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Business of the House

Volume 667: debated on Monday 28 October 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a short statement regarding the business for tomorrow.

Tomorrow, the House will be asked to consider a business of the House motion followed by all stages of the early parliamentary general election Bill. I shall also make a further business statement tomorrow regarding the business for the rest of the week, but I can assure this House that we will not bring back the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill.

I thank the Leader of the House for the statement. Can he say whether the Bill will be published shortly, or, in fact, when it will be published, and when it will be available in the Table Office? Will he tell us the scope of the Bill, and whether any amendments will be allowed?

It is quite strange, because the Government have just voted on a motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, but they now seek to bring forward a different Bill. [Interruption.] It is very strange.

Finally, is this just another of the tick-box exercises that the special adviser has had on his decision tree?

As the Prime Minister has said, and as Lady Thatcher memorably said, advisers advise and Ministers decide. Therefore, everything that is decided is the responsibility of Ministers, and that is as it should be. [Interruption.] I am glad that this is creating such hilarity on the furthest reaches of the socialist Benches.

The right hon. Lady asked specifically when the Bill would appear. The Bill will be introduced and published tomorrow. It is extremely short, simple and limited in scope: to have an election on 12 December to ensure that this House can come to a decision—something that it has failed to do on Brexit. It has reached a point of stalemate. It has voted to have an election, but not by a sufficient majority to ensure that the consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act are met, and this seems the best way to ensure that the business that the country wants us to get done can be done.

May I ask the Leader of the House what we are to say to constituents and others about the fact that we may be able to find time for a five to six-week general election campaign and then the rigmarole of forming a Government and yet not for bringing back the withdrawal Bill? That is despite the fact that, against all the odds, including my expectation, the Prime Minister played a blinder. He got a new deal and secured for the first time in this House a cross-party majority for it. My hunch is—my fear is—that many people in the country will be slightly perturbed by the course of events that my right hon. Friend has set out before us.

I do not think my hon. Friend’s point is really the right one to be making on this occasion. The withdrawal agreement Bill did indeed achieve its Second Reading, and then lost its programme motion. My hon. Friend will be aware that without a programme motion, or an allocation of time motion coming forward subsequently, the Bill remains simply in limbo. But the reason for not bringing forward an allocation of time motion is that the House has made its mind clear: it does not want to deal or engage seriously with the withdrawal agreement Bill. That means that the only sensible option remaining is to go back to the British people to see what they have to say—to trust the people and democracy, and in so doing ensure that we can stop this stalemate.

I thank the Leader of the House for this short statement. Scottish National party Members look forward to meaningfully engaging with the piece of legislation that is to be brought forward. We will be scrutinising it very closely in the course of the morning before it is presented to the House. I have just a couple of questions for the Leader of the House. Will we be able to see the draft Bill soon so that we can properly consider it? When will it be made available to us? The date of 12 December is mentioned in the information that I have received from the Leader of the House. Will he explain his thinking behind that particular date? We look forward to engaging with the Government tomorrow, and will look very carefully at what is included in the Bill.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his enthusiasm for an election, and pay credit to the Scottish National party for actually wishing to engage with its own voters, unlike some socialist parties that I can think of—[Interruption.] Other socialist parties; I am corrected.

The hon. Gentleman asks a very specific question about the date proposed for the general election. It is customary, though not established by law, that we have our elections on a Thursday. The reason that the date of 9 December did not work is that it would have required Parliament to dissolve just after midnight on Friday 1 November in order to provide the statutory 25 working days to prepare for an election. That would have made it very tight to get Royal Assent for the Bill that is to be introduced tomorrow, but we also we need to pass the Northern Ireland budget Bill before Parliament dissolves to ensure that the Northern Ireland civil service has access to the funding it needs to deliver public services in Northern Ireland. There are therefore technical reasons why that earlier dissolution would not actually have worked. I also think the British people are very comfortable with elections on Thursdays as a matter of routine.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his business statement. It seems to me that this afternoon we have heard from Opposition Members that they have no confidence in the Prime Minister and no confidence in the Government, but they were not willing to will the means by calling a general election. The Government have taken their decision and are right to do so. Although I was a remainer, the simple fact is that we cannot continue to discuss Brexit forever and a day.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. A decision needs to be made, and if this House will not make a decision, a new House needs to be formed to make one. That is the absolute bread and butter of our constitution.

Will the Leader of the House give us some indication of whether he intends to lay a programme motion tomorrow? If he does, can he give us some indication as to what the terms of that motion will be?

