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Business of the House (11 July)

Volume 547: debated on Thursday 5 July 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That at the sitting on Wednesday 11 July—

(1) the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions relating to Sittings of the House and September Sittings not later than two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first Motion; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; the Questions may be put after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply; and

(2) notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business), the Private Business set down by the Chairman of Ways and Means shall be entered upon at the conclusion of the backbench business on that day, and may then be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours, after which the Speaker shall interrupt the business; the business may be entered upon after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Mr Heath.)

Before hon. Members go home, they might wish to interest themselves in whether we have Divisions after 7 o’clock next Wednesday, or whether we should arrange our business to ensure that any Divisions are before or no later than that time.

The motion is highly relevant to that question and perhaps I can elucidate its implications. The first part of the motion puts a timetable on the length of the debate on the eight motions on the Order Paper relating to sittings of the House and September sittings. We might find that, in addition, amendments to those eight motions are tabled. I do not know how much interest there is among Members of the House in the subject, but it would be premature to curtail the debate to two hours. Why is it not possible to trust hon. Members to debate sittings of the House for as long or as short a period as they think is reasonable, having regard to the issues and the Procedure Committee report?

My first concern is that the first part of motion 4 limits the debate on the motions relating to sittings of the House and September sittings to two hours. In business questions today, the Leader of the House said that, immediately after debates on sittings of the House, there will be a debate on a motion on VAT on air ambulance fuel payments, which is one of the debates we were hoping to have today, but was squeezed out by the change of business. The motion is supported by a very large number of right hon. and hon. Members and there is a lot of interest in it, so I anticipate that the debate will last for up to three hours, which was the original time allocation. However, I would have thought that the motion would not cause controversy, and that the House would not divide on it.

Under today’s business statement, we could have the first debate on the sittings of the House, followed by a three-hour debate on VAT on air ambulance fuel payments, and then, under the terms of the second part of motion 4, a three-hour debate on private business. Under Standing Order No. 20, on time for taking private business, traditionally and by convention, there has been a three-hour slot allocated to private business, so that the hon. Members concerned with it know exactly where they stand—what the issues are, and when the debate will begin and end. There is quite a lot of subject matter in the private business set down for Wednesday, and I would have hoped that it would be possible to debate it during the time normally set aside for it, namely between 4 pm and 7 pm.

It is important that hon. Members who want to involve themselves in any Divisions should be able to do so at a convenient hour, but if motion 4 was not carried this evening, we would have unlimited time to discuss the sittings of the House—the House could be responsible in its own way for how long that went on. After that, we would have the debate on the private business, unless the sittings of the House debate finished before 4 o’clock, in which case we could start the debate on VAT on ambulances, which could continue either at 7 o’clock or earlier, if the private business did not take the full three hours. That would prevent the problem of people being kept behind.

I say that because I and a few colleagues are what one might describe as specialists in holding promoters of private business to account. We like to ensure proper scrutiny. On several occasions, however, motions not dissimilar to this one have been allowed through, because none of us wants to be unnecessarily awkward. As a reward for allowing such motions to pass, however, the Chief Whip and other Whips have briefed against us, saying that, “Colleagues are being kept back because of the hon. Member for Christchurch or the hon. Member for this constituency or that constituency”—I will not mention their names, because it might embarrass them, but they might wish to participate in this debate.

If we pass such a motion, then, the people indulging the business managers by agreeing to the motion find themselves effectively being put in the dock if the business of the House goes on much later than one would normally expect on a Wednesday.

Is it not true that the private business set down for consideration on Wednesday has been kicking around for several years? In some cases, it dates back to the 2007 Session. It could hardly be described as a matter of urgency.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am sure that points like that—if not identical to it—will be made when we discuss the private business motions, because in essence they are motions on whether the House should agree with the other place that private Members’ Bills that, as he says, have been hanging around in the House for a long time should be revived, or whether the promoters should be held to account for the enormous delays.

