Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 28



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Taken before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 28 February 2012

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Philip Hollobone

Ian Mearns

Mr Dominic Raab and David Miliband made representations.

Q1 Chair: This is the representation on human rights abuses. Is anyone at the back also here to support this bid? Dominic, you have been here before; David, you haven’t, so welcome.

Mr Raab: Madam Chair, thank you for the opportunity to address you yet again. This application-you have the written version-is about puncturing impunity for human rights abuses. All the details are in the written application. It is inspired by the case of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia, and I will make three points about the application.

First, it is highly topical. The Russian authorities are currently posthumously prosecuting Sergei Magnitsky for exposing the biggest fraud in Russian history. With the upcoming presidential elections and the widespread concern about freedom and the withdrawal of democracy in Russia, it is particularly topical politically. The US Senate is considering an equivalent bipartisan Bill introduced by Senators Cardin and McCain, which mirrors in key respects the proposals in the motion, particularly in the application. There are also resolutions in the Dutch and Canadian Parliaments, so it is highly topical.

The second point is that in terms of cross-party support-you have the full list of people who have backed this motion and application-I hope we have quantity and quality. It is backed by three former Foreign Secretaries.

Q2 Chair: You have every living former Foreign Secretary on the list.

Mr Raab: We have done our best. David Miliband, who is here, will speak afterwards if he has any additional comments he wants to make. I have a letter that Sir Malcolm Rifkind wrote in which he wanted to articulate his support. Jack Straw has also supported it, as have two other former Foreign Ministers-David Davis and Denis MacShane-as well as Sir Ming Campbell on the Liberal Democrat side.

Q3 Chair: Thank you. You have asked for a full day in the Chamber with a votable motion, but alternatively a half day if that is all that is available. The motion is very long. Normally, we would ask you to read it out for the record. Could you summarise it?

Mr Raab: I will do my best. Noting the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Bill through the US Senate, the Bill in the House of Commons in Canada to condemn corruption and impunity in Russia in the case of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, and the approval of the resolutions of the Dutch Parliament and European Parliament, the House calls on the Government to bring forward equivalent legislative proposals, providing for a presumption in favour of asset freezes and travel bans for officials of the Russian state and other countries, wherever appropriate UK authorities have collected or received evidence that establishes that such officials-there is then a list of gross human rights abuses, such as torture, extra-judicial killing and any involvement in such crimes.

The only other point, if I may briefly make it, is that aside from the strong parliamentary support, we have tried to produce a motion that is both substantive and prescriptive. It calls on the Government to bring forward concrete legislative proposals. That process in the US was very much led by Congress, and the point of this application is that it is exactly the kind of issue that our Parliament should stand up to be counted on, influencing Government policy and legislation. With that in mind, we would be particularly grateful if we found time before the Queen’s Speech, because we hope to influence the proposals going into the Queen’s Speech. Indeed, Ministers in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber have indicated that they are amenable to looking at this seriously.

The ideal would be to get a full day, but a three-hour debate would do justice to the issue. If there is a full day divided into two, may I humbly and respectfully ask if we could have the first debate, because the vote, given the nature of the motion and the application, will be particularly important?

Q4 Chair: Thank you. David, do you want to add anything?

David Miliband: Very briefly, I first came across this issue in 2009, when there was a lot of general concern about human rights abuses in Russia, but not enough detail. When I went to Russia in November 2009 as Foreign Secretary, I took up this case and raised it privately and, obviously, talked about it publicly. The truth is that concern about this case is not just about one person; it is about a symptom of a wider culture-an endemic culture-of the abuse of human rights and of human rights defenders.

My second and final point is that I believe that this debate could be noted. It would not be heard only by those in the room: it would be a significant signal that we should have taken this issue seriously. This is not about Russia-bashing. The debate would allow us to show that it is about supporting a Russia that is fit to live up to the history of that country. I think that we could say something important if we had the chance.

Chair: Thank you.

Q5 John Hemming: Would I be right in presuming that it is actually the vote on the motion that is key, rather than the amount of time? You would like as much time as you can possibly get, but the key thing is having an urgent vote on the motion.

Mr Raab: If you are asking whether a three-hour debate with a prescriptive motion would do justice to the issue, yes. Obviously, we would like a full day’s debate, but the priority is to get in early with a vote on the prescriptive motion. We need time to air matters and the wider issues publicly, and of course, David is absolutely right: this is about more than just the Sergei Magnitsky case. It is also about more than just Russia. The US Bill and ours are aimed at a mechanism that is not limited to Russia.

