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Points of Order

Volume 614: debated on Thursday 8 September 2016

Order. I would prefer to save the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) as a specialist delicacy of the House. We will come to him in due course.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise me how best I can bring my concerns to the attention of the House in relation to the boundary review and Lords reform? It seems perverse to reduce the number of elected representatives in this place while the Lords continues to gorge itself on new arrivals. I believe in an appointed upper House, but not at the current price and not at the expense of this elected, and therefore accountable, Chamber. We in this place must guard against bringing this country’s democratic settlement into disrepute.

In that case, let us hear from the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), and then I will respond to both.

I absolutely endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) has just said. In addition to that, we also have the situation whereby the Government propose to reduce the number of MPs by 50 but not to reduce the number of Ministers by an equal proportion, thereby giving the Government more control over the House of Commons. That is clearly an outrage, and surely it is something that needs to be considered in conjunction with the points raised by my hon. Friend.

I am very grateful to both hon. Members for raising their points of order. Let me seek to deal, in so far as they require to be dealt with, with each in turn. First, in relation to the point of order from the hon. Member for Broxbourne, who is, as we all know, the illustrious Chair of the Procedure Committee of the House, I remind colleagues that the hon. Gentleman asked the Chair by what means he could register his concern. As the hon. Gentleman knows, because he is a perceptive and sagacious fellow, he has found his own salvation. He has made his own point with his own inimitable eloquence, and it is on the record. I know how strongly he feels about it, and I know there are many Members across the House who feel very strongly about it, and these matters will doubtless be further debated.

Secondly, in relation to the hon. Member for Shipley, I note the force of his point about reductions in the number of MPs needing, as he sees it, to be accompanied by reductions in the number of Ministers. The hon. Gentleman has got such a long-established good memory for what people have said in the past that I feel sure that, although he did not say it today, he will be well aware that I myself expatiated on this matter on 19 January 2011 in a lecture to the Institute for Government. On that occasion, I made the point that it would be a rum business to reduce the number of MPs but not to cut the number of Ministers. I said it then and was right then, and therefore I am very happy to say it again, five and a half years later, and to be right a second time.

We had better leave it there. I am not sure that either of them was a point of order, but they were jolly good fun.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, I was allocated question 12 in Cabinet Office questions, asking:

“What recent progress has been made on the National Flood Resilience Review.”

We did not reach question 12, so I received a written response later that day:

“The National Flood Resilience Review has been assessing how England can be better protected from flooding and extreme rainfall. The review has been working to identify actions needed to strengthen our resilience to flooding.”

That is one of those answers that tells you absolutely nothing. To my surprise, this morning we had a written statement and this very hefty document, the “National Flood Resilience Review” published. The written statement, although it is from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is jointly in her name and the name of the Cabinet Office Minister. At the very least, was it not extremely discourteous of them not to flag those things up in the written response yesterday, or does it suggest that the Cabinet Office Minister was not aware that he was about to publish this review?

It would be rather disturbing, it has to be said, if a Minister of the Cabinet Office were unaware of the imminent publication in his, or a departmental colleague’s, name of such a report. I find that very hard to credit. It might well be regarded as discourteous; that is, to some extent, a matter of opinion. What I can safely say is that it was, at the very least, unhelpful. There is a general principle that ministerial answers should be as informative as possible, so it was unhelpful. I think I can say—possibly at the risk of irritating a Cabinet Office Minister, which I will have to bear with stoicism and fortitude—that at the very least it was extremely unimaginative of the Minister answering not to consider providing more information or, alternatively, to consider and then to decline. Very unsatisfactory—he really ought to be able to do better than that.

The great thing that we have on our side is that the new Leader of the House—there have been lots of illustrious Leaders of the House—as was flagged up a moment ago, is, of course, I think twice a winner on “University Challenge”, with a gap of, I think, 30 years in between. It used to be said that the former Member for Havant, in the previous Parliament, was “Two Brains”. I leave colleagues to speculate or, indeed, to compute how many brains the Leader of the House has. He is a very cerebral fellow, and I am sure that he can spawn more imaginative and considerate thinking among his ministerial colleagues.

Oh, very well. I call Kevin Brennan, and we will then come to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I point out, in all modesty, that I too have twice been a winner on “University Challenge”?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am obliged at this point to say that I was on the first ever season of “Blockbusters”, but all I came away with was a sweatshirt.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is pursuant to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) yesterday. There has been a further development, increasing the seriousness of it, which you acknowledged yesterday. On Monday, The Guardian reported the central recommendation of a draft report being put to the Committees on Arms Export Controls. The meeting to consider this was held yesterday in private. On Tuesday, “Newsnight” produced exerts of the text of the draft report, and that was the excepts subject of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order.

