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Business of the House

Volume 666: debated on Tuesday 22 October 2019

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think I am petitioning to make another statement.

Owing to the loss of the programme motion, I have to make a statement, because the Bill now stands referred to a Committee under Standing Orders 83A and 63. I mention that for the convenience of the House. I have no option but to make a business statement, as we cannot continue with the business previously set out for tomorrow. The business for the rest of the week is:

Wednesday 23 October—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech on the NHS.

Thursday 24 October—Conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech on the economy.

Friday 25 October—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for making a business statement and not a point of order. He heard Her Majesty’s Opposition and will know that we stand ready to work with the Government. The Opposition Chief Whip is a very reasonable person and will be very happy to discuss a proper way to proceed through the usual channels.

This is important. It was only earlier this week that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was not clear on the tariffs going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. As the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) has made clear, this is really important for the Union.

I am obviously disappointed, as are right hon. and hon. Members who have prepared for the Queen’s Speech debate. This is no way to conduct business. We have been moved around—jerked around, quite frankly—by the Government in a shambolic way. This has not been done in an orderly fashion. We now have the votes on the Queen’s Speech on Thursday. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House clarified that there will be votes on Wednesday and Thursday.

Just before I call other colleagues, I want to make something clear. I thought it emerged in the course of points of order and my responses to them, but just in case there is any doubt, the technical term for the status of the Bill is that it is in limbo. That is the technical term, advised to me by the Clerks. I refer Members to the ruling of the Chair on 10 July 2012 and to paragraph 28.58 of “Erskine May”. Any motion to enable the Bill to proceed to Committee or beyond requires notice and so will be considered on another day. One could have had an indication of intent, but there does exist a requirement for notice. That, I think, completes the picture.

I was fascinated to hear that the Bill was in limbo. Theologically speaking, it is reported that Pope Benedict XVI abolished limbo. I wonder whether the Bill is not in the heaven that is having been passed, or in the hell of having failed, but in purgatory, where it is suffering the pains of those in purgatory. [Interruption.] Original sin is beyond the immediate competence of my answer on this statement.

To reply to the right hon. Lady, discussions always take place between Whips Offices, as is well known. The difficulty was that the Opposition wanted the debate to continue past 31 October, which is the deadline for leaving the EU.

I would like to correct the right hon. Lady on the issue relating to tariffs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union did not say anything about tariffs. It was not a tariff issue. There are no tariffs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Forms and tariffs are completely different things. I am so sorry that the Opposition are confused, after so many years of debate on this subject, between a form and a tariff. No doubt we can provide specialist expertise to explain the difference.

The interruption of the Queen’s Speech debate has a wonderful historical tradition. We always take the First Reading of the Outlawries Bill immediately after the Queen’s Speech as a sign that the House is allowed to debate what it chooses and is not there to oblige the Crown. Perhaps more relevantly in these circumstances, there is the deadline of 31 October. We on the Government Benches are trying to meet that deadline by getting the deal through. The House has voted for that deal, but it seems to will the end but currently not the means.

Given everything else, the Government must clearly have an understanding of the limit beyond which it will be not be possible to go with the Bill in respect of leaving the EU by 31 October and completing its progress. In the light of that, has my right hon. Friend kept in reserve the consideration that it may be possible for the House to sit through the weekend if necessary, and, if necessary, to sit around the clock to achieve whatever is required to meet that deadline of the 31st?

The problem—the constraint—is, of course, the fact that this is a bicameral legislature. However long we sat, the House of Lords would also have to sit, and the deadline is Thursday week. Even if we were to sit around the clock, having the hours that we were to have had today, given the time required for the House of Lords, there would still be very little time left; and after people have complained that the time is insufficient, it might be peculiar if they were then to say that an even shorter time was sufficient. I welcome the intent of my right hon. Friend’s question, but I do not think that that will work.

