House of Commons
Wednesday 17 June 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Mr. Speaker, good morning, and thank you for all the guidance that you have given me and so many others in all parts of the House over the years.
I have met Scottish manufacturers, including representatives from the car industry, to discuss the car scrappage scheme. I have also met people from Scottish companies that work in climate change technologies, which are, of course, an enormous growth area in Scotland.
I share the comments made by the Secretary of State for Scotland on how welcome you have been, Mr. Speaker, to us on the Labour Benches.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The car scrappage scheme is helping manufacturing and UK consumers. However, there remains genuine concern among car retailers, such as John McGuire in my constituency, about the Treasury’s recent decision on the vehicle excise duty refund. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Treasury to get that decision overturned?
My hon. Friend has raised that matter with the Treasury on a number of occasions. The gentleman whom he mentions, Mr. McGuire at Phoenix Honda, operates a company in his constituency but is a constituent of mine, so he has also come to my surgeries. Mr. McGuire raises important points on behalf of his company and many others across Scotland. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to raise the matter with the Treasury. If there is anything that I can do to assist in that, I will of course be happy to do it.
The Secretary of State mentioned that he has had meetings with people in the renewable energy sector. What conversations has he had with his colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on securing some of the £400 million that has been announced for that sector? Has the Secretary of State given particular thought to how the money might be used for marine renewable energy in the Pentland firth?
The hon. Gentleman has raised that important issue with me in the past, and I look forward to visiting his constituency in the parliamentary recess to discuss the points that he raises about the Pentland firth. I have spoken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the issues. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that about a third of the £750 million strategic investment fund established by the Government is to be earmarked for low-carbon investment. We now have to see what opportunities for the type of marine technology that he mentions are provided by that fund, the additional sources of Government support and the private sector. There is an enormous opportunity for a green industrial revolution in Scotland and beyond.
Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, for all your kindness during the years in which you have been in the Chair.
I may have to declare an interest, as I have a car that is more than 10 years old, and the Donohoe household is looking for a new one. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to give me some indication of the number of applications made under the scrappage scheme?
There is certainly great evidence to be had from car dealers across Scotland. When I visited Arnold Clark in Stirling, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), people there were saying how popular the scheme was. The Government are working to provide specific figures shortly, but Douglas Robertson, the chief executive of the Scottish Motor Trade Association, has said:
“The arrival of the government backed scrappage scheme has without doubt affected Scotland’s figures. Traditionally Scotland has always had, on average, the oldest cars in the UK so it is to be expected that we should show the most benefit from the scheme.”
That is the intention behind the scheme; it is a kick-start for the motor industry, and it is supportive of the environmental industries as well.
The Secretary of State will know that manufacturing industry, including the car industry, is vital to the recovery of not only the Scottish but the United Kingdom, economy. Is he confident that the Government are not loading additional burdens on manufacturing and industry, at a time when competitiveness is very important? Secondly, does he believe that the banking system, which has benefited from huge taxpayer largesse, is playing its role in ensuring the success and survival of manufacturing industry?
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. The car industry is of strategic importance across the UK. There are about half a million people employed in the motor retail sector across the UK, so there is a challenge not just in Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom. We always have to bear in mind the balance of regulation and bureaucracy in the private sector, as well as in the public sector, and the need to do so is particularly acute at a time of economic difficulty. Along with the rest of the Government, we are seized of the need to ensure that, where possible, regulation has as light a touch as possible on the motor industry and others, particularly at this difficult time.
Contrary to the Government’s spin on the car scrappage scheme, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has said that new car registrations in May fell at an annual rate of 25 per cent.—almost no change from the previous month. This month Ministers had to concede that four months after Lord Mandelson launched his £2.3 billion automotive assistance programme not a single penny from the scheme has been received by struggling firms. On a day when it is revealed that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Scotland has doubled in one year alone, is it not about time that the Government matched their words with actions and offered real help to hard-working families across the country, rather than just headlines and spin?
There we have it: the authentic voice of the Scottish Conservative party, via Lancaster. The hon. Gentleman neither understands nor has any real sympathy for the people of Scotland. Of course there are real difficulties in the Scottish and UK economy, but he should stop playing politics and remember that when the Conservatives were in power their message was “Get on your bike and search for work” and that unemployment was a price worth paying. We will do everything we can to help Scotland through the current recession. We have looked at the lessons of the recession of the 1980s, when communities were destroyed and families were scourged by unemployment across the generations, and we are determined that there will not be a generational consequence of this recession in Scotland.
The Calman commission considered these issues. In 2007-08 the total expenditure on services per head in Scotland was £9,032. Scotland and England have seen similar percentage increases over the past decade.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, and I am delighted that he survived the night of the blunt knives. He is, of course, a highly respected Minister, but more importantly, he is a strong Unionist. My constituents have a third less public expenditure spent on them than is spent in Scotland. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that this imbalance weakens the Union?
I do not share the view that the Barnett formula or the method of funding across this disparate Kingdom in any way fuels extremism or is a cause of the vile British National party support. I do not agree with that. In Scotland, on occasion, there is complacency about what happens in respect of the British National party. Of course we all know that its members are racists and anti-Semites, but their vote in Scotland has gone from near zero a decade ago to 27,000 at the European elections. The proportion of the BNP vote in Scotland was higher than the ethnic minority proportion of the population in Scotland as shown in the most recent census. Despite the complacency that sometimes creeps into Scottish politics, I believe that the BNP is also a Scottish problem.
Is it not clear that public investment is vital to the Scottish economy, especially at a time of recession? Is not one of the strengths of the Calman commission report the fact that its recommendations will give the Scottish Government of the day greater scope and flexibility over public spending?
The Calman commission report has been welcomed across Scotland, except by a small number on the Opposition Benches. The Calman commission is about a different type of devolution. It is about making decisions that affect the people of Scotland in Scotland, and it delivers a stronger Scotland inside a stronger United Kingdom. It also ensures that there is greater responsibility in the Scottish Parliament for the decisions that it makes on spending.
The Secretary of State is right to point out that the Calman commission recommended limited additional powers for the Scottish Parliament. The First Minister has offered to test that proposition and independence in a referendum. Does the Secretary of State not agree that the people should decide that?
The SNP does not know which way to face on the report. We have the ludicrous sight of a nationalist party opposing more power for a Scottish Parliament. It could not be made up in any fantasy world of politics. Although the Scottish Government have confirmed again today, as I understand it, that they will not do the right thing by participating in the steering group on Calman, I ask the hon. Gentleman to have words with his friends in the Scottish National party and persuade them to do the sensible thing, and not to ban Scottish civil servants from helping to make the Calman commission the type of report that it can be—a report that strengthens the Union and delivers responsible devolution to Scotland.
I add my tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, for your support and for your service.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Calman commission is a very radical and positive step forward for Scotland, and that when the Scottish Parliament is spending public money, it should be accountable for it?
My hon. Friend and I were elected on the same day in 1997 on the manifesto commitment to deliver devolution for Scotland. Devolution has been a remarkable success, but it can be better still: more power for Scotland, doing what is best for Scotland and ensuring that Scotland stands strong within the United Kingdom. I believe—but, more importantly, most people in Scotland share the view—that Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are stronger together in the United Kingdom. We would be weaker if we followed the SNP’s policies of separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State will be well aware of the sterile exchanges in recent days about the future of public expenditure in the United Kingdom. Will he promise to put aside the smoke and mirrors and to level with the people of Scotland about the consequences for public expenditure of the inevitable and necessary efforts to reduce record deficits?
As I have said from this Dispatch Box on numerous occasions, the budget for the Scottish Government has doubled over the past 10 years. The current First Minister has more than double the budget of Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar. Of course, the Scottish Government have to try to make savings, but even after any efficiencies they will have more money next year than they have this year, and that is because of continued Labour investment. We are determined to ensure that that money continues to go to Scotland to help Scottish families.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank you for your unfailing friendship over many years. I appreciate it very much.
The Calman commission might be good for Scotland and it might be good for the United Kingdom. What is unacceptable, however, is that the Scottish Parliament has passed a resolution on the commission’s terms of reference but we have never done so. That is wrong. There is a United Kingdom, which I, in part, represent by representing an English constituency, and it really is unacceptable that Calman has not addressed our interests. I illustrate the fact by noting that we had a Secretary of State for Scotland, from a Scottish constituency, putting tolls on the Dartford-Thurrock bridge across the River Thames while tolls were being removed from the bridge across the River Clyde. We really have to address the West Lothian question; if we do not, other people will.
There are many things for which I am responsible and there are occasional mistakes that I have made, but I have never introduced tolls on the bridge in my hon. Friend’s constituency and I have never even visited it. However, I take his remarks as a well intended invitation to go and do so.
You might not get to the other side!
I shall certainly get into my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I may not get out of it.
The important point that my hon. Friend makes, however, is about the devolution arrangements throughout the United Kingdom. The Calman commission is about strengthening the Scottish Parliament, but it is also very clear about strengthening the United Kingdom. I believe in the United Kingdom and think that the United Kingdom—the four nations of the UK—is the most successful gathering of nations anywhere in the world. Additional work needs to be done on constitutional renewal throughout the UK, and I look forward to my hon. Friend participating in those endeavours.
I am sure that over the past 30 years, Scottish questions will have been the highlight of your parliamentary calendar, Mr. Speaker. May I use this occasion not just to thank you and Mary for the personal kindness that you have always shown me, but to recognise the outstanding contribution that you have made to public life in Glasgow, in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom?
Does the Secretary of State agree that, unlike the First Minister of Scotland, the Calman commission based its analysis of public expenditure in Scotland on research and fact, rather than on soundbites? Does the Secretary of State welcome the commission’s suggestion of an updated needs assessment for the overall level of spending in each part of the United Kingdom? In the meantime, how does he envisage the welcome steering group that has been established taking forward the commission’s recommendations for reshaping the mechanism by which Scotland receives 60 per cent. of its public spending, and over which the Scottish Parliament has control?
Of course, the Government and the Treasury continue to consider the wider needs assessment and keep it under review. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament will serve on the steering group, which I will chair. It is about maintaining the consensus that has developed around Calman and building the momentum to deliver on the Calman proposals.
It is not too late for other parties to become involved in the process. Unfortunately, however, the Scottish National party has said that it rejects in principle the invitation to become involved. However, it is surely not too late for it to decide not to ban Scottish civil servants, to help make a reality of this work, which will require better working relationships. Doing that would be an early way of proving better intent on the part of the Scottish Government.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Does he agree that the past year has seen the three Unionist parties working together for the people of Scotland on the future of devolution, putting Scotland’s interests first? That is in stark contrast to the national conversation, which is the pursuit of a separatist agenda at public expense.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the First Minister is out of touch with what the people of Scotland want—a devolution settlement that works, not separation? In the best interests of the Scottish people, will the Secretary of State try one more time to persuade the First Minister to put aside petty party politics, join the mainstream of the constitutional debate and leave behind the backwater that is his national conversation?
The fact is that there was an open invitation to the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government to become involved. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman thinks, but I reckon that there comes a point when it is rude to invite people continually to something in which they do not want to participate. So the next move is for the SNP Government. Even if they are not willing to do the sensible thing and participate in the steering group, they have to do the right thing and not block its progress. Scotland and the United Kingdom will never forgive a party that puts its interests before the needs of our country.
Lending (Small Businesses)
Mr. Speaker, since I came to the House I have much appreciated the friendship and support that you have shown, as one of my neighbouring MPs. I thank you for that.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Chancellor on a range of issues. Since the start of the year, the Government have introduced a range of measures to help increase liquidity and ease credit conditions for business.
Like other hon. Members, I have huge amounts of correspondence from constituents with viable small businesses who are desperate to get credit but are being offered loans only on ridiculous terms—anything between 7 and 23 per cent. above base rate. On 15 October, the Leader of the House said:
“One of the main reasons why we have been…buying shares in the banks is to ensure that they start lending again to small businesses at reasonable rates. We will do whatever it takes to back up our small business sector.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 790.]
When will the Government start doing “whatever it takes”?
The hon. Lady should look at the facts. The Government created the enterprise finance guarantee specifically for companies that cannot access commercial lending. To date, more than 187 firms in Scotland have benefited from loans of more than £25 million. In addition, the business support payment scheme from the tax office has helped 9,000 Scottish firms defer £167 million. I have been advised by the Royal Bank of Scotland that in the past year its lending to small and medium-sized enterprises in Scotland has increased by close to £100 million, and that it anticipates lending an additional £250 million to the Scottish SME sector this year alone.
Is my hon. Friend aware that many company owners who come to me complain that the terms and conditions of the enterprise finance guarantee are horrendous, as has been said? Furthermore, they are being asked to put up their family homes as a guarantee for the loans, although they have substantial equity in their own companies. Is it not unacceptable that people should be asked to put forward their family homes as a guarantee for money that, frankly, is being given to them at the behest of the Government, who saved the banks in the first place?
My hon. Friend raises a legitimate concern, although the taking of securities over domestic property by commercial lenders has always been a fairly standard practice over many years. We are ensuring that the banks in which we have a national stake will lend guaranteed amounts—more than £11 billion in the case of Lloyds TSB and more than £16 billion in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland. We continue to press to ensure that that money gets through to the businesses that need it the most.
The Minister invites my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) to look at the facts. The fact is that every week every Member of this House hears from a small or medium-sized enterprise that is not able to grow or is having its existence threatened because of banks’ failures to lend. That failure to lend and to support SMEs must be addressed, because today’s figures demonstrate that, as unemployment in Scotland rises at twice the rate of that in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is having tragic consequences for thousands of Scots every month.
Last year this Government invested £50 billion in Scottish banks—equivalent to £10,000 for every man, woman and child. The first thing we had to do was to stabilise the banking system to allow our businesses to survive. We appreciate that the credit situation has been difficult. However, Iain McMillan, the director of CBI Scotland, recently said:
“In discussion with our members in Scotland, we have found that concerns are easing about access to finance, but there are still some concerns about the cost of credit.”
We are continuing to work very closely with the banks, and we believe that we will see an increase in lending over the next few months.
May I add my voice to all the tributes that have been paid to you, Mr. Speaker? I look forward to bumping into you in my constituency.
Does my hon. Friend share the view that the scale of what has been done to support the banks in the United Kingdom makes a very powerful and persuasive case for the protection of Scotland’s interests within the United Kingdom?
Yes, absolutely. Were it not for the strength of the United Kingdom, Scottish finance by itself would not have been able to provide the £50 billion that was essential to maintain the Scottish banks. As I said, that amounts to £10,000 for every man, woman and child in Scotland, and it shows the benefit of working together in partnership. [Interruption.]
Order. Could I ask the House for some quietness? There are people’s livelihoods at stake, and they have got to be discussed here in the House.
Local Authority Finance
Local authority finance is devolved and as such is a matter for the Scottish Government.
Local councils, including my own, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, are going to face real cuts through the Westminster cut in Scotland’s budget. I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman will campaign on this next year if he finds himself in opposition, but will he use his remaining time in government to do the right thing by protecting Scotland’s front-line services and funding? Will he stand up to the Treasury, or are we going to hear more excuses?
As I said at this Dispatch Box just 10 minutes ago, the Scottish Government’s budget has doubled over the past decade because of Labour investment; and, even despite the efficiencies that are to take place, it will increase again next year. The hon. Gentleman talks about choices. In the next few months, Scotland will face a clear choice between a Labour Government and the Conservative party. No one in Scotland believes that that rump over there is going to end up governing the United Kingdom. The fact is that the Scottish National party wants to see, and is determined to see, a Conservative Government returned to Westminster, because that suits its narrow political purposes.
Mr. Speaker, may I join those who pay tribute to you in saying that I am extremely grateful for your many acts of kindness to me, which began when I made my maiden speech from the back row of the Opposition Benches?
Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that allocations to local authorities will still be made by the devolved Executive in Holyrood, and that they remain twice the amount that they were 10 years ago, and very much more than when I was president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities?
My right hon. Friend has enormous experience from when he was president of COSLA. The fact is that, as I have alluded to and as he said, the Scottish Government’s budget continues to increase. We do, of course, look for additional ways to support local government, and tomorrow I will be hosting a job summit about how to support Scotland’s long-term unemployed through this recession. Local authorities have an enormous role to play in that in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.
The UK Government’s assessment is that the Budget measures are providing real help now to existing and aspirant home owners.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the alarming findings reported in today’s edition of The Herald about the low take-up of schemes to help home owners in Scotland? Will she discuss with the Scottish Government ways of ensuring that my constituents and hers can get the same benefits that home owners are getting in other parts of the UK?
I very much share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the report that was issued today and reported in The Herald. Some 81 per cent. of agencies helping people across Scotland said that they knew that conditions imposed in the scheme were much more difficult for the people in the most desperate need and facing repossession. I do not want to see home owners in Scotland getting less protection than is already enjoyed in England. That is why I hope that the Scottish Government will act very quickly on the recommendations made by the repossessions working group and provide free legal advice in any court proceedings to everyone facing repossession.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements, this is your last Prime Minister’s questions, Mr. Speaker. The whole House will have a chance to acknowledge your great contribution to public life in a few minutes’ time.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Mr. Speaker, may I add my appreciation of your kindness and generosity towards me and many other hon. Members in your time as Speaker?
In view of recent speculation, can the Prime Minister assure me that budgets relating to the support of green energy development and combating climate change will be maintained and enhanced over the next three years? Would he reflect on what the United Kingdom’s ability to meet its carbon budget commitments would be if such funding were cut by, say, 10 per cent.?
In the Budget we committed an additional £1.4 billion of support for the low-carbon economy. That would not have been possible if we had followed the advice of the Opposition to make cuts of 5 per cent. this year. It would be impossible in the future if we went for the plans that have been suggested by the shadow Health Secretary to cut departmental expenditure by 10 per cent. We are for investing in the environment, not for using the money for inheritance tax cuts for the very few.
Welcome to Prime Minister’s planted questions! [Interruption.] Some Labour MPs were a bit confused: when they were told about Mr. Ten Percent, they thought it meant his opinion poll ratings.
