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Business of the House

Volume 609: debated on Thursday 5 May 2016

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 9 May—Debate on a motion relating to BIS Sheffield proposal and Government Departments outside London. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Energy Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Immigration Bill.

Tuesday 10 May—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by business to be recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 11 May—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Armed Forces Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by business to be recommended by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 12 May—Consideration of Lords amendments.

The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

I should inform the House that Ministers will provide a quarterly update on Syria before Prorogation.

Talk of the fag end of a parliamentary session, the business the Leader has just announced is the sludgy, slimy, foul-smelling, trashy, ych a fi dregs of politics.

Yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions showed me, if nobody else, that there ain’t no gutter low enough for the Prime Minister to slop around in. That kind of despicable smearing of one’s opponents degrades the whole of politics, and I would gently say to the Government that those who live by the gutter die in the gutter. I am absolutely certain that that kind of politics is not welcome to British voters.

What a year it has been! Every single economic target missed. Growth forecasts constantly downgraded. Debt up. Homelessness up. The use of food banks up by 19%. Absolute child poverty set to rise. NHS waiting lists up. Libraries closed. Net migration higher than it has ever been. There has been one Budget in which the Chancellor attacked working tax credits, and another in which he attacked welfare payments. Morale at rock bottom—in the NHS, the teaching profession and the police. Election rules bent to benefit the Tories in marginal seats. Financial rules rigged to give more cash to the richest councils. Standing Orders changed to benefit the Tories in this House. Was it just a cruel joke last year to make Her Majesty say:

“My Government will…adopt a one nation approach”?

Come off it, this is not a one nation Government: it is a nasty, vindictive Tory Government, balancing the books on the backs of the poor and the vulnerable. I hope voters today will say, “Enough! Now go!” and will vote Labour in London, Wales, Scotland and across the whole United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland is in the United Kingdom, in case the hon. Gentleman has forgotten his history.

You can tell state opening is coming. The awnings are going up outside the Lords. The Doorkeepers have been rubbing up their brasses. Countesses have been brushing off their tiaras. The Clerk has had a haircut—you cannot tell, but underneath his wig, he has had a haircut. And I gather you have even had your annual bath, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] Don’t do that mock outraged look, it doesn’t suit you. Could we introduce an innovation this year at state opening? I know the Leader of the House does not want to listen to the President of the United States of America, but could we have a roll-call of ambassadors and high commissioners, just to check which of our allies want us to stay in the European Union? So far as I can see, they include not just our oldest ally, Portugal, and every other EU country, but the Commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, and doubtless many more. Who knows, perhaps we will be adding Japan later today and of course Norway—so the Norway model is that we should stay in. The only international figure who wants us to leave is Donald Trump—Grayling with a hairpiece. How on earth can the Leader of the House argue that we would increase our influence in the world by leaving the European Union?

May we have a debate about the BBC? The Culture Secretary says he relishes the demise of the BBC. He wants to ban “Strictly” and “The Voice” and to force the BBC to make deliberately unpopular programmes. He has even said that if he does not renew the BBC charter by the end of this year,

“it may be that the BBC will cease to exist”—

something he calls “a tempting prospect.” Now, I do not want to get into the Culture Secretary’s temptations, but when will Ministers get it into their fat heads that the British people love the BBC? They are proud of it and see it as our greatest cultural institution, and they do not want some right-wing Minister pursuing a personal agenda and handing British broadcasting over lock, stock and barrel to his chum Murdoch. Will the Government publish the White Paper next week, stand by the financial deal they signed up to with the BBC last year and guarantee that there will be a new 11-year BBC charter in place this autumn?

