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Points of Order

Volume 631: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2017

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It was reported in the media this morning, but not to this House, that the Government are to cut the controversial and damaging six-week wait for universal credit payments, as we have repeatedly called for. Given the clearly expressed will of the House to pause universal credit—the vote was carried by 299 votes to nil—and the subsequent emergency debate on the Government’s failure to respond to that decision, I seek your guidance on whether you have received any indication that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions plans to make a statement in the House on this extremely important issue. Is it not an affront to both sides of the House and to the people we represent that these important policy issues are being announced in the media, not in a statement to the House?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, and for her characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to raise it.

There are two points. First, policy announcements, particularly when a change is involved, should first be made to the House. Secondly, my understanding is that there is a debate tomorrow in the Chamber that is being led by, or taking place under the auspices of, the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. That debate will be an obvious and perfectly proper platform for an exchanges of ideas, and indeed for any announcement that the Government might have to make.

If there is an announcement to make, and I do not know whether there is, it should be made in the Chamber; it should not be briefed out to the media first. I very much hope that that has not happened, and it should not happen. I imagine that the hon. Lady or a member of her team will be present for tomorrow’s debate—in all likelihood she will be present—and I trust that she will make her views on that point and others with her characteristic force.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A number of concerns have recently been raised with you about the situation when a political party has not voted on a non-binding motion of this House. The Government have said they will respond to any such motion within 12 weeks. Well, last night the Opposition failed to vote on a meaningful motion with real, historic significance. Have you received any indication that the Opposition intend to follow the Government’s positive progress?

I have not received any indication from representatives of the Opposition as to their planned voting intentions. I say in all candour to the hon. Gentleman that abstaining on motions or particular amendments is, of itself, by no means uncommon in the course of legislative proceedings. In fact, to put it more accurately, it is extremely common. The other circumstance that has recently featured prominently in public debate is of a slightly different character. Nevertheless, he asks me the very straightforward question of whether I have received any such intelligence, and the short answer is no.

Well, it is a bit of a tussle, but I do not think it is fair to keep the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire waiting any longer.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 4 November, my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal was arrested in the Punjab. Do you think it would be appropriate if a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister were to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on the fact that Jagtar has yet to receive consular support, even though he has so far appeared in court two times? Accusations of torture are now being made public, so there is an urgent requirement for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on behalf of a British citizen who comes from Dumbarton in my constituency. This is a matter of urgency for our relationship with the Republic of India.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. That might be appropriate, although I would insert into my reply the caveat that sadly—but, as Members will appreciate, all too frequently—British citizens in various parts of the world are subject to deprivation of human rights and, in some cases, the most bestial torture. It is not necessarily feasible to expect that on every such occasion a Minister will come to the House to make an oral statement. However, it could happen and it might. If it does not, it is open to the hon. Gentleman to seek other means by which to ensure that he can register his concerns and elicit a ministerial response to them.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a slightly more ethereal note, I was slightly concerned that during proceedings on the urgent question, you said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) would henceforth be regarded as an incarnation. I hope you will be able to reassure us that you regard all Members of this House as incarnate.

True. It might in fact be more appropriate to regard the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex as an institution. It would certainly be proper, and in no way disobliging, to regard the right hon. Gentleman as a very notable representative of a rare breed. The reason why I think I can say that with complete confidence is that the right hon. Gentleman was for some time either patron or president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust—a patronage or presidency of which he was very proud.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who has left the Chamber, reminded me of a very important point of order. I think it is two weeks since the House passed a motion to instruct the Government to publish the 58 Brexit sectoral impact assessments. Two weeks later, I am certainly not aware of when they will be forthcoming. I wonder whether you have any further information about a date on which we can expect them. As you will recall, there are serious issues, perhaps relating to contempt of the House, if that motion is not adhered to.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. That motion is effective and it is binding upon the Government. About that there can be no further argument—I was asked about it and I ruled on it. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I know that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is in contact with the Chair of the Brexit Committee about publication and when that is likely to happen. They are also discussing the question of form of publication and the attitude that the Brexit Committee might take to that. Those discussions cannot long continue.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to put a date on the matter; I can say to him only that I was given to understand—if memory serves me, at the beginning of last week—that the material would be published no later than three weeks from that date. I think we are a little under halfway through that period. Thereafter, publication can, will and should be very widely expected. If it is any comfort to the hon. Gentleman and others, I can say that I am very focused on that matter, in the interests of the House as a whole, and I can tell him that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who chairs the Select Committee, is, too. It will not be let go.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I welcome the fact that you are rightly focused on this issue. If those reports were in fact not forthcoming within the three-week period, what specific action would you be able to take to ensure that the Government delivered on their promise?

As I have occasionally had reason to observe to other people—being an experienced parliamentarian, the right hon. Gentleman will understand the relevance of this—I tend to think, as the late Lord Whitelaw used to say, that it is best to cross bridges only when you come to them. Indeed, to seek to do so before you have arrived at them could prove to be rather a hazardous enterprise, and I would not wish that ill fate to befall the right hon. Gentleman or any other Member of the House. In very simple terms, the procedure is well known. If the Government were not to comply, it would be open to the Chair to accede to a request for precedence to be given in relation to an allegation of contempt. But we have not got to that point, as yet.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My apologies for not bringing this to your attention sooner, but it has only just been brought to my attention. Would it be in order for you to comment on the fact that my office has just reported to the police about five tweets, if not more, that have issued threats against me following the front-page article of today’s The Daily Telegraph? Would you make it very clear to everybody, in whatever capacity, that they have an absolute duty to report responsibly, to make sure that they use language that brings our country together, and to make sure that we have a democracy that welcomes free speech and an attitude of tolerance?

I welcome the opportunity to make that clear. First, may I say that I am extremely concerned to hear what the right hon. Lady has just told me? She should not be subject to threats, and neither should any other Member of this House—or, indeed, any person—for holding and expressing a political opinion. Thankfully, we do have a free press. They are imperfect and deeply flawed—like us all, although they do not always realise it; they realise everybody else’s flaws but very rarely their own—but nevertheless they are free, and that is a good thing. None of us would seek to deny the merit and, indeed, the indispensability in a free society of a free press.

Equally, Members of this House are free and duty-bound to do what they think is right. I hope the right hon. Lady will not take it amiss if I say that not only is any attempt to threaten or intimidate her or any colleague repugnant, but it is also doomed to fail. I know her and my colleagues well enough to know that even if there are people who think they can intimidate, or even if, hypothetically, there were someone in the media who thought that he or she could intimidate, that person would be grossly mistaken. Members will not be intimidated, and they never should be. I think that is the end of the subject.