Before I call the business questions, I have a statement to make.
Hon. Members have raised with me their concerns that the substance of ministerial statements has been reported in the media before being presented to this House. Particular reference was made to the Defence Secretary's statement on "Iraq: Further Contingency Preparations" on
I have made it clear, both from this Chair and in meetings with Ministers, that it is of fundamental importance for the proper functioning of Parliament that this House is the first to hear of important developments in Government policy. I recognise the pressures and difficulties that often face Ministers as a result of press speculation about forthcoming statements. My impression, nevertheless, is that in general Ministers recognise and comply with the convention that I have enunciated.
As regards the two recent statements referred to, I have taken the matter up with the Ministers concerned. So far as the statement on Iraq is concerned, I have received an assurance that neither Defence Ministers nor officials trailed its content with the media. This assurance is supported by the fact that the advance reports in the media contained significant inaccuracies and seriously underestimated the strength of the forces being deployed.
As to the statement on higher education, the Secretary of State has represented to me that the majority of the proposals in the White Paper and the package as a whole received their first airing in the House. He has, however, acknowledged that, in order to ensure that the very many people who would be affected by his proposals on student funding would not be alarmed or misled by speculative stories in the media, he said more than he would have wanted in response to a direct question on television before making his statement. He has expressed his regret about this in a letter to me and has made clear his acceptance of the need to come first to the House.
I propose to leave the matter there.