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HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
BACKBENCH BUSINESS COMMITTEE
PROPOSALS FOR BACKBENCH DEBATES
TUESDAY 7 JUNE 2011
MR DAVID DAVIS
ANDREA LEADSOM, MR GEOFFREY ROBINSON, DAN BYLES AND STEVE BAKER
MR LEE SCOTT AND SIOBHAN MCDONAGH
CAROLINE LUCAS AND MR MICHAEL MEACHER
Representations heard in Public
Questions 1 - 75
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Backbench Business Committee
on Tuesday 7 June 2011
Natascha Engel (Chair)
Mr Peter Bone
Mr Philip Hollobone
Mr George Mudie
Mark Pritchard made representations.
Q1 Chair: If that is everyone, we need to bang through this quite quickly because lots of people have to be elsewhere.
We will start with Mark Pritchard on wild animals in circuses. Why is this debate topical? What are you after? Three hours? Six hours? Do you want it in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall? That sort of thing. Who are your supporting Members? That would be helpful.
Mark Pritchard: Thank you, Madam Chairman, and thank you, Committee, for hearing me this afternoon. The motion would be that this House bans the use of wild animals in circuses. The motion has cross-party support and the lead Members from the other major parties are Bob Russell, who sends his apologies-he is currently looking after the Paras on their return from Afghanistan-and Jim Fitzpatrick from the Labour party. The DUP also supports the motion, as you will see from the early-day motion, which has been signed by more than 200 Members. Caroline Lucas from the Greens has also very kindly agreed to support the motion, as have people from the SNP, so the motion has broad and cross-party support.
As I mentioned, the early-day motion has attracted more than 200 MPs thus far and it is in the top 10 EDMs to date. The issue is whether Parliament has had a say on this matter. There have been Adjournment debates in the previous Parliament and in this Parliament, of course, but those Adjournment debates and Westminster Hall debates have not allowed the House to express a view through a votable motion. Secondly, those debates have not allowed all Members who would have wished to speak the opportunity to do so because of time constraints.
My application today, on behalf of many hon. Members, is for a six-hour debate in the main Chamber on a votable motion. The Committee will know that the Government tabled a written Ministerial statement back on 13 May. That statement subsequently had to be revised because of a factual inaccuracy. Members feel that they have had very little say on an issue that DEFRA’s own consultation shows has the support of 92% of the public. Indeed, a separate survey showed that 64% of Members of Parliament want to see a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses.
I hope that the Committee will allow backbenchers to have their say on an issue on which the Government have not shown clarity and on which we need closure, because it has been rumbling on from the previous Parliament to this one.
Q2 Chair: One question that I want to ask is about the urgency of this. We have very little time in the Chamber. Our next day-and it is provisional, as they can get taken away-is not until 23 June. That is the only day that we have to allocate in the Chamber. Obviously, we have a lot of time in Westminster Hall. I hear what you say about the number of people who want to speak. How urgent is this debate?
Mark Pritchard: It is urgent because the Government are currently looking to license the use of wild animals in circuses. That consultation is currently going on. If that happens, it will not stop the import of new wild animals such as elephants, tigers and lions into circuses, where they do not deserve to be. In Latin America there are many successful circuses that have banned the use of wild animals and are commercially successful. The urgency is that we need Parliament to show its view to the executive before the licensing regime kicks in.
Q3 Mr Hollobone: All we can do as a committee is allocate the time given to us. Frankly, we do not have enough time allocated to us for all the issues that backbenchers want to talk about. That is the blunt truth. I know you want six hours and I understand that. If you were offered two hours or three hours on a votable motion, would you take it?
Mark Pritchard: Certainly three hours. I would prefer six hours but if I had to I would accept three hours over two hours; that would be preferable. The reason I hesitate is not a personal one: it is a matter of allowing the maximum number of Members to express a view. To be fair, I have to say that there are people who have views on both sides of this argument, but an Adjournment debate, or a two-hour debate, even in the main Chamber on a votable motion, will not allow time for all Members to express a view. For over 200 MPs to have signed an early-day motion on this issue shows that there is strong feeling, and many people have a strongly held view on it.
Q4 Mr Bone: Mr Pritchard, you said that the Government are bringing in a licensing procedure. Well, if that is being brought in by legislation, wouldn’t you have an opportunity to amend it and vote against it without us bringing backbench business time into it?
Mark Pritchard: I think that is a fair point in normal circumstances, but what we do know from the last consultation DEFRA undertook is that, pretty much, DEFRA ignored all the advice. We know that the British Veterinary Association is against the use of wild animals in circuses, but that advice was ignored. The premise of the licensing regime is consultation to listen to so-called experts. Well, if listening to so-called experts is actually ignoring them, as they did in the last consultation, that is why we need a votable motion, in order that Members who are expressing views on behalf of their constituents can be heard.
Q5 Chair: I think the issue was much more that if there will be legislation, that will give people the opportunity to debate, amend and vote.
Mark Pritchard: No, this is a consultation with experts, not with parliamentarians.
Q6 Mr Bone: Just to make it clear, what are they suggesting? Is this going to be new Government legislation, or is it just going to be secondary legislation?
Mark Pritchard: No, this would be secondary legislation-a new licensing regime, and, as I say, if that goes ahead it will be too late.
Mr David Davis made representations.
Q7 Chair: I think we have everything that we need, so we will move on to Mr Davis.
Mr Davis: I will be as quick as I can, given that you’re under pressure. Firstly, apologies from Paul Farrelly and Julian Huppert. Paul is in a select committee at this moment and Julian is still en route, it being the first day back after recess.
I wrote to you about a month ago on the issue of super-injunctions and general issues of the balance of privacy and free speech. Since I wrote, this issue has exploded, as I suspected it would after the report by the Master of the Rolls. Nevertheless, even that is just the tip of a very large iceberg. To make this quicker, I have sent the Committee a draft motion, to give an idea of the matters I want you to allow to be debated. Those are to clarify the law with respect to the legal effect of super-injunctions and other injunctions on parliamentary privilege; the right to report proceedings in Parliament and the right of constituents to seek advice from Members of Parliament; to limit the ability of private corporations to apply for injunctions and/or bring libel cases without prima facie evidence of damage; and to establish explicitly the limits of super-injunctions and reinforce the law on rights to free speech, particularly in respect to fair comment and matters of public interest-science, medicine and the like.
