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Points of Order

Volume 603: debated on Thursday 3 December 2015

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, of which I have given notice to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who, on 3 November, following publication of the second report by the Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted:

“Read the FAC report on UK involvement in Syria: role of ctte is to scrutinise current government policy—not set conditions on any future policy.”

Standing Order No. 152 says that Select Committees are

“appointed to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of…government departments”.

How they do that is up to them. The Liaison Committee said in its second report of the Session 2012-13 on Select Committee effectiveness that

“select committees should influence policy and have an impact on Government departments”.

It also said:

“The extent of this influence and impact is the primary measure of the effectiveness of select committees.”

Furthermore, on 5 November the Minister answered an urgent question on human rights in Egypt and expressed the hope that I was speaking as an individual and not as the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Chairs are plainly unable to secure the opinion of their Committee in response to an urgent question, but they do have a mandate, as a Chair elected by the whole House, and it seemed at least a discourtesy to that mandate for a Minister to try to diminish that authority. Through the Foreign Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, I drew the Minister’s attention to Standing Order No. 152 and sought a private assurance from him that he now understood the position of Select Committees and their Chairs. Despite repeated requests to receive that private assurance, it has not been forthcoming, and I regret that I now need to seek your clarification that my understanding of Standing Orders and the appropriate courtesy for the Minister in the Chamber is indeed correct.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of this point of order. First, I can confirm that it is entirely a matter for Select Committees to interpret the terms of reference set by the House and to decide for themselves what subjects of inquiry to pursue. I would suggest that it is both inappropriate and unwise for Ministers to comment on such matters. To put it bluntly, they should stick to their last. They have responsibilities, and it is to the execution of those responsibilities that they should dedicate themselves. They need not, and should not, stray beyond that.

Secondly, I can confirm that the Liaison Committee has recommended that Select Committees should seek to influence Government policy, and indeed the House has endorsed that recommendation. I would go further and say that it is a matter of some concern if there are Ministers who are unaware of that important fact. I hope that from now on they will not be.

Thirdly, I can confirm that the Chairs of departmental Select Committees, including, obviously, the hon. Gentleman, have been directly elected by the House, and that gives them a particular status and authority. Of course, on many occasions they will want to speak in a personal capacity and not in that role. Once again, we do not need Ministers telling Select Committee Chairmen what they should or should not be doing. In terms of what is orderly conduct in the House, Ministers, like everybody else, can leave that to the Chair.

May I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Gentleman for the valuable contribution that his Committee and its report on the extension of offensive British military operations to Syria have made to discussions in the House in the past few weeks? I believe, and I hope I can say this without fear of contradiction, that Members in all parts of the House, whatever their views on that matter, have found the Committee’s exposition of the issues very helpful indeed.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have been very supportive of those of us who have raised the plight of children in care and care leavers. As I think you know, I chair the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers. It meets about every six weeks, and it invariably books the Boothroyd room because of the high level of interest and the fact that 90 young people, with additional adults in support, travel to its meetings from all over the country. There is invariably standing room only.

I have been advised that the room booking for next week’s meeting has been taken by the Liaison Committee. I understand the process by which these things happen, but no other room in the House can accommodate such large numbers. As you know, Mr Speaker, this is an incredibly important area. I am sure that supporting these young people is a matter of great importance to all Members. What advice can you give me and the all-party group’s secretariat on how to address this problem? Otherwise it will be very difficult for the young people and those supporting them to attend next week’s meeting.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Simply as a matter of fact, I should say to him that Committees always take precedence in the allocation of such rooms, so there is nothing untoward or indeed unusual about that, although I recognise the very considerable inconvenience and potential dilemma caused to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, as well as to those planning to attend such a meeting.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Administration Committee is reviewing the room booking system. Given what he has told the House, I strongly encourage him to make representations to the Administration Committee—perhaps directly to its Chair—to try to progress matters. A conversation with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) might be useful, in addition to any written evidence that the hon. Gentleman may propose to submit.

So far as concerns the question of whether a room can be found for next week, the hon. Gentleman had probably better have private discussions if he needs a room. We will see whether anything can be done if such a need remains.

If there are no further points of order, we will now proceed to the main business.