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Mr. Byrne: If I may, I will just draw the House’s attention back to the four areas in which the Government said not only that there had been maladministration, but that injustice had followed. Those areas are significant, and they should not be cast aside lightly, because they
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are the basis of the ex gratia scheme that will be set up. When it came to changes to retirement age, reserves for guaranteed annuity rates, the financial reinsurance in which Equitable Life tried to engage and the information that the Financial Services Authority provided in the post-closure period, the Government accepted in all those cases not only that there was maladministration, but that injustice had therefore followed. That will have a bearing on the breadth of the ex gratia scheme that is eventually recommended, but, as I said, until Sir John has studied who has lost what, it will be almost impossible to design an ex gratia scheme that operates justly.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Is there not a clear and irreconcilable difference between, on the one hand, the Government, and on the other, the ombudsman and the Select Committee to which she reports? Is not the right way to resolve that difference for the Government to put their own proposals in a substantive motion before the House and see whether they command majority support?

Mr. Byrne: That would be a question for the business managers of the House. I want to tease out two points. Yes, the Government did depart from many of the ombudsman’s conclusions about maladministration. We set out cogent reasons for doing that, and they are subject to judicial review, commencing today. It would not be rational to propose a compensation or ex gratia scheme based on findings that we simply did not accept; that would not be a good use of public money. That said, we accept that injustice has resulted from maladministration in certain areas and we think that an ex gratia scheme is therefore required. We must make sure that that is set up so that it operates justly and that most help is delivered to those who have lost most.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Cannot the Minister realise that those suffering hardship—often extreme hardship, to use his own words—are desperate to know when they will be put out of their misery and when they will know what they are going to get? Will he please give the House an assurance this afternoon that when we come back on 12 October, he will give a definitive report with definitive dates to the House?

Mr. Byrne: As I said in reply to another Conservative Member, my ambition is to come back to the House with a long-stop date by which we can get the ex gratia scheme up and running. I accept entirely the hon. Gentleman’s point about the uncertainty and hardship that many Equitable Life policyholders are now confronting. The hon. Gentleman will accept that, in the world of limited resources where all Governments operate, we must make sure that the help provided goes to those who need it most. That is the question that Sir John is now considering.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Given the very long delay, what consideration has been given to the possibility of interim emergency payments in compassionate cases?

Mr. Byrne: That is a good question, on which I shall ask Sir John to reflect.


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Issue of Writ

3.52 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I beg to move,

The issue is important. The Government objected to the writ earlier, but should we fail to move it today, we might well condemn the people of Glasgow, North-East to having no Member of Parliament for the next five months. When the Government Chief Whip stood up—in that magisterial way that he has—and objected to my motion earlier, I was not sure whether I was watching a tragedy or a comedy. What I saw could have been tragic because the Government are treating the people of Glasgow, North-East with contempt. It could also have been comic; I imagined another Whip phoning the busload of Labour MPs who have gone off to campaign in the by-election in Norwich and making them come straight back to ensure a Government majority against democracy and a by-election in Glasgow. That is where this Government have got to.

The issue is extraordinarily serious. Two months have passed since Michael Martin announced that he was standing down and it is a month today since he demitted office, yet Labour has failed to move the writ. As I understand it, the earliest possible date on which the by-election may now be held is Thursday 5 November, by which time the constituency will have been without an MP for 136 days. In contrast, Ian Gibson resigned his Norwich, North seat on 5 June, and that by-election will be held this Thursday, 48 days later. Last year, the by-election for the seat of Glasgow, East was held on 24 July, just 26 days after David Marshall stood down. So Labour has had every single opportunity to call this by-election, but in objecting to the writ, as it did earlier today, it is not only demonstrating contempt but running scared of the people of Glasgow, North-East. What that objection also did was to demonstrate that it is not only by convention that the moving of a writ lies in the hands of the governing party Whip, but that it is the practice as well.

We are reaching the end of this Session; we finish it today. Labour has had every opportunity to move the writ and to avoid people being left unrepresented, but it has failed to do so; that is why we felt compelled to move. The only practical reason not to move the writ would be that the by-election would clash with the Glasgow fair and the Glasgow holidays. Fair weekend was last weekend. The earliest date that the election could be held if the writ were moved today is 20 August, after which time the fair and the holidays will be over, and the children will be back at school on 17 August. There is therefore no practical reason why this cannot happen.

