Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s policy in relation to the proceedings of this House.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing today’s debate to take place, and I thank hon. and right hon. Members from other parties who were in the Chamber yesterday to demonstrate the will of the House in the manner required under Standing Order No. 24. I should also like to acknowledge the role of Government business managers in extending our sitting hours today to accommodate this debate alongside the other business of the day.
We have already had two statements, an urgent question and a ten-minute rule motion, and there remains important business to follow, so I want to come as quickly as possible to the substance of the matter. But it is worth briefly reminding the House why this matter is considered to be both urgent and important, as required by Standing Order No. 24.
As I explained to the House yesterday, the House had its first day for Opposition motions on Wednesday 13 September, on which the two topics for debate were public sector pay and student tuition fees. Ministers and Back Benchers spoke vigorously in opposition to both motions, but when the questions were put, no voices were raised in opposition and both motions passed unanimously. The next day, the political commentator Paul Waugh—we would say his name slightly differently in Scotland—described the situation thus in the Huffington Post:
“Crucially, that meant there was no vote recorded other than unanimous approval, and no way to say how individual MPs voted.”
He went on:
“And this was no one-off. In a significant shift in the way the Government treats the Commons, Tory sources told me they have decided not to oppose any future Opposition Day motions. In other words, MPs can say whatever they like but as long as there’s a non-binding motion, the PM will tell her troops to give a collective ‘meh’. Government whips will instead focus on turning out the numbers for ‘votes that matter’, ie on legislation such as Brexit bills.”
That position, he later says,
“reduces all Opposition Days to mere debating society events, with no consequence.”
Mr Waugh is quite right in his assessment of the policy—if it is, in fact, Government policy. It was for that reason that I sought to raise the matter with the Leader of the House at business questions on 14 September. Her answer, I confess, was slightly less than reassuring:
“The right hon. Gentleman should not believe everything he reads in the press.”
That is good advice, and it is a lesson that we probably all learned some time ago, but it is something less than, or short of, the full-throated denial that one might have hoped for in the circumstances. The Leader of the House went on to make some comments about the debates that were not really relevant to the question, but she finished by saying:
“There is no question but that this Government continue to fully engage in Opposition day debates.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 997.]
The House needs to hear from the Leader of the House today what was meant by her words “fully engage”. Does she mean that the Government will do as their predecessors have done—engage in debate, agree where they agree, oppose where they do not and bring amendments where they wish to—or does she mean that the Government will, as Mr Waugh so memorably puts it, tell the troops to give this House “a collective ‘meh’”?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a significant point about the importance of engaging in debates. Can he tell the House how many Liberal Democrats took part in the debate on the very important Finance Bill on 12 September? Could he confirm that it was none?
I can see how this is going to proceed, and it will not be as I might have hoped. I had hoped we might raise the debate a little bit higher than that. The hon. and learned Lady is well aware that there are 12 Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament sitting in this Parliament, and if she cares to consult the record she will find that we play a full and constructive part in the proceedings of this House.
To be fair, I can see that there is a decent turnout of Liberal Democrats today. However, in the important debate about the national health service to which the right hon. Gentleman specifically refers, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is their health spokesman, confirmed—I am quoting here from Hansard—that he was the “sole Liberal Democrat present” in the debate and felt it his “duty to intervene”. So in a debate in which the Government were fully engaged, only one Liberal Democrat could be bothered to turn up in Parliament.
I can almost read the Whips’ brief that has gone round about the Opposition day debates—“Don’t make this about the Government, because this is not strong territory for the Government. Make it all about the Liberal Democrats or the opposition parties.” With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman, whom I like and regard as a friend in many senses of the word, if not the political one, I am not going to play his game. Today’s debate is the Government’s opportunity to tell the House clearly and unambiguously how they intend to approach their business for the duration of this Parliament.
There is a further context to the Government’s approach on 14 September that the House should bear in mind. On Monday 11 September, they brought forward the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, including some quite remarkable Henry VIII powers, which many in this House and beyond see as a marginalisation of Parliament. On Tuesday 12 September, they brought to this House a motion to give themselves a majority on all Public Bill Committees, contrary to all previous practice in this House and the formula relied on for many years.
Indeed, but the hon. Gentleman will be perfectly well aware that the House has for many years used a formula under which the Government would have been entitled at best to a balanced Committee, while in all other respects the majority would have been with the Opposition parties.
Indeed—stitched up, as the hon. Gentleman says.
The Government did that on 12 September on the basis that the confidence and supply agreement that they had struck with the Democratic Unionist party gave them a working majority in the House. Unfortunately, that working majority was not in evidence when it came to the Opposition day debates the next day.
It is worth noting in passing that the Opposition day debates on 13 September were the first to be held since Parliament reassembled after the general election—some 27 sitting days, to be exact. In 2015 the same gap was 13 sitting days, in 2010 it was 16 and in 2005 it was 12. We would have to go back to the early days of the Labour Government in 1997 to find a comparable figure, although I suggest that it is worth considering the nature and volume of legislation that was dealt with in the early days of that Parliament compared with what we have had since 8 June.
Our system relies on a delicate combination of checks and balances. The best Governments—and if ever there was a time in our country’s history when we needed the best possible Government, this is surely it—are those that are tested by Parliament, by the Opposition parties and by their own Back Benchers. Time and again, our system fails when the Government and the Opposition agree and arguments remain untested. How different might the debates on the case for going to war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 have been if the then Opposition had been prepared to take a more questioning approach to Tony Blair’s case? I am sad to say that this Government, however, do not welcome scrutiny by Parliament, but rather seek to avoid it.
The issues before the House on 13 September were questions of substantial significance. If they are issues on which the Government do not command a majority in this House, then the Government should not get their way. The Prime Minister went to the country in June seeking a larger majority than the one she had, but the people of Britain denied her such a majority. However difficult that may make life for her and her colleagues, the verdict of the people on 8 June ought to be respected in this House. It is the job of all of us in this House to ensure that it is, and Opposition day debates are one important way in which that should be done. Occasionally, it is possible for the Government and the Opposition to agree on a motion and for it to be passed without a Division. Until now, there have been very few examples of a motion being disputed in debate, but still passing without a Division.
Very rarely, the Government of the day are defeated in a Division. In my time in the House, that was most memorably accomplished in 2009, when the rights of Gurkha soldiers who had served the Crown to settle in the UK was at issue. Matters came to a head on 29 April 2009, when on a motion from the Conservative party in opposition the then Labour Government were defeated. It is worth going back and reading the Hansard of that debate. It is apparent, even just reading the words on paper, that that debate meant something. That debate was more than just a debate; it was a vehicle for righting a wrong and a vehicle for change.
We have all heard it said over the years that Parliament has increasingly been marginalised by the Executive. A series of large majorities given to the Conservative and Labour parties has undoubtedly contributed to that process, but this Parliament should be different. Not because you or I say it should be different, Mr Speaker, but because the people of the United Kingdom at the ballot box on 8 June said that it should be different.
In one sense, the Government have done us a favour by bringing this issue to a head, because it forces us as a House to decide what our role in the future of this country is going to be. Is it to be an active participant, with a strong voice and a decisive say, or is it to be a supine bystander as the Government continue to do as they wish, regardless of their lack of a mandate and, as is increasingly obvious, their lack of authority.
I have been a member of many debating societies over the years. They have all been fine organisations that provided entertainment and mental stimulation in equal measure. I mean them therefore no disrespect when I say that I stood for Parliament believing I was doing something more significant than signing up for a debating society. The difference is that in Parliament—in this House —we can actually effect change. Whether we choose to do so is in our own hands.
I am grateful to you for calling me early in the debate, Mr Speaker. I will reciprocate what the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said about me—I have been friendly with him, except perhaps in a political sense—but I think he rather overstates his case. Let me run through his argument. First, he describes a particular decision about two particular Opposition day debates, and suggests that that will be the Government’s practice going forward. The only evidence that he presents is a single tweet by a single political journalist, quoting unnamed sources about the Government’s behaviour going forward. It seems to me that the practice has been—it certainly was when I was Government Chief Whip—to consider what we do about Opposition day motions on a case-by-case basis.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been only those two debates so far. It was for that reason that, at business questions on 14 September, I gave the Leader of the House the opportunity to refute what was in the Huffington Post article. Had she chosen to do so, we would not be here today.
The right hon. Gentleman says it was about his right Friend’s question. It was a question, but the point is it was about a tweet. Hon. Members would not expect my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to comment on every single press comment about the House and dignify them all with a response. To come back to the point I was making when I took the intervention, the Government cannot be expected to have a blanket policy for what they do about Opposition days. We look at the motion on the Order Paper.
I have got into trouble in the past. When I responded at the Dispatch Box to Opposition day debates, I was often criticised because I used to do that dreadful thing of actually looking at the words on the Order Paper that the House was being asked to agree or not. I would be told that they did not really matter—what mattered was the debate we were having, and the general principle, and that we did not worry about the words. Well actually, the words are important and the right stance for the Government, each time there is an Opposition day motion —indeed any motion—before the House is to look at the words on the Order Paper and then make a judgment about whether they wish to support or oppose them. I will come to the specific motions that were being considered in a moment.
May I take it from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that from now on, when a DUP Member makes a comment in an Opposition day debate—as they did in our first Opposition day debate in this Parliament—that they are not minded to support the Government at the end of the day in a vote, the Government will not be persuaded by the DUP, will not be dictated to by the DUP, but will actually call a vote? Is that what the right hon. Gentleman is saying?
No, it is not what I am saying. I am saying what I said in my own words. Let me go to the decision that I think the Government took on the motions; then the Leader of the House may comment in due course.
What the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, in his pitch to Mr Speaker yesterday and in his debate today, was that in both debates the Government argued against the motions that were on the Order Paper. Before today’s debate I carefully read the debates to see whether that was right: I do not think it was. In the NHS debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health did not argue against the motion on the Order Paper. What he actually said was that it was bogus, because it did not address some of the fundamental issues. [Interruption.] This is exactly as I said, Mr Speaker. As soon as attention is drawn to the motions on the Order Paper, which the House was being asked to agree, people do not like it. That is the fundamental point here, and one I am sure my right hon. Friend considered before he made a decision about the way that Government Members should vote.
One of the most precious things in this House is a party deciding when it will or when it will not vote. That is up to a party, or indeed up to a Government. This is the first time I can remember an Opposition complaining that they are not being defeated by the Government.
It is interesting, because when I read the debate it was of course the Opposition spokesman, the shadow Secretary of State for Health, who asked the Government not to divide the House on the NHS motion. The Government then proceeded not to divide the House on the motion, and now all we get is a load of complaints—which seems to me remarkably strange.
Does my right hon. Friend draw any comfort, as I did, from the fact that the party once of Campbell-Bannerman, Gladstone and Lloyd George has now decided to predicate the national debate on information that it ascribes to something called the Huffington Post?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which requires no elaboration from me.
A couple of things struck me about the motion on the Order Paper about the NHS. First, it made very selective use of statistics. For example, it talked about the number of nurses and midwives joining the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, which is an important figure, but of course not directly applicable to the number of nurses working in the NHS, which the Secretary of State correctly pointed out had increased by 12,000. So it would not be right to oppose a motion that had some factually correct statistics in it, but they were not relevant to the argument about the number of nurses and midwives actually working in the NHS.
