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Points of Order

Volume 618: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016

Order. We will come to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond). There are various points of order, and first I will take those of which I have had notice.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the urgent question on rail infrastructure on Tuesday, the Transport Secretary was asked five times why he had not devolved rail services to the Mayor of London, as agreed between his Government and the previous Mayor. His answer each time was that there were commercial and operational reasons for not so doing. Yesterday a letter from the Transport Secretary emerged which gave the actual reason for his opposing devolution as being that he

“would like to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor.”

Mr Speaker, Members should be able to rely on the answers given by Ministers at the Dispatch Box as being as accurate as they can make them. What steps can I take to get the Minister to correct the record to reflect his actual reasoning, however tawdry that may have been?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intended point of order. I have a twofold answer. First, every Member of this House is responsible for the veracity of what he or she says in it, and it is incumbent upon a Member, upon discovery of a mistake, to correct it; that applies to Ministers as it applies to anybody else. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman will understand why I do not wish to delve into the detail of the matter, and I certainly do not seek to adjudicate between the hon. Gentleman making an accusation and any Minister who might seek to defend himself or herself against it. All I would say, perhaps delphically, is that what the hon. Gentleman has said about a political motivation and what the Minister has said are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My point of order is not dissimilar to the previous one. Mine relates to the response given by the Department for Transport to the urgent question tabled on Monday by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) in respect of Southern rail. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who is present, and I asked the Minister in question whether the Government’s intention was still to devolve rail commuter services to Transport for London. We were not given any answer. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) has just said, clearly the Secretary of State for Transport has already made up his mind about that on the basis of party political reasons, and, secondly, having provided no answer, we then found it in the Evening Standard the day after.

I know you, Mr Speaker, place a premium on Ministers coming here and giving information to this House when questions are asked, not providing it in the newspapers afterwards. Frankly, I am utterly exasperated at this, because my constituents will take grave exception to Ministers playing party politics with the misery they are facing day in, day out on this line. I would be very grateful for your guidance, Mr Speaker, on how we can ensure Ministers give the right information to this House and do not fail to give us the information we require.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, and of course I remember well the exchanges to which he refers as they took place only three days ago. My off-the-cuff response is twofold. First, the absence of comprehensive answers to questions posed, under Governments of a variety of complexions, is not without precedent. Secondly, it is difficult to know—and it is not for the Speaker to judge—at what point a Government have decided on a policy and decided to communicate it. However, it does seem a tad strange if something is not communicated in the House in response to a specific question but is then communicated to the media a very short time afterwards. As I have said, it is not for me to judge in each case, but I really do think that if Ministers wish to avert the potentially embarrassing scenario of another urgent question being tabled on the same matter, with the possibility of a Minister having to come to answer it a second time, it would be wise for them to factor that consideration into their calculations of how to conduct themselves.

I think that that is the fairest way in which I can deal with this question, but the right hon. Gentleman was a co-applicant for the urgent question the other day, and his constituency is directly affected by this matter, so of course I will hear what he has to say.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You will be aware that my constituents are suffering chaotic services on Southern rail at the moment, and they were seeking salvation in Transport for London taking responsibility for those services. Can you advise me whether there is any way in which I can secure a transport outcome for my constituents that is based on the best policy rather than on a political priority for the Government?

Notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to invest me with great wisdom and powers in these matters, I am not sure that I am best placed to advise him on this. He is a former Deputy Leader of the House and he will be well aware of the upcoming debate on matters to be raised before the Adjournment, to which he may wish to contribute, although he might be perturbed by the absence of a responsible departmental Minister to give him a substantive reply. If he wants substantively to raise this issue and to obtain a reply, an Adjournment debate of his own might be his best salvation. I have a hunch that he will shortly be beetling across to the Table Office to make such an application, and he might find that his application is successful.

