I beg to move,
That this House shall sit on Friday 22 March.
On 18 October 2012, I published the full parliamentary recess calendar to 6 January 2014. The whole House will recognise the benefit to Members, staff, the House authorities and the House service of giving as much certainty and notice as possible of future sitting days. It enables effective scheduling of hon. Members’ work in their constituencies and allows the House authorities to plan major work projects as effectively and efficiently as possible. On 17 December 2012, the dates I had announced were put to the House in the form of a motion. The House agreed, without a Division, to the dates that had been proposed. Indeed, I do not recall any debate on the matter, or any objections being received from Opposition Members.
I will gladly check my recollection, of course. My recollection is that the date of the Budget was announced in the new year, but I will gladly check that point. I am not sure that it is germane to the argument, however, because whatever the position might be, I had at that point already announced—on 18 October 2012, as I said—the calendar for the year ahead.
I can develop my argument in my speech, but it might help the right hon. Gentleman if I do so now. The reason why it is relevant whether the Chancellor had already announced the date of the Budget is that the Leader of the House would have put the dates to the House in the knowledge that the Budget was going to be in March and knowing how many days it would require, and therefore knowing how it would fit in with his sittings pattern.
I hear an astute point being made from a sedentary position by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), who says that if that had been the case, surely the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would have raised the matter on 17 December. I do not think that they did so. I see no difficulty with this.
As I said, I clearly set out the planned dates on 18 October, and the resolution then provided Members with confirmation that the House would rise for the Easter recess on Tuesday 26 March 2013 and return on Monday 15 April 2013. Following the publication of the calendar, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the date for the budget as Wednesday 20 March 2013. The motion on the Order Paper today adds a further sitting day to those already agreed by the House and does so within the framework of recess dates set out in the calendar.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for being courteous, and I would expect no less. Am I right in thinking that last year the Government published the Fridays on which we were planning to sit—again, it was beneficial to the House, the staff and others—and, if so, why did the Government not publish the sitting Fridays for this year?
What is clear, as I said, is that in order to facilitate the House, the shape of the recess framework is the most important characteristic. We want to enable hon. Members and the House authorities to structure their future activities around relatively established dates for major recesses.
I give my right hon. Friend 10 out of 10 for publishing his original timetable well in advance, as that is a very good thing, but what has he got against Wednesdays? My view and that of my constituents is that we want to hear from the Prime Minister, especially at the start of a recess period. Why do Sessions always end on a Tuesday?
I will come on to that point in a moment, if I may, when I address some of the issues that the shadow Leader of the House raised at business questions.
The motion adds a further sitting day and its effect will therefore be to allow the four-day Budget debate to take place, as well as to accommodate the opportunity for the Backbench Business Committee to schedule business, including the traditional pre-recess Adjournment debate, on the last day before recess.
Sitting on an additional Friday would allow a continuation of the Budget debate but it would not be its last day, so there would be no requirement for Members to vote on that day. That is the best option to provide the balance between the certainty requested by the House, which the publication of the calendar in mid-October permitted, and the disposal of business before it, including providing the Backbench Business Committee with access to the debate opportunities that it would expect.
It may be helpful if I remind 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. Just last year, the House agreed to sit on Friday 23 March to continue the Budget debate, and I am not aware that any issues were raised following that sitting. The precedents go further back than that, as another occasion occurred under the last Administration on 11 April 2003.
As you said, Mr Speaker, an amendment in the name of the Opposition has been selected, which seeks to amend the motion to produce the effect that the House would sit not on Friday 22 March, but on Wednesday 27 March. I fear that the Opposition, in tabling the amendment, might just be thinking back to their time in government and imputing similar motives to this Government. I think they are wrong in that.
The hon. Lady set out her reasons during business questions on 7 February. I addressed her points then, but it may be helpful for me to recap. Her first reason was that Members might already have made arrangements in their constituencies for Friday 22 March. This is valid up to the point that Members are just as likely to have made arrangements in their constituencies for Wednesday 27 March—the date proposed in the Opposition amendment. It is important to bear in mind that only those Members who wished to speak on that day in the Budget debate would be affected. Others might have commitments in their constituencies that they regard as inescapable, but on three other days they would have the opportunity, subject to catching the Speaker’s eye, to contribute to that debate. It is not a case of “speak on that Friday or lose the opportunity”.
There is a choice here, but my preference—and, I believe, the preference of Members—would be to sit on that Friday and not on the subsequent Wednesday. While the calendar is always issued with the proviso that it is subject to the progress of business, the Government are conscious that having announced dates, Members and staff might have made arrangements for the Easter recess, which it would now be inconvenient, to say the least, to change. Indeed, as I have said, the Friday would not involve the prospect of voting, and I can add that we do not intend to arrange ministerial statements for that day. Those with necessary constituency business will still be able to deal with it, which might not be the case were the House to sit on Wednesday.
The second reason given by the shadow Leader of the House was that if the House rose on a Tuesday, there could be no Prime Minister’s Question Time during that week. I do not think that anyone could accuse the Prime Minister of avoiding his duties in the House. [Interruption.] I must tell the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) that his view is contradicted by the facts. The Prime Minister has made more statements to the House per sitting day in the last Session than his predecessor, spending more than 30 hours at the Dispatch Box in so doing. He also gives evidence to the Liaison Committee, and he takes all his responsibilities to the House very seriously.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) should take a look at the 2013 calendar that I published. It shows six occasions on which recesses have been proposed. There is the February recess, which we have already had, and there are the Easter, Whitsun, summer, conference and Christmas recesses. The plan was for the House to rise on a Tuesday on two of those occasions, on a Thursday on three of them and on a Friday on one of them. No pattern is involved; it is simply a matter of trying to ensure that each of the recesses has the right balance of time overall. A simple examination of the parliamentary calendar will show that there are no grounds for the supposition that we have avoided a Wednesday sitting.
My right hon. Friend is making some very good points, and this is not a black-and-white issue, although I must add that I think that, when the rising of the House on a Tuesday can be avoided, it should rise on a Wednesday or a Thursday. However, this is not just about Prime Minister’s Question Time; it is also about all the other business of the House. It is about all the Select Committee meetings and all the sittings in Westminster Hall that take place on Wednesdays. All that business is, in effect, lost when the House rises on a Tuesday.
It is a matter, overall, of the number of days on which the House sits. My hon. Friend may take the view that it should sit more often. As it happens, I suspect that at the end of this year it will have sat for more days than it sat in any of the preceding four calendar years. I also think that before, for example, the Easter recess, it is preferable for us not to continue our business until Maundy Thursday.
I know that the Opposition are keen to ensure that the Government are held to account, and that is to be expected, but they really ought to focus on the substance rather than the processes. When it comes to the mechanisms of accountability, the Government are achieving greater and more meaningful scrutiny than has ever been achieved before. Let me name just a few positive developments. There is more pre-legislative scrutiny, there are many substantial debates via the Backbench Business Committee, there is the work of Select Committees and their elected Chairs that we discussed in the Chamber a couple of weeks ago, and there is extra time for scrutiny during the Report stages of Bills. Those are major changes that have shifted the balance from the Executive to the House.
I understand the Opposition’s intentions—I understand them very well—but I assure them that any fears that they may have, in reality, about lack of time for scrutiny are wholly misplaced, and I commend the motion to the House.
This may seem a dry issue on which to take up the House’s time. After all, recess dates are rarely the subject of much contention; they are rarely, if ever, noticed, and much less often divide the House. So what is the problem with the sittings motion, and why are we trying to amend it?
We decided to table our amendment because, after two and a half years of experience, we have begun to perceive a pattern in the Government’s behaviour, and especially in that of the Prime Minister. We have realised that he does not much like being accountable to the House at Prime Minister’s Question Time, and that he therefore arranges for the House to rise on Tuesdays as often as he thinks that he can get away with it. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) made that point from the Government Benches. That way, the Prime Minister avoids Prime Minister’s questions, which take place on Wednesdays. In contemplating this emerging trend, I thought it might just be one of those random patterns that occurs by accident, until I noticed that our Prime Minister seems to be anxious for the House not to sit long enough for him to have to face Prime Minister’s questions, especially after a Budget.
