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House of Commons Hansard
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14 October 2015
Volume 600

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled in a case brought by myself and Baroness Jones that the Wilson doctrine has no legal force and is just an ambiguous political statement. That appears to contradict what the Prime Minister told the House last month. Can you advise us, Mr Speaker, on the best way of ensuring that the Prime Minister comes to this House and makes a statement about what he knew, and—crucially—that he brings forward legislation to ensure that the communications of MPs who are undertaking their parliamentary duties are not spied on without independent judicial approval?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me advance notice of her intention to raise a point of order and of its substance, but I fear that she flatters me and somewhat decries herself. It is not for the Chair to proffer advice on this issue, but I will attend, in terms, to the specifics of the matter she has raised. I am, of course, conscious that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal today released its judgment in the case brought by the hon. Lady, and others, on the Wilson doctrine. She will understand and appreciate that at this point I have not read it—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) will patiently await my reply and we will hear his oratory in a moment. In any case, I do not believe that it falls to me as Speaker to respond to such a judgment, or to provide commentary on it.

I am also conscious of the concerns of devolved legislatures that have been conveyed to me by colleagues from the Chairs of those bodies, but it would not be right for me to comment on the Floor of the House from this Chair on such matters. The hon. Lady asks how she can seek advance or clarification on the matter, but she bobs up regularly from her place on those Benches in seeking to question Ministers—even the most senior—and I will be looking out for her, and others.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We do like to ask for your advice, because it is based on great experience. You will be aware that a number of your predecessors have taken a close interest in whether the Wilson doctrine applies and protects Members of Parliament.

The Government’s Queen’s Counsel—the lawyer paid by the Government—appears to have said before the tribunal that ministerial statements are characterised by

“ambiguities, at best, whether deliberate or otherwise”.

First, is it not in order, Mr Speaker, to ask, as a newish Member of the House, how we can get an unambiguous answer from Ministers on whether the notice and protection, which used to, up until last year, apply to Members of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament, is still in force?

Secondly, what would the impact be if there was a will across the parties—this is, if anything is, a cross-party matter—to pass an unambiguous substantive motion reasserting an essential democratic protection that has been with us for 50 years and more?

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Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman, in response to his twofold inquiry, two things. First, if the right hon. Gentleman wants—I respect this—an unambiguous answer, he should pose an unambiguous question and not rest content until he has an unambiguous answer. If the right hon. Gentleman were to raise his eyebrow and quizzically inquire, either explicitly or implicitly, whether that means he should engage in repetition, I would say yes. The House is no stranger to repetition. It is not a novel innovation in the practice of this place, nor, if I may very politely say so, in the practice of the right hon. Gentleman. That is the first point.

The second point is on the question of a motion. That is not a matter for me, but could a motion, including a cross-party motion, be tabled on this matter and a vote be forced upon it—the right hon. Gentleman knows that it could; just looking around the House, no names, no pack drill—I have a feeling there would be a number of takers.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You are, of course, quite right in what you said at the beginning. This is principally a matter for the Government, but it is also a matter that addresses directly parliamentary privilege. This morning’s judgment ruled, first, that the Wilson doctrine, as we interpret it in its narrowest sense, has no legal basis, but beyond that it has no basis whatever if we are communicating with whistleblowers, campaigners, lawyers, journalists or each other. It seems to me that the original aim of the Wilson doctrine was to protect all those things and to protect Members of this House either from intimidation or from oversight by the Government. Therefore, there is a role for the House. I look to you, Mr Speaker, for guidance on what that might be.

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I note what the right hon. Gentleman says and I do not demur from it. It is an extremely important matter and he is perfectly properly concerned with the rights of Members. If he wants to know, at this time, my own view on the matter, he can of course consult paragraph 21 of the judgment, which reflects my own view based on expert legal advice. If the right hon. Gentleman feels, as I suspect the right hon. Member for Gordon does, that there is still real ambiguity about this matter, they must use their parliamentary wiles to draw Ministers on the matter. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who celebrates this year, I think, 28 years’ uninterrupted service in the House, is very well familiar with all the options open to him. There are Adjournment debates, opportunities for urgent questions and Opposition days. There is a miscellany of ways in which he can pursue this matter, and I have a hunch that he and others will do so.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I could be wrong, but I believe I was in the House when the Wilson doctrine was set out, and I would be very disappointed indeed if the absolute integrity set out by the then Prime Minister were to be changed in any way. I hope you understand the strength of feeling on this issue. We should not be spied on in any circumstances. This is also not just about us, but about recognising our responsibilities as elected representatives. I hope that you yourself, Mr Speaker, can make an input to ensure that the Wilson doctrine is not thrown out, because that would be a grave disservice to Parliament.

