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Today’s Business of the House

Volume 594: debated on Thursday 26 March 2015

The reason for the additional business is to allow the House to reach a decision on procedural matters that relate to the opening days of business in a new Parliament and therefore merit a decision now. In each case, I have received representations either from the Procedure Committee or from Members around the House—[Interruption.] Including Members on the Opposition Benches. They would like to see these issues decided. Three factors prompted the Government to table these motions yesterday. One is the absence of Lords amendments to be considered, as provided for in the original business, freeing up parliamentary time today—[Interruption.] It has freed up parliamentary time today. If Opposition Members do not believe that there was ever going to be any Lords amendments, they have great insight into what the House of Lords would decide.

The second factor is last week’s Procedure Committee report, specifically requesting that one of the four issues, concerning the programming of Bills, be dealt with before Dissolution. The third is the view of Government business managers that if we were to do that, the other three outstanding matters relating to the beginning of a new Parliament should, if at all possible, be decided at the same time.

Tabling motions at short notice is not unusual in the closing days of a Parliament and is specifically provided for in the motion agreed on Tuesday—agreed by the Opposition.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this grubby decision is what he personally will be remembered for? After a distinguished career in the House of Commons, both as a leader of a party and as a senior Cabinet Minister, he has now descended to squalor in the final days of the Parliament. Without consultation, without consultation with the Opposition parties and without notifying the Procedure Committee, as the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) pointed out, the right hon. Gentleman wants to make a fundamental change in how this House proceeds—[Hon. Members: “Grubby!”] Grubby, squalid, nauseous: we can go through the catalogue of adjectives to describe what the Leader of the House has descended to being. In seeking to push this through, he has made sure that there is a large attendance of Conservative Members of Parliament at a whipped event in another building here, so his claim of a free vote is fraudulent: sad, sad, sad, Mr Hague—change your mind.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, as always, for his remarks. I do not mind any amount of personal abuse, because he cannot compete with the abuse I have received in previous years in the House; it is water off the back of this particular duck as I leave the House today. I make no apology for asking the House, on a day when the public are entitled to expect large numbers of Members to be here, to make a decision on its procedures for the day it returns after the general election. That is what Members should be able to do; that is what the public would expect us to do. I have received representations from Opposition Members who will not speak or ask questions today for fear of their formidable Chief Whip—I could say who they are but will not—and they are entitled to have matters debated, just as everyone else in this House is.

I would not put it quite the way the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) did, but the gist of what he said is correct. This House should not be asked without proper notice to decide on such an important thing. I think that the Leader of the House will live to regret this—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Barker, calm yourself. Your hon. Friend is on his feet, and he is entitled to be heard with courtesy. [Interruption.] Order. It is better to remain silent and look a fool than to speak and remove any lingering doubt.

This is a bad day for Parliament. Of course, if we had a business of the House committee, which the Leader of the House could have introduced today in this rash of measures, we would not be in this position.

My hon. Friend has been a long-standing champion of a business of the House committee, as I am sure he will be in the next Parliament, but that is when that will have to be decided. What we are proposing to bring to the House today are those issues that would affect the opening days of a new Parliament, which obviously cannot be decided with any usefulness or meaning any later than today.

In my 23 years in Parliament I have never seen a Government behave in such a grubby and underhand way. In October 2011 the Procedure Committee published its report. At the express request of the Government, the Committee did not pursue bringing forward the necessary debate in that Session. In the following Session, in February 2013, the Committee looked again at its report and concluded that it did not feel that a change was necessary. However, it wrote to the Government to request a debate on a Monday or Tuesday to allow the House to consider the matter properly and to ensure that as many Members as possible were present. The Government refused. The Committee raised the matter again in the previous Session with both the current Leader of the House and his predecessor. On every occasion the Government refused to grant time. As recently as February, the Chair of the Committee wrote to the Leader of the House to ask for a debate, stating that it

“should not be tucked away on a Thursday afternoon”.

The Government again refused to grant that request.

