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Volume 645: debated on Monday 23 July 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury if he will make a statement in relation to Government policy and practice with regard to pairing arrangements, especially as they relate to Members on maternity, paternity or adoption leave.

I want to start by reiterating without reserve the apology for the error that was made last week in respect of pairing with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). Both the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith)—the Government Chief Whip—and the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), have apologised publicly, and I acknowledge that that apology was accepted by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) during questions to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House last week.

The Government’s policy on pairing remains that these are long-standing informal arrangements between business managers in different political parties in this House, co-ordinated through the usual channels. That has been the position of successive Governments of different political compositions, and this Government have no plans to change those underlying arrangements. Indeed, it is worth noting that almost 2,000 pairs have been agreed since the general election in June last year. Of those, the overwhelming majority have worked as intended, with the Government actually having a better record of upholding pairing arrangements than most other parties.

During the passage of the Trade Bill last week, seven of the eight pairs remained in place, including two other pairs provided for two Members on maternity leave. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in response to the urgent question last week, there are clearly questions and different opinions in the House on whether and, if so, how changes should be made to our current voting arrangements.

The Government have therefore confirmed that there will be a general debate on proxy voting in September, following the debate’s cancellation earlier this month for an urgent statement on the Amesbury incident. That will give Members the opportunity to consider the various questions arising from the recent report of the Procedure Committee into proxy voting. In particular, as came through from the exchanges following the Leader of the House’s business statement last week, I know that Members have questions about whether such arrangements should be extended beyond maternity, paternity and adoption leave to those who, for example, have been bereaved or who have caring responsibilities for close relatives. It is important that the House be given time to debate those questions as, from my experience, such changes are made most effectively when they command consensus across the House.

The Government remain committed to providing a pairing system with Opposition parties, and I reassure the House again that the errors of last week will not be repeated. I hope the House will look forward to the debate in September as a chance to discuss in greater detail what changes might be made to ensure that Members on both sides of the House are supported through periods of absence.

Thank you for allowing this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his answer. I mean no disrespect to him, but I am disappointed that he is at the Dispatch Box today and not the Chief Whip.

There are serious questions still outstanding about the events of last Tuesday evening, and the only person who knows the truth about them is the Chief Whip himself. There is a serious lack of confidence today in the system by which we run our business, and the only person who can restore that confidence is the Chief Whip.

I understand the convention that the Chief Whip does not normally speak in this Chamber except to move a by-election writ. Under normal circumstances I would see that as a sensible protection for the office of Chief Whip, but the House should not lose sight that there is an important distinction to be drawn between a protection for the office and a protection for the holder of that office.

When I was first made aware of the presence of the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) in the Division Lobby last week, I was quite relaxed about it. We all know these things happen from time to time and, in a system that relies on the best of faith, these things should not be the source of excitement. My view started to change, however, when I learned that any mistake was made not by the right hon. Gentleman but by the Chief Whip himself. It may have been a mistake to cancel the pair, but it was not an inadvertence; it was a deliberate act. We now understand that the instruction to the right hon. Gentleman that he should vote came from the Chief Whip himself. The explanation from the Chief Whip that he did not know this was, as he terms it, a “pregnancy pair” neither clarifies nor excuses what is a prima facie act of bad faith. A pair is a pair, whatever its purpose. If the system is to work, it should be honoured and not broken at the 11th hour.

The House should be aware that I gave the Minister advance notice of these questions. When was the decision made to cancel the pairing arrangements for the votes on new clauses 17 and 18, and when was the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth informed of this? Did the Chief Whip inform either the Liberal Democrat or official Opposition Whips Office that the pairs would be broken? My information is that neither office was informed. Was the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth aware that he was paired with my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire for the day’s votes? Was the decision made to cancel pairs taken in consultation with the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House? When were the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House informed that the pairing arrangements would be broken? Crucially, was the Prime Minister informed of the Chief Whip’s decision to instruct Conservative MPs to break pairing arrangements before she told the House at Prime Minister’s questions that it was an honest mistake? Do these repeated references to an “honest mistake” refer to the decision to break the pairing across the board or specifically to the decision to break pairing with a maternity/paternity leave MP? If it is the latter, is it now Government policy that the breaking of pairing arrangements at the insistence of the Chief Whip for non-pregnancy-related pairs is acceptable?

There is an old truism that there is no smoke without fire. In fairness to the Chief Whip, we see no flames today—[Interruption.]

