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Business of the House (26 February)

Volume 559: debated on Monday 25 February 2013

I inform the House that I have not selected the amendment in the name of Mr Christopher Chope.

I beg to move,

That at the sitting on Tuesday 26 February, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business), the Private Business set down by the Chairman of Ways and Means may be entered upon at any hour, and may then be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours after which the Speaker shall interrupt the business.

You will recall, Mr Speaker, that on Thursday 14 February I confirmed to the House that the business for tomorrow, 26 February, would be the remaining stages of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill followed by opposed private business. Tonight’s motion seeks to ensure that the House can spend the planned amount of time on each of those items of business.

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that if we agree to the motion it is likely that we will spend three hours after the moment of interruption in a debate that goes very late into tomorrow night?

All I can confirm to my hon. Friend is that if we agree to the motion we will protect the time available for the debate on the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill and ensure that the House has the time intended—that is, three hours—to discuss opposed private business. As my hon. Friend and the House will recall, the programme motion for the Bill allows up to four hours for consideration on Report and Third Reading. The motion would then permit opposed private business to run for up to three hours following the conclusion of our debate on the Bill.

I might have misunderstood, but I thought that the House’s view was that tomorrow’s business on the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill should run until the moment of interruption. I think that the Leader of the House is talking about a variation to the programme motion that has not yet been put before the House.

I am sorry to have to disagree with my hon. Friend, as it is rare for us to do so, but in this instance I am afraid that he is wrong. The programme motion for the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill allows up to four hours for Report and Third Reading.

The motion is needed because even without any statements, four hours of debate on the Bill would take us beyond 4 pm, which is the normal time for commencing opposed private business on a Tuesday. It will also therefore allow the House to sit beyond the moment of interruption—that is, 7 pm. Although the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) was not selected for debate, it would have prevented opposed private business from being taken if it were reached after 4 pm. As I have just said, we do not expect business on the Bill to conclude before 4 pm and the opposed private business is likely to be reached after that. The amendment would therefore have obstructed the opposed private business tomorrow. I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in such business and I am surprised that he would have sought to do that.

If the motion is passed, we will be able to debate the Bill and opposed private business as planned. I do not believe that the House would want to obstruct the business that the Chairman of Ways and Means has set down for tomorrow in accordance with Standing Orders, so I commend the motion to the House.

I hesitate to call the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House disingenuous, but that is probably the only proper description of what he has just enunciated. Standing Order No. 20 provides that private business should be given three hours between the hours of 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock. The Leader of the House has all the rest of the parliamentary timetable to play with as he wishes, so surely he should respect the right of people who put private business before the House to do so with some certainty as to when that business will begin and conclude. That is the whole purpose of Standing Order No. 20.

If there was no Standing Order, we would be treating private and public business in exactly the same way. As Members know, I take a keen interest in private business, and I think it is important that we do not tear up our Standing Orders on an ad hoc basis. It is almost invariably the case that the Leader of the House tables a motion to try to vary the convention under Standing Order No. 20 that private business should be dealt with for a specified three-hour period.

If I was speaking on behalf of the promoter of a private Bill, I should wish to have certainty; it is unwhipped business, so to ensure that it can proceed it is important that the Member in charge of the Bill can tell colleagues to come along to the debate because at 7 o’clock there may be a vote. Instead of that situation being crystal clear for everybody, tonight’s proposal will mean that nobody will be quite sure when business on the City of London (Various Powers) Bill will be concluded, assuming that it extends for a three-hour period.

In my submission, the City of London (Various Powers) Bill is very important. Obviously, this debate is designed to ensure that we have three hours between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock tomorrow afternoon dedicated to dealing with the Bill. In paragraph 7 of the statement by its promoters, they state that progress on the Bill, which was introduced in Parliament in November 2010,

“was delayed as the Promoter sought to address Government concerns as to the compatibility of certain of the Bill’s provisions with the EU Services Directive. The Promoter obtained an opinion of leading Counsel supporting the inclusion of the provisions and passed this to BIS in February 2012. BIS, having reserved its position to the Second House while it considered the issue…has now indicated that it has not altered its original view”.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills therefore does not agree with the opinion of leading counsel obtained by the promoters of the Bill. Those of us who discussed the last set of private Bills will recall that the EU services directive is a very controversial measure. [Interruption.]