The long and short of it is that Labour has once again put party first and people second. The people of Glasgow, North-East need a full-time MP now. We have had a series of brutal school closures, with little or no consultation with parents and pupils, and no MP to represent those people. We have workers at the Diageo
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plant at Port Dundas fearing for their jobs and facing an uncertain future with no full-time MP to represent them. The people of Glasgow, North-East deserve a full-time MP, and they deserve one as quickly as is humanly possible.

Labour’s actions have shown contempt, and its campaign is in disarray. By its actions, we have seen its fear of the people of Glasgow, North-East— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should sit down for a moment, as I am trying to help him. I simply say to the House that whatever the provocation, right hon. and hon. Members must exercise what self-restraint they are able to muster in the circumstances.

Stewart Hosie: I thought that I was being consensual, Mr. Speaker. I beg to move the motion.

3.57 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move, To leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add

The effect of my amendment is that the House would not move the writ today for the Glasgow, North-East by-election. Custom and practice is that the party of the Member who formerly held the seat moves the writ. In the case of a departing Speaker, it is convention for the writ to be moved by the party for which the Speaker was last elected. Then the election must be held within 15 to 19 working days of the writ’s being moved. We want to make sure that the by-election is at a time that allows the greatest number of people to vote.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Ms Harman: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will simply allow me to make my argument to the House.

We did not move the writ at the point at which the Speaker left the House on 22 June, as it is preferable not to have an election in the Scottish school holidays.

Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. and learned Lady has not exactly conveyed accurate information to the House. The fact of the matter is that the last time Michael Martin was elected a Member of Parliament, he was elected as the Speaker seeking re-election—therefore as an independent and not as a member of the Labour party. I therefore suggest to you, Sir, that the Leader of the House is out of order on this matter.

Ms Harman rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I can look after the matter quite easily, if the right hon. and learned Lady will let me. The short answer is that the content of what the Leader of the House says is a matter for the Leader of the House. What the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) has just said is a contribution to the debate, but as a point of fact, it is not a point of order.


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Ms Harman: You are absolutely right of course, Mr. Speaker, that it is not a point of order. However, it is also not a point of fact because it is wrong. If you become Speaker, the relevant question is for which party you last stood for Parliament.

As I have said, we did not move the writ when the Speaker left the House on 22 June, as it is preferable not to have an election in the Glasgow school holidays. Moving a writ now would mean a by-election in the middle of August. If we move the writ now, it would have to be held by Thursday 13 August, long after the Glasgow schools have broken up for the summer and before they return from the summer break. It would mean holding the whole campaign before the Glasgow schools come back on 17 August, which would disfranchise constituents. We do not think that the writ should be moved now for a by-election in the middle of August. We want to have the by-election when most people have the chance to vote, which means not holding it during the school holidays, when many families are still away on holiday. In any case, a new Member of Parliament, even when elected, could not take their seat until the House next meets on 12 October. When, as in this case, the vacancy arises when the House is sitting, the writ cannot be moved when the House is in recess, so we will move it as soon is possible after the House returns in October. I invite the House to accept the amendment.

4.1 pm

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The Government’s failure to move the writ, thereby denying the people of Glasgow, North-East a representative for six months, is nothing to do with parliamentary process but is all about party politics in Scotland. It is all about mitigating a disastrous school closure programme that is happening in Glasgow right now. The Labour party knows that if it were held to account on that programme, it would be more likely to lose the by-election. Why is a by-election good enough for the people of Norwich, North? Why was it good enough for the people of Crewe and Nantwich when the hon. Lady who had represented the seat had not even been laid to rest?

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the hon. Gentleman add to that list, why was it good enough for the electors of Glasgow, East to have a by-election during the summer last year? The Government are arguing differently from the Dispatch Box this year.

Mr. Wallace: We are considering the ultimate arrogance of Scottish Labour. Not only does it believe that the electorate do not deserve representation, it is also so convinced that they will vote Labour, and that all it has to do is follow the party line without a Member of Parliament. It is a disgrace to the House and to the people of Glasgow, North-East.

4.2 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: You were, Mr. Speaker, kind enough a few minutes ago to say that the point that I made was a point of fact. It is indeed a point of fact—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I certainly did not say anything about its being a point of fact. I indicated that what the hon. Gentleman said was a contribution to the debate but that it did not constitute a point of order. Subsequently, an argument was advanced about whether the hon. Gentleman’s comments represented a point of fact.


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Sir Patrick Cormack: I do not like to disagree with Mr. Speaker, but I think that you used those terms—or something like them, anyhow.

