Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the scheduling of parliamentary business by the Leader of the House and the implications of a two-year session for Standing Orders requirements.
Mr Speaker, I thank you for agreeing that this debate should take place. This is not a debate about a debate. It is about an important point of principle: our parliamentary democracy and the role of this House. It is about the Opposition and other Members holding the Government to account, and it is about the sovereignty of Parliament. This House is not supine. Our constituents—the electorate —expect us to be here. They voted for us, in the official Opposition’s case, to set up our programme for change. This minority Government are not working.
The Standing Orders are set out in the Blue Book. Rules and procedures have to be consistent, certain and clear. What does the book say about Opposition days? Standing Order 14 says:
“Twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business, seventeen of which shall be at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party”.
[Interruption.] Will Government Members hang on a second? Given the Government’s announcement of a two-year Session, references to Sessions in Standing Orders should be interpreted as per year, with dates allocated pro rata.
The Government announced by press release:
“Rare two-year Parliamentary session…Double the length of a normal Parliamentary session”.
Therefore, the implication of those plain words is that the number of days would be doubled.
The hon. Lady does not realise how lucky she is. When we were in opposition, we did not have the benefit of this Speaker in the Chair to call urgent questions with the frequency that he does now to the huge advantage of the House. We would have traded any number of Opposition days for the wisdom of the current Speaker—long may he remain in the Chair. By the time hon. Members actually get to an Opposition day debate, the Gallery is empty and the journalists have all pushed off having written their copy.
I am overcome with excitement. I am going to get very emotional in a moment. We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.
That intervention deserves no response whatever; I am really sorry.
Wait for this: in the 2010-12 Session, extra days were provided for business. Once the 20 Opposition days provided for in the Standing Orders had been allocated, a further 14 unallotted days were provided. We need certainty. The Government have not provided for an Opposition day before the summer recess, making the earliest Opposition day in September 2017. This means a staggering eight months—nearly as long as it takes to have a baby—without a single Opposition day, denying vital scrutiny of Government business. As you know, Mr Speaker, the last Opposition day was on 25 January. At the same point into the parliamentary Session in 2010-12, the Opposition were granted three Opposition days, and five in the 2015 Session.
We need to be clear. At business questions last week, the Leader of the House said in response to a question—not to me, although I did ask—that a date was offered in September. I was not aware of this Opposition day, whether through the usual channels or the usual suspects, so we need to clarify what a Session is. It is now two years, but we would not expect one year’s worth of Opposition days to be allocated over those two years. Why is this important? Today is the 18th day that the new Parliament has been sitting. So far, legislation has been discussed only on four of those days for a total of just under 13 hours.
The hon. Lady says that a Session should last one year. Why, then, were there only 20 days in the 1997-98 Session, which lasted 18 months? In 2001, there were only 20 days. In the 2005 Session, which lasted 18 months, there were also only 20 days.
The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening. The Standing Orders state exactly what a Session is, and the Government have extended it.
Why is this important? Decisions have to be made on important matters that affect our country. So far, the Government have been pushed to give us an answer. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) had to table an amendment to the Queen’s Speech. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) had to secure an emergency debate on contaminated blood to set up an inquiry, to which the Government conceded only just before the start of the debate.
As is the usual convention, I have asked the Leader of the House several times for a debate on the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2017, the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 No. 1205 and the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 No. 1026, which have been prayed against. Time was given on 19 April but, given the interruption of the election, no time has been offered for that debate. The failure of this Government to allow a debate and a vote on the regulations has created growing uncertainty for students starting university or continuing their studies in the coming academic year. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the regulations have not been enacted and that there will be no increase for students in September? Paragraph 5 of schedule 2 to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 states that for any increases in the higher amount of tuition fees, it would be necessary that
“each House of Parliament has passed a resolution”.
That has not been enacted yet, so have the Government sneaked this in under another Act and betrayed our young people?
This Government are just not working. There has been no justice for the 1950s women—an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) last week. My hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), have all raised this important issue, as have many Conservative Members.
We need a debate and a votable motion on the health service. There has been a 23% fall in nursing applications. As the shadow Health Secretary said today, more than 12,000 surgical procedures on children and young people were cancelled last year—an increase of 35%. GPs are now charging for visits; that is obviously an end to the national health service as we know it.
A decision has to be made on the Swansea tidal lagoon before the end of July. I have a letter here that has been signed by 107 Members from all parties, asking that the Hendry review is put into effect. I also raised that matter at business questions.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has now been published, and a number of statutory instruments will flow from it. Clauses 7 to 9 of the Bill all state:
“A Minister of the Crown may by regulations make such provision as the Minister considers appropriate”.
It is about Ministers having the power to do what they want. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union deflects this point. He said that if a statutory instrument is before the House, the House of Commons decided whether it debates it and votes on it. He said that that is in the call of the House of Commons and, patronisingly,
“it is what they call a statutory instrument which is, can be debated, can be voted on.”
Sorry, I cannot get his voice right.
The Secretary of State thinks that we should be debating. When was the last time the Leader of the House actually spoke to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union? The minority Government are not working.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No. The hon. Lady will get the same answer that Mr Speaker would give—it is up to me to decide whether I give way. I just want to proceed.
Then there is the question of the days allocated for private Members’ Bills: 13 have been allocated up until November 2018—that is 18 months, although the current Session lasts for two years. Why have no Opposition days been allocated? Are the Government scared of the Opposition? No dates have been agreed for Backbench Business debates, despite the diligence of the Opposition in having a Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.
I repeat the Prime Minister’s words: “debate and discussion” are
“the hallmarks of our parliamentary democracy”,
although it seems that her Cabinet are busy trying to push her out. The Government need to know that, for our democracy to thrive, the citizens of this country need to have faith that their MPs will represent their views and not be disfranchised. It is vital for democracy to have debates when required by convention, and for the Opposition to set out what they stand for. The electorate need to see us at work—to see the rhetoric turned into action.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, I am going to proceed.
If the Government truly believe in the rule of law, where Parliament, the Executive and the judiciary all play their part in upholding our democracy, the Leader of the House has to honour the interpretation of Standing Orders, clarify them, grant debates and uphold conventions in this Session. The key question is, is this in the public interest? The answer is a resounding yes.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I know that you, Mr Speaker, have granted it with your usual focus on ensuring that Back-Bench voices can always been heard and on handling the creative tension between Back Benchers and the Government’s right to schedule their own business. I am sure the temptation to be a bit teary after the example of centre court yesterday will never overtake you, but we are all grateful to you for granting this debate.
The debate gives me the chance to say that the business brought to this House since the general election is quite simply business as usual. As the House would expect, I will expand on that. As always happens after a general election, the House is getting itself in order so that the business can run smoothly.
Many important debates have already taken place. Last week, we had a vital debate on the Grenfell inquiry. Many powerful points were raised by Members on both sides of the House. It is right that we prioritised giving time to such a catastrophic and tragic event. This week, we are having a general debate on what more can be done to eradicate the evil of drug misuse. Today we are scheduled to have a debate on the intimidation and abuse of candidates in the general election—abuse that challenges the very heart of our democratic process—but it is now under threat because of this debate.
Those, to me, seem perfect examples of our parliamentary democracy working well, with lots of opportunities for debate. The Opposition would do well to explain to the House which of those debates they consider to be unimportant to the millions in the country who are relying on us to improve their lives.
The Leader of the House has mentioned the need to be creative. When I raised a point of order about the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign, which we debated in a packed Westminster Hall on 5 July, the response was that Members need to be innovative. Well, if we have no Backbench Business time and no Opposition days, and if there is a refusal to have a votable motion, so that we cannot vote and express an opinion, how on earth can we air this important issue, which is of concern to not just me and other Opposition Members but Conservative Members, and have it resolved?
I am delighted that there have already been five debates on this important issue and that there were six days of debate on the Queen’s Speech where the Opposition chose the subjects they wanted to debate. There have been plenty of opportunities to debate whatever the Opposition want.
In addition, urgent Government legislation has been introduced, including the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill and the European Union (Approvals) Bill, and there are a further 22 Bills in the Queen’s Speech, which will be brought forward during this Session.
The bottom line is that the Government have essentially halved the number of days of debate the Opposition can nominate. How is that good for democracy?
That is simply not true, and I will come on to that if the hon. Gentleman will give me the chance.
My right hon. Friend should take no lectures from the Labour party, which, when in government, reduced Prime Minister’s Question Time from twice a week to once a week and introduced the regular guillotining of Bills, thereby reducing debating time.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right to make those points. I want to be very positive and to talk about what we are doing.
We have been mindful of Back Benchers. As requested by the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, we have rescheduled some of the debates that were agreed before dissolution. I am pleased that we have already found time for some of those debates, including on the ongoing challenge of seeking peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians.
With regard to the intervention by—and I do mean this—my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), is it not the case that when the arrangements for Prime Minister’s questions were changed, there was no change to the amount of time for them, because the two 15-minute sessions were consolidated into one 30-minute session, which now regularly lasts about 45 minutes, so, in fact, there is more time than ever for Prime Minister’s questions?
I would certainly agree that, under your watchful eye, Mr Speaker, Prime Minister’s questions has become quite a lengthy experience, which I am sure we are all the better for.
Most Select Committee Chairs have now been elected, and elections to the Committees themselves will take place as soon as possible. The House will also know that sitting Fridays have been announced.
Given the outrage affected by the Opposition, we would be forgiven for thinking that there had been no opportunities at all for them to have their voices heard. However, in addition to the six days given to the debate on the Queen’s Speech out of the 18 sitting days in this term so far—that is 40% of the time—where topics for debate were, of course, chosen by the Opposition, there have been two debates under Standing Order No. 24, six urgent questions, 14 Adjournment debates in this Chamber, 15 departmental oral question times, 16 oral statements, 24 debates in Westminster Hall and—I am sure the shadow Leader of the House would not wish to forget this—the four feisty business question sessions we have had in this Chamber.
It is therefore certainly not the Government’s fault if the Opposition have failed to make good use of those many opportunities. They will be aware that an Opposition day debate has been offered via the usual channels for after the summer recess, in September.
The Leader of the House says that the Committees will be elected in due course. The Labour party has carried out its elections today, and those Committee members will be in place tonight. How soon can we expect the Government to sort out their side of the equation?
As soon as possible, and within the normal timeframe for establishing Select Committees.
The Opposition make a comparison with the 2015 general election, saying that, by the summer recess following the vote, Select Committees had been established and Opposition days had been held. However, the election in 2015 was in May, not June, and there were 32 sitting days between the Queen’s Speech and the summer recess. Between the Queen’s Speech and the summer recess this year, there will have been only 18 sitting days.
Let us look at our record on providing Opposition day debates versus the record when the Labour party was in government. Let us use the Opposition’s assumption that each Session should be one year and that there should be 20 Opposition days each year. On their reckoning, between 1997 and 2010, when Labour was in office, Opposition parties were short by 35 Opposition days. By the same calculation, and using the Opposition’s assessment, they have had one more day than their allocation between 2010 and today.
I have to say that it is a bit rich of the Leader of the House to give us the number of days between the Queen’s Speech and the recess, since the Government set the date of the recess and delayed the date of the Queen’s Speech. In 1997, how many days were there before the recess? Two. In 2001? One. In 2005? Five. In 2010? Two—and that is when the Conservatives had to cobble together a ludicrous Government. In 2015? Five. So she is talking through a hole in her head. [Interruption.]
It may have been a case of mistaken identity, but I thought I detected a Somerset burr in the voice saying, “Order.” My judgment is that what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said was not disorderly; whether it was in entirely good taste is a matter for people’s judgment. However, the Leader of the House is a robust character, and I think she is unfazed. The only other observation I make at this stage—the Leader of the House has referred to me a number of times—is that, just as a point of fact, the tears in my eyes on Centre Court yesterday were tears of joy for the greatest of all time.
I felt sure, Mr Speaker, that were you to feel a bit emotional today, they would of course be tears of joy as well, so I am not inconsistent. As for the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), he may be technically correct, but he is extremely rude.
In the extended parliamentary Session of 2010-12, we provided extra days for private Members’ Bills. The Standing Orders set out that electing the Chairs of Select Committees is a matter for political parties to agree on. Again, Chairs of Select Committees have been elected just as quickly as in previous Parliaments.