I shall not talk more about the Bill now; I simply emphasise that it is significant and should be of interest to a wider group of parliamentarians, particularly those concerned about the implications of the implementation of the EU services directive. [Interruption.]

Order. Before the hon. Member for Christchurch gives way, I gently note that quite a lot of rather noisy private conversations are taking place on both sides of the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman must be heard—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Indeed, he must be heard with courtesy. I think the hon. Gentleman was giving way.

Will my hon. Friend make it clear to the House that one reason why we are having this short debate—and possibly a Division—is to stop us debating important private business between the hours of 7 pm and 10 pm tomorrow night? What we are doing tonight is trying to prevent the House from sitting late tomorrow.

My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right. If there are hon. Members present who would rather I was not speaking, I would point out to them that it was open to them to vote against the 10 o’clock motion. Indeed, I am rather surprised that they did not do so, if they wanted to get home promptly.

Does not my hon. Friend think that people voted in favour of the extension motion because it is always such a pleasure to sit late—to sit late tonight, and to sit late tomorrow night? Perhaps we could sit late on Wednesday as well.

At a time when productivity in so many parts of our economy is in question, it is important that the House should set a good example by being very productive. I am sure that no one would wish to suggest concluding our proceedings unnecessarily early.

This issue should not be treated with levity. The whole purpose of Standing Orders is that we should maintain and stick to them. If, whenever we had private business, the Standing Orders were invariably set aside, they would be brought into disrepute. In the absence of a written constitution, the Standing Orders are our ultimate defence of liberty. That is why I take very seriously attempts by the Government to undermine the Standing Orders.

Let us look at what would happen tomorrow if the business of the House motion were not carried. The sitting would start with questions. Then there would be statements, though we do not yet know whether there will be any urgent questions or statements tomorrow. Then we would get on to the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. If discussion on that Bill had not finished at 4 o’clock, we could continue discussing it at 7 o’clock. What is so unreasonable about that? It seems a sensible way of proceeding.

Let us remember that in the past the Government would not normally have given half a day for Report and Third Reading of a major Bill; they would have allocated a whole day. Indeed, that is what they did originally in the programme motion that was carried by the House on 19 November last year, in which it was agreed that Report and Third Reading of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill would have a full day. As the Government want to curtail debate on the Bill, they have tabled a motion among the remaining orders to restrict the length of Report and Third Reading, and they are compounding that felony by saying that they wish to push private business to later on in the day, so that the Bill can be accommodated before private business.

Anyone would think that the Government were not in control of their business. Why are we having to debate this at 10 o’clock on a Monday night? It seems as though they run their business on a rather hand-to-mouth basis. Why did they not decide on this several weeks ago? I hope that the Leader of the House will address that issue when he responds.

I have tabled some new clauses and amendments to the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, and I see no harm in splitting consideration of the Bill, with our debating it until 4 o’clock, and starting again at 7 o’clock. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) thinks that would be a good idea, and I hope that, in due course, that will be reflected in the way he votes in any Division that takes place.

We do not need to make a great meal of this. It is important that we should stand up for the rights of the House. We should make it clear to the business managers that they cannot just push stuff though on the nod, and that there will always be some of us who will want to raise questions and not be pushed around, as we feel we are being pushed around now.

I hope very much that the House will support the proposition that under Standing Order 20 private business should be dealt with for three hours between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock tomorrow and that any other Government business should be fitted in around the private business, rather than the private business being kicked into the long grass—relatively speaking—for consideration later in the day. That is my proposition, and that is why I tabled the amendment, which was not selected. That would have been a slightly academic amendment, as reflected in the Speaker’s decision not to call it, because I see no prospect whatever of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill being finished before 4 o’clock tomorrow afternoon. The issue before the House is a straight one: do we accept the motion on the Order Paper or do we not?

Tonight we are discussing a significant point of principle. We are lucky to have a benign Leader of the House, but that will not always be the case.

Yet again we see the Executive abusing their position by getting rid of Standing Orders, or abandoning them for the day. It is clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said, that on Tuesday, if private business has been laid down by the Chairman of Ways and Means, it should be debated between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock. That is specified for certainty, so that we will not be discussing important legislation late at night just because it is private. Of course, there might be an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24, which would take precedence, but otherwise Standing Order No. 20 requires private business to be taken between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock.

On 19 November 2012 the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill programme motion clearly stated:

“Consideration and Third Reading

4. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.”