The final part of the motion talked about ending the public sector pay cap of 1%, and of course my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who excellently wound up that debate, made the point that for the forthcoming financial year, the Government would allow the pay review bodies more flexibility anyway, so it seemed rather pointless to be engaging in that debate.
I have no complaint about the Labour party, but this is what parties do in opposition. It put in the words at the end that suggested that NHS workers should be given a fair pay rise, which I think would probably command support across the House, including from myself and my hon. Friends. The debate, of course, is about what constitutes a fair pay rise—what is affordable. But to think we were going to fall into the trap of voting against a motion that would just then enable lots of Labour MPs to put out leaflets saying that we were against a pay rise! They are playing a political game. We know what the game is. I am going to be very fair: it is what we would do if we were in their position. It is not our job, though, to fall into their trap and make their lives easier. Our job is to get on with governing and making the right decisions, which is exactly what we did.
I am a new MP and I am still getting to know my way around, but I did not expect my new role to be reduced to being a member of a talking shop. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that not allowing a vote on the Opposition debate reflects a deep disregard for parliamentary democracy?
I would have more sympathy with the hon. Lady if she had actually bothered to turn up to listen to the debate in the first place, which, according to her own colleague, she did not—[Interruption.] Well, according to Hansard, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), said on the record that he was the only Liberal Democrat present and that he felt he had to intervene. If that is inaccurate, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should correct the parliamentary record. It is not my job to be responsible for the accuracy of the parliamentary record of the right hon. Gentleman. I note he is probably the only Liberal Democrat MP not here today.
I do not dispute the hon. Lady’s thing. All I can say is that I was quoting from Hansard, when the Liberal Democrat health spokesman said:
“I feel that as the sole Liberal Democrat present it is my duty to intervene.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 862.]
If that is inaccurate, that is a matter for the right hon. Gentleman and he should correct the record. That is not my responsibility.
On the motion on the national health service on the Order Paper, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary laid out the facts about the importance of a strong economy in paying for the health service. He laid out a lot of important facts about our record on the health service, but actually he was not arguing that we should vote against the motion at all. He frequently said it was a bogus motion and that he did not want to engage with it, so I do not think that that can be said.
Yes I do. I read the motion very carefully. It said that the Government should abandon the 1% pay cap; and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in her response to the debate, made it clear that the pay review bodies for the next financial year would have more flexibility—so, in effect, she confirmed that part of it.
The second part of the motion referred to NHS staff getting a fair pay rise. We all agree that NHS workers—indeed, public sector workers generally—should get a fair pay rise. The point of political debate is to ask what “fair” means. We have to balance affordability for the economy, what public sector workers need to get paid for recruitment, retention and morale purposes, and what those in the private sector, who pay taxes to pay for our public services, are being paid. If we read the motion, I think we find it was completely consistent with the Government’s policy, which I suspect is exactly why the Secretary of State for Health did not feel it was sensible to urge Conservative colleagues to vote against it.
I am very grateful indeed to the right hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention. He obviously was unable to hear my first intervention, so may I just repeat my question? If the 10 DUP MPs indicate during an Opposition day debate that they are not going to support the Government, will the Government vote on the motion?
I am grateful for my colleagues’ support. I suspect the Government will make their decisions on Opposition day motions on a case-by-case basis, when they have looked at the words on the Order Paper.
The second very important motion on the Order Paper that day was about the higher education regulations relating to tuition fees. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education set out the case powerfully on the substance of the proposition before the House on the need for tuition fees. She contrasted it with the position in Scotland, which does not have tuition fees. In Scotland, fewer children go to university, fewer poor children go to university and universities are not properly funded—not a position I want to see in England. She laid that out clearly.
It was also the case that the regulations were laid before the House on 15 December 2016 and came into force on 20 February this year, so voting against them would have had no effect whatever. There was an argument at the front of the debate when the shadow Secretary of State for Education tried to pretend that it was somehow the Government’s fault that the measures had not been debated. She said that the Opposition had prayed against them but had not had time for a debate. Well, I looked at the record, and there were three Opposition days between the regulations being laid and coming into force on 20 February. Those days were Wednesday 11 January, Tuesday 17 January and Wednesday 25 January. On any of those occasions, the Opposition could have used their time to debate the regulations. If the House had voted against them on any of those occasions, they would not have come into force. The fact that the Opposition chose not to do so is their responsibility, not the Government’s.
As Government Ministers constantly reiterated, the whole point of secondary legislation was that if the Leader of the Opposition called for a debate not in Opposition time, the Government would provide the time and the vote in Government time. That is precisely what they should have done. They are the people who broke their word—not us.
We didn’t call it!
Order. Large numbers of hon. Members are proclaiming from a sedentary position the self-evident truth that it was not their decision to call the election—a perfectly valid piece of information, but entirely useless for the purposes of this debate. The important point is that Members must be able to hear each other speak in it.
Of course, it was technically the decision of this House to have the early election. The Prime Minister brought the motion before the House but— thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which I had a little hand in—it was, of course, the decision of the House to have the election.
My point stands. There were three opportunities when the House could have voted down the regulations. The Opposition had the time and chose not to debate them. The point is that the regulations had already come into force when the House was faced with the debate on 13 September, so voting against them would have had no practical effect. It would have been a completely pointless exercise to have a vote that would have had no effect. It is not, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, the House being a talking shop. Procedures about when we have to vote on secondary legislation are set out in the statutory instruments legislation and the parent Acts; those time limits had expired. That is the Opposition’s fault because they had three opportunities in January when they could have used their time to debate the matter, but they chose not to do so.
No, no. I do not follow that at all. The point is that the vote would have had no practical effect because the regulations had already come into force and the time limit for revoking them had passed. That was the Opposition’s responsibility, not the Government’s.
It is an arguable point. I have made my argument and the hon. Gentleman has made his, as he will no doubt do again later.
There were two good reasons why the Government chose, looking at the words on the Order Paper on 13 September, not to divide the House. I do not think that sets a precedent for the future. The Government will make those decisions when they look at future Opposition day motions. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is making a mountain out of a molehill. I suggest that the House waits to see what happens on future Opposition days before it gets itself so worked up. We have had a good gambol around the subject but I do not really think that the right hon. Gentleman has made his case to the satisfaction of Members more generally.
I start by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate, following the application from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) yesterday.
While the motion reads,
“That this House has considered the Government’s policy in relation to the proceedings of this House”,
I would prefer to deal with two aspects of it separately: the constitutional convention that decisions of Parliament are enacted by the Government and the scheduling of Opposition days throughout the year as set out in Standing Orders. Speaking in support of the motion, I will start with the allocation of Opposition days. The Government have often to be brought to the House for bypassing and—I hope I do not put this too strongly—appearing to have contempt for the House. The two-year Session of Parliament was announced by press release on 17 June 2017. The right hon. Lady could have announced it during business questions on 22 June, her first outing as Leader of the House, but she did not.
A Session usually starts in November and runs until the following October. On average, there used to be four Sessions in a Parliament, but that was before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011; there is now an assumption of five Sessions. Each Session carries an allocation of Opposition days, as set out on page 334 of “Erskine May”.
The hon. Lady made a serious charge about the Government having contempt for the House. Does she not think it potentially contemptuous to put forward a motion that has no binding effect and which some might say is purely for political effect?
I am sorry but I thought we were in politics. We are politicians, so that is what we would expect to do in here. In any event, it does not really matter; I will come on to whether a motion is binding. It is something we need to check. If the hon. Gentleman, who is very assiduous, checks “Erskine May”, he will see that on page 334 it says:
“Standing Order No 14 provides that on 20 days in each session proceedings on business chosen by the opposition parties shall have precedence over government business.”
These books on the Table are not window dressing: “Erskine May”, Standing Orders—they are there because they are the rules of the House, as interpreted by the very honourable Clerks. As you know, Mr Speaker, there have been numerous requests for the full allocation of Opposition days—you have heard me ask the Leader of the House for the dates at business questions—but they have not been forthcoming.
They are the rules and privileges of the House. I will find the reference. The intervention was clearly done to disrupt the debate. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to stop, and if you will allow me the time, Mr Speaker, I will look it up, or, alternatively, we can eat into the time of Back Benchers. He can decide. I am happy to look through it.
That point, which I am coming to, needs to be clarified, and it is the Government’s job to do such a thing. Mr Speaker, you have heard me ask for clarification several times, and we have had numerous discussions through the usual channels, but we have had absolutely nothing. It is sad that Parliament is treated this way. I did not think that, in the first week back after the conference recess, I would be standing here arguing for the same thing I did before the recess.
We play a vital role in our democracy. The use of the term “Her Majesty’s Opposition” was first coined in 1826 by John Cam Hobhouse and was given statutory recognition in 1937. The official Opposition is defined as
“the largest minority party which is prepared, in the event of the resignation of the Government, to assume office”.
That is an important constitutional role, and we should not be prevented from doing our job. We would like to fulfil that role but that is the effect of not giving us dates for our debates. The Government want to stifle debate and so deny all the Opposition parties a chance to challenge them and put forward their policies.
Secondly, having been given that Opposition day on 13 September, the shadow Secretaries of State for Health and for Education moved and spoke eloquently to their motions, and we then witnessed the bizarre spectacle of the Government making no comment whatsoever. They had tabled no amendment to the motion. There was no voting for and no voting against, so Parliament was left in limbo. What was the status of the motion? It was a proper, substantive motion, defined as a self-contained proposal submitted for the approval of the House and drafted in such a way as to be capable of expressing a decision of the House—and it did, in this case to NHS workers and students about to start university.
The hon. Lady is right to make the point that the Chamber is not just a hothouse of debate. It is about what people want to listen to, to find out what is important. There are parents in the country who are quite keen to hear the views of all the political parties about how to address the very sad problem of baby deaths. Is she embarrassed and ashamed that she and her colleagues are detaining the House by having a debate about debates, and not about the issues?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he is wrong. My family has suffered a baby loss. This is a very important date, because it is the anniversary of the death of my brother’s baby, my brother being my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I know how important the issue is, but this is not a debate about a debate. People throughout the country want to know what is going on and what we do in Parliament. They want to know that their Parliament is supreme. They want to know that we are debating and discussing.
The position that was outlined in the motions appeared in the manifesto of the Democratic Unionist party, and its members owe their electorate an explanation of why they did not vote in support. Because the DUP has a confidence and supply agreement with the Government, the Government knew that they could not command its support, and would have lost the vote. That is significant, because the confidence and supply agreement itself has to come before the House to be debated. Again, it takes the courts to tell the Government what parliamentary democracy means. Worse still, the Government then decided, during the conference recess, that the Opposition’s policies on those two subjects would be their policies. The right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) will know that the Government made a statement on both policies.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned a journalist who is well known around the House, and who suggested that the Government were not intending to vote against or amend our motions, but would sit on their hands for all our Opposition debates.
