House of Commons
Wednesday 7 April 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords]
Lords amendments considered and agreed to.
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords]
Lords amendments considered and agreed to.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Highlands and Islands Economy
Good morning, Mr. Speaker.
Real help provided by the UK Government since the start of the recession will ensure economic recovery is locked in and will allow the highlands and islands economy to prosper.
Would the Minister agree that it is highly ironic that at a time when the Government—with everyone’s support—are seeking through their commitment to offshore wind development, for example, to encourage major inward investment in manufacturing in the highland economy from firms such as KBR at Nigg, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ approach to small and medium-sized businesses is driving the likes of Highland Airways, Gaeltec on Skye and others to the wall with the result that the savings accruing to the public purse are more than wiped out by the additional costs of unemployment and all the other benefits that will have to be paid?
The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the Inland Revenue has not been helpful to Scottish businesses given that its own business payment support service has helped more than 18,000 firms in Scotland, with deferred payments of tax totalling more than £300 million. That, I think, is one of the “real help” ways in which we have assisted small businesses. The package announced in this year’s Budget will give £2.5 billion to small businesses and includes a doubling of their investment allowances. We have a good track record in helping businesses and especially in helping growth in new jobs from which the highlands and islands, in particular, will benefit.
When I was a Northern Ireland Minister, I organised an 11-city tour of the United States to try to bring jobs and inward investment to Northern Ireland. Nationalists were involved in those visits, but they did not try to sell the message of trying to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Might I suggest to my hon. Friend that she should draw that to the attention of those separatist Scottish National party Ministers from the Scottish Parliament, who are peddling separatism in the United States rather than trying to bring jobs to Scotland?
Yet again, my right hon. Friend gets to the heart of the matter. Tartan week should be a showcase for increasing our exports to the USA and increasing tourism. Instead, the SNP has characterised it by its own obsession with independence and its gripes, rather than promoting Scotland.
The highlands and islands economy has indeed been damaged by Labour’s many fuel tax hikes. The increased tax on cider has been scrapped; can we have the same again for fuel in the Hebrides, please? HMRC’s actions have pushed Highland Airways to the wall. As a result, people in Lewis and Harris are now having to wait until late afternoon before they get their newspapers. What will the Labour Government do to make amends for their actions?
The hon. Gentleman should look at the facts of the case. Sadly, Highland Airways had substantial trading difficulties and many more debts beyond that owing to HMRC. Unfortunately, a takeover was not possible at the last moment and the company went into liquidation, but I understand that the services to the Western Isles are being maintained by Loganair and other services are also being taken account of. We are working hard to help the employees of Highland Airways find new work under the PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—scheme. That is the best and most practical way in which we can help companies and businesses suffering from the recession.
The Minister’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) shows just how out of touch she and her ministerial colleagues have become. In the last two years, a quarter of corporate insolvencies in Scotland have been enforced by HMRC. Literally thousands of Scots have lost their jobs because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been unable to translate his good intentions on managing HMRC into hard, effective action. Does not that embarrass the Minister even slightly?
The hon. Gentleman should remember that output in the highlands and islands has risen by 75 per cent. since the Labour Government were elected in 1997, and there are 220,000 more jobs in Scotland since we were elected in 1997. Through our real help to businesses, including the business support scheme, which I again point out has benefited more than 18,000 small businesses in Scotland, we have helped to keep people on the road and to get Scotland into recovery.
The Minister compares the number of jobs now with the number in 1997, but she seems to ignore the fact that, last year alone, 65,000 Scots lost their jobs as a result of this Government’s policies. The Government now turn around and offer us empty promises of 100,000 new jobs. They have always taken Scotland for granted; now they are just taking the mickey.
It is interesting to note that the unemployment rates in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are among the lowest in the United Kingdom. That is because of Labour policies, which are creating jobs and supporting people through the recession. The future jobs fund has benefited more than 10,500 people in Scotland by helping them and keeping them close to the job market. It is because of the UK’s policies, taking the tough decisions that the Liberal Democrats would care to ignore, that we have got through this recession much quicker than they would have.
Both the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the Advocate-General on a variety of issues.
I am most grateful for that very full reply. How does the hon. Lady envisage the situation being resolved if there is a difference in the way in which the Flood and Water Management Bill, for example, once it is adopted, is interpreted in Scotland as opposed to its interpretation in England?
The hon. Lady might be aware that there was recently a case in the Supreme Court regarding the competency of the legislation of the Scottish Parliament. I think that would provide valuable guidance. At the end of the day, when we have difficulties in terms of our relationship with the Scottish Government, we have very detailed procedures with joint ministerial committees in which we can work together to find solutions to problems rather than necessarily considering court action. The fact that the Advocate-General has not needed to take one single case to the Supreme Court since devolution is a symbol of its success.
During her discussions with the Advocate-General, will the Minister raise the devolved issue of transport? Will she also issue guidelines for visitors coming to either Edinburgh or Aberdeen to make it clear that safety is important, particularly when people are travelling in open-decked buses?
One of the Advocate-General’s roles is to ensure that the relationship between the Scotland Office and the Scottish Executive works within the devolution settlement. It is clear that when it came to the release of al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, both the victims and the Scottish Executive were the last to be consulted. What steps has the Minister put in place to ensure that that does not happen again? Will she take this final opportunity to condemn the early release of that bomber, who is alive and well seven months later?
The Calman commission recommended a number of ways in which we could improve intergovernmental relationships, and we are very keen to take them forward. It is regrettable that the Scottish Government have declined to accept those recommendations, which have been supported by the majority in the Scottish Parliament. I note the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, which I share, regarding the release of Mr. al-Megrahi, but at the end of the day that was a decision solely for the Scottish Government.
Disabled Children (Benefits)
Good morning, Mr. Speaker.
The Government are totally committed to supporting disabled children and their families. I discuss these matters and welfare reform with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that one of the most shameful episodes in the history of social services in Scotland was when the Scottish Government accepted £34 million that was allocated for disabled children and their families and used it to give to local councils to keep council tax steady? Will he continue to consult with colleagues so that never again can we have such a distortion of the Barnett formula, and never again can we trust those who claim to speak for Scotland and attack the most vulnerable?
Scottish National party Members are shouting at my right hon. Friend, but over many years he has established an impeccable record among others across the House through his campaigning for families with disabled children. His criticism is therefore all the more valid. It is a matter of cross-party consensus that we should all try and do as much as we can to support families with disabled children. It is pretty shameful that the £34 million that was meant to go towards supporting the NHS in helping disabled children in Scotland went into a big black hole created by the SNP.
The Secretary of State will realise that this has been an excessively cold winter in Scotland, and that one of the challenges for people with disabilities is their need for extra heating in their homes. In his discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has he therefore pressed the case for extending the winter fuel payment to people with disability and on disability benefits?
We continue to keep all these things under review. Last year we made some important changes to winter fuel payments for pensioners across Scotland, almost trebling the amounts involved, and we have announced further changes in support of families with disabled children. The Government have announced that people with severe visual impairment will become entitled to the higher-rate mobility component of disability living allowance from April next year. That is after a campaign supported by Members of Parliament of all parties and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. We continue to look for other ways to support families with disabled children.
We remain committed to taking forward the proposals outlined in our White Paper on Calman. We will bring forward a Bill early in the next Session of Parliament to implement these recommendations.
The Calman commission proposals to make the Scottish Parliament more responsible for its financial decision making offer the possibilities of improving democratic accountability in Scotland and also strengthening the Union. Will my right hon. Friend commit himself to introducing the proposals on financial accountability as part of that package?
The Scottish Parliament is one of the great democratic innovations and constitutional changes of recent decades, but the Government and the Calman commission believe that there is an in-built weakness in its architecture, in that it is responsible for spending money but not for raising enough of it. The envisaged radical reforms will give it much more power, and in future the ultimate decision about how much money the Scottish Parliament and Government will spend will be for the Scottish Parliament, which will have to make an annual decision on tax rates in Scotland. That is a fair, sustainable and radical approach, and it is an important part of having a stronger Scotland inside a proud United Kingdom.
Although some form of constitutional reform is certainly necessary, does the Secretary of State agree that the best future for all the people of Scotland is to ensure that the country is not an isolated, small entity but part of a strong and prosperous United Kingdom?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady on all matters, of course, but she is right on this one. All of us who love Scotland and are patriotic about our country know that it is a fantastic place to live and bring up a family, and that it has a phenomenal history. However, it is part of our future and destiny to ensure that a proud Scotland remains an equal part of the United Kingdom. That is not just my view, but the view of the majority of people all across Scotland.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right that there is a commonality of purpose between Labour and Conservatives—they both want to bring cuts to Scotland. We were promised action on the Calman proposals back in the Queen’s Speech in November, but since then we have heard nothing, zilch, not a peep. Is it not the case that the Government have no intention of bringing forward his proposals, and that they would prefer to introduce cuts rather than Calman to Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point with his characteristically good manners and great sense of humour. This is the latest attempt on this matter by a political party, the SNP, that no one in Scotland takes seriously. It is using desperate tactics, but the only thing that Scotland would get by voting SNP in the general election would be a Tory Government. That is because the SNP brought Mrs. Thatcher to power and is desperate to remove this Labour Government as well. The moment that the party decided to prop up a Tory Government was the moment that it surrendered the right to speak for Scotland.
Future Jobs Fund
The future jobs fund is making a significant impact in Scotland, and more than 10,500 jobs have been funded, including in Aberdeen.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this investment in jobs and the announcement today that Labour will introduce another 100,000 skilled jobs in Scotland will be the thing that makes a difference to my constituents in Aberdeen? It will make sure that Aberdeen moves from being the oil and gas capital of Europe to being the energy capital of Europe. Some of those new jobs will be green jobs, but they will be skilled jobs.
My hon. Friend is right. Over recent decades, Aberdeen has been a remarkable European and global centre for the oil and gas industry, but although oil and gas have still some years to run they will not last for ever, so this is an enormous opportunity for Aberdeen, and the north-east of Scotland in particular, to have a permanent centre of European excellence in renewable energy that can bring tens of thousands of jobs to Scotland, especially in my hon. Friend’s Aberdeen constituency and the north-east of the country.
Total Block Grant
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor on a range of issues. The allocated Scottish Government budget for 2010-11 is the highest ever—more than double that available to Donald Dewar in the first year of devolution.
Throughout my time as Secretary of State, I have tried to take a reasonable approach to the big issues facing Scotland. Of course, that has often not been responded to by the Scottish National party, but in an attempt to be reasonable, and trying to set aside party political divisions on those big issues, the UK Government offered an unparalleled and unprecedented flexibility package to help the Scottish Government build a Forth road bridge. Unfortunately, they rebuffed it; they are stuck in an old ideology, which means that, as we speak, the bridge is no closer.
The Scottish Secretary has done nothing to stop the real-terms cuts to the Scottish budget this year, part of a package of cuts that will be deeper and tougher than Margaret Thatcher’s. Is he proud of his Thatcherite legacy and what will he say to the thousands of Scottish public sector workers who will lose their jobs as a result of British Labour party cuts?
