Representations heard in Public

Questions 1 - 50



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Made before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 19 June 2012

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

David Amess

Bob Blackman

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Marcus Jones

Ian Mearns

Laura Sandys made representations

Q1 Chair: We have had your submission for a debate on the green economy.

Laura Sandys: That is right. I thank the Committee for offering me the opportunity to make a presentation.

As the supporting Members, we believe that it would be extremely useful for us to have a debate about the wider issues, including the fiscal and regulatory framework underpinning the green economy and green growth. We recognise that the green sector is probably one of the major sectors that is growing; it grew at about 4.3% last year. However, in the next six to eight months there will be some quite interesting and cross-departmental issues that will start framing that growth, including electricity market reform-which a Committee that I sit on is conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of that reform-but Parliament does not have an opportunity to debate them. There are also the renewable obligation bandings that are coming forward and other policies that reside primarily with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury. So there are three Departments-BIS, the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change-that have key responsibilities for driving this process forward.

We believe that there is only one forum that could offer the opportunity to express all views, both pro and against the measures that the Government are proposing. We feel that a debate would be an extremely important opportunity. If we leave it until September or October, we will miss the window of opportunity where Parliament and the experience of Members can be brought to bear on this particular debate.

Q2 Chair: You have put down six hours for a debate. As you are aware, we are very tight on time.

Laura Sandys: I appreciate that.

Q3 Chair: At the moment, in the Chamber, we have 28 June and 5 July; those are both Thursdays. Given that we have greater demand than supply, would you consider having a three-hour debate-a half-day debate-if that was all that we had available to us?

Laura Sandys: Six hours is an aspiration; three hours would be fantastic.

Q4 Chair: Thank you. And is there a time limit? Is there time sensitivity to this issue? You said that September or October would be-

Laura Sandys: By the end of this Session, all the consultation on the electricity market reform will have gone into DECC. It would be extremely useful if Parliament could have a debate and, in many ways, express its opinion before the end of the Session.

Q5 Bob Blackman: Do we know when the Bill is likely to be published, because that is the time sensitivity?

Laura Sandys: There are wonderful things-seasons-and it is very likely to be in the autumn, towards the middle of September, so just at the end of our first two weeks.

Q6 Bob Blackman: There is clearly a lot of support across the Chamber for the issue. Have you gauged what the opposition would be-the opposition that exists other than the people who are supportive of this proposal?

Laura Sandys: There is some strong opposition, but there is a patchwork of different views. There are people who believe that there is a taxation mechanism that can deliver green growth; there are people who look at an industrial policy; there are people who believe that stimulating green growth is creating a competitive disadvantage for other sectors; and there are people who fundamentally do not believe in any industrial policy whatsoever. All those views are valid and all of them will come through in this debate.

Q7 John Hemming: Do you think that there are people who will vote against this particular proposal?

Laura Sandys: Yes, absolutely. I think so.

Q8 Chair: You have mentioned three Departments-BIS, the Treasury and DECC. We only have one Minister participating in the debate; we do not have opening and closing speeches, so which Department would you see responding to, or participating in, this debate? Which Department would lead on this?

Laura Sandys: I would say that it is BIS that would co-ordinate both the energy aspects and the green economy aspects; the green economy aspects are really where the heart of this debate lies.

Q9 Chair: Thank you very much for that, and for being so succinct. You meant summer recess, didn’t you, rather than the end of the session?

Laura Sandys: Yes.

Sheryll Murray made representations

Q10 Chair: This is on adoption.

Sheryll Murray: Yes. The adoption process at the moment is lengthy. There will be a consultation later in the year, but in the light of the publicity surrounding child care earlier this week, I have the support of other hon. Members for a debate. We felt that a genuine debate in advance of a Government consultation might be a good idea, because at least then we would have a chance as Back Benchers to have some input into that process, rather than waiting until after event. You have the details of the hon. Members who support my debate.

Q11 Chair: Before I let the others come in, you have asked for half a day and it is a general debate. Does that mean that Westminster Hall would be suitable?

Sheryll Murray: Westminster Hall would be quite suitable.

Q12 Chair: We have a half day available to us, so would you consider a 90-minute slot in Westminster Hall on 5 July? We do not have as many Westminster Hall days as we used to.

Sheryll Murray: It certainly is.

Q13 Chair: Brilliant. Thank you very much.

Q14 John Hemming: Do we know when the Government are introducing a Bill based on the review of family justice?

Sheryll Murray: According to information that I have, the Government will consult on changes to the legislation later in the year. I felt that if we had a general debate that would, perhaps, urge the Government to speed up the process, ensuring that the Bill is introduced as soon as possible, because it is a big issue.