In recent years, some of the most destructively powerful people in the land have done their level best to avoid appearing before Select Committees of this House. The Maxwells, Rebekah Brooks, Rupert and James Murdoch, Philip Green, Matthew Elliott—they all initially refused to attend and had to be formally summonsed or persuaded to attend. Irene Rosenfeld, chief executive of Kraft Foods, point-blank refused to appear to discuss the takeover of Cadbury and got away with it. Surely that is not just a clear contempt of Parliament, but a contempt of the British public as well. Our constituents want us to hold the powerful to account, and we should not be shy of doing so. Some people think our powers are unclear, and witnesses are beginning to call our bluff, so we have to do something. In 2013, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege recommended changes to Standing Orders to make it absolutely clear that Parliament can arrest, punish and fine offenders, saying that

“if the problems we have identified…are not resolved…today’s Parliament should stand ready to legislate”.

The Committee said that doing nothing was not an option, but that is exactly what the Government have done—absolutely nothing. So surely it is time for us to make it a criminal offence to fail to appear or refuse to appear without reasonable excuse before a Committee of this House.

The mayoral election ends today, so will we finally now get a decision on Heathrow? In the words of Bucks Fizz in their epic Eurovision-winning number, “Making Your Mind Up”, just before they so memorably tore off their skirts,

“Don’t let your indecision

Take you from behind.

Trust your inner vision

Don’t let others change your mind.”

Incidentally, good luck to Joe and Jake next week—let us hope the UK agrees with them that “You’re Not Alone” in the European referendum on 23 June.

May I start, Mr Speaker, by congratulating you on your indulgence and your patience? I am sure you have powers that would enable you to take much more robust action against comments such as the ones we have just heard.

What a load of twaddle we just heard from the shadow Leader of the House. Let us be clear: we have spent the past 12 months fulfilling the trust that the public put in us at the general election last year when we defeated the Labour party. Let us look at the things that this Government have done. We have introduced new powers to turn around failing schools. We have paved the way for the northern powerhouse. We have passed the European Union Referendum Act 2015. We have provided substantial new powers of devolution to Scotland. We have paved the way for the national living wage. We have passed English votes for English laws. We have passed a childcare Act that doubles the amount of free childcare each week. We have taken further important steps to consolidate peace in Northern Ireland. These are real achievements that Government Members are proud of.

The hon. Gentleman talks about a one nation party. I am proud to be part of a Government who have seen unemployment fall to its lowest levels since the 1970s. It is worth remembering that there has never yet been a Labour Government who left office with unemployment lower than it was when they started. I am also proud that we are living in a nation where we now have more than half a million fewer children growing up in workless households than there were in 2010—a legacy of poverty that we inherited from the previous Government and that we are turning around.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the language of politics. I hear the language of politics on the Opposition Benches as Labour Members fight like ferrets in a sack, desperately working out how to deal with their leadership crisis and trying to deal with the endemic problem of anti-Semitism in their party.

It is worth saying today that this week marks the 37th anniversary of a great step forward in equality in our society: the moment we elected our first woman Prime Minister. I am sure that everyone, even the shadow Leader of the House, would agree that that was a really crucial moment in our political history that we should mark unreservedly.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the BBC. Once again, he is making the mistake that I am surprised he does make of always believing everything he reads in the papers. He needs to wait for the White Paper on the BBC, which will be brought before the House shortly. He and his colleagues will have the opportunity to question that White Paper when it appears, but I say simply that Conservative Members expect the BBC to have a strong future in this country.

The hon. Gentleman made a serious point—among others—about attending Select Committees. On this point, he and I do agree. It is essential for the workings of this House that if people are summoned to appear before a Select Committee, they do so. I am very happy that in the new Session we hold cross-party discussions on how we ensure that happens.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Heathrow. I am surprised, because Labour Members have been raising issues about air quality, and the reason we are taking time over the airport decision is precisely to address air quality and NOx emissions around Heathrow. If they were in government, they would be doing exactly the same thing.