Nowhere in that programme is there discussion of a four-hour rule. I am sure the Leader of the House is about to correct me.

I will correct my hon. Friend to this extent: if he looks at the Remaining Orders and Notices on the Order Paper today, he will see that No. 4 is the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 3) motion, which sets out that proceedings on consideration shall be brought to a conclusion after three hours and on Third Reading after four hours, so the nature of the programme motion intended to be attached to the debate on the Bill tomorrow is clearly set out on the Order Paper.

I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for the apology for what he said earlier, but I believe I am still correct in saying that what the House voted for, and the position tonight, is the programme motion of 19 November. The Leader of the House may wish to table a programme motion tomorrow to curtail the debate on the Bill.

We have two things going wrong here. We have a reduction of scrutiny of the Bill and at the same time we are pushing back—it could be very late, because we do not know if there will be any statements or urgent questions tomorrow—discussion of private business. It is really a bit of a dog’s ear—

Whatever. It is late at night. The comment from the Opposition Front Bench is spot on. That is what happens late at night when we are trying to discuss important business. That is why we should not be debating private business late tomorrow night. I am thankful for that helpful sedentary intervention.

There is a serious principle here: we are reducing the scrutiny of an important Bill and removing the fixed time at which private business is heard, and simply for the convenience of the Executive, not that of Parliament. We are reducing scrutiny and removing certainty, and that is against the interests of every Member sitting here tonight. [Interruption.] Members might boo and grunt because this is going on, but I notice that most of them are members of the Executive. In my view, they are not necessarily here representing Parliament; they are representing the Executive.

While we have a very nice and benign Government, this is probably okay, but I ask the Leader of the House to imagine what the other lot would do if they were sitting on the Government side of the House. What sort of nasty things could they get up to? They would then refer to what is happening here tonight as the precedent.

The whole point of this debate is to stop us sitting late tomorrow night. I hope that when the House divides—[Interruption.] In fact, I hope that the House does not divide, because I am sure that the Leader of the House, having heard these short arguments, and the much more powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, will withdraw the motion.

I will gladly respond, simply to say, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), that we are debating this now because an objection was taken to the motion providing for opposed private business tomorrow that was on the Order Paper and considered after 10 o’clock, the moment of interruption, on 13 February. I am sure that the House is quite amused by my hon. Friend’s support for the promoters of the private Bill and the certainty they require about its progress; with that solicitude from him, they must feel a little like someone in the embrace of a particularly large boa constrictor—[Interruption.] I would never impute any negative motive to my hon. Friend, that is for sure.

I think that I might reassure my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) that the intention is not to do any serious damage to the time at which the opposed private business is to be taken on a Tuesday. The intention tomorrow will be to ensure that the House considers the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill and agrees the time that is available for it. I am sure that the usual channels have made sure that the House has an opportunity to consider the Bill to the necessary extent. Therefore, if the programme motion is agreed to and consideration of the Bill is concluded after four hours, the House is likely to start considering the opposed private business at about 4.40 pm, if there are no urgent questions or statements—[Interruption.] I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, who says “Ah” in that way from a sedentary position, that we are always subject to the question, as he rightly said, of whether there will be a Standing Order No. 24 motion, whether an urgent question will be sought and granted and whether a statement will be made. Those matters will inevitably give rise to a degree of uncertainty, so although my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is talking about the certainty that is required, very rarely in this place do we have absolute certainty about the timing of proceedings.

I am going to practise my snake-charming, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the doctrine of reasonable expectations is now being regularly undermined by the Government, because when the House voted to change the sitting hours the expectation was that it would rise on a Tuesday, subject to the Adjournment, at 7 o’clock? Now it almost invariably sits much later than that. It is almost as though the Government were changing the policy.

I am afraid that I must disagree with my hon. Friend. On the contrary, I think that we are meeting our expectations with regard to the sittings of the House with considerable regularity and certainty. On that basis, the worst-case scenario tomorrow, without urgent questions or statements, is that business will conclude at 7.40 pm. Of course, he must remember, and Members will be aware, that the programme motions and this motion show a maximum amount of time. The motions do not require us to debate the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill for four hours, nor do they require us to debate opposed private business for three hours—we can choose to debate for a shorter period.

While debating the City of London (Various Powers) Bill and its important measures tomorrow, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and others to remember their urging tonight that the House should conclude its business at 7 o’clock—and it may be in their gift to do so.

Question put and agreed to.