On Saturday last, as reported at column 658 of Hansard, the Leader of the House rose on a point of order to announce the Government’s intention to bring forward a motion today under Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Unfortunately, the point of order did not prove to be a prelude to an emergency business statement on which colleagues could question, probe and scrutinise the Leader of the House.
Rather, for approximately an hour, 30 points of order were raised with me by no fewer than 24 colleagues expressing disquiet and consternation that the Government intended to require the House to consider again on Monday the same matter which it had decided 48 hours earlier, on the immediately preceding sitting day. It was my privilege to listen and respond to the views of colleagues. I then undertook to reflect further on what Members had said and to give a ruling this afternoon, which I shall now do.
There are two issues, one of substance and the other of circumstances, to consider, and I shall address each in turn.
First, I have to judge whether the motion tabled under section 13(1)(b) of the 2018 Act for debate today is the same in substance as that which was decided on Saturday. Page 397 of “Erskine May” is clear that such a motion
“may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
It is equally clear that adjudication of cases is a matter for the Chair.
I invoked “Erskine May” and ruled on this issue as recently as
“this House has considered the matter but withholds approval unless and until implementing legislation is passed.”
The second matter for me to consider was whether there had been any change of circumstances that would justify asking the House to reconsider on Monday what it had decided on Saturday. On the face of it, unless an event or development external to the House had interceded, it is hard to see a significant change of circumstances that would warrant a reconsideration on the next sitting day—in this case, a reconsideration pre-announced by the Leader of the House just under 21 minutes after the result of the Division was announced. However, the Government might argue—though, to date, they have not put forward any argument or explanation at all—that the change of circumstances is the Prime Minister’s application on Saturday night for an extension of article 50. This is not persuasive. The application is part of a process, rather than a significant event in itself.
In summary, today’s motion is—[Interruption.] I am extraordinarily grateful to James Cartlidge. If he would bear stoically and with fortitude, I shall complete my statement. In summary, today’s motion is in substance the same as Saturday’s motion, and the House has decided the matter. Today’s circumstances are in substance the same as Saturday’s circumstances. My ruling is therefore that the motion will not be debated today, as it would be repetitive and disorderly to do so. For the benefit of colleagues not closely familiar with the so-called “same Question” convention, which is very strong and dates back to 1604, I will summarise the rationale for it in a sentence: it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes.
If it is not legitimate for the motion to be taken today, what is it legitimate for the Government to do? The answer is that, as the Prime Minister signalled in his point of order on Saturday, as reported at column 653 of Hansard, and in his letter to Members that evening, the Government can introduce their EU withdrawal and implementation Bill. Indeed, they have done just that, presenting the Bill for its First Reading today. I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will offer further details of the intended timetable for the Bill when he makes a business statement later today. Meanwhile, I hope that this ruling and explanation are helpful to the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I entirely follow the logic of your argument, but what weight did you give to the fact that when we were debating on Saturday, nobody knew whether the Prime Minister would send a letter, and since that has happened, although you are quite correct, Sir, to say that the motion that is the same, an event outside has dramatically changed it? Given that the motion on Saturday was clear that final approval cannot be given until the deal has gone through in legislation, would it not be, as you have always said, for the House to decide on this matter, notwithstanding the fact that the previous motion is clear about what is going to happen? That would give the country the opportunity to know whether the House approves or disapproves of the Prime Minister’s deal.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. My response is as follows. I did not consider, in reaching a judgment on this matter, whether a letter would be sent; the letter was sent on Saturday evening. More widely, on whether the question whether a Minister of the Crown would obey the law would be a material consideration for the Chair, the honest answer to the hon. Gentleman is that that consideration had not entered my mind as pertinent to my reflection on the matter.
