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Speaker’s Statement

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2018

As I promised the House, I have looked at the television footage of the Leader of the Opposition reacting to the Prime Minister, allegedly saying “stupid woman” to those seated next to him. Having heard the allegation against the Leader of the Opposition and having watched the footage, it is easy to see why the Leader of the Opposition’s words might be construed as “stupid woman”. That was also the opinion of lipspeakers—and I emphasise, lipspeakers rather than lipreaders—whose advice was sought and obtained at short notice.

As may be known to Members of the House—it is important in terms of establishing the context—but may not be known to others watching or listening to our proceedings, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was seated at the time and not addressing the House, so whatever he said was not, and is not, audible on the House’s audio-visual record. As I have told the House, I neither saw the incident nor heard anything. It was, for the same reasons, neither heard nor seen by the Clerks or by my private secretary, nor was there any immediate reaction in the House.

I believe that the allegation made by a number of hon. and right hon. Members was based upon the visual evidence from Parliament TV. I also have to rely purely on visual evidence. I am not a lipreader, or indeed, a lipspeaker. Nobody can be 100% certain. That includes professional lipreaders, but I will naturally take, and would be expected to take, the word of any right hon. or hon. Member. It is reasonable to expect the House to do the same. I therefore invite the right hon. Gentleman, who has at my request returned to the House for this purpose, to make his explanation to the House, which again, I expect to be heard without interruption.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and thank you for your invitation to come to make a short point to the House, which I am very happy to do, and I have come immediately to do that. During Prime Minister’s Question Time today, I referred to those who I believe were seeking to turn a debate about the national crisis facing our country into a pantomime as “stupid people”. I did not use the words “stupid woman” about the Prime Minister or anyone else and am completely opposed to the use of sexist or misogynist language in absolutely any form at all. I am happy to place that on the record at your request this afternoon. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think that the country and this House will have drawn their own conclusions—[Interruption.] I deeply regret that the right hon. Gentleman has not seen fit to apologise to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

I thank the right hon. Lady for what she has said, which requires no comment from the Chair.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. With your guidance, how may I make this orderly? Read my lips: I do not believe him. What can we do to further verify this evidence? What can we do to further ask experts to review this evidence and get the apology from the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister deserves?

It is not open to a Member to impugn the integrity of another Member. That is—[Interruption.] Order, please. That is a violation of the established—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will permit me. She has raised a point of order, perfectly reasonably, and I am responding to her. It is not in order to impute dishonour to another Member. That is a very long established convention of this House, so it is not orderly to accuse another Member of dishonesty.

When the hon. Lady inquires what further may be done, the answer to her is that people can seek to solicit opinions on this matter, including of a professional character. I have offered, at short notice, as I thought was my duty, the fruits of the professional advice that I have received and I have shared that very openly with the House. It is not for the Chair to pronounce judgment—guilty or innocent—upon a Member. It is well established that a Member is to be taken at his or her word. If the matter is to be further discussed, debated or commented on, that is to be expected, but it is not a matter of order for the Chair now. That is as full and, I hope the hon. Lady will agree, as courteous a response as I could possibly be expected to provide.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have heard the words “stupid woman” being used in this Chamber about myself, and I am afraid to say I have heard it from yourself in the Speaker’s Chair. So please can we have an apology, draw a line under this and move on?

Thank you. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I understood that she had made this observation outside the House. What I want to say to the hon. Lady, whom I always treat with great respect in this Chamber, is the following. The hon. Lady has at no time previously—that is to say, prior to today—made that allegation against me. The hon. Lady has not come to me and said that, and to my knowledge—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will do me the courtesy of allowing me to respond to her point of order, as she has raised it. To my knowledge, I am not in receipt of a letter alleging that. If there is such an allegation, I refute it 100%.

I have received a letter from the hon. Lady, as she knows, within I think the last 24 hours, on an unrelated matter—specifically to do with proxy voting and baby leave—and I believe I am right in saying—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Lady will do me the courtesy of allowing me to respond. I believe I am right in saying that she wrote to me on that matter, at least in part, in her capacity as chair of the all-party group on women in Parliament. To that letter, she will of course receive a response.