Q6 John Hemming: I agree with you on the principle. The issue is whether-obviously, Easter is coming up-there is urgency. Even if you could only get, say, two hours or an hour and a half, but get a resolution through the House, would that be something, or would you prefer to delay it until after Easter and have, say, six hours on a full day?

David Miliband: One thing that is important is that big things are happening in Russia at the moment. The people of Russia are speaking in a remarkable way, in sub-zero temperatures. The fact that we have the first, and possibly final, round of the presidential election this Sunday means that this issue is quite topical. Having parliamentarians talking about these things is important, because what regimes such as the one in power in Russia at the moment fear above all is scrutiny and publicity. It is not credible for us to say that a parliamentary vote will suddenly swing things with Prime Minister-maybe President-Putin, but the aeration of these issues and the oxygen of publicity are important. Otherwise, the truth is that people like Mr Magnitsky and others who are suffering today are just forgotten.

Q7 Mr Hollobone: We have a slightly different regime in this Parliament. We absolutely recognise the importance of this issue, but we do not have a limitless amount of time in terms of the length of debates or the days when we could schedule debates. That is the problem we have. I think Mr Hemming is basically saying that the Government may give us a window of an hour and a half at very short notice next week, and we could table this issue for debate. If you feel that is too short, let us know, but we are running out of time in this Session, because of the regime we have.

Mr Raab: To cut to the chase, I think we would go for it, if that was all we had.

Q8 Chair: What we have available-this is for everybody who is here-is 8 March, which we have pretty much scheduled already. We definitely have 90 minutes to two hours at the end of the day on 7 March. That is pretty much it. We have the end-of-term, pre-recess Adjournment debate, which we have already allocated, but that is it. We are not sure what we have beyond that and before the Queen’s Speech. That is pretty much the quickest we could do.

Mr Raab: The 8th was which of the two?

Q9 Chair: Thursday is the 8th and Wednesday is the 7th.

Mr Raab: Thursday the 8th, we would very much welcome. Yes is the short answer to your question.

Q10 Chair: We have pretty much allocated that. Wednesday the 7th, in the evening, is a possibility.

Mr Raab: If there is nothing else coming forward, we would want to take that-the bird in the hand. That is the short answer.

Chair: Okay. Thank you very much for coming.

Jonathan Reynolds and Caroline Lucas made representations.

Q11 Chair: Before you start, we had a written application from you last week. Is this the first time the supporting Members have been finalised?

Jonathan Reynolds: Yes, they have been finalised.

Q12 Chair: Could you read out who the supporting Members are? This is for the e-petition on dropping the Health and Social Care Bill, which has reached 100,000 signatures.

Jonathan Reynolds: The full list of Members is myself, Caroline Lucas, Mark Durkan, John Pugh, Andrew George, Jim Shannon, Grahame Morris, Yasmin Qureshi, Thomas Docherty and Barbara Keeley.

Thank you, Chair, for the opportunity to come here today. As I am sure many colleagues are aware, the e-petition calling on the House and the Government to drop the Bill has now reached 162,000 signatures; it is the second most signed petition of them all. It was begun by my constituent, Dr Kailash Chand, who is a former GP, who is passionate about the NHS and public health.

The issue of the Health and Social Care Bill has obviously generated huge interest. It is, for many people, the No. 1 in British politics at the moment. I am here to ask for a full day’s debate in the main Chamber with a votable motion. I appreciate that members of the Committee cannot just grant a debate because something is topical, even if the number of signatures is overwhelming. I am here to address four concerns you may have about why you should use your precious time to grant a debate.

First, have we discussed this issue enough? No. Absolutely not. For the second Second Reading, we had one day. At that point, there were 1,000 amendments to the Bill, which worked out at about six seconds to discuss each. Now, there are even more amendments. Obviously, the debates we have had on the risk register relate to the wider issue of how we make policy in Parliament and the Government. Although the Bill is with the Lords and the amendments will come back to us, those will just ping-pong and there will be no debate on the whole Bill.

The situation has changed considerably from when we last had the chance to discuss the matter on Second Reading: whereas the royal colleges reserved their judgement, they have now come out quite unequivocally against it. We parliamentarians need to assess that situation.

Secondly, is this partisan? Absolutely not. You will see that from the list of supporting Members of Parliament from nearly all parties in the House of Commons, and support is obviously here today to make this request. You have seen at Health questions that MPs on the Government side get up and make this point and you have seen editorials in The Spectator and "Conservative Home" are even now requesting that the Bill be dropped.