Mr Speaker, I would like to ask about business other than Brexit, unless you are looking very wearisomely at me. I would like to ask about Huawei, because climate change, Brexit and whether we allow Chinese high tech into 5G are the big, critical decisions that we are going to be making in the next decade or two, but there has been no public debate and no parliamentary debate to speak of on these very important issues. Will the Leader of the House address my point?

I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The matter he raises is indeed a big and important issue, and I completely respect the fact that the hon. Gentleman, who speaks with some knowledge on these matters, is dissatisfied with the amount of debate that there has been. However, his business question suffers from the notable disadvantage that it does not relate to the terms of the business for tomorrow, upon which the statement has focused. However, he has perhaps given an augur of his intent for any business statement that might take place on Thursday, in the course of which I feel sure he will ventilate his concerns further. I hope that is helpful.

I have to be honest with the Leader of the House: when, last week, Parliament rejected the programme motion but not the withdrawal agreement Bill on Second Reading, it was not an invitation to get quicker with programme motions. How can he publish a programme motion for a Bill that he says is going to go through all stages in the House in one day tomorrow but not the details of the Bill so that we can properly scrutinise it? Does he not understand that the biggest challenge that this House is giving to this Government is that we want to see the detail before we do the deal?

This Bill will be so short that it will be very easy to scrutinise in the limited time available. The Benn Act and the Cooper-Boles Act were both passed in a very short time and they were longer Acts.

Over the past couple of weeks I have sat on many delegated legislation Committees that are meant to scrutinise our legislation, and the Opposition have been frequently absent. They were also absent tonight for a whole hour on the Environment Bill. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to move on?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is noticeable that when we had the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill, there were no Opposition speakers at the end of the debate. They say they are so interested and need hours for scrutiny, and then, when the time comes, they have run away.

The Leader of the House has shown himself to be rather skilled at bringing forward impromptu business statements. Therefore, it would not be beyond his considerable grasp of his brief to bring forward a new programme motion for the withdrawal agreement Bill. He says that he is not going to do so. Should the Bill he intends to bring forward tomorrow not pass, will he allow this Parliament appropriate scrutiny and the opportunity to consider, in full and in all its parts, the withdrawal agreement Bill?

I thank my hon. Friend—the DUP still are our friends in many, many ways. Our shared desire for Unionism is very strong, and all our Unionists are friends, if I may say so. However, the House rejected the programme motion, so it seemed to will the end but not the means. Ultimately, this House needs to make a full decision, and it is deeply reluctant to do that.

In these deliberations, has my right hon. Friend given full consideration to early-day motion 57 in the name of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field)? Many Conservative Members see this as a way forward, and I would urge my right hon. Friend to give it proper consideration.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. It would indeed be a historic occasion if an EDM were actually something serious that could be given proper consideration.

In a supreme act of petulance, even though the Leader of the House and the Government got the Second Reading they so craved, they are now deciding that they are so fed up with this—their determination to put a border in the Irish sea is such—that they are just going to ram this Bill through in extra-unusual, atypical time when there is no time pressure requiring them to do so. Will we be able to table amendments before 10 am tomorrow? Will we have sight of the Bill? How on earth can this be a way to effectively repeal such a key constitutional piece of legislation?

It is not repealing a key constitutional piece of legislation; it is amending that piece of legislation to allow, under these exceptional circumstances, for an early general election to take place. That is a perfectly normal legislative process. We legislate to amend Bills and Acts of Parliament the whole time. This is not petulant; it is a decision that has been come to reluctantly because the House will not come to a conclusion, and this House has to come to a conclusion. We have been arguing for three and a half years about this subject in trying to deliver on Brexit—on what the British people voted for. This Government are determined to ensure that that happens, but in a general election others will put forward their case. The hon. Gentleman can try his luck at putting forward his case and will be able to see how well he does.

Can I just enjoy a little gloat? I am one of the few Members of this House who actually voted against the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and warned my then colleagues that many would rue the day they put this piece of legislation on the statute book. Does not the fact that my right hon. Friend is now telling us that the Government are going to introduce a Bill to allow a simple majority to cause a general election rather point the direction in which the Fixed-term Parliaments Act should perhaps be going in future?

I join my hon. Friend in his gloat, because I too opposed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act as it went through the House of Commons. Indeed, I had only just got into the House at that point and was considered to be a rebel for the way I approached it. The lines from Gilbert and Sullivan,

“I always voted at my party’s call,

And I never thought of thinking for myself at all”,

did not, on that occasion, apply to either of us.

The people want us to get on with the job. The withdrawal agreement Bill has passed its Second Reading. We should just agree a sensible programme motion, which is on offer. Why are we not getting on with the job and getting the job done?