That contention has not previously been made, but if it is now made, I say with absolute certainty, it is not correct. I have not said that to or about the hon. Lady. That is my response to the hon. Lady.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to say it is nice to be back. I just wonder what conclusion members of the public will draw from the Chamber being used in this way. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has made his point. I have heard from my constituency office today that residents in my constituency have had to have present parcels delivered to them because they cannot afford to buy their children presents and they have not got the money for food. The Chamber being used in this way is absolutely pathetic.

The hon. Lady has made her own point in her own way. It is on the record, and I thank her for taking part in these proceedings.

I will come to other Members—preferably to people who have not already raised points of order. I call Helen Whately.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think, actually, it is important what language is used in this Chamber. In this centenary year, a large number of us on both sides of the House have made huge efforts to encourage more women to stand for Parliament. Many of them have been successful: I believe women are coming forward. It is a great shame that we seem to be nearing the end of the year on such a sour note. May I urge you, Mr Speaker, to do more to make sure that the tone of this Chamber is better next year—not just to draw a line under this, but to make sure that next year is better on these points?

May I say to the hon. Lady, I think that is an entirely reasonable point of order. I am happy to do my bit, and everybody else should do their bit as well. I have the highest regard for the hon. Lady, whose commitment on these issues is well known to me. I hope she and others will take it in the right spirit if I say that throughout my nine and a half years in the Chair to date, I have devoted myself to the cause of trying to open up this place. I have sought to do everything I can to promote a progressive approach in the Chamber, in the calling of Members, in the functions that I host in Speaker’s House, and in the approach to facilities on the estate, which did not previously exist. That is all part of the record. It is manifest, it is observable and it is incontrovertible. Can we all do better? We can. Should we? We should. Will we? I hope that we will. So I am agreeing with the hon. Lady, and I am sure that that will please her.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think everybody in the House would know of the well respected and much admired deaf musician, Dame Evelyn Glennie, the world-famous percussionist. On live television this afternoon, she was shown by the presenter of that television programme the clip of the Leader of the Opposition and was asked what he had said, and she said, “He said, ‘Stupid woman.’” Is there any way I can put it on the record that, with that tone of apology from the right hon. Gentleman, it would have been better if he hadn’t bothered?

I do not honestly think, and I say this in all courtesy to the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for three decades, that he is really very interested in anything I have to say in response to him.

No, and I am not even complaining. I am not criticising the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful for his good humour. The hon. Gentleman wanted to make his own point and he has made it. I stand by what I previously said. He has made an important point, but it is not a contradiction of what I have said about the impossibility of certainty, nor is it inconsistent with the spontaneous interpretation which I myself offered. But I repeat: it was my interpretation—I am not a lipreader, I am not a lipspeaker, and it is not for me to cast judgment in this matter. Fair-minded people, who are interested in the merits of the issue—and I am sure that includes the hon. Gentleman—will know that what I say is true.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I also agree that we have a responsibility, as Members of this House, to uphold the very highest standards in language about each other, but also about each other’s integrity, and I do hope that we will be able to see a renewed commitment to that next year. Mr Speaker, I have been proud to sit on your Committee for enhancing equality and diversity in this House since very soon after I was elected, and to put on the record my thanks to you for your commitment to equality and diversity in this House in so many different matters.

My point of order is on a slightly different topic, however. According to press reports of a leaked Department for Work and Pensions document, “EU Exit Planning—Economic Downturn”, the Government, as part of their long-term contingency planning in the event of no deal, suggested they would create a strategy with other Departments for handling the negative impacts, such as homelessness, poverty and suicide. If that is true, these are extremely serious allegations or matters, and should be brought explicitly to this House, so that we may have access to Government analysis as to who they expect to fall into poverty, where homelessness could rise, and who they see as being at risk of suicide.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her initial remarks and for her subsequent point of order, to which my response is that there may be an opportunity for those concerns to be aired during the course of the afternoon.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I declare an interest, as someone who has a bad habit of making utterances under my breath in this Chamber? My point of order to you, Sir, is, had you received different advice from the lipspeakers, giving incontrovertible evidence as to what the Leader of the Opposition had said, what would have been the result? I am deeply concerned about the fact that if Members are to be upbraided for what they might say under their breath, we are in the realms of thought crime, and this is the madness that is sweeping universities. What was said was not on the record.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think I have already pointed to the impossibility of certainty in these matters. I repeat that I think most people would accept the reasonableness of my point. I note, with interest and respect, the point the right hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely experienced and distinguished parliamentarian, has made.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I fully accept what you have said. You were not in the eyeline of the Leader of the Opposition. Sitting where I was sitting, I was in the eyeline of the Leader of the Opposition. I have to accept what he has said at the Dispatch Box, because I do not think he would deliberately lie to the House, but other people will be able to draw their own conclusions.

