Home Page

Column 285

Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the claim by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster-- [Interruption.] --that there are a number of "exceptional circumstances" in which it is necessary "to mislead Parliament", and in view of his further claim, in the context of Ministers providing full and accurate information, that

"Much of Government activity is much more like playing poker than playing chess. You don't put all your cards up at one time", will you tell us whether you have received a request from the right hon. Gentleman to make a statement to clarify that highly damaging doctrine ? If not, will you say whether it is consistent with paragraph 27 of the guidance for Ministers, which says that Ministers are to provide

"as full information as possible about the policies, decisions and actions . . . and not to deceive or mislead Parliament and the public" ?

If it is not consistent-- [Interruption.] --will you say whether the Minister for open government can remain in the Government when he is seeking to justify such deceptions and half truths ?

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Speaker : Order. I am perfectly capable of dealing with this point of order.

Guidance to Ministers is a matter for Ministers themselves. I ask the hon. Gentleman to refer to what I said last evening, when I ruled on this question in response to a point of order from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). In case it is of assistance to the House, and I hope it is, I want to quote from page l8l of "Erskine May" on this matter :

"The opinion of the Speaker cannot be sought in the House about any matter arising or likely to arise in a committee."

If a Committee has any matter about which it feels that the House should be aware, it can make a report to the House, at which point any appropriate action can be considered.

In answer to another question that the hon. Gentleman put to me directly, no, I have not been informed that any Minister is seeking to make a statement today.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you could advise me whether or not it is a matter of record that only two Members have been shown to have lied to the House of Commons, both of them Labour Ministers, Sir Stafford Cripps

Madam Speaker : Order. I have dealt with that matter. The hon. Gentleman should not now abuse the situation.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Does it relate to the same matter ? I have given a ruling. Does the hon. Gentleman have something different to raise ?

Mr. Winnick : Yes.

Madam Speaker : In that case, I will hear it.

Mr. Winnick : I do not want to refer to the Committee, Madam Speaker, because, as you said, you were kind enough to deal with that matter last night. May I ask you--and my question has nothing to do with the Committee


Column 286

and is not necessarily confined to Ministers --whether you would deprecate any form of lying to the House at any time, whether by Ministers or by anyone else ?

Madam Speaker : I repeat what "Erskine May" so wisely tells me--that the opinion of the Speaker cannot be sought on such matters in the House.

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Is it a different one ?

Mr. Bates : It is indeed. May I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker ? Is it not a custom, outlined in "Erskine May", that when hon. Members make statements in the House about another hon. Member, they should give that hon. Member notice of their intention so that he can be in his place to respond ?

Madam Speaker : It is customary to do so, and it is a convention of the House.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the important statement made by the Minister for open government yesterday, have either you or

Madam Speaker : Order. I have dealt with that matter.

Mr. Home Robertson : Have either you or Members of the House any way of knowing when Ministers are telling the truth ?

Madam Speaker : I accept the word of all hon. Members in the House.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : On a totally different point of order, Madam Speaker. Yesterday The Daily Telegraph carried an article that said that, for the first time, a Minister had risen to discuss the question of the Malaysian dispute. The reason for that is that, although my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade had made a speech in the House the previous Tuesday, those in the Press Gallery go home so early that nobody picked it up. It was therefore not until my hon. Friend repeated those remarks on the radio that any notice at all was taken.

My point of order is this. Is there any possibility of your setting up a Speaker's commission to discuss the way in which the House is reported now that the press no longer stay to report ministerial speeches made after about 5 pm ?

Madam Speaker : I am sure that the whole House will give me support when I say that I certainly do not give marks for accuracy in press reporting.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A problem could arise out of your statement on the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). At present, when a Minister is accused of lying to the House, the hon. Member responsible can be thrown out, either for a day or for five days. I suggest, Madam Speaker, that in future, if any of us accuses Ministers of lying, you will be placed in a predicament because you will not be able to throw people out.

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman has totally misunderstood my ruling, which concerns Committee proceedings. I am quite prepared to deal with the situation myself when it arises on the Floor of the House.


Column 287

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would it be for the convenience of the House if the press could obtain a full Hansard report of what is said in Select Committees ? Someone telephoned me this morning asking for my comments on what he thought had been said in a Select Committee, having heard reports of what was said that were completely contrary to what my video recorder showed had been said. That person had no way of checking an official report, because Select Committee reports appear some weeks after the words have been said. We could all be running around in circles talking about something that has not been correctly reported.

