House of Commons
Wednesday 12 November 2008
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Duchy of Lancaster
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
Volunteering (Young People)
The Government are investing £117 million in youth volunteering in the next three years through the organisation v. This is the biggest ever investment in youth volunteering and v has so far created 750,000 volunteering opportunities. The Office of the Third Sector also provides funding to YouthNet UK, the National Youth Agency, Youth Action Network and the British Youth Council, which will provide youth volunteering opportunities.
I thank the Minister for that response. Although progress has been made, it is still very much the case that children from poorer families are less likely to be able to volunteer to do internships or a gap year working in the community before going on to further study. They lack the contacts, the confidence or, in many cases, the finance to do so. Will the Minister tell the House what more is being done to ensure that the opportunity to volunteer is made available to everybody?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Volunteering is an extremely important part of social mobility and opportunities. Volunteering in our most deprived communities is important to building up our young people’s aspirations and the skills that are available to them, which is why we are making the investments that I have mentioned. As she mentioned gap years, she will be interested to know that the Department for International Development is investing £10 million to enable 18 to 25-year-olds to volunteer for 10 weeks overseas. The Platform 2 project, as it is called, is aimed at those who would otherwise not have that opportunity.
As the Minister will know, with a former Defence Minister, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), on his right, many young volunteers in the community are from the cadet forces. May I encourage the Minister to liaise with Defence Ministers as part of Cadet 150 to ensure that the right funding is found for the Sea Cadet Corps, the Air Training Corps and the Army Cadet Force?
Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Cadet Corps and the great job that they did on Remembrance Sunday and in the recent important commemorations. I can confirm that the Government fully support the Cadet Corps. Indeed, my previous post was in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and we did a great deal to promote the cadet forces through our schools, and I will certainly be happy to liaise with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on the issue.
I am a patron of TimeBank, one of the great volunteering organisations in the United Kingdom. Will the Minister confirm that the research so far suggests that those who are out of work but volunteer then get back into work more quickly than any other group of people?
Yes. I recently met representatives of TimeBank, and I commend my hon. Friend for his work. Volunteering is extremely important to getting people back into work, in terms of both aspiration and skills. Volunteering can form an important part of getting people back into work quickly and maintaining momentum in social mobility. I speak from personal experience: when I left university in 1982, at a time of high unemployment, the first thing that I did was volunteer in what would now be called a social enterprise. I can confirm that doing so helped me to get the confidence and skills to get into paid employment quickly.
I should like to follow up on that comment. The Minister will know that many young people who will be graduating from school and university will be aware that they are not going to get work in this economic climate. What is he doing with the voluntary sector to step up volunteering opportunities for those young people, so that they are not disillusioned and can at least gain some experience and strengthen their CVs?[Official Report, 19 November 2008, Vol. 483, c. 1MC.]
I would recommend volunteering as an option for people leaving university who are not immediately moving into work. As I have said, the investment that the Government are making in v, which has already been matched with more than £33 million from the private sector, with, I understand, more to come in an announcement in December, will play a big role in getting young people into those volunteering opportunities. As I have said, v has already identified more than 750,000 opportunities for young people.
I recently attended an event in Tipton in my constituency, which was organised by V Flex and designed to promote volunteering in local charities and schools. Will the Minister undertake to assess the progress and outcomes of such events, with a view to rolling out best practice in the rest of the country?
What does the Minister think will be the impact of a deep recession on attitudes to volunteering? What assurance can he give the House about the Government’s commitment to coming forward with measures to support charities and voluntary organisations that are suffering liquidity and cash-flow problems as a result of the banking crisis? They could be forced to cut services just when they are most needed.
It is clearly a challenging time for the third sector, and there are complex issues to address. Any Government response should be well considered, planned and executed. The hon. Gentleman will know, because the Prime Minister, in last week’s Question Time, answered his question by saying that the Government were considering a number of measures in response to the third sector, given the economic circumstances. I can confirm that the Office of the Third Sector within the Cabinet Office is working closely with Treasury officials to develop a package of support measures for charities that will be outlined later this month after the pre-Budget report. I can also confirm that I will be co-chairing a sector-wide summit with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on 24 November.
Voluntary Organisations (Disabled People)
I meet with representatives of a wide range of voluntary organisations in my capacity as Minister for the Third Sector, including those from many excellent organisations who work with and on behalf of disabled people with a range of impairments. For example, just last week I met John Knight of Leonard Cheshire Disability to discuss issues related to disabled people.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware of the pioneering work of the Touch Trust, of which I am a patron, which was started by my constituent, Dilys Price? The trust works with people with profound disabilities—many of them cannot walk or speak, and also have profoundly challenging behaviour. Does he agree that voluntary bodies are often the best at starting off charities, as my constituent did, and that Government agencies should give them as much support as possible?
I commend my hon. Friend for her patronage of that charity and, in fairness, all hon. Members who support charities in their local areas. I know of the work of the Touch Trust, not least because my hon. Friend is also my constituency neighbour in Cardiff. I am familiar with both the work of the trust and the work that she does with it. Such organisations often bring a special, personal and local perspective to issues such as working with disabled people.
The Minister will be aware of the valuable work done by Voluntary Service Overseas with able-bodied and disabled people, but what steps can his Department take to stop what is in effect a fraud? Private companies attract money from individuals to send them on trips abroad. Those individuals think that they will be doing valuable work, but it turns out that they are on some sort of glorified holiday. It is not the intention of those people to go on glorified holidays; they want to do valuable work. In effect, they are defrauded of their money. Meanwhile, disabled people who could be getting help are not getting it.
I would not wish to belittle voluntary work overseas, and I assume that the hon. Gentleman is not referring to taking the shadow Front-Bench team to Rwanda, which I understand is part of its plans. Many people want to make a positive contribution, and we should welcome that. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular evidence of the fraud and mis-selling that he described, I would be grateful to see it and take the matter up with my colleagues.
As my hon. Friend represents a Welsh constituency, I am sure he will be aware of the excellent work done by Mencap Wales. Does he agree that there is still a lack of understanding among some Government agencies of what learning disability means? There is a long way to go before those agencies and the public at large understand about the type of work that Mencap Wales carries out, and about learning disabilities.
I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she does with Mencap Wales, and I commend Mencap’s work more broadly across the UK. As part of our public service agreement with the social exclusion taskforce, we have been trying to help socially excluded adults. We have ensured that people with learning difficulties are one of our target groups, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend gave. I hope that, in driving that message across government, we will overcome some of the problems of the past that she outlined.
One of the observations made in last year’s report by the Commission on the Future of Volunteering was that volunteers—for example, people who deal with the disabled—often found that those in statutory agencies had poor training in how to work with them. That was a source of great concern and annoyance to them. Have the Government made any progress on dealing with that problem, and on creating greater training opportunities for those in statutory agencies to work more effectively with volunteers?
Yes, and we are investing in training not just for the volunteers themselves, but, exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests, for those who train the volunteers. I would be happy to have further conversations with him about the details, but, following the commission that he mentioned, this is certainly a priority matter for us.
Security Breaches (Data Loss)
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as a long-serving Member of this House, will appreciate that our disclosure policy is underpinned by advice from security experts. In this area, we are advised that it is not in our security interests to confirm information regarding electronic attacks against Government IT systems.
Perhaps I could inform the House, if the Minister will not, that over the past 12 months the Information Commissioner has reported 176 admitted breaches of data security by the public sector. That is a shameful record, for which the Government are responsible. Will they now abandon plans for further centralisation of personal data—either for identity cards or intercepts of e-mails and telephone calls—because the Government are plainly incapable of obeying their own laws on personal data security?
We are determined to keep the country safe and we will put in place the tools that are required to do the job. The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is that he knows that those data losses have taken place because we put forward a disclosure policy, which we believe is the only way to get the necessary culture change in government and in the public sector—although the problem applies to the private as well as the public sector—whereby people’s personal data are treated in the same way as people’s own money.
What has happened in respect of the training of public servants since the important reports by Sir Edmund Burton and the Cabinet Secretary? What other steps is the Minister taking to improve public confidence in the Government’s handling of private data? Will he ensure that a transparent policy is adopted?
My hon. Friend is right: training is at the heart of the matter. I am informed that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has trained more than 90,000 of its staff in data handling. In my view, that compares very favourably to the private sector, where a recent survey showed that a third of companies do not even know when they have data losses, whereas the transparency policy that we introduced will lead to a culture change across the whole of the public sector.
In the light of the number of data losses from public bodies, will the Minister consider increasing the penalties for those who mishandle our data, so that they begin to appreciate just how important it is that private and personal data should be treated as such—and not in the offhand way of many public bodies in the past?
The Cabinet Secretary’s report on data handling and security, which was published back in June, admitted that urgent action was needed to improve data security across the Government. Three years earlier, back in 2005, the Walport report, which came from the Government’s own Council for Science and Technology, had already recommended a series of changes to Whitehall practice in order to protect people’s personal data. Why did the Government not even bother to respond to the report, let alone introduce any of its recommendations for action, which were proposed three years ago?