What has changed over the past six weeks? Why did the Government, who had so resolutely refused to allow the debate for three and a half years, suddenly change their mind on Tuesday? Why did the Government decide that this motion was so sensitive that it would not and could not be discussed with Opposition Front Benchers, the Chair of the Committee or even the Speaker himself? Why did the Leader of the House wait until the last moment yesterday before tabling it, without any warning or notification to anyone? Why did he claim to me that the Government Chief Whip had spoken to the Procedure Committee Chair in the afternoon, when in fact no such conversation had taken place? Why is the motion before us today the complete opposite of the motion drafted by the Committee and given to the Government?

Is not the truth that this is nothing to do with the Procedure Committee’s report and everything to do with the character of the Prime Minister? It is a petty and spiteful act because he hates his Government being properly scrutinised, thanks to this reforming Speaker. The Leader of the House should be ashamed of himself for going along with it.

The hon. Lady quotes the Procedure Committee, which said in 2011:

“We recommend that the House be invited to decide whether on the first day of a new Parliament, where the Presiding Member’s decision on the question that a former Speaker take the Chair is challenged, the question should be decided by secret ballot or by open division.”

The Committee asked for an opportunity for the House to decide, so Opposition Members cannot consistently complain that that has not been debated and that now it is going to be debated. The debate is not “tucked away”. It cannot possibly be described as being “tucked away” when there are hundreds of Members here on both sides of the House entirely able to make a decision, and they should be able to do so of their own volition on a free vote. They should be able to do so, and I hope Opposition Members will be able to have a free vote on this question.

If the House passes the first motion today in the name of the Leader of the House, it will be to our credit that by extending the deadline for amendments on Report we will have more considered debates with time to consider the arguments, so how can it be that he considers it appropriate for Back Benchers to give the rest of the House more notice, yet in the very same set of motions he gives the House barely 12 hours’ notice of his motion on elections for positions in the House?

My hon. Friend is right about the first of the motions, which implements the recommendation of the Procedure Committee, but on his second point the public would expect this House on its last day to be able to decide on any important question and to be here in order to do so. Indeed, hon. Members are here in order to do so.

The Leader of the House must know that there is always a reason for taking urgent action without giving notice to the Opposition. I hope he will acknowledge that the reasons in this case are partisan—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker will confirm this—it is a matter of public record: I did not support Mr Speaker in the election in 2009. I nominated the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), and I suspect the Leader of the House voted for him too. Will the Leader of the House accept from me, having supported a different candidate, that this is an underhand measure to try to undermine the incumbent of the Chair, and that I am surprised that someone—the Leader of the House—who has upheld the honour of this House should be party to manoeuvres by his own Whips Office?

I have not spoken to Mr Speaker. I do not accept that. I do not think that the institution of a secret ballot that frees all Members from pressure from Whips on either side or from the Chair is an underhand thing to bring about. As I will explain in the debate, I think that would be an improvement in our procedures and would help Members on both sides of the House.

May I ask the Leader of the House for clarity in this debate? Following the progressive reforms that there have been, how many elected House positions are decided by secret ballot and how many simply on an open Division?

The great majority of our positions are now elected by secret ballot, and that has been warmly welcomed across the House. It applies to the Chairs of Select Committees; only two weeks ago, we agreed the election of the Standards Committee Chair by secret ballot, with the support of the Opposition on that occasion. That has increasingly become our standard procedure, and the public would be surprised to hear that it was anything other than our standard procedure.

May I tell the Leader of the House, for whom, as I think he knows, I have the highest respect, that his shabby manoeuvre demeans him and the office of Leader of the House, and shows contempt for Parliament? His successor should bring the matter back for a proper debate in the next Parliament.

I think it is appropriate to decide the matter in this Parliament; that is what we are disagreeing about. All the motions that I am bringing forward are matters that, if not decided today, could not take effect in the next Parliament. That is their distinguishing characteristic.