I thank the Leader of the House for his short business statement. He is absolutely right: he has met his obligations according to the Standing Orders of the House by making the statement. I also thank him for not making it through a point of order, as he did on Saturday. He has done the right thing by addressing the House with a business statement on which we can question him about certain aspects of what he has said.

I listened carefully to the Leader of the House. He described the current withdrawal agreement Bill as “in limbo”. I was hearing from the Prime Minister, and I think that several journalists in the Press Gallery were being briefed today, that the Prime Minister was prepared to withdraw the Bill if the programme motion was not passed. That was a very clear statement. Will the Leader of the House therefore clarify the “limbo” that he has described? When are we likely to see the withdrawal agreement before the House again? I remind the Leader of the House that the 31st is next Thursday. The Prime Minister is committed to adhere to the Benn Act and seek an extension. I think that the Leader of the House should explain how these competing tensions will be resolved.

The Queen’s Speech debate is to return to the House. That is right, too, and I congratulate the Leader of the House. It is right for the House to consider the Queen’s Speech properly and to have an opportunity to vote on it. However, we need to know will happen beyond that. There is only one week until the Prime Minister’s self-imposed deadline, so what is going to happen?

I hate to quibble with the hon. Gentleman, but it is not a self-imposed deadline. It is a deadline that was selected by the European Union. Members may recall that the previous Government went to the European Union suggesting a deadline around June. It was rejected by the EU, which set a deadline of 31 October. In a remarkably short space of time, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister renegotiated the deal, which nearly everybody had said was impossible, and the deadline has remained fixed.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of limbo, and how that correlates with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s reference to the Bill’s being withdrawn. The key thing to remember about limbo is that to enter it, one cannot still be alive, and therefore the Bill is no longer a live Bill.

Oh, we are wallowing in the realms of metaphysical abstraction, as Burke would have said, and almost certainly did, albeit not in relation to this Bill.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider the point made by our right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith)? I think we all know that the people who voted against the programme motion tonight did not really want more time to consider the Bill; they wanted to frustrate Brexit. They wanted to block it. Nobody is fooled. Why do the Government not play them at their own game? The Father of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), said that another three days would do it, so why do we not start the Committee stage tomorrow? The extra three days that seem to be required could be Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We could sit till any hour on all three days, and we could then see how much appetite there really is for extra scrutiny of the Bill. I suspect that if the Leader of the House were to do that, he would find that, actually, not much scrutiny would be required from Opposition Members.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for a characteristically good idea on how we might be able to proceed. The only difficulty is that the programme motion has been voted down, and to sit in the way my hon. Friend suggests would require another programme motion, and there is no indication that that would meet with greater satisfaction from the Opposition. The House of Lords also has to consider this Bill in due time, so I fear that his great solution is not going to be a way forward.

I had not intended to seek to intervene on this exchange, but I am so offended by the remarks of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that I feel inclined to do so.

It is not the truth; it is in fact something that we are only allowed to call a terminological inexactitude—in other words, it is absolute rubbish to suggest that people who voted against this programme motion only did so to delay Brexit or because they are opposed to Brexit. Any hon. Member who understands their duties in this place should never have voted for this programme motion in the first place. I say further that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who is a former leader of the Conservative party, is equally at fault in not understanding when the sensible thing to do is to accept with good grace the very generous and sensible offer immediately made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

Finally, on the question of limbo, I rather thought one had to be pure of soul to get in, so not many people are going to end up there.

I think the original understanding of limbo—one that is no longer widely accepted—is that it was a place for the souls of the unbaptised and for those who died before salvation was brought to us at the point of the Resurrection, but I think the understanding now is that that is rather a narrow interpretation.

The issue of what motivates people to vote in this House is one that is always very difficult to settle. I have always accepted that right hon. and hon. Members in this House want what is best for the country, but think that there are different ways to do it. But we must draw conclusions from people’s actions, and I do not think it is unreasonable to conclude that people who voted against the Second Reading of this Bill and against the programme motion are not the greatest admirers of the proposals towards Brexit.