The hon. Lady is in a state of some perturbation, and she did give me notice of her point of order, so let us hear it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You have ruled on a number of occasions that, as a courtesy to the House, Members should inform one another when they are visiting another Member’s constituency on official business. I discovered last week that the Minister for Security, the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), had visited my constituency in his ministerial capacity. I discovered this when reading an article that was later published in my local newspaper. I subsequently raised the lack of notification with his office, which told me that it did not regard this obligation as applying to Ministers. This is particularly disappointing, given that I have often raised the serious issues that were the subject of his visit, and I would have welcomed the opportunity to discuss them with him prior to and during his visit. I am sure that I do not need to refer you to paragraph 10.9 of the ministerial code, Mr Speaker, but I ask you to clarify that this convention does indeed apply to Ministers and advise me of what recourse a Member has when the ministerial code is broken. What advice could you offer to the Minister of State and his office on this matter? Is there any further training or guidance that could be given to Ministers regarding their obligations to this House?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, and I can offer her some comfort in the matter. The short answer is that the obligation most certainly does apply to Ministers, and I am frankly staggered to hear it suggested—

The hon. Gentleman says he finds it shocking that anyone would suppose otherwise. I thought that this was very well known in the House.

Let me give the hon. Lady a substantive reply. It is a long-standing convention that Members should notify each other before visiting others’ constituencies in a public capacity. Obviously, if one Member is going to another’s constituency for a private dinner party, the obligation does not apply, but we are talking about the conduct of public business. The requirement for Ministers is enshrined in the ministerial code, and Ministers really ought to be familiar with and ready to adhere to it. I agree that it is a most unsatisfactory situation when notice is not given, and I urge Members on both sides, and Ministers in particular, to observe that traditional courtesy. The point has been made, and I know that the Leader of the House, who is extremely assiduous and highly respected in this place for his courtesy—I can say that with some personal knowledge as he has been my constituency neighbour for the best part of two decades—takes these matters very seriously and that he will do all he can to ensure that other Ministers behave with the courtesy that he customarily exhibits.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Two weeks ago, the Leader of the House was reminded from across the Chamber, not least by yourself, that the overwhelming custom, practice and precedent is that when Bills pass Second Reading, as the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill did, they should be duly certified and go to Committee without undue delay. Today, the Leader of the House expanded on his excuses for that not happening, including reasons that he did not give two weeks ago. Every single one of us knows that this is nothing more than political chicanery. Yesterday, the Leader of the House reached the heights of deputising for the Prime Minister. Today, he is reaching the depths and not fulfilling the proper responsibilities of a Leader of the House. How can we persuade him to mend his ways?

The Leader of the House is entitled to respond if he wishes. If he does not wish to do so, it is fair to say that it is very much the norm that the Government should come forward with the appropriate resolution. It is not strictly a matter for the Chair if that does not happen, but knowing the right hon. Gentleman as I do and how familiar he is with that long-standing requirement, and knowing his tendency, quite prudently, only to ask a question when he already knows the answer, any member of the Government is taking some risk in persisting in failing to do what is expected. I sense that the right hon. Gentleman will, to put it bluntly, keep banging on about the matter until he gets what he wants.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have two brief points. First, I think the Leader of the House perhaps inadvertently misled the House in response to questions from my hon. Friends about jobcentre closures in Glasgow. He stated that the plans would be subject to full consultation, but they will not. The Government plan to consult on only two of eight closures across the city, and I cannot stress enough to the House how devastating that news is.

Secondly, Mr Speaker, will you advise me and hon. Friends who represent Glasgow constituencies what recourse is open to us to put right the gross discourtesy that was shown to us yesterday by the Department for Work and Pensions? We had to read about the closures in the press, and it took Ministers more than seven hours to get in touch with us. We consider that to be grossly disrespectful, so can you advise on whether any recourse is open to us in that respect?