I thought the hon. Gentleman was getting up to thank the Labour Government for the tax credits on innovation in the games industry in Dundee, but he is silent. He cannot bring himself to support his constituents and his city.
I am proud of what we have achieved over the past 12 years, and I thank the people of Scotland, because together we have made Scotland a fairer, more confident place. The last thing we need is a vote for the SNP, to bring in the Tory party by the back door.
My hon. Friend, as always, is short, succinct and to the point. He is absolutely accurate. We are determined not to repeat the errors of the 1980s and 1990s recession. That is why we are helping young people in particular to get back into work. That is why we are growing jobs with our green investment bank. That is why we are helping new industries and renewable industries in the video games industry and in the life sciences. It is by having a managed industrial policy that we will grow our way into recovery.
The Minister will know that 665,000 working-age people in Scotland are economically inactive. In the past three months, that figure has risen by 21,000. In the past year, Labour has wiped £4.8 billion off the value of the Scottish economy. Since 1997, Scotland’s share of the national debt has more than doubled, and almost 150,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. Those are facts; there is little that the Minister and the Secretary of State can do about them now, but will she take this last opportunity at the Dispatch Box to apologise to the people of Scotland?
Well, I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we certainly will not do. We will not halt recovery in its tracks by cutting public investment now and squeezing off our recovery. He can be sure that the Labour Government are determined to ensure that the recovery works.
Like most people, but unlike Labour Members, I am interested in talking about the present—2010. Labour’s last manifesto said:
“2010: Full employment in every region and nation”.
The number of people who have been on the dole in Scotland for more than one year has in fact gone up by 122 per cent. in the past 12 months, yet the Minister and the Secretary of State still want to introduce a tax on jobs that will kill recovery. If she thinks that that is a good idea, is it not she and the Secretary of State who have been misled, not leading Scottish business figures?
The hon. Gentleman forgets that since 1997 there are 220,000 more Scots in employment, courtesy of a Labour Government. We are determined to continue the recovery, which is why the national insurance increase will not occur until next year, at which point all predictions show that we will have a strong and sustainable recovery. Under this Government, when we have increased national insurance, jobs have continued to rise.
I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about employment in Scotland. Despite the severity of the recent recession, there are almost 250,000 more Scots working today than there were in 1997.
Has the Secretary of State been discussing the shipbuilding industry with his ministerial colleagues? In particular, has he been discussing the fact that Scotland faces the choice of the Type 45 with Labour or the P45 with the separatists? Has he been discussing the fact that the aircraft carriers are threatened by the Tories and would be sunk by the separatists, but are safe with Labour?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and others are fantastic champions of shipbuilding in Scotland. He makes a very clear point. The Scottish Conservatives are in favour of industry-destroying cuts, creating elitism and sinking shipyards—we have an unchanged Scottish Conservative party. The last thing that Scotland wants to do is to go back to the old divisions of the 1980s under the Tory party. [Interruption.]
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman endorses some of what we have been doing over the past decade. Compared with 12 years ago, there are almost 250,000 more people in work in Scotland today, despite the recession. Most people in Scotland are passionate patriots and most Scots are not nationalists. That is why the longer the SNP is in power in Edinburgh, the smaller the support for breaking up Britain becomes.
Immigration Removal Centres (Contraband)
The Secretary of State has had no recent meetings to discuss levels of contraband in the immigration removal centre in Scotland.
The management of prisons in Scotland is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government’s Ministry of Justice. We have policies and procedures in place to prevent contraband from coming into removal centres, but we would not comment on the details because that might compromise the safety of the centre.
Official data showing Scotland’s gross domestic product for the end of last year have not yet been published by the Scottish Government, but most indications suggest that Scotland emerged from recession in the fourth quarter of 2009, although the recovery is fragile. The Government are committed to doing all that is necessary to help to drive recovery in the Scottish economy.
The Minister and the Secretary of State will be aware that, in the past two years, 466 Scottish companies have been shut down by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for not paying their bills on time. Currently, many solvent companies in Scotland are being pushed towards liquidation because of HMRC’s actions. Will they have a word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get him to take the heat off those solvent companies, so that they can continue to trade and pay their bills?
As I said earlier, the Inland Revenue already has a business support package, which we introduced last year, to defer tax payments. More than 18,000 Scottish businesses have benefited and more than £300 million of tax has already been deferred. It is, however, important that HMRC is operationally independent, and its job is to protect the interests of the UK taxpayer.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the two British servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in the past week: from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, Guardsman Michael Sweeney, and from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, Rifleman Mark Turner. We owe them an immeasurable debt of gratitude. Both were engaged to be married, and our thoughts are with their loved ones and their families.
It is because of all our brave men and women in our armed forces that our families, our communities and our country are safer and more secure. At this time, it is right to remember all who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and all those who serve in our armed forces. I spoke to President Karzai and then President Obama yesterday. Our security forces in Sangin will be increased by about 500 from the Afghan security forces, providing greater security for the people of the region and support to our troops.
We are also sadly reminded today of the sacrifice made by members of our emergency services. We send our condolences to the family and friends of the two brave firemen who died in Southampton last night. We pay tribute to the bravery and commitment demonstrated by all our emergency and public services.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The big issue is whether we can secure and assure the economic recovery. To withdraw £6 billion from the recovery now would put jobs at risk, put businesses at risk and put our growth at risk. We cannot cut our way to recovery—but we could cut our way to double-dip recession. In 2011 we will use the rise in national insurance to guarantee that we fund our policing and our schooling, and to make sure that the health services guarantees of cancer care and of being able to see a GP at weekends and in the evenings are kept. Those guarantees will be kept, because of the decisions that we make.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Guardsman Michael Sweeney and Rifleman Mark Turner, who have been killed in Afghanistan in the past week. Two hundred and eighty British servicemen and women and Ministry of Defence civilians have now lost their lives while serving in Afghanistan. As we prepare for the end of this Parliament, we should remember the sacrifice that they and their families have made and acknowledge the huge debt that we all owe to our armed forces for the bravery that they show, day after day.
I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to James Shears and Alan Bannon, the two firefighters killed while tackling a fire in Southampton last night.
As this is the last Prime Minister’s questions of this Parliament, it is the last chance for this Prime Minister to show that he is accountable for the decisions that he has made. Will he start by admitting that when British forces were sent into Helmand, they did not have sufficient helicopters to protect themselves and get the job done?
I do not accept that in any operation to which we sent our troops our commanding officers gave wrong advice; they told us that they were properly equipped. Every time, in every operation, we ask our commanding officers, “Are we able to do this operation?” and our commanding officers have said yes, they can. So I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that we have done our best to equip our troops, and we will continue to do so. It is right that I take full responsibility, but I take the advice of our commanding officers, and the advice of our commanding officers is very clear.
That answer sums up this premiership. The Prime Minister takes no responsibility and always blames somebody else. Why can he not just admit something that everybody knows to be true—that there were not enough helicopters? Let us listen to Colonel Stuart Tootal, former commander of 3 Para. He said:
“repeated demands for more helicopters fell on deaf ears. It increased risk for my paratroopers, but”,
as he put it,
yes, the Ministers—
“were not the ones driving into combat when we should have been flying in.”
The Foreign Office Minister that the Prime Minister appointed, Lord Malloch-Brown, said as late as last year:
“We definitely don’t have enough helicopters.”
Presumably, the Prime Minister is going to tell us that all those people were just deceived.
We have increased the number of helicopters in Afghanistan. We have increased the flying time by more than 100 per cent. I think that the right hon. Gentleman should recognise that the Merlins were adapted, and are now in Afghanistan. He should also recognise that the Chinooks were also adapted, so that they, too, can be in Afghanistan. He should recognise that we have other helicopters in Afghanistan that are working, and we are part of an international operation in Afghanistan, where we share equipment with our coalition partners. I have to say to him that the amount of money spent in Afghanistan now is £5 billion a year; that is 1,000 extra vehicles, and twice the number of flying time hours for our helicopters. I think that he should accept that our troops, for the operations that they are asked to undertake, have been given the equipment that they need. That is the right position.
Why should anyone believe this Prime Minister, when he was the first in history to go in front of a public inquiry and not give accurate information about defence spending? Let me ask about another decision for which this Prime Minister ought to be accountable. In the last 13 years, he has robbed pension funds of £100 billion. His own welfare Minister said:
“when Labour came to power we had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe and now probably we have some of the weakest”.
Presumably, he was deceived as well. Will the Prime Minister finally admit that robbing the pension funds was the wrong decision for Britain?
The right hon. Gentleman said that there was no answer to the last question, but it is he who has never given an answer on any single policy. As far as pension funds are concerned, we debated the matter in this House two years ago, and the shadow Chancellor put the case that the dividend tax credit had affected the ability of pension funds to have money. I showed at that time that during the period before the stock market crash, what had actually happened was that the resources of the pension funds had doubled. He lost his case when he put it to the House of Commons; it is no use trying to put it again.
What we have done over these last 12 years is give a pensioners’ winter allowance, initially opposed by the Conservative party. What we are saying that we will do is link pensions to earnings—a link taken away by a Conservative Government. What we have done is give 2 million pensioners a pension tax credit, and have given them dignity in retirement—again, that was opposed by the Conservative Government. What we now have is a national concessionary fare scheme that gives pensioners the chance to travel the country; that would be at risk under a Conservative Government.
That, Mr. Speaker, is the sort of deception that we will rebut in this election campaign every time that it comes up. The Prime Minister must be the only person in Britain who thinks that robbing pension funds was a good idea. His own adviser, who sat in No. 10 Downing street, said that this Prime Minister
“will go down in history as the one who destroyed our pensions system…He just ignores what he doesn’t want to hear, then tries to cover up the consequences…people are finally starting to rumble Gordon Brown and it serves him right.”
Presumably she was deceived as well.
Let us take another decision for which the Prime Minister needs to be held to account—[Interruption.]
They were shouting out about national insurance contributions, and this is a question about national insurance contributions.
The Prime Minister has made the decision to introduce a jobs tax which will kill the recovery. This morning on GMTV, he said that business leaders who oppose this decision have been deceived. Is the Prime Minister really telling us that he knows more about job creation than business leaders who employ almost a million people in this country?
Once again, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman about what happened during this recession, and what we had to do to take this country out of recession. We had to nationalise Northern Rock, and the Conservatives opposed it. We had to restructure the banks, business supported us, but they opposed it. We had to take action to secure help for the unemployed. Businesses support the future jobs fund, they opposed it. We had to take action to help home owners. Business supported it, they opposed it. We had to take action to help small business itself, and they opposed the funds that were necessary.
On national insurance, there is a clear choice. We can put national insurance up and therefore protect our schools, our hospitals and our policing, or we can do what the Conservatives traditionally do, and put our hospitals, our police and our health service at risk.
