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Points of Order

Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a genuine request for information, because I am ignorant about this matter. On 13 January, I forwarded correspondence from one of my constituents to the Prime Minister. My constituent was very concerned about what he perceived to be the Prime Minister’s wish with regard to encrypted communications

“to enable the government to snoop”

on the private individual.

As the months passed and I received no response, I followed the matter up, and on 23 February I received a copy of a letter sent directly to my constituent. It is on Conservative party paper and comes from the political correspondence manager at No. 10 Downing street. The correspondent was sorry to read of my constituent’s concerns and stated:

“The Conservative manifesto will therefore make very clear that a Conservative government will introduce the legislation”.

The final sentence of the letter states:

“I do hope you find this reassuring and that you will feel able to support us in the months and years ahead.”

It was my understanding that no humble Back-Bench MP was ever allowed to use their parliamentary offices or salaries for party political campaigning. It is also my understanding that No. 10 Downing street does not become the property of its incumbent’s political party. I would be grateful for your advice, Mr Speaker, about precisely to whom I can address my concerns about what strikes me as totally unacceptable behaviour on the part of the Prime Minister.

Although I understand the considerable unhappiness that the hon. Lady might feel and that her constituent has experienced, it is not clear to me that this is a matter for the Chair. I say that in all sincerity—I have had modest advance notice of the matter, and it is not clear to me. The question of the letterhead is not a matter for the Chair; it may well have been judged proper in the circumstances to volunteer a view as to what a party to the coalition would intend for the future, rather than to purport to speak on the behalf of the coalition Government as a whole. In other words, it might be thought by some people to be a prudent judgment to answer on behalf of a party on party note paper, rather than on the part of a Government. That may be a matter of opinion.

I take what the hon. Lady says seriously, not least because she does not regularly raise points of order—certainly not frivolous ones that, believe it or not, some people are inclined to make. I therefore treat her with great seriousness. She will be with us, fortunately, in the House for a little while longer, and I feel sure that there will be an opportunity for her to air her concerns. She will look at the Order Paper and see what opportunities for questioning there are, and she will draw from her study the appropriate conclusion. Perhaps we can leave it there for now.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I hope you do not consider this frivolous. You gave me a very considered reply when I asked for guidance on the unique situation of having a fixed-term Parliament, and ministerial visits around the country. We have just had Health questions, where Ministers referred to visits to Members’ constituencies—to look at things, presumably. What guidance can you give me, Mr Speaker? We are seeing targeted ministerial visits in this long campaign, which are obviously purely political visits to prop up candidates in marginal seat. I do not mind, as I said in my previous point of order, if these are political visits and they are paid for by Conservative central office or whatever. What I object to are political visits by Ministers to marginal seats, such as those in west Yorkshire, being paid for by the taxpayer. Can you guide me as to whom I complain to, Mr Speaker?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his point of order, is that if he thinks there has been an abuse of public funds, it is open to him to raise that matter with the National Audit Office. However, the question of Ministers’ visits is not, and very properly not, a matter for the Chair. The only point I would make is that Ministers must visit the Chamber in order to answer questions—that is a matter of course—and Ministers must visit the Chamber, at the instruction of the Speaker, to answer urgent questions, something that happens rather more now than in the past. Beyond that, the day-to-day activities of Ministers—where, when, for how long, or in whose interests they perambulate around the country—is, thankfully, not a matter for me.

I do want to come on to the ten-minute rule motion, but—[Interruption.] Unlike some people, who are tolerant of the sound of their own voices but spectacularly uninterested in those of others, I will hear the hon. Gentleman. If there are a few Members who do not like it, they will have to lump it.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not want to make myself unpopular with anyone, but I would like guidance on a matter similar to that which I raised in a point of order two weeks ago: Ministers coming to constituencies and not telling the constituency MP. They are telling Government MPs, but not Opposition MPs. That is breaking a convention that this House has honoured for a very long time.

On that point the position is clear: it is a convention and not a rule. The convention should be honoured. What I have said many times in response to protests from Members on both sides of the House, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is that the spirit of the convention should be observed. What that means is that a Member should give decent notice to the person whose constituency he or she is intending to visit, of the fact of that prospective visit. That is pretty clear, but it ought not really to be necessary for it to be constantly aired on the Floor of the House. I think people outside this place attending to our proceedings, who are often very critical of the way in which we conduct ourselves, would expect that grown-ups could treat each other with courtesy and respect in this matter, and indeed, perhaps, in a good many others.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), but may I just make the point that the more Ministers visit my constituency, the more my support grows? I am making no complaint.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I repeat the point I have often made. The hon. Gentleman has served without interruption in the House since 1979, so it is coming up to 36 years in the House without a break. Before that, he served for four years in a different constituency from 1966 to 1970. The hon. Gentleman is now a celebrated denizen of this House and he must be doing something right.