In the exchange that the Leader of the House and I had yesterday, I said, and he agreed with me, that if people voted against the programme motion they would have blocked Brexit. They have indeed done that for a period, and that is a fact. The question in front of us all is whether they have blocked Brexit permanently, and that is something I think we should deal with. I am grateful to those Members who have taken the difficult personal decisions on behalf of their constituents to vote for Second Reading, and I urge my right hon. Friend and others on the Treasury Bench to think about ways in which we can deliver Brexit on 31 October—to get it done—while allowing the House more time to debate it, to see whether those two things can be reconciled. I note in conclusion that the Opposition Chief Whip did make an offer along those lines this afternoon, and that is something I think worthy of at least some consideration.

It is hard to see how the time could have been divided up otherwise. My right hon. Friend mentions the commitment to leave on 31 October and says that people may have voted to obstruct Brexit; they may find that all they voted for is for us to leave without a deal.

It is a bit rich for the Leader of the House, having prorogued Parliament and broken the law to do so, now to complain about a lack of time. Having said that, he has had an offer from the Opposition to enter into negotiations to set out a timetable for proper scrutiny of this legislation. If he was listening this afternoon, he would have heard many Opposition Members say they were going to support the Prime Minister today but wanted more scrutiny of the Bill. He is arrogantly now taking those votes and saying, “We have to go on the 31st; away with all your desire to have further scrutiny.” That is not a reasonable position for the Government to take, so will he now listen to Parliament for a change, go away and speak to the usual channels to set out a timetable motion for proper scrutiny of this Bill? That is what the House is asking for.

The hon. Gentleman says that I prorogued Parliament, but there are two problems with that. Not only is it above and beyond my authority to have done such a thing, but had he listened to the Supreme Court’s ruling he would have discovered that Parliament was not in fact prorogued and therefore, whether I had done it or not, nothing had come of it. The Supreme Court said that the piece of paper read out proroguing Parliament was as a blank sheet of paper, so his first point is erroneous.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s second point, I do not want to be pedantic or to quibble, but we have had three and a half years—[Interruption.] Somebody has an important phone call; I am sorry to be interrupting personal business. We have been going over all this for three and a half years. We have had hours and hours of debate, and we need to come to a conclusion. The deadline for the conclusion was set by the European Union—[Interruption.] I am sure that the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) will be called by Mr Speaker if only she is patient. We have had plenty of debate, but ultimately a decision needs to be made.

We have just had the Second Reading of an extraordinarily important Bill, and Mr Speaker set a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches but, lo and behold, the Labour party could not put up enough speakers in the last hour. The Opposition have made an offer, and my right hon. Friend should take it up, because I do not think that they have the skills and the numbers to talk through the night, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House may get a pleasant surprise, proceedings may dry up much earlier than he is expecting, and we may reach the Elysian fields on 31 October.

My right hon. Friend makes an intriguing suggestion, although far be it from me to say that Opposition Members would not be able to speak at considerable length. One of the skills of many politicians is to be able to speak at considerable—some might say inordinate—length, though I note that one of the great experts in and exponents of this is in the Chamber. The eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) knows no bounds and entertains us all greatly on Fridays.

My earliest recollection of the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) speaking in the Chamber was an occasion on which he had to wait rather longer than he wanted to ask a question. He was eventually called by Madam Speaker Boothroyd, and at the end of his question—this was only 20 years ago, so I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman remembers this—Madam Speaker turned to the right hon. Gentleman, although he was just an hon. Gentleman then, and said, “Now, Mr Paterson, I hope you are satisfied.” [Laughter.]

Since the withdrawal Bill has huge consequences for people in Northern Ireland and since the Northern Ireland Assembly is still not sitting, I wonder whether the Leader of the House could enlighten us about the steps that the Government will now take to ask all the political parties in Northern Ireland about their reaction to the fact that this Bill has received its Second Reading this evening.