May I, off the top of my head, thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said and for the understated terms in which he has said it? People can form their own judgment, but I appreciate the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is not seeking to prolong the argument further—at any rate, on the evidence of what he has just said. That, I think, is respected. He is a very senior Member of this House with long experience.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank you, Mr Speaker? You said you would go away, look at the video evidence and make your mind up. You did that and I am very grateful. But it is for my constituents to make their own mind up when they look at the footage. It is for them to decide if the Leader of the Opposition—or anyone else—is indeed a misogynist or antisemitic, not us.

With great respect, I heard the hon. Gentleman out and it was right to do so. He has made his own point, including a point that was not germane to these exchanges or this controversy, but it stands on the record. I said I would look into it. I have looked into it. I have come back to the House and I have said what I have said. The Leader of the Opposition has said what he has said. I do not honestly think I can be expected to add to that, but I thank the hon. Gentleman.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), may I say to you, with the greatest of respect, Mr Speaker, that there are occasions when people do leave the Chamber feeling that they have been offended by yourself? The fact that the hon. Member felt that way, yet did not feel that there was an appropriate process in place to make that complaint or concern felt, probably suggests we still have work to do in terms of raising issues and concerns in this place.

There is always work to do. Progress is not a matter of an isolated Act or a single initiative, but rather of a continuous process. I accept the significance of what the hon. Gentleman says in that regard, which seems to me to be unexceptionable.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As somebody who is still a relatively new Member of this House, I wonder if you could advise me on how I can explain to my constituents the level of party politics that is being played out—[Interruption.]

Order. That observation from the beginning of that point of order has met with much criticism, but I would very gently say to Members that they cannot have it both ways. They cannot on the one hand talk about wanting respect for their own right to speak and their own opinion, but not accord a comparable level of respect to someone who happens to express a view that differs from their own.

You hit on the end of my point, Mr Speaker. The level of hypocrisy in this place is quite astounding. On the Opposition Benches, we have to put up with the most disgraceful insults thrown at us, nobody more so than the Leader of the Opposition, who has to put up with it day in, day out.

The hon. Lady has made her point with force and in her own way, and I thank her for doing so; she is perfectly in order, and it is now on the record.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The guidance that you issued to Members earlier in the week drew attention to both the need for temperate language and the provisions around misogynistic language as part of the respect policy. If these rules do not apply to the Leader of the Opposition, what protection can Members’ staff and staff of the House expect where behaviour is not broadcast live on international television?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The simple answer is that the rules apply to every right hon. and hon. Member of the House. That is the factual answer. I can do nothing other than provide the factual answer, but I thank him for what he has said.

Yes, I will take the remaining points of order, but I do ask the House to consider the other business to which we need to proceed.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a different note, and one for which I hope a point of order should be used, I seek your advice—[Interruption.]

I seek your advice, Mr Speaker, on how I could get clarification of the answer that I received from the Foreign Secretary in the Yemen statement. I said that the senior civil servant in the arms control unit had advised against sales and that Ministers had overturned that. The Foreign Secretary declared that that was not true. The Foreign Secretary and the International Trade Secretary both refused to attend the hearing of the Committees on Arms Export Controls this year and have both said that they will not attend next year. How can we get them to come before the CAEC to answer these questions?