It seems to me that this is descending into a rather pointless debate about what may or may not have happened in the past. Surely it is possible to get to an agreement. It is right that we give the Opposition a chance to hold the Government to account. Surely, through the usual channels, we can ensure that, despite the fact that we have a two-year rather than a one-year Session, in broad equivalence they get the same number of supply days.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is indeed what we are talking about, which is why I opened my remarks by saying that this is absolutely business as usual.
Does my right hon. Friend share my regret that this debate about debates is potentially eating into the time to talk about the very serious issue of intimidation of parliamentary candidates in the election? I see that Opposition Members are sniggering. Do they not take democracy as seriously as me? I am concerned that we are eating into that important debate later this evening to talk about our diaries.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. This is a debate about process. It is not about material things, and it is certainly not about things that our constituents care about.
In terms of respecting parliamentary supremacy—something that I know is very dear to you, Mr Speaker—let us look at the performance of my party versus the Opposition. Who created the Backbench Business Committee in 2010? My party. Who brought in elections to Select Committees? My party. Who introduced the e-petition system? My party. So in fact this Government—this party—have done far more for parliamentary supremacy than the Opposition have. So far, over 10 million people have signed various petitions, the Government have formally responded to 264 petitions, and 20 petitions have been scheduled for debate. The Government have also responded to 162 urgent questions in this House since 2015 alone.
This urgent debate is the result of party politics at its worst. Nearly 13 million people voted for Labour to come to this place and represent them. I do not believe they were voting for petty time-wasting by Labour. All the Opposition are doing is talking about process when what is important is policy. The Opposition say they want to talk about tuition fees—well, let us talk about tuition fees. We are committed to supporting all young people to reach their full potential, whether that means going to university, starting an apprenticeship, or taking up a technical qualification. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now going to university at a record rate—up by 43% since 2009. But Labour Members are in a total mess over the pledge they made to students just seven days before the general election—a pledge they have now admitted would cost £100 billion, and was just an “ambition”, according to the shadow Chancellor. They should be upfront with young people about their plans. Is it still their policy to cancel all student debt, or was it a pre-election scam?
Or perhaps Labour Members would like to talk about the economy. This Government have shown determination to live within our means so that the next generation are not saddled with the debts of 13 years of Labour recklessness. We inherited the largest peacetime deficit ever from Labour, but since—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This debate is about Opposition days and our ability to hold the Government to account. If the Leader of the House wants debates about the subjects she is now referring to, why does she not allow them rather than diverting from what this debate is about?
The hon. Gentleman is aware that Front Benchers are usually accorded a modest latitude in developing their arguments, hence I have allowed a modest latitude, but I think the Leader of the House will shortly return to the thrust of the matter under debate—not what might have been under debate but what is under debate. I know that she will focus on that; I am perfectly sanguine on that score.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.
I do not think there is a “further”, but I will indulge the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker. The Leader of the House has said quite categorically that she believes that the debate we are having now is completely irrelevant and the far more important one will take place later on. I just wonder, because I noticed the number of Conservative Members who stood to catch your eye earlier, whether you think that more Conservative Members would like to take part in this debate or in the debate that the Government have scheduled for later tonight.
The answer is that lots of Members are wanting to speak today. In this debate, which can last for a maximum of three hours, a lot of Government Back Benchers wish to speak. I am keen to accommodate both Government Back Benchers and Opposition Back Benchers, and I am certainly keen to accommodate would-be maiden speakers. Therefore, if we can now minimise points of frustration and focus on the debate, I think that would be beneficial to all concerned.
I was going to continue, Mr Speaker, to talk about the way we have sought to improve our ability to live within our means, and the amazing employment record of this Government, in an effort to get the Opposition to focus on what really matters. Nevertheless, I will not bother to talk about employment, but will continue on to the Opposition’s desire to consider process.
Does my right hon. Friend note the glorious irony that the Opposition have called for an emergency debate, and as soon as we debate anything they wish it to be curtailed?
Yes, I think my hon. Friend speaks for all of us in his observation.
I have outlined the many opportunities that the Opposition have had since the general election to debate in this House. In four days, the House rises for recess, but not before there are many further opportunities to put their views on the record. Today we are supposed to be debating the abuse and intimidation of candidates during the general election. Members on both sides of this House have been victims of vile abuse from anarchists and hard-left activists, but obviously Labour Members are not interested. It is now unlikely that there will be any time for that critical debate to take place today. I sincerely hope that the Leader of the Opposition, having prevented this debate, will want to condemn in the strongest language the frightening and intimidating abuse endured by many Conservative Members, as well as a number of those on his own Benches.
This Government are working towards a brighter future for our great country. We are bringing forward the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and negotiating our exit from the European Union, fulfilling the will of the British people, and working to make a success of Brexit. We are putting in place a strong programme of social and economic legislation, introducing measures that will improve mental health provision, build the industries of tomorrow, and stamp out extremism and terrorism. These are issues that matter—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I have to take it on trust, but I hope it is a point of order rather than a point of frustration.
I know that you were deep in conversation, Mr Speaker, but the Leader of the House has returned to issues that have nothing to do with this debate. She is just giving a long list of what this Government have achieved. If she really wants those issues to be properly aired, why will she not give us Opposition day debates so that we can vote on them?
I note the hon. Gentleman’s point. As far as I can tell—I hope I sense correctly—the Leader of the House is very likely approaching her peroration. A lot of Members wish to speak and there is usually a rough equivalence between the length of time taken by the Opposition spokesperson and the Government spokesperson. At this stage the right hon. Lady is in order, but I imagine that she is probably nearing the conclusion of her remarks.
Go on, get on with it!
Order. There was no need for that. It is rather ungracious of the hon. Gentleman to yell from a sedentary position. He can always adopt a gentle burr, like the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), which is altogether more seemly.
Opposition Members are certainly not being very charming this evening, are they? I was trying to outline some of the issues that really matter to the people of our great country. It is in the interests of our country that this Government provide certainty, continuity and control, as we forge a new and successful future for the whole of the United Kingdom. I hope that colleagues agree that the safety, welfare and prosperity of this country should be our priority, and I will work with all willing colleagues across the House to achieve that.
We welcome this debate and share the concerns about the arrangements for this parliamentary Session over the next two years. We agree that clarity is needed on the scheduling of Back-Bench and Opposition business.
Since we have come back, the pace at which the House’s usual arrangements have been put back in place has been woeful and unsatisfactory. There are only three full days left until the long summer recess, yet this House’s Select Committees are still not up and running, nor do we know the arrangements for its Standing and Statutory Instrument Committees. Given that they are going to be particularly burdened by the repeal Bill, we need clarity and certainty about them.
I think I heard earlier that neither the Scottish National party nor the Labour party has yet agreed on its own members for Select Committees—
I am sorry if I am in error, but it is only recently that it has been possible to agree on Select Committee membership and we are about to go into recess.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention, because I can say with certainty that we are ready to supply SNP names for Select Committee membership, and I am pretty certain that the Labour party is in the same position.
You made a generous offer last week, Mr Speaker, to help facilitate arrangements for any political party that is finding it difficult to arrange its membership of Select Committees, but I do not know whether the Conservative party has approached you to fulfil that promise. It is not the Labour party or the SNP that is holding up the creation of Select Committees, but the Conservative party, so I ask it to make use of your very kind offer.
Could it be that so many Conservative Members want to take part in Select Committees that an election is required, and that a similar level of interest does not exist among Opposition parties?
I say candidly to the hon. Gentleman: get on with it, for goodness’ sake. The Select Committees should be up and running before the summer recess. If the Conservatives cannot do that themselves, they should accept your offer to help them arrange it, Mr Speaker.
I shall call the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend. The Labour party has already held elections for Select Committee places. If the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) thinks the Conservative party is going to have difficulties arranging its own membership, we could provide it with election observers and tellers.
I shall call the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend, too. He makes a very good suggestion. How about we make use of the Office of the Speaker? We could send observers along to help facilitate the Conservative party’s arrangements; and then let us get on with it, for goodness’ sake. We are three days away from the summer recess. Let us get these things in place.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I like him.
The SNP was granted the Chairs of two Select Committees. I cannot quite understand how it was that Members of all the other parties were entitled to vote for different candidates, which was very democratic, but SNP Members were given just one candidate for each post, which seems rather Stalinist. Can the hon. Gentleman explain that?
That is because they were superb candidates, particularly the nominee for Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I cannot resist the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman has left out the amazing abilities of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil).
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has reminded me of that. How could I forget my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
This will be the last intervention I take for a while, because we need to make some progress.
I just wanted to say that votes are still being cast for Labour membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee, so if any Labour Members have not yet voted, they have until 8.30 to do so. [Interruption.]
I think I am grateful for that intervention. It seems to have energised Conservative Members, so it must have been particularly good.
It is not as if this Government have been over-exercised or energised by business thus far. Perhaps unfairly, this Parliament has already been dubbed the zombie Parliament, but I think that that comparison gives the flesh-eating undead a bad name. This is turbo-charged political zombie-ism, but a curious type of zombie-ism, because the Government are not only tearing flesh from the public but starting to consume themselves. If we look around Whitehall, we see that what passes for normal discourse among Secretaries of State amounts to briefing and counter-briefing. I say to the Leader of the House that this is what happens when Governments do nothing—bad stuff happens. This is a Government at war with itself, where briefing and counter-briefing take precedence as they all jostle and compete to be the next captain of the SS Tory Titanic.
According to one anonymous Minister, the Chancellor is trying to “stymie” Brexit. If only he would get on with it! Apparently he believes that Brexiteers are a “bunch of smarmy pirates”, whatever a smarmy pirate is. I have an image in my head of a cross between Captain Pugwash and Jack Sparrow re-enacting the battle of the Thames between Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof. I do not know what a smarmy pirate is but—shiver me timbers and pieces of eight—I wouldn’t mind being one myself.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) says that the plotters should
“just shut up for goodness’ sake”,
which would deprive this House of so much comedy value. The International Trade Secretary says that members of the Cabinet “should drink less prosecco”. And there was I thinking, “Cheap prosecco? Surely only the finest champagne is good enough for my Conservative friends.” According to the Transport Secretary, there is nothing to see here, concluding:
“We’re not a group of clones.”
Well, thank goodness for that. It is no wonder that the Government do not want scrutiny when they are in such chaos and turmoil.
I agree with the Leader of the House on one thing, namely the question of public enthusiasm for this debate. During my surgeries over the weekend, I did not notice any banners calling for more Opposition days for the Labour party or for sorting out the membership of statutory Committees. The issue is important, however, and I think that our constituents expect us to come down here to ensure that we arrange the optimal conditions for debate and scrutiny and get on with the job of ensuring that this Government are held to account.
This is a very different type of Parliament. Perhaps that will excuse the Government’s behaviour in not getting things back in place. I do not think there has been such uncertainty about a Parliament lasting a full term since the 1970s and the days of Callaghan and Wilson. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has proved to be possibly the biggest waste of parliamentary time in history. It was supposed to give certainty to the scheduling of parliamentary debates, but it was always going to fail when a Government wanted to have an early election, assisted by an Opposition who would not be able to resist.
We therefore have a Parliament and Government on political life support, always requiring emergency treatment and always vulnerable to the infection of events as they try to define some sense of purpose and meaning. The Government’s condition is all their own fault. After hubristically and unnecessarily calling an early election to try to take advantage of the crisis and chaos that they observed in the Labour Opposition, they have returned humbled, embarrassed, diminished, chaotic and in turmoil.
This is most definitely a House of minorities, and the way in which we conduct our business and scrutinise legislation must reflect that. Arrangements must be put in place to ensure that the new political arithmetic across the House is observed. That is why it has been profoundly disappointing that instead of rising properly to the challenge, the Government have done all they can to frustrate, delay and thwart the creation of all the arrangements that are essential for proper scrutiny in these new conditions. The Government’s main strategy has been to try to make their legislative programme as opaque, meaningless and uncontentious as possible. They hope that we will get bored and take little interest in it, so that they will not lose any votes in Parliament.
The only thing that will be contentious—the one big deal of this parliamentary term—will be Brexit. Of course, the Government are unburdened in that regard, too. When it comes to the main themes of the Government’s hard Brexit, the Labour Opposition agree with practically everything that the Government want to achieve, whether the leaving of the single market, the leaving of the customs union or the ending of freedom of movement. The Government will therefore have no difficulty getting their Brexit business through, on top of a legislative programme that is so light it is almost totally opaque.
