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Points of Order

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2018

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, the Minister for Immigration told the House that the immigration White Paper would be published “in the coming months”. This morning, in the media, the Home Secretary could only say that it was likely to be published before Brexit day in March 2019. Given the apparent discrepancy, Mr Speaker, do you agree that it would be helpful to have some clarity from the Home Secretary? Have you had any indication from her that, in the absence of an immigration White Paper, she will at least make a statement to the House setting out all the outstanding issues relating to the transition arrangements, the registration policy and the Government’s immigration objectives in the negotiations?

I have not, but it would. Let me recap, in case some colleagues have forgotten the earlier part of the right hon. Lady’s point of order. I have not received an indication that any such statement is planned, but it would be helpful to have a guide as to the likely sequence of events. There is no obligation for the Home Secretary to provide any such information now, or indeed from the Dispatch Box at any time, but, knowing this place as I have come to know it, it is perfectly obvious that if such clarification is not provided, it will not be beyond the wit and ingenuity of colleagues to raise this matter continually on the Floor of the House in circumstances that require the presence of a Minister. The sooner it is clarified, the better.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for her point of order, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to respond. The right hon. Lady has written me a substantial letter, which I received yesterday, and I look forward to replying to it with the clarification that she seeks.

Order. I will call the shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government first. I have the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) in mind; he need not worry.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is further to my point of order on 24 January, following which I wrote to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ask whether the serious allegations set out in The MJ— otherwise known as The Municipal Journal—were true. Those allegations were that the Secretary of State had knowingly misled the House on figures published in the provisional local government settlement and had knowingly misled right hon. and hon. Members in the answers that he had given to their respective questions.

Yesterday I received a letter from the Secretary of State confirming that he and the Department knew

“the overall scale of the error”

but nevertheless

“published the provisional settlement on 19th December on the basis of”

those “statistics”. At no stage in the proceedings did the Secretary of State advise the House that those data were incorrect, and many local authorities based their 2018 budget settings on the figures that he gave in his statement of 19 December, believing them to be correct. That is now creating a damaging lack of trust in the Ministry across local government.

More seriously, however, the Secretary of State has not publicly apologised to the House, but both “Erskine May” and the ministerial code go further, stating that Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament—that is now the case—must offer their resignation to the Prime Minister. Has the Secretary of State indicated to you, Sir, that he plans to make a personal statement to the House on his conduct in relation to this matter?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman, to whom I am grateful for giving me an indication of his intention to raise his point of order, is no. I have received no such indication from the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman is a notable eager beaver in the House. He is most assiduous in the discharge of his duties, and he obviously wanted to be here today to air his serious concern about this matter, invoking third-party support as he developed his argument. Let me say to him that I think that his opportunity for direct exchange will come ere long. Local government finance is to be debated in the Chamber tomorrow. It is a reasonable expectation of the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will be in his place on the Treasury Bench, ready to speak from the Dispatch Box, and I have a hunch that the hon. Gentleman will be in his place, and very likely leaping up from it to interject on the Secretary of State in pursuit of satisfaction. The House will be agog to witness those exchanges.

I am saving up the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis); as I often say, it would be a pity to squander him at too early a stage of our proceedings.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, in his statement to the House, the Secretary of State for Transport was asked by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne):

“How good is Lord Adonis’s memory”

in connection to the collapse of East Coast. The Secretary of State replied:

“I am not a doctor, but I know that there is no record whatever of any ban on National Express continuing to bid for franchises after 2009”.—[Official Report, 5 February 2018; Vol. 635, c. 1247.]

That was when it defaulted on east coast rail.

That is entirely incorrect. On 1 July 2009, Lord Adonis told Parliament that National Express was banned, as recorded in Hansard. He said:

“It would clearly be reasonable not to invite a company to bid for future franchises in circumstances where it had recently failed to deliver on a previous franchise. A company which had defaulted in the way that National Express now intends would not have pre-qualified for any previous franchises let by the department.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2009; Vol. 712, c. 226.]

Lord Adonis has made it clear that the ban was based on advice from the Department.