The right hon. Gentleman and I have rehearsed this argument over a number of months. The Government have put in place a series of strong measures to tighten down on data loss, which I think compares favourably to measures in the private sector. We do penetration testing from user-friendly hackers; we restrict access to removable electronic devices; and encryption is now the norm. I say again that, compared to the private sector, where a third of companies do not even know when data loss has happened and 60 per cent. refuse to tell their customers when there has been one, we are leading the way in the public sector. I know that one of the right hon. Gentleman’s second jobs is as a banker—banks are notorious for not revealing data losses—so I hope that he is not trying to set one rule for the public sector in his day job and another rule for the private sector in his secondary-income job.
I remind the Minister that his responsibility is for data security across government. He will know that one of the recommendations—or, rather, requirements—of Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report was for all Departments to introduce privacy impact assessments so that threats to data security could be considered properly. Why, then, has the Home Office refused to provide such an impact assessment for the identity cards project, why has the Department of Health refused to draft one for the NHS Spine project, and why has the Department for Children, Schools and Families refused to provide one for the ContactPoint children’s database? How can we trust the Government to protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens when they systematically ignore their own requirements?
We have achieved a staggering amount of progress in making data safe in government. We are changing day by day, and thousands of people have been involved in the training project. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take advice from his hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who has a secondary job as a consultant for a corporate social responsibility firm that trades under the maxim “Public reporting has become fundamental to a company’s trustworthiness”—
Power of Information Taskforce
The Power of Information Taskforce was set up in April to embrace Web 2.0 technologies. In particular, we look into how we can encourage people to innovate with non-personal information, and how government can take part in online conversations in the public services.
My hon. Friend is right. A number of agencies in the west midlands pioneer digital technologies. I commend to him the taskforce’s Show Us a Better Way competition; he can type “Power of Information Taskforce” into any search engine to find the details.
We believe that citizens can help the Government to design public services in a better way, and that co-production is the way forward. So far, 450 people have entered the competition, and I am pleased to say that it has been a tremendous success. People as far away as the United States of America, India and Australia have followed our example.
Reports have repeatedly shown that Government data provide a valuable base for added-value product development in the private sector, and that regulating private sector providers appropriately, educating them better on the assets that they hold and a more liberal approach will build new business. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I entirely agree. There is no doubt that our advance towards freeing up data and making existing public sector information more accessible to our digital entrepreneurs enables them to add value to the United Kingdom economy, and I hope very much that Government policy will take us in that direction.
I am glad that the Government have a Power of Information Taskforce, but does the Minister agree that, in addition to power, great risks are involved in the holding of too much information electronically?
In his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), the Minister said that he could not possibly announce the number of electronic security breaches, but then went on to say how proud he was of having been so open and transparent about the issue. Will he now undertake to inform the House every time that there is a such a breach?
I do not think it would be helpful to reveal to the hon. Gentleman the nature of the attacks that are made on Government IT systems, although I can assure him that they are investigated thoroughly. When it comes to changing the culture, it is important for us to reveal incidences of data loss so that the public and private sectors can learn from the mistakes that have been made. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Power of Information Taskforce deals only with non-personal data.
The Office for Criminal Justice Reform in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are currently in the process of tendering for an experienced third sector partner to deliver supported accommodation and advocacy to adult victims who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation and/or domestic servitude.
As the Home Office is closing down the country’s largest dedicated police unit dealing with human trafficking, there is a real fear that the Government will ratify the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings to the minimum standards. Will the Minister therefore involve the third sector, which has experience of the subject and gives extremely good value for money—I am thinking of organisations such as ECPAT, the Helen Bamber Foundation, Anti-Slavery and the POPPY project—to ensure that victims, and victims alone, are at the centre of the process of implementing the convention?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that any such project is being closed down. He might be referring to the Metropolitan police trafficking team, to which pump-priming was provided, including £700,000 in the current financial year out of a total grant of £1.678 million. That is pump-priming money, and the Met have not yet made a final decision on it. I can confirm that the Home Secretary indicated in January that we will ratify the Council of Europe convention by the end of the year, and I make it clear that we are on track to do so.
Of course we will welcome ratification when it comes. As the Minister may know, the Select Committee on Home Affairs is inquiring into human trafficking. One of our concerns is the lack of co-ordination on a policy basis between voluntary projects in this country and in other countries, such as the origin, transition and destination countries. Will he ensure better co-ordination between the third sector organisations in countries affected by human trafficking?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Obviously, what third sector organisations can do in this country about trafficking is important, but it is also important to be able to deal with the problem at source. I look forward to seeing the outcome of his Committee’s report.
Would the Minister like to think again about the answer that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), because the Metropolitan police are closing that human trafficking unit? Will the Minister get in touch with his colleagues and get up to speed?
My understanding is that the Met are reviewing the most efficient and effective way of using their resources to ensure that their future operational response has the right resources in the right place to investigate criminals at all levels of operation and to bring them to justice. As I say, it is not a case of cutting anything; the funding that has gone into that particular unit has always been pump-priming.
Many trafficked young women become pregnant as a direct result of enforced prostitution. Does my hon. Friend agree that compulsory and comprehensive sexual health education is vital to help all young women to protect themselves, especially those who are most vulnerable?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why I welcome the recent announcement made by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Teenage pregnancy and social exclusion are big problems for young women in particular communities, and the key to tackling them is to build aspiration and have early interventions, such as the family nurse partnerships and family intervention projects, which have been pioneered in the Cabinet Office.
The relevant figure for 1997 was £81 million and the relevant figure for 2007-08 was £265 million.
By a quick bit of maths, I make that a threefold increase over the past 10 years. A great deal of that money has been completely wasted on spin and Government propaganda. Every household in this country is having to cut back on its spending, so will the Government pledge to cut back on this wasted spending on Government propaganda?
This Government are proud of the extra help that they have put in place for families and businesses in this country. In tough times, that real help will make the world of difference, and now is not the time to keep it secret—it is the time to tell people about it. The Conservative party must come a bit cleaner than it has so far. It must tell us which of the recruitment campaigns for the armed forces and for teaching staff it will shut down, and which public health campaigns and road safety campaigns it will shut down. Those campaigns make a real difference, and the Conservatives, in their desperate search for money for tax cuts, could do a lot of damage to this country.
Recently, I was pleased to announce, jointly with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, a new third sector skills body to ensure that the skills system meets the needs of the third sector that will receive £2.5million in funding to March 2011.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The key to the success of any organisation is the quality of its management and accounting staff. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that those in a management or accounting capacity in the voluntary sector are given access to high-quality, low-cost training in that regard?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that one key area where there is a shortage of skills in the third sector is in management capacity. That is why the Office of the Third Sector is investing in such training and why we set up the new training body, which has been broadly welcomed across the sector. I look forward to the work that it will undertake to try to improve the sort of management skills that my hon. Friend has rightly outlined as a key need in the third sector.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Paul Krugman, who has recently won the Nobel prize for economics, has said that people
“ask what I think should be done about the financial crisis.”
“The answer is, what Gordon Brown is doing in Britain”.
If the rest of the world is following Britain, will my right hon. Friend tell the House where that will leave those at home who oppose the action that we are taking to give the economy the boost it needs?
Let me congratulate Mr. Krugman on his Nobel prize. I think that people are beginning to understand around the world that we are dealing with a new situation of lower inflation next year, a downturn and a credit crunch. That requires very special measures to deal with unprecedented circumstances. I believe that around the world there is now increasing support for the policy that we have put forward, in addition to the recapitalisation of the banks, and that is a fiscal stimulus to back up interest rate cuts. While the Conservatives say that that is unacceptable to them, it is now happening in Germany, France, Spain, Australia, China and America. It is about time the Conservatives entered the real world.
Only this Prime Minister could be quite so smug on the day that 140,000 people have lost their jobs. Before turning to the economy, however, I want to ask the Prime Minister about the tragic death of Baby P. That happened in the same children’s services department that was responsible for Victoria Climbié. Yet again, nobody is taking responsibility and nobody has resigned. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Haringey inquiry is completely unacceptable? It is being led by Mrs. Shoesmith, who is the council’s own director of children’s services. Does the Prime Minister agree that she cannot possibly investigate the failure of her own department?
Let me say first—I believe that I speak for the whole country—that people are not only shocked and saddened but horrified and angered by what they have seen reported about what happened to an innocent 17-month-old boy. Every child is precious and every child is unique. Every child should have the benefit of support and protection both from their parents and from the authorities.
The tragedy that has arisen from the violence and torture of a young child, where three have already been found guilty, raises serious questions that we have to address. The first set of questions is being addressed by Lord Laming, who is now looking at social service protection for children in every part of the country. He carried out the Victoria Climbié inquiry, and I believe that his recommendations were accepted by all parties in this House as being necessary. He will now look at what at what needs to be done.