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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Of course, I am conscious that he was here at the time of its formulation. He entered the House in 1966 and he and I have often discussed this matter, so he does speak from some considerable personal experience. The fact that I am concerned about the issue is reflected in my letter and submission to the tribunal, so although I am making the point that it would not be right for the Chair to engage in a debate in this Chamber on the substance of the issue, I do have views. I am protective of the rights of Members and any potential threat thereto, and I do communicate as necessary on the matter. I am very open to hearing the thoughts of colleagues, privately as well as in this Chamber, about the issue.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that I asked the Home Secretary about this very issue and got a complete non-answer yet again. Members across the House have repeatedly tried to get to the bottom of whether MPs’ communications are being intercepted by the state, and I have to say that I think we have exhausted everything we can do. We look to you, Mr Speaker, and ask whether you could reflect on whether there is anything in your powers that would allow us to get to the bottom of what is a wholly unsatisfactory situation.

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I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman and take his concerns very seriously. I was here when he asked his question and noted his evident dissatisfaction with the response. The point I would very gently make is that it was, of course, one question and one response. Sometimes, if there is a fuller opportunity to explore such matters—the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the arsenal of weapons available to Members trying to secure a fuller and more thorough interrogation on an issue—some light emerges. If the hon. Gentleman gets the drift of that advice, he may, with other colleagues, wish to follow that course.

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rose—

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He may even receive some encouragement in it from the shadow Leader of the House.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am glad that you told the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) that he should be indefatigable and keep on going, because there are other means whereby we can make sure that this clear ambiguity, which cannot possibly be in the interests of any Member of this House, should be dealt with. The freedom of Members to be able to speak without fear or favour, and without fear of being spied on by the Government or any other agency, is a vital part of our being able to do our job as representatives, and it strikes at the heart of our liberties. It would, of course, be possible for the Leader of the House to make a statement as a matter of urgency. Obviously, he is present, so I wonder whether he might like to leap to his feet and say that he would be happy to do that tomorrow and clear up all the ambiguity.

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I am very grateful to the shadow Leader of the House. The Leader of the House is sitting impassively: he does not intend to take to his feet at this stage. He may do so subsequently—I do not know—but I simply repeat the thrust of the theme I was developing in response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) by saying this: if Members feel that this matter has now acquired an urgent character, or even that it might warrant consideration as an emergency, there are parliamentary methods open to them. I do not think I could be accused of being over-subtle or delphic.

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You’ve never been accused of that!

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I have never been accused of that—that is true!

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It has come to my attention following the liquidation of SSI UK that the Government’s supposed £80 million, a vast majority of it new money, now transpires to be £30 million of existing funds, to which the workforce are entitled anyway as statutory redundancy payments. I now have further information that suggests that further education colleges and training providers in the area have had no further moneys above their existing budgets to provide re-education and economic regeneration programmes for the affected workers and families. We also know that Ministers have informed Teesside Members that they wish that they had mothballed the blast furnace at Redcar. At the very least, there should be a written statement to this House informing the people of Teesside of the Government’s real intentions and of what moneys they are putting aside for those people.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is certainly a most indefatigable representative of the people of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. I simply say to him that this matter was at least partly treated of yesterday, although clearly not to his satisfaction in the light of his comments about what he has heard. If I may politely say so to the House, this is an issue that will inevitably run over a period and it is open to Ministers to make statements and for others, if such statements are not volunteered, to seek to extract them. The hon. Gentleman is a most versatile and dexterous contributor in the House and he will know the options open to him. The Chair wants important matters to be debated. Frankly, if we had not taken so long at Prime Minister’s questions it would have been possible to have questions on the matter but, unfortunately, initial questions and answers were somewhat longer than was the case in the last Parliament.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you saying that the people on Teesside should be putting in for a Standing Order No. 24 debate?

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I was not as explicit as that. I say to the hon. Gentleman, who has now been in the House for 45 years without interruption, that a Member could make an SO 24 application, or an application for an urgent question is another device that could be used. Those options are open, and the Speaker does not commit in advance as they have to be considered on merit, but they do exist. I think that the hon. Gentleman will testify that they have been used more frequently in recent years. I would not want colleagues to think that there is no chance for these matters to be considered. There is, if they take it. Perhaps we can leave the matter there for now.