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Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab):
As my right hon. Friend may know, I have in my constituency
three of the five biggest energy users, and they are very concerned about increasing energy costs. What steps are my right hon. Friends Government taking to protect them against excessive profits, which has happened before in respect of the energy companies?
The Prime Minister: Everybody is concerned about the 50 per cent. rise in oil prices that we have seen over the last few weeks. The oil price was $150, then it went down to $30, and it has now gone up to $70. That means that it is very difficult for energy companies in this country, but also very difficult for consumers, and very difficult when we consider future gas and electricity bills. I believe that the world has got to look at what it can do to make sure that supply of and demand for oil is far more in balance, so that we can keep oil prices under control.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I rise to seek leave to move that the House discuss a specific and important matter that should be given urgent consideration: the proposed movement of the missile testing facilities from Hebrides range in my constituency, with the loss of 120 jobsand unofficial estimates from Highlands and Islands Enterprise effectively double that. South Uist, North Uist and Benbecula cannot cope with that level of cuts. In a major city such as Glasgow, that would be the equivalent of 6,000 to 7,000 jobs gone at the stroke of a pen. Bad as that may be in a city, for an island community it is infinitely worse; it means depopulation to the next city or employment opportunities that are eight hours away by ferry and vehicular transport.
The people of North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula have taken the Hebrides missile range into their community and accepted and worked with its needs and demands. An entire community has shaped itself to fulfil its needs: a service and sacrifice that entailed forgoing many opportunities, at great opportunity cost to the community. The Ministry of Defence, through QinetiQ, cannot walk away leaving chaos and a vacuum behind. There is a social and economic responsibility here.
Over and above the social and economic responsibility, however, the Hebrides range is simply the best for purpose in missile testing. No other range compares to the Hebrides range; it is so large that the curvature of the earth becomes a factor. This difficulty is mitigated by the existence of St. Kilda as a monitoring post almost in the middle of the range. There is no equivalent in the UKor in Europeto Hebrides range.
Hebrides range is important to the defence of the realm, and also for the defence of Europe, as many other countries use the range for testing. It must not be decimated; it must not be smashed; it must not be ruined at the stroke of a pen. For the islands and also for defence, Hebrides range is too important. Its closure was considered 15 years ago under a previous Government and rightly rejected for many valid reasons. This proposal needs full parliamentary scrutiny in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I put this to you, Mr. Speaker, for your consideration.
Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member has said, and I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider the matter he raises to be appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24. I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the suspension or restriction of programming of Bills when the House of Commons is scheduled to meet for fewer than a prescribed number of days in any specified period; and for connected purposes.
The only possible justification for guillotining debate and preventing thorough scrutiny of legislation by this House is a shortage of parliamentary time. The Government have decided that Parliament will sit for fewer days this year than in any year since 1945, but they are still using powers, once reserved for exceptional cases, to restrict the time available for debate on every Bill. As a result, large swathes of legislation leave this place without ever having been scrutinised at all. My Bill will mean that in future no Government could restrict the time available for debate on Bills if Parliament is scheduled to sit for fewer days than the average of recent years, for example. That will set Parliament free to do what it is supposed to do: scrutinise legislation thoroughly and hold the Government to account.
I regularly invite everyone on the electoral register in a cluster of streets in my constituency to visit Parliament, and they come in their hundreds. One question that they often ask is, Isnt Parliament just a talking shop and a waste of time? They are right that it is a talking shopthe word Parliament comes from the French word parler, which means to talk; that is what we dobut they are wrong to say that it is a waste of time. There are only two ways to govern a country. One is when the Government say, These are the laws, obey them. These are the taxes, pay them. You have got no say in the matter. The second way, which we have developed in this place over 1,000 years, is by having a system whereby no law may be introduced and no tax imposed until it has been discussed and debated in this House and a majority of the representatives of the British people have given it their assent. That is what this place is for: to debate and discuss exhaustively whether each Bill is right in principle and whether it will work in practice, in the light of all the submissions we receive from our constituents and others affected by it.
That process takes time, so the idea of curtailing debate has always been alien to this House; it is an alien thing, given an alien namethe guillotinethat was introduced when Parliament accepted the need, in extremis, to put a time limit on debate. The guillotine has since been invoked very sparingly; the previous Conservative Government guillotined only between four and five Bills every year. This Government decided early on that all Bills should be guillotined, and that was renamed programming in new Labour newspeak. Programming was supposed to ensure that every Bill would receive full consideration, but that has not happened.
All too many Bills leave this House with sizeable chunks never debated in Committee and with grotesquely inadequate consideration by the whole House on Report. In the case of three quarters of Bills last year, this Chamber was not allowed to debate all the groups of
amendments selected for debate by the Speaker. For example, the Government deliberately restricted the time for debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill so that dozens of new clauses were not debated; on the Counter-Terrorism Bill Members had only three hours to discuss 16 new clauses and 60 amendments covering crucial issues such as post-charge questioning and control orders; and on the Climate Change Bill we were not allowed to debate the crucial amendment increasing the carbon reduction target from 60 to 80 per cent., which doubled the Bills cost and which many supporters felt did not go far enough.
