UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT

HOUSE OF COMMONS

REPRESENTATIONS

TAKEN BEFORE THE

BACKBENCH BUSINESS COMMITTEE

BACKBENCH DEBATES

TUESDAY 13 SEPTEMBER 2011

STEVE ROTHERAM, ALISON MCGOVERN, DR THÉRÈSE COFFEY, JOHN PUGH, MR DAVID NUTTALL, JIM SHANNON and GAVIN BARWELL

Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 30

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Backbench Business

on Tuesday 13 September 2011

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr Peter Bone

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Philip Hollobone

Ian Mearns

Mr George Mudie

Steve Rotheram, Alison McGovern, Dr Thérèse Coffey, John Pugh, Mr David Nuttall, Jim Shannon and Gavin Barwell made representations.

Q1 Chair: Thank you. Steve Rotheram, you have been before. For those who have not been before, we are looking for a concise presentation, rather than going into the detail of the issue; just a headline of what it is you are making a representation for. You should also let us know why the issue has to be debated now, where it would be most appropriately debated, if there is to be a votable motion, or if it is to be a general debate. Then we will open it up for questions. Do you have a motion?

Steve Rotheram: Yes, we do. I have been before, but not with the weight of expectation on my shoulders that there is this time. First, on behalf of hon. Members who have come as supporters, and everybody else who has signed the application, I thank the Committee for the time and all the work it does on behalf of us all.

As some will already know, I was at the game at Sheffield Wednesday on that fateful day in 1989, and therefore I feel an enormous responsibility to put forward the strongest possible case. I am joined by other hon. Members who were either also there on the day or, like many of you around the table, witnessed those events on television.

The Government have introduced an e-petition system, and 140,000 people signed the Hillsborough petition within two weeks. Believe me, if we had not called the dogs off, it would have been a lot more: we thought we had reached the appropriate ceiling. Those people are from all parts of the country, from different football allegiances and political persuasions. I am genuinely grateful for the cross-party support we have received. I am delighted that Dr Coffey, Dr Pugh and Alison McGovern are co-sponsoring this application. The issue will simply not go away by itself. Justice has to be seen to be done.

Before the setting up of the Hillsborough independent panel, there was a palpable sense that Governments of all colours had been less than helpful in assisting the families to break through the wall of officialdom that surrounded the disaster, but that never broke the spirit of their dignified campaign to ensure that justice was done by the 96 who lost their lives that day.

Today, the eyes of the country are on this Committee, and its decision will be reported far and wide. There have been so many false dawns, but there is now hope for the families after their 22-year dignified fight and campaign. I therefore ask the Committee, first, not to let the families down. I will also explain why there needs to be a debate in the Chamber, with a Division if necessary, because the issue requires a votable motion.

The contentious issue is ensuring that all the documents relating to the disaster, including Cabinet minutes, are released to the Hillsborough independent panel. Some might believe that is what the Government have previously offered, and the Deputy Prime Minister certainly made a statement along those lines. However, the terms of the Hillsborough independent panel do not mean that will happen. Any information must be unrestricted, uncensored and unredacted, but that is not what is on the table. It is vital, therefore, that a debate takes place on the Floor of the House so that the public can see that the issue is being taken seriously on those green Benches.

Given that the Hillsborough disaster was one of the darkest days in our sporting history, we need to give the Hillsborough independent panel every assistance so that it can do its job and complete its work, although the deadlines may have to be extended. The issue not only unites a great city, but resonates right the way across the country, and dealing with it will demonstrate the true worth of this Parliament.

The people have spoken. I have a list of nearly 100 MPs. I swear on my children’s lives that this is not manufactured, but two further people signed it today, so there are now 96 names on it, which is very spooky for me. People from nine political parties have signed it, which shows the depth of feeling. I am therefore calling for a debate in the Chamber to fulfil our political obligation.

Q2 Chair: Could you read out the motion for the purpose of putting it on the record? I assume it is a votable motion.

Steve Rotheram: The motion is for the full disclosure of all Government-related documents, including Cabinet minutes, relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Documentation must be uncensored and without redaction, and the Hillsborough independent panel must have unrestricted access.

Q3 Chair: The debate is to be in the main Chamber. How many hours were you thinking of?

Steve Rotheram: We would hope that something of this magnitude would have a four-hour debate.

Q4 Jane Ellison: May I just clarify something? I was listening to a phone-in when the petition first got into the news and was heading for 100,000 signatures. The debate appeared to be about releasing documents into the press-into the public domain-but your motion is specifically about releasing them to the panel.

