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Points of Order

Volume 643: debated on Monday 18 June 2018

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise to draw your attention to the events surrounding the walk-out of Scottish National party Members during Prime Minister’s Question Time last Wednesday and to ask for your help. As they left the chamber, walking near to the Government Benches, several of their number behaved in a threatening and overly aggressive manner, shouting and gesturing in the direction of me and other Scottish Conservative colleagues. Mr Speaker, we fully expect and anticipate debates in Parliament to be robust, and we ourselves, as I am sure you have noticed, engage in proceedings robustly, but I believe that this behaviour went well over the register of what might be reasonably considered as acceptable.

Mr Speaker, as I have previously reported to you, since our election last year, Scottish Conservative Members have been targeted by online trolls and subjected to a constant stream of threats and abuse, including death threats. Several instances have been reported to the police and there have been court appearances. Our constituency offices have been targeted for aggressive nationalist demonstrations and our staff subjected to vile threats and intimidation. The sad reality is that the ramped-up rhetoric of last Wednesday inevitably triggers a renewed stream of such abuse.

My constituency office in Borestone Crescent, Stirling, which has been vandalised several times in my first year as a Member, was again attacked overnight on Wednesday. An unknown person or persons spray painted the words “traitor” and “lies” on the exterior walls. This latest incident has also been reported to Police Scotland. Bearing this mind, Mr Speaker, what can you and the House authorities do to advise SNP Members to practise a modicum of self-restraint in their language and behaviour?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he wished to raise his point of order.

I agree that Members on both sides of the House should practise self-restraint in the Chamber, and should recognise the impact of their actions. We should all recognise the impact of our actions on those outside this place. I appreciate that passions were high on Wednesday, and indeed they may still be high, but it is precisely when passions run high that we, across the House, should remember the importance of treating each other with courtesy and respect.

I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that—as I said the other day—each day is a new opportunity for the House. That is true today, as it is true on every other occasion.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I raise it reluctantly, but I feel that I must do so, because it concerns an attack on my personal honour by another Member of Parliament, outside the House.

Last Wednesday, Mr Speaker, I was invited, on the “PM” programme, to defend your speakership. The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) was asked to speak on the same programme, because he dissents from the view that I was expressing. It was a good, robust exchange, as you would expect from the hon. Gentleman and me. At the very end of the programme, however, the hon. Gentleman said:

“Barry’s defence of the speaker is relentless. Barry has been in politics a long time. So he has probably been on the Speaker’s Panel, which is quite a lot of extra money and that’s at the Speaker’s discretion. So he is not impartial.”

I found that extremely disturbing and damaging. It was the last item on the programme. The BBC cut me off so I could not respond, and I have found the programme’s editor, Victoria Wakely, to be totally unhelpful in terms of securing any redress.

Two million people listened to the programme and heard that false assertion, Mr Speaker. I have never been on the Speaker’s Panel, and I support you as Mr Speaker because in my 39 years in the House, I have not seen anyone in the Chair who was as good as you at bringing this Parliament to life. I am in a very difficult position. This canard is out there, and I have no other way of raising it than with my colleagues. I appeal to you to give me some guidance in respect of that behaviour.

I think it important for us to try as far as possible—all of us—to disagree agreeably. It is not necessary to disagree while impugning the motives of opponents in the process. I did not witness that exchange, but I have since been told of it. What I can do from the Chair is confirm that the hon. Gentleman is not a member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs, and that, in my nearly nine years as Speaker, he has, to my knowledge, never asked to be. Moreover, he has just made the point that he has never been a member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs.

The hon. Gentleman expresses the views that he expresses whether people agree with him or not—or sometimes agree with him and sometimes do not—because those are the views that he holds. It is quite wrong for Members, without any evidence, to accuse other Members of what is, in effect, dishonourable behaviour. The hon. Gentleman and I have been in the House together for the last 21 years, and I simply want to say that in my experience he is a person of absolute integrity. He is an extremely long-serving and very respected Member of the House. I appeal to colleagues who want to conduct arguments, whether on policy matters, personalities or office holders, to do so on the basis that it is possible for Members to hold different opinions without having some ulterior motive for holding or expressing those opinions.