The hon. Gentleman can request attendance. Insofar as he inquires about other recourse open to him, my advice to the hon. Gentleman, who is a resourceful individual, is that he should make the short journey from the Chamber to the Table Office to table questions on this matter. It may be that he will feel inclined to table more than one question. He may table several. He may do so on a repeated basis. There is no prohibition on repetition in the House of Commons.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to your remarks earlier about impugning another Member’s honour and integrity, I distinctly heard during Prime Minister’s questions the Leader of the Opposition refer to my right hon. Friend’s actions as criminal. I have checked Hansard, and that is on the record. Is that in order?

It is perfectly in order to offer that expression of opinion, and I say that on advice from the Clerk. I did not witness that exchange.

I am not asking the Minister of State what she thinks he said; I am responding to the hon. Lady’s point of order. People are entitled to offer their own views within the rules of order, and to the best of my knowledge, nothing disorderly was said. I am happy to look at the record and consult further, but the advice I have received is that nothing disorderly was said.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I suspect that most of us are in the Chamber to hear a very important application for an emergency debate on the single most important issue that has faced our country in peacetime, and the public looking in will find this spectacle completely ludicrous. Can we please move on to the important business of the House?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I hope he will understand if I say that it is not possible in these matters to please everyone. I am trying to do the right thing by listening to, taking account of and offering a response to points of order, but I am conscious, as the House will be, that we have important business to which to proceed, and I intend that we shall do so. I politely suggest that if people have already made points of order, they should not treat them as an ongoing debate. If somebody raises a point of order, and I respond to it, it is reasonable to proceed to the next person and then to a conclusion of those points of order.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Trust in politics is very important. The vast majority of us have now seen the video. Members on both sides of the House have commented that they thought the words used were “stupid woman”. Members of the public have commented on Twitter and elsewhere that they thought the words were “stupid woman”. If I understand you correctly, Mr Speaker, your own interpretation of the video was that the words used were “stupid woman”, and that your lipspeaker and the lipreader of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) have said the same.

I take the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) at his word, because I am sure that—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) said—he would not lie in the Chamber. However, I am very concerned about the possibility that incongruity between the different statements will affect trust in politics, and I want to know how you could use your good offices, Mr Speaker, to ensure that it is not affected adversely by the incongruity between what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman and the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The answer is, by behaving well on a regular basis and by attending to our responsibilities in the House. That, encapsulated in a sentence, is my response to the hon. Lady’s point of order, and I think it is fair and reasonable.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) was right in saying that whatever the Leader of the Opposition said was not said on the record; the Leader of the Opposition, however, has now put it on the record by coming to the Dispatch Box and making his statement. Anyone—and I mean anyone, not just those in the Chamber—who has a complaint to make about that has recourse to the proper procedures involving the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Surely at this time of all times, Mr Speaker, it is important that we use the proper procedures, rather than proceeding to trial by points of order in the Chamber.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we do not have, or we should not have, trial by points of order. That is not consistent with any due process. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say to him that, as far as I understand it, conduct in the Chamber does not fall within the purview of the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, so I do not think that an allegation of misconduct on that front in this situation could be adjudicated by the Commissioner. I do not think that that is correct. What I will say is that there are opportunities for Members to continue this argument and debate if they so wish, but I genuinely ask the House, how does it avail our deliberations on public policy to proceed indefinitely with points of order on the same subject? Manifestly, it does not.

I will take two more points of order, and then I really do think that we should draw the matter to a close.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I should like to bring it to a close, in asking you whether, in order to enable Members in this place and members of the public to make up their own minds, you might publish the advice that you received. [Interruption.]

I am advised “No”, and I stick to the advice “No”. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I consulted. There was no written advice from the lipspeakers; this was done at very short notice, and I was given a view by them. It was not without qualification. I will not go into the detail of it—I gave the essence of it—but it was not without qualification or caveat. There is, however, no written advice from the lipspeakers. I hope that I have not misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that there is merit in persisting with this exchange, but that is my response to him.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I change the subject, and return to the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)?

There has been a series of Standing Order No. 24 debates recently. On Monday, more than 50 Opposition Members rose, and barely a dozen or so spoke. The previous week, the Opposition Benches were full at the point of application, and barely 20 Opposition Members spoke thereafter. In your reviewing of Hansard, Mr Speaker, have you noticed any inconsistency between the urgency shown in applying for Standing Order No. 24 debates and participation thereafter, and in your review of the content of the speeches in those debates, have you noticed any difference between that content and the content of our more routine discourse on Brexit?