I know, from personal experience in my constituency, that people of all political persuasions have signed this e-petition. That relates to my third point, which is why not use an Opposition day for this. Doing so would be too partisan if you are asking for such a debate, because the prism of an Opposition day would the wrong filter to put on it and would make the debate that the public want more difficult. The call for a debate has come about through the public’s will, through an e-petition, and it would be right to use Back-Bench time because of that.

My last point is that because this is Government business, Committee members might think that it is for the Government process to address this matter, rather than using precious Back-Bench time. But this issue is currently exercising the British people a great deal, more so than any other. Often, we have been left with the Government saying, "The only reason to carry it on is that implementation has already gone too far to go back." As a parliamentarians, that is completely unacceptable. If there is an issue that the public want discussed that they have articulated through an e-petition, we cannot not have that debate on the basis that the Government have already begun to implement that Bill before the will of Parliament has been known.

I am really pleased to be able to come along today. My message to you is that the public want a debate on this; the royal colleges and the professionals want a debate and a vote on this; and 162,000 of all our constituents have asked for a debate specifically on this. So, colleagues, please grant us that debate today.

Q13 Chair: Thank you. I shall bring in Phillip Hollobone first, then Jane Ellison.

Q14 Mr Hollobone: Well, 10 out of 10 for effort. There are some good points. Obviously, it is an e-petition which we respect hugely and, absolutely, I would contend, almost whatever the subject is, an e-petition should be debated in this House. Congratulations as a constituency Member. You are standing up for your constituent. Those are the positives. On the negatives, I know it is not your fault, but you are the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition. I know that it is not clouding your judgment, but it may appear to some people to inject an element of bias. I am not saying it does; I am just pointing that out.

There are various criteria that we apply before we decide whether something should be debated. The Health Bill has been debated ad nauseam on the Floor of the House and it has had a lot of time. The other criterion that we look at is, if we did not give permission for this, would it be debated otherwise. Well, it has been debated otherwise. The other thing that I would say to you is that I actually think this would make a good Opposition day debate, especially given the signatures you have got on your application. I know that there one or two Lib-Dems on it as well, but they are overwhelmingly Opposition Members.

The other consideration we have to give is that we are squeezing, as a Committee, a quart into a pint pot. If we give you a day for the Health Bill, it means we are not giving Back Benchers a day for something else. There are other issues that have never been debated this session, whereas the Health Bill has.

As a Committee, we take seriously our role as Back Benchers. We do not do this from a party political point of view. I do not know whether you believe that or not, but I am just stating it as a fact. For those reasons, it would be unlikely that the Committee would give this time.

Q15 Chair: Could I ask Caroline to respond to part of that-just to get you in?

Caroline Lucas: On the points that were raised, if you look at the full list of signatories, the idea that this is biased is just misleading. As Jonathan says, it is not his fault that it is his constituent who instigated the e-petition. He has other roles.

There is so much feeling about this issue. I have had 800 e-mails and letters on this in the last week alone. It is the biggest political issue of the day right now and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. So it is not just some other issue that is being brought to you on behalf of a constituent who happens to have an e-petition. It is the biggest issue out there. I don’t think it is really true to say that the Health and Social Care Bill has had a lot of time on the Floor of the House. It has had a day on Second Reading with all those amendments. What is different about the debate that we have in mind is that it would be about whether we need this Bill. It would not be about amendment 7 or amendment 107, but whether the Bill is even amendable. Let us have that debate. It is not a partisan point. Lord Crisp, who was an NHS executive for six years, has just said precisely that. He does not think that it is amendable-we need to start again. The public are looking and seeing that we are not having that debate. All they see is this ping-pong of amendments. They are not seeing the fundamental principles properly debated. It would be a missed opportunity.

Chair: We will have Jane Ellison, John Hemming and then Peter Bone. There will be plenty of opportunity to respond.

Q16 Jane Ellison: Philip Hollobone said much of what I was going to say. There are no Conservative Members on the list of supporting Members. Although it does include nearly all parties, except the biggest, it is quite a big exception. From my point of view, that puts it a bit more firmly in Opposition day territory rather than Back-Bench territory.

I have one specific point to make. One of the things that we are hoping to allocate a significant chunk of time to before the recess is the discussion of social care and its integration with health care. In all the furore and discussion about the Bill, the case that has been put to us is that the social care aspect has not had much discussion. That gives you an idea of one of the things that could be shoved out. It is highly pertinent and relevant, but has had far less attention given to it.

I heard everything that Jonathan said about why it is suddenly relevant and particularly topical. That was all true last week. What discussion was there about having this as the debate in the full day’s Opposition day last week?

Jonathan Reynolds: On that specific point, I am afraid the topics of Opposition days are not a decision for me, so I cannot give you an authoritative answer on that. To come back to the point about times, I absolutely agree with what Caroline said. We could not possibly say-I do not think any of the public would say-that we have adequately discussed this Bill. I would say that the Bill has changed from when we did discuss it to something else. The people whom we wish to empower at the front line now say that they absolutely do not want this Bill.

On the specific point about social care-this is very important-it would be a mockery to have a debate about social care while the Bill is going through. The Bill makes the integration of social care with health care so much harder. You could not possibly have that debate. It would be the elephant in the room if you were not going to discuss the "drop the Bill" debate at the same time. We recognise that that is a very important issue, but if you have that view, you would have to have the "drop the Bill" debate first.

Q17 Jane Ellison: My specific point is about how we seek to find cross-party interest in debates. Not everyone would agree. The Iran debate that took place last week had a highly persuasive bid made for it by two people who did not agree from the start on exactly what the motion should be. They voted, I believe, on different sides of it, but both felt that it should be debated. You have not demonstrated that there is that cross-party will by including the biggest party in your supporting Members bid. That is a significant factor for us, and we have been consistent as a Committee in applying that. It has caught out both sides. There are several things in our pile of proposals that have not gone any further, where only Conservative Members were putting the idea forward, and we have consistently said no.

Jonathan Reynolds: Did they have any e-petition support? What was the balance between those two things?

Q18 Jane Ellison: The Committee is very mindful of e-petitions, but we always say that they are part of the bid that you make. They are supporting and they give weight to it, but the e-petition requirement is that Parliament considers for debate the subject that has reached the e-petition threshold, and that Parliament has a chance to debate the matter of the e-petition. Whatever you think about whether the Bill has been given enough time, it would be hard to dispute that the subject of this e-petition has had no parliamentary time.

Chair: I am going to bring in John Hemming, then Peter Bone, then Ian Mearns.

Q19 John Hemming: Part of the question is how much more time needs to be allocated to debating health. If you allocate Backbench Business time to it, you are knocking other things out. We had a full day on Wednesday last week. When the amendments come back to the House of Commons, they will be debated. There has been not only the Second Reading debate, but other debates. There has been a recommittal to Committee. There have been all these different things, so there has been a lot of time. What do you think is the additional amount of time that is required to debate this Bill? Why should we knock out, say, human rights abuses in Russia, international women’s day or social care? Why should we knock those out in preference to debating what is already going to be debated further with a vote on it? It has already had votes on it and already been debated.

Caroline Lucas: I would repeat what I said: this is the most controversial issue out there.

Q20 John Hemming: Yes, I know, but how much more time? One day, two days, three days, six days, 12 days?

Caroline Lucas: But we have not had a debate on the actual issue itself. When you are looking at amendments, as you know, the Chair will be very strict if you start going on about the fundamental principle of the Bill, rather than the particular amendment you are supposed to be discussing.

Chair: I think we are all in danger of saying the same thing in different ways lots more times. I think we have the idea.

John Hemming: It would be nice if they would answer the question. They are saying there is not enough time. I am asking how much time they need.

Chair: It is just that this is the third question on the same issue.

John Hemming: They have not answered the question, though.

Jonathan Reynolds: I can answer it. One full day’s debate and a votable motion.

Q21 John Hemming: One full day’s debate is sufficient to cover the Health Bill from now to the end of the health issue?

Q22 Chair: The fundamental argument, as I understand it, is that you are arguing for another Second Reading debate. [Interruption.] I think you are arguing for a Second Reading-style debate or a general debate on the Health Bill.

Jonathan Reynolds: Yes.

Chair: The Committee is saying that there are plenty of opportunities to debate the Bill because it is going through Parliament at the moment. If a Bill is going through Parliament, and a matter is being debated by Parliament, we generally do not schedule debates on them, because there are opportunities to raise issues. Are there other matters that need raising? Peter and Ian, did you want to say anything?

Q23 Ian Mearns: I have an observation. I think, John, you are not being particularly fair. One full day is the maximum we could offer, so it is a bit irrelevant to ask if they want 15 or 20 days, because 15 or 20 days are not on offer. They would take the maximum they could get.

I was not going to raise the party political make-up of the people who have backed the submission, but there is no one from the main party. I would guess that the pair of you have attempted to contact members of the main party. Was there not even a glimmer of interest in pursuing a debate about this?

Jonathan Reynolds: There was some interest. I cannot speak for members of other political parties, but there were certainly a lot of people who would like this debate, but who did not, for a variety of reasons, want to come here to support the submission today. There were people who believe very much in the principle of e-petitions and who believe that something that had generated such an overwhelming number of signatures relative to anything else was worthy of consideration.

