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Business of the House

Volume 485: debated on Monday 8 December 2008

I beg to move,

That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to the Speaker’s Committee on the Search of Offices on the Parliamentary Estate not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.

Since this issue first arose, the House has had a series of occasions on which right hon. and hon. Members have had an opportunity to raise important matters of concern. Last Wednesday, 13 Members took the opportunity to raise points of order on this matter for nearly 20 minutes. Last Thursday, 20 Members raised points on this matter during the 50 minutes devoted to business questions. The Home Secretary then made a statement on the matter and answered questions from 33 Members for a further hour. There was then a five-hour debate on home affairs, during which five Members also took the opportunity to raise their concerns. It is against that context that the business of the House motion allows three hours for us to debate this issue this afternoon.

Will the hon. Gentleman explain what business, Government or otherwise, he is seeking to protect by moving this motion? We have had the thinnest Queen’s Speech for years and years, there is no pressing Government business and we have an extremely long recess. All we are asking is that ideally we should continue debating the main subject of the day until 10 o’clock this evening. Are the Government prepared to allow any controversial subject to be discussed on the Floor of the House any more?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the choice of debates on each day following the Queen’s Speech is up to the Opposition. It is the Opposition who have chosen that this afternoon we should debate employment, universities and skills, and housing. If we are protecting business this afternoon, it is that debate, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues wanted. If the motion is agreed to, and then the 10 pm business of the House motion is agreed to later this evening, today’s business will be able to continue past the moment of interruption at 10 pm. I believe that we will be allowing adequate debate of this important matter this afternoon, and I commend the motion—

The Deputy Leader of the House will remember that on 12 November we had a similar kind of debate on regional Select Committees. He criticised us for not tabling amendments on the timing, saying that if we did he would give them very serious consideration. Why has he not acceded to the proposals that we have put forward today, which were a test of his good faith?

I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not want to question my good faith. In response to him, I should say that I and the Government have considered at length whether the amount of time is appropriate. I know that he has tabled an amendment, and I am sure that he wants to make sure that it is debated and voted on. All I would say is that I commend to the House the business motion as it is on the Order Paper in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

I have to say to the Deputy Leader of the House that not only is the amount of time that the Government are giving for the debate of this motion totally inadequate, but his defence of that business motion was totally inadequate. I am very impressed by the revision and homework that he has done in finding out how many people spoke in the home affairs debate and during the Home Secretary’s statement last week, for example, but the business before the House today is about the establishment of the Speaker’s Committee and the putting into place of the wishes that Mr. Speaker expressed in his statement to the House last Wednesday.

The motion before the House today was not on the Order Paper last Thursday, so people were not able to make contributions in relation to the motion that we wish to debate today. In future, the hon. Gentleman should go away and do his homework rather better before he comes to defend an inadequate motion such as this. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has already pointed out that it was the Deputy Leader of the House himself who, on 12 November, indicated to the Opposition that if we felt that any business motion was inadequate, we should amend it. He said:

“I am sure that we would have listened to what they had to say.”—[Official Report, 12 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 778.]

He now has the chance to put his words into practice—to listen to what has been said. This is an inadequate amount of time to discuss the Speaker’s Committee on parliamentary privilege and on the seizure of papers from the office of a Member of this House, which interrupted the ability of that Member to do his job on behalf of his constituents. The Deputy Leader of the House should think again, put into place what he said on 12 November, accept the amendments and give us proper time for debate.

Not only do we have today, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said, the beginning of a parliamentary year with the lightest Government programme that there has been since this Government were in office, and not only do we have a proposal for this House to sit for fewer days this year than at any time, certainly since 1979 and possibly since the last war, but yet again the Government cannot resist the temptation to try to prevent the House of Commons from debating, in time that is adequate for all voices to be reflected, an issue of great importance. If we cannot have the time to debate whether police can come into this building, when they can do so, on whose authority, what they can take and whether they can interfere with our constituents’ links with their Members of Parliament, it is a very sorry state of affairs and a very sorry House of Commons.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will support the amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) because we should have time to debate the procedures of this place and to give this matter proper consideration, and because there is plenty of time to debate the Queen’s Speech, the VAT reforms and any other matters before Christmas. This is about the Government trying to clamp down on the House of Commons having its say, and I hope that colleagues in all parts of the House will oppose them. This is not the sort of business that we elect Government to do—they should take their hands off and let the House of Commons do its job properly.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it help the Deputy Leader of the House for you to ask MPs who want to speak in the main debate to stand so that he can see how many people want to speak?

I beg to move amendment (a), leave out ‘three’ and insert ‘six’.

I oppose the Government’s business motion. The purpose of the amendments is to enable this House to have a proper discussion. What is currently proposed is that the House should have a debate of three hours in total that is on both the business motion and the substantive motion, and that should we decide to vote on the business motion that time will come out of the time allowed for the substantive motion. I am saying to the House that that is profoundly unfair. In any event, the business motion is protected by the ability to move the closure. I am suggesting that the substantive motion should allow the House to debate for six hours. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is wholly correct when he says that this is the most urgent matter currently before the House.