Q15 Jane Ellison: Is this list of hon. Members the group that put the recent report together?

Sheryll Murray: No. They are Back-Bench Members whom I approached, who said that they would like a debate on this topic.

Q16 Jane Ellison: We look for good cross-party support. Although I appreciate that you are seeking a debate to inform Government measures, would you be able to get some more Opposition Members involved?

Sheryll Murray: It was put together quickly. We sent out a general e-mail to hon. Members who had shown an interest in the past and, obviously, a lot of them were Government Members. Ann Coffey was first to respond. I am certain that, if I took a straw poll of all Back-Bench MPs, there would be a lot more responses.

Q17 Jane Ellison: Do you regard this as an opportunity for Back Benchers to share some of their casework to better inform the Government?

Sheryll Murray: Absolutely.

Q18 Chair: We would need a lot more cross-party support than you have demonstrated here.

Sheryll Murray: We can certainly do that.

Q19 Chair: That would be brilliant.

Sheryll Murray: I can start work on that today. When would you want it?

Q20 Chair: As soon as possible. We need to see a demonstration that it is a genuine cross-party debate and that there is widespread support. That would be fantastic.

Mr Bernard Jenkin made representations

Mr Jenkin: I have a proposal for a debate on a motion which I think needs only a three-hour debate. The Select Committee on Public Administration recommended in the previous Parliament and in this one that the Prime Minister’s adviser on the ministerial code should be empowered to instigate his own investigations, like the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Had the previous Government accepted that proposal, we would not have finished up having such an unpleasant debate last week. I felt that there was quite a lot of support from colleagues across the House for such a change.

The Committee again made a recommendation along these lines in our recent report entitled "The Prime Minister’s Adviser on Ministers’ Interests: Independent or Not?", in which we argue that he is really not independent-his official title is the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests-if he cannot instigate his own investigations.

I have a short and to the point motion, which I think has been circulated to you, which is signed by all the members of the Committee, barring the Labour Member who is on the Labour Front Bench, who I don’t think really considers himself to be a member of the Committee. I think it is also sensible to debate this arrangement separately.

The motion says, "That this House calls on the Government to implement the recommendation made by the Public Administration Select Committee in paragraph 44 of its 22nd report, etc. that the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests should be empowered to instigate his own investigation and notes that this motion has been agreed by the Public Administration Select Committee."

It has not only got all the names of the Select Committee members on it, but it has been approved by the Select Committee, so this is a Select Committee motion. It was always intended that the Backbench Business Committee should be able to consider debate motions that are submitted by Select Committees in favour of their recommendations.

The advantage of debating this now, rather than last week, is that we can debate the issues separately from the question of the fate of a particular Minister or case. I think it would have been difficult to debate this question on the back of the Opposition debate last week, but I think it is timely that it should be debated now, while the issue is still fresh in everyone’s minds. People might be clear in their own minds that they have a view on this matter.

Q21 Chair: We have, at the moment, 28 June and 5 July in the Chamber, both of which are Thursdays-so it is not this Thursday, but the next Thursday and the Thursday after. Is there a particular timing to this debate?

Mr Jenkin: I would certainly be happy with either date.

Q22 Chair: It is three hours.

Mr Jenkin:If you can afford three hours that would be marvellous. If you want to go shorter than that, go shorter than that. I think the House needs an opportunity to express an opinion on the principle of this issue, rather than on the messy business of particulars.

Q23 Jane Ellison: I appreciate the point you make about detaching this debate from a particular Minister. With a view to that, obviously Leveson is ongoing; that inquiry will report at some point. Does that fall slightly within your point about timing? Do you have a view about whether it would be better for Leveson to have reported, and for this debate to come after that? Arguably it is still quite wrapped up in the fate of this particular Minister, and therefore may not be quite what you seem to be seeking, which is a calm and considered, and rather dispassionate, debate.

Mr Jenkin: Leveson himself has made it absolutely clear he has no locus over the ministerial code. The House has expressed an opinion on the case in question and I think, as far as the House is concerned, that matter is closed. A vote on the principle of whether the adviser should have the power to instigate his own investigations has absolutely no bearing on that case.

That is reinforced by the fact that the adviser himself has given an opinion in a letter to the Prime Minister, which was given much publicity last week, that he thinks that Leveson has dealt with all those matters. From that letter one would deduce that he would not be seeking to investigate the Jeremy Hunt matter in any case, so I think it is safely divorced from the fate of a particular case.

Chair: That is really helpful. Thank you very much for that.

Mr Jenkin: Thank you.

Iain Stewart and Dr Julian Huppert made representations.