Madam Speaker : Committees do their utmost to be helpful and in every case issue transcripts of proceedings as soon as they have been corrected.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My point relates to the conduct of debate arising from yesterday's statement by the Minister responsible for Government information. The Home Secretary was interviewed this morning on BBC television and was given the opportunity to repudiate clearly his right hon. Friend's statement that it was acceptable in certain circumstances to mislead the House. We are shortly to hear a speech from the Home Secretary on the important question of the prevention of terrorism legislation. How are we to know whether he intends to tell us the truth during that speech ?

Madam Speaker : That was a pretty convoluted point of order on a matter that has nothing to do with me.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that it is entirely within the rights of any hon. Member to make a personal statement to the House irrespective of whether the occurrence to which it relates takes place outside this House or in a Committee ? If the Minister wanted to clarify the position about lying to the House of Commons, he could come here and make a personal statement instead of trying to wriggle out of the difficulty through the press.

Madam Speaker : Of course that is correct ; but I would have to read the statement and approve it in the first instance.


Column 288

Decorations for Gallantry (Display)

3.39 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the public display or exhibition of decorations for gallantry ; and for connected purposes.

The Bill would give the Secretary of State for Defence the ultimate decision-making power over where the highest awards for gallantry are displayed to the public in cases of dispute. I bring this matter before the House because I have been contacted by one of my elderly constituents, Mr. William Whitham, who is now in his late 80s and is the son of the late Private Thomas Whitham VC, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry in the trenches in the first world war.

For nearly 40 years, my constituent has been trying to arrange for his late father's Victoria Cross medal to be displayed at the Coldstream Guards museum--the regiment to which his late father belonged--instead of at a museum in Burnley, the medal's current location. The Coldstream Guards museum already has on display all the other 12 Victoria Crosses won by members of that most gallant regiment, and my constituent and the surviving members of his family would dearly like his late father's medal to be displayed there as well.

The regiment has supported Mr. Whitham in his campaign, as have many people over the years, including my parliamentary predecessor Sir Peter Blaker, who also raised the matter in the House. Mr. Whitham feels particularly strongly that it is not appropriate for the medal to be on display in Burnley because of the history of how it came to be in the hands of Burnley council, and how his late father was treated by that council. Immediately after my constituent's father had won the Victoria Cross, Private Whitham's home town of Burnley said that it was very proud of him ; his portrait was painted ; presentations were made ; and various civic ceremonies were held during the last year of the war.

When the war ended, however, and Private Whitham returned to Burnley and to his young family, sadly he had no job to return to. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recall that this was supposed to be the

"land fit for heroes to live in",

when the troops returned.

Former Private Whitham VC wrote to Burnley corporation, asking if he might be able to work for it in the humble capacity of a manual worker. The letter of rejection that he received--a copy of which I have read--only a year or so after being fe ted as a local hero was, to say the least, curt and humiliatingly dismissive.

As we are all aware, jobs were hard to come by in the early 1920s and Private Whitham VC and his young family lived in harsh and reduced circumstances. My constituent, who, as I said, is well over 80, has never forgotten the sense that they all had that the town of Burnley had rejected his father.

Tommy Whitham VC was forced to leave his young family to seek work elsewhere. His Victoria Cross medal was pawned on two occasions to raise money for the family, and eventually, only six years after the war ended, Private Tommy Whitham VC died in penury.

Once my constituent reached adulthood, he sought to have the medal returned and, on one occasion, in 1948, he nearly succeeded. Burnley council passed a resolution saying that the medal could be returned to my constituent


Column 289

if £50 were paid. Unfortunately, my constituent was travelling the country while employed as a civil servant by the Ministry of Works and he never received a message about the council decision. Within a week or two of the decision, there was a change of political control, I understand, in Burnley council and the Labour party was elected. The previous decision was immediately reversed at the next council meeting before my constituent was informed of the first decision. Over many years since, all attempts to persuade Burnley council to release the medal have failed, even though for many years it appears that the medal and its ribbon were not at all well looked after. It is right to point out that only after my predecessor, Sir Peter Blaker, and the colonel-in-chief of the Coldstream Guards raised the matter in 1991 was the decision finally taken to put the medal on display. It is fair to say that Burnley council has offered in recent weeks, after I had taken up the case, to present a replica of the medal to my constituent, but he feels that that, too, is not what he seeks. He is strongly of the view that his late father's regiment should have the medal on display.

