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Points of Order

Volume 632: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2017

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to the debates we have just had, it is clear there is a lot of concern from Members on both sides of the House that the Government have not satisfied the motion passed less than a month ago. You have been very clear in your advice that the motion passed was binding. After the debate on 1 November, you said that

“I would expect the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household to present the Humble Address in the usual way.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 931.]

The expectation of this House was that the papers would be handed over in full, unedited. Anything less than this would be, I believe, a contempt of Parliament. Can I seek your guidance on whether you believe the Government have adequately satisfied the motion and the expectations of the House? If not, would failure to comply be considered a contempt of the House? If so, what would be the best way for Members to proceed?

Is it very specifically further to, and therefore on the point raised by, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)?

As you will know, Mr Speaker, I wrote to you on 7 November asking you to consider contempt proceedings against the Government for failing to provide these Brexit analysis papers in full, as mandated, as you said, by the fully binding motion agreed by the House. You very generously gave the Government three weeks to comply, and you said you were awaiting the outcome of the conversations between the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the Exiting the European Union Committee. We have now had those conversations, and we have now heard the response from the Chairman of the Committee, who stated in this very Chamber just a few moments ago that the Government do not meet the motion in full. I therefore ask you to reconsider my letter of 7 November and to consider bringing contempt motions, as detailed on page 273 of “Erskine May”. I am sure you are aware of the significance of this, and I know you will deal with this sensitively. This is contempt, and the Government must be held accountable for their failure to comply.

I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer).

On page 201 of “Erskine May”, the section on ministerial accountability quotes from a resolution that was passed by both Houses of Parliament in the 1996-97 Session, which makes it clear that Ministers do not have to disclose all information if it is not in the public interest to do so. Does that have any bearing on this?

I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I say this in no spirit of discourtesy to him, but I am familiar with precedent in relation to these matters, and I did not particularly need to be advised of the presence of that material in “Erskine May”. He will not be surprised to know that I have attended to these matters recently and regularly.

What I would say in response to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) very specifically is that I can, of course, reconsider his letter, but I hope he will not mind my saying that I think it would be more orderly and courteous if he were to write to me again, if he is so minded, in the light of the developments that have ensued since his earlier letter. This is not being pedantic—it really is not. It is a question of procedural propriety. If I receive a letter from the hon. Gentleman, I will consider it and respond in a timely way.

Beyond that, what I want at this point to say is that I think it is well known to Members, and certainly to such legal luminaries as the former Director of Public Prosecutions, that a Member wishing to allege a contempt should, in the first instance, raise it not in a point of order, nor indeed in the media, but by writing to me as soon as practicable after the Member has notice of the alleged contempt or breach of privilege. I then decide whether or not the matter should have precedence. It is certainly also well known to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire that this is the procedure, as he availed himself of it a few weeks ago. I am more than happy to confirm that my doors are always open for such written notices.

Beyond that formal statement, and in the hope that this is helpful to Members in all parts of the House, I would emphasise that we all heard what the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee had to say. He indicated that the Committee had made a public statement and requested an urgent audience with the Secretary of State, and that information from the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) was extremely important. The Minister responded, indicating a willingness on the part of the Secretary of State to meet, and to do so soon. May I very politely say to the Minister, who is always a most courteous fellow, that he was wise to make that statement? When it is suggested that that meeting should be soon, it means soon; it does not mean weeks hence. It means very soon indeed. Nothing—no commitment, no other diarised engagement—is more important than respecting the House, and in this case, the Committee of the House that has ownership of this matter, and to which the papers were to be provided. That is where the matter rests. As and when matters evolve, if a further representation alleging contempt is made to me, I will consider it very promptly and come back to the House. I hope that the House knows me well enough to know that I will do my duty.

On a point of order on a slightly separate issue, Mr Speaker. Some Government Members, and perhaps some Opposition Members, have asked the Government to come forward with a new motion to try to clarify the distinction between the two differing motions that have come before the House. Is there any technical reason why that motion could not be produced, our having just debated the Humble Address?

No; it is possible. We shall see what happens. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) should not chunter from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the thrust of the opinion expressed by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). If the hon. Member for Glenrothes wishes to raise a point of order, I am very happy to entertain it.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In answer to the urgent question, the Minister referred to the binding decision of the House on 1 November. He also referred to a non-binding decision that the House had taken on an earlier day. He appeared to seek to interpret the second decision in terms of the first. Could you advise the House? Where a binding subsequent resolution appears to be incompatible with an earlier non-binding resolution, which should take precedence?

The hon. Gentleman can always discuss these matters, if he wishes, over a cup of tea with the Minister, if the Minister can spare the time to do so. I do not want to get into a detailed examination of all past motions. Suffice it to say—this is important—that there is a very recent motion passed by this House. If I may very politely say so to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, I did not say that it was my advice that the motion was binding or effective; as Speaker, I ruled that it was binding or effective. That, I can say to the hon. Member for Glenrothes, irrespective of other motions, remains the fact.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for pressing you for a further clarification, but I do so simply because it may help the House. If a motion of contempt applies in respect of a motion, and a subsequent motion amends the original motion, does that negate any charge of contempt relating to the requirements made previously of the Secretary of State?

That is perfectly reasonable. I have known the right hon. Gentleman long enough to know that he has a fertile mind and likes to explore all possible avenues. I hope that he will forgive me for resorting to my usual response to what I regard as a hypothetical question, which is to pray in aid the wisdom of the late Lord Whitelaw, who was known to observe, on I think more than one occasion, “Personally, I prefer to cross bridges only when I come to them.” That is probably the safest course in virtually every sense.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This discussion goes to the very heart of how Select Committees operate. May I say, as someone who chaired a Select Committee for 10 years, that there is long-established precedent for the Chair of a Select Committee being able to receive a highly sensitive document on their own, in private, and deal with it sensibly and in a public-spirited way? There is a long tradition of that, particularly in very sensitive inquiries concerning children and education. Why that cannot apply at some stage in this case, I do not know.

That is a very helpful piece of information from an extremely experienced former Select Committee Chair. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; the House will have heard what he had to say.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are very generous; you did say “finally”, but I delayed, because this is related to what has gone on but is not on quite the same subject. One Member said, very pertinently, that this all arises from the curious practice, which started in this Parliament, of the Government not voting on Opposition motions, which has never happened in the history of the House, I think. The result is that the proceedings of the House are becoming littered with motions that are extremely critical of the Government and their policies, the vast majority of which motions I do not agree with. That reduces this House to a debating Chamber, and raises the question: what is parliamentary accountability in modern times? Could you perhaps initiate discussions with the usual channels to see how we can get back to the constitutional position that we should undoubtedly have, in which the Government are accountable for all their actions and policies to this House of Commons, and cannot simply ignore motions as though they were the resolutions of some local tea party?

I am not sure how grateful I am to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his point of order, but my response is twofold. First, the Address is just that—the Address—whether an attempt was made to amend it or not, and its binding quality is just that. Irrespective of whether that attempt was made or not, it stands anyway. Secondly, how the Government deal with Opposition day debate motions is a matter for the Government. What the Government have done to date is not disorderly. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman has suggested, as I think he has, that at the very least it has not been helpful to the House, I certainly would not dissent from that. It would be helpful if people reflected on the wider implications or ramifications of their conduct on individual occasions. He has served in this House without interruption for 47 years, five months and 10 days, and I think he knows of what he speaks.

If there are no further points of order, I thank colleagues; that will do for now. We come now to the statement by the Secretary of State for Health, for which he has been most patiently waiting.