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Points of Order

Volume 609: debated on Thursday 12 May 2016

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, on 28 April the Leader of the House, in response to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), made a defamatory statement about the Humberside Labour party’s prospective police and crime commissioner candidate in which, the Leader of the House stated:

“My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am aware of allegations about the Labour PCC candidate in Humberside. If the stories alleged about that candidate are true, he is unfit for public office, and it is a matter of public interest that the truth should be known before election day.”—[Official Report, 28 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 1564-5.]

I wrote to the Leader of the House asking him for the precise basis of these remarks, and either to tell us what they were about or withdraw them. He did not have the courtesy to respond to me, so, Mr Speaker, on 10 May you allowed me to raise the matter as a point of order.

Yesterday, the Leader of the House did trouble himself to reply to me. I have to say that it is a shame that he has not stayed around to answer this point of order, knowing that it is to be raised. He simply says this in his answer to me:

“Thank you for your letter of 3 May regarding my response to the Member for Brigg and Goole at Business Questions on… 28 April.

My understanding is that you are fully aware of the points…I raised.”

Well, I am not fully aware of the points raised by the Leader of the House. I suspect that the points raised by the Leader of the House are a figment of his imagination, because I have now had the opportunity to speak to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole, and he assures me—and I believe him—that he was not referring to the Labour party candidate in Humberside, Keith Hunter, when he asked the question.

Will you, Mr Speaker, advise me on two matters? First, what can be done about Cabinet members coming to the Dispatch Box and using this place for vicious party political campaigning, knowing full well that when they make statements they will have traction in the media, causing people to have to answer to media inquiries? Secondly, will you advise me on what Members do about receiving what can be only be said is an incredibly rude, discourteous response from the Leader of the House?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Let me say the following. First, in so far as he has a concern about what he describes as the use of the Dispatch Box for “vicious party political campaigning”, that is somewhat beyond my purview. I have no ambition to try to bring an end to such activity, and I do not think that ambition would be a realistic one.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman has made his concern on this matter clear. As I said on Monday in response to his point of order on that occasion, what is said in this place by any Member—any Member—is the responsibility of that Member. It is for the Leader of the House to decide whether he wishes to correct or to clarify what he said about this matter. The hon. Gentleman referred to “vicious party political campaigning”, but, in trying to be helpful to him, I detect that what concerns him is what he judges to be an incorrect, inaccurate or false personal attack. My answer to that is that each Member must take responsibility. Members have parliamentary privilege. That parliamentary privilege must be used with care and responsibility. If it is not, it is damaging to the doctrine of parliamentary privilege and to the rights not only of the Member concerned but those of Members across the House. Whether it is necessary for anything to be said by the Leader of the House is not, at this stage, something that I can possibly judge. However, I have tried to give as full and fair a response to the hon. Gentleman as I can.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is similar to the point of order made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). It is about qualified privilege, public record and the protection of the reputation of ordinary citizens, not necessary political people. On 20 April, in response to a parliamentary question, the Prime Minister referred to Mr Suliman Gani and said, “this man supports IS”—Islamic State. That is an incredibly serious allegation, with massive reputational implications. It might restrict somebody’s right to travel, perhaps to the US, and it could even put his safety and that of his family at risk.

It transpires that the allegation was not true. On Monday this week, I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to correct this, and, to be fair, there was an apology and correction issued by a spokesman of 10 Downing Street yesterday. Of course, that did not have the same prominence as the original allegation and, in many ways just as importantly, does not correct the original allegation in the official record, which can still be published by others under qualified privilege—perhaps people who do not follow our affairs quite so closely. I am very concerned about the consequences of that, and I want to ask you, Mr Speaker, what can be done by the House or by the Government to protect people such as Mr Gani from the further consequence of a serious calumny—no matter how unintentional—against his reputation.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and for his courtesy to me in providing notice of it. I understand that the Prime Minister has answered a written question on this matter today seeking to clarify what he said in the House, and this is available on the parliamentary website in the usual way. However, I appreciate that Members are here and they want a specific and informative reply. They may well not yet have consulted the parliamentary website.

The question was tabled by the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) and was answered by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has answered:

“I was referring to reports that Mr Gani supports an Islamic state. I am clear that this does not mean Mr Gani supports the organisation Daesh and I apologise to him for any misunderstanding.”