In our exchanges last week, the Prime Minister read out figures for total Government spending after 2011. Does he agree that, using the Treasury’s own forecasts for inflation, those figures mean that spending is going to be cut in real terms?
I welcome this debate about public spending. I relish the chance to debate policy for once with the Opposition. The first thing that the right hon. Gentleman has to confirm is that he is cutting spending this year.
Order. Let the Prime Minister speak. That is the best way—we hear what the Prime Minister has to say. [Interruption.] I am not responsible for his answers.
The first thing that the right hon. Gentleman has to confirm is that he would cut spending by 5 per cent. this year. That means that vital services would be losing money. I welcome the debate that we are having in this country. We are investing to get ourselves out of the recession; the Opposition would cut, and they would make the recession last longer. That would lead to higher debts and higher deficits that would have to be spent for. As for spending beyond 2011, the right hon. Gentleman knows the truth: he wants to spend less—10 per cent. less in most Departments—whereas we want to spend more.
Absolutely no answer to the question. For the time that Peter Mandelson allows the Prime Minister to go on doing the job, he should at least answer the question. Every year, at every Budget, the Prime Minister stood there and read out figure after figure for total spending and told us it was an increase in real terms. Now he stands there, reading out figures for total spending, without admitting that they represent a real-terms cut. The country will conclude that he is taking them for fools. Everyone knows that what matters is spending over and above inflation. Let me ask him again: does he now accept that his spending plans from 2011 mean a real-terms cut? The Chancellor says that they are a cut. Are they?
The first thing we are absolutely sure of is that, regardless of economic circumstances, employment, investment and inflation, the Conservatives will cut expenditure by 10 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman said it himself last week—Tory cuts versus Labour investment. Now let me read out the figures for current expenditure. Current expenditure will grow every year to 2013-14, not just in cash terms but in real terms. Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics. After that, it will be less but asset sales will make up much of the difference. So we are increasing current expenditure, and increasing capital expenditure up to the Olympics. Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal is to cut expenditure by 10 per cent. He had better admit the truth: he is cutting expenditure by 10 per cent.
It sounds more and more desperate. Whichever way we look at the figures, the Government plan to cut spending. Let us consider capital and current spending. Capital spending will go from £44 billion in 2009-10 to £22 billion in 2013. That is a massive cut. Now let us look at current spending. We must exclude debt interest and paying for unemployment—what the Prime Minister used to call the bills of social failure. When we do that, we see that current spending is also being cut. Capital spending—cut; current spending—cut. Those are Labour cuts. Let me ask the Prime Minister again—the question will not go away until he answers it. Will he admit—I would not listen to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward); he was pretty useless when he worked for us and he is still pretty useless. The question will not go away. Will the Prime Minister accept that his spending plans from 2011 mean a real-terms cut?
What the right hon. Gentleman is saying to us—he had better listen to the debate because it will go on for many months—is that, regardless of growth, employment, interest rates or inflation, he is dogmatically set on a 10 per cent. cut in most departmental expenditures. Let me read out the real-terms current expenditure: 603 to 629 to 633 to 638 to 642. What is that but a rise in real-terms current expenditure? I have already explained about capital expenditure and what is happening after the Olympics, but gross investment, real terms—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman has not produced one figure yet and I have just given him the figures in the Red Book—63, 55, 49—and we will make that up by the asset sales that we have already announced in the pre-Budget report. I have to tell him that current expenditure will continue to rise in cash and real terms. The issue is that the Conservatives will cut current expenditure in real and cash terms. It is exactly what I said—Tory cuts, Labour investment. What is worse is that they would cut expenditure so that they can help the few with inheritance tax cuts, while we are the party of the many. Let him say that he is abandoning inheritance tax cuts.
Every commentator and every economist has concluded that the Prime Minister is wrong and looks increasingly ridiculous. Let us take just one. Last week, Robert Chote, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said that
“judging from his performance at Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday—Gordon Brown needs some help to interpret his own Chancellor’s Budget.”
Let us take one of the Prime Minister’s former Treasury Ministers, whom he appointed to work with him in Treasury. The right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) said that
“as the Budget made clear, the only way to clear a huge debt overhang in the medium term will be to cut billions of pounds from public spending.”
Why does the Prime Minister find it so impossible to give a straight answer and be straight with the British people?”
I am the person who is giving the House the figures. The right hon. Gentleman has given not one figure to back up his proposition. The only figure that we have had is the admission by the shadow Health Secretary that he would cut public expenditure in vital Departments by 10 per cent. What we will not be doing is cutting expenditure by 10 per cent.
Let me tell the Leader of the Opposition what the real-terms rise in current expenditure is, and perhaps at some point he will listen: 603 to 629 to 633 to 638 to 642. These are rises in expenditure after inflation has been taken into account. Once again, he is trying to hide the fact that he has got 10 per cent. cuts. His is the party of cuts; we are the party of investment. Because he wants to use the cuts to pay for inheritance tax, let us remember once again: the Conservatives are the party of the few and we are the party of the many.
The right hon. Gentleman is just sinking and sinking. He thinks that everyone is so stupid that they will not notice that once we take out debt interest and unemployment benefit, the Departments of all those Ministers on the Treasury Bench will be cut, cut, cut. That is the truth. Why does the Prime Minister not just stand back for a moment and ask why he is so distrusted? It is not actually the recession: there is a recession all over Europe; and yet no other European leader—[Interruption.]
The reason the right hon. Gentleman is in the hole that he is in is because he is not straight with people. [Interruption.]
Order. We must allow the Leader of the Opposition to be heard. [Interruption.] Order. Allow the right hon. Gentleman to speak. [Interruption.] Order. I do not want a Minister pushing his luck, so I ask the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) to behave himself.
Labour Members shout for half an hour on a Wednesday and spend the rest of the week trying to get rid of the Prime Minister. His problem is that he is not straight with people. He was not straight over the cancelled election; he was not straight over the 10p tax; he was not straight over flying to Iraq during the Tory conference; he was not straight over Damian McBride; he was not straight about who he wanted as his Chancellor; and now he will not be straight with people about the level of Government spending. Will everyone not conclude that if you cannot be straight with people, you are simply not worthy to be our Prime Minister?
Order. Even though it is my last day, the Leader of the Opposition knows that the term “you” is not something that I approve of, and I think that the candidates at all these hustings will be saying that they do not approve of it either.
The right hon. Gentleman is learning all the time. At last he has a European policy, and he now admits that there is a European recession. As far as his last comments are concerned, is it not remarkable that he descends back into personalities? He cannot deal with a policy debate. I have said that we are taking action to deal with the recession, and that means that more people will be in work, that more businesses will be saved and that more help will be given to mortgage holders. We are spending money to take people out of recession; he would cut the money now. There would be more unemployment, more debt and more deficit. The Conservative party has to face up to its responsibility. The Conservatives are calling for public spending cuts at a time when every country in Europe and the rest of the world knows that we have to inject more money into the economy.
As for the future, everybody also knows—this is where the serious debate lies—that what can happen depends on growth and what happens to inflation, employment and interest rates. There is good evidence that the proposals that we have put forward are working, whereas the proposals that the Conservatives have put forward would not work. As for the future of public expenditure, let us just be clear: I have read out figures showing that there are not only cash rises in all our current expenditure in each year, but real-terms rises. The Leader of the Opposition has given us no figure, except the figure of his Health Secretary, which is a 10 per cent. cut in public expenditure. The public will remember one thing about the last week: 10 per cent. cuts in public expenditure under the Tories; investment under Labour. They are the party of the few; we are the party of the many.
Why does the Prime Minister not understand that character and policy come together in the vital question of telling the truth that public spending will be cut, according to his own plans? Everyone will have seen today that the Prime Minister has drawn one of his precious dividing lines between himself and reality. That is what we have seen. People know that they have a Prime Minister whom they never elected, a Prime Minister who cannot be straight with people and a Prime Minister who will not even give 10 per cent. of the truth.
The leader of the Conservative party said:
“We’ve made it clear that a Conservative government would spend less than Labour.”
So it is absolutely clear that the Conservatives would be spending less every time. They would be cutting spending on vital services, and people should not forget that. He wants to read out quotes from this person or that person, but why does he not face up to the policy issue? We are spending 5.5 per cent. more on the health service this year, and 4 per cent. more on education. We are building more schools, employing more nurses, building up the health service and making the policing in our community work. At every point, the Conservatives would be cutting these vital services. They should go back to their constituencies and explain how many police, nurses, doctors and teachers they would cut under policies that are in the interest not of the many but, in their case, only of the few.
Order. I am going to call you, Mr. McGrady, but you will be brief, won’t you?
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will be brief, but I want to thank you for your personal kindness to me and my party over your many years in the Chair and outside this Chamber.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be aware that devolution to Northern Ireland has not been completed owing to the absence of the devolution of policing and justice. This issue has now become a political football between the two parties in power, and the situation has been exacerbated by the recent European elections. Will he take a personal new initiative to complete that all-important stage of devolution, which is the prerogative of the whole community in Northern Ireland?
I think that the benefits to Northern Ireland of the devolution of policing and justice will be very considerable indeed. I realise that there are very delicate issues that have to be dealt with, and that there are conversations to be had, but I recognise that progress has been made with the commitment of the major parties to devolution in principle. Talks are now taking place that I hope will yield results, and I hope it will not be long before we complete the process of the devolution of policing and justice under terms that will give security to every community in Northern Ireland.
Does the Prime Minister agree with the comments made by his Chancellor this morning when he blamed the banks’ boardrooms for the recession but refused fundamentally to change the way we regulate them?
We are fundamentally changing the way we regulate our banks. We are banning them from giving bonuses at the moment where we have taken over the banks. We are changing the structure of the boards by the way we are dealing with the problems that have been created in this recession, and we are introducing new financial services legislation in the next year to change the structure of regulation. In every area in which abuse has been found, we are taking action to deal with it. I hope that, when the legislation comes before the House of Commons, the right hon. Gentleman will support it, because that is the right thing to do. When people make mistakes, that has to be dealt with, and we are dealing with the mistakes that have been made in the City.
I still think that the Prime Minister is trying to have it both ways. He cannot just blame the bankers but not change the basic way we control them. He is just passing the buck. I will tell him who is to blame for this recession: a Government who did not listen to warnings, who let the bankers get away with blue murder and who, even now, refuse to separate ordinary high street banking from casino investment banking. Can he not see that if he just keeps passing the buck, the only certainty is that this kind of crisis will happen all over again?
The right hon. Gentleman is speaking as though high street banks and investment banks did not fail. The truth is that both failed, and we have to deal with that. The solution is to have better regulation and better supervision. It is actually about cross-border supervision at a global level as well. It is about bringing in those countries that have been outside the scope of supervision and regulation. That is what the G20 was about: to bring them all into the regulatory and supervisory net. To be honest, I think the right hon. Gentleman actually supports what we are doing but cannot bear to say so.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite all the promises, the Lloyds group of banks is planning to decimate jobs in Yorkshire and take them down south to Peterborough? Will he urgently talk to the management of the Lloyds group and point out that we are major shareholders in that bank and expect better standards?
I am very happy to talk to Lloyds, which made promises at the time it took over HBOS about what it would do to safeguard the jobs of its employees. We will look at the issue in that context; any jobs lost are to be regretted and we will do everything we can.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the case with me; I shall look further at what he says and write to him.
Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to condemn the appalling racist attacks on Romanian families in Belfast?
Yes indeed, and I hope that the authorities will be able to take all the necessary action to protect those families.
I know nothing about this—[Interruption.] Any allegation that the hon. Gentleman makes will of course be investigated, but it is not something that has been drawn to my attention. As far as the Heathrow expansion is concerned, it is a contentious issue but the House has voted on the matter.
It could involve the loss of about 15,000 police. Those who advocate 10 per cent. cuts in the Home Office have to face up to the consequences, as it will mean fewer policemen on the beat, less neighbourhood policing and less protection against crime. [Interruption.] I notice that Conservative Members are not worried about a 10 per cent. cut in the police; I think they would hear from their constituents if such a cut were ever to happen.
Has the Prime Minister any concern about the expressed intention of the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to axe the full-time police reserve in Northern Ireland? Does he recognise that there is a heightened level of dissident activity and that the Chief Constable is leaving his job, so is this not a decision that should be left to the new Chief Constable?
I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have committed additional resources to deal with the problems posed by the dissident groups in Northern Ireland. I spoke to the former chief of police in Northern Ireland at exactly the time of the incidents and we promised him that the resources would be there to deal with the problems arising from the actions of those dissident groups. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the security of the people of Northern Ireland will not be put at risk in any way.
I know about the document to which my hon. Friend refers. She may be aware that yesterday we published the “Digital Britain” document describing the steps that the Government are taking to ensure the online safety of children, and the ways in which the Government will continue to support further action by the industry against such practices. We have also set up the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, which, as she probably knows, is examining these issues.
The Calman commission reported this week that the Scottish Parliament should have additional limited powers. The First Minister has offered to test that proposal, together with the proposal for independence, in a referendum. Does the Prime Minister agree that the people should have their say?
I am sorry that the Scottish National party is not supporting the Calman recommendations. They give a new basis on which the Union can move forward, providing a measure of devolution that will allow the Union to be safeguarded for the future. The difference between us and the Scottish National party lies in the fact that the SNP wants complete independence, although all the evidence suggests that the people of Scotland do not.
In the Budget, we announced an extra £300 million of capital spending on further education colleges to meet some of the demand that has arisen as a result of the number of colleges that wish to expand and build new facilities on their campuses. We are looking at all the projects. The LSC has talked to the principals of all colleges this month, and we hope to announce the projects that will proceed to their next stages as soon as possible.
I have not.
I should like to ask the Prime Minister about a modest constitutional innovation. Will he invite the House of Commons to amend its Standing Orders to allow senior Ministers in the House of Lords to come to this Dispatch Box to defend their stewardship of their Departments, and to pilot legislation of which they are the principal architects? Even the most senior junior Minister will on occasion be nothing more than a superior parrot unless that change is made.
We have a strong team of Ministers in the House of Commons, who are perfectly able to answer questions and conduct debates in the House of Commons. If my hon. Friend has proposals for constitutional innovation, perhaps he could put them to the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright).
Any abuse of the elderly is completely unacceptable. I hope that the criminal law will protect them, and that the regulatory framework will be such that we can give the protection that is necessary. We will continue to keep that regulatory framework under review. In a week when the amount of abuse of the elderly is being noted, I think it right to say that no citizen should be engaged in anything that puts the dignity and security of elderly people in our country at risk.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could explain a phrase that I heard recently: “Play the ball and not the man.” Perhaps as an ex-rugby player he could explain both its meaning and its application to Prime Minister’s questions.
It means that on only a few occasions in the past year has the Leader of the Opposition managed to raise questions about policy. We welcome the debate about policy which will be held in the country over the next few months, when we will show that we will safeguard the health, education and public services of this country against 10 per cent. cuts by the Conservative party.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter on many occasions and has taken a deep interest in it. I also know that he has held an Adjournment debate on it. He is asking about the Home Office and what it can do to help. I suggest that he ask for a meeting with the Home Secretary, and I am sure the Home Secretary will be happy to meet his delegation.
As my right hon. Friend may know, I have in my constituency three of the five biggest energy users, and they are very concerned about increasing energy costs. What steps are my right hon. Friend’s Government taking to protect them against excessive profits, which has happened before in respect of the energy companies?
Everybody is concerned about the 50 per cent. rise in oil prices that we have seen over the last few weeks. The oil price was $150, then it went down to $30, and it has now gone up to $70. That means that it is very difficult for energy companies in this country, but also very difficult for consumers, and very difficult when we consider future gas and electricity bills. I believe that the world has got to look at what it can do to make sure that supply of and demand for oil is far more in balance, so that we can keep oil prices under control.
Hebrides Missile Range
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I rise to seek leave to move that the House discuss a specific and important matter that should be given urgent consideration: the proposed movement of the missile testing facilities from Hebrides range in my constituency, with the loss of 120 jobs—and unofficial estimates from Highlands and Islands Enterprise effectively double that. South Uist, North Uist and Benbecula cannot cope with that level of cuts. In a major city such as Glasgow, that would be the equivalent of 6,000 to 7,000 jobs gone at the stroke of a pen. Bad as that may be in a city, for an island community it is infinitely worse; it means depopulation to the next city or employment opportunities that are eight hours away by ferry and vehicular transport.
The people of North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula have taken the Hebrides missile range into their community and accepted and worked with its needs and demands. An entire community has shaped itself to fulfil its needs: a service and sacrifice that entailed forgoing many opportunities, at great opportunity cost to the community. The Ministry of Defence, through QinetiQ, cannot walk away leaving chaos and a vacuum behind. There is a social and economic responsibility here.
Over and above the social and economic responsibility, however, the Hebrides range is simply the best for purpose in missile testing. No other range compares to the Hebrides range; it is so large that the curvature of the earth becomes a factor. This difficulty is mitigated by the existence of St. Kilda as a monitoring post almost in the middle of the range. There is no equivalent in the UK—or in Europe—to Hebrides range.
Hebrides range is important to the defence of the realm, and also for the defence of Europe, as many other countries use the range for testing. It must not be decimated; it must not be smashed; it must not be ruined at the stroke of a pen. For the islands and also for defence, Hebrides range is too important. Its closure was considered 15 years ago under a previous Government and rightly rejected for many valid reasons. This proposal needs full parliamentary scrutiny in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I put this to you, Mr. Speaker, for your consideration.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member has said, and I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider the matter he raises to be appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24. I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.
Programming of Bills (Suspension)
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the suspension or restriction of programming of Bills when the House of Commons is scheduled to meet for fewer than a prescribed number of days in any specified period; and for connected purposes.
