Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 38



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 17 April 2012

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Philip Hollobone

Ian Mearns

Paul Flynn made representations

Q1 Chair: Before we start, I should point out that this is our last meeting in public because we have been given no time to allocate between now and prorogation. We have one day in Westminster Hall-a three-hour slot on 26 April-but that is absolutely all we have available to us. After this, when Parliament prorogues we disband. We will no longer exist as a Committee and we will be re-elected at the beginning of the next Session, so it will be a new Committee in the next Session.

This is specifically about Westminster Hall on 26 April; there is nothing else. Anything beyond that in the Chamber after prorogation will be for our successor Committee to decide. We have a list of things that are still waiting and anything that comes to us today we will pass on to our successor Committee to make a decision on, but you should know that there is no time in the Chamber to allocate, although we have these three hours in Westminster Hall. With that in mind-

Paul Flynn: A bleak start, but there we are. We are all grateful to the Committee for the work that has been done. Back Benchers are happy with what is going on and realise that there must be restrictions in the early stages before it settles down.

The issue I want to raise is of paramount importance. It is the dislocation between the Government’s view on the war in Afghanistan and the public’s view. I believe that we should consider following the example of Canada and the Netherlands, both of which have made distinguished contributions in Afghanistan in the sacrifice of blood and treasure, and act as an independent nation, as we like to call ourselves, and take our own decision on withdrawal. I have just returned from Australia where I have been for the last two weeks. It is a lively argument out there. They will almost certainly change their decision. Sadly, both here and in the United States of America those decisions seem to be based on electoral considerations. I believe that we are in the awful position that happens at the end of wars when the enthusiasm has evaporated, and the country and the military and political leaders are asking the question that Senator Kerry asked in the final days of the Vietnam war: who will be the last soldier I will send to die for a politician’s mistake?

I put this application in some weeks ago now. Since then, there has been the emphatic and extraordinary decision by the people in the by-election in Bradford-which seemed to be based on one issue, an anti-war issue-where George Galloway chalked up an extraordinary majority. I believe that there is a great deal of other evidence of how people-the public-have lost their enthusiasm for the war. I do not think we should continue to ask our brave soldiers, with the sacrifices that they have made, to risk their lives for one day longer than necessary. I believe that, as parliamentarians, we are going to be accused, as they were accused by Siegfried Sassoon in 1917 with his declaration against war. He said that the war was being continued by those who had the power to end it. The only reason we continue to send our soldiers to Afghanistan now is to help politicians and military leaders to spin a fantasy ending to the war that will reflect well on them, at the cost of lives and more of our soldiers.

Q2 Chair: All right. From your application, you want to have a full day’s debate with a vote. The other thing on your application form is that you have Ronnie Campbell, Martin Caton, Jeremy Corbyn, Mark Durkan and Jonathan Edwards. You do not have anybody-

Paul Flynn: Caroline Lucas and George Galloway have their names.

Q3 Chair: You do not have anybody from the Government side.

John Hemming: I am happy to go on the list, if I can sit with him.

Chair: You don’t have to sit with him.

John Hemming: You can quite easily find someone. Probably John Baron would go on there.

Paul Flynn: He probably would.

Chair: Thank you. Did you want to say something, Philip?

Q4 Mr Hollobone: The fundamental question that we have to ask all presenters today is, if you were granted the only debate we have left, on Thursday 26 April in Westminster Hall, would you take it?

Paul Flynn: Of course.

Q5 Chair: I think we are all quite clear about this debate. There is no vote in Westminster Hall.

Paul Flynn: But if we had an expression of opinion-if that was all the choice we had-we would gratefully accept it.

Q6 Chair: It is. That is the only choice we have. Thank you very much, Paul, for coming.

Paul Flynn: Thank you.

Alex Cunningham made representations

Q7 Chair: Could we have Alex Cunningham, Bob Blackman and Stephen Williams please?

Alex Cunningham: I think I am on my own.

Q8 Chair: All right, representing all three.