The choice is Labour’s decision to go on wasting money and then put up tax on every job in the country. This is what business leaders said:
“cutting government waste won’t endanger the recovery—but putting up national insurance will.”
Let me ask the Prime Minister again. Does he believe that these business leaders, including members of his own advisory council, were deceived?
We cannot cut our way to recovery, and that is why to withdraw £6 billion from the economy now is the wrong thing to do. Let us be clear: the Conservative policies would put jobs at risk immediately, would put businesses at risk immediately, and would put growth at risk immediately.
As far as 2011 is concerned, we have to make a decision. Do we want to maintain the improvement in our policing, our public services and our health service guarantees, and maintain investment in the schools? We say that that will cost that extra money on national insurance; they say no. The public must make up their minds. Do they want the public services to be maintained, or do they want the traditional Tory policy of putting our public services at risk?
This morning the Prime Minister said that these business leaders had been deceived. Since then another 30 business leaders have come again and said, “Ah, they’re right, and the Government are wrong.” Let me read the Prime Minister what they are saying. Paul Walsh, the head of Diageo, who is on the Prime Minister’s business council—[Hon. Members: “A Tory!”] No, not a Tory, but one of the Prime Minister’s advisers—although he is probably a Tory now; so are half the country. Let us hear what he had to say:
“It’s not true to claim businesses have been deceived. National insurance is a tax on jobs”.
Let us hear from John Egan, former head of BAA.
“How can there be a deception? National insurance is a tax on jobs, pure and simple.”
Is not the truth this: that this Prime Minister would wreck the recovery by putting a tax on every job, on everyone earning over £20,000—a tax on aspiration, a tax on every business in the country? This Government would wreck the recovery.
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman said nothing about the future; it is the same old Tories. To think he was the future once!
We have the shortest ever waiting lists in the health service; 2.5 million more jobs since 1997; a Sure Start centre in every community in our country; more pupils than ever staying on at school; more students going to university; more pensioners out of poverty; and more dignity and security in retirement. We are the Government who have plans for the future. The Opposition have nothing to offer. Only a Labour Government can do it.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that at the weekend Sudan was described on the BBC as the “hungriest place on earth”? Given his outstanding record on international development, both as Chancellor and as Prime Minister, will he use his influence within the international community to ensure that the hapless people of Darfur and that region are recognised for the suffering that they now endure?
As long as there are children suffering, as long as there are mothers dying in childbirth unnecessarily, and as long as young people are not getting education in schools, we have a duty as a country to act. I am proud—and my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary has done a great deal to push this forward—of the fact that we as a Government have doubled the expenditure in real terms on overseas aid from 0.26 per cent. of GDP, which we inherited from the previous Government, to 0.52 per cent. today. That doubling of our investment in overseas aid is unparalleled in the past 20 years in any country, and I would hope that there would be an all-party consensus that spending on overseas aid can continue.
I, too, would like to add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Rifleman Mark Turner from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, and Guardsman Michael Sweeney from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, who, having served so selflessly and bravely in Afghanistan, lost their lives there this week. We owe them, and everyone who has been killed or injured in Afghanistan, a huge debt of gratitude. I would also like to pay tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of James Shears and Alan Bannon, the two firefighters who lost their lives in Southampton last night.
Today, he and he—the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition—are trying to fool people that they are serious about political reform, but last week we had yet more proof that that is not true. Here, in the minutes of the Hayden Phillips cross-party talks on party funding, in black and white, we see the Labour party protecting their trade union paymasters and the Conservatives protecting their paymaster in Belize. Who do they think that they are kidding? After they sabotaged that deal, why should anyone trust a single word that they have to say on political reform?
The Prime Minister’s answer was ridiculous. The two parties are colluding to block reform. Just last night they colluded to block the most minimal reforms to our electoral system and the other place. Just as they came together to block our proposals to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs, they came together to block our proposals to clean up lobbying. We all remember, back in 1997, the hope and the promise of that new Government. Look at them now. You’ve failed. It’s over. It’s time to go.
That seemed like a speech in search of a question.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the fact that when we discussed electoral funding and political reform, the Labour party and the Liberal party agreed on the means to reform the political funding system. There was an agreement between our two parties. The Conservative party pulled out of the agreement, and it pulled out on the recommendation of one person: the person who funds the Conservative party, the person who has given £10 million to the Conservative party, the person who has been offshore for many years—Lord Aschroft.
We have given every patient a guarantee that they will receive treatment within 18 weeks of seeing their doctor. That is a guarantee that we give personally to every patient, and in the next Parliament they can enforce it and go private, or go to another health authority if it is not met. The Opposition party refuses to back that guarantee.
We have given a guarantee to cancer patients that they will see a specialist within two weeks, and in the next Parliament they will be able to have their diagnostic test within one week. That is a guarantee that we have given; the Conservative party will not support that guarantee, even to cancer patients. We have given a guarantee that general practitioners must see people in the weekends or in the evenings as well as during ordinary working hours, and that is a guarantee that we are giving but the Conservative party refuses to support. People will make up their minds in whose hands the health service is safe—and it is in the Labour party’s hands.
By the time I met them they were all staunch Labour supporters, as a result of the message that we put to them. Yesterday I visited a number of places in Kent and asked people what the major issue affecting them was, and they said that they wanted to secure the recovery. I had to tell people that the Conservative party taking £6 billion out of the economy would put the recovery at risk. The issue is very clear: jobs with Labour, unemployment under the Conservatives.
Will my right hon. Friend heed the warning of the former Bank of England panel member David Blanchflower that if he followed the advice of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and took precipitate action to cut the deficit, it would lead not only to unemployment but to rising poverty, social disorder and soup kitchens?
This is the central issue of this year: will we secure the recovery? The Conservative party says, “Take £6 billion out of the economy and it doesn’t matter”. In fact, if we take £6 billion out of the economy now there will be more unemployment, more businesses will go under and there will be less growth. I believe that when we look at what people are saying and doing in every other country, we find that they are saying, “We’ve got to secure the recovery before we take any further action.” Only the Conservative party is saying, “Take money out of the economy now”. It has made a historic mistake.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes this view, because we have ordered more helicopters for the future, reconditioned the Merlins to be in Afghanistan, repaired the Chinooks in such a way that they can now be used in Afghanistan, and increased the number of helicopter hours being flown by our troops. That is the answer to those who say that not enough is being done: more helicopters and more helicopter hours in Afghanistan now.
Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the current issue of The Economist and yesterday’s Financial Times, both of which, speaking for the City and business, say that if there is a change of Government, Britain will find itself dangerously isolated in Europe? Does he agree that we must work with Chancellor Merkel and other leaders, and not get into bed and breakfast with extremist politicians whose views of homosexuals, the holocaust and the Waffen SS are unacceptable in our democracy?
If the Conservative party had really changed, it would have changed its position on Europe—but it is the same old Conservative party, moving further and further to the extreme of Europe. It cannot form an alliance with Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy or the centre-right Christian Democrat parties in Europe, so it has to go into alliances with the most extreme elements of Europe. The latest thing that it did was vote against the transfer of information to deal with the problem of tax havens—exactly the sort of policy that Lord Ashcroft would want it to support.
I’ll tell the Conservative party about jobs. Jobs mean helping young people to get into work, including the 200,000 jobs created by the future jobs fund now and over the next few months; jobs means helping young people to stay in work and with getting work experience and education, including the summer school leavers guarantee that we are giving; and jobs means helping small businesses through this difficult time, with the time to pay, the reduction of business rates and the help that we are giving them now. Take £6 billion out of the economy now, and we would put the recovery at risk. Take £6 billion out of the economy, and thousands of jobs would go.
The Prime Minister is aware of the effect of the retrospective introduction of business rates on companies operating in various ports around the country, including Goole in my constituency. Five years after the planned implementation, the Valuation Office Agency has still to agree assessments with many companies. One of those, Scotline, went out of business after being summonsed for a rates bill of £700,000, which was reduced to £114,000 on appeal. Will my right hon. Friend meet the Chancellor, and the Department for Communities and Local Government, and get a fair and equitable solution to keep jobs in our ports safe?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he has always been a persistent advocate of the ports and the jobs they create. I am very happy to meet him to talk about this issue and what we have done—the equal interest-free payments paid in instalments over an unprecedented eight years. I am happy to talk to him about what more we can do to help.
I have said that the country has to make a choice. The Conservative party has made its choice, but I say to the country that if we want to maintain and improve our schools and policing, including the record numbers of police and neighbourhood policing in this country, and if we want to ensure the cancer guarantee, the GP guarantee and the other guarantees in our national health service, that has to be paid for. I believe that the country will make the choice in favour of maintaining and improving our public services, and I think that, once again, the Conservative party is exposed as the party that opposed public service improvements in our country.
Over the years there has been a continual drift away from direct taxes to indirect taxes, which, as the Prime Minister knows, bear most heavily on those who can least afford them. Does he agree that it is becoming time that we went back to the traditional Labour party policy on taxation, which is to redistribute wealth in favour of poorer people? I would like him to say in this general election that he will see direct taxation imposed on the billionaire rich, who should be carrying the real burden of taxation in this country.
I agree with my hon. Friend on one point, and that is the importance of tax credits, which have helped lower and middle-income people get out of poverty and secure their livelihood. [Interruption.] The Conservatives are not interested in tax credits. Six million families in this country receive tax credits. Twenty million children, mothers and fathers benefit from tax credits. One of the cuts that the Conservatives propose for this year is to cut child tax credits for middle-income families, which would do more to push people into lower-income groups than anything else. They should change their policy and help middle-income families in this country.
Net migration to this country has been falling as a result of actions that we have been taking, and it has fallen in the last three years. It is falling because there are more people here locally getting the jobs that are available. The Conservatives should think twice about their policy on quotas for migration, because the very businesses that they are quoting want to be able to bring people into this country to do the jobs that are necessary. We propose the Australian points system on migration. The Conservatives’ policy of a quota for immigration, without giving a number, would do great damage to British business.
Record investment in education, record investment in universities, record investment in science in our country, record investment in new innovation in our country: that is the record of our Labour Government, and I am proud to tell people that we are the party that supports industry in this country.
Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Non-Proliferation and Public Liability)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make arrangements to reprocess spent nuclear fuel stored in the United Kingdom in order to meet non-proliferation objectives and to offset the decommissioning costs of major reprocessing facilities; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would promote the utilisation of the full nuclear fuel cycle and the facilities that underpin it in Britain, so that the costs to the taxpayer of nuclear decommissioning may be reduced, and the successful implementation of national and international nuclear non-proliferation objectives may be met.
Before beginning, I must point out that a number of my friends and family members work in the nuclear industry in my constituency, and that I am a former employee of the Sellafield nuclear plant, which sustains something in the region of 16,000 jobs in my constituency.
My Bill is designed to resolve some of the most important issues facing us, as a country, and some of the most important issues facing the British nuclear industry today. The Bill presents a series of policy solutions to certain complex and interconnected challenges that are currently before us. The complete resolution of all the issues outlined in the Bill will require interdepartmental co-operation in Whitehall and intergovernmental co-operation internationally. Fundamentally, however, the genesis of the solutions to these problems lies constitutionally and legally in Parliament, but technically and physically at Sellafield, in my constituency.
