Points of Order

Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Position – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 3rd December 2018.

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Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security) 6:50 pm, 3rd December 2018

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance regarding how the House should proceed in pursuing the publication of the advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. It is clear to Opposition Members, and we believe to the overwhelming majority of the House, that the document provided does not constitute the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. More importantly, this does not comply with the motion of the House that you have ruled to be effective. Indeed, I suggest that in the course of his statement, the Attorney General has been quite open about the fact that he is not complying with the motion based on his belief that it is not in the national interest to do so.

My right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary, along with the Scottish National party’s foreign affairs and Europe spokesperson, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Brexit, the Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the Plaid Cymru spokesperson on Brexit and the leader of the Green party in Parliament, have this afternoon written to you asking whether you would consider giving this House, at the earliest opportunity, the chance to debate and resolve whether this is a matter of contempt. It is clear to me that the Government have taken an unprecedented decision not to comply with the unanimous and binding decision of this House. Instead, they seem to be playing for time, hoping that contempt proceedings take longer than the timetable for the meaningful vote. But we as a House cannot allow that to happen. I therefore ask you to set out how we should proceed to resolve this vital matter.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it—[Interruption.] I shall ignore the sedentary chuntering, which is undertaken for no obvious benefit or purpose. I have only just seen the letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I shall give it immediate attention when I leave the Chair. Having sat through these exchanges, I intend to come to a rapid decision, which I will convey to the House before it rises tonight, or, if that proves impossible, at the earliest opportunity tomorrow. I hope that that is helpful to colleagues.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As I indicated during the course of the debate, I had concluded, and I think mentioned, that I will be writing to you this evening, setting out the Government’s proposals in connection with this matter. I wonder if I could invite you to consider that letter, as I am sure you will, in due course this evening.

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

Well, I await—[Interruption.] Order. I note what the Attorney General has said, and, of course, I shall be interested to see any letter that he chooses to send to me. It is important that this matter is dealt with in a timely fashion. That is a highly relevant consideration for me to take into account, but I have heard, with respect, what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said, and I wait to see what emerges.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The letter that Nick Thomas-Symonds referred to touches upon a most grave matter in any view to all Members of the House. Is it either in order or courteous that the text of that letter should have been released to a journalist who has then put it up on Twitter? I know that that was because of the journalist, but was it in order for hon. Members or those acting on their behalf to release it before you were apparently aware of it or had had the chance to consider it and rule on it?

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

It is always best if letters sent to me are received and seen by me before they are seen by others, but I will address the substantive responsibility that is invested in me—that is frankly a different and on the whole rather more important matter, but I always treat the hon. Gentleman and all Members with courtesy. I note what he said and I issued my response in the first sentence of my reply to him.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As usual, you have called every Member of the House who wished to ask a question, but the convention of the House is that we have no rebuttal or right to come back on any questions asked. Given that the Attorney General said that he was happily going to answer any questions, as someone with no legal background I feel that I have had to play guess the question of what we may need to know that we have not been able to ask. Would it be in order for the House to table a series of questions to be answered—anything that they would have liked to put to the Attorney General, but did not get the opportunity to ask—and for those to be answered as quickly as possible to give us more information than we could glean today?

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

Let me say in all courtesy that I am not sure, given the pressure of time, of the practicality of the arrangement that the hon. Lady is advocating. For the avoidance of doubt, however, let me say to her that I have no reason to doubt either her legitimately insatiable appetite for interrogation—a very proper appetite in a committed parliamentarian, which she is—or indeed, that of the Attorney General to respond to questions. Therefore, in an ideal world, I would be quite open to the idea that there could be further questioning. As the House will know, I am an unusual fellow—I enjoy few things more than listening to my colleagues asking questions and Ministers answering them, which is probably quite useful really, given that that is what the Speaker of the House is expected to do. However, we have come up against the matter of practicality, and although the hon. Lady may now have her head filled with questions that she wishes she had asked, but has not done so, we have to progress and expedite matters. I hope that she will feel pleased that she has at least asked a question, and she can make her own assessment as to the quality of the answer. If, separately, she wishes to beetle up to her right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, I feel sure that she will be greeted with the courtesy that he invariably displays.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have all had sight of the copy of the letter that has been sent cross-party to you. In the light of the letter that is due to follow from the Attorney General to you, will we also have a copy of that?