The last time I spoke to the Committee, I was here to talk about prisoner votes. That was a pretty clear-cut, straightforward, black and white issue. This is absolutely the opposite-I am looking at Mr Hemming as he knows it is absolutely the opposite-because we have a series of competing rights and privileges, which have become confused in the last five or 10 years, after the effects of judicial law-making, effectively, on the back of the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights. It is an area where Parliament rather than Government-or at least as well as Government-should have a major say. Privilege in particular is very important, and many of these other rights are very important to Parliament.
Q8 Chair: Could you just outline something specifically; as you heard with the previous person who was here, we have got so little time, and we are never sure when it is going to be taken away from us, and the first day that we have is not until 23 June.
Mr Davis: The time issue-it is obviously a very topical subject-is that the Government will be setting up, in short order, two joint committees. Indeed, I think one is already set up. One is on privacy explicitly, and one is on the super-injunction issue. I think it is important that Parliament, rather than Government, effectively sets the criteria by which those committees will address their task. They will report within a year, so they will be set up very shortly. That is the primary deadline, if you like, before they get under way.
Q9 Mr Bone: Last time you were here, on prisoners’ votes, we had already had a very successful Westminster Hall debate; I think Mr Hollobone introduced it. By chance, a slot has become available in Westminster Hall for Thursday. Would this be the sort of debate for which you could demonstrate, by having a good debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday, that there are real issues and matters to be debated, so we could then say, "Yes, we might give you six hours in the Chamber on a votable motion"? One problem is that, as the Chairman said, there are so few days.
Mr Davis: I appreciate the time issue, and that is a decision that you have to make, but this is not really appropriate for a Westminster Hall debate. It has got to be sufficiently high profile that it sets the rules for the Government. There have been Westminster Hall debates-I think Mr Hemming had one, and others have had them as well-relating to elements of this issue, but it has got to be a fairly forceful outcome, not something that can be put to one side.
Q10 John Hemming: I have a question about the motion and whether you might consider a variation. Obviously, I have spent some time studying this, and I have two areas of freedom of speech that are not in the motion. In the example of the cruise ships with potentially poisoned water, the individual who knows about it cannot write to the classification societies or the coastguard. As a Member of Parliament, I cannot write to the coastguard or the classification societies. There are similar cases where there are allegations of maltreatment by a doctor, where somebody who has written to the Prime Minister is threatened with imprisonment-
Chair: John, that is the detail of the motion.
Q11 John Hemming: I just wonder whether Mr Davis is willing to modify his motion to contain two other areas of freedom of speech that are not in it.
Mr Davis: Madam Chairman, I have deliberately called this a draft motion because we have not had time. I did not want to provoke a vast uproar with a 15-part motion, but we are still consulting on it. That is why it is called a draft. I draw your attention, Mr Hemming, to the right of constituents to seek advice from a Member of Parliament. It specifically aims at some of your issues.
John Hemming: Indeed, but the MP needs to be able to write as well.
Q12 Jane Ellison: I believe that libel law reform will be coming before the House. Do you not think that there might be an opportunity in that legislative framework to discuss at least some of the issues that you have listed in the motion?
Mr Davis: Before that, the Government have a joint committee looking at it, and I want the joint committee to take on board the views of the House on this. This is an area where it is very easy to vanish into tabloid stances, but it is actually much more complex. Take super-injunctions. Super-injunctions do have their place, where blackmail or national security are involved, for example. I do not want to get blanket, one-way views on this. I think Parliament will make a much better contribution if it does so before we set the remit for the overall legislation. That is what the joint committee will do.
Q13 Mr Hollobone: As we said before, this Committee can only allocate the time given to it by the Government. That is extremely limited, especially in the Chamber. I know you want a full day, and I understand that, but if we were only able to offer you two or three hours, with a votable motion, would you take it?
Mr Davis: I would say no. The simple truth is that this is for a point and to have an effect. If it cannot have that effect, I would rather not steal that time from somebody else, truthfully. I am a big fan of what the Backbench Business Committee does and the new role it has created for Parliament, and I would not want to use time ineffectively when somebody else could use it effectively.
Q14 Mr Mudie: David, can you spell out your deadline specifically?
Mr Davis: I am afraid it is not helpful for you, because it is before the summer.
Q15 Mr Mudie: No, that is fine. That is until 19 July.
Mr Davis: That’s right. Before the summer.
Mr Mudie: That’s fine.
Jesse Norman made representations.
Q16 Chair: Thank you very much for coming back again. Next is Jesse Norman. I have had quite a large amount of correspondence on this. If other people in the room who are here to support this bid on the PFI issue could make themselves known, that would be helpful. Thank you. Have you been to the Committee before?
Jesse Norman: I have never been to the Committee before.
Q17 Chair: Well, as you have just seen, what we are looking for is why this debate is topical and where specifically you want to have it. As you have heard, time in the Chamber is like gold dust. Our next day is 23 June, but we have three slots in Westminster Hall between now and 23 June that also need filling. This is about looking at whether you absolutely have to have a votable motion or whether this is something for general debate.
Jesse Norman: What we are looking for is three hours in Westminster Hall. One could readily generate a votable motion on this, but the key thing is to have a sense from the House on an issue that many Members feel very strongly about. You will be aware that I have been heading up this rebate campaign. We have 70 Members across all parties and I am thrilled by that level of support. The reason why they are so engaged is that every single one of them-I am sure that this also applies to many other Members-have local constituents who are affected by PFI cost overruns, and inflexibility and opacity in the contracts relating to their own public services. There is a tremendous feeling of anger about this. I think that there is a feeling that we need a sense of the will of Parliament on this issue, because deals are being done as we go forward.