A case can be made for an open ballot and for a secret ballot; what there is no case for at all is the staging of a debate at the eleventh hour of the last day, when people have been sent away to get on with campaigning and when people on my side—[Interruption.] I should be grateful if my colleagues allowed me to speak. People on my side of the House were due to be campaigning for my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), a Minister in a critical marginal seat, but were unaccountably told that that had been postponed. Now I know the reason why.

Will the Leader of the House answer me one question? When the notice was put around at 5.45 last evening saying that this would be a matter of debating the Procedure Committee’s reports and recommendations, why was it that the first that the Chair of the Procedure Committee heard of that was when I spoke to him at 6.30? Why was it concealed from the Chair of the Procedure Committee?

I assure my right hon. Friend that all these issues arise, one way or another, from reports of the Procedure Committee. Last week’s Procedure Committee report called for one of these motions to be brought forward before Dissolution, and in 2011 the Procedure Committee recommended that this debate take place.

The office of Speaker in this House is the guardian of fairness. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how the reputation of Parliament and the fairness of this House is enhanced by his not sharing even at the beginning of this week his intention to bring about this debate today?

Across the country, people look at Parliament, whose reputation has not been enhanced by many of the actions taken in recent years. This, the last sitting day before the country goes to a general election, is an opportunity for the country to look at us and see that we behave fairly. In the next Parliament, if the Speaker is to be able to conduct business properly, all hon. Members must feel that his election is fair. Yet today, many hon. Members cannot be part of this debate. Will the right hon. Gentleman simply explain to us why it was not possible to inform all Members at the beginning of the week that this debate would take place today?

I have already explained why there was a change in the business. However, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that it is very important that people should have confidence that any future election, in this House or elsewhere, is fair. I have no doubt that when we come to the debate, that will be the case that Members wish to make in favour of a secret ballot in the particular election that we are discussing.

We would not ask voters to go to the polls on 7 May in anything other than a secret ballot, and there are long-established historical reasons for that. There has to be an opportunity for Members to put the case for a secret ballot in elections in this House.

My right hon. Friend is one of the most revered and admired figures within the Conservative party. He is a figure who has made his reputation by being a great parliamentarian. Throughout the years when he was leader, we were all cheered by his success at the Dispatch Box against Mr Blair. Does he therefore appreciate the deep sadness that many of us feel that his career should end with his name being put to a bit of parliamentary jiggery-pokery that has come about, representing grudges that some people have against Mr Speaker, and that this is deeply unfortunate?

I obviously disagree with the idea that it has come about from any grudges. Hon. Members on both sides of this House have asked for this debate to be held, and they are entitled to have a debate held. It is part of the job of the Leader of the House to do what is in the best interests of the House. I believe that the House resolving these issues before the end of the Parliament is in the interests of the House of Commons.

The coalition agreement promised:

“A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.”

Is the Leader of the House proud that instead of that, his legacy is continued Government control of the bulk of the parliamentary timetable to be exploited for partisan purposes as we see today?

This Parliament has seen the greatest transfer of the parliamentary timetable from outside the Government’s control of any Parliament of modern times, with the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee as well as maintaining Opposition days. There has been historic reform, and I am sure that that trend will continue in the future. This Parliament has also seen the election of Select Committee Chairs by secret ballot, and that is now an important principle in this House. What we are discussing today is in line with that.

I started with the presumption that I would vote in favour of a secret ballot for the Speaker. However, this is a constitutional matter of some importance that also goes to the heart of the relationship between the Executive and this Parliament, and as such, it should have been heard on a prime-time day, with the whole House here, with plenty of time. Instead, if the House votes for this today, people will get the impression that what should have been a constitutional matter has been allowed to become an ad hominem matter, and a rather mean-spirited one at that, and that in future this House will tolerate the Executive taking action against an uncomfortable and difficult Speaker.

It is for the House to decide on the merits of this. I do not think my right hon. Friend can argue that we are in anything other than prime time at the moment, since the House is well attended and this debate is receiving a great deal of attention. It is for the House to decide on the merits of the motions. If the motion on a secret ballot is carried, it will be for the House to make its own decisions in the future.