The only possible justification for guillotining debate and preventing thorough scrutiny of legislation by this House is a shortage of parliamentary time. The Government have decided that Parliament will sit for fewer days this year than in any year since 1945, but they are still using powers, once reserved for exceptional cases, to restrict the time available for debate on every Bill. As a result, large swathes of legislation leave this place without ever having been scrutinised at all. My Bill will mean that in future no Government could restrict the time available for debate on Bills if Parliament is scheduled to sit for fewer days than the average of recent years, for example. That will set Parliament free to do what it is supposed to do: scrutinise legislation thoroughly and hold the Government to account.
I regularly invite everyone on the electoral register in a cluster of streets in my constituency to visit Parliament, and they come in their hundreds. One question that they often ask is, “Isn’t Parliament just a talking shop and a waste of time?” They are right that it is a talking shop—the word “Parliament” comes from the French word “parler”, which means “to talk”; that is what we do—but they are wrong to say that it is a waste of time. There are only two ways to govern a country. One is when the Government say, “These are the laws, obey them. These are the taxes, pay them. You have got no say in the matter.” The second way, which we have developed in this place over 1,000 years, is by having a system whereby no law may be introduced and no tax imposed until it has been discussed and debated in this House and a majority of the representatives of the British people have given it their assent. That is what this place is for: to debate and discuss exhaustively whether each Bill is right in principle and whether it will work in practice, in the light of all the submissions we receive from our constituents and others affected by it.
That process takes time, so the idea of curtailing debate has always been alien to this House; it is an alien thing, given an alien name—the guillotine—that was introduced when Parliament accepted the need, in extremis, to put a time limit on debate. The guillotine has since been invoked very sparingly; the previous Conservative Government guillotined only between four and five Bills every year. This Government decided early on that all Bills should be guillotined, and that was renamed “programming” in new Labour newspeak. Programming was supposed to ensure that every Bill would receive full consideration, but that has not happened.
All too many Bills leave this House with sizeable chunks never debated in Committee and with grotesquely inadequate consideration by the whole House on Report. In the case of three quarters of Bills last year, this Chamber was not allowed to debate all the groups of amendments selected for debate by the Speaker. For example, the Government deliberately restricted the time for debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill so that dozens of new clauses were not debated; on the Counter-Terrorism Bill Members had only three hours to discuss 16 new clauses and 60 amendments covering crucial issues such as post-charge questioning and control orders; and on the Climate Change Bill we were not allowed to debate the crucial amendment increasing the carbon reduction target from 60 to 80 per cent., which doubled the Bill’s cost and which many supporters felt did not go far enough.
Moreover, the time saved on debating primary legislation has not been used to scrutinise secondary legislation, which increasingly accounts for the substance of our laws. The proportion of statutory instruments requiring the affirmative procedure considered by the House has fallen from one third in the last three years of the Major Government to just 6 per cent. now and, of the thousands of statutory instruments subject to the negative procedure, the number put to the vote in the Chamber declined from one in 200 under the previous Government—that figure is bad enough—to only one in 1,000 now.
In the present climate, people assume that that proves that Members of Parliament are lazy as well as greedy. I shall say nothing of greed, other than that many hon. Members backed my last ten-minute Bill, even though it sought to cut MPs’ pay whenever we give away powers to Europe or the courts. Far from being lazy, most MPs are eager to scrutinise legislation, to hold Ministers to account and to debate the Opposition’s policies too—we would willingly do so for longer. It is Ministers, not Back Benchers, who prefer to send Parliament away for as long as possible, because all Governments, not just this one, find it is disagreeable to be scrutinised, criticised and held to account. There is a myth, which has been given a new lease of life by the recent crisis of confidence in Parliament, that debates no longer matter and that MPs are Lobby fodder controlled by ever more powerful Whips. Commentators hark back to the “golden age”, when MPs were supposedly more independent-minded, Whips had less power and the Government could get legislation through only by genuinely convincing their own supporters or by winning over some Opposition MPs.
In fact, Professor Cowley’s evidence to the Modernisation Committee demonstrates that things have been moving in exactly the opposite direction. When Lord Hailsham described the British constitution as an elective dictatorship, there was a lot of truth in his description. Between 1945 and 1970, there was not a single Government defeat in the House of Commons as a result of Back-Bench dissent. There were two whole Sessions in the 1950s during which not a single Government Member defied their Whip, but since then Back Benchers have become increasingly independent minded in each successive Parliament.
More than 4,300 votes were cast against the Conservative Whip during Margaret Thatcher’s Government, and no fewer than 6,500 votes cast against the Labour Whip under this Government. Despite new Labour’s passion for discipline and its big majorities, it has faced the largest rebellions this House has seen since the corn laws. Time and again, Labour has only been able to get legislation through by making concessions to critics on its own side, by winning the support of minor parties or by relying on the Opposition. On issues such as 42 days, it had to back down ultimately, as it did recently on the Gurkhas. It may also have to back down on the Post Office, just as John Major’s Cabinet did.
One reason MPs are more independent nowadays is that we are in continual dialogue with our constituents in ways that did not happen in the past. They write to us, question us and e-mail back to us. They will not be fobbed off with the official party brief and so we are forced to look at controversial issues in depth. On occasion, in trying to convince our electors that our party’s line is correct, we end up convincing ourselves that it needs to change. I believe that that is a good thing. It means that debate matters, scrutiny matters and Parliament matters. But that requires time. I remember a former Labour Chief Whip, the late Lord Cocks, telling me during a late-night sitting, “Peter, time is the only weapon the Opposition have. We can’t win the votes, but given time we can win the argument. Given time, we can drum those arguments in until your Ministers lose confidence in their own policies, you lose confidence in them and the public lose confidence in the lot of you.” My Bill will give future Oppositions that time, so I know that I can count on the support of all those Labour Members who recognise that they may be sitting on these Benches before too long.
By contrast, some of my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench may have their doubts. Scrutiny is uncomfortable. The first instinct of every Whip is to curtail it if they cannot prevent it entirely. But scrutiny is good for good government. Governments with good policies and confidence in those policies—and with the humility to respond positively to constructive criticism of them—have nothing to fear and much to gain from full and thorough scrutiny in this place. I ask leave to bring in this Bill and set Parliament free to do its job.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Peter Lilley, Anne Main, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Christopher Chope, Philip Davies, Mark Fisher, Mr. John Gummer, Dr. Evan Harris, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Chris Mullin and Mr. Charles Walker present the Bill.
Mr. Peter Lilley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July and to be printed (Bill 113).
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I attempted to give you notice of this point, which is to do with how we deal with matters relating to the opinions, publicly or privately expressed, of the heir to the throne. You will be aware that “Erskine May” prevents us from assuming that members of the royal family have a private opinion, although the rule that prevents us from debating such matters is, apparently,
“not strictly applied in cases where one”
member of the royal family
“has made a public statement on a matter of current interest so long as comment is made in appropriate terms.”
When a private statement is made that seeks to lobby either the Executive or a third party, it is not clear what we can do as Members Parliament to engage with the issue, even when it is current in the media—on the airwaves and in the papers—or what we can do when we are asked by constituents to comment on the issue or to raise it in Parliament. What advice can you give Members of Parliament who wish to ensure that there is full transparency on matters of public policy or private matters affecting citizens or subjects of this country? Is this the only place where the opinions of the Prince of Wales, for example, cannot be debated?
It is the practice of the House that the personal conduct of a member of the royal family cannot be discussed except in debate on a substantive motion drawn up for that purpose. When any member of the royal family engages in public debate, it is of course in order for any views expressed to be discussed, provided that that does not extend to personal criticism. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.
One of the pleasant side effects of a Speaker moving on is that his signature becomes a collectors’ item. I can inform the House that in the past few weeks I have signed several hundred bottles of Speaker Martin’s malt. The Chancellor will be pleased to know that some bottles are fetching as much as £150 on eBay. I wanted to help the Chancellor in stimulating the economy, but, as a lifelong teetotaller, I am surprised that I could do so in such a way.
I pay tribute to my staff in Speaker’s House: Angus Sinclair, the Speaker’s Secretary; Peter Barratt, the Assistant Secretary; Ian Davis, my Trainbearer; Chris Michael, the Diary Secretary; Eve Griffith-Okai; Katherine McCarthy and Abdulaye Balogun. In Speaker’s House, Mrs. Gloria Hawkes, Housekeeper, has always been there for us; a good friend. No Speaker could ask for a better or more dedicated staff. My three Deputies, Sir Alan Haselhurst, Sylvia Heal and Sir Michael Lord, have shown me first-class support, both inside and outside the House, where their expertise is plain to see. I also thank the members of the Chairmen’s Panel for their dedication in working night and day.
I must say thank you to the work force in the Palace of Westminster. It is plain for Members to see the Police, Security Officers and Badge Messengers going about their duties and their courtesy is renowned. We have a Library that is highly regarded by every democracy, and especially in the Commonwealth. It has adapted so well to our electronic age.
The Speaker’s Chaplain, Canon Robert Wright, has given me invaluable spiritual guidance. The Legal Services Office under Speaker’s Counsel does much that is unsung. The Clerks—men and women who are excellent procedural experts—give advice at our side every day we are in Session. They go out of their way to provide help and research. Their advice to emerging democracies in eastern Europe and beyond is invaluable and they are held in the highest regard. Hansard’s powers of concentration and accuracy are first class, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Inter-Parliamentary Union do so much for us.
I must mention those men and women who run our catering outlets and those associated with the Department of Facilities who are behind the scenes cleaning, maintaining and quietly working hard in our support, so often without much recognition. And the same goes for those in the Fees Office—the Department of Resources, as it is now called.
Some of these men and women we do not often see or do not know by name. I have taken every opportunity to ask them to Speaker’s House when I can, to thank them for their hard work on your behalf. As testimony to their dedication, I recall that on 7 July 2005, many walked home or walked to work when their transport had stopped, and they made sure that they were at their work the next day. In the snowstorm that stopped London this year, many made that huge effort to walk in and do their work, and they are a credit to this House.
When I found out that the Palace of Westminster with its Pugin craftsmanship did not have apprentices, I proposed an apprenticeship scheme. All the trades of the House—the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, upholsterers and chefs—embarked on a work experience and apprenticeship scheme that has allowed local boys and girls to be trained to a very high skill, making them employable here in the House or outside in all parts of London. By the summer break, some of the apprentices will be receiving their final trades certificates. I am grateful to all those who are giving so many young people a good start in life.
When you charged me with the responsibility of caring for Speaker’s House, my wife Mary and I resolved to make this place of world heritage also a place of welcome. So many fellow Members and Members of the other place honoured us with their presence. It was a pleasure to receive leaders and Speakers from democracies throughout the world over the past eight years. I will leave Speaker’s House in the knowledge that I have opened the House to people from so many charities who have either wanted to promote their work or celebrate a special anniversary or occasion. It was always a joy to receive regular visits from the little children from LATCH, the leukaemia charity of Wales.
We welcomed many voluntary, professional and veterans associations, including the Royal College of Midwives. We also welcomed world war two veterans—some from HMS Speaker—and representatives of Marie Curie, which is a hospice in my constituency, the homeless charities, and the Huntington’s Disease Association.
As a man of Christian faith, I have been able to welcome other faith groups and was so pleased to initiate the annual Jewish celebration of Hanukkah taking place in Speaker’s House, bringing members of staff, Members of the House and others of this ancient faith together.
I want to mention a few recent issues that have troubled me greatly.
The police search of the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) led to my statement of 3 December last year, which I affirm today. I am pleased that the Government Chief Whip has assured me that an all-party inquiry of eight senior Members, with a member of the Opposition in the Chair and with no Government majority, will inquire into this matter, establish the truth of those events in full transparency, and allow all the lessons to be learned. I will give evidence to any depth required by the House.
Let me turn to Members’ expenses and allowances. This subject has caused understandable loss of public trust and confidence in us all. In my 30 years in this House, I have seen nothing like it. Let me say again to the men and women of this country that I am sorry.
But also let me remind this House that it passed up an opportunity to deal with this emotive issue less than a year ago. In January 2008, I was tasked by the House with reviewing Members’ allowances. I pay tribute to my colleagues—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey)—on the Members Estimate Committee, who worked very hard to produce detailed and thorough proposals. They took a wide range of evidence and produced a report that was blunt and straightforward, and whose 18 separate recommendations were presented to the House on 3 July 2008.
In a letter to me on 30 June last year, Sir Christopher Kelly, Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, commented that the Committee was
“pleased to see the proposals for a more robust system of audit and assurance, based for the most part on claims backed by receipts, and by the implied acceptance of complete transparency about what is claimed. Taken together, these seem to us to be significant steps towards the establishment of the robust regime that MPs and the taxpayer have the right to expect”.
The response of the House was deeply disappointing. Half of all Members did not attend to vote, and more than half of those who did vote rejected the proposals. I regretted that then: I deeply regret it now, and I expect that many Members of the House now share that regret.
Of course, the recommendations would not have solved every difficulty, but they would have ended many practices for which Members have been attacked in recent weeks.
Some proposals have been seized on by party leaders who have come up with their own solutions but, by and large, those solutions were in my Committee’s 18 recommendations. They would have stopped claims for furniture and household goods, ended outer-London Members claiming for the cost of second homes, introduced a robust new system of internal and—crucially—external audit, and reduced the receipt level to zero.
I wish with all my heart that those recommendations had won the confidence of the House last July. And I wish that party leaders had shown then some of the leadership that they have shown now.
Tradition has it that such votes are not whipped, but this does not remove the responsibility of leaders to speak up for common sense and for the obvious wishes of the country in seeking necessary reform. We should have done that last year.
As to the legal challenges made to the Freedom of Information Act, as Speaker I could see that some Members wanted complete and total transparency, while others strongly argued that the information should only be to a certain degree. The representations to me came from every party, and from every level of those parties.
I listened to these representations but I was also aware that, in an important area of law such as this, the decision of a very new Information Tribunal to publish the details of 14 Members of Parliament had to be tested in a higher court, because its decision would affect all 646 Members. What we now know is that transparency will be the House’s best safeguard.
On 4 May 1979, the people of Glasgow, Springburn—now Glasgow, North-East—entrusted me with the greatest honour of my life when I was returned as their Member of Parliament. Glasgow is the place where I served my apprenticeship as a young metalworker, and where I joined the trade union, of which I am still proud to be a member. It is also where I married my wife, Mary, and where we raised our family. My thoughts go back to the fact that every member of my family, including my son Paul and daughter Mary, have been cared for so well at Stobhill hospital, which, over the years, I have been able to campaign for on the Floor of this House.
Of the many issues affecting my constituency, housing has been a fundamental problem, so it has been exciting and rewarding to have been able to engage in the early years of the new community-based housing associations. In 30 years, their growing strength has brought about dignity and comfort for many men, women and children who would otherwise have faced damp and inadequate dwellings. Furthermore, they have spurred the growth of excellent local institutions, community halls and sheltered housing for our elderly.
As the House will appreciate, I took pride, throughout my time as a Back Bencher and as Speaker, in holding surgeries and taking up matters that were important to individual organisations, and all the people of my constituency. I must record and give thanks for the support of my agent, Councillor Gerry Leonard, my constituency assistant, Mrs. Georgie Rainey, and my lifelong friend, Mr. Barry Reamsbottom, who helps me here in London. They have always shown unfailing support in the constituency, and I am honoured to have worked with them.
The constituency will always be home in every sense for me. There can be no greater honour than bringing to this House the richness of that experience, the privilege of representing friends and neighbours, and the values of family and community that I hold dear. To all those good people of Glasgow, North-East, and Springburn before it, let me say this: I will forever be in your debt for giving me your friendship, support and trust.
I have enjoyed every day of coming to this House. It was a great honour to be invited by Speaker Weatherill to be on his panel. That took me to the chairmanship of the Scottish Grand Committee, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland bringing Parliament to the people. I then became Chairman of the Administration Committee, and then Deputy Speaker.
In 2000, you entrusted me with the great office of Speaker. I have been so happy to serve you, and to represent the House at home and abroad. I was honoured to be the first Speaker to pay an official visit to Poland, a country that I always hoped and prayed would be free of communism one day. Because of my political neutrality as a Speaker, I must withdraw from the natural comradeship of this place and be a little isolated in Speaker’s House. I raise that point because I would like to thank my wife Mary for coming to London each week, when her natural instinct was to remain in her beloved Glasgow. Without intruding in my business, she has always been there in support, and she has done so much to make Speaker’s House a place of welcome, planning and working on official and unofficial events.
Though this Parliament is at its lowest ebb, I can testify to the goodness of the vast majority of members of this House. I have had the privilege, often late at night, during Adjournment debates to witness Members from every party, including minority parties, raising the problem of one sole constituent who is perhaps experiencing a health or social security problem. Those Members were using their right to question Government Ministers. Most strikingly, when working miners suffered the cruel effects of industrial diseases, there was no shortage of Members to make demands of Ministers, asking them to give those good, hard-working people compensation.
Members regularly acted as a group, showing tenacity when campaigning for those whom they represent, and those who have been denied human rights in countries abroad. Let us not forget that it was this Parliament that achieved what seemed impossible: all the political parties of Northern Ireland took huge risks in setting aside their long-held differences, and in doing so they worked with all the political parties in this House, achieving a peace that has brought harmony to Northern Ireland. It was a proud moment for me when I welcomed the Irish Taoiseach on behalf of this House, and his welcome was that given to a friend. That was this Parliament at its very best.
There are those who will remind us of our unworthy moments, but when I am asked, I will tell of the goodness that exists in this House. I will leave this House with fond and moving memories. One of those memories is of meeting a Holocaust survivor called Rosa. She came to this country in 1946 after she had endured the horrors of Auschwitz and a long forced march back to Germany. She raised her family in Britain, and she would say about this Parliament, “That building gave me my freedom.” Rosa held this House in high regard for perfectly justifiable reasons. The House must work tirelessly to restore the high esteem that she saw in it. Knowing you all personally, I know that you will do that, so that the people of the United Kingdom will have, once again, a parliamentary democracy that they can regard as the best in the world.
In the work ahead, you will be criticised strongly, particularly for this sad period. When scorned, take as comfort the words that Robert Burns wrote to those whom he described as “The Rigidly Righteous”:
“Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may go a little wrong,
To step aside is human.”
