Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 29



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 27 November 2012

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr David Amess

Mr David Anderson

Bob Blackman

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Marcus Jones

Ian Mearns

Dr Julian Lewis, Jeremy Corbyn, Henry Smith, Caroline Lucas, Mr Peter Bone, Sheryll Murray, Paul Flynn and Jonathan Lord made representations.

Chair: Before I start, I would like to like to welcome the delegation from the Jordanian Parliament that is with us today. Thank you for coming back, Julian Lewis. You came to us very early on in the last Session, and you have returned.

Dr Lewis: Yes, I have returned. This is third time lucky, Madam Chair. Last time I was advised that I really needed to bring people with me, so here we all are, from both sides of the Trident debate. With the build-up of interest in the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent system, we hope to have an informed and thoughtful debate, which would feed into the process of various inquiries and commissions, and indeed the Government’s own particular alternative study as well.

All these inquiries, commissions and studies are due to be published, or, in the case of the Government’s, possibly published or part-published, either by the end of this year or early in the new year. For that reason, I have decided to move away from the former application, in which we said we really wanted it to be a votable motion, to a more flexible motion, perhaps along the lines of the future of the British nuclear deterrent or the future of Trident, which I think would lead to a more considered rather than divisive debate. Other than that, I hope that what I have outlined in the presentation and the spread of opinion that we have here from both sides of the debate speak for themselves as to the level of interest.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am chair of the parliamentary CND group, and, as you may have gathered from Julian’s introduction, we do not share the same opinions on the future of the Trident nuclear system, or indeed any other nuclear system. He and I have debated the issue many times, both in the House and in public forums. In view of the fact that a considerable amount of money is being spent in the long lead issues towards a maingate decision in 2016, there are huge issues surrounding this. The need for a debate and the rightness of a debate now is overwhelming. We, in the CND group, strongly support that, so we can guarantee a very good debate in which there will not be much consensus, but surely that is what Parliament is about.

Chair: Indeed.

Jeremy Corbyn: Those of us in the CND group would obviously seek to put forward a more pacific view than my colleague Dr Lewis would put forward.

Q1 Jane Ellison: It is a very impressive cross-party group. What you say about a more general title is useful, and the Committee has noted it. It might be that that would bring in the broadest views, but, obviously, you have indicated that you would be flexible on that. To give us a feeling on timing, are there any specific dates for publication or calls for evidence? Is there a specific window in the next couple of months that you would be particularly interested in or is it just generally in the next couple of months?

Dr Lewis: I think that the next couple of months generally is okay. Jeremy has indicated to me that there is the Lib-Dem alternative study, which the Government set up and is being supervised by the Cabinet Office. The trouble is that it keeps moving its timings. It was supposed to have been in by the end of the year. There is also a group called BASIC, which has a BASIC Trident commission. It is moving the publication of its considerations in line with the alternative study. There are other earlier ones coming out within the next few weeks. I would have thought that we could be looking at December, January or even a little later. We hope that on this occasion we can get a definite commitment. We would prefer a longer, rather than shorter, debate.

Q2 John Hemming: One of the challenges for the Committee is to try to satisfy as many demands as possible. When anyone says that they are willing to go to Westminster Hall, we are quite pleased, because it makes life a lot easier, but it does mean not having a substantive motion. Is the general view that the urgency of a debate is more important than a votable motion?

Henry Smith: It is substantially important that it is a Floor of the House debate, rather than in Westminster Hall. For the avoidance of doubt, much as I like Jeremy, Caroline and Paul, I find myself on this side of the Room by accident of seating arrangements, but I have been welcomed. As Jeremy was saying, given the amount of money and the importance of the issue, the Floor of the House would be preferable to Westminster Hall.

Q3 John Hemming: The key point is whether there is a votable motion.

Henry Smith: I take the same view as Julian: that the House has properly discussed this issue is more important than dividing the House.

Caroline Lucas: I think that is right. Hopefully, the fact that we are not pressing for something in the next couple of weeks, but are willing to be much more flexible on timing means that, even though it is not a votable motion, consideration could be-

Q4 John Hemming: It is generally the view that you do not want a votable motion.

Caroline Lucas: We do not want a votable motion, but we do want a debate in the Chamber, because it is such a serious issue that I think it looks strange to-

Mr Bone: I do not think the Committee will be surprised to hear me say that I think Westminster Hall has the same level of importance as the Chamber. As this is not a votable motion, I think that it is ideal for Westminster Hall.