The hon. Lady has been in the House for long enough to know that many things are debated here. Ten-minute rule Bills are let through because they raise an issue, and motions are sometimes passed by a few Members during Back-Bench business debates because, again, they raise an important issue. Is it not right that the Government make their own decisions about what they will oppose and what they will not oppose? At the end of the day, that is a choice for the Front Bench. If, politically, Members think that that is a bad thing to do, let them have their Standing Order No. 24 and make the point, but ultimately what we vote for is down to the Cabinet and the Whips Office, and that is our choice.
This is a debating Chamber, and this is a revising Parliament. Members can table motions, and then people can see what policy comes out. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), the deputy shadow Leader of the House, persuaded the Government to take on board the need for a new piece of legislation, and that is how we do things here. Ministers listen, they take on board what happens, and then we move forward. That is what I am trying to say.
I agree with much of what the hon. Lady is saying. This debate is about Parliament v. the Executive, and it is right that it is urgent, because the issue needs to be discussed. Does she agree, however, that Parliament voted, and therefore the Government should take note of whatever Parliament decided on that day and respond to it? She will agree, I hope, that if the Opposition had wanted to engineer a vote on that day, it would have been quite possible. I do not think we should misrepresent Parliament and say that a decision was not made; a decision was made to support the Opposition motions.
One point being made from the Government Benches is that it is a matter for the Government to decide whether they vote. However, with regard to the relevance of this place, many people watch debates that come up, on Opposition days and at other times, and they expect a vote, and if there is no vote then they believe that the view of Parliament has been heard and they expect things to change as a result. If the Government’s approach is to allow motions through but then not carry them through in policy terms, then people will rightly think that we are just a talking shop.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I keep saying, the Government seem to be governing by press release and press announcement, rather than by coming to the House to explain exactly what is going on with regard to policy. That policy has now been agreed. Actually, when we think about it, is it committed expenditure? The Chancellor seems to be saying what he wants but it is not even committed expenditure.
I will not give way, because I am conscious that many Back Benchers wish to speak, and I will shut up in a minute.
There were many points of order about the tweet from the journalist—I need to protect my sources, but it was Paul Waugh—stating that this is what would happen, and the matter was also raised in business questions. The Leader of the House then said, “Don’t believe everything you hear on Twitter.” I can understand that for the President of the United States, but the Leader of the House also tweets. Are we to believe her or not?
The most important point is that the Leader of the House gave no clarification or explanation as to why Parliament is being treated in this way, or on finding a way forward. We are now in the spill-over and the House needs this to be explained. Will the Government continue to treat Opposition motions as decisions of the House, as though they were wearing an invisibility cloak? Will the Leader of the House resolve this with Mr Speaker and find a way forward on substantive motions of the House?
No, because I am nearly finished, and the right hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time.
This makes a mockery of Parliament. Parliament is a forum for debate, discussion and amendments, as seen in the example given by the excellent Minister, Phil Woolas, who listened to the House, even though he was ambushed by a celebrity, and changed his policy—whether or not that was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, he said, “I have listened to the House.”
Finally, in the preface to “Erskine May”, the guide to the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament, there is a dedication to you, Mr Speaker. It entrusts you with the great responsibilities of guardianship of the parliamentary system. You have done that many times in this House, and in granting this debate. I ask you to convey to the Government that they must abide by that dedication.
Mr Speaker, it is entirely a matter for the Chair.
It most certainly is a matter for the Chair. The right hon. Lady does not have to be difficult about it. What I was seeking to establish is whether she is an eager speaker; if she is, she can speak, and if she is not, she will not. It is pretty straightforward. Frankly—let me just say this—the Government Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench should have sorted this out between them in advance of the debate. It was a degree of cack-handed incompetence that they did not do so.
Order. The Leader of the House really ought to know by now that these matters are dealt with differently on different occasions and that there are precedents either way. What we know is that the right hon. Lady has the opportunity to speak, and quite a full opportunity, and therefore nothing of which to complain. The Leader of the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Parliamentary procedure is of vital importance to our democracy, and it is taken very seriously on both sides of the House, so I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate, which is of course the 14th hour we have spent debating parliamentary procedure in the 26 sitting days since the general election, and apparently all because of a tweet. Well, I am sure that the nation is glued to the Parliament channel.
In response to the right hon. Gentlemen’s accusation that the Government are not listening, I want to set out some steps that we have recently taken to speed up scrutiny and to respond to requests from Members on both sides of the House. First, the Select Committees were established early—quicker than in both 2010 and 2015—and all parties worked quickly to hold elections so that Committees could begin their important work in the September sitting. I was also delighted to ensure that the Backbench Business Committee was established at the same time so that Members would have another channel for scrutiny, and I am pleased to announce that the first Back-Bench debates will be held next week.
Secondly, a sitting of the House was extended for the Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to allow many Members to speak about that important legislation. Thirdly, we have allocated eight full days in the Chamber, each with eight protected hours of debate, for that Bill. Those 64 hours are in contrast to the rather more miserable 39 hours and 17 minutes that were spent ratifying the Lisbon treaty.
Fourthly, we have provided Government time for specific debates following requests from Members. The issue of illegal Traveller encampments has been raised by Members on both sides of the House at every business questions since I became Leader of the House, and this week is Baby Loss Awareness Week—a truly tragic issue that affects many people across the UK—so it is right that we have found time to debate both important subjects. I have extended today’s sitting because it would be a great shame if Members were unable to take part in the baby loss debate. Let me also remind the House that the Conservative party set up the Backbench Business Committee, restoring a better balance between Government and Parliament.
I listened intently to what the right hon. Lady said about the importance of procedure in this House, so how does she feel about the complete absence of DUP Members from the Chamber? Will she also address another key issue? If any of the 10 DUP MPs indicate that they will vote against a motion on an Opposition day, will the Government give an assurance that they will still decide for themselves whether to press for a vote?
I want to make it clear to all Members that the House expressed an opinion when it agreed to the relevant Opposition day motions. It does the same when a Back-Bench motion is passed. I think what the hon. Lady, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the shadow Leader of the House are trying to argue is that we should be voting against motions. Let me again be clear that the House expressed an opinion in those Opposition day debates. If Members chose not to vote against those motions, it does not mean that the House did not express an opinion.
Given that the DUP is not present in the Chamber to hold the Government to account, may I ask whether the Government Chief Whip approached DUP Members in advance of the Opposition day debates to try to get them to change their mind—yes or no?
I can only say again that how Members vote is a matter for individual Members, and their parties and policies. This House expressed an opinion and the Government listened carefully, as is the case with the many Back-Bench motions that are debated on the Floor of the House and passed without a Division. In every single case, the Government take part fully and listen carefully.
I also want to make the House aware of work away from the Chamber to address Members’ real concerns about the increased volume of secondary legislation during this Session. The Government are aligning their approach to secondary legislation with their approach to primary legislation. The Cabinet Committee that I chair that oversees all primary legislation will now also oversee all secondary legislation. This will manage the flow and quality of statutory instruments more proactively, giving Parliament a much better service and enabling better scrutiny.
Let me address the specific points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the subjects of the two Opposition day debates in September. The Government took full part in those debates. The Government matched the Opposition speaker for speaker. Notably, as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), the Liberal Democrats failed to put up a single speaker in the tuition fees debate and put up only one in the NHS pay debate. Senior Ministers, on the other hand, were present on the Front Bench and made substantial contributions. My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education both opened their debates, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation closed them.
On Second Reading of the Finance Bill the day before, however, there were only five Opposition contributions —three from Labour; none from the Liberal Democrats. In contrast, we heard 17 Back-Bench speeches from Conservative Members, including 12 in a row. In fact, such was the extent of our engagement on that important Bill that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) even made a point of order suggesting that we might be filibustering our own Finance Bill.
The vital issues of NHS pay and tuition fees have been thoroughly debated in this House in recent weeks.
I spoke in the NHS debate in favour of the motion, so I was very pleased that the Government supported it. I can only assume that Opposition Members are so unhappy because they lost an opportunity to beat the Government with a political stick.
I will not give way to the hon. Lady again.
In addition to the Opposition day debates, there has already been an emergency debate on tuition fees, as well as Government statements, urgent questions from the Opposition and Westminster Hall debates on those subjects.
The Government take their duties in this House very seriously, but I am afraid that those Opposition day motions were meant for party political point scoring. Labour has form in promising everything but not delivering. The party misled students before the general election when the Leader of the Opposition said he would deal with student debt—a £100 billion commitment—only for his shadow Education Secretary to have to admit following the election that that was just an aspiration. Aspirations are not good enough; it is deeds that matter. It is only this Government—a Conservative Government—who can be trusted to deliver strong public services while sorting out the disastrous public finances left to us by Labour.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way at last. What the House needs to hear from her is whether the votes on 13 September were one-offs, or if we should expect routinely and frequently to hear from the Government that, when they are going to lose a vote, they will simply avoid that by avoiding a Division
The right hon. Gentleman will obviously want to check his Twitter account for the answer to that one, since he checked it for the initial answer. The Government take these issues extremely serious. I am trying to explain why we chose not to vote on those political point scoring Opposition day motions.
To this day, I hear Labour suggesting that austerity is a choice or that we have deliberately increased public sector debt, but the fact is that in Labour’s last year in office, the Treasury spent £153 billion more than it received in taxes. The House will recall the note left by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) saying that there was no money left, which was a painfully honest statement from a Labour politician. In the seven years since, we have managed to reduce that overspend from £153 billion a year to £45 billion last year, but it is that annual overspend that increases debt, which now stands at £65,000 per household in this country. The only way to start tackling the debt is by first getting rid of the overspend. If we do not tackle it, it will be our children and grandchildren who will pay, but we do not hear Labour telling young people these truths.
I have no idea how that last paragraph has anything to do with the debate that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has secured, so let me bring the Leader of the House back to the matter in hand. Having just had a general election in which the Prime Minister ran away from debates, but then at the end claimed there were no serious debates during the election, it is deeply significant that the things we debate in this Parliament and the votes we have here matter. Will the Government therefore simply make a commitment that they will not treat Opposition day debates in the same way as they have treated Back-Bench debates? That is all we want to hear today.
I am not surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say he has no idea what that last paragraph represented because I was seeking to explain why this Government are not playing Labour’s party political games. The Opposition do not face up to the reality of the mess they left this country in, and our children and grandchildren will end up paying for their mess unless we can get back to living within our means. That means that in their party political motions we chose to leave them to their games. Conservative Members will always balance the need for fairness to our superb public sector workers with the need for fairness to the next generation.
There has been a lot of re-running of our previous debate, but I wish to go back to the principle of the thing. If this House expresses an opinion, be it in a Backbench Business Committee debate or an Opposition day debate, it is the Government’s duty to respond to that. Will the Leader of the House therefore undertake that the Government will reflect on whatever decision the House makes and come to make a statement—say within the month—giving their view about or response to what the House has decided?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I am trying to explain that that is exactly what the Government are doing in those debates by matching up speaker for speaker to ensure that Back-Bench speakers get their views heard, with Secretaries of State opening the debates and senior Ministers closing them, and by taking account of and listening to Members’ views. It cannot possibly be the case that the Opposition can require Government Members to vote against a motion in order to prove that they were listening—what a daft thesis that is.
