Backbench Business Committee - Minutes of EvidenceTranscript of representations made on Tuesday 10 September 2013












Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 37



This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.


Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.


Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.


Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.

Representations made before the

Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 10 September 2013

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr David Amess

Bob Blackman

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Marcus Jones

Ian Mearns

Caroline Dinenage, Gordon Birtwistle and Mr Robin Walker made representations.

Q1 Chair: Caroline, this is a return bid.

Caroline Dinenage: A revised bid.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming back.

Caroline Dinenage: Thank you for allowing me to come back and re-pitch to you. May I also say how very attractive you are all looking today?

The fact that one in six adults in the UK are functionally illiterate-the number for innumeracy is significantly higher-is reason enough to have a debate on this subject. Illiteracy impacts on many different Government Departments: obviously BIS and Education, but also the Department for Work and Pensions. The DWP is rolling out the universal credit next year, which presupposes an element of computer literacy, as well as literacy, and a whole swathe of the population is unable to function in that way. From a purely selfish point of view, as a Government we are looking to make the most of people’s skills so that they can become the best they can be and fulfil their potential. By not allowing them to gain the literacy and numeracy skills they need, we are depriving ourselves of all that extra potential. That is why the debate is important.

Q2 Chair: Could you, just for the sake of the record, read out the motion? I know it is very long, but it would be very helpful if you could skip through it.

Caroline Dinenage: "That this House: recognises that with 1 in 6 adults functionally illiterate, Britain’s skills gap is preventing this country from fully realising our economic potential; understands that improved literacy rates not only have economic benefits but also have positive effects on an individual’s self-confidence, aspirations and emotional health and well-being; notes that literacy rates for school leavers have shown little change in spite of initiatives introduced by successive Governments over recent decades; understands that the social stigma attached to illiteracy and innumeracy often prevents adults from seeking the help they need, which means that signposting illiterate and innumerate adults to further education colleges is not always the most effective course of action; recognises that literacy and numeracy programmes must be made easily accessible to the most hard-to-reach functionally illiterate and innumerate adults if valued progress is to be made; and calls on the Government to renew efforts to provide imaginative, targeted and accessible support to illiterate and innumerate adults."

Q3 Chair: You have obviously applied for three hours in the Chamber because you have a motion. Is there a time sensitivity to it? Is there a topical hook that you are hanging this on?

Caroline Dinenage: Not particularly. I just think, because so many changes are being made in the education realm per se at the moment, because we are very much targeting the literacy and numeracy of youngsters and because employers all want employees to be literate, numerate and employable as a primary thing, now is the right time to have this debate.

Q4 Jane Ellison: Caroline, I cannot see anyone opposing the motion, so do you see this as an opportunity for Parliament essentially to explore the solutions?

Caroline Dinenage: Well, you say that people might not oppose the motion, but a number of the people who are supporting this application have said, "Actually, I do have some issues with what is in it, but I would really like the opportunity to discuss it." So I think people do come from various positions. Some people feel that mainstream education is the right way to tackle adult illiteracy; others feel very strongly that it is not. Equally, people come from various different backgrounds, but some of our colleagues are very keen to talk about this from a defence point of view. They have big problems with people entering the armed forces who are unable to read and write sufficiently. People are coming from lots of different angles. Within the prison service, obviously, there are a huge number of prisoners who are unable to read and write, so a lot of our colleagues are very keen to get involved but come at it from quite a different angle.

Jane Ellison: That is essentially what I was thinking.

Caroline Dinenage: So it is quite a broad debate, and because it is so cross-departmental it is not the sort of thing that is likely to be explored in full in any of the Select Committees, for example.

Q5 Chair: Does anyone want to add anything?

Gordon Birtwistle: As you know, I am working hard on this apprenticeship scheme, and a lot of employers are saying to me, "Yes, we want to take apprentices on and we want to teach them the skills of the future, but one of the problems we have is the literacy and numeracy issue with some of the people applying for the jobs. We would love to take them on, but we can’t take on an apprentice engineer who, basically, can’t write or do very basic arithmetic." It is a serious problem, and it is a tragedy for the young people who cannot get on to these apprenticeships because they haven’t picked those skills up. I agree with Caroline that it is essential that we try to get over that.