Order. There are a lot of people in the Chamber and quite a lot of people probably want to take part—we will make an assessment of that. Meanwhile, the right hon. Gentleman will be heard. No attempt to shout him down is going to work and therefore it is just a waste of breath.

I had said, “In fairness to the Chief Whip”, so perhaps that was what got them excited, Mr Speaker. In fairness to the Chief Whip, there is no flame apparent today, but there is surely enough smoke to fill the sky.

First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, as the Minister without Portfolio, is a member of my ministerial team in the Cabinet Office, so I think it is perfectly appropriate that I should be answering the urgent question from the right hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. First, let me say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth was not at any point aware that he was paired with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. Indeed, that is the normal state of affairs when a colleague is paired: they do not know with which particular Opposition Member they happen to be paired. That is a matter dealt with by the usual channels, through the respective Whips Offices. My right hon. Friend was asked to vote shortly before the Divisions that have caused this particular controversy. As has been said both by him and by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, he should not have been asked to vote. An error was made within the Government Whips Office, for which my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has taken responsibility, hence his public apology to the right hon. Gentleman, as Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, and to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. Every other pair that evening was honoured, so the error meant that the right hon. Gentleman was not notified beforehand, because there was not some sort of deep-laid plot to deny the pairing arrangement. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the House were consulted about the matter. The Government policy remains, as I said earlier, that pairing is an informal and voluntary arrangement between the political parties. We do take the issue of pregnancy pairing particularly seriously, for the very reasons that have led both the business Committee and then the Procedure Committee to highlight this as something that the House ought to address. That is why we will be taking forward the debate on proxy voting in September.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the broken pair did not alter the result of the vote and the Government would have still won the vote? Will he confirm that when these things happen the House has to learn lessons from them, but it must be wary of trying to scrap the whole system, as that would mean that Select Committees in this House would not be able to work and a lot of the work that takes place outside the confines of the Chamber would be impossible to continue?

My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience. It is true that what happened last Tuesday did not actually affect the outcome of the vote. It is worth pointing out that, of the 66 pairs that have been broken since the general election, 14 were broken by the Government and 52 by the Opposition.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on successfully bringing another Cabinet Minister to the Chamber to answer a question about breaking a pair. It clearly shows the seriousness of the political situation facing the Government Chief Whip that the deputy Prime Minister has to come to answer the urgent question, to try to avoid another damaging Cabinet exit. Clearly, the Government Chief Whip decided to phone a friend, and it was not the Leader of the House.

The deputy Prime Minister said that the Government had a better record on pairing. Could he explain what that means because a pair is twice—you have two pairs? The issue is simple: it comes down to the integrity of the word of a member of Her Majesty’s Government, the Government Chief Whip. You will recall, Mr Speaker, that a former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, demanded a rerun of a vote—and got it—from a Labour Government.

The answers in the statements made by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House on 18 July confirmed that the Government Chief Whip was less than candid with his fellow Ministers, including the Prime Minister, by not declaring that he actively instructed Conservative MPs to break pairing arrangements. It is clear that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have unwittingly misled the House by characterising the Government Chief Whip’s action as an “honest mistake”. This is a serious breach of the ministerial code.

Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office believe that the Government Chief Whip’s integrity is above reproach? We are asked to believe that the breaking of the pair for the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) was an “honest mistake”, while he admits that he ordered others to knowingly break their pairs. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? Can he confirm that the Government Chief Whip rang those who refused to break their pairs to demand an explanation as to why? If that was the case, that in itself is a clear breach of a number of the Nolan principles, such as integrity and honesty, that form the basis of the ministerial code.

In her foreword to the latest version of the ministerial code, the Prime Minister states that it

“sets out the standards of behaviour expected from all those who serve in Government…In abiding by this Code, we will show that Government can be a force for good and that people can trust us”.

I reiterate our offer on Wednesday, following the previous urgent question, to discuss implementing a system of baby leave today without the need for a vote. How do the Government think that the business of the House—including Select Committee visits, international delegations, important ministerial negotiations, and even having a baby—can proceed when they admit that, under this Government Chief Whip, no one can or should trust them?

I have to say that when the hon. Lady complained about my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip not being here, I glanced across at the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and wondered why he was not at the Dispatch Box instead of her. I suspect that, when he whispers in her ear afterwards, he might suggest to her that trying to apply the Nolan principles to the inner workings of any Whips Office over recent decades would raise a number of difficult challenges.

