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Business without Debate

Volume 666: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2019

Election of Select Committee Chairs (Notice of Election)


That, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 122C(1), the Speaker may announce a date for an election of chairs of select committees before 24 October 2019 in respect of which the requirement of notice is not met.—(Mike Freer.)

I can now inform the House of the arrangements for the election of the Chairs of the Treasury Committee and the Backbench Business Committee. The Treasury Committee Chair is vacant following the resignation of Nicky Morgan. The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected, of course, at the start of each Session.

Colleagues, nominations for both posts should be submitted by 5 pm on Monday 21 October. Only Members of the Conservative party may be candidates for the Treasury Committee election, for reasons that are well familiar to the House. For those observing our proceedings, I explain that this is because Select Committee Chairs are apportioned to different parties in accordance with party strength in the House. In this Parliament, the Treasury Select Committee Chair is in the hands of the Conservative party. Only Members whose party is not represented in Her Majesty’s Government may be candidates for the Backbench Business Committee election. The ballot will take place on Wednesday 23 October from 10 am to 1.30 pm. Briefing notes with more details about the election will be made available to Members and published online.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. Just over a week ago, one of my constituents, who wishes not to have his name mentioned, after applying for a passport for a son who lived abroad, received a knock-back letter from the Home Office.

In the envelope with the letter was also documentation from two other citizens applying for passports. They are totally unrelated to my constituent. We have written to and emailed the Home Office and the Home Secretary’s office, and followed up on that communication, asking for an urgent response, but we have not yet had an acknowledgment, let alone a reply. All we have asked for is urgent instruction as to where to send the documents so that they can be received safely and the passport applications can be dealt with quickly and efficiently. These documents concern applications not made by people who live in my constituency, but relate to people from totally different parts of the country.

Although my constituent wishes to remain anonymous, I would also like to pay tribute to his public service attitude. Having been knocked back by the Home Office, he could have done anything he wanted with those documents, because nobody knew he had them, but he brought them to my office. I have tried to bring the fact that I now retain them on his behalf to the attention of the Home Secretary and the Home Office, but I have not yet received a response. These applications need to be dealt with urgently.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it. My response is that, as will be demonstrably obvious to everybody, this is an administrative error, and something of a mess has flowed from that error. Human error is a fact of life, and we do not dwell on that, but it is very important that the matter is re-routed as expeditiously as possible, as those two other individuals with pressing cases would want. The public service that the hon. Gentleman has performed is to bring the matter to the attention of the House and hopefully very soon to that of the relevant Department, the Home Office, and the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), the Home Secretary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will get a response from the Home Office tomorrow, if not tonight.

This is my counsel to the hon. Gentleman, in so far as he requires it. If his action tonight does not elicit a speedy response, I suggest that he raise the matter at business questions on Thursday. More widely, I suggest that he follow my general advice, which is “persist, persist, persist; repeat, repeat, repeat.” In short, I say to the hon. Gentleman, “Make a general nuisance of yourself, sir, until the Government sit up and take notice, in the interests of those two individuals.” I underline what the hon. Gentleman said by way of tribute to his public service-oriented constituent.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder what the procedure ought to be, and whether you would be minded to take an urgent question on this matter, given my own history and experience in the Department for Work and Pensions when I was an adviser. At that time, we found that there was a systemic problem. What had happened was a one-off, but it was a systemic technological admin error that had caused not simply one letter but many thousands to go missing. Clearly the question of whether this was an isolated incident must remain open until a Minister from the Home Office comes to the House to report otherwise.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. No one can accuse him of failing to take his opportunities when they present themselves. I cannot give him an immediate assurance that an urgent question application which has not yet been made, and which therefore manifestly I have not seen, will be acceded to by the Chair. However, the hon. Gentleman was present and correct when the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who has just beetled out of the Chamber—perfectly properly, I hasten to add—referred en passant to my enthusiasm for urgent questions. Whether the Minister did so with any great enthusiasm himself, I leave observers to decide for themselves. If the Minister does not approve of my granting of urgent questions, he is perfectly welcome to his opinion, which will not cause me any loss of sleep. But it is certainly the case that I very much favour the urgent question as an instrument of scrutiny, and indeed, very often, of Back-Bench opportunity. So if the hon. Gentleman submits an urgent question—or if the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, does so—it will be carefully considered. He is clearly not planning to do so at the moment, but we are where we are.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. At the moment, I am not the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.

Oh yes, of course. There is a vacancy. Far be it for me to accuse the hon. Gentleman of being a procedural pedant, because the Chair is in favour of procedural pedantry. He is not; but he was a distinguished, indeed illustrious, Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, who regularly had confetti showered upon him by Members in all parts of the House.

If the matter comes to me, I will consider it. Let us leave it at that.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for not having given you notice of this point of order, but it relates to the answer that the Leader of the House gave earlier in his business statement about the possibility of a Saturday sitting. He was asked, “When are we going to know?” and he said that it was contingent on what happened at the European Council on Thursday and Friday.

Am I right in thinking that, unless the House agrees to a business motion before we rise—presumably on Thursday—saying that there will be a Saturday sitting, the only way in which a Saturday sitting can then happen is as a result of a request to you, as Speaker for the House, to sit on that day? If that is the case, and if that request is not made until, say, late on Friday evening, how exactly are Members meant to know that the House has been recalled, unless they are notified by their Whips or read about it in the newspapers? You may not want to comment on this, Mr Speaker, but would it not be preferable if the House were to be informed in advance that there was to be a Saturday sitting, rather than the recall procedure being used—if my understanding is correct?

In broad terms I agree with the thrust of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. There are two routes to this House meeting on Saturday. One is a motion before the House and approved by the House, which specifies that the House shall sit on Saturday, and it would be expected to indicate the period of the intended sitting. The alternative route would be the method of recall under the relevant Standing Order, whereby a Minister of the Crown asks the Speaker to facilitate—to agree to—the said recall. My understanding as of now, and I speak with some knowledge of contacts had, is that the Government are more inclined to the former route than the latter. It is, however, also the case that the Government’s thinking is potentially contingent upon, and therefore liable to be influenced by, the development of events over the next 48 or even 72 hours. The former route, in terms of the convenience both of Members and of the staff of this House, would be preferable, and I am very sensitive both to the needs of Members and to those of staff, and I undertake to the right hon. Gentleman and to colleagues more widely to remain alert and use my best endeavours to try to ensure that the House is in no way disadvantaged. I hope that that is helpful to colleagues.