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Points of Order

Volume 530: debated on Monday 20 June 2011

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House is only too well aware of the mess that the Government have made of the handling of the Health and Social Care Bill, but today’s Order Paper reveals that they are now outrageously and desperately trying to deny the House the right to decide whether it wishes to recommit the whole Bill to a Committee. Can you confirm, Mr Speaker, that not only would the business motion tabled by the Leader of the House specifically prevent the tabling of any amendment on the form of recommittal to the motion tabled by the Secretary of State for Health, which will appear on tomorrow’s Order Paper—for example, an amendment proposing the recommittal of the whole Bill—but if tonight’s motion were objected to, there would be no debate on recommittal tomorrow?

Is it possible, Mr Speaker, for you to prevent that from happening, and protect the rights of Members, by establishing, under Standing Order 83B, a programming committee that could meet and pass a motion today which might enable us to have a proper debate tomorrow, with amendments, by invoking one of the exceptions in Standing Order 83A to the rule that programme motions should be taken forthwith?

Can you also tell us, Mr Speaker, whether, if the motion tabled by the Leader of the House is passed tonight, it will be in order for Members to argue in tomorrow’s debate that the whole Bill should be recommitted, especially as a motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition calling for precisely that has been on the Order Paper since 24 May?

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for his point of order and for giving me notice of it. The right hon. Gentleman has raised a series of very important matters, and I think that it is important to both him and the House for me to respond to them.

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to deal with the point of order from the shadow Leader of the House? If after I have done so he remains dissatisfied, I will of course deal with any ensuing point of order.

Let me say first that the shadow Leader of the House is correct in supposing that if the Business of the House motion were objected to tonight, the programme (No. 2) motion would be put without debate or opportunity for amendment tomorrow. That is, as a matter of procedure, factually correct. The programme (No. 2) motion would be put without debate, as are all such motions varying or supplementing a programme order, unless they fall into one of the four exceptions listed in Standing Order No. 83A. The motion to be moved tomorrow is not covered by any of those exceptions, and so would ordinarily be put forthwith.

Secondly, there will indeed be no opportunity to move amendments. If the Business of the House motion is agreed tonight, the programme (No. 2) motion will be debated for up to an hour tomorrow, but no amendments may be moved. The same would apply if the motion were taken forthwith in accordance with Standing Order No. 83A. It would still be open to Members to table such amendments today to appear on the Order Paper tomorrow, but either way, under our procedures they could not be moved.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a very important question, namely whether it would be in order in the debate on the programme (No. 2) motion tomorrow to argue that the whole Bill, not just the clauses specified, should be recommitted, to which the explicit answer is yes. It would be possible to argue that more or less of the Bill ought to be recommitted, or, of course, to argue against recommittal altogether.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about the matter as a whole—and he referred specifically to the position set out by the Leader of the Opposition last month—but the House is not being asked to agree to anything that is out of order. It is for the House to decide on the motions before it. As for the particular question of a programming committee, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the Standing Order relating to such committees would apply only to proceedings on the Floor of the House, and the initial programme Order of 31 January specifically excluded the operation of a programming committee on this Bill.

Whether my response is welcome or unwelcome to different Members in the various parts of the House, I hope that Members will accept that it has been fully thought through, and has been offered on the basis of the Standing Orders of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am extremely grateful to you for your comprehensive response. The Health and Social Care Bill programme motion passed on 31 January disapplied Standing Order 83B, which relates to programming committees only in relation to consideration and Third Reading, and which does not apply to Committee stage. If that is the case, could not a programming committee bring the matter within scope by the device of now suggesting a Committee of the whole House, which would therefore ensure that, even if that Committee of the whole House were not to be agreed to tomorrow, first, there would be a debate and, secondly, we could consider amendments?

