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Points of Order

Volume 627: debated on Monday 10 July 2017

I think I will take the points of order now, because there is a slew of them, but the two hon. Gentlemen can wait. Point of order, Tracy Brabin.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the most recent session of questions to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I raised the case of local employers misleading workers about their right to holiday pay. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), assured me that the Government

“have increased the powers open to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to enforce those rights.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 458.]

However, I subsequently received a written answer from the same Minister stating:

“HM Revenue and Customs has no powers to sanction companies for withholding holiday pay.”

The Minister has given me two answers stating the complete opposite of each other, in the space of a few days. Clearly, one or other of those answers must be wrong, and, although I am relatively new to this place, I was given to understand that Ministers were under a particular obligation not to mislead the House, even if inadvertently. More important, this leaves us unable to say for certain what the Government are actually going to do about the problem that I raised. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, on whether there is any way of bringing the Minister back to the House to tell us which of her answers is final?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, both for her point of order and for her characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of it. It was also exceptionally helpful of her to attach to her proposed point of order the text of those two answers. I must say to the hon. Lady and to the House that textual exegesis is of the essence in these matters.

I have pored over the two answers, and have sought to reflect on whether they might in some way be not incompatible with each other, but such a conclusion is beyond my limited intellectual capacities. It certainly appears that the two answers are irreconcilable: one must be correct, and therefore, by definition, the other must not be. Apart from anything else, it is quite difficult to see how one can increase powers open to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs if in fact they have no such powers at all. So the matter does, I think, require some clarification.

The hon. Lady has certainly made her concern clear. The content of answers is not a matter for the Chair, but her concern has been conveyed to the Minister, in the sense that representatives of the Treasury Bench will have heard it, and her point will be recorded in the Official Report. If the Minister considers that she has unintentionally misled the House, I am sure that she will take steps to put the record straight. I advise the hon. Lady to watch this space, and see whether such an attempt at corrective action is made. If it is, she will be happy. If it is not, my advice to her would be to return to the matter through further questioning, or possibly, if necessary, in extremis, by recourse to the Chair.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of arms export controls, which has been evidenced by the recent exchanges and by the judgment today, do you believe that there is anything to prevent the Committees on Arms Export Controls, or indeed any other Committees, from examining these important matters? Would they be able to review and look at classified information that was relevant to these matters—provided that the necessary security clearances were obtained—in much the same way as the Intelligence and Security Committee?

Off the top of my head, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the only thing I can imagine preventing that would be a governmental refusal to divulge the information, on the grounds that it was classified and that the relevant Department or agency did not think that such sight by the Committee was necessary or desirable. Otherwise, there is nothing to prevent it, and if such a Committee were to seek it, it might find that its search was successful—and I am sure that, if it had anything to do with the prodigious efforts of the hon. Gentleman, it would have a very good chance of being successful. I hope that that will do for now, because it is the best answer that I can offer.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the statement just now, there was strong cross-party support for the re-establishment of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. In the previous Parliament, that Committee ceased to meet because one of its component Select Committees, the Foreign Affairs Committee, voted to unilaterally leave it. May I ask you to use your good offices to ensure that what the Secretary of State, the shadow Secretary of State and the Scottish National party spokesperson said during the statement is fulfilled and we re-establish the Committees on Arms Export Controls as soon as possible?

I certainly think it would be very desirable for Parliament and for the scrutiny of the Executive branch by Parliament for that Committee to be re-established sooner rather than later. The word of caution or caveat that I insert, which the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, is that, unless I am much mistaken, that Committee can be established only when what might be called the feeder or constituent Committees have themselves been established. That, of course, requires not merely the election of the Chairs of those Committees, which is due to take place on Wednesday of this week, but the election by the respective parties, by such methods as they have adopted, of their member contingents on those Committees.

I have not been given much encouragement to think that those Committees will be fully constituted by the time of the summer recess, although I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it would be perfectly possible fully to constitute all of the Select Committees by the time of the summer recess if there were a proper will to do so. If it were the case that none of the constituent political parties was interested in getting its act together, that would reflect very badly on them, to be frank, because the issue is not the interest of the party, but the interest of Parliament. If it transpired that some parties were ready to elect their members to those Committees and other parties were not, that would look very bad for the parties that were not ready. They have a responsibility in this matter.

I do not wish to say this unkindly, but, whoever is in government, it is absolutely natural that the zeal and enthusiasm to establish the Select Committees which scrutinise the Executive branch are never as obvious within the Executive branch as they are within Parliament. However, as Speaker, I am concerned about Parliament—Parliament exercising its rights, and Parliament doing its duty—and I would rather hope that, to put it bluntly, instead of faffing around, we could get on with this matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. In defence of the former Foreign Affairs Committee, it must be said that I think that the reason for its withdrawal from the Committees on Arms Export Controls was the unauthorised leaking of a draft report; so that was a more complex situation than was first suggested.

However, reverting to the question of getting the Committees up and running, given that I understand that the 1922 Committee, for example, has not held its elections and it would normally handle the election of ordinary members to the Select Committees, is there any way that the resources of the House might be involved in assisting this process to get under way more quickly in the absence of the election of members of the executive of the 1922 Committee to administer this?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I take note of his first point, with which I will not quibble; I do not want to enter into the dispute about what caused the ceasing to operate of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, but I simply note what he said.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s second point, I note that he said that, so far as his party is concerned, the officers of the 1922 Committee normally handle the election of members. To put it bluntly, if memory serves me correctly, what the officers of the 1922 Committee usually do in respect of their party—perhaps something similar operates in other parties—is simply oversee the count. Whether the officers of the 1922 Committee have or have not been elected is not a matter for the Chair—that is a party matter—but, frankly, overseeing the count does not require Einsteinian qualities; it is a pretty prosaic task.

I do not think it would be right to say that the resources of the House could be made available in what is essentially the oversight of a matter undertaken by parties. However, it would seem to be perfectly feasible, if my colleagues, the Deputy Speakers, were so willing, that they and I could volunteer our services to oversee the count, if the House thought that that would be helpful. My basic point stands: do colleagues want these Committees to be set up sooner rather than later? If they do not, that is a pity, but if they do, those of us who are of good will and can be relied upon to conduct the count perfectly fairly, would, I suspect, be very happy to offer our services. I could hardly be more explicit. We will leave it there for now. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg).

I call Diana Johnson to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Member has up to three minutes in which to make such an application.