I note the wider point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I respect the fact that it is a point of view. I intend no discourtesy to him when I say that I think I have made the argument for and explained the rationale behind the judgment that I have made. I am not seeking to rubbish the hon. Gentleman; I am simply making—[Interruption.] No, I am not seeking to rubbish the hon. Gentleman; I am simply making the point that, having reflected on all the considerations and the interests of the House, I have reached the conclusion I have reached. It is important that colleagues hear all parts of it. The hon. Gentleman did not like part of it, as he politely explained in his point of order, but he will also have heard me say what it is open to the Government to do. The Government can introduce their Bill, propose a programme motion for it and proceed with the support of the House, between now and the end of the month, as collectively Parliament prescribes. That seems to me to be entirely proper.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As you will recall, on Saturday afternoon, I was the Member who made the point that the Leader of the House should have been making an emergency business statement at that time, rather than relying on the device of a point of order to try to change the business today. I described it at the time as “low-rent jiggery-pokery”. It is not time that the Government, instead of playing games with the business of the House, actually subscribed to the usual practices, informed the Opposition of their intentions and, indeed, informed the Speaker of the House of their intensions in advance, so that we can all get on with the important business we have to conduct?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Let us focus on the arguments and the issues. As a long-serving Member of this House who is sadly no longer with us once said, “It’s about policies; it’s not about personalities. It’s not about personalities; it’s about policies.” I do not want to get into the personalities of it. I know that the Leader of the House disapproves of jiggery-pokery, because I have heard him say so in the past—if memory serves me correctly, on
I do not want to get into that, but I suppose what I want to say is this: there are precedents for changes in business being announced on points of order—it is not the norm, but there are precedents—and I do not want to ascribe any improper motive to the Leader of the House, whose personal courtesy to me over the years has been and remains unfailing, and I hope that I have reciprocated it. He made the judgment that he made. There was very little notice that he was going to say what he said, but that was really perhaps a product of the circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman might think that the circumstance could have been anticipated and some advance notice would have been helpful, but we were where we were. I do not complain about having to respond to points of order. The Leader of the House did not stay for all the points of order—he stayed for some of them—but I feel certain that he will since have familiarised himself with all of them. We will hear from the Leader of the House later, and I am sure we look forward to that.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. A couple of days ago, on a point of order, I said that the law of the land was set out in section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which quite unequivocally states:
“The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day.”
Exit day is on
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose experience in these matters and whose prowess as a lawyer I readily acknowledge. I hope that he will not take it amiss—but if he does, it is a regrettable inevitability—when I say that he has put on record his understanding of the legal position, and he has said it, as he has on previous occasions, with crystal clarity. Other people have a different view about the legal position and the significance of the so-called Benn Act. If memory serves me correctly, I did not dwell in my statement on adherence to the law. I touched on that matter only in response to the point of order from Mr Bone. I totally understand what the hon. Member for Stone thinks and why.
Moreover, I made clear in the statement the option open to the Government, and I reiterated it in response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough. The amendment in the name of Sir Oliver Letwin, I remind not just Members, but those attending our proceedings, explicitly specified that the legislation should come first. Suddenly to have at the next sitting day a debate on the same matter upon which an explicit conclusion was reached on Saturday would seem very unusual, and I have made the judgment that I have made.
Colleagues, I am stating the obvious, but when you make a judgment on these matters, manifestly, some people, if it is controversial, are pleased and other people are displeased. That is in the nature of the responsibility. I have simply sought to discharge my obligations and to do what I believe to be right, and that is what the Speaker has to do.
I cannot quite read the lips of Michael Fabricant, but I think he is saying, “If only”. The hon. Lady must be heard.
It is an attempt to prevent an Executive from browbeating Parliament and making certain that it votes again and again on the same thing until it gets it right. Surely, Mr Speaker, this is an important defence of freedom in our democracy, and do you agree that this is even more important when we have a Government who are attempting to browbeat Parliament and set up a Parliament versus the people false narrative?
The short answer is yes. I sought colleagues to frame my statement in factual terms, and it was—whether people agree with it or not—closely argued. I did not go in for adjectival excess on this occasion. It is, however, part of the thinking of the Chair that the House should not be continually bombarded with a requirement to consider the same matter over and over and over again. There are people who are concerned about such a prospect—that is, about the possibility of being browbeaten, harassed or intimidated. In the context of the statement I made to the House on
Absence of Speaker intervention on this same convention since 1920 or thereabouts is attributable, colleagues, not to the discontinuation of the convention, but rather to general compliance with it, and that is for the protection of the House. We also do not want contradictory and conflicting judgments to be reached in very short order, and what could be shorter order than the next sitting day after the last judgment was made? It may not appeal to everybody, but that is the rationale for the perfectly reasonable judgment that I have made.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am most grateful to you for allowing me to speak. I rather imagine that if you did not enjoy being bombarded, you would not so much enjoy sitting in that Chair. I note that the dilemmas you face mean that, on occasion, you will sometimes have to please some and not others, but it is becoming remarkable how often you please one lot and not the other lot. You have also inveighed against most unusual things happening in this House that you did not like, and I would say that it is most unusual for a Speaker so often to have prevented the Government from debating the matters that the Government wished to put before the House. It has been one of your mantras that the House should be permitted to express its view, even when it comes to changing the meaning of Standing Orders, and yet you have denied the House the opportunity to express its view on this matter. This motion that was never voted on on Saturday—[Interruption.]
