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Points of Order

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2024

2.4 pm

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. On 19 September 2023, the chair of the Brook House inquiry, Kate Eves, published her report on the mistreatment of individuals detained at the Brook House immigration removal centre. The report contained shocking accounts of incidents at Brook House, including serious problems with the way that force was used by detention staff on detained people. These accounts were so disturbing that the Select Committee on Home Affairs held a private session with the chair of the inquiry. I have met the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, and later this week we will visit Brook House to discover what progress has been made. We will also hold an oral evidence session on the subject after the Easter recess.

Although we welcome the Government’s written response to the Brook House inquiry today, I am very disappointed that the Home Office chose not to update the House through an oral statement, but instead used a written ministerial statement. The matters raised in the report are very serious indeed, and Members should have the right to question the Minister on the situation at Brook House and the action that the Home Office will take. May I seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, on how we can ensure that Home Office Ministers are brought to the House at the earliest opportunity to answer questions?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who Chairs the Select Committee on Home Affairs, for giving me notice of her point of order. As she points out, the Government have not so far sought to make an oral statement to the House on this issue, but I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard her comments and will pass them back, perhaps to Home Office Ministers and officials. In the meantime, the right hon. Lady is a very experienced Member of the House, and I am sure that she will be aware of the various options open to her in the Chamber and Westminster Hall, and indeed through her Select Committee.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. On 7 January 2020, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) led an Adjournment debate in this House on the UK special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I attended that debate not only as a constituency MP, but as the brother of someone who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who, like the majority of the armed forces, did so diligently and with the utmost professionalism. In response to my hon. Friend, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who I have informed of this point of order, stated:

“There have been allegations made by individuals, a very small number of whom worked within the investigative teams.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 362.]

Only last month, the Minister submitted evidence, not only in person but in writing, to the independent inquiry on the deployment of special forces in Afghanistan, in which they stated that they had inadvertently misled Members of this House by reading out statements that they later found to be incorrect. Indeed, that was also communicated through a letter that they sent in August 2020 to the then Secretary of State—it was part of the evidence submitted last month—which states:

“That I have been allowed to read out statements to the House of Commons that individuals in strategic appointments in the department knew to be incorrect is completely unacceptable. These were clearly not complaints by ‘a small number of individuals within the investigations team’ but widespread.

I have continually downplayed these allegations in public, too, to support”

the special forces

“and the department.”

The Minister had the opportunity to correct the record when the House returned from the summer 2020 recess, but they have yet to do so in this Chamber.

You may correct me, Madam Deputy Speaker—I hope you will not—but the ministerial code is very perjink that it is of paramount importance that Ministers of the Crown be accurate and truthful in giving information to the House. It states that Ministers of the Crown must correct

“any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity”.

Indeed, the Minister stated recently on social media platforms:

“I am an elected politician who serves the public. I am not an appointed official and my position relies on my reputation and my ability to sustain public confidence in my character.”

I wonder whether you, Madam Deputy Speaker, agree with the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who advised the House that the Minister may have been guilty of

“letting the House of Commons down”.

It sounds like major incompetence.

The House of Commons is based on trust in the word of Ministers of the Crown, and trust that what Ministers say is true. If they promise to do something, it undermines the integrity of the political system when they do not keep to their word. Madam Deputy Speaker, can you advise how the Office of the Speaker will ensure that after more than three and a half years, the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to correct the record and apologise to the House, and to those members of the armed forces who conduct themselves in a professional manner?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me notice of his point of order, and for confirming that he has informed the right hon. Member to whom he referred that he intended to raise this issue. Mr Speaker has always been clear that if Ministers feel that the record needs to be corrected, they should do so as quickly as possible, but it is also true that Ministers are responsible for what they say in the Chamber—hence why they should correct the record if there is a problem. The operation of the ministerial code is not a matter for the Chair, and I hope that the hon. Member understands that. Having said that, those on the Treasury Bench will have heard his concerns, and will feed them back. If the Minister considers a correction is necessary, one will be forthcoming. I think we will leave it at that.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Last week, in this House, I called on the Government to not only publish their contingency plan in the event of Thames Water’s financial collapse, but go a step further and put this failed, polluting giant into special administration. In preparation for that debate, I tabled a number of named day written parliamentary questions to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, scheduled for publication on Friday 15 March, yet I still have not received—[Interruption.]

