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Points of Order

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will know that once a statement has been made under section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, a Minister of the Crown must make arrangements under subsection (6) for a motion in neutral terms to be moved within the period of seven Commons sitting days, beginning with the day on which the statement is made. As you will be aware, such a statement was made on Friday 15 March, and you will also know that Friday 22 March is a sitting day. Can you therefore confirm that, irrespective of what may emerge from the meeting of the EU Council on 21 and 22 March and what, if any, consequential secondary legislation may be brought to the House thereafter, we will have a stand-alone debate on an amendable motion by Monday 25 March?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it. As far as I am aware, his exegesis of the Act is entirely correct. Following the decision of this House not to approve the withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship on Tuesday 12 March, the Government made a written statement on Friday 15 March, as required by section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Under section 13(6) of that Act, a Minister must move a motion “in neutral terms” that this House “has considered the matter” of that statement no later than Monday 25 March. According to the order of this House of 4 December, motions in neutral terms under section 13 of the Act are amendable. The motion has been tabled; it is currently item 64 in part B of Future Business. No amendments have been tabled yet.

I am saving the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to squander him too early in our proceedings. That would seem unkind and wasteful.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to your, if I may put it this way, intervention—your ruling, perhaps—yesterday, the Government have today announced, no doubt also in accordance with the motion passed on Thursday, and apparently after a tumultuous Cabinet meeting, that the Prime Minister is writing to Mr Tusk to seek an extension of article 50, but not just, as prescribed in the motion last Thursday, till the end of June, but also for another, much longer period. However, we do not know for how long—apparently the Prime Minister might not have even decided herself—and we certainly do not know for what purpose any extension is being sought.

Mr Speaker, can you help us? Is all that in order, given that nobody has come to this place to tell the House of Commons what is going on, so that we can question, yet again, the purpose of that lengthy extension in particular and how long it will be, but also what this means, given that we are to leave the European Union in 10 days, still with no deal in place? The concern is that the letter is designed to do the very thing that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned in her comments yesterday, which she has also mentioned on a previous occasion, in reference to the rulings in “Erskine May”, which is, it is believed, to bully, frankly, Conservative Back Benchers into supporting the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, even though they believe that it is against everything they believe in and against their consciences. Could you assist us, Mr Speaker: is all this in order?

I am not aware that anything disorderly has taken place, and I must begin by advising the right hon. Lady that I am not privy to these matters. I know that she is customarily exceptionally well informed, and may well be, for all I know, in this case. One of the reasons why I am not privy to these matters is that I have not been advised of them by Ministers. Another reason why I am naturally not aware is that I have been attending to my duties in the Chair, as colleagues and others would expect, so I do not know whether a letter has been written or is in the process of being written.

What I would say to the right hon. Lady is that of course the motion passed by the House last week on, if memory serves me correctly, 14 March did provide for a potential extension of article 50 application to be made. If memory serves me correctly, the first part of that motion specified that if the withdrawal agreement and future declaration were endorsed by the House by 20 March, the Government would be minded to seek an extension to the end of June—specifically, I think, to 30 June. A later section of that motion raised the possibility of a potentially longer extension being sought, in circumstances in which the House had not by 20 March endorsed the withdrawal agreement and future partnership declaration. I think I remember rightly that that reference to a potentially longer extension in that circumstance did not reference a specific period—and that certainly was not at that point a Government policy proposal—and it did indicate that there was no certainty at all that that would be agreed to by the European Union; and of course, a rationale for such an extension would be needed.

I mention all that because it seems to me that, as things stand, nothing disorderly has taken place. The notion that an application for an extension might be made is not new. It is out there and has been for some time. I am bound to say that if the Government are minded to seek something by way of a written application, one would rather hope that the House would be informed of that. Of course, a successful application would not only require the agreement of the Union; as a consequence—I think the Clerk at the Table has consulted his scholarly cranium and advised me that this is so—it would require the agreement of the House. We will have to see whether in due course that will be sought, but certainly the agreement of the House is a prerequisite to postponing exit day—I am pretty sure about that—and the agreement of the Union would also be required.

Knowing the perspicacity of the right hon. Lady, I feel sure that she will be in her place at later points, today and assuredly tomorrow and on subsequent days, and it is possible—I do not have to look into the crystal ball when I can read the book—that she will leap to her feet with alacrity in order to seek to probe the Executive branch on these important matters. And who knows? She might well be successful in catching the eye of the Chair. I hope that is helpful to her at this early point in the day.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have told the House that, under the convention dating from 1604, you would not be prepared to allow the Government to bring back the motion. I make no comment on that; I just mention it by way of introduction. However, we have also heard from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), that it is likely that under the Act there must be further opportunities for debate, and the motion will be amendable.