Order. I understand the strong passions, but I want the hon. Gentleman to be heard, as he must be—fully and without fear or favour—and I know that he will then allow me the courtesy of an uninterrupted response.
This motion was never voted on, and it ceased to exist as soon as it was amended. I confess, Mr Speaker, that I am surprised that the reason my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin tabled his amendment has failed to enter your head. The reason was that there was an anxiety that the law was not going to be complied with and the letter would not be sent; so the circumstances have changed in that respect. May I just alert you and the House to the fact that my Committee—the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs—will be holding a hearing on the role of the Speaker, somewhat in the light of the experience of recent months?
First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his multifaceted point of order—and it was multifaceted; there were several features to it, and that is important.
Secondly, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about his Committee conducting an inquiry into the role of the Speaker, and that is absolutely proper—
I think he said something from a sedentary position about tomorrow, with evidence being taken and witnesses being heard, and that is absolutely right. I do not know what he expects me to deduce from that. I would not dream of seeking to comment adversely—still less to trespass, which it would be quite improper to seek to do—upon the legitimate autonomy of any Select Committee of this House. It is perfectly proper for his Committee to undertake such an inquiry. I am entirely untroubled by it, and it is a reflection of his conscientiousness that he should do it.
Thirdly, with regard to how unfortunate it is that one side seems to be disadvantaged by judgments from the Chair, I say to the hon. Gentleman—and there are people in this Chamber who know very well the truth of what I say—that I do not have, off the top of my head, a count of the number of times that I have in the past granted urgent questions, and in some cases, though they were less fashionable at the time, emergency debates, to people of what was then called a Eurosceptic disposition and would now be called a Brexiteer disposition—and he was one of them. When I was granting him and some of his hon. and right hon. Friends the opportunity to challenge, to question, to probe, to scrutinise, and, in some cases, to expose what they thought were the errors of omission or commission of the Government of the day, I do not recall him complaining that I was giving him too many opportunities to make his point and that it was not a fair use of the House’s time—that it was very unfair on his party and a violation of the rights of his Government. Now, it may be that sotto voce he was somehow making this point, but if so, I did not hear it.
I remind the hon. Gentleman additionally, and fourthly, I think, that—yes, I will make this point because it is an important point to make—his hon. Friend Mr Baron tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2103 on the case for a referendum on UK membership of the European Union, a most unusual though perfectly proper thing for a Government Back Bencher to do, and I selected that amendment. I did so because I thought that it was well supported and there was a compelling case for it to be considered. So what I am saying to the hon. Gentleman is that when he was getting the decisions in his favour, he was not grumbling. He is grumbling now because he does not like the judgment I have made, but the judgment is an honourable and fair one, and I am afraid that if he does not like it, there is not much I can do about that. I am trying to do the right thing for the House as a whole.
My last point to the hon. Gentleman—and it is very important not just for, or even particularly for, Members of the House, but for those observing our proceedings—is that nothing in what I have said in any way impinges upon the opportunity for the Government to secure approval of their deal and the passage of the appropriate legislation by the end of the month. If the Government have got the numbers, the Government can have their way, and it is not for the Speaker to interfere. The judgment I have made is about the importance of upholding a very long-standing and overwhelmingly observed convention of this House. That is what I have done, and I make absolutely no apology for it whatsoever.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am seeking clarification on the implications of the Benn Act for the proceedings over the next week or so. I am happy to put this in writing if that is helpful, and I am sorry for not having done so already. The Benn Act, as you know, was amended by the amendment put forward by my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock. You may recall that in the debate my right hon. Friend Frank Field asked my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn why there was no purpose to his Bill, to which the latter Member of Parliament said, “We do not want a purpose to this Bill”, and the implication was to keep it open-ended. Clearly, the amendment that was then passed by this House included the amendment by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, which stated very clearly that there could be no extension beyond
My response to the right hon. Lady is twofold. First, it is not for the Chair to interpret the Act. People will make their own assessment of that. That does not fall to me. Secondly, if she wishes to engage with me on that matter in correspondence, I am not promising to come back to her tomorrow but I will study any letter from her and respond in as timely a way as I can, compatible with a substantive response being provided. I shall be delighted to try to oblige her in that regard.
That is perfectly possible. For that to be the case, a self-denying ordinance is required on the part of people who otherwise wish to raise points of order with me, but I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, and colleagues either will be guided by him or not.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I make a helpful suggestion, which is that you send a photocopy of “Erskine May” to members of the Government? On a more serious note, the Government keep insisting that Members of this House should have the opportunity to change their minds. Is it not time that they extended the same courtesy to the British people?