As the hon. Gentleman said, today is of course local election day. There are not just local elections—we have mayoral elections and police and crime commissioner elections. I think we should send our thanks from this House to everyone involved in those elections—the officials, the counting agents and the police, as well as every participant, regardless of their political persuasion, because without them putting their heads above the parapet to stand for election we would not have a democracy in this country. Obviously, I want Conservatives to win. We will watch with great interest, though, after the Labour leader said that he was going to lose no seats at all at these local elections, to see whether his forecast is fulfilled. The next few days will be big ones for the shadow Leader of the House, because we know how much disquiet there is among Labour Members about the leader of their party. Members of the Shadow Front-Bench team are seriously considering quitting over the next few days because of their despair about their leader.

The shadow Leader of the House has other targets in mind. He has a campaign group set up, and he has been courting support from Conservative Members for his plan in due course, when you decide to hang up your hat, Mr Speaker, to take over from you. If he has a different goal, if his Front-Bench position does not matter to him and if he really does not approve of his party leader, will he join those who are looking to put principle before career in the next few days and resign after these elections?

Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a short debate on the Government’s 2014 review of sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983? I raise the matter because I am particularly concerned about the application of section 136 in private premises, where the ability of the police to intervene for the safety of a disturbed individual, even in an emergency, is pitifully limited.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue of mental health causes concern on both sides of the House, and I will make sure that the Health Secretary is aware of the comments that he has made. We have Health questions next week, and I am happy to make sure that the Health Secretary is aware of the matter. It is also a matter for the Home Secretary, and I will make sure that she is aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing what amounts to, and what is left of, next week’s business. It is great to have such overwhelming support from my Scottish National party colleagues, who are, of course, in Scotland fighting to ensure that we get an unprecedented third term of SNP Government, and that we get a majority SNP Government in a Parliament that is designed to ensure that that prospect does not happen. I echo the thanks of the Leader of the House to all who are involved in today’s elections, and I congratulate them on the efforts they are making.

Our attention now turns to what will happen once the elections are concluded. It is hard to believe, but the Conservatives have been quite constrained, thus far, to try to ensure that they get the best possible result today. After today, I see the prospect of them tearing lumps out of each other. Friendships forged in the playground of Eton will amount to nothing as they get oiled up for this gladiatorial contest. It is going to be the greatest Tory show on earth. Perhaps we should look at getting in the peacekeepers, because Labour’s result tomorrow will result in them tearing lumps out of each other, too.

We need an urgent statement on what is going on with the investigation of the Conservative party for breaking campaign spending rules in last year’s general election. The claims are absolutely extraordinary, and they centre around 28 Conservative candidates failing to register the use of a battle bus for local campaigning and some £38,000 of accommodation for local campaigns. If anybody is found guilty of such a charge, they could face one year’s imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Surely, we must hear the Government’s view on that. There must be no whiff of a suggestion that this Government cheated their way to power.

I think that we in this House all welcome the apparent U-turn on child refugees made by the Prime Minister yesterday in response to sustained questioning from my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). It would be useful, however, to know whether the Government intend to accept the Dubs amendment on Monday without any amendment of their own. It would be good if the Leader of the House announced that today, so that the nation knows whether the Government are going to do the right thing.

Finally, it is worth while, as the Labour shadow Leader of the House said, acknowledging what has happened with our business this year. The biggest innovation in the workings of the House has been English votes for English laws: something so divisive, so useless and so incomprehensible has defined Parliament in the last Session. As we go into the next Session of Parliament, an urgent review is very much required, and I seriously hope that English votes for English laws will be hopelessly consigned to the dustbin of history and that we will become a House that has one class of Member once again.

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the election in Scotland, and my comments about those who are involved in today’s elections very much extend to those involved in Scotland. We should be grateful to everyone who works hard to make these elections a success. I have a sneaking suspicion that he and I have a shared interest in today’s elections in Scotland, because we both want the Labour party to do badly. I am confident that under the leadership of Ruth Davidson we have every chance of consigning the Labour party in Scotland to third place—frankly, that is where it belongs.

The hon. Gentleman talked about civil war within political parties, but I am afraid he is looking in the wrong direction. It is very clear that, even though the shadow Leader of the House will not put principle before career, many of his Front-Bench colleagues are clearly profoundly unhappy with their party leader. I expect to see all kinds of trouble in the Labour party after the elections, which the hon. Gentleman and I will both watch with interest. He will not see anything like that among Members on our Benches, because the hostility existing between people in the same party in this House is all to be found on the Labour Benches.