We also have to look at what was agreed in the early days of this Parliament. One of the most concerning and damaging of all the initiatives that the Government have embarked on is the appalling deal that they struck, right at the outset, with the Democratic Unionist party. That deal was agreed behind closed doors, and the House has not had the opportunity to debate it, scrutinise it properly or consider its consequences—not least how it turns the normal and usual funding allocations for the nations of the United Kingdom on their head. This is a deal designed to buy the Government their majority, and it has unfortunately set the tone for this Parliament and defined the Government’s contemptuous approach to their business.
The other thing that has to go, very early on, is the appalling and divisive English votes for English laws procedure, which is opposed and loathed by every political party in this House apart from the governing Tories. It is clear that it no longer secures a parliamentary majority in this House, and it is ridiculous that in order to get their business through, the Government have to rely on a party that is subject to the constraints of EVEL. EVEL is disruptive to the House, and it divides the membership of this House by geography and nationality. Its days should surely be numbered. Let us get shot of it from our Standing Orders and see whether we can, through debate, secure a solution on which we can achieve consensus. Let us get something that reflects proper scrutiny and attention and serves all the nations of the United Kingdom.
We need to get down to business. It is simply unacceptable that the Select Committees will not be up and running before the recess. We have had a little exchange about where we are in the logjam of creating the Select Committees. I hope that the Leader of the House will take the matter seriously, so that we can get on and do it. We have to have the Standing Committees in place. Because we have no Standing Committees, Bills cannot receive proper consideration at Committee stage, so the Government have had to bring Bills before Committees of the whole House. Three Bills have been subject to that procedure. No Statutory Instrument Committees have been set up, and, as a result, we will be considering another statutory instrument after this debate. The situation is clearly unsatisfactory, and it is unacceptable for it to continue.
We have all been through a process of election. If a prospective candidate does not get their name in in time, it is tough; the election goes on without them. It is not postponed until the end of the summer to give the candidates time to sort themselves out. Should we look at something similar in the makeup of Select Committees: if the governing party does not bother to put names down for Committees, the Committees just go ahead and meet without them, so that they can get on with the job?
That is an elegant solution to a very solvable problem, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for suggesting it. Perhaps the Government are listening. I hope that some action will be taken in the next few days to resolve the matter.
My understanding—the Leader of the House can correct me if I am wrong—is that we have not got the Standing Committees up and running because there is a dispute about the arithmetic. As I understand it, the Government have nine places, the Labour Opposition have seven places and we have two places. That would properly reflect the political arithmetic of this House, suggesting that it is a House of minorities, and it would mean that the Government had to work just that little bit harder in Committee to get their business through.
What would be clearly unacceptable—this seems to be happening, and I hope it stops soon—would be for the Government to subvert the Committee stage by either bringing legislation to a Committee of the whole House, here in the Chamber, or looking to make all their amendments on Report. That would fly in the face of nearly everything we understand about the normal business of getting legislation through Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. Everybody knows that the most inadequate part of the whole legislative process is Report stage, where the Government can put down amendments that are never even debated.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She probably shares my concern about what would happen if that came to pass, and the inadequacy of Report stage. We would have everything baled into one, with Report, Third Reading and, probably, statements and other business on the same day. Intricate, important pieces of legislation require proper scrutiny in the proper Committees of this House, and it is incumbent on the Government to put that process in place. Any attempt to subvert the normal arrangements for Bills to go to Committee is clearly unacceptable, and I hope that the House will reject any such attempt.
We have heard quite a lot about how things are normally set up. I am almost disappointed that the hon. Member for—Chris Bryant, whatever his constituency is. [Interruption.] For Rhondda. I am almost disappointed that he is no longer here, because he is a keen student of the subject, and I think he actually gave us some figures. The Leader of the House said that we were in an unusual situation because we had had a June election. I was elected in 2001—I think you were elected before me, Mr Speaker—and I remember that in 2001 we had a June election, but all the Standing Committees and all the Select Committees were in place by the summer recess. The election in 2001 took place on 7 June, the Queen’s Speech was held on 20 June and all the Select Committees were in place and functioning by 19 July.
The reason for that is that in those days it was a stitch-up by the Whips. Now we elect the members of Select Committees, and that is the key difference.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because he reminds me of something that happened during the establishment of the Select Committees in 2001. He is right; it was a stitch-up by the Blair Whips, and he will remember when they tried to remove Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from the chairmanship of two Select Committees. That held up the creation of the Select Committees, but we still managed to get them in place. There is absolutely no reason why the same cannot happen now. The example of the year of 2001 is a good one.
I very much agree with the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) when it comes to Opposition days and the setting aside of time for Back-Bench business. It looks as though Back-Bench business and private Members’ Bills will be about the most interesting features of this parliamentary Session.
My hon. Friend has a particularly good private Member’s Bill, and I encourage as many Members as possible to come along and listen to him speak about it. Back-Bench business and private Members’ Bills will probably be our most interesting business, given the laxity that we are going to see from Government Members, and we must have the proper time and arrangements for such business.
The Leader of the House spoke earlier about giving the House more time for private Members’ Bills. Is that not an almost pointless exercise unless the Government reform how private Members’ Bills go through the House, and unless they get their own Members to stop stymieing them?
My hon. Friend is spot on. I share his frustration, as I think most in the Scottish National party do, about the way in which private Members’ Bills are progressed through the House. It is clearly unsatisfactory. I remember the private Member’s Bill sponsored by my colleague John Nicolson, which was stymied by the Government even though we had the necessary numbers here. The way in which certain Members of this House—none of them are in their place at this point—do all they can to talk out and filibuster private Members’ Bills is a disgrace to this House. Our constituents expect better than that. When their Members of Parliament are lucky enough, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) has been, to secure the opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill, it is right and proper for them to expect those Bills to be properly debated in the House. I hope at some point we will be able to reform the process.
We support what the hon. Member for Walsall South said about the sittings for private Members’ Bills. Of course the number should be doubled and I really hope the Government do that.
There has to be a proper arrangement and a proper understanding about the time allocated for Opposition days. The Labour shadow Leader of the House was absolutely right that we are entitled to three Opposition days per parliamentary Session and we now expect six, given that it is a two-year Session. I hope the Leader of the House will confirm that.
We have to get all these things worked out. The arrangements of the House are clearly unsatisfactory and there are lots of things we need to do. I spent a couple of weeks in the usual channels before my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) was put in place. I saw how the usual channels are working just now. There seems to be a misunderstanding about how the different parties’ requirements and expectations of this Parliament are to be met. I encourage the Leader of the House and the Whips Office to get a better grasp of the new reality of this House—this House of minorities, where nobody has a majority—and ensure that our business is equipped, shaped and designed to accommodate that new reality.
This zombie Parliament must get up and working. It must be allowed to do its work. It must allow the optimal conditions for scrutiny and empower us, as Members of Parliament, to do the work that our constituents sent us here to do. For goodness’ sake, let’s get on with it and let’s do it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I am disappointed that time will not allow me to contribute to the debate on the intimidation of general election candidates. Nevertheless, I will contribute fully when the opportunity arises, drawing on my own experiences. I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is from a neighbouring constituency.
It is a great privilege to be here today, delivering my maiden speech and representing my home constituency of Angus. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mike Weir, who served the people of Angus very well in his 16 years in the House. He was a prominent campaigner to save the local post offices in the constituency, and in the House he took on the role of Chief Whip for his party. I wish him all the very best in his future endeavours.
It would be remiss of me not to mention also the previous Conservative and Unionist MP for Angus, the late Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, as he was known after being ennobled in 1989. He was not just a great local voice for his area in this House, but had a remarkable legal career.
The diverse constituency of Angus, nestled north of Dundee and south of Aberdeenshire, incorporates the most beautiful, dramatic coastlines to the east and picturesque, tranquil glens to the north-west. The five main towns are Forfar, Kirriemuir, Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin, where I was born, brought up and educated. There are a number of villages and rural communities as well.
Unfortunately, it is the residents and businesses of those remote areas who have suffered most significantly from the lack of mobile and broadband coverage. With the current coverage roll-out being below the national average, it is unsurprising that this issue has emerged at every single constituency surgery I have held to date. I will use my voice here in Westminster to ensure that the Scottish Government deliver connectivity right across Angus, ensuring that residents and businesses are not left behind because of where they choose to reside and operate.
From my agricultural roots, I understand the importance of this industry to Angus and to Scotland. With the area producing 25% of Scottish soft fruit and 30% of the country’s potatoes, agriculture remains a significant contributor to the local economy. Local farmers understand the increasing importance of diversification and Angus is home to many successful projects, ranging from renewables to the first potato-based vodka, Ogilvy vodka, which is distilled locally near the village of Glamis.
Glamis itself incorporates the famous residence of Glamis castle, the childhood home of the late Queen Mother. I recently attended the annual Glamis prom, one of the many excellent events that are held in the grounds of the castle, attracting thousands of people from across Scotland.
Attractions across Angus entice tourists from far and wide, whether it is to visit the many historic houses and gardens, to try their hand at golf on some of the best known courses, or to get involved in a variety of outdoor pursuits. Montrose port will welcome its first cruise ship, which is due to dock next year—a further great boost for our local economy and tourism industry. Nevertheless, I am incredibly aware that there is a power of work to be done to further promote the area, to support the current offering and to ensure that no one slips north into Aberdeenshire without tasting a Forfar bridie en route.
The businesses throughout Angus range from the local to the global. We have engineering and manufacturing, oil and gas, textiles and a highly regarded food and drink offering. A host of global businesses operate across every corner of Angus in key sectors, including pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline; the Montrose textile manufacturer Wilkie in Kirriemuir; the marmalade, preserves and curds exporter Mackays in Arbroath; the textile innovator Don & Low in Forfar; and the design and engineering specialists Hydrus in Brechin. They are supported by a strong network of local businesses, which collectively are the lifeblood of our local economy, providing the jobs that Angus so desperately needs. As a Government, we must support them wherever possible, enabling both prosperity and longevity.
Angus has much to be proud of. However, like many places, it has concerns that my constituents have asked me to stand up and represent them on. The rate of unemployment, particularly among the youth, continues to lie above the national average due to several factors. The north-east oil and gas industry, which many residents in Angus rely on heavily, still has positivity, with new oil fields emerging, but the steady decline in recent years has had a large impact on the livelihoods of residents and on businesses throughout Angus. My north-east colleagues and I will work together with the industry wherever possible to support them.
As we face the challenge of Brexit, I am confident that the Scottish farming and fishing communities have the resilience to remain one of the key pillars of our economy. One of the greatest opportunities from Brexit is the chance to build a support system that works for Angus and for all areas of our United Kingdom.
The political landscape in Angus has demonstrated a clear shift in recent years. In the 2014 referendum on independence, we recorded an above average no vote. In the last three elections, there has been a considerable vote swing towards the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. Those were strong messages to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP that the time for constitutional trouble-making was over. Make no mistake, I and my Scottish Conservative, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democratic colleagues are as patriotic as my Scottish National party colleagues. We now need to ask them to remove the threat of uncertainty over Scotland’s economy and Scotland’s people. No ifs, no buts—a second divisive independence referendum should be taken off the table.
I remain optimistic for the future of Angus and the extensive Tay cities deal, which will directly support those who live and work in Angus. The planned £1.8 billion investment will include key programmes specifically for Angus, such as the Hospitalfield future plan; the Dundeecom public-private partnership, which will create a major decommissioning centre in Scotland; and, of course, the ambitious investment corridor from Montrose to the A90 that will enable the delivery of much-needed infrastructure, stimulating major economic growth in north Angus. I look forward to working with the UK Government and all stakeholders to drive forward the Tay cities deal and ensure that it delivers for Angus.
As the Member of Parliament for Angus, my mission is to ensure that I am the strongest of local champions, representing my home turf with the greatest of integrity and never with complacency. As a staunch Unionist, I will continue to fight with every fibre of my being to keep Scotland as part of our wonderful United Kingdom. Quite simply, we are stronger together and weaker apart. I would also like to make it clear that I am here to help all my constituents, no matter how or, indeed, if they voted. I very much look forward to standing up for Angus and for Scotland in this Chamber on many more occasions to come.
Very warm congratulations to the hon. Lady. We look forward to hearing her and getting to know her in this House.
The hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) made what could be termed a model maiden speech. She was robust when necessary, she was fluent, humorous and generous to her predecessors, and she stood up for what she sees as the vital interests of her constituency. I am sure we all look forward to hearing further contributions from her. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing this debate, because it is both timely and necessary.