Alex Cunningham: Yes. Thank you, Chair. Perhaps it is appropriate, if this is the fag end of your time as a Committee, that we should have a debate on smoking. Yesterday, the Minister issued a document starting a consultation on plain packaging, so this bid for a debate is particularly timely. We would rather have the 180 minutes, rather than the 90. We accept that there are other views as well, but there are four different political parties represented. The names are on the form, which I think is self-explanatory, so I will just leave it there.

Q9 Chair: So this is a general debate?

Alex Cunningham: Yes, it is.

Q10 Chair: Brilliant. Again, back to the question of 26 April-you would be happy with that?

Alex Cunningham: Yes.

Q11 Chair: In terms of numbers of supporting Members, you have Debbie Abrahams, Virendra Sharma, John Robertson, Heidi Alexander and Naomi Long. There is also yourself, Bob Blackman and Stephen Williams. You are asking for what?

Alex Cunningham: The three hours would be preferable.

Q12 Chair: That is quite few in terms of numbers for a three-hour debate. Would you be confident that you could bring us some more names?

Alex Cunningham: All eight of those people would have a particular approach to the debate, and I am sure that there would be other opinions as well.

Q13 Jane Ellison: Just picking up on the other opinions, one of the things that we are keen to do is schedule time for things that are a real debate rather than just a succession of people putting a similar point on the record. Do you think there would be a genuine debate that would go back and forth-not necessarily in a party political way, but in terms of different approaches and substantively different points of view?

Alex Cunningham: I am quite convinced of that. In fact, there was a debate recently on a similar topic, and there was quite a considerable difference in the points being made by Members, and that was just on a much narrower topic related to smoking. This is very much about young people as well.

Q14 Jane Ellison: What was that debate? Was it in Westminster Hall?

Alex Cunningham: It was a Westminster Hall debate. It was a 90-minute debate, but I cannot remember the specific title.

Q15 Jane Ellison: So there was a 90-minute Westminster Hall debate on some aspect of smoking, and tonight there is an Adjournment debate.

Alex Cunningham: I remember specifically what it was about now. It was on smuggling, covering both alcohol and cigarettes.

Jane Ellison: Which is on tonight’s Order Paper too.

Q16 Chair: My only concern is that it is about measures to reduce the dangers of smoking to young people. I do not think there will be many people speaking in favour of increasing the risks and encouraging young people to smoke.

Alex Cunningham: My experience is that Members often find a way of contributing to debates, whether or not the title suits them.

Q17 Chair: It is really just the low numbers. I do not think that that many people would sustain a three-hour debate. If you were confident that you could find more people, we would definitely consider it.

Alex Cunningham: Even the narrow debate attracted quite a large number of people.

Q18 Jane Ellison: To be fair, it is worth putting it on the record that, with only one day open for debate, I am sure that in our considerations we will also look at what subjects have not had an airing at all in Parliament recently, so it might be relevant that there has been at least some recent discussion, and some imminent discussion, on a related topic. That would not be in any way to diminish the importance of the topic.

Alex Cunningham: I understand that, but I would make the specific point that the Minister has now issued the consultation letter on plain packaging, which is a major element as we go forward in the debate.

Ian Mearns: I am in a similar vein to John in the previous discussion. You could quite easily add my name to Alex’s list, and I can probably think of about half a dozen other people who would be interested and who regularly go along to British Lung Foundation events, and so on.

Charlotte Leslie, Dan Byles, Kate Hoey, Andrea Leadsom and Ian Paisley made representations

Q19 Chair: Thank you very much, Alex. Could we now have Charlotte Leslie, please? We are going in the order in which they were received. This is on EU regulation and the NHS.

Charlotte Leslie: While the debate has been raging about structural reforms in the NHS, we have witnessed an erosion of one of the most important things to the NHS: the professionals and the professionalism that enable the NHS to cope with the structural reforms that politicians from time to time inflict on it.

This is very urgent because the doctors themselves say that patient care is suffering dramatically and is suffering now. Some 80% of consultant surgeons say they have seen significant deterioration in patient care since the introduction of the European working time directive, which limits doctors’ training time and is costing patients dear.

