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Points of Order

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 29 November 2007

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should be very grateful for your guidance. During business questions today, I suggested to the Leader of the House that topical debates should be chosen not by her but by Mr. Speaker or by ballot. There is a good precedent for both. Although she seemed to understand my point and be reasonably sympathetic to it, she appeared to labour under the misapprehension that the House had placed upon her the responsibility for choosing the debate. I have had a chance to cast only a cursory look over Standing Orders, but that does not appear to be the case. I should be grateful if you could confirm that.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that there was an exchange of views about topical questions at business questions. It is the case that the Leader of the House sought to give the House the impression that she was interpreting and implementing new Standing Order No. 24A, which the House passed on 25 October. During the debate on the modernisation of the House, the Leader of the House said in response to the shadow Leader of the House:

“She asks for the subject of the topical debate to be announced by the Leader of the House following consultation with business managers. As I have stated, that is indeed what we envisage happening, and that would include consultations through the usual channels.”

In winding up the debate, the Deputy Leader of the House reaffirmed:

“We are completely open to Back Benchers nominating subjects, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House pointed out that they could do so at business questions.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 448-98.]

It has become apparent in the past few days that consultation did not take place about today’s debate. Indeed, the Leader of the House confirmed yesterday to the Modernisation Committee that no requests were submitted to her for today’s debate, while the usual channels submitted two questions.

My point is simply that the Standing Order contains no indication that the Leader of the House is responsible for the choice of subject rather than its announcement. In fact, the Standing Order does not even state that she is responsible for announcing the subject. Would you be kind enough to ask Mr. Speaker, as the guardian of Standing Orders, to invite the Leader of the House to visit him to discuss the proper manner in which Standing Order No. 24A, which was passed on 25 October, should be implemented?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have some sympathy with the idea that Back Benchers should have some say in the subjects for the topical debates. However, surely there should be some formal structure for determining the will of Back Benchers, rather than simply having a group of Members turn up at business questions and hijack it for some political purpose. That will do the House and the country no service and we need to formalise the process so that Back Benchers have some input into it.

I said on the occasion of the first topical debate that we were on something of a voyage of discovery. We certainly have not finished travelling yet. Topical debates are an experiment and the Standing Order to which hon. Members referred is possibly open to more than one interpretation. It states:

“A Minister of the Crown may indicate that proceedings on a motion… are to be conducted as a topical debate.”

That is perhaps capable of interpretation in more than one manner. It depends on the emphasis one places on “may” and “indicate”.

The House has decided on the experiment. It is perhaps a pity—I say that as a reflection, not a reproof—that more hon. Members were not in the House when the Modernisation Committee’s report was debated. Many matters were covered and clearly not everyone was au fait with the implications of what was being done.

I am sure that Mr. Speaker has heard the earlier exchanges, as has the Leader of the House, and that they will read what has just been said in the Official Report. However, I am sure that minds are not closed to examination of the way in which the experiment should develop. It is not cast in stone. The Leader of the House is currently “indicating” and, hopefully, in view of what has been said, more consultation will take place about the final choice that is made. However, at the moment, as the Standing Order is written, it appears to be a rightful decision for her. I hope that that is helpful.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your invitation and for your comments. However, from what I saw and from what you said, there appears to be no obligation on the Leader of the House to make the choice. I believe that it would fulfil the requirements of hon. Members of all parties if the choice were delegated from the usual channels and the House either vested the responsibility in Mr. Speaker or held a ballot.

The hon. Gentleman has put that on the record and I am sure that those matters will be further considered. Other aspects of the topical debate may also need to be considered as we proceed.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During business questions, the Leader of the House made a number of assertions that on reflection she may wish to withdraw. The matter relates to a potential breach by the Leader of House, and possibly also by the Prime Minister, in respect of a resolution of the House of 17 November 1998.

The position is that the European Scrutiny Committee has been clear in calling for a substantive debate on the reform treaty before its signing by the Prime Minister in mid-December. That has also been backed up by early-day motion 426, tabled by the Chairman of the Committee and others, including me, which has been corrected, with the word “ratify” being supplanted by the word “signing”.

The situation in respect of that resolution is unprecedented since at least 1972. In a nutshell, the position is that:

“No Minister of the Crown”—

which includes the Prime Minister—

“should give agreement in the Council”

or in the European Council

“to any proposal for European Community legislation…which is still subject to scrutiny”.

The resolution also says that reference to an agreement to a proposal includes an agreement to a programme, plan or recommendation for European Community legislation, as well as a political agreement.

I should be grateful for a written formal ruling, I presume from Mr. Speaker himself, with respect to this question and to paragraphs (3) and (4) of the resolution, which deal with the basis on which the Minister may give agreement. It is not necessary for me to go through them in detail, but there are provisions that give the Minister the right to give agreement in certain circumstances with which I think the Prime Minister would find it impossible to comply. In those circumstances, I should be grateful if we could have a formal ruling on the matter, which goes to the heart of the manner in which the Government have produced the treaty and are proposing to sign it and how the United Kingdom is to be governed, and raises matters that are reminiscent of the difficulties that arose as far back as the 17th century, when we had similar problems to do with how this country was to be governed.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish this matter were taken seriously, because the last report from the Cabinet Office about breaches of scrutiny showed that not one breach of scrutiny in the last quarter was deliberate—in other words, a Minister knowing that they would breach a scrutiny reserve and doing so in contempt of our Committee. It would be terrible if the Prime Minister went to the next European Council and signed the reform treaty when there was a scrutiny reserve on it. The matter is easily dealt with, because it would mean a debate, I hope on the Floor of the House, on the reform treaty before the Prime Minister gets into that embarrassing situation.

I am not sure that I can help the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) on what happened in the 17th century, or that he would expect me to be able to do that today. Paragraph (4) of the resolution to which he referred allows Ministers to give agreement prior to the conclusion of the process of scrutiny for “special reasons” and provides that Ministers should explain those reasons “at the first opportunity”. That is the procedural cover for the situation. It is a matter of political judgment as to how important a measure is in a particular instance. That is not something on which the Chair can rule, but as the Standing Orders are written, it is possible in those circumstances for a Minister to agree the particular matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I deliberately did not go into the particular point that you raised because I thought it could be dealt with at a later stage. However, in the light of what you have just said, I still request a formal ruling from the Speaker on the subject, because the provisions contained on page 947 of “Erskine May” elaborate on your point as follows:

“In practice this is usually when the minister believes that an agreement on a text which is in the interests of the United Kingdom might be threatened by his imposition of a United Kingdom parliamentary scrutiny reserve.”

I think that it would be impossible for the Prime Minister to discharge his duties under those criteria.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to draw the Chair into a political argument on that particular point. It still is a matter of interpretation on the words that he uses as to whether the Minister, be it the Prime Minister or any other Minister of the Crown, believes that something is of sufficient importance. That is a matter of interpretation and it will be a matter of political debate. However, Mr. Speaker’s attention will be drawn to this exchange. If the matter needs to be clarified or refined beyond what I have said in trying to assist the hon. Gentleman, Mr. Speaker will communicate with him.

Topical Debate