Tribute to Mr. Speaker
I beg to move,
That this House records its warm appreciation of the manner in which the Right Honourable Michael Martin has occupied the office of Speaker; expresses its thanks for the humanity and good humour with which he has presided over the affairs of the House at a most challenging time; congratulates him on the kindness and openness he has shown to all Members and for establishing a Speaker’s conference to examine engagement of Parliament with an increasingly diverse society; and accordingly unites in sending him its wishes for a long and happy retirement upon his departure from the Chair.
Mr. Speaker, I regard it as a great privilege that it falls to me to be the first to speak to this motion, and the first to offer you, on behalf of the whole House, heartfelt thanks for your long and dedicated service to Parliament—as a Member of Parliament, a Chair of Committees, a Deputy Speaker and, of course, most recently, for nearly nine years’ service as our Speaker. As is typical of you, in your remarks today you have been anxious to thank all those who have worked with you during your period as Speaker. As is also typical of you, your concern for others is reflected in the work that you have done with your wife in hosting numerous charitable events in the Speaker’s House. And as again is typical of you, you ended your speech today by talking about the human rights and social justice with which Parliament is best associated, and your commitment to that as a lifelong supporter of both the rights of individuals and social justice.
Your long career and your life’s journey from your roots in post-war Glasgow—no easy upbringing, no special privileges, education mainly in the hard school of life—through your apprenticeship, which you described, as a sheet metalworker and a shop steward, then via the trade union movement and local government into Parliament and on to the highest office of this ancient forum of democracy, is an inspiring story of commitment and determination in the service of your community, your party, this Parliament and our nation.
Let us remember, fellow Members, how this Speaker worked his way up. His father served in the war and was shipwrecked three times by torpedo. His mother, who brought him up, taught him that he and his community had to fight for everything they won. To leave school at 15 with no formal qualifications and then rise to the speakership of the House of Commons tells of a man of unique parliamentary abilities, and of dedication, self-belief and tireless hard work. You have known better than many in the House what it is like to grow up in poverty, and also what it takes to overcome it, but throughout it all you have remained true to your principles and proud of where you have come from.
You are a teetotaller, so you gave pleasure to others in choosing and testing Mr. Speaker’s brand of whisky for which they are entirely grateful. I am reminded that in Glasgow 100 years ago, the Labour party once stood on a platform supporting your position on the prohibition of alcohol, and decided never to stand on that platform at another election.
You know Glasgow and have come up through the difficult school of Glasgow politics. You know what is said about someone appearing in Glasgow as a comedian: if they like you, they do not laugh; they just let you live.
Ask people in north Glasgow who it was who offered them comfort when they lost someone dear to them, or when they lost their jobs or had problems with housing, which you have just mentioned, or troubles with schooling. On the streets of Cowlairs, Sighthill or Barlarnock you will get the same answer: it was Michael Martin. This House should salute a Speaker who has made his constituency proud and who is hailed as a friend by people from every background and every walk of life when he walks down the streets of his constituency; a Speaker who, as he said, was born and brought up in the city that he has represented with pride for 30 years; a Speaker whose small kindnesses to hundreds of people are remembered and unfailingly appreciated, and who has brought home to thousands what Westminster at its best can do for people.
Never interested in the trappings of office, only in the concerns of the people we represent, this is a Speaker who returned to his constituency every weekend to meet the people whom he represented and who has never forgotten where he came from, always determined to hear what they had to say to him; a Speaker who, because he worked his way up with no special privileges accorded to him, can encourage and inspire young people in the same position to do the same.
It is a fitting tribute, Mr. Speaker, to your long-standing commitment to housing, which you just mentioned, from your days as a councillor on Glasgow city council to your maiden speech in the House, which referred to housing, to your work today with housing associations across north-east Glasgow, that as part of a programme of housing and care for those with learning disabilities there stands in Glasgow today none other than Martin house. It is a reflection of your work in supporting employment opportunities in Glasgow that you helped to transform a restored warehouse into City Park, a state-of-the-art office space that has provided over 2,500 jobs, thanks to your inspiration.
Perhaps it was because of your deep roots in community service that you brought to the role of Speaker your hallmark kindness and consideration, for which you will rightly be remembered with such affection. As I know myself, and as other Members in the House know, your personal concern for those of us who were bereaved or otherwise troubled, the notes and letters, and the kind words went far beyond the duties of the office of Speaker, but I am sure that to you they were just the ordinary duties of a man who cares about people.
While interns in their hundreds have for so long been able to come to and feel at home in these precincts, your initiative on craft apprenticeships, which you have just mentioned, has enabled young people from less privileged backgrounds to train here and, with skills as stonemasons and electricians, make a genuine and lasting contribution to the upkeep of this place and then go on to fulfilling careers in later life.
At every stage of your career, you have always thought first of how to extend opportunities to those denied them. You have always stood at the shoulder of those struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families. You said in your first acceptance speech in October 2000 that family was important to you and that you would endeavour to see that families were included in the proceedings of the House. Even before you were elected Speaker, it was largely due to your efforts that the Parliamentary Commissioner approved a voucher scheme to provide child care in the House. I hope you can take great pride in some of the changes that have been made in modernising the House during your time, not least the changes to the sitting hours and, of course, the new procedures for election of the Speaker, which we will use for the first time next week.
I have spoken of your love of family. No tribute to you could be complete without mention of your children, Paul and Mary Ann, and your wife Mary, a wonderful family for whose support I know you will always be enormously grateful. They and you have much to be proud of from your nine years as our Speaker and from your 30 years’ outstanding service to the House and this country. I am sure the whole House will always be grateful to you. We hope you will enjoy a long and happy retirement, and every Member in every part of the House offers you every good wish for the future. Thank you.
It is right, Mr. Speaker, that the House has this opportunity to pay tribute to the service that you have given—for once, I can say “you” while remaining in order. I share so much of what the Prime Minister said about your record and about what you have done for your constituents and for the House. Yours was a very moving speech. Everyone could hear your passion about this place, and all of us who care about the House of Commons, Parliament and its place in public life must deliver what you said we must—the restoration of trust in the House of Commons.
It is fair to say that there have been quieter times to be Speaker, although some of your predecessors may have had cause to think they had picked even shorter straws. After all, seven of them were beheaded. You have presided over the House at a time when there has been widespread concern about an over-mighty Executive and the diminished role of Parliament. That was not something that was in your power alone to stop.
Let us be clear about the expenses issue. The whole House shares in its responsibility for what has happened in recent weeks. As you said in your remarks, it was the House as a whole—not all of us, but the House as a whole—which last July rejected many of the reforms put forward by the Members Estimate Committee, which you chair. As you noted in your statement, some of the proposals now being put forward to clean up this place are similar to the ones that your Committee recommended a year ago. Fortunately, a consensus exists in this place now to accept what it was not willing to accept then, but we all share collective responsibility for that delay, and we all now have a responsibility to restore the reputation of the House.
You have served exactly three decades in Parliament. During that time you have shown huge dedication, both in public service to your constituents and to the House itself. You have served not only as Speaker, but as Chairman of the House of Commons Commission and of the Speaker’s Conference, and before that as a Chairman of Committees, member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen for more than a decade, and Chairman of the Scottish Grand Committee. It is a remarkable record of distinguished service, matched only by the huge dedication that you have shown to your constituency in Glasgow, starting from your period as a councillor.
As the Prime Minister said, your life story is inspiring not just to people in the House or in Glasgow, but to people throughout our country. I know you will be missed hugely in Glasgow, North-East when you stand down as a Member of Parliament. I am sure that those on both sides of the House are very much looking forward to the by-election. I can only hope that all your constituents will be as friendly to me as you have been. [Laughter.] I am always hopeful.
Your approach to chairing debates has been quiet but persuasive. Your decency and your kindness are clear. We saw your decency during the baby P debate last year. As for your kindness, I referred a few days ago to the advice that you gave me when I was a new Back Bencher in 2001. It was typical of your approachability to all Members, but especially Back Benchers, which you have made a personal trademark throughout your time in office. The previous Speaker, Speaker Boothroyd, was the first woman Speaker. You were the first Catholic since the Reformation to be Speaker. It is easy to overlook the change that the election of you and your immediate predecessor as Speaker signify.
I was struck by one comment that you made in an interview after becoming Speaker. When asked about the procedures of this place, you recalled some wise words of Jim Callaghan:
“Always remember that things that are traditional shouldn’t be thrown out just because they are traditional; and things that are traditional shouldn’t necessarily be kept for the sake of being traditional.”
That is a good principle for the reform not only of the House, but, I would argue, of every other institution in our country.
I shall end by noting another interview, this time to the “Politics Show”, which provides several lessons for us all. In that interview, Mr. Speaker, you emphasised the importance of switching off from politics—in your case, by playing the bagpipes. You said that the secret of Prime Minister’s Question Time was to relax and calm down and not to get psyched up. That is a piece of advice that I will perhaps one day try to take. You said also that the best way to approach colleagues in the House was to give them just enough rope before pulling them in, and that you liked to smile at Members just before you told them off. As I can see that you are smiling now, I think it is time to bring my remarks to a close. [Laughter.] However, I know, and we all know, that you will enjoy spending more quality time with your wife, Mary, and your beloved grandchildren. So both on a personal level and on behalf of everyone on the Opposition Benches, I wish you the very best for the years ahead.
Mr. Speaker, in the circumstances, it is especially generous of you to give me the opportunity to speak today, and I am grateful to you for that.
I entered this House only in 2005, and one of my most abiding memories of those first few weeks was your generosity to the former Member for Cheadle, Patsy Calton, when she came, despite the fragility of her health, to swear the Oath of Allegiance. I do not think that any of us will forget the tenderness with which you stepped from the Chair, against all convention, to greet her by the Dispatch Box. It has been clear to all of us, whatever differences there might be, that personal kindness has been the outstanding characteristic of your time in the Chair—a kindness that enthused every word of what you said earlier.
As a newly elected party leader, I remember sitting with you in your apartments, talking not about politics but about our families, and I remember on another occasion watching you unveil a portrait of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) in those same rooms. It was wonderful to listen to both of you reminisce about the journey that had taken you from almost the same area in Glasgow to public service here in Parliament.
Mr. Speaker, whatever differences there have been, you and I share a belief in the importance of our democracy. Our political institutions, as you have pointed out, have come under immense and unprecedented pressure in recent times, but democracy remains an idea that is bigger than every one of us—an idea that must be defended no matter the personal cost. I know—everyone here knows—that you gave yourself, heart and soul, to the job of Speaker. Above all, you have shown us all how to temper great authority with great kindness, and that will be your legacy.
Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure and a privilege to address my remarks to you in paying the warmest tribute for the service that you have provided to this House, for which we are indebted to you. I would like to thank you personally for the kindness and support that you offered me when I was elected. I believe that throughout your term as Speaker you have always had the best interests of this House at heart, and even now in leaving office, you have put those interests first.
Your election as Speaker was a great honour for you and your family, and an even greater honour for our native city of Glasgow. You began your working life as a sheet metalworker, and all your achievements are the result of your own hard work and ambition. It is a positive indicator of the society in which we live today that someone from such humble beginnings can rise to one of the greatest offices in the country.
Mr. Speaker, I was incredibly sad when you informed this House that you were resigning from the office of Speaker. That sentiment has been shared by many of my constituents who have contacted me over the past few weeks.
I would like to share with the House a few lines of an e-mail that I received from a 16-year-old constituent who visited the House last year as part of a school trip. Her name is Kayleigh Quinn, and she wrote:
“I am deeply upset that Mr Martin has been compelled to resign from his post. As someone from the same working-class Glasgow background as Michael Martin I am extremely proud of what he has achieved in his political career. The Members of Parliament who contributed to his decision ought to be ashamed.”
In short, Mr. Speaker, many young people throughout the United Kingdom look to you as a source of inspiration—an inspiration that anything can be achieved through dedication and hard work.
Your distinguished predecessor, Speaker Boothroyd, is famously known for having said that there are times when she thinks that she has come a long way, and I believe that you are certainly entitled to say the same. Mr Speaker, I repeat my thanks to you once again.
Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I would like to thank you for the privilege of being able to speak on a very important and, I am sure for you, personal and emotional day, because you have not only served this House but given excellent service to the United Kingdom. I am sure that you are rightly proud of your achievement in the political world, coming from humble surroundings right to the highest office here, as Speaker of this United Kingdom Parliament. You have also been an inspiration, and in actual fact your story is an inspiration to many young people, showing them that they can look up, aim high and accomplish even the greatest achievements, irrespective of their humble beginnings.
Mr. Speaker, you have always shown the greatest courtesy to my colleagues and me over the years, and I place on the record our deepest gratitude to you. I would also like to thank you for your acts of kindness, and your generosity will never be forgotten. Sir, you opened Speaker’s House to many people who would never have gone there if it had not been for your kindness, and you invited Members from all parts of the House to go to many excellent occasions there, and for that we owe you and your good wife Mary our deepest gratitude.
I should express my personal appreciation of your taste in music, given that you invited me to participate in your excellent Burns night events on two occasions. The House will, however, be delighted to know that no performance fees were asked for or received, and therefore that can go on the public record. I did not, however, stimulate the economy by imbibing any of Mr. Speaker’s whisky and, for that, I am absolutely delighted to be able to keep a very steady and good head.
Mr. Speaker, I conclude by wishing you and Mary every happiness in your retirement, and I trust and pray that you are able to leave this House with your head held high, having been the defender of the ordinary Members of this House—the Back Benchers. For that, we shall be eternally grateful.
Mr. Speaker, may I say what a great pleasure it was, at the beginning of this Parliament, to preside over your reselection as Speaker of this House? You were a triple-first candidate: as has been said, you were the first Catholic, the first metalworker and, unsurprisingly, the first teetotaller to occupy the Chair. You learned of your needs to protect the rights of the Back Bencher through 18 years in opposition, and I think that many Opposition Members now, having spent 12 years in opposition, particularly those in the party who governed previously, view accountability rather differently from when they sat on the Government Benches.
I well recollect my very first day in the House, in 1964, when I sat on the second row of the Government Benches. I was sitting next to Iorwerth Thomas, a 70-year-old Welsh Member, and I said to him, “Well, Iori, it must be wonderful to be sitting on this side of the House after 13 years on that side,” and he thought and he said, “Yes, my boy; the sun gets in your eyes on the other side of the House.” That, of course, was in the days before television and the screening of the windows.
As you said, you served your apprenticeship as Speaker doing the unglamorous work of chairing the legislative and administrative Committees of the House, and you duly became Deputy Speaker. By the time you became the Speaker of the House, you were a complete House of Commons man. You said then that the Speaker’s duty was to serve the House, not the Executive, and to protect the rights of Back Benchers.
Essentially, you are also a constituency man. I was intrigued to come across a quote from Bill Walker, the former Conservative MP whom many here will remember. Bill said of you:
“He is always respected by his electorate because he speaks from the heart.”
That was a touching thing for a political opponent to say, and it helps explain the affection in which you are held in your own constituency. You are an innately kind man, as we heard from one of our colleagues even in Question Time today. Since you have been Speaker, your door has been open to any Member who wants advice or guidance.
To follow on from something that you mentioned, I should say that until last July, I had been secretary of the British-American parliamentary group for seven years. I thank you, on behalf of not only that group but the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, for all your work to help our endeavours to develop relationships with democracies overseas. You put an enormous amount of time into that, and it is appreciated by us all.
As Chair of the Liaison Committee, may I also thank you for your enormous support for Select Committees? They are only 30 years old this year, but they represent one of the greatest transformations in parliamentary accountability. When I became Chair of the Liaison Committee, I spoke to every Select Committee Chairman. Having served on the Public Accounts Committee, I was horrified at what I discovered was available as back-up and support to our Select Committees. I asked that a review be set up and that the National Audit Office be included in that review to ensure that it was seen as impartial.
When the review reported, you and the House of Commons Commission responded instantly. You gave the Select Committees the largest injection of support that they had received in 20 years. To ensure that such a situation never arose again, five-yearly reviews were also established so that the future of the Committees would be secure. We are deeply grateful to you for that. You have presided during two wars and the greatest economic crisis that any of us has ever seen. Throughout, you have tried to be even-handed between the Government and the Opposition and you have tried to protect the right of Back Benchers to hold the Executive to account.
Mr. Speaker, your love for and commitment to the House has never, ever been questioned. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in wishing you and your family the happiness that you deserve in retirement.
It gives me great pleasure to say some brief words to celebrate your work, Mr. Speaker, and to thank you for it. I do that on behalf of my hon. Friends from Plaid Cymru and, I am sure, on behalf of the public at large. I am also pleased to have agreed with everything that has been said hitherto. You, of course, are the 156th Speaker of Parliament, and you have been unfailing in your courtesy and help throughout your tenure. Almost immediately after your election as Speaker, we all became aware of a press lobby that harboured misgivings about the appointment of a one-time steelworker to such a high office. Those have not crossed my mind; my experience has been of a Speaker who has been scrupulously fair and who always had an eye on the interests of Back Benchers and minority parties.
Owing to the attention from some sections of the media, I can only imagine that at times the pressures on you and your family have been immense. Despite your vast work load, every time that I have sought a meeting with you, one has been arranged swiftly; even the odd meetings that I attended to do some grousing were unfailingly cordial and businesslike.
Speaking of grouse, I should say that I have a feather in my cap that is not shared by any other right hon. or hon. Member. A few weeks before the official opening of the Senedd building at the National Assembly in Cardiff, I received a telephone call from the Speaker’s Clerk, asking whether I would visit you. I duly responded and attended as requested, having no idea why I was being summoned in that way. I entered your chambers in a quizzical mood, with no earthly idea of why I was there. I comforted myself with the thought that I had been behaving reasonably well in the Chamber and that I was probably not going to be dressed down.
