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Points of Order

Volume 630: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2017

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I refer you to the Committee of the whole House on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill on 7 February 2017.

Yes, it was a Tuesday. Very well remembered.

The then Minister of State, Department for Exiting the European Union, the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), gave a commitment in this House that this House of Commons would have a vote on the arrangements for our withdrawal from the European Union before our exit. He said,

“we intend that the vote will cover not only the withdrawal arrangements but also the future relationship with the European Union. Furthermore, I can confirm that the Government will bring forward a motion on the final agreement, to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 264.]

He went on to say:

“It will be a meaningful vote. As I have said, it will be the choice between leaving the European Union with a negotiated deal or not.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 273.]

This morning the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union told the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union that the vote, which the then Minister committed to happening before we leave, could actually happen after we leave the European Union. As such, that is in clear breach of the commitment given by his own Minister that

“it will be the choice between leaving the European Union with a negotiated deal or not.”

Obviously we will not have that choice if we have already left the European Union by the time of a vote. It seems to me that this House, on behalf of the people we represent, cannot take back control unless we have that vote.

Mr Speaker, can you advise on what we, as a House of Commons, can do about the, at best, contradiction or, at worst, false impression given to the House during the debate on 7 February?

They were there, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) chunters from a half-sedentary position. We will come to him in a moment. I am saving him up; it would be a pity to waste him too early in our proceedings.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I was indeed present at the Committee this morning, and I heard exactly what the Secretary of State said and the questions that were put to him. I am sorry to have to say that the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) has misunderstood the situation. The question the Secretary of State had was whether or not he thought there would be an agreement before midnight on 29 March 2019 and he indicated that he thought it might be reached a nanosecond before midnight on that day. He was then asked whether that meant this House would not be able to vote on such an agreement until after 29 March, and he said that obviously it will not be able to vote on an agreement until after 29 March if there has not been an agreement until 29 March. That was the point he was making, and it was a perfectly sensible one.

I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing a bit of extra information to me, which, in one form or another, he has been doing for over 30 years. I am greatly obliged to him.

I do not think that at this point we need the intervention of the hon. Member for Wellingborough, and I will come to the former Europe Minister, but what I would say to the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) is that, put very simply, what he is seeking is an assurance that there will be a vote on a final deal before Brexit happens—if I understand him correctly, that is what he is asking. What I would say to him is that these are matters of political debate. He quoted a very clear commitment from several months ago. Different interpretations have been placed upon proceedings in a Committee this morning, but the hon. Gentleman, beyond advertising—I do not mean that in a pejorative sense—his considerable irritation with what he heard this morning, is presumably keen to ensure that he gets what he thinks he was promised. He is also, presumably, keen to get my advice on how to go about it, and the answer to that is: there will be a great many debates on European matters in this Chamber, not only in respect of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but on many other occasions. I absolutely anticipate that the hon. Gentleman and others will be making the same points repeatedly. That also is not pejorative. As I often say, repetition is not an unknown or rare phenomenon in the House of Commons; people have a point and they tend to return to it again and again and again, almost, if you will, in the spirit of campaigning, and that is perfectly proper. So there will be lots of opportunities for the hon. Gentleman, here in Parliament and doubtless outside as well, to press his case with the intellect and eloquence he has brought to bear on our proceedings over the past seven years. I keenly anticipate his contributions from one side of the argument and those of the hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Wellingborough, to name but two, on the other.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not actually the former Europe Minister, but I am grateful to you for calling me. I was at the evidence session this morning and I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said. He said that Parliament would not be likely to get a vote on the future arrangements with the European Union until after March 2019. That makes a material and significant difference to this House’s ability to have a meaningful input and a meaningful say on the content of those negotiations. So at the risk of repetition, following on from what my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) have said, I ask your advice on what this House can do to make sure it has a meaningful say and input on these most important of negotiations, rather than being used as an after-the-fact rubber stamp.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As somebody who was also in attendance at the Select Committee meeting—indeed, I was the person who asked the question of the Secretary of State—my understanding is that which has been reflected by my Labour colleagues. If the Government had changed their position on something of such constitutional significance, would it not be in order that that change should be brought before this House in a ministerial statement?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It seems that different members of the Committee heard different things from the Secretary of State this morning, so would it not be better to wait until the record of the meeting has been published, as then it will be clear what the Secretary of State did say? I did not hear what these Members have alleged they have heard.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know he always likes to be helpful to the Chair and to the House. He anticipates me, but he is right in doing so. There will be a transcript of the proceedings, and I rather imagine that, in conformity with the usual practice of the House and of our distinguished Committees, it will be published sooner rather than later. I know it will then be subject to the beady eyes of colleagues on both sides of the Chamber and on both sides, if I may put it that way, of the Brexit argument. They will read into it what they wish and pursue their cause as they choose.

What I would say to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) is that if there is a material change in Government policy or intended practice on a very significant matter, it is customary that there should be a statement to the House. It would not always be an oral statement, but it might very well be an oral statement. The House knows very well that there are means by which to secure the attendance in the Chamber of a Minister if such a statement is not proffered. The position of the Chair is that the Chair does not seek to take sides on this matter. The Chair simply seeks to facilitate the expression of opinion. I would add that in addition to all the other debates we might have on these matters, there will in due course be legislation returning to the House, and it is a matter of public record that very large numbers of amendments have been tabled to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. At the Committee stage, the Chairman of Ways and Means will make a proper and judicious selection, based upon advice but deploying his own judgment, and at Report stage that responsibility will fall to me. I think Members know that I always will the fullest possible debate on the widest range of issues pertinent to a Bill, and so both sides of the argument can always feel that they have a friend in the Chair.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not know whether you recall what you were doing six years ago today. I suggest you were recovering from a mammoth session in the Chair, following a Backbench Business Committee debate, in prime time, when 81 Conservative Members declined to accept the advice of their Whips and voted for a referendum on the European Union. How could we mark that event, sir? Does it not show that Backbench Business motions do have an effect on Government policy?

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman is right on a matter of parliamentary history and precedent. I well recall that debate. It was a very significant debate, and I am going to vouchsafe to the hon. Gentleman something he probably did not know—he might not even want to know, but he is going to know. I regularly refer to that debate, together with the debate on Hillsborough and a number of others, as an example of a very significant debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee—it was significant not just because of the quality of the debate, but because it had an impact on public policy. These references are in speeches that I make at universities and in front of other forums around the country, most recently at the invitation of the Hansard Society. I do not suppose the hon. Gentleman is such a sad anorak that he wishes to attend to all of my speeches on these occasions, but I am giving him the highlight.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise another issue of public policy: the contaminated blood scandal. What with “Sky News” today running a story about what appears to be a 1987 Cabinet cover-up related to the contaminated blood scandal, and with the consultation for the public inquiry having ended last week, have you, Sir, had any indication of when the Government are going to come to the House to make a statement about when that public inquiry will be set up? They promised that it would be done in a speedy manner.

I have received no such indication, but if memory serves me correctly, the hon. Lady has raised this matter in the House many times, including on an urgent basis. I seem to recall that she did so at the tail end of the 2010-15 Parliament and has done so on several other occasions since. Like the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), the hon. Lady is a most versatile, experienced and dextrous parliamentarian, and she knows the opportunities that are open to her. I have a hunch that she is going to try to take advantage of them.

If there are no further points of order, perhaps we can come to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) has been so patiently waiting.