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Points of Order

Volume 623: debated on Thursday 16 March 2017

Yes, I will take a point of order now. There are a couple of Select Committee statements coming, but we can await those with eager anticipation and bated breath. I am sure colleagues do so, but let us first hear the point of order from Mr Christopher Chope.

In a section headed “Making Commitments on the Floor of the House”, paragraph 23.42 of the Cabinet Office guide to making legislation, published in July 2015, states:

“Parliament will hold Ministers to any commitments they make on the floor of the House which are recorded in Hansard. Ministers must, therefore, take care during debates not to make any commitments for which they do not have collective agreement”.

My point of order, Mr Speaker, is how can Parliament hold Ministers to those commitments that have been made on the Floor of the House?

Briefly, the background is this. In recent days, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), have told me, the leader of Christchurch borough council and the mayor of Christchurch that they do not regard themselves as bound by the commitment made by the Government to the House on 7 December 2015. On that day, I asked the then Secretary of State:

“Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that amendment 56 will not be used by the Government to force change on any local authority?”

The Secretary of State replied:

“I will indeed.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 822.]

That is pretty clear, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) received a similar commitment. How can we hold the Government to account for the commitments that have been made?

As his point of order is on the same matter, and it is a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, I think that I will hear from the hon. Gentleman.

I am a bit insulted to find that I am Tweedledee in your estimation, Mr Speaker.

This is a very serious topic. I have here a copy of the 7 December edition of Hansard. I, too, intervened on the then Secretary of State in column 822. Having raised issues concerning Lincolnshire and the desire of the county council and the Government to have a mayor and a unitary authority, I received a specific commitment from the Secretary of State that he would not use amendment 56 to force a unitary authority on Lincolnshire. I received that commitment in terms. All that the Secretary of State said to me was that he would force discussions—that is, he would not prevent discussions from taking place—but the commitment was absolutely clear. I hope that you, Mr Speaker, will protect the right of the House of Commons to hold Ministers to account.

I am very grateful to the hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for raising this important matter.

The Chair has no responsibility for the contents of a document or manual issued by the Cabinet Office. That is its interpretation of the responsibility and advised course of action of Ministers. However, the short answer to the hon. Member for Christchurch, who asked me how Ministers are to be held to commitments that they have made: is by interrogation, by scrutiny, and, potentially, if Members judge it fit and appropriate, by criticism, and hence by potential parliamentary or public obloquy in the event of the breach of a commitment made. That is the answer. There is no binding obligation on any Member to do exactly what he or she has said that he or she will do in addressing the House, just as there is no obligation on any Back Bencher.

That said, making a commitment from the Dispatch Box in response to a question or an intervention is a very serious and solemn matter. It is not something that should be treated lightly or cast aside. Nor is it in any sense acceptable for it to be argued—if it were argued—that there has since been a change in the ministerial team; government is, of course, seamless, and responsibility is collective. That is the situation.

I cannot possibly become involved in exchanges or debate about the future make-up of local government in Dorset. I have enough to contend with in trying to make arguments in relation to the structure of local government in my own county of Buckinghamshire in conversations with Ministers. What I will say, however, and it will doubtless be heard by Ministers, is that I know the hon. Member for Christchurch extremely well. I have known him since 1986, and I have known the hon. Member for Gainsborough since 1997. They are both extremely diligent and serious-minded Members of Parliament. If a Minister thinks that a commitment made can subsequently and lightly be abrogated without parliamentary consequence from Members of their calibre, I think that that Minister is, dare I say it, really rather misguided, as such Minister will probably soon discover. The mechanisms available include debates, and that includes Adjournment debates. So these matters will not go away. It is also open to Members to question Ministers, including very, very senior Ministers, about obligations that have been entered into on behalf of the Government.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will know that in the past the Leader of the House would announce not only next week’s business, but the business for the week after on a provisional basis. I have noticed that for the last few weeks the Leader of the House has been announcing only next week plus one day, normally the Monday. That is proving difficult for Select Committees and other Committees, which have to arrange their business; for ordinary Members, who would like to be able to organise their diaries better, and for those who have commitments in their constituency.

Delightfully, the Leader of the House has just come back into the Chamber, but the Deputy Leader of the House has been present, and he is a very admirable man whom we do not hear enough from in the House. Mr Speaker, will you speak to the Leader of the House, to try and encourage him to give us two weeks of parliamentary business, rather than just one at a time?

I say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, the practice of announcing only the first day of the provisional business for the second week is not unknown; there are many precedents for it, although I certainly accept that the norm is that the House receives two weeks of business, so the hon. Gentleman is broadly correct in what he says.