The hon. Gentleman knows that he is somebody in this House whom I admire and think extraordinarily highly of, but on this occasion his argument falls a little bit flat, because he did not vote for the programme motion, nor did his party take up my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s offer to make as much time as possible available, even sitting 24 hours a day. What the hon. Gentleman says today does not quite match how he voted last week.

I very much regret to say that my right hon. Friend is being less convincing as he goes on. As he said, this House passed the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill, which was an enormous achievement by the Government. Surely the fact that the House rejected the programme motion on offer means that the sensible course of action—which, frankly, voters on all sides would expect of us—is to have a different programme motion and put into effect the Bill that has already been given a Second Reading.

My right hon. Friend is rarely and uncharacteristically naive about this. The House did not wish to pass the Bill. It rejected the programme motion, and then the Leader of the Opposition would not take up my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s offer of much longer sittings, of 24 hours a day—providing the equivalent, I think, in our terms of 24 sitting days to consider the Bill. That was all rejected, so I fear that those who now object to the course that the Government are taking are not following through the consequences of what happened when the programme motion failed.

When this Parliament makes a decision, the Government should follow it through—what part of that do the Government not understand? They are again treating Parliament with contempt. This Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement Bill on Second Reading but did not agree with the Government ramming it through in three days. Today’s programme motion—of which, incidentally, there is one copy in the Table Office—suggests that the entire early general election Bill will go through tomorrow in just six hours. What is wrong with this Government, and why are they frightened of scrutiny?

There is an irony, to put it at its mildest, about people who voted for the Benn Act and the Cooper-Boles Act now complaining about undue haste on a Bill that is even shorter. Time is only right when it is the time they have asked for. When it is their time it is perfect, however short. When it is the Government’s time it is always wrong, however long. No, the Government are not treating this House with contempt. This Government, of course, only exist because they command a majority in this House, but this House is treating the British people with contempt. It is failing to deliver on its promises and its manifesto commitments. We must bear in mind that both the Conservative party and the Labour party said that they would deliver on the referendum. That is not happening. Enough—we must go.

Some no doubt voted against the programme motion for the WAB because they will never vote for it in 1 million years, but others voted against it because they had concerns—not unreasonable ones—that we needed additional time. Surely the proportionate and sensible thing is to offer the House more time. If it does not vote for it, the Government will take their course, but surely they should at least try.

The efforts of the Government to try have become extremely trying to the patience of the British people. We now need to go back to the British people, and they can decide, in their wisdom, how they wish us to proceed.

Legislation goes through this House all the time. For those of us who wax lyrical on the Committee corridor about secondary legislation, there is an assumption that the Government will bring their Bill forward, otherwise why are we spending all this time on secondary legislation? Surely the Leader of the House should be protecting the House, not undermining it.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be bringing forward a Bill tomorrow, and the House will have a chance to vote on it. We can then have a general election and bring forward lots more Bills—exciting Bills, new Bills and shiny Bills—delivering on what the British people vote for. Trust the people.

It cannot have escaped the Leader of the House’s quite significant intellect that the amount of time the Government have used to avoid tabling a programme motion is actually longer than the time that most of us who voted for the Second Reading of the WAB were asking for scrutiny of it in the first place. Given that I understand his role constitutionally is to be this place’s representative in the Cabinet, may I ask the Leader of the House what representations he has made to Cabinet about the House’s desire to have another programme motion, and what discussions has he had? May I ask him, quite bluntly, why is he now blocking Brexit?

Oh, Mr Speaker, that was a great witticism at the end. I think we are all splitting our sides on the Government Benches. The point is that, from this very Dispatch Box and standing here, the colossus in front of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister himself, said that he would make as much time available as the Leader of the Opposition wanted—24 hours a day. Did the hon. Gentleman beg or beseech his leader to accept this offer? Did he knock on the door of the shadow Cabinet and say, “Please, sir, we want some more”? Or did the Labour party just spurn it and ignore it so that it could complain and stop Brexit, because it is a remain party, in spite of many of its Members—including the hon. Gentleman, who nobly voted for Second Reading—representing leave seats?

Is not the flaw in my right hon. Friend’s argument that rather than gifting to the Leader of the Opposition only the choice about whether he might agree to a particular revised programme motion, the Government should instead have given the House as a whole that opportunity? Is it not the Government’s refusal to give the House as a whole that opportunity that is causing the criticisms that my right hon. Friend is hearing today, and will he not undertake to reflect further on this matter?