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Everybody in the Government wishes to see the Assembly brought back together, and the consequences of not having had an Assembly have been complicated for Northern Ireland in the Brexit process. I am reluctant, however, to trespass on the territory of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady tempts me, but she will get a better answer from my right hon. Friend than she will from me, so I hope she will forgive me. If it would be helpful, I will certainly seek a written response from the Northern Ireland Secretary. I reiterate what I said in my previous business statement: this Government take the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland not only seriously but as a fundamental statement of what our nation is, and we will do everything we can to support the United Kingdom.

I hate to be a pedant, but my recollection is that the souls of the upright and pure who preceded salvation actually ended up in Dante’s first circle. The events of this evening prove to us that we are all much further down in hell already.

I am reluctant to quibble with my right hon. Friend, but Dante cannot always be relied on for the theology of the Catholic Church.

I am a new pupil, so perhaps Mr Speaker can help me. As we are now back to the Queen’s Speech, which amendments will be selected? What about amendment (b) on the TV licence?

Well, I do not know whether the heads are wiser, but the heads are different. It might help the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) if I explain—the Leader of the House and many hon. Members know this, but some do not—that the selection is made on the day of the business and will be announced to the House. He cannot know it now, because it has not been made, but he will know it when he needs to know it.

I start by saying how delighted I am that, finally, after more than three years, there is a deal that the majority in this House have supported. Many people outside the House will be confused, but it is clear that we could not have voted on the deal before the deal was agreed, and it was agreed only on Friday; on Saturday, it was sidetracked by an amendment; yesterday it was sidetracked by the rules of procedure; today the deal went through with a majority, but now the timetable has been sidetracked.

As someone who wants to see a deal, may I urge this on the Leader of the House? I do not know whether he is a Harry Potter fan, but I am. The great Hermione Granger, in challenging times, used a time turner. Can he work with all parties, especially those in Europe, to see how we can get this deal over the line as quickly as possible?

I suppose we could repeal the Act that put us on the Gregorian rather than the Julian calendar, which might buy us a few extra days.

I cannot hope to match the wit of Dante or the knowledge of Harry Potter, but might I suggest Monty Python? The injury inflicted this evening was a mere flesh wound, and if the Leader of the House is willing to bring forward a motion tomorrow with a more considered timetable for Committee, it would pass this House.

To correct the point made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is no longer in his place, some of us voted for Second Reading precisely so we could get on to the next stage for more scrutiny, and we did not support the programme motion because we did not believe there was sufficient time. There is clearly good will in this House to progress this Bill to a point of conclusion, but to do so we need the appropriate time. I urge the Leader of the House to consider that this evening.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point and for his very reasonable suggestion on his motives for voting. I quite understand there is sometimes a conflict between wanting something to happen and feeling that the procedures for it are unduly truncated. I am a great believer that time in this House should be used for legislation, which is our primary purpose, and I rather like and rather have a hankering for the 19th-century timetabling, when we were able to go on at considerable length and were not reduced to four-minute speeches. However, there is a pressing deadline of 31 October, and this is where I part company with him, because I feel it is very urgent to get the Bill through by then.

On the selection of Queen’s Speech amendments, Mr Speaker, I remember that you once very helpfully selected one in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron).

Can we interpret from what the Leader of the House is saying that it is now impossible to get the deal through this House and the other House prior to 31 October? In that case, is it effectively dead for approval before that date?

“Impossible” is a very strong word, but it is very hard to see how it is possible.

I hope my hon. Friend had an enjoyable Saturday, and that it was more enjoyable after the House had risen than before.

I have yet to do my first point of order, Mr Speaker. Today, many people on the Opposition Benches walked through and voted for Second Reading. All we are asking for is the opportunity to ensure that the deal, which was presented to us only last night, works for our constituents—and for my local economy. We need slightly more time. I urge the Leader of the House to find more time, so that I can do my job, scrutinise properly and make sure that I deliver Brexit in a way that works for the Potteries.