That is the crux of the issue before us today. For the second year running, the House has been asked to sit on a Friday to accommodate the debate we must have on the Chancellor’s Budget, and to allow the recess date therefore conveniently to fall on a Tuesday, thus letting the Prime Minister off his Prime Minister’s questions duties.
Was the hon. Lady listening when the Leader of the House explained that this year we will be breaking up on a Tuesday twice out of six occasions? That is a ratio of one in three, and therefore a minority, so this is not a trend; it is completely the opposite in fact.
The hon. Gentleman should hear me out, because I have a few other things to say about the trends we on this side of the House have perceived. Perhaps when he has listened to me he might form an opinion, rather than having an opinion before he has heard what I have to say.
Both last year and this year the Government decided to sit on a Friday and begin the recess on a Tuesday, and this year that means the Prime Minister will next have to appear at Prime Minister’s questions and justify the Budget to the House fully 28 days after the date of the Budget. Perhaps it takes him 28 days to plough through all the Budget documentation, but the rest of us have to react instantly, and so should he.
Let me readily acknowledge that when the original sittings motion suggesting this arrangement was put to the House on 17 December last year, the Opposition did not vote against it, and before any Member on the Government Benches leaps up to point this out, I also acknowledge that six days earlier, on 11 December, the Chancellor had announced that the date of the 2013 Budget would be 20 March. I must confess that I was perhaps guilty of feeling a little too much pre-Christmas spirit towards the Government and might even have been lulled by the season into a false sense of security that they were not being Machiavellian with the parliamentary timetable. I now know I was wrong to be so generous to them.
I often worry about the adversarial nature of our parliamentary system putting people off politics, so I considered the possibility that the observation I have made about our current Prime Minister’s strange aversion to the House sitting on Wednesdays might just be partisan criticism on my part.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a matter of opinion, and he and I may disagree about the judgment he has just presented to the House.
I wondered whether this strange aversion to Wednesdays might be randomly generated happenstance or unsupported by any evidence. I was even beginning to chide myself a little for developing such unworthy thoughts about Machiavelli or anybody else, so I decided to check the evidence. I looked back at the record to see how often the House has risen for recesses on Tuesdays, and it turns out that during the period when Tony Blair was Prime Minister the House rose on Tuesdays 22% of the time, and when my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was Prime Minister the House rose on Tuesdays 29% of the time, but since 2010 while the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) has been Prime Minister the House has risen on Tuesdays a whopping 58% of the time.
These figures prove that this Prime Minister is categorically no heir to Blair in his desire to be answerable for the actions of his Government in this Chamber. They prove he truly has an aversion to Wednesdays and a reluctance to let the House sit on Wednesdays if he can possibly avoid it. What on earth can the Prime Minister be scared of?
The length was not reduced; as hon. Members may recall, Tony Blair put the two sets of 15 minutes together into one half an hour. The figures that I have just given the House are unaffected by the changes that were made to Prime Minister’s Question Time, because the half-hour, one-day-a-week session is common to all three figures. That point does not address the pattern of avoiding Wednesdays which the statistics demonstrate we are dealing with in this debate.
I do not understand the point the shadow Leader of the House is making. She says that when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was Prime Minister the House rose for a recess on a Tuesday on 29% of occasions. She can see from the calendar that I published that the House is intended to rise twice on a Tuesday out of six occasions, which is 33.3%. Is the whole strength of her argument really the difference between 29% and 33.3%?
If one takes into account all the recesses since this Government have been in office, the figure goes up to 58%. That is a difference and it rather proves that this Prime Minister has a strange aversion to the House sitting on Wednesdays. That is what we are dealing with in our amendment.
Why on earth can the Prime Minister be frightened of Wednesdays? Last year’s Budget was enough to put the frighteners on anyone, let’s face it. It certainly set the bar high in standards of incoherence and incompetence, which even our part-time Chancellor will find hard to match this year. Let us remember that we had the granny tax, the churches tax, the charities tax and the pasty tax. The Chancellor had been so busy swanning around Washington in search of President Obama’s coat tails that he had forgotten to pay enough attention to one of his day jobs.
Last year’s Budget was unravelling even before the Chancellor had sat down. It was so disastrous that it spawned its own new word—omnishambles—which became the “Oxford English Dictionary” word of the year. There was open revolt against Budget measures on the Government Benches. Nine Tory MPs and four Liberal Democrats voted against the pasty tax, in defiance of their Whips. Sixteen Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat voted against the caravan tax, with two Liberal Democrat Ministers strangely missing the vote completely. No lesser person than Lord Ashcroft was moved to observe:
“The main problem is not so much that people think that the Conservative Party is heading in the wrong direction, it is that they are not sure where it is heading. And that includes me.”
Does this not speak to a greater truth, which also affects the issue before us, given that the Budget date had already been announced prior to the motion being put to the Commons? If my hon. Friend has read analyses of how Budgets have traditionally been made up properly, under Labour and Conservative Governments, she will know that many of the proposals in the last Budget had been proposed a number of times before by the civil service and had been batted back. What we have with this Government—here is the relevance to this debate—is a failure of process: a failure to attend to detail and a complete failure to attend to proper parliamentary and governmental process.
I agree wholeheartedly with the points that my right hon. Friend has made. As a former Treasury Minister, I can attest to the fact that some of the more disastrous bits of last year’s omnishambles Budget had indeed been put to Ministers for their consideration prior to their adoption last year and had been batted back for the nonsense that they were.
Because of the Government’s cynical manipulation of the recess dates, it took 28 days after that botched Budget for the Prime Minister to find himself back at the Dispatch Box to account for it. By then we had also had the fuel strike scare and the jerry can scandal to add to the chaos. Understandably, he was so unnerved that, red-faced and angry, he started attacking his own side. The hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) was wholly unfairly ticked off for having a sense of humour failure by a rattled Prime Minister who was demonstrating to the House just how easily he seems to be able to channel his inner Flashman. The memory of this omnishambles is obviously still raw. According to samizdats emerging from the 1922 Committee, the Chancellor has admitted to Tory Back Benchers that last year’s Budget was a disaster. Why else would he have been seen nodding vigorously as he was being exhorted, in language so earthy that I cannot repeat it here, not to—how can I put this politely and stay in order—mess it up this time?
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s reluctance to appear at the Dispatch box the day after the Budget debates to answer for his Chancellor’s omnishambles is an understandable human failing on his part, but it is not one in which this House should be assisting or that we should allow him to repeat this year. However, that is precisely what the motion will do unless our amendment is accepted. The Budget will be on 20 March and the Prime Minister is not due to appear at the Dispatch Box to answer questions until 17 April. Once more, that is 28 days after the Chancellor’s Budget statement.
If the Prime Minister finds it impossible to appear before the House to answer questions on the Budget before 28 days have elapsed, he could do what all Prime Ministers in the past have done and let his deputy do it for him. After all, we are told that the Liberal Democrats are intimately involved in all of the decision making about the Budget. We know that they are so central to the Government’s inner core that they make up two of the “quad” who, we are told, make all the final decisions. They are so closely involved in Budget decisions that they leaked most of it in advance last year so that they could take credit for all of the nice bits and distance themselves from the nasty bits. The only thing left for the poor Chancellor to surprise us with was the granny tax, and that was all he had to take credit for. No one seemed to benefit—unless of course they happen to be a millionaire awaiting their huge tax cut this April while everyone else feels the pain.
In the spirit of being a team player and recognising the Liberal Democrats’ acts of selfless sacrifice on tuition fees, why does the Leader of the House not just accept our amendment, change the sittings motion and let the Deputy Prime Minister step in and help out with Prime Minister’s questions straight after the Budget? Surely the Prime Minister trusts him to do a good job.
Yes, we intend to press the amendment to a vote.