I feel strongly about this matter because, although my own service connections are with the Royal Navy, my late grandfather, who died only three years ago, served in the trenches in the first world war in what was then the Royal Horse Artillery and was commissioned from the ranks. Therefore, I know--second hand from him--what all soldiers who served in the trenches in the first world war went through, and the extraordinary bravery that must have been shown by my constituent's late father to win the Victoria Cross.

I believe that it is entirely appropriate for the Secretary of State for Defence to be given the power to decide in cases of dispute such as this where our most important decorations for gallantry should be displayed. There is a strong body of opinion on this matter and I have had tremendous support from my hon. Friends, many of whom have served in the distinguished Coldstream Guards regiment. I very much hope that, when Burnley council is made aware of this debate, it will consider thinking again about the matter. I see that the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) is in the Chamber. I must say, in fairness to him, that I know that in his time as a member of Burnley council, and since becoming a Member of the House, he has also sought to take up this matter, but unfortunately it appears that we have not yet succeeded in persuading Burnley council to reverse its earlier decision.

This is an important matter. It relates most directly to one of my constituents, but it has great significance for a large number of people who remember the gallantry of all those who served in the trenches in world war one.

The most appropriate words with which I could close my remarks would be those that were used with a heavy sense of irony by the first world war poet, Wilfred Owen, whose poetry I studied when at school :

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."

3.47 pm

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : I wish to speak in opposition to the Bill of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) quite simply because I believe that it would be wrong to allow the ten-minute Bill procedure to be allowed to give any impression that anything that is debated under it today had the approval of the House. I


Column 290

believe that the issue must be looked at. The hon. Gentleman has rightly said that I have raised the matter on number of occasions, both as a Member of Parliament and as a member of the local authority.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, my military service was just two years in the Royal Marines. It would be totally wrong to approve a Bill that, in a dispute about where the medal should go, allows the final decision to be made by the Secretary of State for Defence, whatever Government and political party is in control at the time. It would in my view make it a political decision if the Government were to determine to whom medals belonged and to where they should go-- [Interruption.] As always, the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman) is making sedentary comments.

It is contended that the medal should be displayed with the other 11 Victoria Crosses awarded to the Coldstream Guards. But there is a view strongly held in Burnley that Thomas Whitham, who with great heroism earned the VC in 1917 during the first world war, was a hero of Burnley. It is with great pride that his medal is shown in the Towneley art gallery and museum, which is owned by the local authority.

As a schoolboy, I went to the art gallery and museum and saw the display in which the medal has been on show from time to time ; it is now on show more frequently. Notwithstanding the claims of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, we children took great pride in the fact that the Victoria Cross had been won, with great courage, by someone who lived in Burnley. I accept that Burnley council treated Thomas Whitham appallingly in the 1920s, but I should point out that it was not Labour-controlled at the time : Labour did not take control until many years later.

Thomas Whitham was presented with the medal in 1917. He was also given a gold watch and chain, and his portrait was painted ; it now hangs in Towneley hall. In 1921, owing to hardship, he pawned his VC, and the council purchased it in 1931. It is believed that the medal had been pawned on earlier occasions, that it was not held in pawn for the entire 10 years and that the council had previously redeemed it and returned it to Mr. Whitham. Ultimately, however, he had to pawn it in order to survive. That is a sad reflection of the way in which we have treated many people who fought in the first world war, in a land which--I agree--was not quite as fit for heroes as we would have wished.

The issue raised by the hon. Member for Blackpool, South was raised in 1948, but 10 years elapsed between the decision made then and Mr. Whitham's contacting the council again. It may have been felt that, if the issue had been so important to him, he would have pursued it earlier. It was considered again in 1980, 1988 and 1990, and I raised it recently with the chief executive of the council and the controlling group. It is clearly felt that the medal belongs in Burnley's art gallery and museum. The Coldstream Guards have been offered a replica, as has Mr. Whitham junior ; the council is willing to pay for both.