During my time in the House, the role of Members of Parliament has been seen as either to support or to oppose the Government of the day. People do not always slavishly follow the Whip in the House, and rightly so on occasions. Occasionally, issues of conscience have to be decided—for example, on end-of-life decisions or stem cell research—and it is right and proper that free votes should be held on those. On other occasions—for example, on our relationship with the European Union—people’s views are perhaps too distinctive to be easily bracketed within the confines of party loyalty.
As we know, the outcome of the last general election changed the political arithmetic of this House. Until such time as we have a further general election, the potential power held by each of us, including the hon. Member for Angus, is greater than it has been in the many years that I have sat in this House. I have two questions on that point. Are we willing to use that power—in my case to bring about greater fairness and address injustices, some of which I will refer to shortly—and can we look not at what we have been in the past as a House, but at what we could become?
I will be brief, Mr Speaker, because I know you want us to stick to the issue at hand more closely, but I want to say a word about party allegiance and how it works in the context of the House. I have spent all my adult life in the Labour party, and I remain in it because I share its values on equality and social justice. That is not to say, however, that we as a party have a monopoly on virtue. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House share those values, at least to some degree. I have one further point of a political nature: because the Government have no majority, the usual argument about having a mandate for measures contained in the manifesto is weak to the point of irrelevance.
I also want to say a word about the right hon. and hon. Members from the Democratic Unionist party. Since entering into a supply and confidence arrangement with the Conservative party, they have, perhaps in some ways understandably, been heavily criticised in some quarters. However, that agreement does not cover every measure that the Government may bring forward. Knowing some of the DUP Members as I do, I am confident that on some issues we can achieve co-operation with them and, certainly on some of the issues that I feel strongly about, I think they will share a similar outlook. It is therefore not a given that on every occasion the Government can rely on their support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South, the shadow Leader of the House, has already referred to the injustice of the women born in the 1950s and the age at which they are entitled to their state pension. Many of us, on both sides of the House—including, I suspect, Democratic Unionists—support the WASPI campaign. If we as a House are firm enough in our resolve on that subject, we could bring about a fair solution.
I also hope we can all agree that the growing inequality in our country is unfair and corrosive. Wherever we look, whether at access to housing, the life chances of young people or insecurity of employment, we see the stark reality of those consequences—reliance on food banks, growing homelessness and unacceptable regional disparities in income and support for public services. That also means that we need to take a more generous approach to public sector pay.
If the House can adapt to the new realities of our power and influence, we can try to resolve those problems. However, in order to realise that power and influence, we first need to take more control of our own procedures and achieve much greater agency in the legislative process. In my view, that means empowering Select Committees to produce White Papers and draft Bills, and giving the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee control over the programming and timing of private Members’ Bills. It would also mean that the Government were held accountable for some motions that were carried by the House with cross-party support. In other words, they should be bound by some decisions of this House in some circumstances.
Finally, I am sure that the Government will object to such changes in the way that we function on the grounds that the House does not take responsibility for the financial consequences of its decisions. However, the Government will have to put that argument on each occasion and Members of this House will have to assume responsibility for the decisions they take. In the recent past, the reputation and standing of politicians in western democracies, not least our own, have fallen alarmingly, the consequences of which we see in the rejection of long-standing political certainties. However, the arithmetic of this Parliament presents us with an opportunity to take our reputations, both collectively and individually, into our own hands. Do we have the confidence to realise what we could become? Surely we have a duty to at least try.
It is a great pleasure to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who delivered a superb maiden speech. It is a great pleasure to see her in her place today, and I look forward to hearing further such contributions from her in the months and years to come. It really was a fantastic start to her parliamentary career.
I fear that today’s debate has been something of a missed opportunity. No institution, let alone Parliament, should be set in aspic. We need a strong parliamentary institution, and if that is what it is, it should evolve. It should have adult conversations about the way it conducts itself. There are strong arguments for change in the way the parliamentary business is scheduled, but I am afraid that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) did not make them, and nor indeed did the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).
That is a great shame, because debate on improvements in this place, including improvements to scheduling, is what our constituents would expect us to cover, despite what some hon. Members were implying earlier. That should be what we discuss, and the focus should be on what would make us more productive and what would reduce the costs of Parliament, which are still considerable and not to be ignored. Perhaps the Opposition should have focused this opportunity on areas where real change is needed—change that has already been recommended by publications such as “The Good Parliament” report and in the work of the all-party group on women in Parliament.
I want to focus briefly on three of those changes, which I hope those on the Opposition Front Bench and, indeed, the Leader of the House will consider in a little more detail.
First, I should like a Division hour to be introduced. That would give all of us parliamentarians an awful lot more certainty about how we can plan our days. At present, we suffer from the archaic system of voting at the end of debates, and Members are very uncertain about when the votes may come, particularly during the Report stages of Bills. Division hours, which are common in the European and Scottish Parliaments, might give us the extra productivity that we now expect regularly from our constituents when they are going about their everyday work.
The right hon. Lady makes an excellent suggestion. Does she agree that we should also get rid of the antiquated system of walking through the Lobbies to vote, and follow other modern European Parliaments such as the Scottish Parliament by introducing a press-button system for Members who are present?
We shall have to agree to disagree, because I think that going through the Division Lobby is one way in which Members of Parliament can talk to each other. It can be cohesive. We can talk to Ministers about the policies that they are developing, for instance. I do not support the idea of electronic or remote voting; I think that the present system creates more of a team within Parliament.
I do not support the idea that a vote at the end of every day, sometimes in the wee small hours of the morning, gives anyone the edge. It gives no one the edge. It feels as if we were re-enacting the D-day landings, and trying to adopt guerrilla tactics, which, in my 12 years of being in Parliament, have never worked. They have never changed the outcome of a debate, or the outcome of a vote. I urge the Government to think about how they can modernise that aspect of our parliamentary schedule—which brings me to my next point.
I am reliably told by some Members who have been here much longer than I have that late sittings are an integral part of parliamentary life. I know that they are not as late as they have been in past generations, but we are still regularly here until 10 pm, as we will be tonight. We may not mind that, which is absolutely fine, but there are consequences. The late votes that we decided to have cost the taxpayer £5 million over the last five years, and those were staff costs alone: the additional costs of policing and security must at least double the amount. At what point will we, as a Parliament, realise that sitting until 10 pm, or voting at 10 pm, on a Monday is not an integral part of the work that we do? When will we realise that we could change that, and save taxpayers money? We could also improve the quality of life of the staff who work here, which we currently seem to disregard when we make decisions about the scheduling of our sitting hours.
This matter has been considered many times over the years, but does the right hon. Lady accept that one of the issues about Mondays is the need for Members to travel here from far corners of the kingdom, many of which are much further away from London than her constituency?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am very fortunate not to have the long commute that he may have from his constituency. Ultimately, however, what I am saying is that while we could decide to continue to have debates into the evening, voting earlier in the day would mean that, from the point of view of parliamentary staff who must currently be on standby throughout the evening—and who, of course, receive compensation as a result—we would be at least one step further towards modernising the shape of this place.
I am not sure that I heard the right hon. Lady correctly. Was she suggesting that we should have the votes before the debates had finished?
No. The hon. Gentleman’s party might do that, but we would never suggest it in ours. The hon. Gentleman is obviously familiar with the concept of the deferred division, and he will, I am sure, have looked at what happens in Europe and Scotland.
I was rather disappointed that the hon. Member for Walsall South did not talk about the importance of changing parliamentary scheduling to protect the work of Select Committees. There has been a great deal of debate about the importance of constituting Select Committees, but, having chaired a Select Committee for the last two years—and I am very pleased to have been re-elected to that position—I can say that much of our work can come to naught as a result of the scheduling of parliamentary business in the House. Indeed, my Select Committee’s trip in connection with the United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women was scrapped as a result of a vote here, because we do not have something as simple as a proxy system for Members of Parliament.
Rather than talking simply about Opposition day debates, will Opposition Members please talk about other important aspects of scheduling? It is not “job done” when it comes to the way in which our Parliament operates, but today’s debate has risked obscuring that. I think it a shame that some Members have failed to focus on the real issues of the scheduling of parliamentary business. I hope that Labour Front Benchers will support some of the important changes that I have suggested, so that we can give the House a more modern face, and perhaps by doing so attract a wider cross-section of Members of Parliament in the future.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech during this debate. It is an important debate, which goes straight to the heart of the kind of Parliament that we are going to be. Will it be a Parliament that stifles debate and scrutiny, or will it be a Parliament that is accountable to its Opposition and openly democratic? I know which Parliament my constituents would like.
When I was first selected as the candidate for Battersea, 11 weeks ago, many believed that I would not or could not win. That is why it fills me with great pleasure that the people of Battersea chose me to be their Member of Parliament. It is a huge honour for me, and I will serve my constituents to the best of my ability. My family played a vital role in supporting me during the campaign, and I will be forever grateful to them for the sacrifices that they made to help me to be elected.
Before I go on, let me pay tribute to my predecessor, Jane Ellison, for the work that she did in trying to halt the practice of female genital mutilation. I do not share Jane’s politics, but when it comes to this truly important cause, she leaves a proud legacy. We are both lucky women to have been given the privilege of representing Battersea, a vibrant and exciting part of south London with a long and proud history. Battersea is growing, and it has so much to offer. Our iconic Battersea power station, that symbol of municipal pride, is reawakening along the river. Our transport hub, Clapham Junction, has more trains passing through it than any other station in Europe. Our fantastic green spaces are well loved and used by many, from the kids in Battersea Park to the sunbathers of Clapham Common. But, of course, it is the people of Battersea themselves who make it such a wonderful place, and it is to them that I owe most thanks.
No one should be surprised that we in Battersea, one of the youngest, most diverse and most well-educated constituencies in the country, take our politics so seriously. Battersea, like much of London, is changing rapidly, and I want to ensure that those changes benefit everyone. In this last election, there was an increase not only in the number of young voters, but in the number of people turning out to vote for the first time, and with good reason. We are increasingly divided, not least on housing. Private rents have soared. Housing is insecure. Glistening new developments are rising up around us, but the cost of housing puts them way beyond reach. It is a scandal that people under 35 have simply been frozen out of home ownership. Too many people are confronted with housing pressures that are getting worse.
It does not have to be this way. Here in Battersea, we have some of the oldest council housing. The Shaftesbury Estate, built in the 1870s, sought to produce decent homes for working people. That spirit needs to be reignited, and we need to become pioneers again. As the Labour MP for Battersea, I know that I am standing on the shoulders of giants: politicians who were radical and way ahead of their time. It was in Battersea—Labour—in 1906 that the first working-class MP became a Government Minister, in the form of the ferocious John Burns. In 1913, we gave rise to London’s first black mayor, John Archer, whose father came from Barbados and whose mother was an Irishwoman.
In 1922 Battersea became the first constituency to elect an Asian Labour Member of Parliament, the Indian radical Shapurji Saklatvala. Of course, we also had the heroic Charlotte Despard, the Anglo-Irish suffragette who dedicated her life to championing the rights of the poorest in Battersea, and whose statue can be found in the central square of Doddington estate. In 1933, at the age of 89, her last public activity was to address the crowds at a big anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square. Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that I have as much fire in me when I am that age.
I would also like to pay tribute to my more recent Labour predecessors: the wonderful Lord Alf Dubs, whose fight on behalf of Syrian refugees has been an inspiration to us all; and Martin Linton, who has continued to champion the rights of the Palestinian people since leaving office.
As you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker, in Battersea we are outward-looking and internationalist. It is that outward-looking spirit that I will endeavour to bring to Parliament. With the decision to leave the European Union, we face serious challenges ahead of us. It was a decision that my constituents care deeply about and voted overwhelmingly against. I will be standing up for them, drawing on that outward-looking Battersea tradition, one that values openness, tolerance, social justice and co-operation.
As you are aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was born with nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eye, which has left me with a severe sight impairment. Living with my visual impairment, I have had to overcome many barriers, but I want to give a special thanks to my mum, who is here today. She made sure that I had a brilliant education—a brilliant state education. When I was at primary school, the headteacher thought that it would be better if I was sent to a special school, but my mother was having none of that and fought tooth and nail to keep me in mainstream education. I can safely say that I would not be the woman I am today, or an elected Member of Parliament, had it not been for her. Mum, I am truly grateful.
