Inside Parliament: Opposition waves the rule book at the umpire

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THE neutral authorities of the House of Commons were warned yesterday against being seen to be protecting ministers from MPs' questions about the export of arms equipment to Iraq.

Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, said the table office was blocking questions on the grounds that they dealt with issues before Lord Justice Scott's inquiry when questions had been accepted and answered in similar circumstances in the past.

'This House is here to scrutinise and to challenge the executive. The authorities should assist us in that role. It would be most regrettable if the role of the authorities came to be seen as protecting ministers from questions which are specific, urgent and within their ministerial responsibilities.'

Mr Cook raised the issue on a point of order with the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, whose table office clerks decide whether MPs' questions are in order. The suspicions of MPs trying to probe the 'Iraqgate' affair have been increased by the fact that Miss Boothroyd's secretary, Nicolas Bevan, previously served in the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office.

Mr Cook listed the classes of questions set out in Erskine May, the Commons rule book, which ministers would not answer - on discussions between ministers, between ministers and advisors, on Cabinet proceedings and on the security services. But Mr Cook said MPs and the clerks now found themselves in difficulty as a result of the refusal of ministers to answer questions relating to matters before the Scott inquiry. Yet it was not sub judice and was not part of the parliamentary process. It was a departmental inquiry which would report to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.

'On previous occasions the table office has accepted questions on matters relating to departmental inquiries and ministers have answered.' Mr Cook had a print-out of 25 questions on the BCCI inquiry, which, he said, was 'precisely analogous' to the Scott inquiry as a departmental inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Bingham.

'What makes the decision to block questions in this particular departmental inquiry particularly objectionable is that Lord Justice Scott has taken the welcome step of holding his hearings in public. As a result of that decision, counsel can now ask questions and journalists can report questions and answers on the very subjects on which MPs are being debarred from asking questions. I cannot think of a distinction more likely to encourage Parliament to fall into desuetude and disrespect.'

Miss Boothroyd said Erskine May made it clear that the refusal of a question could not be raised on the floor of the House but she invited him to speak to her privately. Mr Cook accepted.

MPs spent most of the day dealing with two languages that most of them do not understand, the Welsh language - a Bill to promote it was given a second reading - and the language of science, engineering and technology. William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, unveiled a white paper setting out a strategy to bridge the gap between British inventiveness and its exploitation. There was little mention of funding. 'Mr Waldegrave isn't so much rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic as letting them collapse,' observed Jeremy Bray, a former Labour technology spokesman and pure mathematician.

Scientific knowledge would have been useful at Question Time to judge the scornful reply by David Maclean, Minister for the Environment, to a call by Labour's Clare Short for public education on the growing risk of skin cancer. It was a 'shibboleth', he said. In the northern hemisphere, depletion of the ozone layer occurred in February, March and April when the sun was so low on the horizon there was little extra ultra-violet radiation coming through.

'To get the same dose of radiation, or of sunburn, you would need to spend only one hour round the pool at lunchtime on the Costa Brava as, in February, you would get in spending 10 hours nude sunbathing in Birmingham.'