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Points of Order

Volume 656: debated on Monday 11 March 2019

Does it appertain to the exchanges that have just taken place? [Interruption.] Oh, very well, I will indulge the hon. Gentleman. Points of order ordinarily would come later.

I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, but this does pertain to the exchanges that we have just had. The Minister confirmed in his answer to my question, and indeed it was confirmed in your intervention in relation to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) that, should the Government table a motion before the rise of the House, that indeed could happen at 10.29 pm this evening and therefore no Members of this House will be able to table amendments in the normal fashion. You suggested that the rules of the House would allow you to accept manuscript amendments. Can you inform the House whether you will be able to accept all of the manuscript amendments that come in, how, given the timescale that is available, the House will be able to get cross-party signatures on those manuscript amendments, which give an indication of the support in the House, and what the process will be for our being able to place those manuscript amendments between the rise of the House tonight and the opening bell tomorrow morning?

Of course we all know that it is entirely in your gift, Mr Speaker, whether to accept manuscript amendments, but under these very unusual circumstances, will you advise the House—to give hon. Members from all corners a chance to plan—whether you have some idea of an indicative deadline tomorrow, by which time you would expect those manuscript amendments to be in so that they can be printed and circulated, in order that all Members of the House would know the options on the table?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for their points of order. I am reluctant at this time to specify a deadline or an intended target time. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that I very much hope—with antennae finely attuned to the wishes of colleagues and the matter of basic courtesy in this place—that representatives of the Executive branch, who I am sure are keenly listening to these exchanges, will ensure that they get that motion down as soon as possible. If that is so, it may be that there is some time available tonight for colleagues who are interested to see what the Government have tabled. They would then have the advantage of that many more hours to consider whether to table an amendment—and, if so, which—and indeed to seek to garner support, possibly cross-party, for their amendment. However, if that is not the case, we will have to adjust as best we can.

There could well be several hours tomorrow in which Members will have sight of what has been tabled and will have the opportunity to table amendments. It is not to be assumed that we will necessarily be on to the business immediately after question time. There may be a longer period of time than that for colleagues to make their judgments about the matter. Certainly as far as I am concerned, the longer time that colleagues have to table amendments if they so wish, the better. The Government are perfectly entitled simply to put the motion down just before the close of business tonight—possibly obliged to do so because of what has taken place in Strasbourg, or possibly because of a judgment that they have made. That is not really my concern. My concern is that colleagues should be facilitated; and I will do on this occasion, as on every other, everything I can to facilitate the House. My role is to champion the legislature, not to be a nodding donkey for the Executive branch.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The annunciator tells us that there is to be a statement on Brexit. It might be helpful to the House if you were able to confirm whether it is your understanding that that is not necessarily going to follow sequentially upon the other statements that are going to be made, and that it might be quite a bit later this evening. That may have a bearing on the two points of order to which you have just responded.

Certainly that statement will be the last of any statements today, but the right hon. Gentleman is quite right in expecting that it will not simply follow after the second statement. My understanding at the moment is that that statement would either come at the moment of interruption—which, I say for the benefit of those from outside the House attending our proceedings, is at 10 o’clock—or it might come a little earlier than that. But is it to be expected that it will automatically come straight after the second statement? No. It will come when the Government are in a position to make—dare I say it—a meaningful statement to the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You have understandably been referring to the motion for tomorrow, but, as I understand it, there will have to be two motions for tomorrow. There will have to be a business of the House motion as well, because otherwise we can only have a 90-minute debate as this will be a motion brought forward under an Act of Parliament. It would obviously be good if we were able to have that motion as soon as possible as well.

One of the things that is of enormous convenience to Members is knowing when votes are going to happen. I would guess that, in particular, people who have family commitments and things like that may want to know that the votes are going to be at 7 o’clock tomorrow evening rather than at 9, 10 11 o’clock, or whatever, and the sooner that is established, the better.

Finally, would you confirm that it is not your view, on the whole, as much as you are prepared to take manuscript amendments, that it is really in the best interests of Parliament to proceed on some of the most important issues affecting our country on the basis of manuscript amendments because the Government have taken so much time to present their business in the proper way?

Taking the last point first, I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman and to confirm that it is certainly not my view that it is desirable to proceed on the basis of manuscript amendments. It is far preferable that colleagues should have plenty of time in which to table amendments in the usual way. If, however, that proves not to be possible, I have to adjust. It is obviously much more popular with Members of the House if I say, yes, I will consider manuscript amendments than if I simply preclude them from consideration.

As for the question of motion singular or motion plural, I think that the hon. Gentleman is, as usual right: there will need to be two motions. [Interruption.] I am grateful. It is always useful to have the ballast of endorsement from a sedentary position from the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I cannot count on it at all times, and therefore, when I have it, I should put it in the bank and earn interest on it. Yes, there will need to be two motions: a business of the House motion and a substantive motion relating to the withdrawal agreement. It would be helpful to know about that earlier rather than later.

At this stage, I do not know whether the Government are thinking in terms of protected time—that is to say, a guaranteed number of hours irrespective of when we start—or in terms of a conclusion of the debate at 7 o’clock and votes immediately thereafter. Again, it would be helpful to know earlier rather than later. Of course, it is perfectly possible, and highly desirable, that tonight’s statement either by the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), if he is delivering it, or—more likely, perhaps—by the Secretary of State for Brexit, makes that clear. That will then satisfy not only the curiosity of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) but the interests of a great many other Members besides.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As I have always understood it, our system is based on Cabinet government. Does what we have now heard mean that the Government will be laying a motion to which they are inviting amendments from Members of this House and which will be about the most important decision we have taken since the second world war, and it will not even have been considered by the Cabinet?