The Bill covers seven areas: the cost of nuclear decommissioning to the taxpayer; the potential of publicly owned nuclear facilities and materials to generate significant commercial revenue; the continuation of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing; the establishment of a new mixed oxide fuel manufacturing facility at Sellafield; the significant effect of that on the final radioactive waste inventory for the national deep geological depository; the management and governance of non-British radioactive materials in Britain; and, perhaps most importantly, the significant help that the proposals would give to our nuclear non-proliferation objectives.
The Government have taken the right decision on decommissioning this country’s ageing nuclear facilities. The estimated decommissioning cost to the taxpayer now stands at about £80 billion. This estimate could increase or reduce as decommissioning continues, as new techniques are developed and as expertise from all over the world is brought to bear on what are in some cases internationally unique engineering challenges. It should be recognised that a large proportion—perhaps the majority—of these costs have been incurred through our military nuclear programmes and not through our civil ones, although in the past that dividing line has sometimes been obscured.
The creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority was an important and necessary step by the Government, and the relatively new body continues to do good work in my constituency and elsewhere around the UK. The NDA recently announced its business plan for the new financial year. It has a budget of £2.8 billion, £1.5 billion of which will be spent at Sellafield. This is all public money, and the rise in spending since the creation of the NDA has been both dramatic and profound. By way of illustration, when I left Sellafield in 2005, its annual budget was just below £900 million. The fact that we need to spend £1.5 billion of public money at Sellafield in this financial year is beyond doubt and, in my view, non-negotiable. However, the principal question for any time—but even more so as we build economic recovery and emerge from recession—is whether all that money should come directly from the public purse. Is there not another or an additional way in which the money can be found? The answer is yes.
The potential of publicly owned nuclear facilities and materials to generate significant commercial revenue at Sellafield is enormous. The thermal oxide reprocessing plant, or THORP, at Sellafield is the single largest yen earner in the British economy. The plant is of vital strategic importance not only to the UK nuclear industry but to the UK as a whole, as it provides services that few facilities in the world can offer. Current reprocessing contracts at THORP—depending on operational performance—are scheduled to end in approximately 2020. THORP reprocesses spent nuclear fuel, separating out the reusable uranium and plutonium as oxides which are then capable of being made into mixed oxide—MOX—fuels.
As the nuclear industry expands across the globe—no one can now doubt the reality or speed of that expansion—the marketplace for the services that THORP can provide continues to grow. This is not a hypothetical marketplace; it exists now, and potential customers are showing genuine interest in pursuing the route that I am outlining. It is incumbent on us as a nation to extract every single penny of value from the facilities at Sellafield, such as THORP and the Sellafield MOX plant, which have been so heavily invested in by the British taxpayer. These facilities are enormous assets, and they can and should be used as income generators, and the derived income could and should be used to limit the decommissioning costs to the public purse. This is not just sensible; it is just, fair and in the public interest. There is therefore a copper-bottomed case for continuing reprocessing at THORP beyond 2020, and it is now in our interests aggressively to seek and pursue the commercial opportunities that exist.
In addition, there exist at Sellafield tens of thousands of tonnes of uranium dioxide and approximately 100 tonnes of plutonium oxide. Consultations are under way on how to classify these materials. Put simply, there is a stark choice to be made: the materials are either wastes or assets. If they are classified as wastes, it will cost billions of pounds of public money to treat, store and dispose of them. If, however, they are classified as assets—which they undeniably are—their value as component materials to service the growing international demand for MOX fuel will be enormous, and they will be worth tens of billions of pounds to the British taxpayer and to the nation.
There is real interest from certain parties in developing a new MOX fuel manufacturing plant at Sellafield, and this should be pursued in the national interest. Using plutonium and uranium oxides in that way would certainly change the nature of the radioactive waste inventory that will eventually be placed into a deep geological facility somewhere in this country—potentially in my constituency. That decision would be entirely in the hands of local people, not politicians, but the status of the nuclear fuel cycle and the final inventory will inevitably have an effect on the process and on public attitudes.
So there is clearly an issue of definition with regard to British and non-British radioactive wastes. The definition is a simple one, and the legally binding substitution arrangements that Britain has with its overseas customers work well. This is a prescriptive and demanding process, and it should be so. However, such is the nature of the constitutional change experienced by this country that new draft arrangements should now be established for the management, storage and governance of the radioactive materials currently stored at Sellafield, in case the definition of Britain changes.
Clearly, as a British facility, Sellafield currently stores and treats materials that are generated within Scotland as part of the United Kingdom—and it has done so for many years. The arrangement works well. However, should the Scottish people opt to leave the United Kingdom—in my view, that is their inalienable right—these materials will cease to be classified as British. Such a move would mean that all Scottish radioactive waste stored and treated in Britain would have to be reclassified. Such a move would necessarily require new environmental, economic and policy arrangements. Potentially, all Scottish materials could have to be returned to Scotland at the cost of billions of pounds to the Scottish taxpayer. Such a move would probably require the creation of an independent Scottish Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, an independent Scottish regulator and an independent Scottish deep geological repository, and more.
Alternatively, Britain could enter into entirely new arrangements for Scotland and establish a commercial arrangement whereby Scotland paid Britain for its waste to be treated and stored—again, at the cost of billions of pounds to the Scottish taxpayer, but again, the revenue could be used to accelerate decommissioning in Britain or to offset the costs to the British taxpayer.
There are many more scenarios, and I hope that officials from the Scottish Government and Whitehall can meet soon to discuss potential eventualities and to develop a mutual way forward. These issues must be addressed in a calm, rational and consensual manner. To this end, I have written to the Scottish First Minister in the hope that we can begin this dialogue.
Finally, the strengthening of the industrial base, which facilitates the nuclear fuel cycle in this country, provides us with the single best chance we have of not only meeting our own nuclear non-proliferation objectives, but helping others, particularly the United States, to meet theirs as well. The same skilled work force, academic base, industrial supply chain and industrial practices that will and should help us to exploit our nuclear fuel cycle technologies are the same as those that will help us to put nuclear weapons materials beyond use. We owe it to ourselves and to existing and future generations to do this, and we owe it to the taxpayers of this country to maximise every drop of value from the nuclear investments they have made. My constituents deserve nothing less.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Jamie Reed, Andrew Gwynne, John Mann, Phil Wilson, John Robertson, Albert Owen, Mr. Richard Caborn, Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Alan Milburn and Mr. John Hutton present the Bill.
Mr. Jamie Reed accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 103).
Business of the House
I beg to move,
That the following provisions shall have effect—
Sittings on 7 and 8 April: general
1. At the sittings today and tomorrow—
(1) any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour, and shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House;
(2) any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill may be considered forthwith without any further Question being put;
(3) Standing Orders Nos. 83D to 83H and 83I(2), (3) and (6) (conclusion of proceedings, &c.) shall apply to proceedings to be taken in accordance with this Order (but with the omission of Standing Orders Nos. 83D(2)(c) and 83E(2)(c));
(4) notices of Amendments, new Clauses or new Schedules to be moved in Committee on any Bill may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time; and
(5) Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.
Wednesday 7 April
2. At today’s sitting the following business shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) at the time after its commencement shown in brackets at the end of each sub-paragraph—
(1) proceedings on consideration and Third Reading of the Bribery Bill [Lords] (one hour);
(2) Committee of the whole House and remaining proceedings on the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords] (one hour);
(3) proceedings on the Motion in the name of Secretary Alan Johnson relating to the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2010 (one hour);
(4) proceedings on consideration and Third Reading of the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill (one hour);
(5) any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the bringing in of an Appropriation Bill, presentation and First Reading of any Bill brought in in pursuance of that Motion and remaining proceedings on any such Bill, to which Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills) shall apply (forthwith);
(6) Second Reading and remaining proceedings on the Finance Bill (three hours); and
(7) Committee of the whole House and remaining proceedings on the Digital Economy Bill [Lords] (two hours).
3. Proceedings on any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill which are taken at today’s sitting shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) one hour after their commencement.
4. Paragraph 2(3) shall have effect notwithstanding Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents).
5. Paragraph 2(6) shall have effect notwithstanding the practice of the House as to the intervals between stages of a Bill brought in upon Ways and Means Resolutions.
6. If the Finance Bill is read a second time, it shall stand committed to a Committee of the whole House and the House will immediately resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill.
7. If, on the conclusion of proceedings in Committee on the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords], the Finance Bill or the Digital Economy Bill [Lords], the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
8. At today’s sitting, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any Messages from the Lords have been received and any Committee to draw up Reasons has reported.
Thursday 8 April
9. At tomorrow’s sitting proceedings on consideration and Third Reading of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) one hour after their commencement.
10. Proceedings on any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill which are taken at tomorrow’s sitting shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) one hour after their commencement.
11. At tomorrow’s sitting, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House before a Message has been received from the Lords Commissioners.
12. On Thursday 8 April there shall be no sitting in Westminster Hall.
13. Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
14. The Order made on Friday 12 March 2010 that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill be considered on Friday 23 April 2010 shall be discharged; and, notwithstanding the practice of the House which forbids the bringing forward of an Order of the Day, the Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, shall be considered tomorrow.
15. A reference in this Order to proceedings on or in respect of a Bill includes a reference to proceedings on any Money Resolution, Ways and Means Resolution or Order of Consideration Motion in relation to those proceedings.
16. The Speaker may not arrange for a debate to be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (emergency debates) at today’s sitting, or at tomorrow’s sitting, before the conclusion of the proceedings at that sitting to which this Order applies.
17. If today’s sitting continues after 10.30 am on Thursday 8 April, this Order shall have effect as if any reference to the sitting on Thursday 8 April were a reference to today’s sitting.
Yesterday, I announced to the House the business that we will take in the run-up to Dissolution next Monday. This motion will enable the House to conclude the passage of legislation before the general election. It allows the House a truncated process for concluding the consideration of Government Bills that have completed all their stages in one House and have had at least a Second Reading in the Second House. It also provides for the Finance Bill and Appropriation Bill to be taken through all their stages, which is essential to the continuation of the tax system and of public expenditure during the election period. The only Government Bills that will be taken through this truncated process are those that have already received a substantial amount of scrutiny in both Houses, or those essential to the maintenance of the public finances.
The motion provides an opportunity for the House to complete its consideration of two private Members’ Bills that were unopposed on Second Reading and have completed their Committee stage.
The motion enables the House’s remaining time to be divided between the Bills. By the time the House rises on Monday it will, I hope, have passed 13 Bills, in addition to the 10 Acts that have already received Royal Assent in the current Session. Hon. Members know that the process will work only if the official Opposition agree to the measures presented by the Government, and I thank them for their co-operation.
