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Points of Order

Volume 654: debated on Thursday 14 February 2019

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on a certain matter. You know how much I respect your running of the Chamber, so I wanted to ask you this question. What recourse does a Member have when a colleague uses business questions to make serious, damaging and unfounded allegations about another Member’s constituency that cause real distress outside this House?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to raise this matter, which could affect any right hon. or hon. Member here present. She asks very specifically what recourse she, or any Member, has when a colleague makes damaging and unfounded allegations about her constituency. She knows how seriously I take this issue, which we have discussed.

I expect an hon. Member to give notice to the colleague whose constituency he proposes to refer to, to give notice to my office and to ensure that he is properly careful in what he says. Members take responsibility for what they say in the House and for its impact outside this House. The privilege of free speech must be used maturely and with sensitivity. It is no part of a right hon. or hon. Member’s role to be merely abusive or insulting. I hope that an hon. Member causing offence in this way will reflect very carefully on such conduct. This matter, as I said, has been discussed by the hon. Lady and me, and it has been the subject of wider discussion—including, from time to time, with the Leader of the House, who referred very sensitively to it earlier in our proceedings.

Let me just say tactfully, but in terms that are not ambiguous, that I hope that I do not have to return to this issue again. The message should be clear, and the hon. Lady’s concern, which is very real and, I think, widely shared, should be respected. We will leave it there for now, and I hope it will be able to be left there.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister for small businesses, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), claimed in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) during Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions on Tuesday that:

“Every piece of no-deal legislation that we have brought through the House has had an impact assessment”. —[Official Report, 12 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 714.]

The truth is that only two of the 20 BEIS statutory instruments that have been in Committee since Christmas have had an impact assessment available for them. The lack of this vital information has been a bone of contention during each Committee; it hinders our ability to scrutinise legislation; and it adds to uncertainty for businesses and consumers, who do not know how a no-deal will impact on them. What advice can you give me to set the record straight?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me advance notice that she wished to raise this matter. The provision of impact assessments is of course the responsibility of Ministers. There is no statutory or procedural requirement for the Government to provide impact assessments on SIs, but I believe that I am right in saying that Government guidance requires Departments to do so at least in respect of instruments with significant impacts. I appreciate the current pressures on Departments, but it is clearly unsatisfactory if the House is being asked to approve instruments without access to full information about their impact. I know that a number of Select Committees have been pursuing these issues with Ministers. Meanwhile, the shadow Minister has made her concerns on the matter very clear.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I just get some clarification on what you have just said? Did you say that Members ought to give you notice when they wish to raise something about somebody’s else’s constituency? I do not want to comment on the case you have just ruled on, but I think that I heard you say that they should give your Office notice. I would be pleased to have greater clarification on that.

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely justified in seeking further clarification, and I am happy to provide it. The answer is, yes, I do expect that if the intended reference—I thought that I had conveyed the flavour of this, but if I had not, it was my fault—is pejorative. It is not unknown in the course of debate for a Member to refer to another Member’s constituency, for example, to its level of prosperity or joblessness, to a reduction in joblessness or to start-up businesses there—whatever it may be—but if a Member intends to refer pejoratively or disobligingly to another Member’s constituency, raising serious issues, potentially of order and certainly of House reputation, I think that it is reasonable, and I am so advised, not only for the Member affected to be told in advance, but for the Chair to be notified in advance. I hope, therefore, that the relatively narrow application of what I am talking about is reassuring to the right hon. Gentleman.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your guidance about a trend that seems to be becoming more and more prevalent? When reading newspapers and listening to the reporting in anticipation of the motion that we will be discussing today in the forthcoming debate and all the amendments, I have come across a phrase, which has clearly come from the Government, being used a lot, which is that this motion is “non-binding” on the Government. When I came into this House, it was a point of honour and the unwritten rule that if the Government lost motions and motions were passed through this House, they would then respect those motions. We now suddenly see this distinction being made by Government spokespeople, not always named, who say that some motions are more equal than others. I seek your guidance on the appearance of a distinction that I deplore and that certainly was never present when I first came into the House.

The hon. Gentleman is a noted proceduralist, or at the very least has aspirations to become so, and I think that we should hear from him.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I just draw your attention and that of the House to the report produced by the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs on exactly this question—the status of motions of the House of Commons—because I think the House would find it instructive?

That is a public information notice from the hon. Gentleman and we are grateful for it—genuinely so—and I thank him for what he said. In response to the hon. Lady, I am conscious of a concern on that front, and it is a concern that has been articulated not least by the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is able to look at these matters with the benefit of a 48-year—approaching 49—perspective, so he knows how things used to be done. In some respects, they are now done rather differently—I have noted that.

