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House of Commons Hansard
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20 February 2019
Volume 654

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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I am saving the hon. Gentleman; it would be a pity to squander him at too early a stage of our proceedings. We will come to him in due course, but I think the House is in a state of great animation at the point of order that is going to be forthcoming from the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes).

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On a much trailed and therefore much anticipated point of order, Mr Speaker. Last April, the Prime Minister announced a children’s funeral fund to give support and solace to those who have loved and lost. Despite the fact that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), I and others have raised this matter subsequently in this Chamber, nothing more has been heard. Have you had notice, Mr Speaker, of a statement from Ministers, and if you have not, what further steps might I take to ensure that this pledge is honest and honoured, because no one should break promises to the broken-hearted?

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Indeed not, and the right hon. Gentleman expresses himself with his customary eloquence. The short answer is that a number of recourses are available to him. If he believes the matter warrants the urgent attention of the House, he could seek to use the mechanism that would secure, with my agreement, the presence of a Minister in the Chamber to answer his question on the matter; the earliest he could possibly do that would be tomorrow, and it is open to him to do that. Alternatively, it may be that the right hon. Gentleman will take his customary seat in the Chamber for his usual participation in the business question tomorrow morning. We have become accustomed over a substantial period to hearing the eloquent and often very poetic inquiries from the right hon. Gentleman, often infused with some philosophical reflections and even references to his favourite authors as well, and that is a treat that I think might lie in store for the House.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week at Prime Minister’s questions, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition chose to mention my constituency of South Thanet, whereupon graciously, Sir, you allowed me the very last PMQ. I will quote what the right hon. Gentleman said:

“The Secretary of State’s decision to award the contract to Seaborne has increased the budget deficit of Thanet Council, the owners of Ramsgate port, by nearly £2 million.”—[Official Report, 13 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 877.]

That figure was clearly incorrect, as in a period of just 51 days that would amount on an annualised basis to £14.6 million, which represents some 70% to 80% of the entire revenue of the council.

As a courtesy to the right hon. Gentleman, I alerted him to my concern that he might have misled the House, and I did that within an hour of him making that statement. I also alerted you, Mr Speaker, to my concerns on this matter. A week later, I have heard nothing from the right hon. Gentleman, nor has he, upon my request, pointed me to the figures on which he has relied to make a statement to the House from the Dispatch Box.

On that same day, the right hon. Gentleman also highlighted the fact—at least from his point of view—that £800,000 had been spent with appropriate professionals on due diligence for the Seaborne contract. That is again factually incorrect; that money was spent to do due diligence across the three contracts of over £100 million, not just on the very small Seaborne contract.

I alerted the right hon. Gentleman to my concerns both last week and this morning by hand-delivered letter, and I also delivered the same letter to you, Mr Speaker. I note that the right hon. Gentleman, having been alerted to my concerns, is not in his place to redress the issue at hand, and I now seek your guidance on how the error can be addressed in this place and what other measures I might take at your leisure.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his intention to raise this point of order. That was typically courteous of him. I also note that he had informed the Leader of the Opposition of his intention to raise the matter. Moreover, I am conscious—[Interruption.] It would be helpful if I were able to communicate this point to the hon. Gentleman without the background hubbub coming from the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), who is conducting what is no doubt an absolutely fascinating conversation, but which can wait. I am conscious that the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) has written to the Leader of the Opposition because I have received the copy that he sent to me.

The short answer is that if the Leader of the Opposition believes that he has inadvertently misled the House, it is open to him to correct the record. Each and every Member takes responsibility for the veracity of what he or she says in this place. I simply make the point—I am not trying to argue the toss with the hon. Gentleman; that is not for me to do—that the Leader of the Opposition might have a different view of this matter and that his exegesis of the facts might differ from that of the hon. Gentleman. After all, that is very much in the nature of political discourse and argument. This is a subject of dispute, and perhaps of continued scrutiny.

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that it is perfectly open to him to continue to write letters to the Leader of the Opposition if he feels that that would be a productive exercise or if he finds it therapeutic. It is alternatively open to him to take the short journey from here to the Table Office to put down some written questions. That is something that I once did myself on quite a substantial scale, so I would certainly not cavil at him doing it; it is absolutely his right. Meanwhile, he has put his concerns and his view of the facts on the record with his customary force.