I have been a disability rights campaigner for most of my life. I believe that people living with a disability, like myself, should have the right to participate in society equally. They should have the right to a good education, the right to travel and access public transport, and the right to work. An important issue that is dear to my heart is the employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Still today less than half of working-age disabled people are in employment, compared with 80% of the non-disabled population. That is just not good enough. We need to change that. Over the past seven years, policies on social security and social care have disproportionately affected disabled people. When we discuss all these matters in this House, it is important that we understand and empathise with the real people who will be affected by our decisions.
I am proud to be here in this Chamber, and I am proud to be representing the people of Battersea.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on her maiden speech and welcome her to her place. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on her excellent maiden speech, for its wit and wisdom and its focus on connectivity to her constituency.
Democracy is a system for processing conflicts, and in this House that lies at the very heart of our debates; it is truly what we have come to this place, the mother of all Parliaments, to do. It is absolutely right that parties of all colours should be able properly to hold the Government of the day to account. Since arriving in this place in 2015, I have certainly found that the opportunities to do so have been plentiful.
It has to be said that the calling of this debate by Her Majesty’s official Opposition has very little to do with representing their constituents; to my mind, it has everything to do with political point-scoring. This is truly a case of navel-gazing by the Opposition, using precious parliamentary time to do so. It is a debate about debates, which is exactly what my constituents and theirs will feel angry and aggrieved about.
The reality is that the Standing Orders state that there should be 20 Opposition days in any one Session, 17 of which are for the main Opposition party, which in this case is the Labour party—I see the Opposition Benches emptying. The Labour party was provided with those 17 days in the previous Session, which lasted less than year. It has been offered the usual Opposition day debates for the short September sittings through the usual channels.
However, I agree with the Scottish National party’s Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), that voters simply do not want to see this type of debate; they want to hear us discussing what matters, which is jobs, opportunities, schools, the impact of Brexit nationwide and so much more. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman also mentioned his frustrations with filibustering. The greatest shame tonight is that we will be unable to discuss properly the shocking incidence of nationwide abuse of candidates during the general election, which is something I raised with the Leader of the House—I received a positive reception—in applications for Back-Bench business debates. It is up to the wit and will of Members of this House to use all the tools at their disposal to ensure that the points and issues raised by their constituents are heard via co-operation, and indeed their own persistence.
As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, there have already been plentiful opportunities for Opposition Members to make representations in the Chamber on behalf of their constituents during the debates on the Queen’s Speech, because the Labour party of course had six days to choose those topics. Therefore, I join right hon. and hon. Friends in their disappointment that these complaints are being made to the Government. Indeed, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) that this was purely a great opportunity for the Opposition to look at process, rather than complaints.
I am enjoying the remarks of the hon. Lady, who debates very openly and freely. Does she not also agree with her hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who pointed out that, given that the Government have announced a two-year Session, anybody can see that it is only fair play to consider giving Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition some extra Opposition days so that we can do our constitutional job of holding the Government to account?
I think that there are two points to be made in response to that intervention. First, it is up to the wit and wisdom of Members to use all the tools at their disposal, and I absolutely agree that the Opposition will play every trick in the book, and why would they not? Secondly, I have found myself in a multiplicity of debates since the election, so I wonder how Opposition Members can feel so aggrieved. I have been in debates about new towns, WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—Grenfell Tower, travel infrastructure, school funding and so much more since my return to this House. I am sorry that Opposition Members have not found the variety of opportunities that my colleagues and I have found.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about attendance by some Labour Members. Perhaps she saw the coverage of last Tuesday’s Westminster Hall debate on managing the public finances, which was attended by a great many Conservative Members and almost no Labour Members.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Far from weakening our democracy, the Conservatives in this Government have strengthened it by giving our constituents more voices and by turning up at the debates that have been held.
The hon. Lady referred to the WASPI issue. What we want is a votable motion so that she can prove that she is with us and with the WASPI women. How will she vote when there is a votable motion?
As a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group for women in Parliament, I certainly have a lot of sympathy when it comes to the WASPI women, but Government finances are difficult, as we have heard. I would certainly like us to find a way to help those most affected, and I have made those points in every single debate in which that has been possible.
We have given our constituents a chance to have a voice. One area in which we have done so is through e-petitions. I know that has happened, because I have found the voice of my constituents in my inbox, and I thank them for that. The 10 years of its operation has provided the chance for Parliament to reach into people’s homes and lives, with 10 million people signing petitions and no fewer than 20 petitions being scheduled for debate. E-petitions have engaged us in various subjects in this debating Chamber, and I have been delighted about that, particularly, thinking back to my time on the Women and Equalities Committee, those on transgender issues. This Parliament is more diverse and outward-reaching than people will ever know, but the problem with debates such as this one is that we will look more enclosed.
The Government have looked to ensure that the most talented MPs from across the House get a chance to feed into in-depth policy discussions and I congratulate all the Members who have been elected to be Select Committee Chairs. By contrast, we know that during Labour’s period in office the time for Prime Minister’s questions was reduced and there were complaints of sofa-style government. In fact, the complaint was always that the media was told first and the Chamber second; we do not see that from this Government.
I will conclude as I know we are pressed for time. Her Majesty’s Opposition have tried today to make out that there is one rule for us and another rule for everybody else. However, all of us in this Chamber are defenders of democracy, and we can see that if we use all the tools and instruments, we will have a voice for our community. So I think that Opposition Members would do well to listen to us on strengthening democracy. They should take a very serious look at taking a leaf out of our book when it comes to hearing from our constituents and reflecting what matters to them.
First, I want to pay tribute to the two Members who have made their maiden speeches this evening. I agree with the strong comments of the new hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) about the need to keep the UK together. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) made a moving speech, telling us how she and her mother shared a determination to make sure that she had access to mainstream education. That is a tribute to the strength of a mother’s love and also to the disability rights movement and the need to make sure that people with disabilities enjoy full access to mainstream society, education, employment and so forth. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend.
This debate is not just about technicalities; it is about the national interest, and it would behove all Members of this House to remember that on 8 June this country decided it did not want to give any one party a majority position and the strength to form a majority Government. It gave Parliament the power to shape Government policy potentially, and to hold the Government to account.
It is clear that the electorate expect this Parliament to act in the national interest and not to behave in any way that is deeply tribal or which puts the party interests before the interests of the country. In that respect, I found the Leader of the House’s speech deeply disappointing. She was deeply tribal in her comments and, indeed, was losing the House to the extent that two points of order had to be made to get her back on track. It is detrimental to the interests of this House when we have a debate about parliamentary democracy itself and it descends into a tribal slanging match between the Front Benches on different aspects of Government or Opposition policy. That is not what this debate is about. This debate is also not a parliamentary game; it is about democracy and the ability of Parliament to hold the Government to account.
I want to make a quick comment about the general debate on abuse of candidates in the general election, which was to have been held tonight. I made a short contribution to the debate in Westminster Hall last week. I do believe that all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing, and I am ready to have a debate in the main Chamber on abuse generally in society and abuse of politicians within political parties and outside them and between them. However, would it not be a good idea if Conservative Members were to join with some of us on the Opposition Benches and develop a proper application to the Backbench Business Committee so that we can have that debate in the Chamber, based on support from both sides of the House for such a debate?
The technicalities of the current debate are clear: it is about the number of Opposition day debates, Backbench Business debates and private Member’s Bill days, which has barely been mentioned tonight. It is also about the timeliness of the first Opposition day debates. I have looked at the House of Commons Library research on this and it is clear that our Opposition Front Bench has a strong case. The records are clear. In the first Session of the 1997-98 Government, which lasted 18 months, there were 38 Opposition day debates, and the delay before the first Opposition day debate after a general election in the last seven or eight years has been 22 days, 22 days and 14 days. On that basis, we should have had that Opposition day debate by now.
I am following what the hon. Lady is saying closely. However strong the case the Opposition have made, does the hon. Lady think it is wise to ask for an emergency debate on a debate rather than on a specific and urgent topic?
That point has already been made this evening, but the point is that we are not getting the space necessary for us to raise those important topics.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) to question the Speaker’s ruling that tonight’s debate is taking place on an urgent specific topic under Standing Order No. 24?
I do not think we need to worry about that.
Fortunately, the intervention of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) feeds directly into my next comment. Opposition days, Backbench Business Committee days and private Member’s Bill days on sitting Fridays are all very important and are the key means in this House of raising issues of concern to our voters. That precisely answers the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Opposition days and private Member’s Bill days give us a chance to effect real change to Government policy, yet we have had only 13 days allocated. The Backbench Business Committee is, and will be, crucial in this period of minority Government to developing the cross-party, cross-Bench relationships and the arguments necessary if we are to be effective as a Parliament in effecting real change to Government policy.
This point has not really been raised in this debate, but is not the real reason why the Government are doing this the fact that there can be votes on those debates? The Government are scared of a number of individuals on their Back Benches doing what my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) said, which is voting in the national interest rather than their party’s interest.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend and that was exactly the point I wanted to make.
The Prime Minister said only two weeks ago that she wanted cross-party working and a national consensus between the parties in order to serve the national interest. The Government have made a very poor start on that. If they want consensus, I am more than happy to play my part, but they need to show that they mean business and are ready to use the mechanisms of the House and to make it possible for a consensus to develop in real and meaningful terms in this Chamber. We have seen very little evidence of that so far.
I shall finish on a rather more controversial point. I believe that the real reason we are seeing so little action from the Government in providing for meaningful Opposition day debates or for legislation—there is still no Committee of Selection, and Bills are coming to the Floor of the House when they should not be doing so—is that the Government are absolutely desperate to avoid any kind of Back-Bench instability in the Commons. That is because they are so worried about the future of their own Prime Minister. The truth is that Government Front Benchers want to get beyond the conference season and beyond October to be sure that they still have this Prime Minister in No. 10. They are absolutely desperate to avoid any meaningful debate in this House, in order to shore up the Government’s position. That is an appalling abuse of parliamentary democracy, and it is not in the national interest. When is this zombie Parliament going to end?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), and I may refer to one of her comments later. As she knows, I very much respect her, having worked with her in the Council of Europe. I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on her maiden speech. Well done to her! I would also very much like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who made an absolutely wonderful speech. It is so lovely to see another young lady—a Scottish one—in the House of Commons today, so well done and thanks for your contribution.
I find it quite surprising that I am speaking in this debate. I was not going to do so, but I read the request that came through and I found that I could not stop myself. I felt that I really had to contribute. I am disappointed that the debate will mean that, sadly, we will not have time for the debate that was to follow. I am quite sad about that. I am very surprised that the Opposition have called this debate today—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I want to make some progress.
I am surprised that the Opposition are complaining about the amount of time they have had to debate issues that are important to them. Since the election, we have had six days of debate on the Queen’s Speech, which many Opposition Members took part in. They had an opportunity to have their say in those debates. We have also had numerous urgent questions involving current issues and matters that are relevant to our constituents. I cannot speak about what happened before 2015, because that is when I was elected, but I have looked back over the past two years. There have been a number of debates on Government business and on important pieces of legislation which have not taken the full allocation of time because there was little appetite from the Opposition to join in. One occasion in particular takes me back.
The Children and Social Work Bill was one of the biggest pieces of legislation on children and social work for a number of years. Interestingly, it did not use up all its debating time on Second Reading, on Report or on Third Reading. However, interestingly, when we were debating an amendment on unaccompanied minors that had been tabled to grab the headlines, the Opposition Benches were packed. As soon as the amendment had passed, the Chamber emptied again. In fact, only one Opposition Member spoke on that Bill, which covered issues such as advisers for care leavers and adoption. Did the Opposition feel that those key issues in that massive piece of legislation would not quite grab the headlines? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) that tonight’s debate seems to be about political point scoring and the Opposition trying to grab headlines when they think it will matter.
We have two years ahead of us in which, as the Government make progress, to debate the biggest piece of legislation that this Parliament has seen for many years. It covers something that my constituents are extremely concerned about. They are concerned that we should debate the issues properly and that we get the right legislation through the House, so it is absolutely correct that that must be the focus on both sides of the House. We must have enough time to debate that issue—
What is it?
It is the issue of Brexit: the laws that will come through and the intricacies of what will happen when we leave the European Union.
