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Business of the House

Volume 511: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2010

I beg to move,

That, at today’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Sir George Young relating to Backbench Business Committee, Election of Backbench Business Committee, Backbench Business (Amendment of Standing Orders), Westminster Hall (Amendment of Standing Orders), Topical Debates (Amendments of Standing Orders), Pay for Chairs of Select Committees, Backbench Business Committee (Review), September Sittings, Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills), Deferred Divisions (Timing), Select Committees (Membership), Select Committees (Machinery of Government Change) and Sittings of the House not later than 9.30 pm; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.

It is important that we facilitate finally reaching decisions on the large number of matters before us in the motions on the Order Paper today. That is the purpose of the motion—to enable us not to defer matters to another day, not to have matters continuing into the future.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are in a position today where we are discussing motions that will effectively exclude Plaid Cymru Members from being a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee and Scottish National party Members from being on the Scottish Affairs Committee. Additionally, there will be no room for those parties’ Back-Bench Members to sit on the Back-Bench business committee. What kind of motions are these? What is the point behind them? I urge the Minister to take them away and think them through, as these motions will not stand the test of time, and the people in Wales and Scotland will be furious when they find out.

I thank Mr Llwyd for his point of order, which is not a point of order. Sufficient amendments have been selected to allow him to make his points.

Of course, the sooner we can dispose of the business of the House motion, the sooner we can move on to the important debates on the membership of Select Committees.

I should like to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I do not think I have had the opportunity to do so previously. The point I was making is that the motion will enable us to reach decisions on these matters tonight rather than at some time in the future. It seeks to balance the time we need for debate and the time we need to take decisions on some 14 motions on the Order Paper—and, of course, on the amendments to them that Mr Speaker has selected. It would be foolish of us to take up a great deal of time debating the business of the House motion at the expense of the important debates that I know the House is eager to move on to at the first opportunity.

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It seems that north-west England is now very well represented in the Chair, which is a very good thing.

I am astonished that the Leader of the House has tabled a programme motion relating to important changes in the business of the House, given that Conservative Members argued against programme motions on many occasions when in opposition. It seems that things change.

Has my hon. Friend noticed that many of the Members who used to stand up and say how awful such motions were do not appear to be taking part in today’s debate?

That is an interesting observation.

It was right that today we were given a considerable amount of time on the Floor of the House to discuss the statement on the Saville inquiry, but it also important for us now to have adequate time in which to debate changes in the business of the House. We have already heard a point of order indicating the seriousness with which one Member takes the issue.

During business questions last week the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton), drew attention to the lack of consultation with the Opposition on the details of the changes before the motions were tabled. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House is aware that it has been customary for the Opposition to be given advance sight of proposals on House business. That happened throughout all the discussions on reform of the House and the Wright Committee, but it is a courtesy that the coalition Government seem now to have abandoned, and I regret that.

We want to move on. A large number of amendments have been tabled to the motions, and it is only right for us to have time to debate them fully.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

During the nine years that I have been in the House, I have listened to Conservative Members objecting to programme motions and guillotines as though they were the wicked invention of a terrible Labour Government. The business of the House motion lists the motions on today’s Order Paper:

“Backbench Business Committee, Election of Backbench Business Committee, Backbench Business (Amendment of Standing Orders),Westminster Hall (Amendment of Standing Orders), Topical Debates (Amendments of Standing Orders), Pay for Chairs of Select Committees, Backbench Business Committee (Review), September Sittings, Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills), Deferred Divisions (Timing), Select Committees (Membership), Select Committees (Machinery of Government Change) and Sittings of the House”.

I shall say more about the motion on September sittings later.

The changes that we are to debate will make a fundamental difference to the way in which the House operates not only in terms of the role of Back Benchers, but in terms of the representation of the minor parties in the House, and we should be given sufficient time in which to discuss these extensive motions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) that it was wrong to tag such important House business on to a major statement about the Saville inquiry—on which, rightly, many Members wished to comment, in an emotive debate that showed the House at its best—and to try to rush it through.

Many of us have recently been on the receiving end of ill-thought-out and ill-informed reform. I am sure that if we had had more time to debate the proposals of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in detail, we would not have signed up to some of the craziness as a result of which all Members in all parts of the House are suffering.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s arguments—I think that I sometimes advanced them from that side of the House myself—but is he suggesting that he would like the House to sit through the night to make the necessary decisions in the early hours of the morning?