There is a continuing process, as it appears, of review, of which Parliament formally knows nothing, taking place in the health area. McKinsey has just been called in. The same appears to have been true in schools. We need to get on top of that situation. I would say that there is no clear policy across Government, although a code of conduct is, apparently, in preparation. We need to know what that will look like and to have parliamentary input into it as it gets framed. That is why I think this is both timely and broadly supported.
Q18 Chair: From the amount of correspondence that I have had, this has a high level of support. Would you be able to organise something quickly enough to use Westminster Hall this coming Thursday?
Jesse Norman: This Thursday would be difficult, but either of the following two would be absolutely fine.
Chair: But would you be able to do this Thursday if that were the only time available?
Mr Mudie: It is a high speed issue.
Jesse Norman: I would prefer not to. I would prefer to have it organised properly, in due time and with a wide understanding of it. We have not gone for the Chamber, and the reason for that is that we want a properly constructed debate.
Q19 Mr Hollobone: Sorry to press you again on this: if the Committee were in charge of all parliamentary time, I am sure that we could make debates available on all sorts of things, but if it was a choice between this Thursday in Westminster Hall or no debate, would you take it?
Jesse Norman: No, I think we should have a proper debate. I do not want to have one rushed on three days’ notice. We should have a proper, well structured debate. Members need to be properly informed and briefed, and they need to be able to make a thoroughly thoughtful contribution that reflects their constituents’ views. So I do not think we should have it in three days, but at a future date.
Andrea Leadsom, Mr Geoffrey Robinson, Dan Byles and Steve Baker made representations.
Q20 Chair: Andrea Leadsom, we have you down again, so we will call you and Geoffrey Robinson. Welcome back.
Andrea Leadsom: Thank you. We have come back because, as Mr Bone will bear witness, we had a very successful three-hour debate on high speed rail in Westminster Hall. More than 50 Members attended. In fact, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill was being debated in the Chamber at the same time and was considerably less well attended. Many people did not get to speak and the Chairman had to suggest a time limit of six minutes. There was an enormous demand to speak.
As you will know, Madam Chairman, the consultation comes to an end on 29 July, and the Transport Committee has announced its own inquiry into the business case for high-speed rail. Once 29 July passes, the House will then be in a position to start to form a view on high-speed rail, but at the moment, the fact that most concerns me and many colleagues on both sides of the House is that it is only those who are directly affected in their own constituencies who have as yet formed a view. This is absolutely critical. It is a £30 billion-plus project which is more expensive than replacing Trident, yet if you asked the House now, 550 Members would probably not really have a view. So we are very keen to try to have the profile that a three-hour debate in the Chamber would give us. I know you have pressed us yourself to have a votable motion, and for the reasons I have mentioned-first, the Transport Committee’s inquiry into the business case, and secondly, the fact that a national consultation is going on-it would not be appropriate for the House to divide on the subject of HS2 until after the consultation. Nevertheless, the need to put that issue out into the public domain in a very high-profile way is absolutely urgent.
Q21 Chair: Could you just tell us when the consultation finishes?
Andrea Leadsom: It finishes on 29 July.
Q22 Chair: You wanted to add something, Geoffrey.
Mr Robinson: I would only add that a votable motion would certainly be acceptable to me and to many colleagues in the House, and to the Greens as well, who would support us on a motion that we would not have to alter very much, which I have already gone through with them. Mr Bone has seen it, and I think Andrea has seen it too; it does no more than make the essential case that Andrea has so well outlined. If your decision today were that we could have a debate in the House, there would certainly be enough support to inform and make a full-day debate very meaningful. It is a good time for a debate, and if we have a votable motion, so much the better, from my point of view.
Q23 Mr Hollobone: I appreciate that there is a big demand for this subject, but why do you think having a debate in the main Chamber would attract the interest of those 550 other MPs?
Andrea Leadsom: It just is a fact that it does, isn’t it? The reality is that a debate held in the main Chamber will attract a great deal more interest and likely attendance from Members who might otherwise just think, "Oh, that’s a parochial, regional issue." It is certainly true that of the 50-plus Members who attended the Westminster Hall debate, every single one of them-bar a couple-was personally affected in their constituency. What we need to do is to have that debate in an open forum so that other Members will come and listen to the debate and hear the arguments.
Q24 Mr Hollobone: Well, I am afraid it isn’t a fact that a subject debated in the main Chamber attracts more MPs than a subject debated in Westminster Hall. I absolutely understand the point that there were more people wanting to speak in Westminster Hall than you had time available-absolutely. What I would suggest to you, and it is a matter of debate, is that were we able to allocate you the time in the Chamber, you would have substantially the same 50 Members.
Mr Robinson: I don’t know that that is true. I take your point entirely, Mr Hollobone, but I think we would get a wider attendance-there is no doubt about that-and we would get more attention for it. The fact is, we are sleepwalking into a £30 billion commitment without adequate attention being paid to it in the Commons. It is enormous. It is our single biggest ever civil-in wartime, too, I think-capital commitment, and we are just not getting to grips with that. The so-called consultation, about which Andrea is naturally concerned, is in fact nothing more than a high-powered selling exercise-it is taking place right near my constituency tonight-orchestrated by HS2. I do not think we have seized on it in Parliament or in the country.
Andrea Leadsom: Yes, and actually, the Westminster Hall debate, although it was incredibly well attended, received very little media attention. This is a debate that needs to be had in the country as well. Every single family will have to pay £1,000 towards the cost of creating a line from London to Birmingham that will benefit not one jot anybody living in Cornwall, Wales or anywhere else.
Q25 Chair: Okay. We are really pressed for time. I have four members of the Committee who want to ask questions, and you would also like to say something, Dan.
