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Points of Order

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2015

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not in the habit of raising needless points of order, but we have just heard many Members raise their concerns and what seems clear about the motion for tomorrow is that it was in the hands of the journalists before it was in our hands, as the Prime Minister made his statement to the BBC rather than to this House last night. We have heard what the Leader of the House has to say, Mr Speaker, and I would now like your view on what possible reform we can bring to change that approach.

I say in response to the hon. Lady that I am not sure that this is an occasion for pronouncing on a reform to the process, as she puts it. It is difficult for the Chair to give a ruling without certain knowledge of the facts, but what I would say at this stage is as follows—and I would welcome any clarification the Leader of the House can provide. The first point is that, as I understand it, it is the Government’s firm intention to ensure that the text of the motion is widely available today. Members can apparently consult it—I cannot say this for certain—now in the Table Office.

Nods of assent from the Government Chief Whip and the Leader of the House suggest that that is so. [Interruption.] Order; I am trying to help the House. If that is so, that is welcome.

On the subject of amendments, perhaps I can say to the House that if amendments are tabled today, presumably by Members who have seen the text of the motion, those amendments will be on the Order Paper tomorrow. Therefore, they will not be manuscript amendments. However, it is within the discretion of the Chair to consider manuscript amendments. Colleagues who have been in this House for any length of time will know that this Speaker has regularly done so, and if necessary I will be ready to do so again.

It is obviously desirable, not least in the light of what the Leader of the House said about having undertaken widespread consultation with a view to trying to put together a motion that would command widespread agreement, that the motion itself, when decided upon and its text finalised, should have been formally given at the very least to the official Opposition. I assume that was done. [Interruption.] Well, may I say that I think that it would be desirable for that to be done, and it would be entirely consistent with the words the Leader of the House uttered about widespread consultation? If it has not happened, may I say that it would now be desirable for it to happen?

Beyond that, all I can really say is this. The Leader of the House made the point that the one-day debate stretching over 10 and a half hours would represent a time allocation broadly equivalent to two full days on Wednesday and Thursday. I know some people like to be very precise about these matters, and my mental arithmetic tells me that if we have a full day’s debate on a Wednesday and a full day’s debate on a Thursday, and bearing in mind that we have business questions on a Thursday, that would amount to an allocation of time of I think 12 hours—10 and a half is being allocated—and that if it were a Monday and a Tuesday and there were two full days’ debate without interruption by urgent questions or statements, that would amount to 13 hours of debate. So to be absolutely correct about this, it is not two full days’ debate in one—that is not true—but it is considerably more than one and a half. It is also perfectly reasonable—this is a political point for the Leader of the House to make; it is not a matter for the Chair—to say that the time allocation is somewhat greater than has been the case in the past.

I am trying to be completely fair-minded about this. I respect what the Leader of the House has said, and there is some considerable agreement with what he has said, but I recognise that there is some unhappiness. I think the best thing at this stage on matters of procedure—we have the rest of the day available—is to try to maximise buy-in to the procedure and to minimise dissent. Let me try to look at it from the vantage point of members of the public. I think that is what responsible members of the public would expect responsible Members of Parliament to do. I hope that is helpful.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You have been extremely reasonable, and we have to look at this from the point of view of members of the public. I know that you have no ability to extend debates, but let us suppose that by 7 o’clock this evening 100 people have put in to speak. I do not know whether we will be bound by a procedure motion at 11.30. Perhaps discussions could take place between your office and the Leader of the House’s office. There is no reason why the Government should not extend the debate until 11.30 tomorrow, for instance, which would enable perhaps a further 30 people to get in. I am sure we can look at this in a holistic and creative way.

The hon. Gentleman is ever helpful, and that is appreciated. It is not really a matter for my office to engage or collaborate with the Government on the subject of the allocation of time—that is something for the Government to come to a view about and for the House either to agree to or not, as the case may be. However, I heard what he said about the likely level of interest in contributing and I can say that my door is always open, as is that of the outer office in the Speaker’s Office, as colleagues will know. There is no secret about the number of people putting in to speak. As colleagues will know, the Leader of the House and I speak regularly, as do the Government Chief Whip and I, and the same is true for the shadow Leader of the House and the Opposition Chief Whip. Of course I am happy to keep them informed, along with any Member who asks me how many people have put in to speak.

