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Points of Order

Volume 655: debated on Monday 4 March 2019

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Tonight, a programme is going to be broadcast on national television—an advance screening is already taking place for Members in Committee Room 10 upstairs—that looks behind threats received online by Members of Parliament from across this House in relation to Brexit. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and I have co-operated with and appear in this documentary. I know we are grateful to the police and all the authorities for their responses and for the prosecutions that have been launched after those threats, but this is systematic intimidation and influencing of the votes that MPs cast in this House. Next week, we expect to have further key Brexit votes. Will you help us to ensure that this threat to our democracy and our safety is to be taken seriously and is to be challenged at all times?

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady both for this immensely serious point of order and for her characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to raise it. The short answer, though it warrants a fuller response, is that I will do everything in my power, sitting in this Chair, to uphold and champion not merely the right but the duty of every Member of this House to do what he or she thinks is right for the country. I am sorry to say that there has in recent times been a burgeoning phenomenon of people who hold a particular view, often rather an extreme one, simply not seeming to be able to imagine that anyone can legitimately hold a view that diverges from their own. This is very different from straightforward political disagreement. What seems to have happened is that people who violently disapprove of the opinion of a Member of Parliament think it is somehow proper to write in quite the most horrific and obnoxious terms, to post blogs on the matter, to tweet in the most offensive terms and in person either to threaten or, worse still, to inflict violence.

With the help of the House authorities, conscientious reporting to the police and, above all, effective action by the police, two things are obviously necessary. The first is that such people should be brought to book and made to realise that that behaviour is not acceptable. The second is that Members, as a result, should feel that proper safety net around them, to which anybody is entitled. However, the importance of free expression in voice and vote for Members of Parliament can hardly be overstated, just as it is impossible to overstate the sinister character of the threats posed to journalists to boot.

It is true that men as well as women have been threatened, but I think it legitimate and proper to point out—I think this will chime with the right hon. Lady’s experience, and certainly with that of the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and others—that women have been disproportionately targeted by chauvinist and misogynistic abusers. This is intolerable.

In dealing with this threat, we have to be clear on three fronts. First, no matter how strongly people may feel, this behaviour is wrong. Period. It is not possibly wrong or partially wrong, but wrong. Period.

Secondly—I hope this reinforces the right hon. Lady’s collective and cross-party spirit on this matter—an attack on one Member has to be viewed as an attack on us all and on our democratic principles. Someone who is not currently in the line of fire has a responsibility to realise that he or she could be at any time. An attack on or threat to the right hon. Lady is frankly an attack on and a threat to every single one of us.

Thirdly, as a result of our conscientiousness and an effective regulatory and police enforcement process, it has to be made clear to the bigots—and they are bigots; there is really no other way to describe it—that not only is their behaviour objectionable, bullying, in many cases misogynistic, and utterly immoral, but it will fail.

If the House of Commons, as one of the two Houses of Parliament and the elected House, cannot do what it thinks is right, that would be the death of democracy. None of us in this House is going to allow the bigoted extremists, who do not just disagree with a person but want to trash that person’s motives, to win. It simply must not, cannot and will not happen. I applaud the right hon. Lady and her colleagues across the House and in several different parties for their courage and persistence in speaking up and out about this matter. I wish to associate myself both with what she said and with the actions she has undertaken.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your advice as to how Members of this House might be able to debate the allocation of MPs’ pay and their staff budgets. Last Thursday, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority announced an inflation-busting 2.7% pay rise for Members of this House; however, our staff budgets are set to rise by a much more modest and below-inflation 1.5%. Some 200 MPs have already signed a letter expressing disappointment that we may not be able to grant staff the pay rise that they deserve, and I am aware that another letter is being circulated among staff.

I understand that the Leader of the House, as a member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, would be the most appropriate member of the Government to respond to a debate on this matter. However, Members are unable to apply to the Leader of the House for Westminster Hall or Adjournment debates, so those avenues are not open to us. I note that the changes are set to take effect at the end of the month, so any advice that you can offer on this pressing matter, which is clearly a concern to many Members, would be greatly appreciated, Sir.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice that she wished to raise this matter, which I know is of concern to many Members; indeed, I think the feeling is widespread across the House. I am sympathetic to the case, which the hon. Lady makes, that Members ought to be able to debate this matter. Although the Leader of the House is not on the usual rota for Westminster Hall debates, there is no reason of principle why Members should not apply for debates on subjects within her ministerial responsibility. In other words: where there’s a will, there’s a way. I hope the hon. Lady will understand that I have not had the opportunity to discuss this matter with the Leader of the House, but I have no reason to think that she will not be receptive to these points, and I very much hope that a resolution can be reached.