Q6 Bob Blackman: I have just one question. Obviously, this relates to adult literacy and the problems of people leaving school and not having such skills. Have you considered including within this those with English as an additional language, because a lot of people who came to this country originally have no grasp of English whatever, and have had no education and no opportunity? That is not mentioned in your motion, and I think it is a big subject, particularly in urban areas.

Caroline Dinenage: You are right, Bob, there are lots of aspects to this, some of which I have possibly not even considered. People might feel that they have an input into the debate, particularly from their own constituency, and adults who do not have English as a first language is a very good example. Also, everyone might have examples in their constituencies of how the adult literacy issue is being tackled, perhaps in a slightly imaginative or interesting way, getting better results-certainly we do in Gosport. It would be interesting to hear a cross-section of other people’s views on how the issue is being addressed in a more successful way.

Mr Walker: Last week, I took part in an evidence session with employers and young people, organised by the all-party parliamentary group on literacy, concerning a number of initiatives to improve literacy at school age. We discussed some of the issues, and the demand for picking up the pieces post-education and helping those who had missed out was very clear. Picking up on Bob’s point, I think you’re right: absolutely a big part of that is reaching those groups of people who came to this country with very little English and who are then very badly placed to support their own children.

Chair: That’s really clear. Thank you very much for coming back. We have available the first two Thursdays we are back, in October.

Q7 Jane Ellison: May I ask a follow-up, Chair? Caroline, you have a really impressive array of people who have signed up to support the bid, but how many firm commitments do you have in terms of speakers?

Caroline Dinenage: Quite a lot of the people supporting the bid said they would be interested in speaking in the debate as well-more than I anticipated. All the people on this list are not just people I grabbed in the Lobby; they are people I sent the motion to, allowing them to consider it.

Chair: Right. We will make a decision about the first Thursday we are back, but we also have the Thursday after that, which we shall not be scheduling today, but we will as soon as we return. We will let you know this afternoon. Thank you very much for coming in.

Robert Halfon, Nic Dakin, Dr Julian Lewis, Mr Graham Stuart and Jim Shannon made representations.

Q8 Chair: I do not have to take you through this, Robert, as you are an experienced attendee of this Committee. You are very welcome.

Robert Halfon: Thank you. It is good to be back. For once, I am not asking for a debate on petrol prices. I am here for another very important issue: free school meals. At the moment, we have a serious anomaly in our country, which says that if you go to sixth form at school, you get a free school meal if you are eligible, but that if you go to a further education or sixth-form college, you do not. We have a big problem in my constituency of Harlow, in that we have one sixth-form school, but the majority of students go to the FE college and do not get a free school meal, although many of them would be eligible for it, coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I am grateful to have the support of my colleagues, as you can see. Nic Dakin in particular has been very active in working with me on this. Julian Lewis, Graham Stuart, who is the Chair of the Education Committee, and Jim Shannon from the Democratic Unionist party have also been active, so we have support from all sides of the House. I have copies of a draft motion that I want to pass to the Committee. It has been signed by 75 Members.

Q9 Chair: We have the motion. Would you read it out for the record?

Robert Halfon: Yes. I can pass it round. It has been signed by 75 Members of all parties in the House, including 18 from parties other than the Conservative party. The motion states, "This House believes that as soon as resources allow, the Government should introduce free meals for disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-olds who attend further education and sixth form colleges; notes that there is an urgency to correct the anomaly that students at sixth forms can access free meals, but their peers at further education and sixth form colleges cannot; further notes that the Association of Colleges has found that 79% of colleges believe that free school meals for 16 to 18-year-olds would encourage them to stay on in education; further notes that young people who attend sixth form and are eligible for free school meals do receive them; and therefore urges the Government to look at what can be done to treat sixth formers and college students equally and support these young people to continue in education."

The debate is incredibly important. It is a matter of social justice. The situation has gone on for far too long. Given that the education maintenance grant has been abolished for all students-I know there was a bursary to replace it-I really believe that we need to act now, and I think that this will help to put the pressure on, given that the Government are listening on this subject at the moment.