Chair: You are very welcome back.

Q5 Mr Amess: May I ask Julian to expand on what he means by an informed and reasonable debate? It intrigues me, as I look at colleagues.

Dr Lewis: Although I originally drafted a fairly simple and straightforward votable motion, as you can see from the application form, it would have narrowed the choice down to two very discrete compartments. It is not for want of trying, but missing from our line-up is a member of the Liberal Democrats. I am empowered by Dr Julian Huppert to say that he would have very much liked to have been here, but he sits on another Committee that always clashes with the Backbench Business Committee. I feel that shifting my position, being more flexible and moving to a more general title of this sort will enable people who say, "Well, we are not unilateralists but we don’t like Trident," legitimately to feel that they can take a full part in the debate

Q6 Mr Jones: I do not recall you mentioning it in your opening speech, but when was the last time we had a debate on this subject?

Dr Lewis: I think Jeremy had a short debate in Westminster Hall, but that was a while ago. I think that the last time there was a debate on the Floor of the House was the debate and vote that was held in early 2007 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Given that this is all moving inexorably towards the publication of all these major alternatives and other reports, I think five years is long enough to wait.

Jeremy Corbyn: I had a short debate purely on cost elements and well before the recent announcements about the orders that have been placed with Rolls-Royce and well before what is now quite an intense debate in Scotland about the placement or otherwise of nuclear weapons. There is a massive public interest in this and so from the point of view of your deliberations and decision-making, Parliament ought to reflect that public debate that is happening outside and we should be having that debate in here as well as outside.

Sheryll Murray: On the question of public interest, there is a huge public interest in my constituency but it is not limited to the south-west. There is a real reason to have a very well informed debate on the Floor of the House.

Chair: Thank you very much. That was a very full representation. Thank you very much for coming. We will obviously make a decision this afternoon. We have only 6 December at the moment to allocate. There is quite a lot of competition, but as you have said, it is not so urgent so we will let you know this afternoon.

Dr Lewis: We will not have to come back again if we do not get that, will we?

Chair: No, but we won’t stop you from coming.

Mr Ben Bradshaw made representations.

Mr Bradshaw: May I say at the outset, to save you and me time, that being a novice to this, I was not aware that I should come mob-handed? I am happy to proceed and make the pitch in spite of that, but not if it is going to be a deal-breaker and you would rather that I came back another time with lots of colleagues.

Q7 Chair: It is down to you really. You have put names on the list who are supporting your bid. If this is urgent, as you have said on your application, you should go ahead now.

Mr Bradshaw: Let me explain and let me apologise for not having come mob-handed. I do not think it would have been a problem because, given the response that I elicited very quickly after last Thursday’s urgent question to Tony Baldry, there was a lot of support for this application. I could have put a lot more names on the application form.

The reason the matter is urgent is because, as you will be aware, the vote in Synod was last Tuesday and the Church of England is thinking very actively now about how it responds to that vote. In the next week or two there is an Archbishops Council meeting.

Given the questions that are raised by this vote, not only about the Church but also about Parliament’s role or potential role and the whole relationship between the established Church and Parliament, I felt that, good though the urgent question and the granting of it was, there was a strong appetite from Members for a debate. We are all getting letters, I am sure, from ordinary members of the Church of England who are asking us to talk about this and to make our views plain, not least to help inform whatever decision the Archbishops Council and the leadership of the Anglican Church come to in the next days and weeks.

Q8 Chair: May I ask a very basic question? You have not put in the text of a motion. Did you want to have a general debate?

Mr Bradshaw: Yes. I was not looking for a vote and I do not think that anyone would be interested in a vote. It was about airing these issues. I am happy to take your guidance or your Clerk’s guidance on a suitable title. It could be "The implications of the Synod vote on women bishops." It could just be "Women bishops." But I am happy to take your advice on that.

Q9 Mr Anderson: I do not mean to be disrespectful, but you were right about the UK last week. It would appear that nobody out there should be in any doubt about the general feeling in Parliament or what our view is, so, with respect to that, what more can be gained by having a debate? In particular, do you think that anybody would be speaking in favour of what the vote actually was? Would there be two sides to the argument or would it just be lots of us getting up and saying, "This is wrong what you did. You need to do something about it"?

