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Points of Order

Volume 657: debated on Wednesday 27 March 2019

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) made in Prime Minister’s questions some allegations about the petitions system. I point out that the petition to revoke article 50 had 96% of its signatures from the UK, and the Government Digital Service has in place both automated and manual systems to detect bots and other fraudulent activity. Can you do anything to ensure that, if Members wish to undermine the most successful parliamentary petitions system in the world, they do so on the basis of facts and find out those facts from the Committee before they raise it in this Chamber?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I do not think it is for me to advise on the identification of facts, which I imagine would be an extremely lengthy, possibly painful and conceivably unproductive exercise. However, I do not treat her point with levity. I will not arbitrate between her and the hon. Member for Erewash, and no one would expect me to do so.

I would like, however, to acknowledge the outstanding work of the Petitions Committee under the august and respected chairmanship of the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and to emphasise that the staff who support the Committee display exemplary professionalism. I do not imagine, to be fair, that the hon. Member for Erewash would cavil at that at all; I do not think that that was her point. I want to put on the record that they are dedicated, hard-working and extremely skilled staff discharging a public duty on behalf of Parliament in the public interest.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In order to come into the House of Commons from the tube station today, one has to walk past a large poster saying “Death” and then, underneath it, the words “to democracy”. It is not clear how the protesters want to carry out their death wish—whether it is to democracy, to those of us who are elected as part of democracy, or to members of staff who work for us as democratically elected Members—but there can be no place in our public life for intimidation of Members of Parliament or their staff. While we respect the right to free protest, may we ask again if you can look at the right to freedom of speech versus the intimidation of those in public life and how we are protected around this Parliament?

The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I respect the force of her observation and the sincerity that underlies it. There is of course a delicate balance between freedom of speech on the one hand and a safe space for parliamentarians and for those who report our proceedings on the other. As the hon. Lady, who is an extremely assiduous participant in the Chamber, will attest, this matter has been raised before in the Chamber—there is no harm in its being raised again; there is considerable necessity, no doubt, for doing so—and I have made the point that we in this House have made representations to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and had regular contact with Cressida Dick and her senior officers in order to make the case for a more proactive policing approach of a character and on a scale that will protect people going about their daily business either as parliamentarians or as journalists, or indeed as members of the public who fall into neither of those categories.

I know the hon. Lady will understand when I say—I do not say it with an ounce of flippancy; I say it because I think it is right, and I do not think she would suggest otherwise—that I cannot be the poster policeman. It is not for me to police posters, and it is not for any Member of Parliament to police posters. I accept that there is an ambiguity about the poster to which she has referred, and I acknowledge that it may be regarded by some as intimidating. Moreover, many of the threats to people have in particular been threats to female colleagues and female journalists, and we need to take careful account of that. I will relay the hon. Lady’s remarks to Eric Hepburn, the Parliamentary Security Director, and, as necessary, will have further discussions with the police.

I will come to the hon. Gentleman, but I did promise the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), and it would seem unkind to deny him a moment longer.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Recently, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who is in his place, came and made a very welcome visit to the Shipley constituency. Unfortunately, he did not have the courtesy to let me know beforehand that he was coming. This follows hot on the heels of the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), coming to visit the Shipley constituency, who did not have the courtesy to tell me that he was coming to visit my constituency either. Do not get me wrong, Mr Speaker—they are very welcome to visit the Shipley constituency. Anything that draws attention to the fact that my Labour opponent is a hard-core Corbynista, who will be a loyalist to a Marxist Government in her ideal world, is very much to be welcomed, and I hope next time they will bring Owen Jones and Eddie Izzard with them as well. Would you not agree, however, that they should at least have the courtesy to let me know when they plan to make a political visit to my constituency?

Yes. I quite understand Members’ desire to visit the constituency of the hon. Gentleman. I say that not merely in the abstract, but on the strength of my very agreeable personal experience. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I visited his constituency with him to speak to school students some time ago, and I positively salivated over the experience, so I can quite understand why others would want to visit Shipley.

Members should do each other the courtesy of prior notification. This matter is now regularly being raised by Members on both sides of the House, and I hope there will not be further recurrences of discourtesy.