Really, I think the Opposition should get over themselves a bit. As many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, 20 Opposition day debates have been put aside, which will give Labour 17 to take part in. I look forward to joining in those debates when they occur—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is sitting at the back there, has spent the whole debate being quite rude, not only to the Leader of the House but to me. What a shame—
May I give the hon. Lady some advice? If she is going to make a speech, will she please look at the subject before she stands up to speak? She said she was disappointed that this debate was limiting the time available for the next one, a point made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies). If she had not given in to the Whips and agreed to speak in this debate, would we not have had more time for the next one?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I thought my hon. Friend might like to remind the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) about an hour-long speech he once gave in an attempt to filibuster a Finance Bill debate. Motes and beams come to mind.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I would like to go back to the hon. Member for North Durham’s point. I am fully aware of what this debate is about. That is exactly why I wanted to highlight the poor performance of the Opposition in the debates on the Children and Social Work Bill. We had three debates on a subject that I and many of my constituents—including the young, looked-after children—care about, and it was really depressing when I had to go back to those children and say, “I’m very sorry, but the Labour party, which says it represents you, was not speaking up for you in the Chamber. It was the Conservatives who did that.” So I will make that point!
Anyway, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall carry on. I am looking forward to the next two years here, in which we will do what the British people want. They want us to make sure that we deliver on Brexit. I suggest that Labour Members get over themselves and recognise that they have many opportunities to debate and to contribute in the House. They should just get on with it, and work with us to deliver what the British people want.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who made an absolutely sterling, brilliant Union speech. I concurred with nearly everything she said in it, apart from the political stuff—[Interruption.] Well, the party political stuff. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova)—who is not in her place at the moment—also made an exemplary speech. It is nice to hear a Member paying tribute to their mother in the Chamber, and my hon. Friend did that beautifully and elegantly.
It is a shame that I am following the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), because I am actually rather fond of her, having spent a great deal of time in her constituency contributing to the Labour party coming third in the by-election. She said that Labour Members needed to get over themselves and get on with it. Yes, we would like to get on with the business of opposition; the problem is that we are not being given the Opposition days on which to be the honourable Opposition. That is the whole point. I apologise to the Leader of the House; I was rude to her earlier. I actually like her, and there are some things that I want out of her, so I am going to be nice to her now. Seriously, I was rude earlier, but I feel strongly about such issues.
The Government and Government Members need to bear it in mind that the power of the Executive in our parliamentary system is quite phenomenal. Standing Order No. 14 says that the Government have complete control over the timetable. They get to decide when they are going to give days to the Opposition, to private Members’ Bills and to the rest, but Government business always takes precedence. Standing Order No. 48 says that only the Government can table motions relating to money and taxation. We do not have a proper Budget; we have a Budget speech. This House does not actually decide on the process of how money is allocated at all. Standing Order No. 83A means that only the Government can table a programme motion, so only the Government can decide how much time we are going to devote to each element. Even in the utter nitty-gritty of the Welsh Grand Committee, only the Government can table a motion under Standing Order No. 108 to say when we are going to have a Welsh Grand Committee, what it will debate and all the rest of it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is also speaking through a hole in his head. It is just a biological fact, and I hope he does not think I am being rude.
My hon. Friend is describing a fundamental principle of this place, and that is actually what this debate is about—it is not a debate about debates. The principle is that the Government have their way, but the Opposition have their say. By denying us Opposition days while having their way about extending the Session to two years, the Government are breaching that fundamental principle of Parliament.
Yes, we have had several Sessions that lasted only several months because of early general elections or because, in the old days, the parliamentary Session started in November and then ended in the spring. We did not suddenly have 17 Opposition days because that is the fixed number of such days in a Session. Since Richard Crossman introduced these in November 1967, the whole idea of the change from Supply day debates to Opposition day debates was that the Opposition would have a fair amount of guaranteed time during the year.
This is not just about the Standing Orders; the Government have the absolute power to decide on the date of the Prorogation and how long a Session will be. That is only in the hands of the Government, not in our hands or the House’s hands. The Government get to decide when we will adjourn and go into recess. Only Government amendments are guaranteed to be considered on Report, and only the Government can table an amendment to the Standing Orders and be certain that it will be debated. That is a phenomenal tying up of power in the hands of the Executive, and the only thing that the Opposition have in return is the expectation that the Leader of the House and the Government will exercise fair play.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for totally forgetting his constituency during my contribution. How could I forget that he is the hon. Member for Rhondda? May I suggest a solution that he may like to think about and put to the Leader of the House? If there is going to be an issue with Opposition days, one way around this is through unallotted days, which were used in 2015 to 2017. I am sure that he will remember that they were also used in 2001. What is the reason for not giving unallotted days? The Government could just say how many of them they were going to give.
They could do that. In the 2010 to 2012 Session, the problem was that we did not know that it was going to be a two-year Session until the Session moved along. The Government kept on refusing to announce whether there would be a Prorogation or a two-year Session, so it is not an exact match with what we have now. The Government have already said that this will be a two-year Session, so they should be able to say that there will be a proportionate number of Opposition days and days for private Members’ Bills and Back-bench business. Any ordinary member of the public would say that that is what everybody would genuinely expect.
The hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) said that all this stuff does not really matter and that it is not about democracy. I would ask them just to remember that the big row in this House in 1939 was about whether the House should adjourn in August when there was a fear of war with Germany. That was the row. It was not about some grand piece of legislation; it was about whether the House should adjourn. Ronald Cartland—the younger brother of Barbara Cartland—who was killed while serving bravely in the second world war and who has a shield on the wall of the Chamber, accused Chamberlain of having “ideas of dictatorship” because Chamberlain was using the undoubted power that Government had to decide when the Adjournment was and he thought that that was wrong, especially in a House that was largely composed of Conservative Members.
Another problem is that the recent move towards lots and lots of secondary legislation might be okay if what the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has regularly said in the House were true—namely, that if a piece of secondary legislation is prayed against, it will always come to the House—but it is not. Between 2010 and 2016, 69 pieces of secondary legislation—statutory instruments—tabled by the Government were prayed against by the Opposition. According to the “David Davis” rule, it should have been guaranteed that they would be debated on the Floor of the House, but how many of the 69 were debated in the House? Three. Eight were debated in Committee, but the debates in Committee were not about whether they were good statutory instruments; they were on whether the matter had been considered. Even if every single member of the Statutory Instrument Committee had voted no, the measure would still have gone on the statute book.
When the Government come forward with something called the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which wants to give massive amounts of secondary legislative power to the Government, the Opposition are very sceptical. That is when it starts to look like, in the words of Ronald Cartland, “ideas of dictatorship”, not because any of the individual members of the Government think of themselves as dictators, but because the power that this House has, over the years, given to Government over every element of the agenda is so important.
Several people have already made the point that we should have had an Opposition day by now. I say to the hon. Member for Eastleigh that there is a vital difference between a hot-air debate that ends with a vote on whether we are going to adjourn, as we had at the end of the WASPI debate, and a substantive motion on the Order Paper that has effect, either because it is legislation or because it is an Opposition day debate. When Labour were in government and had a majority, we lost an Opposition day debate on the Gurkhas and that changed what happened—several of us here have scars from that debate. In the end, the Government cannot always run away from those kind of debates. I say to Conservative Members that there has to come a point when the whole House has to consider the long-term future of how we do our business, not just the partisan advantage of today.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Lady does not mind, I will not because I want to—
You are talking about me.
She has a very good point.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) says, the hon. Lady has a very good point, so I will give way.
The hon. Gentleman is very kind. As a former shadow Leader of the House—I enjoyed his speeches when he was sitting where the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is—will his constituents in Rhondda really think that the time that this House is spending debating parliamentary business is what we should be doing in the last week before the recess? I said in my speech that jobs, opportunities and schools are what really matter.
Of course, there are lots and lots of things that we should debate. I would like a debate in Government or Opposition time—I do not mind—with a votable motion on the WASPI campaign. I know exactly how I am going to vote, and I hope that I will able to persuade the hon. Lady to join us in the Lobby. We can have as many warm-words debates as we want, but if there is no vote at the end, our constituents will feel fundamentally let down. I say to Conservative Members that they would be better off having that debate sooner rather than later; otherwise, they will have an awful lot of upset people.
If the Government had a programme, I would be happy for us to debate that programme, but there is no legislation. The Leader of the House referred to the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill, but that is not a Bill—it is barely a clause in a Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said earlier, we had to debate it on the Floor of the House because the Government have not set up the Committee of Selection so that we can have a proper Committee to debate the thing.
I do not doubt that the Government have the power to do these things, but I no longer think they have the authority to do them. Every day they abuse that power, they diminish their own authority; and every day they stretch the gap between their power and their authority, they abandon government by consent and lapse into ideas of dictatorship. That is why the Government are wrong.
In some ways I feel that Christmas has come early, because here we are with three hours to debate parliamentary procedure, one of my favourite activities. Indeed, I look forward to aestivating in Somerset and talking with my family about all the intricacies of Standing Orders, so I feel in many ways fortunate.
It has been a particularly happy and fortunate debate, with two brilliant maiden speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), whose constituency I have had the privilege of visiting—I know its manifold beauties—put the case for the Union perfectly. She should be hired by her tourist board to encourage further visits to her wonderful constituency.
The hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) was so generous to her predecessor. It is one of the great charms of maiden speeches that we recognise in them, if only briefly and for the only time in our political careers, that people on the other side of the House are actually not all bad. It is very charming that that is done, and she did it particularly well.
Standing Order No. 14(2) is an important subject, and I have much sympathy with what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said in his well-considered speech. It is the job of those of us on the Back Benches to hold the Government to account, but the job of holding the Executive to account is not just one for the Opposition; it is one for Government Back Benchers, too. Our constitution works if it is balanced and if the Government have to make their case and their arguments, but this debate misfires because the Opposition have come to it too soon in the Parliament and have given it an urgency that it does not deserve.
In my earlier intervention I questioned whether it was wise to have asked for this debate, not whether it was wise to grant the debate. Standing Order No. 24 is an exceptionally valuable tool, and I am glad you are back in the Chair, Mr Speaker, because the more that Standing Order is used, the better.
That is not what the hon. Gentleman said earlier, as Hansard will show. Standing Order No. 24, as he well knows, puts the onus completely in the hands of the Speaker to decide whether something is an urgent matter for debate, and the motion does not proceed if the Speaker does not believe it is urgent.
I questioned the wisdom of requesting the debate, not of granting it, which is a very important distinction. It is of the greatest importance that the Speaker, if asked for an emergency debate by the formal Opposition, should in almost all circumstances grant it because such debates are an important way of holding the Government to account and of inconveniencing the Government.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, Standing Order No. 14 gives enormous power to the Government to set out the business of this House, but the Opposition need opportunities to raise urgent matters. There, the Opposition must be wise in what they ask for.
Given the hon. Gentleman has put on the record that he believes the Speaker should, in almost all circumstances, grant a Standing Order No. 24 request from the Opposition, I look forward to his supporting future applications that the Opposition will have to make because of the lack of time for Opposition day debates.
That is where I think the Opposition have misfired today:
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
But this is not the season or the time. So much is happening of general urgency, and this debate strikes me as fiddling while Brussels burns. We have the massive Brexit debate to consider, we still have a huge deficit to be debated and we have a great housing crisis that has been so starkly brought to our attention by what happened at Grenfell Tower, and what do Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition ask for? They ask for a debate on Standing Orders—a debate on a debate. A debate on conversation. Even for one who loves procedure and thinks it of great importance, can that be what is of most urgency to us today? It is a question of proportionality.
The hon. Member for Rhondda made many important points about how the House has limited powers to hold a strong Government to account and about how it should use those powers, but the Opposition have asked for this debate a few days into the Session, before we have had any real opportunity to discover how many Opposition days we will have, and well before it is decided whether additional days will be given because it is a two-year Session. I have no doubt that further days will be given. Indeed, if all 20 days have been used up a year from now and the Government come to the Dispatch Box to say that there will be no more days, I will be on the side of the Opposition. I would support the Opposition in asking for a proportional share during the second year of this Session, which would be only right. I would also be in favour of an extra three days for the Scottish National party, because that is what this Parliament ought to do, but the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), the shadow Leader of the House, has misfired—this is too soon and too early, and it is not genuinely urgent.
I sort of accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. Maybe it is a bit too early, but he knows the history of previous Parliaments and of how Opposition days were granted after the Select Committees and Standing Committees were up and running. It is unusual for those Committees not to be up and running after four weeks. Surely he must have some concerns about that.
