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Business of the House (11 July)

Volume 548: debated on Monday 9 July 2012

Debate resumed.

Question (5 July) again 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.—(James Duddridge.)

As Mr Chope was speaking when the debate was adjourned, I feel sure he will want to continue his sentence where he left it off.

Listening to the Deputy Leader of the House took me back some 24 years to the time when I was on the Front Bench having to do a similar job—winding up the first day of a two-day debate—although in my case it was on the community charge legislation. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is turning around, because he was a participant in that debate, and was very much against the community charge. I remember how difficult it was to argue from the Front Bench, given the atmosphere in the House. A lot of Government Members, including my right hon. Friend, were against the community charge, as well as Opposition Members of course. I therefore sympathise enormously with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) has had to do in the last few minutes. He should take the message that I should have taken on that occasion: when he can see that everything is loaded against him, it is better to call it a day now and abandon the Bill rather than persist with it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the lesson that we all learned at that time was that the Government should sometimes listen carefully to the advice of their close friends?

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. His speech today made the case that the Government should think again, withdraw the Bill and make a fresh start.

The business before us relates to our discussions on Wednesday, and I want to make sure that Members who might wish to debate Wednesday’s business on the sitting hours of the House recognise that if they support this motion, they will be limiting the time for discussion to two hours. If they want to do that, that is fine, but I think it is right and proper that Members should have the opportunity to consider whether they wish to limit that debate to two hours.

My other point is that it has been a long-standing tradition and convention in this House that a specific period of time is set aside for the consideration of private business: three hours, between 4 pm and 7 pm on a Wednesday or between 7 pm and 10 pm on a Tuesday. Nowadays, however, the Government almost invariably seek to introduce a motion undermining that principle. The consequence is that Members are left in doubt as to what the order of business will be and, if they are concerned about private business, whether they will have their special three-hour slot allocated to them, or whether it will be interfered with by the business managers. There are some important principles at stake, therefore.

What I am saying is: when it comes to discussing these issues on Wednesday why can we not say that between 4 pm and 7 pm, if it takes that long, we should be able to discuss the private business, as set down under Standing Order No. 20? Why do we need to say that the business of the House starting with the September sittings motion and followed by the debate on VAT on ambulance services should be able to force the private business much later on in the agenda, perhaps until 11 pm or later?

The consequence of that is that some hon. Members will stay behind because they are told that, although it is private business, it is very important and the Government want them to be here. They feel that they have to hang on in there late because the Government have told them to do so. The Government then blame me or somebody else; they say, “The reason you are staying late is that the hon. Member for Christchurch has required that you should stay late by talking this business long.” All I am saying is that we have a three-hour slot on Wednesday, so can we not keep that for private business?

My hon. Friend is being very unfair to the Government. The suggestion that this Government would try to whip private business is absolutely outrageous; they would not require Members to stay behind.

Of course my hon. Friend is right to say that ultimately it is for hon. Members to decide whether they are willing to be whipped by the Government into supporting or opposing private business and whether we should allow some things in this House—private business—to be decided by Members on an individual basis, using their own judgment. So be it.

I can recall strongly opposing a private Bill that would have resulted in a substantial destruction of the amenities and environment in Southampton. I was grateful that a lot of then Government Members, including the then Home Secretary, supported me in the Lobby against the Bill; he wondered afterwards what he had been voting for, but I explained that it was in a really good cause.

I admit that there are precedents, but why should we want to oppose having a proper discussion of why we should be carrying on with certain private legislation that has been hanging around in this House for not just one or two years, but for two Sessions or more—for two Parliaments or more? I believe that one of the motions we will be debating on Wednesday goes back to 2007, when it was first introduced in the House.

I need elaborate my remarks no further. All I need to say is that, having raised this debate, it is right and proper that the Deputy Leader of the House should try to make a better job of responding to this debate than he did to the previous one.

I cannot imagine why any right hon. or hon. Member of this House should ever have formed the impression that they were here beyond 10 pm purely because the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) wanted to speak. That is an outrageous suggestion and I would certainly not put it from this Dispatch Box.

This business motion is before us purely at the request of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee and the Chair of the Procedure Committee. They asked the Government whether we could arrange business, none of which is Government business, to accommodate the House’s wish to have the opportunity to debate very important matters, given the change in the arrangements that was made to accommodate the debate on the inquiry into bankers last week.

The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee did indeed make strong representations to the Government about the Back-Bench business that was lost last Thursday because of the Government’s business on the inquiry into banking, and asked them to ensure that that business was reinstated. Having heard what the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said about the sittings motions and the private business, I would like clarification that the air ambulance debate selected by the Backbench Business Committee, which has support from many Members on both sides of the House, will get the two hours that the Government intended.

The answer, very simply, is that it will if the motion is agreed to. The motion provides for the Procedure Committee’s reports to be debated properly; for the hon. Gentleman’s motion, which I know is of interest to many Members and those outside this House, to be debated properly; and for three hours to be given over to opposed private business. There is no detriment to the House whatsoever in acceding to the requests made to us and I am happy to assist.

Question put and agreed to.