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Points of Order

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 12:44 pm on 25th April 2017.

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Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:44 pm, 25th April 2017

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your advice and guidance regarding parliamentary protocol in the case of a Member writing to another Member’s constituents as part of an election campaign. Trudy Harrison has written, as a Member of Parliament, to postal voters in my constituency on Conservative-branded paper ahead of the Cumbria County Council elections asking them to vote for the Conservative candidates. I know of postal voters in her own constituency who have not received any such letter from her.

This is the second time since her election to this place only two months ago that the hon. Lady has campaigned for the Conservative party in my constituency using her status as an MP without informing me. I did not make a fuss the first time as she was new to the House. However, she is now fully aware that in the British parliamentary system one Member represents a single constituency and conventions have developed so that one Member’s relations with her constituents are very much a preserve that other Members should not interfere with.

I have had complaints from constituents, some of whom are now confused about who their Member of Parliament is. My constituency office is receiving phone calls from constituents who think that this must mean that the boundary changes have gone through and that I might no longer be their representative. As far as I am concerned, this is unacceptable. Mr Speaker, I would be grateful for your comments and advice on this serious matter.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Has it not always been the case that if a Member writes, on Conservative party notepaper, a political message to anyone, that is in order, and that it is only a problem if someone represents themselves as an MP for a particular constituency using our stationery?

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. To clarify, the letters were signed “Trudy Harrison, MP”, and across the top it said “MP”. She described herself as an MP. [Interruption.]

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

We cannot and will not have a debate on the matter. The hon. Lady was courteous enough to give me advance notice of her intention to raise this point of order, for which I thank her, and I have attended both to the substance of what she has said and to the remarks of the Minister.

I must say to the hon. Lady that, disquieting though the experience might have been, and relatively irregularly though it might occur, it is not clear to me that Trudy Harrison has broken any convention. It is certainly a convention to notify another Member of an intention to visit his or her constituency in a political public capacity. It is also a very well established convention that a Member of Parliament should not purport to represent or offer to represent people who are not her or his constituents. [Interruption.] Order. Writing, however, in a campaigning context on party notepaper, though it might not happen very frequently, is not—and I have some experience of these matters—a demonstrable breach of a long-standing convention.

I say to the hon. Lady, whose concern I treat very seriously, that I appreciate that concern, but it seems to me that courtesies between Members of the House, which are important, are best arrived at and adhered to by informal discussions between colleagues. It is not desirable that they should ritually be attempted to be resolved by being raised on the Floor of the House with the Chair. That is to say, to be clear, that they are not matters of order but matters of informal agreement and understanding. It is much better if such understandings can be reached between neighbouring colleagues.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have often stated from the Chair that answers to written parliamentary questions from Back-Bench Members from all parts of the House should be answered in both a timely and a substantive manner by Ministers. On 24 March, I tabled a named day question to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Chris Skidmore, asking, very simply, how much the Government had spent on advertising in the Evening Standard in the last financial year. Three days later, I received a holding answer. Now, over a month later, I still have not received a substantive answer. I am concerned that the Government might now simply be winding down the clock, with the intention of not providing an answer before we prorogue. The public might also draw the conclusion that they have something embarrassing to hide that they do not want to reveal during an election campaign. Is there anything you can do from the Chair, Mr Speaker, to encourage Ministers to answer such questions substantively this week, so that both Members of the House and the public can know the truth?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I do appreciate his concern. The content of Ministers’ answers is, of course, not a matter for the Chair. That is a matter exclusively for the Minister giving the response. However, the hon. Gentleman references my repeated exhortation to Ministers to provide timely and substantive responses, an exhortation in which I am regularly joined by the Leader of the House. Many Ministers attach a premium to adhering to that principle and expectation. I agree that it is unsatisfactory if the Government are unable to give a substantive answer to a named day question tabled well before Prorogation. No doubt the concern articulated by the hon. Gentleman has been heard on the Treasury Bench. Insofar as he further seeks my advice, it is encapsulated in one sentence: the hon. Gentleman should seek to speak to the Leader of the House, sooner rather than later.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

No semi-colon was required. I was deploying a number of sentences to try to attend to the substance of colleagues’ inquiries, but I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations, even when they are proffered in a disorderly manner from a sedentary position.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

That is extremely kind of you, Mr Speaker. This is the tie of Anglia Farmers, one of the largest buying co-operatives in the agricultural sector in this country. I gave one to the last Prime Minister and the last Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the hope that they would wear one on the Treasury Bench, but they have not so far done so.

I was only going to ask whether Rob Marris agreed with me that the semi-colon is a very fine thing and that it should be used more often.