Surely the Prime Minister cannot have taken to heart the content of last December’s leaked Liberal Democrat memo, which urged senior Liberal Democrats to spread the message that
“The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fairer society”
and to remind voters that the Tories only want to look “after the super rich”. I am sure, given those comments, that the Deputy Prime Minister would be welcomed to the Dispatch Box the day after the Budget to support all its content. Perhaps he might also be asked by the Tories on the Government Benches why the Liberal Democrats keep sending out press briefings criticising the Government’s tax policies just after the Chancellor has finished announcing them.
Last December, for example, the Liberal Democrats were caught out saying:
“The only tax cuts the Conservatives support are ones for the very rich. At the General Election, their priority was to cut inheritance tax for millionaires. In the Coalition, Liberal Democrats have blocked these plans.”
After all, just this week the Business Secretary has expressed his
“deep disappointment at the lack of capital investment in the economy”
while declaring himself the shop steward of the newly formed “National Union of Ministers”, fighting cuts to his own departmental budget openly in any TV studio and newspaper that would have him. I can see why the Prime Minister might be reluctant to let his deputy fill in for him at the Dispatch Box given that level of loyalty, so perhaps he should just bite the bullet and do it himself.
If our amendment were carried, all it would do is restore a status quo that has been long experienced in this Parliament: the Prime Minister comes to this House regularly to be held accountable during Prime Minister’s questions for the policy and the behaviour of his Government. That is even more vital after major Government announcements, such as Budgets. It cannot be acceptable that we are expected to put up with a month-long gap between the Budget and the next appearance by the Prime Minister to answer questions at that Dispatch Box.
If the Government resist the amendment to the sittings motion, it will become emblematic of their wider disdain for parliamentary accountability and even for democracy. After all, they have had no democratic mandate for the economic policy that they have pursued since June 2010, because the Liberal Democrats fought the election espousing a completely different economic policy from the one that they now support. The Government have had no democratic mandate for their disastrous top-down reorganisation of the national health service. They explicitly ruled it out during the general election, but now they pursue it with the certainty of zealots and the competence of Mr Bean.
That was the very same Prime Minister who did not even allow a debate in the House on a votable motion. It is preposterous for the hon. Lady to deny that from the Dispatch Box and say that our Prime Minister does not put himself before the House on a regular basis for it to scrutinise what this Government are doing.
The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) makes a point which I think needs to be on the record. She says that the House voted for action, not war. The hon. Lady, who is fairly new to the House, will not be aware of the fact—I am sure that my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House is aware of it—that this country has never formally gone to war since 1939, but we have been involved in a considerable number of military actions. It is quite understandable that the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth, not having been around at the time and not having been here long, would not understand that difference.
I wish the hon. Gentleman all good speed with his application to the Backbench Business Committee, but it is not for me from the Front Bench to dictate what the Committee should decide to do.
The Government also had no mandate for the trebling of tuition fees, which they—
For clarification, the application is not mine. My application is for a less contentious debate on Romanian and Bulgarian migration to the United Kingdom. The application for the debate on Iraq was made by the leader of the Green party, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), but I think it is in the national interest. The debate would be in the interests of the Opposition and a cathartic exercise for them, and I hope the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) will support it.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we are awaiting the publication of the Chilcot report, which I am sure will occasion us plenty of opportunity to have a debate and consider the way these matters worked out.
We know why the Prime Minister is running scared. He knows that his Chancellor’s economic plan is not working. His Back Benchers know that their Chancellor’s economic plan is not working. Little wonder, then, that our Prime Minister wants to hide away and hope that we will forget about it over a long Easter recess. He keeps organising these long Easter recesses for his, rather than for our, convenience. The only way to stop him getting away with it is to vote for our amendment to stop the Prime Minister evading scrutiny after the Budget for an entire month. I certainly hope that the House will do so.
Of course, many of us wish the House to sit at every possible opportunity, because it is the debating chamber of the nation and its sitting gives us an opportunity to represent our constituents and hold the Executive to account in a way that keeps them properly on their toes. When I read the amendment, I must confess that I was struck by the nobility of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) in wishing to offer up the Leader of the Opposition as a sacrificial lamb. He is put out weekly and then resuscitated, only to be brought back again and laid on the Dispatch Box of slaughter before our great Prime Minister, who week in, week out—
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because his intervention allows me to inform the House that I am observing my Lenten abstinence and, therefore, took great delight in nothing stronger than Her Majesty’s Sandringham apple juice.
On occasions such as this, one’s mind always turns to cricket, because there is a great similarly between Prime Minister’s questions and cricket. The Leader of the Opposition has six questions, and those Members who are up on their cricket will know that there are six balls in an over. That takes us back to 1968, to the great occasion at Glamorgan when one Malcolm Nash came on to bowl. I see the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) as the Malcolm Nash of Prime Minister’s questions, but I see our Prime Minister as the Garfield Sobers. Malcolm Nash runs in to bowl and the Prime Minister smites the ball for six. The next ball goes over Big Ben. The next goes over the Victoria Tower. The fourth ball is in the Thames, and the fifth is at the London eye.
It is a great joy to have a Scotsman in the Chamber who is knowledgeable about cricket. It is a triumph of English civilisation spreading north and is extraordinarily welcome. Mr Geoffrey Boycott is one of the most successful cricketers of all time. If the Chancellor is like him, a man of noble dedication to his task, the only batsman to have averaged over 100 in a season twice in his career, one of the highest-scoring batsmen in the history of cricket, and that is what a socialist thinks of him, what then will a Conservative say of a man of such aplomb, ability and foresight?
Let us get back to the issue of Wednesday and what I think is the Christian charity of the Leader of the House, who feels that it is unfair to put the Leader of the Opposition through the torment of Prime Minister’s questions on an additional unnecessary occasion and that it would be showing off to allow the Prime Minister to smite him to the boundary once again. Therefore, we will come back on a dutiful Friday, a proper working day, rather than one for doing other things. I cancelled my commitments with pleasure so that I could be in the House, not necessarily to speak, but for the pleasure of listening to others debate the Budget, enumerating the triumphs of Conservatism, the success of the proposals that will have been brought forward and the enthusiasm we will have for the way this Government are boldly, satisfactorily and rightly marching forward to get the economy back in shape after the horrific errors made by the socialists. I must therefore oppose the amendment.
His party was socialist, his Government were socialist and his successor was a socialist; I think that there is a lot of socialist still left in the Labour party.
We will have that Friday, a day of jubilee, to come in and praise the Government for what they have done and for their wisdom and foresight. We are being kindly and charitable—nice, really—to the Opposition by not inflicting upon them the terrible experience they must have every week. None the less, I must confess that I admire the nobility of the hon. Member for Wallasey in bringing forward her amendment. For the Labour party to take this on puts one in mind of the charge of the Light Brigade. How does it go?
“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them”
Does the hon. Gentleman not care about the employment prospects of the fact checkers for Channel 4 and various journals who are regularly employed every Wednesday, including today, when the Prime Minister claimed that the bedroom tax did not apply to those with disabled children? Does he not feel for them in that they will have less work to do because the Prime Minister—I would never accuse him in this Chamber of misrepresenting the position—does not understand his own policies?
I believe it is orderly, Mr Speaker, to say that the right hon. Gentleman is guilty of terminological inexactitude. The Prime Minister said nothing about a bedroom tax, for there is no bedroom tax. The Prime Minister is somebody who deals in truth, right and justice, and therefore does not talk about things that do not exist.
I am delighted that, as always, my hon. Friend has come up with a novel argument. I hope that it is approved of by Mrs Bone, although I would have thought that she would like to have him back for Easter by Holy Wednesday, which does seem a little late to be sitting.
Let me remind the House of my admiration for the nobility of the Opposition in offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs. Perhaps it is appropriate, in the context of Holy Wednesday, for them to be thinking of sacrificial lambs. However, it is better to save them the embarrassment and humiliation of having to watch, and save the nation its pity at having to watch, the poor Leader of the Opposition being filleted by our noble, illustrious and great Prime Minister, who on every Wednesday comes forth and ensures that there is success, a spring in the step of Conservatives, and joy across the land.
