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Points of Order

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2012

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise with you an issue that goes to heart of the rights of hon. Members—whether they have been elected here 11 times and are in their 42nd year as an MP or whether they came to this House for the first time at the last election. The greatest right of hon. Members is freedom of speech within the rules of order. On that basis, I went to the Table Office before questions yesterday to table an early-day motion relating to the maltreatment and mistreatment of one of my constituents. I discussed it with the Clerk to whom I handed the motion, and he told me that it would be printed today unless I heard from him meanwhile.

Not having heard from that Clerk meanwhile, I assumed that the early-day motion would be printed, but when I looked at the list, I found it was not there. With some difficulty, I then made further contact with the Table Office, a representative of which told me that the early-day motion was still being examined to see whether it was in order. The Table Office had seven and a half hours yesterday and six hours today to look into it. It discussed with me the basic question that it said needed answering—whether the early-day motion contained any sub judice elements. It did not. I have found it impossible to get an answer, 25 hours after I tabled the motion, as to whether it will be printed so that I can air my constituent’s grievance and raise it again.

I have to say that I regard it as discourteous and incompetent of the Table Office to have left the situation in this way on a matter that is crucial for any Members of Parliament, whose servants the Table Office staff are—they are not in charge of us; they serve us. That being the case, Mr Speaker, I ask you first to instruct the Table Office to print my motion and, secondly, to investigate why some people working in that Table Office believe that they have the right to dictate to Members of Parliament in carrying out their duties.

I am sorry to learn of the right hon. Gentleman’s disappointment and of the sequence of events that he has relayed to the House. I hope it will be helpful to him if, on the basis of what I have been advised thus far, I respond.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I have a duty to uphold the sub judice rule. I note what he said about that, but I have something to say. That rule applies equally to written as it does to oral proceedings, and I expect the Table Office to support me in upholding the rule by taking precautions to ensure that there is no inadvertent breach of the rule. It can sometimes take a little time to check whether there are active proceedings in a particular case. I will take steps to assure myself that the right hon. Gentleman’s motion has been treated no differently from how one presented by any other Member would be treated in similar circumstances. However, I stress the importance I attach to taking all reasonable steps to ensure that the sub judice resolution of the House is abided by at all times.

I have been informed by the Table Office that the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that there are no active proceedings and that the right hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion has been tabled. I hope he will understand that I am responding on the basis of what I have been advised. I just want to say one other thing to the right hon. Gentleman, which is that I hope that nobody who works in this House and serves its Members would ever suppose it is his or her role to dictate, to rule or in any sense to trump Members. Everybody is here to serve Members, which should be a matter of pride. I am genuinely saddened if the right hon. Gentleman feels let down. I am happy to look into the matter further. I do not want him to be unhappy, and I hope he will take it in the right spirit if I gently add for his benefit and that of the House that I am relieved at least that at the point at which he discovered against his expectations that his motion had not been tabled, I was not myself anywhere near him.

Further to my point of order, Mr Speaker. I should point out that my courtesy towards you is maximal in comparison with any that I show to anyone else in the country apart from Her Majesty the Queen.

That having been said, anyone reading the 120 words of my motion would have had to be hyper-critical to imagine that it related in any way whatsoever to court proceedings or to the sub judice rule, and that being so, I hope that in future the Table Office will not take to itself rights over what Members of Parliament themselves have the right to say beyond what you yourself, Mr Speaker, would accept.

The role of the Table Office is to assist the Speaker in upholding the rules of the House. I hope that that is widely understood.

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot debate this matter further now, and that it would not be right to do so, but he has made his point very clear. I have heard it, representatives of the office in question have heard it, and I hope that that will suffice for now. I will keep the matter under close review, and I am sure that the spirit of what the right hon. Gentleman has said will be respected.

I will take a point of order from a Member who first arrived in the House four years before the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman).

You have made a point that I was not going to make, Mr Speaker, except perhaps in passing.

I have the highest respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). His point of order illustrated that, having been in the House for nearly 42 years, he is still always willing to act on behalf of his constituents, which is highly commendable. I do not think that a single Member in the House would disagree with that.

However, given that my right hon. Friend was highly critical of the Table Office, I wish to put on record that during my years in this place, I have always found those at the Table Office co-operative and courteous. I have never found them rude at any stage. Had I done so, I should have reported the matter to the Clerk of the House or to the Speaker, as the case might be. I look on the Clerks of the House, as on the other Officers, as dedicated servants of the House of Commons who serve the House of Commons, and I think that that should be put on record.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I think that the Clerks who serve the House will appreciate it too. Perhaps we can leave it there for today.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise an entirely separate and unrelated point of order.

On an entirely separate and unrelated point of order, Mr Speaker. No doubt you will recall the excellent work done by the Leader of the House—whom I am pleased to see sitting on the Front Bench at this moment—in relation to the question of the demonstrations in Parliament square. I believe that we have freedom of speech in the House, but that does not mean that we have the freedom to shout and bawl our opinions incessantly whether people wish to hear them or not. I understand, however, that an application has been made to Westminster city council to reinstate permission for amplified noise to be used to broadcast, for hours on end, abusive and hostile political messages at this House, in the way that was done—causing maximum disturbance—by the late Brian Haw, notwithstanding his lawyers’ assurances to Westminster city council when they applied for a licence that he would not use it to harass people going about their normal work in the Chamber.

May I ask, Mr Speaker, whether you have had any indication of a statement from the Leader of the House on whether he is willing to make representations to the city council that no requirement of freedom of speech enables people to have the right to broadcast at top volume, when no demonstration is taking place, political messages which are intended to disturb people going about their lawful occasions, not least the armed security guards who have to be on constant readiness in front of the Houses of Parliament?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Certainly no concept of free speech should mean that some people have a right to shout at the tops of their voices through an amplifier at other people irrespective of those other people’s wishes. The point that the hon. Gentleman has made seems to me to be entirely reasonable; but the Leader of the House is stirring in his seat, and I feel certain that the House will want to hear what he has to say.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I share my hon. Friend’s concern, and I am planning to respond to the application to Westminster city council in terms of which I think he would approve.

It sounds as if the Leader of the House may not be the only one, but we are grateful to him for what he has said.

Bill presented

European Convention on Human Rights (Temporary Withdrawal) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Peter Bone, supported by Mr Andrew Turner, Mr Nigel Dodds, Mr William Cash, Mr Philip Hollobone, Mr David Nuttall, Philip Davies and Mr Douglas Carswell, presented a Bill to make provision for the temporary withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Bill read for the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed (Bill 308).