I still have not received a response to those questions, two days after the deadline. The questions I asked were: how many meetings the permanent secretary of the Department has held with Thames Water on Operation Timber in the past 12 months; if the Secretary of State will the publish the minutes of meetings that officials in his Department have had with Thames Water on Operation Timber in each of the last six months; and when the permanent secretary of his Department last met officials from Thames Water to discuss Operation Timber. The continued failure of this Conservative Government to be transparent about their rescue plans for Thames Water amounts to nothing short of a cover-up. It is now crucial to raise this issue in the Chamber through a point of order. What steps can I take to receive a response from the Department to my questions?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her point of order, and I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members, whether they are here or not, would agree that answers to parliamentary questions should be given promptly. Again, I know that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard her point of order. She may wish to take up any undue delay in ministerial answers with the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Dame Karen Bradley), who chairs the Procedure Committee, which keeps under review departmental performance on answering questions. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) is lucky that the Chair of that Committee happens to be in the Chamber, and I can see that she has heard what the hon. Lady has had to say.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your assistance on a matter that many MPs will understand through that bread and butter work that we do on behalf of our constituents. I have informed the Minister’s office of my intention to raise this matter. Last December the Minister for Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey), said that he

“would love to sit down with the hon. Lady to talk through the details of the cases.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 636.]

Those were the cases of two constituents who are British citizens but whose families are stuck in Pakistan, even though they served in support of our armed forces in Afghanistan. Their families are at high risk of harm.

I am yet to have that meeting with the Minister. Indeed, the meeting has been cancelled several times, and now my office has been told that we probably need to wait until another Minister is appointed. I wonder whether the Secretary of State or Ministers could help. We all know that Ministers are busy and we understand that these things are complicated, but this is a life-or-death situation for my constituents and I am at a loss as to how to assist them, four months on from the original query. Can Ministers advise on how best to make progress?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. She has successfully shone a light on what has happened in this instance. I see that there is a Defence Minister on the Treasury Bench, so I am sure that her comments will be fed back and hope that the meeting to which she refers can take place accordingly. I think she has achieved her objective of highlighting the problem.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I sat through today’s urgent question and listened to the various questions raised on the supply of arms to Israel. It is clear that the Government are continuing to supply arms to Israel, some of which will have been used in the attacks on Gaza. Some of those attacks have been judged to be contrary to the International Court of Justice judgment and are potentially war crimes. Can I ask Mr Speaker to seek and publish legal advice on the legal responsibilities of individuals of this House in holding the Government to account to prevent complicity in those war crimes, so that we are all aware of our responsibilities and the role we have to play, as this Government receive their authority from this Chamber?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He did not give me notice of it, so I have been unable to seek advice on the legal point he raises. I am unclear on whether he is asking Mr Speaker to publish legal advice.

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise; I could not give notice of my point of order because it arises from the urgent question, which has only just concluded. I am asking Mr Speaker to seek legal advice on our behalf and to publish it, because it is important that we all know our legal responsibilities in respect of the potential complicity of this Government in war crimes.

My initial response is that the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), has come here and answered a number of questions on the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises. The Minister is indicating that he may be able to help me out a little on legal advice. It feels highly unusual for Mr Speaker to seek legal advice on an issue affecting the Government, because the Government obviously get their own legal advice. Perhaps we could hear from the Minister before going any further.

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who is an extremely experienced Member of the House, is seeking—ingeniously—to continue debate on the subject of the urgent question. He knows perfectly well that the Government operate under the rule of law. When it comes to arms sales, the arms regime and the work of the arms inspection committee, all those matters are determined by the law of the land. When it comes to international humanitarian law, the position is precisely the same: the Government take advice from the Law Officers, who are charged with advising us on these matters, and the Government act on that advice.

That is the point that I was trying to make, but obviously the Minister, who I am sure often works with legal advisers, was able to make it much more coherently. I am not sure that we can pursue this much further. I will let the right hon. Gentleman have one more go, but I think that we will have reached the end of the questioning after this.

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am not seeking to extend the debate at all; this is an incredibly serious point. The Minister just said that the Government are operating under the rule of law, but some of us believe that is not true any more, because of how the ICJ judgment was phrased. So we need advice as individual Members, separate from the Government—and it is the Speaker’s responsibility to ensure that we are properly advised—about our responsibilities when we believe there is potential complicity in war crime. All I seek is that advice should be sought and published.

As I said, the Government perform within the legal advice that they receive, not least from the Attorney General. Separate legal proceedings are going through the ICJ, and I do not think it is for Members of the House to interfere in that process either. The right hon. Gentleman will know that individual Members of the House have the right to seek legal advice. His comments will have been heard, and if there is anything further to be added to them, I know that the Clerks will advise us whether we should return to the matter, but I think his request for specific legal advice to the Speaker would be highly unusual. If I need to add anything to that, I assure him that I will come back to him.

Bill Presented

Football Governance Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Lucy Frazer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary James Cleverly, Secretary David T. C. Davies, John Glen and Stuart Andrew, presented a Bill to establish the Independent Football Regulator; to make provision for the licensing of football clubs; to make provision about the distribution of revenue received by organisers of football competitions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 187) with explanatory notes (Bill 187-EN).