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4 Mar 2008 : Column 1593

Point of Order

3.32 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We had an announcement from the Transport Secretary this morning about using hard shoulders to provide extra motorway capacity. That statement was preceded by a piece in today’s edition of The Guardian, which quoted her at some length, a piece in The Sunday Times, which also referred to the policy, and an external briefing of organisations outside this House over the weekend. You have continually said to this House that Ministers should make statements in this House before speaking to newspapers and external bodies. That approach has clearly not been followed in this case. May I respectfully ask what action you intend to take on this matter?

Mr. Speaker: It has always been my policy to encourage Ministers—in fact, insist that Ministers make statements to this House. I shall look into the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises and get back to him.

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Autumn Bank Holiday

3.33 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I beg to move,

We are about to enter what I always call the bank holiday season—Easter is coming up, followed by the May bank holiday and Whitsun. This year, we get the added bonus of Easter and a spring break. This time of year is crowded in terms of public holidays. Most of us take our family holidays in summer—in July and August—so, in a way, the August bank holiday finishes the public holidays until Christmas. The period in between is a long time without a public holiday. This time of year is wonderful, because it is springtime and the evenings are getting lighter, but after August bank holiday it gets darker, the weather is probably worsening and it is no wonder that the average British worker looks frazzled and miserable come the beginning of December.

This country used to have far more public holidays, as there were local fairs and festivals. In fact, in the 1820s the Bank of England took 33 public holidays a year. But then came the 1830s and it was nose to the grindstone time. Public holidays were cut to just four a year.

We have made progress since, and we now have eight public holidays a year—in England anyway—with the last one being introduced in 1978, under a Labour Government of course. This Government have done well in introducing a minimum annual holiday entitlement, which I am sure everybody welcomes, but we have not done so well with public holidays.

We seem to have spent all our time debating Europe recently, so I thought I would look at European public holidays. It turns out that most European countries are far better than Britain in this regard: Italy gets 16 days, Iceland gets 15, and Spain and Portugal get 14 each. However, countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal also have all sorts of festivals, ferias and local saints’ days, so they are way ahead of us when it comes to having time away from work. It makes our measly eight days look even meaner.

Since 1978, working life has changed beyond all recognition. If anybody has time to watch “Ashes to Ashes” or “Life on Mars”, the vast difference in working life and attitudes is obvious. We are working much longer hours, and people spend much longer travelling to and from work. Most would say they feel that their work-life balance has been affected. Our public holidays have not kept pace with modern working life.

Is there support for a new public holiday? The National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the TUC have called for an autumn holiday that they wish to call a community day. The Downing street website shows 500,000 people backing a new public holiday for veterans, similar to Veterans day in the US. Thomas Cook also wants a public holiday in the autumn, and 500,000 people have backed its petition. Even the Prime Minister has talked about having a British day.

So there is a lot of support for a new public holiday in the autumn, but—as always—there is opposition. There are the misery-guts who want to keep us at work and
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never let us break free. The CBI is one such organisation: it claims that another public holiday would mean less productivity. However, I would hit back by asking whether, if it thinks that one extra day would have such a dramatic impact, it intends to campaign for the abolition of weekends. That would cast aside its argument about the impact of one more public holiday.

Indeed, a new public holiday would have economic benefits for the country. My constituency relies on travel and tourism, and a new public holiday would extend the holiday season there. At the moment, it tends to end in September. People in temporary jobs would work for longer and it would bring economic benefits to many of our seaside resorts. Restaurants, the leisure industry and the retail sector would all benefit from more public holidays. A less frazzled work force would also be more productive, not less. Breaks from work reduce stress because people can recharge their batteries. They would help with work-life balance, as people could spend time with their family and friends. People could also spend time volunteering or, as the modern jargon has it, celebrating our civic values.

I have not specified an exact date for the holiday. Most people, when asked, favour a Monday in October for an additional break. The principle that we need more public holidays is now accepted, so I propose that we have a national consultation on when in the autumn the new public holiday should be.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Have a referendum.

Shona McIsaac: I do not think I will have a referendum.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): A multi-option one.

Shona McIsaac: Well, we could have a multi-option referendum on when we should have a new bank holiday.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): Trafalgar day.

Shona McIsaac: From a sedentary position, my hon. Friend calls for Trafalgar day. That suggestion was certainly put forward on my website, too.

As I say, modern life often leaves us feeling under pressure and unable to wind down. Well-placed public holidays can punctuate the year to give us better work-life balance, and that would be good for everybody in this country.

3.40 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I gave notice earlier that I intended to speak against the motion. [ Interruption. ] Somebody describes me as a miserable soul; I am not a miserable soul, but if I am I share that honour with the noble Lord Jones of Birmingham, who spoke out against this proposal in the other place as recently as a fortnight ago.

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I am disappointed at the way in which the Bill has been put forward by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). If she were proposing to scrap the May day bank holiday and replace it with one in the autumn, I might have been able to go along with that. Her suggestion of Trafalgar day on 21 October, if it were instead of May day, would find favour with quite a lot of people.

Even better would have been if the hon. Lady had said that instead of the May day bank holiday we would have a referendum day bank holiday, when it would be possible for the people to have a referendum on any issue they regarded as important at that time. They would then be able to hold us, as elected representatives, to account.

In my view, bank holidays should be used to mark special days of religious observance or national celebration. They should not be used effectively to provide bread and circuses to a populace that is increasingly disillusioned with this cynical Government. The prospect of an extra day off work at someone else’s expense may seem superficially attractive and popular, but the minimum number of days’ holiday under the working time regulations has already increased from 20 to 28 under this Government.

The notorious Warwick agreement, agreed by the Labour party national policy forum in July 2004, made as one of the concessions to the unions an announcement that public holidays would in future not count towards the minimum holiday allowance under working time rules. The consequence of the hon. Lady’s proposal would therefore be significant additional cost to the public and the private sectors.

I submit that the hon. Lady’s proposal would be against the national interest and would damage the economy. It would also damage the environment, which is a subject dear to my heart. We all know what happens at bank holiday weekends: the traffic clogs up, congestion is rife and people sit in queues of traffic that burn fossil fuels and create CO2 emissions. That would be exacerbated if we were to have yet another bank holiday weekend.

I also submit that bank holidays smack of collectivism and central control. They militate against individual freedom and flexibility. Most people, if they were given a choice between taking a holiday on a bank holiday set by the state or at a time of their own choosing, chosen in consultation with their family, would choose the latter.

Let us also think about the victims of bank holidays, such as people who are dependent on benefits. They want to gain access to public services such as health, welfare or social services. I have constituents who cannot get through to the various helplines for public departments even with the existing number of working days. Why should we want to reduce the number of working days so that it is made even more difficult for my constituents to make contact with Government Departments?

A second group of potential victims of the hon. Lady’s proposal would be those who found themselves caught up in the traffic problems on those weekends. The third victim would be the national economy. Lord Jones of Birmingham put a figure on the cost, saying that every extra bank holiday would cost £2.5 billion. I can think of better ways of spending £2.5 billion, and I make one suggestion—give us a referendum!

4 Mar 2008 : Column 1597

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Shona McIsaac, Mr. David Amess, Gordon Banks, Mr. Ian Cawsey, Mr. Martyn Jones, Dr. Stephen Ladyman, Rob Marris, Mr. Gordon Marsden, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Lynda Waltho and Derek Wyatt.

Autumn Bank Holiday

Shona McIsaac accordingly presented a Bill to introduce a bank holiday in the Autumn: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 7 March, and to be printed [Bill 82].

4 Mar 2008 : Column 1598

Orders of the Day

European Union (Amendment) Bill

Order read for the House again resolving itself into a Committee.

Mr. Speaker: I have selected the motion for an instruction on the European Union (Amendment) Bill, in the name of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). Notice of the instruction is item 59 on page 1238 of today’s Order Paper.

3.46 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I beg to move,

I am probably not the only Member of the House who is pleased not to have to make points of order on this instruction, but instead to debate it. I guess that you, Mr. Speaker, are also pleased that I am not making points of order.

The purpose of the instruction could not be clearer: it is to put it beyond reasonable doubt that the amendments to the Bill that include a call for a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union are selectable for debate tomorrow.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The hon. Gentleman knows as well as most people in the House what my view is on the European Union. I believe that we should leave it. He is not arguing about the great principle of staying in or leaving the European Union, because he does not want that referendum at all. This instruction is just a weasel tactic to get out of the promise that he made to the electorate at the last general election to hold a referendum on the European treaty. Nobody who shares my opinion will be fooled by this rather disgraceful tactic.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong. Let him debate that matter tomorrow. I and my colleagues believe that our amendments on a referendum are already in order and selectable, but we recognise that not everyone in the House is yet of that opinion. That is why we have sought, from the first day of the Committee’s proceedings, to give the House the opportunity to help the Chair and clarify that such amendments are indeed within the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con) rose—

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con) rose—

Mr. Davey: I shall give way in a moment.

Let us be clear what the instruction is not about. It is not about the substantial point of a referendum. It is solely about enabling a debate on an in-out referendum—a debate that could occur tomorrow.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I may be getting very old and my hearing may be going as well as everything
4 Mar 2008 : Column 1599
else, but did I actually hear the hon. Gentleman say that he was seeking to help the Chair? Is he instructing the Chair?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady would help the Chair if she did not make a point of order like that.

Mr. Robathan: Will the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) give way?

Mr. Davey: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Robathan: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that he and his party stood on a manifesto commitment to have a referendum on the constitution, which is exactly the same as the Lisbon treaty? Will he show some integrity and vote for that referendum tomorrow?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Every hon. Member shows integrity, so the hon. Gentleman should not speak like that.

Mr. Davey: If the hon. Gentleman had attended all our debates, he would know that we do not believe that the constitutional treaty is the same as the Lisbon treaty. There are many arguments we can have about that, and no doubt we will have them tomorrow. If the hon. Gentleman votes for our instruction, we can have that debate, but if he votes against it he will prevent it from taking place

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: I want to make some progress, so I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman later.

Hon. Members may disagree with the Liberal Democrats’ proposition, and they may disagree with the proposal for a referendum. They may disagree with the Question that we wish to put, because it was proposed by the Liberal Democrats—I am afraid that one sometimes hears that opinion from others in the House. However, all such people—all our opponents—can and should vote for the instruction, because to deny debate on an in-out referendum in the context of the Bill would be undemocratic. To restrict tomorrow’s debate to only one referendum Question would limit the freedom of the House of Commons. To vote against the ideas of a significant number of MPs, and to prevent those ideas even being debated, would be to gag those Members of Parliament. The House should be the champion of freedom of speech, so we look to Members on both sides of the House to defend freedom of speech.

Mr. Redwood: With the hon. Gentleman’s in-out referendum now, would it be in, with or without the Lisbon treaty arrangements? What arrangements would be available if people wanted to vote “out”? Has he negotiated any?

Mr. Davey: If the right hon. Gentleman looks at our amendments, he will see that they are absolutely clear. They have been tabled for some days, and we have made it clear that the in-out referendum would take place after the ratification of the treaty. I know that
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some hon. Members, like the right hon. Gentleman, do not share our view, but we should have that debate tomorrow on the substance of the issue. By passing the instruction, we would facilitate that debate. Denying the instruction would deny some Members the chance to vote on what they believe they put before the electorate at the election. I simply cannot believe that the Government, the Conservative Opposition or, indeed, MPs from any other party wish to curb open debate in the House.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Liberal policy on the referendum is apparently encapsulated in early-day motion 1083, which was tabled in the name of the Leader of the Liberal Democrat party. It says that a referendum

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