When you came in, you said that, as a Scot, you were keen to make a speech in the Welsh language during the official opening ceremony in Cardiff. You asked me to write a short speech and translate it into Welsh. I did that, recorded it and gave you a tape. There followed a practice session in which you showed a mastery of the language. I recall that you said that you were keen to do a good job, because anything else would be seen as insulting. Anyway, your pronunciation was second to none when the fabled, fickle finger of fate pointed your way and you were struck down by a heavy dose of influenza. You could not attend. In the meantime, I was in the auditorium at Cardiff, awaiting my star pupil. So it is that I refer to myself as Welsh language tutor to the 156th Speaker of the House of Commons; that is probably as high as I will ever go in this institution.
You also referred to your being a teetotaller. I remember attending a meeting with you and the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). At its conclusion, you brought out a bottle of whisky and, as they say in Scotland, you “poured a good one”—in fact, for my liking it was a very good one. I was drinking on an empty stomach and unaccustomed to undiluted whisky. For the remainder of the meeting, I was with the birds.
Speaker Weatherill once said that a Speaker has no friends, but you know that that is not true. You have sincere friends in all corners of the House. It has been a privilege to serve under you. I wish you, your lovely wife Mary and your whole family the very best in health and happiness on the cusp of what we all hope will be a long, fulfilling and well-earned retirement. No doubt there will now be time enough to become fluent in the Welsh language. Pob bendith a llwyddiant i chi a’ch teulu. Diolch yn fawr!
Mr. Speaker, I address you in your capacity as a fine Speaker of the House of Commons, a devoted Member and, if I may say so, a good friend. With others, I had the privilege of serving on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. I remember what a trenchant Chairman you were, within your obligatory neutrality.
One of the great features of your speakership, and one that I have not noticed to the same extent under the other Speakers during my service in the House, is how you have reached out to the variegated communities that make up the great and colourful mosaic of Britain. You reached out to the Muslim and Jewish communities. I had the privilege of attending the events that you arranged to commemorate Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Apart from my occasional visits to the synagogue, I probably met more Jews at those ceremonies than I do in my normal daily activities. The ceremonies were very moving, and I very much hope that your successor will continue them, because they brought a glow and a beauty to Speaker’s House.
May I, Mr. Speaker, both personally and as a Member of this House, wish you Godspeed? You have served this House extraordinarily well, and we shall miss you.
Mr. Speaker, my tribute will be personal. I am, I think, the longest-serving member of the Speaker’s Panel, and in that capacity, clearly, I have had a lot to do with you. Everything, from my point of view, has been entirely satisfactory. You have shown kindness, understanding, courtesy and care. May I say, perhaps on behalf of the Speaker’s Panel—your panel of those who chair Public Bill Committees and Delegated Legislation Committees in this House—that the care and courtesy that you have extended to us has always been hugely appreciated? The annual reception that you give for members of your panel in your state apartments, prior to our own private dinner, is always hugely appreciated, and, as you know from the attendance, greatly appreciated by Members as well.
May I pick just one word out of the motion that was moved so eloquently by the Prime Minister—“humanity”? That has not been mentioned other than in the text of the motion. You have been a Speaker who has shown huge humanity. You have sought, on all occasions, to stand up for the interests of this House. You have sought not only to defend this House as an institution but, from time to time, to defend Members when they have rightly come to you for advice and help. Much of this is not appreciated by the people out there, which is very regrettable. I think that if people had actually got to know you as an individual—a man of kindness, a man of humanity—some of the totally unjustified criticism that has been levelled at you would never have been spoken. I deeply regret it. I think I can say on behalf of many Members of this House that I feel the criticism that has been made of you as much as if it had been made of me personally, because it was unjustified; you were not understood. The statement that you have delivered to the House today has been of immense value. I hope that it will be very widely read, because if, from time to time, this House had accepted your counsel, perhaps some of the worst criticism and the serious problems that we have faced in recent times would never have arisen.
May I say, Mr. Speaker, that my wife and I were particularly grateful to you for allowing us to use your wonderful state apartments to celebrate 60 years of combined service in this House? It was a wonderful party—a wonderful occasion—attended by Members from all parties in this House. May I add that you remained to the bitter end of what was a very long party, and you were able to do that with humour and commitment, without the stimulation of any alcohol whatsoever? That indicates the sort of man you are.
I can say personally, Mr. Speaker, that I shall sincerely miss you for your kindness and for your humanity. I believe that the record that you have left, coming from the background that you do, is one of which you should be immensely proud. I am personally immensely proud to have known you and to have served for nearly a quarter of a century on your panel of Chairmen. You are truly a magnificent representative of Glasgow. You are a wonderful family man. On all occasions, your love of family—your love of Mary and your children—shone through like a beacon. I wish you, on behalf of myself and perhaps every Member of this House, a very happy and long retirement, and I hope that our paths will cross. I wish you well.
Others have made the point Mr. Speaker, that you are the first metalworker and the first Catholic to be Speaker. I took my seat in 2005, so you are the first Speaker I have known. Like others, I have always been hugely impressed by the consideration and courtesy that you show to each and every Member of this House, to all the parties in this House, and to all the regions represented in this House. I can recall, on taking my seat, the warmth of your handshake and greeting, and the fact that that lasted through the manner in which you, with civility and sensitivity, received my complaints as an Irish nationalist having to recite an affirmation of allegiance, and immediately moved on to ask after people such as John Hume and Seamus Mallon—who send their salute to you today.
Mr. Speaker, you have never pretended to be a big thinker, but you are one of the most thoughtful people I have ever come across in political life. You are not a grabber, but you have the best and warmest reach of anyone in this House—a quiet reach that extends not just across party lines and regional differences in this House, but outside this House, across professional interests and across religious and faith dimensions. You have never particularly advertised that, but I am glad that you took the opportunity to reflect on some of those points today.
I think it was also appropriate that you, Mr. Speaker, addressed some of the issues surrounding recent events, and it would be inappropriate if, in the course of all these tributes, you ended up being the only person who did so. The House should receive well the reminder that you offered, and if there was a measure of rebuke in it, the House should receive that rebuke well, too. There were opportunities, and there is now an opportunity cost that the House is suffering. Unfortunately—it happens in life, and it certainly happens in political life—sometimes events, perceptions and moods conspire to result in some necessary unfairness or unfair necessity, and you find yourself in many ways a victim of that.
As you spend your retirement not just in your constituency but, I am sure, in one near me—not a constituency represented in this House, but that of Donegal North East, where I know you have such affinities and family connections—and contemplate how many people who resisted or avoided change in the past are now leapfrogging each other to be the champions of ever more change and openness, you will be able to ruminate on the adage that, in politics, irony is just hypocrisy with panache.
I want, not just on my own behalf but that of my party colleagues, to extend that tribute and thanks not only to you but, as you have rightly done, to all your staff; and to your wife, Mary, who has, with you, again in a very special and quiet way, done so much to make Speaker’s House available to so many good causes, as has been said, and to use it as a special stage to recognise, celebrate and encourage young talent from all the regions represented in the House.
All Members will miss the warmth of your presence here and the consideration that you show. You are an extremely modest man. As we have heard, you are a Catholic. I am sure that as a Catholic boy of your vintage, you would have learned your catechism, which would have included lessons about calumny and detraction—what they were and the difference between them. After your experience in recent weeks, I am sure that you can give examples of both, and of how you have been on the wrong end of examples of both. However, Mr. Speaker, whatever the coverage in recent times and however hurtful it was, just remember that you, this modest man whom we respect, leave here with immense pride.
May I add a brief footnote to the generous tributes that have been paid to you, Mr. Speaker? I begin by saying how very much I welcome what you said in your statement about the issue of privilege. I was delighted to hear that we are now going to make progress with it, as it does indeed need addressing.
Mr. Speaker, you may have forgotten the conversation that we had shortly after you saw off a large number of contenders for your job some nine years ago. I asked you whether, on the assumption that we were both returned in the 2001 general election, I might propose you as Speaker at the beginning of the new Parliament. We both felt that that would be a good way of healing any wounds, and you generously agreed to it.
I have been looking at what I said then, almost exactly eight years ago to the day, at the beginning of that Parliament, and I would say the same today. I referred to your commitment and long service to the House, your deep roots in the Back Benches, your earlier work on the Chairmen’s Panel and Domestic Committees and your experience in the Chair as Deputy Speaker. I mentioned your genial and approachable manner, underpinned by a deep affection for and commitment to the House. I said that all those qualities struck a chord with the House. They did then, and they do today.
The Prime Minister referred to your background in the trade union movement, and I wish to mention one role related to that. It is not the role of negotiating with management, because after all you are the management, but that of shop steward. It is the role of someone whom a Member can approach for advice and comfort when they have a problem—the so-called pastoral role. I know that you have done a lot of that as Speaker, and it is an important role, particularly at this difficult time for the House and its Members. I hope that that role may continue, and I wish you and Mary a long and happy retirement.
It is said, and has been said today, that the best speeches come from the heart. All the speeches that you have heard today in the House have come from the heart, Mr. Speaker, as does mine.
I have worked with you on the House of Commons Commission for all the years that you have been Speaker. I served your predecessor, and it was an honour and a privilege to serve you. I mention those passing years because in all that time, in addition to your ceremonial duties and your stewardship of this House, you have always had one thing uppermost in your mind: the well-being of 646 Members of this House. You have seen them individually and, as you are seeing them now, you have seen them collectively. You have sought to protect their interests against all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
I know that you particularly enjoyed being in the Chair when votes were taking place and Members could come up to you and speak to you. Many unburdened themselves and opened their hearts to you. They knew that they were able to do so in the utmost confidence. You were their friend as well as their Speaker. In many small ways and in many large, you defended their singular and collective interests in a Parliament to which Members are elected from the Shetlands to Land’s End and back again, representing different and differing constituencies but all seeking to do their duty by this House and by their constituents. For that, the entire House owes you a debt of gratitude.
You have served your nation, Sir, and you deserve our respect and admiration. There is little mean or common that you have done on this memorable scene, and we can only thank you with gratitude, wish you, Mary, Paul and Mary well, and wish you a very happy and long retirement.
As the senior of the two elected independents, it is my absolute privilege to add some words to the tributes to you, Mr. Speaker. In particular, as others have said, I am most grateful for your detailed statement, which set the record straight. Thank you, Sir, for that.
I should like to pick out three words and phrases mentioned in the tribute that the Prime Minister proposed, the first of which is “kindness”. On my arrival, I joined some other new Members in meeting with you. I was then surprised to receive an invitation to have a cup of tea. I thought that it would be with a few others as well, but no, it was with me alone. You wanted to know whether I was feeling lonely. That was so kind and so typical of your attitude that I shall always remember it. I am still not quite sure which of my many Adjournment debates on health issues you pushed for and which were produced by the computer, so thank you for that, too.
The second word that I wish to pick out is “humanity”. Your involvement with charities has been mentioned, and I remember one of the latest events, at which you opened the charity for the refurbishment of St. Margaret’s. It was at the height of your stress, but you were still able to come in and speak to that charity. Your receptions for staff have also been highly appreciated. Some of my friends among the catering staff who serve us in the Terrace Cafeteria have said how much they have appreciated being involved in some of them.
The third phrase is “good humour”, which includes your tolerance. The best example of that—some Members on the Opposition Benches will remember it, as we had a very good view—was at one session of Prime Minister’s questions, when the Prime Minister was perhaps not at the height of his popularity. One very young Labour Whip was standing within about two inches of your right ear and very loudly orchestrating support from the Labour Benches. You put him down with a superb but very brief, tolerant and humorous set-down. That provides a hint to the person who is selected to follow you that when hon. Members are behaving like unruly schoolkids, as all too often they do, the best answer is good humour. That keeps the place going.
An attribute that has not been mentioned is your humility, Mr. Speaker. Despite everything that you have been through and overseen, you still regard your greatest privilege as that of representing your friends and neighbours at home. That is a real tribute. Thank you, Sir, very much. I wish you and your beloved family happiness in a long retirement.
It gives me great honour to be associated with the motion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister moved. It was a fitting tribute to your good self, Mr. Speaker.
Every Member of Parliament knows where they were when a new Speaker was selected. I can remember sitting on the Opposition Benches when we elected your predecessor, Betty Boothroyd, as Speaker. I remember that those on the Government Benches said, “Don’t get too excited, that’s the only vote you’re going to win in this Parliament”, and it was. I can also remember your election, Mr. Speaker. I remember the dignified way in which you approached it and quite rightly won the support of the overwhelming majority of the House. You and I come from similar trade union backgrounds, having similarly left school at 15 and become apprentices. I was not one of those whom you had to tell what a sheet metalworker was, because I already knew that before I got down here.
A word to those who wish to succeed you. One of the most wonderful things that I have done in this House has been serving on Committees. I have served on your Chairmen’s Panel for a while, but I also served on the special little committee that chose Speaker Martin’s Whisky. That was a real privilege, and I hope that a similar one can be afforded other hon. Members.
I know the professionalism and sincerity that you have brought to the job, and all that I wish to do is echo the words about the great kindnesses that you have shown. I will miss you as Speaker, and also as a friend. Have a good retirement.
I did not expect this to be a reunion of the panel that was chosen to select your malt whisky, Mr. Speaker, but it is. I was also a member of that committee.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) made passing reference to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which has been one of your important roles. It has been given specific tasks in relation to the commission, such as the approval of its budget, the examination of its estimates and reporting to the House. It is a carefully constructed link between an independent body and this House, and it has achieved its role very well. You appointed five of the nine members, and Electoral Commissions cannot be appointed without the Speaker’s consent, effectively making your office the person responsible for such appointments.
In January 2007, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended a change in the emphasis of the Electoral Commission to play a more regulatory role, and the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, under your chairmanship, actively participated in the discussions that led to the implementation of the proposals. The work of the Speaker’s Committee has been well respected, and I am sure that the other members of the committee and, indeed, the Electoral Commission, would wish to pay tribute to your chairmanship during an active and evolutionary time.
Being the spokesman of the Speaker’s Committee gave me an opportunity to come to know you quite well, and I am extremely grateful for the courtesy and kindness that you always extended to me and the other members of the Committee.
Mr. Speaker, I associate myself with all the positive comments about your contribution to the House and your personal approach to the job of Speaker. I am particularly pleased to underline the comments about your attitude to the staff of the House of Commons. I know how much it is appreciated by everyone from the Clerk down to the lowest cleaner in the basement.
I want to add a little about my contact with you. I was first elected in 1987 as one of 19 new Members of Parliament in Scotland. You were one of the people who gave us most support as new, very raw MPs. In 2005, I was selected as Chair of the Administration Committee and developed a much closer working relationship with you. It is important to put on record the number of changes that have happened under your speakership.
We have been through momentous times in developing and modernising the building and the institution. As Chair of the Administration Committee, I quickly learned that most of my colleagues do not give a damn about what happens in this place as long as it works. However, it is important to record the changes that have been made.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly mentioned the modernisation of the hours that happened on your watch, but it is also right to remember more mundane matters, such as the introduction in 2001 of IT systems for Members of Parliament and the creation of a joint IT service with the House of Lords; the modernisation of the administration of the House after the Tebbit inquiry, and the creation of the new departments, which are much more focused on services to Members rather than to the institution of the House of Commons; the creation of a new post of chief executive, for which many of us called over many years; and the development of a Members’ centre, which again recognises the importance of service directly to Members.
Substantial changes have also occurred—some have yet to take effect. They include the House’s agreement to establish an education centre. The will mark significant progress in the facilities that the House offers. At the moment, our facilities can cater for approximately 20,000 to 30,000 schoolchildren in a year. When the new education centre is established, we will be able to deal with more than 100,000, making this place more accessible. We are currently running a pilot scheme for subsidised travel for schoolchildren to come to the House of Commons. So far, it has been enormously successful.
The big issue that has been on all our minds in recent years, to which you referred several times in your speech, is Members’ allowances. I congratulate you on the points that you made. When one reads the press, one would think that you were sitting doing nothing, but I know from my contact with you how much work you and the members of the Commission put in, not just when we experienced the problem of employing family members, or in the recent crisis of the publication of our expenses in detail, but long before that. You recognised the problems that our system posed for us, realised that, with the Freedom of Information Act 2001, things had to change, and tried to find some solution. Like you, I feel strongly about the fact that we did not accept the Commission’s report to the House last year.
Recent events have made me think about the way in which we deal with expenses. My first exposure to MPs’ allowances and so on came when I was a brand new Member in either late 1987 or early 1988, when we were asked to vote on our pay. I took the trade union position that a worker is entitled to the rate for the job. I found myself in the Lobby, which was jam packed, because most of my colleagues took the same view as me, pressed against the former Prime Minister and Conservative party leader, Ted Heath. I said to him, “For many years, I campaigned against your Government and denounced everything you stood for, yet here we are, shoulder to shoulder in the Lobby.” He turned round and said, as only he could, “Young man, this will happen twice in every Parliament, on pay and hanging.” That is the sort of leader I like. He did not just say things, he did things.
In 1971, Ted Heath’s Government introduced the allowances system that has caused us so much difficulty. It was introduced after due thought and consideration and I hope that those who now deal with those matters will appreciate their importance. As a Member of Parliament representing a constituency nearly 500 miles away, I could not afford to be a Member without the allowances, and I know that you have defended that principle sincerely throughout your period of office. I hope that, when decisions are made, others will reflect as seriously as I believe that Ted Heath did when he introduced the system in 1971.
May I add my good wishes to you and Mary? Virtually everyone who passed on their good wishes talked about your retirement. I think I know you better than that. You may be leaving the House of Commons, but I am not so sure that it is retirement.
It has always astonished me, Mr. Speaker, that you almost always remember the names of every Member of the House, but I found it truly amazing when, a few months ago, you acknowledged by name from the Speaker’s procession my seven-year-old son when he was lining up to watch you in your splendour. That made me realise that you appreciate that the House of Commons is not just about what happens in the Chamber, but that we all have families, people who work for us and many thousands of people outside the Chamber who make the House of Commons work. You can acknowledge them all, and they all look up to you.