Under the terms of the motion, each of the following items of business will be allocated up to one hour in today’s sitting: Third Reading of the Bribery Bill [Lords]; Committee of the whole House and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords]; consideration of the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2010; and remaining stages of the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill. All stages of the Appropriation Bill will then be taken. Up to three hours will be allocated to the Second Reading and remaining stages of the Finance Bill. The Committee and remaining stages of the Digital Economy Bill [Lords] will then be taken for up to two hours. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords amendments or other Lords messages that may be received for up to one hour each.
I note that one piece of unfinished business has not been included in the motion. Can the Leader of the House explain why no time has been allocated for the House to implement the Standing Orders for which it voted so overwhelmingly in principle, and which would finally redeem at least something of the record of the Government and the House in regard to reform? What held the Leader of the House up? Were the official Opposition against the allocation of that time, or were the Government against it?
I am still replying to the question asked by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith).
The Chair of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee and others have tabled an amendment, which has not been selected for debate and which is the subject of the question asked by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. The hon. Gentleman has called for the allocation of time in which to debate the Standing Orders relating to the establishment of a Business Committee for the next Parliament.
I do not oppose it; I support it, as I have made clear.
I do not want to take time away from any of the Bills that need to reach the stage of Royal Assent by providing time for the implementation of Standing Orders that will not apply until the next Parliament in any event. We have done the work on Commons reform in this Parliament. The Commons Reform Committee was set up in this Parliament, it has reported to this Parliament, and its reports been debated in this Parliament. All its key recommendations have been endorsed by the House, including the establishment of a House Business Committee.
I am still replying to the question, although my answer may seem rather extensive.
Following the substantive decisions on changes in our procedures, the House has agreed to the Standing Orders which will allow the election by secret ballot of Chairs of Select Committees. It has also agreed to the election by secret ballots of members of Select Committees, and to a new provision enabling Back Benchers to table motions which can be not only debated but voted on. All the measures that arose from the Wright Committee’s proposals are in place.
We have tabled the changes to Standing Orders that would establish the new Business Committee—which I support—and the House has agreed that that will start when the House returns after the general election. The motions are on the Order Paper, but they cannot be passed without a debate, because they have been objected to. As I said yesterday, I consider it wrong for hon. Members who lost the vote on the substantive motion to obstruct the clear will of the House by objecting to the new Standing Orders. The House has expressed its view in principle, and the Standing Orders implement that decision. I think it wrong for hon. Members to object to that, and I think that they should withdraw the amendments that serve as an objection.
These changes are not due to become operational until the new Parliament. To put it bluntly to hon. Members and to anticipate any intervention, we are not going to propose to the House, because I do not think it is right to do so, that we sacrifice primary legislation, which can reach Royal Assent now, for the sake of a Standing Order that is not due to come into effect until after the general election. That is my position. I support this reform, I expect it to be seen through in the next Parliament—the work has been done in this Parliament—and hon. Members should be reassured that as this change has been agreed by the House, there is no way in which that genie will be put back in the bottle after the general election.
I will give way, but I am almost certain that I have answered the point and this is just a question of the hon. Gentleman’s not agreeing. I do not think that it is right to sacrifice primary legislation for the sake of a Standing Order that will not be implemented until the next Parliament in any event.
The terms of the motion, which the Leader of the House actually voted against, provided for this change to be made in time for the beginning of the next Parliament. That means that this should be done in this Parliament; it is the job of this Parliament. She accepted that when she said:
“I am under a duty and a responsibility to ensure that this happens before the next Parliament so that…Standing Orders are in place.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 986.]
Was she wrong then? Did she misspeak? Was she trying to mislead us? Why did she say that then, given what she is saying now?
Order. Just before the Leader of the House responds, may I say that I am sure that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) would want to insert the word “inadvertently” before the word “mislead”? I am sure that he would not accuse the Leader of the House of seeking to mislead the House.
I am not, either inadvertently or in a calculated way, trying to mislead the House, nor did I misspeak. What I have said is that following the will of the House being expressed in the resolution, I would ensure that Standing Orders giving effect to that will would be on the Order Paper, so that the will of the House could come into effect. That is what I have done. Hon. Members who lost the vote have put up an objection in order to stop this going through now. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we all agreed that, irrespective of whether the Standing Orders are dealt with now or after the House returns, the new House Committee would not be operational until the new Parliament. We should be ensuring that it is operational when the House gets back after the general election. My priority is to get these two private Members’ Bills and these 13 Bills through to Royal Assent; I want to get the primary legislation on to the statute book. The Standing Orders to allow the House to manage its own business can be dealt with when the House gets back. I really believe that when the new Members arrive in the next Parliament, they will find that we have paved the way for the House to organise its own business, instead of having the Leader of the House pick on behalf of the House the subjects of topical debates and the non-Government business. That is progress that the House has made. Opinion has moved on and that will be the settled will of the House when the House gets back.
Can the Leader of the House explain why we can find time to deal with two private Members’ Bills and a statutory instrument—we are likely after a long night tonight to rise around tea time tomorrow—yet we cannot find an hour, and I must say that this will not take an hour, to deal with this Standing Order? It was promised in order to give expression to the will of this House and of a Select Committee that I and many others spent the summer serving on, its having been set up by this Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend is one of the Members who have done so much to move the view of the House forward and to work out the detailed arrangements so that we can carry out our business better. That is the will of the House; it has been resolved and, as I say, the Standing Orders have been drafted. However, I do not think that he should minimise the importance of giving priority to important Bills, such as the Digital Economy Bill and these two private Members’ Bills, and leaving the Standing Order changes, which have all been drafted so are all ready to go when the House returns, until later. Hon. Members are creating the impression that somehow the plug has been pulled on reform, but that is not the case because what has happened is that the Wright Committee has made a great many proposals and the House has agreed them. That is a major step forward. Just one set of Standing Orders remains, which can safely be left until the House gets back.
I understand that this is not a difficulty of my right hon. and learned Friend’s making and that she is not responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves. However, we are in a very silly position because the House has resolved that it wants to do this in this Parliament—that is what the House has agreed—and it simply requires a small action on her part to enable it to happen. The objectors are not going to press their objections; one of them has already told me that his objection has been withdrawn. This can be done readily and easily. The House has said that it wants to do it, so I, again, ask her to ensure that we can.
If the objections are being withdrawn, as my hon. Friend has said, I would very much welcome that. Any amendment would have to be withdrawn, but then these provisions could go through on the nod. There is no doubt about that. Most of the Standing Orders that we drafted, which simply gave expression to the will of the House and put it into practice, went through on the nod. I shall check up again with the Table Office, and if all those who objected have withdrawn their objections—I think it is wrong for them to object to the House’s having Standing Orders that put into effect the will of the House—of course this can go through.
I propose that in tomorrow’s sitting the House takes the remaining stages of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, for up to one hour. The House may then go on to consider any Lords amendments or other Lords messages that may be received relating to six Bills: the Crime and Security Bill; the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; the Children, Schools and Families Bill; the Energy Bill; the Financial Services Bill; and the Flood and Water Management Bill. Up to one hour is allocated for consideration of Lords amendments on each Bill. We expect Parliament to be prorogued at the end of tomorrow’s sitting. I hope that the House will agree to this motion swiftly so that we can proceed to consider the important legislation before us.
On behalf of the Government, I conclude by thanking all the staff of the House for their work during this Parliament. I also extend my deep thanks to the civil servants across Whitehall and in my private office who support the work of the Office of the Leader of the House. I commend the motion to the House.
May I endorse what the right hon. and learned Lady said in her concluding remarks and thank all those who have worked in the House and done a fantastic job supporting us and helping us to perform our duties to the public? This has not been the most illustrious of Parliaments, but I hope that those of us who are returned in six weeks’ time can work together to ensure that the next one is better.
This could be a long day, because nine hours are programmed for debate after this debate, which can go on until 7 o’clock. That is in addition to any votes and consideration of any Lords amendments, so I shall keep my comments to a minimum. As I said yesterday, the Conservatives have taken, and will continue to take over the next few days, a constructive approach to the Bills before the House. I must say that there would have been much less to wash up had we spent less time earlier in the Session on the so-called declaratory Bills—the motherhood and apple pie Bills, which were simply press releases put into legislation. They took time away from the important Bills, some of which now confront us. We could thus have made faster progress on them.
It is of course the collective responsibility of the House to ensure that the legislation is properly scrutinised. The Government have no divine right to get their Bills on to the statute book if they have not gone round the course. Conservative Members are pleased that some of the more objectionable sections of these Bills have been removed, and I hope we can work together to ensure that the good bits safely reach the statute book. I will leave it to my various Front-Bench colleagues to pass comment on each Bill as we reach it.
Let me return to the point that took up much of the right hon. and learned Lady’s speech, but first may I respond to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith)? The Opposition have in no way obstructed the bringing forward of the Standing Orders, which is what he implied. I echo the thoughts of colleagues across the House, who are bitterly disappointed that the Leader of the House has failed to find the time for the debate on the Back-Bench business committee.
I was not implying that but genuinely seeking to learn from the Leader of the House, as it was a two-party negotiation, where the stumbling block was. The Government are clearly the stumbling point. I welcome the fact that the shadow Leader of the House seems to be committed to that proposal. Is that commitment one that he thinks he could deliver if he were in government?
I have a peroration that, if the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, will give him the answer to his question.
I was checking up on the commitments the right hon. and learned Lady had given this House. On 11 March, she said that
“it is gratifying that there were very big majorities in the House last week to resolve this matter and move forward. We have the resolutions of the House. My task now is to make sure that the House is given an opportunity to endorse the Standing Orders that will give effect to them. My mandate is the will of the House as expressed in the resolutions. We need Standing Orders to give effect to them—nothing less.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]
On 18 March she said:
“need not worry about progress being made on the proposals that we shall be going forward with. We need to complete the process of placing before the House for its approval the Standing Orders that would give effect to the resolutions of the House, and they will indeed be brought forward”—[Official Report, 18 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 975.],
and on 25 March:
“On the Reform of the House of Commons Committee proposals, we have put on the Order Paper the Standing Orders that give effect to the resolutions of the House, and we will bring those forward for approval by the House on Monday.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 380.]
She did not—she had to withdraw that commitment in a subsequent debate on the same day.
The Leader of the House has to accept responsibility. She could have found the time—an hour and a half—between the beginning of March and now to debate the Standing Orders and for the House to reach a conclusion. On an earlier occasion, because one of my independently minded Back-Bench colleagues objected to a private Member’s Bill, she tried to pin the responsibility on the official Opposition. By the same analogy, those who have objected to these Standing Orders are all members of her party and, by the same logic, she must accept some collective responsibility for the fact that it is Labour Members of Parliament who have tabled amendments that have obstructed their progress.
In a recent argument in The House Magazine, the right hon. and learned Lady declared, in reference to parliamentary reforms, “Bring it on, Sir George”. In the light of what has now happened, I am delighted to confirm to the House that that is exactly what I might have to do in a few weeks’ time.