Yesterday, the Committees met and resolved to report the matter to the Liaison Committee. As I understand our procedures, the Liaison Committee will have to consider the matter and decide whether it should be referred to the Privileges Committee, which would then have to decide whether and how to pursue this matter. Subsequently, last night, “Newsnight” reported extracts of the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) and me, which can only have come from the consolidated list of amendments circulated to members of the Committees on Tuesday.

Separately, Patrick Wintour in The Guardian today—this was put online at 00.01—reported the number of amendments we had tabled to the report, a fact which was not reported on “Newsnight”. “Newsnight” chose to contextualise the amendments tabled by the right hon. Gentleman and me in the light of our previous membership of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia, work I did in the middle east 12 years ago and the right hon. Gentleman’s record of supporting employment provided by the British defence industry. “Newsnight” emphasised that none of this was improper,

“but it gives you a sense of where people stand”.

In parallel, members of the Committees received between 1,500 and 2,000 emails on Tuesday and overnight, which appear to have been organised on someone’s behalf by Avaaz, a self-styled global citizens movement, which was aware that the Committees were meeting to consider this issue. The right hon. Gentleman believes one of them was from a constituent, but my office did not identify any constituents before it called the organisation to invite it to desist.

Mr Speaker, this amounts to a prima facie case of a deliberate campaign to influence a Select Committee, relying on in-confidence information provided by a Member of this House or their staff. Conceivably, the information could have come from Committee staff, but I think you would agree that that is highly unlikely. I cannot recall an example of such deliberate and repeated leaking of information in our time in the House.

Will you confirm, Mr Speaker, that it would not be open to the Privileges Committee, if this is referred to it, to call in the police, as this is not a criminal matter, but that it would be able to call on the services of private investigators? They would have the capacity to interrogate the electronic records, including deleted emails, relating to potential sources for this confidential and private consideration by Committees of matters, in this instance, of the greatest seriousness, involving life and death issues and the employment of tens of thousands of our fellow citizens. Will you encourage the Liaison Committee to consider this as a matter of urgency, and confirm your view of the seriousness of this attempt to undermine the work of Select Committees?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I have participated in only two meetings of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, because three other members of the Defence Committee have been nominated as our regular attenders; I have total confidence in them. May I, however, express my disquiet about something I learned only yesterday? The draft report, which is very one-sided, was produced without any heads of report discussion prior to the drafting of the report. That means there was no opportunity for members of the Committees who dissented from the thrust of the report to raise their objections and try to reach consensus before a draft report was produced and then leaked in a very sensational way. I must say, as someone who has been at one remove from the operation of the Committees, that something went terribly wrong with the procedures, because there should have been room for consensus to be built before any such one-sided report was leaked. I say that as someone who is highly critical of Saudi Arabia and in some sympathy with some of the arguments in the draft report.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for their points of order.

With respect to what the right hon. Gentleman said, I am intimately conscious that I cannot and should not intervene or overly pronounce on the way in which Select Committees of the House conduct their affairs. From my own experience as a member of several Select Committees before being elected to the Chair, I can say that it was certainly my normal and satisfied expectation that before draft reports were produced, there would be a period of considerable discussion by the Committee not only about chapter headings, but, more substantively, about the direction of travel that colleagues could anticipate, even in the first draft. In other words, the process would be Member-led, rather than Chair-decreed, still less official-determined. I therefore understand the sense of angst that the right hon. Gentleman has conveyed in a very reasonable, balanced way. I think colleagues would do well to consider what he has said.

More widely, I would say—if colleagues want to come back on this, they will—that the Committees on Arms Export Controls carry out extremely valuable work. To do so, they rely on the co-operation and consensus of the Chairs and members of four Select Committees. I very much hope that this co-operation can be maintained so that the House can benefit from their important work.

The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee focused very much on the matter of the leak and what might flow from that. Let me just say that it is for the Committees concerned to investigate the cause of the apparent leak to decide whether it constitutes a substantial interference with their work—a matter on which Members not on the Committees may also have a view—and to inform the Liaison Committee, seeking its views in the process. Thereafter, it would be sensible for them to decide—indeed, it will inevitably be decided—whether to make a special report that would stand referred to the Committee of Privileges.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the use of private investigators. I can only say that I do not know whether that would be effective in this instance, although it is perfectly conceivable that it might be. Probably the best approach for me to take is to say: let the Liaison Committee, which is an established and respected Committee within the House, make a judgment. It is perfectly legitimate for colleagues to make representations to the Liaison Committee about what they think should happen. Rather than for the Speaker to say what the Liaison Committee should do, the Liaison Committee should consider the matter carefully, taking note of these points of order in deciding how to proceed.

This is a very serious matter, indeed. If the Committees of this House are to work effectively, we cannot have a situation in which individual members of a Committee leak information, in advance, to advance a particular point of view or to retard the progress of another. That is wholly against the spirit of the operation of the Select Committees of this House. I thank colleagues for what they have said, and for the spirit in which they have said it.