Backbench Business Committee - Minutes of EvidenceTranscript of representations made on Tuesday 3 December 2013








Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 13



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Representations made before the

Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 3 December 2013

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr David Amess

Mr David Anderson

John Hemming

Ian Mearns

Pete Wishart

John McDonnell and Grahame M. Morris made representations.

John McDonnell: The WOW petition now has more than 100,000 signatures. We had originally intended to come to you next week because we were not sure that we would reach 100,000, but now we have gone above that number. You can see the nature of the petition. There has been further lobbying this morning; quite a number of people have expressed a real interest in ensuring that we get a full debate on the petition.

We are asking for a whole day’s debate in the main Chamber some time in the new year. The reason for that timing is that the issue relates to a large number of people with disabilities and we need time to organise transport arrangements and so on for the large number who have expressed an interest in attending the debate.

I will not go through the petition, but it calls for a cumulative impact assessment of the cuts affecting sick and disabled people and refers to work capability assessments, which have been a key issue among people assessed for work or otherwise. It also covers a whole range of other matters, including support for people into work, care home admissions, day centres and so on. It goes on to some of the issues that have come up at the tribunal service as well.

The petition is much wider than what we have debated before. The last debate on the assessment was 12 months ago-it was sponsored in Westminster Hall by a member of the Committee-and there was a general debate on welfare reform during an Opposition day in July. However, neither of those debates addressed the full range of issues in the petition.

Q1 Chair: The petition has more than 100,000 signatures so it is automatically eligible for a slot in Westminster Hall. If your application is for a full day’s debate in the Chamber, you will need to provide quite a long list of cross-party names in support of that. They have to be added. Does that mean that you already have a list of cross-party names?

John McDonnell: A large number of Members will support the application. We can bring forward that list easily.

Chair: We really need that.

John McDonnell: We can do that.

Chair: If you are applying for a debate in the new year, that gives us time.

John McDonnell: As I said, we had planned to come to you next week, but now that we have more than 100,000 signatures and we have had the report, this is a good opportunity to meet. We can get a large list of Members of Parliament across parties by next week.

Q2 Chair: Your preference is for a debate in the new year rather than immediately?

John McDonnell: Yes. The disability groups and individuals who have launched this campaign had a discussion about the status of the debate. Although Westminster Hall debates are important, they felt that this was not a time to discriminate against people with disabilities. If the debate is in the main Chamber, that will demonstrate its significance.

Q3 John Hemming: Strictly, from a procedural point of view, motions in the House of Commons bind only the House of Commons. A motion such as this would not necessarily have the same effect as establishing a Committee if it were to be a Committee of the House of Commons. Have you considered whether you want a binding motion?

John McDonnell: We would welcome a binding motion. We need to look at the phraseology and consult.

Q4 John Hemming: If you don’t mind my saying so, I think that is important.

John McDonnell: The Clerk is looking anxious.

Q5 Chair: We can look at that once we go into private session. What we are looking at now is the principle of the debate.

John McDonnell: We will take whatever advice is appropriate to ensure the maximum effect of the e-petition itself.

Q6 Chair: We have an e-petition that has reached over 100,000 signatures. If you provide us with a list of cross-party Members as well, we can go from there.

John McDonnell: It really does make you say, "Wow!" doesn’t it, to get 100,000 just like that? The petition has been phenomenally successful. It is a tribute to the people and their commitment, and the importance of the issue.

Chair: Absolutely.

Mr David Anderson, Steve Rotheram, John Cryer and Jim Sheridan made representations.

Mr Anderson: There is a huge degree of interest in this from right across the House. The only parties not represented are the Scottish National party and the Welsh nationalists, but I am sure we can work on some people and get support. An EDM in the previous Session was signed by 62 Members, including a number in this room, and another in this Session was laid by a member of this Committee and at least 22 Members have signed it.

There was an electronic petition. The people behind it were really concerned because they were having huge problems accessing it. The information they gave me was that on one day 56,000 people were listed on the petition but on the next day the number was down to 24,000. They tried to clarify this with the people who were running the petitions, but they hit a brick wall.

These people have been trying to get justice for 41 years. When they come up against bureaucracy and obstinacy from the Government, they understandably get concerned. They have set up a printed petition, for which they hope to have 100,000 signatures by two weeks from yesterday. They will take that to Downing street.

This is a huge issue about the rights and wrongs not of the dispute, but of Government holding on to secret documentation. Going back 30 years, we have had nearly all the papers on the Falklands war, a time when many of our fellow countrymen died and many Argentinians died. Yet something that happened 10 years before that, when 24 guys went on strike, is such an issue of national security that it is still locked away 41 years later. Both the previous Government and this one have refused to release the papers. We believe this is a real issue of genuine public interest.

Q7 Chair: Just for the purposes of the record, could you read out the text of the substantive motion?

