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Business of the House

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2015

Mr Speaker, with your permission, I should like to make a short business statement about tomorrow’s business. The main business for tomorrow will now be a debate on a motion relating to ISIL in Syria and United Nations Security Council resolution 2249. The business for Thursday remains as previously announced: Second Reading of the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [Lords].

Members will wish to know that, subject to the House’s agreement later today, oral questions to the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister will not be taken tomorrow. The oral questions rota will be republished, and Cabinet Office questions will take place on Wednesday 9 December. The results of the ballots for both Question Times will be retained, and Members will not need to resubmit their questions. I will make my usual business statement on Thursday.

Last week, I warmly commended the Prime Minister for the way he had treated the House thus far on Syria, and I only wish I could say the same today. The truth is that the Government never really intended to proceed tomorrow with the business announced last Thursday. They always intended to make an emergency business statement today, to abandon tomorrow’s Opposition day and to hold the vote tomorrow. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), the Prime Minister’s apprenticeship adviser, blurted it out in yesterday’s debate. Why did the Leader of the House not come clean last Thursday, as I suggested?

Would it not have been better form to give MPs proper notice of the debate? Would it not be better form for the Government to abandon their own business, rather than Opposition business? Would it not have been better form to have told the House first? I confess that when I heard yesterday that the Prime Minister was going to make a statement on Syria, I innocently presumed he would make it to the House of Commons. “Oh no”, I was told by a Government Whip, “He’s in Paris. He can’t.” No he was not, Mr Speaker. At 8 pm last night, he announced, not to the House but on television, that the debate would be tomorrow, and he was not in Paris; he was all of 300 yards away, in the Cabinet room in Downing Street. He should have come here. His own ministerial code says that the most important announcements of Government policy must be made to the Commons first. The proper course of action would have been a supplementary business statement at 10 pm last night, and if he could not make it, the Leader of the House should have done so, and insisted on doing so, as the servant of this House, not just of the Government.

There is another problem. I gather that the motion has only just been tabled, meaning it will not be on the Order Paper until tomorrow. Yet again, that means the House will have to consider manuscript amendments. So on one of the most important issues we face—the security of our country, the safety of the people of Syria and our own armed forces—we are expected to frame our opinion on a motion we have not even seen yet. We asked for a two-day debate. I did so two weeks ago, and the Leader of the Opposition repeated that call yesterday. I recognise that the Government have tabled motions to allow a longer day than usual tomorrow, but what is the hurry?

Last week, 103 Members took part in the statement on Syria, and most will want to take part in tomorrow’s debate. Many of the 182 new Members will also want to lay out their reasons for supporting or not supporting the Government on a matter that is highly contested, and many will want to press the Prime Minister on his claims about the 70,000 Free Syria Army troops he says are standing ready to move into Raqqa. My own position on the substantive motion is on the record—I think we have to degrade and defeat ISIL—but I also said last week that the House would not take kindly to being bounced into the vote.

The Prime Minister himself said last week:

“I want us to consider this and to think it through. I do not want anyone to feel that a good process has not been followed, so that if people agree with the case being put, they can in all conscience vote to support it.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1503.]

We will all be exercising our consciences tomorrow, but this is not a good process. We now have to abandon Cabinet Office and Prime Minister’s questions and an Opposition day on mental health and the effect of the autumn statement on women. We will consider a motion that will appear on the Order Paper only on the day that we are debating it and we may have to consider manuscript amendments.

All in all, surely to heavens, this is no way to treat the House, our voters or, indeed, our armed forces. Far from inspiring confidence in the Government’s judgment, shenanigans of this nature seriously undermine it.

I have to say that I cannot agree with the shadow Leader of the House’s analysis. Let us take this in turn.

The hon. Gentleman says that the Prime Minister announced tomorrow’s debate on TV yesterday. What I would say to the House is that the Cabinet discussed the matter this morning. What the Prime Minister said last night was that he would ask the Cabinet to consider a proposition. The Cabinet considered and discussed this matter this morning and reached a decision, and therefore brought the matter to the House as quickly as possible after the conclusion of that Cabinet decision.