The second issue is in Haringey itself. There has been a serious case review, and the executive report already says that there have been failings and weaknesses in the system. The full report has now arrived with the Children’s Secretary this morning. It is now for the Government to take action, and we will make a decision about what procedures and processes we will adopt in relation to Haringey. I believe that that is the right thing to do—both a national review, and local action.
Let me ask the Prime Minister again about the local review. Sharon Shoesmith, who is carrying it out, said—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should worry about this matter, as this is a local authority that has completely failed. She said that her service had “worked effectively”. Now, the Prime Minister’s own Children’s Minister said very recently:
“Many areas set up their safeguarding board with the local director of children’s services as chair. That’s something that frankly does concern me.”
So let me ask again: is it not unacceptable that the person who runs the children’s services department is responsible for looking into what her own department did?
The procedure that was created after the inquiry by Laming said that local authority directors of children’s services and local members had to accept their responsibility. We created local safeguarding children’s boards—[Interruption.] I am answering the questions. We did so to safeguard children in the area. When an incident like this happens, which is so tragic, a special report has to be done, which is then submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The report arrived on his desk this morning. We already have the executive summary that was published yesterday and which identified weaknesses in the system. A decision will be made about what to do in relation to Haringey and what procedures need to be followed. I believe that there was all-party support for the Laming report when it was done, and that this is the right way forward.
Order. Please allow the right hon. Gentleman to be heard. It will not do for us to shout across the Chamber after this terrible news has come to us. It is best to let the right hon. Gentleman speak—[Interruption.] Order. I have made a decision and no one will defy the Chair.
I tell you what is shameful, and that is trying to shout down someone who is asking reasonable questions about something that has gone wrong. Let us be honest: this is a story about a 17-year-old girl who had no idea how to bring up a child. It is about a boyfriend who could not read but who could beat a child, and it is about a social services department that gets £100 million a year and cannot look after children. That is what this is about.
In the case of failing schools, we take them over. In this department in Haringey, one in four positions for social workers is completely vacant. It does nothing to help struggling local schools that are failing, and another child has been beaten to death. I do not expect an answer now, because we never get one, but will the Prime Minister at least consider whether the time has come to take over this failing department and put someone in charge who can run it properly for our children?
I think that we are both agreed that this is a tragic and serious loss of life that has got to be investigated properly so that all the lessons can be learned. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that appointing Lord Laming to go around the country and look at what is happening in each area so that we are assured about what is happening is the right thing to do. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has to accept that the executive summary, which has already been published, from the inquiry done in Haringey shows that weaknesses exist. There is an admission of weaknesses that have to be addressed. We have received the full report this morning, and we will act on it quickly. We will do it in the right way so that we come to the judgments that are necessary to protect children in the future. I regret making a party political issue of this matter—[Interruption.] I do regret that, because I think—[Interruption.]
I think that what the Prime Minister said just now was, frankly, cheap. I am not making—[Interruption.] I asked some perfectly reasonable questions about a process that is wrong, and I would ask the Prime Minister to withdraw the attack that that was about party politics.
I am absolutely clear about this. There is common ground on both sides of the House, and we should maximise our agreement on these issues about this very sad and tragic case. We have immediately taken action to set up an independent inquiry under Lord Laming, who has a great deal of expertise in this issue, and I believe all people will support it. Action will be taken in relation to Haringey, because we have just received the full report and the executive summary has already identified the weaknesses. We have acted immediately after the end of the court case, and we will continue to take action, because what really matters is the protection of young children in every part of the country.
Order. I appeal to the House again: it is not good, at a time when we have heard this news about a little child who has gone before us, that we should be shouting across the Chamber. Let the Leader of the Opposition speak, and also—[Interruption.] Well, if the Leader of the House lets me do my job, she can do her job. Let the Leader of the Opposition, and also the Prime Minister, speak.
The Prime Minister accused me of playing party politics. I did not mention who runs this council—I did not mention who ran it when Victoria Climbié was tragically killed—and all I am asking is that the Prime Minister withdraws his accusation that I was in any way playing party politics, and not asking a perfectly reasonable question about a tragic case. I was putting to him a point made by his own Children’s Secretary, so I ask the Prime Minister one more time: please just withdraw the accusation that I was playing party politics, because he knows I was not.
I think the whole House will now want to find unity around these three things: first, this tragic incident must be investigated in every possible way; secondly, the Lord Laming review is the right inquiry to have; and thirdly, now that the full case review has arrived with the Children’s Secretary, he will take the necessary action. I hope the whole House can agree that these are the right things to do, and we are doing the right things to get the right answer.
Obviously the Prime Minister does not feel able to withdraw what he said. Let me ask him one more time about the central point, which does not apply only in Haringey, but may well be a problem elsewhere, as his own Children’s Minister has said. We have a system that allows directors of children’s services to examine the conduct of their own department. That is wrong in every other walk of life. It must be wrong in social services, where we are dealing with the most difficult and sensitive decisions. Will he at least take away what his children’s spokesman has said, and say, “You should not investigate your own conduct”? It is simple: give a pledge.
The report that will be done will be independent. The local safeguarding children’s board has a responsibility to co-ordinate safeguarding action for children. The Lord Laming report will be independent. It will be conducted in such a way that it reviews the findings since the Victoria Climbié case. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not recognise that we have taken action immediately after the court case. We have set up an independent inquiry under Lord Laming. The report on the case review itself has arrived just this morning. That report will be acted on immediately. Surely it is in the interests of all of us to think of a young child and what we can do to make sure that this never happens again.
Consumer Focus has criticised the strategy of the Department for Work and Pensions on the replacement of the Post Office card account as being too narrowly focused on delivering an almost identical product at lower cost, rather than on the needs of Post Office card account users and the innovations that can meet those needs. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that priority is given to the needs of Post Office card account users, and that the opportunity of replacing the account is taken to improve on social inclusion, rather than the reverse?
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. I know that concern has been expressed by the whole House about the future of the Post Office card account. We are looking at these matters very carefully indeed. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will make a statement in due course.
Week after week, I have called on the Prime Minister to cut taxes to give help to people on low and middle incomes, and he is now raising expectations that he will do just that, but why should anyone believe him? This is the Prime Minister who will not take responsibility for people losing their jobs, but did take credit for a bank rescue plan that he copied. This is the man who doubled the tax rate for 5 million of the poorest people in the country, and called it a tax cut. When it comes to taxes, he may pretend that he is Robin Hood, but he is no more than a petty pickpocket. People do not need more cynical tinkering. What people need are tax cuts that are big, permanent and fair.
If we had listened to the Liberal party’s advice, we would be cutting public expenditure by £20 billion this year. That is not the policy that I believe it is right to follow. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will support not only the recapitalisation of the banks, but the fiscal and monetary stimulus that ought to be co-ordinated worldwide, and ought not to be happening just in one single country. It is the ability of countries to work together and to co-ordinate that work worldwide that I think will be important to recovery in every country.
The Prime Minister can misrepresent me all he likes, but he needs to get on and represent the millions of British families who are suffering under his unfair tax system. Right now, millionaires pay less than half the tax that they should on their capital gains. Top earners get an £8 billion tax bonus on their pensions. Up to £40 billion is lost in tax avoidance every year. When will he put an end to these tax breaks, and give ordinary people big tax cuts that are simple, immediate, permanent and fair?
First, we have raised capital gains tax from 10 to 18 per cent. Secondly, we have closed tax loopholes and continue to do so in every Budget. Where they are found, we take action when it is necessary. Thirdly, I come back to the point: what sort of stimulus to the economy would it be to cut £20 billion of public spending at the moment?
A few weeks ago in this House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Government’s major contractors would be paid within 10 days. Unfortunately, that fantastic undertaking has not been passed on to the smaller contractors who work for the larger suppliers. That has meant that my constituents have gone belly-up, even though they have done work for the Government. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor invited me to go to Lord Mandelson and ask him for an appointment to discuss the issue. That offer has now been withdrawn by Lord Mandelson, but my constituents still wish to meet him to discuss this important matter. Will the Prime Minister do all that he can to make Lord Mandelson change his mind?
The High Court judgment is being examined by the Home Secretary. There are a number of cases in which people have applied to come into the United Kingdom. Those issues are being reviewed by the Home Secretary now. We have always been clear that where there is a compelling case, soldiers and their families should be considered for settlement. However, in the light of the Court’s ruling, we are now going to revise and publish new guidance in the near future. We pay tribute to the Gurkhas, who have fought for the United Kingdom for two centuries. They have served in conflicts throughout the world. They are operating in Iraq and continue to serve with great distinction in Afghanistan. Gurkhas who have served after 1997 have the ability to come into this country, and we are now reviewing the situation that has arisen because of the judgment.
