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Q15. [202409] Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): While the Prime Minister is on the subject of disabled people, may I ask whether he is aware that Labour’s attack on vulnerable people has been extended to disabled anglers? They have seen the cost of their fishing licence
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go up by 37 per cent., as opposed to 2 per cent. for able-bodied people—if, that is, they can find a post office from which to buy one

The Prime Minister: I will look at the facts that the hon. Gentleman brings before us and see what has happened to bring that about. However, I have to say to him that this Government have invested in rural communities, and on post offices we are making £1.7 billion available.

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Given that crime in London has fallen in recent years, does my right hon. Friend think that it is now time to cut neighbourhood policing teams?

The Prime Minister: Neighbourhood policing has been so successful in London that it is now used in all parts of England. The reason that crime has come down is that there is a visible police presence in these areas and local people are in touch with their local police forces. That is why, under the current Mayor of London, crime has fallen by 15 per cent. and there are 6,000 more police officers and 4,000 more community support officers. The one thing that would put the policing of London at risk is the election of a Conservative Mayor.

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Points of Order

12.30 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you and the Minister for Borders and Immigration prior notice. My complaint is that I have been pursuing the case of a constituent since December, and in this particular case, when my interest had been established for a long time, a Labour peer, the noble Lord Goldsmith, was informed of the outcome of the constituent’s tragic case and I was not. We jealously guard each other’s rights to represent the interests of our constituents in this House, Mr. Speaker, and I am asking you to support my view that the example of the handling of this case by the Home Office would, if repeated more widely, represent a significant and detrimental change to way that we, as individual Members of Parliament, hold Ministers to account for our constituents.

Mr. Speaker: I have to be careful that I do not get involved in this matter because I do not know all the details. Sometimes correspondence can go to someone in good faith and the Department concerned is not always seeking to give offence to hon. Members. I think that the best reply that I can give the hon. Gentleman is that he has put his concerns on record, and the appropriate Department and Minister will take note of his deep concerns. [Hon. Members: “Where is the Minister?”] I do not know where the Minister is.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the last morning of every month, the Ministry of Justice publishes details of how many prisoners have been released early during the previous month. This morning, the Ministry of Justice published every set of data scheduled to be released except the early release figures. Given that those figures were due to show that almost 25,000 prisoners, and more than 4,000 violent prisoners, have been released early on to our streets, will you invite the Justice Secretary to reassure the House that these figures will be published immediately and that this was not a shabby attempt to bury bad news on the eve of the local elections?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. [ Interruption. ] Order. It is up to Ministers what they publish; it is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Straw rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am not going to invite the right hon. Gentleman to speak— [ Interruption. ] Order. We have to be careful how we use points of order. I tell the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that it may be a point that he wants to raise with the Minister but it is not a point of order, and I will not allow the matter to continue. [ Interruption. ] Order. Hon. Members are getting into a habit of raising points of order about what Ministers did and failed to do. When a point of order is made, it is a matter for me how I handle it. That is the matter finished. It was not a point of order that the hon. Gentleman raised.

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New Writ (Crewe and Nantwich)

Mr. Speaker: We now have proceedings on the motion for the writ moved earlier by the Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), and objected to. I should tell the House that this is treated as a matter of privilege.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

12.34 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I rise with sadness and regret to oppose the issuing of the writ for the county constituency of Crewe and Nantwich in Cheshire. In doing so, may I apologise to the Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon)? I do not wish in any way to frustrate the Government in what they are seeking to do.

As the longest-serving Member in the county of Cheshire, and a close friend of the late Mrs. Dunwoody—I worked with her on many issues in Cheshire over many years—I believe that I represent a view held fairly strongly across the House. It appears to me and many others that the issuing of the writ before the funeral of Mrs. Dunwoody means that this matter is being pursued with unseemly haste.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody was hugely respected for what she did in this place. She was a robust, independent socialist who was never frightened to express her view or to stand up for what she believed to be right. She was equally committed to and respected in her constituency and the county of Cheshire as a whole. I merely wish to represent to this House my concern that the writ has been issued before Mrs. Dunwoody’s funeral, next Thursday in St. Margaret’s church here in Westminster, which I shall attend. I wish to register that point. I do not intend to vote against the issuing of the writ, and I hope that Members of the House will not do so.