As I have said before—indeed, only a few moments ago, in response to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner)—what a Member says in this place is the responsibility of that Member. I reiterate, as I often do, that, while parliamentary privilege is an essential protection of free speech, all Members should reflect carefully before criticising individuals. As “Erskine May” notes, it is

“the duty of each Member to refrain from any course of action prejudicial to the privilege which he enjoys.”

I have already referred to the written answer, and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has referred to what I understand to be an apology issued by a spokesperson last night. It is not for the Chair to require a Member to apologise on the Floor of the House, but it is perfectly open to a Member to do so, and good grace and magnanimity in these circumstances are, I know, always appreciated.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the business question on 5 May 2016, the Leader of the House said, at column 309:

“I should inform the House that Ministers will provide a quarterly update on Syria before Prorogation.”—[Official Report, 5 May 2016; Vol. 609, c. 309.]

As you will recall, Mr Speaker, quarterly reports were included in the motion agreed to in this House on 2 December 2015. As the first few days of the new Session will be taken up with the Queen’s Speech debate, I seek your guidance on when will be the very first opportunity that we can have a statement from the Government on the situation in Syria and on our military involvement.

Realistically, it seems to me that a statement cannot be made to the House for at least a week, and it may be for somewhat longer than that. I take very seriously the point of order that the hon. Lady has raised. I am bound to say that I recalled what was said during the business question last week, and I therefore rather anticipated that there would be such a statement today.

Indeed, that expectation was shared by a very conscientious—not especially senior, but very conscientious —Government Whip who, when he approached me about another matter this morning, referred to the first of the statements. I advised him that there was only one Government statement today, to which he replied, “Oh, but Mr Speaker, I thought there was a statement on Syria.” I said, “Well, you are a member of the Government Whips Office, but you are obviously not fully in the know.”

The answer is that there appears not to have been a statement on Syria, but the House was told that there would be one. Some private understanding may very well have been reached between the Front Benches—I have no way of knowing—but I would say that, whether or not that is the case, there must be respect for the rights of the House and its legitimate expectations as a whole. This is not just a matter of what Front Benches may or may not have agreed.

I confess that I was looking forward to the statement, which seemed to me to be on a very important matter. The Government Chief Whip, who is unfailingly courteous to me and to all Members, is in his place and has heard what has been said. The Government made a very good commitment and I very much hope—let us just put it like that—that we can have the statement as soon as is practicable. There is a lot of parliamentary interest in the matter, and I know that the Government will not want to disappoint.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware that I have been pursuing the issue of the Syrian quarterly statements for some months now in a dogged and possibly irritating fashion. I of course accept that the Government have made a number of statements on this matter—on the siege of Aleppo, the Russian intervention, the humanitarian conference—but they have rarely focused on the matter that I think the Prime Minister promised to report on, which is the RAF’s action against Daesh in Syria.

Like you, Mr Speaker, I was looking forward to finally getting a statement today, as the Leader of the House promised a week ago. I fail to understand why it is not on the Order Paper. I wonder whether there are other mechanisms that we could use, perhaps immediately after the Queen’s Speech, particularly if there have been any significant developments. For instance, would you permit an urgent question to be asked or any other parliamentary procedures to be used to enable the House to be briefed on this matter as soon as possible, as the Leader of the House promised a week ago?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. By the way, people periodically irritate other people, but Members hardly ever irritate me. I am always happy to hear Members, and I was very happy to hear his hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) yesterday. In fact, so keen was I to hear the hon. Gentleman that I called him about 10 minutes into injury time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not have any complaints. He is a robust character and can look after himself. In any case, he has a good sense of humour.

I do not think that I can offer the prospect of a statement next Wednesday. That will simply not be practical. I think that we have to balance the understandable disappointment on the part of many Members about the fact that there has not been a statement today with a degree of reasonableness about when such a statement can take place. I do not think that we will serve the House by interrupting the Queen’s Speech debate next Wednesday. I do not think there is a precedent for that, and it is not necessary.

However, I think the Government will be sensitive to the relative urgency of the matter. Certainly, if very disturbing news were to be included in that statement—I hope there would not be—that would, as it were, up the ante and emphasise that there is a premium on the delivery of such a statement at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope in future that, if commitments are made, they can be honoured, and then we will not have to have a re-run of this exchange. I note that the Leader of the House is now in the Chamber; he is welcome to respond to the point of order from the right hon. Gentleman if he wishes, but he is not under any obligation to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman is not under any obligation. I thought it would be wrong not to give him the chance.

Sitting suspended.

Sitting resumed.