Dan Byles: Very briefly, I think what is really important here is that this is a national project, but the consultation programme is only going on in the areas that are currently directly affected, so no formal consultation is taking place. There are no roadshows taking place in Cornwall or East Anglia. Those people have the right to take part in the consultation, but no one is telling them so. There is a hugely important issue here, that before 29 July not only do more colleagues who are off the route need to engage with this, but we need to be sending out the message that people in Cornwall, who will be paying for this-not only directly through taxation but possibly through reduced rail services in their area, because of opportunity cost-need to take part in the consultation too.
I take your point about Westminster Hall. We might sound as though we are being greedy, because we have had a Westminster Hall debate that was very successful, but the next logical progression is not simply to have another one and replicate what we had, but to have a debate in the Chamber. It is such an important issue, for the reasons that Geoffrey and Andrea have given-it is the single largest expenditure of Government money, and it is bigger than Trident and bigger than the Olympics-and it is important that we have that progression before the end of the consultation.
Q26 Mr Hollobone: The difficulty is that we just don’t have an unlimited amount of time. We could offer you this Thursday in Westminster Hall for another three hours. All those people who did not speak last time could speak first. They could get in, and it could be your time. We may not have three hours to give you in the Chamber, which is the blunt reality of the situation.
Q27 Jane Ellison: I want to pick up and develop a point already made by Mr Hollobone. It is about timing, and I have obviously listened carefully every time you have come to the Committee. You are right; it is a very long-term project, which stretches out over a period of time, but I have never quite understood why you feel that there is such urgency about having a full day’s debate in the Chamber during the consultation period. It seems to me that a project of this size will go through so many different phases before it even reaches the Chamber as, I think, hybrid legislation, or whatever. There will be other opportunities, potentially, to afford the time for it.
Can I just push you on whether you think that a bit further down the line, when it is less an issue about those constituencies that are directly affected by the route and it is more broadly about the legislation and the cost, it will then get the broader support that would be, as you say, attracted by the Chamber? Or do you think that if it is done in this period-the consultation period-the intensity of feeling about it will inevitably centre the debate on more localised constituency issues?
Andrea Leadsom: The problem, as Mr Byles said earlier, is that the consultation is only in those areas that are actually affected, yet the answer about whether we go ahead with this project will come from the consultation. The problem there is that those directly affected are likely to say no, and their answers will be very broadly about the impact on them and their communities. We have already seen that the Government’s response to that has been to say, "Nimby, nimby, nimby," so we can therefore assume that their views will be discounted, because they are personally affected. Therefore, the consultation that is going on, which is very narrow in its scope, by definition means that those whose views are being expressed at the moment, about the impact on them, are going to be discounted or ignored. That means that we must get the views from the broader population in order to have a chance of persuading the Government that there are issues to answer on this matter.
Q28 Chair: If we can be very brief, I will bring you in.
Steve Baker: Ms Ellison asked about the urgency. I am on the Transport Committee and clearly, the investigation must be based on facts. The inquiry begins later this month, and for me, it would be very helpful to have the views of the House expressed, as a way of framing that investigation. So, there is an urgency to get on and have a debate in the main Chamber, because it is also a matter of national interest. Putting it on the Order Paper and in the main Chamber emphasises the importance of the matter, as well as the urgency.
Q29 Jane Ellison: Do you think that the debate would, for the most part, be dominated by a broad debate about the rights and wrongs of the overall project and not largely by people whose constituencies are affected?
Steve Baker: My view is that it should be dominated by the national interest. The Transport Committee inquiry will not be about the route; it will be about the principle of high-speed rail. For all the reasons that have been given about the rest of the country, the debate should be framed in terms of the national interest.
Q30 Jane Ellison: Can I ask when that inquiry reports?
Steve Baker: I think it will be in September, but I would have to check.
Mr Robinson: On the question of urgency, we are spending £2 billion on this before we turn a spadeful of earth for it, so there is urgency, because it is like a juggernaut. Once it gets under way, we will never stop it. We need to focus on it now and get the House focused on it. If we just sit back and let it happen, it will be too late.
Chair: John Hemming, very briefly.
Q31 John Hemming: Today, we are very unlikely to allocate a Chamber day. That will be some day in the future, but we will allocate next Thursday in Westminster Hall. In response to what Mr Hollobone said, are you saying that you do not want next Thursday?
Steve Baker: If I may, I called a debate in Westminster Hall, as did Andrea, but it needs to be on the main Order Paper and in the main Chamber to emphasise that this is an issue of national concern, and that it is not merely MPs affected by the route who are sounding off. Although I am in Buckinghamshire, my constituency is the only one in the county not affected by HS2, so I am going out on a limb on this issue, because I do not believe that it is in the national interest. I really want to help other colleagues see that this project will cost their constituents a fortune.
Q32 Mr Mudie: I do not need an argument about how serious it is, and so on, but the blunt question to you is simply this: are you saying that by 19 July you either have time in the Chamber or not at all?
Andrea Leadsom: Yes.
Q33 Mr Mudie: That finishes the discussion. We know the parameters. We know you don’t want Westminster Hall. Okay, but you accept that.
Q34 Mr Bone: I agree entirely with you that you had a very successful Westminster Hall debate. We have some precedent on this. We had a very successful Westminster Hall debate on prisoners voting. That was then escalated by the Committee to the Chamber. I would support that. The difference is that with the prisoners’ vote there was a substantive motion on which the House could divide. Therefore 646 Members had to express a view. What I fear I am hearing today is a request for another general debate. I think if it is another general debate then I would leave that to the Transport Committee and other places. If it was on a substantive motion then your case for a debate would be much stronger. Yes, we would love to give you a general debate but we just don’t have the time. If it was on a substantive motion, you would boost your chances of getting that debate. I am sure there will be a debate sometime in the Chamber, but if you want it earlier you could have a substantive debate, basically on whether you approve of it, which in my opinion would boost your arguments.
Andrea Leadsom: The issue from my point of view, Mr Bone, as I said earlier, is that the Transport Committee has its inquiry and there is a national consultation. We know that if there is a substantive motion the House will divide and we will be whipped. That will inevitably undermine both the consultation and the inquiry and it will force people to take sides before those things have taken place, which I think would be a big mistake. The whole idea of this is to try to raise awareness and to debate the issues publicly, not to try to close down the argument at this point.