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that it is not true. I can only say to him again that, in a Government that believe in Cabinet Government, it is right and proper that a decision of this magnitude should be taken and discussed around the Cabinet table, and that is what took place this morning.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the moving of the Opposition day. I absolutely accept the importance of the issue of mental health. We will, of course, re-provide that Opposition day at an early opportunity and the Opposition will be able to bring that important subject to the House, but I am sure he would not disagree that the matters tomorrow morning are of the utmost importance to this country and should be brought before this House at an early opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the opportunity for debate and discussion. I would simply say to him that, over the past week, we had a two-hour statement from the Prime Minister last Monday, a two-and-a-half-hour statement from the Prime Minister last Thursday— 78 people spoke in the first; 103 spoke in the second—and a Back-Bench debate yesterday for five hours, with 41 speeches. Tomorrow’s debate is the equivalent of two normal days’ debate in terms of length. As for the idea that we have been bounced into the vote, in total this matter will have been discussed in the House for 20 hours since last Monday.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the timing of the motion. We have taken care to ensure that in tabling the motion we have listened to views in all parts of the House. I make no apology for taking time to listen and consider those views and coming up with a motion that I believe reflects the views of the majority of Members of this House and that will, I believe and hope, command the support of the House tomorrow. I am absolutely confident that we are doing not only the right thing procedurally, but also, if we vote that way tomorrow, the right thing for this country.

Over the weekend the Foreign Secretary said that this was a very important matter and a matter of conscience, and he therefore called on the Labour party to provide a free vote. I take it we will not be having a free vote on this side of the House—I am not even going to press the Leader of the House on that, because I know the answer will be no—but he must know that it is not only on the Opposition Benches that people are agonising about this. There are many Conservative Members of Parliament who have very serious questions that they want to put tomorrow and, depending on the answers, they will not necessarily vote for the motion tomorrow. Could we therefore not extend the debate even further? Do we have to have the vote at seven? Could we not have it at 10?

If the answer is yes, I will be very happy with that, but how will manuscript amendments to the motion be published? If, say, a Back Bencher such as myself wanted to table a manuscript amendment on the basis of a proportionate response, how will it be published and debated, if at all?

First, the motion is available in the Table Office now; I would encourage my hon. Friend to take a look at that.

The motion was tabled a few minutes ago; it is available in the Table Office now.

What I would say to my hon. Friend is that we are providing time to go beyond 7 o’clock tomorrow, to 10 o’clock. We have sought to provide what is the equivalent of two days of debate. A 10-and-a-half-hour debate tomorrow is effectively equivalent to the time we would have if we held the debate over a two-day period, so I hope he will sense that we have given an adequate amount of time for this debate.

My hon. Friend has concerns, but he should realise that this is a matter of concern to every single Member of the House, and that a decision such as this is never taken lightly by any Member of Parliament. If he has concerns and wants further information, he can talk to me and colleagues in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence afterwards—we would be happy to discuss the issue further.

There must be few, if any, Members who will not be agonising over how to vote, so it would be useful if everyone had a free vote. Does the Leader of the House recognise that unlike his Cabinet colleagues, he has a special responsibility to Members of this House? On such a crucial issue and however we vote on it, I imagine it must be difficult for people outside to understand why we are confining debate to one day, albeit with extended time. Why is it impossible for the House of Commons to provide at least two full days of debate? We could end up with a situation in which Members are desperate to speak, and a good number might not be able to express a view on behalf of themselves and their constituents. Those who are called in the final stages might be limited to three minutes. It is simply wrong to undertake debate in this way on such a crucial issue of war and peace.

I absolutely accept—the hon. Gentleman is right to say it—that this is a crucial issue of conscience for many Members. However, the timing of tomorrow’s debate is effectively the equivalent of the amount of time that would have been available if we had held a debate across Wednesday and Thursday on normal business days for this House. It provides one extended debate on a single day, which I think makes for a more coherent debate over that extended period. It will start earlier than normal and finish much later than normal. I hope that will give Members of all parties the opportunity to contribute.

Of course, all votes in the House of Commons are free, and Members will make up their own minds on this issue. I do not think a single Member will vote on the basis of what the Whips tell them.

The shadow Leader of the House has a point about the motion. We have not seen it, so how can anyone decide whether to vote for or against it. It is a shame that we are voting at a time so close to the publication of the motion. As I argued at business questions, we can have a compromise position between the Leader of the House who wants one day and the shadow Leader of the House who wants two days by having the debate tomorrow without putting on any time limit. Anyone should be able to speak for as long as they like and if that means having the vote at 2 o’clock in the morning, so be it. People out there would realise that we were taking this matter seriously. Will my right hon. Friend consider this point again?

