I beg to move,
(1) there shall be no sitting in Westminster Hall on Tuesday 20 March; and
(2) this House shall sit on Friday 23 March.
On Tuesday, the House agreed to a series of Adjournments up until January 2013, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House set out in the business statement on 9 February. I think the whole House will agree that it is for the benefit of the House that Members, staff and the House authorities are given as much certainty as possible of recesses, as far in advance as possible, to enable the effective scheduling of hon. Members’ other work and major work projects in the House, among other things.
If passed, the motion will achieve two things in relation to the forthcoming business of the House in March. First, it provides that there will be no Westminster Hall business on Tuesday 20 March. It will not have escaped Members’ notice that that is the date scheduled for the attendance of the two Houses on Her Majesty in Westminster Hall for the presentation of Humble Addresses, as my right hon. Friend announced in the business statement on 19 January. I am sure Members will recognise the need to suspend regular Westminster Hall sittings on that day, which is entirely in line with precedent.
Secondly, the motion provides that the House will sit on Friday 23 March. That proposal was announced in the business statement on 9 February, together with our reasoning that it would allow the continuation of the Budget debate while still providing time for the Backbench Business Committee to schedule a debate on the day before the recess had it wanted to, as has been past practice.
My hon. Friend is making the Government’s position clear. Will he confirm to the House that all dates announced are always provisional? The House agreed to the dates set for Adjournments on a “forthwith” motion, which could not be debated or amended. This debate is therefore the first opportunity that we have had to debate and amend a motion.
Obviously, “forthwith” motions can always be objected to if hon. Members have problems with them. I assume from the silence when that motion was moved that there were no objections. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that all future business is always provisional until we get to the point at which it is no longer provisional, and it is open to the House to change its mind. However, I say again that it is very helpful to have some certainty, not only for Members, who have busy diaries to arrange, but for the staff of the House, who will also wish to make arrangements. I believe it is good practice to try to provide that certainty as far as possible.
I understand that my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) do not entirely share what I had hoped might be a consensus on the matter. They have tabled amendments showing plainly that they do not share that consensus and we will discuss them today. I also note the point of order made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on Tuesday. He was very keen to make his point then, but perhaps not so keen to make it today when we are actually having the debate. His absence will be regretted by everybody. He clearly felt very strongly about the motion but is otherwise engaged today.
The Opposition sought to amend the motion on Tuesday in order that the House would sit on Wednesday 28 March. Let me make it plain that the Government are not opposed to sittings on Wednesdays, but the proposal for the House to rise on Tuesday 27 March was announced when the calendar was last issued in October 2011. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough made the point that the calendar is always provisional because it is always subject to the progress of business. But my point, again, is that the Government are conscious that we have announced recess dates and Members and staff will have made arrangements for the Easter recess. It would now be inconvenient, at least for some, to change them.
I have heard reports that the Opposition—laughably in my opinion—are accusing the Prime Minister of running scared from Prime Minister’s questions, which is a triumph of hope over experience on their part. They say that that is why we have scheduled the Friday and not the following Wednesday. As I said, that is an entirely laughable proposition and it is totally without basis in evidence.
I have had the benefit of considering the evidence and it might help if I enlighten the House on it. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House perhaps alluded to some of this information in business questions. The frequency of Prime Minister’s questions per sitting day has risen in this Session compared with the last Session of the previous Administration, so there is no reasonable accusation that we are manipulating the calendar so that there are fewer Prime Minister’s questions sessions.
It is also true that the current Prime Minister is turning up to Prime Minister’s questions more often than his predecessor, who was absent from the Dispatch Box for Prime Minister’s questions twice as often as the current Prime Minister has been. We know the record of the previous Prime Minister—I think I coined the expression “McCavity” to describe him, because where there was trouble, he was always somewhere else—but nevertheless, for the Opposition to suggest that the current Prime Minister is avoiding his commitments is absolute nonsense. The Prime Minister has made more statements to the House per sitting day than his predecessor and has spent more than 30 hours at the Dispatch Box in so doing. He takes his responsibilities to the House very seriously, and I am afraid I have very little time for claims that are posturing nonsense of no substance whatever.
It might be helpful if I inform the House that there is a precedent for the proposal to sit on a Friday to allow the continuation of the Budget debate before a recess. We do not have to delve too far back to find it—it happened under the previous Government, during my period in the House and that of many right hon. and hon. Members, on 11 April 2003, just nine years ago and a passing moment in the time scale of Parliament.
During points of order on Tuesday, the hon. Member for Rhondda, who I again note is not yet in his place, asked what business may take place on a Friday sitting and specifically about statements and urgent questions. As we know, the Government rightly remain accountable through statements and urgent questions on a sitting Friday, but we have not the slightest intention of changing Standing Orders to allow for oral questions on that day, which would require wholesale changes to the rota. That is entirely in line with precedent, including under the previous Administration—on Friday 11 April 2003, in similar circumstances, no oral question session took place. It is a wonder that the hon. Member for Rhondda, having been a business manger in his time, now takes a very different view of what should happen in the House from that which he proposed from the Dispatch Box previously.