Steve Rotheram: To clarify, this all started because the BBC put in a freedom of information request, which the Information Commissioner granted, but which the Government appealed. That prevented the release of that suite of documents. We are saying that we would like a debate on that aspect of the issue.

Alison McGovern: May I add to that briefly? The problem is that throughout the 22-year history of this issue, there have been shifts forwards and backwards in terms of what could be released. The request is that Parliament uses its authority to establish exactly what will happen, especially given the debate between the Information Commissioner and the Government. We want to be absolutely clear through a votable motion on the Floor of the House what is being requested.

Jane Ellison: But, to clarify, your motion is about release to the independent panel.

Q5 Mr Bone: I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton on how he made his presentation, which was excellent. We can clearly see the depth of feeling. One of the reasons for the Backbench Business Committee is to put on debates that those on the Front Benches do not want. Clearly, that has not happened over a number of years.

I was wondering about you wanting only four hours. I would have thought that something like this would have taken a whole day in the Chamber. One of the problems we have with giving you a half-day debate is that if the Government put on some statements, you suddenly find that you are squeezed to two hours. Are there enough Members who would want to speak for it to be a full day?

Steve Rotheram: Absolutely. The only reason that I have asked for four hours is that I am aware that the Committee is restricted to 35 allotted days and that there are other hon. Members who are also trying to get debates. If the Committee thought it was appropriate, I could guarantee 100 speakers on this issue in a full-day debate.

Q6 John Hemming: But your key is to get a votable motion?

Steve Rotheram: Absolutely. If necessary, it needs to be voted on, so that we can say to the Government that this is the message we are sending back and that this suite of documents needs to be released to the independent panel.

Q7 Chair: The only other thing that I wanted to mention was that when the e-petition reached 100,000 signatures, the Government put on the website their direct response, which said: "The Government has confirmed its commitment to full transparency about the Hillsborough disaster through full public disclosure. All papers had previously been shared with the Hillsborough Independent Panel. The Government is happy for all the papers, including Cabinet papers, to be released as soon as the Panel so decides, in consultation with the families. We expect them to be shared with the Hillsborough families first and then to the wider public." That includes all the Cabinet papers, and says exactly what your motion is asking for.

Steve Rotheram: No, it does not. These are some of the nuances that civil servants hide behind, because that will be in line with the Hillsborough independent panel terms of reference, which state that, if there is Cabinet collective responsibility, that information can be censored and redacted.

Chair: Okay.

Q8 John Hemming: To clarify, they have had the papers, but they are redacted.

Steve Rotheram: They have not got unrestricted access, that is the first thing. Any information that is given to the panel could be redacted and could be censored.

Q9 John Hemming: So it could be redacted, it is not that it has been redacted.

Steve Rotheram: Well, the other contentious point is that it says that all information has been provided to the panel. Some information has been provided to one member of the panel, so it is not a lie, but it is being very civil servant-like with the truth. I went to see "Yes, Prime Minister", so I know.

Jane Ellison: Another quick question. We often seek, in the limited time available for us to allocate, to ensure that we get the best debates, with back and forth, to and fro. I appreciate the huge strength of feeling that you eloquently brought out. To what extent do you think it will be a debate as opposed to many people putting similar views on the record, followed by a Government response? Are there nuances to this discussion that will come out in that time?

Steve Rotheram: There are probably more than nuances, because the Government have made a statement, which is one of fact in their eyes, but which needs to be debated. I would contend that almost everything that is in that statement was on the e-petition.

Q10 Chair: But is there anybody in the House who would argue against the full disclosure?

Dr Coffey: This is where there might be some debate, but it may not end up being specifically on Hillsborough. It may become a bit of a nuanced discussion on whether Parliament should be able to instruct the Government to release Cabinet minutes. Although it may not end up being specifically on Hillsborough, there will be quite a bit of debate on that point. It is one of the key points that Members here are keen to make. It is a parliamentary point. I raise that now so that my colleagues will be aware that some people may come and speak against the motion, but not specifically about Hillsborough. Some of the nuance should be taken into consideration. How can I put it? After the last circus debate, when very few people stood up and spoke against, some people who felt ambivalent ended up thinking, "I’m not going to raise my head above the parapet, because it might be seen as a ‘Death to all animals!’ kind of thing." In that context, it is important to say that there is a proper Parliament versus Executive debate to be had, as well as that of the tragic affairs of Hillsborough and their consequences for the families.

Chair: Thank you, that was really helpful. Thank you to everyone who has come to support that bid. We go into private session after this to make an overall decision. Many bids have been made over previous weeks and we will hear some others today, too. We will let you know this afternoon what we have decided.