Some of us—it may be a small minority—appreciate your playing of the bagpipes. It has been a great privilege to take part not only in your famous whisky tasting for producing Speaker Martin’s malt—I am glad it has been such a bestseller—but in the very first Burns supper, which you inaugurated in Speaker’s House. Like you, I take my moral ideas from Robert Burns. He would be proud, as we all are, that you personally have taken us a step nearer that great aim:
“Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’that,)…
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’that.”
I want to make a personal tribute to you and your speakership, Mr. Speaker. Yours has been a remarkable journey from ordinary working-class lad from Glasgow to one of the highest offices in the land—Speaker of the House of Commons. You are a tribute to our democracy and an example to us all. You have served with dignity and distinction, often in the face of the inherent snobbery that still persists in some parts of the British establishment.
On a personal level, I thank you for your kindness to me, not least when you agreed some years ago to meet my good friend Frank Duffy and me in your apartments—I am sure you remember that. Frank Duffy is another working-class trade union activist from Glasgow, but it was Frank’s father whom you admired so much, for his trade union activities in Glasgow. We were accompanied that day by Frank’s daughter Carol Ann and her daughter Ella. Carol Ann was recently appointed poet laureate, and her father Frank and her daughter are very proud of that. As memorable as that appointment is, however, I am quite sure that they will always remember with great fondness their visit to Speaker Martin’s apartment and your allowing Ella to bounce on the bed.
I congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, on your term of office and thank you for your kindness. I wish you and your family a long and happy life ahead.
It is a pleasure and an honour to add my tribute to those hon. Members from all parts of the House on behalf of the Scottish National party. In this place and elsewhere you have constantly been a fair Speaker to the Scottish and Welsh, and all the Northern Irish parties in this House. Given your background in a previous political existence, as a Scottish Labour Member of Parliament, some observers opined that it would be difficult for us to have a collegial relationship during your speakership, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Your record shows your fairness towards the SNP from the Chair, which includes the selection of an excellent Speaker’s malt from the Speyside region of my constituency.
Over recent years, there has been some appalling metropolitan media snobbery about your background. The SNP totally deprecates the grotesque anti-Scottish, anti-Glasgow, anti-working class caricature invoked by some London-based newspapers.
Like many hon. Members, from all parts of the House, I have had the good fortune to attend events hosted by you for visiting dignitaries, including Scottish Church leaders, and your famous Burns nights, which included your playing of the pipes. You have always been a model of good hospitality, an excellent host and a source of advice to me and my SNP colleagues, and other Members.
We are also grateful for your initiative in bringing together all the parties in the House urgently to deal with allowances and expenses. Now that you have started a genuinely all-party approach, we stand ready to play our part in the process, which you have initiated.
You and a number of other Members have invoked Robert Burns. I, too, would like to finish with some words from him:
“A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.”
“A Man’s A Man For A’ That” is the appropriate verse to capture your life achievements, your attachment to social justice and your respect to all, regardless of rank or status. We wish you and Mary all the best in the future.
In paying tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, I want to tell a story. I have not told it in public before, but it helps to illustrate your thoughtfulness and kindness, and may go some way towards explaining your popularity among the Back Benchers, which was never understood by many outside this place, and certainly not by many in the Press Gallery. The story dates from before when you became the Speaker, when you were the Deputy Speaker and, as such, the Chairman of Ways and Means. Today I have the chance to put it on the record. Without your help, I do not think that my progress into this House would have been as smooth and easy as it was.
I do not know whether you remember our first meeting, Mr. Speaker. It was in February 1997, at a conference in Scotland. I have to admit that when you approached me and introduced yourself, I was not sure who you were—I was vaguely aware that you were one of the Glasgow Labour MPs. As someone from the north-east of Scotland, I have to admit that my knowledge of the personalities of Glasgow Labour politics was somewhat hazy to say the least. Anyway, you obviously recognised me as a candidate in a potentially winnable seat, and this is where I have to give you credit. You realised that having someone who permanently uses a wheelchair elected to this House might require just the odd bit of adaptation and forward planning. As a result, you asked me to write to you in your capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means once Parliament had prorogued for the election and there was no longer a sitting Member for Aberdeen, South with some suggestions of what I might require.
There was a slight problem: I had no idea what I might require. I had visited this place only once before, and I did not really appreciate what the job of being an MP would entail. I had no idea how accessible this place would be, although everybody told me that it would be totally inaccessible. When people asked me, “How’re you going to manage if you get elected?” I would always reply, “Well, that’s not my problem. I’ll be an hon. Member like everyone else, and it’ll be up to the House authorities to solve that.” However, the House authorities had to have some reasonable expectations and some guidance on what I might need. So, plucking something out of the air, I decided that it would be best for me to have an office that was near the Chamber, near an accessible toilet and big enough for a wheelchair to get around.
And so it came to pass. When I arrived in the House as a newly elected MP on 6 May 1997, you had done your work. While my colleagues were being given the keys to their lockers in the corridor, I was given the keys to an office. I am still in that office now, and I am not giving it up. It is near the Chamber and it is certainly big enough for my wheelchair. I have to say that it is the best office that any Back Bencher has in this place. I thank you from my heart, Mr. Speaker. Because of your kind thoughts and thinking ahead, not only do I have a great office, but I have realised that sometimes being in a wheelchair is not always a disadvantage.
That one story illustrates your foresight and thoughtfulness. You realised that action had to be taken. It is because of those qualities that you have made it possible for me to survive in this place, in what is an incredibly difficult environment for any disabled person to enter.
When I was appointed to the Chairmen’s Panel, nobody thought the extra challenges of trying to get me on to the various daises in Westminster Hall and the Committee Rooms would be a problem, or least you certainly did not think so, Mr. Speaker. Again, a solution was found. I know that your leadership has made it more likely that people with disabilities will be elected to this place in future, because I know that it is important to you. It was thanks to your intervention that addressing the under-representation of disabled people in Parliament was added to the remit of the Speaker’s Conference, of which I am proud to be vice-chair.
I hope that that goes some way to showing the respect in which you are held and why many of us on the Back Benches will miss you. I wish both you and Mary good luck in your retirement.
Much has already been said about your dignity, warmth and courtesy in this House and about your commitment to this House, Mr. Speaker. I pay tribute to you, Sir, for your expert, careful and confidential advice to hon. Members outside this Chamber, in privately helping them to deal with the important political and personal problems that they inevitably face from time to time, both here and in their constituencies. You did that for me when I was resisting the diversion of public funds to my then constituency office, which was the start of my problems with the Conservative party, which ended up with my becoming an independent in the House. Your dignity, kindness and understanding led me consistently to support you and the office of the Speaker, which I think is the duty of every hon. Member. I sincerely wish you and Mary a wonderful, happy and healthy retirement—a retirement that you richly deserve and which you have earned by your dignity.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker—thank you, dear friend. I particularly wanted to be here today. Having been here from the beginning—with some difficulty, I might add—I wanted to see this particular part of your career all the way through to the end.
I wanted to be here because, right at the beginning of this part of your career, many people said that you were not the best Speaker for this House. If they have been listening carefully today, they will have heard why we all beg to differ. Having heard what everyone else has said, perhaps I should sit down, because everything has been said. But I am a politician, and I want to put my two penn’orth in.
My two penn’orth goes a bit like this. When I first came here, you were a Deputy Speaker. Your kindness and friendship towards all of us endeared you to us greatly, and, when Speaker Boothroyd said that she was standing down, I knew straight away that you were my first and automatic choice to be Speaker. I knew automatically that the warmth that you had shown to us while you were a Deputy Speaker would transfer into the post that you now hold.
Later, you asked me to be a member of the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances, and you showed the wisdom that you have shown throughout in regard to what that job became. The House should remember that that wisdom entailed an openness that people perhaps did not see when they were writing their stories. You invited every Member of this House into your chambers. Some of their suggestions were novel, ranging from a proposal to abolish all allowances to the idea of examining the minutiae of every allowance and accounting for every penny. In the end, our panel came up with suggestions that we gave to the Members Estimate Committee, some of which were accepted, some of which were not. It has been suggested today that we have ended up with a reasonable set of proposals.
We might now say that all that is history, but throughout that process, you never said anything publicly. That is the mark of you, the man—a man I admire greatly. Sometimes, I became frustrated with you, my dear friend, because you never once said anything to defend yourself. I would say, “Oh, come on! Say something!”, but you would always say, “No, Kali, this is about the House. The House is the star of this show.” It was never you, Mr. Speaker, and I admire you for that so much. You never allowed anyone to try to understand you—only the House.
Here we are now, standing in judgment over you, and I hope that everyone will say that you have not been found wanting. We should all admire you very much for the work that you have done for the House. I will never find you wanting. You are indeed a great man, and a great and true friend.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), and I wish her well personally for the future.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to be able to say a few words in tribute to you today. You made some important remarks to the House earlier, and I hope that the House will accept them with humility. The overriding task for us all is now to strengthen the reputation of the House so that our democracy can go from strength to strength. That is what makes this country the great country that it is.
Part of that democracy involves having a press that is among the most rigorously inquisitorial in the world. That is fine when it is fair and accurate, but much of the comment that has been written about you has been unfair and inaccurate. Many people outside this place see only what you do in the Chair of this Chamber, but, as Speaker of this House, you have to undertake an immense task. You have to look after all 646 Members and—as if that were not a big enough job in itself, given the individuals and personalities in this place—you also look after the many thousands of staff employed in the two Houses, as well as overseeing the many Committees, the running of the House and the finances of the House.
A huge part of your job that perhaps not many people see is the enormous amount of entertaining that you undertake in Speaker’s House: lunches in, lunches out, evenings in, evenings out, dinners in and dinners out. You always undertake that part of your job with huge kindness and humility, and that is greatly appreciated by the many dignitaries who visit this place.
I would like to leave the House with just one anecdote about your kindness. The year before last, you were kind enough to invite my 78-year-old father to the state opening of Parliament reception that you held. With fear, I asked you whether you would be prepared to have your photograph taken with him, in memory of your succeeding to the office of his uncle—my great uncle—a former Speaker of this House. You readily agreed. When it was time to leave, however, you were busy talking to some very important people. My father said, “Leave him. He’s busy”, but you turned to me and said, “Ah, Geoffrey! How about that photograph?” After having talked to all those people at that reception, you remembered that one single detail. That is a mark of your kindness and your complete selflessness.
You have served this country and this House with complete selflessness, never having regard to your own interests. May I thank you for the work that you have done in this House, and wish you a long and happy retirement? In the modern jargon, I hope that you will now be able to spend some quality time with your wife, Mary, and your son.
Thank you for this opportunity to pay tribute to you as Speaker of the House of Commons, and thank you for the courtesy that you have shown me in the Chamber. Much reference has rightly been made to the hospitality and kindness that you have shown to people in Speaker’s House, and I can bear witness to that. One of my fondest memories will always be of the opportunity that you gave me to propose the toast to the immortal memory at your Burns supper.
You are the sixth Speaker I have known. The first, when I was elected in 1970, was Dr. Horace King. You have been impartial and fair to all Members of the House of Commons, from all parties. When problems have arisen, you have shown common sense and judgment. I thank you for your service and I wish you and your family well for many years to come.
It is a pleasure for me to follow the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), whose pithy and gracious tribute will be appreciated in all parts of the House.
Mr. Speaker, Sir, we did not get off to the best possible start. I was one of the handful of Members of this House who voted against your election. Far from holding that against me, however, you proceeded to treat me with a decency and fairness for which I shall always be grateful. In addition, I am especially appreciative of the fact that, four years ago, just after the general election, you allowed me to join your panel of Committee Chairmen, which I have found to be a hugely rewarding experience.
As was observed earlier by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), almost from day one, when you took the Chair, you were subjected to relentless snobbery and distain from a section of the tabloid press that seemed to think that the election of the son of a merchant seaman represented some kind of constitutional outrage. Sir, that was always far more of a reflection on the tabloid press that it ever was on you. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] In thanking you for your unfailing personal kindness to me, to other Members throughout the House and to thousands of people beyond it, I wish you and Mary a long, happy and peaceful retirement.
I appear to be the last person to speak. I thank you very much for calling me, as I had forgotten to put my name down to speak in this debate. It was only when I was sitting here at the beginning of the tributes that I wondered whether I would have the nerve to stand up and ask to speak, having gone against all the protocol that we are meant to observe. However, I could not let this afternoon pass without making a few personal comments of my own.
I am glad that many hon. Members today have addressed head-on the issue of snobbery and the comments that have been made not only by the tabloid press but by Members of this House from time to time. I am glad that those issues have been addressed head-on, and that we have talked about expenses and the missed opportunity last year. I am pleased that you tackled that subject in your opening remarks.
In questioning candidates at the Speaker’s hustings earlier this week, I commented that a substantial part of your success in winning the speakership and that big battle we had last time was that among the Speaker’s team, you had gone out of your way to be helpful, kind and welcoming to new Members, particularly the great influx we had in 1997. That is not, of course, to suggest that it was a political ploy, although I would not dream of suggesting that you are not a good politician, but your approach came very naturally out of your kindness and desire to help us. That sentiment is shared across the parties, as I noted during the hustings when Members of different political parties passed comments to me about your kindness across the board. That has been greatly appreciated by us all.
I personally think it is a shame that Speakers feel that they have to retreat from the Tea Rooms and the like once elected. I hope that that will not necessarily be the case in future, because that is a good way for the Speaker to dispense advice, assistance and encouragement. You have been able to do that through invitations to your house and as we have seen you around and about the Chamber.
Others have talked about your start in the trade union movement as a sheet metalworker. My personal connection with you, Mr. Speaker, is that we both worked for the same union, the National Union of Public Employees. You were a full-time official, working with low-paid public service workers, and you campaigned at that time for a minimum wage. Although you have had to be strictly politically neutral in the Chair, I am sure that it gave you great pleasure when we were able to pass that legislation for which you had campaigned in your earlier life.
I had not realised how many of us had been on the panel to select your whisky. When I went on it, I found that another Derbyshire Member, the Opposition Chief Whip was involved, so I thought that you were saying something about our county and our enjoyment of a wee dram. My slight beef is that we were given only a limited selection from which to choose; otherwise, we could easily have stayed there for another hour or two to make sure that we made the absolutely perfect choice for you. I and clearly many other hon. Members have greatly appreciated the honour of being allowed to choose for you.
Another position that I hold, somehow, slightly to my amusement, arose when someone came up one day and asked me whether I would like to sit on the Speaker’s works of art committee. I knew nothing about it and I do not know how I was chosen. It was slightly disappointing when, having chosen our selection of Christmas cards and sent them to you, we found that some other ones had got through or that you had not gone along with our first choice. You have always been very welcoming and supportive. I am thinking particularly of the exhibition to celebrate the anniversary of the suffragettes, which you were very encouraging about, saying that MPs should take their constituents to look at the history of how people, particularly women, struggled for the vote. You knew that this was part of our great history of seeking democracy.
That brings me back to the major point about your high regard for the House, for Back Benchers and for our democratic processes. The greatest tribute we can pay to you and your work, Mr. Speaker, over your years as Speaker is by resolving our current problems and restoring the House and this part of our democratic system to the respect that it should have. If we can earn that respect on your behalf, I believe that it will be a tribute to the work you have done.
Thank you hugely, Mr. Speaker, for the kindness you have shown to us all and for the work you have done over the years. I join everyone else in wishing you, Mary and the family the best for the future. I am not going to say “in retirement”, because we hope that we will still see you and still be able to partake of your judgment and friendship over the years to come.
Before I put the motion, I am reminded of an incident involving a councillor who had served a long time in the Cowlairs ward, which the Prime Minister mentioned. We decided to give him a farewell dinner, at which so many good things were said about him that he stood up and said, “I didn’t realise how much you liked me; and I think I will stay on.” [Laughter.] I can say that your Speaker is demob happy. I am very touched by the tributes, particularly those to Mary and my family. I now put the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved, nemine contradicente,
That this House records its warm appreciation of the manner in which the Right Honourable Michael Martin has occupied the office of Speaker; expresses its thanks for the humanity and good humour with which he has presided over the affairs of the House at a most challenging time; congratulates him on the kindness and openness he has shown to all Members and for establishing a Speaker’s conference to examine engagement of Parliament with an increasingly diverse society; and accordingly unites in sending him its wishes for a long and happy retirement upon his departure from the Chair.
Business Rate Supplements Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Business Rate Supplements Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 12 January and 11 March (Business Rate Supplements Bill (Programme) and Business Rate Supplements Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Mary Creagh.)
Question agreed to.
Business Rate Supplements Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
Before I comment on matters of privilege, I would like to say a few words. Deputy Speakers may not take part in debates and have to be silent during them, but I wish to abandon impartiality for a moment and say that Sylvia Heal, Sir Michael Lord and I entirely endorse the sentiments expressed in the previous motion and on so many sides of the House about Mr. Speaker. Words such as “humanity”, “kindness” and “generosity” are ones that we closely associate with Speaker Martin through our work with him over the years. We, too, wish him well.
I draw the House’s attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments 1 to 8 and 10 to 14. If the House agrees to any of those amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
Power to impose a BRS
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Lords amendment 2 and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 3 and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 4 and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 5 and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 6 and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 13 and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 14 and Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
The Bill was amended in the other place on Report, so a ballot is required before any business rate supplement can be levied or any existing business rate supplement can be varied. Due to amendments 8 and 9, which we will come on to, a ballot will not be required for the BRS that will form part of the Crossrail funding package.
The Government recognise that the BRS will not work unless there is a strong and effective partnership between the levying authority and local businesses. Throughout the passage of the Bill, we have made it clear that we expect levying authorities to engage with local businesses in the development of the BRS and to continue engaging with business once the project is under way.
To provide further reassurance on this point, we committed on Report to the statutory guidance making it clear that levying authorities must consider how they will engage with businesses over and above the statutory consultation. The appropriate approach to engagement, however, will depend on the nature of the project that BRS will be funding and the partnership arrangements that already exist between levying authorities and their local businesses. For that reason, we should leave levying authorities to work responsibly with their local businesses in developing BRS projects, rather than prescribing from Westminster how this should be done.
