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Sittings in Westminster Hall

Volume 463: debated on Monday 23 July 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, on Thursday 26th July, there shall be no sitting in Westminster Hall.––[Mr. David.]

I am very concerned about this motion. It is not the first of its kind to appear at the end of a parliamentary term, and I object to it on the ground that I can see absolutely no reason why the Thursday sitting in Westminster Hall should be suspended on the last day on which Parliament sits. The public are rightly concerned that MPs go away for an 11 or 12-week recess, which, perhaps unfairly, they regard as a long summer break for Members of Parliament. In that regard, it seems extraordinary for the Government effectively to propose that the very last opportunity for a Westminster Hall sitting should not be taken.

I am disturbed, not only because that will be the last opportunity for such a debate before the summer recess, but because Westminster Hall now offers an extremely good opportunity for Back Benchers to raise and debate issues of concern. The quality of debate in the Thursday sittings has been quite extraordinary. In the past few weeks, for example, we had a very good debate on anti-Semitism, which is an issue of huge concern to many of us. There has also been a very good debate on the changes to legal aid services—an issue that affects most Members and their constituents.

The Government’s motion sends the wrong signal to the great British public: namely, that Parliament is not to be given an opportunity to discuss issues of concern on that day, especially under the present prime ministership. We were promised just a few weeks ago that the Prime Minister wanted to put Parliament back at the centre of British public life. We are not talking about a huge amount of parliamentary time; we are talking about a three-hour debate in Westminster Hall. It is extraordinary that the Government should seek to squash three hours of parliamentary debate.

I could suggest a list of subjects that would be worthy of three hours of parliamentary time, not least those dealing with the way in which my Kettering constituents are affected by Government policy. We could also discuss some of the Select Committee reports that have come up for debate in Westminster Hall. We have been promised that the work of the Select Committees is to be more greatly valued by the present Administration than it was by the previous one. What better opportunity could there be than to devote the last three hours of parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall to discussing a recent Select Committee report?

If the Government are short of ideas on that front, perhaps I could suggest the recent excellent report from the Transport Committee, on which I sit, on novice drivers. It proposed the raising to 18 of the age at which young people may take their driving test, on the basis that we now face the horrendous prospect of 1,000 young drivers a year losing their lives on British roads. A debate would provide a wonderful opportunity for a Transport Minister to come along to Westminster Hall and listen to Members’ views and provide an early response to the report on behalf of the Government.

My concern is that, time and again, at the end of every parliamentary Session, the Government try prematurely to end debating opportunities in Westminster Hall. I would very much like to hear from the Deputy Leader of the House why this motion is being moved and, if it were to be passed this evening, what plans she has to reinstate an extra three hours of parliamentary debate.

I do not intend to delay the House long, as the motion is quite straightforward. I was pleased to hear how much the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) values Westminster Hall debates, which were introduced, of course, by this Government as an innovation designed to give Back Benchers further opportunities to initiate debate. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that it is not the case that Ministers cannot be called to account between the beginning of the recess and our return in October, because the Government have introduced written questions in September. I am sure that he will be aware of that option.

The motion asks us to agree that this Thursday’s sitting in Westminster Hall should not take place. The hon. Member for Kettering may not be aware of the consultation on the motion with the political parties, with Mr. Speaker and with the Chairman of Ways and Means, during which no objection was raised by any of the parties. I encourage the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members with further issues to raise to participate in the pre-recess Adjournment debate on Thursday. There will be plenty of time—indeed, more time than would have been available in Westminster Hall—to raise issues that are important to hon. Members and their constituents. I commend the motion to the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) for ensuring that we do not allow this motion through on the nod. I accept what the Deputy Leader of the House says about consultation, although it would have applied to my predecessor rather than to me in my new job, shadowing the hon. Lady’s office. I would like to pick up a couple of issues that follow on from the debate.

I welcome Westminster Hall debates, which were a good initiative. I was personally saddened that, because of the two parliamentary by-elections last Thursday, I could not attend the debate on the important subject of anti-Semitism. Those are exactly the sort of debates that we should be having in Westminster Hall.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House reflect on the fact—either now, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or later—that we appear to have lost one of the Government’s good initiatives: cross-cutting debates in Westminster Hall? There was a period when we had them, but—

Order. This is not a wide-ranging debate on the purposes of Westminster Hall. It is simply about the motion on the Order Paper.

I will rein back, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and talk about the opportunities presented by this Thursday’s sitting for a cross-cutting debate, which appear to have disappeared.

The general argument that the House should lose its Westminster Hall debate on the last day of the Session on the grounds that there is a perfectly reasonable debate on the Floor of the House is not an overwhelming one. I can see the logic of the argument, but the alternative of providing an opportunity to debate Select Committee or other reports in Westminster Hall is equally logical. For example, the Defence Committee recently produced a very important report on overstretch among our forces, particularly in Afghanistan. That is a vital issue, so our failure to debate it before we go into the long summer recess seems to be a dereliction of our general duty.

I am following the hon. Gentleman’s remarks with a great deal of interest. Does he agree that although the Deputy Leader of the House says that the issues can be covered in the Adjournment debate on the main Floor of the House, we are losing three hours of parliamentary airtime, which will be denied to Back Benchers and others for ever unless she makes proposals to reinstate them?

I have been here long enough to know that at this stage in the proceedings the machine is rolling sufficiently strongly that to change it would be surprising if not impossible. The Deputy Leader of the House tells me that consultations have taken place, and it would be embarrassing to my colleague, whoever agreed to the proposal, if I suddenly put a spoke in the works. One of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues must have agreed to the proposal, too. Clearly, at some stage, someone addressed the question and decided that, as this Thursday is the last day of our summer term, we would concentrate all our resources on the end-of-term wind-up debate here.

One of the other reasons why losing anything is to be regretted—I shall return to this because I will be on duty on Thursday—is that it is scandalous that we go away in July to come back in October. I have always taken the view—

I am keeping my remarks in order by saying that if we do not have a debate on Thursday, as the motion proposes, we lose an opportunity that we cannot come back to, because there will not be another debate in Westminster Hall until October. I think that that is scandalous, and I think that the public think that it is scandalous. We should have debates here and in Westminster Hall, without huge periods elapsing between them.

I indicated that we will return to this matter on Thursday. I know that there has been consultation about the summer timetable, too. I just say, as an early shot across the bows, to the Deputy Leader of the House and her colleague, the Leader of the House, whom she knows I respect, that the Government will have to come back to these issues. I hope that under the new regime—new Prime Minister, Ministers, Leader of the House and Deputy Leader of the House—we will look again at the timetable and will not have occasions when we are asked to cut short our business and reduce the amount of time for debate and for holding the Government to account. I hope that the Government, in tune with what the new Prime Minister says, will give Parliament more opportunity to hold them to account, not just on the last days of the summer term, but on many other occasions.

Question put and agreed to.



That the Home Information Pack (No. 2) Regulations 2007 (S.I. 2007, No. 1667) and the Housing Act 2004 (Commencement No. 8) (England and Wales) Order 2007 (S.I. 2007, No. 1668) be referred to a Delegated Legislation Committee.––—[Mr. Blizzard.]