The shadow Leader of the House said that the Leader of the House was a servant of the House. I am a servant of the House, too, and I intend to be in the Chair tomorrow, very fully, to chair the debate. I would be happy, if the House willed it, to sit up all night in the Chair to hear colleagues—it is a pleasure and it is my responsibility—but how much time is allocated is not a matter for me. The Leader of the House will have heard that there is some interest in having the maximum possible time allocated for this important purpose.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Item 6 on today’s Order Paper relates to the sitting of the House on 2 December, and we can talk all night on it, if necessary, in order to reach a conclusion. What I cannot find on the Order Paper is the extension of the moment of interruption, which has been referred to as and almost assumed to be 10 pm tomorrow. I assume the Leader of the House will table a motion tomorrow morning dealing with when the moment of interruption will occur. If that is the process, the Leader of the House has until tomorrow morning to make up his mind whether it is until 10 pm or 11.30 pm. Alternatively, does the motion have to be tabled tonight and, if so, could you advise the House as to whether it is amendable?

The short answer is that it does have to be tabled by the close of business tonight and, yes, that motion will be amendable. I hope that is helpful.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. First, for your information, let me say that the fleet-of-foot Scottish National party is already tabling an amendment to the motion. I have two points about order that I hope you can help me with. First, have Prime Minister’s questions been cancelled at such short notice before? Secondly, does such a step need the consent of the House?

The short answer to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—I am advised by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) that I have pronounced that correctly, and I would not dare argue with him on that matter—is that, yes, such a proposition from the Government of course requires the assent of the House and that motion 6 is before the House, so I think we are fairly clear about that. The hon. Gentleman asks me whether this has happened before. He is quite an experienced denizen of this House and he will know that there are precedents for most things. The short answer is that, yes, Prime Minister’s questions have been cancelled—relatively recently, in fact—at relatively short notice before. He can consult the record, but I think it related to marking the unsurpassed tenure of Her Majesty the Queen. That was the occasion, at least most recently; there are precedents for these things.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful for what you said earlier about manuscript amendments. Many new Members have been asking me what they are. Of course, their name does not mean that they are hand-written, but it does mean that as long as things are in order when they are tabled you would be open to the possibility of amendments that do not get tabled until tomorrow morning. There has also been some confusion about the difference between the Table Office and the Vote Office. It is right to say that the motion has been available in the Table Office from the moment the Government tabled it, but it has not been available in the Vote Office. [Interruption.] Oh, grow up! Would it not on this occasion be a good idea for this to be published formally, so that it is available for all Members of the House in both the Vote Office and the Table Office?

I think it would be better if it were available in both. I am advised by he who knows, to whom I am grateful, that the motion has been available in the Vote Office since 12.56 pm.

Look, we are where we are. I genuinely thank the Leader of the House for what he has said, and his attempt to provide clarification here and there. It is so much better if we can proceed in a consensual manner on matters of procedure. We acknowledge the existence of differences of opinion on the substance—differences of opinion that will exist right across the country—but we must do our business in an efficient, orderly and, where possible in terms of procedure, consensual fashion. I think the point is made, and it should not need to be revisited on subsequent occasions.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This relates to a different point. I wish to bring to the House’s attention, and seek your guidance about, what happened in the House of Lords last night. Owing to the disgraceful way the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has backtracked on its clear commitment to this House to uphold the will of this House and to introduce the market rent only option for tied pubco licensees, our noble friends in the other place took it upon themselves to take the unprecedented step of introducing the same concept into a second Bill. There is confusion about what will now happen. May I seek your advice as to not only how we now proceed from a legislative point of view, but how we bring BIS Ministers to this House to get them to explain that they will actually respect the will of the House and do what they agreed to do at the Dispatch Box?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his point of order, is twofold. First, I had no advance notice of it. I am not complaining about that, but I am simply saying that it makes it difficult for me to give any authoritative verdict from the Chair at this time. Secondly, I say to him that he is as dogged a terrier as any Back-Bench Member of this House—I hope he will take that in the positive spirit in which I intend it—and he will not let go of the issue. He has pursued it over a very long period with exemplary tenacity, from which other Members could learn, and I think that he will return to it.

I do not know whether the Government have any plan—I am not aware of it—to come to the House to explain their thinking or how they believe their conduct now is compatible with what had previously been said. I know where the hon. Gentleman sits and I know that he seeks to catch my eye, and I am always happy to try to facilitate his interrogating the Government on this and indeed other matters. I hope that he will hold his horses for now. If he wants to have a further conversation with me when I am more in the loop, I am happy to try to assist.

I thank the Leader of the House, the Chief Whip and the shadow Leader of the House for their interest and attendance, and if there are no further points of order, perhaps we can now move to the ten-minute rule motion.