May I encourage the hon. Lady to make a point of order, first, because they are a good way of getting in when otherwise it would be disorderly and, secondly, because if she were able to make one that is a real point of order, it would be almost historic? I think there have been very few in your 10 years in the Chair, Mr Speaker—almost none. May I also congratulate her on her service to her constituents, on standing up for what they voted for and on her courage in doing so? As somebody who did, when on the Back Benches, occasionally break the whip, I know that it is not the easiest thing to do and that people do it because they believe strongly in the rightness of what they are voting for. So I thank her for that. I am not unsympathetic to the point about time, but this is simply about the deadline of 31 October, which was set by the EU. Therefore, we are compressed in the time available to get this Bill delivered, which is why I was willing to support the programme motion and felt it was reasonable in the circumstances.

Would my right hon. Friend consider it in order for the Opposition Chief Whip to tell us, given that he is sitting there, how long exactly the Opposition would like to discuss this for? Or is it all about delay?

My hon. Friend and Somerset neighbour raises an intriguing prospect: that points of order should be determined by me. Should the House wish to do this, it could of course change Standing Orders and this could be delegated to the Leader of the House, but I think you might not be entirely happy with that, Mr Speaker. So I fear I cannot answer my hon. Friend in the way he might like.

Not least on account of my concern for my successor, rather than for any particular concern on my part, in the light of the announcement I made a few weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman’s surmise is correct.

This is a question to the Leader of the House, as part of the business statement. Will he listen to lots of the voices, from different perspectives on the Brexit question, who are all puzzled why he and the Prime Minister have chosen not to enter into a continuation of the Committee stage tomorrow or on Thursday? It would be perfectly in order for them to have scheduled that, by laying those motions either this evening or at the beginning of business tomorrow. There is a jovial atmosphere this evening, but a lot of people are frustrated—not least me, as I have some amendments that are first up in that Committee stage, whenever it occurs—believing it is the choice of the Leader of the House and of the Prime Minister not to be progressing this Bill tomorrow or on Thursday. They are therefore the architects of their own fate in this regard, and forever more when people ask why this Bill did not make progress before 31 October we will be able to say, “It was his own doing.”

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Gentleman’s dulcet tones, which we had the joy of doing last night, at considerable length. I am sorry that his amendments will not be debated now, and that instead right hon. and hon. Members have to listen to me. Had he voted for the programme motion, he would have found that his amendments were being debated. He talks much about listening, but I think he did not listen to my opening comments about the interaction of Standing Orders on the business that we had before us today. Under Standing Order No. 83A, if a programme motion that commits a Bill to the Floor of the House is lost, that Bill is then committed to a Committee, and we would have to have another resolution to pull it out of Committee. So it is not possible just to proceed tomorrow as if nothing had happened.

I am advised by the Clerk at the Table that the Bill is not committed to a Committee; it stands in limbo. In practical terms, so far as tonight is concerned, the House should worry not because it matters not, because it does not make any practical difference. That point can always be discussed afterwards if it takes the fancy of colleagues.

Is my right hon. Friend not struck by the irony that those who voted against the programme motion in the hope of cancelling Brexit have in fact made a no-deal departure, which they supposedly fear, much more likely? Does he agree that a departure with a deal is more preferable? Will he introduce a programme motion tomorrow so that the House can sit for as long as it takes—all through the night, if necessary? Even if the Labour party wants to knock off early, we should be able to carry on, make sure that we get the Bill through, get out and get on with other stuff.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point he raises, but we have already gone through this. We would need a further programme motion if we were to sit through the night. It seems unlikely that it would be possible to get a programme motion through when we have failed to get today’s programme motion through.