Decisions on MPs’ pay and expenses are, of course, made by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. It is called the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority because its decisions are independently made—independently of both Government and Parliament. For that reason, the matter does not formally fall within the responsibilities of Ministers. However, I would argue that, with a degree of flexibility and sensitivity to colleagues’ concerns, that fact should not preclude applications for a debate either via the Table Office in the usual way, or, alternatively, via the Backbench Business Committee. The Leader of the House of course has some role in deciding on the date of Backbench Business Committee days, and that is quite a germane point in this context. The hon. Lady can also discuss the matter with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, which, I rather imagine if she is keen on this idea, she will speedily do.

Finally, the Table Office can offer the hon. Lady advice on the options, so if she is asking me whether there is a recourse to facilitate debate, the answer is that there is. With her legendary ingenuity and persistence, I feel sure that salvation will be found.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Monday, I was advised that the Department for Work and Pensions intends to implement the asks in my Food Insecurity Bill, which is an important step towards ending the devastating levels of UK hunger. I was, however, notified of this via an outside organisation. On Wednesday last week, the news was confirmed by an anonymous DWP spokesperson via an article in The Guardian newspaper. Although I am of course delighted that the Government have eventually listened to me and the 159 MPs across this House who supported my Bill, I am a little bit put out that they did not feel it necessary to contact me directly, worse still to make no written or oral statement to this House on such an important matter.

Can you advise me, please, Mr Speaker, if there has been a change in practice whereby Secretaries of State and Ministers are no longer required to give updates to this House on important policy developments?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice that she wished to raise this matter. The short answer is no, there has been no change in that requirement. The way in which the requirement is interpreted varies from one Department to another, and sometimes even from one Minister to another. What I mean by that is that it is not always absolutely unarguably the case that an oral statement is required; it can be a matter of discretion, and in some instances a Minister will feel that a written statement suffices.

However, what I am concerned about here is less the question of whether an oral statement rather than a written is required, or a written rather an oral will suffice, and rather with the matter of courtesy. There is some concern that the courtesies are observed in this place inconsistently, and that saddens me. There are many members of the Government Front Bench—I am looking at one in the Financial Secretary—who, in my experience, are unfailingly courteous and do see it as their duty to keep others informed, and that, I think, is good not only for their parliamentary reputations but for the House. In other instances, such courtesies do not seem to be observed. I would have thought that, just on a human level, if the hon. Lady has taken a very key and leading role in this matter, it really would require very little forethought and modest consideration to notify her. I am sorry that that did not happen.

I cannot say I know exactly what process was followed, or what error in thinking caused this lapse, but it is disappointing. What I say to the hon. Lady is this: Ministers are expected to announce important policy changes to this House. It is unsatisfactory that she has not been directly informed of developments that concern her Food Insecurity Bill. I trust that this point has been noted on the Treasury Bench and that it will conveyed to the relevant Ministers. I hope that that is helpful.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Friday, the director of a business in my constituency attended my advice surgery to complain that the company’s visa sponsorship licence had been unilaterally revoked by the Home Office, and that two members of staff had had their permission to work withdrawn. That has caused significant disruption to a company that is already up to its neck in post-Brexit planning.

To add insult to injury, the Home Office then somewhat crudely implied that it suspected that the two individuals in question do not actually work for the firm, which is as offensive as it is baseless, not least because they have worked for the company for several years and are an integral part of the team. The company also provided the Home Office with countless items of evidence as proof of work. Moreover, when I visited the warehouse this morning, alongside local MSP Ivan McKee, I saw with my own eyes where those members of staff worked, and that the work is now literally piling up on their desks.

Immediately after my Friday surgery, I established contact with the Immigration Minister’s office to request the hon. Lady’s personal intervention. I firmly believe that this is a case more of cock-up than of conspiracy, but I would be grateful for your guidance on how I may place details of the case on the record, Mr Speaker. In the event that the Minister does not resolve this timeously, can you advise what further mechanisms might be open to me to resolve this sorry saga, which is adversely impacting an otherwise perfectly functioning business in my constituency?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his wish to raise the matter. He has to some extent achieved his own salvation by putting his concerns very firmly on the record. I say in the gentlest possible spirit to the hon. Gentleman, who is a most conscientious parliamentarian, that he could not be accused of excluding any matter of any potential importance at any time from the summary case that he has just articulated to the House. He has made his point comprehensively—we are grateful to him for doing so—and, as a consequence, put his concerns on the record to be studied by others.

I note that the hon. Gentleman has already been in contact with the office of the relevant Minister, and he did ask about redress or resolution. If that contact does not lead to a satisfactory resolution, there are a number of avenues open to him, including tabling questions, and indeed potentially seeking an Adjournment debate—a matter in which I have some modest, but I hope helpful, role myself to play. I suggest that he seeks the advice of the Table Office on the options. Knowing him as I do, I feel sure that his journey to the Table Office will be made with dispatch.

Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill [Lords]

Bill to be considered tomorrow.