Amendments (a) and (b), tabled in the names of the hon. Members for Kettering and for Wellingborough, would establish sittings in Westminster Hall on Monday 19 March and Friday 23 March. There is a problem with this and I ask the hon. Members to address it if they speak to their amendments. In the absence of any other changes to Standing Orders, it would fall to the Government to nominate business in Westminster Hall for those two days. There are colleagues of mine in government who might appreciate the generosity of these amendments from two notable members of the Backbench Business Committee. They have obviously recognised that, at the moment, the Government have no control over the time allocation in Westminster Hall, and wish to correct this anomaly.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right that everybody would be very happy, but the fact remains that the Backbench Business Committee, of which he is such a distinguished member, now has responsibility for scheduling debates on those days. If his amendments were successful, these days would not be available to the Committee, so it simply could not be done under the terms of the Wright Committee proposals. That is the sadness of what is obviously a well-intentioned thought on his part. The Standing Orders get in the way, and we are as bound by the Standing Orders as any Member.
I am surprised that the Deputy Leader of the House would struggle to think of suitable business to take up the time in Westminster Hall on either the Monday or the Friday were the amendments to be passed, because today in business questions 37 subjects were suggested for debate. I am sure that the Government could pick from that huge list two or three suitable topics on which the House could hold the Government to account.
I am sure that we could, but that would be to return to the dark ages when the Government decided what was debated in the House, rather than the Backbench Business Committee, and I do not want to do that. I am a great believer in the Backbench Business Committee and in the need for us to continue making progress towards a House business committee in due course. I do not want to return to the time when the Executive decided what the House could debate. The idea that Ministers should retake possession of Westminster Hall and decide what the House should debate on those days on the basis of their prejudices and requirements rather than of what is properly decided by the Backbench Business Committee is wholly retrogressive. So I will hold firm to the principle behind the Backbench Business Committee and the Wright Committee reforms that we have put in place. I certainly do not think that we should move away from that principle without the benefit of a more thorough inquiry.
The Procedure Committee recently reported on new and inventive ways in which Westminster Hall could be used. It is absolutely right that the House, in the future, be given an opportunity to consider those proposals in more detail. There are colleagues in government who would be delighted to take up the hon. Gentlemen’s suggestion of giving more power to the Executive, and at some point a Minister from the Dispatch Box might ask for their support and would be grateful for it when that time comes. But it will not be this Minister on this day.
No, because I was being entirely speculative, and idle speculation is not something that we should indulge in from the Dispatch Box, as the hon. Gentleman will readily recognise. As I have said, my view is that we must keep to the reforms that we have put in place and not move backwards.
I am struggling to identify the principle that the Deputy Leader of the House is purporting to uphold, because he is effectively telling the House that it is better for the Government to scrap completely a day’s business in Westminster Hall than to decide what business should take place on an alternative day.
I have to say that days are scrapped in this House for all sorts of reasons. However, as a matter of fact, we sit more often, and as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, we have provided a huge range of opportunities—more than before—for Members to have their say. However, there are times when the House is not sitting—when public holidays occur, for instance—and we do not automatically say, “Well, we’ll sit on the Sunday, because the Monday is no longer available.” Instead, we look at the calendar of the House as a whole and we ensure that there are ample opportunities. The principle—I will set it out again—is that the Executive should not decide what happens in Westminster Hall. That is the position that we are in, and to move away from it without careful consideration of why and how we should do so would be a mistake.
I know that the hon. Gentleman recognises the progress that we have made. He is trying to ensure that the Government are properly held to account, and he is absolutely right in that, as is his hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough. He will recognise that the Government have already introduced elected Chairs of Select Committees, Back Benchers having control of the agenda through the Backbench Business Committee and extra time for the scrutiny of Bills on Report—all things that improve the scrutiny of Ministers by Back Benchers. That is absolutely right, and the balance has genuinely shifted towards Parliament and away from the Executive. I want to maintain that.
The hon. Member for Kettering and his colleague are putting forward proposals with the best of intentions, and I understand that. However, I do not think they are either necessary or desirable at this point, although I am certainly prepared to go away and listen to the points that they make and consider how we can best accommodate proper scrutiny, as I always have done. I commend the hon. Gentlemen on the spirit of their amendments; equally, I will ask the House to reject them if they are pressed. I have set out what the purpose of the House should be in agreeing to the motion before us and in rejecting the amendments. I commend the motion to the House.
The motion before us gives the Government the opportunity—or the right—to table the extra day’s debate required for the Budget. In tabling the motion, the Government had a clear choice: they could have extended business to Wednesday 28 March, but instead they have chosen to extend it in the preceding week, to Friday 23 March.
The first point to make about today’s motion is that it clearly illustrates the Government’s incompetent management of the business of the House, in that it was only last October—when it was absolutely known that the Budget statement would be made on Wednesday 21 March—that the recess from Tuesday 27 March was determined. The incompetence of the Government, in being unable to arrange their business in the required time for the debate on the Budget statement, is staggering. The fact that we have to be here today, debating and putting right the Government’s incompetence and their mistake in timetabling the Budget business, is staggering. However, even given the situation that they are in, the Government have not decided to put the start of the recess back by one day, but have, in effect, chosen to go for a Friday sitting.
Given the Government’s incompetence in scheduling business, there is a further question that begs to be answered. Why are they not making the more obvious choice of extending the business to Wednesday 28 March? Is it because the Prime Minister does not like being held to account in this Chamber? Is he trying to avoid Prime Minister’s questions? The evidence is crystal clear. An analysis of recent parliamentary recess dates shows that the House of Commons has risen on a Tuesday, rather than the more usual Thursday, on 63% of occasions since the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) became Prime Minister.