I note what the hon. Lady has said. The second point is a political one, to which I will not respond. In relation to “Erskine May”, it is available free online. In relation to the same question convention, I simply make the point that when I pronounced on the same question convention on
“may I say how delighted I am that you have decided to follow precedent, which is something I am greatly in favour of?”—[Official Report,
Vol. 656, c. 778.]
He went on to make other supporting points. The person who responded in that way was none other than the Leader of the House, Mr Rees-Mogg. The Leader of the House was very much with me at that time on the same question convention. I take the same view seven months later, and it is for him to explain whether he does.
I have known the right hon. Gentleman for 22 years. I like him so much that I do not want to ruin a burgeoning political career, as he is only probably a quarter of the way through his, but one of his great merits is that he is a model of consistency, principle and fair-mindedness.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The meaningful vote process is one which Parliament has insisted the Government adhere to. All the Government are trying to do is stick to a process set out by Parliament. The motion was amended on Saturday. Now we can have a clean vote, because I think there is an appetite among the country and this Parliament—these Benches are not exactly empty—to get a view on the Prime Minister’s deal. I agree with my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne: I think your ruling is probably right. But unlike most of “Erskine May”, we are prone to follow the EU constitution, which means at the moment that we will leave the EU at the end of this month. There is limited time, but we will be treated to the spectacle of empty Benches in this House when we go home, and we may be sitting late or at weekends to try to get Government legislation on the statute book. I am not sure that the British people will understand that.
I just say to the hon. Gentleman—I genuinely apologise to him if I have misunderstood any part of his point, but I am reacting on the hoof—that whether or not there were the debate today, the Government require the passage of the requisite legislation. Therefore, in so far as the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the time required for the legislation, the programme motion for it, the sitting hours entailed by it and the inconvenience that might flow from it, those considerations would apply whether or not we had the debate today. The issue is whether we make a pragmatic judgment and allow for the breach of a long-standing convention or make a principled judgment, and I have made a principled judgment. There is every opportunity for the Government, with the support of the House, not only to have their say, but to get their way by the end of October, and I do not think I need to add anything to that. It is dependent on parliamentary opinion.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Before you reflect on this, I acknowledge that we have known each other for over 30 years—in many ways our personal political lives seem to have gone off in very different directions in the course of that time—and I acknowledge the kind remarks you made to me on another occasion outside this House last week, but I am one of the Members who have formally recorded my anxiety about your partiality in the Chair, and I think the right way to do that is to do it formally.
Having done that, like my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne, and having noted the narrow terms in which you gave your ruling today, I think those terms in your coming to your judgment are reasonable. However, would our knowing what the response is to the letter imposed on the Government by this House to request an extension be a sufficient change of circumstances for you to reconsider the conclusions you have come to today?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons, including when perpetrated by me. I have made the point often—forgive me, but I make it again—that I tend to subscribe to the dictum of the late Lord Whitelaw in these matters. He famously used to say, “Personally, I think it is better to cross bridges only when I come to them”. It is a hypothetical question, and I would have to reflect on it and make a judgment in the circumstances of the time.
I do not want to fall out with the hon. Gentleman, and I appreciate his courteous opening remarks. He will not be surprised to know that, although I absolutely defend his right to his opinion, I do not accept his characterisation of my speakership. I have tried to do the right thing by Parliament. Sometimes people like it when it goes their way and sometimes they do not when it does not, but that is my honest approach. If he disapproves of it, I am sorry about that, because I have known him a long time, but I will live with that. I do not mean that in any discourteous or patronising way, but I will live with that. It is one verdict, and there will be others. However, I have made the judgment I have made, and let us wait and see how events develop.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a genuine point of order. First, my understanding of “Erskine May” is that the repeat question applies to a Session of Parliament, so the fact that we have had a Prorogation since
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. It is a genuine point of order, and my response to it is as follows. First, when I referred—I do not mean this impolitely—not to
Secondly, I very specifically was making the point that the matter has been treated of as recently as Saturday, with a very clear decision reached by the House on the amendment to the motion, and therefore it would not be appropriate to consider that matter today.
Thirdly, when the hon. Lady inquires about whether a different formulation of words, or a section or subsection would render such a motion open to a different judgment on the same question and convention, I hope that she will understand when I say that I cannot possibly pronounce on that until I know the circumstances. I would have to see the particulars, and I am grateful for the rather vigorous nodding of the head by John Redwood who, at least on that point, seems to agree with me.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. In citing your ruling, you spoke of the importance of precedent and convention, yet earlier this year, when you allowed a motion that was unamendable to be amended, you said:
“I am not in the business of invoking precedent, nor am I under any obligation to do so…If we were guided only by precedent…nothing…would ever change.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 652, c. 366-372.]
