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Point of Order

Volume 655: debated on Monday 4 March 2019

Ordinarily points of order come after urgent questions and statements, but I have a sense that the right hon. Gentleman’s point of order relates to today’s business, and therefore I will take it and any related matters now.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You may recall that on 1 May 2018, in new clause 6 of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, this House resolved that the overseas territories must establish registers of beneficial ownership by the end of 2020. It has recently come to our notice from statements made by a Foreign Office Minister in the other place that it is the Government’s intention arbitrarily to extend that date by no less than three years to the end of 2023, in a flagrant breach of what was agreed by this House.

That is made yet worse by the fact that, at the urging of the Foreign Office, the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), with whom I tabled new clause 6, only agreed to extend the date to the end of 2020 in view of the terrible damage done to many of the overseas territories in recent hurricanes and storms. The Hansard report of our proceedings makes that absolutely clear. Mr Speaker, how can this House seek your protection from the egregious sleight of hand being proposed by the Foreign Office?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I concur entirely with everything that has been said by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). I see this as a blatant, deliberate and arrogant snub of this Parliament, and I ask you, with your excellent experience, to support us in taking this forward.

I simply add that today’s business has been delayed: it has been deliberately taken off the Order Paper by the Government. Today’s business included an amendment, in my name and that of the right hon. Gentleman, which would have not just extended public registers to Crown dependencies, but reiterated the point in relation to overseas territories. We were so angered by the action of the Foreign Office that we wanted to reiterate the decision of Parliament, which was passed unanimously by Parliament last summer, in the amendment we were proposing today, but that opportunity to reiterate our determination has been removed from us as well. I again urge you, Mr Speaker, to advise us what we can do and what you can do to ensure that the Government do what Parliament tells them to do in legislation.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. First, this matter, even were it dealt with in 2020, would have been long overdue. It was an issue that was critical for the Public Accounts Committee when I was the Chairman of it many years ago, so it is a long overdue issue. Secondly, it is not a question of the will of the House, but of the laws passed by this House. The intention of the House was that the instruction to bring an Order in Council in 2020 ought to be carried out in 2020, and that is clear from the Hansard of the time.

As the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) says, the business that has been pulled today was about protecting the reputation of the City of London. That reputation will not be protected if it is felt by our competitors around the world that our family, as it were, are allowed to have standards that are lower than those of the City of London. Mr Speaker, will you will seek advice from Speaker’s Counsel about how we can ensure that laws passed by this House are carried out by this Government?

Further to those points of order, Mr Speaker. Not only is tackling financial crime and money laundering essential for the reputation of this country, but if the Government feel that they can get away with changing a date contained in an amendment to legislation passed by this House in relation to this Bill, what is to stop them doing it on lots of other bits of legislation?

Further to the Government’s decision today to pull the Bill at the last minute—I think that is a discourtesy to the House, since it was on the Order Paper—have you, Mr Speaker, been given any indication by Government Ministers about when and whether they intend to return the Bill to the House not only so that we can fix what they have tried to do, but to add further protection in this matter covering the Crown dependencies as well as the overseas territories?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. To follow on from where the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) left off, this Bill—the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill, left the Public Bill Committee on Tuesday and, at business questions on Thursday, it was notified for today, which meant that amendments had to be laid by Wednesday—the day before. Then we arrive this morning to find that the Bill has been pulled from the House with absolutely no notice or explanation. Will you tell the House, Mr Speaker, whether you have been given any indication about how long the Government will be running scared for?

First, may I say to the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), before I turn to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), that it is a most unusual state of affairs, although extremely welcome in parliamentary terms, that two former Secretaries of State for International Development from either side of the political divide and two former Chairs of the Public Accounts Committee from either side of the political divide should be present in the Chamber at the same time and, apparently, acting in concert to highlight their grave consternation about this important matter? Their efforts, which may or may not have been co-ordinated, have been underlined and buttressed by the hon. Lady.

Those points of order warrant a response, and this is mine. First, to a degree—although, I accept, only to a limited degree—the right hon. and hon. Members have found their own salvation in the sense that they have taken the opportunity to air their disquiet, not to say extreme dissatisfaction, at what is by no means an unprecedented but a most unusual turn of events, and those points of order are on the record. No business has been pulled as yet, although I gather that it has been heavily trailed that this afternoon’s main business—the first and primary piece of business—is intended, I say for the benefit of observers, not to be moved by the Government; that is to say, it cannot proceed today. Beyond that, I have no power to act on the matter, but it is a most unusual state of affairs.

Members ask whether I received any advance notice of this from Government. The answer is no, and there has been no indication of when Ministers intend to bring forth that business, but I want to say this. The business was announced only on Thursday, so it was clearly the Government’s intention on Thursday last that the business should be treated of by Parliament today. It is, if I may say so, a rum business, to put it no more strongly—all of a sudden, the business that was scheduled for today has been evacuated from Parliament; it has been air-lifted from the premises; it has suffered a mysterious and hitherto unexplained disappearance.

It is a very odd state of affairs altogether. One can speculate as to why that may be so, but it is a most unusual state of affairs, and it is at the very least very discourteous to the House of Commons. It probably reflects a degree of anxiety and, if I may politely say so, perhaps just a little inexperience. It is not the sort of thing that would happen when the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield was in a senior position with responsibility for Government business, but things change and people who are perhaps less well-versed in these matters than him have been left to handle things as best they can.

That is the first thing. The second thing that I say to right hon. and hon. Members is that the legislation may have been delayed, but presumably it will have to come back. Here is the substantive point. Members have asked what I as Speaker can do. The answer is that Members have been complaining about the perversion of the purpose of a new clause that was accepted in earlier legislation. That purpose, and any current new clause or amendment, can feature again in the business. Insofar as it is for the Chair to select a new clause or amendment, people would expect that the Speaker would give an indication of his thinking. I had certainly intended to select either a new clause or an amendment on this matter today. For the avoidance of doubt, because I know that there has been some private lobbying on this matter, the proposal emanating from the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, was entirely orderly. Whatever others thought of it outside this place, or even beyond this country, it would have been perfectly proper for it to have been debated and voted on in this House. If Members wanted to know whether I would have selected that proposition for debate and a vote, the answer is absolutely yes, because it was proper for Parliament to treat of it. It will have to come back, and doubtless it will be considered. I just hope that Parliament will be treated with rather greater courtesy in future on this matter than it has been until now. People really do need to raise their game. I hope that that is clear. [Interruption.] Very well.