Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 4:24 pm on 15th March 1999.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 4:24 pm, 15th March 1999

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance. Given the importance of maintaining the highest possible standards in public life, have you received any indication from the Prime Minister that he would like to make a statement in the House as soon as possible to correct the factually mistaken comment that he made in the House on Wednesday last week, when he suggested that there was a net £4.5 billion tax cut in the Budget—a claim that has since been comprehensively rebutted?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is attempting to prolong Question Time by referring to last Wednesday's Question Time. The Prime Minister will be here on Wednesday for half an hour, when many Opposition Members will have an opportunity to question him on whether he wishes to correct that statement.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. From your knowledge of the Book of Genesis, the Book of Isaiah and the Gospel According to St. Matthew, you will know that the city of Nineveh is a biblical city that goes back some 6,000 years. The journalist Felicity Arbuthnot, who returned from Baghdad some hours ago, the Jordan Times, which is a reputable newspaper, and others have recounted that Nineveh—the old city—was struck by weapons. May we have a statement on the bombing of the cities of the ancient world in areas where there are said to be no defences; and on the whole human tragedy whereby the Tigris river has half the normal volume of water because of the unprecedented winter droughts that have affected Jordan and Iraq? My point is this: should the House of Commons avert its eyes from a human tragedy?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I have had no request from any Minister seeking to make a statement today.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), Madam Speaker. Have you had any request from the Prime Minister or from the Leader of the House to come to the House to make a statement that, henceforth, the enforcement of the ministerial code of conduct should be the responsibility of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? It is clear from the ministerial code of conduct that a Minister who offers misleading information to the House should come to the House as soon as possible to correct such misleading information, but that has transparently not happened in respect of information and answers to questions relating to the Budget and taxes.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I have not had any request to make a statement on that issue, but I see that the most distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges is in his place in the Chamber as usual. No doubt, he will have noted that point of order.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls Conservative, Teignbridge

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), Madam Speaker. You will be aware that the 22nd edition of "Erskine May", page 221, states: it has been the practice for many years to publish material in amplification of an answer to a parliamentary question or of a ministerial statement". We all make slips of the tongue from time to time, so I seek your guidance as to whether, if I were inadvertently to describe a tax increase of £7.1 billion as a tax decrease of £4.5 billion, you would be in a position to direct me to ask that Hansard be altered at once, so as to ensure that the correct information was given?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I realise that many of the points of order are related today, so may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman's point of order relates to that raised by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I might as well hear them all before making a ruling.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

It is a pleasure to find you in such a good mood today, Madam Speaker.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

She is always in a good mood.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

She is in an especially good mood today.

Further to the important point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), Madam Speaker. During the Budget debate on Thursday, I drew attention to the discrepancy between the Prime Minister's remarks and the words that appear in the Red Book. I suggested that the Prime Minister had misled the House, but withdrew that remark, saying that the right hon. Gentleman might want to make a correction in the House in due course, once he had had an opportunity to study the figures in the Red Book. Is it not a matter of concern to people outside that statements made from the Dispatch Box should be truthful and reliable? If a Minister, in the heat of the moment, makes a mistake, there should be provision to enable that Minister to make an apology, and the House ought to be great enough to accept such an apology.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Quite frankly, I do not see how the matter can be taken any further. However, we might as well hear all points of order on this subject.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

Is this not a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs? The House has clearly been seriously misled—even if inadvertently—by the Prime Minister on the question of whether taxes are rising or falling. If the House, and therefore the public, have been seriously misled about such an important matter, it is not satisfactory to expect us to wait for a subsequent Prime Minister's Question Time in the hope that someone might ask a question that will give the Prime Minister an opportunity to set the record straight.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I began in a good humour and I intend to finish that way. However, I remind the House that we have before us several hours' debate on the Budget. A Secretary of State is at the Dispatch Box and the Prime Minister will come to this place on Wednesday. I have no authority to require the Prime Minister to come to the House today, but he will definitely hear—certainly by the end of the day—about what has been said. A Secretary of State will open the Budget debate and I ask hon. Members to allow us to make sufficient progress so that I may call that debate.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I raise a different subject entirely. At the beginning of her contribution, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) drew the attention of the House to the number of occasions when the Secretary of State for Health, in particular, and other Ministers have openly leaked the contents of statements that were to be delivered in the House of Commons. Matters must be important to justify a parliamentary statement. Before delivering statements, Ministers utter the words "With permission, Madam Speaker." under what circumstances might you deny Secretaries of State that permission? Perhaps it might be denied when they have broken the conventions of the House and leaked information publicly?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I would never seek to deny a Secretary of State permission to make a statement in this place. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman: when a Minister rises to make a statement, he always says "With permission, Madam Speaker"; that is now part of our vocabulary. However, no Minister or Secretary of State requires my permission to make a statement.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's substantive point, I repeat how much I deprecate leaks of any kind. I listen avidly to the morning news, including the 6 o'clock news to which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred, and every news from then on. I use my Walkman to listen to the news when I take a walk and I hear far too much information that is made public often days before it is revealed at the Dispatch Box. I shall continue to deprecate that practice for as long as it continues.