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Points of Order

Volume 641: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2018

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are a redoubtable champion of Members seeking to hold the Government to account. One of the things we sometimes resort to in doing that is the submission of freedom of information requests. On 20 July last year, I submitted a freedom of information request to the Department for International Trade, to which I have not yet had a response, nor indeed any acknowledgment, despite chasing it up in March and April. I submitted a separate FOI request on 14 March this year, which did receive a response, advising me that the Department would be unable to respond within 20 days but that a response would be forthcoming by 14 April at the latest. I have still had no such response, despite it now being May.

On 26 April this year, the Cabinet Office and the Office for National Statistics released the annual FOI statistics by Department. The Department for International Trade was the worst of all Departments, with 27% of requests either not being answered within the time limits or not answered at all. That failure prevents parliamentarians from properly scrutinising the Government’s trade policy at a time of intense public debate on these matters—something we have a duty to Parliament to do. I make no judgment of whether it is by intention or incompetence on the part of Ministers, but I seek your advice as to how we may redress the situation.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hope he will not take it amiss if I begin my response to him by saying that, although it is an attempted point of order, in a very real sense it appeared to me to resemble an intellectual dissertation, which of itself is no surprise to those of us familiar with the cerebral quality of the hon. Gentleman. I think it is important to distinguish between parliamentary proceedings on the one hand, in respect of which I may have some modest powers and capacity to assist Members, and freedom of information requests on the other, in relation to which I am literally powerless, as those are not matters for me. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised a concern, and it may well be shared by others. It is on the record, and I hope, consistent both with the letter of obligation to those who submit such requests and with its spirit, that full account will be taken of the situation the hon. Gentleman has painstakingly highlighted. If I may, I suggest we leave it there for today.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following last Wednesday’s difficult day, will you clarify a point of Chamber etiquette? Is it now acceptable in the Chamber to call a colleague a liar?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I would say to him very respectfully and courteously by way of reply that I made a statement on those matters in the Chamber. I think what I said at the time was very clear to people, and I do not feel the need to add to that statement. My position has been very explicit. I thank the hon. Gentleman for inviting me to dilate on the matter, but I do not intend to do so, and we shall leave it there. I am deeply obliged to him.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Do you agree that, if action were taken every time a Member of this House felt moved to say under his breath something rather abusive about another Member, the Chamber would be deserted for considerable lengths of time? Do you not agree that it is better to leave this to the body that is now investigating it and hope that some common sense will be applied to this rather overheated subject?

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he has said, and Members will make their own assessment of it. I simply appreciate the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman says what he says on the strength, next month, of 48 years’ uninterrupted service in this House.

I am saving the hon. Gentleman up, as I often say. I do not want to squander him at too early a stage of our proceedings. I call Mr Martin Docherty-Hughes.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Two hundred days have passed since my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal was held in India without charge, with accusations of torture and with trial by media. I am grateful to Ministers who have engaged with me so far in holding the Indian authorities to account. Nevertheless, I have now written to the Prime Minister twice, without formal response other than a holding response from their office. Will you assure me that all Ministers of State take their responsibilities seriously in responding fully to a constituency Member of the House of Commons on a critical matter involving a constituent—a UK citizen, and a true son of the Rock of Dumbarton—who has made accusations of torture against a close ally?

I hope that these matters are always treated with the utmost seriousness and that responses to parliamentary colleagues are both timely and substantive. I say to the hon. Gentleman, without fear of contradiction, that that notion of a timely and substantive response should apply both in relation to parliamentary answers to parliamentary questions and in relation to correspondence. I was not familiar with all the details of this matter, although the hon. Gentleman has apprised me of some of them, but it is of course important that these matters are addressed fully.

A moment ago, we heard from the Father of the House—perhaps I may respond on this point because it is quite an important one for all of us. A former Father of the House, Sir Gerald Kaufman, when he did not receive substantive replies to questions or letters, was given to tabling a written question on the matter, inquiring when he would receive a substantive reply. If I remember correctly, Sir Gerald was inclined to say that that was an extremely effective technique. I volunteer that advice gratis to the hon. Gentleman.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you are probably aware, there have been problems with the wi-fi connection in the House for remote devices during the past few days, and the authorities have been reasonably good about keeping Members up to speed. May I invite you to provide the House from the Chair—today is a sitting day, but we are coming up to the recess—with both an update on progress and confirmation that those of us on recess next week will be able to access the intranet, our emails and parliamentary sites in the usual way, notwithstanding the problems?