No. As one who can remember all-night sittings, I have to say that they were conducive neither to the health of individual Members nor to the scrutiny of legislation. Let us be honest, however: the coalition has hit the ground running with reviews, commissions and study groups. The programme for the period between now and the summer recess is not exactly packed with legislation that would take up time. Unless all the various reviews, study groups and commissions are to report instantaneously, we should find more time in which to discuss the important changes that we are discussing, which will have an effect on the way in which the House operates.

Notwithstanding the genuine issues raised by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) in a point of order, which have to be discussed, would the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) at least concede that many of the motions on today’s Order Paper merely put into effect what the House has already discussed at length in the previous Parliament, on 4 March and 18 March, in respect of the Wright Committee?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady wants to disfranchise up to a third of this House, who were not here in the previous Parliament. It is important that those Members be allowed to look at the proposed reforms and have their say on them. I know that, along with her colleagues, she has signed up to the Conservative party. I thought that the Liberals were not in favour of an authoritarian approach. We see the two sides of the Liberal party.

It is important that we have debates. I served for seven and a half years on a Select Committee and am a keen supporter of the scrutiny role that Select Committees play. There are issues about, for example, the size of such Committees and the representation of the minor parties. If this is steamrollered through on a Conservative-Liberal Democrat guillotine, many people in both Scotland and Wales will rightly be annoyed.

The Parliamentary Secretary and the Leader of the House have made a very quick conversion on a short road to Damascus. In the previous Parliament, when we talked about modernisation, the Parliamentary Secretary said:

“At the moment, there is a nod and a wink between the usual channels, and then a programme motion is plonked before the House, which can take it or leave it—the answer is that we take it, because there is a Government majority in favour of the programme motion. That is not a good enough way of doing business, and it does not do justice to hon. Members.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 335.]

In the new coalition Government and in the new spirit of co-operation, or conversion, that has taken place in the past few weeks, the Parliamentary Secretary has clearly changed his mind on programme motions. It is bad enough to have programme motions, which he used to argue vociferously against in the previous Parliament, for legislation that is being introduced, but to have them for something that affects individual Members of the House is wrong.

I think that my hon. Friend will find that, even in this Parliament, in addressing an Adjournment debate, the Parliamentary Secretary still seemed to be opposed to programme motions.

That is not surprising, because the Parliamentary Secretary is a Liberal Democrat and they say one thing in one place and another in another. We are increasingly seeing—we certainly saw it at Justice questions—the push me-pull me coalition, where some Members think that they can say anything in one sphere and say something else in another.

The Leader of the House, who has been in the House a lot longer than I have, clearly was against programme motions and spoke vigorously about them. I looked up his speech to the last Conservative party conference, which took place on 5 October 2009. It was revealing. He needs to explain to the House why tonight he is a great convert to guillotine motions. He said that

“one of Labour’s worst reforms has been to introduce a guillotine motion before a bill gets a second reading, automatically cutting short the time available, before we even know how complex or contentious the issues are or by how much the government will amend them. Harriet is always there, with her knitting needles.”

No doubt he will be getting the knitting out later. I can visualise the Parliamentary Secretary knitting. I find it hard to visualise the Leader of the House doing so.

I am sorry to say that there is more. The Leader of the House went on to say in his speech:

“As a result, we send huge amounts of poor quality legislation through to the Lords. We don’t have time to do what we tell you to do—read the small print.”

I agree with the Leader of the House in that we need to read the small print of the measures we will be deciding on tonight.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way and is making a powerful speech. Will he remind the House of how many times he has voted against programme motions?

Actually, I agree with programme motions, because any idiot in opposition who argues that Government legislation can somehow be got through without programme motions should be taken out to the nearest lunatic asylum. What we are talking about here, however, is House business, which is a different issue.

I find the situation facing us a little bit galling. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, if we divide on the programme motion he may well join me in the No Lobby, and if so it will not be the first time he has voted against his party because he is an independent soul; and I am sure he will cause havoc to his party on many more occasions in the coming months and years. The important point here is that insufficient time is available to us tonight to examine in detail the complex measures that have been proposed.

It appears that we are being asked to agree to measures that raise questions as to whether we will be able to debate the issues involved again. For instance, motion 10 on the Order Paper, in the name of the Leader of the House, is on September sittings and it states:

“That this House reaffirms the importance of its function of holding the Government to account: and accordingly asks the Government to put to this House specific proposals for sitting periods in September 2010.”