I am listening to the Leader of the House with great interest, just as I did to what the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) said. He seemed to suggest that the Government chose not to vote on those motions—certainly the first one—because the Government were in agreement and the debate was a political one about what “fair” meant, but she seems to be saying something different about whether or not there is political game playing. Will she confirm that when the Government disagree with the words of a motion, even if they disagree because of political purposes, they will vote against it? Will they vote against any motion whose words they disagree with?
The hon. Lady is trying to put words into my mouth and to make me disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, with whom I absolutely agree. This House expressed a view; what she and other Opposition Members want to do is to force the Government to oppose. The reason why they want the Government to oppose is so that they can then put out a press release that the Government oppose fair pay for public sector workers. That is what this is all about. I am saying that the Government sent their best, most senior Ministers along to take part in the debate and our Back Benchers fully took part in it. We listened, we heard what was said on all sides of the debate, we took part fully, and then we chose to allow those motions to go through unchallenged. That is a completely different issue. This House expressed a view and the Government are listening, but we will not necessarily always choose to take part in party political games. That is what this was, and the Labour party needs to accept its responsibility for the financial mess that means that Conservative Members have to get us out of the economic disaster that they left us. There is just no denying the truth of Margaret Thatcher’s words when she said:
“Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money.”
She said that in 1976—it was true then and it is still true today.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to take part in the debate and to set out for the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the Opposition the Government’s strong record on encouraging scrutiny in this House and our deep respect for Parliament. Our Parliament is admired the world over for the way in which it gives the Opposition the opportunity to conduct fierce and effective scrutiny of Government—on Second Readings, in Committee, on Report, on Opposition and Backbench Business Committee days, in Adjournment debates, in Westminster Hall debates and on the Select Committee corridor.
The reason why scrutiny matters is precisely because the Government are listening. That is what this Government have been doing, and it is what they will continue to do. I look forward now to moving on to the more substantive business of the day and debating the issues that really matter to people.
Here we go again: another return to Parliament and another attempt by the Government to play fast and loose with the democratic arrangements of the House. This is clearly becoming a pattern, and the nation is starting to get really concerned and anxious about their casual disregard of many parliamentary conventions and scrutiny.
First, we had the horror of the grotesque Henry VIII powers in the repeal Bill. Then we had the Government fixing the Standing Committees of the House so that they could have a majority in each and every single one of them. Now we have all this nonsense about Opposition day debates and what the Government will or will not do in response to them. I think that I have identified the problem with this particular Government: they cannot accept their status as a minority Government. That is the basis of what we have here. They seem to be doing everything possible to try to deny that new reality, but the harder that they do that, the worse it gets for our democratic proceedings and parliamentary structures.
The Government have 317 Members out of a total of 650 Members—48.7% of the membership of the House. They are clearly a minority Government. Instead of fighting that reality, why do they not simply embrace it and accept it, then we can all get on with our business normally, with a minority Government trying to govern in this country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly as he is speaking about minority Governments which his party now is in Scotland. When the Scottish National party had a majority Government in Scotland, it passed the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012. More than a year ago, when it was in a minority Government, it was defeated by all the opposition parties in a vote and called on to repeal the Act. Can he tell me the status of that? Has his party repealed the Act, or is it failing to respect the Scottish Parliament vote?
I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that point. I was going to come on to that, because it is really important to understand how minority Governments respond to defeats in Parliament. The right thing to do is what the Scottish Government do, which is to review, reflect and consult. Let me cite one issue as an example. We were defeated on fracking. What did we do? We did not attempt to ignore that vote. We consulted, reviewed and came back to Parliament with a ban on fracking. That is the responsible behaviour of a minority Government. I will take no lecture from the hon. Gentleman whose party’s commitment to democratic decisions extends to the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) not even voting in the European Union referendum.
There are certain things that a party has to learn when it is in a minority situation in Parliament. The first lesson is that, sometimes, Governments get beat. They get beat here and they get beat in the Scottish Parliament. That is a feature of minority Government and it is alright—it happens. It happens normally in Parliaments right across Europe. This Government should not overly fret about it. They paid £1.25 billion to the Democratic Unionist party to ensure that they had a majority in the event of a threat to their existence. This House must also recognise how we can represent and reflect the democratic will of the people of this country. Sometimes I enjoy being lectured by Conservative Back Benchers about parliamentary sovereignty.
I will tell the hon. and learned Lady what I think about the will of the people. I was elected just a couple of months ago—I won an election. The gentleman I beat in that election is now in the House of Lords as an unelected Scottish Office peer. That is how to reject democracy; that is how to play fast and loose with the will of people—rejected one minute and ennobled the next. So I will take no lectures from the hon. and learned Lady.
I am one of the people as well, and I will conduct my voting in this Chamber entirely on the basis of my own opinion and my own conscience. I decide when and how I vote, not the Government, and on the occasion in question, I chose to deploy my vote accordingly. I was in agreement with the first motion, because the lead I tend to take from my Front Bench was in agreement with it. Why would I therefore choose to oppose it? On the second motion, although I was against the sentiments being expressed, it was clear to me that, in accordance with the statute, however I expressed my opinion, it would make no difference. That is the matter in a nutshell.
Order. I exercised some latitude for the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), not least in light of his starring performance this morning, when he asked the most succinct question, but that was a mini-speech rather than an intervention. I simply take this opportunity to remind the House that the debate can last until three minutes past 6. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has not taken up a great deal of time so far, so this is not directed specifically at him, but I simply make the point that if Members want to speak, they should try to help each other, and that means refraining from, dare I say it, lengthy or self-indulgent interventions.
What would we have done without the contribution from the right hon. Gentleman? He does what he wants, as he always has done, and he should make sure he always does that in the future.
I got a bit sidetracked there with the very interesting intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, but I want to come back to this notion of parliamentary sovereignty, which is something my friends on the Conservative Back Benches hold dear. It is about expressing the will of the people in this House. Parliamentary sovereignty is the be-all and end-all—Conservative Members are even committing this great indulgence of economic, cultural and political self-harm by leaving the European Union so they can have more parliamentary sovereignty. They should start to demonstrate their commitment to it by recognising that this is a minority Parliament. We are here to serve all the people of the country, and we have to have arrangements to make sure we properly reflect that.
The Government seem to see not being defeated as some sort of virility symbol, as if being defeated shatters their delusion that they somehow have a majority. When it comes to these issues, the Government will have to stop behaving so arrogantly; they will have to accept their minority status and act with a bit of humility. They went to the people a few short months ago to ask for a mandate and for an increase in their majority; that is what it was all about—they wanted to take advantage of what they saw as the situation in the Labour party. What happened? They came back as a minority—they lost their majority—so maybe responding with a little less arrogance and a little more humility would do them some good.
The second principle of minority Government is that you sometimes have to work harder to get your way. That, again, is what happens in other Parliaments, but we have seen no example of it from the Leader of the House today. There is no point the Government trying to bludgeon their will through in Parliament, as they are currently doing; it is much better to negotiate and make deals to ensure they get solutions. I thought that that was what we were going to get. I will not break the confidence of the Leader of the House by talking about my meetings with her, except to say that when I had my first conversation with her, I was encouraged by what she had to say about her approach to Parliament. She talked about a basis of consensus—trying to get agreement and progress legislation and motions through Parliament on the basis of agreement—but all that seems to have gone. I wish we had the earlier Leader of the House instead of the one who is standing here now.
I will move on to Opposition day debates, because I know that is the intended topic of the debate. I do not really understand the Government’s position. Opposition days are a real feature of Parliament. I have been in the House for 16 years and I have always enjoyed Opposition day debates. There is always a bit of tension and there are always good speeches, and they tackle subjects that Governments would not normally bring to the House because they might just get embarrassed —subjects with which they might be uncomfortable. They play an important function in the House, and it is really important that we do not lose sight of their role. The most important thing about Opposition day debates is that they have a conclusion: some sort of decision on the motion is taken by the House. The day that the Government play fast and loose with that arrangement is the day that we really devalue Opposition day debates. We have Backbench Business debates and Adjournment debates. We do not need glorified Adjournment debates; we need real debates that hold the Government to account, and on which we can make a decision and then move on, respecting that decision.
We accept that the votes in question are not binding on the Government. The Scottish National party are a minority Government in Scotland and we know exactly how these things happen: we will get beat, and this Government will get beat. The key thing is that nobody expects them to change their policy or direction on certain issues just because they get beat on a Labour party Opposition day motion—that is the last thing people expect. Nevertheless, the votes on such motions reflect the will of the House, so people expect the Government to respond in a particularly positive way. They should not try to avoid votes or dismiss debates; they should respond and say something. They should go back and consult, review their position and come back to the House with a new set of recommendations. That is what I think the people we represent want from Parliament and from the Government.
I think we have heard enough from the right hon. Gentleman. He took up about 25 minutes of the available time so I shall move on, if he does not mind.
We on the SNP Benches have a little experience of minority government: we are in our second parliamentary session as a minority Government. We had a minority Government with just two Members more than the second party, and now we are just two short of a majority. In each case we have tended to try to function as a minority Government, respecting the view that we do not have a majority and trying to work in consensus and partnership with other parties. The exercise we are doing around the budget is an example of how things can be done in a minority Parliament.
I mentioned fracking: it is important that we come back to the Scottish Parliament on that with another view. On other issues on which we are defeated, we will consult further and try to address the concerns. That is how we govern as a minority Government. I am happy to talk things through with the Leader of the House to help her to understand better. If she wants to come to the SNP, we can give her some lessons about running a minority Government. If she is having difficulty with it, which it seems she is, she can come and have a chat with us. I will not break the confidence of our meeting, as she did to me at the most recent business questions. She can come and have a chat and perhaps we can talk through some of the issues.
As we have heard, it has been 12 months since the Scottish Government were defeated, and they are still at the consultation stage, whereas in the four weeks since the House expressed a view on the two motions in question, the Government have announced a policy change on the level of next year’s tuition fees, and they have announced different terms of reference for the public pay review bodies. The Government have done exactly what the hon. Gentleman is asking of them in terms of considering and reviewing, and I am sure that those matters will come back to the House.
I do not think the hon. Gentleman has been listening. I am not making any criticism of the Government—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am not! I am trying to give them some advice about how to do things and I am trying to get their minority status into their head. I am trying to help them to deal with that, so I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman listened to what I have said. It is good that they are reviewing things—that is what minority Governments do, and they should continue—but they also have to allow Opposition day debates to conclude and then vote on them and express an opinion. It is important that our constituents hear us in Parliament deciding on the important issues. It is important that they know our views, and the only way they are going to find out how we think about a particular issue or subject is if we vote on it. That is the only way they can determine it.
I do not know whether the Government intend not to vote on any further Opposition day motions, but I am not particularly interested in what Paul Waugh has to say in the Huffington Post on a particular day. I would like to hear it from the Leader of the House. Perhaps we can tempt her to say definitively, yes or no, whether she intends the Government to vote on Opposition day motions at some point. I will give her the chance to say whether it will be an option for the Government. [Interruption.] She is shaking her head, or—
She is not. That is good, and that is what we expected. All we needed to hear in this whole debate was the Leader of the House say to us, “Well, you know, we did that the first day because we thought we were playing a political game, but we’ll come back and we’ll vote on Opposition day motions.” We will get Opposition days; I would like to think that the Government would come along and vote on them.