It has to be said that the previous Prime Minister faced up to his global leadership responsibilities in the face of the biggest recession in this country for 60 years, unlike the present Prime Minister, whose global leadership involves standing on the sidelines and walking away from negotiations. Our previous Prime Minister played his part and led the world in showing the way out of the previous crisis.
This Government’s unwillingness to be held to account is becoming more apparent by the day. First, they rushed through the Commons a number of highly controversial pieces of legislation in the early days of this Parliament, denying this Chamber the right to proper scrutiny of their provisions.
That is not necessarily the case. What we are discussing today is the need for competent scheduling of the business of the House, rather than last-minute motions on the Floor of the House as a result of the Government getting themselves into a hole in regard to the time they have allowed for debate.
The Bills to which I have just referred are now bogged down in the Lords, with the detested Health and Social Care Bill alone requiring more than 1,000 Government amendments so far. Furthermore, we have Ministers regularly ignoring the rights of this House over important announcements about Government policy. Many Members will recall the occasions on which it has been necessary to point out to the House that a Minister has yet again briefed the media, before briefing the House, on an important matter.
Now, we have a Prime Minister who will apparently do almost anything to avoid being held to account at PMQs. The House is therefore entitled to ask why the Prime Minister is so reluctant to account to his peers for his actions. This is, after all, the man whose self-confidence led him to say, live on air, “Bring it on!” when asked in 2009 whether he was looking forward to the general election. This is the man who wanted to “Fire up the Quattro”, and who gave voters the clear impression that he was a man who meant business and knew what he was about.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is another reason for my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) finding it impossible, on occasion, to get to the Dispatch Box. He gave global leadership in the credit crunch, and he trusted his deputy. Whether this current Prime Minister trusts his deputy is open to question.
All the evidence suggests the opposite of what we have heard, and that our Prime Minister is a leader who cannot get his facts straight and who is increasingly running scared of being held to account on the detail of his Government’s policies. With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will illustrate this point with examples. Let us take, for instance, what the Prime Minister claimed only the other week:
“The proportion of police officers on the front line is up”.—[Official Report, 8 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 295.]
That is a misleading claim, if ever there was one. Of course, his reference was to the proportions of front-line officers rather than their overall numbers. Thus, where perhaps 12 front-line officers were assisted in their work by six support staff, there might now be only six front-line officers and only two support staff. The proportion would be higher, but the number of front-line officers would have been cut by 50%. In the end, the Prime Minister will not be able to continue to defend the line that front-line policing is being protected when budgets are being cut by 20%. About 16,000 police officers are likely to lose their jobs, and the Prime Minister knows that he will be called to account for that at Prime Minister’s questions.
The Prime Minister has, of course, already been called to account at the Dispatch Box by the Leader of the Opposition for his Government’s disastrous Health and Social Care Bill. Only yesterday, we witnessed in this Chamber the Prime Minister thrashing around, desperately trying to trade insults and to deploy soundbites in an attempt to deflect attention from his unpopular and unwanted top-down reorganisation of the NHS.
Two weeks earlier, just before the recess, the Prime Minister claimed at Prime Minister’s Question Time that 100,000 more patients are being treated every month. It was possible to make that claim, however, only if one compared May 2010 with November 2011. If one compares May 2010 to May 2011 and November 2010 to November 2011, one finds that the figures are, in fact, static. Equally, the Prime Minister claimed that there were 4,000 extra doctors since the election. That is true, of course, but it is not something that he can take credit for. After all, it takes between five and seven years to train a doctor and the extra numbers are therefore a legacy of the previous Labour Government.
So there we have it—a Prime Minister who knows that his cavalier approach to answering the questions posed to him by this House is under pressure, who knows that his slapdash approach to Prime Minister’s questions is being increasingly exposed, thereby revealing him and his Government as incompetent and not up to the task of taking this country through the very challenging times in which it finds itself. No wonder this Government want to avoid Prime Minister’s questions wherever possible. It is the one occasion every week when the spotlight is on everything they do, and they increasingly worry that they will be found wanting. In the interests of accountability and democracy, we oppose the motion.
With this it will be convenient to take the following:
Amendment (b), at end add
‘, and there shall be a sitting in Westminster Hall between half-past nine o’clock and two o’clock.’.
Amendment (c), at end add
‘and, notwithstanding the decision of the House of 21 February, on Wednesday 28 March.’.
I give notice that I shall endeavour to press amendments (a) and (c) to a Division, so the Whips can get on their BlackBerrys and signal the troops that their presence in the Chamber will be required later. I do so more in disappointment than anger because I thought that the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House were bigger men than this. On this occasion, much against their normal form, they have shown a lack of imagination and a lack of innovation. Although they do a tremendous job for this House, it is at times like this that we gently need to remind them that they are the Leader and the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, and that they are here to represent the interests of Back Benchers as well as those of Her Majesty’s Government. On occasions such as this, there is a simple solution to ensure that the accountability of Government is maintained.
The Government motion proposes
“no sitting in Westminster Hall on Tuesday 20 March”.
