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Leader of the House

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 3 March 2011

The Leader of the House was asked—

Backbench Business Committee

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee on means for that Committee to receive representations from hon. Members. (43619)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House meets regularly with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee to discuss a range of issues relating to Back-Bench business. My right hon. Friend and I have attended meetings of what he calls the Backbench Business Committee’s weekly salon. We have been impressed by the work of the Committee and the quality of presentations by hon. Members.

With all the non-legislative debates being transferred to the Backbench Business Committee, does the Deputy Leader of the House recognise that hon. Members will want to make representations for more parliamentary time to be allocated to Back-Bench business, particularly given its popularity since its introduction?

It is important that we get the right balance in the House between legislative business, which is the proper business of the House, and the debates that the Backbench Business Committee organises on behalf of the House. The Wright Committee made clear proposals on how we should allocate time to the Backbench Business Committee, which the Government have followed. The days have been transferred and I think that it is working extremely well.

I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on attending Tuesday’s Backbench Business Committee meeting. Will he make it clear to the House that the Committee can allocate only the time given to it by Her Majesty’s Government, and that the days on which Back-Bench business takes place are decided on entirely by him and the Leader of the House?

It is the business managers who allocate the days that are made available, but that is done within a framework by which the number of days is allocated according to a formula, as the hon. Gentleman knows and the House understands.

Further to that answer, the Deputy Leader of the House is aware that the 35 days allocated to Backbench Business Committee debates at the moment is a minimum number, so given the popularity of those debates, will he increase that number from 35 to many more?

At the moment, the hon. Lady’s Committee has 15 days of the allotted 35 days left, so we have not yet reached the allocation. There would not be a need for a change to Standing Orders to allocate more if it seemed appropriate to do so, but I stress again that for the system to work—I think it is working very well—we have to get the right balance between legislative time and time for other debates. We often hear calls for more time for Committee and Report stages of Bills, and we have to be aware that that takes time as well. If we restrict the number of days available for scrutiny of Bills, it restricts the opportunity for Back-Bench Members to have their say on legislation that is passing through the House.

Given the level of interest in Back-Bench business, does the Deputy Leader of the House think that the time has now come to allow Members to make representations in public by having questions to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee on the Floor of the House? Does he agree that that would have two advantages? It would raise the Committee’s profile with the public, who may well have issues that they would like to see debated, and it would allow the Leader of the House to concentrate on requests for the use of Government time instead of having to refer many bids to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), as he does at present.

As I said earlier, the public sessions that the Committee holds are extremely effective. As I heard on Tuesday, when the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) was unfortunately not chairing the session—it was elegantly chaired by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—they give people the opportunity to expand on the case that they wish to put. We are going to move to having a Committee for all business of the House, and we will then need to consider seriously the arrangements for the business statement and how we deal with business sessions, to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to bid for time in an effective way.

Committee of Selection

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chair of the Committee of Selection on the operation of that Committee. (43620)

I have occasional discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on the work of his Committee. The House’s arrangements for the appointment of Select Committee members and Chairs have been significantly strengthened by changes introduced at the beginning of this Parliament.

Having spent the last month doing my best to scrutinise the Localism Bill, I find it quite remarkable that hon. Members with specific expertise or knowledge can be prevented from serving on particular Bill Committees by the Committee of Selection. In May 2009, the Prime Minister said:

“There are far too many laws being pushed through, with far too little genuine scrutiny from MPs.”

Does the Leader of the House agree with those comments, and will he explore ways to make the Committee stage of Bills more open and effective?

I welcome the important work that the hon. Lady is doing on the Localism Bill. It quite often happens that there are more people wishing to serve on a Public Bill Committee than there are places available, and the Committee of Selection then has to make difficult choices. In light of the exchange that took place at business questions a few weeks ago, it has revisited its procedure and believes that it was correctly followed in the case in question. I believe that the Committee and its Chairman will always be open to discussing how it works with Members of all parties.

As somebody who is currently serving on the Health and Social Care Public Bill Committee, may I just—I apologise, Mr Speaker, I will have to sit down.

If my hon. Friend was going to say that there is not enough medical expertise on that Public Bill Committee, I say to him that I have looked at its membership and seen that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is on it, who is a specialist registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) is a public health expert and a former chair of Rochdale primary care trust, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) served as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, so it seems to me that there is adequate medical expertise on that Public Bill Committee. Indeed, if anyone on the Committee were feeling unwell, they would be in very good hands.

