Session 2010-11
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Representations heard in Public

Questions 1 - 25



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Taken before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 15 March 2011

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr Peter Bone

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Philip Hollobone

Ian Mearns

Paul Flynn, Sarah Newton, Bill Esterson, Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil and Mr Michael Meacher made representations.

Q1 Chair: Paul Flynn, you have sent us a pro forma, but I don’t think you have been to the Committee before.

Paul Flynn: Yes, I have.

Q2 Chair: So you know the format. What we are looking for is an idea of why your debate is topical, how much time you are asking for, and where you want the debate to be.

Paul Flynn: Fine. The role of special trade representative is a matter of controversy, discussion and debate throughout the country, in the media, on blogs and so on, but apparently it is questionable whether we are allowed to discuss it at all in the House of Commons, because of the fact that our special trade representative is a member of the Royal Family. While our rules might be clear on the monarch, it is questionable whether we can be critical of a junior member of the Royal Family when allegations have been made that his conduct is harming the reputation of this country. A number of allegations have been made about him, perhaps the most serious being his association with emerging tyrannies in Europe, particularly Azerbaijan. While he may be adept in the trade area, there is criticism of his role in cosying up to people of this kind.

Q3 Chair: Rather than going into those details-I have not got a problem with that-what we are interested in is what kind of debate you wanted.

Paul Flynn: A half an hour debate would be enough to make the case and to test whether House rules allow us to make comments that would be necessarily critical of a member of the Royal Family.

Chair: Thank you.

Q4 John Hemming: I wonder whether this would fit into the three-hour debate on Thursday on Article 9 and Article 13 of the Bill of Rights. I think it would probably be in order to discuss the matter then.

Paul Flynn: I had a problem in the past when I applied for a debate about swine flu and it was suggested that I include that in a debate on general health. I had a great deal of trouble with both the Government spokesman-the Minister-and the Chairman, who did not want me to talk about that in the debate. If it is clear to whoever chairs the debate that it is permitted to raise the matter-

Q5 John Hemming: It depends what this Committee feels, because it sets the debate.

Chair: Any other questions for Paul Flynn?

Q6 Ian Mearns: Have any other Members expressed an interest in having a debate about this?

Paul Flynn: Chris Bryant has raised the issue on a number of occasions in the House, but he is a shadow Minister.

Q7 Chair: How about cross-party support?

Paul Flynn: I have not canvassed that.

Q8 Chair: We might ask you to do that, just to be certain that the debating time can be filled. It is unlike an Adjournment debate. Have you tried to put in for an Adjournment debate on the matter?

Paul Flynn: No, because I think it is a matter for this Committee, as it is an extension of the role of Back Benchers. The Speaker has given a ruling that if we mention members of the Royal Family, we have to do it rarely and always be "respectful"-that was the word he used. If one is making a comment in this situation, one might not be able to do the job accurately by being respectful.

Q9 John Hemming: At one stage I was told that I could not use the word "egregious" in a petition. It may be possible to make the right criticisms of what is effectively an arm of the Government rather than an arm of the Royal Family, in a manner that would be in order.

Paul Flynn: Indeed. We are moving in the direction of pre-appointment hearings, and there has been at least one retrospective pre-appointment hearing. Certainly, there should be a role for Parliament in determining who gets a job of that kind, and whether it should be done on merit or on the hereditary principle.

Q10 Chair: We will have a look at this and whether it fits into the debate that is happening in Westminster Hall this coming Thursday. We will let you know straight away.

Welcome back.

Sarah Newton: Thank you for being indulgent with your time with us. The reason we are back is that, as you are probably aware, the Minister, Mike Penning, and the Secretary of State have granted an extension to the consultation on the proposals to reorganise the coastguard service. They have specifically invited coastguards to submit alternative proposals. As a result, we would like to have our debate back in the Chamber, and a longer period of time. At the moment, I know you do not have allocated days, and we want to have a motion. Now that there has been such a movement to look at alternative proposals, although we cannot be specific today, we would have a motion about the coastguards’ alternative proposals at that time.

Mr MacNeil: One of the objections we had in the past was going to the 24th, which was the last day of the consultation, and in Westminster Hall. With the extra six weeks, that pressure has been removed, and we would hope to get in the Chamber before the recess, so that we can be part of the process and inform the process. Every time something happens of this nature, something new appears and stimulates the process somewhat. It will be important to get the debate back in the Chamber, as Sarah said, and to have a motion.