The Government are committed to improving the quality of diabetes care, and as my hon. Friend said, world diabetes day is on Friday 14 November. We understand particularly that some children have difficulty getting access to the diabetes care and support that they need at school, and a working group has been set up to look at the issue. The group includes parents of children with diabetes, and various organisations, including Diabetes UK and the Royal College of Surgeons. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is in close liaison with the Department of Health and has given guidance on managing medicine in schools and early years learning, and that is what we will continue to do to help diabetes sufferers.
President-elect Obama showed excellent political judgment by opposing the Iraq war, in contrast with the Prime Minister, who supported and funded it. Notwithstanding the excellent work of the troops on the ground in Iraq today, I ask: when will they come home and when will we have the inquiry into the war?
Iraq is now a democracy where it was not a democracy under Saddam Hussein. Children are now going to school, health services are being provided and economic development is moving forward in the Basra area, where our troops are best represented. We are now training thousands of Iraqi soldiers so that they can take on the task of defending Iraq itself, and we are also training thousands of policemen and women for the area. When the tasks of training are completed, we will have a fundamental change of mission, which will be similar to the relationship that we have with other countries, and I believe that we are making great progress in doing so.
I am sure that the whole House will want to pay tribute to the work and the dedication of the fire services and the rescue services in our country, and to acknowledge our debt of gratitude both to those who risk their lives and to the many who have lost their lives in service. These people play a vital role in protecting our communities, and I am sure that our ministerial colleagues will be happy to meet the delegation.
I think that we have just increased the amount of help that is available for the programme that the hon. Gentleman talks about. It is called Warm Front, and we are doing what we can to help. We have the biggest insulation and draft-proofing programme that the country has seen, and it has been funded by a levy of £900 million, which the utility companies have paid for. I hope that he agrees that we are doing more than ever to help people in conditions where they want either draft-proofing or insulation, and I shall look at what he says about the Warm Front operation in his area.
In this economic downturn, is it not a good thing that Members from all parts of the House are urging small firms to take advantage of the small business rate relief, especially given that the Leader of the Opposition voted against the measure in the first place? Is that not another example of the Tories following the Government’s lead?
Helping small businesses through this difficulty is one of the prime concerns that have led us to recapitalise the banks and to insist that lending be resumed to small businesses in our country. That is the central problem that we are addressing at the moment. There is a promise from the banks that have received money from us that they will maintain the advertising and availability of lending at the 2007 level. We met small businesses with the banks yesterday, and more work will be done on the matter. It is the essential element in making it possible for small businesses to have the cash flow that they need.
Of course I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I have to say that we have set aside £15 billion over the next 10 years for the priorities of medical research, which include cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I believe that the extra, additional money that we will spend on research in the next few years will help the sufferers of that terrible disease.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend says about credit unions. As we announced yesterday, the Government will work with the credit card industry to establish clearer rules and principles and bring forward a statement of best practice about how it will apply fair principles to existing debt. The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and his Department are in discussion with the industry about how we can help people who are facing difficulties with credit cards.
I know about the interests that people have in the future of the Post Office credit account, but the right hon. Gentleman must also remember that we are putting £2 billion into the post office network over the next three years. I thought that he would be appreciative of the fact that, given that we have given £2 billion in support in previous years, and are giving an extra £2 billion in the next three years, we are doing everything that we can to support the post office network.
It was right to give the whole House the chance to debate the issue yesterday. We have said that we support in principle a third runway at Heathrow, but that is subject to being confident of meeting strict environmental conditions. Those are the conditions being reviewed by the Secretary of State for Transport at the moment.
I was leader of the opposition on Haringey council at the time of the Victoria Climbié tragedy, and I was told that lessons would be learned and that such a thing should never happen again. Yet it has happened again. Although I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday that Lord Laming would lead a national review of child protection services, in terms of Haringey that does not go far enough. I hear what the Prime Minister says about looking at the report, but that report will not guarantee the safety of children in my borough. I ask the Prime Minister to look at that report, but also to call for an independent public inquiry.
I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Lady has put the sets of issues that have to be addressed. The first set of issues that has to be addressed is about whether we can ensure the protection of children in all parts of the country following the Laming report after the Victoria Climbié case, and that we are determined to do. The second set of issues arises in Haringey itself, and the executive summary has already pointed to weaknesses in what is done there. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has received the report—now the full report—this morning, and he will take as quick action on that as is necessary and look at the procedures that need to be followed in Haringey itself.
I think that the judgment of the shadow Chancellor on this matter does need to be questioned. The fuel duty stabiliser would mean that petrol, which is 97p a litre now, would have to rise today by 5p, and this is certainly not the right time to penalise motorists with a rise in petrol duty. [Interruption.] Oh, yes—5p extra a litre; that is the Conservative policy.
I explained a few minutes ago that we have been in a world where we have had high inflation combined with a credit crunch; now we are in a world where inflation is going down, and we have a credit crunch and a downturn. That is why we need new policies to deal with the matters ahead. The unfortunate thing is that the Opposition are still stuck in the old policy that failed in the past.
With the renewed emphasis on job creation, many local authorities have welcomed the financial support that the Government have provided in the form of the working neighbourhoods fund. Does my right hon. Friend think that this fund should be used to pay for town centre Christmas lights, however, as the Liberal Democrats have done in Chesterfield town centre?
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:
Lindsay Roy Esq., for Glenrothes.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you undertake to investigate what I feel was an appalling breach of protocol yesterday—Armistice day—when the flag of our country was not flown from all the flagpoles on the parliamentary estate, most particularly No. 1 Parliament street and Portcullis House? Will you please look into this to ensure that such a breach does not occur on Remembrance day next year?
Interest Rates (Maximum Limit)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a maximum limit for interest rates to be prescribed; and for connected purposes.
This Bill would cap interest rates just above the Bank of England rate for store cards, loans and credit cards. During my research on the Bill, I was shocked by the charges that store cards and credit companies make. Burtons, Dorothy Perkins or Woolworths, for example, make a charge of 29.9 per cent. With an Argos payment card, interest can go up to 222.7 per cent. Someone who spends £1,000 on a Principles store card and makes only the minimum payment will need 15 years to clear that debt. Sadly, it is not just store cards that are the problem; companies that provide loans are even more outrageous. Provident Personal Credit charges 183 per cent. APR.
Here is an example of what it means in practice. I have an excellent leaflet provided by South Lanarkshire Credit Union Network, which details exactly the consequences of a rate of 183 per cent. It identifies two characters, Mrs. Rush and Mrs. Wise. They both borrow £300—Mrs. Rush from the Provident and Mrs. Wise from the local credit union. They each pay back £9 per week. By week 36, Mrs. Wise has paid off her loan, and it cost only £12.50 in interest. Mrs. Rush has another 20 weeks of payments to make, and by week 56 has paid off her debt, but at a cost of £204 in interest.
Sad to say, Provident is not the worst in this field. Last Sunday’s News of the World identified a company called Log Book Loans, which charges 437 per cent. APR. A person who borrowed £1,500 from this company would be forced to pay back up to £4,180 over an 18-month period. Even Log Book Loans is not top of the interest rate chargers chart. That title belongs to a company called Payday UK and Early Payday Loans, in Windsor. It charges an eye-watering 1,355 per cent. APR. Those companies specifically target workers who run out of cash before the end of the month. Those individuals have nothing to live on until the next pay day, and, crucially, they have no other means of borrowing.
What all those companies have in common is that they target people in financial difficulties who in many cases have nowhere else to go. The banks, which we have now taken partly into public ownership, are charging interest rates of 29.9 per cent. Frankly, that is totally unacceptable. My Bill would limit the interest charges at a fixed rate above the base rate set by the Bank of England. I believe that a fair rate would be 5 per cent. above the base rate. I have had a lot of cross-party support, and other individuals are a bit concerned about that level. I want to stimulate a debate, but I believe that that is what the rate should be.
It is interesting to look at what other countries do. It is reported in The Guardian this morning that in America the average credit charges are between 9 and 11 per cent. As the base rate has been trimmed in America, so have the credit interest rates. While carrying out my research on this Bill, I did not find one company in Britain that has cut interest rates on its credit charges or store cards—
The hon. Gentleman says that they have gone up, and that is the case. It is absolutely scandalous.
In Germany, credit interest is regarded as an abuse if a company charges twice as high as the market interest rate. In Denmark, where there is no fixed rate, a lending company was taken to court for charging 33 per cent. APR, and it was forced to reduce the rate to 16 per cent.
The time has come for the Bill. I welcome the my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s comments at Question Time that he would bring in such companies and call them to account. I think that he should do more. We need to introduce legislation to cap interest rate charges. We need to highlight the cost to individuals of taking out a loan with the sort of companies and shops that I mentioned. We need to promote credit unions and the benefit that they bring to local communities. It is sad to report that the Scottish National party Government have abolished the ring-fenced money that the Labour-led Administration had introduced to promote and encourage credit unions. That is a disgrace.