I too am extremely disappointed that the Government have chosen not to allocate time for the completion of the reforms proposed by the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)—or at least those parts of them that the Government committed themselves to bring forward. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has just said, the Leader of the House committed herself to doing that on three separate occasions in three separate weeks. The only thing I would add to his comments is that she repeatedly said that the relevant orders would be brought before the House before the next election.
On 11 March, the right hon. and learned Lady said that
“I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]
On 18 March, she said:
“I am under a duty and a responsibility to ensure that this happens before the next Parliament so that the Standing Orders are in place.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 986.]
That is the commitment she is going back on today by saying that the completion of the work can be left to the next Parliament. That is not what she was saying in March.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is risible to hold the notion that the dewy-eyed political virgins that will descend on this place, irrespective of the outcome of the general election, will have as their raison d’être a reforming zeal rather than seeking, as all new Members do, preferment as quickly as possible? Is this not a matter that should be resolved in this Parliament, as promised?
It is important that we do what we can now. Parliaments have nicknames—the Long Parliament, the Short Parliament, the Good Parliament and the Bad Parliament—and I am afraid that the next Parliament will be the Naive Parliament. We need to bear that in mind in what we decide to do today.
The Leader of the House said that there is not time today or tomorrow to fit in these 90 minutes. Can she confirm that if the Government wanted to they could extend the wash-up period into Friday? That would give us an entire day to debate these matters. Will she give an assurance to the House that if we find ourselves, as we often do at Prorogation, with the House adjourned while waiting for the other place to complete its consideration of Bills—I am sure that that will happen—she will reconsider her decision and use that time to pass the Standing Orders? What is different about the Standing Order changes is that they do not require the consent of the other place. We can make them here ourselves without any ping-pong. That is a crucial difference between this proposal and her proposals for the consideration of Bills.
Is there not something particularly special about this? In this case, the House spoke and the House voted for something to happen. I believe my hon. Friend has a side interest as an historian of this place and I would like to ask him whether a Government have ever previously defied the will of the House in not doing what they are bound to do by a resolution of the House. They had to act when they lost the motion on the Gurkhas. Have a Government ever before been so arrogant that they have defied the will of the House in this way?
I cannot think of an example of that. I can think of examples of Governments completely losing their ability to do what they have promised to do before they fall, but not in this situation, where the Government still have a majority that they could use to fulfil their commitment.
Briefly, let me come on to what we are going to do tomorrow. The motion says that we will be considering Lords amendments and that there will be an hour for each of the Bills. Presumably that will include the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. I thought I was going to come to this debate to say that an hour would not be enough to consider a Bill of such massive importance, but it seems that minute by minute the Government and those on the Conservative Front Bench are getting together to cross out more and more of it, including the Government’s commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform and to remove the absurd by-elections for hereditary peers. I noticed that the Leader of the House was pointing to the shadow Leader of the House, saying that this was all the fault of the wicked Tories. Let me say this to the Government: it is not; it is their fault.
There is a different way forward which the Government have chosen not to take. They could have tabled a business motion in the Lords that would guarantee the passage through the Lords of the parts of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill that they are now agreeing with the Conservatives to get rid of. There are precedents for this because in 1997, when the Conservatives were last in charge, there was a business motion in the House of Lords in the wash-up period—[Interruption.] As the shadow Leader of the House says, the Conservative party at that point had a majority in the Lords. The question for the Government is why they have not tabled such a business motion and challenged the other parties in the Lords—the Liberal Democrats and the Cross Benchers—to support them on that motion. If they did that, I am sure they would get widespread support.
What I suspect is going on is a combination of two things. On the one hand, the Government are split over whether they want these reforms at all. This has always been the case with electoral reform and the Labour party. I remember as an elector receiving a letter from a Labour candidate in 1997 promising electoral reform then. Strangely, 13 years later it has not happened. This is the normal pattern, and there are reactionary forces in the Labour party that are opposed to all political reform. I am sure that is one factor. The other factor is the attempt to raise an election issue by pretending that the Labour party is in favour of reform and the Conservatives are not, when the reality is that with the right advice and the right negotiations across parties those reforms could be put through now. That strikes me as an entirely fake manoeuvre.
Those two issues—the completion of the reform of the House that was proposed by the Wright Committee, and the Government’s pusillanimous treatment of political reform—mean that although the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire was able to say that he would follow a constructive approach, both in this House and in the other place, I presume, through the wash-up, I cannot make the same commitment because my party has been excluded from the negotiations. So I am not in a position either in this House or, more importantly, in the other place to say that we will co-operate with the Government in getting their business through. Indeed, we will start that approach this afternoon by dividing the House on this motion.
The problem that has been presented by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) has been alluded to already in this morning’s Westminster Hall debate secured by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). In the limited time available in that debate, we considered some of these questions.
This issue is the effectiveness of government and who runs the House of Commons—and in turn the country. It is also about the imbalance that has been created as a result of the persistent degradation and diminution of this House’s role in relation to the Government. There is a way of describing that in relation to the mechanics of this House—it is called “the usual channels” or the Whips. Of course there has to be a Whip system, otherwise there would be chaos. People join political parties, and when they vote for those parties, using their freedom of choice at the ballot box, they have the right to expect that there will be a proper and proportionate degree of support for the causes and political objectives that they supported in the general election. But—and this is a very big but—that does not mean that there is an unconditional requirement to do whatever the Whips, and therefore the Government, want. We talk about the Whips as though this is all because of them, but it is not—it is because of the orders that are given by the Government. This is about the patronage that the Government exert and the determination and the political will of having what they want. The Prime Minister says, “I will insist upon this; I will do what I want,” and he issues the directions down through the system. That is how the Whips operate.
Sometimes, criticising the manner in which the Whip system operates—I am one who does that—does not sufficiently explain the mechanics of the use of power that is exercised, but not on behalf of the people: once a person has been elected as the Prime Minister, the question is whether he is bound by manifesto commitments. The short answer, in relation to the European constitution, for example, is quite clearly no. Obviously, when it comes to having a referendum on the European issue, the answer is also no. The real issue before us, then, is this: we have to rebalance and recalibrate the manner in which the Whip system operates in practice, and the mechanism for that is the Standing Orders. It is impossible to imagine that somehow or other there will, by the waving of a magic wand, be a change in the way the Government and legislation operate in practice, so the Standing Orders themselves will have to be addressed. As I have said a number of times in the past few months, it is essential to return power to the House of Commons and take it away from the Executive.
I have not the faintest idea whether you agree with this, Mr. Speaker, and it is not for me to suggest that you should agree to it, or whether you have any right to agree to it, as we are talking about the House of Commons and not about the Speaker. I believe that the Speaker’s role, in historical terms, is, as was said on a famous occasion, to be a servant of the House. The Speaker might therefore want to give guidance and might have his own views, but when it comes to the application of the rules, the Executive in the 1880s were given the power to determine Standing Orders. I believe that many others would agree with me if they were aware of what was going on, and would want the running of the Standing Orders to be vested in the impartial role of the Speaker himself. That would be one way of ensuring that we did not have an omnipotent Government who were driven by political will, irrespective of the freedom of choice that was exercised at the ballot box, and through the party Whip system.
It is against that background, because it is important that we get the landscape right, historically, politically and practically, that I move to the issue of the Wright Committee report and, of course, Parliament First. Like other Members present I have been a member of Parliament First, and I have said in the past that I would prefer it to be called People and Parliament First because it is about the people. This is not our Parliament; it is the people’s Parliament, but we are their representatives—another practical requirement. When it comes to the business of the House and what the Leader of the House appears to have done—I mentioned this to the Deputy Leader of the House this morning in Westminster Hall, and we still do not have an answer; she told us she was not in a position at this stage to make a declaration as to exactly what was going to happen on this business of the House motion—
I think I am being misquoted, Mr. Speaker. I said that I was not going to pre-empt the debate.
Yes, well, it comes to much the same thing. Let us not split hairs. The important question is about the proposals of the Wright Committee, Parliament First and others who have fought this battle for radical reform. We know that Select Committee Chairmen are going to be chosen by secret ballot and that, through the party groups, members of relevant Select Committees will be chosen. I think that all the Select Committees should be included, but that is a separate issue, although I note that the European Scrutiny Committee and the Public Accounts Committee do not seem to be included. Irrespective of all that, the real issue about the business committee being proposed is that the Government are not prepared to put their money where their mouth was. They said that they were going to do it, and the House agreed to do it, but they have used their control over the House—I go back to my earlier comments about their control by political will over this House through the Whips and their control of the Standing Orders—and they are bypassing decisions that have, to all intents and purposes, already been taken by the House, on behalf of the people of this country, to return the running of the business of the House back to where it belongs. This is a disgraceful betrayal of the role of the Leader of the House.
The Leader of the House made her speeches and we heard them. I took part in all those debates, as did other Members who are present today. However, her actions seem to be to do with the political will of the Government and No. 10—and, no doubt, on instructions. I have an idea that she might be more on our side than she is prepared to admit. I believe she has been told by the Whips and No. 10 to do what she is doing, which is betraying this House and the people of this country. The bottom line is that she is taking away the House’s right to have a Back-Bench business committee that would enable real power to be taken back from the Executive and given to Parliament on behalf of the people who vote in general elections.
This is about freedom of choice. It is not a philosophical question, but a practical one. People sometimes think that matters of constitutional law and practice are pure abstract theory, but they are not: they are about the exercise of power, and this is an extremely good example of a deliberate misuse of power that is a betrayal of the British people just as we are about to embark on a general election.
Moreover, the House business committee that was being discussed has simply dropped off the agenda. Unless we hear something to the contrary from the Leader of the House, this business motion is in effect a clear betrayal of decisions that were made, and of arguments advanced, in the interests of the people who use their free choice to vote in general elections. They need people like us to represent their interests in the constituencies, and that is why I take the gravest exception to what I am observing today.
I do not think I am going to hear anything to counter my fears. I am convinced that the talk about referendums on parliamentary reform, proportional representation and alternative votes is just another smokescreen that is being used to take away the British people’s right to make their own decisions. The proposed changes to the electoral system would cause votes to be reshuffled by a mechanism that would dilute freedom of choice at the ballot box.
Lloyd George was on to this. I will not repeat what I have said in previous debates, but I have had some banter on this topic with the hon. Member for Cambridge. I like him very much: he is a distinguished lawyer who knows his onions, but I think the Liberal Democrat party has slightly forgotten its origins in the Speaker’s Conference of 1911 and the 1931 election.
I set out all these matters in more detail the other day, and I shall not repeat them now, but Lloyd George was completely in favour of proportional representation when it suited him and completely against it when it did not. This is all about the practicality of power, as I have described already.
The phrase “constitutional law” is almost irrelevant when one looks at what goes on in this House, because we are really talking about the use of power. A Government can exercise power when they have gained control over the system, and it is the way they do that that is dressed up as the constitutional process.