Some of the Bills relate to peddlers. We know that since those Bills first began five or more years ago, the Government have announced that they will introduce separate provisions relating to peddlers. I will not go into the merits or otherwise of those particular Bills, because you would rule me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the question of whether they should be further considered or should lapse owing to how long they have been kicking around needs to be debated. I anticipate that the people saying they should no longer be heard might want to put the proposition to the vote, and I suggest that the voting take place at 7 o’clock on Wednesday rather than much later.

It occurs to me that there is a certain incongruity in extending Wednesday when the House will just have voted on the sitting hours. We will have adopted hours and then immediately have suspended them for private business. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is rather peculiar?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who, as so often, gets to the nub of the issue and the inconsistencies in the line taken by the business managers. Of course, we do not yet know what line officially they will take towards the sittings of the House, except that, judging by the motion, they think it desirable that we do not all have a say and that the debate be limited to two hours. I had not anticipated that we would have the chance to begin a debate on this important subject this evening.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the scope of the private business to be debated on Wednesday—provided it is given time—is extremely narrow and that it will be a challenge, even for the ingenuity of those who hold such Bills to account, to come up with a debate lasting three hours?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and if he is right, that is all the more reason why we should not support this motion, because otherwise those of us who wish to debate the private business, including him, will find ourselves hanging around in the House until a three-hour debate about VAT for air ambulances has been completed. Our entitlement under Standing Orders to have our business debated between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock will have been taken away from us, which would be very unfair.

We cannot anticipate the House’s decisions on the motions dealing with the sittings of the House. There may well be only two Divisions, which would rapidly truncate the voting following that debate and enable the business to move forward much more swiftly. If that were to happen, the series of Divisions that my hon. Friend has alluded to would not take place.

We can speculate as much as we want to about what might or might not happen, but my experience in the House leads me to suppose that we always ought to look for the unexpected to happen on such occasions. We do not yet know how many amendments will be tabled to the sittings of the House motion or how contentious the debate will be on whether we should continue to have September sittings. It might all go through on the nod, in accordance with the primary suggestions of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, but it also might not. I have heard rumours about what might be the consensus emerging among Members, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) might have heard contradictory rumours, but essentially there is a strong onus on those who want to change the sitting hours of the House to put that case and to argue it successfully against those who would say that they have made their arrangements for this Parliament on the basis of the sitting hours that were already laid down at the end of the previous Parliament.

On the other side of the coin is the danger of having urgent questions or ministerial statements on that day. Indeed, I was present at business questions earlier, when the Leader of the House was not able to give an absolute assurance that that would not be the case next Wednesday.

That is another issue. We do not know: there may be very good reasons why Mr Speaker would allow an urgent question as a result of what happens on Tuesday. We cannot anticipate that, which is why we should make it clear that the Standing Orders of this House make specific provision to allow for three hours for private business. Standing Order No. 20 specifies those hours as being between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock on Wednesdays. If the private business does not take as long as those three hours, we can then get on to the following business sooner. If the issue of VAT for air ambulances comes up for debate before 4 o’clock, it can be adjourned at 4 o’clock and then resume as soon as the debate on the private business is concluded. For many years that has been the standard procedure. It is only during this Parliament that the Leader of the House and his deputy have started playing games with those of us who are concerned to ensure that we can hold those who bring forward private Bills and private business properly to account.

I have been very indulgent and tried my best to explain the situation to colleagues who have been told by the Whips that they must stay until late at night because I have initiated a debate on private business that has gone on longer than it would have done if we had not conceded such motions. Frankly, I am fed up. Why should I be blamed for keeping the House late, when the situation is the direct responsibility of motions brought forward by the Leader of the House and his deputy? I am keen—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed tomorrow.

sittings of the House


That, on Tuesday 17 July, the House shall meet at 11.30 am and references to specific times in the Standing Orders of this House shall apply as if that day were a Wednesday.—(Mr Heath.)