Mr Robinson: It is not often that I agree with Mr Bone, but I do entirely here. A vote would do it because it would show that the Government are not even serious about the consultation. They have made their mind up already.
Q35 Jane Ellison: Just to throw something to think about into the mix. One of the Committee’s innovations is to give time for people to debate select committee reports in the main Chamber. We have done that on a number of occasions. It is worth you considering whether, if there is not time available for all the reasons that have been gone into, it is worth co-ordinating with the Transport Committee and looking to debate its report in the autumn as it will address some of the broader issues. We have done that on a couple of occasions now. I throw that in as something for you to think about as a hook to hang the debate on timing-wise.
Chair: I think that is right. Just on a general point, not only is there very little time available in the Chamber, but once we get our days they are squeezed by urgent questions, statements and all sorts. We just need more time. We meet every week and get bids from people that are stacking up. They are all very important.
Andrea Leadsom: The key point about the very good suggestion of debating the Transport Committee inquiry is that the inquiry is very narrowly defined around only the business case. High speed rail is not just about the business case. There is also the environmental case and the issue of regeneration and curing the north-south divide. It really is a project that is being sold as being in the national interest and so a debate needs to be much broader than simply about whether it is good value for money.
Mr Lee Scott and Siobhain McDonagh made representations.
Q36 Chair: Could we have Lee Scott, please?
Mr Scott: Thank you, Chairman. I have called for a Chamber debate and I should like to start by saying that we would happily take any amount of time allowed. We do not necessarily need a long time. It is about the call for an independent international investigation into the allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses in the war two years ago in Sri Lanka. The United Nations published a report a couple of weeks ago clearly stating that 40,000 innocent civilians, mainly women and children, were killed-murdered-during the conflict. There are still thousands in camps. This is about trying to get justice for all. Nobody is saying that there weren’t atrocities committed on all sides, but it is vital that we get justice for people who are no longer here to get justice for themselves. This Thursday, before you ask me if we are available on Thursday, I am actually going to the United Nations to speak to the High Commissioner about this very issue. I, my colleagues Siobhan McDonagh and Simon Hughes and various other hon. Members, wish to take this forward and have a debate in the Chamber to have an international, independent inquiry.
Q37 Chair: Can I ask, you haven’t put down a votable motion on the application-
Mr Scott: I would change it. It would be changed to a votable motion calling for an independent-
Chair: A votable motion calling for an independent review?
Mr Scott: Yes.
Chair: Thank you. And it is an hour and a half.
Siobhain McDonagh: I just wanted to say that this is the kind of atrocity that is not spoken about. We have been watching Mladic being taken to the European courts in the past few days for the terrible murders of 9,000 people. This is 40,000 people. Lots of my Tamil constituents feel that they have no voice. They shout and they shout, and nobody hears. The British Parliament has a noble tradition of representing their causes and concerns when that has not happened in the rest of the world. During the civil war it was this Parliament, well attended by MPs from all sides with and without Tamil communities, which made their voices heard. That had a huge impact all around the world. We hope that this debate would have an impact not only on our own Government, but on the Commonwealth and the UN to take this seriously.
Q38 Mr Hollobone: You have heard discussions. Are you going to the United Nations in New York?
Mr Scott: Geneva. Human rights.
Q39 Mr Hollobone: What I would say to you is, were this Committee to offer you three hours’ guaranteed time this Thursday to talk about this issue in Westminster Hall-I understand if you were not able to be there, but your colleagues could be-you would have three hours of parliamentary time to talk about that. You have heard, from all the other presentations, how tight the time is for us, and you have heard all the important issues that backbenchers want discussed. I know that if I was sitting where you are, and somebody offered me three hours on an issue that was important to me, I would bite my hand off.
Siobhain McDonagh: I have never been to this Committee before and it is a complete revelation. Congratulations to everybody, MPs and officers, who was involved in it. I would say that if you give us any time at all, the time that you give us will have a huge impact around the world. The Chamber will be at its best and having its greatest impact. We cannot have that same impact from Westminster Hall. This is an issue of an international atrocity that needs to be heard.
Mr Scott: I would also like to add, if I may, that whether I am here or not is irrelevant. The fact that I am going to the United Nations on Thursday is totally and utterly irrelevant-colleagues could do the debate. My concern about Westminster Hall-we have had Westminster Hall debates before on this issue, before the UN report came out in the previous Parliament-is that it is not a votable motion. I would really like to try and go for that. I know other colleagues on other debates have said exactly the same thing, but I genuinely believe that we are talking about what can only be described as genocide. That does warrant a Chamber debate.
Siobhain McDonagh: Can I just say, just for information, that next Wednesday at 11 pm Channel 4 has a programme that focuses on the war crimes? Just getting people to believe it has happened has been an extraordinarily difficult journey.
Q40 John Hemming: I have spent some time looking at the process for dealing with war crimes. Do you know whether Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Rome convention?
Mr Scott: I believe it is not, but I can add that the 18th session of United Nations on human rights, which is meeting in September, and which is why we are putting in for it now, has the powers to take this forward for an international investigation.
Q41 John Hemming: It is actually the Security Council that needs to make a reference to the International Criminal Court, so it might be best to call for the Government to support the Security Council to make a reference to the International Criminal Court.
Mr Scott: Forgive me, Mr Hemming, but I was at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday for a briefing, and it goes through the UN in Geneva in September before it can go to the Security Council. It cannot go directly there. That is what I was informed yesterday.
Q42 Jane Ellison: When in September?
Mr Scott: The second week in September. The first week we are back after recess.
Q43 Mr Bone: Just going back to what Mr Hollobone was saying, a lot of the successful Backbench Business debates in the Chamber have started as a Westminster Hall debate. So if you were to debate this on Thursday in Westminster Hall, you got a good turnout and there was an important issue, you are much more likely to get a full debate in the Chamber, in my opinion, on a substantive motion afterwards.
