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Points of Order

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2016

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have there been any discussions between you and the Government about a possible statement on the terrible events unfolding in Brussels? Of course, we do not yet know the final facts, but a number of innocent people have been killed. We do not yet know whether there are any British victims, but there will be many families anxious to find news of relatives. I am sure that those on both sides of the House would welcome the opportunity to question the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary about the ongoing efforts of the police and security services here to protect the public in the UK from similar attacks.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for the terms in which he put it to me. As Members present throughout Question Time will know, condolences have been expressed by Members on both sides of the House as regards the victims of this terrible outrage and their loved ones who will live with the consequences. The short answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that I have had no such discussions with any Minister to date. I think that it is a matter of public record that the Prime Minister has been chairing an important meeting of Cobra this morning and I think it will be accepted in all parts of the House, not least by the right hon. Gentleman, that the Prime Minister is punctilious in coming to the House to address these matters at such a point as he feels that he has the requisite level of information to impart to colleagues and is best placed to be informative and helpful. We should await the development of events, but the serious concern registered by the right hon. Gentleman will be keenly felt across the House. I thank him again for the terms in which he raised his point.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My thoughts are with the people of Brussels, as will be those of all Members of the House. I understand that Ministers will as a priority work with our colleagues in Brussels, putting security in this country first. I have been contacted by a number of my constituents who travelled to Brussels earlier today and who are trying to get home, as I am sure are many others. They have been told by the airline, Ryanair, that it will cost them £6,000 to be brought back to this country. Through you, Mr Speaker, may I ask Ministers to intervene and suggest to Ryanair and other carriers that all efforts are made to help those who want to come back to this country in a reasonable way?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his attempted point of order. That is not a matter for the Chair, but, again, he has raised a question of real and immediate concern. That real and immediate concern will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench and, knowing the hon. Gentleman’s ingenuity, I feel sure that if he does not receive some sort of contact or reassurance from an appropriate quarter, he will not rest in continuing to highlight his concern, and I thank him for doing so.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Friday, the Government were taken to the Supreme Court by ClientEarth for failing to meet EU air quality standards which have resulted in 40,000 deaths a year at a cost of £20 billion a year. Are you aware of any statement that will be made by the Government on this important issue, particularly in the light of what is happening in the Budget? They have an opportunity to stop people dying and becoming disabled, rather than charging people for being disabled.

I confess that I have received no such indication. Once again, the hon. Gentleman has put his concerns on the record. They will have been heard and doubtless he will return to the matter if he does not receive the satisfaction he seeks.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your advice and guidance on a matter of principle for this House? Select Committees have the power through this House to send for persons, papers and records, to enable them to obtain oral and written evidence to allow them to undertake their work. In keeping with this long-established power, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which I chair, has sought to take evidence from the owner of Sports Direct, Mr Mike Ashley, on the treatment of workers at his company. That was in response to reports that workers at Mr Ashley’s warehouse in Shirebrook were not being paid the minimum wage. I have received correspondence from workers at Sports Direct, who have told me of practices such as employees being made to clock out but having to continue to work so that wages were not over budget; of staff kept for an hour after their scheduled finish time without pay to tidy shops; and of workers finishing work at 5 am and being required back at work two hours later.

We on the Select Committee naturally and not unreasonably wish to question Mr Ashley on the review of working conditions at his company that he announced he would undertake personally. After his refusal to accept our initial invitation to attend on a mutually convenient date, last week the Committee formally ordered Mr Ashley to attend on 7 June. Yesterday he indicated to the press, although not to the Committee, that he has no current intention of attending the Committee. He referred to the order to attend as

“an abuse of the parliamentary process”

and described the Committee as “a joke”. I do not think that scrutinising reports of Victorian-type employment conditions in modern-day Britain is a joke.

Can you confirm, Mr Speaker, that the Committee has acted in accordance with the procedures of this House? Can you advise me what steps can now be taken to ensure that Mr Ashley complies with the very reasonable request, and then the formal order, of the BIS Committee?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee for notice of his point of order. The House delegates to nearly all its Select Committees the power to send for persons, papers and records. Each Committee is free to decide whom to invite to give oral evidence, and if the invitation is refused, the Committee may decide to make an order for the attendance of a witness.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s direct question, therefore, it appears to me that so far the proper procedures have been followed. As long as the Committee is acting within its terms of reference, the House expects witnesses to obey the Committee’s order to attend. If, after due consideration, the hon. Gentleman’s Committee wishes to take the matter further, the next step would be to make a special report to the House, setting out the facts. The hon. Gentleman may then wish to apply to me to consider the issue as a matter of privilege, and to ask me to give it priority in the House. Under procedures agreed to by the House in 1978 and set out on page 273 of “Erskine May”, this application should be made to me in writing, rather than as a point of order. I would then be happy to advise him on the options open to him.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This could be a long, drawn-out process, based on what Mike Ashley has been doing and saying over the years. He operates zero-hours contracts for many thousands of people. There are very few full-time people. He believes that as a billionaire he can do as he likes. I put it on the record for you, Mr Speaker: you had better act very firmly with the person concerned. There used to be a woman in the House working for the Serjeant at Arms called Mary Frampton. We will need one to deal with him.

We have such a person. I can say only that I shall always profit by the counsels of the hon. Gentleman.

I do not know that there is more to add, but I will give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt—he is a very experienced Member. I have tried to treat of this matter fairly and factually, but of course I will take a point of order from the hon. Gentleman if he persists.

The point of order I wish to raise with you, Mr Speaker, is simply this: in view of the obvious contempt that this person has shown for the House of Commons, would it not be appropriate for him to appear at the Bar of the House? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] There have been occasions in the past when that has occurred, and the House of Commons has shown that it will not tolerate such contempt. I put it to you that that could perhaps be considered as well.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I recognise that there are historical precedents, but it is only right for me to say that it is not for me to make any such decision. If we were to get to that point, and I am not suggesting that we shall do so—I am not seeking to anticipate events—that would be a matter for the House to decide, but I hope that I have dealt fairly, squarely and intelligibly with the important matter that the Chair of the Select Committee and others have raised.