Well, I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that that is, I will not say above or below my pay grade, but on a different remuneration scale—let me put it like that. I know that he served with very considerable distinction as a Minister in the past. In fact, I remember beetling over to his ministerial office on one occasion in years gone by. He was a figure of considerable celebrity in the then Government. I have never been a Minister, still less a member of the Cabinet. Quite how the Cabinet operates, when it meets and what is discussed, I have no way of knowing, so whether the Cabinet will have met to discuss this matter, I do not know. But I can say to the hon. Gentleman that whatever motions are tabled, they will be tabled in the name, and therefore with the authority and, by implication, the full agreement, implicit if not explicit, of the Government.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. On the Government’s website at the moment, there is a month-long consultation on door closure warnings on the docklands light railway. So there is now currently more consultation on door closure warnings than there is on the entire future of our country and what is going to happen on Brexit. Do you not think that the Government are being utterly irresponsible and reckless? Is this incompetence or is it just contempt for Parliament?

I do not particularly want to get into the matter of contempt today. We have had the matter of contempt raised previously, and of course a motion was passed by the House on that matter. I hear what the right hon. Lady says. Suffice it to say that I think it is important that we treat of this business in a responsible way, and part of treating it in a responsible way is ensuring that parliamentary colleagues and, very importantly, Back Benchers have the opportunity to express their will in both written and spoken form, as well as by vote.

I do not want to reach a premature judgment. Let us keep an eye on this as the day unfolds. However the Government make their own decisions, which is obviously not a matter for me, the way in which the House disposes of business is ultimately a matter for us all, and that must meet a proper test. We must not be messed around. I am sure that that is not the will of the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who is a most courteous fellow, but we cannot allow that to happen. I hope the right hon. Lady, with whom I have co-operated closely on parliamentary matters over the last nine and a half years of my speakership, will accept that I will always try to do what is right by the House of Commons, and I give my commitment to ensure that I do so again.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not aware of any point during my time in Parliament when statements have not come one after the other. My understanding of what you said is that there will now be an urgent question and then three statements; the first two will come straight after the urgent question, but the third might not. How will it be communicated to Members at what time that statement is likely to come? Is it possible that it will come in the middle of the debate on the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill, or will it come before or after that? When will we know, and how will we find out?

The answer is that it could come at any time, with the agreement of the Chair. I do not seek to minimise the significance of the hon. Lady’s point. However, there are precedents for most things in this House, and I can assure her that there are many precedents for statements being delivered at the moment of interruption. It is perfectly possible to have a statement that is not taken sequentially after the others but at the moment of interruption—in the case of a Monday, 10 o’clock.

It could be at 10 o’clock. However, pursuant to what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said about people needing to honour external commitments, it might be for the convenience of the House, if the Minister is ready to deliver that statement, for it to be delivered to the House earlier than 10 o’clock. If I had a sense that it would be for the convenience of the House, I would be minded to agree to such a request. How would it become known to Members? My strong advice to the hon. Lady and all colleagues is to keep their eyes on the annunciator, and we will try to ensure that there is proper notice; it will not be at five minutes’ notice or anything like that. On that, I can assure the hon. Lady, I will insist.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am concerned, like other Members, that we have enough time to consider the motion, to table amendments and to consider those amendments before we debate and vote. You said that the debate might be some time after questions. Were you indicating that there might be statements or urgent questions, or was there something else in your mind?

No, I was not thinking of one thing rather than another, but it is perfectly possible that there could be urgent questions. As colleagues know, urgent question applications are very common in the House; they are very commonly submitted and very commonly granted by me, if I think they warrant the attention of the House. It is perfectly possible that there might be ministerial statements. It is even conceivable—I do not say for certain, but, depending on what happens at this very important time—that there could be a request to secure the attention of the House on another matter for a significant period before we even get to that debate. That is perfectly possible; the Standing Orders allow for it. I understand how conscientious the hon. Gentleman is, but he should not be unduly concerned that there will simply be no time to consider what has been put down. There’ll be time all right.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For those of us who find the palpitations are starting in relation to the week ahead of us—the words “as the day unfolds” are quite inducing of panic in some Members, even those who do not have an Executive role—may I ask whether there is a precedent, on such an important matter, for Members not being given 24 hours to plan and discuss points of common interest with those from other Benches and so on? Is there a precedent for this sort of decision making?

I am sorry if the hon. Lady is concerned, and I do not cavil at that: these are very important times for all of us. The answer is that there almost certainly will be a precedent, for the reason I gave to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) from the Scottish National party a few moments ago, which is that there are precedents for most things in this House. If the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) is challenging me about when there was a precise precedent, I admit I cannot tell her. In fact, there will not be a precise precedent, because the particular circumstances of Brexit are a little different from anything else that has previously occurred. If she is wondering whether there has ever been such a situation, the answer is that there will have been precedents in the past.

What I am trying to do is to ensure that there is maximum time for those who care about these matters—I think a lot of Members do care about these matters, and may potentially have an interest in tabling an amendment and so on—and their interests will be protected by the Chair as effectively as I can possibly do so.

If there are no further points of order—I thank colleagues for their interest, and I hope to keep them updated—we come now to the second urgent question.