I want to make a few very brief points, because other right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak. First, this is essentially a House of Commons matter. The Government are seizing control of the programme in a way that many of us think is wholly wrong. Secondly, and differently—I am now coming back to the point that I made in an intervention on the Deputy Leader of the House—we had a not dissimilar debate on 12 November, and I remember that he intervened on me when I was speaking to oppose the business motion, and said: “Why didn’t you put down an amendment; if you had, we’d have given it serious consideration?” Well, we have put down an amendment, and they have not given it serious consideration. I am casting no personal aspersions on the hon. Gentleman, but this matter—[Interruption.] The Solicitor-General should not get excited; it does not suit her. This is a matter that goes to the good faith of the Government, and if they do not respond, and respond positively, we will know where they stand on it.

Finally—this will take just a moment longer—going back to your statement of last Wednesday, Mr. Speaker, you said, in effect, three things: first, that you were going to appoint a special Committee of seven senior and experienced Members appointed by yourself; secondly, that the Speaker’s Committee was going to investigate the circumstances surrounding the search and seizure of the offices and papers of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green); and lastly, that the Committee was to report as rapidly as possible. Those were the three elements in your statement. When we go to the business motion and the substantive motion, we find that each of those three requirements has been frustrated by the Government. To start off with, it is not going to be seven senior and experienced Members appointed by yourself. There is no reference to seniority or experience, but there is reference to the Committee having a Government majority. That was not in your statement. We are entitled to have the time to ask why you are being frustrated in that manner.

The second, and quite different, point is this: when we look at the terms of the substantive motion, we do not find anything about looking at the circumstances surrounding the search and seizure. We find only talk about future rules and processes. We are entitled to know, and we need time to debate, why it is that the Government are again frustrating your wishes in this regard.

Lastly, and by no means least importantly, you said that you wanted this Committee to report as soon as possible. That is made impossible by the motion, because it provides that the first thing that the Committee does is adjourn. We are entitled to know why the Government are doing that. Well, I can tell you; they have four principles—we have heard a lot about the four principles in this House—and they are something like this: concealment, duplicity, whitewash and cover-up. We have a right to debate the matter fully and properly in this House, and I hope that this House will reject the business motion as unworthy of democracy.

Unlike the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), I want to proceed quickly and not talk this matter out. I wish to make two brief points. First, if we went straight to the debate now, and even if the Front Benchers took up an hour, there would be time for at least 14 Back-Bench Members to make a contribution and to reflect every shade of opinion in this House. Secondly, which other citizen of this country who was subject to potential criminal investigation and prosecution would be entitled to have a debate in this House—one which I fear might well be prejudicial to those hearings?

Mr. Speaker, in the face of the concern expressed, you were right to hold a debate, but we have to be careful to ensure that that debate is limited while proceedings may be going on, so as not to prejudice any possible trial. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to bear that in mind.

The intensity of feeling on this issue is demonstrated clearly by the number of Members who are present today. Let us try to think of the last time when the House has been packed at 2.48 on a Monday afternoon. That clearly shows why we believe that having three hours to debate this matter is inadequate.

When you made your ruling, Mr. Speaker, a number of points of order were raised, which you answered in some cases by saying that there would be a debate during which people could bring up the matters in question. By limiting the amount of time we have for debate, and given the number of Back Benchers who want to get in, the vast majority of us will simply be denied an opportunity to speak in the main debate.

The Deputy Leader of the House said that it was up to us—the Opposition—what matters were to be debated today, in the Queen’s Speech. Then I ask him to give us that opportunity, and ask us what we want to debate today. He will find that we wish to debate the issue that is before us until 10 pm.

Precisely. Given that our constituents, like us, think that the matters that we wish to discuss are important, I would make a plea to them that they continue to watch and listen. However, I guess that most of them would think that, however important the matters might be, we could make our points within three hours. It is not necessarily the number of Members who speak, but how we vote that people will judge us by. I make this plea to all hon. Members: to us, this debate is high drama; to most of our constituents, it has already descended into farce. I make a plea that we get on with the business of the House and debate the substantive motions, including the amendment of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), so that we can get to the guts of the matter and not continue to suffer from this pantomime.

I am very pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), but I am both saddened and surprised at the attitude that he has taken. I was freely mixing with a range of people in my constituency over the weekend and they view this matter as one of considerable constitutional importance. They also believe that the statement that you made to the House last week, Mr. Speaker, Sir, following the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), should have a proper amount of time to be debated.

In opposing the motion, let me say this to the House. Even in Zimbabwe, on 26 January 1982, when Mr. Mugabe’s police wished to arrest a Member of the Zimbabwean Parliament, they did not, could not and would not enter the House of Commons in Harare. If they were not prepared to enter because of the constitutional rights and privileges of Members of Parliament there, why should the police enter this House without a warrant and confiscate an hon. Member’s belongings?

Your statement, Mr. Speaker, was filled with a number of matters that I believe the House would wish to debate in detail, not least the one that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) mentioned: your indication that you, and not the Government, would appoint seven Members, and that there would not necessarily be a Government majority. That was absolutely right. The request that you made in your statement has not been granted by the Government.