This place needs to tell the people of Britain that, during difficult times, we are on their side, and to send the message that, during the credit crunch, it is time to crunch the credit charges.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jim Devine, Mr. Mohammad Sarwar, John Bercow, Keith Hill, Mr. Brian Binley, Mark Durkan, Ms Katy Clark, Mr. Tom Clarke, John Barrett, Mr. David Anderson and Jon Cruddas.
Interest rates (maximum limit)
Mr. Jim Devine accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for a maximum limit for interest rates to be prescribed; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 November, and to be printed [Bill 162].
Business of the House
I beg to move,
That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on:
(1) the Motions in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to Regional Accountability, Regional Select Committees, Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees and Regional Grand Committees, not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion;
(2) the Motions in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to European Scrutiny (Standing Orders) and Modernisation of the House of Commons (Changes to Standing Orders) not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first such Motion; and
(3) the Motion in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to the Speaker’s Conference not later than one hour after the commencement of proceedings on that Motion;
such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.
We have tried to introduce the measures as quickly as possible, partly because some of them lapse at the end of the Session and therefore need to be renewed, while others lapse at the end of the year and also need to be renewed. We wanted to ensure that that could happen on one parliamentary day.
We tabled the business motion a full week in advance of today’s debate so that hon. Members could have full notice of the way in which we intended to proceed. That is earlier than we have sometimes been able to table business motions and I hope that it has assisted hon. Members.
We are keen to allow time for votes, given that there may be several this afternoon, and it would wrong for them to eat into the time allowed for debate. Consequently, we have created three discrete debates of one and a half hours on regional accountability and the various measures that need to be rolled over into the next Session
Even the hon. Gentleman is with me. We have tried to allow sufficient time for debate. Several Members said that we should have more time to debate the Speaker’s Conference because it constitutes a significant departure in that we have not had one for many years. Some suggested that we should take time from the regional accountability debate and give it to the European scrutiny debate. We have tried to provide a balanced afternoon.
We have tried to restrict the business to one day because of the current economic position throughout the world and in this country, and the many requests that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I hear every Thursday for debates on many other subjects. For us to debate our own procedures for more than a day might be inappropriate.
First, the House has not had the opportunity to debate the economic situation in Government time, so that is a poor excuse for limiting debate on these important motions. Secondly, the debate may need to be limited to one day, but the length of that parliamentary day does not need to be fixed. There is no need for the business motion to limit the length of the debates and business does not need to finish at 7 pm. We could run the debate for as long as it takes, and those Members who want to participate could stay as long as they wish.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has fully understood the Order Paper. Under the statutory provisions on the Members’ Fund, we may well go on beyond 7 pm, because that debate must last for one and a half hours. We have made provision to enable that to happen after the moment of interruption this evening.
These measures need to be debated and it is more important that we get on to those debates than we continue debating the arrangements for them.
I certainly agree with the Deputy Leader of the House that it is good that the Government gave rather longer notice of the business motion than they normally do, but that is about all I can agree with. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) so clearly pointed out, it is no argument to use the economic crisis as an reason for restricting debate about whether we are going to spend up to £2 million of taxpayers’ money on setting up eight more regional Select Committees and Grand Committees, or on whether the European Scrutiny Committee should continue to meet in private and not in public. We have not had a debate on the economic crisis in this country in Government time. I have consistently asked for such a debate, but the Government have consistently resisted that request.
The motions are significant and need proper time for debate. On the first set on regional accountability, the Select Committee’s report was pushed through only on the casting vote of the Leader of the House as Chairman, but we will have only one and a half hour’s debate on those motions. The issue of European legislation is of great concern to many of our constituents. Some 50 per cent. of our legislation comes from Europe, but the question of how this Parliament should examine it will be debated for only one and a half hours. Frankly, the business motion is outrageous. Far more time is needed for both those issues.
The Deputy Leader of the House also said that the Speaker’s Conference is significant. If so, why does he propose to restrict debate on it to one hour? The business motion is farcical, and I urge hon. Members to vote against it.
I share the strength of feeling of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). This motion is a complete abuse of the Government’s powers. Since we came back in October, we have had days and days on which the House has finished early. We have had days and days on which we have had no votes at all, but we are still told that we do not have time to discuss amendments and new clauses to Bills, which were tabled by both Labour and Opposition Members.
Now we come to this controversial motion—the Leader of the House knew that it was controversial from the moment that the Modernisation Committee discussed it. It was only because she was lucky enough to get a new member on to the Committee the night before the issue was discussed that she even had the opportunity to use her casting vote to get it through. Colleagues want to speak on the issue of regional Select Committees.
The Deputy Leader of the House has suggested that it is relatively less important that we have time to discuss this internal business. It matters to the working of Britain’s democracy whether we have regional Select Committees, how they are composed, how much travel they do and whether we should pay the Chairman; it matters whether the European Scrutiny Committee sits in private or in public; and it matters whether we have a Speaker’s Conference, under your chairmanship, Mr. Speaker, about making ourselves more representative.
Those are important matters, but the Deputy Leader of the House has argued that these issues must be timetabled, because otherwise we would eat into the time for important business. He suggested that we need to debate the state of the economy, but it was my colleagues who initiated the debate on the economy on Monday, not the Government. We still have not had a debate on the economy in Government time. Wednesday is the day when most colleagues are here, so there is no reason at all why we cannot have a debate that is not timetabled to discuss such matters in turn. Some colleagues are willing to attend this place on a Wednesday afternoon and a Wednesday evening, and some colleagues do not have to disappear at 6.30 or 7 o’clock this evening to do other things.
We are willing to earn our money and do the job properly, and it is about time that the Government realised that this is the price that they will pay. They will be criticised every time they introduce business motions of this sort, because they are still insisting that the business of the House is decided by the Executive, not by Parliament. Until we get Parliament deciding Parliament’s business—not the Executive, whatever party or combination of parties is in power—we will not be doing our job properly.
This is a complete abuse of the Government’s powers in this place, and I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House—Labour Back Benchers and Opposition Members—will oppose the business motion.
I rise to support what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has just said. Like him, I think that this is an abuse. I think, too, that many hon. and right hon. Members are prepared to sit late tonight on a matter of this importance. After all, those of us who have been Members of the House some little time always used to be here until 10 o’clock, without particular inconvenience. It may be that people now make different arrangements or want to get to their constituencies early on a Wednesday or have pressing engagements at freebie dinners, but that is not a first priority for hon. and right hon. Members.
I want to make a few general points. First, there is a general principle that in a democratic body, Members who wish to express a view on matters of importance should be able to do so. Of course it is true that that is often a bore. Many of us are boring—[Interruption.] That is good of my hon. Friends, but it is also true that some of us are boring at least some of the time. However, one burden of being a Member of the House is to put up with bores.
I was on the Front Bench as a Government Whip for quite a long time. By God, it was boring, but I at least recognised that part of the process of a democratic House is to listen to views. The point has already been made that quite significant issues are being discussed in the first group of motions—I think that all the issues are significant. If one reflects just for a moment on how many right hon. and hon. Members will intervene, one sees how inadequate the time will be. There will be Front-Bench spokesmen for the two leading parties and a Front-Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. Then somebody from the Modernisation Committee will be called, after which one or two illustrious parliamentarians will doubtless be called to speak. When the House has exhausted that lot, there will be very little for the rest of us, unless of course we fall into the category of illustrious parliamentarian.
Even with a limit of five minutes, which you have imposed, Mr. Speaker, very few Back Benchers will get into the debate, but if one looks at the kind of issue that will be raised in relation to the first grouping, one sees how important they are. Right hon. and hon. Members will be demanding an answer to the question, Is there a need for these regional Select Committees? Can the House staff them in terms of parliamentarians and House of Commons staff? Can the House justify the cost of £2 million or so, which is quite considerable? Will this proposal extend the powers of patronage available to those on the Front Benches? That is an important issue, because some Members will pay quite a lot in terms of their independence to sit on these regional Select Committees, and I am not sure that I want to give the Government, or even my own Front Benchers, a power of patronage.
Incidentally, if the Chairman is to be paid, that will be another significant bit of patronage available to those on the Front Bench. I ask myself, “Are those not questions that need to be ventilated by as many people as want to speak?”
I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has seen them, but there have been two articles in the press in the last week suggesting that the new, or reinstated, Government Chief Whip would not allow Labour Members to become members of a Select Committee if they have ever voted against the Government. Therefore, the only people who would go on the Select Committee would be people—[Interruption.] I am not sure that there will be enough to serve all the Committees. It seems to me that that is absolutely a further abuse of the system, which we ought to discuss.
Of course I understand that, Mr. Speaker. All I was seeking to do by identifying some of the issues was to make the point that lots of right hon. and hon. Members will want to intervene on an issue of this kind. That is particularly true in relation to the European Scrutiny Committee, because whether the Committee sits in private or in public is a matter of real concern, and I am sure that lots of right hon. and hon. Members will want to intervene on it. The time limits in the business motion are simply inadequate.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the whole reputation of the House suffers if important Select Committees, when taking evidence from distinguished witnesses, are unable to achieve a quorum? That has happened on many occasions. If we are to establish another eight Select Committees, it will be even more difficult for Select Committees of the House to achieve a quorum. Talking about the House as a whole, the House itself will suffer because fewer and fewer Members will be able to attend debates. Maybe that is what the Government want.