Perhaps I could offer some advice to the Leader of the House, which I hope he takes in the spirit in which it is intended. Many of us on the Opposition Benches share his frustration that we cannot proceed, get to some votes and start to see how the land lies, but the particular issue was the short amount of time given for proceedings in Committee. I do not see why we needed a whole day for Third Reading; we could have had a lot longer in Committee. The Leader of the House could, tomorrow morning, introduce a fresh programme motion that allows for longer in Committee, so that we can table amendments in a timely fashion. If he wants some assistance with a Gantt chart, I am always here. I do not think it is beyond the realms of possibility to find an amount of time that would suffice. We would vote for a programme motion tomorrow morning on that basis.

We have already lost the three hours that we would have had in Committee today. We had 12 hours set aside for Committee tomorrow, and Thursday would have been for both Report and Third Reading, not just Third Reading. It is important to have time available to consider further amendments on Report, and it would be highly unusual to truncate the Report stage so much and hand it all over to Committee.

Given that the Prime Minister decided to obey the law and apply to the European Union for an extension, if the European Union grants an extension, will the Leader of the House commit to coming back to the House with a new programme motion so that there can be adequate consideration of the Bill?

The Prime Minister has passed on Parliament’s request for an extension; the Prime Minister has not signed that request and I do not believe it is the Prime Minister’s request. It is Parliament’s request for an extension, and one that I think is a great error.

It seems there is no point in bringing forward a new business motion, because today’s has been defeated and the time that there would have been to debate the issue has been truncated, because instead of going into Committee now, we are in fact having this business statement.

That concludes the exchanges on the business statement. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the information that he has proffered.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek clarification of what the term “limbo” means. The Leader of the House has told us that the Bill is dead, and from that we read that it cannot be resurrected in any way for a future business statement to send it into Committee so that the House can deal with it. Can you clarify that for us?

If I may say so, the accurate characterisation is that the Bill is not dead, but it is inert. It is not on a journey. It is not progressing or moving from one place to another. It is inert, or alternatively it might be said to be static, but it is not a corpse. Is that adequate for the hon. Gentleman?

I know that the Clerk at the Table would consult her scholarly cranium on this matter, and if I had erred, she would advise me that I had done, but she has not, so I have not.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I just want some clarification before the Leader of the House leaves the Chamber. He just said something very important about the Prime Minister’s signature on the letter to the EU. Can you make that point clear?

I am very happy to oblige. It is not my responsibility to explain or communicate Government actions, but I think that this matter has been covered in the media. All the Leader of the House was saying was that he did not believe that this was the Government’s request for an extension; it was Parliament’s request for an extension. The Prime Minister has sent a number of letters to the European Union. The one specifically relating to the request for the extension was not signed by the Prime Minister. I am sure that that was a conscious decision on his part. People have expressed their views, but I certainly do not wish to add to any controversy about that matter. The simple fact is that the request for the extension has been submitted. I do not want to cavil at what the Leader of the House said. It is, in a sense, Parliament’s request. I do not want to conduct an argument about that; it is not necessary. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman. Parliament did want the extension. The Government did not want it. Parliament voted for the extension, so the Government passed it on as Parliament’s wish.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Clearly, by virtue of those who voted for the Government’s programme motion and those of us who did not but have expressed our desire to see a Committee stage, the House wishes to move to Committee stage. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, if there is any procedure available to individual Members, or the House as a whole, that could take Committee stage forward even if the Leader of the House is resistant to doing so?

That is, at this point, hard to envisage. I will not say that there is no means by which that can be done; we have seen in recent times how the House can take ownership of matters, including of the Order Paper, and of scheduled business, including that leading to legislation. I do not say that there is no way that anything could be done, but I surmise from what has been said that, at present, the Government’s thinking is as the Leader of the House has explained, and the Opposition’s thinking is as has been outlined by the shadow Leader of the House, the supporting evidence for which is the point of order by the Leader of the Opposition and the apparent conversations between the usual channels—that is to say between the Opposition Whips Office and the Government Whips Office. I think that it is probably prudent and seemly to leave it there at this stage, though I appreciate the fertile and vivid imagination of the hon. Gentleman, which may avail the House at a later stage.