I will address the serious points made by the hon. Lady. First, only one pair was broken last Tuesday. That was done because of a genuine error in the Government Whips Office, for which the Chief Whip has publicly apologised. Despite that breach having taken place—it ought not to have taken place—the outcome had no effect on the decision that was taken by the House in the particular votes on which the controversy centres. Had that breach not taken place, the Government would still have lost the first vote and would still have won the second vote last Tuesday evening.

We are more than willing to talk to Opposition parties and indeed to Back-Bench Members across the House about how to forge a consensus on the way forward on parental and perhaps other forms of absence but, as I said earlier, exchanges in the House already have indicated that this is not necessarily a straightforward matter. Finally, I have full confidence in the integrity of my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip.

The key is that this is an informal arrangement and it will always remain so. Mistakes will be made on both sides of the House—that is what happens. I was not allowed to have a pair for my father-in-law’s funeral. My duty was to be here to vote and I stayed here, notwithstanding the fact that I would have liked to have been at his funeral. A lot of nonsense is being talked at the moment. May I also say that the Chief Whip is doing an excellent job?

The whole issue of this pairing arrangement stinks to high heaven, and we still have not had an acceptable explanation as to why the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) observed some whipping arrangements but not others on much more critical votes. The Chief Whip needs to come to this House to explain himself fully because, with all due respect to the Minister, all we are hearing from him is what the Chief Whip has told him. After all of this, surely the Chief Whip should be considering his position today.

We in the Scottish National party are just so grateful that we have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with this broken pairing arrangement. The more we learn about the insidious workings of this broken arrangement, the more pleased we are that we have nothing to do with it. Members of the public are watching with increasing alarm and horror as this House is being dragged into the gutter and into disrepute once again. What we need is a total review of all our broken voting arrangements in this House. Will the right hon. Gentleman commit himself to that today, to make sure that we can conduct ourselves fairly and equitably and end this nonsense in this House?

The hon. Gentleman seems to be working himself into a lather of indignation about an informal practice that he says that he and his party have no intention of participating in. I suspect that that question was an intentional distraction from the recent publicity on the dismal attendance and voting record of SNP Members in this House.

This is, of course, more about Parliament versus Government than anything else. I absolutely accept the assurance of the Chief Whip and the chairman of my party that they made a mistake. The problem is that, until I came to the Chamber today, I had no idea that there had been 2,000 pairs since the general election. The arrangements are made behind closed doors and in secret. If this pairing system was public, and if, each day, the people who were paired were listed or perhaps even removed from the possibility of voting, this would never occur again. What we need is transparency, and I hope that the deputy Prime Minister will look into this matter.

I understand the case that my hon. Friend makes and the arguments for greater transparency, but I ask him also to reflect on this point. In my experience in this House, Whips Offices in all political parties exercise a very important pastoral role. As in any large workplace, there are often Members who are going through periods of ill health or great family and personal stress, and in those circumstances it is not always right for the pairing arrangements to be made public in a way that might draw attention to the predicament of those Members. I do think, despite what he says, that it is best for these matters to be left to informal agreement between the usual channels.

We know things are bad for the Government when they send out their wisest head and safest pair of hands, but unfortunately the Minister for the Cabinet Office has been sent out to defend the indefensible. In addition to the very serious questions that still surround the pairing arrangements for the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), it is clear from comments made by Conservative MPs to national newspapers that the Chief Whip ordered them to break their pairs. It is only because of their honour and integrity—and the Chief Whip’s misjudgement and inability to orchestrate a proper stitch-up—that that did not happen. Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office understand the damage that this has done not just to our confidence in the pairing system and with its impact on Members’ welfare, but to the integrity and public perception of this place? What are the Government going to do to repair the reputation of Parliament and to accept that, because they did not win a majority at the last general election, they have to win votes by argument rather than by stitching things up behind closed doors?

At the risk of repeating myself, the breach of pairing that took place last Tuesday did not make any difference to the outcome of either of the Divisions in question. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has undertaken to use the summer recess to carry out a review of the internal arrangements within the Government Whips Office to try to make certain that this type of error, which should not have occurred, can be prevented in the future. I would just say to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps I am getting somewhat cynical over the years, but I do tend to take with a pinch of salt reports in the newspapers about what my colleagues are alleged to have said.