Ian Mearns: Is it worth while putting on record the current position, since this is the first application of an e-petition that has been supported by Members? It might be helpful to do so.

Chair: We have had a long discussion about e-petitions and how we deal with them. Because this is a complex issue, the outcome is that we have no system of dealing with e-petitions at the moment. Until we have such a system, we will hear e-petitions, and bids for them, only if they are brought to us by a supporting Member. We will not look at e-petitions that reach 100,000 signatures unless a Member supports a bid as part of an issue that they want debated. We will continue to judge such issues on merit rather than on the number of people who have signed the e-petition. We will consult more widely on how to deal with e-petitions in future, but in the short term, that is how we will do it. This e-petition has not just one supporting Member, but quite a few, and we are glad that you have brought it to the Committee.

Q11 John Hemming: To get some indication of the support, may I ask people to put their hands up if they are here for Hillsborough?

Q12 Chair: Thank you.

I understand that you are here to make a bid for time on a paper petition.

Mr Nuttall: Yes, that is correct. It is a hybrid e-petition in that, I understand, more than 80,000 of the names were collected in the more traditional paper form and 20,000 were collected electronically through what might be termed an e-petition. I trust that the Committee would not wish to discriminate against it simply because some of the names were collected through a more traditional route.

Nevertheless, as you will be aware, last Thursday a petition containing in excess of 100,000 names was submitted to call for a referendum on whether we remain a member of the European Union. I suggest that that matter is of enormous national interest. The country has not had the opportunity to vote on that for some 36 years. Many millions of people outside the House and many Members, including me, were not able to vote in that referendum and would like an opportunity to be able to influence the debate on our continued relationship with Europe.

On support for the debate, the petition was handed in by members of the Conservative and Labour parties, and by members from other parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford is with me today. He is a DUP Member, and he supports the bid. On the other side of the argument, the Government are opposed to holding a referendum. To that extent, this is perfect Back Bench business, because there are clearly two sides to the argument.

In view of the national importance of the subject, I ask that it be granted a one-day debate. As you will be aware, I sit through business questions on Thursdays and am acutely aware of the intense pressures on business time. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I know only too well the competing pressures for time in the House, but I feel that this is a matter that would generate enormous national attention. As with other debates that your Committee has sanctioned in the past, the national media would focus on the Chamber to see the outcome of the debate. It would be quite feasible to draft a votable motion calling on the Government to introduce legislation to provide for the holding of a referendum on our continued membership of the European Union.

Q13 Jane Ellison: I have a quick question to get some clarification. Do you see that, although you are bidding for a debate on having a referendum, such a debate would essentially be a proxy debate for in/out? What you said about there being a lot of interest would definitely be true if the House debated the whole in/out thing, but it would only be true of a debate on having a referendum if the debate were essentially a proxy for an in/out debate.

Mr Nuttall: There would be a debate on the nature of the referendum question, which is the crucial issue in many ways. It does not necessarily have to be an in/out referendum. In many ways, I think it should be a question of in or EFTA-the European Free Trade Association. That is what many people thought they were signing up for when they voted, nearly four decades ago, to join the EEC-the European Economic Community-as it was in those days. It has grown and developed since then.

Q14 Mr Bone: The Committee is looking for something that, first of all, neither Front Bench particularly wants to debate. There are different views within the political parties, so you would want Conservative Members arguing both ways and Labour and other parties arguing both ways, This motion is not about the issue of whether we should be in or out; it is about whether there should be a referendum, isn’t it?

Mr Nuttall: Yes.

Q15 Mr Bone: So I suppose all those boxes are ticked.

Mr Nuttall: Yes. My view is that opposition will come from those people who do not think that we should have a referendum because they want to stay in. My argument is that in a referendum they would be able to vote to stay in. As I mentioned earlier, the Government’s view is that there is no need for a referendum because of the referendum back in the 1970s.

Q16 Mr Bone: There will also be people who support a referendum because they want to stay in.

Mr Nuttall: Yes, there are. Coincidentally, and rather strangely, on the way here I met the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. He supports having a referendum, but he is quite open that he would vote to stay in the European Union.

Q17 John Hemming: A lot of people came out in support of the previous one. We know that you are not isolated, but do you have the number of Members who have signed up to support your application?

Mr Nuttall: Yes. Last Thursday, a number of Members of Parliament from different parties supported the submission of the petition. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone could fill a whole day on his own. [Laughter.]

Q18 John Hemming: I know he could fill a whole day, but formal written support for the application is the issue. People need to sign up to say that they would like to have the debate.

