Inside Parliament: Minister's apology fails to satisfy MPs: Handling of 'misleading' answer over Bill for disabled people angers both sides of House - Parliament held in contempt, Speaker told

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Indy Politics
Labour MPs yesterday took the rare step of challenging a ruling by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, after she tried to draw a line under her part in the Nicholas Scott affair.

Mr Scott, Minister for Disabled People, admitted giving a 'misleading' answer to MPs on Friday when he appeared to deny any involvement in tactics used to block a backbench Bill aimed at making life less of a struggle for disabled people.

The manoeuvre angered MPs on both sides of the Commons. Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, wrote to Miss Boothroyd accusing the minister of contempt of the House. Mr Scott 'unreservedly apologised' on Tuesday, but MPs regard misleading Parliament as a serious offence and were not prepared to let the matter rest.

In a brief statement, Miss Boothroyd said she was taking the 'unusual step' of informing the House of her decision 'in view of the current comments surrounding the controversy'. Normally she would have responded to the complaint by letter.

'My function in such cases is limited to deciding whether or not the matter should have the precedence accorded to matters of privilege,' she told the House. Mr Scott did not appear to be there.

'In the light of the developments since I received the complaint, as a result of which this House is in possession of the facts and has received an apology, I have concluded that I would not be justified in myself granting precedence for this matter's further consideration. My decision in no way limits the rights of members to pursue other ways of raising this matter.'

But MPs saw new demons in the ruling. Mr Campbell-Savours said: 'A precedent has been set whereby any minister can now come to the Commons and deliberately mislead the Commons in the knowledge that if they are subsequently found out, suffice that they come before the House and apologise and, in their view, provide the facts. If that were to happen then contempt would no longer be of relevance to the Commons,' the Workington MP said. 'In fact the last application for contempt may well have been brought, in so far as you have opened the door to ministers deliberately misleading in the event that they know that they can simply apologise. I have to say, Madam Speaker, I find your ruling, with all respect to you in the world, utterly astonishing.'

Speakers are rarely spoken to in such terms and there were protests from some Tory MPs. But the points of order continued. David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, said it was quite wrong that disabled people should be denied their rights 'simply out of cheating and lying by ministers'. Giles Radice, Labour MP for Durham North, quoted a letter from the Prime Minister saying a minister who knowingly misled the Commons should resign.

Miss Boothroyd insisted that if there were similar incidents in future, each would be determined 'on its merits'.

Barry Sheerman, Labour spokesman for disabled people, referred Miss Boothroyd to radio remarks by Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, and Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, which, he said, had shown that 'manipulation' of Commons business was commonplace. And of course it is. Kevin Barron, Labour MP for Rother Valley, pointed out that 108 amendments had been tabled to his Bill to ban tobacco adverts. The measure had an unopposed Second Reading and comes before the House tomorrow for its final stages. It will not get through and there will be another row.

At the close of an unilluminating debate on the environment, a Labour motion commending the role of the European Union while accusing the Government of failing to meet standards for drinking water, bathing water and air quality was defeated by 298 votes to 244.

The environment minister Robert Atkins concluded: 'If we could harness the wind and hot air that emanates from the Opposition benches, this country's energy requirements could be met from now to the end of the century.' Add in that from his own side and there would be substantial exports.