Mr Stuart: The policy has a perverse impact. If you look at rural areas, such as the East Riding of Yorkshire that I represent, or at the south-west-Cornwall and Devon-you see sixth-form colleges that often offer a choice and sometimes a quality not equalled by closer school sixth forms. Those on low incomes are effectively discouraged by the fact that they cannot get a free lunch when they go to a sixth-form college, or indeed an FE college, and by the cost of transport. Thus you are worsening the education divide, when you have actually got provision sitting there available. It is an issue of social justice, but it is also having a perverse and distorting impact on educational choices as well.

Dr Lewis: Even in a prosperous area such as Hampshire, there are pockets of deprivation. It is an anomaly that one can have a mixture, as Robert has said, of sixth-form colleges on the one hand and schools with sixth forms on the other, and yet the pupils who are staying on in the one educational establishment will receive the free meal and the others will not. I believe that when it comes to equipping people with the intellectual tools for the future, this is the strongest area-second, probably, only to health-for state intervention. This would be a good state intervention; I am happy to support it.

Nic Dakin: I come at this from the view of young people. They should be treated equally, whichever institution they go to. At the moment, more young people have their post-16 education in further education or sixth-form colleges, but those young people are not able to access free school meals, even though they were eligible for them before they moved into post-16, whereas their contemporaries who remain in schools can receive them, and that is fundamentally unfair.

Jim Shannon: Madam Chair, I am happy to support this. In Northern Ireland, further education is a devolved matter. I just want to make Members aware of that. None the less, I support Robert’s motion, because I clearly see the benefits of it. Also, I have pursued the matter with the Minister responsible in Northern Ireland-Stephen Farry-and I intend to have a campaign similar to what we are trying to do here in Westminster. I want to add my full support.

Q10 Mr Jones: You have a motion on a very important subject. Looking at the requests for debates that we have already got and that we have had over the past few weeks-obviously, we have requests today for debates, one of which already has a motion suggested and therefore it has to go in the Chamber-can you set out why you need this debate quickly and why we should perhaps prioritise it over other debates that we already have had requested and over other people coming forward with representations today?

Nic Dakin: Yes. We have had over-subscribed debates in Westminster Hall on this issue already, and this is the moment to take it further. Having the debate on the Floor of the House would allow the issue to be better aired, and would enable us to reflect the concern that there is about it not only in the House but in the country. We cannot let the injustice continue. It is urgent, and it should be addressed sooner rather than later.

Robert Halfon: As you know, the Government will look at spending commitments at the end of the year. I believe that the Government are listening to us on this. I have asked a number of written and oral questions, and the Government have not said no; they have said they are looking at it. We need to pile on the parliamentary pressure and have a votable motion. Given that so many colleagues have signed it, I am lucky in the sense that there will be many speakers. Many colleagues have FE and sixth-form colleges in their constituencies, so there will be a huge demand for this debate. I think we have a real opportunity to get the Government to move on this issue.

Q11 Mr Jones: So you are aiming for the autumn statement, are you?

Robert Halfon: Exactly, yes.

Q12 John Hemming: One of my objectives, which is shared by the Committee, is to get as many debates through as possible. I tend to be on the side of having more, shorter debates rather than fewer, longer debates. One option, if there is no statement or urgent question, is that you could have three two-hour debates on a day, rather than two three-hour debates, each of which may have a motion. Do you think a two-hour debate would air the issue sufficiently?

Robert Halfon: I would be really happy with that. I accept that there is huge pressure on the Committee’s time. The important thing is that there is a votable motion. If there is a shorter time available, I will speak for less time and give as many colleagues a chance to speak as possible.

Q13 Mr Amess: So, Robert, your clever intervention on my question yesterday was not sufficient for you?

Robert Halfon: Well, that is just part of the campaign. I ask about this issue at every Education questions and business questions, and I table early-day motions in the usual way. It is just additional ammunition.

Chair: Thank you. We have got the first Thursday back and the Thursday after that. That is all we have allocated to us at the moment. We have got a huge amount-

Q14 Jane Ellison: When is the autumn statement?

Chair: That is a very good question.

Robert Halfon: We do not know the date of the autumn statement, but obviously, the debate needs to be well before that. If it is too near, most of the decisions will have already been made. I am obviously happy for any time before that.