Moreover, the time saved on debating primary legislation has not been used to scrutinise secondary legislation, which increasingly accounts for the substance of our laws. The proportion of statutory instruments requiring the affirmative procedure considered by the House has fallen from one third in the last three years of the Major Government to just 6 per cent. now and, of the thousands of statutory instruments subject to the negative procedure, the number put to the vote in the Chamber declined from one in 200 under the previous Governmentthat figure is bad enoughto only one in 1,000 now.
In the present climate, people assume that that proves that Members of Parliament are lazy as well as greedy. I shall say nothing of greed, other than that many hon. Members backed my last ten-minute Bill, even though it sought to cut MPs pay whenever we give away powers to Europe or the courts. Far from being lazy, most MPs are eager to scrutinise legislation, to hold Ministers to account and to debate the Oppositions policies toowe would willingly do so for longer. It is Ministers, not Back Benchers, who prefer to send Parliament away for as long as possible, because all Governments, not just this one, find it is disagreeable to be scrutinised, criticised and held to account. There is a myth, which has been given a new lease of life by the recent crisis of confidence in Parliament, that debates no longer matter and that MPs are Lobby fodder controlled by ever more powerful Whips. Commentators hark back to the golden age, when MPs were supposedly more independent-minded, Whips had less power and the Government could get legislation through only by genuinely convincing their own supporters or by winning over some Opposition MPs.
In fact, Professor Cowleys evidence to the Modernisation Committee demonstrates that things have been moving in exactly the opposite direction. When Lord Hailsham described the British constitution as an elective dictatorship, there was a lot of truth in his description. Between 1945 and 1970, there was not a single Government defeat in the House of Commons as a result of Back-Bench dissent. There were two whole Sessions in the 1950s during which not a single Government Member defied their Whip, but since then Back Benchers have become increasingly independent minded in each successive Parliament.
More than 4,300 votes were cast against the Conservative Whip during Margaret Thatchers Government, and no fewer than 6,500 votes cast against the Labour Whip under this Government. Despite new Labours passion for discipline and its big majorities, it has faced the largest rebellions this House has seen since the corn laws. Time and again, Labour has only been able to get
legislation through by making concessions to critics on its own side, by winning the support of minor parties or by relying on the Opposition. On issues such as 42 days, it had to back down ultimately, as it did recently on the Gurkhas. It may also have to back down on the Post Office, just as John Majors Cabinet did.
One reason MPs are more independent nowadays is that we are in continual dialogue with our constituents in ways that did not happen in the past. They write to us, question us and e-mail back to us. They will not be fobbed off with the official party brief and so we are forced to look at controversial issues in depth. On occasion, in trying to convince our electors that our partys line is correct, we end up convincing ourselves that it needs to change. I believe that that is a good thing. It means that debate matters, scrutiny matters and Parliament matters. But that requires time. I remember a former Labour Chief Whip, the late Lord Cocks, telling me during a late-night sitting, Peter, time is the only weapon the Opposition have. We cant win the votes, but given time we can win the argument. Given time, we can drum those arguments in until your Ministers lose confidence in their own policies, you lose confidence in them and the public lose confidence in the lot of you. My Bill will give future Oppositions that time, so I know that I can count on the support of all those Labour Members who recognise that they may be sitting on these Benches before too long.
By contrast, some of my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench may have their doubts. Scrutiny is uncomfortable. The first instinct of every Whip is to curtail it if they cannot prevent it entirely. But scrutiny is good for good government. Governments with good policies and confidence in those policiesand with the humility to respond positively to constructive criticism of themhave nothing to fear and much to gain from full and thorough scrutiny in this place. I ask leave to bring in this Bill and set Parliament free to do its job.
That Mr. Peter Lilley, Anne Main, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Christopher Chope, Philip Davies, Mark Fisher, Mr. John Gummer, Dr. Evan Harris, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Chris Mullin and Mr. Charles Walker present the Bill.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I attempted to give you notice of this point, which is to do with how we deal with matters relating to the opinions, publicly or privately expressed, of the heir to the throne. You will be aware that Erskine May prevents us from assuming that members of the royal family have a private opinion, although the rule that prevents us from debating such matters is, apparently,
not strictly applied in cases where one
has made a public statement on a matter of current interest so long as comment is made in appropriate terms.
When a private statement is made that seeks to lobby either the Executive or a third party, it is not clear what we can do as Members Parliament to engage with the
issue, even when it is current in the mediaon the airwaves and in the papersor what we can do when we are asked by constituents to comment on the issue or to raise it in Parliament. What advice can you give Members of Parliament who wish to ensure that there is full transparency on matters of public policy or private matters affecting citizens or subjects of this country? Is this the only place where the opinions of the Prince of Wales, for example, cannot be debated?
