Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 2:17 pm on 24th February 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North 2:17 pm, 24th February 2021

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The last year has been difficult for so many people at work, and as our constituents’ lives have been thrown into uncertainty by covid, our staff teams have been dealing with more cases than ever. In my office, our workload has increased by over 300%. That is why I was so frustrated, to put it mildly, to read about a study by King’s College London, which sent fake casework to MPs, including me, to test how efficiently our staff responded. Our small but wonderful teams are working all the hours they can to answer genuine constituents’ concerns. It is unacceptable that people faked being constituents, and took up time that could have been spent helping real people. Our time is paid for by the taxpayer, and this is a gross exploitation of that. It is unethical, it is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and it shows a complete lack of understanding of the pressures on our offices’ resources a year into a global pandemic.

Madam Deputy Speaker, could you please advise me on how I can put on record my thanks to MPs’ staff across the House at this busy, stressful time, including GMB and Unite staff branch members, and could you please advise the House on how we can ensure that our staff’s time and public funds are not wasted like this again?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this matter on the Floor of the House, and for giving notice of her intention to make this point of order, drawing to the attention of everyone this disgraceful situation.

Mr Speaker is aware that there is a great deal of concern about this among Members and, not surprisingly, their very hard-working and hard-pressed staff. I can see, and it may help the hon. Lady to know, that everyone present in the Chamber is in total agreement with what she has said. So am I, and so is Mr Speaker. As is apparent from our debates, covid-19 has resulted in a significant increase in constituency work, which is heavy at the best of times. As the hon. Lady said, Members and their staff are working flat out to help individuals and businesses in their constituencies who are facing very real and very serious problems. At such a time, it is hard to see how any responsible researcher could have thought that sending more than 1,000 spoof emails that added to this workload was a good idea; how any responsible ethics committee could have approved it; or how any responsible body could have decided to fund it.

Mr Speaker is extremely concerned about these matters, and he will be writing directly to those involved. I note also that it is possible for Members to withdraw their data from the study, and they may wish to do so. The hon. Lady asked me the simple question of how she could draw attention to this matter. She has done so, and her points, and those of every other hon. Member of this House, are taken into consideration by Mr Speaker —very seriously, in this matter.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, accused the Scottish Government of

“the complete breakdown of the necessary barriers which should exist between government, political party and indeed the prosecution authorities in any country which abides by the rule of law.”

That would be a damning indictment in a tinpot dictatorship, but this is happening in a part of the United Kingdom. Given that the Scottish Parliament derives its authority from legislation passed in this Parliament, what mechanisms do we have to ensure that the conduct of the Scottish Government does not bring politics in the whole of the United Kingdom into international disrepute?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for having given notice that he intended to raise this point of order. He has raised very significant issues concerning the relationship between the legislature, the Executive and the courts; that is the doctrine known as the separation of powers, which is the very bedrock of our constitutional settlement. It is not, of course, for the occupant of the Chair to make any judgment about what the right hon. Gentleman has specifically said, or the quotation that he used, but of course this House is always concerned with safeguarding democratic standards. I am sure that he will use his ingenuity to find a way of bringing this matter before the House once again, when it can be fully examined.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In a previous urgent question, a Minister came to the House and cited the National Audit Office in support of arguments that he was making about the procurement of personal protective equipment in the middle of the pandemic. This is a growing trend. Ministers come to the House, or appear in the media, and cite the National Audit Office, as though comments in those report are a conclusion and a determination by the National Audit Office.

Will you help the House and Ministers, Madam Deputy Speaker, by telling me and others how Mr Speaker can enforce the understanding that the National Audit Office is an independent body, headed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is an officer of this House, and whose integrity should never be questioned, and that reference to the NAO should never be used in an improper way in this House or in the media to back up arguments that it does not back up? I have the privilege of reading all the National Audit Office reports, and I see them in the round. We are all careful with this, but it would be very helpful if you could rule as Chair on what you think could be done to improve how these reports are used by Ministers in particular.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. She seeks to draw the House’s attention to a point that she wishes to make; she has succeeded in so doing by raising the point of order. Of course, as Mr Speaker has said many times, it is not for the occupant of the Chair, or for the Speaker in any other capacity, to interfere in any way with what Ministers say at the Dispatch Box—that is up to Ministers—but the hon. Lady has drawn her concerns to the attention of those on the Treasury Bench, and I am quite sure that the points she has made will have been noted.