Mr Bradshaw: It is a very interesting question. I am not aware of any Member of Parliament or any Member of the House of Lords-I attended a meeting with peers and bishops-who actually was against or spoke against women bishops. I would imagine that there are some, and this might be an opportunity for those who did not have an opportunity last Thursday, given that it was a one-line Whip and that the decision was made on the morning only, so they would not have known that it was happening, to articulate that view. However, there would certainly be differences of opinion, for example, as to what role Parliament could take and what Parliament could do to help move this forward. I know that there are strongly held views on both sides. Some think that we should not have anything to do with the subject and should leave it to the Church. Others feel more strongly that we should amend the Equality Act 2010 or introduce a simple one-clause, permissive measure to allow women bishops. I think that a debate would give MPs an opportunity to explore all those different areas.

Q10 John Hemming: I am not an antidisestablishmentarian, but I wonder whether there is actually a role here for a motion and whether it may be worth consulting your colleagues. A motion, because it is the established Church, might drive things in the direction that you and I would wish, even if I am not an antidisestablishmentarian.

Mr Bradshaw: Are you suggesting a motion that talks about establishment and the merits of it?

Chair: John, I think we have established that it is just a general debate to air views.

John Hemming: It might be worth him speaking to his colleagues about it.

Mr Bradshaw: This would give an opportunity for colleagues to air views about establishment. I, like you, am broadly in favour of establishment for reasons that I will not go into now, but I know that there are colleagues who are very strongly against. I do not think that this would become a debate, but it is inevitable that establishment will be raised and that people will speak on both sides of the argument.

John Hemming: As a point of clarification and trying to say it slowly, I am not an antidisestablishmentarian.

Mr Bradshaw: I see there is a double negative.

Q11 Bob Blackman: Can I just clarify the amount of time that you are requesting for the debate? A full day would be a six-hour debate, and you are leaning towards a general debate without necessarily having any specifics down. We are conscious that we have a lot of competition for debates. The other slight problem is that if we are to give it its proper value, it needs to be done fairly swiftly. Therefore, we have some potential time in Westminster Hall, where a general debate can be held, or we have some time in the Chamber, where a general debate could be held, but a full day would be quite challenging.

Mr Bradshaw: I accept that. I think that three hours would be fine. I thought that I had suggested three hours on the original application.

Chair: It has full day on it.

Mr Bradshaw: I beg your pardon. I think three hours would be fine. If you have a slot on 6 December, as I think you said, that would be ideal.

Q12 Jane Ellison: Following up on Bob’s point, we have recently been quite sensible about trying to anticipate some times when formal business might end a bit early, and we have these sort of flexible slots sometimes to allocate. The autism debate was Back-Bench time. The exact amount of time could not be completely guaranteed, but it was on the Floor of the House on a Tuesday, so that makes it quite attractive sometimes if people are prepared to say, "I’ll take anywhere between two and four hours." In principle, would you be able to react quite quickly if that time became available and be flexible on the amount of time?

Mr Bradshaw: I am sure that I would, and I am sure that I can speak for my colleagues who are very interested in this, and say that they would be flexible, too.

Q13 Ian Mearns: From my perspective, I am thinking of a general debate, because the whole question of bishops being exclusively male but the House of Bishops having a role within the legislative process in the House of Lords is very interesting. You don’t have to look for disestablishment of the church per se to look at how the House of Bishops is represented in the House of Lords as a separate entity. I think that would be an interesting part of the debate in that respect.

Mr Bradshaw: Yes. The Prime Minister in PMQs last week made quite clear that he did not see this as a Government issue, but it is an issue for Parliament, given the established status. That is why I thought a Back-Bench debate would be the perfect forum for it.

Q14 Chair: That was really interesting; thank you for bringing that to us. We will go into private session after this and then make a decision on the time that we have available, urgency and that kind of thing. We will let you know as soon as we can this afternoon. Thank you for coming. May we have James Arbuthnot’s representative?

Thomas Docherty and Bob Stewart made representations.

Bob Stewart: Madam Chair, thank you for putting up with me and Thomas Docherty. We are representing the House of Commons Defence Committee and we speak on behalf of all the parties that are represented on the Defence Committee, so that includes the Liberal Democrats and the DUP.

We feel that in the old days, before I was a young Member, which I remain, defence came up much more regularly in full daily session. These defence debates are very important. They are much rarer now. From our point of view, we see a general debate on defence, possibly for six hours, if we were allowed it and I hope so, to analyse what is happening now and what is likely to happen in future. We consider a defence debate at this stage to be valuable from the point of view of influencing the studies that are about to start into Army 2020 and Reserve Forces 2020.

