Asking Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, on a point of order if Douglas Hurd has applied to make a statement is a sure way of registering dissent, but gets no ministerial reply. So yesterday Teresa Gorman, Conservative MP for Billericay, posed an innocent one during transport questions, about what was being done to reduce congestion along the Mile End Road in east London.
Steve Norris, Under-Secretary of State for Transport, said red route parking restrictions would improve traffic flow along it. But Mrs Gorman came back: 'It is vital for the progress of his excellent plans for the Mile End Road . . . that our Foreign Secretary should fight to retain the veto over the Brussels bureaucracy who might otherwise overrule this excellent plan, as they did when they introduced 44-ton lorries to the UK.'
Mr Norris confessed that was not part of his background brief. 'As far as I understood the portent of Mrs Gorman's question, I am sure she's right. If I didn't understand it, I instantly withdraw it.'
Later, as exchanges turned more directly to cross-party concern about 44-ton lorries, Mrs Gorman cheered on Bob Cryer, a Labour left-winger, but not in all respects her political opposite.
'If we don't want juggernauts going through every nook and cranny in our country, we have to keep the right of veto in the common market. Because this is about standardisation of lorry weights. . . it has nothing to do with the advantage of the UK,' said the Bradford South MP. 'Yes, yes, yes,' cried Mrs Gorman.
Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, provoked protests as he stuck tightly to the ministerial line of refusing to answer questions about the Matrix Churchill arms-for-Iraq trial on the grounds that these are matters for the Scott inquiry.
Marked down as a likely casualty of the affair, Sir Nicholas is due to appear before Lord Justice Scott on Thursday when he will be asked about his role in the prosecution and advice to ministers on signing public interest immunity certificates - 'gagging orders' - used to try to deny the defendants sight of internal Whitehall documents.
John Fraser, for the Opposition, asked if Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, was correct when he said the attention of the judge and the defence would be drawn to his 'specially abbreviated' PII certificate. But to jeers, Sir Nicholas replied: 'Those are matters being investigated by Lord Justice Scott.'
Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, alleged Sir Nicholas was 'guilty of either a cover-up or incompetence . . . when Mr Heseltine refused to sign the certificate, didn't it cross the Attorney General's mind that he should have told those people heading for the court that it was wrong for them to be sent to jail when he was bending the law on their behalf?'
But Mr Skinner got a similar brush-off. 'He would do well to wait for my evidence on Thursday,' Sir Nicholas said. Later, on a point of order, Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, protested in vain that the law officer's accountability to the Commons was 'supreme and indivisible'. While Sir Nicholas had a duty to give evidence to the Scott inquiry, 'he has a more important duty to give evidence to this House'.
Peter Bottomley, Conservative MP for Eltham, said the 'best guidance' on the use of PII certificates was contained in footnotes to a law book in print so small most people had not been able to read it. Sir Nicholas agreed. 'The footnotes to the Supreme Court Practice are in print suitable to a prayer book and perhaps one of the enlarging photocopiers might be of considerable assistance.'
Perhaps, for the embattled Sir Nicholas, a prayer book might also be of considerable assistance.Reuse content