I have the greatest admiration for my right hon. Friend, who was a very distinguished Leader of the House and has held so many high offices in the Conservative party. He has been a great servant both of the state and of his party. I am afraid that on this occasion I disagree with him, because such an opportunity was given. The way this House works is that, when allocations of time are given, it is usually discussions between the two main parties that are determinative. This is a sensible way of running things, because then we can have the certainty that is needed.

I note that the Liberal Democrats are absent from this debate, but perhaps they are in the rose garden having a discussion.

May I ask the Leader of the House why we are going to spend six weeks talking about Brexit in a general election, rather than spending six or 16 days discussing the WAB, which is his Government’s policy?

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s reluctance to face his voters. Surely the most important thing for all of us is to report back to our voters to show them what we have done and what we are proud of this Parliament having achieved, or to show them what we have failed to do and ask for a new mandate. Going back to the voters is the right thing to do.

I feel I cannot be alone in being completely and utterly confused, so perhaps the Leader of the House could just explain this to me. Did the Government pass the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill or not? Did the Government succeed in winning on their Queen’s Speech? I cannot understand why, after just two weeks, this Government seem to be throwing in the towel, rather than getting this really important legislation through—having the discussions, having the battle and sorting it out here in Parliament where it ought to be done.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and also for her courage in supporting the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill. The problem is that the Government’s programme in relation to Brexit was stuck. We had a near theological discussion last week about where the Bill was, and matters concerning purgatory, limbo and the variations according to that and how this could be done. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is wagging his finger at me in a schoolmasterly fashion. No doubt if he seeks to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, he will be successful. We had that discussion, and we came to the conclusion that the Bill was not likely to proceed in this House.

Bear in mind that this is not just about what has gone on in the two weeks since the Queen’s Speech; this has to be taken in the context of a House that has consistently said what it is opposed to and has never been willing to say what it is going to accept. As soon as it said it would accept something, it voted down the means of getting it through. This continues the succession of governmental defeats and inability to proceed with their programme. Under those circumstances, it must be right to go back to the voters so that they can select a new Parliament.

The Leader of the House will correct me if I am wrong—it was before my time—but the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was introduced to bring stability at a time of crisis. Surely, at a time of real crisis in our country, we should be using our time to explore the options—to take back control, as we were promised. We, as representatives of the public, should be there to scrutinise. What we are asking for across the House—whether it is the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir David Lidington), the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) or others—is more time. Will the Leader of the House grant us more time?

It seems strange that the Government are seeking the third general election since the last referendum, when the idea of a confirmatory vote seems so alien to them. However, my question is this: on the off-chance the Government’s programme motion falls tomorrow, will this two-line Bill drift off into obscurity like the withdrawal Bill?

Let us have a question session on Thursday when I go through the business of the House, and then we can discuss whether we should have a debate on parliamentary procedures and Standing Orders as to where Bills go when they do not get a programme.

The Leader of the House says discussions have been had, but another programme motion has not been put to the House offering a reasonable amount of time to scrutinise the Bill properly. Anyone would think the Government were scared of that scrutiny and concerned that amendments might be passed, such as one allowing for a people’s vote that actually put the Government’s agreement to the people and allowed them to vote on it. What is the reason for that?

First of all, more time was offered—24 hours a day. We would have gone through the night. That was offered to the Leader of the Opposition, and it was not accepted. It has to be said that if anybody is scared, it is those on the Opposition Benches. They are terrified of meeting their own voters, terrified the electorate will not thank them for their obstruction of Brexit and terrified that the stalemate that this House of Commons—this addled Parliament—has got into is created by their refusal to deliver on their manifesto promise to deliver on the result of the referendum. We on the Government side want to deliver on the referendum result, and we need another election so that the British people, whom we trust—unlike the socialists—can have their say.

I was just having a quick look at the business of the House motion that has been put down, and there does appear to be some sort of chicanery going on in it. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether amendments will be able to be made in the Committee stage of this Bill? Yes or no?

May I first thank the hon. Gentleman for his most charming remarks earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight)? I think everybody in the House really appreciated the tone and the rareness of it, and you, Mr Speaker, indicated your appreciation at the time.

All Bills are amendable. The stage at which amendments are taken and received is a matter for the Chairman of Ways and Means when it gets to Committee stage.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I just want to put on record the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) has been re-selected this evening, despite an appalling attack by members of our party. I am delighted she remains a Labour candidate at the next general election.