Given how the Committee of Selection was used in recent Parliaments by the previous Labour Government as a means for keeping Select Committees in what is euphemistically known as “a safe pair of hands”, has the Leader of the House made an assessment of the functioning of those Committees under this Government, when members and Chairs are elected and not selected?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I was a member of the Committee of Selection when the Labour Whips tried to deselect Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from the Select Committees that they had chaired with magnificent independence. It was partly because of that outrageous performance that this Government moved towards the Wright Committee recommendations. I am delighted to say that the new procedure is working very well, and that Chairs of Select Committees have an independence that they did not have before.

Question Time

3. What recent representations he has received on the consequences of the timing of Question Time in the House for the conduct of Committee business; and if he will make a statement. (43621)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has received no specific representations on this issue, but he and I are happy to receive such representations from Members. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Procedure Committee is looking at the issue of sitting hours, and he may wish to contribute to that inquiry in due course.

I am a firm believer that Question Time and statements should be in prime time, and that Committees should not meet at the same time. We have a classic example of that not happening today. We will have a statement at 3 o’clock despite the fact that the Order Paper states that “Ministerial Statements (if any)” will take place after 11.30 am. Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why people such as me—I am serving on the Education Bill Committee today at 3 o’clock, on a three-line Whip—will be unable to come here to participate? Why has that happened?

First, Committees as a rule do not meet during Question Time in the Chamber, but obviously, it is not always possible to avoid a clash with statements. However, the same applies to consideration of Bills and all other business. Hon. Members sometimes have to make difficult choices on their priorities.

On the timing of business today, it is very important that, on one of the rare occasions when one of the minority parties has an Opposition day, we do not take up all the time available to it with a statement. That is why you, Mr Speaker, chose 3 o’clock today as an opportunity for that statement.

Voting Advice (Publication)

4. If he will bring forward proposals to provide for the publication in the Official Report of advice given by Government business managers on voting by hon. Members. (43623)

In virtually every Division in the House of Commons, Members of Parliament do not make up their own minds how to vote, but are instructed by dark forces. The Deputy Leader of the House is a great parliamentarian who believes in transparency. I urge him—no: I beg him—not to go over to the dark side. Let us throw light on that advice and publish it.

I know that the business managers sometimes give advice on voting, and that they sometimes express a degree of eagerness that hon. Members might attend on a particular day and vote in a particular way. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman has never felt desperately constrained by that, although I am impressed that on no fewer than eight out of 10 occasions during this Parliament, he has supported the Government, which may come as some surprise to those on the Treasury Bench. He obviously takes very seriously the advice he receives, but I am not sure that placing such matters on the Order Paper adds value to it.

Parliamentary Questions

5. How many questions for oral answer printed in the Questions Book Departments have subsequently transferred during the present Session of Parliament. (43624)

Information extracted from the House’s Parliamentary Information Management Services database indicates that a total of 46 oral questions have been transferred this Session.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House look at a particular oral question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for answer by the Minister for Women and Equality? He asked about the equality impact of pensions policy and how men and women are treated differently in that respect. The question was selected for oral answer and was transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury. However, the equalities impact element of the question has, as far as I can see, never been answered.

I am obviously concerned if the hon. Lady feels that a question has not been answered. It is for Ministers and Departments to determine which Department has responsibility for a particular question. As she knows, the transfer of questions has happened for a very long time. It is important that when a question is transferred, it is done promptly—an oral question should be transferred within 24 hours of it appearing in the notice paper, not of the day for answer, and it is a discourtesy to the House and hon. Members if they are not notified of that transfer. However, if she would like to give me further details of a question that she feels has simply not been answered, I will happily look into it.

Daily Prayers

6. What recent representations he has received on the practice of the House of holding daily Prayers in the Chamber. (43625)

The holding of daily Prayers is primarily a matter for the House. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House responded to a question for written answer from the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on 10 February, and the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) raised the matter during a debate in Westminster Hall on parliamentary reform on 3 February.

It has been suggested in debate that Prayers should either be abolished or moved from the main Chamber on the grounds that they take up a valuable three minutes of our time. Will the Deputy Leader of the House reject this notion, and say that, whatever one’s religious views—or lack thereof—apart from the fact that they are beautiful poetry, what is wrong with meditating on things other than politics for three minutes a day? Anyway, our wonderful Chaplain does them very beautifully.

I know that many right hon. and hon. Members value the few moments that the House spends in prayer at the beginning of each daily sitting. I repeat that I do not think that it is a matter for the Government; it is for the House. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will have heard the point made by the hon. Gentleman.