Mr Scott: Mr Bone, I fully accept what you are saying about Thursday and, as Siobhain has said, we would not turn down whatever we are offered. I congratulate you on the hard sell on Thursday, as well. I think you really are trying; I’ve got to give it to you.
Q44 Chair: It’s really not working, is it?
Mr Scott: But I genuinely feel we have had Westminster Hall debates, and they are fantastic, but at this level it warrants-
Q45 Mr Bone: The other point I forgot to mention is that at the moment the Sri Lankan cricket team are touring. I went to Lord’s and there is a demonstration outside. If you raise it on Thursday, it will collect more media coverage.
Mr Scott: Mr Bone, I am a realist, and I know that if we are going to make any headway on this, if we do not have a votable motion of some description-
Q46 Chair: The point is that we have this awkward Thursday slot that has kind of landed on the Committee, and it would be a real shame to waste time that can be used by backbenchers. What we are saying is not that that debars you from having any time in the Chamber, but if we cannot give you any Chamber time immediately-the next time that we have is 23 June; we have so much stuff backing up-we absolutely appreciate your need for a votable motion, but taking Westminster Hall does not debar you from later on-
Siobhain McDonagh: Except time is also of the essence to us, because the human rights committee meets in the second week in September, and therefore, to have our impact-we are not just looking to have an impact on the public or on newspaper headlines; we want directly to have an impact on other Governments and other governmental bodies. One of the most depressing experiences of my 14 years as an MP has been going to see the Commonwealth secretary-general to talk to him about these things, only for him to say, "We like these things done under the radar." A debate in the Chamber would allow us to force the Commonwealth and other countries that should be standing up to stand up.
Q47 Chair: I think we fully appreciate that, but if we said to you that we have got the Thursday as an opportunity for you to raise it additionally, would you take it?
Mr Scott: I would say, "Give us an hour in the Chamber."
Q48 Mr Mudie: That is an interesting proposition that you have knocked across, Lee, but just let’s come back to it. You are away on Thursday. If you were offered three hours in Westminster Hall in the next two or three weeks, would you take them? You have heard that the first day for the Chamber is 23 June-that is if we get it-and you have seen some of the competition for it. It is a judgment call from you; you’ve lodged a bid for one hour in the Chamber-fine. Would you be interested in three hours in Westminster Hall this month, say?
Mr Scott: The answer would have to be yes, if that was all that was on offer.
Q49 Mr Mudie: That’s helpful as well.
Siobhain McDonagh: I would say that unlike all the other issues you have spoken about-all of which have been important-you can have a big impact by allowing us just an hour in the Chamber.
Q50 Chair: We fully appreciate that. It is just that we only have six little hours, if that, to play with.
Mr Scott: I’m only asking for one of them.
Chair: You’re very good.
Q51 John Hemming: In essence, what you are saying is that if you could have four hours, one of which is in the Chamber and three of which are on Thursday, you would accept that.
Mr Scott: Absolutely.
Q52 John Hemming: Not necessarily this Thursday.
Mr Scott: I would like to have the visit to the UN, which has been lodged for some time, and see what is said at the UN before it has an impact on that debate as well.
Caroline Lucas and Mr Michael Meacher made representations.
Q53 Chair: I think that is fair enough. Brilliant. Thank you very much. Now we have Caroline Lucas and Michael Meacher; is there anybody else? I’m sorry-we have Paul Blomfield as well.
Caroline Lucas: Thank you very much, Chair. This is my second visit to the Backbench Business Committee to raise the issue of parliamentary reform. On my first visit you very helpfully suggested that we started off with a Westminster Hall debate as a dry run to see how much interest there was, and I wanted to report that we had a very good debate in Westminster Hall on 3 February. As a result of that, I would now like to make a bid for a slot in the main Chamber on the subject of parliamentary reform, so that we can have a votable resolution.
The debate in Westminster Hall was well attended by both new Members and Members who have been here for some time. There were around 36 contributions, I think, so it was one of the best-attended Westminster Hall debates that there have been. A lot of people there clearly showed that there was a real appetite for this debate, but they wanted to be able to take it forward in some way. Taking it forward to get some action, in terms of a resolution, can only be done in the main Chamber. What we want to do now is to have such a resolution to ask the Leader of the House to consult on ways to examine these matters further and bring forward proposals on how they can be acted on. I have copies here-I am sorry; I should have circulated them-of a potential votable resolution. I am not 100 per cent. wedded to the language in there, but it will give you a sense of where we are coming from.
In terms of urgency, from our perspective, it would be important to keep up the momentum that we have started with-first the circulation of the report and then the debate in February. If it were possible to have the debate before the summer recess, that would be very helpful. We would be very happy, I am sure, with three hours, if that were possible. We are seeking not to re-run the debate that we had in February but to take new views that have been formed since February and look again at how best to take it forward in terms of action.
I know that my colleague, the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton, is doing a great deal of work on the Parliament First cross-party group. He is proposing a motion for debate and vote on the Floor of the House under the auspices of this Committee that the Committee of Selection should in future be elected by the whole House rather than, as at present, by the Whips.
Q54 Chair: Before you go on, can we get some quick bullet points? We have got the parliamentary reform debate that you want to move forward. My understanding is that your main proposal is that you want a votable motion on how to move forward on an ongoing basis on parliamentary reform. You want that in the Chamber.
Caroline Lucas: Yes.
Q55 Chair: In addition, there is the idea that you have brought to us before about electing the Committee of Selection. You’re also aware that the Procedure Committee has done a number of reports now, some of which need votes. One of the ideas was that this should all go under the heading of parliamentary reform of some kind. Is that about right in terms of what you are saying, or was there something wider than that? If we had a day in the Chamber that was about procedure and parliamentary reform generally, would that be something generally that this could be slotted into, or is there something different, such as a general set of votes on individual issues?