Some of us were Members when the House last had September sittings, and they were a complete disaster in that there was never any business to debate. Frankly, it was just a public relations stunt, which might have made some people feel good—[Interruption.] There is no need to worry, as I am not going to debate September sittings; I shall return to the subject under discussion shortly.

There is a question to be asked, however. If we agree to this motion tonight, will the Government then allow another debate on what is being proposed, because the motion seems to give them carte blanche to impose September sittings? If we agree to the motion tonight, we will need to have a debate on September sittings in Government time. If that is not allowed, we will be denying something that is stated in the motion, in that we will not be reaffirming the importance of the

“function of holding the Government to account”.

Instead, we will in effect tonight be giving the Government a blank cheque to do exactly what they want in September, and that cannot be right.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the business statement of, I think, the week before last, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said he would propose the first two weeks in September this year as September sittings for this House, and that he would bring forward a motion to that effect for the House to vote on? Motion 10 does not seem quite to do what was suggested on that occasion.

No, I think that first of all we need to have a debate on whether we should have September sittings at all, because some of us think they are a complete waste of time. Last time, they descended into farce, in that we had two weeks of basically Opposition day after Opposition day and endless pointless debates.

Order. The hon. Gentleman does now seem to be going quite wide of the mark, and to be addressing the substantive debate. I therefore ask him to restrict himself to the particular motion under discussion.

I will do so, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the important point is whether or not we have a debate and vote in Government time on the Floor of the House, and what the constraints on that will be. Will we be able to propose alternative September dates, because no doubt some new Members and others will have fixed holidays? What will the motion actually mean, therefore?

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a true understanding of the costs and of what those sittings cost in the past?

Order. That is way outside what we are talking about now. I ask hon. Members to restrict themselves to discussing the motion before the House.

I will, Mr Deputy Speaker. Not for the first time, my hon. Friend has tried to lead me down a path that I do not want to go down. I would shudder to incur your ire so early on in your time in the Chair. If we are to have a situation where the reforms that have been proposed actually will give Back Benchers and all the Opposition parties the chance to provide scrutiny and will give the power that the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) supported when he was in opposition, we need more than the debate and time that we will have tonight. Therefore, I will oppose this motion. Ample time will be available to us between now and July, unless the plethora of commissions, working groups and others report back and bring back legislation, and it is important that we do not rush through these things tonight and that we can address the serious issues that have clearly been raised by the minor parties in this House tonight.

I was listening with great agreement to the Deputy Leader of the House’s comments about the need for this programme motion in order for us to be able to come to a decision. We do need to come to a decision tonight and we do not need to defer any questions. What troubles me is that the points made by the minority parties are not being addressed today, so it is clear to me that on those issues we will be deferring a decision. It seems absolutely wrong that the minority parties should not have appropriate representation on the Regional Committees. They should also be entitled, as appropriate and in appropriate numbers, to representation on an appropriate number of non-regional Committees. So I hope that we will be able, at some stage, to come to a decision on that too. Irrespective of whether it happens today, we need to give all parties in this House an appropriate degree of fairness.

The point that has just been made is extremely important. It is richly ironic that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was parading in front of us today expressing concern that there is a guillotine on House business. This was, of course, a long-echoed and genuine call made by many Conservative Members in the previous Parliament, and one that I have made in respect of not only House business, but all business for 25 years. So consistency is certainly not behind the hon. Gentleman, but he did make some fine points. I feel strongly that the way of these guillotine motions, which I had hoped would not be in the locker of the coalition in this way, on House business, is wrong. One of the constant irritations in having so many motions grouped together in this way and then having a vote at the end is it results in our having a general debate that has no coherency in the thread of what we are debating. This is a poor business motion because as each of the motions comes to be voted on after 9.30 pm we will have lost where we stood in the arguments—this is a muddle. A typical trick of past judgments was to muddle all this up, so that no theme and no argument is consistent, necessarily, with the business as we vote upon it.

That is part of the point that I was making. A discourtesy was shown to the Opposition because the motion was not shared with us. I would have expected our main debate to be segmented. In the past, if we were considering several House business motions, we would have given an hour on one, and perhaps taken two motions for an hour and half—[Hon. Members: “No.”] That is the case; I remember it happening. If there had been any discussions with us, we could have suggested such an approach.