On the issue of the motion, let me repeat to my hon. Friend that we have taken the time to consult Members on all sides to try to ensure that we have a motion to vote upon tomorrow that reflects the concerns that Members have raised. If we have done so and taken the time to deliver the right motion, I make no apology for that. On the matter of the length of tomorrow’s debate, I simply think that 10 and a half hours, combined with all the opportunities we have had over the last 10 days, is sufficient to get the decision taken and the vote done. If the decision of the country is to do what the Government recommend, we will give our armed forces the support they need to deliver that mandate.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the short business statement this morning. We remain profoundly disappointed about the way in which the Government have progressed the matter of tomorrow’s business. It would have been so easy for the Leader of the House to announce last Thursday when this debate would happen in order to give us plenty of opportunity to consider a motion and have proper amendments put into it. The motion could have been debated, assessed and considered before we went into such an important vote tomorrow. This is not the Chancellor’s potholes; this is the country going to war and inflicting air strikes on another country. It is really important to get the opportunity to consider the issue properly.

I have a copy of the Government’s motion, which has just been presented, but it is not even in the Vote Office, so it is not available for Members to have a proper look at. This means that there will be no real opportunity to table amendments. Only manuscript amendments from right hon. and hon. Members will be possible. I see the Chief Whip shaking his head, but it is not in the Vote Office, so we cannot properly consider it.

I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wanted to table serious and considered amendments to the motion, but now they will only have the opportunity to table manuscript amendments. It is so disappointing that, once again, we do not have two days in which to discuss the issue properly—two days for which we have been asking for the past few weeks. We are trying to shoehorn two days into one, and abandoning Prime Minister’s questions so that the Leader of the House can do this. I ask him once more—please—to reconsider.

The motion on the Order Paper refers to “ISIL in Syria”, although this has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. When will people get it into the Government’s head that we should use the word “Daesh” when referring to what is going on in Syria?

We in the Scottish National party will constitute an effective opposition to what the Government are to propose tomorrow. In view of that, will the Leader of the House be sure to keep us up to date and informed of any developments that take place in the next 24 hours?

Let me begin by setting out clearly what the Government propose that we should do. I must first take up the hon. Gentleman’s point about going to war. Britain has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq, with a mandate from the House, for a considerable time, and the motion simply allows us to extend that work so that we can degrade ISIL in the areas of Syria in which it is operating.

The motion was tabled in the Table Office after the opening of business today, in the normal way. As I said earlier, it was tabled today because we had taken time to consult Members, to listen to the concerns that were expressed in different parts of the House, and to ensure that we reflected those concerns in the final version of the motion.

The hon. Gentleman asked why I had not come to the House last Thursday. The answer is, very simply, that no decision had been made last Thursday. No final decision was made until the Cabinet met this morning. He also talked about the time that had been allocated. I repeat that we have allocated to one day, rather than two, the equivalent of the time that would have been available if we had operated normal days on Wednesday and Thursday. I believe that that has created a more sensible, single structure for a debate that can run consistently from end to end.

My right hon. Friend has said twice that the motion was tabled today in the ordinary way, but a few minutes ago the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said that it was not available. I think that I just saw him handing someone’s iPad back. I note that, at 12.33, the editor of PoliticsHome tweeted an image of a motion that appears to be “the motion”. May I ask my right hon. Friend to be crystal clear? At what time was the motion tabled, and might it not have been better if the hon. Member for Rhondda had been provided with a copy before the statement?

The motion was tabled in the Table Office shortly before midday, and it is currently available to Members there. Let us be absolutely clear about that. It is currently available to Members.

It is clear that many Members in all parts of the House will want to participate in the debate, and it is clear that, given the importance of the matter, it will be a travesty if Members are limited to very short speeches lasting three or four minutes. May I appeal to the Leader of the House—and, indeed, to the Government in general—to ensure that the Front-Bench speeches do not take an inordinately long time, as they sometimes do, especially in the light of the fact that the speech from the Opposition Front Bench will actually be an expression of personal views?