This really is a most curious debate. We managed to tease out the information from the Leader of the House, slightly reluctantly on his part, that he seemed not to have been aware before he spoke that the Chancellor had announced the date of the Budget. He can rightly say, to some extent, that perhaps that should have meant that the motion would be opposed. Frankly, however, as I said to him from a sedentary position, it is the job of the Government business managers—the Leader of the House, the Chief Whip and their very able and extensive staffs—to look out for these things, let alone, perhaps, those who are in charge of the grid at No. 10, if anybody is. This is not just about the simple issue of not having a whole series of clashing announcements on one day; it is about the good management of business and the stress-testing of propositions before they see the light of day.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that none of these problems would arise if we had a House business committee? Then it would not just be a case of the Executive trying to force through such changes but of also having a committee to which every Back-Bench Member could make representations. Would that not be the answer?
In this context, I am not criticising the Executive for forcing things through but for not being on top of the job. Unfortunately, that is only too typical these days in a whole number of areas. There were several examples with the last Budget, where there were clearly issues that should never have got to the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Chief Secretary, or perhaps even other Ministers. They should have been knocked out long before by Treasury officials or special advisers.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about people not being on top of the job. Does he admit that when this was voted through on 17 December last year the Opposition knew what the date of the Budget was going to be and made the decision to support it? It was you guys who were not on top of the job because you were not aware of what you were doing that day.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) will get the hang of this place after a while.
Essentially, the Government determine the business of the House. It is absolutely right that that can be voted on, but it is the Government who work out the pattern of the parliamentary year—
Debate interrupted (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
SUPPLEMENTARY ESTIMATES 2012-13
The Speaker put the deferred Questions (Standing Order No. 54(6))
Ministry of Justice
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2013, for expenditure by the Ministry of Justice—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £1,157,003,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 894,
(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £19,950,000 as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £385,095,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.
Department for Communities and Local Government
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2013, for expenditure by the Department for Communities and Local Government—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £464,869,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 894,
(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £1,212,893,000 as so set out, and
(3) the sums authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund be reduced by £339,615,000 as so set out.
Department for Work and Pensions
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2013, for expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £507,034,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 894,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £97,653,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £2,133,672,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.
Department of Health
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2013, for expenditure by the Department of Health—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £1,244,626,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 894,
(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £1,000 as so set out, and
(3) the sums authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund be reduced by £472,479,000 as so set out.
The Speaker then put the Questions on the outstanding Estimates (Standing Order No. 55).
SUPPLEMENTARY ESTIMATES 2012-13 (ARMY) VOTE A
That, during the year ending with 31 March 2013, modifications in the maximum numbers in the Reserve Land Forces subject to additional duties commitments under section 25 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 set out in Supplementary Votes A 2012–13, HC 856, be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1 and 3 of that Act.—(Mr Evennett.)
SUPPLEMENTARY ESTIMATES 2012-13 (AIR) VOTE A
That, during the year ending with 31 March 2013, modifications in the maximum numbers in the Reserve Air Forces set out in Supplementary Votes A 2012–13, HC 856, be authorised for the purposes of Part 1 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, 2013-14 (NAVY) VOTE A
That, during the year ending with 31 March 2014, a number not exceeding 36,370 all ranks be maintained for Naval Service and that numbers in the Reserve Naval and Marines Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in Votes A 2013–14, HC 855.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, 2013-14 (ARMY) VOTE A
That, during the year ending with 31 March 2014, a number not exceeding 117,970 all ranks be maintained for Army Service and that numbers in the Reserve Land Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in Votes A 2013–14, HC 855.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, 2013-14 (AIR) VOTE A
That, during the year ending with 31 March 2014, a number not exceeding 39,200 all ranks be maintained for Air Force Service and that numbers in the Reserve Air Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in Votes A 2013–14, HC 855.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, EXCESSES, 2009-10 (AIR) VOTE A
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2010, excesses in the numbers in the Reserve Air Forces be authorised for the purposes of Part 1of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the revised maximum numbers set out in Excess Votes A, 2009–10, HC 992.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, EXCESSES, 2009-10
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2010, resources, not exceeding £1,000, be authorised for use to make good excesses of certain resources for defence and civil services as set out in Late Statement of Excesses 2009-10, HC 896.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, EXCESSES, 2010-11 (AIR) VOTE A
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2011, excesses in the numbers in the Reserve Air Forces be authorised for the purposes of Part 1 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the revised maximum numbers set out in Excess Votes A, 2010–11, HC 992.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, EXCESSES, 2010-11
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2011, resources, not exceeding £1,000, be authorised for use to make good excesses of certain resources for defence and civil services as set out in Late Statement of Excesses 2010-11, HC 896.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, EXCESSES, 2011-12 (AIR) VOTE A
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, excesses in the numbers in the Reserve Air Forces be authorised for the purposes of Part 1of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the revised maximum numbers set out in Excess Votes A, 2011–12, HC 992.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, EXCESSES, 2011-12
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012—
(1) resources, not exceeding £62,700,000, be authorised to make good excesses for use for current purposes as set out in Statements of Excesses 2011-12, HC 896, HC 994 and HC 995,
(2) resources, not exceeding £7,765,000, be authorised to make good excesses for use for capital purposes as set out in Statement of Excesses 2011-12, HC 896.— (Mr Evennett.)
SUPPLEMENTARY ESTIMATES 2012-13
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2013—
(1) resources authorised for current purposes be reduced by £2,398,590,000, in accordance with HC 894, HC 910, HC 971, HC 974 and HC 985,
(2) resources authorised for capital purposes be reduced by £5,212,562,000, in accordance with HC 894, HC 910, HC 971, HC 974 and HC 985, and
(3) the sums authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund be reduced by £3,939,090,000, in accordance with HC 894, HC 910, HC 971, HC 974 and HC 985.— (Mr Evennett.)
ESTIMATES, VOTE ON ACCOUNT, 2013-14
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2014—
(1) resources, not exceeding £216,006,686,000, be authorised, on account, for use for current purposes as set out in HC 895, HC 909, HC 926, HC 972, HC 973, and HC 986,
(2) resources, not exceeding £21,552,454,000, be authorised, on account, for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a sum, not exceeding £209,612,302,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.— (Mr Evennett.)
Ordered, That a Bill be brought in upon the foregoing Resolutions relating to Estimates, Late Excesses 2009-10 and 2010-11, Excesses 2011-12, Supplementary Estimates, 2012-13 and Estimates, 2013-14 (Vote on Account).
That the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Danny Alexander, Sajid Javid, Mr David Gauke and Greg Clark bring in the Bill.
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill
Presentation and First Reading
Mr David Gauke accordingly presented a Bill to authorise the use of resources for the years ending with 31 March 2010, 31 March 2011, 31 March 2012, 31 March 2013 and 31 March 2014; to authorise the issue of sums out of the Consolidated Fund for the years ending with 31 March 2013 and 31 March 2014; and to appropriate the supply authorised by this Act for the years ending with 31 March 2010, 31 March 2011, 31 March 2012 and 31 March 2013.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 146).
Business of the House
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 15),
That, at this day’s sitting, the Sittings of the House (22 March) Motion, in the name of Mr Andrew Lansley, may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) will not apply.—(Mr Evennett.)
Question again proposed,
That this House shall sit on Friday 22 March.
I am pleased to continue the argument. I slightly regret the absence of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who seemed to want to intervene. Maybe he has been nobbled in the meantime.
As you will recall, Mr Speaker, before we voted I made it clear, in answer to the hon. Member for City of Chester, that the Government are responsible for their own parliamentary business. With their considerable resource, they should be able to take account of the many factors required for a proper parliamentary timetable, not least with the current absence of legislation. Because they have messed up in other areas of the legislative programme, they are not actually bursting with items to be discussed.
I am greatly enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, but does he not agree with me that the Government have promised the House that they will introduce a House business committee in 2013 to avoid these circumstances arising, and that were the committee established, these unfortunate proceedings could be avoided?