We really have to start to get on top of all this. This has been a particularly bad start to the Parliament. I listened to the Leader of the House talking about all the things she did to put in place Select Committees earlier than usual. What utter, utter bunkum. Now that we are back for this long period in Parliament, with sittings right up to Christmas, let us start to show that we respect the political arrangements in the House—the structures and the way we have done things traditionally—and that we can still approach these issues collegiately and consensually, if we can.
The Government also have to get it into their head that they are a minority Government. We have seen no evidence of that yet. As we go through this Session, a little more of a demonstration of where the Government are just now would be useful and good. I hope that we do not have to have any more of these debates. I have been taking part in such debates almost every week for the past few months, and this is something we need to get over. We need to see the Government respecting their position and respecting the traditions of this House.
It might be helpful to the House to know that, in an attempt to accommodate everybody who wishes to take part, I am minded at this stage to put a seven-minute limit on each Back-Bench contribution. That inevitably is subject to change, but I hope that will not be necessary.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate. Like perhaps a number of Members, I was somewhat surprised to find us debating this issue today, when there are so many other things we should be debating, but you are absolutely right, Sir. As the shadow Leader of the House said, you are entrusted with grave responsibilities, and it is only right, when a Member of this House makes what is effectively a substantive complaint against the Government—essentially, that they disrespect this House—that you should call them to this House. I am grateful for that, because it allows those of us on the Government Benches to set out arguments that, as you will see, more or less demolish the proposition that has been put.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) quite rightly said that we need to look at the words of the motion, which says:
“That this House has considered the Government’s policy in relation to the proceedings of this House.”
There seem to me to be two ways one can tackle the motion. The first is to look, as he did, forensically at the debates in question, which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) referred to yesterday. Anyone listening to my right hon. Friend’s speech would conclude that the Government clearly did not disrespect this House in any way.
There is another way of looking at this, which is to say, “What would be the basis for the charge?” There seem to me to be four things that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland could complain about. The first is, “Are the Government allocating enough days to Opposition debates?” Is he saying that the Government are not taking part? Is his charge that failure to vote is in some way a slight or a breach of convention? Or is he just saying that the Government are ignoring the Opposition motions?
The shadow Leader of the House complained in her speech about the number of times she has to ask for days. The reality is that the number of days allocated to Opposition day debates has not changed since their introduction in 1998. Governments of all hues— Labour, coalition and Conservative—have observed the number of allocated days. Indeed, in the period 2010 to 2017, when the Opposition were entitled to 140 days, they were actually given 141 days. They were also given 24 more days in unallocated business that there was space for, so they cannot really claim that Opposition business is not being allocated the right number of days.
If the charge is about participation, then a number of colleagues from across the House have pointed out that they are participating, particularly on this side of the House. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, on the day in question the Government fielded some of their most senior members. There were 11 speeches from the Opposition Benches and 10 from the Government’s, and in the second debate I think the figures were eight and 17. In both cases we had almost exactly the same number of speeches, so the charge of non-participation, which seems to be the thrust behind some of the contributions today, does not stack up. If this was the only time made available to debate such matters, that would be serious. It is not, of course. Tuition fees have been debated during ministerial statements and urgent questions, and in Westminster Hall. The subjects have been thoroughly debated by this House, and the charge of non-participation seems to me to be very difficult to prove.
The Government, as the Leader of the House said, take their responsibilities very seriously. If the Opposition really believe there is a need for more scrutiny, there is a way to secure more scrutiny and force the Government to defend their case, and that is by debating and voting on programme motions. The Opposition have chosen to debate only 15% of programme motions in the last seven years. If they really want more time, the Opposition could force the Government to come through the Lobby more often on programme motions, but they have chosen not to do so.
The third charge is that, somehow, by not voting the Government snubbed the House. On the two days that we are talking about, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean and others have made the point that snubbing the Opposition was certainly not the reason for the Government’s not voting. It is absolutely true that no Government have ever been bound by convention or the rules of the House to vote on any motion, especially Opposition motions. As my right hon. Friend has said, it is clear that Government—the Leader of the House is, I believe, following this tradition—should consider each motion and debate as it comes. There is no reason why the Government should be committed to voting on any motion, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was right to resist the temptations offered by the Scottish National party to commit herself to that.
I am not suggesting that the Government snubbed this House, but the fact that they did not vote on lifting the pay cap left uncertainty for thousands and thousands of nurses and doctors throughout the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] If I may, I will continue. At the end of that debate when the Government did not vote, after the DUP had indicated that it would not be supporting them, there was no point of order to clarify the situation. I have scores of constituents in Northern Ireland, where we have no devolved Assembly. We need a lead from this House, and we did not get one. The problem is not the snub but the ambiguity, because this is not an academic point of argument; it affects people’s lives.
The charge of ambiguity is a serious one, but it does not hold up. The Government Front-Bench team answered that question when they responded to the motion, so I do not think that that charge can really be levelled against the Government.
In the short time that I have left, let me make the point that as a Government Back Bencher, I have experienced the frustration of sitting here with my colleagues until all hours of the night, only to find that no vote takes place. On the question of votes, it is for individual Members to make their minds up, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) said. We are elected here as individuals, and we can follow our wits, if we choose to do so. We are often urged to do so, and many people choose to do so, but it is for us to make that decision. Equally, it is for the Government to choose, motion by motion, when they should vote.
Finally, Opposition days can be used to raise matters of national importance, but all too often—not necessarily in this case—they are used for narrow party political posturing rather than a discussion of real quality. If a motion is about a matter of national importance, it is often phrased in a way that the Government find provocative or difficult to support. Many Governments have taken the view that they need to note what an Opposition day motion says, but ever since 1978, when the Conservative Opposition twice defeated the then Labour Government, it has become an established custom of this House that Opposition days are nothing more than advisory, and that they are not actionable. Although the Government should take note of the motions and continue to debate the issues raised in them—I have no doubt that that will happen under my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—they are advisory and the Government are not bound by them in any way.
This has been an interesting debate, but what today has shown—my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean pointed this out—is that, in the case of the two debates mentioned by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, the charge does not stand. If we look behind the four possible arguments for saying that the Government are not listening on Opposition days, it is very difficult to contend that his proposition stands, so I hope Members will vote to defeat it this evening.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) shows how little he understands the matter when he suggests that we will be voting on this, because we cannot vote on it.
We do not have a written constitution in this country, and that is why we need to be very careful about the way in which we operate our conventions. For instance, nowhere, even in statute law, does it say that the Prime Minister has to be a Member of Parliament—a Member of the House of Commons, or indeed a Member of either House of Parliament. That is not written down, but it is an accepted part of the way our constitutional settlement works.
That is why I say to Government Members, despite all the huff and puff today, that they need to be very careful about how they play around with the conventions at the heart of our political constitution. We have a system under which the winner takes all. Even if a party gets only 35% or 42% of the vote and does not have a majority of seats, if it manages to form the Government it gets to decide when Parliament sits, when the Queen’s Speech is, what is in the Queen’s Speech, what gets debated and how long it is debated for. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that we could add extra hours by debating programme motions. We cannot table a programme motion, and if we force a debate on one—
I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He should understand that I am not going to give way to him on that point.
Only the Government can introduce legislation and be certain to get it debated. Once a private Member’s Bill has been given a Second Reading, it can proceed further only if the Government table the relevant motions, even if it was assented to by the whole House or by a significant majority, as happened during the last Parliament. Only the Government can amend a tax or a duty, and only the Government can table motions in relation to expenditure. It is a case of winner takes all, and that places a very special responsibility on every single member of the governing party.
I worry that this is all part of a trend. Of itself, this is not the biggest issue in the universe—of course it is not—but it is part of a trend in this Parliament since, I would say, 2010. The golden thread that runs through our parliamentary system is government by consent. It is not about the Government deciding everything because they have managed to take it all by winning, but about government by consent and the sovereignty of Parliament. Whatever the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean says—he and I have had many debates over many years—the truth of the matter is that the Government knew they were going to lose the vote and that is why they decided not to vote. That was absolutely clear, and it was what all the Whips were saying throughout the day.
The latest trick that the Government are playing in this winner-takes-it-all system—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) really should not lead with his chin on that issue. Their latest trick is to increase the payroll vote in Parliament. In this country, we have more Government Ministers than France, Germany and Italy put together—or, for that matter, than India, Pakistan and Australia put together. We have a vast number of Ministers. In addition, the Government now have 46 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, as well as 15 Government MPs who are trade envoys. All this is an exercise of patronage to make sure they hold on to power. If we look at the percentage of the governing party that that has represented since 1992, the interesting fact is that this is now the highest percentage ever, with more than 50% of Government MPs being part of the payroll vote. That is a despicable process for the Government to have adopted.
The right hon. Member for Forest of Dean said that the Opposition should have tabled a motion early in the year, so as to prevent the student fees regulations from coming into force. But the convention of this House, which he knows perfectly well, has always been that if the Leader of the Opposition prays against a statutory instrument—secondary legislation—the Government will provide time, in Government time, on the Floor of the House for a debate and vote within the timescale, so that the legislation can be prevented from coming into force if that is the will of the House. The Government’s Chief Whip refused to do that. When I asked, and when the shadow Leader of the House asked repeatedly, when we were going to get that debate, we were met with a consistent refusal.
This is a big breach of our constitutional rights in this House. In the last 12 instances when the Leader of the Opposition has prayed against, only five have led to the granting of debates and votes, and three of those were debates in Committee, where even if every single member of the Committee, including the Government Whip, voted no, the legislation would still go through because all the Committee is allowed to consider, under our rules, is whether or not the matter has been debated. In other words, it is the height of cheek—the most brass neck imaginable—to try to blame the Opposition for not providing time to debate statutory instruments laid down by the Government. That is why I say that hon. Members on the Government Benches should think very carefully about this business of whether the Government simply decide, when they think they are going to lose on a motion—a Back-Bench motion, an Opposition motion or any other kind of motion—to up sticks and say, “Oh well, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the kind of motion that doesn’t matter.”
There have been two other Back-Bench motions that I could cite in the last Parliament. One was on Magnitsky, tabled by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab); the other, tabled by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), was on circus animals. The Government knew they would lose in both cases. They decided not to vote. So there was a unanimous vote in favour, and the Government have done absolutely nothing.
You should just beware. If you think we are Marxist Bolivarians, what will we do when we have these powers?
This debate purports to be about an important issue. It accuses the Government of the day of flouting the rules of Parliament and it is true that if that were the case, it would be fundamentally objectionable, because we live in a parliamentary democracy, where Parliament makes the laws that regulate our society, and the rule of law provides that no one is above the law, including parliamentarians. It is not the Conservative party that threatens the rule of law; it is the Labour party, because Labour members have, time and time again, stated that they would condone the flouting of our laws, passed in this Chamber. They would condone illegal strikes supported by the trade unions. It is the shadow Chancellor, not Members on the Government Benches, who has threatened the rule of law and our democracy.