I feel that I must fess up. I am a pair breaker. I have done it once—by accident. I was told off by the Whips very quickly. The event that I was due to attend had been cancelled and I simply forgot, so honest mistakes do happen. But this whole incident proves two things: first, that this is a process issue that interests the Westminster bubble, but certainly does not interest my constituents; and secondly, that this system, which has existed for a very long time, generally works. I urge my right hon. Friend to be very careful in changing a system that, despite the odd breakdown here and there—most of which have been committed by the Opposition in recent times—generally works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The very fact that we are talking about 66 pairs having been broken for one reason or another since the general election, out of a total of around 2,000 agreed pairs, tells its own story.

Allegations have been made and it is clear that there was a

“misunderstanding about the pairing and voting arrangements”—[Official Report, 22 June 1976; Vol. 915, c. 1361.]

Those words were uttered in 1976 from the Government Dispatch Box by the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, during a similar controversy. He and the then Leader of the Opposition agreed that the only way to resolve matters was for the Chief Whips to meet and the vote to be rerun. Precedent has been set. When will the Government show the integrity that I know the Minister for the Cabinet Office and many Government colleagues possess in abundance?

The difference between the incident in the 1970s that the hon. Gentleman cites and what happened last week is that the majorities—both against and for the Government—in the two Divisions were completely unaffected by what happened over pairing.

I have probably not always been the blue-eyed boy of the Whips Office, but I have found that this Chief Whip and his predecessors have always behaved with the utmost honesty and integrity. Confected anger and attacking my right hon. Friend does not help the House—in fact, it does not help anybody—because this system generally works. We should be very cautious about moving towards proxy voting because, had I taken the paternity leave due to me, I can think of no one I would have less liked to have held my vote than the Chief Whip.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although I have to give him this warning: those who start out not being the blue-eyed boys of the Whips Office usually end up being recruited into it.

Well, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) does not exactly look heart-warmed by the prospect that redemption awaits him.

The Minister says that we should not believe the press reports that we have seen, so can he settle this matter once and for all? Did the Chief Whip also call other MPs and ask them to break the pair alongside the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis)? Because if he did, that is not a mistake, it is a policy.

I say to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) that this does matter, because if the public cannot trust the Government to organise themselves, how can they trust them to organise a country?

Every pair other than that with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire was honoured last Tuesday.

As you will know, Mr Speaker, if I think that someone in government should lose their job, I am not afraid to say so. As you might imagine, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), have had my fair share of run-ins with the Chief Whip. However, I have always found him, even when we have fundamentally disagreed, to be a man of complete honour, of his word and of integrity. That also goes for the other members of the Whips Office with whom I have had fundamental disagreements. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Chief Whip’s integrity should not be questioned in any shape or form, and that anybody who knows him as well as we do would know that to be the case? Is this not really an attempt by the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip to avoid the embarrassment of the fact that he could not get the leader of his own party, or his immediate predecessor, to vote in a Division last Monday that the Government won by only three?

I do not know whether that was an eloquent bid to be the beneficiary of future pairing arrangements, but my hon. Friend makes an important point. I think it is true that Conservative Members right across the spectrum, from left to right of my party, have always found the Chief Whip to be someone with whom they can do business and whose integrity and honesty they can completely trust.

With four Members of the House on maternity leave at the moment, this issue is particularly poignant, and I fear that many of those people will have lost faith in the system as it currently exists. When I was on maternity leave with my first child, the campaigning group 38 Degrees contacted my constituents criticising me for not attending a vote, but at least I knew that I was paired and that it was cancelled out. The right hon. Gentleman says that we will be discussing proxy voting in greater detail in the autumn, and that is welcome. However, when does he expect reform to take place to allow proxy voting, as recommended by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), so that it actually happens and we are not reliant on this informal system?

I think that after the general debate on the matter there will need to be, at some stage in the not too distant future, a substantive motion on which the House can take a view. Important questions were raised in the Procedure Committee report—for example, about the exclusion from a general proposal for proxy voting while on maternity, paternity or adoption leave of particular categories of Division in the House. The Committee discussed various approaches to how a proxy vote might operate in practice. The House needs to consider those things, as well as the points about the potential for bereavement leave or carer’s leave that other hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised.

We know that the system actually works pretty well. The Minister has given the figures that show that occasionally, for a variety of reasons, pairs get broken. In those cases, an apology is required, very quickly, and we had an apology from the two individuals in question that should settle the matter. The reality, though, is that this is the worst system except for all the alternatives.

I do worry about what happened last week and about the explanations that have subsequently been given. It is certainly true that, as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) suggested, sometimes people do, inadvertently, accidentally and without any malice aforethought, break the Whip—[Interruption.] I am sorry—break the pair. People frequently break the Whip—that is a common feature on all sides these days. Sometimes people break the pair, and then they are always told off by the Whips for doing so, because it is the Whips’ own honour that is then in question—that is the point. The difference in this case is that the Chief Whip deliberately—not as an error but deliberately—sought to get somebody he knew to be paired to break that pair. That is a fundamental difference.