Jim Shannon: I just wanted to add my support. Questions have been asked about the support both for and against. Obviously, from my own party’s point of view, we would be very keen to see a referendum. I am also aware that MPs who represent other areas in Northern Ireland are perhaps in a different camp. Therefore, that would provide the energy for a debate. There is a difference of opinion among the MPs who represent Northern Ireland. At the same time, we have a strong lobby of constituents who have indicated that they want to see a referendum; they want to see the debate. Where better to have a debate than in the mother of Parliaments where the democratic expression can be made and the people can contribute? I feel that that opportunity is one our constituents would like to see happen.

Q19 Chair: One of the key things that we look at is topicality. Why is it that we need to have this debate now? Although your petition gives a hook to hang it on, we normally require a list of signatures of supporting cross-party Members and a votable motion. Is there a massive urgency to have this debate immediately? We have two slots of time when we get back in October, but as you saw earlier there are huge demands on that time. Is there an enormous urgency or is this something that we can work on for longer?

Mr Nuttall: I think that the many millions of people who are concerned about this issue would just be glad to see it somewhere on the agenda. There has been a Procedure Committee report sat on the Order Paper for months, but at least it is in the queue and members of that Committee are happy that it is in the queue. We know that one day it will appear. If this was in the queue, it is better than it never being in the queue. Part of the problem with the European issue is that because it has been going on for 30 or 40 years-in the same way as the previous submission with regard to the Hillsborough disaster-there is always an issue that will be a volcano today rather than something that plods along. To that extent, there is always something that is of more immediate consequence. The essence of this bid is the fact that there are 100,000 plus signatures on a petition-not the new-fangled e-petition scheme-who are calling for this matter to be debated. To that extent, there is some flexibility for it to be fitted into the agenda. It is a question of getting it in the list or in the queue.

Q20 Chair: Did you want to add something?

Jim Shannon: Europe is very relevant to us all, especially to my constituents. Certainly, the opportunity to have a debate on the European referendum would be something that they wish to see. I feel it is opportune and immediate. Hopefully, the opportunity to have a debate will be given to us.

Q21 Chair: Thank you. As we said to the last group, we will make a decision straight after this meeting, so we will let people know this afternoon.

Gavin Barwell is next.

Gavin Barwell: I am applying for a debate on the response to the riots that took place in early August. Obviously, we had an opportunity briefly to have a debate after the Prime Minister’s statement and the Chancellor’s statement on the one day that we were recalled over the summer. I think that that was about three hours in total, so not many Back Benchers got to speak. I know that a number of Members whose constituencies were directly affected by what happened did not have the opportunity to speak on that occasion. There are several other reasons for having a further discussion. I am here because I was contacted by a constituent who signed the e-petition about the removal of benefits from people who were involved in that activity. I think just under 250,000 people have now signed that e-petition. While I personally would not agree with the exact wording of the petition, there is a case to take benefits away from some individuals. You have to look at it on a case-be-case basis. It is right that the House considers that issue, which a number of people clearly wish us to do.

A lot of information has come to light since the recall debate during the summer recess, both in terms of the sentencing approach that the courts have taken and the proportion of people convicted so far who were already involved in criminal activity or were known to the police. A number of issues have come to light since then.

I have kept the proposed topic of the debate fairly generic, in order to allow Members to raise a fairly wide range of issues, rather than just concentrate on the specific issue in the petition. As I have said in my note, people might want to talk about the policing response in their community or the sentencing approach that the courts have taken. We are waiting for the Government to publish, probably in October, their thinking on how to respond to gang culture. In my constituency there is strong evidence that a significant proportion of those involved in the criminality were known gang members. There are also issues about economic regeneration, the support that communities have had from the Government or, in the case of London constituencies, the support made available by the Mayor of London and the Greater London authority.

Rather than a specific motion, I was looking for a Westminster Hall general debate. I believe, though you may correct me, that the maximum time for a Westminster Hall debate is three hours, so that is what I have put on the form. I am happy to take any questions.

Chair: That is right.

Are there any questions for Gavin Barwell?

Q22 Jane Ellison: We are all feeling our way with e-petitions; it is new territory. Do you think that the people who signed the original e-petition would feel a sense of frustration that, in order to attract wider debate and engagement with MPs, you have essentially said you needed to broaden the subject matter? Do you think that if the debate was on the narrow subject of the e-petition, which I have read, it would be more of a struggle to attract Members to debate and participate?