Q15 Chair: How long was your Westminster Hall debate, which was so heavily over-subscribed? Was it half an hour or 90 minutes?

Nic Dakin: It was a 90-minute debate.

Q16 Jane Ellison: And how many people were in attendance?

Nic Dakin: I would have to look that up.

Q17 Jane Ellison: But more than could get in?

Nic Dakin: Yes, it was a very well attended debate. It was full of contributions from both sides of the House. It was a busy debate.

Chair: Okay. I think we need to take that into account as well. Thank you very much for coming, and thank you for coming so well armed.

Mr Laurence Robertson, Rt Hon Nick Herbert and Mrs Anne Main made representations.

Q18 Chair: So this is an application for three hours in the Chamber on planning, housing supply and the countryside, and it is a general debate.

Mr Robertson: A three-hour debate, either in the main Chamber or Westminster Hall, if that is more convenient. I am grateful to Anne and Nick for supporting me. I have a list of other Members who would have liked to have come along but could not because of diary pressures, but who strongly support this application.

I say this as a Conservative Member, but I do feel that there is come confusion surrounding Government policy on housing provision, building and protecting the countryside. We hear the Government say that we must not build on the green belt because we have to protect it, we should not build in flood risk areas, and so forth. Yet it seems that such is the pressure on local planning authorities to build large numbers of houses that inevitably the green belt and flood risk areas, for example, are being compromised.

The green belt, of course, is there for a purpose. Very recently, an all-party group has been set up to protect the green belt, because many Members feel that it is under threat. In my own area, there are possible developments that could cause Cheltenham and Gloucester almost to coalesce. That would entirely defeat the purpose of the green belt in that area.

There is also no scientific basis-I have this in a written answer from the Government-for assessing housing projections or housing need. It seems to be just done on ad hoc. A number of local authorities have, not necessarily technically, had their plans returned, and they have had meetings at which it is made clear to them that they need to provide a certain number of houses. Again, how is that figure arrived at?

This is somewhat surprising, because the Government introduced the Localism Act 2011 and neighbourhood plans, but such plans have to be in basic agreement with the local plan. It begs the question, what happened to localism? Should there not be more localism? Should there not be more decisions taken at a local level? That is what people thought they were getting.

I think that there is quite a confusion about the policy in this area, and I think a debate would help to clarify it. I would like to invite my colleagues to comment, if that is okay.

Chair: Yes, please.

Mrs Main: After the abolition of the regional spatial strategies, many authorities, such as mine, had been rather delayed somewhat in getting their own local plans together. Part of the delay has been caused by the indecisiveness of the language coming out of Government, which means that local authorities are not sure what they are supposed to do. St Albans, bless them, is now having a green belt review, and it is not alone in this. Our proximity to London makes us vulnerable to developers setting their sights on us. I echo Laurence’s question about whatever happened to local areas planning their own local housing need, based on size of houses, the type of housing, and whether or not more family houses with gardens were needed, or accommodation for elderly people. I thought that we as a Government and, I believe, Members on both sides of the House were starting to say, "Let’s go back to trusting local people and locally elected representatives to input."

Because of the confusion of the rhetoric coming out from Government, yet again our plans are delayed locally. I think a debate would be timely for other authorities like mine, which are finding themselves basically being threatened with, "Well, you haven’t got your act together, therefore we will decide at the highest level." The debate would be a chance for the Government to reiterate what exactly it is they expect local authorities to deliver and the vision that they expect from local authorities, and hopefully an opportunity for local authorities to input to us their problems arising from dealing with the mixed messages coming out of Government.

Nick Herbert: I strongly support this request. I secured a Westminster hall debate on the subject in July, and it was over-subscribed, so everyone’s contributions were very limited. Universal concern was expressed about the planning changes, and the occasion illustrated that there is considerable appetite for further debate.

I think this is one of those classic issues where there is a debate going on among the public out there, in local authorities and in communities, which is not being reflected in sufficient debate in this place. There is an ongoing argument about how much housing we should be providing now. The Government are asserting that there needs to be more, and there is a clear concern about the level of house prices. Some big planning changes are controversially only just beginning to bed down, and some new significant planning guidance, which has just been published, has been the subject of no parliamentary debate at all.