The regiment understands and accepts the council's decision. That is clear from a letter from the regimental headquarters to the then chief executive of the council, dated 12 July 1991. The letter states that the regiment accepts that the medal can be made available to it on loan. Indeed, it has been made so available on a number of occasions, whenever the regiment has requested it. It has


Column 291

also been shown throughout Lancashire in various travelling exhibitions, and presented as something for which a part of Lancashire should be proud.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South is right to pursue, with diligence and concern, an issue that affects one of his constituents. I feel, however, that this is the wrong way to deal with it. I wish to make it clear that whatever happens now does not necessarily mean that the House approves of the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No.19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Nick Hawkins, Dr. Charles Goodson- Wickes, Sir Archibald Hamilton, Sir Anthony Grant, Mr. Cyril D. Townsend, Mr. Matthew Banks, Mr. Michael Stephen, Mr. Andrew Robathan, Mr. Michael Mates, Mr. Michael Colvin and Sir Edward Heath.

Decorations for Gallantry (Display)

Mr. Nick Hawkins accordingly presented a Bill to regulate the public display or exhibition of decorations for gallantry ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 17 June, and to be printed. [Bill 71.]


Column 292

Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

3.54 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard) : I beg to move,

That the draft Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 14th February, be approved.

It is 20 years ago this year that the first prevention of terrorism legislation was laid before the House. The Home Secretary of the day was the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Since then, it has been the hope of successive Home Secretaries that the day would come when the circumstances which made these exceptional powers necessary would cease to exist but, for most of the past 20 years, that has been very much a hope rather than an expectation.

This year's debate is held against a background of particular controversy. I deplore the fact that the meetings which took place last week between the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister, the hon Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and me became public knowledge. That should not have happened. However, I equally deplore the observations which have been made by the hon. Member for Sedgefield, who implied more than once that the Government are insisting on the retention of all the powers currently in the Act for party political reasons. That is nonsense. The powers are necessary in the fight against terrorism. The police think so ; I think so ; and for every year it was in government from 1974, the Labour party thought so, too. The hon. Gentleman should stop pretending that anyone who disagrees with him does so only for party political reasons.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) : The Home Secretary will be aware that No. 10 has today let it be known that it is unable to locate the source of the leak to the Sunday Express but has said that the Home Office has no responsibility for it. For many of us, that is scarcely believable in view of the fact that not only did the original story cite a ministerial source offering a comment on the Home Secretary's views of the meeting but the Home Secretary himself is quoted in the article, thus by implication confirming the existence of the meeting. Will he give the House an unambiguous assurance that neither he nor his officials and neither of his two special advisers--Mr. David Cameron and Mr. Patrick Rock, who are regularly seen operating in the Press Gallery--had any responsibility for planting the story in the Sunday Express ?

Mr. Howard : Yes, I certainly give that assurance to the hon. Gentleman and to the House. I hope that we can now cease to divert attention from the substantive issues that are of such great importance to our debate and instead concentrate on them.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Howard : I propose to continue with the central issues. It is the Labour party that has to explain the change in its position. Why, if the Act was acceptable between 1974 and 1980, is it no longer acceptable today ? While it is trying to answer that question, it must recognise the fact that, since those years, we have modified one of the powers to which it objects. The exclusion order which, in its original form in 1974, was unlimited in time was limited to


Column 293

three years in 1984. We have also instituted annual reviews of the workings of the Act by someone wholly independent of Government who has full access to all the papers.

I would certainly welcome a common approach to these matters from all parties, but I do not have to remind the House that it was the Labour party which moved away from that bipartisan consensus on how to tackle the terrorism that threatens our society. Therefore the Labour party needs to change its position if that consensus is to be re-established. It simply will not do for the Labour party to say that it is in favour of anti- terrorist legislation in principle and then to criticise its two key provisions, which make such a crucial contribution to the fight against terrorism.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Howard : I shall give way in a moment.

The way in which to achieve a common approach is not for the Government to give up those key powers, but for the Opposition to recognise once again, as they did consistently between 1974 and 1980, that those powers are essential and ought to be supported. It is especially disappointing that they seem unable to do that. I hope that they prove me wrong by the end of the afternoon, in the light of the support that they have given, which I warmly welcome, to the joint declaration that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland signed on 15 December. That declaration was a courageous and imaginative attempt by the two Governments to demonstrate to the men of violence that there can be no possible justification for continuing their campaign of terror.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Does the Home Secretary accept- -I hope that he does--that the loathing of terrorism is universal in the House, bearing in mind the crimes and atrocities committed in Northern Ireland and remembering Warrington and the two small boys, among others, who were put to death as a result of the activities of the IRA ? Does not the Home Secretary also recognise that there are genuine criticisms of the PTA, such as those in the piece written by Simon Jenkins in The Times today ? The points that he makes should be appreciated by the Home Secretary.