On the issues relating to electoral and other activities, I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that it is for the proper authorities to address such issues whenever they arise. I have been very careful to say that that is the case when those issues have affected the Scottish nationalists, as we have seen in recent months. On the subject of child refugees, the Prime Minister set out our position very clearly during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday.

On English votes for English laws, we have had this debate many times over recent months, but I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that people in Scotland are today electing a new Administration that will have more power to govern Scotland than ever before. It is for the SNP to decide how to use those powers if it is successful in today’s elections. I think the Scottish nationalists will find it is much tougher than they expect to take real decisions, rather than simply to talk about things. We stand by our view that it is right and proper to ensure that England has a share in the devolution settlement as well, and that is what we have done.

May we have a debate in this place so that we can be truly obnoxious and rude about the debacle of connecting Devon and Somerset with broadband? It has been an absolute fiasco. The two people who have caused the most trouble—the Laurel and Hardy of this entire affair—are John Hart and Peter Doyle. It is beyond a joke: they are just not connecting Devon and Somerset. May we have a chance to vent our spleen in this place to make sure they clearly get the message that they should just go and should let someone who can actually connect Devon and Somerset get on with it?

My hon. Friend makes his point very succinctly, as is his customary style when he faces challenges in his constituency. He brings a certain panache to his role as the Member of Parliament for Bridgwater and West Somerset, and I commend him for it.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. Members will have noted that time has been allocated for Backbench Business Committee debates on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Because of the uncertainty of the timing of business for next week, the Backbench Business Committee has had to make contingency plans. We have prioritised outstanding applications for the remainder of the Session for 10 and 11 May, when we hope to secure debates on the effect of the implementation of universal credit on children and on the frozen pensions of UK pension recipients residing abroad. Which debate will be on which day is a matter for negotiation with the primary sponsors of the applications for those debates, but we hope to be able to inform the House about that as soon as possible.

May I thank the Clerk and the support staff of the Backbench Business Committee for their professionalism, patience and, in my case, humour in our dealings with them in the past year and during this Session?

As we near the end of the Session, it is appropriate to thank the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee for the work he has done over the past few months and, indeed, to thank the other members of the Committee for their work. It is also appropriate for me to express my good wishes, because I know that this is a tense and nervous time for the hon. Gentleman. There are a few days left before he learns the truth, but we will keep our fingers crossed. His team is just above the relegation zone, and I am sure he will keep fingers firmly crossed, although perhaps not quite in the same way as his colleague, the former shadow Chancellor, will be doing over in Norwich. It will be a tense few days.

I echo the points that the hon. Gentleman made. I very much hope that, over the coming Session, he will see greater participation by Members in bringing forward ideas for debates. I know that, on occasion, not as many subjects for debate have been suggested as the Committee would wish. My message to the House as a whole is that this involves a large slice of parliamentary time and hon. Members on both sides of the House should try to use it as fully as possible.

May I echo the words of other Members about today’s elections? I of course hope that people will vote Conservative, but given the amount of effort put in, there will be far more losers than winners. I think we should have a statement next week on how well our parliamentary democracy and our local government elections are working.

May I also take this opportunity to thank both the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for the way in which they have conducted business questions in this Session? I wish the shadow Leader of the House in particular all the best for the future—I am not referring to his alleged efforts to take your place, Mr Speaker, as I hope you will be here for a very long time to come; I was thinking in other directions.

May we have a statement next week on whether we are going to go forward with changes to the relationship between this House and the other place? If we are to go ahead with those changes, can we make sure that we have proper and lengthy consultation first, because it is clearly a constitutional matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I did not actually say this, but because next Thursday is when we are due to prorogue there will be no business questions. I am grateful to him for his comments and for being such an assiduous attender of these sessions, bringing colour to the occasion, if nothing else. [Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House says that my hon. Friend has not been here for weeks, but you and I will remember, Mr Speaker, that his tie has been a regular attender in recent times; we could not really miss him, could we?