Finally, Mr Speaker, as Opposition Members may shortly rise to support such a debate tomorrow, have you any expectation of how many of them will then attend to speak in it?

My answer to the last point is no, and my response to the hon. Gentleman—I thank him for his multi-faceted point of order—is as follows: there is absolutely no inconsistency whatsoever between Members rising to support the granting of a debate on the one hand and not choosing to participate in it on the other. There is no incongruity, there is no incompatibility, there is no inconsistency, there is no contradiction. I hope the hon. Gentleman, who is a most courteous and assiduous Member of this House, will accept that I am well familiar with the procedures of this House and I know of what I speak. The hon. Gentleman might think that that is odd or peculiar or that it offends his sensibilities in some way—and I am sorry if that is the case—but there is nothing wrong or procedurally improper about that at all. I am asked if I have an estimate of the number of Members: no, I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Gentleman for attributing to me powers that I do not possess, but I am not psychic.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning there was a knife attack in a surgery in my constituency and three people were attacked. Do you agree that instead of debating points of order about what was said earlier, we should draw a line under that and move on to the substantive issues that affect our constituencies, because otherwise people will rightly think that collective stupidity has taken hold of this House?

I thank the hon. Lady for what she has said and the sincerity with which I know she said it—I know all Members speak with sincerity. I hope we can shortly move on.

But not until we have heard from, I think, two other Members. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is a national institution and I want to save him until the end. I call Catherine West.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have saved this point of order until now as it is not to do with our earlier debate. On 28 November I tabled a named day question to the Home Secretary regarded LGBT asylum cases, and three weeks have now passed but, sadly, no answer to the question has materialised. I understand that the Government are in complete meltdown over Brexit, but can you, Mr Speaker, offer any guidance as to what parliamentary mechanisms are available to compel the Home Secretary to answer these important inquiries?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of this matter. Responsibility for answering parliamentary questions lies with the departmental Ministers concerned. I certainly agree that it is unsatisfactory if Ministers do not respond to questions in the expected timescale, and to be so late in responding to a named day question would appear to be particularly unacceptable. Successive Leaders of the House have also accepted a responsibility to take up such tardiness of reply, or indeed non-reply, with departmental Ministers.

I thank the Leader of the House for signalling from a sedentary position that she, too, does so and takes such matters seriously.

I would further suggest to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) that she write to the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), who is in our midst, as his Committee takes an active part in monitoring the timeliness of Government answers to parliamentary questions. Meanwhile, no doubt her concern has been noted on the Treasury Bench.

Lastly, I think, on the Opposition Benches I want to hear the point of order from the hon. Member for Huddersfield, who was first elected to the House 39 years, seven months and 16 days ago.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I was going to start my remarks by saying that I have been in the House longer than you, and that is true. I am also well known to be a bit of a chunterer; I often turn to the person next to me and say quite rude things—not dreadful, but rude—about something I disagree with. This is a serious point of order: I cannot believe that this House is going to get to the stage where these events happen when someone says something under their breath—“What a silly sod”, for instance, which I say very often, quite loudly, under my breath. We cannot have a system here where we start lipreading something someone has said to their next-door neighbour when passions are high in this House. It is supposed to be a place of high passions, but it is also a place where we treat people like adults, and today we have been like badly behaved children. We are in a crucial time in the history of our country—the most delicate and worrying time in my time in the House—and we have spent all these hours on this matter. I believe the Leader of the Opposition said what he said; let us draw a line under it and get on and act like grown-ups.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. Before we proceed, all I would like to do is to plant in the minds of hon. and right hon. Members one simple fact, which is that a number of very senior Members with long experience of this House, and coming from both sides of it, have in recent months made a very similar point. Today, the hon. Gentleman has made that point, and I do not think that the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) will take exception or cavil if I say that she made a similar point at an earlier stage in our proceedings. It is a point that has also been previously made by the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). They do have long experience, they do know what they are talking about, and it might be a good idea to have a degree of calm and a readiness to heed their wise advice.