I sense that the House wants to come to a conclusion; therefore, this point of order is designed to try to be positive and both follow your ruling, Mr Speaker, and not disagree with it and allow the House to come to a decision. If, as we hear, the Government are applying for an extension, which we are told might be quite lengthy, I would have thought that that was a fundamental change of circumstance, and you have yourself alluded to the fact that an SI would have to be brought to the House to implement that. I therefore wonder whether, if the Government were then to bring forward a motion, that might be a reason and an opportunity for you to make a judgment that that change was sufficiently meaningful to allow you to change your ruling and allow the Government motion to go forward.

There is another way. You may be aware, Mr Speaker, that I have argued for some time that the Government should use the concept of a unilateral declaration, and this has now been laid by the Government. What if the Government were to beef up or change its unilateral declaration, so that the motion that they brought back to the House was substantially different? I mention that as another way forward. I am trying to be helpful, so that we can both be true to your ruling, Mr Speaker, and allow the House to come to a decision as soon as possible, because I for one rather hope that this extension will concentrate the minds of my Brexiteer colleagues.

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for the terms in which, entirely characteristically, he expressed it. There were quite a lot of hypothetical questions there, and he is both something of an intellectual gymnast—I think I am in no danger of contradiction in making that assertion—and a keen student of history, not least the history of his own party. I do not treat his inquiry with levity, but what I say to him is this: I have always thought that there is much merit in the observation frequently proffered by the late Lord Whitelaw. What he said, many a time and oft, was, “For my part, I prefer to cross bridges only when I come to them”—indeed, it might be thought to be somewhat hazardous to make any attempt to do otherwise. I stand by the point about the same or substantially the same proposition not being able to be brought in the same Session. The logical corollary of that is that if a different proposition is brought forward, it is perfectly possible that that can be done in an orderly way—that is to say, without falling foul of “Erskine May”. We will leave it there for now.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a completely different matter, if that is okay. As you know, we all mourn the loss of Paul Flynn, and his funeral is to be in Newport on Friday morning, but because, unusually, we are sitting this Friday for private Members’ Bills, your chaplain has agreed to hold a service in the crypt chapel of St Mary Undercroft at 10.30 am. I wonder whether we might be able to put that on the Order Paper for Friday, so that if anybody wanted to attend, they could come along.

I see absolutely no reason why that should not be done and every reason why it should be. I am deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman. As he rightly says, this Friday is a sitting day. Many colleagues will be in the Chamber for important private Members’ business and I myself, all being well, will be in the Chair for a significant part of the proceedings. I would otherwise very much have wanted to be at the funeral and I am being represented at the funeral, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, but I will be here. That service is itself a service—a service to our departed colleague, to his widow Sam and family and to everyone who knew, admired and respected Paul—so let us have it advertised in a rather official way, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a more practical matter, there are occasions in this House when we have debates that are of a timed length. I am thinking, for example, of statutory instruments that are debated for up to 90 minutes or Standing Order No. 24 debates, for which I believe the time limit is three hours. When we have such timed debates, would it be possible for the annunciator to reflect the start time of the debate, so that hon. Members can see how long has elapsed within that period and how long is remaining?

The debate end time is displayed on the clocks at the table in front of the Clerks. I am sure that we can look at the practicality of that end time being displayed more widely. The proposition advanced by the hon. Gentleman is not only inoffensive, but potentially practical. [Interruption.] And practicable, as has been in no way pedantically pointed out to me.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We are at a time of unprecedented crisis and time is not quite on our side. The UK is due to leave the European Union next week and the House is sitting on Friday, just as we come to the end of a critical European Council. May I seek your guidance on what scope there may be for Members or for the Government to bring forward a resolution so that the House could sit on Saturday?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Colleagues, for the second day running, I am obliged to turn to “Erskine May”—namely, page 309, with which colleagues, I feel sure, will be closely familiar—which states:

“Under Standing Order No 11(6) a sitting on Saturday or Sunday…can be secured only by a resolution of the House, made normally…at the commencement of public business.”

I hope that my reply sates the hon. Gentleman’s curiosity. If there are no further points of order, we will proceed to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) has been very patiently waiting.