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Points of Order

Volume 628: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2017

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would hate to deprive you of this request; this is a really serious issue. As you will know, we have not had an Assembly functioning in Northern Ireland, and we have no Government Ministers. I am deeply disappointed, to put it very mildly, by the fact that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has not sought an early opportunity to come and update the House on his efforts to get the Assembly up and running. May I ask you, Mr Speaker, whether through your good offices you could prevail upon the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to do the House the courtesy of coming here later today, or tomorrow, to make a statement and let the people of Northern Ireland know when this intolerable situation is going to come to an end and what the Government’s plans are for Northern Ireland, an integral part of the United Kingdom?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. The truth is twofold. First, I have received no indication of an imminent ministerial statement on that matter. Secondly, I have to admit, and I doubt the House will be surprised, that I do not know what discussions or other work might currently be under way. If such discussions or work are taking place, it may well be thought, and perhaps judiciously, that that work should be brought to fruition first, or at least be given a chance to be brought to fruition, before the Secretary of State comes to the House to make a statement. I do not know.

What I do know is that, ordinarily, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the hon. Lady will know that I have dealings with a very large number of Ministers right across the vista of government—is among the most punctilious of Ministers in approaching me with a view, first, to offering me a private briefing, and then to consulting as to whether or when he should make a statement. The Secretary of State will hear very soon, because it will waft its way to him, the gravamen of what the hon. Lady has just said to the House. I hope that if the Secretary of State has got any important information to vouchsafe, he will choose to do so to the House at the earliest possible opportunity. That could well be this week, and it could well be, at a stretch, today, although I do not think the hon. Lady should expect that. I hope that it will be soon.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I had planned to raise this point a bit later with, I had hoped, the Chairs-elect of other Select Committees, but as you are going to be vacating the Chair, I think I should raise it now. Can you throw any light on the apparent delays in setting up the Committee of Selection, which are being used as some form of excuse for even further postponement in getting the new Select Committees up and running? Is it not the case that the Chairman-elect of one of the more senior Committees has put forward a plan whereby the Select Committees could be up and running without necessarily awaiting the formation of the Committee of Selection? Is there anything that you can do to help us? I know that several Committees have meetings—hearings—scheduled for next week that will have to be aborted if we cannot get this simple problem resolved this week.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I certainly hope that the unfortunate and unnecessary eventuality to which he referred does not come to pass.

I would say a number of things to the right hon. Gentleman. First, I had been aware, some weeks ago, that there was a plan in the offing on the part of at least one Select Committee Chair to facilitate a simple—streamlined, if you will—process whereby the Committees could be constituted. I have not had any recent intelligence on the progress of that initiative, but I was aware of it.

Secondly, I can say without fear of contradiction to the right hon. Gentleman that although it might be normal for the Committee of Selection first to be constituted, it is not a prerequisite of the establishment of the Committees, and nobody should insult the right hon. Gentleman, his colleagues or the House by suggesting, pretending or implying that it is a prerequisite. It is not. It is perfectly possible for a resolution to be put to this House to facilitate the immediate composition of the Committees. Whether the Committee of Selection is formed or not is, or can be, a separate matter.

Thirdly, and finally, I say to the right hon. Gentleman and to other Members that I spoke to the Leader of the House shortly after the House rose for the summer recess, and I impressed upon the right hon. Lady the very widely held view—not merely among Select Committee Chairs, but among Back Benchers more widely—that the Committees should be constituted as quickly as possible on our return in September so that they could conduct their first meetings without having to wait until October. I am pleased to tell the House that the Leader of the House immediately assured me that she shared my impatience on this matter and was keen that the Committees should be constituted. She went on to say that she favoured an inclusive approach and wanted to take the House with her, and I absolutely believe her.

Let me say with all the force at my command that it is absolutely imperative, under any Government, that the Government are subject to scrutiny; and rigorous scrutiny is undertaken not least, and often best, by the Select Committees. Delaying at their composition is not clever. It is not my job to do the Whips’ work for them, but all that they will do if they delay is to build up ill will, and that would be profoundly misconceived. My simple message, in a non-partisan spirit on behalf of Back Benchers in all parts of the House, is: for goodness’ sake, stop faffing around and get on with it.

I thought my ruling on the matter was fairly conclusive, but I will take a point of order from the right hon. Gentleman.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. In that spirit, is it not possible for the Leader of the House to bring forward a motion setting up the Committees—subjecting herself to your will and to the will of the House—so that we have them established within the next 24 hours?

It could be done. It absolutely could be done, and I really hope it will be. Let us take our responsibilities seriously in this place. If we want to recover the respect of the House, we have to show some self-respect.

I must say that I am very glad that parliamentarians on both sides are speaking up about this matter. The Executive have very important powers and responsibilities, and we respect that, but Parliament has very important responsibilities to scrutinise them, and it should not be frustrated in its legitimate mission. I think I have made the position very clear, and I hope that the powers that be will now do the decent thing. Otherwise, the matter will just keep on being raised. That would be very embarrassing for the Government, and I do not want that to happen.