It is precisely the terrorists--the enemies of democracy and of Britain-- who, to a large extent, want our civil liberties to be undermined because they recognise that, in so doing, that discredits the democratic system. Why does not the Home Secretary use every opportunity to establish a common approach, which can be put forward by the Government and the Opposition ?

Mr. Howard : It is one thing to loathe terrorism ; it is another thing to translate that loathing into practical action. Those of us on the Conservative Benches are prepared to take the action which those who have the day-to-day responsibility on the streets of the country think is essential if terrorism is to be fought. The Labour party also thought that when it was in government. Of course, I accept that there are weighty matters to be considered. They were considered in every one of those years when the leader of the Opposition went into the Lobby in favour of those powers. When the Conservative party was in opposition, it was prepared to support the Government, who were putting those powers on the statute book. It is a great shame that the Opposition do not take a similar point of view.


Column 294

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield) : The Home Secretary will know of the two objections that we have made. The first is in respect of exclusion orders. In 1987, Lord Colville, the former Home Office Minister and adviser at that time, recommended in his full review of the PTA that that policy be discontinued. Secondly, the judicial intervention in relation to detention is in accordance with the European Court ruling and with many other matters. We are asking the Home Secretary to respond by having a full and independent review by a senior--[ Interruption. ]--by a senior and respected figure, which could be agreed on both sides of the House, to try to reach agreement on that matter. Why can he not respond to what is a manifestly reasonable request ?

Mr. Howard : The legislation before us is just about the most reviewed legislation on the statute book. It is reviewed independently every year. We know the points at issue between the Opposition and the Government, which have just been identified by the hon. Gentleman. They are not shrouded in mystery. They are in the open. However, not once since it changed its position on those matters in 1981 has the Labour party come forward with a specific series of proposals as to how the objectives of fighting terrorism can be achieved in a different way from the way in which we propose, which it originally supported.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will deal with the following point when he next gets to his feet. It is worth remembering just why the Labour party changed its position on this vital issue.

In 1980 when the shadow Home Secretary, the then Merlyn Rees, voted in favour of renewal of the Act, he was followed into the Aye Lobby by barely a handful of members of his own party. On that occasion more of them voted against him than in his favour. The vast majority of the Labour party abstained, and refused to accept his lead. Since then, in order to placate its left wing, it is the Labour party that has consistently played party politics on the issue.

No loyalist needs to take up arms to safeguard Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom, because both Governments solemnly accept that a united Ireland can come about only with the agreement and freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. No republican has any justification for the bomb or the bullet, because the British Government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, north and south, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.

Members on both sides of the House will, I know, share my profound disappointment that the hopes created by the joint declaration remain unfulfilled. Apologists for the IRA see fit to suggest that it has generously decided to make some reduction in the level of violence for the moment while it makes up its mind about the declaration. That offers no comfort to the victims of terrorist outrages : the families of Guardsman Blinco of the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, killed by a sniper at Crossmaglen on 30 December, and of Constable Beacom, the community constable who died after a rocket attack in Belfast on 17 February ; the people of Londonderry, where a 450lb bomb aimed at an army patrol exploded four days after the declaration ; the postal workers in London who had letter bombs explode in their sorting offices before


Column 295

Christmas ; the shopkeepers in London's west end who have had their premises damaged by incendiaries in the past three weeks. They do not want to hear weasel words from Gerry Adams or from anyone else. They want--we all want--a permanent end to the violence.

Between 15 December and yesterday there have been some 130 terrorist incidents in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, including a number of attacks on Catholics by so-called loyalists. Seven lives have been lost and many more might have been lost but for the merest chance. Fifty-one people have been injured, some seriously, and considerable damage has been caused to property. Terrorists of every colour have never been more isolated and publicly reviled. Those bare statistics and the human suffering that they represent show how essential it is that we do not for one moment drop our guard. While the present threat remains, the prevention of terrorism Act will continue to be an indispensable means of protecting the public against lawless and murderous criminals, and do so under the rule of law.


Next Section

  Home Page