I say to the Minister that we need to get this sorted before the autumn, not just have a debate about it. The temperature in politics this year and in this Parliament—as well as the physical temperature—has already been very high, and we really do need to get it sorted. Otherwise we will be putting temptation in the Chief Whip’s way every single day of the week, all the way through to 29 March next year.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in business questions last Thursday, she is willing and indeed keen to engage with right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to see whether we can agree, as consensually as possible, a way of addressing these matters in the future.

I declare an interest: I have always had considerable time for the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), not least since we served together as senior Whips in the Government Whips Office during the days of the coalition Government. As he will recall from those halcyon days, occasionally—incredible though it might sound—things in the Whips Office went wrong, and it was usually the result not of a conspiracy but of a mistake. I submit to him and the House that that is what has happened here, and it would be a great mistake on our part to change our well-established procedures because of an unfortunate incident for which both of those responsible have profusely apologised.

What matters for present purposes is that two senior members of the Government conspired to break the rules to win a vote they thought they might lose. If I am wrong about that, can the Minister explain why? If I am right, why are they still in their posts?

This looks to have been a genuine error, for which a sincere apology has been given. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that this type of error has happened not just on the Government side but on both sides of the House, so I find the level of faux outrage in some quarters very strange. The system generally works well, and I would encourage him not to throw the baby out with the bathwater but to work with his counterparts, particularly in the Whips Offices of other parties, to make sure that the system can be looked at and improved on to avoid these types of errors, which are clearly happening on the Government side and in other parties.

My hon. Friend gives good advice that I am sure my colleagues in the Whips Office will wish to follow.

If the Government are prepared to take advantage of pregnant women and women who have recently had babies, surely we can have very little trust in their integrity. Would a good way to restore integrity not be to circulate something before the recess so that we can have a votable motion when we come back in September to allow baby leave and proxy voting to go ahead?

As I have repeatedly said, what happened last week was a genuine error. It ought not to have happened. The Whips Office is taking steps through its internal procedures to try to prevent a repetition, and the Leader of the House is eager to talk to Members from all parties in the House about the way forward to address the points the hon. Lady refers to.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), I served for four years in the coalition Whips Office, including for two years with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and he and I will remember all kinds of cock-ups, for want of a better term: people inadvertently paired twice, people who thought their pair was transferable, and so on. All these things can and do happen. In my view, this is much more likely to have been a genuine mistake, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a poor decision to base long-term practice on this one case, however high-profile?

Consciously telling an MP to break a pair is not an error; it is cheating. Was the Chief Whip offered the opportunity by the Government to come to the House today to explain his error?

For the reasons I explained earlier, I am responding on behalf of the Government. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept what his right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland accepted last week, which was the public apologies given by the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, and the Chief Whip.

With 2,000 pairs granted, does my right hon. Friend agree that mistakes, while rare, are far from unknown? They are even not unknown to the Liberal Democrats.

My hon. Friend is correct. Of the 52 pairs broken by Opposition parties, seven were broken by Liberal Democrats. Indeed, four Liberal Democrat MPs have broken pairs, or roughly a third of the party’s Members of Parliament.

So the Government’s defence is that this very rare occurrence where a pair is broken happened by accident, but it just so happened that it was on a vote that the Government feared they might lose. Outside the House, that might be described in unparliamentary terms. MPs from the Conservative side have been reported in the press saying that they were rung by the Chief Whip and told to break their pair, but refused to do so. Is the Minister saying those people misinformed the media?

All other pairs were duly honoured last Tuesday. The error that took place in respect of the pair with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire had no impact on the result of either Division.

We obviously work in a not very family-friendly workplace. It is incredibly difficult for new mums and dads to combine that role with voting in the House. I certainly would not expect maternity leave to last up until the age of my youngest child, who is 19, but does the Minister not agree that the Government give an incredibly generous offer with maternity pairs? Unlike the workplace, there is no time limit for new mums to take advantage of the system, within reason. Does he not agree that the system should be welcomed and should continue?

My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to her for acknowledging that while mothers who are Members are rightly at the forefront of our concern, we also have paternity leave. That is one area where I had some fellow feeling with what the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said last week. I can remember being in the delivery suite with my wife for the birth of one of our sons and being interrupted through the night at 90-minute intervals by the Government Whips Office asking when I was going to be available to come into Westminster.