On the debate last week, I spoke in the women’s debate and was told to keep it going and take interventions-there would have been plenty of time. To the person who told me that I said, "That’s to stop me getting angry," but I will keep it going and take interventions.

Q11 Chair: You had an end-of-day Adjournment debate this week on coastguards.

Mr MacNeil: I was very grateful to the Speaker, who gave me that last Wednesday after we kissed and made up. The real reason I pulled it was that the Minister was going to both Stornoway and Shetland on Wednesday, and if I had had the debate he could not have gone. That was the pressing reason, but overall I still hold the hope that we get a proper debate. An Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate would not have done the matter justice. A proper debate on the Floor of the House is what we need. Given the six-week extension, the Adjournment debate was not as important.

Q12 Chair: As you are aware, we have very little time. This is only provisional, and we have the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which we use in the usual way, and then we have nothing until we come back. So we are looking at a day that is a very long way off anyway which is still only provisional.

Mr MacNeil: I accept what you say, but this is a bread-and-butter issue affecting maritime safety and people’s jobs in the here and now. While I spoke in the women’s debate, which I thought was a very worthy debate, I felt it was a slower-burn fuse than the here and now. That is not a criticism of the women’s debate, but this issue has a real urgency that is not present in other even more worthy issues.

Q13 Ian Mearns: I am wondering how extensive the support is for this debate among Members from different parties.

Mr MacNeil: I think we would have about nine political parties-

Sarah Newton: Every single party has indicated support.

Mr MacNeil: In Westminster Hall, we did not have enough time to get everybody in, and even if we were not rationed for minutes, I definitely rationed my time to try to let others in.

Q14 John Hemming: If you are wanting a debate in the Chamber, do you have a motion that you want to table?

Sarah Newton: As I said, we cannot say today because we want it to be around an alternative proposal that will come forward, so that it will be meaningful. The Government have indicated that they will consider alternative proposals if they meet the criteria. That is why we need the full debate, to discuss the proposals.

Bill Esterson: We can say as much as that it will be based on the alternative proposal being drawn up by coastguards all around the country working together. They have not submitted that formally yet. We have a rough idea of what it would say, but at the moment we cannot give the detail.

Mr MacNeil: And it will be a very real alternative to what the MCA are putting forward at the moment.

Q15 John Hemming: In essence, you are asking to pull the debate in Westminster Hall and see what happens before the recess.

Mr MacNeil: We would look for a debate before the recess, because the six weeks are from 24 March.

Q16 Chair: That is what I was going to ask, because the next day that we have provisionally, and it is only provisional, is 28 April-that’s a long way off.

Sarah Newton: That is fine, because the extension is until 2 May. I got further clarification from the Minister yesterday, and there will be a further period of consultation on alternatives, so the debate on 28 April will be within the new consultation period and we will still be able to influence the outcome.

Q17 Mr Bone: Last week you had the opportunity to have a debate in the Chamber. We listed it for the Chamber. You came along and asked us to move it to Westminster Hall. You are now asking us to move it from Westminster Hall and put it back in the Chamber. When we put it back in the Chamber will you come along at a later date and ask us to put it back in Westminster Hall?

Mr MacNeil: Definitely not.

Sarah Newton: May I clarify something, Peter? That was not actually what happened at the meeting last week. We were invited by the Chair to come along because there was an issue about scheduling in the Chamber. The commonly held view among, if not all the members of Committee, a great deal of people was that there was not enough time to do both issues justice. We were invited along; we did not make a request to move our debate. We were just helping the Backbench Business Committee resolve a difficult issue.

Bill Esterson: There is also new information-the Minister announced the extension of the consultation by six weeks. He announced that only in answer to my question on Thursday, and it has changed things significantly.

Q18 Jane Ellison: Just to clarify, is one the material changes that you now want to debate a substantive motion? That is one of the things that we take into account when Members are looking for time in the Chamber. Although you are not able to frame a motion at the moment, it sounds as if you have a clear idea that you would do that. Is there any prospect that you would change your minds and have only a general debate, or do you think that you would definitely want a substantive motion?

Mr MacNeil: I will definitely not be back in front of this Committee asking for our debate to be moved out of the Chamber. It looks as if we will have a substantive motion.

Q19 John Hemming: But you would settle for a half-day debate with a substantive motion in the Chamber?

Sarah Newton: Three hours?

Q20 Chair: Three hours, yes. I think that that is the only thing that has never been in dispute. Okay, I think we are quite clear on your case. I, in a landlocked constituency, am very aware of the coastguard service.

