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Points of Order

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2018

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is clear from media coverage that a former senior member of staff in this place has felt unable to speak out about serious alleged wrongdoing because of an agreement signed with the House of Commons when they left. The Women and Equalities Committee is currently investigating the way agreements can affect individuals’ ability to speak out, or their perceived ability to speak out.

Mr Speaker, I understand that, as Chair of the House of Commons Commission, you are the ultimate employer of House of Commons staff. What steps will you be taking to make it clear to staff, both current and former, that they can speak out about wrongdoing experienced while working in this place? Can I ask whether you will be making a personal statement, given your involvement in these further allegations that potentially have the effect of undermining the reputation of this House?

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for her courtesy in giving notice of this point of order—I am conscious of her and her Committee’s interest in the subject of non-disclosure agreements—and for giving me the opportunity to reassure her and current and former staff of the House.

Let me be clear: current and former staff are not constrained by any agreements from talking freely and confidentially to the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment, which is being conducted by Dame Laura Cox, QC, and I hope that they will do so.

I also understand that the Clerk of the House has this morning provided the right hon. Lady with a note on the standard terms of compromise agreements, now called settlement agreements, between the House and staff who leave under individual arrangements—matters in which, I should emphasise, I am not myself involved and never have been. He, that is to say the Clerk of the House, has explained that these are not non-disclosure agreements, in the sense generally used, and do not in any way seek to prevent disclosure of wrongdoing on public interest grounds—i.e. whistleblowing. I am asking the Clerk to make this note more widely available.

As for myself, I say to the right hon. Lady and to the House that I have made a public statement, to which I have nothing to add.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the risk of pushing my luck, are you prepared, at least in the context of the personal statement you have already made, to confirm that the great majority of members of staff in your office have served you for a substantial period of years and that the great majority of those who have left your service during your speakership have left on perfectly amicable terms?

I am very happy to confirm both. I have a superb team of dedicated, effective and long-serving staff, five of whom have served me for a collective total of over 40 years. I am also happy to confirm that the great majority of people who have left my service have done so on perfectly amicable terms.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a strange point of order. Can you confirm that, unless a complaint has actually been made and a process has actually begun, it would be quite invidious for you to have to comment on matters or allegations that are reported in the press and elsewhere? It would not be fair on the person being alleged against, and it certainly would not be fair to any complainants, which is why I think it is right that we are talking about future processes. Until such complaints come forward, it is very difficult for all of us as hon. Members, and especially for you, to engage with this, beyond the limited statement you have already made.

In the two cases to which public reference has been made, there has been nonesuch. It is absolutely right, of course, that work should be taken forward under the auspices of the Leader of the House with a view to presenting policies for the approval of the House, including, very importantly, an independent grievance procedure. I am on record on that matter on a number of occasions, and I gave evidence to the cross-party inquiry. My support for thoroughgoing change is very well known and has been oft-repeated. I am happy to take the opportunity to repeat that support today.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on how to secure the correction of a statement made by the Government. In September 2017, the Cabinet Office wrote that

“alleged electoral fraud through voter impersonation more than doubled between 2014 and 2016”.

That statement was later used to justify the Government’s voter identity trials, which are taking place at the local elections in some parts of the country tomorrow.

The UK Statistics Authority stated yesterday that the Government have misled the public to believe that voter fraud by impersonation has risen. Although the number of alleged cases of impersonation rose from 21 to 44 between 2014 and 2016, the total number of votes cast in those years rose from 29 million to 64 million, and the number of cases subsequently dropped off to 27 in 2017.

Mr Speaker, can you advise me on what I can do to ensure the Government correct their misleading statement?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, whom I thank for giving me notice that she wished to raise the matter. She has raised it, and she has put her concern very forcefully on the record. That concern will have been heard on the Treasury Bench, and a Minister is welcome to respond if they wish to do so.

I will be brief. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for her courtesy in also letting me know of her letter in advance of this point of order. I am also grateful for the letter itself, which highlights the importance of the pilots that are taking place tomorrow to safeguard the security of our electoral system. I am happy to commit to answering her letter in due course.

I am grateful to the Minister for that clear reply. It is, of course, the case that what Members say in this place—this applies equally to Ministers and to non-Ministers—is a matter of their individual responsibility, rather than something upon which I can adjudicate. If there is error, it is the responsibility of the Member to correct the record. I am extremely grateful to the Minister for her courtesy and speed in coming to the Dispatch Box.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I submitted three named day questions on 18 April for answer on 24 April, some of which covered the Opposition day motion that is to follow, including asking when Ministers were involved in the destruction of Windrush landing cards. What is your view and expectation, and this House’s view and expectation, of Ministers meeting the timetable for named day questions, given that I have not yet received an answer? When can I expect any Home Secretary to come forward with an answer to those written questions?

I am not psychic, but my response to the hon. Gentleman is to say that, under successive recent Governments, a greater premium has started to be placed upon the timeliness and substantive content of answers to colleagues’ parliamentary questions. Ordinarily, the Leader of the House would tend to see it as part of his or her responsibility—currently her responsibility—to chase errant Ministers who fail timeously to reply to questions, and there is, at best, a healthy competition between Government Departments as to which can do so to maximum satisfaction.

Certainly if there is a named day question, that question should be answered on time. I am frankly disappointed if the hon. Gentleman has not had that service. What I would say to him is, first, it is quite possible—I think he knows this—that, as a result of airing the matter in the Chamber today, a reply might be more speedily forthcoming than would otherwise have been the case.

Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman wished to follow the practice of the late Sir Gerald Kaufman, he might be minded to table a written question asking a Minister when they intended to reply to his earlier named day question. In Sir Gerald’s experience, publicly reminding a Minister that an answer had not been received tended to elicit the said answer.

I hope that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, more widely to colleagues, perhaps particularly to new Members across the House.

Bill Presented

Tenant Fees Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary James Brokenshire, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr David Lidington, Secretary Sajid Javid, Secretary David Gauke, Secretary Greg Clark and Mrs Heather Wheeler, presented a Bill to make provision prohibiting landlords and letting agents from requiring certain payments to be made or certain other steps to be taken; to make provision about the payment of holding deposits; to make provision about enforcement and about the lead enforcement authority; to amend the provisions of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 about information to be provided by letting agents and the provisions of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 about client money protection schemes; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 203) with explanatory notes (Bill 203-EN).