Skip to main content

Points of Order

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2014

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The ministerial code of conduct makes it clear that Ministers must give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest possible opportunity.

On 11 June, I asked whether the Department for Work and Pensions’ business case for the implementation of universal credit had been approved by the Treasury. In her reply, the employment Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) said:

“The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament (2014-15) as per the ministerial announcement (5 December 2013, Official Report, column 65WS)”—[Official Report, 30 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 434W.]

When asked yesterday whether the Treasury had signed off the business case for universal credit, Sir Bob Kerslake told the Public Accounts Committee:

“I think we should not beat about the bush. It has not been signed off.”

This morning, in response to a parliamentary question asking whether the Treasury had signed off the business case, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said:

“The Treasury have approved funding for the Universal Credit programme in 2013-14 and 2014-15.”——[Official Report, 7 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 124W.]

In other words, the straightforward answer to the question whether Has the Treasury approved the DWP’s business case for the implementation of universal credit is no. That is the reverse of what the employment Minister said.

Mr Speaker, will you explain to the House the process whereby a Minister can correct the record?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. Every Member of the House is responsible for the veracity of what he or she says in it. As she will be aware, and other Members will know, there is a procedure available to Ministers if they need to correct the record. It is open to them to do so by coming to the House and setting the record straight if they judge that appropriate. In so far as issues appertaining to the ministerial code are concerned, the House will be aware that I am not responsible for compliance with the code. That responsibility rests elsewhere. I think it is best to leave it there for now, and I am happy to see whether there is any development that causes the matter to be brought before the House again.

That is subject to the appropriateness of hearing a point of order from the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Mrs Margaret Hodge.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you advise us on the rights of Back-Bench Members of Parliament in this regard? Evidence was given to my Committee yesterday by Sir Jeremy Heywood, Sir Nicholas Macpherson and Sir Bob Kerslake. When I asked whether the policy was on track, Sir Jeremy replied:

“In its current form, I believe it is.”

When I asked Sir Nicholas whether he had signed off the business case, he replied:

“I believe that at each key milestone of the reset programme there is a Treasury decision to take.”

Finally, after about six or seven questions, it was Sir Bob Kerslake who said:

“I think we should not beat about the bush. It has not been signed off.”

The important thing for Back-Bench Members is that we need to know who is telling the truth—the head of the civil service or the Minister. We need to have a mechanism that enables us to assess that. Smoke and mirrors have been used. Hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake, and millions of benefit claimants will have their future at risk. We, as Back Benchers, need to know the truth.

There are two responses to the right hon. Lady. First, by long-standing convention—and I think that it is a wise convention—the Speaker does not comment on proceedings in Committee until the report of a Committee has been published, so I will refrain from commenting on any of the exchanges to which the right hon. Lady helpfully drew my attention. Secondly, if there is a lingering uncertainty or confusion about a factual state of affairs, there are means by which these matters that are judged to be highly topical can be brought to the attention of the House. I do not think that I need to elaborate on what I have said. It will be well known to Members that there are mechanisms available to them, and it is up to them to decide whether to seek to use those mechanisms and for me to decide whether it is appropriate that they should. For today, we should leave it there. I hope that that is helpful to the House.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, I raised a point of order about a ministerial visit to my constituency of which I was not given prior notice. The hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) was also at the visit without informing me in advance. The hon. Gentleman said in the House last night that his role

“was to drop off my hon. Friend the Minister”.—[Official Report, 7 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 63.]

It now appears in the local media that his role was more than that of a chauffeur, as the photographs suggest that he was an integral part of the visit. Have you received any indication from the hon. Gentleman that he wants to put the record straight and apologise to the House?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have received no such indication, although the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) is in his place and if he wishes to say something, it is open to him to do so. He is stirring from his seat.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I stand by what I said yesterday. My role was to drop off the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who was visiting Hitachi, that great investment that this Government have brought to the north-east, creating thousands of jobs and bringing in millions of pounds. I did not stay throughout the full visit. I dropped him off, spoke briefly to the media, got a quick photograph and left before the visit was complete. My role was to drop the Minister off, Mr Speaker. How may I most accurately put on the record my honest and well-meant suggestion to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) that rather than continually making points of order of this type in this place, which of course he is entitled to do, he would perhaps be better served asking Hitachi why they did not invite him to attend?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have listened to his explanation and I do think that we should operate in a fashion informed by common sense. My colleague in the Chair at the time that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) raised his original point of order about this matter said that

“we are all grown-up enough to know what the conventions imply about visiting another Member’s constituency.” —[Official Report, 7 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 63.]

I have no intention of having a lengthy debate on the matter, but suffice it to say that the question of how long a Member was present on a particular visit is pretty immaterial. I do not doubt that the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) is a first-class driver. I have not benefited from his skills in that regard over the years, but I have no reason to question that he would be a very satisfactory chauffeur. If in fact he took part in the visit, I think he must know the logic of that. I appeal to Members, particularly in this sensitive time in the run-up to a general election, to take care to observe not merely the letter but the spirit of the convention about prior notification. I do not want to go beyond that, so let us leave the matter there. Let us try to ensure that we behave in a way that is seemly and the public would think is seemly. Let us leave it there.