It is hugely tempting to follow the hon. Gentleman down that path, but it reveals a degree of misunderstanding of how the Westminster parliamentary system works. If the committee he mentions—this will be a long debate when we get to that—is in control of the parliamentary timetable, it will effectively become the Government, because it will control Parliament. The committee might deal with a particular part of the parliamentary timetable, just as the Backbench Business Committee does. However, responsibility for the entire parliamentary timetable—and there is nothing more intrinsic to the maintenance of government than supply and this expression, “Through the Budget”—is fundamentally the role of the Queen’s Government, as determined on a daily basis by the maintenance of a parliamentary majority.
The right hon. Gentleman might be right in some respects, but were this business of the House committee to be established, it might well have on it a Government majority and be able to determine non-legislative time, even if it could not determine legislative time. Given that PMQs on Wednesday is non-legislative, I would have thought that the committee would be able to determine that the House sit on a Wednesday.
Not just of recent vintage, I said. I know the hon. Gentleman is a new Member who thinks that history started with Tony Blair’s election. I know this belief is common within the Conservative party, but actually we did have Prime Ministers—both Labour and Conservative alike—before that. I was actually thinking of Harold Macmillan, but the hon. Gentleman was probably in short trousers when he was Prime Minister.
I am interested in the line that my right hon. Friend is taking, but actually we are talking here not about the procedures of the House, but about the incompetence of the Government in handling the timetable. They have tabled this motion tonight because they did not realise that they needed the extra Friday to fit in the four days of debate on the Budget.
My hon. Friend rightly draws me back to the immediate topic, tempting, interesting and attractive though it is to discuss the broader issues of parliamentary sovereignty and procedure. He is right that most of the factors, including the date of the Budget, were well known when the motion was laid. The number of days that we traditionally take for the Budget debate was known, as too was the date of Easter. In fact, the date of Easter could have been known several decades, if not centuries, ago. The procedure for calculating Easter was decided at the Council of Nicaea in 325. At that time, they could probably have calculated when this Easter would be.
Several areas did. Of course, we would be straying into history if we noted that the last time we changed the calendar and the method of calculation, it did not work out too well and London got substantially burnt down. “Give us back our 11 days”, was the cry of the London workers.
I said 325, not 7.24.
It is absolutely right that we need a full debate on the Budget. I therefore question why the Budget needs to be on a Wednesday—I hope the Leader of the House will intervene—if we wish to fit in those four days and, quite rightly, have the Back-Bench pre-recess debate. Why not have the Budget on a Tuesday and the debate on the following days? That would work perfectly well, although I do think—mention has been made of staff who work here, and so on—that having recesses in the middle of the week rather than in full blocks can affect many people, particularly those who are trying to adjust to have holidays with family or, frankly, those without children who are trying to avoid going on holiday at the same time as those with family. Not much thought seems to have been given to how these things are organised—or, indeed, to parliamentary delegations. These partial weeks do not seem to be a particularly good idea.
The right hon. Gentleman prompts me with his talk about the Budget perhaps being on a Tuesday. For many years it was on a Tuesday, but it was changed to a Wednesday. That was before my time in the House, so I wonder whether he could tell me when the Budget was changed to Wednesday from Tuesday in the first place. Did it have anything to do with Tony Blair changing Prime Minister’s questions to Wednesday so that he could not be questioned about the unravelling of his Chancellor’s Budget the day after he had delivered it? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could help us.
I find it strange that the hon. Gentleman should talk about unravelling Budgets, given the experience of the last Budget—it was never fully ravelled, let alone unravelled. As I recall, he played some part in helping to unravel that Budget. We are happy and pleased that he took such a principled position. [Interruption.] Fortunately his Whip is in conversation with someone else and will not have noticed.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I tried to check how far back Budgets were changed from Tuesday to Wednesday. It is some way back, although I do not know whether it was anything to do with the bank rate or whatever. It is an interesting subject; unfortunately, I did not have time to research it. However, when Budgets were on a Wednesday, with PMQs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, that would have enabled questions to be asked of the Prime Minister. It would be perfectly proper—I would have thought it would be extremely helpful for the public debate—if the Budget was on a Tuesday and then the Prime Minister answered on the Wednesday. However, that is slightly separate; we would be able to fit in that time scale. What all this shows, yet again, is an inattention to detail and organising the business of the House.
My right hon. Friend is a distinguished and long-serving parliamentarian. Can he recall whether it was custom and practice under the Labour Government that if the Budget was on a Wednesday, Prime Minister’s questions were sooner than four weeks later? Is that not one of the big problems we have with the proposal before us this evening?
It is very much—this ties in with when Easter is. It would be much better not to have such substantial gaps. Given the Prime Minister’s experience of trying to answer questions about the bedroom tax and his inability to answer the questions or, even more fundamentally, show an understanding of his own legislation, that is fairly worrying.
Let me turn to the question of Fridays. I am slightly surprised by the Leader of the House’s comments—as though Friday and Wednesday were comparable in terms of the constituency pattern. Members of Parliament often establish a pattern with their local organisations—schools, charities and businesses—that ties in with having their advice bureaus on a Friday. Members will ensure that they have a full programme during the day on a Friday and, often, an advice bureau in the evening. It might be all right for Members who only have to nip up the road to St Albans if Parliament sits until 2.30 pm, but for those who have to go further afield, getting back to undertake their advice bureaus becomes a significant problem. I suspect that most Members will have publicised when and where their advice bureaus will be at least six months in advance; many will have done it a year in advance. Indeed, they will have put up posters around their constituencies to advertise them, because they had not anticipated that the Friday under discussion would be a sitting day in the Commons.
Surprisingly, the Leader of the House has said that Members can speak on other days, but that is not how things work. Usually, under a very helpful Speaker, there is a bit of flexibility with regard to Budget debates, but the reality is that particular issues are debated on particular days. Members therefore need to know when subjects in which they are interested will be the prime focus of debate.
The Leader of the House has also said that the Government do not intend to make statements, but if he does some research, he will find that statements have been made on Fridays in the past. That would make the situation even more difficult for certain Members.
The point is that it is up to the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to decide where they want to be on the Friday under discussion. If he decides that it is more important for him to turn up at the advice surgery that he has advertised six months in advance, there is nothing to prevent him from doing so, even if the proposed debate takes place. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman already does that during the House’s sitting Fridays for private Members’ Bills. He did not want to prevent the Opposition from calling for a recall of Parliament when the riots were taking place, but Members may have arranged to do other things during that summer recess.
I am not entirely sure that I follow the hon. Gentleman’s train of thought. He is right to say that debates on private Members’ Bills occur on Fridays, but Members know about them for a long time in advance. They can, therefore, set their constituency calendar some distance ahead and say, with assurance, “This is a non-sitting Friday, so there won’t be a Bill that’s of interest to my constituents and I can make arrangements.” That seems perfectly sensible. My point is that all of those elements were known and we find it slightly strange that, initially, the Leader of the House, at fairly short notice, tried to spring this change on the Commons. Fortunately that was spotted, so we are having a proper debate and exploring the issues.
It is becoming clearer that there are two fundamental issues, the first of which is the steady disorganisation of parliamentary business and the Order Paper. For example, there are increasing incidents of the House of Lords and the House of Commons not sitting during the same weeks. In some cases, that causes considerable discontinuity for Bills moving between the two Houses.
Before the right hon. Gentleman concludes his remarks—[Interruption.] We can be hopeful. If he looks at the motion, he will see that it is for the House to sit on 22 March. It does not amend the resolution of 17 December. It is the amendment that seeks to amend the resolution, the point of which was to establish the framework of recess dates, not to provide for which day, including Fridays, the House would sit. It would always have been necessary for us to come back to the question of a Friday sitting if that was the best solution. There was nothing defective about the resolution on 17 December.
I fully understand that when business is announced, it is always with the caveat that it is subject to the progress of Government business. As far as I am aware, no proposition has been advanced that this change is necessitated by the progress, or lack of it, of Government business.
If, for example, the Government had continued with their legislation on the reform of the upper House, but without a programme motion, that business might have taken up a considerable amount of time over the past few months. The Government might then have said that they had other issues that needed to be dealt with, that there had been insufficient progress on Government business at that point, and that they therefore needed an extra day. That would have been understandable, but this proposal is not of that order. A number of elements were involved, all of which were known, and the Government have mishandled it.