The reason for that is entirely understandable. Her Majesty the Queen is coming to Westminster Hall on that day to celebrate her diamond jubilee, so it is entirely appropriate that normal sittings in Westminster Hall should be cancelled for that day. No one has any argument with that. What the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House should have proposed, however, is the rescheduling of that lost parliamentary time at some other point in the parliamentary calendar, because effectively some of our precious parliamentary air time is disappearing. My amendment (a), supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—to whom I must say a huge thank you—suggests that that air time should be replaced on the previous day, Monday 19 March, while amendment (b) suggests Friday 23 March as an alternative.
Westminster Hall is an important part of parliamentary procedure. The Leader of the House and his deputy have previously told the House that they support it and feel that it does a valuable job, and evidence from the Table Office supports that. The hard-working, diligent, capable, lovely, kind people in the Table Office have told me that they receive an average of some 60 to 70 applications a week for Westminster Hall time from Back Benchers, that there can be as many as 150, and that the number never falls below 40. What better evidence could there be of the popularity of Westminster Hall among Members? Effectively, however, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House are denying Back Benchers the opportunity of a day’s debate there.
We heard the Deputy Leader of the House suggest that the real problem was that the Government did not want to dictate what was debated on Monday. Is there not a simple solution? The ballot could proceed in the normal way, the listing for Tuesday could be provided, and the Government could then accept it and transfer it to Monday. That would help everyone out.
I am most grateful for that suggestion.
When I flagged up the issue during business questions earlier today, the Leader of the House said that the Deputy Leader of the House would provide a powerful response to my amendments during his speech. I do not know whether the Deputy Leader of the House left his notes in the Leader of the House’s office, but his contribution certainly did not constitute a powerful response to the amendments, which I found disappointing. This could have been the occasion for the establishment in the Chamber of a new doctrine, the Heath doctrine, to celebrate Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. The Heath doctrine could have stated that whenever a sitting in Westminster Hall is cancelled for understandable reasons, the parliamentary air time must be replaced by an alternative sitting. The Deputy Leader of the House would have been applauded by Members on both sides of the House, and I am disappointed that he did not choose to grasp that chalice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough is right: there are all sorts of innovative ways in which the Government could overcome the difficulty of allocating the time. If we accept that, as the rules stand, it is up to the Government to decide what debates take place, the Government could say, for example, to the Speaker’s Office through the Table Office, “We must allocate this time, but will you invite applications from Back Benchers to fill the slot? We will then take your recommendation for filling the time appropriately.” That would have been the imaginative and innovative solution that I would expect from our two colleagues, and I am sorry that they did not think of it.
There is no shortage of potential debates in Westminster Hall. Only today, we heard 37 Back Benchers call for debates on a range of subjects: cosmetic surgery, north-east regional strategy, the Royal Bank of Scotland, drought and the national water grid, the Olympics, working tax credits, youth unemployment, music exports, Syria, international women’s day, elected mayors, design patents, directory inquiries, high streets, defence procurement, work experience schemes, unemployment in the north-east, business in the community, the Backbench Business Committee, arms exports to the middle east and north Africa, apprenticeships, local heating schemes, music licences in public places, bans on protest marches, the economy, education and manufacturing, employment law, Professor Ebdon, job clubs, small and medium-sized enterprises in retail, manufacturing, energy companies and their customers, and the efficiencies of police services. That is just the list for today; I am sure that in most weeks many further requests are made to the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House.
Representations to the Backbench Business Committee continue to flood in, too. There is a long list of outstanding issues for which it has not been possible to allocate any time, simply because the Government have not allocated the Committee sufficient time to be able to debate them. When the Backbench Business Committee was established, we were promised that it would get 35 days per Session. The gentleman’s agreement—to use a sexist phrase—was that that would, in effect, be 35 days per year. This Session lasts for two years, however, and although I am not a great mathematician, I believe that the Backbench Business Committee should therefore be allocated 70 days for the discussion of issues Back Benchers wish to raise, but today’s Order Paper reveals that it has been allocated only 53 and a half days, and we are about to go into March. It appears that we will fall well short of that 70 total, therefore. Some of these outstanding issues could be scheduled for debate in an extra day in Westminster Hall. That would go some way towards dealing with the large number of issues that have come before the Committee.
Amendments (a) and (b) are reasonable measures intended to preserve the power of this Chamber to hold the Government to account and to allow Back Benchers on both sides of the House to raise constituency interests and concerns. Even at this late stage, it is not too late for the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House to have what was called this morning a Pauline conversion and to say, “Yes, this is a good idea from the Members for Kettering and Wellingborough. We wish we had thought of it, but we’re going to be charitable because we know that these two fine gentlemen have the best interests of the House at heart. We will support amendment (a).” If they were to say that, no one would cheer them louder than my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and me.
Amendment (c) would allow for an extra sitting day on Wednesday 28 March. That is a separate issue from the rescheduling of Westminster Hall time. It is, in part, to do with the issue raised by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) about Prime Minister’s questions, but not for the reasons she suggested. I think the Prime Minister does extremely well at PMQs. It is an occasion when the great British public tune in to see Parliament at work. If we ask our constituents whether they watch any of the parliamentary television coverage, most of them will say that they do not, but most of those who say they do will watch PMQs. It is a regular half hour each week that people know is worth watching for information, news and, frankly, entertainment. The great British public look forward to Prime Minister’s questions and I think that, just on the basic level, it is a shame that the nation and the House is denied an opportunity for Prime Minister’s questions, regardless of who the Prime Minister is and of which party is in power, because it is a great British occasion. It is a shame that by having the Adjournment on the Tuesday, we do not get Prime Minister’s questions on the Wednesday.