May I say to my right hon. Friend—I call him my right hon. Friend having known him for 35 years and, as he knows, admired greatly his qualities, including his qualities of Churchillian speech-making—that I am afraid that today will not go down as his finest hour?

I am always grateful to my hon. Friend, if I may call him that, for his observations, even if I do not agree with that particular one.

We all echo the comment about the Leader of the House’s Churchillian speech-making—a point that I have myself made several times.

My right hon. Friend read out the words on page 11 of the report. May I take some words from the earlier report? It suggests that an

“open division for deciding the question can be seen as a deterrent to the House expressing its views honestly”,

wherein it is bound by the seven principles of public life to be honest. That seems to be a plus for the motion. It says:

“A secret ballot…may…seem unnecessarily unwieldy.”

That seems a bit odd. Its reference to

“a more frequent turnover of Speakers”

makes me question whether you, Sir, have been asked whether you have a personal objection to the House considering this and whether you mind what decision we come to.

I think it is for me, rather than you, Mr Speaker, to answer that, since the questions are to me. My hon. Friend correctly quotes other passages of the report. Those are indeed issues that can be discussed in the debate that we are about to hold, and in the considerations in favour of a secret ballot on these occasions.

The Leader of the House makes great speeches, but he is also a streetwise Yorkshireman. He knows what is going on here. The fact of the matter is that this is an absolute challenge to our parliamentary democracy. This is a politicisation of the role of the Speaker, because this is a Speaker who has opened up this Chamber as never before, and what the Prime Minister cannot stand is that he has liberated Back Benchers in this place. Can anyone imagine the Prime Minister who is not here today, on Bosworth field? He would have been skulking in a hole in London rather than fighting.

I think that was a bit of mock outrage from the hon. Gentleman, if I may say so. The question of whether a vote in Parliament should be held by secret ballot cannot possibly be an attack on parliamentary democracy. It would, of course, in the view of those in favour of it, be an affirmation of parliamentary democracy. I can understand some of the comments made by Opposition Members, but I think the hon. Gentleman is getting a little too excessively outraged on this occasion.

The office of Speaker is centuries old and it is absolutely essential for all of us and our democracy that it is seen to be above party politics. Therefore, I appeal for calm. We may or may not like Mr Speaker, and there may or may not be a case for a secret ballot. We all accept that. However, in order that we are not accused of making this about a particular individual, should we not do this on a consensual basis and come to an agreement when Mr Speaker has announced his retirement? There would then be no question that this is about the present Speaker, but about the House of Commons we love.

The House can come to its own decision about that. It can accept or reject the motions before it. It is up to the House to make its decision later today.

It will be said of the present Leader of the House that nothing demeaned him as much as the manner of his leaving, with a mean, spiteful kick at the best reforming Speaker we have had for 30 years. The task of this Parliament after the nightmare of the expenses scandal was to restore the public’s faith, but we leave with a House that is unreformed. It is still possible to buy a peerage and to buy access to Ministers, and the revolving door is still spinning, making it possible for former Ministers to prostitute their insider knowledge for the best job. Is not the Leader of the House ashamed of himself?

The hon. Gentleman goes a little wide of the question. The obvious retort is that it is still possible to buy a party, which is what trade unions do with the Labour party. That is what really needs reform in our political system.

The Leader of the House knows that there is no greater admirer of him than me, but even if I agreed with the motion—as it happens, I do not—it is unjustifiable to keep it secret until the last minute and to have just one hour to debate it. The tactic of keeping the parliamentary party here for a meeting so that as many people would be here as possible in the hope that the Opposition parties would have left so the motion could be sneaked through at the last minute is the kind of student union politics that has the fingerprints of the Whip’s Office all over it. I think the Leader of the House will regret that the greatest parliamentarian of his generation has gone along with that kind of tactic.