Q15 Chair: You are after a six-hour debate, presumably in the Chamber. As we are limited for time, could you let us know whether there is an urgency? Is there a topic that you particularly want to debate?

Bob Stewart: I do not think there is an urgency, though Thomas might disagree. The urgency is the fact that we have not had one for a year. Here is the point: I am particularly concerned on a personal level about the number of soldiers being killed by insider murder, so-called green on blue. I would like us to examine that matter in the Chamber.

I am also concerned that we are running towards the end of our time in Afghanistan and I would like the whole Chamber to consider how we are going to do that politically and what we hope to achieve from it. Because of time-and I realise I have banged on for two minutes or so-I feel that we would like it in the main Chamber. Last time we had a defence debate, it certainly ran for the whole day; that was on the strategic defence and security review. Defence is so vital at the moment because all of us are having casualties in our constituencies. I am particularly concerned about, and want to raise the matter of, insider murders.

Q16 Chair: Before I bring in Thomas Docherty, I want to say that there used to be five defence days that got rolled up into the time that is allocated to the Backbench Business Committee. We took the decision very early, when we were first established that, if we allocated all the time that was pre-allocated, there would be very little time given to people who came to us with topical debate. I understand that the Defence Committee has lost a number of days it would normally be allocated through this process. That is by no means an indication that we take defence any less seriously than in the previous Parliament. It is simply a matter of allocation of time and the small amount of time that we have. I want to ask whether it is essential that it is six hours or can it be done in three?

Thomas Docherty: First, this is not my first appearance. I understand the pressure you are under. The new Leader of the House has not yet got that skill of punting every request for an urgent debate to the-

Q17 Chair: He is getting there.

Thomas Docherty: He is getting better at doing it, but he does not quite have the footwork of Sir George yet. I understand that it would not be right simply to say, "There used to be five, therefore we haven’t had one in a year," but I was intrigued by the previous pitch by Dr Lewis and others. It was all good knockabout stuff, and I am sure there will be lots of heat, but there will be no light shed on the issue. This is a series of significant reports into matters such as military casualties, the accommodation that our service personnel and their families are living in and the cuts in allowances. There are big challenges going forward.

I argue that it requires a full day. I would love for it to be six hours, but our experience is that the Government always find urgent questions, statements and things. It requires more than three hours. I would love for us to get a Thursday when the Government did not have something to take up the time. That is why we are asking for a full day rather than six hours, but there are a number of big issues requiring a measured debate.

Q18 John Hemming: Would you see any problem with debate on defence with a special interest in the issues of nuclear defence? There is obviously an inter-relationship anyway, but if everything to do with defence was in order, that would achieve two objectives in one.

Thomas Docherty: It is a really obvious observation, but well worth making, that there is nothing to stop colleagues speaking in a defence debate. With the best will in the world, I think we all know where Dr Lewis comes from on the issue, and I know where Jeremy comes from. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it if they choose, in a defence debate, to take their allocated time and spend it arguing their two perspectives.

Bob Stewart: Indeed. Some of us are quite sympathetic to the idea of having that debate within a defence debate.

Thomas Docherty: That would be a matter for them. My point, as a Defence Committee member, is that if there were time for a debate on defence, we would argue-I say this with the greatest possible respect-that a huge amount of attention is given to those who fall in action but not enough attention is given to those military casualties whose lives and whose families’ lives are changed as a result of life-changing injuries. We were not able, for obvious reasons, to get a debate around 11 November, and I hoped that you would consider that, but early next year would be-

Q19 Jane Ellison: That is one of the points that I was going to ask about: whether you were seeking time as close to Armistice day as possible, whether you were counting on one this side of Christmas, or whether you were happy with January, just to give us some steer on that. We have heard what you said about Thursday.

Bob Stewart: I would like it as close to Remembrance Sunday as possible, personally. It is the 30th anniversary of the bomb that killed so many of my soldiers on 6 December. A debate in December would be very appropriate, from my point of view.

Q20 Jane Ellison: Can I ask a quick follow-up question before you answer that one? Would you give it any sort of theme? I appreciate that you are after a general debate, but the last time there was a formal one given to the Defence Committee, I think it took as its theme a general debate on the SDSR. I appreciate that you do not want to narrow it completely, but I also think that there is also a danger that it will be so broad that you do not explore anything in any depth.

Thomas Docherty: I am torn. My instinct would be "Defence personnel", but Mr Hemming makes a valid observation. If we made it about defence personnel, those colleagues who wanted to talk about the deterrent would not be able to do so. I will be guided by your wisdom as a Committee. The argument against 6 December-there is a valid argument for it-is that the Army announcement possibly will not be out by then. Again, we are in your hands. We are not going to say no.

