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House of Commons Hansard
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02 October 2019
Volume 664

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I would have thought it the normal course of events to proceed with the ten-minute rule motion, but if colleagues particularly want to raise their points of order now, a simple nod of the head in acquiescence in such an arrangement and empathy with it will suffice. Not surprisingly, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who is invariably of an amiable disposition, seems content that we proceed in that way. We will come to the hon. Gentleman erelong, but first of all I believe there is a very important point of order from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy).

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. If I may, I should like to seek your advice. For the last six days, an organisation calling itself the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK has been waging a campaign of intimidation and harassment against myself and, by extension, my constituents in Walthamstow—from turning up in our town centre with a 20-foot banner of my head next to an image of a dead baby of about the age of the baby I am currently carrying myself, proclaiming that I am working hard to achieve such an outcome; to buying from Clear Channel billboards advertising in my constituency, displaying near schools graphic and scientifically incorrect pictures of foetuses; to libelling me on national radio as someone who wishes to see abortion up to birth; to its Stop Stella campaign, which explicitly encourages people to target me as a hypocrite for being pregnant and advocating for the right of all women to choose when to be.

Walthamstow residents have made clear their distress at this behaviour, and so have I. The organisation has made its point. It disagrees with me; I understand that and have asked it not to continue. Despite that, it has already stated that it will keep returning and targeting me until I stop campaigning. Already, I have received numerous threats and abusive messages that directly quote its material.

As you would expect, Mr Speaker, I have sought police assistance against this harassment. I am sad to report that, as yet, none has been given, including from the parliamentary authorities, although Sadiq Khan and Clare Coghill, the leader of my council, have been fantastic allies. I also have proposals for the Domestic Abuse Bill, which I hope Ministers will look on kindly, to recognise this form of abuse. As I have always said to bullies, “It’s not my time you’re going to waste.”

One of the troubling things about importing this kind of campaigning into our politics—the organisation has said that it will extend its protest to other MPs, and it is clearly influencing debate in this place, as some even in this Chamber have said that I wish to kill babies—is how it is funded. This organisation claims, in its constitution and accounts and in a statement it made to the BBC last October, to be a charity, yet the Charity Commission has refused to register it. Nor is it clear whether it has repaid the gift aid it has previously claimed under the auspices of this charity status. If not, given that it knew that it was not registered with the Charity Commission, this group has facilitated tax evasion, which of course is a criminal offence. Nor is it clear whether it is complying with the rules for third-party campaigners in the run-up to an election, or whether it is accepting illegal foreign donations, given that it is part of a network of such organisations across the world.

Sadly, I understand that the organisation has also threatened to sue journalists who ask about these matters, so we cannot have clarity about who is funding this sustained campaign of intimidation from an organisation whose counterparts in other countries have picketed maternity hospitals with baby coffins and incited such hatred and radicalisation that it has resulted in violence, including a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.

Given the calls for a general election, the Charity Commission, the Electoral Commission and, indeed, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs must prioritise investigating such organisations and tackling the potential consequences for our public debates. I am sure we would all want to know whether all taxes are paid, all donations declared and all donors legal.

I am not sure, however, where we as parliamentarians can start in holding such a company to account for its toxic culture and approach, and in the absence of police action. We cannot uphold free speech on any issue if we do not also hold to account those who seek to abuse it and the laws on campaigning. Perhaps, Mr Speaker, you will have some suggestions for me so that we can ensure that no MP and, indeed, no other woman has to go through what I have been going through in the past few days.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. At the outset, I know she will understand if I say that in respect of some of the other matters to do with tax treatment and funding that she mentioned, I cannot comment. It is perfectly reasonable for the hon. Lady to set out those matters, but they do not require a response from me and it would not in any way be authoritative.

However, as far as what I regard as her major point is concerned, I will be absolutely explicit in my response. I believe that campaigning of that kind, with the intensity involved and the explicit public threat, to its apparently endless continuation, is vile, unconscionable and despicable. There is a major difference—it is important that we should be clear about this—between putting a point of view with considerable force and insistence on the matter of abortion or any other matter of public dispute and putting it in extreme and provocative terms, and in doing so saying, “We will go on doing so until you stop exercising your right as a Member of Parliament to campaign for what you want. Give in to our intimidation, our threats and our bullying, or it will be the worse for you.” That to me, colleagues—I hope that I carry the support of the majority of the House in saying this—is rank, unacceptable and displays, if I may say so, and I will, an absence of any moral compass. Anybody who thinks seriously about these matters cannot seriously think that that is right. It would be wrong in any case, but for the hon. Lady to be subject to that treatment when she herself is pregnant, and those intimidating and harassing her, ultimately unsuccessfully, know that to be so, is double appalling.