Can you understand, Sir, in the light of your comments, why some people perceive, perhaps incorrectly, that the only consistency one can find in your rulings is that they always seem to favour one side of the argument, and never the Government, who are trying their best to carry out the mandate given to them by the British people in 2016?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman—and I mean this very sincerely—for his point of order and, in particular, in the best traditions of his service, for his explicit, direct challenge. I respect that. No whispering behind his hands or muttering into his soup, or anything like that—he is challenging me directly. I do not agree with him. I think the consistent thread is that I try to do what is right by the House of Commons, including by, in many cases, minorities whose voices need to be heard. What I said when I allowed the amendment tabled by Mr Grieve on, if memory serves me correctly,
It is true that we are guided not only by precedent, but I would say to David T. C. Davies that just because we are not guided only by precedent does not mean that we are not guided at all by precedent. What one has to do is make a balanced judgment about what best serves the interests of the House. All I would say to him is that as recently as Saturday, at the insistence of the Government—and I think with the support of the House—the House met to deliberate on this very matter. Simply to allow the matter to be reconsidered two days later, on the very next sitting day, seems to me to be entirely unreasonable. Nothing that I have said by way of conclusion today flies in the face of contrary expert advice that I have received. I have consulted, I have taken advice, I have listened to people expert in these matters, and I have not been counselled that what I have said today is wrong. I have not been counselled that what I have said today is wrong, and I have a very strong sense that there is a pretty wide acceptance that on this matter my judgment, however inconvenient and irksome to some people, has the advantage of being procedurally right.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I respect your judgment and share your love of precedent, but given what you have said, and given that the House has already voted a number of times on holding a second referendum, and rejected it, will you apply the same precedent on repetitive votes in your deliberations if amendments proposing a second referendum are put forward?
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. The principle that I have enunciated has wider application. The same question convention applies to consideration of the same matter in the same Session. I very gently say to him that we are now in a new Session—a point that is so blindingly obvious that I am sure it will not have escaped the right hon. Gentleman, who is a very clever fellow, for a moment.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Some of my constituents have written to me today to express their concern that the reason the vote is not being allowed is that the result would go in the Government’s favour. I have heard the reasons that you have given for that, but on Saturday the amendment was brought forward by Sir Oliver Letwin, who has since said that, were the vote to be brought forward now, he would not amend it again, and that he would support the Government’s legislation. Is that not a sign that something has changed since Saturday?
The short answer to that is no. I do not recall every single word that Sir Oliver Letwin has said, although I am familiar with the thrust of his argumentation on these matters. It is a matter of record that the right hon. Gentleman has voted for the withdrawal agreement three times, and it is a matter of record that he has expressed support for the Government’s latest deal with the European Union, causing him therefore to be inclined to vote for the legislation. He can vote for the legislation if he so wishes—I have every expectation, on the strength of what he has said, that he will do so—but he does not determine what the judgment is about the same question convention. I mean, he could if he were the Speaker of the House. If the hon. Lady is going to make a belated attempt to persuade the right hon. Gentleman to abandon his retirement plans and seek election to the Chair, she might have success with him, or she might not—I do not know; he does not seem to be offering me any encouragement on that matter. I have made the judgment that I have made, and I think that it is the right judgment to make.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Her Majesty the Queen thought that she had five weeks to write her Gracious Speech, but then she was given just a few days, and now she is waiting intently to hear the House’s response to it. However, the Leader of the House has put down a motion that is basically a copycat of Saturday’s motion, in breach of “Erskine May”, and, predictably, you have ruled it out of order. Is this not a discourtesy to Her Majesty, and a further reason why the Leader of the House should consider his position, given his incompetence?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not think that we should get ahead of ourselves. I certainly am not accusing the Leader of the House of discourtesy—in fact, I have celebrated his unfailing courtesy to me, and I think that he would acknowledge mine to him. We are going to hear from the Leader of the House with the business statement. If the hon. Gentleman wants to question the Leader of the House on the business statement, and to express his indignation, I very much doubt that any force on earth would stop him doing so.
If that exhausts for now the appetite of colleagues to raise points of order—I am grateful to colleagues for what they have said, and for the courtesy with which they have expressed themselves, whether they agree with my ruling or not—we will move on to the first of our urgent questions.