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Points of Order

Volume 577: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2014

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I need your urgent advice on an important constituency case. As the local MP, I have been representing a family in a contested adoption case, including the birth mother, Miss P. In order to represent the family properly, I needed to see the final statements and assessments by relevant social workers. Norfolk county council then e-mailed my constituent, stating:

“I would be grateful if you could confirm whether or not your client has disclosed a copy of the assessments to Henry Bellingham. This would clearly be in breach of the family procedure rules and a contempt of Court.”

I then wrote to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), and the president of the family division, Sir James Munby. Both the Minister and Sir James replied that since the case of Re N in 2009, the family procedure rules had been updated specifically to include MPs as interested parties who can receive all relevant statements and assessments. In other words, the county council was completely wrong.

Norfolk county council was either ignorant of that change in the law, which I find pretty staggering given that every family practitioner in the land will surely have known about the consequences of Re N, or it deliberately misled a vulnerable young mother about the law and conspired to stop MPs going about their duty. I take the matter very seriously, because I have been prevented from getting full and considered advice to Miss P. What protection can you give MPs, Mr Speaker? Is there a possible contempt of Parliament, and could Norfolk county council be referred to the Committee of Privileges?

Order. The hon. Gentleman springs to his feet with great alacrity, and we will hear from him in a moment.

I say to the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) that if he has a complaint on grounds of privilege, it will be necessary for him to write to me on that score. More widely, I thank him for his courtesy in giving me advance notice yesterday evening of his intention to raise the point of order. I am concerned as to his ability to act effectively in this matter, and I am sympathetic with the broad thrust of what he has said to me and the House. My clear understanding is that the relevant Minister is interested in coming in on the matter, and he should have the opportunity to do so. We will then hear from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth).

No, the hon. Gentleman thinks that his concern is so immediate that it must be taken now. I am happy to give him the benefit of the doubt, so we will hear from the Minister in a moment.

I am most grateful, Mr Speaker.

Further to that point of order, may I put it on record that I have suffered precisely the same threat from Surrey county council about a potential adoption case in my constituency? May I suggest that it is a matter of relevance to you, Mr Speaker, because it strikes at the heart of the issue of privilege? It is extremely important that the evidence that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) has just given you about the ruling by the president of the family division is widely disseminated to county councils throughout the country.

Look, I make one light-hearted point to the hon. Gentleman and one more serious one. The light-hearted one is that I cannot imagine that any attempt to threaten him could be successful. I have known him for 25 years, and he is not the sort of person to be threatened effectively, let me put it that way.

On the more substantial and substantive front, I am afraid that I must repeat to the hon. Gentleman that a complaint on grounds of privilege has to be put to me in writing. He knows very well that I am extremely concerned about the protection of parliamentary privilege and the need to guard against any threat to it, as manifested in the recent case involving the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). I believe that the hon. Gentleman is well familiar with the exchanges relating to that case. I am sensitive to his concerns, but let us now hear—preferably with brevity—from the Minister. [Laughter]

I have not said a word.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. the Ministry of Justice is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) for raising the matter with us. It is of great constitutional importance and significance, and people in local authorities need to know what the law is. It is clear to me that the solicitor acting for Norfolk county council was wrong in what she said, which was that it would be clearly in breach of the family procedure rules and a contempt of court for the documents to be disclosed to the Member of Parliament of the person in question. The president of the family division has drawn the local authority’s attention to the case of Re N, where the judgment is clear. Since then, the family procedure rules have been changed and make it clear that unless a judge has ruled otherwise, parties involved in family cases can disclose information relating to their case to any person, including their constituency MP, as long as it is for the purpose of confidential discussion. The rules are above doubt and clear, and I hope that all local authorities will respect the role of Members of Parliament in representing their constituents.

I was aware of the change of rules, and now the House is. We are grateful for that and will leave it there for today. I hope that is helpful.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 6 January this year I asked a named-day question about the introduction of fees for employment tribunals, and particularly the issue of pregnant women who are now being asked to pay £1,200 to go to tribunal. There is concern that there has been chaos in the system about the fee remittance available to that group. My named-day question was answered only on 17 January after I had submitted pursuant questions. The Minister said that he would write to me in full, but I have not heard anything and it is now two months later. Can you do anything, Mr Speaker, to ensure that Ministers respond to legitimate questions from Members of Parliament?

The hon. Lady has made her point. The Procedure Committee is conscious of its importance, as indeed is the Leader of the House, who is nodding sagely from a sedentary position on the Treasury Bench.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Thursday the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), made a written statement to the House regarding the impending closure of the Driver and Vehicle Agency in Northern Ireland, which will result in more than 300 jobs being lost, including 200 in my constituency. The matter has concentrated the minds of many people, including a petition of more than 40,000 people. A debate in the Assembly indicated unanimous support there, as well as the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister here. What further procedures are available to try to salvage jobs and services in Northern Ireland before that unacceptable decision is implemented?

The hon. Gentleman has already given the issue a somewhat higher profile by the very fact of raising it with such force on the Floor of the House. My simple advice is that he should repair to the Table Office from this Chamber, and seek advice as to the means he can deploy to take forward his concern and seek resolution. I hope that is helpful.

If there are no further points of order, we come to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) has been so stoically and patiently waiting.