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House of Commons Hansard
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08 January 2019
Volume 652

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the revelation by a former universal credit helpline employee that call handlers are instructed to use “deflection scripts” to hurry people off the phone when they have phoned up for help with universal credit, my office submitted a freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions to ask to see the scripts. The response I received was that there are no scripts, but that there are “agent-led processes” and “supportive lines available”. The Department did not provide any detail of those lines, which was the clear intention of the FOI request. I do not think that the Department should be able to use semantics to avoid scrutiny. I have requested a review of the response and asked whether I could be provided with the relevant materials.

The code of practice on FOI rules states that requests should be acknowledged and replied to within 20 days. Even accounting for the Christmas break, that date has now passed and I have not received a response. The Government appear to be flouting the mechanisms set up to ensure that they are transparent and can be held to account by Parliament. Will you please advise me, Mr Speaker, on what I should do to receive this important information, to which I am entitled under freedom of information legislation, as the Government have not complied?

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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. I am sorry to disappoint her, but I am not sure that I can help her today. The reason is that responses to freedom of information requests by Government Departments are a matter for those Departments; the Chair has no locus in relation to the subject. It is perfectly open to the hon. Lady to continue to pursue the matter, but she does so under a regime that is informed by statute and in relation to which she will, I imagine, have rights, and quite possibly rights of appeal. As I am sure the hon. Lady will know, the issues fall within the purview of the Information Commissioner. However, whereas in relation to answers to parliamentary questions there is a direct parliamentary ownership and the Chair does have locus, in this case I do not. That said, the hon. Lady has made her point with force and alacrity, and it will have been heard on the Treasury Bench.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am absolutely certain that if in the urgent question anything disorderly had happened you would have immediately corrected it, but I wonder whether there is any way that the House could be asked to reflect on how much longer privilege can survive in a democratic society if it seems to appear that privilege is used for party political purposes to smear those who, perhaps, do not deserve to be smeared.

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I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I thank him for his courtesy in accepting that I would rule out of order something that, under our procedures, warranted such a decision.

The hon. Gentleman, who is both a noted intellectual—sometimes an iconoclastic intellectual—and someone who always likes to explore new subjects, has raised a most interesting matter appertaining to privilege. He could usefully busy himself by reading the literature on the subject of privilege. There is, for example, an ongoing debate about whether the House should work, as it does, using traditional methods in relation to privilege, or whether there is a case for a modern statute on the subject. I do have views on that matter, but I will not burden either him or the House with them at this time, but I just have this image of him beetling off to the Library and reading scholarly tomes on the subject, and ere long we will probably hear his thoughts on the future of privilege.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions this morning, the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), who is no longer in his place but who has been notified that I am making this point of order, asked the Minister what his response was to the conclusion of the report of the BEIS Committee, published last week, which includes myself as a Front-Bench spokesman. The report said:

“The consistent and overwhelming message expressed by these sectors is that to make business decisions they need certainty and it is for that reason they support the Withdrawal Agreement.”

What he failed to do, I am sure inadvertently, was to add that it said:

“Leaving the EU without a deal would have catastrophic consequences and must be avoided. That said, no businesses that we have taken evidence from held the view that—from an industry perspective—the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration provide a deal as good as the one we already have with the EU.”

How do I go about correcting the record, Mr Speaker?

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I think the hon. Gentleman knows that he has found his own salvation—he has just done that. I am bound to say to him—I hope that he will take this in the right spirit—that over the past three and a half years or so, certainly since the 2015 election, spats between members on the Scottish National party Benches and on the Government Back Benches, particularly involving those on the Scottish Government Back Benches, have become an increasing sport. They have become not merely an increasing spectator sport, but, increasingly, a participant sport. The hon. Gentleman has corrected the record as he sees it, and I hope that, as a consequence, he will go about his business for the rest of the day with an additional glint in his eye and a spring in his step.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It relates to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) about parliamentary scrutiny. I tabled a written question to the Government—in this case the Home Office—asking them when they intend to announce the new contracts for the asylum seeker accommodation in Scotland and I received a reply yesterday saying that they would be announced in “due course”. I have now heard through the press and through social media that they have in fact announced the contracts today, and the Mears Group will take over from Serco. Surely that sort of ambiguity and obfuscation is really disrespectful to Members. It also flouts the whole process of having written parliamentary questions if the Government can be so vague in their responses.

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I will go so far as to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the answer to his question was not helpful. Moreover, I hope that he is with me when I say that, ordinarily, the deployment of the three words, “In due course,” tends to suggest and to be interpreted by Members to mean not for quite some time. It is therefore at least mildly surprising that the hon. Gentleman got such an uninformative response, but one that perhaps suggested that progress would not be speedy only to discover indirectly, rather than at first hand, that the announcement had in fact been made. I do understand his discontent, and I can only repeat my view that ministerial replies to parliamentary questions should be both speedy and substantive. In providing such replies, it would always be helpful if Ministers saw it as a proper courtesy to answer Members first. If there are no further points of orders—

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rose—

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Has the right hon. Gentleman got a point of order?

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If I might offer an observation, Mr Speaker, on your response to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker).

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I am now all agog. I am always excited and in a state of eager anticipation to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say on everything.

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I just wish to offer the opinion that, with respect to the answer that you gave to my hon. Friend, Mr Speaker, change is always for the worse.

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I cannot say that I am entirely surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman volunteer that view. He and I came into the House together in May 1997, so I have known him for nearly 22 years. I think that he is probably well familiar with, and even given to regularly reciting to himself, that old adage of Lord Falkland, which is that if it is

“not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

I think we will leave it there for now, but I will always profit from the right hon. Gentleman’s counsels.