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Business of the House (2 December)

Volume 571: debated on Tuesday 26 November 2013

Debate resumed.

Question (25 November) again proposed,

That at the sitting on Monday 2 December, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr Andrew Lansley relating to select committee statements and the Motion in the name of Mr Charles Walker relating to backbench business (amendment of standing orders) not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first of those Motions; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings on those Motions may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.

It is good to have a reasonable slot in which to expand on the remarks that I was making just before 10 o’clock last night, and it is good to see that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is on the Front Bench and in a position to explain a bit of the background to the motion.

Indeed: all the background.

The purpose of the motion is to enable the House to sit until as late as 11.30 pm on Monday, or even later, in order to consider two motions, one of which proposes to amend Standing Orders. I wanted to know why the Leader of the House had decided that the business should be debated so late on Monday, after a Second Reading debate on the important Mesothelioma Bill. Why could it not be debated at some other time? I believe that the motion proposing amendments to Standing Orders has been on the Order Paper for a long time, and I understand from contacts that I have had with my own Whip that the Government are concerned about the possibility that the House will divide at 10 pm on Monday. The business is highly contentious, which is why Members have been told that they will not be allowed to be “slipped”, or that slips that had been granted to them have been withdrawn. That suggests the Government regard it as highly contentious. If they do, it is all the more reason it should be given a primetime slot, rather than pushed towards midnight on Monday.

On a more serious point, the motion restricts the amount of time during which the two issues can be debated. It states that

“the Questions necessary to dispose of the proceeding on the Motion…relating to select committee statements and the Motion in the name of”

the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, including on amendments, shall be put

“not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of those proceedings”.

That means that a maximum of three quarters of an hour is being given to each subject, including for the discussion of amendments and for votes on the first motion before the second motion is debated.

I am speaking now on the last item of business on a Tuesday afternoon before the Adjournment debate. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), whose Adjournment debate it is, could therefore have an extended debate on the defence police and fire pensions review until 7.30 pm. I cannot understand why the business on 2 December is being so dealt with and why effectively we have to suspend Standing Orders and move this business motion. I am not normally of a suspicious disposition, but this raises various questions.

Does my hon. Friend think it bizarre that this motion could be debated for longer than the 90 minutes allotted for the actual debate next week?

Order. That depends on the debate staying in order. Its subjects are the length of the debate proposed—an hour and a half—and its timing, which, as Mr Chope has said, is next Monday.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Indeed, I tried to limit my remarks to those two issues: the length of the debate and its timing next Monday. I look forward to hearing an explanation from the Leader of the House.

I am puzzled by my hon. Friend’s view that after 10 pm on Monday is not a good time for debating these issues. What on earth else would anybody rather do than come to the House and debate these important matters?

I would be happy, as I am sure my hon. Friend would be too, to debate these issues until 1, 2 or 3 o’clock on Tuesday morning, should the need arise. That is why, as I said, the more serious of my concerns is the time limit rather than the timing. Obviously, he and I will participate in the debate at whatever time is set down, but we need to think about how easily people outside can follow our proceedings.

I am concerned about my hon. Friend; he is becoming a bit of a leftie and a liberal. Is he really suggesting that the House should sit 9 to 5? That is outrageous.

That is a gross exaggeration of my position. I was suggesting to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that we should sit until we concluded the business, but that one advantage of having debates earlier—during primetime, as the Government would put it—is that they would be more likely to attract more interest from people scrutinising our affairs, who would not have to look at the historical record, but could watch it as it was happening.

I am sorry that I misunderstood my hon. Friend’s point. I think he said earlier that slips were being cancelled and that people were being whipped, but that cannot possibly be right, because this is House business, and House business cannot be whipped.

With respect, I would prefer the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) not to answer that point. The purpose of the debate is to discuss only the date and the allocation of time. Nothing else is relevant to the specifics that we are dealing with.

With regard to the date and time of the debate in question, why does my hon. Friend think so many Members will be present?

Madam Deputy Speaker, the sooner you are able to participate fully in our debates, the better. I invite you to come down and join the throng.

I am simply concerned that, at that late hour, some Members might be tempted to go to nightclubs and things like that. It would be distressing if we were to have the debate at a time when that might happen.

I hope that when the debate takes place, it will be allowed a longer period of time than the motion currently provides for, and that it will have a similar spirit of good humour to the one that is prevailing in this short debate. I see no reason for extending this debate; I am making only a short point. Why does the Leader of the House need to close down debate on these issues and limit the discussion to 45 minutes on each of the two subjects, one of which has been the subject of a Government amendment to the motion tabled by the Procedure Committee? If we are going to encourage Members to participate to the full in the work of the Select Committees, including the Procedure Committee, the least we can do is allow proper time for colleagues to debate and question the proposals of those Committees.