I feel that Back Benchers have not had a sufficient opportunity to express their concerns, which are shared by an awful lot of councillors and others around the country. I think it would be a timely and topical debate.

Mrs Main: Just on that, there has been an incentivisation for people to get on the housing ladder only through new-build houses. In a historical area such as mine, there are questions that we would like to ask about whether or not this rush to build is the way forward to get young people on the housing ladder, or whether there are other ways that we could save our green belt and look at better ways of getting young people on the housing ladder. I think it is all part of that.

Q19 John Hemming: You say on your note that you would like the debate in the Chamber, but you do not have a votable motion, which means that the debate could happen-although we do not have any time to allocate there-in Westminster Hall. If you were offered that, would you refuse it?

Mr Robertson: Westminster Hall would be fine.

John Hemming: So basically you are happy with Westminster Hall, except that we do not have any time.

Mr Robertson: We would prefer the Chamber.

Chair: We have some time in Westminster Hall on 24 October. We will definitely look at that as well.

Q20 Ian Mearns: I think you face an interesting range of dilemmas. Certainly from my perspective, prior to the demise of the regional spatial strategies, what we saw was encroachment on the green belt from the outside-from the rural area trying to build on the green belt towards the urban core. It was the rural districts that were guilty of that in my particular area. Since the demise of the regional spatial strategy, it seems that there is no cohesion in housing policy across some regional areas or particular areas. Part of the problem that I have-I know it might be difficult given the political make-up of the rural areas-is that we do not have cross-party support for the motion. We have representatives from the Lib Dems and Conservatives, but we do not have any Labour Members mentioned.

Mr Robertson: I just have the ones who have said yes so far, including Martin Horwood from the Lib Dems, my neighbour in Gloucestershire who represents a town area, Crispin Blunt, Stuart Andrew and Dave Anderson, Jacob Rees-Mogg-

Q21 Ian Mearns: Dave Anderson? I am sorry Laurence, but we do not have him on our list.

Mr Robertson: No, that is fine. Valerie Vaz. There are quite a few, and those are the ones who have expressed concern to me.

Q22 Chair: Can you give us those names? It is also about how many people you think would speak in the debate in order to allow us to assess how many hours to allocate to it. That would be important. Having cross-party support is a very good point.

Q23 Bob Blackman: Can I just tease out from you whether you are seeking to limit this to the green belt and to the countryside, or are you looking at the confusion in Government policy on planning generally, which might expand the scope of the debate?

Mr Robertson: I think both those things. There is some confusion about the planning policy, and also there is a concern about housing supply and how those numbers are arrived at. It is principally about the countryside, but there is also some confusion about the overall planning policy, and how the Government come up with numbers. We have local authorities that use one means of assessment and the Government who use another means of assessment. Neither is scientific and yet one can overrule and press on the other one certain numbers. How do they get to those numbers? I would like the Minister to tell the Commons how he gets to those numbers. There is a number of things to consider.

Q24 Chair: Thank you. That is really very comprehensive, and we have had part of the debate here already. We will let you know this afternoon what decision we come to. There is next Thursday and the Thursday after and then we have this slot on 24 October in Westminster Hall. We will let you know this afternoon.

Mr Robertson: Thank you.

Chair: Not next Thursday, but the Thursday we get back and then the Thursday after.

Mr Frank Doran, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Sheryll Murray and Jim Shannon made representations.

Q25 Chair: Presumably, Anne Begg was here earlier to support this debate.

Mr Doran: She had to attend the Liaison Committee.

Chair: I understand that, thank you.

Mr Doran: Thanks very much for giving us this opportunity to address you. We have been here before with this same request. The Committee is aware that traditionally there was an annual fisheries debate that took place just before the Minister attended the European fisheries council in December. It was an opportunity to get an update on the industry-an annual report if you like-and to have a serious debate about what the Minister’s plans were and what approach he would be taking at the European Council meeting. A decision of the Council in December each year is vital to the following year’s allowances for fishing because it determines the quotas on all the species in European waters. We have applied early, because we thought that it was the best way to do things. We do not have a motion that we would propose because it is not like the debate that you gave us on the European reform, because we would still probably expect the format that we were used to, which was a debate on the ministerial report. It is an extremely important debate for the fishing industry. The national officers of the various fisheries organisations tend to attend. There are more than 70 members of the all-party fisheries group and it gives those who are able to attend the opportunity to raise an important issue that has a massive effect on their communities.