I think we have all had constituents come to us very concerned that their grandmother or another relative has had a conveyor belt of doctors come to see them and things key to their health have been missed because of that conveyor belt of doctors. Sometimes premature death has resulted because things have been missed. This could not be more urgent, because it is happening now.

On financial cost, I think we all saw the recent topical news that a doctor was paid £20,000 a week as a locum. The reason that locums are being used more and more, and are costing the NHS £800 million a year-that has doubled in the past two years-is because of the European working time directive and the fact that hospitals cannot find the doctors to fill the shifts that they need. In terms of topicality, I think we all saw the closure of Stafford hospital at nights because it could not find the doctors to fill the shifts.

This is urgent in terms of patient care, which Kate is going to talk about; it is urgent in terms of hospitals being able to find cover, which Ian will briefly talk about; and, most of all, it is urgent-this is a more long-term reason, which Parliament is not always so good at considering-because with each passing year in which doctors are not getting the training they need, two things happen. First, we breed a culture of clock-on, clock-off junior doctors. That is not their fault. They are as excellent an intake as there has ever been, but it is the culture in which they work. Secondly, we are overseeing a system in which our consultants of the future do not have anything like the expertise of our consultants of now. That is why this is urgent.

Q20 Chair: I am very keen that we do not go into the detail of the debate, which is very important. Are you talking about the European working time directive?

Charlotte Leslie: Yes.

Q21 Chair: We have a three-hour slot in Westminster Hall on 26 April, and you say that you are flexible on debate time. Would you consider having the debate in Westminster Hall?

Charlotte Leslie: Yes.

Q22 Chair: That three-hour slot would not include a vote.

Charlotte Leslie: Yes.

Q23 Chair: Could you read out for the sake of the record who your supporting Members are?

Charlotte Leslie: I would like to add to my submission to you that Mike Hancock is also supporting. We have Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey, Ronnie Campbell, Mike Hancock, Simon Hughes, Gordon-sorry, he has been taken off. Phillip Lee, Dan Byles, Marcus Jones, Jeremy Lefroy, Sarah Wollaston, Julian Smith, Dan Poulter, Charlie Elphicke, Chris Heaton-Harris and Andrea Leadsom.

Ian Paisley: And me.

Charlotte Leslie: Oh, Ian Paisley-[Laughter.] I am so sorry.

Q24 Chair: I am relatively clear on what the debate is about, but we have only this three-hour slot available to us.

Kate Hoey: I know we have only the one debate, but I think this issue is important. I have the second largest trust in my constituency-Guy’s and St Thomas’-and every time I am in there this comes up. It is not about the doctors themselves, but about the effect that they see on patients. It is one of those things that we talk about, and if we do not get a proper debate, we will not get any action, when action could be taken to get us out of this.

Ian Paisley: Four very brief things for you to consider: first, this affects everyone-it is about the health of the nation. Secondly, there has not been a debate on this specific aspect and its critical impact on the health of the nation. Thirdly, it is very current, given that the working time directive comes from the EU health and safety legislation, and we all know that we now have a health and safety tsar who is supposed to be quashing all these problems. This is extremely current in terms of the impact and effect it has on people. Of course, it is also current because of the impact, especially in rural hospitals, and particularly in relation to Charlotte’s point about locums running our hospitals and the Royal College telling us every single day that these hospitals are not meeting the standards that they should meet, and they could therefore be closed. This issue is current, incredibly topical, and has a significant impact on everyone.

Charlotte Leslie: If I might add, although I have given a relatively small list of names to you today, the subject is one that attracts very heated opinions on both sides of the debate, from across the House. Everyone has constituents, but everyone also has ideas about the effect of European working time regulation, and it brings together people from the House who are concerned not only about Europe, but about the NHS. I have no doubt from my conversations that it would attract a lot of Members who have quite a lot to say.

Andrea Leadsom: I would like to add a very short point, which is that health is not an EU competence, so these are unintended consequences. I think that is also very important. This is not even in scope; this should not be happening.

