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Leader of the House

Volume 618: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016

The Leader of the House was asked—

Barnett Consequentials: Estimates Process

1. What parliamentary mechanisms are available to hon. Members to scrutinise Barnett consequentials within the estimates process. (907753)

Every Member has an opportunity to vote in the estimates process. The Liaison Committee is the body that has been chosen by the House to represent the interests of the House in selecting topics for debate on estimates days. If Members wish to examine a particular estimate in relation to the effect that it has on the block grant or for one of the devolved Administrations, they are free to make representations to the Committee, and are, in fact, encouraged to do so.

As Members know, the Procedure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the estimates process, to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House recently gave evidence. We look forward to its report, and will examine its recommendations carefully.

The simple fact is that the OECD has previously said that we have some of the worst levels of estimates scrutiny in the developed world. The EVEL process makes it even harder for Scottish Members to participate in decisions that can have Barnett consequentials, and we were promised that the estimates system would be reviewed for that reason. What changes will be introduced, and when?

I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. What with oral and written questions, Opposition day debates, Backbench Business day debates, business questions and Select Committees, there are doubtless more opportunities for Members to raise these issues today than there were when Mr Barnett invented Barnett consequentials in the late 1970s. Many avenues are available. As I have said, however, the Procedure Committee is looking into the matter in some detail, and I invite the hon. Gentleman to take part in that inquiry. [Interruption.]

It is good of the Leader of the House to drop into his own questions session. We are immensely grateful.

The floods of 2013 were devastating in Somerset, and my constituency covered half the flooded area. The Somerset Rivers Authority was established to deal with flood resilience, and the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government gave assurances that the authority could be funded through a precept on our council tax bills. May I have an assurance that work on the framework for such an arrangement is under way?

Order. That is absolutely fascinating material, especially in Taunton Deane, but I question whether it has any particular relationship with the issue of Barnett consequentials. I am sure that that is a matter to which the hon. Lady will devote her grey cells in the hours that follow.

A few seconds ago, the Deputy Leader of the House cited this question time as an appropriate mechanism for scrutiny of Barnett consequentials. Will he therefore tell us what the current Barnett consequential is for the health service in Scotland?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the blocks of sums that are allocated to the different Departments in Westminster have no bearing on what the Scottish Government can do in respect of the breakdown for the departmental heads. He is comparing chalk and cheese.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us how many days are allocated to the Scottish National party for Opposition day debates, and will he encourage the SNP to devote its next debate to Barnett consequentials?

More than enough days are allocated to the Scottish National party, but I know that SNP Members have heard what my hon. Friend said.

September 2017 Sittings

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced recess dates up to, and even including, Whitsun at last Thursday’s business questions. Further dates will be announced in due course, and in the usual way.

My right hon. Friend is not likely ever to be admonished by Mr Speaker for verbosity. As far as September 2017 is concerned, this House will be sitting here. I think my right hon. Friend is referring to the renovation and renewal of this place; that would not take place, if it is voted on in this House, until the early 2020s, so we would be sitting here in September 2017. But my right hon. Friend may wish to spend some time in the cellars of this place, because there one can gauge, if one has a tour, just how much work needs to be done in the renovation of this House, and I am afraid an extra couple of weeks in the summer recess won’t cut it.

We certainly do not want the right hon. Gentleman to go to the cellars and stay there until 2022; we would miss him greatly.

On timetabling, can the Deputy Leader of the House say what progress has been made in government in securing a money resolution for the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, which was passed by a majority of 216 on Second Reading four weeks ago?

That has nothing to do with sitting in September 2017. The House is in a very curious mood today; questions are very interesting, but they suffer from the disadvantage of bearing little or absolutely no relation to the matter on the Order Paper. But the Deputy Leader of the House is a barrister, so if he cannot respond, nobody can.

In relation to September sittings, I think the Deputy Leader of the House did not quite get the point my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) was making: if we are to have a renovation of this House that lasts a number of years, clearly not meeting in September means there are many months when work can be carried out uninterrupted. In that case, would it not be a good idea to move September sittings around the country, starting of course with Wellingborough, because the Deputy Leader of the House, who is the Member for Northampton North, would not have far to travel then? And perhaps we should take this a little further: maybe the idea should be to take them abroad, so those overseas can see how British democracy works, and may we start with Brussels?

It is always very tempting to spend time in Wellingborough, with or without my hon. Friend. The reality is that there have been decades of under-investment; there is a huge amount of work in utilities, including electrics, sewerage, telephones and every manner of utility and facility in this House. It is very far from clear that an extra couple of weeks, even were they to be allocated, in the summer would be sufficient time. But in any event, on the exact point my hon. Friend makes, the reality is there will be a debate on this matter and ample opportunity to discuss it.

Topical Questions: Northern Ireland

As a consequence of devolution, the range of issues which are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office is narrower than that of other Departments. The introduction of topical questions might lead to a situation where a number of the questions asked fall outside the range of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In May, the former Leader of the House wrote to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee citing these as the reasons why we will not be introducing topical questions to oral questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for that response, but would he not accept that especially with regard to Northern Ireland, although a number of issues are indeed devolved, there are very serious issues that are not devolved, and there have been occasions—some could argue yesterday even—when very important issues could do with being raised during Northern Ireland questions? So will he reconsider allowing just 10 minutes of topical questions? I am not really sure what harm that could do.

The concern has been that questions could be ruled out of order by the Chairman or that they might not be answered substantively, and that less time would be available for questions that had been balloted for in the usual way. This is simply an attempt by the House to ensure that the time is allocated as efficiently as possible.

I have no idea who this Chairman person is, but I will give the matter a bit of thought and see if I can work it out.

I have every sympathy with what the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) is proposing, Mr Speaker, but you are always very kind and assiduous in ensuring that all right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland get a chance to ask our questions. If we had topical questions, that would reduce those opportunities. Could we instead have more time for Northern Ireland questions?

There is pressure on the time in the House and we have a six-week cycle for questions to each Department. However, these matters are always carefully considered and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I will certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments.