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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I commend the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) for
8 Feb 2006 : Column 882
introducing his Bill. I have some problems, however, with the detail of the principle of the Bill. I do not know whether the threshold should be set in stone in the long title of the Bill. I am therefore happy to speak against the Bill.

I also have some serious problems with the way in which the hon. Gentleman has presented the Bill. I cannot help feeling that the former Colchester councillor and Colchester mayor has forgotten that he is now a Member of Parliament—he is not meant to be second-guessing the local authority, of which he used to be a member, on matters of such detail. The House has heard—and is entitled to a broader explanation—a lot of small-town politicking from him, which I fear does neither him nor the town of Colchester any credit, and under-sells what is a major project for the benefit of the people of Colchester.

The visual arts facility to which the hon. Gentleman referred is a £17.2 million investment in a run-down area of Colchester, St. Botolph's. The bus station that he appears to celebrate as a great landmark of historical importance in Colchester will be replaced by a new bus station paid for by the developers. I do not therefore know why he is conducting such a campaign. He is sending out a negative signal about this positive project that will attract more than 120,000 visitors annually, directly create 33 full-time jobs, indirectly create 38 new full-time jobs, create 160 construction jobs during its 18-month construction period, and offer 28 new places for undergraduate and postgraduate students at Essex university. It will provide a vast new retail facility for Colchester—350,000 sq ft of retail development—as well as the brand new bus station, enhancement of the heritage area including the Roman wall around St. Botolph's priory—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is muttering that this area is not in my constituency. I remind him that we share the borough of Colchester, and I believe that he has misused his position and these procedures to run a local vendetta into the national arena, against the interests of the people he seeks to represent. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Whatever happened, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) was heard in silence, and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) must also be heard in silence.

Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

In response to a parliamentary question, I found out how much public money the hon. Gentleman has wasted on his campaign. He made a vexatious complaint to the Audit Commission about some land transfers involved in the project, and alleged that there had been some dirty work at the crossroads and that somehow the taxpayer had been short-changed. The Audit Commission duly conducted an investigation at his behest. The investigation cost £20,000. Because the complaint was vexatious, of no merit whatever, that £20,000 has fallen to the council tax payers of Colchester to pay.

The hon. Gentleman would do well to take a broader view of the interests of the people of Colchester, rather than using parliamentary procedures to conduct what amounts to a vendetta against a policy that, incidentally, Liberal Democrats on the borough council supported when they were in power.
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Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Bob Russell, Annette Brooke, David Taylor, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Michael Clapham, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mrs. Janet Dean, Paul Rowen, Mr. Phil Willis, Paul Holmes and Norman Lamb.

Local Government Referendums

Bob Russell accordingly presented a Bill to require a local authority to hold a referendum about a matter of major local importance for which it is responsible if one-tenth of its electorate demand the holding of such a referendum; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 March, and to be printed [Bill 127].

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). He said that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) had made a vexatious complaint. I believe that that has a specific meaning in law, and I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether it is a parliamentary term. I do not expect an immediate response, but may I ask you to look into the matter?

Mr. Speaker: Let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: I have heard nastier. What was said was in order.

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Business of the House

12.45 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I beg to move,

The motion is designed to facilitate today's business. It provides for the motions on financial assistance for Opposition parties and support for Members who have chosen not to take their seats to be considered together. The debate may continue until 6 pm, when the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motions, and on any amendments selected by you, Mr. Speaker, will be put.

The House has already considered the principle of support for Members who have chosen not to take their seats on two occasions, in 2001 and again last year, when it agreed to suspend the allowances. Today we shall also debate a motion relating to financial assistance for Opposition parties. I do not intend to take up any time now in talking about the substance of the debate, and I hope that the House will agree to the motion swiftly, so that we can proceed to consider the important business before us.

I commend the motion to the House.

12.46 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I can relieve the House by saying that I have no intention of speaking at length, or indeed of opposing the proposal from the Leader of the House. I think that we have been allowed a reasonable amount of time for the debate. As many Members will wish to speak in that debate, I shall take up no more of the House's time.

12.47 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am a little surprised at the attitude of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). This is House business, not party political business. There is every probability that every single Member may have strong opinions on such a contentious matter. We have heard no explanation of why the time that is normally allotted—the time before the point of interruption—is to be abbreviated.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): If the hon. Gentleman recalls what was said during business questions, he will know precisely what the reason is: the Leader of the House wants to have his photograph taken. In fact, the motion is not intended to facilitate the business of the House; it is intended to facilitate the parliamentary Labour party.

Mr. Heath: I was aware of that, but I did not imagine for a moment that, in fulfilling his duties to the House, the Leader of the House would allow a photographic
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opportunity for the Labour party to get in the way of the business of the House. Even if we assume that it would be possible for all the members of the Labour party to face in the same direction, that cannot be a reason for abbreviating the business.

I do not want to take up too much time, but it seems to me that three important issues need to be debated, and that we shall need to hear explanations from Ministers. We shall clearly need to know why the allowances are to be resumed, and I have every expectation that that will form the main part of the debate. We shall also need a clear explanation of why it is felt necessary to backdate the allowances. I know that an amendment to that provision has not been selected, but Members on both sides of the House will clearly wish to explore the issue.

A third aspect that I think will bear careful scrutiny is the proposal to provide funds for the parties that do not take part in our parliamentary business in support of what is described as their representational role. That is in sharp contradistinction to what is already in the Short money resolution of 1975, which clearly states

This is a matter for the Leader of the House rather than the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I want to ensure that there is time for him to explain why the distinction exists between parliamentary business that applies to parties whose Members take their seats in the House and parliamentary business that applies to those whose Members choose not to do so, who apparently have carte blanche to spend money from public sources in different ways.

It is important that we have long enough to ask whether the description of a representational role applies to parties in this House, because if it does, it will affect the way in which the money that is given to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives is administered and used. I need an explanation without ambiguity of why there is a difference between the two resolutions, and of their implications in terms of what would be permissible for Sinn Fein under the new motion, were it to be passed. I also want to know the implications of the motion for parties that are already in receipt of Short money arising from the 1975 resolution.

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