I think that we may hear two different sets of views from the Opposition Benches. However, the right hon. Gentleman has made a sensible point, and I will certainly communicate it to my colleagues. I do want Members to have an opportunity to contribute. Many will, of course, seek to do so by means of interventions, but I will convey the right hon. Gentleman’s point to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we had a long and considered debate on the middle east yesterday, during which many Members on both sides of the House were able to make strong contributions on issues in Syria, but which was not very well attended by a certain section of the Opposition Benches?

My hon. Friend has made an important point. As I said earlier, by the end of tomorrow we shall have considered these matters for 20 hours since Monday last week, so I do not think that anyone viewing the House from outside could say that they have not been raised and discussed. The Prime Minister himself has taken questions for four and half hours during that period, and that is in addition to the contribution that he will make tomorrow. I think that Members have had plenty of opportunities to scrutinise the challenge that we face.

The Leader of the House rose at 12.35 pm today. As we heard from the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), the editor of PoliticsHome, having been briefed, issued the motion on Twitter at 12.33 pm. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the process—and I am still to make up my mind—does that not show that the House has not been given a full opportunity to consider this matter in detail, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) should have had sight of the motion before he came to the House?

I do not accept that. I made a point of ensuring that no public statement was made by the Government, and no provision of the motion was made to the media, before the motion was tabled in the House, and I think that that was the right and proper thing to do.

I managed to get hold of a copy of the motion—for which I commend the Government—with no difficulty. If it is possible to get hold of it so easily, it surely ought to be possible for others, including the shadow Leader of the House.

The versatility demonstrated by my hon. Friend may explain why we are sitting on the Government Benches, in government, and those on the other side are not.

The Leader of the House needs to think about this issue again. Bringing issues of war and peace to the House for debate is a relatively recent innovation. In this instance, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the second largest Opposition party and, I suspect, the leaders of other parties have asked for a two-day debate. The issue of the two days is not just about the amount of time that is provided for debate, but about the amount of time that is provided for proper consideration of motions. If the Leader of the House does not concede that, he is creating a dangerous precedent, and a very unfortunate one.

There must be a reason for this. Is it the fact that the Prime Minister is more interested in dividing the Labour party than in uniting the country, or is there some other specific reason for his not wishing to be in the House on Thursday? Will the Leader of the House now answer that question honestly?

I know of no specific reason why the Prime Minister would not wish to be in the House on Thursday, but let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. I have—sadly—sat through a number of debates on issues like this during my 15 years as a Member of Parliament, and I believe that the amount of time we are providing for this debate is absolutely in line with existing practice. In fact, it is more generous than the amount of time that was allowed when these matters were last debated in the House.

We have sought to create a single, coherent debate, started by the Prime Minister and finished by the Foreign Secretary, over an extended period which is, as I have said, equivalent to the amount of time that would have been available had we debated these matters over a normal Wednesday and Thursday. I think that we are providing an appropriate amount of time for the debate.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and those on the Front Bench on the motion. I had no difficulty in getting hold of a copy of it a few minutes ago, and I suspect that the House will have little difficult in supporting it tomorrow.

On the subject of the allocation of time, does my right hon. Friend recall—as I certainly do—the events of 2003, when there was a very similar debate about the time that was available for a matter that was, of course, of far greater significance? That debate was about actually making war, whereas this is simply about extending to Syria the action that we are currently undertaking in Iraq.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember that occasion as well. Let me also make the point that, in the last few days, the Prime Minister, my colleagues in the Government and officials have gone out of their way to provide briefings, to have discussions, to listen to the views expressed by Members in all parts of the House, and to try to come up with a motion that would reflect the concerns that they have raised. As I said at the outset, we are publishing the motion today not least because we have only just made the decision. We have tried to take time to listen to those concerns, to table a motion that encompasses the worries that have been expressed in different parts of the House, and to set out a strategy that encompasses not simply military action but developments, political solutions to the situation in Syria, and the rest. We are trying to do the right thing in an holistic way.

The debate that took place in the House yesterday was about the United Kingdom’s role in the middle east, and it included lengthy speeches about countries such as Yemen, Israel and Palestine, and Iran. I think it unfair to say that Members were able to talk at length, and ask questions at length, about the extension of the bombing of ISIL. I listened to the whole of that debate from the Opposition Front Bench and, at 6.35 pm yesterday evening, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) referred to the debate that would take place on Wednesday this week.