This is a debate about procedure, but it is not just a debate about procedure; it is also a debate where the premise is flawed. There is an objection that the Government do not vote on Opposition days, but as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who applied for the debate, knows––having been part of the coalition Government that brought in Backbench Business debates—there is great value in debating important matters that affect the lives of our constituents without a binding vote or a commitment to take immediate action. Indeed, he is using a procedure in this debate, in this House today, which will have no substantive result other than the airing in public of this issue.
The objection is not to the fact that the Government did not call the Division; it is that, not having called the Division, they do not then follow the will of the House; and indeed, that now it is apparently to be the Government policy to do so routinely. Does the hon. and learned Lady really not think that obnoxious?
It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman says the Government did not follow the will of the House. In the debate on public sector pay, the Government said very clearly that they would be flexible on that. Since that debate, the Prison Service and the police have had a pay increase, so it is completely inaccurate to say that the Government are not listening to the will of the House.
This is the third debate on procedure in which I have taken part in in two years and I have learned that other parties seem to value form over substance. They seem to value debating procedure rather than the issues at stake. In the previous Parliament, I had the honour of sitting on the Investigatory Powers Public Bill Committee. In that Committee, we spent much time at the outset listening to arguments from Opposition Members that there was insufficient time to debate the issues. However, looking at the record of those proceedings I can see that on Second Reading, 53 Conservatives contributed as against 13 for Labour, and that on Report, there were 43 Conservative contributions, as against 13 from Labour.
When I knock on doors, not one voter suggests to me that we should spend more time in this House on procedural matters about past debates. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has brought a three-hour debate before this House at a time when there are many more important issues facing our country, such as Brexit—[Hon. Members: “He applied for it.”] He applied for it and Mr Speaker agreed to it. But the issues facing our country are Brexit, the economy, the NHS and education, issues that affect the daily lives of our constituents. It is those issues our constituents want us to discuss and not the procedure of this House.
This House is rather archaic. Many of these things I can live with: the pomp and circumstance, the wearing of funny clothes—I am one of those who wears their own style—and the walking around with a giant mace. What I cannot abide, however, is when rules and procedure are used, in what seems like an underhand way, to reduce the ability of constituents to hold us to account. Constituents can agree or disagree with their local Member of Parliament, but it is important that they know how their local Member of Parliament views an issue and how they vote on that issue when it comes before them. Voting in that sense is a cathartic process: it allows us to support the process of democracy even if we do not support our particular representative. The problem with not bringing an issue to vote is that it undermines the very process of you, Mr Speaker, hearing the ayes and noes. That will lead to the Opposition forcing votes. It will lead to us wasting time unless it is clear that the silence on the Government Benches is a silence of approval, rather than a silence because they are afraid.
We have heard today that the Government agreed with the two motions, which is fantastic. [Interruption.] On the example we heard about earlier, the House agreed and the Government agreed. I applaud the Government on their turnaround. We heard earlier that in 2009 the Labour Government were defeated on the issue of the Gurkhas—the defeat was quite right in my view. On that very day, the Labour Government came to this House and made a statement on how they would change their course as a result of the vote of the House.
There is another example: the Conservative Government after the coalition were defeated on the vote over whether we should bomb Syria. The then Prime Minister made a statement from the Dispatch Box to clarify the situation. His words were, “I get the message.” This Government have not got the message yet.
Exactly. It seems that the Government have not got the message that they should be accountable to this House. It is of course welcome that they have announced some minor changes—at the Conservative party conference and to the press lobby—on tuition fees and the public sector pay cap. But the problem with decree through press release is that it reduces the ability of this House to ensure that the detail of the volte-face is actually as the House wished.
On a simple point of fact, the announcement on the public sector pay cap was a written ministerial statement. It is important that we do not pretend otherwise and that a Government who use legitimate procedures are not misrepresented.
Yes, but the suggested tuition fees amendment was not.
The subject of how we challenge statutory instruments is important in the light of our discussions on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I sat through a lot of those discussions and Government Ministers tried to reassure me time and again—not that they were very reassuring—that we should not worry about processes through the negative procedure. They said that we should not worry about statutory instruments because if the will of the House was clear, the House would have the opportunity to review and rescind, and to ensure that statutory instruments that overstepped the mark would not be allowed on the statute book. However, what we see here is parliamentary jiggery-pokery.
No. This parliamentary jiggery-pokery was used not only to ensure that the debate did not come in time to be able to withdraw the statutory instruments, but to prevent a vote in the House. Therefore, the will of the House seems less strong to members of the public. That is the reality of what happened.
If the Government had stood at the Dispatch Box that day and said, “We won’t be calling a vote because we agree on the two issues”, there would be no problem. The problem was that Government Members spent the whole day arguing against the content of the motions, but then did not vote on them. That is the concern. It is fine—in fact, I am more than happy—for the Government to change their mind after listening to our compelling arguments. I applaud them for that, but let us have a statement about how their mind has changed and, therefore, how policy has changed.
It is no good that members of the public are unclear about the position of this House and that people are left in limbo. They need to be able to hold their politicians to account. They need to be able to hold their Government to account, and the Opposition parties and Back Benchers need to be able to do that too. Therefore, I call upon Members of the Treasury Bench to stand up and make a statement about how and when they reflected on the motion passing unanimously, when they will bring forward the changes called for in both motions and the details of how they will do it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), although I must put it to him, given his comment about our constituents needing to know where we stand, that when my constituents contact me they always know where I stand. He also put it that the public are unclear about the view of the House. In respect of the two resolutions we are discussing, the House approved the motions, so it is very clear where the House stood. It expressed its view.
It is a pleasure also to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I respect his—I see he is busy.
He has the better of me. I was genuinely being respectful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I know thinks and speaks passionately about the conventions of this place. I am a relatively new Member, but I regard its role in our national life as very important.
I would not have sought to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, had I not looked carefully into the underlying principles of the application made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). First and critically, as he made clear in his application and as was reiterated by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), Opposition day motions, if carried, are not and never have been binding de jure on the Government. The precedents are clear. Between 1918 and 2015, there were 120 defeats of Governments, most of them on substantive legislative matters on which the Chamber was exercising its core constitutional role of creating and amending the law of the land.
On those occasions, however, when the Government lost a vote on a Supply day, the constitutional position was equally clear. I greatly enjoyed reading one such occasion—the debate on the devaluation of the green pound held on 23 January 1978. I was especially delighted to hear the two contributions, made from a sedentary position, by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), who I am sorry is not in his place. One was:
“Leave the Common Market. That is the answer.”
The other one was:
“Get out of the Common Market. That is the answer.”—[Official Report, 23 January 1978; Vol. 942, c. 1071-73.]
He is nothing if not a beacon of consistency. The Labour Government having lost the vote, there was no suggestion in the closing remarks of either the Opposition spokesman or the Minister that the decision would be binding on the Government.
This to me is core to the issue. Clearly, the House can amend primary legislation, including, critically, money Bills, and pray against secondary legislation, debating such matters either in Government time or on Opposition days. What we are discussing here, however, is not an attempt by the Opposition to amend legislation, but the manner outside legislation whereby the Opposition examine and challenge Government policy. This, too, appears well established. The 1981 Select Committee on Procedure quoted, approvingly, an earlier Select Committee of 1966:
“The real nature of Supply Days was the opportunity provided to the Opposition to examine Government activities of their own choice”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are Backbench Business debates in the House that change policy, such as the baby loss debate, the subject of which we are in theory due to debate later today—but which we might not debate because of this debate? Is it not right that policy can be changed without a vote? There is no requirement for a vote to change policy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I will be brief so that we can get to that very important debate, which I know matters to many of our constituents. She is absolutely right that examining and challenging Government policy can lead, rightly, to a change in that policy. That is mirrored by the people who turn up to these debates. On the two Opposition days that particularly irked the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, two Secretaries of State, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and a Minister of State came to the Dispatch Box, and the speakers were matched one for one on either side. I attended part of both debates and can confirm that the Opposition were certainly doing their best to challenge and examine Government policy, as is their right.
There are good reasons why those debates ended as they did, as was illustrated by my two right hon. Friends for forests, my right hon. Friends the Members for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) and for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), in their interventions. To imply that the whole process was fruitless because there was no physical Division at the end—a vote that we know would have been non-binding—belittles not only that debate but potentially the Backbench Business Committee debates, those in Westminster Hall and, to a lesser extent, the work done in Select Committees, where good contributions are made to the workings of the House and policy examined without Divisions being required.
The hon. Gentleman has always had my attention. It has been not far off the unanimous view of the House for some time now that we would like legislation on circus animals. Several hon. Members have tried to advance it, including the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and, in the last Parliament, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), but on every occasion the Government systematically let the Backbench Business debate proceed and then had a vote on it, as if to suggest that something would then happen. When the House expresses a view, even if that is because the Government have refused to vote, I think that the Government should listen. Surely the hon. Gentleman must too.
The hon. Gentleman was very fortunate in his placing in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, so the solution to that problem may be in his own hands, although I understand that he believes that he will present more important business to the House, which I look forward to debating in due course. There are other means by which business can be debated, of which private Members’ Bills are but one.
In his application, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to the motion on Gurkha settlement. I appreciate that he did so in all sincerity, and the subject was also raised by the shadow Leader of the House. The fact that the debate took place eight years ago may be indicative of developments in Opposition day debates over that period. The Labour Government did amend their position following that debate, but my recollection, like that of the shadow Leader of the House, is that there was a great deal more to that issue than what was said during the debate. I recall, as, I am sure, will other Members, the single-handed pincer movement—if such a thing is possible—that was inflicted on the Minister, Phil Woolas, by Joanna Lumley, and the phenomenal way in which she prosecuted the issue.
It is undoubtedly the case that the Government should listen to the House and take the advice of the House, and must then decide themselves how to prosecute the business concerned, because they are accountable to the electorate and have that mandate.
The report of the Gurkha debate is intriguing. It was, I think, a unique case that arose eight years ago. The motion only got through this place because of—in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green)—
“brave members of the Labour Party”.—[Official Report, 29 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 989.]
The brave members of the Labour party who supported the motion and defeated the Labour Government inevitably included the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and, obviously, the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Leading the Ayes was the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Clearly Phil Woolas was a forgiving soul, as he subsequently nominated the right hon. Lady for the leadership of his party despite being a campaign manager for David Miliband, on the ground that “David wants to be inclusive”. I hope that moderate members of the Labour party will not get into the habit of nominating colleagues for the leadership of their party for the wrong reasons; who knows who they would end up with?
My view is that the Gurkha settlement debate was in a noble cause, far removed from the simple binary party-political debates in which the Opposition propose declamatory resolutions to spend taxpayers’ money without having the responsibility of funding those decisions. The Government must, of course, present Ministers to the House to defend and explain their policies, but on specific—and I mean specific—party-political issues, the Government believe that not trooping everyone through the division Lobbies is the right decision in the case of a non-binding, non-legislative resolution, and the Government must retain that right.