The ministerial code says:

“Ministers must give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, of whether the Secretary of State’s statement amounts to a breach of the ministerial code, and how an appropriate apology and correction might be secured from him?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I indulged fully as he developed his point of order. I say with respect to the latter part of his observations, in respect of an alleged breach of the ministerial code, that I am not its arbiter. It is not for the Chair to adjudicate upon whether a Minister has breached the ministerial code. Whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, that is in the hands of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister looks at such matters, or can ask others to look at them on her behalf, but it is not a matter for the Chair.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, and although it is not—simply as a matter of constitutional fact—a point of order for the Chair, he has none the less taken the opportunity to put his concerns on the record. It is up to the Government if they wish to respond to the matter he raises, because there is absolutely no doubt that Ministers will have heard what he had to say—it will have been heard on the Treasury Bench, and it either will have been heard, or will very soon be heard, by the particular Minister at whom his remarks were directed.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your advice pertaining to the powers and privileges of the House. You will recall the recent debate I led on the treatment of small and medium-sized businesses by the state owned bank the Royal Bank of Scotland, after which this House voted unanimously for a full inquiry. Since that debate, I have received a full and unredacted copy of the Financial Conduct Authority investigation into RBS, which the FCA has so far refused to release, including to the Treasury Committee. Having read the document, I believe it shows that RBS executives misled the Select Committee in their evidence and have a stated policy of misleading Members of this House. Far from being isolated incidents of poor governance, as they claimed to the Committee, the report explicitly states that their behaviour was “systemic and widespread”. In one shocking passage of the report, out of hundreds, the bank boasted that one family business was set to “lose their shirts” so that RBS could get a “chunky equity deal.” Furthermore, it is clear that the summary of the report the FCA has published is what I would politely describe as a sanitised version.

The chair of the FCA, Andrew Bailey, is giving evidence to the Select Committee tomorrow. First, in light of that, Mr Speaker, may I ask your permission to hand over the full unredacted report to both you and the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), the Chair of the Treasury Committee, whom I note is unable to be in the Chamber at the moment?

Secondly, Mr Speaker, may I ask you to confirm that parliamentary privilege will apply to any Member or the Select Committee should they choose to refer to the report in the House? Finally, might I ask your guidance on whether deliberately misleading a Select Committee of this House would constitute contempt of Parliament, and what recourse this House has when that occurs?

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and his courtesy in giving me advance notice of it. It is not for me either to give or to deny the hon. Gentleman permission to hand over the report to the Chair of the Select Committee; the hon. Gentleman must, and I am sure will, take responsibility for his own actions. For my part, I must say to the House, as well as to the hon. Gentleman, that I do not wish to receive a copy. That is for two very good reasons. First, I have a very full reading list, in so far as the hon. Gentleman has the remotest interest in my personal habits. Secondly, and more importantly, I do not wish to receive a copy of the report because however important its contents and however they may be a source of perturbation to many people, they are not a matter for the Chair. Should the Treasury Committee wish to procure this document, I am sure that it could take steps to do so. The hon. Gentleman would also be well advised to take legal advice if he plans wider disclosure of the document he has received.

I can confirm that the hon. Gentleman’s comments in this House are covered by privilege. That is, it has to be said, perhaps just as well, since he has already uttered them. Deliberately misleading a Select Committee of the House would constitute a contempt. The proper course of action for a Member wishing to complain of a breach of privilege is to write to me. There have been a number of examples of this, so I can authoritatively tell the hon. Gentleman that that is the proper course open to him. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and that he will go about his business at least moderately satisfied.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I have also seen the full report, which refers to an “intentional and co-ordinated strategy by management” and makes clear the responsibility of the RBS board for the mistreatment of small businesses. I have raised this matter through a series of parliamentary questions with Ministers, and I raised it in the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), but so far the Government have declined to give an opinion on the summary of the report. The full report goes significantly further, and as my hon. Friend said, there is a suggestion that Parliament might well have been misled about what the full report says. RBS is owned by the Government, and the Government should surely be expressing a view about what is in the report, so can you advise me, Mr Speaker, how to go about getting the Government to express an opinion on what is in the summary and what is in the full report and to explain the discrepancies between the two?

The hon. Gentleman invests me with powers that I do not possess: it is not for me to cajole or exhort, or still less to require a ministerial response on this matter, because I simply do not have the locus to do so. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that if he desires a ministerial response, there are a number of routes open to him. He can continue his attempt at questioning—he can beetle along to the Table Office if he wishes to table further questions—and there are other mechanisms in the Chamber that he can try if the matter is potentially urgent. I do not know whether it is and I make no guarantee, but he knows what route is open to him if he thinks it could be. More particularly, on the strength of what I have heard, off the top of my head, I say to the hon. Gentleman that if the Select Committee has an interest in this matter, it is perfectly open to it to request a response from a Minister either through correspondence, or by inviting the relevant Minister to appear before the Committee. So the resources of civilisation—and even, indeed, of the House of Commons—have not yet been exhausted on this matter, and I think that should bring a smile to the face of the hon. Gentleman.