On a partisan point, I take completely the opposite view to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), because I think that the Prime Minister does extremely well at PMQs. I understand her point of view—she thinks he does particularly badly—but these differences are what makes for good debate and for the sense of occasion. I suspect that the Prime Minister enjoys Prime Minister’s questions and that he will be disappointed that he is not able to come here on that Wednesday. I suspect—this will doubtless be written down and used against me at some future point—that the Prime Minister is being given bad advice. I do not know whether it is coming from the Leader of the House or the Government Chief Whip, but someone is telling him, “Look, it would be a good idea to have the Adjournment on the Tuesday, so that you don’t have to go through all the hassle of Prime Minister’s questions on the Wednesday.” That is bad advice, wrongly given, and I suspect that the Prime Minister is disappointed that he will not have the opportunity to address the nation on that day.
On a serious level, all this does mean that the nation goes without Prime Minister’s questions for a month when it need not do so. According to the Government’s timetable, the last Prime Minister’s questions before the recess will be on Budget day, Wednesday 21 March, and the next Prime Minister’s questions will take place on the first Wednesday when Parliament comes back—Wednesday 18 April. So for almost a month the nation will be deprived of Prime Minister’s questions. Will the wheels come off the country, will the nation stop working and will everything grind to a halt? No, of course that will not happen, but there is no need to have a month between Prime Minister’s questions. We are talking about the Prime Minister of our country, and it would be a good precedent—perhaps this could be the Young doctrine—if the sign-off note before entering a recess were the Prime Minister answering questions from hon. Members in this House, to set the nation off for the recess. Would that not be a wonderful parliamentary occasion?
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case about PMQs. Will he acknowledge that the Prime Minister will be absent again on the week prior to 21 March because of a visit to the United States, so we will have the pleasure of the Prime Minister’s presence and responses in PMQs in only one week out of five?
I did not know that, and I am most grateful for the helpful intervention. No doubt the nation will be disappointed by that. I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House will relish the opportunity to see how the Deputy Prime Minister performs, and that may well make for a rather more entertaining Wednesday in that particular week. I am making a genuine point when I say that there is no need to have a month’s gap in between hearing from the Prime Minister, given that we could have a new Young doctrine that says that it is important for the Prime Minister to sign off on the Session before the recess starts.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, but I wish to take issue on one matter. I hear from the Prime Minister almost daily in the media, in one way or another. We will not be deprived of the Prime Minister. He may not be in PMQs, but he is most definitely available and speaking to the nation much more often than PMQs occur.
Of course my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kettering—[Hon. Members: “Beckenham.”] What did I say? [Hon. Members: “Kettering.”] I am sorry. I know Beckenham very well and I am very pleased that my hon. and gallant Friend is the Member for it. I am delighted by his intervention and he is absolutely right in what he says. It is an echo of the debate we had on ministerial statements, in that so much of our political life in this nation nowadays is conducted not in this Chamber, but in the 24-hour news media. Of course anything that the Prime Minister or any Minister says on a TV channel is not subject to scrutiny by elected Members of this House. The important thing about Prime Minister’s questions, and one of the great privileges of our great British democracy, is that we have the opportunity once a week to question for half an hour the most powerful individual in the land. That is a very important and, I would suggest, cherished part of British political life. It is a huge shame to dismiss that by having an early recess so that, effectively, it does not take place. That is my simple point and I suspect that the Deputy Leader and Leader of the House agree with it, but I am very sad that they are not prepared to take it up.
The other point about losing the sitting Wednesday is that other things happen on sitting Wednesdays as well as PMQs. The rest of the House is in operation and we are talking about losing yet another day in Westminster Hall—yet another day on which a series of Back Benchers’ debates will not take place. Effectively, although I know Select Committees can sit when the House is in recess, it will mean another day on which Select Committees are not sitting and scrutinising the business of Departments. There are other knock-on effects from this House not sitting on a Wednesday.
By moving amendment (a), I want to tell the House that we have the opportunity to establish two new doctrines in commemoration of Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee: the Heath doctrine, which will say that whenever a day’s sitting in Westminster Hall is cancelled it will be replaced by an alternative day, and the Young doctrine, which will say that just before the House goes into recess there should be Prime Minister’s questions on that Wednesday to send the nation off on a happy note. I suspect—and hope—that the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House are big enough men to take up that challenge and establish those doctrines, but we will see whether that is true in the Lobby later.
It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who made a most excellent case that has probably already persuaded the Deputy Leader of the House to agree to the amendments. The danger of my speaking, of course, is that I might dissuade him. Now we are to have Heath time and Young time, the Deputy Leader of the House might have to consider declaring an interest in the debate.
I start by congratulating the Government on doing something that we never saw under the previous Government. Whenever these motions on the sittings of the House came along and were opposed, they used to be objected to at 10 o’clock at night and rather than arranging a debate, the then Government tabled them night after night, hoping that we would not turn up to object. Of course, we did turn up every night and eventually they had to give way. The Government have seen straight away that they needed to give the opportunity for this debate and they have done so very quickly, albeit on a Thursday when there are not normally many Members about, which could have meant that they risked losing the debate. Then I realised that this is a House matter, so they would not possibly be considering putting a Whip on. I have had an electronic message saying that we are suddenly on a three-line Whip, but that must be a mistake and I dare say that the Whip will disappear to change the whipping any second now. I am making a serious point, however, and I am very pleased that the Government have allowed this debate. I want to speak briefly about the three amendments, but I should say at the very beginning that I have had a text message from Thomas and I must make it absolutely clear that he regards the Deputy Leader of the House as a goodie.