Q26 Chair: You said December, but do you know exactly when?

Mr Doran: The fisheries Council is usually in the week before Christmas. Any time in December or late November would be acceptable.

Jim Shannon: Every year we come here and ask for this debate. It is a bit like "Groundhog Day" except that it is very important; "Groundhog Day" was just a film. This time last year the fishing industry in Northern Ireland entered into its worst ever fishing period. The east winds started blowing in September. They blew until March. The fishing industry in Northern Ireland was basically confined to port. It was probably the worst I have ever seen-families were in disarray; banks were on their backs; houses were being repossessed. That is the vast scale of what happened to the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

We are here this year, probably with a bigger claim than we have had in the last two years, to ask for this debate in the Chamber on this most important matter. The Northern Ireland Assembly had to come in at the behest of a number of elected representatives to try to give some financial help, with the agreement of Europe of course because we are always very conscious of what to do. The importance of the debate this year is greater than it has ever been before. We need to have the debate in the Chamber. We need to have the reassurance that the quotas will be kept for us. We have to try to catch up as a fishing industry. There is also the matter of the accrual of prawns, in particular, and perhaps the review of the white fish for us in the Irish sea. This all comes under Westminster because that is where the thrust of the issue comes out. I cannot underline enough just how vastly important this is to Northern Ireland and why we need to have this debate, and in the main Chamber if at all possible.

Ms Ritchie: Thank you, Madam Chairperson. I am here to support my cross-party colleagues in our quest for the annual general fisheries debate. Representing a constituency in Northern Ireland that has two fishing ports, I am only too well aware of the importance of fishing both onshore and offshore to the local economy. That must be underpinned at every possible opportunity. Notwithstanding the difficulties encountered by fishermen in relation to inclement weather conditions, I believe that there are opportunities. We need that general overview from the Minister. We need to hear what proposals he will make to the European Commission about quota allocations for particular fish species. We need to hear what the ongoing assessment is from the European Commission about the fisheries science and the amount of fish species.

Quite often fishermen and fish producer organisations contest what the Government and the Commission say. Quite often a balance has to be struck on the allocations. Fishermen feel that in some instances the infrastructure at the harbours is insufficient to deal with their particular demands. That is another issue, and obviously it is the responsibility of other Departments and not necessarily the European Commission, unless resources are being sought from the European Fisheries Fund. We need to have that debate on the general overview.

Q27 Chair: If we are looking at this now, once we schedule it we can have the wider debate. I understand the point about having a general debate in order to allow all of that. Do you want to add anything, Sheryll?

Sheryll Murray: Yes, if I could. First of all, I cannot emphasise enough that I believe giving the time for the debate should take precedence over the venue. The fishing industry has a once-a-year opportunity, and a three-hour debate, in my opinion, should take precedence over the venue.

This morning I met various individuals from the fishing industry at a seminar. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of having a debate, not just for the industry and its representatives and the communities. There is a massive interest throughout the country at the moment in sustainability and the labelling of fish. It goes beyond the scope of just fishing communities now.

Q28 Chair: It is very helpful to say that the timing of the debate is more important than the venue. If we get towards December and run out of Chamber time, obviously we will negotiate that.

Mr Doran: From last year’s experience, we would prefer the Chamber, but we happened to get chopped because of other Commons business. The debate was seriously curtailed.

Chair: That is always the danger.

Sheryll Murray: Absolutely.

Ms Ritchie: And it was very well subscribed.

Chair: But you get protected time in Westminster Hall. You get the full three hours.

Q29 Mr Amess: Frank, I remember last year’s debate well, because we all made such fantastic speeches. Would you remind me? Was the debate over-subscribed? Did it have more than enough speakers?

Mr Doran: It was, and everything was compressed. It was uncomfortable.

Q30 John Hemming: So the message we are getting is that if we are trying to cram three debates into a day, for instance, you wouldn’t want to be in on that?