Mr. Speaker: It is the practice of the House that the personal conduct of a member of the royal family cannot be discussed except in debate on a substantive motion drawn up for that purpose. When any member of the royal family engages in public debate, it is of course in order for any views expressed to be discussed, provided that that does not extend to personal criticism. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Speaker: One of the pleasant side effects of a Speaker moving on is that his signature becomes a collectors item. I can inform the House that in the past few weeks I have signed several hundred bottles of Speaker Martins malt. The Chancellor will be pleased to know that some bottles are fetching as much as £150 on eBay. I wanted to help the Chancellor in stimulating the economy, but, as a lifelong teetotaller, I am surprised that I could do so in such a way.
I pay tribute to my staff in Speakers House: Angus Sinclair, the Speakers Secretary; Peter Barratt, the Assistant Secretary; Ian Davis, my Trainbearer; Chris Michael, the Diary Secretary; Eve Griffith-Okai; Katherine McCarthy and Abdulaye Balogun. In Speakers House, Mrs. Gloria Hawkes, Housekeeper, has always been there for us; a good friend. No Speaker could ask for a better or more dedicated staff. My three Deputies, Sir Alan Haselhurst, Sylvia Heal and Sir Michael Lord, have shown me first-class support, both inside and outside the House, where their expertise is plain to see. I also thank the members of the Chairmens Panel for their dedication in working night and day.
I must say thank you to the work force in the Palace of Westminster. It is plain for Members to see the Police, Security Officers and Badge Messengers going about their duties and their courtesy is renowned. We have a Library that is highly regarded by every democracy, and especially in the Commonwealth. It has adapted so well to our electronic age.
The Speakers Chaplain, Canon Robert Wright, has given me invaluable spiritual guidance. The Legal Services Office under Speakers Counsel does much that is unsung. The Clerksmen and women who are excellent procedural expertsgive advice at our side every day we are in Session. They go out of their way to provide help and research. Their advice to emerging democracies in eastern Europe and beyond is invaluable and they are held in the highest regard. Hansards powers of concentration and accuracy are first class, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Inter-Parliamentary Union do so much for us.
I must mention those men and women who run our catering outlets and those associated with the Department of Facilities who are behind the scenes cleaning, maintaining and quietly working hard in our support, so often without much recognition. And the same goes for those in the Fees Officethe Department of Resources, as it is now called.
Some of these men and women we do not often see or do not know by name. I have taken every opportunity to ask them to Speakers House when I can, to thank them for their hard work on your behalf. As testimony to their dedication, I recall that on 7 July 2005, many walked home or walked to work when their transport had stopped, and they made sure that they were at their work the next day. In the snowstorm that stopped London this year, many made that huge effort to walk in and do their work, and they are a credit to this House.
When I found out that the Palace of Westminster with its Pugin craftsmanship did not have apprentices, I proposed an apprenticeship scheme. All the trades of
the Housethe carpenters, electricians, plumbers, upholsterers and chefsembarked on a work experience and apprenticeship scheme that has allowed local boys and girls to be trained to a very high skill, making them employable here in the House or outside in all parts of London. By the summer break, some of the apprentices will be receiving their final trades certificates. I am grateful to all those who are giving so many young people a good start in life.
When you charged me with the responsibility of caring for Speakers House, my wife Mary and I resolved to make this place of world heritage also a place of welcome. So many fellow Members and Members of the other place honoured us with their presence. It was a pleasure to receive leaders and Speakers from democracies throughout the world over the past eight years. I will leave Speakers House in the knowledge that I have opened the House to people from so many charities who have either wanted to promote their work or celebrate a special anniversary or occasion. It was always a joy to receive regular visits from the little children from LATCH, the leukaemia charity of Wales.
We welcomed many voluntary, professional and veterans associations, including the Royal College of Midwives. We also welcomed world war two veteranssome from HMS Speakerand representatives of Marie Curie, which is a hospice in my constituency, the homeless charities, and the Huntingtons Disease Association.
As a man of Christian faith, I have been able to welcome other faith groups and was so pleased to initiate the annual Jewish celebration of Hanukkah taking place in Speakers House, bringing members of staff, Members of the House and others of this ancient faith together.
The police search of the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) led to my statement of 3 December last year, which I affirm today. I am pleased that the Government Chief Whip has assured me that an all-party inquiry of eight senior Members, with a member of the Opposition in the Chair and with no Government majority, will inquire into this matter, establish the truth of those events in full transparency, and allow all the lessons to be learned. I will give evidence to any depth required by the House.
Let me turn to Members expenses and allowances. This subject has caused understandable loss of public trust and confidence in us all. In my 30 years in this House, I have seen nothing like it. Let me say again to the men and women of this country that I am sorry.
But also let me remind this House that it passed up an opportunity to deal with this emotive issue less than a year ago. In January 2008, I was tasked by the House with reviewing Members allowances. I pay tribute to my colleaguesthe hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey)on the Members Estimate Committee, who worked very hard to produce detailed and thorough proposals. They took a wide range of evidence and produced a report that was blunt and straightforward, and whose 18 separate recommendations were presented to the House on 3 July 2008.
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