Q21 John Hemming: It is a question of making sure that everything is in order so that people are not prevented from speaking. I think that has been resolved in the previous answers.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming in today.

Bob Stewart: Thanks for putting up with us.

Chair: We will have a discussion when we go into private session to see where we can slot things in.

Laura Sandys, Jim Fitzpatrick and Caroline Lucas made representations.

Laura Sandys: Thank you very much. It is kind of you to have us to present this. I am very pleased to have here a former Minister with responsibility for animal welfare and Caroline Lucas, the Member of Parliament for the Green Party. This is an issue about live animal exports and animal welfare. In many ways, live animal exports have not been on the agenda for many, many years due to all sorts of animal export bans and issues about food safety. It is starting again.

Out of my port, about 30,000 animals over the last year have been exported live. It is a legal trade, but our key concern is whether animal welfare provisions are being adequately put in place, whether we actually have the capacity at the moment to deal with this trade and whether our monitoring and our risk assessments are effective. To question those issues, in the last five weeks, 47 animals have been slaughtered on the port of Ramsgate due to lack of facilities and lack of animal welfare capacity. One animal was shot in the truck and dragged out because the port does not have the facilities, and animal welfare had no other mechanism to do that.

Q22 Chair: You have asked for three hours. I assume that this is for a general debate on animal welfare and exports. Would it be possible to have this in Westminster Hall?

Laura Sandys: Yes.

Q23 Chair: So this is a Westminster Hall application.

Laura Sandys: Absolutely.

Caroline Lucas: There is a lot of concern, as you know, around the whole issue of animal exports. An e-petition was launched two weeks ago, and it has 24,500 signatures at the moment. If I had come here and said that I wanted a Chamber debate on that, one of the things you would have said to me would have been, "Have you gone for a Westminster Hall debate first?" Although I completely support a three-hour debate in Westminster Hall now, I hope that that will be without prejudice to coming back in three or six months’ time to argue for a debate in the Chamber, depending on levels of interest in this debate and so forth.

Q24 John Hemming: I would have thought that it was a good subject to have a motion on. You definitely do not want a motion on this? Are there different views?

Laura Sandys: We have different people with different views.

Q25 John Hemming: You cannot come to a clear view on what the motion should be.

Laura Sandys: We are looking to examine whether animal welfare really is meeting the requirements of this trade, and whether it has the capacity for it.

Q26 Jim Fitzpatrick: Just to reinforce that, when I was agriculture Minister as well as being animal welfare Minister and got letters from parliamentary colleagues about live exports, the reassurances that I got from the scientists and the officials in the Department were that regulations are in place to protect animals. But obviously recent evidence has brought that into clear relief. There was a question about whether a logistic chain is causing it, the shippers, or whether the conditions at the ports are causing it. I am sure that it is bringing farming into disrepute. We know farmers love their animals, despite the fact that they rear them for most of the population for food, and they will be as horrified as anybody. This is bringing the whole industry into disrepute, which is why it is animal welfare matter. An opportunity for the Minister to explain what the protections are, how the Government think they are working and what else can be done would be a very good starting point, because there is a lot of concern felt by the public out there.

Q27 John Hemming: You do not think that there is a coherent motion for this.

Q28 Jane Ellison: I just want to respond to Caroline’s point. There are two recent examples of Baba Ahmed and extradition, both of which had Westminster Hall debates fairly closely followed by Chamber debates with a motion. There is plenty of precedent for that, so we do not need to worry about it. From what you were saying, it sounds as though you want to put in for a general debate with a view to trying to crystallise where the problem really lies before deciding on the next step. Is that correct?

Laura Sandys: Yes, I think that it is, but we need to ensure that the Department is very focused on how it sees both animal welfare today and whether this trade will continue.

Q29 Jane Ellison: The reason why we are pushing that is because we have had lots of bids for the Chamber, but we are almost certainly going to get some Westminster Hall probably this side of Christmas. The great thing about that is that it is a guaranteed three hours with a ministerial reply, whereas Chamber time is subject to the vagaries of Parliament’s schedule.

Laura Sandys: This is quite topical, because we are moving up to certain legal challenges, certain assessments and reports that are going to be issued about animal welfare, both internal and external, to DEFRA.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming in. We are going into private session now so we shall let you know.

Prepared 4th December 2012