My hon. Friend continues his fruitful relationship with the Whip’s Office with that remark, which we all understand. He has views about the motion and he will be able to express them. Members should be able to vote freely on this question, which they certainly can do on this side of the House.

Does the Leader of the House not deserve better than to allow his political epitaph to be written by a lazy, cowardly, bullying, spiteful, vindictive Prime Minister, who is not fit to lace his shoes?

Hon. Members have clearly had the thesaurus out this morning to find as many adjectives as possible, but I personally think that it is very important that this issue is decided.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. What the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) has just said about the Prime Minister—calling him “vindictive” etc.—cannot be within the bounds of parliamentary discourse. I really object most strongly. [Interruption.]

Order. May I just respond to the hon. Gentleman as follows? My strong sense, and I do take advice on these matters, is that what has been said is a matter of taste—[Interruption.] Order. If I felt the need of the advice of the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley),I would seek it, but I am seeking to respond to the point of order. It is a matter of taste; it is not language that I would use, and it is certainly not language that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would use. I have responded to him, and I think that we should leave it there.

Progressives everywhere will surely welcome the possibility of a secret ballot throughout a Parliament, but is it not the case that this motion could not have been brought forward earlier without precisely a constraint on the potential freedom of Members to vote as they see fit?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it can been seen in that light: the institution of a secret ballot would be an important strengthening—I will come on to this during the debate—of our parliamentary democracy. I noted earlier that there are Members, particularly Opposition Members, who feel constrained in expressing their views on this question, and indeed, have stayed silent during these exchanges. That is their right, but they do have a fear of expressing their views on this issue, as is very clear from this discussion.

It pains me to say that the Leader of the House has today betrayed the House. May I simply ask him: when did he first make the decision to bring forward this matter for a vote today?

The Government decided, when it became clear that there would be no further Lords amendments yesterday afternoon, to bring it before the House.

There seems to be an assumption among some Members that Thursday is some kind of day off, but those of us who attend every Thursday see it as a day of work. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government are entitled to table whatever business they like in their own time?

The public would expect us to be here today to do our job, and that indeed is what we are here to do.

Does it bother the right hon. Gentleman that his legacy will not be that of a parliamentary statesman, but of a grubby, cowardly assassin?

Does my right hon. Friend remember that he and I were the only participants in the debate on the business motion on Tuesday? Will he explain why he did not take that opportunity to say that he would bring forward changes to Standing Orders, bearing in mind that, in the absence of a written constitution, our Standing Orders are effectively our freedom and democracy—our unwritten constitution. The proposals before the House today would effectively change that constitution without proper notice. Why is my right hon. Friend going along with that?

My hon. Friend and I did indeed debate that issue on Tuesday. As I have explained, the decision to table the motions was taken on Wednesday, so I would not have been able to explain it to him on Tuesday afternoon.

May I quietly remind the Leader of the House that during the last Parliament, when he was on the Opposition side of the House and I sat on the Government, he spoke before me in a debate and I then paid him the compliment—some might say it was not a compliment—that in my view, he was quite frankly the best of a bad bunch on the Opposition Benches? I have to say to him that he has gone down seriously in my estimation today, and that will be shared by many across the country. As the shadow Leader of the House has said, this is a grubby piece of work. The hand and fingerprints of the Prime Minister are on this, and I just hope that the Leader of the House will seriously consider what he is doing.

The House will be able to make its decision. Let me say that, despite what the hon. Gentleman said, I still regard him as one of the best of a bad bunch, and that will remain my opinion of him.

My right hon. Friend has written eloquent books about the history of our country and about great parliamentarians. He grew up, as I did, with a great reverence for this institution of Parliament. Regardless of the merits of the motion on which we will vote, does he agree that on this, the last day of this Parliament, it is sad that the tone and atmosphere in the Chamber has been so partisan and so bitter?

Yes, we often have cause to regret that, but it is also necessary—as all students of parliamentary history know—to be able to decide important issues freely and without favour, and that is the subject of our debate later.