The essential point is this: some votes in this House are simply expressions of opinion, and others, depending on the terms of the motion, are genuinely binding. They can be construed, and would be construed, as orders or instructions and are therefore, in the literal sense of the term, effective. Others are not automatically effective, and they do depend on the way in which the Government choose to view them—I use those words carefully and advisedly. We have the opportunity to debate the hugely important matter of Brexit today and we know that there are plans for subsequent debate, but I can assure the hon. Lady that, if there is an appetite in the House for further debate, that appetite will be met. I can say that without the slightest fear of contradiction by anyone. If the House wants to debate a matter, no amount of circumlocutory activity to seek to avoid it will work—it simply will not happen.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You are ruling on what is binding. This probably has to be resolved, but I do not want to take up too much more time on this matter now, because you gave an indication on it.

Plainly, certain things—legislation—change the law; they are binding. The question comes when a majority of the House, by a motion, expresses an opinion on a subject of policy. I still believe that our constitutional convention in our parliamentary democracy is that the Government are bound to follow and give respect to a declaration of policy that has been declared by the House. It is no good saying that it does not change the law, so it is just a matter of opinion and we will proceed guided by newspapers and pressure groups instead.

I entirely understand what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is getting at. I can say only for my own part that I do not want to give a flippant response to the Father of the House. I have never been much preoccupied with the opinions of newspapers. I really do not attach any weight to their views. I am sure that they think their views are important, and if that brings happiness into their lives, good luck to them, but the blatherings of a particular media outlet are a matter of absolutely no interest or concern whatever to me; they are simply not consequential at all.

Decisions that this House makes, resolutions that this House passes and motions that are supported matter and should be respected. Some motions, however, do specifically instruct, and if they instruct, there can be not the slightest doubt or uncertainty at all but that they must be followed, just as if, for example, the House were to pass a motion instructing the Speaker. The Speaker is the servant of the House. If the House passed a motion or an amendment instructing the Speaker, the Speaker would do as instructed; that is the way it is.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like your guidance because the Home Secretary is actively ignoring a written question that I tabled back on 18 October 2018, the best part of four months ago. I have since tabled two named-day questions to chase it up and both have been ignored. The Chair of the Procedure Committee wrote to the Home Secretary over a week ago, and still I have had no response. Is there any further mechanism to stop the Home Secretary ignoring the democratic processes that are in place to hold him to account?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me notice of this point of order. Clearly, it is unsatisfactory that she has not had a ministerial response to her question, though, of course, the content of the response is for Ministers. The Chair of the Procedure Committee has recently written to the Home Secretary. I hope that a response will now swiftly be forthcoming. If it is not and she needs to return to the House to raise this matter, that will be extremely unfortunate, but if she has to raise it again, she will, and if she does, I will respond as appropriate.

I hope more widely that the distinction between opinion and an effective order is clear to, accepted by and commands the assent of, the House.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In substance, just to be clear, you are absolutely right that a motion of this House is an expression of opinion. Ultimately, if this House has an opinion to which it is sufficiently attached and which the Government refuse to adopt, this House can remove the Government, but recently this House expressed confidence in the Government. Unless this House changes its mind on that, the Government should respect what the House says and respond to it respectfully, but they are not bound to implement an instruction that is expressed in the form of an opinion in a motion passed by the House of Commons.

Where a motion is declared to be effective and binding, it is effective and binding, or, if it suits the palate of the hon. Gentleman and he prefers the words the other way round, binding and effective.

Well, the hon. Gentleman offers his political opinion from a sedentary position and he is perfectly entitled to his political opinion, but I am answering questions about procedural propriety. Although I much value the camaraderie of the hon. Gentleman and his occasionally proffered advice, I do have other sources of advice and I do feel that I can manage with the advice that I am offered. I am quite capable, after nine and a half years, of discharging the obligations of the Chair, which I do, on the basis not of political opinion, but of what is right in parliamentary terms—not what somebody thinks about a political subject, but what is right in parliamentary terms. The Clerk and I regularly discuss these matters, and I will always do what I think is right by the House of Commons whether or not a particular person likes it. I also observe the Standing Orders of the House, which, I am sure, is something with which the hon. Gentleman, most of the time, is familiar.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You described the debate today as hugely important to Parliament and the country, as indeed it is. Would there not be an expectation, under Standing Orders, that, if the motion today is in the name of the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister is here either to open or to close the debate? Would that not be what the House might expect?

No. It may well be desired by the hon. Lady, and it is clear that that is what she desires, but it is not to be expected, and there are very large numbers of cases in which it is not so. Perhaps she is trying to establish a new standard, but it is not yet there.