I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope it will not be necessary for him to raise this matter with me again. I hope it will be accepted that what he has said is factually true and incontrovertible.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It will have come to your attention, and to the attention of many Members, that a massive cultural disaster occurred in Glasgow over the weekend when a conflagration consumed Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.

This was clearly a disaster of not just national but international significance, and, as shadow Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, I feel that it is incumbent on me to raise the issue with the Chair. The country faces the massive and urgent issue of a huge cultural loss, Mr Speaker, and I ask for your advice on how the House can both express its sentiments and call on the Government to recover that huge cultural asset for our country. How can we hold the Government to account, and ensure that they raise their game and deliver the restoration of a wonderful asset to the people of Scotland and the wider world?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I share the real misery that he and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other people will feel about what is a terrible tragedy, and a terrible tragedy that is the worse for the fact that it was the second in four years to engulf and threaten the future of an iconic building, as well as damaging a great many other buildings in the vicinity.

The hon. Gentleman very properly—if I heard him correctly—did not refer to an urgent question application, because Members are not supposed to refer to unsuccessful urgent question applications; but I will simply say that, as colleagues will understand, I must take account of the range of business before the House. Two urgent questions were granted because I felt that they warranted being aired on the Floor of the House, but a number of other urgent questions that might have been selected on a different day were not chosen for today.

What I will say to the hon. Gentleman, and to all other Members who are similarly interested in this matter—Members with Scottish constituencies but also, potentially, those from other parts of the country—[Interruption.] Indeed, that includes the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon. What I would say to Members is that it is open to a Minister to offer an oral statement to the House on the matter, but if they want a failsafe that will guarantee that the matter will be aired, they know what options are open to them.

I do apologise to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West. I did not intend her any discourtesy at all. I did not have it in my mind, because I was responding to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), but in so far as she is making the point that she has a very, very direct interest in the matter, I completely respect that.

What I am trying to signal to colleagues is that they should have an opportunity to air this matter by one means or another in the course of the next day or two. I hope that that is helpful.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would appreciate your advice on what I think is a serious issue in relation to the provision of information to Members by the Home Office. In January I tabled a written parliamentary question seeking information on how many scientists and engineers had been refused a Tier 2 (General) certificate of sponsorship since November 2017 due to the annual cap having been reached. Despite the Home Office acknowledging that it held this information and not indicating that it would require disproportionate cost to compile it, it declined to provide it to me. However, the information was later released in response to a freedom of information request by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, with which I had been working on the issue. When I tabled a subsequent question asking for updated figures, given that this information was now in the public arena I assumed that the Home Office would provide it to me, but it refused again.

I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that it is unacceptable that the Home Office will not provide Members of this House with information that it holds but which it is prepared to release in response to an FOI request. It makes FOIs a more effective way of obtaining information than a parliamentary question.

I have raised my concerns with the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who shares them, and I would appreciate your advice, Mr Speaker, on what else I should do to ensure that the work of Members is not undermined in this way.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he wished to raise this matter. It certainly does seem that the Home Office has been quite unhelpful in responding to his questions on this matter and it is certainly unsatisfactory if a Department provides less information in a response to a parliamentary question from an elected Member of this House than it provides in response to a freedom of information request from an external body. There is a basic issue here of parliamentary self-respect, so we have all got a dog in this race, if I can put it that way.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has written on this matter to the Procedure Committee, which is exactly the course I would recommend in these circumstances. That Committee plays an important role in monitoring both the quality and timeliness of parliamentary answers. [Interruption.] I am glad to see that that proposition is assented to by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who has himself been a distinguished ornament of that Committee and may be willing to make representations to the Home Secretary on behalf of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). Meanwhile the hon. Gentleman has put his concern on the record and I hope it has been noted on the Treasury Bench and will be conveyed to Home Office Ministers. I hope that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.