I am sorry, but what most people out there are asking is simple: is there any rule that a Minister in this Government cannot get away with breaking?

The arrangements on pairing are not rules set out in Standing Orders. They are informal conventions, and it is right that they should remain such.

It is clear how easy it is for mistakes to be made in this area, and my right hon. Friend has confirmed that all parties have made mistakes. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) made a mistake and put his own party leader in the news a few days ago. The system works to support colleagues across the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the system should be maintained?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that pairing is one of the things that makes this place work? We should keep last week’s events in their full context and recognise that, by and large, the system works and should be maintained.

This seems to be an honest mistake, for which the Chief Whip has apologised. Of the seven pairs broken by the Liberal Democrats since the general election, is my right hon. Friend aware how many times they have apologised for breaking those pairs?

I think that is a question for the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, rather than for me.

The informal ways of working in this place can be both a strength and a weakness. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite important every now and again to reflect on the fact that the composition of the House has changed, the world outside has changed and technology has moved on, and we need periodically to look at those informal processes and see whether some of them need formalising?

It is certainly right that we review things in the light of changing technology and changing circumstances, and that is what the Leader of the House wishes to do.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to be cautious about allowing this matter to take the House down the route of proxy voting, which has huge downsides? Quite often, we are asked to consider serious matters in this House, where the debate affects the way people vote because it changes their mind. The solution is surely to improve the pairing system, rather than to ditch it completely.

My hon. Friend’s question illustrates why it is important that we have the general debate and seek to obtain as wide a consensus as possible.

This is a serious matter, but does my right hon. Friend agree that an error was made and has been admitted, an apology has been issued and accepted, and we should now move on? I have full faith in the integrity of our Chief Whip, but I have less faith in the true motives of the Liberal Democrats in bringing this forward, because it seems to be an attempt to cover up their own woeful record in this department.

My hon. Friend’s description of what happened last week and the course of action he now recommends are spot-on.

Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to publishing the pairing performance data that he has mentioned? In that way, people in the country could make up their own minds about the various trends across all parties in the House since the general election.

Precisely because these are informal arrangements, I do not think we should be looking for regular statistical bulletins on this matter. The figures I read out earlier in the exchanges make the point that, for the most part, the pairing system works very well.

Having spent more time than I wished with the Chief Whip going through matters that I found very difficult indeed, I can attest to the fact that not only is he a stickler for the rules, but he is very kind and compassionate when it comes to domestic matters. I hope that will be taken into account by Members on both sides of the House when I say that I favour some form of reform. If mistakes can occur, it is important that we as a House look at how to come up with a better system in which mistakes do not occur.

I benefited from pairing arrangements on a number of occasions last year. I do not have a clue which Opposition Members I was paired with, or whether any of those pairs were broken. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the pairing system generally works very well for many people who need a pair—whether because of serious illness, parental leave or bereavement leave—and most of our constituents, once they know the facts, do actually understand why some of us may miss votes for a period?

We all remember when my hon. Friend was seriously unwell and had to be absent from the House for a time. He, like many others in all political parties over the years, has benefited from the informal arrangements that the Whips Offices of the different parties have negotiated on pairing. In the furore over events last week, it is important that we do not lose sight of the important tool that the pairing system offers in relation to effective pastoral care for right hon. and hon. Members.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we hold a unique position of privilege, that on matters of such importance as Brexit legislation our constituents therefore expect us to vote in person on their behalf whenever possible, and that just one high-profile error should not change the system we have in place?

The Procedure Committee report on proxy voting and parental absence suggested a number of exceptions that, in its view, should be made to its general recommendation to allow proxy voting, so my hon. Friend makes an important point.

I speak with great authority and experience, having been refused every single pair that I have ever applied for. Be that as it may, will my right hon. Friend adopt the principle of Chesterton’s fence, namely that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is properly understood?

Thank you, Mr Speaker; last but I certainly hope not least. I served on your diversity and inclusion panel, and we looked at this hugely complex issue in great detail. It is clear to me that what is proposed as a response to pairing is not a panacea. It is hugely complex and posed as many questions as it provided answers to, so can I ask my right hon. Friend not to rush but to tread very carefully, so that we as a House get this right?

I think that rushed procedural changes often leave the House repenting at leisure. I also think that a procedural change to voting such as is now proposed should command as wide a consensus in the House across political parties as it is possible to obtain.