Of course the hon. Lady could have held discussions. I know that those on the Government Front Bench are open to discussions, and if the hon. Lady had thought that her point was genuine—I accept that it must be, given that it is the point that I am arguing—she could no doubt have spoken to them. She represents a significant party in this country.

I would not refer to the hon. Gentleman as a constant irritant; his approach on such matters is obviously consistent. However, if the motion is pressed to a Division, will he vote against it? Will he also consistently speak against programming, as he has done since I have been a Member?

I will vote as I have always voted on these matters. However, given the temper of new Labour’s opposition, as on identity cards, I rather suspect that there will not be a vote, but I am prepared to toss a coin and do my duty.

The Deputy Leader of the House has made all the arguments that I am setting out on previous occasions, so I am surprised that he has acceded to the motion. I am making an important point about the segmentation of debate. The approach proposed in the motion causes confusion. Many Members with a terrific interest in a particular motion that we will consider will be drifting around. The approach makes it easy for people to desert the Chamber to go off across London, and to return only at 9.30 pm to become part of the machine that will roll the proposals through.

The hon. Member for North Durham has a point in that we rarely discuss such matters and the House has a record of constantly using the power of a majority to get this sort of proposal through. He made the good point that about a third of hon. Members—certainly more than 100—are new Members who have never been party to such discussions. The changes that we will consider are important. I support almost all of them, although my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) made a point that must be addressed. If our debate was segmented, his well-made point would command our attention and we would see how wrong it is to exclude properly elected Members of Parliament for distinctive parts of the United Kingdom from having representation on Committees that are of importance to the House, and whose importance is intended to be reinforced by the very measures that we will consider.

This business of the House motion is poor, so if it is pressed to a Division, I shall think carefully about what to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) did the House a great service by raising his points, although I am not sure whether he intended to. He set out one of the strongest arguments that I have heard for a Back-Bench business committee. We on the Back Benches—he now joins us there—should elect our own people to decide how our time is carved up. The argument about segmentation made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) is right, but if we had a Back-Bench business committee, we would be able to discuss such considerations sensibly. It is always the Government who impose such rigidity on us, and that is why we are talking about creating that committee.

That might be the case, but several hon. Members will remember that when my hon. Friend was a Whip, he took quite a hard line on such issues. Given the limited time that is being allocated to the main debate, does he agree that there is a danger that some of the motions will not even be debated?

It is very unfair of my hon. Friend to raise my history. I am a recovering Whip; I am taking one day at a time. I think that I am doing pretty well so far, and with his encouragement, I will continue to try to do so.

The important and serious point raised by this exchange is one that every Member in this House must confront: there is a limit on time in this House and this Chamber. How do we dispose of that time effectively? We can guillotine. That is a pejorative term for a stop on debate, regardless of what has been debated, and what important issues have not been debated at all.

Programming was introduced in 1997; I was instrumental in that, so perhaps I was not quite as barbaric a Whip as my hon. Friend tried to paint me. We tried to introduce a system whereby we had agreement across the Floor, and with the minority parties, on how we would divide business, so that it could be sensibly debated, and so that no serious issue was ever left undebated. Unfortunately, that fell apart—this may be a useful history lesson for the newer Members—when a number of Opposition Members wanted to extend and play around with the rules of the House. A number of senior Government Members said, “Okay, we’re not going to play. We’re just going back to the old system of imposing a timetable.”

I hope that we will have a sensible debate on timetabling, and if the Government will not allow us to have one, I hope that the Back-Bench business committee will create one at the very first opportunity. It is outrageous that while vast amounts of time are expended on clause 1, line 1, we never reach serious issues in the midst of Report stage. Those are really important matters. In a sense, that is the elephant in the room, and the issue that we need to confront. I hope that, some day soon—at an early day, perhaps, if early-day motions are tidied up—we can have a debate on how we ensure effective timetabling. If the Government do not ensure that, the Back-Bench business committee probably will. I hope that it will. In order to do that, we need to make progress this evening. We have to ensure that the business of the House motion is put to the vote speedily and move on, so that we can get that long-awaited Back-Bench business committee, which was voted for by the House unanimously before the general election.

I should like to make two or three brief points, because I, too, want the business of the House motion to be dealt with quickly.

