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Points of Order

Volume 558: debated on Monday 4 February 2013

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you can help in any way. There have been reports of gruesome practices by the Metropolitan police, which have not been denied, whereby the names of dead children have been used by undercover police agents. I put it to you that this is not simply a matter of applying for an Adjournment debate or even going to the Home Affairs Committee, which I believe is looking into the matter. I would hope that the Home Secretary would come to the House and give an explanation. As I understand it, one of the children who died was a boy of four, and another died in a car crash. Again, I emphasise that the Metropolitan police have not denied that the practice took place, although they have not confirmed it. I believe that the House is due an explanation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order; it will have been heard on the Treasury Bench. As an experienced Member he knows that it is for Ministers to decide whether to come to the House to make a statement, but the Home Secretary will, I feel sure, be conscious of these matters and may feel that their seriousness warrants a statement sooner rather than later.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that you champion Back Benchers and their role in holding the Government to account, but it is particularly difficult for Back Benchers such as me, whose constituency contains a proposed rail freight interchange, to find out what happened in the decision-making process. The Department for Transport has been fulsome in its answers, but the same questions to the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government are answered either by referring me to websites or by saying that it would involve disproportionate cost.

Referring an hon. Member to a website does not always work and I have found out about private meetings that are not declared on websites. What more can be done to ensure that Departments do not hide behind evasive answers when Back Benchers are trying to find out about the decision-making process that has gone on?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, and for notice of it. The content of answers is not a matter of order for the Chair, and neither is inconsistency in the way Ministers reply to similar questions. If the hon. Lady is dissatisfied with the answers she has received, she should draw the matter to the attention of the Procedure Committee. Moreover, I add in passing that without regard to the particulars of the case, with which I cannot be expected to be familiar, I have considerable sympathy for the hon. Lady in so far as she is aggrieved by the tendency of some Departments simply to refer right hon. or hon. Members to a website. That is often unavailing, and the intention of Ministers should be to help Members in pursuit of their parliamentary duties. In the best cases, that is what happens, but it ought to be the norm.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It was a great shock this morning to hear for the first time that the cost of maintaining nuclear waste in this country is an astonishing £67.5 billion. Last Thursday, I asked a question about another possible subsidy of £30 billion, but the Minister mysteriously concentrated on my attitude to the monarchy in his reply and did not mention the cost. Have you had any approach, Mr Speaker, from that Minister or any other Minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, to explain how in a time of austerity we can spend tens of billions of pounds on one energy source?

The short answer is that I have received no such indication that a Minister is planning to come to the House to speak on those matters. The hon. Gentleman may wish to pursue his interests further in subsequent questions, in so far as he thinks he has not already done so to his satisfaction, and that of others, through the ruse of an attempted point of order.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 16 January this year, I initiated a Westminster Hall debate on the operation of the local government standards regime. In the course of the debate, I and other hon. Members referred to the standards regime in the London borough of Tower Hamlets and there was subsequent reporting of that. On 23 January there was a meeting of the full council of the London borough of Tower Hamlets. On the same day, the chief executive sent a letter—I have sent it to your office, Mr Speaker—the effect of which, I contend, was an attempt to gag any conversation or discussion of what had been discussed in this House. I seek your guidance on this, Mr Speaker. Am I correct in thinking that the advice given by the chief executive of the London borough of Tower Hamlets is erroneous in using the phrase,

“the fact that those comments have been made in Parliament does not entitle Councillors to refer or repeat them in Council or elsewhere.”,

which ignores the fact that qualified privilege does attach to a bona fide and accurate report of proceedings in this House, made without improper notice?

Secondly, the advice is erroneous because it says that making such a report might be in breach of the member-officer code of the council, but the internal code of a council cannot override the right of qualified privilege in relation to a report of the House if all other necessary qualifications are met.

Thirdly, the attempt by a public body to gag discussion or criticism of it that has been raised in the House is at the very least a discourtesy to the House, if not verging on the contemptuous.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for notice of it. With reference to the use of material outside the House being bona fide or not, that is a matter for the courts, and the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to occupy that territory. However, I can give what I hope is a substantive response to his point of order that is of value to him and the House.

I am quite clear that his contribution in Westminster Hall is protected entirely by article 9 of the Bill of Rights. What he said on that occasion may not be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside Parliament. The protection of papers published under the direct authority of this House is also clear. However, the extent of the protection afforded under section 3 of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 or otherwise to the repetition in some other place of anything said in this House is, as I have indicated, a matter for the courts, as the Act makes clear—it would be quite wrong for me to offer any opinion on that question from the Chair. The hon. Gentleman may wish to take up any particular concerns he has on parliamentary freedom of speech with the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. I hope that is helpful.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will know that one reason I admire you so much is that you are such a doughty defender of the rights of the House in scrutinising the Executive. You will recall that last week I raised with you the fact that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill will not be committed to the whole House tomorrow. I have been advised by the Clerks—indeed, by a very polite gentleman sitting not a million miles from you—that, although I can table a motion to commit the Bill to the whole House, as I have done, it cannot be debated. Even if Her Majesty’s Opposition or a majority of Members table such a motion, the only people who can commit a Bill to the whole House are the Government. Is that not a democratic lacuna? Is there not something wrong with our procedures? We are faced with an important Bill and constitutional issues concerning the established Church, but nobody apart from the Government has the right to commit it to the whole House.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. What he has just said to the House is substantially correct: the Government’s motion takes precedence. My understanding is that, once the Government have tabled a motion on the matter he has in mind, another motion cannot be considered before or alongside it. The matter in question is catered for—albeit very unsatisfactorily in the mind of the hon. Gentleman—by the Standing Orders of the House. If he or others would like the Standing Orders to be revisited and revised, one possible course would be to approach the Procedure Committee and ask it to consider whether to do so. I accept, however, that that does not avail him tomorrow, and he has raised a serious point that he might wish to pursue.

So far as tomorrow’s debate is concerned—I know the hon. Gentleman has not raised this matter with regard to himself—a very large number of right hon. and hon. Members will be seeking to catch my eye. My surmise is that he will be one of them. The Chair will seek to be as helpful as time allows. We will have to leave it there for now.

bills presented

Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Greg Clark, Mr David Gauke and Sajid Javid presented a Bill to make further provision about banking and other financial services, including provision about the Financial Services Compensation Scheme; to make provision for the amounts owed in respect of certain deposits to be treated as a preferential debt on insolvency; to make provision about the accounts of the Bank of England and its wholly owned subsidiaries; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 130) with explanatory notes (Bill 130-EN).

Children and Families Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Michael Gove, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary Chris Grayling, Secretary Vince Cable, Mr Secretary Hunt, Steve Webb, Mr Edward Timpson, Jo Swinson and Elizabeth Truss presented a Bill to make provision about children, families, and people with special educational needs; to make provision about the right to request flexible working; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 131) with explanatory notes (Bill 131-EN).