Chair: That is interesting.

Q25 Jane Ellison: There are two slightly related issues. Charlotte just made the point about it bringing together people who are interested in the EU and health. The Committee has allocated quite a lot of time to some pretty high-profile debates on the EU, so one question is whether you think this debate would be focused. If we were to allocate you the limited three hours that we have, would you manage to get out all of the issues on this specific matter? Is there the possibility that you would end up with a general debate that people might feel went over ground previously allocated?

My second question-I do not know the answer to it-is whether this is something that can be changed by the Government. Kate alluded to that, but I wonder if you could specifically answer that point.

Charlotte Leslie: Two things: the most interest I have had is from people with medical interests. There are three-one practising doctor and two other ex-doctors-who could not be here today, but wanted to be. The interest is primarily health. Secondly, the Government can do something about it. The problem is that the Government have parked the issue with the European Commission. They do not need to park it; they can push it along, and they can also look at different implementation-Spain and the Netherlands implement the directive differently. We can certainly push for them to look at different, alternative implementations, which would make a huge difference, so there is something that the debate could really do.

Andrea Leadsom: Specifically, the Government could do something without having to go back to the EU. This is not a matter of negotiating; it is simply a matter of implementing it here differently.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming in.

Penny Mordaunt, Julie Hilling, Margot James and Martin Vickers made representations

Q26Chair: Can we have Penny Mordaunt, please? I will not ask you to read the supporting Members out. This is a three-hour debate calling on the Government to appoint a Minister for older people. I think you were here when we said that the only time that we have available is this three-hour debate in Westminster hall, and anything else will be referred to our successor Committee after the Queen’s Speech. We are therefore looking at something after 9 May, so it would be very helpful to us, if you want this Westminster Hall slot, for you to make a case for its urgency.

Penny Mordaunt: Thank you. In trying to be helpful to the Committee, our preference would be for a debate on the Floor of the House. I will briefly explain why. On the basis of getting in early, my sincere wish is that there is continuity in terms of policy and membership of this Committee. That is why we want to present today. We would be happy to take a Westminster Hall debate if you felt that that was more appropriate.

I will add a few things to the application. Obviously we would like the debate on the Floor of the House and it will still be timely at a later date. In the wake of the Budget, there has been a great deal of focus on how older people’s issues are co-ordinated across Government. This is not just about health and social care; it is about the older entrepreneur, freedoms, opportunities and quality of life-it runs across the whole remit. The other thing that makes it timely is that during the debates on the Health and Social Care Bill in the Lords, the Government said that they were considering an individual to take on this role. This campaign is about having someone around the Cabinet table, as opposed to a tsar that takes on that role.

There are two other points that I will make. First, in addition to a large number of colleagues who are keen to have the subject debated, the close to 140,000 signatures that were gathered, breaching the threshold on the Downing street website, were collected offline. They were collected in care home and day centres around the country, from people who normally do not have access to the kind of e-campaigning that we are used to. That is a significant factor.

Secondly, on why we particularly want it on the Floor of the House, there has been an EDM tabled on this issue, which has gained considerable support, with some 84 signatories, I think. If you also take into account that a lot of Members do not necessarily sign EDMs, even though they may be very pro this issue, it is worth having a vote. Given that the Government are considering a measure of this ilk, if we could have it on the Floor of the House-

Q27 Chair: In terms of its urgency, you are saying, aren’t you, that it would be better for you to have something with a vote in the Chamber after 9 May than to have a Westminster Hall debate on 26 April?

Penny Mordaunt: Yes, I mention the urgency in terms of the tsar issue, because I think we could, in terms of the Government’s timetable, cope with it being on the Floor of the House after May 9, but it would need to be fairly early on in that.

Q28 Jane Ellison: A couple of points: one-I am sure that the Chair would make this point-is that we are very sensitive to the fact that not all petitions are e-petitions. The EU referendum debate was allocated largely on the grounds of a regular petition that had reached more than 100,000 signatures. That is a point to which we are extremely sensitive and which was well made in your submission. It does not have to be an e-petition, and thank you for highlighting that there are other ways. It is important for us to highlight that.