My hon. Friend’s point is important. It is discourteous to witnesses if the Committee is not quorate. I have no doubt, too, that if we set up more and more Select Committees, or regional Select Committees, we will take away from the Chamber, which is undesirable. He and I have been in this place for a very long time, and we happen to believe that this Chamber is the main forum of debate, rather than elsewhere, although I acknowledge that elsewhere can be important.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that I respect him in many regards. He also knows, as a former Whip, that as the motion has been on the table for a week, he or any other Member, including the two Front Benchers who have already spoken, could well have tabled an amendment to increase the time available for debate. I am sure that we would have listened to what they had to say.
I have participated in many debates on timetable motions, and I have tabled amendments on occasion. I think that I can say without any fear of contradiction that I do not recall this Government, on any occasion when I have participated, extending the time available in a business motion. They have never shown any willingness to respond to Back Benchers’ concerns.
I apologise, but I cannot recall whether my right hon. and learned Friend was at business questions last Thursday, but I point out to him and to the Deputy Leader of the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) raised exactly that point about there not being enough time for proper debate on the motions. It was therefore entirely open to the Leader of the House to take the view of the House from business questions and change the motion.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, because I was here when my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made that point. I also remember that when he made it, there was a lot of chuntering of agreement from those on the Back Benches, which should have indicated to those on the Government Front Bench that there was a lot of support for what he was saying.
The response from the Deputy Leader of the House missed the point: it is not that we want an amended business motion; we do not want a business motion at all. We want to be able to take the business until the House has finished dealing with it. The point is that this is an occasion on which the Government could have left well alone and not had a business motion at all.
I think it is just possible that the House would rise anyway at 7 o’clock if we did not have a business motion. Probably, there is a requirement for a business motion, but it should not be time limited in this way. Speaking personally, I would hope that the House is willing to sit to at least 10 o’clock to deal with this business.
Before my right hon. and learned Friend concludes his opening remarks, will he indicate for the benefit of those such as myself how long, from his experience, this debate and each part of the individual motions might take, in order to help the House make a decision on this business of the House motion?
Obviously I do not know how many hon. Members have sought leave to speak, but I would have thought it fair to allow three hours for the first group of amendments, with two or three hours thereafter. However, I do not know how many hon. Members wish to participate, so I cannot give my hon. Friend a sensible answer.
These are not preliminary remarks; they are concluding remarks. I therefore conclude by saying that in a democratic House we must provide ample time for those who want to participate. True, some contributions will be repetitive, some will be otiose and some will be boring, but at the end of the day, that is the nature of a democratic House and that is what we should allow right hon. and hon. Members.
I am delighted to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and agree with everything that he and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said. It is not very often that I can say that about the hon. Gentleman, but I do so willingly and gladly today.
There always has been and always will be tension between the Government and the Opposition in the House when the Executive are drawn from the legislature. When my right hon. and learned Friend sat on the Government Benches, he took a rather different view of such matters. When he was briefly and ingloriously a Whip, he was vociferous in expressing his view and expected the troops to fall into line. I think that I shall be allowed to breach this confidence after so many years, but I shall never forget the lecture that he gave to the 1922 committee on how we should behave ourselves and support the Government. I therefore obviously understand the Government’s desire to push their business. However, this Government have gone more than a step too far and they are going many steps too far today. Everything that my right hon. and learned Friend said in that context was entirely right.
I am tempted—I think that I could do it—to take advantage of this motion and speak until 7 o’clock. That would test your patience, Mr. Speaker, as well as that of my colleagues, and I would have to try hard to ensure that I was in order on every particular.
I have had no coffee—indeed, I have not even had any lunch—and certainly nothing stronger. Speaking until 7 o’clock is a temptation, but one that I shall with some reluctance resist. However, it is important that we make our points forcefully.
The Government have abused their position with regard to Parliament in many ways. I have said this many times, but it is an absolute scandal that the Modernisation Committee, once created, should have become the creature of the Government, by having the Leader of the House imposed as its Chairman. That is not the way that we have decided parliamentary matters in the past. If the next Conservative Government, whom I believe will be elected at the next general election, have the lack of wisdom to keep the Modernisation Committee—I hope that they will abolish it—they should certainly not allow the Leader of the House to chair it.
The matter is brought into sharp focus today because the most controversial of the substantive motions, for which such inadequate time has been allocated today, were passed on the Leader of the House’s casting vote. We then witnessed the ludicrous spectacle of the Leader of the House giving the Government’s response to the report and saying that she agreed with herself. That was of course a wonderful revelation for many of us.
To allow only an hour and a half for the regional debate is utterly wrong. In your wisdom, Mr. Speaker, you have rightly decided that speeches in that debate should be limited to five minutes, because you want as many hon. Members as possible to get in. Given that restraint, I hope that all three Front-Bench spokespersons will exercise self-restraint. I hope that we will not hear a lengthy speech from the Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House—much as I should enjoy listening to such a speech in other contexts—or the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. It is important that Back Benchers from all parts of the country should have an opportunity to express their views.
I must try not to stray and deploy arguments that I will deploy later if I have the good fortune to get five minutes. However, there are questions of manpower and staffing to be answered. There is the question of why we need Select Committees if we are also to have, in my view perfectly properly, regional Grand Committees meeting, one hopes, in the regions to which they relate and on which all the hon. Members from that region will have the right to sit. I completely agree with that, but we should be able to debate the proposal at length. We should also be able to debate whether Chairmen should be paid and whether they should all sit on the Liaison Committee, which would thereby destroy it, by making it the most unwieldy Committee that the House will ever have seen.
It is an insult to the intelligence of hon. Members and the House to say that all those issues should be debated in one and a half hours. Then we come to the other subjects that are to be discussed later. Although there might be a degree of urgency about some of them, there is not the same urgency about all of them. For instance, important as the suggestion is that you, Mr. Speaker, should chair a Speaker’s Conference, we do not need to debate it until after Christmas. It could well be left to one side.
Today should have been devoted to the regional issues and without time constraints, so that we could go on until 10 o’clock. That would have meant that everyone who had a view would have had the opportunity to express it. I suspect that even then, Mr. Speaker, you would have had to limit speeches to perhaps 12 or 15 minutes. I always remember the words of a vicar friend who told me, “If you haven’t struck oil after eight minutes, stop boring.” That would be fair enough and would have given hon. Members from all parts of the country the opportunity to take part in the debate.
What is before us is not a programme motion; it is a steamroller motion designed to push through the Government’s policy, not the House’s wishes, and it is frankly appalling. In many ways, I wish that some of us had organised something of a conspiracy to ensure that we debated the issue until 7 o’clock, although it might not be too late.
I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman patiently and have some sympathy for what he is saying. However, what has happened demonstrates not only the weakness of the Government, but the poverty of the Opposition. The Opposition have been asleep when they should have been kicking up—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but let me demonstrate my point. Most hon. Members I have spoken, to, Conservative and Labour, have said that they did not know that today’s motions contain a provision for councillors to be co-opted on to regional Select Committees. It is the Opposition who should be providing the opposition, not me. They should have drawn attention to the issue much earlier.
But when the hon. Gentleman so regularly and felicitously provides the opposition, we are delighted to have him on side. He is extremely perspicacious and sound on most House of Commons matters. Indeed, I am delighted that he has referred to participation by local councillors, which completely changes the complexion of Select Committees, as well as the very identity of Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of councillors is an example of how half-baked the Government’s proposal is? The councillors are to be co-opted—the motion does not say by what mechanism—but they will not count towards the quorum and will be unable to vote. We will have token councillors—husks of councillors—and for that the House of Commons is giving up control of its own Committees.
It is as if one had said that people in the Public Gallery could take part in debates in the House, or that anyone who was in a Public Bill Committee could chip in. It is ridiculous. It shows the Government’s lack of appreciation of the place of Parliament and a cavalier disregard for what we are about in this place, and it is entirely at one with the cosmetic policies of the Leader of the House. She has never done anything other than pay lip service to her regard for Parliament since she occupied that position.
I can see that you are getting restless, Mr. Speaker, because I should be talking about the timing. It is wrong to have only an hour and a half when there are, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) have so brilliantly illustrated, issues of such substance and revolutionary changes to discuss.
As a very junior Back-Bench Member, one of the problems I have is that, when this sort of timetabling occurs, I am not able to speak on the subject. That is a matter of fact. The only way in which I am ever going to be able to speak on the subject is if the debate is extended to 7 o’clock, so that the motion lapses.