Sheryll Murray: A two-hour debate, in my opinion, would not be enough.

John Hemming: I am just trying to get clarity.

Chair: We are never doing that again, by the way, John. It didn’t work. That is really helpful, Sheryll.

Q31 Bob Blackman: Obviously you are applying in advance, and we do not know what the circumstances will be at the point when the debate takes place. I do not know what issues are likely to come up in December, but is there a chance that you would want to put a votable motion to the House on the fishing industry before the Fisheries Minister goes to the conference? I do not know what the issues would be; I just wonder if that would be possible. If we schedule it for Westminster Hall, you lose that opportunity, but you also run the risk of being chopped in terms of time.

Mr Doran: Any time in December before the Commission meeting. Probably a couple of weeks beforehand is better, because the Minister is forming his views at that time, and everything is not fully formed. If we are going to influence, that is probably as good a time as any.

Sheryll Murray: I think the whole House is united in support of the fishing industry across parties. I cannot actually see there being a votable motion, other than for us all to say we support the Minister. I cannot see it being contentious.

Jim Shannon: There is one thing that we can be sure of long before December comes around: Europe will be restricting and trying to reduce the quotas. That is where we start from. Our job through the Minister, Richard Benyon, is to ask him to plead our case for us, which he has done admirably over the last couple of years. The House will be absolutely united about it as well. We have a European idleness that we have got to take on as well.

Chair: That is really helpful.

Q32 Ian Mearns: I do not want to be someone telling my granny how to suck eggs, but I think you are missing a trick. In the blurb you have here, you say you have 6,000 registered fishing vessels and 12,000 fishermen, but behind them are a whole range of ancillary industries. I am not sure of the numbers. During the summer, I had the pleasure of visiting Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway, and Eyemouth in the borders region. Both are ports that are nowhere near the capacity that they were at 15 or 20 years ago. Behind those fishing boats that are not there any more are ancillary services such as fishing boat repair yards, building yards and all the service industries that have suffered dramatically from the demise of the fishing industry. Add into that the increasing demand from consumers, restaurants and retailers for local produce-

Chair: I think you should take part in the debate.

Sheryll Murray: It is one in seven: seven jobs ashore for every one offshore. That is the estimate. Kirkcudbright is actually brilliant. That is where my late husband’s family were from.

Q33 Chair: I think we have established that this is of importance to the entire nation, and you want a general debate so that you can cover every topic and include anybody who wants to raise any other details. The ideal time is in the run-up.

Ian Mearns: And there is a fiver for charity every time somebody mentions Craster kippers.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming in. We will let you know closer to the time. As Jane just said, we make a decision in principle and we will let you know that today

Bob Blackman and Alex Cunningham made representations.

Q34 Chair: For the sake of the record, as a Committee we have not a rule, but an understanding that, as members, we do not usually present or lead debates ourselves, unless there are issues that have got a certain constituency interest, or campaign interest to an individual member. Therefore, we obviously unusually welcome Bob to the other side of the table, but he will not be taking part in deciding whether this debate is scheduled.

Bob Blackman: Yes. Just to make clear, Madam Chairman, that I am the secretary of the all-party group for action on smoking health and have been leading on this campaign, together with my colleagues, Alex Cunningham and Stephen Williams, who unfortunately is not able to get here today.

I don’t want to rehearse the debate in front of the Committee, but there are certain issues around topicality and timing etc, that are important. First, the Government launched a consultation on standardised packaging of tobacco products, they have had that consultation and it is closed. They have decided that they will not make a decision on implementing the standardised packaging for two to three years. They did this in July, and the earliest opportunity we had to debate that, because it was not debated in the Chamber, was a Westminster Hall debate, which we held a week ago last Tuesday, and on which I led. We had a very full debate in an hour and a half, excellently chaired by the hon. Member for Kettering. He managed to get 21 people to speak in an hour and a half, including interventions, by putting a very strict three-minute time limit on other contributions. It was a heavily over-subscribed debate. There was, and is, considerable opposition to the introduction of plain packaging.

We have on this particular application secured the names of people who are supportive of the change, and one of the reasons why people who are opposed to the change may not sign this and may not want a debate, is that they have got what they wanted by kicking this into the long grass. I can certainly say that there will be a considerable number of speakers who would want to oppose this.

