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Point of Order

Volume 619: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2017

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to clarify a question that I asked in Foreign Office questions, and to ask your advice on a very serious matter. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), appeared to be confused about what I was referring to in my question. I was in fact referring to his statement on 21 July 2016 confirming that four errors had been made in answer to parliamentary questions and in two statements on the issue of whether the UK Government had assessed alleged violations of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. That issue is very pertinent to debates that are going on in the House this week.

A number of Members and I are concerned that the Government have been attempting to prevent scrutiny on this issue and on what they knew about Saudi Arabia’s activities. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) was told in an answer to an urgent question in September that Ministers had acted immediately on recognising that they had given misleading information to the House. However, a freedom of information request released just before Christmas reveals otherwise. It is important to make you aware, Mr Speaker, that that information was released only after the Information Commissioner intervened and ordered the Government to release the information, viewing that they were in breach of the Freedom of Information Act. This is the only occasion when they have been forced to do that in the past year. The information revealed that not only did the Minister and indeed the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), know that there had been errors in information as early as 28 June 2016, but that they took nearly a month to provide that information to Parliament. They only provided it in a written statement on 21 July 2016. The information makes it clear that they were worried about the views of Parliament and the courts. I believe that this potentially constitutes a breach of the ministerial code and the courtesies of this House, which say that information should be provided in a timely fashion when errors have been made in answers. I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, on how I might pursue the matter and find out whether a breach of the ministerial code has taken place.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for his point of order and for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it. I must start by saying that the content of Ministers’ answers is the exclusive responsibility of those Ministers. If a Minister comes subsequently to realise that he or she has erred in saying something incorrect or even in giving an inadvertently misleading impression by failing to include in an answer information that should have been divulged, it is the responsibility of that Minister to correct the record.

The hon. Gentleman asks how he can best proceed in this matter. My instinct is that he should, if he feels that there has been a potential breach of the ministerial code, write directly to the Prime Minister, for it is for the Prime Minister who, under our existing constitutional arrangements, decides whether to refer an alleged and claimed breach to the independent adviser on ministerial interests. That therefore is the course that I recommend to him. It may avail him. If it does not, and the matter in his mind and that of others remains unresolved, and he feels that the House is in possession of wrong information that has not been corrected, he can always return to the matter by a variety of means. We will leave it there for now.