That is not a point of order for the Chair, but the hon. Lady has registered that point about a senior, long-serving Member, and it is on the record. I thank her for doing so.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to the question I just raised with the Leader of the House, he indicated that the Bill has not been made available and will be published only tomorrow, which obviously gives Members little opportunity to look at it and to craft amendments in ways that might make them selectable or considerable at the stage at which that is appropriate. Will you confirm, first, that you and the Deputy Speakers will consider manuscript amendments at the appropriate points? Secondly, I make an appeal to you and the Deputy Speakers. A number of amendments have already been discussed today, including votes at 16, which is certainly an issue I would like to address, and a growing number of Members from across the parties wish to support it. Will we have opportunities to put amendments down and to have them considered in the proper way?

The short answer to that is yes, that must be so. The Leader of the House indicated that the procedure in this case at Committee stage is a matter for the Chairman of Ways and Means, and others taking the Chair. However, the principle that amendments should be able to be considered is entirely valid. In the light of the timetable, or rather the shortage of notice, it is perfectly reasonable, as far as I am concerned, for colleagues to submit manuscript amendments. I think it would be helpful if those were submitted as early as possible and certainly before the expected start of that proceeding, which the hon. Gentleman and others can guesstimate. Clearly, it would not be until after Question Time and any urgent questions or statements, but it would be wise for Members to press on with the submission of any amendments that they wish to table. Those will and must be dutifully considered at the appropriate time.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to your exacting interpretation of what good scrutiny is, I think it is worth placing on record that the programme motion the Government have tabled tonight explicitly excludes amendments being tabled by Members who are not members of the Government and Ministers, because it does not include one of the normal parts of our Standing Orders. Could you, Mr Speaker, perhaps give some guidance to those of us who are deeply concerned to see the Government play this trick yet again, having seen them play it with Northern Ireland legislation in months gone by, on how we might remedy it, so that the House can come to a view tomorrow as to whether changing something as serious as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 in this way will be done with effective scrutiny?

Tabling is one thing; selection for a separate decision is another. If the hon. Lady has a concern about the latter, which I think she has and am advised that she has, then she can table an amendment accordingly in an attempt to protect that potential for separate decision. This has all happened very quickly, but I am sensitive to what the hon. Lady has said, and a view will have to be taken by the Chair as to what is orderly and in the interests of Members of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. There is, in a sense, a developing theme here. I do not know whether you have had sight of the Bill. The Table Office has had no sight of the Bill. The Leader of the House has beetled off, so we cannot ask him about these things and he has not said when the Bill will be available. If proceedings are to start tomorrow at 11.30 am, at what point will hon. Members have the opportunity to actually see the clauses that we are being invited to supposedly amend with only a couple of hours’ capability to do so? May I urge you, Mr Speaker, to please make representations to the Government that they publish the Bill this evening, so that at least we can digest it overnight and try to figure out out what potential there is for amendment and where that is necessary? I cannot remember, in all my time since coming into Parliament in 1997, a Bill being not available the day before being rushed through in this way. I do not know whether you can recall such a circumstance, Mr Speaker.

I cannot recall such a circumstance, but what I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that it is possible, as I have just been reminded, for the Bill only to be presented tomorrow. However, there is no bar to its being made available to colleagues before then if the Government are so minded. I would add in that context that if the Bill is as short as has been suggested, it should be perfectly possible for it to be made available to Members well before the start of business tomorrow. Given that we are likely to have other business tonight, it would be perfectly possible for the Bill to be made available to colleagues tonight. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me whether I think it would be helpful and solicitous to Members for it to be made available tonight, the short answer is that I do.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for allowing us to make points of order on this very important issue. The Leader of the House did say that amendments would be allowed at Committee stage. Is it your view that amendments will also be allowed on Second Reading? If they are allowed at Report stage, there will be an adequate amount of time between Second Reading changes, potentially, and laying amendments at Report stage that may be required as a subsequent measure to Second Reading.

There are two points there. In relation to Second Reading, I do not have sight of the Bill, but as the Leader of the House pithily responded to one inquisitor, all Bills—or virtually all Bills—are amendable. Is it possible for someone to table an amendment to the Second Reading of the Bill? The answer is that it almost certainly is—I use that caveat only because new precedents can be created from time to time, but I should certainly imagine that it would be possible for an amendment to be tabled to Second Reading.

So far as Report stage is concerned, I simply advise the hon. Gentleman—I made this point to the Clerk of Legislation, who immediately confirmed it—that amendments at Report stage are perfectly imaginable, but there is a Report stage based upon a Committee stage at which amendments have been made. Amendments at Report stage are imaginable in circumstances in which there is such a stage, and that is contingent upon the sequence of events at Committee stage. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and clear to colleagues. I recognise the concern in the House that has been expressed, to which I am sensitive, and in relation to which I think I have given explicit answers.