The bottom line is that the business motion is being used to programme Bills so that we cannot discuss them. An example of that is the Government’s disgraceful behaviour with regard to the Digital Economy Bill. There may not be anything intrinsically wrong with many of its objectives, but it is wrong—in principle and in fact—for us to use truncated legislative procedures. They do not give the people of this country the sort of legislation they deserve because nothing is discussed properly.
Of course, the use of such procedures also takes away from Members of Parliamentary their incentive to be in the House at all. They know perfectly well that the vote will go according to decisions taken by No. 10, the Leader of the House, the Whips and the Executive. All the proposals on alternative voting and the attempt to introduce a greater degree of fairness—
Order. If I were a student at a tutorial being conducted by the hon. Gentleman, I would no doubt find it very satisfying, but I am seeking to chair an orderly debate. He must resist the temptation to dilate on matters that are well wide of the motion. I feel fairly confident—at least hopeful—that he might be drawing his remarks to a close, because I know that he will be sensitive to the wish of other people to speak in the debate.
I am extremely glad that you have made that point, Mr. Speaker, because I was just beginning my peroration. The point that I was making may not be Periclean, but it is certainly relevant to what is really wrong with this House—the way that it has been betrayed by those who use their political will to prevent people from changing the system or expressing their views. The same will happen again if this motion goes in the direction that it appears to be going. It is an attack on freedom of speech in this House—that is the level of the betrayal.
Following on from what the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) just said, the treatment of the Digital Economy Bill is symptomatic of what has happened to this House. It is nothing short of outrageous that, the day after its Second Reading, we will have just two hours in which to attempt to debate the remaining stages of such an important and controversial Bill.
It is simply not good enough for the Government to say that the Bill has been scrutinised by a bunch of unelected people at the other end of this building. That was what we were told yesterday, when Ministers said that everything was okay because there had been hours of scrutiny in the House of Lords. The last time I looked, it was this House that was elected. We are the ones who are accountable to constituents—despite the vagaries of an electoral system that means that the general election is already over in about 400 seats—yet we will have just two hours for debate. Many amendments will not be reached and many points will not be made, but the Government have the cheek to say that we should tell constituents during the election that we are doing a good job of scrutiny. It is a complete farce, as there are significant concerns—which I share—about measures in the Digital Economy Bill.
There has clearly been a carve-up between the Conservative and Labour parties. They are entitled to come to an arrangement like that in the elected House, but they are surely not entitled to prevent those of us who disagree with them from reaching our amendments, making our points against the contents of the Bill, and dividing the House on our arguments. The Government are determined to ram through the Bill on the penultimate day of this Parliament, in the space of two hours. It is a process that should take several weeks in Committee and at least one whole day—it should be more—on Report, when people are able to lobby.
How can we look our constituents in the eye and say that this is an accountable House when they do not even have time to lobby in favour of amendments? They are not able to do that lobbying because the amendments cannot be tabled until the Bill has been given a Second Reading.
There is no doubt that this so-called Leader of the House will go down in history as the destroyer of scrutiny. Under her stewardship, far more Opposition and Back-Bench amendments and new clauses—and indeed Government amendments and new clauses—have not been reached than has been the case with any other Leader of the House in recent history. I suspect that the same would be true for the more distant past.
Hardly any major Bill has received adequate scrutiny. The knives have been put in place after the business that needs to be reached, rather than before. The nature of the carve-up by Labour and the Conservatives to undermine scrutiny of the Digital Economy Bill is just a typical example of that.
That is why the House decided to do something about the Government’s approach. On certain points in the Wright Committee report, and on behalf of the Committee itself, hon. Members disagreed with the both Government and Conservative Front Benches and instead voted for two critical measures to improve scrutiny.
The Government keep saying, “Oh, you’ve got your Select Committee changes.” I welcome those changes, but they are not about scrutiny on the Floor of the House. The two measures that have been approved by hon. Members are, first, that a House business committee be set up in the next Parliament to enable us, as a House, to determine how much scrutiny legislation is given. That would take away from the Government the ability to ram through legislation in the way that is happening today and has happened for the past 10 years. The second measure was to set up a Back-Bench business committee. The vote in favour of the detail of that proposal went 2:1 against both of the major party Front Benches. As other Members have said, the Government are clearly defying the will of the House by not introducing those amendments. It is a tragedy that we do not have a chance to deal with them.
With the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and others, I was involved in tabling an amendment to give the House the opportunity to divide on whether time should be provided tomorrow, but the amendment was not selected. I am not able to question the selection, but I think I can say that if there had been any way for the voice of Back Benchers to be heard on these matters, the amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman, who has just entered the Chamber and is not at all out of breath, would have been selected. I think that in his selection the Speaker has been bound, on a Government day, to let the Government have their business. This is toxic to democracy in the House.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman uses the word toxic. I could not agree more—the words toxic and betrayal go together. When the hon. Gentleman says “bound” to make the decision, does he really mean “bound” or that there was some convention or Standing Order or some other thing that led to a decision that some people rather deplore?
Order. May I just say, before the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) develops his argument, I know that he will not want to be diverted from the path of virtue. The hon. Gentleman is aware that by convention the Speaker does not give reasons for the selection or non-selection of amendments. Of my commitment to this House, and the primacy of the role of Back Benchers, the hon. Gentleman need be—and I am sure is—in no doubt. We cannot get into consideration of why things were or were not selected. Those judgments have to be made, and a miscellany of factors is involved, of which the hon. Gentleman will be aware. I think we should leave it at that.
I agree, Mr. Speaker. I was not about to be led. I was not going to try to explore reasons; I just noted that the amendment was not, apparently, selected. I do not want to be drawn from the path of virtue—at least not on this matter.
I want to clarify what the Leader of the House has said, because we should not be in the position of thinking that we would get the Standing Orders. Many people might have had more fun during the last few weeks of their time in the House, not having to worry about such things, if we had not been led astray by the Leader of the House. She said that
“it is gratifying that there were very big majorities in the House last week to resolve this matter and move forward”—
move forward in this House.
“We have the resolutions of the House. My task now is to make sure that the House is given an opportunity to endorse the Standing Orders that will give effect to them. My mandate is the will of the House as expressed in the resolutions.”
The Leader of the House is right about that.
“We need Standing Orders to give effect to them—nothing less.”
I could have said that. I cannot understand how the Leader of the House inadvertently told the House something that turned out not to be true. She led us astray. I am told that by definition that is inadvertent, but I still cannot understand how she could have done it. She continued:
“Whether or not that is the case”—
that is, the concern about whether the Standing Orders were in the right shape—
“I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election.”
We are before the next election, but the record will show that the Leader of the House inadvertently said “before the next election”, when now she says that, apparently, she meant to say, “after the next election”. The House votes to do something before the next election. The Leader of the House tells us that there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse it before the next election, but then we are told that the House was not misled because it must have been inadvertent when she said that there was that opportunity.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House is the bad person in this, or whether she is just forced to do the grubby work of the Prime Minister and higher powers, but at some point she should turn round and say to the people who were pulling her strings in that case, “I am not going to do this any more. I am not going to spend my time inadvertently giving the House the impression that things are going to happen that then don’t happen.”
On the same day, the Leader of the House told me that she would send drafts of the Standing Order to everyone who had shown interest in the issue. No drafts were sent to anyone. She did not say, “I will table them. You can look at them, think about them and if you object, you can let me know.” She said, “I will send drafts.” I understood that “sending drafts” meant that we would be sent drafts, but perhaps I am being too literal and I was inadvertently misled in my understanding of the normal words that she used. She continued:
“The question is not what I supported”—
because she had not supported the detail—
“what the shadow Leader of the House supported or what we both supported; what matters is what the House decided.”
I agree. That led me and others to believe that we would have the Standing Orders in this Parliament. The Leader of the House said:
“The Standing Orders that I will bring forward in draft and consult the hon. Gentleman about”—
that was me—
“will be to bring into effect the will of the House.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433-444.]
Well, where are they? How can a parliamentarian of her experience, on three separate occasions within the space of a week, inadvertently lead us to believe that something would happen that did not happen? That is the height of inadvertence.
The Leader of the House said:
“We need to complete the process of placing before the House for its approval the Standing Orders that would give effect to the resolutions of the House, and they will indeed be brought forward.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 975.]
The business motion—
Order. It may also be inadvertence on the hon. Gentleman’s part that he is saying something that has already been said a number of times and in similar ways during the debate. He may possibly be going into rather more detail than is justified by the overall terms of the motion.
I did not think I would get through the debate without being warned and of course I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the arrogance shown by the Government in their failure to bring forward the Standing Orders justifies repetition—if there is any repetition. I accede to your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I always do. I will just say how regrettable it is that in their last week in this place, many Members who served on the Wright Committee not only see the inability to put before the House what they worked so hard for, but see it done in a way that is a betrayal of what we were told.
I see in his place the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who has always encouraged me to be active on these issues. I am grateful to him. I am his willing tool in all this, and I take the opportunity once again to pay tribute to his work in steering the Committee. I think it is sad for him that we do not get these changes in this Parliament; and I am not convinced that we shall get them in the next Parliament. I think the Government know that.
—And “University Challenge”, and probably some second-rate league tables, all give my hon. Friend the whip hand at the moment, in his eyes, but I am prepared to overlook those things. My hon. Friend’s contribution today, yesterday and over the past few weeks has been magisterial. He will be greatly missed, because it is the work of people like him that has brought to the attention of the House the Government’s failure, as shown by the business motion, to deal with some of the things that we should really be dealing with.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right on that point—within the House. The problem is that this is a direct assault on the people of this country, and the voters, as we go into a general election. We are depriving them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is incumbent on the media—including television and the BBC—to get the matter out into the arena of public opinion so that people know just how they have been betrayed?
Yes, and that was going to be my final point. I do not think the media at large understand how critical the issue of parliamentary reform is. Yes, scrutiny by Select Committees is vital, but until Back Benchers can have access to the Order Paper, the Government will run this place for their own narrow benefit. Yes, they should have their time; yes, of course they should be able to get their business before the House in a timely way, but that does not mean that they should run the House. That is what the Wright Committee said. Our last report, which set out the Standing Orders that the Government should have brought forward in this business motion, was not opposed by any member of the Committee. There was consensus. The people outside that consensus now are the Ministers. Had I been able to catch the Speaker’s eye in Prime Minister’s questions, I would have asked why a Prime Minister, who in 2007 said that he wanted to see parliamentary reform, and who set up the Wright Committee—eventually—
I was making the point that the business motion does not cover the Standing Orders that would deliver the commitment to parliamentary reform made by the Prime Minister at the outset of his premiership, and I shall ensure that I am more in order than I was earlier. The business motion therefore not only blocks the parliamentary reform that we need, but defies the will of the House, which voted by a huge majority for the Standing Orders to be in place before the election—that is the nub of the issue. The Government should be ashamed of themselves, and Conservative Front Benchers need to look closely at whether they could have done more in the negotiations to insist that the Standing Orders would be considered. I pay tribute to the work that the shadow Leader of the House has done on the issue, however, so this is nothing personal.