Again, I think the hon. Gentleman is premature. The issue is the month lost between May and June. We have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, and we have gotten used to having elections in May. We therefore expect these things to be up and running in time for the summer recess, which I absolutely accept, but he misses the point that the election was under not the normal procedure but the extraordinary procedure of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. We therefore assembled a month later, closer to the summer recess. The process of electing Select Committee Chairmen and Select Committee members takes a little time, and the Opposition are simply being unreasonable. If we were having this debate in September, they would have a fair point; and if we were having it in October, they would have an outrageous point if they did not have any Opposition day debates by then.
This Session has hardly begun. It is in its infancy. It is like Sixtus, my newborn son. It is still in the mewling and puking stage. It has not reached the stage of toddling, walking and taking bold steps.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, when raising a child, one must try to instruct that child in good behaviour from the very beginning and not let it misbehave early on? Therefore, surely our role is to ensure that the Government do not misbehave early on.
The hon. Gentleman is a harsher authoritarian than I am. The strict disciplining of a child not yet a fortnight old would be unreasonable by any standards. All I can say is that I am glad not to be an infant in his household.
This debate is too early, and the problem with it being too early is that it comes when things of real gravity are happening. We are in as uncertain a time as I can recall. There is so much of gravity with which we need to grapple. I have said that I think and hope that you would grant any reasonable request by the Opposition for a Standing Order No. 24 debate, Mr Speaker, and there are so many debates for which they could have asked. In her opening speech, the hon. Member for Walsall South listed about a dozen things that could have been debated. If any of them had been requested under Standing Order No. 24, we could have had a sensible debate that added distinction and lustre to this Parliament. But standing here—I am as guilty of it as anyone else, but I have admitted that I am a procedural bore—and discussing the intricacies of procedure when so much is going on is not in tune with the nation and is not serious opposition; it is opportunism. If they can, the Opposition should withdraw the motion.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this important debate. I thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing it. I wish to follow everyone else in congratulating the new Members, the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), on making superb, notable maiden speeches.
I want to confine my remarks to the procedural debate and the arguments we are putting forward, which I believe are solid and sound. Let me start by pointing out that the result of the general election has changed the role of this Chamber; power has shifted from the Executive to Parliament. There have been few times when we, as Back-Bench MPs, have had a greater ability to influence and shape Government policy. It is all very well Members suggesting that this is a needless debate, but I do not think that is true; people can stretch the truth thin enough, but when they do that others can see through it. It is true that a lack of time has been allocated to Back-Bench business, private Members’ Bills and Opposition day debates, and people can see that that is an attempt to stifle the role and influence of this Chamber. I sincerely hope that Back Benchers, of all parties, can also see that.
At the Prime Minister’s recent relaunch, she reached out to the Labour party, asking us to
“contribute and not just criticise”.
That is a worthy sentiment. Although I may disagree fundamentally with the right wing of the Conservative party, the Prime Minister’s plea to Labour was an attempt to stifle the Back-Bench voice in this Chamber. I am willing to work with parliamentary colleagues, but I would never vote to cut workers’ rights or to privatise even more of our public sector services. I accept that I will be unable to convert many in the Conservative party—perhaps not any—to the benefits of re-nationalising our railways, abolishing university tuition fees, or increasing spending on social care or on other public services, although there are many sound arguments for doing such. However, there are areas of consensus, and issues that can bridge politics.
I had hoped the public sector pay cap would be such an issue. I had hoped that some Conservative Members would be outraged by the Chancellor’s alleged comments, which were widely reported, about public sector workers—the idea that nurses, teachers, firefighters, police officers and prison staff were “overpaid” and receiving a “premium”. I would like him to tell that to the student nurse who contacted me over the weekend as she faced the prospect of sleeping in a colleague’s car, because there were no trains after her night shift and she only had £10 to last the week. I hope eventually we will see the lifting of the pay cap. If it does not come from Conservative Members, perhaps their colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party can exert their influence and give public sector workers the pay rise they deserve.
I will look beyond the Prime Minister’s offer to “contribute”, as there is little prospect of her ever listening to a lowly Back Bencher, particularly a socialist, trade union supporting Labour MP like me. So perhaps there is more prospect of reaching out to other Back Benchers, not just to criticise, but to contribute. Other right hon. and hon. Members have made reference to the Westminster Hall debate on 5 July about the women’s state pension age and the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. It was extraordinarily well attended—the Chamber was packed. It was dominated by Opposition Members from the Labour party, the Scottish National party and other nationalists, but a sizeable number of Conservative Members were there, too. There were excellent contributions by Members from every party, who recognised that a clear injustice had occurred and that the Government should take steps to put things right. The Government’s response ranged from indifference to ridiculousness.
I ask Conservative Members to look at the comments from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who was here just a few minutes ago. He is not a bad individual and I get on with him incredibly well, but it is outrageous to suggest that women who have been forced to wait longer for their state pension should be offered apprenticeships. For the Members who were not there, I can tell them that I have never heard anything like what I heard from the public gallery; there were gasps and cries of “Shame!” when the Minister made that outrageous suggestion. He did a disservice to the women affected, the Conservative party and the Government.
Although I do not have a great deal of interest in the reputation and popularity of the Conservative party, I expect many Members sitting opposite do. I certainly know that, privately anyway, many may disagree with the Government’s position on the WASPI women and strongly believe action should be taken to right this wrong. As Back Benchers, we have not only a voice in this Parliament, but the ability to shape policy and, in this case, improve the lives of millions of our constituents. I know we do not want to have a re-hash of the debate, but I am trying to deal with the point that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) made about how we could be addressing important issues, as this is a crucial issue.
With all due respect to the Leader of the House and the Government, who determine the business, in this Session we seem to get involved in a lot of displacement activity; we are debating the same things over and over again, without a vote on the motion. If we do not have a resolution, we simply cannot move forward. We need to demand of the Government—this needs to come not only from the Opposition, but from Back Benchers—that they do something. I can assure Members that if we have consensus, or we are dealing with sensible policies or sensible Bills from Members from any party, I will give such matters my full consideration, and I hope others would do the same.
I ask Conservative Members to recognise that they have the power to demand change for the WASPI women. If the Government will not budge, we will have to demand and obtain a meaningful vote on the Floor of the House. I know the extent of the changes we can achieve will be determined by those willing to break the Conservative Whip, but Back-Bench MPs had only a small voice in the last Parliament. Now the arithmetic has changed and, in this Parliament, we have the power if we choose to exercise it. WASPI is one campaign where I know we have the numbers, and other hon. Members may be able to identify other issues or concerns; I have a whole bagful in relation to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the Homes and Communities Agency and so on. If we have a basis for consensus, we can achieve policy changes. If, as I suspect, we have a legislature that does not wish to legislate, I urge and implore all Members to make this Parliament the Back-Bench Parliament.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I love process and procedure, and I do not think it is to be derided or criticised. Process and procedure is why we settle big debates in this place and not out there on the streets, so there are no apologies from me.
I am delighted that we have such experts in this place on process and procedure. I know very little about it, but my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) is an expert, as are you, Mr Speaker, in the Chair today. I do not want to sound like a crashing bore in what is my maiden speech in my fourth Parliament —four Parliaments is quite impressive; we are moving in the right direction. But I would just say that the genuine maiden speech—
“Erskine May” makes it clear that someone’s maiden speech is their maiden speech only in their first Parliament, so they are allowed to be interrupted in subsequent Parliaments.
My hon. Friend makes that point brilliantly in the way that only he can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) made a fantastic speech, a Unionist speech, and touched on a part of the world I love greatly, Scotland. It is a beautiful country and my hon. Friend will be a fantastic representative for her constituency.
Although she is not in her place, the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) made a fabulous speech about a part of the world I hold very dear. I was, after all, a councillor in Battersea, in the borough of Wandsworth, for many years—well, actually, for four years, but it seemed longer. I was a councillor for the most famous and celebrated ward of Battersea, Balham. If you are going to be a councillor anywhere in the country, why not Balham?
In concluding my brief remarks, let me say that it is always best for Governments of whatever colour to be generous and magnanimous. As you will know, Mr Speaker, in this place generosity is often abused but never despised. My plea to Government as we go forward is for them please to be generous in their approach to the Opposition Benches. They will be on the side of the angels if they are.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for their maiden speeches. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend, who, as I was, was one of the unexpected winners that brought my party some steps closer to being the party of government.
With the greatest of respect to right hon. and hon. colleagues, I have sometimes been a bit disappointed by my experiences as a new Member of Parliament. The first disappointment I commented on was the lack of answers to questions and our inability to hear either during Prime Minister’s questions. Indeed, a tweet I made on the subject was viewed more than half a million times and retweeted 10,000 times by the public, who no doubt share that concern. The fact that I have to take part in this debate today as a new Member without the ability to do anything substantive as an Opposition Member until, allegedly, October, is adding to my disappointment.
I, like many others, have looked towards politics since childhood as the route to achieving change in this country. I, like many other Members, have worked hard for years, election after election, to be elected to this House to try to achieve that change. Like in the children’s novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, I always assumed that if I made it to the end of the yellow brick road to this place I might find the wonderful wizard of government. Instead, much like Dorothy and her obviously disappointed dog, Toto, I have failed to find a Government of mandates, leadership or stature and instead, behind the curtain, I have found a group of middle-aged men protecting their egos in a bid to take over from a lame duck Prime Minister.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I challenge the hon. Gentleman on whether he just called me a middle-aged man?
I hope he did not; that would be a serious error. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not accusing the Leader of the House of being a middle-aged man, and if he could confirm that, honour will be served.
Of course I would not class the Leader of the House in that group of middle-aged men—but I am sure that she knows each and every one of them as they vie for the leadership of her party and, perhaps, try to take her position.
When Britain faces arguably her most challenging time since the second world war, with decisions taken here in this Parliament deciding what type of country Britain will be for the next generation, it seems to me that the Government need to step up to allow for accountability and opposition. As my hon. colleagues have said, this debate is about the lack of time being given to us, with Opposition day and Back-Bench business debates seemingly in short supply on the basis of simple parliamentary mathematics.
Many Government Members who campaigned to take back control and argued for parliamentary sovereignty for this place will no doubt share my concern. A. V. Dicey, the father of parliamentary constitutional theory, would be turning in his grave; the theories on which he built from Montesquieu on the separation of powers and the trias politica, which mean that power should be balanced between the Executive and the legislature, are not being followed because the Opposition are not being allowed to hold the Government to account. The balance is not as it should be. The taking back of control to this Parliament, as opposed to the Executive, is failing. With a Government entirely consumed by their chaotic management of Brexit, seemingly more interested in self-preservation than the national interest, it must be left to the Opposition to act as a party of government with a mandate for government in our manifesto to ensure proper debate on the issues about which my constituents are concerned.
Dare I say that it is no longer acceptable for Ministers to stand up and say, “Everything will be fine; we are a great nation”? Blind patriotism detached from the real world will only show us as a country out of touch and out of control. That is why we must be allowed proper time for debate in this House, to help the Government understand the reality of their inaction. My frustration at the news yesterday was a prime example, as Ministers decided to waste their time by briefing against each other instead of getting on with the job in hand. That frustration might have been calmed by the knowledge that I would have the opportunity to debate the issues of the day in a grown-up, professional and respectful fashion in this House, in the way my constituents expect of us and for the reasons they elected me to this House in the first place. But it seems that that most normal of asks is being thwarted by the Government, so it is with great disappointment that I find myself having to make this speech in support of the motion from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), arguing for what should be normal debate in this Parliament.
Although you might not be able to resolve my disappointment, Mr Speaker, at what I found behind the curtain of power, I hope that this House will put the national interest above power games and party political concerns and allow proper time for debate and scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones). I, like other hon. Members, am a bit disappointed that the debate has eaten into time that we might otherwise have used for the debate on abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public during the general election campaign, particularly as at the weekend, when I was trying to enjoy some quiet time with my family, a member of the public went to the considerable extent of getting my private number to phone me up and tell me that she disliked me and what I stood for so much that she was not surprised I got death threats. That was a charming start to the weekend with my family. But this is also an important debate, and it is important that we consider the scheduling—or rather, the lack of scheduling—of parliamentary business before the recess.