I submit to the House that, whatever was said or not said, it is a point of fact that Mr. Michael Martin, in his last election, did not stand as a Labour candidate. Nor did he stand as a Labour candidate in 2001. He stood as the Speaker seeking re-election and therefore as an independent. This afternoon, we have nothing less than a shameless example of a craven Government running scared.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to page 220 of “Erskine May”, which categorically states:

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am most grateful for that reinforcement of the point of fact, which I think I have now established. When once someone sits in that Chair, as you now have the great honour of doing, Mr. Speaker, they cease to have any party political allegiance, preference or prejudice at all, as you made clear when you made your acceptance speech. We are therefore dealing with replacing someone who was an independent Member of the House. As I said a moment ago, what is happening is an example of a Government running scared.

We all know—I have grandchildren in Scotland who go back to school on 17 or 18 August—that the holidays will have come to an end in Scotland by the penultimate week of August. We also know that that was no consideration for the Government when they moved a writ last year. We have a responsibility in this House to those out in the country who are not represented here. If there is a tragedy concerning a Member’s death, there is sometimes a point to waiting, although when Gwyneth Dunwoody died we did not even wait until the funeral had taken place. That is appalling. What we ought to have—I hope that you might consider setting up a conference to consider this, Mr. Speaker—is a system whereby when a Member vacates a seat, for whatever reason, the by-election must be held within 28 days or, at the most, 40 days. That should be enough for us all and for anyone else to run a campaign, select a candidate and do all the necessary things.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman was perhaps unaware that, contrary to the tradition according to which the Speaker stands unopposed by other parties, Michael Martin was opposed in 2001 and 2005 by the Scottish National party. Those were contested elections. However, the hon. Gentleman was in the House when I was not in 2000 when Betty Boothroyd stood down. Did he object to the Government’s moving the writ for that by-election, when she was not elected as a Labour Member of Parliament?

Sir Patrick Cormack: It was moved very quickly, but let me respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point. Yes, I have been here a little longer than he has, and I remember the general elections that were fought by Speaker Thomas, Speaker Weatherill and Speaker Boothroyd. In every case they were opposed. Of course it is a convention that the major parties do not oppose, although that convention was not adhered to in any of those cases.
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However, the fact that the SNP chose to oppose Mr. Martin when he stood as an independent candidate is not relevant to this case. What we are talking about this afternoon is a deprived constituency that is not represented here when there is no reason that it should not be represented here. It would be the last shabby and shoddy act of a fairly shoddy period in Parliament’s life if we were to rise today and refuse to let you move that writ, Mr. Speaker.

4.8 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I entirely take the point that the Speaker stands as an independent. Indeed, there is an argument, notwithstanding the convention that the Leader of the House has set out, that there is only one party that should move the writ for a replacement in the seat of a former Speaker, and that is the Speaker’s party, which is therefore you, Mr. Speaker.

However, I also feel that this debate, which has resulted in fairly strong feelings expressed in all parts of the House, is entirely understandable, and it will be repeated time and again in the future, just as it has been repeated in the past. Where a Government refuse to issue a writ for the replacement of a Member, of course people will feel that the constituents of that constituency, wherever it is, are not being treated fairly and that matters are being manipulated for the benefit of the majority party. That encapsulates some of the problems in the House with our electoral arrangements, which are exactly analogous with the fact that we do not have fixed-term Parliaments, which therefore means that the Prime Minister of the day can manipulate the timing of a general election to the benefit of the majority party in the House. The issue also highlights the fact that the business is in the control of the Executive rather than Parliament.

I am very much inclined to agree with what the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said. In the same way that there is an automaticity about this issue in local government by statute, so there should be an automaticity about it in Parliament, either by statute or by our Standing Orders. The issuing of a writ should lie with the Speaker, and the writ should be placed before the House at the earliest opportunity. The only determining factor should be the convenience of the constituency returning officer, within very narrow parameters, as to when the election should be held. I hope that this matter will now be looked at, because the present arrangements are entirely unsatisfactory.

Notwithstanding that, we have conventions in this House about the way in which these matters are dealt with. However, conventions may be examined and, when necessary, removed. I believe that this convention is now overdue for removal. I entirely appreciate the arguments of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie). I think it likely that the Government will have their way today and that we will move on to the next business, but the hon. Gentleman has done a service to the House by pointing out the difficulties that this situation poses for the good people of Glasgow, who are currently unrepresented, and, more importantly, for the House, which again does not have the self-confidence to do its own work.


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