I give my hon. Friend an assurance that changes that have a constitutional impact will never be brought before this House without proper time for consideration of their implications and purpose.

May I say in defence of the shadow Leader of the House that, unlike other Members in this place, he is going to be safe in his constituency for as long as he wishes to stay there, because time after time the Rhondda gives one of the largest majorities in Britain to its MP?

I have been here for more than 30 years, and have never felt so devalued as I did during the vote earlier this week on the Housing and Planning Bill, when I trooped through the Lobby and my vote was not counted in the total. It is an outrageous situation. I hope that the House of Commons will look at this issue again. We have always believed that Members are of equal value, wherever we come from—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales—but it appears that we no longer are.

If I may stretch your patience a moment longer, Mr Speaker, may I say to the Leader of the House that I do not think that the Prime Minister made the situation about child refugees clear? In fact, all the commentators were saying it was much too vague. Who will the child refugees be, when are they coming, in what numbers, where are they going to go and what preparation will be made on their behalf? I already feel totally distressed by the failure over the past months to deal with the child refugees—in fact, all the refugees—as we should have. This country has always had a proud tradition on this, but I am afraid the present Government have devalued that.

Although I do not doubt, given the popularity of the shadow Leader of the House in Wales, that his position is secure for the foreseeable future, I am surprised that the right hon. Lady seems to be countenancing the idea that a number of other Labour Members will not be here in the future. Perhaps that is what will happen under their current leader.

On the issue of the counting of the right hon. Lady’s vote, it is never acceptable for any Member’s vote not to be counted. Of course mistakes sometimes happen, but I am sure you have listened to her point, Mr Speaker. Within the rules of the House, everyone participates in all Divisions that take place except those in the Legislative Grand Committees.

I have to say that not only do I disagree with what the right hon. Lady said about child refugees, but her actual comments are deeply disparaging to those working in the camps in and around Syria, supported by British money, to help bring refugees from those camps to the United Kingdom. We are doing more than virtually any other country in the world to provide support to those refugees. She should be proud of that.

A criminal in Bradford—who was, incidentally, out on licence from a four and a half year prison sentence—evaded arrest by throwing acid in the face of a police officer and was given only a 20-month sentence for that assault, to the understandable disgust of the Police Federation. That was not, in my view, the fault of the judge, who did his best within the sentencing guidelines. Assaults on police officers and other public servants are aggravating factors in sentencing, but no guidance is given as to how much longer a sentence should be for such an assault. May we have a debate on the topic, so that we can consider the length of sentence that should be added in the case of aggravating factors such as assaults on police officers and other public servants, so that they are treated as seriously as they should be by the courts and so that public servants are given the protection that they deserve?

I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s points, and he will remember that I legislated to introduce a mandatory whole-life tariff for those who kill police officers or prison officers in their line of duty. Other issues are related to attacks on police officers, and I am sure that the Justice Secretary will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments. We should always work to provide the maximum possible support for our public servants and give judges the powers they need to deal with appalling situations such as the one he describes.

May I add my voice to those of the many hon. Members who have congratulated Leicester City on their premier league win? To win the title as 5,000:1 outsiders is a truly remarkable achievement. I am a regular member of the parliamentary football team and sadly odds of 5,000:1 are about right for us just to win a match. However, all hon. Members are welcome to come and watch our next match at Millwall on 23 May, when we will mark the 20th anniversary of “Show Racism the Red Card”.

The average age of a premier league season ticketholder is now well into the 40s, and there is a real concern that younger people are being priced out of the game. May we have a debate on what more can be done to enable the next generation of football fans to attend premier league matches regularly?