12.36 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Ever since I have been here, it has been the tradition that when a colleague dies the party of that colleague moves the writ for the by-election or seeks to persuade Parliament to do so. That has a logic to it, and it is a logic from which my colleagues and I do not dissent. Like the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), none of us has fully taken in or recovered from the fact that only a couple of weeks ago Gwyneth Dunwoody was here, as robust as ever, and now she is not with us any more.

Without seeking to persuade my colleagues to oppose the decision we are about to take, I would like to register my view that we appear to be going down a road of having by-elections much more speedily after deaths of colleagues. There ought to be a convention at least that the funeral takes place first, and clearly there may be a need for talks between the parties to ensure that we return to a slightly more decent, respectful and honourable process. Of course, there is the question of
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not wanting to leave a constituency unrepresented for too long, but there are practical issues as well as ones of principle. If a by-election is called quickly, although there is no doubt that we will all— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman speak. [ Interruption. ] Order. Mr. Brennan, please allow the hon. Gentleman to speak.

Simon Hughes: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. If there is a by-election, we will, of course, all engage in it and fight a robust campaign. Inevitably, that will be the case. However, it is not good to have hasty by-elections, even in practical terms. It reduces the opportunity for people to consider whether they wish to be candidates, and for their parties to consider that matter. It reduces the opportunity for people to apply for postal votes so that they can take part in the process, and it reduces people’s ability to take part in the debate about the politics of the constituency and the country.

I hope that we can re-examine the process for and the speed of calling by-elections. I believe that the public would share the view of the hon. Member for Macclesfield that a little more caution and a little less haste is appropriate. However, the Government have made the decision, and so they must have their way and live with the consequences.

12.40 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I support my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) as a fellow Cheshire Member of Parliament. I know that the sentiments he expressed will be shared by other Cheshire colleagues and hon. Members of all parties.

In almost 25 years, I have never known a writ be moved before a colleague’s funeral. I was dismayed at the discourtesy and insensitivity afforded to Mrs. Dunwoody’s family and her constituency.

When boundary changes took place in 1983, I inherited part of Gwyneth’s former constituency—

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Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is not giving way.

Ann Winterton: I inherited part of Gwyneth Dunwoody’s constituency and I know the high esteem in which she was and continues to be held by her former constituents. Gwyneth Dunwoody was a neighbour, a redoubtable woman and a character. She did not deserve such treatment.

Mr. Spellar: I invited the hon. Lady to give way. She claimed to speak on behalf of the family and said that disrespect had been shown to them. Has she asked the family whether that was their view?

Mr. Speaker: I call the Leader of the House.

12.41 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I wish to raise two points in response to those that have been made. The first is about the wishes of the family and the second is about the conventions of the House.

I shall read to the House a statement from the family in respect of the late Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody. They said:

It is a long-standing convention of the House that, when a party loses a member, it decides when to move the writ, which triggers the process that leads to the ensuing by-election.

Crewe and Nantwich has had a doughty advocate for 34 years and it needs a new Member of Parliament. I therefore invite the House to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

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Citizens’ Initiative

12.43 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I beg to move,

Under the Bill, citizens could trigger debates and votes in Parliament on topics of their choice. Part of the House’s legislative agenda would be determined directly by the ordinary citizen, not just MPs and officials. Bills would be introduced on things that mattered to the people, not merely those that excite politicians.

The Bill is sponsored by Members from across the political spectrum, united in wanting a new kind of progressive politics. We most certainly do need a new form of politics. There is a growing problem with the old Westminster politics. There is a gaping gulf between the political classes in SW1 and the country beyond. My Bill would ensure that Westminster was made more directly accountable to those whom we are supposed to serve. In place of the gentlemen’s club rules that are used to determine what is on the legislature’s agenda, the people would also get to have a say.