I rise to make what Members will be pleased to hear will be a mercifully short contribution. I am afraid that I must use some of my few minutes to correct something that was said by the shadow Leader of the House; I am sure that she would like that to be done at the earliest opportunity. She said that it was the Conservatives who introduced the Backbench Business Committee, but of course it was not. It was the coalition Government, consisting of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. That followed the work that a Labour Member of Parliament, Tony Wright, had completed, but it is unfinished business. Let me pre-empt a possible intervention from the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who, I know, is pressing for the establishment of a Committee to resolve the way in which business is presented in this place. I hope that the shadow Leader of the House did not mind my correcting her on that point.
I thought that the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) was rather generous to the Leader of the House in saying that she could not possibly answer questions about business during business questions. That is her role, and I am sure that her predecessors Andrew Lansley and William Hague, with whom I worked, would have been very happy to answer a question on the subject of the business of the House.
The Government are clearly developing an addiction to closing down debate and scrutiny, or simply disregarding the outcome of any debates. We have heard a lot about Opposition day debates, so I will not touch on those. We have heard about the Government packing Committees to their advantage. We have heard a lot about the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and rightly so, because of course there are Members of this place—they do not appear to be here today, with perhaps one honourable exception—who have preached at great length about the importance of parliamentary sovereignty, often repeating the same speech, but when it comes to that Bill their enthusiasm for parliamentary sovereignty appears suddenly to have evaporated and it is no longer the critical matter it used to be. We see that in the Henry VIII powers and in how much policy the Government intend to push through in secondary legislation.
I want to focus briefly on the 50 sectoral reports that the Government have commissioned on the impact of Brexit. Whether one is a remain supporter like me, or a leave supporter like the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), I think that we all agree that it is important that the Government go public on what the impact of Brexit will be. I feel that it will be very negative, and I am sure that he thinks that it will be very positive, but at the moment we do not know because we are not allowed to see those 50 reports, which the taxpayer has paid for.
I am afraid that situation is often reflected in answers to parliamentary questions on the subject. I would have thought that by now every Department would know how many pieces of EU legislation they were going to have to transpose into domestic law through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill process. However, if Members ask that in a parliamentary question, what answer do they get? Some Departments are willing to hazard a figure of between 800 and 1,000, as the Department for Exiting the European Union has done, but others have no idea and do not give an answer at all. I think that the Government are very scared about allowing Parliament to scrutinise the Brexit arrangements in full possession of the facts.
In conclusion, the Leader of the House has had many opportunities in this debate to clarify the Government’s position on Opposition days, but she has chosen not to do so. We are left with the rather nasty suspicion that this is a Government who care little about parliamentary conventions, less about parliamentary scrutiny and nothing at all about parliamentary sovereignty.
I contribute to this debate from quite a privileged position, as someone who has served both my Parliaments: as a Member of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood in Edinburgh; and as a Member of our Parliament here in Westminster in London. Of course, in both Parliaments, I have served under minority Governments, so I am well placed to speak about how Oppositions deal with debates in both Chambers.
We hear a lot from our Scottish National party colleagues about minority government here at Westminster, but very little about the fact that their party is in minority government in Holyrood—we heard a couple of sentences about it today from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), but not much before that. It is therefore worth repeating that Nicola Sturgeon went into the last Scottish parliamentary elections with a majority and came out with a minority, largely because the number of Scottish Conservative MSPs more than doubled—from 15 to 31.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said many interesting things. After 13 minutes of criticising and attacking the Government and Conservative Back Benchers, he told us that he was being helpful and consensual. That was the only helpful thing he told us, because up until that point it did not seem that he was being particularly helpful or consensual. He also said—I wrote this down because I was very interested—that nobody expects the Government to change policy after being defeated in an Opposition day debate. That was quickly followed by an intervention from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who disagreed entirely. That just shows the confused position among the Opposition parties in today’s debate. It is perhaps because the party of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has a minority Government in Scotland that he does not believe that Governments should change policy due to a defeat in a Chamber.
It is nice to hear about the Scottish example, but I am interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Government should change course when they are defeated in a Chamber, instead of just hearing him attack the SNP, which I do not have much truck with either.
I am a Scottish Conservative Member representing a Scottish constituency, so if the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will speak about Scottish issues in the House of Commons. I will also speak about Governments being defeated when this Government are defeated. They have not been defeated in this House, but the party of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has been defeated. I want to come on to the point that I tried to make when I intervened on his speech. Hansard will show that I asked clearly about the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, but that the hon. Gentleman never once mentioned that piece of legislation in response.
It is interesting that all that Theresa’s Scottish Tories ever do is to get on their feet and talk about the Scottish Parliament. In case it has evaded the hon. Gentleman’s attention, he was elected to serve in this House. As for the 2012 Act, a review is under way to examine hate crime legislation in response to the vote in the Scottish Parliament. That is how a minority Government should respond to a defeat in a Parliament.
I am sorry, but as the hon. Gentleman has totally misunderstood what is happening in Scotland with this piece of legislation, it is important that I provide a potted history of what happened. It was introduced by a majority SNP Government in 2011 with no support from the Opposition parties. Legal experts told them that it was wrong, a senior judge went on to say that the legislation was “mince”, and then a Labour MSP’s consultation on repealing the legislation attracted 3,000 responses, 70% of which said that the Act should be repealed. What is happening now? I will tell you. In November last year—
Order. The hon. Gentleman held out the prospect for the House that he would provide a potted history of what had happened in relation to the relevant piece of Scottish legislation. I think that he has somewhat stretched the definition and meaning of the word “potted”, and what I am politely indicating to the hon. Gentleman is that he should gravitate towards the thrust of the debate, rather than occupy the tramlines.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. You unfortunately stopped me mid-thrust because I was about to come to that point. The final element came in November last year, when I led a debate on the matter in the Scottish Parliament, which then voted to repeal the 2012 Act. The Opposition parties voted for the repeal, but nothing has happened in the past year. The point that I am trying to get across is that people cannot state that what the Opposition parties say here must be respected when they do not respect what such parties say in another Parliament, so I will take no lectures from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire about that.
Parliament gave a view on the two motions that prompted today’s debate. There was a full discussion, with Government Members matching Opposition Members speaker for speaker, and the House did not dissent from the motions. The House expressed an opinion. Our constituents would rather that we focused on the crucial issues that are coming up later this evening instead of spending hours discussing procedural matters. Our constituents would be better served by our getting on to those debates, which I look forward to listening to in the near future.
I thank the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for his contribution, but I promise to confine my remarks to affairs of this House. I apologise to colleagues who, like me, perhaps thought that they had nodded off and woken up somewhere else. It is almost exactly four months since we were all elected to this place—many of us for the first time—on a pledge to serve our constituents and the country, but I find myself increasingly dismayed by the attitude and flagrant disrespect for the values of the democratic process that are displayed by those on the Government Benches. First we were presented with the Henry VIII power grab in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and now it seems that the Government intend simply to allow Opposition days to happen and then ignore them, paying no respect to the views of the House, elected Members or, by extension, the electorate who sent us here to oppose and scrutinise. It is not good enough, Mr Speaker, and if we continue along those lines, we will not be serving democracy.
At the moment, politicians spend a lot of time debating and lamenting public apathy, searching for ways to engage the younger generation, and asking why they find so little in the work we do to spark their enthusiasm for public service. Perhaps we had our answer, or at least part of it, during the Opposition day on 13 September, with its debates on NHS pay and tuition fees—hardly unimportant issues. If any young person was visiting the House on that day or watching the TV coverage, what did they witness? Petty political game playing—not dissimilar, I have to say, from what we have seen from those on the Government Benches today.
In my experience in this House, Opposition day motions are all too often used as an opportunity to lay party political traps that end up misleading my constituents. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in those circumstances, the Government should take the discretion not to indulge in parliamentary game playing?
I would agree with the hon. Gentleman were it not for the fact that what he was doing was party political game playing rather than listening to the Opposition. Surely the point of an Opposition day debate is that the Government listen to a view other than their own. That is the view of the electorate—they think that we are here to serve them, rather than to play games. If they had tuned in on the 13th, they would have seen a Government simply paying lip service to the question with no intention of taking anything on board or of allowing any credence to be given to the debate, lest it should challenge their established view.
Indeed. Why should such behaviour encourage any kind of faith in the political process—“Yes, we’ll let you have your say, yes you can have a vote, but we won’t take any notice of what you say”? Where is the democracy, where is the scrutiny and where is the respect for those who elected us? They surely deserve better.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate and to follow the new hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine). She helpfully reminded us that it is almost four months since the general election, but the point about the general election of which I want to remind the House is that on 8 June the people of this country—my constituents and everyone else’s constituents—had a vote, and the result was that the Conservative party got 56 more seats than the official Opposition. We have a working majority. The Queen’s Speech has already been approved, setting out—[Interruption.] Whether the Opposition like it or not, that sets out the legitimacy of this Government’s programme of work.
The Government also have a record of empowering Parliament, as we have heard throughout the debate, and that means Back Benchers, too. As we have heard, in 2010 it was the Conservative-led coalition Government who established the Backbench Business Committee, which is really important for Back Benchers on both sides of the House. When I sat on that Committee, I saw the range of topics proposed by Members of all parties for discussion. In the couple of years in which I have been a Back Bencher, we have had interesting and useful Back-Bench debates in the Chamber.
My only point there is that it is a bit of a pain if we cannot make the debates mean anything because the Government decide to abstain from any vote and not to follow through on a decision of the House. There is an important difference here. Although the Government did not fully implement this from the Wright proposals in 2010, despite promising to do so by 2013, we could have, as the Scottish Parliament has, a parliamentary bureau to decide all the business of this House. Would the hon. Lady support that?
I just go back to my point about Backbench Business Committee debates, because they have an important place in this Chamber and can make a difference, as can general debates. We had a very meaningful and useful debate yesterday evening on Gypsies and Travellers, a topic that Members on both sides of the House had been raising—
I am going to make some more progress.
Members on both sides of the House had been raising the issue throughout the summer. Given the Minister’s statement at the end of that debate, I sincerely believe that the Government were listening and are pointing to some ways forward. As a Back Bencher, the issue concerns me in my constituency, so I will continue to press it, as I hope other Back Benchers will.
As we have heard, following this debate and another piece of business, we will have a debate on baby loss, which touches many people, again on both sides of the House. The issue has received a lot of awareness in the Chamber, starting from an Adjournment debate that was held a couple of years ago. We have had an Adjournment debate and Back-Bench debates. There is an all-party group on the subject and a ten-minute rule Bill on it was introduced. We have not had a vote as a result of any of those things, yet a private Member’s Bill is to be introduced on the subject. Let us hope that that legislation goes through this place and that we will be able to remember that it started from the Back Benches. That is not one of my private Member’s Bills. I have had two successes, but I would still like to think I could get a hat-trick.
All I am trying to do is to highlight the importance of debate in this place so that we have a chance to express our views. On the day in September that today’s debate is very much focusing on, I had that chance to make my views and thoughts on student tuition fees heard, and that was what I did. That does not have to mean that there will be a vote every time; I had my chance to have my say. What concerns me most is that we have now spent 14 hours talking about procedure. I am not blaming you, Mr Speaker—far be it from me to do that; I would never be called to speak again! The fact remains that 14 hours have been granted for speaking about procedure, but what really matters is what my constituents want to hear. They voted in June for this Government and for me to get on with the job of representing them in this place and raising the issues that matter to them, not to talk about procedure.
