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Business of the House Commission Bill

Volume 707: debated on Friday 28 January 2022

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a great pleasure to follow the debate on the very important Bill that has just received its Second Reading. It has indeed been a good day today: two other Bills have received their Third Readings. Let us continue that tradition, and pass this Bill to create a Business of the House Commission.

Before I begin my speech on the Bill, let me point out that regardless of anything I say about the Whips, I do like Whips, and I absolutely do not think that they bully or threaten anyone. However, this is about parliamentary sovereignty, so I apologise if the Whips take it in the wrong way.

Let me start with a little story:

“The House of Commons’ historic functions were to vote money for governments to spend, and to scrutinise laws.

It now barely bothers with the first, and does the second extremely badly.

There was a time when legislation that had been formulated after months of civil service and ministerial deliberation was sent to the House of Commons which would pore over it, shape it, send it back, get it back, look at it again - and improve it some more.

Bill by bill. Clause by clause. Line by line.

Every piece of legislation would be put under intense scrutiny.

Is it legally sound? Will it be effective? Is it worth the cost?

Compare that to today.

Let me take you on the journey of a piece of legislation as it passes through the modern House of Commons.

It’s likely to have been dreamt up on the sofa of Number Ten.

A Bill gets drafted.

It’s sent to the House for a couple of hours of routine debate among a few MPs.

Then the bell rings, the whip gets cracked and suddenly, out of nowhere, all these other MPs turn up to vote.

More often than not, they don’t even know what they’re voting for.

The Bill limps through.

Then it goes to the Standing Committee.

Their duty is to look at the details clause by clause.

But it’s packed full of people that the whips put there.

So, surprise, surprise, the Government rarely loses the vote on any of the individual points of detailed scrutiny.

And then it’s back to the House to do it all again - debate, bell and then vote to wave the legislation through.

Every Bill now has a ‘programme motion’ setting out how much time can be spent scrutinising and debating each part.

These are automatic guillotines, and the time allowed for scrutiny is set in advance, before anyone can see whether or not a particular issue is contentious or complex.

Watching a minister in the Commons drawing out one point for an hour to fill the time, to an audience of dozing backbenchers - this is not accountability.

How has the mother of all Parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child?”

Can anyone in the House put up their hand and tell me who made that speech? It was the best speech that that Prime Minister ever made. It was made by David Cameron, and it was made in 2009, before he became Prime Minister. It is headed “Fixing Broken Politics”, and it continues in great detail. It is a wonderful speech. It identifies exactly the problem that we have in our democracy, particularly that section about the Government’s control over the timetable of this House.

Unfortunately, when David Cameron came to be Prime Minister, he seemed to have forgotten that speech. I thought it would be a good idea to read some novels, so I got hold of the manifestos of the three parties for the 2010 general election. Actually, I tell a lie: I got hold of two of them, because I could not find the Liberal Democrat one. Sorry about that. The Conservative manifesto is entitled “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”, and it is very well written. The Labour one, which has a much fancier cover, is called “A Future Fair For All”. I ploughed my way through them. I got to page 67 of the Conservative manifesto, which refers to

“establishing a Backbench Business Committee to give the House of Commons more control over its own timetable”


“allowing MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively”.

Very good. I looked up the Labour one, which says on page 93:

“To further strengthen our democracy and renew our constitution…A new politics also means strengthening the power of Parliament to hold the executive to account.”

Brilliant, I thought.

In 2010, that all got blown away by the fact that there was a coalition Government. At that time, there was a bible, and any of us who lived through that period will know it was called—

That was it. I have it here somewhere, unless somebody has pinched it. Here it is: “The Coalition: our programme for government”. Let us remember that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives got together; there were four wise men and they produced this brilliant document—it was, to be fair, how the coalition governed for that duration, and they pretty much stuck to it. There is one section I rather like and have always liked, on page 27:

“We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full – starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.”

Brilliant, I thought. We have created a Backbench Business Committee, but it seems that they forgot to move on to the House. I once asked my Chief Whip at the time when we were going to get that. He said, “Over my dead body.” I could understand why the Chief Whip on our side does not want to give up power, but then I realised that the lot over there were not complaining because when their Chief Whip gets into power, he wants to do exactly the same.

The previous Speaker had a little word with me. He said, “Peter, I don’t think this Government is going to bring this in.” I said, “It’s in the bible—it’s there!” He said, “No, Peter, they’re not going to do it.” When I challenged the Government on it, they said there was no agreement. Hang on a minute. There was agreement from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who were a really powerful party in those days. There were 50-odd of them—certainly more than now. The Labour party was supportive of it, too. How could they argue that there was no agreement?