The second point was about the nature of the debate and who would speak against it. To what extent is it a debate or to what extent is it seeking an opportunity on the Floor of the House for the House to give some weight to a view?

Penny Mordaunt: First, it would be a debate to send a message to Government. The Government are not currently minded to do this. They have clearly recognised the issues, but I think that people will want to make the case why it should be someone at the Cabinet table-why it should be a Minister, very much in line with the model of the military covenant and how that is co-ordinated, as opposed to someone who sits outside that room having these responsibilities. There is a clear goal in voting on this motion to send that message to the Government.

Given what has happened with regard to the Budget, you are also likely to see people who want to talk about how older people’s issues are dealt with in key Departments, such as the Treasury, that have a pan-Government role, as well as people talking about the older entrepreneur and all the other issues that you might have in a Westminster Hall scenario.

Q29 Chair: I think that is quite clear, so thank you very much for that. We will let everybody know this afternoon about 26 April, and beyond that, if we do not schedule it, it is something that we will then pass over to our successor Committee. The number and wide range of people that you have written down gives it quite a lot of weight, so it is definitely something that will go on to the list.

Penny Mordaunt: Could I ask a clarification question?

Chair: Of course.

Penny Mordaunt: Would it be the case that we would need to come back and pitch again to the Committee?

Chair: It will be up to the successor Committee. If the Committee were not to change at all, I would say, "No," because it will be the same Committee and we have already heard you, but it will be up to whoever is the Chair to decide whether to start with a clean sheet of paper and get everybody to come back in again. It is the first time that we are reconstituting, so we do not really know. Whoever is in the Chair will write to those people whose debates are outstanding to say what they want to do. We have all the submissions from people and there will be continuity with the Clerks anyway, so it will just be a matter of getting in touch and finding out who wants to do what, but we will definitely let you know about 26 April by the end of today.

Guy Opperman made representations

Guy Opperman: Did you get my application form?

Q30 Chair: We did get your application form, but we did not think that you were coming today. Sorry about that.

Guy Opperman: That’s okay.

Q31 Chair: I am very glad that you are here.

Guy Opperman: You are very kind. I accept entirely that this is a last-minute application and that you have not had a chance to consider it. I also want to make it very clear that, having heard the previous representations, I do not seek next Thursday for the debate. It is not so urgent that this has to be dealt with in the next 10 days, so I accept entirely that it is a matter for the successor Committee. However, I wanted to put it before this Committee so that you know that this is on the horizon.

I think that that is also the right and proper course of action given that there is an e-petition of 170,000-plus, and there are certainly various petitions on a local level. In Northumberland, the Hexham Courant and various other papers are pushing this very hard, and there is a very strong force of feeling that this should be debated by the House.

If you asked me for more details, there is obviously an e-petition, which I accept would be the basis of the debate, but I would quite like to widen it as to whether the EU VAT rules apply or whether it is a Treasury issue. That is quite a complex question I have to say that that would be quite at the heart of the debate, because lifeboats are exempt from incurring VAT under EU VAT rules, but every other emergency service is paying for VAT on its fuel.

I suggest that there is cross-party interest. There is a need for a debate in the fullness of time. There is a number of issues relating to Treasury laws, the extent to which the state provides assistance to such charities, the extent to which we take such a debate to Europe, rather than here, and whether one is able, under European law, to give money back to an institution such as a charity like the air ambulance, because that effectively amounts to preferential treatment. My point is that the issue is not as simple as the e-petition. There would be some who would be almost against it on the matter of the principle of both British and European law.

Q32 Chair: The matter of what is debated on the Floor of the House or wherever and the wording of the motion versus what is on the e-petition that people have signed has been an issue. If what you are doing is asking us for a debate on the e-petition, that is one kind of representation. If you are asking us for a debate on VAT on air ambulances and there is an e-petition as well, that is a different issue, if you see what I mean. You are asking for the latter, aren’t you?