I believe Mr. Speaker, that you made the point that speeches will be limited to five minutes. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will get one of those slots, as I hope I do. That is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point, because it again illustrates that if there is a one-and-a-half-hour limit, we are dependent on speeches by Front-Bench Members being fairly restrained. We all know—you better than anyone, Mr. Speaker—that speeches from the Front Bench tend to be subject to interventions. That is perfectly reasonable. I would like the Leader of the House to limit her remarks to five minutes, but it is perfectly possible that she will provoke me or one of my hon. Friends—or many of them—to intervene. Before we know where we are, the Leader of the House will have spoken for 20 minutes. The shadow Leader of the House might be in the same position, having been intervened upon from the Labour Benches. That is perfectly legitimate, because it is right that those who have responsibility should be held to account at the Dispatch Box and that those who seek to challenge that responsibility from the Opposition Dispatch Box should also be able to defend their position. The same goes for the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. He is not the shadow Leader of the House—there is only one—but he is their spokesman on parliamentary matters, and it is important that he should be able to deploy, and answer for, his arguments.
However, all that is supposed to happen in one and a half hours. I repeat that that is appalling.
I will give way in a minute.
I would hope that, even at this stage, the Leader of House will give an indication, so that I can shut up and sit down, that she will withdraw the motion immediately. Why does she not do so? She would become the heroine of the House. We would all cheer her to the echo, and debate the matter. She has a once-in-a-lifetime chance for universal popularity on the Floor of the House of Commons—
My hon. Friend is of course drawing attention to the importance of Select Committees and Grand Committees in scrutinising legislation. However, has he considered the fact that London is not mentioned in the proposals? We could have a situation in which Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have Select Committees—my hon. Friend chairs the Northern Ireland Committee with distinction—
Given that the people of the north-east of the country have already kicked the issue of regions into touch and that we will debate a much more substantive proposal today, does the hon. Gentleman agree that allowing one and a half hours for that debate is an insult to any concept of democracy?
Of course it is. I hoped that I had started to make that point, but I am happy to echo those sentiments. It is an insult, and we must realise that we must also debate the manning of the proposed Committees. In some regions of the country, a party is represented very inadequately or hardly at all, yet it will have to have a majority.
On that point, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not limit the time available to the Leader of the House to the extent that she cannot answer one simple question on the south-west. How can it possibly be right to pack a regional Select Committee for the south-west with Members of Parliament from outside the region, and for counties within the south-west not to be represented at all because of the arithmetic?
I am exceedingly glad, and thank my hon. Friend very much.
One point that we need to have in mind is that there is a motion relating to the change of Standing Orders. To apply an allocation of time motion to a motion relating to general questions is one thing; but to apply it to the Standing Orders of this House is taking the situation way beyond what is acceptable, for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend, but for many more that we will pursue for some time this afternoon.
Will the hon. Gentleman also reflect on the dilemma that many Back Benchers will experience? Given that 13 Members will be seeking to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye during the one-and-a-half-hour debate, there are two ways in which Back Benchers will be able to probe the issue: first, they might be called to speak, which is perhaps a forlorn hope; and, secondly, by extending the Leader of the House’s speech by intervening to probe her arguments. That is clearly a dilemma, because by doing the latter, one might reduce the amount of time available to speak later in the debate.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I referred to the need to intervene on speeches from the Front Bench, including his own. It is important that those who espouse policies defend them properly. They cannot do so if they merely get up, read speeches and sit down. Of course, intervention is an essential part of debate.
It would be an improvement if Front-Bench speeches were excluded and if an hour and a half allocated to Back-Bench Members. I am in such a generous mood today that I will make another offer to the Leader of the House. If Mr. Speaker would accept a manuscript amendment to that effect, would she be willing to accept it? In other words, I should like her speech, that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which I am sure will be brilliant, and that of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey—his might be a shade long, but I am sure it will be very good—to be exempted, so that the rest of us can have an hour and a half. If you were willing, Mr. Speaker, would the Leader of the House accept such an amendment? Ms Harman indicated dissent.
Sir Patrick Cormack: Good gracious. Every offer that I make on timing is spurned. I feel deeply dejected.
In his intervention on my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) hit on another problem with the timetable motion on regional Select Committees and their composition. Of course, the political composition of each region is different. Really, we need to have a separate debate about the composition of each of the regional Select Committees, to see whether there are particular issues in regions such as the south-west, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In one and a half hours, the House simply is not going to get that opportunity.
That is right. Another issue that has to be debated within the one and a half hours is what happens to Members who already serve on a Select Committee, because there will have to be a degree of duplication. I have the honour of chairing the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs—a task that I greatly enjoy—and I have three exceptionally good Government members of that committee from the north-east. I can well imagine the dilemma that they would face. We ought to have time to debate that dilemma, but we will hardly have time to do so because in the five minutes allocated to each speaker—properly under the circumstances—it will be difficult effectively to make more than one or two points. Apart from the remarks of the Deputy Leader of the House who, as always, introduced the motion with good humour, no one has even begun to agree that this is a proper allocation of time.
I will resist the temptation to speak for another five hours. I am almost inclined to give in to it—that, at least, would put me in the “Guinness Book of Records”, which nothing else I have done in this place has so far.
Well, he did have something of substance to talk about! I would not want to enter the verbosity stakes with my hon. and illustrious Friend. Perhaps we could do a charity competition on it one day, but that could hardly be in this House, because it would be for money, albeit for charity—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, no less, wishes to intervene.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he not think that the House needs to hear more from the Deputy Leader of the House, who said a few moments ago that he was sure that, if an amendment had been tabled, the Government would have listened, showing that he was not necessarily wedded to this timetable motion. Should we not hear from him and then invite the Government to table a manuscript amendment to their own motion?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend who, as Chair of the Procedure Committee, has a great background of knowledge in these matters. I have twice already made an offer about a manuscript amendment, but answer came there none. It is very sad indeed that the Deputy Leader of the House, having said effectively that an amendment would be accepted, has spurned by disdainful silence the two offers that have been made. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to intervene to explain to me and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) what she would accept by way of amendment to this timetable motion. It is that motion that is making us very cross.
Mr. Speaker is scrupulously right to ensure that we talk about the timing, which I am trying to do, but it is ludicrous that we have until 7 o’clock to debate timing issues and only one and a half hours to debate the substance. That is a perversion of parliamentary practice.
My hon. Friend has already made a general offer to the Government Front Benchers, but he may like to be a little more specific. I was asked how long I thought was needed. If my hon. Friend were to suggest three hours for the first group of motions, three hours for the second and two hours for the third, the Government might well find that they had the House’s support. Would my hon. Friend consider putting that offer to the Government Front Benchers?
Perhaps on the basis of third time lucky, I would be willing to do so. My first suggestion was spurned; my second suggestion, to exempt the three Front-Bench speeches from the hour and a half, was spurned; I now fall back upon what I shall call the Lincolnshire amendment. As a native son of Lincolnshire, I am delighted to do that, and I very much hope that the amendment will be accepted—if only out of a sense of affection for my native county and my right hon. and learned Friend’s adopted county. I thus propose three hours for the first set of motions, three for the second and two for the third. Yet again I give the Leader of the House or the Deputy Leader of the House the opportunity to confirm that they would accept such a manuscript amendment. I wait with bated breath for intervention from the Rhondda or from Peckham.
The Government do not seem to want to accept my hon. Friend’s offer, but his proposed time allocation has highlighted another problem, showing that it would be much better if we ran with the mood of the House. The third part of the motion deals with setting up a Speaker’s Conference—subject matter that could have the most dramatic effect on the electoral system and the composition of the House, and from which there could be some important proposals. I do not think that we should be relegating such an important issue to third place in the allocation of timing, as the House might want to spend a great deal of time thrashing out the terms of reference that it wants to give Mr. Speaker. That might well need more than two hours, so we should see how long the House wants to take.
I agree, of course, in principle with my hon. Friend. A number of hon. Members were in the House when timetabling did not exist unless a guillotine was brought in on a specific Bill and voted on by the House—a much fairer and better way of doing things. Now, before we embark on any discussion, we are told how long we have; and when a Bill goes into Committee, we are told when it will come out of Committee. My hon. Friend, as a good parliamentarian, is right: we should have an open-ended debate on these issues. The Chair always has the opportunity to accept a closure motion—something that has been in the possession of the Speaker or the occupant of the Chair since time immemorial. That is fine and as it should be if, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham says, we tend to bore—although I hope I am not doing so at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman is making what I consider to be a wonderful speech. May I take him back to the Lincolnshire amendment suggesting three hours, three hours and two hours? If that were accepted and we commenced the first set of provisions on Regional Select Committees at 2 o’clock, which is not beyond the realms of possibility, we could then conclude the business at 10 o’clock tonight, which does not seem an extraordinary length of time to consider three such important motions. Will the hon. Gentleman please put that suggestion again to the Leader of the House?
I am ready for an intervention by the Leader of the House at any moment. If she or her deputy would accept such a motion, debate would end, as the hon. Gentleman so rightly points out, at approximately 10 o’clock. That cannot be too late for anyone.