Q24 Chair: Can we have the centenary of the birth of code breaker Alan Turing, please? Iain Stewart and Julian Huppert. You wanted a whole day. It is a general debate, is it?

Iain Stewart: It need not be a whole day. I am completely flexible. I just think it requires a bit more time than a traditional end of day Adjournment or short Westminster Hall debate.

The reason I seek the debate is twofold. This Saturday, 23 June, is the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, and I think that it would be appropriate for the House to have the opportunity to commemorate all his achievements, those in the second world war as a code-breaker, and those of his pioneering work in artificial intelligence, which started the computer age. I think that it would be odd if Parliament did not mark the centenary in some way.

The second reason is the more controversial one: his conviction for a sexual offence, which now would not be an offence, and which led directly to his suicide in 1954. There is an online petition demanding that we go beyond the apology that the previous Prime Minister made, and move to a pardon or a disregard of the conviction, or some other way of cleansing the stain on the nation’s escutcheon.

For those two reasons, I would like to seek a debate as close as possible to the centenary.

Q25 Chair: Fantastic. That is a very clear representation. Thank you very much. Do you have anything to add, Julian?

Dr Huppert: No, it has been well described. He was an absolutely seminal figure in the entire computer age and everything that has happened since then, from the Turing machines to any sort of computer intelligence or computer science. He was a student and a fellow there. There are also economic angles to what has come from his work that are rarely looked at, as well as all the important work in the war and the controversy about his conviction and the chemical castration thereafter.

Chair: Brilliant. Thank you very much.

Q26 John Hemming: Have you made an application for an Adjournment debate on the subject?

Iain Stewart: I have not made an application for an Adjournment debate because I feel that a half-hour would not be sufficient.

Q27 John Hemming: They are not necessarily only half an hour. There are one-and-a-half-hour Adjournment debates.

Iain Stewart: I did raise this in the Whitsun Adjournment debate. That was just me speaking, but there is an appetite from colleagues in Manchester and Cambridge, and from other people who are interested in the different parts of the issue, so I felt that a slightly longer airing would be appropriate.

Q28 Jane Ellison: To that end, we will probably advise you as well to apply for a 90-minute Westminster Hall debate, alongside this process, because of the clear link to a particular date and the way in which you need to explore all avenues in the next few weeks. I think that there is only one Labour Member who supports this. Are you confident that you will be able to get a few more, to get slightly greater cross-party representation?

Iain Stewart: Yes. Mr Stringer has approached his fellow Manchester Labour Members, in particular, to speak on the issue.

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

Paul Flynn made representations.

Paul Flynn: The subject, as you see, is a debate on British withdrawal from Afghanistan. We know that this is something that has enormous public support. The last opinion poll showed that 77% of the population would like an early withdrawal, with only 14% in favour of Government policy. We saw the dramatic result in Bradford in the by-election, where the candidate from a fringe party managed to humiliate almost every other party with his 56% of the vote, really on one issue: the early withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

It has happened in other countries, which have contributed with blood and treasure in heroic amounts. The Netherlands withdrew two years ago and the Canadians last year and, since I was here before, we know that the Australians and the French have decided to withdraw early. I believe that in the past few weeks-indeed yesterday-we heard of the deaths of two more brave British soldiers.

I think that the public opinion is that little purpose is served in sending young men to their death in Afghanistan, to a war in which few people now believe. It is very similar to the ending of most wars that are engineered in order to serve the interests of the politicians and to protect their reputations, rather than to avoid unnecessary deaths of soldiers. If you were in the position that Senator Kerry described when he was in Vietnam, in the final year of that war, the question that tormented him was, "Who will be the last soldier that I will order to die for a politician’s mistake?"

Q29 Chair: Thank you very much. You have asked for a full day with a vote.

Paul Flynn: Indeed.

Q30 Chair: Is there some time sensitivity?

Paul Flynn: I would like to see it on the July date that you have. I am sure that it will be an issue that would command a great deal of public opinion. The July date would give us an opportunity to make sure that the public realise that there is a choice, that it is not inevitable to go on sending troops to Afghanistan to comply with the convenience of politicians and their electoral timetable, rather than with the needs of whether they are dying for a worthy cause.

Q31 Mr Jones: On the list of Members supporting the debate, I notice that there are no Government Members. Have you sought support from them?

Paul Flynn: John Baron?

Chair: He is not on the list.

Paul Flynn: I am sorry, the list now reads: Ronnie Campbell, Caroline Lucas, John Baron, George Galloway and John Hemming.

Q32 Mr Marcus Jones: So you have got support from John Baron. Apart from that, have you got any further support from Government Members?