I believe the Parliamentary Digital Service is attempting to keep Members updated on this matter. It would perhaps be rash of me to proffer any—[Interruption.] Well, it would certainly be rash of me to proffer any technical advice, as I have no expertise in that matter, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) can perfectly well testify. It is probably unreasonable to think that I can offer any sort of oral statement on the matter tomorrow, which is the last day that we will sit before the Whitsun recess, but I think the Parliamentary Digital Service will seek to keep Members updated. On the back of what the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) has said, if there is a further way in which the House Service can help him and other right hon. and hon. Members, we shall do so.

However, this particular subject will not have been exhausted until we have heard the views on it of the right hon. Lady.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry not to have given you notice of this, but it flows so naturally from what was said by my right hon. Friend; sorry, by my hon. Friend.

No doubt in time.

Mr Speaker, it has come to my attention that some constituents are unable to email me. I believe this is a common problem from which all hon. Members are suffering. Obviously, we will not know because the emails do not even get into the spam filters. For some peculiar reason, which I will not trouble you with, I found out that one constituent—she had a very serious concern about a personal independence payment application being refused—had emailed me and included attachments, quite properly, with her email; I found out through another source that she had emailed me. Therefore, I could deal with her inquiry, but I would never have known about it if that other source had not contacted me.

I have contacted the parliamentary authority, PICT, on more occasions than I would care or want to remember, I have to say, to no avail. In short, the spam filters are set too high, and there are certain popular email addresses that simply do not get through even to the spam filters. It is a serious problem, and I simply do not know how we can resolve it. Can you help, Mr Speaker?

I rather fear that I am not able to help. I do not want to make too many declarations on the Floor of the House. Suffice it to say that I am not myself technologically sophisticated. I think I owe it to the right hon. Lady to disclose that candidly to her. I am not saying that I have not the slightest idea what she is talking about, but I am not closely familiar with the detail, and when it comes to this filter or that filter, it all seems very confusing to a simple chap like me.

I would say to the right hon. Lady that these are serious matters. PICT of course ceased to exist about three years ago, but the Parliamentary Digital Service—I think that is what she means—does try to assist. I think there are ways of dealing with this outside the Chamber, but knowing the right hon. Lady as I do, I feel sure that if she is not satisfied on this matter ere long, we will all be hearing more about it and I will doubtless be hearing more about it. [Interruption.] Indeed, the right hon. Lady will probably send me an email. It is always a pleasure to hear from her both in the Chamber and outside it, but in all seriousness, people are aware of this and I will try to ensure, as of now, that there is some progress and that Members are satisfied, because they should not be obstructed in the discharge of their parliamentary duties. I thank her for raising what she has raised.

It is a case of patience rewarded for the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. That was excellent pronunciation, as ever. In the north-west of Scotland, fishing boats have been sold, processing jobs lost and exports lost because the Home Office will not provide visas for such work in Scotland or Northern Ireland. All of that is happening to keep the Home Office happy, essentially. We need seasonal workers from non-EEA countries urgently, otherwise we will only have European Union fishing boats around our waters. How can I best get this matter on the record and raise awareness of it? I seek your advice and guidance.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he has achieved his objective with immediate effect. His words will have been heard on the Treasury Bench and will be recorded in the Official Report by the dedicated and expert staff of the House. He can therefore go about his business with an additional glint in his eye and spring in his step, which might otherwise have been lacking. If he feels that he has not exhausted his energies on this matter, he can of course seek a debate in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall. Who knows? The hon. Gentleman might be successful.

Bills Presented

Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary James Brokenshire, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr David Lidington, Secretary Greg Clark, Secretary Michael Gove, Mel Stride and Rishi Sunak, presented a Bill to make provision for buildings used as nursery grounds to be exempt from non-domestic rates in England and Wales.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 214) with explanatory notes (Bill 214-EN).


Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Michael Gove, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Boris Johnson, Secretary Penny Mordaunt, Secretary Matt Hancock, Andrew Leadsom and Dr Thérèse Coffey, presented a Bill to prohibit dealing in ivory, and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 215) with explanatory notes (Bill 215-EN).