my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell). He said:
The Scottish Office became involved—as it was required to be—only when it became apparent that the outbreak might not be confined locally, which was well after the weekend."—[Official Report, 28 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 465, 467. 470.]
On Friday, I came across a letter issued by the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department on Wednesday 27 November, headed "Food Hazard Warning". Contrary to what the House had been told on Thursday—that the Scottish Office was not involved—the letter sent out the day before said:
A list of known outlets for these products (outside the North Lanarkshire area) is attached. This list is Confidential and should not be distributed further.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you can see the clear contrast between the absolute and categoric assurance given to the House by the Secretary of State on Thursday and the letter on the subject from his own Department dated the day before.
The right hon. Gentleman wrote me a letter today, in which he says:
The local authorities in north Lanarkshire were responsible for deciding whether to withhold or release the list of premises and neither I nor my officials directed this decision.
That does not get round the point that the right hon. Gentleman is still dodging the fact that his officials, for whom he is responsible to the House, were involved and consulted from day one of the outbreak, and that the confidentiality letter from which I have just quoted and the instruction contained in it came specifically from the Scottish Office.
The right hon. Gentleman claims in his letter that I have accused him of misleading the House. I am aware of how serious an accusation that would be, and I have specifically not made that accusation. I have come to seek your help and advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ascertain what we can do when somebody of the status and standing of the Secretary of State for Scotland simply will not give us a complete version of the truth.
The people in Lanarkshire, who are deeply worried and concerned about a public health disaster, the like of which has not been seen for many years, cannot get on with their lives until they know the truth. If we are to get behind this playing with words and dodging of responsibility, we have to know who was behind a difficult but high-risk decision.
The Secretary of State has offered a statement to the Scottish Grand Committee in Hamilton next Monday—seven days from now, when people are still falling ill as a result of E. coli 0157. Mr. Deputy Speaker, can the Secretary of State be brought to the House to answer for contradictions that suggest that we were not given the whole picture?
The hon. Gentleman seeks advice from the Chair on a matter that is not really for the Chair. It is a point of argument and debate that the hon. Gentleman should pursue in the various ways open to him, of which he is especially well aware.
On a new aspect of last Thursday's statement, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Much of the statement concerned the appointment of Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen university to head the inquiry team—an appointment that has been widely welcomed because of the professor's expertise. However, it has since emerged that, on Thursday, the Secretary of State did not tell us that a research project into E. coli 0157 by Professor Pennington was turned down by the Government as recently as this summer.
Is it not relevant to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Secretary of State has been less than fully forthcoming to the House in respect of those questions of appointments and research? Does not a Minister have an obligation to give us full disclosure, however embarrassing that might be for the Government?
It is a new one, and also one of current clinical importance.
On Thursday, the day that the Secretary of State made his statement, the health board made it clear that all the cases that had been confirmed were traceable to the principal outlets named the previous Monday. On new cases confirmed since last Thursday, the health board has made no statement about what were the possible sources of infection, so information is still not being given systematically as to what the routes of infection have been. Surely the Secretary of State can be asked to account for that.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I rise to seek your advice and guidance. In this morning's post, I received this franked House of Commons envelope, which appeared to be addressed to "Mr. Don Golding". I am used to having my sex mixed up because of my Christian name—and my Christian name mixed up as well—but not usually by hon. Members.
I was therefore amazed, on opening the envelope, to discover that it was from the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). I did not give the hon. Gentleman notice that I was going to raise this point of order. It was an invitation from himself and his wife to the Ealing, North Conservative association annual Christmas party. Delving into the envelope further, I discovered a Christmas card as well.
I was formerly a constituent of the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that I am no longer. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I seek your guidance on the use of headed House of Commons paper for a beanfeast for the Ealing, North Conservative association, delivery of Christmas cards and the use of House of Commons envelopes.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sad to say that, although the hon. Lady formerly lived in my constituency and I might well have addressed to her a Christmas invitation and a Christmas card at one time, I certainly did not on this occasion. As far as I know, I paid for all that is in the envelope, but I will check with the Serjeant at Arms, and if I have not done so, I will.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to point out that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has written to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), strongly refuting the implication of his allegations. He certainly did not mislead the House.
My right hon. Friend visited Monklands general hospital this morning to congratulate the staff on the efficient and sympathetic way that they have handled the crisis, and he has offered the hon. Member for Hamilton and hon. Members from Scotland a further statement on the E. coli outbreak at the Scottish Grand Committee in Hamilton next Monday. There should then be an opportunity for hon. Members from Scotland to discuss that matter fully. He has been in Monklands general hospital this morning, and he has promised that extra resources will be available to defray the additional expenses arising from the handling of the incident.
It is on a different issue, not to do with Scotland, although this principle arises in Scotland far too often.
It is to do with Wales and Welsh questions. Yet again today, of the first 12 questions called to the Secretary of State for Wales, who is answerable only once a month through this Chamber for his wide-ranging responsibilities, six were from English Tory Members of Parliament from English constituencies.
The point that I want to raise with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is this. Tory Members of Parliament are not only muscling in on the restricted time we have to question the Secretary of State, but dictating the agenda. Their questions were restricted to two areas only—the future government of Wales and inward investment and regeneration. By virtue of the fact that their questions were called, other important questions, such as those on the working week directive, and on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is vital to our—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When able-bodied people attend a lobby of this House, they can organise meetings in the Grand Committee Room. Today, a lobby of disabled people has assembled in Westminster Hall; they want to use the same procedures and hold a meeting in the Grand Committee Room. There is, however, room there for only 12 people in wheelchairs.
When I last looked, 21 people were still queuing, and all the wheelchair places had been taken. Could not loudspeakers and microphones be installed in Westminster Hall to allow hon. Members to address those who have turned up, holding green cards, to hear them? Such a move seems particularly important today, when the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—inadequate as it is—comes into operation.
Order. It is not customary to get up in the middle of an answer to another hon. Member.
I recognise, as I say, the seriousness of the hon. Gentleman's point of order. I shall make sure that it is brought to the attention of Madam Speaker.
I hope that the point of order from the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) has nothing to do with any subject raised so far.
By definition it is a separate point of order, since a different hon. Member is raising it. I wish to make it clear that I will not take further points of order on the issue raised by the hon. Member for Hamilton. If, however, it is an entirely separate point of order, I shall be most happy to listen to the hon. Gentleman.