I served on the Wright Committee with a completely open mind, and I hope that I did an honest job of work. The point was to try to ensure that everybody in the Chamber was properly represented on Committees. I have been a member of one or two Select Committees, and I am a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee. We Plaid Cymru Members are prepared to pull our weight as parliamentarians, but I was alarmed to discover late last night that the likelihood is that if the motion on Select Committee membership is passed unamended, we shall find ourselves not represented on the Welsh Affairs Committee. It is not just that that is offensive; it is more important than that.

The Welsh Affairs Committee plays a central, pivotal role in the legislative process in Wales, because it carries out pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills from the National Assembly for Wales. We are in government in Wales. Are the Government saying that we, as members of a governing party, cannot be represented on the Committee performing that important function? I understand that my friends in the Scottish National party will be excluded in a similar way. It is quite outrageous if that is to happen.

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene and clarify matters? [Interruption.] I shall speak to my colleagues. If motion 13 is not to be moved, I shall move on to the issue of the Back-Bench business committee. When I was on the Wright Committee, I made the point several times that the minority parties must be represented on the Back-Bench business committee as well, because we play a full part in what goes on in this place. I am in my 19th year here, and if I did not pull my weight, I would not still be here.

Order. I know the hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but it is not one that should be made in the debate on the motion before the House, which is a programme motion. Will he please confine himself to the motion before us?

We should have more time to discuss all these issues. One of the evils that we are now confronting is the fact that there has been no discussion. Chairs of Select Committees are not being brought into the discussion, and least of all are the minority parties. I speak for my colleagues and friends in the Scottish National party and, I believe, the Democratic Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) raised the point that the new Back-Bench business committee will have supernatural powers to unpick decisions. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that even if time is found in a future debate to discuss the issues that he mentions, we may have a debate in the House that wafts over many subjects, but does not change what has happened?

That is a rather pessimistic view. I thought the purpose of the Wright Committee was to make changes. I believed that when the motions came before the House a few months ago, we were on the way to making proper changes. We fell short—we did not get it all—but at least we moved forward. From the perspective of the minority parties, we are now moving backwards. I shall say no more at this stage, except that if the motions go in the way that they will, it is because of a lack of consultation. There has been no proper discussion, and I am disappointed because I have great respect for the Leader of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary.

With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly to the excellent debate on the business motion.

I shall deal first with the important point made by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), which touched on the point of order from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). It is essential that we find a way of allowing the minority parties to play their part properly in the Select Committee system. It may be helpful to the House to indicate that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will not move motion 13 this evening, because we need to talk further about this.

Unfortunately, the proposition and the amendments that have been tabled are not helpful to the hon. Gentleman in securing what he wants. Indeed, the amendment to which he put his name would have prevented the minority parties from having a member on the Select Committees that he wanted. That shows that it is important that we discuss the matter further, and make sure that we get the right result.

I cannot go into detail at this point because we are debating the business motion and I would be out of order. The hon. Gentleman may wish to raise the point with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

No. I think we have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) spoke about our position on programme motions. I say gently to her that there may be a world of difference between a programme motion intended to prevent Members reaching a conclusion or even debating important matters of legislation, and one intended to help the House reach a conclusion on a matter that we have been debating for a very long time. That is a real difference, which she ought to appreciate. I hope that that partially answers the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd).

The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) made an extremely important point—that if we secure the agreement of the House this afternoon to the changes, never again will it be for a Minister to determine these matters. It will be for the Back-Bench business committee to decide its own business, and that is as it should be.

The hon. Gentleman has not yet answered the point about the lack of consultation. The mess that Government Members have got themselves into this afternoon could have been avoided if there had been more consultation with the Opposition and the minority parties.

I do not accept that there has not been consultation, that the motions were not tabled at an early stage, or that we have not been talking about this subject for months and months and months, nay, years. I note that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Kevan Jones) says that today is not appropriate for discussing the matter, but I note also that the previous Government never found a day when it was right to take a decision on these essential reforms. Today, we are going to put that right. Today, we are actually going to reach some decisions and open up the business of this House to the control of Back Benchers, where it belongs. I hope that we will now proceed with that.

Question put.


That, at today’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Sir George Young relating to Backbench Business Committee, Election of Backbench Business Committee, Backbench Business (Amendment of Standing Orders), Westminster Hall (Amendment of Standing Orders), Topical Debates (Amendments of Standing Orders), Pay for Chairs of Select Committees, Backbench Business Committee (Review), September Sittings, Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills), Deferred Divisions (Timing), Select Committees (Membership), Select Committees (Machinery of Government Change) and Sittings of the House not later than 9.30 pm; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.