Points of Order

Detainee Mistreatment: Judge-Led Inquiry – in the House of Commons at 4:14 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 4:14 pm, 15th July 2019

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for taking time on another point of order on the question of the Home Office’s failure to answer questions satisfactorily, but you will recall that it is just over a year since, in June 2018, I raised a point of order on the Home Office’s refusal to provide information about tier 2 general certificate of sponsorship visas in response to written questions that I had tabled. This information was subsequently released in response to a freedom of information request.

When, subsequent to the information being provided via that FOI, I tabled a further question asking for updated figures, I assumed the Home Office would provide them to me, given that the information was now in the public arena, but it refused again, hence my point of order last June. In response, Mr Speaker, you shared my concern about the danger of FOI requests becoming a more effective way for colleagues to obtain information than a parliamentary question, and you said:

“There is a basic issue here of parliamentary self-respect”.—[Official Report, 18 June 2018;
Vol. 643, c. 78.]

That is clearly relevant to all Members.

Mr Speaker, you also advised me on how to pursue the matter, and I followed up with a letter to the Home Secretary, on 19 June 2018, highlighting your comments. Despite repeated phone calls and emails to the Home Office’s correspondence unit, I have not yet received a response to that letter—over 12 months later.

I finally tabled a written question asking when I could anticipate a response, and I was told that it was “being prepared”. No reason has been shared with me that would explain why an answer about the procedure for parliamentary questions has taken over a year, Mr Speaker, so I would be grateful if you could advise me on how to pursue this matter and how I might receive a response before the House breaks for the summer recess.

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.

In summary, the matter is very unsatisfactory. The way in which the hon. Gentleman has been treated does not fall foul of any particular rule or Standing Order of the House. That said, it does not in any way become any less unsatisfactory. The essential issue at hand is, as I indicated in response to his previous point of order, a matter of parliamentary self-respect and, I say to occupants of the Treasury Bench, of courtesy on behalf of Ministers towards Members of the House seeking to discharge their duty of scrutiny.

It is therefore very disappointing that the hon. Gentleman has not achieved satisfaction in this matter, and what I want to say to him is as follows. First, he has been dogged and persistent in pursuit of this matter and, as he indicated, he has waited over a year for a Minister to answer his letter, which referred to my answer to his previous point of order.

I would hope that the delay in replying—I say this as much in hope as in expectation—is because Ministers are keen properly to address the underlying issue of providing a less helpful answer to elected Members of the House than to those who pursue freedom of information requests.

I hope that Home Office Ministers, having heard this point of order, will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives the full ministerial reply for which he has waited so long, and that he does so in a matter of days—specifically, before the summer recess.

The final point I would make, on which I expect concurrence, not least from senior and experienced Members of the House who have been here for decades, is this: it was at one time a very established expectation that, if Members were experiencing difficulty in securing replies from Ministers to letters or, indeed, written questions, the Leader of the House would see it as her or his responsibility to chase them in order to secure expeditious replies. I am sorry if that is not currently the case, but it used to be the case—[Interruption.] I note that Frank Field is nodding from a sedentary position, and I assume this view would be shared by Members in other parts of the House.

What I would say to Paul Blomfield is that he should approach the current Leader of the House, Mel Stride, and try to extract a commitment from him that he will engage in the matter and pursue Ministers. That is not only right for the hon. Member for Sheffield Central and his constituents but is in the interest of the effective functioning of all Members of the House. This is a matter not of rules but of parliamentary courtesy, and we need to return to it.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I would have spoken to you earlier about this if there had not been a muddle in our diaries. I had a similar example, where I had tabled questions on how many victims of modern slavery were held in detention centres. The Home Office replied that it did not know, but an outside organisation, after two Freedom of Information Act requests, gained that information, which the Home Office had denied having. Might I therefore also register through you that there is something much more rotten in the state of Denmark than just one simple question taking a whole year to answer?

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

On the back of what the right hon. Gentleman has said and of the initial intervention of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, I will raise these matters in correspondence with the Leader of the House. But on the principle both of repetition and of reinforcement by numbers, I would strongly advise Members to do so themselves.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Late last week, the Parole Board announced that Vanessa George, the prolific serial child abuser from Plymouth, is being released from jail. She abused toddlers and babies at the now closed Little Ted’s nursery in Plymouth and then shared these images with a national network of paedophiles for their sexual pleasure, and was rightly jailed. I cannot express to you the pain and horror felt by the families involved at the release from prison of Britain’s most prolific female paedophile. As she has not revealed the full list of the children that she has abused, the horrors are probably much greater than those for which she was convicted. What advice can you give me as to how I can place on record the concerns of the people I represent, and have you had any indication from the Ministry of Justice that a Minister will be coming to the House to make a statement on this matter, so that we can question why she was released and why they feel she is no longer a threat to children?

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 have received no indication from any Minister of an intention to make a statement on the matter. However, the matter is very important and of intense concern to the hon. Gentleman, to his constituents and, I rather imagine, to a lot of people around the country. What is my advice? My advice is that he should persist, persist, persist, as I invariably advise. What persistence means in this case is looking for opportunities to air concerns in the Chamber. My suggestion to him is that he seek an Adjournment debate, either on the specifics of the case or on what he considers to be its wider implications. If he does seek such an Adjournment debate, such applications tending to come my way, he might find that he is successful.