We have heard two excellent maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) made an accomplished speech and I thank her for the gracious comments she made about our friend and colleague, Mike Weir, our previous Chief Whip. I respect her Unionist views and I hope that she will respect my wishes for my country to become independent in due course. She is very keen for the SNP to take independence off the table according to what she says were the wishes of her constituents in 2014, but I remind her that last year her constituents voted by a significant majority to remain part of the European Union. She might also like to ask the Government to take Brexit off the table if she is so keen on her constituents’ wishes.
We also had a fantastic maiden speech from the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova). She is not in her place, but I found it a fascinating history of her admirably diverse constituency and a very moving tribute to her mother in assisting her in the battle with her disability. I am sure that she will be a fantastic advocate in this House for those of our constituents who have to deal with disability in their lives.
As hon. Members have said, there can be no doubt that this Government seem to be running scared of scrutiny. The very reason we had an unnecessary general election four or five weeks ago was that the Prime Minister wanted to avoid scrutiny by getting herself such an enormous majority that this House would not scrutinise her effectively, but she did not get her wishes, and now we have a hung Parliament in which there is the possibility of true scrutiny. But she need not despair; she need only look north to Holyrood for an example of a minority Government who have managed to bring forward a full legislative programme in their first year that includes groundbreaking legislation on child poverty, and the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which will put fairness, dignity and respect at the heart of Scotland’s social security system; that is not what happens in the system under which the rest of the UK labours.
It seems that the Prime Minister is running rather short of ideas. Those of us in Scotland who fought Tory candidates in the general election, as I did—successfully, I am glad to say—will be aware that the Tories in Scotland had only one policy. People are beginning to wonder what the Tory party stands for. What is it here to do? What do the Government exist to do, other than take Britain out of the European Union in the most inane and hapless fashion possible?
What will the new Scottish Conservative Members of Parliament do in this Parliament to scrutinise the Government? What will they do with their time here? Clearly the Prime Minister’s estimation of their abilities is such that she has had to ennoble one of their colleagues who was defeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and shove him into the House of Lords to be a Minister, because she does not think that the Tory MPs are up to it. I wonder if she is right, as they have shown a remarkable ignorance, since they got here, of the difference between devolved and reserved powers—rather like the drafters of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, it seems. I would like to make a generous offer: I would be happy to recommend an undergraduate law student from my alma mater to give the Conservatives a little tutorial on the difference between reserved and devolved powers, so that they can cope with this Parliament.
As the Scottish Conservatives are 13 in number, it is quite possible that they could inflict a Government defeat, if they chose to. They said that they would work for Scotland’s interests; does my hon. and learned Friend remember exactly what they did in response to the appalling deal between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party that was put forward?
I do, and as somebody who is LGBT, I find the deal with the DUP particularly obnoxious, but it is not just my rights that I am bothered about; it is everyone’s human rights, including women’s reproductive rights and human rights generally. [Interruption.] An hon. Gentleman shouts at me to give over, but human rights are important to some of us in this House. I am happy to tell him that I will not give over on human rights.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire asked what the Conservative Tory MPs would do to represent the interests of voters in Scotland. We are promised an immigration Bill sometime this Parliament. There is no sign of it yet. One thing that Conservative MPs could do is respect the wishes of business in Scotland. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors have said—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it right and appropriate that while my hon. and learned Friend makes a speech, Tory heavies stand at the Bar of the House and heckle and chunter away, though they are not part of this debate?
I had not heard the alleged chuntering. Hon. Members certainly should not chunter; it is unseemly behaviour. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) is a robust individual and is well able to fend for herself, but they should not stand in an aggressive, Mafioso posture. It is rather disagreeable and quite unnecessary.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I hope this is a point of order rather than a point of advertisement.
Not to correct the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), but may I confess that it was not the Whips chuntering? It was my good self, Sir.
That is both candid of the hon. Gentleman and, arguably, a first.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire, some hon. Gentlemen and, of course, the Speaker, are gallant, but I can assure them that I have no difficulty with the chuntering going on to my left. It certainly will not put me off my stride.
I was suggesting that the Government need to bring forward a debate on the Floor of the House on the basis for their immigration policy. We heard during the general election campaign that the Prime Minister wants to stick with the unrealistic targets that she has missed for seven years. The reason why the targets are unrealistic is that they are based on ideology, not evidence. We need an evidence-based debate on the Floor of the House about immigration policy for the whole of the UK. If we have that, we will see that immigrants are on average more likely to be in work, better educated and younger than the indigenous population, and that Scotland’s demographic needs are such that we require a progressive immigration policy. As I said earlier, business in Scotland wants this; the Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors in Scotland have said that they want the post-student work visa bought back, and a different immigration policy for Scotland, given its unique democratic needs. Let us have a debate about that, rather than about process.
Countries such as Canada and Australia manage to operate differential immigration procedures within their federation. Professor Christina Boswell of the University of Edinburgh has produced an excellent report evaluating the options for a differentiated approach to immigration policy in Scotland. There is cross-party support in Scotland for the post-study work visa; even the Scottish Tory party supports its return, so what will the Tory MPs do about that, and when will we have a debate about it on the Floor of the House?
Another important issue from the last Parliament is the plight of child refugees in Europe. Many of us, including Conservative Members, fought for their rights, and we got the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act 2016. Last week, I attended the launch of a report by the Human Trafficking Foundation that followed an independent inquiry on separated and unaccompanied minors in Europe. It reveals that the UK Government have woefully failed those children, and that Ministers have done
“as little as legally possible”
to help unaccompanied children in Europe. It says that the Government have turned from a humanitarian crisis that “would not be tolerable” to the British public if they could see the truth of what was happening in France. When will we be able to hold the Government to account for the promises that they made when the Dubs amendment was agreed to, and for bringing only 480 minors to the United Kingdom when the understanding was that they would bring in 3,000? When will we have a debate about that important issue? We must find time in this Parliament to force the Government to rectify their dereliction of the duty that we imposed on them when we agreed the Dubs amendment.
Finally, on the connected issue of human rights, hon. Members have mentioned the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that was brought forward last week. Clause 5 makes it clear that the Government do not intend the EU charter of fundamental rights to become part of what they call domestic law after Brexit. This must be challenged and debated immediately. There was a time not so long ago when the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was a great fan of the charter. He liked it so much that he used it to take up a legal challenge against the “snooper’s charter”, which ended up in the European Court of Justice, but he has changed his mind, and he has brought forward a draft Bill under which a whole swathe of rights and protections enjoyed by our constituents will go, if the Bill is passed unamended. Where is the debate about that?
The charter of fundamental rights only applies to citizens of the United Kingdom insofar as it applies to EU law. It therefore cannot have applicability once we have left the European Union because we will no longer be subject to EU law.
Yes. But if, as the Government have promised, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is going to guarantee all the rights that we already enjoy by virtue of our EU citizenship, the charter of fundamental rights should not be going. The charter defends all sorts of rights, such as data protection, children’s rights and the freestanding right to equality, which are not protected by the European convention on human rights.
Would those rights not be protected when incorporated into our laws as British laws, notwithstanding that their source was the EU?
The hon. and learned Lady is ably illustrating why we need a debate about this. Despite the fact that the EU charter of fundamental rights will not be part of domestic law, she thinks that those rights will, nevertheless, still be protected. Let us have a debate about how we are going to do that. That is my point. On the face of the Bill, it looks like these rights will be lost.
These rights are real. Just last week in the Supreme Court, a gentleman called John Walker was able to ensure equal pension rights for his husband thanks to EU law. That was a timely reminder of the value of EU law to our constituents. Those are important rights. What is more important than a married couple of two men or two women having the same pension rights as a straight couple? I personally find that very important, as I am sure do many other Members.
We cannot afford to fall behind the standard set by the European Union on human rights. But, on the face of it, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill seems to be about to do that. We must insist on parliamentary time to debate these issues properly. I call on the Government to get their act together, have the courage of their convictions and bring the business to the Floor of the House. We can then debate some of the issues that I, and other hon. Members, have mentioned in a full and frank fashion. The Government should do that, rather than running scared from the policies that they were so keen to espouse when they thought they were going to have a whopping majority. They are not so keen now.
It is a pleasure to follow the maiden speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair).
If we get time today, we may get to a debate on the Youth Parliament. I am probably one of the only Members of the Youth Parliament when it was set up in 2000 and 2001 who has now become a Member of Parliament. I reflect on that experience compared to this one. The kind of behaviour we now see from the Government—cutting down the opportunity for debate and discussion—would have been unheard of in the Youth Parliament. This is meant to be the mother of Parliaments, but it seems perfectly acceptable to play jiggery-pokery with the timetable. I wonder about the responsibility of the Government, and what this looks like for constituents out in the wider world.
Today my constituents were queuing around the block for more than an hour, not for a gig or a music activity, but to see the local doctor in Peacehaven. That is a regular thing for my constituents. Why? Because, of course, doctors’ workloads have doubled, and the resources to our NHS have reduced. Equally, we do not have enough houses. Independent research shows that teachers’ pay has reduced by £3 an hour in real terms and that their workloads have increased since the Conservative party took power. [Interruption.] Members on the other side of the Chamber may wish to chunter about that, but I suggest they read the research.
My constituents would be flabbergasted to think that we are effectively reducing our workload by covering the same amount in two years as we would in one. I am afraid that saying, “Oh, it is all because that is what it says in the Standing Orders” is a weak response. We need to take the moral high ground, not just the letter of the Standing Orders.
May I suggest that the facts contradict the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks? Today we are having a debate about future debates, and that is democracy, whether he likes it or not. However, does he agree that we need a strong economy to pay for a strong NHS? Is the British model or the Venezuelan model the best way to pay for a strong NHS?
We can take from the best all around the world—from Scandinavia, Germany and so on. Germany, for example, has a strong economy and a fairer society, unlike under this Government, where we have a bigger divide between rich and poor, and where people have not been able to access vital services.
Last week, a woman came into my surgery and said she had been on the waiting list for a council house for two years. I had to tell her that she was likely to remain on that waiting list for another three or four years, because the reality is that not enough houses have been built under this Government, under previous Governments and for a generation. Surely, we need to talk about making sure we can hold the Government to account for their policies. My constituent asked me to make sure her voice is heard in this Chamber. If I go back to her and say, “I’m terribly sorry, but we didn’t quite get enough Opposition days to raise your urgent needs,” she will feel as if her voice, through me, has been taken away—and she will feel like that quite rightly, because it has been taken away. A lack of debate and Opposition time takes the voice away from constituents from all constituencies across this country.
This has happened not with a vote in Parliament but just with an announcement in the papers that we will now have a two-year period rather than a one-year period. [Interruption.] Session. I do not think constituents will really care what you wish to call it. They will care about the fact that the Government are denying them a voice in Parliament, not about the petty name politics that some Members wish to play.
I am a relatively new Member—I have been here only a few weeks—but if I were an employee and I suddenly said, “I’m not going to do my work in a year. I’m going to take two years to do it,” I would be put on capability, and I would probably not have a job. Well, I suggest that this Government are put on capability and that they should not have a job, because extending the amount of time in which to do the same amount of work in is not on in the workplace, and it should not be on in our Parliament.
What the Government could do is very simple: they could come here and pledge to do three things. They could say the same number of days per year will be offered for Opposition and Back-Bench business as there are in the Standing Orders per Session—easy-peasy. They should say that, make a pledge and make a commitment. Then we will not need to shoot our guns early; we will be able to sit down and relax.
The second thing the Government could easily do is say that there will be the same number of days in this Parliament for all these things as there were in previous Parliaments. That would be nice and easy to do. They could make that statement now, and, again, we could relax.
Finally, the Conservative party could get on with selecting its Select Committee representatives. They could get on with allowing us to scrutinise legislation. They could get on with the work. It is easy. The Labour party has managed to hold an election today. Our election shut 10 minutes ago. We will be announcing our representatives. Conservative Members could have been busy doing the same. Why have they not done that? They have been fiddling while democracy burns. Get on with it! That is what members of the public want: they want you to get on with it. That is what Opposition Members want: they want you to get on with it. The Government should agree the times, agree the days, make a statement, allow us to debate the issues that matter, and stop wasting our time by their prevarications.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the scheduling of parliamentary business by the Leader of the House and the implications of a two-year session for Standing Orders requirements.
Adjournment (November and Christmas)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 25),
That this House—
(1) at its rising on Tuesday 7 November 2017, do adjourn until Monday 13 November; and
(2) at its rising on Thursday 21 December 2017, do adjourn until Monday 8 January 2018.—(Andrea Leadsom.)
Question agreed to.