I wish to be brief, Mr Speaker. Let me thank you for accepting the debate proposed by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael).
I am particularly interested by this debate because I am a newbie in the House and still have a lot to learn. I arrived in Westminster very much of the view of Parliament being sovereign and this House of Commons reigning supreme. This Government’s blatant disregard for Parliament and for the fact that we are here to vote on issues that will impact the lives of the people who sent us here is a disgrace. If we think back to those two debates in September, it was clear that the Government knew they were heading for a big defeat—not for defeat’s sake, but because they are on the wrong side of history. Their weasel words on public sector pay show very little understanding of what is happening outside this place. The motion was very clear that any potential increase in tuition fees in England and Wales should be scrapped. It was clear, sensible and pragmatic. The failure to vote on the two Opposition day motions shows that the Tories are running scared. That is clear for everyone to see, including those outside this House.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was right to note the deal between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party. If the 10 DUP members continue to support Opposition day motions—I sincerely hope that they do—what does that mean for agreement between the two parties?
I know that the Leader of the House is not a close friend of the Prime Minister, but a nice and easy answer to this would be to the benefit of the House. How stable is this Government and how can we have any faith in them when the £1 billion deal hangs by a thread?
Between January 1978 and September 2017, there was only one Government defeat on an Opposition motion in this House. I might have been a mere boy then, but I remember that the Government changed their policy the next day, rightly reflecting the expressed will of the House. When the Leader of the House winds up the debate, I hope that she will address that point.
I also think that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) was on to something when he intervened on the former Government Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). I agree that when Parliament speaks, the Government should listen. I know that, deep down, Government Back Benchers agree with that statement, but they are running scared of the Whips and, more importantly, of facing the people in our constituencies and community centres, and across all four nations that make up our United Kingdom.
The way that the Government have approached Parliament since the election has been a disgrace. As the shadow Leader of the House noted in her important contribution, this two-year parliamentary Session was announced in a press release on 22 June. The Leader of the House should have come to this House, and she knows it. The failure to increase the number of Opposition day debates was a further disregard of Members.
Yes, I agree with that.
In many ways, this debate is silly. I say that because there are so many important issues facing my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and others across Scotland and the rest of the country. We should be doing more. We could be talking about the pressures faced by our hospitals and vital public services, the fact that the jobcentre closures by the Department for Work and Pensions have the potential to destroy livelihoods and the vitality of town centres around the country, the botched roll-out of universal credit that even John Major wants halted, and, of course, Brexit, which will affect everyone.
The Government should be ashamed of themselves. They should learn that, ultimately, this House is sovereign—
I was very interested in the justification from the Leader of the House for the Government’s actions on those two votes. We noticed that she sloganised for Conservative Central Office by blaming the last Labour Government for running the country into debt when she knows that it was her friends, the bankers in America, who caused the problem.
All I know is that I am skint and that I agree with my hon. Friend.
As I said, the Government should be ashamed of themselves. They should learn that, ultimately, this House is sovereign. Rather than engaging in this playground approach of sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring the strong and loud voices of Members from all parties, they should show a bit of respect—that is all we ask for.
Order. There are three remaining would-be contributors. The way that things have worked out means that we have slightly more time—[Interruption.] Yes, I know that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will be sad that it did not happen for him, but we have heard him many times before, and we will hear him many times again. The limit will now be eight minutes per Back-Bench speech. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene all over the place because he enjoys the mellifluous sound of his own voice, we will wait in eager anticipation of that prospect.
I would say to the new hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) that if he thinks this Government are bad in relation to Parliament, he should have seen the Blair Government. However, I have a hint that we may be friends, because I think he said something nasty about Whips, which is always a good sign for a new relationship.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this Standing Order No. 24 debate, which is about Parliament versus Government. It is impossible for us as Back Benchers to get this issue debated, so I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for introducing it. Although there was a little party politics on the Opposition Benches, there were also some very good speeches about parliamentary sovereignty, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said everything I would have said—which is worrying me and probably worrying him.
There were some arguments today that were just plain wrong. The argument that this time is taking up time we could be using to debate something else is nonsense. We can extend the parliamentary day, and we have extended it. We could have extended the parliamentary day by three hours today. The Government chose to introduce two statements today, which took up parliamentary time. So the argument is completely false.
There is nothing more important than discussing the sovereignty of Parliament and the rights of Parliament in relation to the Executive. The Executive control virtually everything, and legislation can, effectively, be brought forward only by the Government. We talk about private Members’ Bills, but if we pass a private Member’s Bill on Second Reading and the Government do not provide a money motion, it is completely stuffed. So everything is completely in the control of the Government.
The fact that the Backbench Business Committee was introduced—it came out of the Wright reforms, although its debates were supposed to be in prime time, not stuck on a Thursday—is a credit. However, I remember sitting next to the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, in the Tea Room and saying, “Isn’t it wonderful, Prime Minister, that we have a Backbench Business Committee and substantive motions the House can vote on?” He was having a cup of tea, and he spluttered it all over the place—he had not quite realised that point. However, there is no point having a substantive motion and having the will of the House expressed on a particular issue if the Government then choose not to take action. In my view, the Backbench Business Committee is the thing that has been ignored the most.
We have to come to a situation where, if the House expresses a view, a Minister must respond to that view in a statement. On the two debates that are being discussed, it does seem that the Government have changed policy subsequently, which is good, but would it not have been better if a Minister had come to the House and said, “As a result of that debate, we have thought about the issue, and this is what we propose to do”? I would like to suggest to the Leader of the House that it becomes a formula that if the House expresses a view, the Government should respond to it. That does not mean that they have to accept everything, but they should come to the Dispatch Box and say what they are doing on the issue.
I thought the day would never come when a newbie Lib Dem would agree with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), but I like the cut of his jib. I think there is something more dangerous here, and I will probably incur the wrath of the House by turning to the territory of the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), but in the place where I once served for 12 years, we had private Members’ debates of an evening, to which a Minister would reply and after which, to be honest—I have to be careful about parliamentary language—damn all happened. That was dangerous for democracy in Scotland because the general public started to lose faith in the purpose of that kind of debate, and when we lose that, we are in danger of losing something incredibly important.
I am grateful for that intervention, but may I give the new Liberal Democrat Member some advice? He should never agree with me if he wants to progress in his party.
Let me go back to another false argument that was used today. There was criticism of the Liberal Democrats for not being here for certain votes, and I have on occasion pointed that fact out in this Chamber. However, if we extend that to say that only people in this Chamber who know what the debate is about can go and vote, we would have quite a lot of different results in this House. It is not a bad idea.
A business of the House committee would solve a lot of these problems. That was proposed by Wright. It was supported; it was Government policy. Unfortunately, it was not Whips’ policy, and that is both lots of Whips. Many of the problems we have would be solved by having such a committee.
I am not sure whether anyone from the Government will be winding up the debate, but it would be useful to have a commitment from them on this matter. On an Opposition or a Backbench business day, if the House votes on something—we did vote; it is just that no one opposed the motion, so there was no recorded Division—that is the will of this House of Parliament and we should have a Government response.
Presumably, my hon. Friend is asking the Government to say something only if the House votes for something that is counter to the Government’s existing policy. My argument was that the motion on the NHS was completely consistent with the Government’s policy, which is of course why the Government did not oppose it.
I am grateful to the former Chief Whip for his intervention. As usual, he will not expect me to say anything other than that I completely disagree with what he said. I am saying that, if the House expresses a view, a Minister should come to the Chamber. The Minister can stand up and say, “I absolutely agree with the motion”, if that is what it is, but that should happen if, on an Opposition day, on a substantive motion, the motion is carried.
The issue of circus animals is the best example we have had in the House. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority in the House wanted something done about circus animals.
I am sorry, I do not think I have time to take another intervention.
We really do need this to be done: the Government must take notice of what the House decides. It is a fact that, when the Backbench Business Committee came into being, the Government used to take it seriously. They used to vote on the motion. Then a former Leader of the House decided that it would be a good wheeze just to ignore votes and carry on. The reason we did not vote against the motion on circus animals—we can deny it as much as we like—is that we would have been defeated. It would be good in this parliamentary democracy if the Government on occasion were defeated. It would not be the end of the world and the Government would take note of it. That lot on the Opposition Benches would cry about it, but so what? Let us get used to it. This is Parliament. The people sitting here are not members of the Government—they are MPs sitting on the Government side. No one tells me how to vote.
The former Chief Whip knows that. If I had wanted to, I could have been the only one to oppose the motion on that particular day. However, I did not feel like that.
This is not a wasted debate. It is a chance for parliamentarians to say that Parliament should come first and the Government should listen to what the House says when it votes.
With the leave of the House, I shall say a few words. I would not often expect to say this, but it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). There was much in his speech with which I had little difficulty agreeing with. On the question of a business bureau for the House, again, that was in the Wright report. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman, however, that to proceed with that without looking at other areas of House procedure that require reform would not be sensible. There is a strong case for revisiting the remaining work to be done in respect of the Wright report.
Indeed, I was part of the Government then—I was the deputy Chief Whip at the time. That was a decision taken by Government as a whole. Of course I was part of that, as were other Ministers.
Others have said that this debate was unnecessary. On one view, I am not without sympathy for that opinion. The debate could have been avoided if the Leader of the House had given us a clear steer on Government policy when I raised this matter with her on 14 September at business questions. She could have denied that it was Government policy to avoid Divisions that they would lose and then to ignore the decision of the House on non-binding motions. She chose on 14 September not to do so. She was given the opportunity again today to deny that this was the Government’s policy. She chose again not to do so. If she wishes to intervene on me now to be clear, I will take her intervention.
I can assure the House that it has been some years since I wrote my own press releases. What I want is an assurance that where the House reaches a decision—this is the point that the hon. Member for Wellingborough made—that decision will be acted on and respected by the Government. We have had no assurance on that point for the third time today. The House will draw its own conclusion from that failure to deny.
From any Minister of the Crown, that would be regrettable. It pains me to say that, from the Leader of the House, who is supposed to be the House’s representative in Government, it is a dereliction of her duties. Those on the Treasury Bench can continue to avoid this issue if they wish, but if they do, it will keep coming back. Inevitably, because this is a democracy, the day will come when they are sitting on the Opposition Benches and somebody else is sitting where they are now. I fear that it is only then that they will understand the damage that they are doing to our House and our constitution now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Government's policy in relation to the proceedings of this House.
We shall shortly be proceeding to the next business, and I am keenly anticipating that, in a matter only of moments, the Clerk will proceed to read the Orders of the Day. However, in order for us properly to proceed with that business, there is a requirement for the presence of relevant Ministers and shadow Ministers, and—for I am not casting aspersions—there is also a requirement for an occupant of the Chair, as the House will be sitting in Committee and the Speaker does not chair the proceedings in Committee, as Members will know. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) is gesticulating in a very gentle way from a sedentary position that the Minister is present on the Treasury Bench, and I am happy to acknowledge that. [Interruption.] The occupant of the Chair is here and I think others are also here. The Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day.