Let me say this to the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House. When the Prime Minister took over from his predecessor, he said that he wished to restore to this House an element of independence and integrity. Are the Government doing that in today’s motion? I say that they are not. This motion should be opposed.

This debate is a massive smokescreen. I am probably one of the busiest MPs—I am not saying that I am the busiest, but I am one of them—and I receive hundreds of letters and e-mails each week, yet only one constituent has raised the issue with me. This is self-indulgence on the part of parliamentarians who seek privilege over everybody else. If people commit wrongs, they are entitled to be found out.

It is clear to me that three hours is adequate for the issues to be determined. There will be outstanding issues at the end of the debate, but the essential question is: what is all this about? It is about an Opposition who do not want to talk about the economy or all the other things involved in the inquiry, and who do not want to tell us what they know about illegalities in the civil service. That is what this is about and it is what we will talk about in due course.

For now, however, all we need is sufficient time to look further into the issues that presented themselves to you, Mr. Speaker. One issue was perfectly clear to me—that two warrants were issued against two establishments and a technicality ensured that a warrant was not issued in respect of the House of Commons. For my part, I cannot see a difference, and three hours is quite long enough to debate no difference.

How does this House defend the freedoms and liberties of all the people of this country if we are unable to defend the freedoms and liberties of this House? That is a theme that has run through our history. This guillotine motion is entirely about House of Commons matters. This is a matter not for the Government or the Executive, but for us as a collective body. When we come to debate these matters, we understand that they are central to our own concepts of the liberty of those whom we represent. To truncate debate on such matters on the basis that anyone who speaks may be representative of the House misjudges what this House is about. The quietest voice from the furthest corner of the House might illuminate something that we have missed.

Why I argue very strongly that there should be no guillotine on this matter is that it looks improper, in a sense, that the Speaker’s own statement, in which he set out the rule he wanted discussed, has been traduced by the motion before us. That is the point, and who moves the motion? It is the Leader of the House, who is also the Minister for Women and Equality—indeed, she has a whole bundle of Executive jobs—so it leaves the suspicion in people’s minds that the Government entirely run the whole business of this House. If we reflect, and if we stand as Members of Parliament, we must see that what is happening cannot be in the interest of ourselves, of the standing of Parliament or of those out and beyond the House whom we represent and whose liberties and rights we are here to defend. It cannot be in the interests of the Government either that they effectively tear up what Mr. Speaker said we would be debating today and put in its place a motion that constricts debate and designs what presumably the Government wanted rather than what Mr. Speaker wanted.

I oppose the motion and ask the House that when we debate it, it will be not a partisan matter, but a matter of this House, its competence and its authority. Why would I vote for a House that is worth nothing?

I agree with the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on the guillotine, and in the light of your statement, Mr. Speaker, I believe that the House needs to debate these matters fully. I would argue, however, that today is not the time. We have two privileges to uphold: one is the privilege of this House, but another important principle that is at stake is the independence of the police. It sometimes helps if we allow the police to do their job without interference, pressure, bullying or intimidation, particularly from this House when it is involved, and before the House pontificates at length on those matters. I hope that we will have a debate, but only after the police have done their work. That is an equally important principle, so I hope that everyone who speaks in the debate will not prejudice the police’s work.

If the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), who is shouting from a sedentary position, wants to intervene, I would delighted to give way to him—[Interruption.] It seems, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Member has not—[Interruption.]

Order. I called the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) to speak and he must be allowed to be heard. [Interruption.] Order. Let me explain to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) that where the hon. Member for Castle Point wants to sit is his business and no one else’s.

I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker, and I will bring my remarks to an end, as other Members want to speak.

We must consider both principles that I mentioned, and investigate these matters calmly and in a considered manner, but at the right time.

I support the Government motion, because the time given in it more adequately reflects the priorities of my constituents. When I go to my constituency, I do not hear people talk about whether there should have been a warrant to visit the offices of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green); I hear them talk about housing for low-paid people. In local schools, the talk is about Labour’s policies for improving the life prospects of people who have hitherto been deprived of opportunities to go to university. Above all, faced by the credit crunch, both local manufacturers and the employees in their factories are concerned about their future employment prospects and whether they will have a job after Christmas. Those are the priorities of my constituents and the country as a whole, and every opportunity, and the maximum time, should be given to debating them in relation to the Queen’s Speech. If we are talking about truncating, we should truncate discussion of House of Commons issues in favour of discussing the issues facing my constituents and other constituents.

May I inform you, Mr. Speaker, that one of the reasons why the Labour Benches are so gratifyingly full is that we are on a four-line box—a form of Whip that I have never seen before, but one that is a thinly disguised three-line Whip? It is wholly inappropriate that parliamentary business of this kind should be conducted under a three-line Whip, which I hope that many of my hon. Friends will ignore.

I remind the House that two amendments are before us. Amendment (a) has been proposed.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

Main question put and agreed to.


That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to the Speaker’s Committee on the Search of Offices on the Parliamentary Estate not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.