I do not think that 45 minutes for each subject is sufficient, and I would be interested to hear why the Leader of the House thinks that those time limits are sufficient and appropriate, particularly as we have quite a lot of surplus time available now. I was talking to a journalist earlier, and he suggested that the business for next week seemed extremely light. I put these questions to the Leader of the House in a spirit of friendship. I know that, even though he does not always succeed, he tries hard to accommodate the needs of Back Benchers.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who has made a lot of important points. My concern is the restriction of time for the debate to one and a half hours. We shall be discussing important changes to the way in which Back-Bench business is debated in the House. When this Parliament came into being, the Backbench Business Committee came into force and we took great steps towards greater transparency and accountability. That is to the great credit of the Government, but I am worried that there is sometimes a temptation for them to row back slightly in this regard.

The Leader of the House might well have a good explanation for the decision to limit the debate to one and a half hours. If he does not think that the debate will take more than that length of time, there is no need to bring in the restriction. If, however, he thinks that Members might want to speak for longer on this important matter, surely they should be able to do so. There seems to be no point in curtailing the debate, especially as the motion states that it will be allowed to

“continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption”.

The Government have been very good on the questions of transparency and accountability and it is a shame that, on occasions such as these, they seem to row back a bit.

As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for their good-natured contributions. It is entirely right that they should ask a number of questions about this motion as the time permits. It might be sensible if I make it clear that the business of the House motion has two main effects. First, it allows the House to take the two motions together for debate. Given that both relate to the work of the Backbench Business Committee, that seemed entirely sensible, as it would not otherwise have been possible for them to be brought together in one debate. Secondly, it specifies a maximum time for debate of one and a half hours, as my hon. Friends have noted. My view is that that is an entirely sensible period to allow for this debate. I freely admit that that is a judgment about the amount of time in which the issues that arise on these two motions are likely to be debated. My personal view is that the second motion, relating to the capacity for Select Committee reports to be launched, will not detain the House for long, as we have seen in practice, but it needs to be regularised in the structure of the provision of Backbench Business Committee time.

I thank the Leader of the House for the explanation he has given so far. If the motions had been tabled separately, he would almost certainly have granted one and a half hours for each of them. I do not think he would have granted a 45-minute debate; so a good compromise might be to extend the total time to three hours.

I think I have explained straightforwardly the judgment I have made, which is that the two motions relating to the work of the Backbench Business Committee in the House can be brought together perfectly sensibly. The latter motion, which I understand has the support of the Chairs of the Liaison Committee and the Backbench Business Committee, would not detain us at any great length. From my point of view, in order to protect Government time, it is important for us to ensure that we have allowed these motions to be brought forward for the House to debate. I freely admit to the House that it has been difficult to find Government time. The Backbench Business Committee, as my hon. Friends will know, does not have the capacity to use its own time to bring forward its own motions relating to itself. [Interruption.] That is a separate debate, but the Committee does not have that capacity under the Standing Orders. For these motions to be debated, Government time has to be used, and so I have looked, along with my colleagues, to ensure that we find such an opportunity. That has been difficult and we have made the appropriate judgment in securing the possibility of time.

It is entirely a matter of speculation as to whether the Mesothelioma Bill will absorb all the time through to 10 pm. The assumption being made is that it will do so, and if it does, so be it. If we commence this debate after the moment of interruption, I do not want it to extend for a long period beyond 10 pm, although I am happy for the debate to go beyond 10 pm if necessary.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point—he says that he does not want the debate to go on for more than one and a half hours after the moment of interruption. Unfortunately, that is not what his motion says. His motion says that it cannot go on for more than one and a half hours after it starts. Perhaps he would be willing to withdraw this business motion and table an amended motion saying that we could have the maximum of one and a half hours after the moment of interruption.

I point out to my hon. Friend that I have said two things. I have said, first, that I do not think that the debate requires more time than one and a half hours, and it is Government time that we have found for the purpose. I have said, secondly, that I would not wish it to go for more than one and a half hours beyond the moment of interruption. It does not follow that I think it requires three hours—in any circumstances.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch questioned the need for the Standing Orders to be amended. He knows that this motion exempts the business from both the moment of interruption and the Standing Order relating to deferred Divisions, and he will understand that Standing Orders are amended regularly for such purposes. The motions for debate next Monday result from the work of the Procedure Committee, and it is right that the House is given the opportunity to resolve those issues.

To follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, it would be a pity if we went home early on Monday, would it not? If the earlier debate were to finish well before 8.30 pm, it would be a shame if the House’s business came to an end before the normal hour of closure.

In scheduling business, my purpose is to ensure that there is time available for all the business. My objective is not to fill time. I say gently to my hon. Friends that they could have raised the matter when I announced provisional business at business questions last Thursday. They have done so in the past. They have raised issues after business questions and, on occasions, I have taken those issues away and we have amended the timing and the character of business. In this particular instance, I have to say that the motion relating to Back-Bench business has been on the Order Paper since before the summer recess. It relates to a report published by the Procedure Committee in November 2012. It has taken us more time than we would have wished to bring it forward. The Procedure Committee was rightly keen that we should schedule that business. We have done so, and we have given it adequate time. From my point of view, I hope that the House will allow the business to go forward as proposed in motion 9, which I moved yesterday.

Question put and agreed to.