The Government are absolutely right to put the extra day on Friday 23 March. I agree entirely, as it makes eminent sense that the Budget debate should run consecutively, so I welcome and support that decision. It also makes a great deal of sense, because of the timetable of the Budget debate, to have that debate on a Friday.
I also take the opportunity to thank the Government for the introduction of the Backbench Business Committee; they were instrumental in setting up one of the greatest movements towards parliamentary democracy for a very long time. Having said that, there is the issue of the Westminster Hall sitting, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) referred, to address. It is a scrutiny day and its loss denies people the right to a debate. I have to say that the Deputy Leader of the House’s argument that the Government would have to choose the topics was a little hard to swallow. Some people do not think that Westminster Hall is a very important Chamber or that the debates in it are important. I absolutely disagree. Westminster Hall debates are equally important as those in this Chamber. Indeed, I often chair Westminster Hall debates and I would argue that debate in Westminster Hall is better.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech, as usual, to which I am listening with close interest. Perhaps one reason why there are not more Members in this Chamber to hear this debate is that there is a packed Westminster Hall debate taking place on cycling campaign being run by The Times’s . Does that not illustrate the point about the power of Westminster Hall and the importance attached to it by hon. Members?
I am grateful in one way for that intervention. The only problem is that that was exactly the next paragraph in my speech. Westminster Hall will now be packed with people discussing cycling. That was close to being the lead story in a lot of media outlets this morning, so the suggestion that Westminster Hall is not important from a national point of view is incorrect.
Let me give another, more personal example of how important Westminster Hall is. More than two years ago, the Speaker graciously granted me a Westminster Hall debate to discuss a constituent of mine—a five-year-old boy who was suffering from a very nasty cancer called neuroblastoma. Due to red tape, he was not allowed to enter a trial that could have increased his chance of survival from 20% to 70%. To cut a very long—and unfortunately continuing—story short, the excellent Health Minster at the time, Ann Keen, turned up to that debate, listened to the argument and went away and sorted the problem out. That little boy then got treatment on the NHS in Germany. I believe that if it had not been for that Westminster Hall debate, that little boy would not have got that cancer treatment. So, the loss of a Westminster Hall day could be very damaging.
In amendment (a), Monday 19 March is selected as a day for the relevant Westminster Hall sitting. That would be a suitable day because it is close to the day we are losing on Tuesday 20 March. Also, the House will be sitting on that day, so it will not inconvenience Members in any other way. On 26 May 2009, our excellent Prime Minster, who was then simply the leader of the Conservative Party and was about to embark on a very successful election campaign, produced a speech called “Fixing broken politics”. Anyone who does not have it should really get it and have it on their wall. It tells how Parliament is going to be transformed and many of the things in that speech have been done. There are one or two other things that are still to be sorted out, but we are getting there. In that speech, he said:
“The House of Commons should have more control over its own timetable, so there’s time for proper scrutiny and debate.”
That is what we are arguing about tonight. I think the Prime Minster put his point across perfectly and I could not agree with him more. By moving the Westminster Hall sitting, we would be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s desire by allowing Back Benchers to have a say in the timetable. We would also be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s desire for more and proper scrutiny of government. As we all know, Westminster Hall is one of the best places to scrutinise the Government on a particular issue. Therefore, if we move the Westminster Hall sitting, rather than cancel it, the House will definitely benefit.
I am fully aware, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, that there is no precedent for Westminster Hall to sit on a Monday, but by being the first Government to have a Monday sitting, we would really show the House and the public that the Executive are determined to be scrutinised and to put Parliament first. That would be an extension of what the Government are already doing and it is quite appropriate and right that it should be called the Heath doctrine. I remember that when the Deputy Leader of the House and I sat on the Opposition side, he had rather similar views to mine. I do not know why, but sometimes when Members move to the other side of the Chamber their priorities and judgment are affected. He could show that that has not happened to him and we could have this wonderful doctrine.
I understand that there is a problem with Mondays because, according to the rules of the House, the debate would have to start at half-past 9 in the morning, which might make it difficult for Members from further away to attend. That is why I also support amendment (b), which would put the lost Westminster Hall day on the Friday when the House is already sitting for the Budget debate. Members would already be here and therefore would not be inconvenienced. Of course, all the arguments we have made for not losing the Westminster Hall day apply equally to that Friday. If the Government do not want to accept amendment (a), I think amendment (b) would do the trick and I would be happy for it to be made.
I do not want the Deputy Leader of the House to worry that he would lose the title of Heath days, because there is no precedent for Westminster Hall to sit on Fridays, so that, too, would be a new and good way of putting Parliament first. One of the concerns I have heard is the difficulty of getting Members to turn up on extra days, but of course only the Members interested in the matter being debated need to turn up for Westminster Hall and there are no Divisions, so it is not the case that everyone would have to come along.
I will concentrate on what I think is the main amendment, amendment (c). In essence, it would make Wednesday 29 March the final sitting day before the Easter recess. We have heard the argument that it should be a Wednesday so that we can have Prime Minister’s questions. When the previous Government avoided sitting on a Wednesday, I argued from the Opposition Benches that it is essential that Prime Ministers are scrutinised as often as is practically possible, because the House does not sit for a full year and there are huge gaps, and I still argue that now that I am on the Government Benches. If we have the option of breaking up on either Tuesday or Wednesday, let us make it the Wednesday. If Members want to call that Young time, I am more than happy to agree.