We should trust our local authorities. During the Public Bill Committee evidence sessions, Councillor Knight, speaking on behalf of the Local Government Association, said:
“The guarantee to local businesses that this power will not be abused is the guarantee that we are accountable to local communities. We have a direct interest in ensuring that local economies are maintained and sustained...No authority will make a decision that has a detrimental effect on its local business community.”––[Official Report, Business Rate Supplements Public Bill Committee, 20 January 2009; c. 65-75. Q250]
The Government’s position is that a ballot should be held in those cases where the supplement will fund more than one third of the estimated total cost of a project and it ensures that where businesses will be contributing a relatively large proportion of that project, they will have the power to vote on whether they make that contribution. If business votes against, the BRS will not happen. However, when businesses will contribute a smaller, although important, element towards the costs of a project, a judgment should be made locally on whether a ballot is appropriate. That is proportionate and reasonable, given that BRS revenues will contribute the lion’s share of a project’s funding in some cases, but a relatively small proportion in others.
Requiring a ballot, even in cases in which the supplement is funding a relatively small proportion of a project, potentially places undue emphasis on one aspect of a project. For example, a levying authority might propose to fund 10 per cent. of a project through a BRS. If the authority engaged with businesses at an early stage about the proposed project and business rate supplement and secured their support, and if that was then borne out through consultation, it would make no logical sense to require the authority to go through the process of holding a ballot.
It should be made clear that a ballot will not be a quick or cheap process. There should be no need for a ballot on a short-term business rate supplement that will fund a relatively small proportion of a project supported by business. The expense would be disproportionate, and in some cases simply could not be justified. That could result in a totally artificial discouragement to levying authorities to use BRSs in cases in which doing so would make a real and positive difference to an area.
I am interested in what the Minister is saying, but I am trying to reconcile the logic of her argument with that adopted by the former Minister for Local Government, the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey) on Second Reading and in Committee. Later we shall deal with BRS-BIDs—I note that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is present—and I am happy with the Lords amendments in question, but the earlier argument was that business improvement districts were by and large short-term projects, and that the BRS frequently related to longer-term projects. It is difficult to reconcile that argument with the Minister’s current argument.
I am merely giving a possible example. In the broad sense, obviously we expect the BRS to be much wider and to cover a much longer period. We are not necessarily talking about relative BIDs specific to a five-year period. We could be talking about a period of between five and 30 years.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) may have slightly misrepresented the position taken by the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), who strongly advocated the policy that is implicit in the Bill as presented to and agreed by the House of Commons that there should be a ballot as long as expenditure is over 30 per cent., but that there should not be an automatic ballot in other circumstances which could, as my hon. Friend the Minister has rightly said, involve unnecessary expenditure for relatively limited benefit. The distinction between BIDs and the BRS is that the BRS is for much larger capital investment, and BIDs involve far more local schemes, which may well go on for a long time. They are not necessarily limited to five years, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggested. They could last for 20 years as long as there was support for them.
As ever, my right hon. Friend’s considerable knowledge of local government shines through.
As Lord Davies made clear, even if there is no ballot, levying authorities will not have a free rein to use the BRS to fund their pet projects regardless of the views of local businesses. They will be required to consult businesses formally, and that consultation will be over and above any preparatory dialogue in which they engage.
I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous in giving way. What reassurance can she give business that such consultation will be any different from many other recent consultations, such as the one on post office closures? Is not the problem that, sadly, consultation has become a somewhat devalued concept and that people seek a greater safeguard? Would not a ballot constitute such a safeguard?
The hon. Gentleman can take comfort from the evidence given by organisations such as the Local Government Association. I think that the point was made then—it was certainly made in Committee by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth—that we have moved on from the old-fashioned view that local authorities just wanted to get money out of businesses and were not prepared to consult them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is confident, on the basis of the local authorities known to him, that authorities nowadays work in partnership with business and are committed to consultation of that kind.
Businesses have a guarantee that the BRS can be used only on additional projects that are aimed at promoting the economic development of the area. As such, BRSs are limited for use on additional projects that will be relevant to local businesses. Businesses also have a guarantee on the maximum level of the supplement with the national upper limit of 2p per pound of rateable value, and a guarantee that properties with a rateable value below £50,000 will be exempt from paying the supplement. It was right for us to include those safeguards. However, if a ballot is required in all cases, there will be a danger that financial institutions and funding partners will not be willing to commit funding when one element of the funding package is uncertain owing to the need for a ballot. That risks destabilising such funding packages, and makes the BRS a less attractive option for projects funded from multiple sources.
The Minister is being very generous. I hope that I shall not need to intervene again.
In the context of certainty, has the Minister seen a copy of the letter from the director general of the Confederation of British Industry dated 12 June and sent to her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? The letter states that only mandatory ballots can give businesses the certainty that they desire. When will the Secretary of State respond to that letter?
I will ascertain from my right hon. Friend’s office when a response will be forthcoming, but I am sure that today’s debate will constitute an element of that response.
We do not want to limit the BRS as really only an attractive option for use as the sole funding mechanism for a project. That limits levying authorities in terms of the amount of revenue they can raise, and means that the BRS cannot be used in conjunction with other funding streams to fund larger, more ambitious projects aimed at promoting local economies.
The effect will be particularly pronounced outside London. Properties in the London typically have higher rateable values than those outside the capital. Under the current proposals, properties in England with a rateable value of £50,000 will be exempt from paying the BRS. That threshold will exclude a higher proportion of properties from paying the supplement outside London than in the capital, which means that outside London there is an increased likelihood that the BRS will form part of a wider funding package. Therefore, the difficulty created by the ballot in cases in which the supplement will form part of a wider funding package will be more pronounced outside the capital. That makes the BRS less attractive as a funding mechanism to promote economic development outside London.
In requiring a ballot in certain circumstances, the White Paper and the Bill go significantly further than either the Lyons review or the Communities and Local Government Committee. Both recommended that the decision to hold a ballot should be left to the levying authority.
For the reasons that I have just given, we do not think that a ballot should be required in all cases. We consider that it should be required only in cases in which the supplement will fund more than one third of the total projected costs. However, because Members in both Houses have expressed real concern that there should be genuine engagement of local businesses before a supplement is introduced, we propose that in cases in which a ballot is not required by virtue of the fact that the supplement is expected to fund less than one third of the total cost of the project, the authority should be required to set out the BRS prospectus whether or not it intends to hold a ballot, and—importantly—to explain why it proposes that course of action.
I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government do not consider that a ballot should always be held. The amendment requires authorities to state why they think a ballot should, or should not, be held. It does not ask them to justify their decision only if they decide not to hold a ballot; there is not, as such, a presumption of a ballot. For instance, the BRS might be used to fund a small proportion of a project over a short period such as six to 12 months. In such cases, the costs of running a ballot might be considered to be disproportionate, given the contribution that would be made by the supplement. If an authority wanted to hold a ballot in such cases, taxpayers, including local businesses, would justifiably be interested in its reasoning.
The amendment provides important transparency in the decision-making process relating to ballots. We think it right for levying authorities to have discretion on whether to hold a ballot when the supplement is expected to fund less than one third of the total cost of the project. However, we acknowledge that the decision-making process must be transparent to those who will ultimately be liable for the supplement. The amendment will give businesses confidence that the decision-making process on ballots will be made clear. It allows levying authorities flexibility to do the right thing by their communities while ensuring that local businesses understand why the authority has taken a particular course of action.
For those reasons, I invite this House to disagree with the Lords amendments, and commend the Government’s amendment in lieu to the House.
This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of doing business on local government issues with the Minister. As a member of a shadow team that has been in place a little longer than the Government team, I welcome her to her new post, and look forward to doing further business in the future.
I am sorry that we will have to start on a note of disagreement, but such is life. The Minister has set out much the same arguments in resisting the Lords amendments as Government spokesmen used in the other place. Their lordships were not convinced, and with every respect to the Minister’s persuasive skills, I have to say that I am not either.
The key issue is that if the BRS is to be successful, it has to have wholehearted buy-in from, and the consent of, the business community, otherwise it will not achieve the stated objectives. It is well known—I repeat this point merely for the record, without elaborating on it—that the official Opposition would not have introduced a BRS at this time in an economic cycle, in the midst of a recession; the only exception in our case was the Crossrail project. That point has been well rehearsed and well debated, but I mention it to set the context. At a time when businesses are under more pressure than ever, the introduction of BRS—and without a ballot—would in our judgment be an unjustified and unduly onerous imposition on them. Businesses are already struggling; they are finding cash flow ever more difficult, and the costs of borrowing money to meet cash flow and other requirements are ever higher.
It is also important to remember that their lordships rightly debated this change not in isolation, but in the context of BRS together with other potential burdens on businesses. If we add in the cumulative burdens of a revaluation of the standard, ordinary business rate, never mind the BRS, and the possibility of extra parking charges and other levies, we see that there is a danger of the straw breaking the camel’s back. That is why it seems to us that if there are to be BRS projects, it is only right and fair that businesses should have a chance to vote on that; otherwise, they will be caught in the invidious position of having a form of taxation without representation.
We will in due course move on to discuss amendments in relation to what are called joint BRS-BID levies. The only reason why I mention that at this stage is to own up to being a convert to BIDs. I was sceptical about them when they were first introduced, but I am now persuaded that they can be very successful. There is a key difference, however, in that for BIDs there is always a ballot of the businesses that are going to participate. That is an important lock in terms of both accountability and improving the scheme. That is not just the view of politicians. When the Bill was previously before this House, the Committee conducted some useful pre-legislative scrutiny evidence sessions. The evidence from the various business organisations was overwhelmingly to the effect that, whatever their views about introducing a BRS scheme at this stage in a recession, if there was to be added value it was crucial that there should be a mandatory ballot.
That point was made by a number of highly experienced Lords in the other place, and it has been reinforced by the CBI very recently. I previously asked the Minister about a letter from Richard Lambert, the director general of the CBI, to the new Secretary of State. In the context of the amendments, Richard Lambert states:
“You will not be surprised to hear that the CBI welcomes these changes. In 2007 the six hundred businesses that make up the CBI’s nine English regional councils agreed that CBI should support the principle of business rate supplements.”
They are not coming at that from a Conservative party political point of view; I disagree with them on that particular issue of principle. The letter goes on to state, however:
“They felt that if there is a need for new local infrastructure businesses should be able to contribute, where they see real value. However, there was overwhelming belief that this would only be acceptable if businesses had the safeguard of a mandatory ballot. This would ensure that supplements were affordable and only used for projects that would genuinely stimulate local economic activity.”
In relation to the Lords amendments that we are debating, the letter states:
“In its amended form the Bill provides far more certainty for businesses about their long-term rate liabilities, whilst still enabling local authorities and business to work together to fund and deliver new infrastructure projects. In the current recessionary climate such improved certainty is absolutely essential. Government now has a real opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to helping businesses by allowing the changes voted through in the House of Lords to remain a part of the Bill”.
I could not have put it any better. That is a persuasive case from the CBI, representing thousands of businesses, and it looks as if the Government are persistently turning a deaf ear to those arguments.
Certainty certainly relates to funding streams, but there must also be certainty for the businesses that are going to have to pay. The limit of 30 per cent. is in every respect an arbitrary one, because it is a question not just of the percentage that is funded, but of the amount that will fall to be paid by individual businesses. As has rightly been said, the nature of BRS schemes can vary. Some will be large, and some small, but as the Minister interestingly, and I suspect correctly, said, many involve significant capital expenditure. Even 20 per cent. of a very large scheme is a significant potential burden on businesses at a time when they can ill afford such cost burdens. That point appears to be missed.
I am sorry to have to say that the Government are also unwilling to seek greater business involvement. On Report in this House, there was a great deal of discussion about the possibility not only of having a safeguard for businesses through the mandatory ballot, but of mechanisms to ensure their greater participation in the development and ongoing oversight of BRS schemes. Ministers—previous Ministers, I hasten to add—uttered warm words about that. They said they would look at it, but nothing has emerged. I hope it may yet do so, but that does not give us much confidence that the Minister’s words about wanting to encourage participation between local government and business are actually going to be met with action.
That is a profoundly disappointing stance for the Government to take, so it is important to set in place greater certainty for business than the Lyons review set out, precisely because of the potential impacts on business. If a package had been developed that gave businesses greater safeguards, perhaps their lordships would have come to a different conclusion, but it has not been developed, and given the history of how this matter has been debated—we will come on to another piece of history in respect of a later group of amendments—I do not have confidence that warm words will be met with action.
Against that background, I am sorry to have to say that we have to maintain that the Government have misjudged the mood and misread the evidence, and that if they disagree with the Lords they will make the Bill worse than when it came back to this House from the other place. That will be a missed opportunity and a great let-down, and it will send precisely the wrong signals to businesses in this country at the current time.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). He referred in his opening remarks to his longevity in his post in comparison with my hon. Friend the Minister, who has just assumed her post. I agree, and I wish him even greater longevity in his current post in opposition. He argued initially that my hon. Friend the Minister used the same arguments as the Government had used in the Lords and that the Lords had disagreed with those arguments, and he offered that as a reason for going along with the Lords’ position. What he failed to say was that the Minister deployed exactly the same arguments as her colleagues in the Commons did when this matter was debated here—and the Commons agreed with the Government, not the Opposition. Thus, we have a classic situation where the Commons has taken one view and the Lords has taken another, and I believe that the elected Chamber should prevail in those circumstances.
The Opposition argue that the business rate supplement is an inappropriate tax to introduce at this time, except in respect of Crossrail. We have heard before that classic illustration of the woolly thinking of the Opposition. If ever there was a scheme that involved a considerable imposition on the business community, it is Crossrail, which is a large and expensive—£16 billion—scheme. The BRS will make a significant contribution to that, albeit less than a third, and payments by business over many years will be involved. If the argument is that this is the wrong time for business to be making a contribution towards infrastructure investment, that argument certainly applies to Crossrail.
Of course, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst knows perfectly well, business is supportive of Crossrail, rightly believing that the scheme is good for London, for Britain and for business, because it will create the circumstances that will enable economic growth to continue in London. That is why business is wholly supportive of Crossrail. Is it really credible to say that there are obvious benefits that business wants and welcomes from infrastructure investment, such as Crossrail, here in London, but that no such other investment that might be appropriate may be possible anywhere else in the country?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way with his customary courtesy. How does he reconcile the fact that the very same business organisations that support Crossrail also say that there should be a mandatory ballot anywhere else? It is because they know that Crossrail is a unique project that has been uniquely discussed among people in London.
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that there is a total inconsistency in arguing that Crossrail is a good thing and should be supported without a ballot—we must remember that the business community is saying that there should be no ballot on Crossrail, because it is a relatively small element in the total funding package—and that that logic can apply in London, but cannot apply anywhere else. There is no sound logical basis for that particular case.
The logic behind having the BRS to support major infrastructure lies in the economic development potential. That is why the Government have introduced this measure. It is clearly right that if local authorities believe there is a case for a BRS, be it here in London or elsewhere, they should discuss the options with the business community and proceed only where there is clear, strong evidence that there are clear and definitive economic benefits. That is what I would expect to happen. The extent to which the business community is supportive of Crossrail in London is, of course, very much the product of the discussion that has occurred involving London’s business organisations, such as London First. They have long campaigned for Crossrail and clearly take the view that it should be supported by a BRS. They recognise that far from improving prospects and certainty, a ballot could be very damaging.
The hon. Gentleman argued the case for certainty, but I put it to him that the one thing that would be utterly damaging to Crossrail would be to say, at this point in time, “Oh well, there has to be a ballot. We don’t know what its outcome will be.” That would lead to inevitable uncertainty about the funding of this hugely important project. He recognises that and business recognises that. That is why business is saying that in the case of Crossrail there should not be a ballot. It is not just business or people who recognise the importance of Crossrail who are saying that; the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is adamant that Crossrail should proceed with a BRS and without a ballot.
Will the right hon. Gentleman add, for the sake of completeness, that the same Mayor of London says that although he thinks that that applies to Crossrail, he has no desire for it to apply anywhere else?
The hon. Gentleman will know very well that the Crossrail BRS levy will be in place for some 20 years. I think that Boris Johnson, however ambitious he may be—he probably has ambitions to take over the leadership of the Conservative party in this place—will certainly not be in place for more than 20 years as Mayor of London. There is no question of any other BRS case coming forward in London, because the Crossrail BRS will take in full the maximum amount that is eligible to be taken from BRS under the legislation. No wonder the Mayor is able to take that view in the case of Crossrail and London. The overriding logic is that what applies in the case of London should apply to other parts of the country.
I have argued about the issue of certainty. I agree entirely that certainty is important, but where the discussion is about a relatively small contribution towards a major project that is being supported much more substantially by other bodies, it would be perverse if an uncertainty about the outcome of a business ballot could jeopardise the prospect of that investment taking place. So the argument about certainty cuts the other way in cases in which there is only a small contribution from the business community through BRS and the project is being overwhelmingly funded by other sources. That is the reason for saying that if a relatively small contribution is involved, a ballot should be optional, rather than compulsory. There is no question of saying that there should not be a ballot—if the local authority believes that it is right to have a ballot, it should have the option to hold one—but it should not be obligatory. I believe that it is right to leave an element of discretion to local government in this respect.
We have heard a great deal from Opposition Members about giving more freedom to local government, but the hon. Gentleman is now trying to support the other place in imposing shackles on local government and not giving it the discretion in these circumstances to determine whether a ballot should apply. He may or may not recall—I certainly do—the evidence given to the Committee by Local Government Association witnesses. They said that there should be no ballots in any circumstances. I do not agree with that view, and I believe that those witnesses were wrong on that, but I just remind him about listening to local government and giving it appropriate discretion within reasonable bounds. I believe that the Bill does that, that this House was correct to support the Bill in its original form and that the Members of the other place were wrong to make their substitutions with their amendments, and I hope that this House will reject the Lords amendments.