Paul Flynn: There are others on the Government Benches who belong to the Afghanistan withdrawal group. I have only written to a small number. The point of this is to try to get a cross-section of the parties.

Q33 Mr Jones: So you think you can get further support across the House.

Paul Flynn: Yes. Those who were in the Committee have already spoken in the House on this issue, like Rory Stewart and Daniel Poulter and so on. There are people on your side who feel passionately about this.

Q34 Jane Ellison: When you came before the Committee before, we pushed you to get some supporting Members, not necessarily people who support the motion as drawn but people who support the idea of debating it, which might mean people who vehemently disagreed with the motion. What we would want-certainly for a whole day in the House-is a good debate. Have you sought to establish whether there would be a good debate to and fro on the issue? Have you approached people who you know do not agree with you, but think it would be good to debate it anyway?

Paul Flynn: Certainly. If we go back to previous debates on this, we can see the unhappiness that is there, throughout the House-

Jane Ellison: That is not quite what I am asking, but never mind.

Q35 Chair: Paul, I think it is an important distinction. You have asked for a subject point, and then there is the motion. The motion supports the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but there will be quite a significant number of Members who oppose the motion, and that is valid in itself-that would be support for the debate, but not for the motion. The question was whether you have discussed with people who oppose the motion but who support the idea of the debate.

Paul Flynn: No.

Q36 Chair: But you would be able to do that, wouldn’t you?

Paul Flynn: Yes, of course.

Chair: I think that would be very helpful for the Committee, if you can do that.

Q37 John Hemming: There is a further point on this. I think it is a good idea to have a debate, but the Committee granted a debate previously and there were two Divisions on the issue. Obviously, while troops remain in Afghanistan, there remains a question about whether we should have a debate about withdrawing the troops. The question then is: how frequently or under what circumstances should we have another debate? What strikes me-I ask your thoughts on this-is that perhaps you should identify any of those people whose views have changed and who would vote differently. We could simply have the same debate and the same people voting on each side, but I would rather find out about the people who would vote for a change in policy to see if that was substantially different from what has been the case previously.

Jane Ellison: In September 2010.

Q38John Hemming: It was some time ago, and there might be people whose views have changed. John Baron and I voted for withdrawal back then, so in terms of Government Back Benchers that is not a shift in the opinion of Parliament. The difficulty is that with a very important issue such as this, under what circumstances should the Backbench Business Committee give additional time? My feeling is that unless we can demonstrate a shift in the way that the votes would be cast, it becomes difficult to justify having another debate and the same votes being cast. The challenge is to identify more people who would oppose it.

Paul Flynn: I think the justification for it would be the swing in public opinion-

Q39 John Hemming: That is a good justification.

Paul Flynn: There have been 100 extra deaths since the last-

John Hemming: Indeed.

Paul Flynn: We have seen all these countries-big countries that are very similar to ourselves-that have decided to adopt an independent policy and not be tied in with America. Public opinion increases almost every day.

John Hemming: I agree with that.

Q40 Bob Blackman: I do not want to get into the merits of the debate, although obviously we do want to facilitate it. The more time goes on, however, the closer we get to the withdrawal date that the Government have announced, so your motion could be supported by everyone. We all want to see the troops withdrawn from Afghanistan but it is just a question of when. If you are going to frame a debate, the time frame needs to be clear.

Paul Flynn: Yes indeed; I appreciate that.

Q41 Ian Mearns: Just a small point, Paul, but it is an important one. The draft text of the motion does not actually mention Afghanistan but just talks about the withdrawal of British troops.

Paul Flynn: Thank you.

Q42 Chair: Those are very important points. Thank you for coming.

Richard Graham made representations

Q43 Chair: Finally, Richard Graham with an application for a debate that is a little time off, although this is a sort of warning shot.

Richard Graham: This is an unusual request, Madam Chairman, and I thank members of the Committee for letting me appear briefly. My request is for a debate on the second Monday of March 2013, and ideally on every second Monday of each March thereafter to celebrate Commonwealth day. The idea is to have a three-hour debate on issues relevant to the Commonwealth. I am asking for the Committee’s support now because if we can get that in principle that will allow you, Madam Chairman, and the Leader of the House who, as you know, is broadly in support of the idea, to plan ahead for the Backbench Business day to be on a Monday rather than a Thursday. Secondly, it would allow the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to lobby all other 53 member states of the Commonwealth to do the same thing on that day-Commonwealth day-and for that to be announced in the Diamond Jubilee year.