I heard the argument that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) made about not having the Prime Minister here. The idea, from an hon. colleague, that the Prime Minister turns up so often because he does not want the Deputy Prime Minister to answer questions—I mean, how far-fetched can she get? When the Deputy Prime Minister speaks at the Dispatch Box, he sounds to me like a Tory, and we should hear more of that. Actually, it would be a very good idea for the Prime Minister, even if he was available on the Wednesday, to step aside so that the two deputies could have a go. I think everyone in the House would enjoy that.
I will come now to what I think is the most important and serious part of the debate. It is a slightly complex issue. The Backbench Business Committee, which has been given the Tuesday for Back-Bench business at the end of term, has allocated it for a debate on assisted dying. We have done that because we recognise that assisted dying is an important matter that the whole House should vote on, and on a free vote—I am sure that all parties will have a free vote. We also wanted to give notice of the debate so that Members who are interested could prepare for it. It is not a debate that we can have the following week, as we need time to prepare for it. The usual channels had promised us a date in March so that we could tell people when there would be a debate on assisted dying, but we were not given a date.
We were in a dilemma. How could we give a future date for a debate on assisted dying so that Members could prepare for it? The only date we could possibly give was the end of term, 27 March, but by doing so we had to get rid of the Hollobone day—the pre-recess debate on the new format, in which Ministers come along and answer groups of Back Benchers. Many Back Benchers who do not normally speak in the Chamber speak on those days about important constituency matters. So we had to decide, should we have the Hollobone day or the debate about assisted dying? We felt that we had to have the debate about assisted dying, and that was the only way we could schedule it, on a fixed date in March, and give people the notice that they deserve, but we were conscious that we would lose the end-of-term debate, which many people think is important.
So the solution is to make Wednesday the last day of term. It would be a Back-Bench business day, and we could have the pre-recess Adjournment debate then, too. We would have Prime Minister’s questions and then the Adjournment debate, and the advantage is that we would not only get to scrutinise the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister, which any parliamentarian would want, but let Back Benchers raise issues that were important to them, with a Minister or, sometimes on those occasions, a Whip responding to the debate.
That is why on this particular occasion, amendment (c) is very important. The Deputy Leader of the House did not address it in his speech, perhaps because he had not thought or did not know about it, but now that I have explained it I hope that he will accept it. If he does, we will not need to press amendments (a) or (b), because the great advantage of amendment (c) is that it also involves a day on which Westminster Hall sits. There would be none of the problems to which he refers, because it would be a normal sitting day, and the Backbench Business Committee or the Speaker would be able to allocate the debates.
The Deputy Leader of the House and the Leader of the House have done much to improve parliamentary scrutiny; I genuinely mean that. On this occasion, without any detriment whatever to the Government, we can move Parliament forward, so I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to support at least amendment (c).
I shall make a short contribution to this debate. In so doing, I very much welcome the Government motion, particularly the part that states
“this House shall sit on Friday 23 March.”
By putting forward the motion, the Government have reinforced the case for the House working a five-day week. You will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that many years ago we used to work many more Fridays, which were not just the exclusive domain of private Members’ Bills. Indeed, I remember whole-day debates on Fridays about issues such as road safety. If that precedent operated now, instead of the debate about cycling taking place in Westminster Hall as we speak, it could take place on the Floor of the House, in the main Chamber, on a Friday.
By re-establishing the principle that it is perfectly reasonable and, indeed, desirable for the House to work a five-day week, the Government will, I hope, think more in terms of sitting on other Fridays when private Members’ business will not have precedence—Fridays, for example, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, when there would not be any votes but when many Members would want to participate, as they will on the Friday during the Budget debate. That important precedent should be welcomed.
Amendment (c) would make the motion even stronger, as sitting on Wednesdays is important, not least because we have the chance to hear the Prime Minister responding to questions. Sadly, the contribution by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) from the Opposition Front Bench, was designed almost to turn us off the idea of supporting the amendment. We do not need the amendment to hold the Prime Minister to account; it reminds us of how we got into this situation in the first place.
We used to have the Budget on a Tuesday. It would inevitably unravel—this was a Labour party Budget—during the course of the afternoon, and then the Prime Minister would have to answer for the Chancellor’s failings on the Wednesday. The former Prime Minister Mr Blair decided that that was all far too embarrassing, and moved the Budget to a Wednesday so that he had a whole week before having to answer to the House for the unravelling of his right hon. Friend’s Budget. We cannot go back this year, because Her Majesty is coming to Westminster Hall, but in future years the Budget should go back to a Tuesday, with the opportunity for the Prime Minister then to make telling points about it on the Wednesday.
Notwithstanding the specious justification put forward by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge for supporting amendment (c), I shall support it for different and more reasonable reasons.