To initiate a law, a citizen would submit a written proposal to the Clerk in the Table Office. Just as in New Zealand, the Table Office Clerk could determine the precise wording and rule frivolous or fantastic proposals out of order. Proposals would be out of order if, in the opinion of the Clerk and the Speaker, a similar proposal had been put forward within five years. Once a proposal had been approved by the Table Office, citizens would have 12 months to collect signatures.

In New Zealand, 10 per cent. of voters need to sign up to trigger an initiative. Many western democracies have a right of initiative, including Austria, Italy, Hungary and Lithuania, yet the threshold in such countries has often been set so high that initiatives are rare. High thresholds mean that the popular initiative plays an integral part in the political process in only the United States and Switzerland.

Rather than selecting an arbitrary threshold, under my Bill those six proposals with the most signatures would qualify. Ensuring that each proposal was, in effect, in competition with other proposals would have advantages. It would encourage proposals that were, by definition, able to command widespread support and would favour measures that were inclusive and unifying, and progressive and uplifting, over and above what was narrow and sectional.

The half dozen proposals with the most signatures would then be presented to Parliament during the state opening. Having listed those Bills that the Sir Humphrey Appleby types, the remote officials and even, it has to be said, the occasional Minister wanted, Her Majesty would then read out those Bills that the people wanted on the statue book. And what a Queen’s Speech that might be! Perhaps people beyond the Westminster village might want to watch and debate the contents of the Gracious Speech—a speech with purpose, as well as pageantry.

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Every couple of months, the Commons would debate and vote on one of the people’s Bills. MPs would not be under any obligation to vote for or against them. Perhaps some MPs might not even bother to turn up at all—it has been known—but no longer could politicians avoid the angry gaze of the electorate. No longer could MPs pretend that they did not have the opportunity to confront those issues that matter to the people.

It might be that the party Whips would allow free votes on the people’s Bills—and good luck to those who did not. Yet with or without a free vote, each MP would find themselves more accountable not to their Whips but to their constituents. No longer mere cheerleaders for the current Government or cheerleaders for the next, MPs would have to heed the voice of the voter.

My Bill would boost voter turnout, too. Empirical evidence from the US shows that those states with the right of initiative have, on average, 5 per cent. higher turnouts than those states without.

Would a popular initiative open the floodgates to some wildly illiberal populism? No. Restoring capital punishment is simply not a perennial demand among voters in Switzerland. Giving people responsibility makes them responsible. Even if an angry and, some may say, infantilised electorate initially put forward some radical populism, MPs would of course still have the final say.

Hon. Members may recall that the great and hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) once—some might say rather rashly—promised his private Member’s Bill slot to Radio 4 listeners. When they promptly suggested a change in the law on self-defence and burglars, he promptly chose not to take up their case. Under my proposal, MPs forced to confront issues that they would rather not face could do likewise, but at least when politicians decided that they were going to ignore the views of the voter, they could not pretend otherwise.

A right of initiative would strengthen Parliament and revive our much diminished standing. Far from bypassing or marginalising the Commons, my Bill would give this institution a little backbone. We would still be, in Edmund Burke’s memorable phrase, a “deliberative assembly”; it is just that those assembled here would deliberate what counted with the country. This House, under Governments of both parties, has grown less effective at holding those who wield Executive power to account. It should not surprise any of us that fewer people bother voting in elections to determine who sits here.

Designed in the age of steam trains, our parliamentary system evolved in an era when most people lived and worked in the same parish, and sending a representative off to some remote palace by the Thames was how politics had to be done. Three centuries after the Putney debates, in the age of YouTube, leaving things to politicians is no longer the only way in which politics can be done. In the era of Google, politics is not something that we, the people, must elect them, the politicians, to do on our behalf. Politics can belong to the people between elections, and voters can have a direct say over what MPs debate and vote on.

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