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Points of Order

Volume 657: debated on Monday 25 March 2019

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last year the Department for Education published a myth-busting document advising local authorities that they could dispense with statutory guidance that is in place to protect our most vulnerable children. I have raised the issue in this House on two occasions with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). On 10 September he said that there would be no changes to legislation, and on 17 January he denied the very substance of the document. Fifty children’s charities also wrote to him asking for this dangerous document to be withdrawn. Following a legal challenge from the children’s rights charity Article 39, it appears, according to the press, that the document has been withdrawn.

This dangerous DFE and ministerial-approved guidance was in circulation for a number of months. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, on whether it is incumbent on the hon. Gentleman to outline what steps have been taken to disseminate information about the U-turn to local authorities, and whether any redress is available to children and families who may well have been harmed by this guidance? Finally, can you advise, Mr Speaker, on what safeguards are in place to stop Ministers acting in such a reckless manner?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice that she wished to raise this matter. I rather assume that she has notified the Minister of her intention to bring it up on the Floor of the House this afternoon. She has made her concerns clear and it is on the record. Moreover, those concerns will have been heard on the Treasury Bench, including at a very senior and cerebral level. I rather imagine that the point she has made will be conveyed to the relevant Minister before very long.

In so far as the hon. Lady asks about redress and what the Minister concerned might do, that really is a matter for the Minister rather than for the Chair, but what I would say to her is that if she does not receive a satisfactory response from the Minister, there is a range of options that she might pursue involving airing the issue through the Order Paper or, indeed, in debate in the Chamber. My advice to her would be to consult the Table Office—which, for the benefit of those observing our proceedings, is a very short distance from here—and the dedicated and outstanding staff of that office will be happy to advise her as to what courses of action are open to her.

My basic advice, which I know can sometimes jar somewhat, but it does have the advantage of being valid, is persist, persist, persist. Go to the Table Office and do not take no for an answer in terms of the right to question members of the Treasury Bench. Of course, if the hon. Lady wishes to seek a debate on the matter on the Adjournment, who knows? She may be fortunate.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The ministerial code requires any Minister carrying out official business in the constituency of another Member of Parliament to give that Member of Parliament advance notice in good time of the proposed visit. On Friday, the pensions Minister, whom I have notified of my intention to raise this matter today, carried out an official visit in my constituency. My constituency office was notified about it at two minutes to 12 on Friday. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, at what point such short, inadequate notice constitutes contempt as opposed to courtesy? What options, other than continually raising points of order, which are heard and then ignored by Members on the Treasury Bench, are available to ensure that Ministers comply with the ministerial code?

The convention of notifying a Member of a prospective visit to his or her constituency is strong. It is not in the Standing Orders of the House; it is just that: a convention. Moreover, the merits of the case one way or the other are not justiciable by the Chair. However, the convention is there for a reason. It is about that basic concept of courtesy and respect for each other.

So what do I advise the hon. Gentleman? He can take the matter up directly with the Minister in the form of correspondence or a request for a meeting. Secondly, he could take it up with the Leader of the House, who I know will accept, in common with her predecessor, that she has a responsibility for ensuring Ministers’ compliance with important conventions, including that of providing timely and substantive answers to questions. When that does not happen, traditionally Leaders of the House have accepted their responsibility to remind Ministers of their duty. The other option open to the hon. Gentleman is to ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who performs with élan at business questions every week, to raise the matter with the Leader of the House at business questions.

I am concerned that this rather important convention is being quite regularly dishonoured. That seems to me to be wrong. There is no precise time beforehand for notification, but the presumption is that of courtesy. Simply notifying a Member or his or her office minutes or an hour before a visit does not cohere with the spirit of the convention. The hon. Gentleman has reason to be irritated and I hope that that irritation can soon be overcome by a satisfactory explanation, apology and commitment not to repeat the offence.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have not given you notice of this point of order because it comes out of the proceedings that we have just witnessed. I wonder whether you might give us some advice about the fact that it became clear during the Prime Minister’s statement that she has no intention of listening or responding positively to the results of an indicative vote process, which rather renders the whole thing pointless.

I remember when we went through a similar process on the future of the other place, the then Government made it absolutely clear that should that process come up with one way forward, which had been carried by the House, they would effect it. Yet today we have heard the exact opposite from the Prime Minister.

Mr Speaker sir, could you give us some view of how, as Members of Parliament, we can take this forward in a reasonable way and not see the convention that Parliament and its votes matter disappear before our very eyes at this difficult time for our country?

I do not think it is for me to rule on the matter at this time. The hon. Lady has raised an extremely important point, but in the course of making it, and in a spirit of some frustration and almost despair, she said that unless it was guaranteed that the process or its results would be honoured, it rendered the exercise pointless. May I politely suggest that that is not the right mindset? I have the highest regard for the hon. Lady, who is a more experienced parliamentarian than me—she has served as shadow Leader of the House and as a Minister in important roles. I say that it would be better to proceed with the process and support amendments as she sees fit and, if there are subsequent votes—I believe that the intention of the authors of this exercise is that such votes should happen on Wednesday—colleagues’ wholehearted participation in them is to be recommended. They should see the outcome and then the hon. Lady can repeat her demand that those results be observed. I do not think there is much point in having the votes on a half-hearted basis. One has to go into it with full-hearted enthusiasm and commitment and see how events play out over the next 48 hours.

But process does matter and the hon. Lady might have noticed—though I would not blame her if she had not—that since the publication of the withdrawal agreement last November, I have sat in the Chamber for every single minute of the debates on this subject. I do so out of respect for the House. That principle of respect for the House and what it says is extremely important. I thank the hon. Lady for what she said and I hope that my reply is at least helpful.

Business of the House (TODAY)


That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motion in the name of the Prime Minister tabled under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 not later than 10.00pm; such questions shall include the questions on any amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; the questions may be put after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents) and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Michelle Donelan.)