Q35 Chair: Could you read the motion for us?

Bob Blackman: I will read the motion: "This House calls on the Government to introduce appropriate regulations to require tobacco products to be sold in standardised packages." That is relatively simple and straightforward.

Clearly, we are not currently likely to get a debate on this through any other route. I think the Department of Health is broadly supportive of this proposal-it is other elements of the Government that do not support it. I have applied obviously for the Chamber and for a three-hour debate, and given an estimate that that would allow 25 Members to contribute if we had a time limit. I suspect that it will be heavily over-subscribed because there are many Members who were not able to get to the Westminster Hall debate, for example, who would want to contribute; also those who did contribute would rather like to lengthen their contributions, so it may be that three hours will not be enough. However, I understand the pressure on timing.

The other issue is the timing of the debate. There is an amendment to the Children and Families Bill going through the House of Lords, which may, if it is implemented and voted through by the House of Lords, go some way towards what we want to achieve. If that is defeated in the House of Lords, clearly we would want to press this very hard indeed. If it is carried in the House of Lords, it will come back as a Lords amendment and then there will be a further debate in the Chamber, and therefore we may postpone this, depending on the outcome. I suspect that we are talking about a debate, if the Committee agrees, in November-that sort of time frame for a debate in the Chamber.

Alex Cunningham: That was quite a comprehensive account of what we want to achieve. There is no doubt about it-there would be a real feisty debate in the Commons. There are very contrary views; there are large numbers of people who feel that Parliament has a responsibility to hold the Government to account on this. We believe that there are large numbers of people who will not only take part in the debate, but go through the Lobby, in order to send a very clear message to the Government. The Government do not want to hear that message at the moment, but for me, that is all the more reason why we need to have this debate, to have a vote to express Parliament’s opinion on it.

We heard three-minute speeches; I have never been so frustrated in my life. With three minutes, the red pen was moving more furiously than it ever did when I was a newspaper sub-editor. All I want now is this opportunity to expand some of the arguments and put them to the Government. It would even help the Health team as they try to persuade the rest of the Government that they should take this step sooner rather than later.

Mr Amess: Bob, I was not there but I was watching it on my TV. I was amazed at the turn-out and the ferocity of the argument. It was coming from people whom I had not expected to be involved in the debate. I simply want to endorse the fact that there was huge interest in it, which certainly surprised me.

Bob Blackman: indicated assent.

Chair: That was very comprehensive.

Bob Blackman: That is the benefit of being a member of a Committee, you see: I know the form.

Q36 Jane Ellison: Just for clarification. Obviously, as you have said, the topic is standardised packaging, but I think you have made your own views clear. Among the supporting Members, are there people who support both sides of the argument? It sounds as though it is a proper, genuine, back-and-forth debate, with lots of views. Or is it, essentially, one side of the argument asking for a debate and the other side-

Bob Blackman: Sorry-I obviously didn’t make myself clear. The supporting Members are all on one side of the debate. I suspect that those people on the other side of the debate don’t want a debate to happen, because they have got what they wanted from the Government.

Jane Ellison: Right. Sorry, you did say that, to be fair.

Bob Blackman: I have spoken to many colleagues of all parties who are in favour of this position-this is on an all-party basis. There are also those people, across the House, who are opposed to it, for all sorts of reasons. I don’t want to raise the debate now, but there is the issue of free will, and so on. There are other people who have jobs, tobacco companies and factories in their constituencies.

Q37 Jane Ellison: So you are confident that there will be a vigorous debate?

Bob Blackman: There will be a vigorous debate. As David said, anyone who witnessed the debate in Westminster Hall will know that. It is rare for a Westminster Hall debate to have a lot of emotion and ferocity; they are mainly logical and well-argued debates.

Ian Mearns: I want to echo that. Certainly, if the debate is held, the people who are opposed to the motion will turn out in force. So I think it will be a genuine debate.

Alex Cunningham: I have no doubt of that.

Bob Blackman: Indeed.

Chair: That is great. Thank you very much. We will go into private session now and decide on all these debates.

Prepared 25th September 2013