With permission, I will respond briefly to some of the points that hon. Members have raised. First, let me say that I absolutely bask in the approbation of Master Thomas Bone. His views on who are goodies and who are baddies now represent the signal sign of respect across the country, and I am very pleased to know that I am a goodie.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) about the importance that we as parliamentarians should attach to sittings in Westminster Hall. I regularly hear people speak as though a debate there was a second-class debate, as though it was beneath them even to appear there to speak to a motion that mattered to them, and as though the House was disrespecting the issues that are debated there. Nothing could be further from the truth. Until this House recognises the value of Westminster Hall debates and, indeed, debates that are now held here in time allocated to the Backbench Business Committee rather than in Government time—until we understand the esteem of those occasions—we are doing ourselves a great disservice.
I would like to add to what the hon. Gentleman has said about Westminster Hall. I have just been over there myself, and an absolutely huge debate is taking place about safe cycling campaign of The Times. In fact, it is virtually standing room only, even for Members who wish to participate. That is a serious debate that demonstrates that Westminster Hall can be a very good place to have important debates.
It can indeed, with the one proviso being that the debate must be on a matter that does not need resolution by a Division at the end. Yesterday, I heard an excellent debate, which I sat through in its entirety, on the very sad issue of Kevin Williams and the events in Sheffield those many years ago. It was a superb debate, with every contributor making extremely valuable comments, and yet some were also moved to say that it was a shame that it was not taking place in the Chamber and that the Government—despite the fact that it has nothing to do with the Government—had chosen to put it on in Westminster Hall. That is a very unfortunate way of expressing things because it gives the public the idea that matters of huge concern to them are somehow devalued by being debated by parliamentarians in Parliament in a place where, yes, matters are not subject to a decisive vote, but some matters one would not expect to be so.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Wellingborough referred to the use of the debating time immediately before the recess. He knows that I relish my involvement—others may not—in pre-recess Adjournment debates. I sometimes feel that I have rather more speeches to respond to than I have time available, but that is a different matter. Those debates are clearly valued by Members of the House. I hope it is a tradition that we can largely keep to, but I entirely understand the reasoning that the Backbench Business Committee has applied in this case.
As regards the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I am glad that the hon. Members for Wellingborough and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) entered a reservation about having Westminster Hall debates on a Monday morning. Those of us who live a little further away from Westminster would find it rather difficult to get to those comfortably as well as being in our constituencies at the weekend.
In moving the amendment, the hon. Member for Kettering mentioned what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in business questions earlier and asked me to be powerful in my advocacy of the case. I think the Leader of the House said that I was required to be not powerful but coherent and compelling. It certainly is not for me to decide whether I have been coherent or compelling; the vote will determine that in due course, so let us see.
The thrust of what the hon. Member for Kettering said is that there are huge demands on time in this House. Of course he is right. There has always been great demand for time by Back Benchers who have matters that they wish to debate, and there has never been sufficient time on the supply side to meet that demand. Even if the House were to sit in continuous Session, it would not cope with the demands that are expressed every week at business questions, which are so ably answered by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
I have worked out what it would take to give a proper debate to each of the 51 topics raised in business questions this week. Of course, different topics are raised every week. We would need to more than double the time that we sit in this House each week. Does anyone think that is practical? Does anyone think we could double the time that we sit each week? There probably are some people who think that is practical, but most people understand it is in the interests of Members that they sleep occasionally and in the interests of constituencies that their Members sometimes visit to hear what real people have to say about real things, rather than simply spending their time in the House. I think it would be impossible to meet the demand.
The question is how we can reasonably limit the demand and provide time. If we are going to change our arrangements, we should not make it up as we go along. We need to come to a properly considered view, taking into account all the pros and cons, as we have done previously when we have changed the Standing Orders. I simply do not accept that bringing forward an ad hoc suggestion without the benefit of Standing Orders, in the way that has been suggested, is the right way to proceed.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough said that this House should have more control over its own timetable. I absolutely agree with that, and that is what we have given it. However, I do not think it encourages the House to be sensible in the use of its time if we ask it to reverse on 23 February a decision that it made on 21 February—to say on the Thursday the opposite of what it said on Tuesday. I therefore think that we should reject that proposal.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) talked about incompetence. I will point out incompetence: incompetence is the Opposition not being able to tell us until a day before what they will discuss on an Opposition day, when they have had weeks to prepare for it. She said that the reason the previous Prime Minister was so frequently away from Prime Minister’s questions was that he was going around the world saving it. I am not sure that we all recognise that description.
The hon. Lady said that the Leader of the Opposition enjoys Prime Minister’s questions. I can see that he might take some comfort from being surrounded by well-wishers, all desperately hoping that he will do better than the previous week, with the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) willing him forward and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) looking at his successor with avuncular charm. All those things might spur the Leader of the Opposition on to another of his relaunches—the man has been relaunched more often than the Padstow lifeboat. However, it is the purpose of the House not to give those opportunities to the Leader of the Opposition, but to ensure that Ministers are held to account. This House sets out its business in a proper—[Interruption.] Oh! Isn’t it wonderful? The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who had such strong views about this business earlier in the week that he raised a point of order, has arrived one minute before the vote to say something from a sedentary position.
I commend the motion to the House. I ask it not to engage in ad hoc changes to our Standing Orders by accepting the amendments. I hope that we will always ensure that the House has adequate time properly to scrutinise the affairs of Government.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment proposed: (c), at end add—
‘and, notwithstanding the decision of the House of 21 February, on Wednesday 28 March.’—(Mr Hollobone.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Main Question put and agreed to.
(1) there shall be no sitting in Westminster Hall on Tuesday 20 March; and
(2) this House shall sit on Friday 23 March.