Guy Opperman: I believe it is the right course of action to have the latter. The e-petition is very worthy, but given the indications from successive Governments on this issue-I have done some research on what the previous Government were saying on particular VAT exemptions-it would appear that it would be right and proper for the House not only to debate the e-petition but to have it slightly wider, so it is an e-petition and consideration of what are the domestic and European rules on VAT for such charities.

Chair: Okay. I understand that.

Q33 Mr Hollobone: It may be that you can address these issues with a series of carefully worded amendments to the Finance Bill. If you did some research into this and tabled those amendments, certainly at the Committee stage of the Finance Bill on the Floor of the House, a debate on these issues could result. I do not think that anyone who signs an e-petition is particularly fussed as to the technical qualifications of the debate that takes place; they just want these issues debated and aired and MPs to have a chance to take part. That might be the best and most expeditious way to ensure that this issue was tackled. It could be, for example, that you tabled a series of amendments and in response the Government said they could not do this because of an EU rule. The point then is that the issue has been debated, and it is clear to us what the problem is.

At the moment, we do not have any time to allocate. You have said that you do not want to go for 26 April. Although this Committee has no time to give you before prorogation, there would be time to have this issue discussed on the Floor of the House by tabling an appropriate set of amendments.

Guy Opperman: I will of course consider that. My first point would be I do not think we are ready, in terms of the cross-party approach. Secondly, given the approach of successive Governments, I think what their approach would be is fairly well established in correspondence. I would like to explore it in a lot more detail before I start putting down amendments-not wasting the House’s time but being in a position where we can positively address the issue, rather than the Government saying, "We have explained the position before," and there is very little ability to take it forward. My point is that I want to try to take it forward.

John Hemming: Echoing Philip’s point, I have just tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill on bingo taxation. Oddly enough, I learned that only the Government can table something to put up taxes, but any Member of Parliament can table something to reduce taxes. As you are talking about reducing taxes, that is helpful to what you are trying to achieve. It might be a valuable thing to do in any event-to table some such amendment to be considered even in the Committee stage-because it is a technical issue and we need to prompt a response from the civil service. I think tabling it and perhaps getting somebody who is on the Finance Bill Committee to raise it at the Committee stage might be the way to go. It may be that we still need a debate on the Floor of the House, but for something that has transparently such a strong case for it, that would probably be the mechanism for teasing out what the technical arguments are, which is what you really need to do.

Chair: I think also there is no reason why you should not raise it while the Finance Bill is going through, and since you are saying that this is not really that time-limited, it is always something that you can bring back to a successor Committee and ask for again. It is another opportunity to have a bite at the cherry. Who would Guy go to for advice on drafting amendments? It is the Public Bill Office. If you go up there, they will definitely tell you all about how best to go about raising the issue that you are most concerned with, and at what part of the Bill.

Q34 Ian Mearns: If it is at all helpful, Guy, I have a funny feeling that I might be on the Finance Bill Committee, and I would be quite happy with that.

Guy Opperman: That’s very helpful.

Q35 Chair: I have just been told that you would have to do this by the end of today. [Laughter.]

Guy Opperman: Be careful what you wish for; that is the advice in this matter, then.

Chair: It is just that it gives you another opportunity to do it. You do not have to put it to a vote.

Q36 Mr Hollobone: One important point to make is that the new Committee will have only a certain number of days to allocate in the next session. I imagine that one of the questions it will ask is, "What steps did you take during the Finance Bill to try to push this issue?" If your answer is, "I didn’t bother," I think it will take one view. If you say, "I did table a set of amendments but they were not reached or debated" or whatever, that would give more power to your elbow.

Guy Opperman: I will see what we can try to do by close of business tonight. Thank you.

Q37 Chair: Thank you very much for bringing it to us.

Guy Opperman: I just wanted to flag it up at this stage.

Q38 Chair: We are always grateful for people bringing us e-petitions that have reached 100,000 signatures. That is always very helpful to us. Thank you for that, and we will do anything to help.

Guy Opperman: Thank you.

Prepared 23rd April 2012