Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 1:27 pm on 22nd April 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence) 1:27 pm, 22nd April 2004

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing me to raise a point of order in advance of the debate. The debate that we are about to commence is on an extremely serious issue: the erection of a screen, separating us from our constituents and our electorates, which has cost £500,000. We have no papers on it. The Government tell us that it is such a serious issue—the security position being so demanding—that the screen had to be erected in advance of the House having an opportunity to debate the matter.

I do not see how we can have a proper debate and discuss the serious issues that have to be addressed without being able to meet in private. Some of the points that I would want to raise in an attempt to assess the balance of risk and the nature of the threat that we face in the Chamber might, if given wider currency, only play into the hands of our enemies.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, believing that there is a case for the House to meet in private to debate the issues, provided that we can be assured that Members attending—as I look around, I see mostly responsible right hon. and hon. Members—would not reveal any sensitive information; otherwise, I fear that if we asked the Leader or Deputy Leader of the House to explain the security advice given to the authorities, on which we are invited to rely, they would say simply that they could not provide that information because it was too sensitive. In that case, how could we have a proper debate? Before I formally move that the House sit in private, it might be helpful if other right hon. and hon. Members shared their views on the matter.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Before any hon. Member rises to speak, I remind the hon. Gentleman that a memorandum is available in the Vote Office. Also, I must correct him in one respect: it was not the Government who brought this matter forward, but the House of Commons Commission, of which I am Chairman. I remind the House that I made a statement on this matter. One of the purposes of the temporary screen is to allow the public to be present, while affording us the protection that we desire. It is entirely up to the House as to whether it meets in private. The hon. Gentleman will know that I must put any motion to that effect before the House immediately. However, he will recall that not so long ago I had to clear the Public Gallery for a day because of misbehaviour. That was a sad day, for me and for the House.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth: the present circumstances of the terrorist threat are different from any previously experienced in our country's history. This is a very different scenario. There are questions to which I want detailed answers, but it is not appropriate for me to ask them, or to require the Leader of the House to answer them, in an open forum. We may feel that our democracy is under challenge, but the security available to hon. Members, the staff of the House and visiting members of the public must have primacy.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Secretary of State for Wales, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, and I hope that what I have to say will help the hon. Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). As they both know, this matter went before the House of Commons Commission. As I hope to explain shortly, it was also referred to senior Privy Councillors. The consensus to go ahead was reached on an all-party basis. I shall certainly aim to answer as many questions as I can, and I will make very clear, in graphic terms, the security advice that we received. I think that that should be done in open session. It is important both that people understand why the House is taking this decision, and that the House has the opportunity to explain matters to the public. We should not shut them out.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. First, I confirm that the Commission decided the matter. The shadow Cabinet was not consulted, and neither was the Cabinet, I believe. The matter was dealt with on an all-party basis in the Commission. Secondly, I agree that, given the interest that people have in this matter, we should hold our debate in such a way that they are able to know the arguments being deployed.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. I am reluctant to take further points of order on this matter. If certain hon. Members feel that we should meet in private, the best way to proceed is to settle the matter now; otherwise, we are in danger of pursuing the debate by means of points of order.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

May I first thank you, Mr. Speaker, for correcting me and advising that this is not a Government but a House of Commons Commission matter? As my hon. Friend Mr. Heald said, it has been discussed by a very small number of hon. Members. Therefore, to assist the House and expedite the debate, I propose that we sit in private. We should be able to speak freely, without fear of betraying information that should not be in the public domain.

I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (motion to sit in private):—

The House divided: Ayes 15, Noes 211.

Division number 137 Points of Order

Aye: 15 MPs

No: 211 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may not be aware that during the Division, Whips from both sides of the House were seeking to organise, instruct and guide Members on how to vote. As I thought that we had already established that this was strictly a House of Commons matter, is there anything you can do, Mr. Speaker, to protect innocent MPs from being badgered by Government and Opposition Whips on a House of Commons matter? Surely, something must be done to protect the House and its Members from such gratuitous intervention.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Let me reply to Mr. Forth.

The right hon. Gentleman is right: it is a House of Commons matter, but Whips like to tell people what to do—that is the nature of the beast. I can assure him that they were acting in a private capacity.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you think that, as one of the intentions of the vote was to ensure that the debate gets no publicity at all, had we moved to sit in private it would have got more publicity?

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If Whips were acting in a personal capacity, should that not result in a deduction of one day's salary in respect of all those who receive public funds?

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. When I was in engineering, there was a practice called quartering workers—but that was not a day's salary.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was acting as a Whip in a personal capacity, so does that mean I will get paid?

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

Further to the serious and genuine point of order made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, Mr. Speaker. When I voted in the No Lobby, two Government Whips were at the desk telling us when the next votes were likely to be. In such circumstances, it is important that, when the Leader of the House moves the motion, he again assures us that the vote is genuinely free—I did not have that impression when I was going through the Lobby.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Not even I know when the next vote is likely to be, so perhaps a Whip will tell me, as I shall have to come back to the Chair.