Gavin Barwell: I think you would get a greater attendance if you allowed Members to range more widely. In my humble opinion-your constituency was affected as well, so I am sure you have strong views-the situation was different in different parts of the country. There are particular issues, and you cannot focus on just one issue, in terms of a solution to what happened or how we prevent it happening again. To me, there is a suite of issues involved. If I were a Member and this debate had been put on, I would want the opportunity not just to have to concentrate on one particular issue but to be able to raise a range of different issues.

I am a new Member and I do not know how these things work, but I imagine that the Government may field a Minister who had a particular responsibility in the area of the e-petition, which would allow them to respond to that, and perhaps some of the wider issues. For example, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions clearly has responsibility for that area but he is also heavily involved in the work in terms of the gang response, and he is working with the Home Secretary on that. Maybe the way to deal with your point is for the Government to field a Minister who could respond to the specifics of the petition as well as some of the wider issues.

Q23 Ian Mearns: I am certainly in a little bit of a quandary. We were earlier discussing how to respond to e-petitions. It seems you are understandably looking for a broader debate, but within which the e-petition on the London riots becomes a sort of a minor issue. The e-petition is quite specific. It is unfortunate that it is badly worded, inasmuch as it is London-specific, when the unrest that we had in August was more widely spread across the country.

I understand your wanting a broader debate about the response to the unrest we had in August. I came back from the United States especially to attend the debate, although I sat back from trying to intervene, as my own area was not affected by riots. It was right that Members with particular interests should have the opportunity to speak. You have made an important point that a number of people whose areas were affected did not get the opportunity to do so. We need to separate the issue of the e-petition and a broader response, in terms of a debate on the unrest during August.

Gavin Barwell: There are several points that I want to make quickly in response to that. First, clearly there is a constitutional issue for you and, I guess, for the businesses managers in the longer term to think about how the House responds to e-petitions. I presented the case in this way because I spoke to my constituent and made the argument to him that I made to you: that I felt that rather than discussing one specific potential response to the riots, matters interact and we need to talk about them more widely. He was happy for me to present it in this way; he just wanted to make sure the issues were aired and that the Government responded to them in the House.

I think you have touched on another interesting point, which is that because the time for debate during the August recall was so short, no hon. Members whose constituencies were not directly affected had the chance to speak, but many of them may have strong views on how public policy should respond. Like you, they probably thought, understandably, that Members whose constituencies were directly affected should be given priority.

Q24 Mr Mudie: As you have moved away from the terms of the e-petition, do other Members from all parties support your being here?

Gavin Barwell: Yes. I took the decision whether to come here today or to wait until we return from the conference season. The conversation happened yesterday when I also discussed it briefly with your Chair. In the Lobbies last night I spoke to Barry Gardiner, Graham Stringer and Malcolm Wicks on the Labour side, and to Angie Bray, Bob Blackman and Nick de Bois on my side. Obviously, they are Members whose constituencies were affected, but I think a much wider range of Members will wish to participate.

Q25 Mr Mudie: Did you explain the terms?

Gavin Barwell: I explained that it would be in these generic terms, and I think most of them preferred that. They would not necessarily have wished to support-this comes back to Jane’s question-a specific debate solely on the exact terms of the e-petition. They are happy for it to be discussed as part of the overall response.

Q26 Mr Mudie: Are you willing to consider Westminster Hall instead of the Chamber?

Gavin Barwell: Yes. I do not have your expertise in these matters, but my instinct was that if it was not a votable motion, Westminster Hall was the appropriate forum.

Chair: It is whatever the appropriate forum for the debate is rather than whether it is on a votable motion, but yes.

Q27 Mr Bone: You have presented it very well, and we are obviously feeling our way a bit. You are proposing a Westminster Hall general debate. What would be the wording?

Gavin Barwell: The response to the riots.

Q28 Mr Bone: So that we could take in the specific petition, could you say "response to the riots, including a proposal to cut the benefits of rioters", so that it can be shown that Parliament is considering that issue on a non-votable motion?

Gavin Barwell: If the Committee felt that that was a better way to deal with the issue, I would have no objection.

Q29 Mr Bone: It just means that it is clear.

Gavin Barwell: To the public. Yes. What is important to me is that Members have the opportunity to talk about the widest spread of issues. If you think it is useful to make that point in the title, I would have no objection.

Q30 Chair: All right. That is it. We will let you know this afternoon. We have said to the others that we will decide what we will schedule, and when. The next Westminster Hall slot that we have available is 13 October, the Thursday after we return. That will be the first possible opportunity, and beyond that we do not know. We will definitely let you know this afternoon. Thank you very much for coming in.

Gavin Barwell: May I briefly make the point that I am away the week after that.

Chair: We do not have a day in that week.

Prepared 16th September 2011