I mentioned the fact that the Lords and the Commons often meet in separate weeks. Many Members of Parliament are involved in groupings, organisations and even some formal bodies that go across both Houses, and it can be very difficult for people who organise events here, often in connection with extremely worthy causes and important issues, who are hoping to draw an audience of Members of both Houses. Similarly, parliamentary delegations from other countries often come here and want to meet up with fellow parliamentarians. The Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, for example, are fully integrated between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and peers and Members of the Commons are involved in them, but their events become much more difficult for them to attend because of the disconnection of the parliamentary timetable.
All those examples provide an indication that the Government felt that running Parliament was easy. They did not understand the dynamic of the Commons, in particular, and of Parliament in general. They did not understand the rhythm of the place. The change to the timing of the Queen’s Speech, for example, has had an impact. It has gradually worked its way through, but there is still some disconnect there.
The Government have introduced changes without really understanding how Parliament works, and this motion is another symptom of that. It should therefore quite properly be dealt with by the amendment, which will enable Members of Parliament to undertake their constituency activities, and enable the Prime Minister to do what he is trying to avoid doing, week after week—namely, to turn up here and answer to the Commons and to the country.
I rise to support the amendment, because in my view the House should sit on a Wednesday in preference to a Friday. I am second to none in my admiration of the skills of the Leader of the House. He is a politician of legend throughout Cambridgeshire. He has had the good grace to visit Kettering general hospital in the past, and he is a politician without equal in his knowledge of this country’s health service. I am thus second to none in admiring his political skills, but I get the impression that he is feeling his way gently into his present position, and I feel that he has misjudged this element of his portfolio.
I give him 10 out of 10 for setting out the parliamentary timetable well in advance. I really think he has done his very best to inform the House and the House authorities about when the Chamber should be sitting, but there has been a miscalculation over the Budget. I do not know whose responsibility that is. I doubt that it is the responsibility of anyone in the Leader of the House’s office. I expect that the guilty suspect probably works somewhere in No. 11 and has not communicated the dates far enough in advance to the Leader of the House. We are therefore where we are tonight.
We are debating this matter at gone 7.30 on a Wednesday evening because the House has voted for the debate to continue until any hour. If any Members were keen to get away early this evening but voted for that motion, they would have only themselves to blame.
I do not wish to detract from what the hon. Gentleman says, but many other colleagues on the Government Benches—the hon. Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley (Philip Davies)—have also been parliamentary champions. Is that not correct?
The hon. Gentleman mentions two parliamentary colleagues whom we all hold in extremely high esteem. He is quite right that they have been parliamentary champions in many respects. I have to say, however, that I am rather cross with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg)this evening, as he made an excellent speech but drew the wrong conclusions from his remarks.
If my constituents—and, I suspect, those of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty)—ever tune in to watch Parliament, they do so on two occasions: on a Wednesday at 12 o’clock to watch Prime Minister’s questions or to watch the Budget. The Opposition amendment basically conflates those two pivotal parliamentary events in the parliamentary year. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and I, in ploughing our lonely furrow and arguing that the House should rise on a Wednesday in the last Parliament, perhaps attempted the impossible in looking at the issue through the prism not of party politics but of Back-Bench opinion without any political colour applied to it. Although I welcome the amendment from Her Majesty’s official Opposition, I have to say that they have some cheek when it comes to the House rising on a Tuesday, as they were as guilty when they were in charge as are the present Government now. I would welcome an intervention by the official Opposition Front-Bench team to give us a commitment that if they ever return to office, they will pledge that the House will only ever rise on a Wednesday. I notice no stirrings on the Opposition Front Bench, which is hugely disappointing.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and I were, heaven forfend, ever to be in charge of these things, one of our first priorities would be—
Indeed. I do not want to be ruled out of order for being too hypothetical, but if there were a House business committee, I would hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) would be a member of it, if not its Chair; and if my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and I were in government, one of our first priorities would be to set up that committee and for my hon. Friend to be ennobled as its Chair. If we were in charge of these matters, we would put in place the necessary regulations for the House to rise always on a Wednesday.
I am listening attentively to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the notion of guaranteeing that the House will always rise on a Wednesday. As he is not a Liberal Democrat, I think that he is probably true to his word, but surely there will be occasions—before Christmas or Easter, for instance—when it will not be practical for that to happen. The hon. Gentleman would probably accept that if Christmas day fell on a Friday, it might be appropriate for the House to rise on a Monday or a Tuesday.
That is an interesting argument, but there would then be the danger of a long gap if the House rose on the Friday before Christmas, perhaps on 17 or 18 December, and did not reconvene until, say, 6 January. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that that would be an unsatisfactory arrangement.
Possibly, but I think that the purpose of tonight’s debate is to try to avoid the long gap that has been identified by Her Majesty’s official Opposition. That brings me back to the point about the conflation of the two events, Prime Minister’s Question Time and the Budget. When my constituents tune into the parliamentary channel on those two occasions, they do so because they are interested in what Members are saying in this place. They are particularly interested in what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to say about the Budget, and in what the Prime Minister has to say about the Budget a week later.
Is my hon. Friend suggesting that his constituents are not interested in what is said in the House on Fridays? If he were suggesting that, my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and I would be extremely disappointed.
I have done my best to apprise my constituents of the value of tuning into the parliamentary channel on one of the 13 sitting Fridays, and to lead by example by watching my hon. Friend from my room, even if I am not in the Chamber myself, and listening to his words of wisdom on so many issues. I am afraid that the message is not getting through to my constituents yet, but I will keep on trying.
My constituents do, however, want to watch Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesdays, and the problem with the motion as it stands is that they will be denied the opportunity to hear the Prime Minister being questioned on the Budget a week after it has been announced.
Let me attempt the near impossible and not view this issue through a party political prism. I think that my constituents, whichever party they vote for—and whether they vote for any party or none at all—want to hear what the Prime Minister has to say about the important issues of the day before the House rises for a long recess, and that, on any level, that is not an unreasonable proposition. I think that the Prime Minister himself would be keen to do that. What I am questioning is the advice that the Prime Minister is being given in this respect. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset observed, the Prime Minister does extremely well. Indeed, most Prime Ministers do well at Prime Minister’s Question Time. It is not a level playing field: the balance of advantage lies with the Prime Minister of the day. I think that the Prime Minister would be up for it, but I think that he is being badly advised.
I also think that the timetable proposed by the Leader of the House does a discourtesy to the House. That is to do with private Members’ Bills. Half a dozen Members have tabled important Bills for debate on 22 March, which have been listed on the Order Paper for the whole House to see for many, many weeks. Three of them have been tabled by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. Also tabled for that day are the Gift Vouchers and Insolvency Bill, the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007 (Amendment) Bill, and—perhaps most important of all—the Charities Act 2011 (Amendment) Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), which was given a Second Reading by one of the largest majorities given to any private Member's Bill in the history of the House.
I would vote for the Government motion if the Leader of the House assured me that if the Budget debate finished early on that day, the business listed for the day could then be proceeded with and include the private Members’ Bills. Would my hon. Friend support that proposition?
I certainly feel the Government should give some ground on this issue, just out of generosity to the Members I have mentioned in the course of my remarks, because those Bills would be extremely worthy legislation, and given that the parliamentary timetable is not exactly chock-a-block at present, I think there is some room for manoeuvre for the Leader of the House.
My main contention, however, is that Wednesday is, rightly or wrongly, in many respects the most important day of the parliamentary week. I think it is a great shame that following the Budget—one of the pivotal events of the parliamentary year—the House and the country are to be denied the opportunity of holding the Prime Minister to account for the contents of that Budget a week after it has been delivered. Our parliamentary democracy is eroded as a result. I will support the Opposition amendment tonight, and I hope the Leader of the House takes my remarks in the spirit in which they are offered.