I ask the Leader of the House to listen carefully to what Members in all parts of the House are saying—as they did in yesterday’s debate—about wanting opportunities to express their views, ask questions and speak in debates. I do not understand why the Government have set their face against a two-day debate. This is not normal business, and we ought to have the opportunity to take as long as we require to reach the right decision.

The hon. Lady is right that yesterday’s debate focused on more than simply the situation in Syria, but one of the reasons why we need to act against ISIL in Syria is the growing challenge we face from it around the middle east and in north Africa, and those issues were undoubtedly reflected in yesterday’s debate.

On the two-day debate issue, I simply repeat that we are providing an extended debate that is the equivalent of the amount of time that would have been available on a normal day’s business on Wednesday and Thursday, but we are doing it on one day over a very extended period to create a coherent single debate.

If the Government genuinely want to build as broad a consensus as possible on what might be the most momentous decision of this Parliament, how are the public supposed to understand a time-limited debate on their specific motion to escalate bombing where fewer than perhaps a fifth of Members are able to take part?

What I would say to the public is that we in Parliament will have discussed these issues over a 20-hour period since Monday of last week. The Prime Minister has taken two extended sets of questions, has considered very carefully the issues raised by Members on both sides of the House, has produced a motion that in our view reflects those concerns and takes many of them into account, and then has provided a length of time for debate that is longer than any that has been provided for a similar decision in recent years. I think that is treating this House, and the public and their concern, in exactly the right way.

We certainly do not have any agreement on the wisdom of bombing Syria, and now we do not have any agreement on the process by which that decision should be arrived at through Parliament. That is because the Government are bouncing Parliament. Why are they doing that? We have heard from my colleagues that the motion has not been published properly—it is not available in the Vote Office, but the press have it. This speaks again of the decision to go to war during the Blair spin times—a dash to war. Why are we doing this? Already 10 nations are bombing in Syria; what difference is adding two UK planes going to make? We also have, I think, the unprecedented step of Prime Minister’s questions being abandoned. The Government are doing this wrongly now. Why are they doing it wrongly? Why do they not even get this part of the process right?

I will say again that I really do not think we can be accused of bouncing anyone into a decision after what will have been 20 hours of debate, discussion and questions over a nine-day period. We tabled the motion this morning, before midday, and before it went to anybody in the media. It came to this House first, as is right and proper, but it came to this House after an extended period of discussion with Members on both sides of the House to try to make sure that the motion reflects the concerns raised by Members across this House, with a view to building as much consensus as possible. I accept that there will not be consensus across the whole House—we will not carry the support of every Member of this House—but it is in our national interest that we seek to bring forward a motion that will command as much support as possible from across this House.

The Leader of the House’s position seems to be that as his Government have spent some time considering their motion, it does not matter that MPs will have so little time to consider it. But what about amendments? I will not be voting for air strikes, but there are many things I would like to vote for, such as building a comprehensive UN consensus or cutting off Daesh’s oil supplies. How are we supposed to vote for an alternative approach if amendments are only to be available on the day?

Those elements of the hon. Lady’s concern are already reflected in the motion. As I have said, in the motion we have sought to reflect the concerns in all parts of this House. I can only reiterate that this motion was tabled shortly after the opening of business today and all Members of this House can manage to access it—and indeed my hon. Friends behind me have already managed to do so.

It appears that a real shambles is developing here. The Leader of the House is telling us that we are having 20 hours of debate, but that is not correct, because we are being given 10 hours to debate the motion. That is a substantive point. As Members have said, it is a motion that this House needs to reflect on and put down amendments to. Is it not the case that our constituents are very concerned about the consequences of this motion, and surely we should be having two days for debate so that Members can debate this properly? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not call the Prime Minister back from whatever engagements he may have on Thursday? Let us do this properly and treat the country with respect.

I can only say again that we discussed these matters for two hours last Monday, two and a half hours last Thursday, and five hours-plus in the debate yesterday, and we have a 10-and-a-half-hour debate tomorrow, and the debate tomorrow is for the equivalent amount of time as would have been available if we had run normal days on Wednesday and Thursday. I happen to think it is more coherent and logical for us to do this in one go, with one extended debate opened by the Prime Minister and wound up by the Foreign Secretary, and we will have had in total 20 hours to consider these matters since Monday of last week.