We made our position on the Standing Orders absolutely clear during our negotiations with the Government—[Hon. Members: “What was it?] We said that we wanted them to go through to reflect the will of the House, rather than in the amended form proposed by the Leader of the House. That was set out by the shadow Leader of the House today and in yesterday’s business statement. I assure hon. Members that we want to go with the will of the House, rather than the new version put forward by the Leader of the House.
Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman says at face value, but I regret that his position in the negotiations was not strong enough—perhaps this was not a big enough priority. Of course, it might be that the Government’s top priority was not delivering the Standing Orders under the business motion and that they were saying, “No matter what, we’re not doing that.” I fear that the business motion will mean that we do not get this reform, and that will be a tragedy for those who have worked hard for it and for the House. It will also be a tragedy for the Prime Minister, who will look foolish, given what he said. More than anything else, however, it is a tragedy for the scrutiny that the House should deliver for the people.
Until a few minutes ago, I had not intended to say anything about the motion. I was certainly taking a more benign and generous view of the situation than the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I accepted the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House that she wanted the Standing Order to be enacted but that, unfortunately, that would be difficult because a few Members had tabled amendments. However, we heard an undertaking that whoever was in government in the next Parliament, the provisions would be brought forward. Although I was unhappy, I was content to leave it there.
Yesterday, however, I wrote to the three Members who had tabled amendments to point out that I had been told that only their amendments were preventing the House from doing the thing that it had resolved to do. One of them told me that he would therefore withdraw his amendment. When I returned to my office a few minutes ago, however—I had not intended to return to the Chamber—I found a note that had been relayed to me by the office of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who is one of the amenders and, of course, a former Chief Whip. The note says:
“She has received your email. She has forwarded it to the whips office. There is nothing she can do about it. She is currently away.”
After I read that note, I ceased to be benign and generous.
This is outrageous on a number of grounds. It is outrageous that the express will of the House is being treated with contempt—I do not say by the Whips Office, but I do say by someone in the Whips Office. I had already been told that the amendments came from a single source, but we now know that to be the case. The situation not only treats the House with contempt, but treats my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House with contempt, because I know that she genuinely wants the provision to be enacted. However, by some device the House is being prevented from doing that, and if there is one thing at the heart of our proposals, it is a way of enabling the House to have more freedom of action on its own behalf, so on that fundamental ground, the position is outrageous.
While I was happy to nod all this along in a rather grumpy way, I am no longer prepared to do so. Furthermore, and more importantly, the Leader of the House should not be prepared to be treated in such a way; her credibility is on the line now. She believes in this, but some ruse is preventing it from happening. It is not her fault, but only she can do something about it.
As I said, I have stopped being rather gentle about this. I now feel quite aggressive, but that is because the House is being treated with contempt, and that is not the note on which we should end our proceedings.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the context of what has been said by the very distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), may I request some guidance about the constitutional role of the Leader of the House, as expressed by “Erskine May” and all the other authorities?
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has made a fascinating contribution. I hope that everyone will remember what he said and the atmosphere in which he said it, because he showed that there is a speciousness on the part of the Government when they say that they cannot bring the Standing Order motion above the line because amendments to it would cause the House a lot of trouble. If the motion was brought above the line, the former Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), would not be here to move her amendment, which would therefore fall, and we could go straight on to a vote on the motion. The situation demonstrates the cynical way in which the Government are operating. We must agree that there is a conspiracy on the part of the Government because the only alternative is to cast aspersions on the veracity of the Leader of the House when she said:
“I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]
Did that mean anything other than what it would mean to anyone with a basic knowledge of English? It means that the Leader of the House assured us that we would be able to vote on the Standing Orders before Dissolution.
I was not able to follow this up subsequent to my point of order, but I put it to my hon. Friend that it is traditionally understood in the House that the Leader of the House is responsible for the conduct of business on behalf of Parliament as a whole. Does he agree that this incident—whether the right hon. and learned Lady was forced into this position or agreed to it—demonstrates one thing: she has not carried out the functions of the Leader of the House as we understood them to be conducted?
I will not be tempted into attacking the character and integrity of the Leader of the House, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that it used to be a long-standing convention that the Leader of the House would stick up for the rights of Back Benchers, even if that made him or her unpopular with their Cabinet. However, that convention seems to have gone by the wayside. I recall that when the late John Biffen was Leader of the House, he made himself very unpopular as a member of the Government and with the then Prime Minister for sticking up for and performing the traditional role of the Leader of the House, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone has referred. I am sorry that the current Leader of the House is no longer here.
Is it not important to reinforce the point that it should be this House that finishes the business, because it is this House that has experienced the lack of accountability and the lack of scrutiny of the Government and wants to deliver that change, not a newly elected House that has yet to experience those failings?
Exactly. That is why we are all suspicious about what is to happen.
I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, and I did not think that his words were as strong an assurance as the words of the Leader of the House that I just quoted.
Given the appalling collusion that appears to have taken place—my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has proof positive of it—does the hon. Gentleman agree that Members who want to drive the agenda forward have no option but to vote down the business motion? Will he organise on his Benches to ensure that that happens?
If there is a Division, I shall certainly be in the No Lobby, and I hope that all those who want to stand up for the rights of Back Benchers will be there with me. The roof will not fall in on Parliament if the motion is voted down; the usual channels will simply have to get together and produce very quickly an alternative business motion—one that takes account of the expressed wish of the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his patience. Does he agree that we would not even have to go that far? The Government merely need to announce that they are prepared to table a revised business motion. If they did so, we could avoid an unseemly bun fight and an unseemly Division, and not detain hon. Members here too late tonight. We could certainly find the hour necessary in the plenty of time available on Thursday.
That intervention conveniently brings me to a proposition that I was going to make. The Leader of the House has said that the reason she is not prepared to table a motion on the Back-Bench business committee Standing Orders is that there is not sufficient time. I am the Member who tabled 15 amendments to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. I hope that, when she replies to the debate, the Deputy Leader of the House will respond to this offer, which I make publicly.
I am not part of the usual channels—not part of the carve-up—but I would be prepared to withdraw all my amendments to that Bill, thereby ensuring that we did not have to spend an hour discussing them tomorrow and that we therefore had an hour to discuss the Standing Orders relating to the business of the House and Back Benchers’ access to the Order Paper. I would be happy to give way to the hon. Lady if she thinks that that offers a reasonable way through the present impasse. We are told that the Leader of the House really wants to deliver, but is being held back; well, I am offering, in effect, one hour of time for that purpose, because I think that those Standing Orders are much more important than even the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill.
We have living proof of the need for the motion in the shambles giving no time for proper consideration. Is my hon. Friend of my opinion that never before has the House been asked to take the Second Reading of a big, contentious Bill, the Finance Bill, and Committee stage and all remaining stages of another big, contentious Bill, the Digital Economy Bill, on the same day, with lots of other business tabled as well? Is that not complete chaos?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The sad thing is that, as was said at the beginning of the debate, the business motion is based on agreement between the two Front Benches. I find that difficult. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said that there was a carve-up between the Labour and Conservative parties, but I disagree; I think there was a carve-up between the Government and the shadow Government, which is a very different proposition.
Does my hon. Friend recall the number of people—if not the precise number, certainly the volume—who guaranteed that the matters that we are now discussing should go through when there was, on the face of it, a convergence of view between the two Front Benches? The view of the House as a whole was carried by a very substantial number of Members, who may not be in the Chamber at the moment but who would be enraged by what is going on.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is sad that not more Members are present, but that is probably because many take the view that there has been a carve-up and there is nothing they can do to influence it. However, it sounds as though, even as we speak, momentum is gathering behind those who will oppose the business motion, because that is the only way of getting across to the Government the strength of feeling among Back Benchers.
Let me say a little about the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill and the relevant provision in the business motion, which I think is without precedent, although I may be wrong about that. Paragraph 14 of the motion states:
“The Order made on Friday 12 March 2010 that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill be considered on Friday 23 April 2010 shall be discharged; and, notwithstanding the practice of the House which forbids the bringing forward of an Order of the Day, the Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, shall be considered tomorrow.”
That drives a coach and horses through the conventions of the House and procedures relating to a private Member’s Bill. Many is the private Member who has made a judgment on the best day for their Bill to appear on the Order Paper; they cannot bring forward the Bill for discussion on an earlier date than the one on the Order Paper. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), in putting his Bill on the Order Paper for 23 April, was essentially indicating to the world at large that further discussion of his Bill was not going to take place.
As we are in the business of breaking conventions, perhaps the Chief Whip would like to participate in this debate and account for the behaviour of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for North-West Durham, to which the hon. Member for Cannock Chase referred.
The Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill has not been through the other House and has not completed its Report stage. If the Government wanted the Bill to have more time, they could have given time for consideration: on many days in the 10 days before the short Easter recess, the House rose three or four hours before the appointed hour. In that time, we could have discussed that and other private Members’ Bills, but the Government were against that. Going further back, I recall that the Government and Opposition Front Benchers voted down an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) that would have allowed an extra Friday for debating private Members’ Bills. Now, we are faced with the Government saying that the Bill is so important that it has to be passed with indecent haste. They are putting tremendous pressure on the other place, which will have to consider Second Reading and all remaining stages of two Bills within 24 hours, even though, I submit, there is nothing especially important about either of them.
I conclude with a point about the speciousness of the argument advanced by the Leader of the House. She said that because there were amendments tabled to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, that can be debated, but although, similarly, there are amendments tabled to the Standing Orders motion, they cannot go through. We cannot have that sort of inconsistency in the argument. It is perfectly sustainable to argue that the fact that amendments have been tabled to a measure means that the measure is blocked and should not go into the wash-up, but that does not fit in with the arguments made in relation to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill.
Has my hon. Friend noticed that there is a certain buzzing among the Whips? The hornets’ nest is now opening up. Following the remarks made by him, by Liberal Democrat Members, by some Conservative Members, and by Labour Members, particularly the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), there is a real buzz going on. Hopefully, this debate will turn into a substantial vote.
There is obviously going to be a Division. I know that at least two more Liberal Democrat Members want to speak. My hon. Friend has perhaps picked up on a feeling that the powers that be may want to move a closure motion—the Chief Whip is nodding—but one of the consequences of such a move is that it absolves the Deputy Leader of the House from having to answer any of the points raised in the debate. It is a very convenient procedural device to close down Back-Bench discussion. I will resume my seat in the hope that the Government Chief Whip, in one of his last acts in this House, will exercise some self-restraint, and will allow the other two Members who have been seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to participate in the debate. I am sure that I will be surprised.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In light of the revelations by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), I wonder whether it might be in order to move a manuscript amendment to the motion. The manuscript amendment would read,
“To add at end:
() that the motion Backbench Business (Amendment of Standing Orders) standing in the name of Ms Harriet Harman be hereby passed unamended and the Standing Orders be amended accordingly.”
The effect would be to end this debate now, to pass the Standing Order, and to allow us to get on with it.