It seems to me that denunciation of the idea that councillors should be able to be co-opted could itself absorb a significant number of hours, because we will be creating, in my view, a wholly undesirable precedent. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would have been perfectly possible to deal with the regional accountability issues in a discrete and dedicated fashion on a day that is being used for a general debate which has simply been shoe-horned in to ensure that an otherwise incomplete day can somehow be made complete?
As always, my hon. Friend speaks—at least on parliamentary matters—a very great deal of sense, and I entirely agree with him. I cannot talk about it right now, but the concept of hybridity, which is to be transferred from Bills to Committees, is a parliamentary innovation of revolutionary proportions. That alone deserves a full day’s debate.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, under the present business motion, the House could sit for long after 10 o’clock? This debate can go on until 7 o’clock; we then have an hour and a half on the next item, on which there could be seven Divisions, exempted from the time allotted; and then we go on to other matters. In that case, is not 10 o’clock actually earlier than the time allotted for debate under the Government’s own proposition?
My hon. Friend has spoken of the importance of parliamentary rules and the constitutional position which is being invaded by this disgraceful episode. Is he aware that in, I believe, 1886, during the enormous battles between the Irish Members and the rest of the House, the Speaker—and I say this with great respect to the present incumbent of the Chair—capitulated to an understanding arrived at between the two Front Benches that the Standing Orders, otherwise known at that time as the Speaker’s Rules, should be taken away from Mr. Speaker and conferred on the Executive? A former Clerk of the House rightly said that that was the moment at which democracy in the House came under the most severe threat, and that he did not think it would return until we dealt with the problem of the Executive’s having control over the Standing Orders.
I do not think it was Parnell in this case. I believe that my hon. Friend was referring indirectly to Speaker Gully—or would it be Speaker Brand? I think it was Brand. Anyway, one of them certainly granted a concession from which successive generations of Members of this House have undoubtedly suffered, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), with his grasp of the history of the last century but one—although he was not here at the time; it was his ancestor Bright who was—has done us a great service by referring to that.
Let me return to the central argument, which is that we make a mockery of this place if we do not have adequate time in which to debate important issues.
Is not one of the reasons why the time allowed is so inadequate that so much in this proposition is still unknown and unexplored? For instance, one of the motions refers to “specified elected councillors”. Has my hon. Friend added up all the councillors in Yorkshire and the Humber, or in the south-east region, and wondered by what process they are to be boiled down to an acceptable number if we are not to see municipal mayhem across the land?
I know roughly how many councillors there are in Staffordshire, and I know that Staffordshire is only one part of what is called the west midlands, and I know what a terrible job it will be deciding who should represent whom from those bodies; so of course my right hon. Friend is right.
I have spoken of the need for self-denial on the part of the Leader of the House in her speech because of this ridiculous one-and-a-half-hour limit, but it really is her duty to explain to the House why all these suggestions and proposals are being made, and in doing so, she ought to be open to probing questions in intervention after intervention. I can well imagine that she herself will be on her feet for an hour and a half, and indeed it may be necessary for us to ensure that she is.
While the hon. Gentleman is illuminating the duties of the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House, I wonder whether he is as perplexed as I am by the fact that they both have responsibilities to the House as a whole. This is not Government business; it is business of the House. Is it not odd, therefore, that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader are not listening to the voices of Members in all parts of the Chamber and trying to accommodate the wishes of the House, clearly expressed, by accepting one, or any, of the hon. Gentleman’s proposals?
For some years, the hon. Gentleman occupied with great distinction the position now held by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, who has just popped out to do something or other. He has underlined the unique role—I use the word “unique” properly—of the Leader of the House. The Leader of the House is, of course, a member of the Executive, and is, of course, a leading member of the Government of the day. However, the Leader of the House also has a responsibility that transcends those party political duties.
During my time in the House, we have had a number of very distinguished Leaders of the House who have exemplified that. I think of the late John Biffen, who, in my 38 years here, was perhaps the Leader of the House par excellence; but I also think of the late John Silkin, who was a man of great probity, a learned man, and a man who, when he was Leader of the House, considered it his duty to stand up to his fellow members of the Executive to defend the rights of the House. That is something that—with great respect—the right hon. and learned Lady, the present Leader of the House, has singularly failed to do.
I do not know, of course, who insisted on the one and a half hours, but it may be that the Leader of the House was told that that was all she could have. I doubt it, because she is supposed to be in charge of the timetable, but if she was leant on, that was disgraceful, and if she did the leaning, that was even more disgraceful.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it was wrong for the Leader of the House to impose a time limit of one and a half hours on some of the motions when she must have known that they were extremely controversial and would be strongly opposed by at least two parties in the House, and to use her casting vote in the Modernisation Committee to get the necessary resolutions through? She should have allowed more time, because she must have appreciated the controversial nature of the motions.
I entirely agree. As a fellow Select Committee Chairman, I would never, ever use a casting vote to force a measure through. Indeed, that is against the tradition of the Chair. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if there is a tie in a vote in the House and you are in the Chair, you must vote to preserve the status quo, not to bring in innovation. The rules oblige you to do that, they oblige Mr. Speaker to do that, and they oblige those of us who chair Committees as members of the Speaker’s Panel to do that. I came very close to doing it on one occasion, but there was a majority of one, so I did not have to.
Those are the rules; yet what the Leader of the House has done in this instance is use a casting vote in a partisan manner, then reply to the report, and then—piling Pelion on Ossa—decide that we can have only one and a half hours in which to discuss this topic. It really is a disgrace.
Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that if the Prime Minister were aware of the timetables being imposed today, he would be very cross indeed? When he became Prime Minister, did he not spell out the extent to which the House would be given more freedom and he would take more notice of the House? Is it not inconceivable that the Prime Minister knows about this, and should not the Leader of the House telephone him and be told to stop it?
Yes, and I am happy to speak for long enough to allow the Leader of the House to go and make that telephone call. It would be right for her to do so, because, as my right hon. Friend correctly reminds the House, when the Prime Minister assumed office in June last year—17 June, if my memory serves me correctly, although it seems much longer—he said that he wanted to return Parliament to the centre of national life, and that he wanted Parliament to have a special role. Well, this does not give Parliament a special role. We have one and a half hours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in which to discuss issues that affect, in so many minute particulars, every one of your constituents and every one of mine.
This will change the balance of representation. The hybridity of the Committees will change the nature of parliamentary Committees. How can we advance the arguments—I am rightly not allowed to advance them now, despite the fact that I have the time to do so, I would like to do so and I think that I could do so—when the debate is held, because in the one and a half hours available none of us will have the time to develop and deploy them? I hope that even at this stage and even after several offers—this is offer number five or six—the Leader of the House or her deputy will get to that Dispatch Box to say, “Look, you have made your point. It is sensible that the House should have a little more time, and we are going to give you some.” Even another hour would be something.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is being unfair to the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House. Is it not normal that these matters are discussed by the usual channels and an agreement is reached? I wonder whether one of the super-glued duo could tell us whether that was the case.
When someone talks of the usual channels, I am always reminded of Tony Benn, who said that they were the most polluted waterways in Europe. I would have hoped that the usual channels would have been flushed out for this purpose and that a proper sitting down to a discussion would have taken place. However, I infer from the remarks made by the shadow Leader of the House that no proper offer was made. She made some extremely pertinent points both in her speech today and last week. I know that, in making these points, I carry her with me, because she sits on the Modernisation Committee and saw at first hand how this was pushed through on a casting vote. Yet, she was not asked whether an hour and a half would do or whether she would like two and half hours or three hours. When it is a House of Commons matter, not a party political one, then that, above all times, is when consultation should be undertaken.
May I raise with my hon. Friend an important matter that emanated from an intervention by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)? He indicated that few Members to whom he had spoken knew the content of the Modernisation Committee’s report. Is it not appropriate that the House as a whole should be made more acquainted with the dramatic changes proposed in respect of Select Committees and their membership prior to the House’s reaching a decision following a debate? This matter should be brought to the attention of the whole House before we have a debate on the individual motions.
It would be a wonder to behold if every Member had read a report before it is debated. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has clearly gone to phone the Prime Minister, but the point he made a few minutes ago obviously came about because he had discovered that his colleagues had not known about this proposal. To be fair, if we had met Conservative colleagues in the Tea Room, we would have probably found a similar degree of ignorance as to whether this could conceivably be done in our name—it is being done in our name.
A few moments ago, my hon. Friend referred rather disparagingly to the usual channels. When the previous Conservative Government sought to change the procedures in this place—the subsequent reforms became known as the Jopling reforms—I was asked by the then Prime Minister, Sir John Major, to negotiate with the official Opposition. My instructions were, “If the Labour party does not like it, drop it.” What is offensive about what we are being asked to do today is that the proposals do not come from a unanimous and united Modernisation Committee; they come from a Committee in which they were decided on the Chairman’s casting vote.