It is great to see the excellent Minister here. We have always agreed, including on my Bill on constituency boundaries, which went through. In fact, in Committee, she actually debated my Bill by accident and not the Government’s Bill. All we are doing today is agreeing with something that everyone agreed with back then, when there was a crisis in Parliament.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case for the Government to give up control of the timing of Parliament.

Turkeys might talk about Christmas. They might promise Christmas at election time. They might write about dreams of Christmas in optimistic documents with other ends. But why, when it comes to it, would turkeys ever vote for Christmas? How could we persuade them to do so?

The first reason they should do so—in this particular case—is that it is good for them. This change will happen only when there is a Government in crisis, which is why the Wright reforms produced the Backbench Business Committee and the election of Select Committee chairs; they were all magnificent reforms. We now have an opportunity. Some argue—I could not possibly put this forward—that there is a bit of a crisis going on in the Government at the moment. Maybe one reason is that they have taken Parliament for granted. They have not done what they are supposed to do.

Did the Leader of the House suggest earlier this week that we have a presidential system, and there might have to be a general election if there is a change of Prime Minister? Hang on, we do not have a presidential system, and I happen to know that if the President is removed, there is always someone to replace him—there is never an election, so I did not follow that logic. The real issue, which has driven me and many people in the House up the wall, not least Mr Speaker, is the announcement of Government policy to the media first. That is not behaving properly in this House. That is an extremely unsatisfactory state of affairs and it needs to be changed. If Downing Street is in a listening mood at the moment, which I think it may be, it needs to do something and stop that. I do not want to see any reports announced by “Sky News”, rather than by a Minister at that Dispatch Box.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue goes even further than what he is describing, because we have the spectacle today of the Metropolitan police seeking to interfere with the content of Sue Gray’s report on the specious justification that it wishes to prevent prejudice to a criminal investigation, yet the only law on the statute book in relation to prejudicing a criminal investigation relates to proceeds of crime legislation, which is certainly not what we are talking about at the moment?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I expect that explosions are going off in Downing Street at the fact that the Sue Gray report might be delayed or might never see the light of day. No one has been charged. We do not even know that a crime has been committed, and if it had, it would be something that is subject to a fine.

I appreciate that it is not the Government’s decision in this case, but Sue Gray’s. I would say to the Metropolitan police, “We understand what you are saying and your advice, but we are going to ignore it, because it is in the national interest to publish that report.” I hope that will happen, but it cannot be blamed on the Whips—sorry, I said the Whips by mistake; I normally blame the Whips for everything. It cannot be blamed on the Government.

With this Bill to create the business of the House commission, we can go to where we should have gone before, which is to give Parliament the right to decide on the timetabling of business. It is not right that all the power lies with the Government. We have Backbench Business debates, and hasn’t that Committee worked so well? We have had some really important debates.

I remember David Nuttall proposing that we have a referendum on the European Union back in 2011. The debate was timetabled by the Government for a wet Thursday when no one would be here, they hoped, and then George Osborne said, “No, I’m going to teach those Eurosceptics a lesson. We will bring it forward to the Monday and make it really important.” What happened? Members of this House went back to their constituents. We had a really strong three-line Whip. Whips were threatening careers. They said, “Peter, you will never be a Minister if you support this motion.” Well, they were probably right on that point, although it was not anything to do with that particular vote. Some 81 Conservative MPs voted on a Backbench Business motion that changed the history of this country, because after that, David Cameron realised that we had to have a pledge to have a referendum. The Backbench Business Committee has worked extremely well, but its problem is that it does not know when it will be given the time. Backbench Business time is supposed to be in primetime. That is what the Wright reforms called for.

Going back to my point on the commission, it is not about stopping the Government getting their business through; it is about making sure that we have the time to scrutinise it, so that we will not be forced to debate an important thing in an hour. The commission could decide it will have three, four or six hours of protected time. This mother of Parliaments should decide how things are timetabled, not the people sitting in No. 10. If we did that, Minister, we would get better scrutiny, better laws, and would it not be a better place?

In the 30 seconds that I am going to give the Minister to respond, all she has to say is “yes”—[Laughter.] Actually, no; we need more debate, so let us hope that we hit the buffers and we can come back to this next week. As the Minister knows, many of my suggested Bills actually finish up in law, so, at this moment of crisis for Parliament and the Government, would it not be good if we passed this Bill next week? There do not seem to be any Whips on the Opposition Benches, so I think Opposition Members could actually welcome—[Interruption.] Oh dear, there is a Whip over there, but hon. Members will take my point: this mother of Parliaments should run its own affairs. It should not be dictated to by somebody sitting in No. 10.

I really just want to emphasise one more point—

The Deputy Speaker interrupted the business (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 4 February.