I take a slightly different view. Considering what has happened with past Budgets, does my hon. Friend agree that a passage of four weeks before the Prime Minister is questioned on the Budget would give Members an opportunity to digest all the various opinions about that Budget and perhaps therefore ask more incisive questions than would be possible if they asked them immediately afterwards?
As always, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. But those Members who spend that month going over the Budget papers in the way he suggests will have the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister about them at the first Prime Minister’s questions when the House returns, but there will be other Members who will want rather swifter answers on behalf of their constituents, within a week of the Budget. The timetable currently proposed by the Leader of the House denies them that opportunity.
I will not speak for long, Mr Speaker, as I am sure that you, like many other Members, are keen to hear Fatboy Slim, who is on the Terrace this evening. I know that is why so many Members are present. Some of us remember Fatboy Slim from The Housemartins. For the benefit of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), The Housemartins were a popular beat combo from the ’80s—the 1980s.
Perhaps my broad Scottish accent is to blame, but I said beat combo. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, very familiar with a Fife accent. We had the pleasure of his company in central Fife in 1997. He mentioned cricket earlier, and was slightly surprised that cricket is played in Scotland. Dunfermline Knights are a very good cricket team. I am sure he will recall that central Fife, which is now ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), has also got a useful local cricket club. Perhaps we could arrange a visit.
First, may I commend the Leader of the House on the Government’s relatively early U-turn and the fact that we are having this debate early in the month? Some other U-turns have tended to come much closer to the date. I also want to pick up on the valid point made about Cambridgeshire’s finest parliamentarian. I think the Leader of the House has made a pretty good start to his tenure in his current distinguished and important role. I was going to suggest he was probably going to be the finest Cambridgeshire parliamentarian since Cromwell. I am conscious that we have colleagues here from across the water who will tempt me into debating Oliver Cromwell. Whatever his faults, Oliver Cromwell was always a great believer in the rights of Parliament to hold the—
Order. These exchanges are most entertaining but they are somewhat wide of the mark. I cannot encourage the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) to dilate any further on the matter of Cromwell. He must dilate, if he has to dilate, on the terms of the matter before us, which I feel sure he will now do.
I am grateful for that, Mr Speaker; of course, I never require any encouragement to do something.
I have the privilege of serving on both the Administration Committee and the Procedure Committee, and it is with those hats on that I wish to focus the majority of my remarks. Nobody has been a greater champion of parliamentary outreach than you, Mr Speaker. I think that the House would agree that in your time in the Chair you have done a vast amount to encourage Parliament to reach out, to open its doors and to do more to get the public in to see Parliament in action. The Leader of the House should be careful about what he wishes for in his motion. I am sure that he will have the answers to the following questions to hand, because he is an astute Minister. Will he clarify what discussions his office has had with the indomitable Mrs Aileen Walker who, as you know, Mr Speaker, is in charge of the tour office? I have the pleasure of serving on the Administration Committee with my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). You will know, Mr Speaker, that our tours are constantly over-subscribed. Will the Leader of the House clarify how many members of the public—how many taxpayers—who have booked travel well in advance to come down on the Friday to see Parliament in all its fine glory will not now have an opportunity to walk here on the Floor of the House of Commons because the Leader of the House wishes to take away that very valuable part of our democratic process? I hope that he has the figures to hand. I note that he is deep in conversation with one of his parliamentary colleagues, but I am sure he will be able to respond with those figures.
We also have to address the important issue of the staff of the House. Again, you have been a champion of looking after them, Mr Speaker. Has the Leader of the House had discussions with the Clerk of the House and with the trade unions about the disruption that will be caused to their plans? It is fair to say that our staff work incredibly hard, particularly those in Hansard, who do so much to clean up the expression of our thoughts. Has the Leader of the House made sure that they are not going to be unduly inconvenienced by having to come in on that Friday? He is clearly deep in thought about how he responds on that point.
On the issue of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) raised a valid point about the sitting Fridays. I will not be tempted into explaining the contents of private Members’ Bills, but at this afternoon’s Procedure Committee sitting we had the Clerk Assistant, Mr David Natzler, as well as Miss Kate Emms and Mr Simon Patrick, and we were asking the Clerks what happens to those private Members’ Bills. As I understand it—you will correct me if my understanding is at all inaccurate, Mr Speaker—without the Leader of the House’s consent, those Bills cannot be placed on the Order Paper for the Friday. That would look extraordinarily confusing to people outside Parliament; they would see the Bills on the Friday but those Bills would not be able to be taken. So will the Leader of the House guarantee the House today that, as the hon. Member for Kettering proposed, if, for whatever reason, Members on either side finished early in the Budget debate on the Friday, the six Bills we have at the moment—I suspect, depending on the Leader of the House’s answer, that the number may grow—will be placed on as orders so that they can be considered? That is an important issue to clear up before we decide how to vote in this debate.
Order. I follow the logic and development of the argument made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), but I counsel him against pursuing the point about the treatment of private Members’ Bills any further. I politely suggest that the question of whether the House should sit on the relevant Friday stands as it is and that the intention is for the Budget debate to be conducted. The question of what would or would not be the treatment of private Members’ Bills does not arise, as the proposition is either that the House sits on that day to consider the matters in the Budget or that it does not sit on that day. I know that he would not want to refer to a diversionary matter. He has made his reference and I am sure that he is now moving on in the development of his argument.
As ever, Mr Speaker, I know exactly where I am heading and I think I have placed my marker down on that point.
The Friday after the Budget, as colleagues on both sides of the House have mentioned, is normally a day for visiting our constituencies and for going to see our loved ones, our staff and our constituents. Over the past couple of years, I have attended a post-Budget seminar organised by a local accountancy firm, Thomson Cooper. It is always hugely informative and I am sure that many other colleagues take part in similar events on the Friday. I find Mr Andrew Croxford’s presentation extremely enlightening and often come back with nuggets of information that I am able to use in the following week’s Budget debates. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, judging from last year’s performance, could probably benefit from finding an accountancy firm in Cheshire that could do a similar exercise for him.
As a good parliamentarian, I will make every effort to be in the Chamber on the Friday to take part in the debate and I will therefore have the opportunity to take part in the post-Budget analysis. As my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House has pointed out, it will perhaps benefit everyone, including the Chancellor.
Although I was persuaded by the case being made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I am less persuaded by the case that the hon. Gentleman is making. These are the kind of decisions that people have to make. The hon. Gentleman does not have to be in the Chamber for the Budget debate on the Friday. If he has a better date somewhere else, he can make the decision to be somewhere else. The same applies when Parliament is recalled during recess, as people might well have things organised and they then have to make the choice about which is most important. Surely the same applies in this case.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He and I have shared quite a few Fridays over the past year and I must attest that the debates are extremely good. In fact, I would suggest that the quality of debate on Fridays is often of a higher standard than that of some of the other debates we have had in the past year.
The key point is that the Government announced the Friday sitting dates as long ago as last May. Some reference has been made to the fact that this motion was tabled in December, but the sitting Fridays were set out 10 months ago. At that point, the Leader of the House’s predecessor did not say that this Friday would be coming up. A number of colleagues will have made constituency plans and will have engagements that it will be difficult for them to break. For those who come from Belfast and elsewhere, travelling back to their constituencies on a Friday afternoon can be quite challenging. Anyone who has been to City airport or Heathrow knows how busy they can be. The fact is that the House will be sitting until 2.30 pm, and if our constituencies are outside the M25, it will become difficult to engage at all with our constituents on that Friday.
I also disagree with the logic of the Leader of the House when he states that the dates are published and cannot be changed. I am not yet aware that the Government have announced the date for the Queen’s Speech or for Prorogation. Someone who was not a parliamentarian or a knowledgeable member of the public might think, looking at the calendar, that once the House came back on 15 April it would sit right through until the recess on 21 May. I am probably not giving anything away if I say that we expect this Session to finish at the end of April, and there will then be a recess. The logic that the Leader of the House seems to have applied—that because dates have been published, those dates are fixed—falls when it is subjected to scrutiny.