Mr Meacher: I would answer that by saying I don’t know how wide the Procedure Committee’s proposals are. They may be a series of quite important but relatively small changes in procedure, and I think the House needs the opportunity to examine the much wider and more important issue of accountability of power.
The election of the Committee of Selection is just one example, but there are many others. I think pre-legislative examination of witnesses for Bill scrutiny is very important. I think confirmation hearings for key quango appointments is very important. I think Parliament should have the right to set up its own commissions of inquiry into matters of overriding national interest. I think there is an argument for better scrutiny of Government expenditure at the time when policy is being made, not just afterwards when the Public Accounts Committee looks at it. I think that some of the most important Select Committee reports-some are extremely important-just gather dust. I think a limited number-perhaps half a dozen a year-should have the opportunity to be debated on a votable motion on the Floor of the House. If the Procedure Committee allows that sort of discussion, that would be fine, but if not, we need a wider purview.
Q56 Chair: It is less about the Procedure Committee allowing it; it is much more about how we frame the debate and whether these are separate debates, or whether this could all fit into one thing.
Caroline Lucas: I think what Mr Meacher and I are talking about are very complementary. I think what we want to see from that, though-what I certainly want to see-is some ongoing process. My worry is always that we have a vote on one particular bit of the equation, which is what the Procedure Committee is working on now, for example, but there are so many other elements, which have just been outlined, and which came up in our debate as well, that need some forum to go forward. That’s what this resolution was meant to achieve.
John Hemming: I am declaring an interest as a member of the Procedure Committee, as well as someone who used to be on the Modernisation Committee. There are a number of issues here. I very much agree with everything that Michael has put forward. For instance, on the issue of secret prisoners, we could set up an inquiry now. We are already able to do that; there is nothing to stop us from doing that. However, we have a process now for Parliament taking control of changes. The process is that the Procedure Committee looks at things and brings them to the House. Some specific changes need to be brought to the House, and there is perhaps a sense of allowing a general debate there. Within this is a sort of recreation of the Modernisation Committee-type motion, and I am not sure that that is the best way forward.
Caroline Lucas: With respect, it is not necessarily that. It is asking the Leader of the House to consult on what better way we can build capacity alongside the Procedure Committee.
Q57 John Hemming: I think Parliament First does a very good job, and it is cross-party. I suggest that Parliament First passes things to the Procedure Committee and challenges it to have them on its work programme.
Caroline Lucas: The Procedure Committee does not have the capacity. It is doing some excellent work, don’t get me wrong; but just now it is spending many months, understandably and rightly, looking at something like sitting hours. A whole range of issues were brought up in that debate in Westminster Hall, but if we were to channel them all via the Procedure Committee, we would be here in 30 years’ time.
Q58 John Hemming: Have you written to the Chair of the Procedure Committee suggesting that they go on the work programme?
Caroline Lucas: I’ve certainly talked to him; I have had meetings with him about the subject.
Q59 Chair: Before we get into the detail of this, I think the big difference is that, as I understand, what came out of the debate in Westminster Hall was much more about how we can have a process whereby parliamentary reform is an ongoing process, rather than just having an inquiry by the Procedure Committee. That is slightly separate from what the Procedure Committee does.
Q60 John Hemming: The difference in this Parliament is that there is a process whereby it is up to Parliament, through the Backbench Business Committee and the Procedure Committee, to reform Parliament. That is a big change. Previously it was up to the Government.
Chair: This is about how we do it.
John Hemming: We already have it. Caroline’s argument is that it is a bit slow, but it has only just started.
Caroline Lucas: I’m arguing that I do not think it is even necessarily the right forum.
Chair: The motion is clear. The decision we need to make is about whether or not this can be part of the debate when the Procedure Committee reports are debated, or whether it is a separate debate altogether. That is the decision that we as a Committee have to make.
Q61 Mr Bone: I agree with what the Chair has just said and I am entirely supportive of the whole programme that you have come forward with. Parliament needs to take back power. We need to move on from the Wright report, and as a Member of Parliament First, I would be expected to say that. It is about finding a method of doing it. We will, I am sure, put parliamentary reform in Backbench Business time in the near future, but I do not know how that will be done. We have to muddle through at the moment because we do not have the days. Roll on the day when there is a House Business Committee, and things will hopefully be a lot better.
Caroline Lucas: May I just sum up? I am grateful for that, but if my understanding is right, the day that will look at the different Procedure Committee reports-vital though those are-will not be the same process as talking about what parallel mechanism we need to take this further forward. I just sound a note of concern about that.
Q62 Mr Bone: We haven’t thrown the bouncer at you yet-
Caroline Lucas: Can I guess?
Q63 Mr Bone: This Thursday seems a really good day to explore this in Westminster Hall. I was at the Westminster Hall debate and it was packed. It was all the things you said it was, and we should obviously move up to the Chamber. However, there is an opportunity to explore it again on Thursday; it does no harm. I am sure that the Committee will look more favourably on something that has been well rehearsed in Westminster Hall, especially on Thursday.
Caroline Lucas: I appreciate where you are coming from. To me, the next logical step is the vote on a resolution. It is not very long since we had a good debate in Westminster Hall, but I am grateful for the opportunity that was very kindly offered.
Q64 Chair: Thank you very much. Michael Meacher, you wanted to make a bid for something completely different.
Mr Meacher: I did. I feel a little greedy in making another proposal, since I very strongly support the previous one. I wanted to take the opportunity to ask the Committee to reflect on the need for a debate on what I, millions of people and probably the majority of Members of Parliament think is arguably the single most important issue facing the country at this time. It is whether we continue with the existing Budget cut strategy or whether we consider moving towards a plan B. This is exceedingly contentious. It is certainly a debate which the Government will not offer voluntarily but my view is that the more contentious it is, whether in marriage or politics, the more important it is to debate and talk about it. It was brought to a head by the IMF report yesterday, which gave support to the George Osborne strategy but at the same time pointed out the very grave risks of prolonged stagnation, higher unemployment and higher inflation.