Chair: Very briefly, Philip Hollobone and then John Hemming.

Q24 Mr Hollobone: One of our criteria is whether an issue would be debated if we did not give it time. Given what you say about this being the most important issue in British politics, it would do the Labour party and the Green party huge credit were you to use an Opposition day in support of this.

Caroline Lucas: I don’t have an Opposition day.

Mr Hollobone: The smaller parties have an Opposition day. You could back Labour on its Opposition day. Were you to table a motion on the e-petition on an Opposition day, you would get your full day’s debate. The fact that that might happen has to be a factor that the Committee considers.

Chair: John Hemming.

John Hemming: Philip said it all.

Chair: We are going to make a decision. I think you heard that we have very little time available to us, certainly up to the Easter recess. We have pretty much pre-allocated it already. We will obviously discuss this when we go into private session, and we will let you know what our decision is and why. Thank you very much for taking the time to come to us.

Robert Halfon, Karl McCartney and Yasmin Qureshi made representations

Q25 Chair: Robert, you have been several times before. Would you like to run through your submission?

Robert Halfon: Thank you, Chair. It is a privilege to appear again in front of your Committee. On Friday, all Members of Parliament received an e-mail from the House of Commons Commission stating that people who want to go on clock tower tours of Big Ben will now be charged £15 a time. I have huge concerns about that on three grounds: precedent, the cost to the public and the undemocratic nature in which the decision was made.

First, on the cost to the public, if the proposal goes through, it will mean that a family of four will have to pay £60 just to visit Big Ben. That is a huge amount and will be a deterrent for people to come visit the clock tower. Secondly, I worry about the precedent. If the Commission suddenly decide, out of the blue, to charge for Big Ben tours, what’s to stop it in a year’s time to say that if people want to see Westminster Hall, it will charge for that, because it is expensive to upkeep? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the decision has been reached somewhat undemocratically. We got our e-mail out of the blue on Friday, and Parliament has not had a chance to debate the issue.

Since that time, I have raised a point of order with the Speaker. I have support from colleagues from all parties-as you can see from the list attached to your note, we now have the support of 36 MPs from almost every party in the House of Commons, including a minor party. We are asking for a short debate with a votable motion, which is included on the front, to allow MPs in the House to decide whether they think the decision should go ahead.

Q26 Chair: Do either of you want to add anything to this?

Karl McCartney: I probably will, if that’s okay, Chair. Thank you for the Committee’s time to see us all today.

I think it is the thin end of the wedge, in terms of charging the public to come into the Palace, which is publicly owned-it is the nation’s. I have a lot of constituents who come down from Lincoln. They enjoy coming into Westminster Hall, and I would hate to see that charged for. As I said, the recent decision is the thin end of the wedge.

I think £15 is quite steep. As the local Member of Parliament, I pay for people who come in to have cups of tea and coffee, and that’s steep enough. Yesterday, 20 people having a cup of tea or coffee and biscuits cost £55 plus VAT, which comes out of my own pocket, as we all know.

The sum of £15 is a tremendous amount and, as Robert has said, for a family of four, that is £60. Perhaps the proposal is also a bit ageist in that people have to be over 11 before they can visit. It should remain free to members of the public.

Yasmin Qureshi: Most of the people in my constituency-no disrespect to a lot of them-are of modest means. Paying £60 or even more to come in to see the clock tower would be difficult for them. As Robert has said, it is the principle of thing-this is Parliament, an open building. We want people to be interested in Parliament and in democracy. We want all that and yet, at the same time, we are doing a thing that will prevent people from coming into Parliament. Therefore, for me, apart from the cost, the biggest issue is about people being able to have access to Parliament.

Q27 Chair: That is very clear and straightforward. The only other thing is that as you know, we have very little time available. This is a votable motion. If we were able to fit you in for just a brief period, it is the motion that is important rather than the debate itself, is it not?

Robert Halfon: Yes. I would be very happy with just an hour or half an hour with my colleagues to make the case, and then give MPs a chance to vote on it.

Karl McCartney: I would say probably an hour rather than half an hour, because you think of the number of MPs from right across the parties who have put their names to this. I would guess that quite a few would like to speak.

Q28 Chair: But it’s a point of principle.

Karl McCartney: Yes. Big Ben is an iconic thing for people to come and see.

Robert Halfon: We should be able to look at other ways in which the House of Commons can save money, such as publishing Hansard online or whatever it may be. There has been no analysis of the costs.

Chair: That is brilliant. Thank you very much. That is really clear. Thank you for coming.

Prepared 2nd March 2012