With reference to what the hon. Lady said—and it is a challenge, which I take in good part—about thus far an absence of support from the House authorities, I am very disappointed to learn of that. I cannot comment on the particulars. What I do undertake to do is to meet the hon. Lady within 24 hours, if she wishes to meet me, and I will, as appropriate, be accompanied by people in this House who are best placed to advise. I am delighted that the Mayor of London and his team are supporting her, but she is entitled to proper and unstinting support from the House authorities. If she feels that that is not the case and there is more that we can do, or there are things that we have not done at all that we should be doing, I am determined that she should get that help.

The hon. Lady is respected across this House as an extremely dedicated, articulate and principled campaigner for her causes. Nothing on earth can be allowed to prevent her from continuing in that vein. Although it is not a matter of order within the Chamber, it is right that she should seek the support of Parliament’s spokesperson, as she wants to reinforce her right to go about her business in a legitimate way. She has that right, and I stand absolutely with her in insisting on the continued exercise of that right.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Having discussed this matter just this morning with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), may I say that the Government are similarly concerned about the nature of the campaign against her? Indeed, my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has already communicated her concerns to his Department, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already offered to meet the hon. Lady. We take these allegations very seriously, and we will see what can be done.

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I hope that those replies will do for now, but let us get together, as I have suggested, and no doubt the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) will want to meet the Minister at the appropriate time.

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Further to the point of order from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), Mr Speaker. As someone who sits on the opposite side of the abortion debate, may I express my solidarity with the hon. Lady? The abuse and the billboards do nothing to further the debate. Abortion is a very personal issue. We should use this place as a forum for debate, but should do so in a constructive, collaborative manner. Let me echo the point that those people do not speak for all of us who may have a different view.

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I hope that colleagues will agree that that was a very welcome point of order from the hon. Lady, and I think that I speak on the House’s behalf when I thank her for saying what she has said.

I think there was another point of order from the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), on a wholly unrelated subject.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you; it is unrelated.

Following his statement to the House last week, the Prime Minister, in response to a question that I asked about an instruction that had apparently been given by his adviser, Dominic Cummings, that parts of Government data that are of significance and concern to many people should be brought together, told me that I had

“mentioned something about which I am afraid I was hitherto unaware”.—[Official Report, 25 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 817-8.]

That was a very polite response, but it seems to many of us somewhat surprising in view of the publicity given to the issue and the fact that other Members have raised complaints with the Information Commissioner. I wonder whether you could give me guidance, Mr Speaker, on how the Prime Minister could perhaps be persuaded to return to the House to clarify the matter.

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I do not treat what the hon. Gentleman has said with any levity when I say that conflicting accounts of a Government’s position on a given subject are not a novel phenomenon. There have been many precedents, under successive Governments and in relation to a plethora of different Departments, sometimes including No. 10 Downing Street itself. I do not sniff or cavil at what the hon. Gentleman has said about the apparent inconsistency that perturbs him, and I am grateful to him for giving me notice that he would raise the matter. However, I do not think that this is a point of order. The hon. Gentleman is seeking procedural advice.

By the way, when I say that this is not a point of order, I say it for the purpose of the intelligibility of our proceedings to people observing them. The great majority of points of order are not points of order. They are ruses by which to raise matters that are of particular concern to Members at the time—in the most recent instance, the point of order from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), quite the most compelling and pressing case to raise.

As far as the hon. Gentleman is concerned, I think that he should work on this basis. If he wishes to pursue what he sees as a potentially or actually inaccurate parliamentary answer, he should take the short journey from here to the Table Office and seek advice on how to pursue it. I hope that he will forgive me if I say that, in doing so, he should adopt my—I think—now established motto in these matters by way of advice: persist, persist, persist. I say this to the hon. Gentleman. Table further questions. Do not take no for an answer. Write letters. In a legitimate, as opposed to an illegitimate, way, make a nuisance of yourself, man.

If there are no further points of order, we come now to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr has been so patiently and good-naturedly waiting.