Mr Anderson: Certainly, Chair. It is:

"That this House is seriously concerned at the decision of the Government to refuse to release papers related to the building dispute in 1972 and subsequent prosecutions, and calls on them to reverse their position as a matter of urgency."

We are looking for three hours in the House in the new year, on a votable motion. We want it to be a votable motion because we have no doubt that if the Government put anybody up they will try to argue that it cannot be discussed as a matter of national security. We think that is not right. If they are going to garner enough support to overturn this motion, again it is a matter of public interest if constituency MPs are able to go back to their constituents and say, "We were very happy to vote against exposing what did or did not go on in 1972." We think that is in the public interest and is something that constituents ought to know.

Steve Rotheram: Chair, may I add to that, with regard to the material that is being withheld in the interests of national security? A piece of that material is a video of a programme that was broadcast on national television-anybody could have seen it. The copy was withheld under this extension to the powers of the 30-year rule. It is absolutely outrageous.

Q8 Mr Amess: This is one of those rare things that I don’t actually recall being lobbied on, but that is by the bye. Other than Stephen McPartland, are there any Conservatives?

Mr Anderson: Brian Binley is one of the lead people. I have not got my glasses, so I am not sure whether there are any more. Brian Binley was almost our Deputy Speaker, so we have someone of his status.

Q9 Mr Amess: If this is debated, is there some technical reason why this information cannot be revealed? Are they saying that it is for legal reasons?

Mr Anderson: That is what we are trying to flush out. I have had discussions with the legal adviser to the campaign group, who has worked for five years on this. She has spent an inordinate amount of time in Kew Record Offices, and the documentation she has put forward is, to be honest, embarrassing to the Government of the day.

Q10 Mr Amess: So in normal circumstances, this would have been released.

Mr Anderson: It should have been released. There are lots of reasons, and here is not the place to go into it. In a sense, this is about protecting people on all sides, because things that are being said by the people in the campaign about the people who are trying to cover this up are detrimental to some of those people, both alive and dead.

Q11 John Hemming: With all these things, it goes to the question of enforceability. Select Committees normally have a power to send for papers, and one would presume that a Select Committee could order that this information be provided to them. I wonder whether you have talked to the Select Committees about asking them to exercise their power to get this information.

Mr Anderson: That is another thing we could pick up, John. A number of avenues are being explored. This has been going on for 40 years; the youngest guy is 65 and the oldest is 85. Some of the witnesses-it is quite clear that the campaign believe that there could well be criminal proceedings coming out of this-are in their early 90s. But you are right that that might be another avenue to explore.

Q12 Pete Wishart: If it is just to flush out a response from the Government, could this not happen in Westminster Hall? Why do we need to have this on the Floor of the House and secure a vote, simply to try to secure a response from the Government and see why they are not replying?

Mr Anderson: Because we believe that it is in the interests of everybody in this country to know exactly where people stand on this. This is almost not about the issue itself; it is about the principle of a Government who, 41 years after an event that is relatively insignificant in global terms, are hiding behind a wall of secrecy.

We might win the debate on the day and put pressure on the Government to do it, although they might say that they were not going to. But if they won it by making people vote against, those individuals should be called to account by their constituents over why they are helping the Government to hide this information, regardless of what it is.

Steve Rotheram: Just to add to that, this is not an irresponsible, ill-thought-through motion. We are not asking for anything-none of us, as parliamentarians, would do this-that would endanger anybody. This is about the Government hiding behind the licences that they can sign off that prevent information from being disclosed. This is about a building strike, in which nobody was injured and nobody was killed. This is a simple thing about transparency and openness from the Government. The reason why it needs to be on the Floor of the House is that at the end of the day, it needs to be divisible. If the Government will not provide the information-to date, they have steadfastly refused-the issue needs to go to a vote so that the House can exercise its decision.

Q13 Chair: The last thing I would say is that the issue that you raised about the signatures on the e-petition going from 50,000 to just over 20,000 overnight is something that the Leader of the House will have a look at. I am sure that he has heard what has happened.

Steve Rotheram: John Cryer and I have written to the Cabinet Secretary and all sorts of people on that particular issue.

Chair: Certainly, this Committee will help with that.

Mr Lansley: I have looked into the matter and as far as we are concerned, it was purely a technical issue; there was no interference with the petition at all. The response on that point is available on the website.

Mr Anderson: The point I was making, Chair, is about whether this is of public interest. People try that route, and I accept entirely what the Leader of the House has said, but the people up there think that this is all part and parcel of the same conspiracy that has gone on for 41 years, so they have gone out and they are physically getting people to do it. As of two weeks ago, 72,000 people had signed a paper petition, and they are hoping to get to 100,000 in two weeks’ time.

Chair: Thank you very much for that.

Prepared 12th December 2013