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

The Attorney General is nodding his assent to that proposition. Just to be clear, the hon. Gentleman is asking whether he can have sight of the Attorney General’s letter, and I think that the Attorney General is signalling that the answer to that is yes.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a completely different issue.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

Because you are a cerebral fellow, Mr Speaker, you will know that on 30 October, I asked the Foreign Secretary why the Magnitsky provisions of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 had not yet been implemented. He said in the Chamber that it was because we were members of the European Union and we cannot implement sanctions of our own until we have left. He repeated this the next day in the Foreign Affairs Committee, but a week later, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office said, “No, it’s nothing to do with that—it’s because we do not have any time to draft the statutory instruments.” The Prime Minister today returned to the original advice that was provided by the Foreign Secretary. The legal advice that has been provided to the Committee by the Clerks of the House was that actually, there is no reason why we cannot introduce our own sanctions, because we did so back in 2011. I just wonder where I could get definitive legal advice from and whether you think, considering that the Foreign Secretary said on 30 October that he would write to me, that sufficient time has passed for me to have had a reply.

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

First, I recall the hon. Gentleman’s inquiry. I would not have been able to pinpoint the date—I advise those attending to our proceedings outwith the Chamber—as I do not have that level of anorakish recall of his parliamentary contributions, but I do recall the fact of the question being put. It made an impression on me, as does so much of what he says. Secondly, as a matter of principle, the Foreign Secretary ought by now to have replied to a request of that date—if it was of that date—from the hon. Gentleman. Thirdly, as a matter of practicality, I say that it is somewhat unwise for a Minister—in this case, apparently, the Foreign Secretary, an extremely experienced and dextrous, as well as courteous, parliamentarian—not to have replied to the hon. Gentleman by now, for failure to provide one was bound to invite excoriation. The Foreign Secretary will now be on the receiving end of that as soon as he learns of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order. I hope that on all three counts I have brought some happiness into his life.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to raise a point of order regarding a response I received from the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth at the last Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy oral questions. I asked the Minister why a roundtable with all the key fracking companies that she held on 21 May had not been declared on the transparency register. In response, she claimed that her officials did not disclose the meeting of 21 May because

“the ministerial code does not require Ministers to disclose meetings that they drop in on, as opposed to host in their office”—[Official Report, 20 November 2018;
Vol. 649, c. 715.]

I have searched the ministerial code and can find no reference to a difference in disclosure requirements such as the Minister suggests.

It would also appear that the Minister’s involvement in the meeting may not have been as casual as she suggested. During a Westminster Hall Debate on 10 July 2018, the Minister in fact claimed:

“I did hold a very effective shale industry roundtable”—[Official Report, 10 July 2018;
Vol. 644, c. 284WH.]

A freedom of information request querying the nature of that roundtable received a letter in response where the Department stated that this was indeed

“the Shale Roundtable that the Minister of State hosted on 21st May 2018”.

By the Department’s own admission, this was a meeting the Minister had hosted, rather than dropped in on. The agenda of the meeting was also released under the FOI request. It reveals the extent to which the Minister was present. The roundtable began at 1 pm and finished at 2.35 pm, lasting 95 minutes, and the Minister was present for at least 70 minutes. I contend that this would not, in any reasonable opinion, constitute dropping in on a meeting. I seek your advice, Mr Speaker. Has any request come from the Minister seeking an opportunity to come before the House to correct the record?

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer is that, as far as I am aware, no request has been made by the Minister concerned or any other Minister to make a statement of correction or other statement on this matter. If a Minister believes that he or she has erred, it is not just open to that Minister to correct the record, it is incumbent upon him or her to do so. I have received no such indication. The hon. Gentleman is a versatile and experienced parliamentarian and can pursue this matter further, if he so wishes, in a variety of ways, whether in correspondence or through questions, but not further tonight by this mechanism.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Further to the point of order from my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, Mr Speaker. I today received a letter from a Foreign Office Minister saying that the statutory instrument will shortly be before the House. I am sure, if my hon. Friend so wishes, he could be on the Committee when we examine the instrument. We would all benefit from his wisdom on this matter.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If what my hon. Friend says is true, the Prime Minister this afternoon inadvertently misled the House and must have an opportunity to apologise and correct the record.

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

If anybody has inadvertently misled the House, that person must correct the record, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that I do not think it incumbent on me now to act as arbiter of whether it happened. The issue has been given a full airing. Both hon. Members are very experienced, are not backward in coming forward and can pursue this matter either through the use of the Order Paper or by other means in the days ahead. I do not in any sense seek to deny them the opportunity to do so.

If there are no further points of order, if the appetite has at last been satisfied—it is very important that Members have the opportunity to express themselves—we can now proceed. The Minister looks very relieved about that.