I am experiencing déjà vu, albeit that some of the faces have changed; I, of course, welcome the new Minister. Unlike the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), I have had the opportunity to do that, even if I have not done so formally, in Committee, where we have been discussing another measure that affects local government.
The Conservative party’s position, as set out by the hon. Gentleman, is that the BRS should be capable of being applied only in London for Crossrail. Throughout this debate, which is ongoing because a different conclusion was reached in another place, my party has said that it thinks that the BRS should be available to local authorities in other areas. However, given that these projects are likely to come forward as newer ideas and newer schemes that have not had the same amount of debate, and public and legislative scrutiny, as Crossrail, we feel that to give business confidence that its contribution is taken seriously a ballot is appropriate in all circumstances.
There are, thus, three positions on this matter—four if we take into account the position of the Local Government Association, as set out by my friend Councillor Knight, with whom I agree on all sorts of other issues. He does an excellent job as a local authority member on London, but I disagree with him on this occasion. Those four positions are: that there should be a ballot in no circumstances; that there should be no BRS beyond London and in respect of Crossrail; the Government’s position that the BRS should be available but that a ballot is not necessary in all circumstances; and the Liberal Democrats’ view, which has been agreed in another place, that a BRS is a useful tool and part of the package needed to move towards economic recovery in areas where infrastructure could play a big role in turning the economy round and that business would benefit from that, but that to demonstrate publicly that business supports a project, a ballot is necessary. I agree with the conclusion reached in the other place, and indeed my colleague and I put those arguments in Committee—and many hon. Members demonstrated their support on Report.
There are differences between the imposition of a further supplementary rate on business and the current situation in which businesses do not, in normal circumstances, get a say on the rate that is levied on them as a contribution to local services. We debated that in Committee at some length. We are asking for a further levy on business to fund specific proposals, and in those circumstances it is right to have a public debate—the consultation to which the Minister referred. It is clear from the information provided to us by representative organisations that the consultation is not felt to be enough—the matter should not end there.
We have discussed—and will again later—the BIDs system, which the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) introduced in his time in government. All hon. Members have been impressed by its successes around the country. The evidence provided to us before our detailed consideration in Committee of the success of BIDs and the contribution they make to their communities was one of the best presentations I have seen. It is appropriate to have a ballot in all circumstances when a BID is proposed. Consultation will have taken place and local businesses will have given their agreement in principle, but a ballot is still crucial. Therefore, it is strange to argue that in the case of BRS, a ballot may be inappropriate in some circumstances.
In most BID cases—I cannot say all, because I am not sure of the precise figures—the BID levy is far and away the largest contributor to the BID project in the area. Voluntary contributions may be made by some property owners or the local authority, but the BID levy is the largest single part. Obviously, if the BRS is the largest single part of any scheme, there will be a ballot. That is the distinction. It is only in cases in which the BRS contribution is a relatively small part of the total that local authorities will have the discretion about whether to hold a ballot.
Clearly, that is the Government’s argument—that it is possible to have a threshold beyond which the impact on businesses is not sufficient to necessitate a ballot. I do not agree. We could get into an argument about the right point for that threshold, but—as we have argued throughout—a ballot sends a much stronger message to business that the public sector, local government and the private sector must all engage with projects that will make a positive contribution to the future of an area. It is a clear and established system, and business is used to the BID ballot. It is much more simple and straightforward to say that a ballot would be held in all circumstances. For that reason, I am pleased that the other place accepted this amendment and I hope that this House, having considered the arguments expressed in Committee, which were ably supplemented in the other place, will accept that it got this wrong last time. We need to revisit this issue, and I hope that the Government will be slightly more flexible and agree that this scheme, which could make a real difference to communities around the country, should go forward on the basis of a ballot in all circumstances.
I thank the hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. I am sure that the hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) will not be surprised to hear that they have not managed to persuade me with their arguments.
The amendment concerns a discretionary power to be used by levying authorities of the business rate supplement, and levying authorities will be required to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of any proposals and to demonstrate the relationship between the costs and the benefits. We have already made the commitment that the statutory guidance will make clear the importance of levying authorities involving business in the development and throughout the course of the project.
The crux of the argument is whether it is right that business should have a veto on a project for which it is paying only a small percentage of the cost, but which has the support of the local authority and of others who are not in large businesses but will benefit from the project. That is the heart of the issue.
The amendment in lieu goes a little further, and would allow levying authorities the flexibility to do the right thing. It would also enable local businesses to understand why a local authority has chosen to hold a ballot when not required to do so—because of the 33 per cent. limit—or chosen not to do so.
I was a little confused by the contribution from the hon. Member for North Cornwall, especially his disagreement with Councillor Knight, who gave evidence on behalf of the LGA. The LGA’s position was that there should be no ballot under any circumstances, and that the guarantee to local businesses that the power will not be abused is accountability to local communities. I thought that that was the Liberal Democrats’ position and that they wanted to devolve decision making to local communities. It must be very confusing for voters when they hear one thing espoused in the House of Commons and a completely different view—
We want to see far greater tax-raising powers devolved to the local level, but this issue involves a specific levy on business rate payers, and in those circumstances there should be a ballot. It is essentially a democratic measure, which we support at whatever level.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the hon. Gentleman takes a totally different view from a fellow Liberal Democrat. Indeed, the LGA does not stop at not wanting a ballot. It also wants to raise the limit to 4p and for local authorities to have a free hand to decide what to spend the money on. The Select Committee also said that we should leave ballots to the discretion of local authorities.
The amendment in lieu creates the right balance. It would require a ballot if the contribution were more than 33.3 per cent., and introduce the additional safeguard that the local authority will have to set out in the prospectus its reasons to hold, or not hold, a ballot.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 6 disagreed to.
Interaction with BID levy
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 7.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments 10 and 15.
The amendments in this group were Government amendments, tabled in the other place. They relate to property owners in business improvement districts in areas where a business rate supplement is in place. The amendments arose as a result of debates very early on in the life of the Bill, and I hope that hon. Members will find it useful if I take a step back for a moment and recap on how the amendments emerged. That will help to provide some context, so that hon. Members can see the rationale for the approach taken in the amendments.
One of the things that struck me as I familiarised myself with the issues raised by the Bill is the genuine cross-party support for business improvement districts, and that has been reinforced this afternoon. There was real concern that the introduction of the BRS might have a negative effect on the future viability of BIDs. I understand that one of the main concerns of BID practitioners and business supporters of BIDs is that if BID levy payers face a BRS on top of any existing levy, rate payers may be inclined to vote against BID proposals when they come up for renewal. That is a particular issue in London, where, I gather, 14 of the 20 existing BIDs will come up for renewal ballots by 2012.
As a way of addressing those concerns, my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), whose expertise on such matters is legendary, tabled amendments in Committee and on Report to give property owners more of a say in BIDs and to enable the contributions to a BID to be spread between occupiers and owners. That could act as an effective offset for occupiers against their BRS liability. Although those amendments were withdrawn, they provided the opportunity for the House to have a meaningful debate on the issue, and the previous Minister for Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), agreed to discuss the matter further with interested parties. Baroness Valentine tabled amendments on the same issue in Grand Committee in the other place on 18 May. The purpose of those amendments was to enable BID proposers or companies to decide whether property owners should be involved in, and have a chance to vote on, BID proposals for an area.
The amendments moved by the Government in the House of Lords on Report addressed the same broad issues as the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich and Baroness Valentine. The amendments that we are considering make arrangements for a new type of BID, to be known as a BRS-BID. It has that acronym to distinguish it from the current BID arrangements. That new type of BID could be established in areas where both a BID and BRS exist, and would allow for the owners of property to be involved in BID arrangements. It will be for those proposing BIDs, or existing BID companies, to decide whether they wish to involve property owners in their BID arrangements. Where they wish to, they can, but it will not be compulsory to do so.
The amendments enable revenues from property owners to be used as additional income for a BID project, or to be used to offset the contributions of those rate payers who are liable for both the BID levy and the BRS. The amendments also offer flexibility; the revenue stream from property owners could be used to fund a different project, quite separate from the BID project. Where BID companies or those proposing BIDs elect to involve property owners, there must be a ballot of those potentially liable for the levy. It will not be possible for a BRS-BID to be established unless there has been a successful ballot on the proposals. That mirrors the current arrangements for BIDs.
In crafting the amendments, we have taken on board many of the views expressed both in this House and the other place, and the views expressed by those with an intimate knowledge of the existing BID system. However, property owner involvement in BIDs is new territory, and it raises a number of complex and detailed issues that will need to be resolved before BRS-BIDs can come into being. The new schedule 2 contains a number of powers that will allow the Government to include the detail on the BRS-BIDs in secondary legislation. The regulations will deal with issues such as who should be considered a property owner, how the rateable value of non-domestic properties should be attributed to property owners for the purposes of the double-lock ballot, and the detailed arrangements for ballots. We will consult on the detailed arrangements needed to enable BRS-BIDs to be put in place.
One concern that was raised yesterday in the other place was about the impact that the amendments could have on billing authorities, which will play a key part in BRS-BIDs. I can reassure the House that the consultation that we will carry out will be accompanied by an impact assessment, which will address the potential impacts on different sectors, including billing authorities. The consultation will give stakeholders the opportunity to make their views known, including on the impact assessment, and we will consider carefully all responses before finalising the regulations that are needed before BRS-BIDs can come into operation.
I should clarify one specific point. I have already said that the amendments can apply only in those areas where a BRS is in place. There has been a debate in the other place about whether it would be possible to extend the provisions to BIDs in all areas. I understand the argument that, if these amendments are good enough for BRS areas, they should be good enough for areas where a BRS is not in place. It may be helpful if I clarify the position.
We have pursued the matter with the House authorities, who have confirmed that it would not be possible to include amendments to the Bill to deal with the inclusion of property owners in BIDs outside a BRS area. The issue centres on whether an amendment would be relevant. The Bill has a single purpose, which is to introduce the BRS scheme. The Bill refers to BIDs, but only to the extent that they are affected by the introduction of BRS. However, any stand-alone amendments to the BIDs regime, unconnected to the introduction of BRS, would not be considered relevant.
The principle behind the amendments was warmly welcomed by the other place and was widely supported by the House during the earlier stages of the Bill. The Government listened to the representations that were made, both from within Parliament and from outside, and agreed with them. That is why we introduced the provisions in the other place. Taking that into account, and with the explanation that I have given, I invite the House to agree to the amendments.
I am glad to say that on this occasion, there is a degree of consensus. As those who served on the Bill Committee know, the Opposition parties were very interested in the proposal from the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), and I am delighted to see that it has broadly appeared in the amendments. That is progress.
The Minister is right to say that some detail may yet need to be bottomed out, but the concept seems to deal with a potential anomaly. I wish the Government had been persuaded of the fact that the benefits of BIDs, which I endorse, include a ballot in all cases. It is ironic that this set of amendments includes a compulsory ballot. I wish that were a general application. It is a step in the right direction.
I hope that when the Minister replies, she may be able to tell us the time frame for the consultation and how we can ensure the maximum ability to make changes in the regulations that will set out the guidelines, and so on. I am conscious that although their lordships welcomed the proposals, they expressed some concern about the size and complexity of very late amendments to the Bill. That is no fault of the right hon. Gentleman, who has been a proponent of BIDs, but it made for some interesting overnight reading of the Official Report of the other place.
I hope the Minister will take on board the comment that if we are to get it right, we must have the ability to revisit matters of detail that may not yet have been completed. I welcome the overall attempt to plug what might otherwise have been a weakness in the legislation. We support the amendments.
I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to external service, the Ayes were 305 and the Noes were 160, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
I congratulate the Government on agreeing in another place this series of amendments, which provide a satisfactory and elegant solution to a real problem, which was the potential adverse impact of BRS on BIDs in areas where BIDs are in existence or due to be brought into existence in the foreseeable future, and where a ballot could well have been lost because those paying the BRS levy might have decided that it would not be fair for them also to have to pay an additional levy to support the BID.
I shall not go over the history. My hon. Friend the Minister explained that it was a subject of considerable debate in the House earlier this year when we first considered the Bill. The amendment introduced in the Lords goes further than the one that I moved, and I welcome the way in which that has been improved. Specifically, it tackles the issue of areas where BIDs are proposed but not yet in existence, whereas my amendment was limited to areas where BIDs were in existence. I recognise that that was a defect, which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) highlighted in the debate in the House.
I acknowledged that at the time so I am delighted that the Government have found a formulation that allows the new provision to cover areas where BIDs are proposed but not yet in existence. It also includes provision to reassure tenants that the owner levy will not be passed on to them through rent. Again, that was a cause of some concern among BID levy payers—that the landowner would try to pass on the full cost of the landowner levy.
The Government have addressed the issue in a manner that has improved the amendment, which we debated a while ago in this House, and I very much welcome what is now in the Bill. I add one caveat only, on an issue to which my hon. Friend the Minister referred: the need at some stage to consider extending the provision to cover those areas where there is not a BRS, but where BIDs exist. The principle of landowners contributing to BIDs has been an issue since BIDs were introduced in the early years of this century. We had a debate at the time, and some parties strongly advocated the adoption of the American system, whereby the property owner rather than the tenant pays the levy. I, as the then Minister, believed that creating the register of landowners would have caused substantial upheaval and set back the process, and could have resulted in many abortive costs arising in areas where the register had to be compiled despite there being no proposal for a BID.
Given those circumstances, it seems sensible to proceed on the basis of the existing rating system in this country, where the tenant pays the business rate but owners are encouraged to make voluntary contributions. Some have but others have not, and there is a natural worry about freeloading, whereby substantial property owners in a particular area get the benefit of improvements that a BID brings but do not contribute towards it. The issue still exists, and, although I fully understand my hon. Friend’s reasons why, within the remit of the Bill, it was not possible to extend the provision before us to other BID areas, the problem will need to be considered again. I hope that the Government will, in due course, find a suitable legislative vehicle to allow the same formulation to be applied more generally to all BIDs. With that one caveat, I greatly welcome the amendment. It has made an important improvement to the legislation, and it will enable BIDs to continue successfully in many areas where they have made a big impact and whose existence might otherwise be threatened by the introduction of BRS.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford). He has pursued the issue keenly throughout the Bill’s passage through both Houses, and there is an element of unfinished business in it for him, given that he presided over the introduction of BIDs and, along with many others, has been an advocate of them during our deliberations. He was keen to ensure that the proposed changes—the involvement of a BRS system, too—would have a positive rather than negative impact on BID areas, because there was a danger of conflict between the two systems.
The previous two contributors discussed anomalies and particular situations, and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we are not quite there yet. It would have been good to tidy up the situation in which a BRS is not imposed, but, despite his attempts in Committee to do all sorts of things, such as amend the title of the Bill, which was necessary at the time, it has not quite been possible to resolve that particular situation.
I also note that the right hon. Gentleman was slightly more supportive of the work that their lordships put into this element of the Bill than he was of their work on the previous one, but I leave that to the House to decide. The House has obviously had the opportunity to vote again on the issue, but I merely note in passing how I think that they were right on the previous issue and right on this one.
I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), in his usual friendly and positive way, seeks to contribute to resolving the issue before us, although it presents him with a slight challenge, given that he is technically approving the imposition of BRS in other parts of the country but his party has said that it does not do so. With that comment set aside, however, we can all support the fact that the provision presents a solution—albeit slightly inelegant—to a problem and takes us further forward. We will all be watching keenly to see how BID areas make progress and, I hope, do even more to benefit their local communities and the business communities within them.
I just want to respond quickly to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who asked when we would consult on regulations. As I explained, these are complex issues but we hope to begin consultation in the autumn. I thank the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) for their support.
Lords amendment 7 agreed to, with Commons privileges waived.
Special introductory provision
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 8.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment 9.
These amendments were brought forward and accepted by the other place to exempt, in all circumstances, the Greater London authority’s proposed BRS for the Crossrail project from the requirement for a ballot. The amendment originally accepted by the other place in its Grand Committee was tabled by Baroness Valentine. In response to the amendment, Baroness Andrews said, on behalf of the Government:
“I have listened to the repeated calls in your Lordships’ House and during the passage of the Bill in another place for an exemption for Crossrail. I certainly agree with the argument that it brings major benefits across the capital, commands wide support, and is already underpinned by an Act of Parliament. Therefore, with the agreement of the Committee, I would like to accept the noble Baroness’s Amendment”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. GC532.]
On Report, the Government tabled further amendments to adjust the original one; essentially, they were technical amendments to bring the new provisions into line with the rest of the Bill and remove the scope for legal uncertainty. The amendments achieved the objective accepted at the Grand Committee. At the same time, the Government also took the opportunity to extend the exemption from the ballot requirement for the proposed Crossrail BRS to cover the additionality requirement in clause 3 of the Bill, rather than leaving that provision to be made later on in regulations, as the Government had indicated was their intention. Amendment 8 therefore exempts the GLA’s proposed BRS for Crossrail from the requirement for a ballot and the need to meet the additionality test in the Bill.
The Government’s amendments were unanimously supported by all sides in the other place. The amendments provide important protection to the progress of the Crossrail project and crystallise the position on ballots for the BRS that will make up an important element of the Crossrail funding package and enable the Government to clarify the position on additionality earlier than would have been the case had the exemption been set out in regulations. For all those reasons, I invite the House to agree to the amendments.
This is one issue on which there was unanimity during our previous considerations; everybody wanted to make it clear that they supported Crossrail and the BRS as part of a settled package for the Crossrail funding mechanism. The amendments remove an ambiguity that none of us wants, so one need not say much more about the matter, save that we support the amendments.
I echo the comments just made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). During the passage of the Bill, different parties sought in different ways to propose amendments, to highlight the fact that we felt that Crossrail was a scheme of a particular nature and that it had had a great deal of attention in the past. The debate on ballots and so on should not apply to Crossrail in the same way, and the distinction is helpful. I remain sad, of course, that the House did not vote to retain the amendments in another place about ballots more generally, but I am happy to accept these amendments.
Lords amendment 8 agreed to, with Commons privileges waived.
Lords amendments 9 and 10 agreed to, one with Commons privileges waived.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 11.