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but it is my understanding that a programming committee relates to the proceedings on the Floor of the House, and I think he is in some difficulty if he is praying it in aid in support of the proposition he has just made. If I am mistaken, no doubt I will be advised, and if he does not think that I have fully seized the gravamen of his point, he is welcome to return to it because these are important matters, but that is the best initial response I can offer.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your careful explanation of this issue, but am I right in thinking that if the Business of the House motion is objected to tonight, the Government would not necessarily have to introduce their substantive motion tomorrow and could, instead, have a rethink?

As so often, the hon. Gentleman is right. He is absolutely right that there is no obligation on the Government to introduce their motion. They are perfectly at liberty to test the will of the House, but the organisation of Government business is a matter entirely for the Government. If they want to take note of who votes which way, or decide to sleep on the matter and reconsider—I entertain no especial prospect of that happening, but it could if that is what is in Ministers’ minds—that is a matter for Ministers.

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says about a lawn tennis championship taking place not far from here, but how relevant that is to Ministers’ thinking on this matter is not entirely obvious to me. We are grateful to him, nevertheless.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the Government to seek to prevent Members from tabling amendments to a programme motion, and, indeed, in effect to prevent you from deciding whether you wish to select any particular amendment—and do you have any idea what the Government are so afraid of?

It is for the House to decide to what it agrees; that is a matter for the House. Whatever attempts may be made to persuade Members of the merits of one course of action or another, they are perfectly free to do whatever is legitimate within the procedures of the House—that is up to them—and ultimately that is then a matter for the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise to speak in support of the points that have been made, and to seek a little further clarification. I am certainly not suggesting that the Government are trying to stifle debate, but it is unclear to the House whether the Government have sought to prevent amendments to the committal motion on the Health and Social Care Bill by accident or design. Can you confirm that the Government can still change their mind today by moving the motion tonight without the last section, which prevents amendments from being taken?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman off the top of my head is that if the Government were moved by the power of his argument or the eloquence of its expression, they would be perfectly free to change their mind, and if they were so minded, they would probably do so through the conventional method in these circumstances, namely by not moving the motion on the Order Paper. If the Leader of the House, as a fair-minded man, happens to be swayed by the observations of the hon. Gentleman or others, it is perfectly open to him and his colleagues to decide not to move the Government’s motion. I hope I have made the position clear.

It might also be helpful if I say by way of clarification in response to the shadow Leader of the House that the terms of a programming committee do not apply to—do not embrace—the proceedings in a Public Bill Committee. As I am helpfully advised, the deliberations of a programming committee do not apply to that element of the proceedings. In so far as there is any different interpretation, it might relate to interpretation as to the competences of a programming sub-committee. I hope I have explained the factual position of what a programming committee is, and is not, responsible for.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not sure where this matter will lead the Labour party or others in the debate tonight, or possibly tomorrow. I am concerned, however, that this uncertainty may lead to the time protected for the Scotland Bill being eroded or eaten into, and I am seeking clarification from you or others that that will remain protected.

Well, there is a lot to be said for seeing what transpires. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a keen student of political history. Perhaps he will agree with me in this context that it is a good idea to remember the wise words of the late Lord Whitelaw. He it was who said, “As a rule, I do not believe in crossing bridges until I come to them.”

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This all started because the Government said they were going to listen. That is what it was all about. Have you stopped listening? Come on!

I fear that the hon. Gentleman, perhaps not for the first time and possibly not for the last, has taken matters a little outside my capacity to rule—

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It is precisely because the Government have listened that we have tabled the motion tonight to enable a debate to take place tomorrow. Had we not tabled such a motion, under Standing Orders the recommittal motion would have been proceeded with forthwith.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House, who I think has clarified matters very satisfactorily.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that this motion is crucial to the survival of the coalition, if the House follows the advice you gave to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), we would soon get another motion on the Order Paper, would we not?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. My response is twofold. First, the question is hypothetical; secondly, the survival of the coalition, as the right hon. Gentleman, a Member of 32 years’ standing, can well testify, is thankfully not a matter for me one way or t’other.

If the point of order appetite has been exhausted, perhaps we can now proceed to the main business.