To some extent, the hon. Gentleman has obtained his own salvation in airing his discontent on the Floor of the House. The relevant Minister is not in a position immediately to reply so that the hon. Gentleman would be able to establish some facts on the ground that are to his advantage. I was not familiar with the point of detail that the hon. Gentleman highlighted about two matters being the subject of consultation rather than the full eight. I hope that he will forgive me if I say that that really is not a matter for me. I cannot be expected to get into the interstices of the system, but it is normal in matters of this kind that affect constituencies for the Members affected to be given the courtesy of advance notification rather than having to read about matters in the newspapers. It may well be that some rather greater discipline within ministerial offices is required to avoid a repetition of that rather unfortunate occurrence.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. On yesterday’s decision about jobcentre closures in Glasgow, my understanding is that ministerial criteria determine whether or not a closure goes to public consultation, and there is some dubiety about at least two of these. It is my view, and that of my hon. Friend, that four of the eight should be going to public consultation. Do we have any recourse to raise that with Ministers? Alternatively, have you had any indication of whether a Department for Work and Pensions Minister is coming to the House today to discuss this matter?

I must confess that I suffer from some ignorance on that matter. It is an enormously important point, but not one on which I have any knowledge. The hon. Gentleman asks whether there is any recourse for him, and the answer is yes: he should table a written question, narrowly focused on that matter, to try to extract a substantive answer. He is quite a terrier and I am sure that this is not beyond him.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is about answers I have received from the Secretary of State for Scotland, and I had hoped to raise the matter yesterday. I asked an oral question in the Chamber advising him that I had written to the Chancellor suggesting that LIBOR money be used for opencast coal restoration, asking him whether he had had similar discussions with the Chancellor and challenging him on whether he had done anything about a previous pledge in the 2015 Green Book. The answer I got was:

“The hon. Gentleman knows that I—and, indeed, the UK Government—have done a great deal to work with East Ayrshire Council to ensure that opencast restoration could proceed in that area”.—[Official Report, 23 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 879-880.]

He put great emphasis in that exchange on “a great deal”.

Not because I am cynical but because I wanted to give credit where credit is due, I submitted three written questions asking how much money the UK Government have spent on opencast restoration, what actions they had taken and how many meetings the Secretary of State had had with the Chancellor. I got a single grouped answer which did not give any figures or cost information at all. The Secretary of State said that he had had a number of formal and informal meetings with Government colleagues. He went on to say:

“BEIS officials have participated in the Scottish Government’s Coal Restoration Working Group which agreed a way forward”.

The reply included a link to a record of a meeting, but funnily enough no UK Government official had been at that meeting. He also said that the Coal Authority provides advice.

I therefore had to submit a follow-up written question. I apologise for the detail here, but I will try to be brief. That question tried to pin down some answers about what funding had been provided and what future funding would be provided—

Order. We are indescribably grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these important matters. No one could accuse him of excluding from his attempted point of order any point that he thinks might be, in any way, at any time or anywhere, judged to be material. There is a comprehensiveness about his approach that is as impressive as it is infuriating. I do not think I have ever said this before: there is a sense in which I share his pain, but there are very few new precedents in this place. He says with open-eyed astonishment that he put down several questions which were treated as a sort of job lot by the Minister, but I very much doubt his experience is any worse than mine. Many, many years ago, long before I had the privilege of occupying the Chair, I tabled 60 questions to the then Minister for Europe, who had the extreme temerity to provide me with a dismissive one-word reply to all 60. I simply returned to the drawing board and came up with a further series of questions, on the basis that I could thereby occupy the Minister’s attention in such a way that he would be doing less damage responding to me than he might be doing in other ways.

What I say to the hon. Gentleman is that the content of ministerial answers is the responsibility of the Minister concerned. If a Minister felt, with hindsight, that an answer had been inaccurate, it would be open to him or her to correct the record. I realise that the hon. Gentleman finds the answers he has received unsatisfactory, but I am afraid that that is not a point of order for the Chair. He asks how he can get decent answers out of Ministers. That is a question that has taxed many of us, myself included, over the years, but the best approach is for the hon. Gentleman to use persistence and ingenuity, both of which he has demonstrated he possesses in abundance. Moreover, I suggest to him that he should seek the advice of the Table Office. One thing I learned early in my time in this place is that the staff of the Table Office are there to help. If he is told that his approach is not in order or is not the best approach, he should then proceed to ask the follow-up question, “How can I best go about the matter of inquiry?” The Table Office staff are both public spirited and expert, and they will be able to help him. His visits there will profit him.