I have taken the liberty of sounding out the Canadian senator who is Canada’s representative to the Commonwealth. He thinks it is a wonderful idea and is moving ahead with it anyway. I am conscious that there are not many names from the Opposition parties on the piece of paper that I submitted. The Committee must forgive me for that; it was purely a matter of logistics and time. However, I have not yet spoken to anybody who is against the idea. We have about 90 members of the all-party group, but unfortunately not many of them were at the meeting when we discussed this. I will happily get more names for you if that would be helpful.

Q44 John Hemming: This is in fact quite an unusual request in a number of ways. One bit is a sort of business plan, and the other part is trying to establish an annual day. Is this something that you would accept having in Westminster Hall or do you want it in the Chamber? Why would this be a new annual day-

Richard Graham: I would be very grateful if the Committee supported the idea of having it in the Chamber of the House of Commons because I think it is a symbolic gesture. On Commonwealth day at the moment there is a great service in Westminster Abbey, all the flags are in Parliament square, and the Queen says a few things about the Commonwealth, often on television. Actually, however, none of the Parliaments of the 54 member countries hold a debate on Commonwealth issues.

Q45 John Hemming: In no other Parliament?

Richard Graham: In none of them on Commonwealth day.

Q46 John Hemming: Would you accept such a debate in Westminster Hall-perhaps a three-hour debate?

Richard Graham: The answer is probably yes, because that would be a step forward, but it would be wonderful if Parliament recognised that we are the host country for most of the Commonwealth institutions, including the secretariat, and of course our Head of State is the Head of the Commonwealth.

Q47 Jane Ellison: I am very sympathetic to the thrust of the idea. I think that as a Committee, we have a bit of a struggle with the idea of naming an allocated day. One of the battles in the last Session was to break away from the idea that there were lots of set days and to get people to come and make the case. Some made the case splendidly; some did not bother; and there were others in between. I think we might be slightly resistant to the idea of saying there will be a day every year, because that might open the floodgates. Would you be happy to reconsider this bid as a bid for the coming year, with the possibility that it would be something that was bid for regularly? Would you be open to that?

Richard Graham: Of course. I think that would be a wonderful way of doing it, because then you could see whether what we were doing was lighting a match that was catching fire across the world.

Chair: In Parliament?

Richard Graham: Sorry. This isn’t Guy Fawkes. I am talking about lighting an idea that catches on elsewhere in the Commonwealth. If it does and it proves to be a success by helping that great gathering of nations to do more and greater things for the benefit of us all, it just might become a new custom.

Q48 Mr Jones: You mentioned that the Leader of the House has indicated that he thinks that this is a good idea. First, how have you come to that assumption? If it is from a discussion or correspondence that you have had with the Leader of the House, has he made any comment on whether, this being something that you are proposing on a set day, it could be accommodated within Government business, bearing in mind that you are looking for a very specific day and a day that at the moment I don’t think we’ve had Backbench Business time allocated to, if I’m-[Interruption.] Right.

Richard Graham: The answer is that I had a very informal chat with him in his office. I explained my idea and asked for his advice on how I should go about this-

Chair: And he sent you here!

Richard Graham: He said he thought it was a splendid idea. He would be quite happy to exchange a Thursday for a Monday debate with the Backbench Business Committee. The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee then had a brief chat with him, in which he probably confirmed that to you.

Chair: Yes.

Q49 Bob Blackman: Can you give us a flavour of how the debate would run? There are, what, 54 countries in the Commonwealth? You’re the expert on these things. Do you envisage a state-of-the-nation type of debate from each of the different countries or do you envisage it being on something specific to do with the Commonwealth as a whole or Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth? Can you give us a flavour of how the debate would go?

Richard Graham: It is a very good question, Bob, and the answer is that at this stage, I have not formulated a draft motion to be debated, partly because I think this just might catch on and if all 54 countries do agree to do this at their September meeting-that is where it would be signed off-we will have six months to have informal chats with other members of the Commonwealth about whether we want to have a debate on a particular issue. For example-I am plucking an idea out of the hat-we could debate the specific use and benefits of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Trust, which is raising money for good causes across the Commonwealth. Or each country might want to raise its own particular issue. It might be climate change in some of the little island states that could go underwater. It might be something completely different in, say, South Africa or India. Out of that you have a whole series of new ideas that could possibly then be formulated into the sort of discussions that go on at the annual CHOGM-the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. It will be interesting to see how this baby grows and develops. We just might be on to something quite special.

Q50 Chair: Who would be the Minister responding to the debate?

Richard Graham: At the moment, it would almost certainly be Minister Bellingham, the Minister for Africa, who would take pretty much all the questions on the Commonwealth that would be asked.

Chair: That was a very interesting bid, so thank you very much. Unless the Office of the Leader of the House would like to make representations, thank you.

Prepared 22nd June 2012