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Leicester City’s extraordinary achievement, which will live in the annals of sport in this country for a long time to come. Of course, we will all be cheering them on in the champions league next year. It is also appropriate to express our congratulations and condolences to Tottenham Hotspur. At the start of the season, nobody would have expected the top two in the premier league to be Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about premier league prices. I commend those clubs that are trying to make cheaper tickets available to young people. It is of paramount importance that in today’s world football is a family occasion in a way that it was not perhaps a generation ago. If we look back to the terrible events at Hillsborough that were described in the House a few days ago, we can see that it was a different world. Football has become a much more family-friendly and open place. We would not want that to change because of high prices.

May we have a debate on the future of the UK’s military partnerships? NATO has been the cornerstone of our defence since 1949 and has helped to keep the peace in Europe, but now Germany and other members of the European Union want an EU army.

That question gives me an opportunity to speak for both the Government and the leave campaign, which—as people know—I support. It is everyone’s view on both sides in the Government—and I would hope on the other side of the Chamber too—that we do not want the creation of a European army, or our armed forces subsumed into such an army. That is a uniting factor on our side of the House.

Given the seriousness of the election fraud allegations made by Channel 4, the Leader of the House’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was just not good enough. Does the Leader of the House not agree that it is incumbent on the Government to take action and work with any investigation, police or otherwise—and if there is none, to instigate one—especially as the allegations have been made against the party in government?

I simply repeat my earlier point: when allegations are made, there are proper authorities to investigate them.

There seems to be some confusion out in the country about whether people need to re-register to vote in the EU referendum on 23 June. I would of course never seek to pass comment on these matters, but I have been led to believe that some of this confusion is emanating from the Government’s pro-EU propaganda. May we have a statement next week to put this matter beyond doubt and clarify the situation?

Let me set the matter completely straight today: anyone who is currently on the electoral roll does not need to re-register for the referendum.

A Kent firm has bought the profitable community pub, the Bull’s Head in Rochdale. Behind the backs of the landlord, landlady and regulars, it is now trying to turn it into a veterinary surgery. I accept the Government have done some good work to protect pubs, but perhaps we need a debate on whether planning powers need strengthening further to protect excellent pubs like the Bull’s Head.

Our changes to planning laws have given local authorities greater control. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point: we have seen a distressingly large number of pubs disappear around the country. Local authorities and local communities have greater powers than they did. I share his view that it is a great shame if a much loved local pub disappears. One hopes that that does not continue in this country; we have lost too many already.

The Scottish National party manifesto for today’s Scottish Parliament election commits to examining the feasibility of extending the Borders railway, which was opened last year and has proved to be a huge success. I support its extension to Hawick and Carlisle. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on this matter, so that we can hear and discuss how the UK Government would propose to support such a significant and exciting national infrastructure project?

The new Administration in Scotland, whatever their political persuasion, will be able to pursue devolved matters, including transport. If the line crosses the border into England, I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will wish to discuss carefully and constructively with the new Scottish Administration how we can ensure that the route is completed.

May we have a debate on the future of the Crown post office network—Post Office Ltd is looking to franchise 39 of the Crown post offices, including Lancaster in my constituency—and the relationship MPs have with Post Office Ltd? Many MPs will agree that they have found Post Office Ltd difficult to work with and to get clear answers from.

I am sure the hon. Lady’s comments will be noted by the Post Office. It has been through big changes in this Parliament, but we have now finally reached a point where it is much less of a drain on the public purse, and we can spend the money on other priorities. I understand the point she makes, but it is in all our interests in today’s world to spend money where it will be most useful.

Last week, we had a 60-minute debate in Westminster Hall on East Anglian devolution. It was massively oversubscribed, reflecting the unhappiness of Members across the House about what has been going on. I suspect we would find similar disquiet in other parts of the country. Thousands of people are standing for election to local councils today. A complete constitutional mess is being created in this country. Will the Leader of the House allow a proper discussion in this House on what we are actually doing?

We just heard from the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee that it does not necessarily have enough applications for business at the moment. That will, of course, carry through into the new Session, when more time will be available. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find a ready audience for such a debate.