Mr MacNeil: We will take you to the seaside.

Q21 Chair: Thank you for bringing it to us.

Michael Meacher, we spoke earlier. You have not had the chance to fill in a pro forma, so will you give us your idea and then we can discuss it further?

Mr Meacher: My proposal is a debate on the rationale for the cuts. I regard this as something like the elephant in the room and arguably the single most important issue facing the nation at the present time. It has never really been seriously or systematically examined.

No one is disputing that the deficit has to be dealt with. The issue is how, and there are profound questions about that. The Government have overwhelmingly chosen spending cuts to tackle the deficit, but other ways include growth-it is significant that, if the Government’s economic forecasts turn out to be true, growth would wipe 40% off the deficit within four years-tax, and the obvious jobs and growth strategy, which would get people off the dole, where we have to pay them money, and into work on housing, infrastructure and so on, so that they would be paying tax into the Exchequer. There are obviously profound ideological issues here-both political and economic. Is the magnitude and extent of the cuts strictly necessary fiscally or is there some other ideological project driving them? The nation has never discussed this fundamental question whether the so-called expansionary contraction of the classical economist, which I think is what George Osborne is following, really works, or whether in a recession as deep as this it is necessary for the public sector to take a lead for private investment to come in on the recovery. These are absolutely fundamental issues that have never been aired, and I find that quite extraordinary. I think there will be huge suppressed demand to have this kind of debate.

Chair: Thank you. Can I bring in Jane Ellison and John Hemming?

Q22 Jane Ellison: A simple question. Do you not think that these questions will be explored in a great deal of detail during the Budget debate, which goes over several days?

Mr Meacher: Indeed, I did think of that. Of course it is something that Members can include in their Budget speeches, if they are called to speak. The problem is that the emphasis will be almost entirely on the Chancellor’s proposals, on the assumption that the underlying ideological base has been settled and all those issues are done and dusted. I accept that that does not prevent anyone, including me, raising it, but the odd reference in speeches that are still largely concerned with what the Chancellor has said fails to capture the significance of what I am talking about.

John Hemming: I was going to ask the same question as Jane has asked.

Q23 Chair: Okay. I am clear about what the bid is. How much time are you asking for? Would it be a general debate or do you have a votable motion?

Mr Meacher: I do not have one at this moment, but obviously there could be a votable motion. This is not an Oxford debating society issue; we are talking about something fundamentally important and it needs to be put to the House and voted on. So I would be in favour of the debate being on a motion.

I am one who favours short debates and short speeches. They seem to me to get the essence of Parliament far better and allow far more people to participate. So three hours, even despite the magnitude of the subject, would satisfy me.

Q24 Chair: One more thing. This is absolutely about the ideological divisions in Parliament. In what way would this not be an Opposition day debate? We are keen on not becoming a platform for Labour Members to bring matters that should essentially be Opposition day debates scheduled by the Opposition.

Mr Meacher: Again, a good question. The answer is that the Opposition, rightly or wrongly-I think perhaps wrongly-tend to concentrate on meaty issues of immediate concern. I think that tomorrow’s debate is about fuel prices. Opposition day debates tend to be about food prices and that sort of thing because those issues are politically good red meat, or whatever colour you give the meat, and they get reported. Unfortunately, the wider issues that determine the whole strategy are seen as rather boring and academic, but they are incredibly important. The Opposition have not seized the opportunity, and I cannot see it happening.

Q25 Mr Bone: I quite understand, Mr Meacher. It was put as a Labour-Conservative thing, but there are people in the Conservative party who think that the cuts are not real cuts and do not go anywhere because total public expenditure is increasing. So those views could also be expressed. But it sounds to me more like a Westminster Hall debate. Would a three-hour debate in Westminster Hall satisfy you?

Mr Meacher: I agree that the range of opinions on both sides of the House has probably been suppressed. Some people in both the main parties and no doubt in the Lib-Dem party as well do not take the view of their Front-Bench spokesmen, and I think that that needs to be aired.

We could have a debate in Westminster Hall, but if you agree with me that this debate has the salience, importance and magnitude that I believe it has, it is odd to float it off to the sidelines. That is a bit unkind, but it is putting the debate in a secondary Chamber, whereas I cannot think of any other issue that needs more desperately to be debated in the main Chamber.

Chair: Thank you.

Mr Meacher: If you want a motion, I will of course provide one.

Chair: Absolutely. Thank you.