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Points of Order

Volume 615: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2016

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Public Accounts Committee has summoned witnesses from the Department for Communities and Local Government to come before it tomorrow to explain reports that the troubled families programme has not been achieving its aims. Since 5 October, my Committee has been asking the Department to release six evaluation reports on the scheme. After much delay, they were finally published on the Department’s website at 6 o’clock yesterday evening. The reports amount to 800 pages of evidence. I am very concerned that, with the tardy release of that important information, the Government are trying to obfuscate proper parliamentary scrutiny of an important Government flagship programme and the money spent on it.

I seek your support and guidance, Mr Speaker, on how we can ensure that Ministers are reminded of the importance of providing proper information to this House so that we can carry out our task for citizens and taxpayers in scrutinising the Government’s business.

I am grateful to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, both for her point of order and for her courtesy in providing me with advance notice of it. There is a clear expectation that Government Departments should co-operate fully with Select Committee inquiries, not least inquiries of the Committee of Public Accounts, and that they should furnish information in a timely fashion. That does not appear to have happened in this case. If for any reason there is a problem, the Department should communicate it promptly to the Committee so that it can, if it so wishes, adjust its schedule. I am sure that the hon. Lady’s concerns have been heard on the Treasury Bench and that they will be conveyed to the relevant Ministers. Meanwhile, she has made her point clearly, and she has done so on the record.

Quite how the hon. Lady and her Committee wish now to proceed in the light of the untimely provision of a vast tranche of information is, of course, for them to consider. Upon the whole, one would expect that a Committee would undertake its work without also considering Chamber devices for scrutiny of Ministers. The two, however, are not automatically and necessarily mutually exclusive, so if at some point the hon. Lady, a member of her Committee or any other Member wishes to probe a Minister in the Chamber on the substance of the issue or the reason for what appears to be an excessive delay, it is open to them to seek that route. I make no promise as to whether it would be successful, but it is open to Members.

The key point is that Committees hold the Government to account, and it is up to the Government to co-operate with the Committee, not only in accordance with the letter, if you will, but in accordance with the spirit.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on information provided to MPs in written answers regarding military matters. It is customary—and necessary, of course—not to provide information about some security matters to Members. No doubt that is why, in answer to a written question about whether the UK Government will display online the flight paths of Russian planes over Syria, I was told that that information could not be made available for security reasons. Could you advise me, Mr Speaker, whether I could challenge that ruling, given that such information is readily available in relation to commercial planes, that the Russians know that they are being monitored and, indeed, that they have to be, to avoid conflict in Syrian airspace?

I had no advance notice of this and I know that the right hon. Gentleman is inclined to invest me with sagacity and powers that perhaps I do not possess. I am disinclined to respond substantively on the matter at this time, but my advice to the right hon. Gentleman, which I hope he will welcome, is that at this stage his best course is to write to the Secretary of State and seek either to elicit a written reply, which he can then study and evaluate, or alternatively to request a meeting to discuss the matter. If that route does not avail him, he can come back to Chamber, and I have a strong hunch that he will do so.

If there are no further points of order and the appetite has been satisfied, at least for now, we come to the ten-minute rule Bill.