The Leader of the House also referred to the fact that the Budget date was set for March in December. Given the Chancellor’s record on U-turns, we on the Opposition Benches were not entirely convinced that that would hold water; of course, the autumn statement took place in December. I know, Mr Speaker, that Buckinghamshire is a wonderful, delightful county and that every day must feel like a summer’s day in Buckinghamshire, but in Dunfermline and West Fife it is probably fair to say that 5 December certainly feels like we are into winter, rather than autumn. The Leader of the House should not labour the argument that the date was set and fixed several months ago. Perhaps he should reflect that the Chancellor would have more credibility on these dates if he once in a while stuck to what he said he was going to do.
A valid point was made about the House business committee. May I gently correct some of the assumptions made by Government Members? My understanding, having read the Wright report, is that the chair of the House business committee would be the Leader of the House. There is a fair possibility that the hon. Member for Kettering may receive a promotion in the near future, and he may become the Leader of the House, but my understanding is that he would have to be the Leader of the House in order to chair the House business committee.
Order. I seek to be helpful to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I say to him in that regard two things. First, those are speculative matters. They are not matters set in concrete, and there is potential for all sorts of different views. Secondly, if it is of interest to the hon. Gentleman, who is a keen if not anorakish student of parliamentary matters, I can advise him that I myself made a lengthy speech on this subject at the university of Hull in February last year, but I do not encourage him to seek to emulate the length of my oration on this occasion.
May I humbly suggest, Mr Speaker, that you place a copy of that speech in the Library? I am sure all Members would benefit from an opportunity to share your wisdom and your thoughts on the matter. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to update the House as to when he will be making his announcement on the House business committee. I will not press the matter any further, beyond saying that we all look forward to his thoughts on that issue in due course.
A valid point was raised about the role of the Prime Minister in relation to the Budget. I confess that it has been a while since I have been invited to Downing street. I am sure I am on the guest list for the current temporary occupant’s next supper club, but I have been led to believe that it says on the plaque on the door, “First Lord of the Treasury”. I am not an eminent parliamentarian like you, Mr Speaker, but I understand that the First Lord of the Treasury is notionally in charge of the Treasury, so it is not unreasonable to expect the First Lord of the Treasury, in his capacity as Prime Minister, to be able to answer some basic questions in the week after the Budget.
I stand to be corrected by eminent parliamentarians such as yourself, Mr Speaker, but from my brief research I can discover only one occasion in the past 15 years when a Prime Minister did not take questions within a week or so of the Budget. From the evidence of the past two years, one might think that the Prime Minister did not do detail and did not have a full grip of the answers that he might need to give to questions from Members on both sides of the House. I accept that the Prime Minister needs some “chillaxing” time. I understand that there is an updated version of Fruit Ninja available for the iPad. For the benefit of the hon. Member for North East Somerset, the iPad is a modern piece of technology favoured by many distinguished parliamentarians and is worth investigating.
However, if the Prime Minister did find that he had other engagements, he is of course entitled to delegate. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has been trying for some time, and I think with some success, to find out who is supposed to deputise for the Prime Minister. Some might suggest that it is the Deputy Prime Minister—perhaps the clue is in the title. To the best of my knowledge, the Deputy Prime Minister has been let loose at the Dispatch Box for Prime Minister’s questions on only two or three occasions—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who is far more knowledgeable than I am, confirms that that has happened on only two occasions.
Perhaps the Leader of the House can confirm whether that is because the Prime Minister does not think that the Deputy Prime Minister is up to the job, or is it because, after the Eastleigh by-election result, he is concerned that the Deputy Prime Minister—I will try to keep a straight face—might outshine him? Is the Prime Minister concerned that the two parties might contradict each other, as we saw on the first occasion, when the Prime Minister’s press office had to clarify several of the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks? Of course, on one occasion when the Prime Minister was unavailable he got the Foreign Secretary to stand in for him.
It would be helpful if the Leader of the House confirmed whether the Prime Minister is available on the Wednesday after the Budget. Is he on important Government business? Is he intending to “chillax”? Is he planning to visit any of the constituencies? [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) asks a valid question: is he planning to visit a food bank? It would be a useful opportunity if he visited a food bank and spoke to some constituents.
After the Prime Minister’s performance today I understand why the Leader of the House is so admirably trying to defend the indefensible. It is quite clear that, despite the soft drinks proffered last night, my right hon. Friend the Leader of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition wiped the floor with the Prime Minister. For that reason, I understand why the Leader of the House is reluctant for the Prime Minister to man up and come to the Chamber to face up to his decisions.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I do not agree with all the comments he made, but the gist of his speech was very good. I rise to support the amendment. Were I sitting on the Opposition side of the House, I would support a similar amendment. Of course, I supported similar motions and amendments in the previous Parliament, as did my friends on the Front Bench, but they seem to have changed their position. It is also rather interesting that the shadow Ministers, when they were in government, took exactly the opposite position to the one they are taking today. It is the national union of Executives that we have to deal with tonight. Parliament—the mother of Parliaments—should decide the timetable, and it should do so through a House business committee. If that were the case, we would not have debates such as this one.
I want to deal with some of the points that have not been touched on. Members have pointed out that business is listed as provisional, and of course that is always the case; it says that on the handy card showing the calendar. The only way there could be an extra sitting day is if business has not been proceeded with. If business had not been proceeded with, obviously the Budget could be on an earlier day. We therefore have to assume that business has not proceeded as the Leader of the House wanted.
I should have taken the opportunity at the beginning of my speech to apologise to the House and to the Leader of the House for not being here early enough to hear all his comments. Unfortunately, I was in another part of the Palace and had made the real mistake—I apologise profusely for it—of listening to my Whips, who told me that this business would not start until after 7 o’clock. I will never make that mistake again.
No, that is an outrageous slur; I just put it down to incompetence. On a more serious note, the abuse from the Whips has already started, and I am still in the Chamber, so when we get out of the Chamber there will be even more. That is a bad thing for this House.
Going to the heart of the matter, the real problem is that Prime Minister’s questions has gone down to one day a week on the Wednesday. If it were still two days a week on the Tuesday and the Thursday, it would not really matter what day the House rose on, because there would be an opportunity to scrutinise the Prime Minister close to the rising of the House.
There is a principle involved that is not just to do with this motion. I gently say to the shadow Leader of the House that she is being a little opportunist in making a political point rather than taking the politics out of it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) wanted to do. There is a strong argument for the House not rising for a recess on a Monday or a Tuesday other than in very exceptional cases. It should rise on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and then we would get rid of all these problems.
My hon. Friend said that it would not make any difference if there were Prime Minister’s questions on a Tuesday and a Thursday, but in fact it would make a difference in this case. If there were Prime Minister’s questions on the Tuesday, the Budget would follow immediately afterwards. If the House then rose on the Thursday, that would mean that it rose on Maundy Thursday. As my hon. Friend shares my views about the Christian religion, I am sure he agrees that that would not be a sensible idea.
I hate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but the timing of the Budget is entirely at the discretion of the Executive. They have chosen to have it so late and that has caused all these problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) made an absolutely first-class speech, as always, but drew completely the wrong conclusions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) did make some very good and eloquent points, given the recent scandal over the adulteration of food, the Food Standards Agency should possibly look at Her Majesty’s Sandringham apple juice?
I want to keep very closely to the subject of the motion, and I think that that is straying rather wide.
I feel exceptionally strongly about this issue and the fact that Parliament—[Interruption.] The Whips are already having a go at me from a sedentary position. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) asked why I was not here at the beginning of the debate. I have already explained that to the House. I am really annoyed by the attitude of the Whips in this place. That is what brings this House into disrepute. They do not care about Parliament; all they care about is getting Executive business through. They are shameful. I wish my private Member’s Bill had gone through, as that would have abolished them.
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36.)
The House proceeded to a Division.
Amendment proposed: (a), leave out from ‘shall’ to end and add
‘, notwithstanding the Resolution of 17 December 2012, sit on Wednesday 27 March and at its rising on that day adjourn until 15 April 2013.’.—(Ms Angela Eagle.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House shall sit on Friday 22 March.