Further to the point of order from the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), Mr Speaker—and I see that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) wants to raise what I suspect will be the same point. As you know, Mr Speaker, following an incident involving the hon. Member for Chelmsford last week, we have had further incidents outside that entrance to the tube station. There are not simply posters, although that is bad enough; members of our staff are being intimidated in what is now a very much confined area. Further to that, a member of the Lobby told me that when she left this place at 11 o’clock on Monday night, she went past people who were injecting class A drugs. There was then an incident outside the entrance itself, where the gates are into the tube station.

In short, Mr Speaker, a number of us have done exactly what you have asked us to do. We have raised all of this with the senior police commander and directly with the gentleman whose name I have forgotten. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth did so in an email, as I know because I was copied in to it. Fine words—no action, and it is not acceptable. What is happening outside that entrance to this place is a serious threat to the safety of everybody who uses that entrance.

I think the fairest thing I can say to the right hon. Lady, whose extremely alarming personal experience lends weight to her observation, is that I might usefully convene a meeting with our advisers to be attended by those Members who are airing their concerns today. I think that is the fairest thing I can say, and the Leader of the House herself may wish to attend that meeting. I obviously cannot resolve the issue here and now, but so that we are all in one room and preferably, at the end of the conversation, in the same place, what better way but to have a meeting sooner rather than later? I hope the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) will accept that I cannot pursue it further now, but I hope that is a constructive approach.

Mr Speaker, I just want to confirm to you that I in fact spoke to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner yesterday, after she appeared before the Home Affairs Committee, to raise these concerns directly with her. Unfortunately, this issue is not being dealt with to our satisfaction. We have now raised it with the Home Secretary as well, and with parliamentary security officials. Staff and Members are being threatened.

May I add, Mr Speaker, that the behaviour of some individuals, particularly on social media, with sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, antisemitic and Islamophobic language directed at Members of Parliament because of the ways that they vote and the opinions they hold, has to be dealt with? There is a huge responsibility on the social media companies to take action as well; it is not just the posters and physical threats of intimidation.

I accept that the abuse is wider and must be addressed—indeed, I do—and I thank the hon. Gentleman for saying what he has said.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask this question to seek your guidance, because I think what I am going to refer to is a novel thing. It has become clear that the Government have been buying Facebook ads to send out—to all of our constituents, presumably—the Prime Minister’s views in putting herself on the side of the people and setting the people against MPs. Clearly, Facebook has not been available as a way to do this until recently, but we now have Government money being spent so that the Executive can actually say controversial and potentially dangerous things about the legislature. Can you give me any guidance on how we might pursue this, because it seems to me to be a very alarming new trend?

If the hon. Lady had an allegation of contempt to make, it would have to be made in writing to me. More widely, and I am not insensitive to her concern, I think I would need to look at the specifics, and rather than shoot from the hip now and offer a response that may be ill informed and unsatisfactory, I would prefer to offer a well informed and satisfactory response. The route to that might be an exchange between us in writing, and I look forward to receipt of the hon. Lady’s letter.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Two weeks ago, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), resigned. To date, the Prime Minister has yet to appoint a new Minister to that post. The role has strategic importance and there is utter chaos in the Department for Work and Pensions—there are seven reviews into disabled people being wrongly denied social security, and the assessment framework for employment and support allowance and personal independence payment is in crisis. Those issues are important, and I seek your guidance on how I can go about holding the Government and the Department to account.

The short answer is by persistence: persist, persist, persist; pose questions; press the case; push the point of view that you wish to express. This is a very serious matter—I would not dream of treating it otherwise. The hon. Lady is speaking up—as, indeed, the Minister responsible for those matters would be expected to speak up—for the interests of disabled people. However, I hope that she will not take it amiss if I say that although I have a considerable number of matters on my plate, ministerial reshuffles are not among my responsibilities—thankfully so. I rather think the House would echo my saying that thankfully they are not matters for the Speaker.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House will shortly move on to discuss the business motion, which will, if it is passed, govern the conduct of the indicative votes this afternoon. It states:

“Members may record their votes on each question under arrangements made by”

you, Sir. So may I take it that at some point fairly soon, you will explain to the House what those arrangements are and how they will work? May I ask you specifically to scotch a rumour, which was circulating this morning and is probably inaccurate, that there will be some sort of secret ballot and that constituents will not know how their MPs have voted? Will you explain how—because presumably it will not be in Hansard—constituents will be able to tell how their Member of Parliament voted on each of the motions that you select?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I will indeed make a statement or an announcement to the House on that matter in a timely way. Of course, it is for the House to agree—or not, as the case may be—to a business motion. However, in so far as the right hon. Gentleman is perturbed by the prospect of secret—and thereafter to remain secret—votes, I think I can put his mind at rest. There is no such plan. I hope that reassures the right hon. Gentleman. He has a sunny countenance in the circumstances, and we should be grateful for that.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 20 February at Prime Minister’s questions, I highlighted the decision by the Tees Valley Mayor to spend £90 million of taxpayers’ money on buying the loss-making Durham Tees Valley airport when local people in most parts of the area cannot get a bus home after 6.30 pm. I asked whether the Prime Minister could help them out. She answered by claiming that the bus service had been considerably expanded across the midlands and the north, but according to a letter from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, outlining the statistics, that is most certainly not the case. The Prime Minister may therefore have inadvertently misled the House. Is there anything you can do to encourage a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box to correct the record and acknowledge that the vast increase in bus services that the Prime Minister suggested simply has not materialised?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of that point of order. Responsibility for the veracity of what is said in the Chamber is that of each individual Member, including members of the Executive branch, up to the highest level. If a Minister reckons to have made a mistake, it is their responsibility to correct the record. I am not aware of any imminent intention on the part of the Prime Minister to correct the record, but knowing the hon. Gentleman’s perspicacity and tendency to focus his beady eye on the activities of Government, I feel sure that he will be looking out for what he thinks is the required correction. Whether he will look out to his advantage or whether he will be disappointed remains to be seen.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This point of order about today’s business is genuine, even though it may seem trivial to others. We are in unique circumstances. It is the first time since I have been a Member of Parliament that a business motion will not be moved by the Leader of the House at the Dispatch Box. I understand that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) will move the business motion. He is allowed to be in that position only because he got hundreds of Opposition votes and 30 from the Conservative Benches. I sit on Her Majesty’s Government’s Benches, and I support Her Majesty’s Government—[Interruption]—at least most of the time. [Interruption.]

Order. I was rather enjoying listening to the hon. Gentleman talking about his support for the Government. I thought that I ought to learn more and be educated about that.

The point is that I assume that the business motion will not be moved from the Dispatch Box, and I understand that. However, surely the right hon. Member for West Dorset should at least move the motion from the Opposition Benches, given that Opposition votes put him in a position to do it. That is a serious point. Otherwise, do I have to move to the Opposition Benches to speak against the motion?

The hon. Gentleman has raised his point with some force and insistence. However, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is just that: the right hon. Member for West Dorset. That constituency is represented by a right hon. Member who, for the vast bulk of his career—we came into the House together—has voted with the Government. In recent times, somewhat to his chagrin or even distress, he has felt unable to do so. However, he is making his case today as a constituency Member of Parliament, and he sits on the Government Benches. If he were to perambulate to the other side, it would be regarded at the very least as deuced odd.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) made a point about the Prime Minister’s suggestion that there were 10,000 new bus routes in the midlands and the north. That was quite surprising to those of us who follow transport issues. I seek your guidance on how we could get on the record the actual figures from the Department for Transport. They are that 13,279 routes have been registered and 13,153 routes have been withdrawn, which means that there are actually only 126 new routes. I would grateful if you explained how that can be put on the record.

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, and he comes from a constituency that is very academic, rather highbrow, intellectual—

The hon. Lady observes from a sedentary position that “he is one”, meaning that the hon. Gentleman is highbrow, intellectual and academic. He has found his own salvation. He has got his point on the record. I feel sure that copies of the Official Report will be veritably winging their way to his Cambridge constituents ere long so they can note his prodigious efforts on their behalf.

If there are no further points of order, we come to the presentation of a Bill. The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has been a most patient fellow.

Bill Presented

House of Commons (Precedence of Government Business) (European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Sir William Cash, supported by Sir Bernard Jenkin, John Redwood, Mr Owen Paterson, Priti Patel, Mr David Jones, Mr Mark Francois, Mr Steve Baker, Mr Marcus Fysh, Suella Braverman, Michael Tomlinson and Richard Drax, presented a Bill to give precedence in the House of Commons to Government business in connection with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 until the United Kingdom withdraws from the European Union.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 April, and to be printed (Bill 367).