Q65 Chair: Before you go into the detail of the debate-we are clear about plan B-could you tell us why this is not an Opposition day debate and what kind of cross-party support it has? Are you asking for a votable motion in the Chamber or would you like this Thursday in Westminster Hall, for example?
Mr Meacher: I have never felt such pressure to accept an offer that I can’t refuse. On the point about an Opposition day, obviously the Opposition could table a debate of this kind but I think Opposition days do not fulfil their purpose. They have become far too much a knockabout.
Q66 Chair: The difference is between Opposition and Back Bench. We are not a forum for Opposition; we are a forum for holding to account. So we do not want to have a motion that is just anti the Government.
Mr Meacher: I completely agree. It should be a much more open debate. I normally would ask for a votable motion but in this case I think we need the most open and transparent debate possible, the least tribalistic that we can make it- maybe that is a fantasy-but to have people honestly saying what they feel about an issue which is of overarching importance at this time.
Q67 Chair: What we are talking about is a Westminster Hall debate on a general motion.
Mr Meacher: I think it should be a general motion that is not attacking the Government but which points out the importance of the arguments on both sides and calls for a thorough discussion of this issue. I believe it would be very odd for a debate of this kind to take place in Westminster Hall. I know that you have great pressure to try to get people to accept it, but I think it would be extremely odd for a debate of this magnitude to take place in Westminster Hall. But I don’t want it to be a knockabout. I don’t want it to be tribalistic but I do think it should be debated.
Q68 Mr Bone: If Mr Hollobone were here he would be leaping in to say that Westminster Hall of course is as important as the Chamber. Look where the debate that Mr Hemming had on super-injunctions in Westminster Hall led to and look where the debate that we had on prisoner votes led to. I don’t think that you will get through this Committee a deficit reduction debate in the Chamber because I think people will say that that should be an Opposition day debate. But a general debate on the issue this Thursday might find favour.
Q69 Mr Mudie: We would normally ask for an indication of all-party support. If you can bring that, Michael, we will look at it objectively, but I think that you may have difficulty getting it, which is the indication of whether it is an Opposition matter. If you can get some Opposition Members from the other parties to sit at that table with you and ask for this, I should be surprised, but knowing your undoubted talents there is a chance. It would be one of the rules for us saying yes that there are other Opposition Members at that table so it is absolutely a backbench rather than a political party debate. That is fair, isn’t it?
Mr Meacher: I am slightly surprised at that point. I would have thought that it was not difficult to get Opposition Members to support this. I have not spoken to Geoffrey Robinson about this but I would be amazed if he did not support it. The real point is, what about Tories and Lib Dems? I suspect that some of those, if it were an open-ended debate, would be very pleased to have the opportunity, but I would need to lobby for that.
Chair: If you could come back to us with that support, it would be really helpful.
Q70 Jane Ellison: When you made the case for this before, we mentioned the Budget debate. The Budget debate went on for a lot of parliamentary hours-several days-and I certainly heard a number of speeches that were far from tribal, that were very reflective, from people such as the Chair of the Treasury Committee. They were not just along straight party lines. When you have heard of the enormous pressure on our time, I am surprised that you feel that this central economic issue has not had a pretty good airing in the Chamber this year already.
Mr Meacher: That is true-that there was some discussion about this in March. The situation three months on has begun to move on. Without going into details of the motion, I think the whole question of whether expansionary contraction is working, whether the private sector is coming along with new jobs to replace what public spending has cut, is becoming a very tense issue. The matter has changed. The IMF yesterday gave a very two-edged support to the Government. We are at the point where we need a new debate. It is not enough simply to say that three months ago some people picked up what was in the Budget. It was the Budget before in 2010 that was the key one; we were looking at some of the consequentials in this Budget. I don’t think there has been an overarching debate on this since then.
Q71 John Hemming: You are definitely saying no to Thursday. I just need an answer.
Mr Meacher: We have two days to go. It is a problem, not just for you but for me. For a matter of this kind, to rev up the kind of attention that it requires-I would be extremely reluctant. It would just go off at half-cock.
John Hemming: It’s definitely no.
Q72 Chair: Thank you very much anyway. If you could demonstrate to us what other support there is, that would be helpful. The door is always open.
Mr Meacher: I will. Thank you.
Paul Blomfield made representations.
Q73 Chair: Finally, Paul Blomfield. Sorry to keep you waiting.
Paul Blomfield: That’s okay.
Chair: Welcome back.
Paul Blomfield: Thank you, Chair. Members of the Committee will remember that I was last here on 22 March seeking a full debate in the Chamber on student visas. It was either a peculiarly well-timed or ill-timed request, because that afternoon the Home Secretary made a statement substantially changing the Government’s initial proposals. That was a very welcome statement, which addressed a lot of the deep concerns that pulled together the cross-party support that I brought to you on 22 March.
Nevertheless, there are outstanding issues of detail which are still of deep concern but do not require significant further movement from the Government but do deserve full debate. Given that we are now in a different position, I am no longer seeking-I hope this makes it easier-a full debate in the Chamber, but a shorter debate in Westminster Hall. However, before the ball is bowled, I would say that I don’t think we would do justice to either the time or the issue if it were this Thursday. Any subsequent Thursday would be very welcome.
Q74 Mr Bone: I entirely agree. I have had a constituency thing on it; it is actually the detail that is very important. I think Westminster Hall would explore that. It would certainly have been most useful for me if it had been this Thursday, because I could have spoken on a particular issue that has come up. The sooner these technical issues are aired, and the unintended consequences of some of the decisions made, the better.
Paul Blomfield: I certainly agree that it should be as soon as you could fit into your schedule. I just think that Thursday is too soon to allow Members adequate opportunity to prepare, and bring forward adequately the views that have been expressed to them.
Q75 Chair: Thank you, unless there is anything you need to add. You have been here previously so are aware of the circumstances.
Paul Blomfield: No. Just to say that having sat through the entire meeting, I recognise the size of your task. I appreciate the work that you do.
Chair: Thank you very much for staying all the way.