The second observation I would make is that the Leader of the House has toppled into the Chamber at a most fortuitous time. Whether he has done so because he was excited by the hon. Gentleman’s point of order or because he wants to listen to the Select Committee statements, I do not know. The Leader of the House is perfectly welcome to spring to his feet and come to the Dispatch Box and respond to the hon. Gentleman, as is the Deputy Leader of the House, but notwithstanding the extraordinary temptation to do so, both of them may feel inclined on this occasion to resist—and it appears that they do. But the hon. Gentleman has made his point, and, for what it is worth, I think that if it is possible, it should be done, but it is not always practicable. I hope my response has been helpful.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. On 23 October last year, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport issued a press release indicating that from spring 2017 film directors would face fines of up to £500,000 from the Information Commissioner’s office if found to be in breach of the privacy and electronic communications regulations. Incidentally, this information is still published on the gov.uk website and is exactly what I have called for in my ten-minute rule Bill.

In response to a letter I wrote to the Secretary of State on 17 January 2017 asking for confirmation of the timing of this legislation, I was told on 8 February:

“The Government intends to publish its consultation on this measure shortly.”

I was so surprised by the mention of a consultation—something that had hitherto not been mentioned either by the Government or in the press release, or, indeed, on their website—that I submitted a written question on 21 February trying to establish if the spring 2017 deadline could still be met. In the response to that, received on 2 March, I was told that a consultation would be issued

“during this session of Parliament”.

On 2 March I sought further clarification via another written question and was told on 10 March that the intention was to issue a consultation “in due course.”

This is a matter of great import to a huge number of people, and we have arguably already entered spring and the consultation has not begun, and was not even initially mentioned by the Government. Therefore, I am at a loss to understand how the Government can possibly meet their own deadline on this issue. Can you offer me guidance, Mr Speaker, as to how I can establish what the Government Department is doing to ensure it meets its own timetable and how I can best elicit that information, given that letters to the Secretary of State and written questions appear not to be effective in achieving that?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, of which she gave me advance notice.

It is very difficult for the Chair to assist the hon. Lady. First, I would say that Governments of both hues in this country have not always been overly preoccupied with meeting their own deadlines. It has not always been regarded as an overriding priority by them, although it is often the case that people who have depended upon their words would prefer a greater fidelity to the commitment that has been made.

Secondly, as the hon. Lady will know, there is often something of a debate about what falls within the seasons of the year. It is not uncommon for Ministers in a Government to refer to an intention to do something “in the spring”, for instance, and for them sometimes to have a slightly different interpretation of the period covered by a season of the year from that which hon. Members or members of the public might have.

Thirdly, I have been advised by the Clerk, who has helpfully volunteered some text to me, that it is not unprecedented for Government Departments to be unspecific about when they are going to do something. However, I am sure that the hon. Lady will use her ingenuity to pursue the matter further. My advice to her is almost, if you will, geographical advice. It is that she should wend her way to the Table Office to see what sort of questions she can table that might provide satisfaction. I do not wish to be unkind to her, as she is an extremely diligent Member, but my broad advice to her—not merely as Speaker but as someone who was for 12 years a parliamentarian mainly sitting on the Back Benches—is that she should make as much of a nuisance of herself as she possibly can. That might avail her. She needs to persist to such a degree that Ministers feel that it is better to provide satisfaction to her.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have been informed by sources in the media that the Prime Minister is going to make a significant statement on the Scottish constitution this afternoon. Have you had any notification of a prime ministerial statement? Most of us were here at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, when she was asked many questions about the Scottish constitution and gave incredibly inadequate answers. It would be surprising, would it not, if there had subsequently been a development in her thinking and that she would want to put out a statement without the effective parliamentary scrutiny that such an important announcement—as it is being advertised—would demand. The Leader of the House is in his place. I know that he cannot be held responsible for every sin of this Government—that would be too much for any human being—but perhaps he can tell us if it is indeed the case that the Prime Minister intends to make such a statement and, if so, why she is not coming to the Dispatch Box for effective questioning by Members of Parliament.

It has to be said that, not for the first time, I have learned of something from the right hon. Gentleman. I was not aware—because nobody had told me—of any possible public statement of the kind that he envisages. Secondly, it is not always completely to be assumed that what is bruited in the media is correct. There may be no plan for any such statement today. It could even conceivably be a quiet news day, leading some people in the media to speculate that there will be such a statement, or that they would like such a statement to be made, or that there ought to be one. I am not aware that there is intended to be any such statement. The Prime Minister has, over many years, including during her tenure as Home Secretary, been fastidious in coming to the House to make statements on important policy developments. I am not aware of any plan for her to do so today, but if she were minded to make a public statement of the kind that the right hon. Gentleman envisages, and wanted to come to the House to do so, it would be open to her to do that. Whatever other plans I might have for the day, I would happily reschedule them in order to be in my place to hear the Prime Minister. Perhaps we can leave that there for now.