Backbench Business Committee - Minutes of EvidenceTranscript of representations made on Tuesday 25 February 2014





25 FEBRUARY 2014



Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 16



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Made before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 25 February 2014

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr David Amess

Bob Blackman

Oliver Colvile

John Hemming

Ian Mearns

Alec Shelbrooke

Richard Drax, Philip Davies and Sir Edward Leigh made representations.

Q1 Chair: Thank you for coming. We have just discussed the fact that your bid is quite light on supporting names-because of the floods, as I just explained to the Committee. Will you tell us what you want? You have a votable motion, so you are asking for Chamber time, but will you take us through it?

Richard Drax: Very briefly, because I do not want to disturb my colleague who is trying to have lunch with his daughter, poor man. We would like a debate on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, for which many of us voted in good faith at the time because of the state of the country. Now that Act has serious implications, not least if, for example, Scotland gets its independence-which hopefully it won’t. But if it does and we have a small Labour majority in 2015, what happens? It raises a whole lot of consequential questions, which could be very serious. Added to that, for the sake of our democracy, I do not like tinkering with it. I do not think we should have done so and if we do, other parties might follow, though I hope not. As I understand it, a fixed-term Parliament goes on to the next Parliament unless the Act is repealed, so I want a debate on the future of the Act and its implications for us.

Q2 Chair: Do you have the motion with you?

Richard Drax: I don’t.

Chair: I will read it out for the sake of the record: "This House should consider the relevance of the Fixed-term Parliament Bill and whether it should be repealed." Do Edward Leigh and Philip Davies want to add anything?

Philip Davies: I will make two quick points. We have now experienced what a fixed-term Parliament looks like and we can see whether it is something people would want to repeat, so it is worth having a debate on that. It is also very timely because-it must be true, because I read it in the paper-the Prime Minister is said to be considering making a pledge at the general election that he will not enter into any kind of coalition with any other party even if he was short of a majority. A debate on the issue would flush out quite a few things that are very relevant and topical, that being one of them.

Sir Edward Leigh: I would like to add that I think this is of great constitutional interest and importance. Traditionally, unlike with written constitutions, we have never had fixed-term Parliaments. We have always had Parliaments at the discretion of the Prime Minister. We voted on it in the early flush of this Parliament, in the heady days of the coalition, when there were a very large number of new Members. I think that, over the years, all sorts of worries have arisen about what would happen in terms of certain eventualities. I suspect that the fixed-term Parliament was not thought up as a long-term constitutional debate, but that it was a device to try and maintain the coalition, and stop one part of the coalition ratting on the other. I am not sure that is a good way of writing or making any constitution. We will not always have coalitions. This is a good time, as this Parliament is nearly four years old and we have a lot of people who have acquired experience, to have an informed debate about the future and about whether having fixed-term Parliaments is in our interest.

Q3 Chair: I read out the wrong motion; it has been updated to, "that this House believes that the Government should bring forward legislative proposals to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011".

Richard Drax: Yes, thank you. That was after the experts got hold of it-you are obviously reading my writing as well, I’m sorry.

John Hemming: Which deals with my question, because the motion as originally phrased would have allowed the debate effectively to happen in Westminster Hall, because it was a general sort of motion. What you are asking for, differently, is to have a substantive motion against the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which can only happen in the Chamber.

Q4 Bob Blackman: To be clear, on the form that you have submitted, there are no Members who want to take part in the debate other than yourselves. For an application for a three-hour debate, we would expect 15 or-

Richard Drax: There were originally about 10.

Chair: We have seven.

Richard Drax: Because of the floods, I was called off to Portland, and then we had the break, so if you give me a few days I will certainly get-

Chair: We would definitely ask that you do.

Richard Drax: You want some Labour Members, Lib Dem Members?

Chair: Yes, more of a mixture and more Members, for three hours.

Q5 Alec Shelbrooke: The problem I have with this is in terms of it being a Back-Bench debate. It strikes me as more of an Opposition day debate, because you are effectively trying to repeal legislation passed in this Parliament. There is the need to think about what Edward said, about long enough in the day and what the effects are going forward-it might have been yourself, Richard, I can’t remember, but about the next Parliament. It would strike me as something to come from the Back Benches if it was at the start of the next Parliament-talking about whether Parliament would be fixed-term moving onwards-but the motion effectively is to repeal Government legislation passed in this Parliament, and therefore, it strikes me more as an Opposition day debate than a Back-Bench business debate.

Richard Drax: Yes, I suppose you could look at it like that. It could be interpreted that way, but if it goes on to the next Parliament, it is obviously too late, because no Government in power are going to repeal something that keeps them there for five years. As my colleague said very well, the point is that it was done initially to keep the coalition together-a very unique experience in this country-and at a time when the country was broke. So the circumstances have changed dramatically. That is why it was put there.

Philip Davies: May I say that we do not have any say over Opposition day motions-not that I am aware of anyway-and the whole point of this Committee, which I very much support and used to serve on before it was improved with the current people, is that Back Benchers are allowed to come along and ask for debates that we want, irrespective of whether the Labour Front Bench wants to have them? I do not know whether they will or will not, but we have no sway over that.

Q6 Alec Shelbrooke: My concern is that-one has to be careful that we do not have the debate now about the pros and cons, and I think lots of things could come out in it-it strikes me as a general debate. Looking at what is here, it would be better off as a general debate than a votable motion on legislation. I think that would sit more comfortably. You put forward particularly the argument about the coalition. I think there are other things. My personal view is that all local elections should happen once every five years.

Chair: Alec, it is absolutely within scope.

Q7 Alec Shelbrooke: I’m asking whether there is a better mechanism for such a contentious issue. I can see lots of things in a general debate.

Sir Edward Leigh: It is up to you-you’re in charge. We can only put a proposition to you, but you can’t have it both ways. Mr Hemming has said to us, "If you make it a general debate, then we are going to push you into Westminster Hall."

Alec Shelbrooke: I don’t think he quite said that.

Sir Edward Leigh: Well. Now, you are saying that this is all too big an issue for Back Benchers-"You are trying to repeal Government legislation, it is all too big and too important, so make it a general debate." We are in your hands, but I would have thought that having a debate on a major constitutional issue is a way of reinvigorating Thursday afternoons.

Q8 Chair: I’m a bit worried about this opening up into a general debate. The issue that you have brought to us is perfectly legitimate for you to put forward on a votable motion in the Chamber. It is really down to us to make sure that it is discussed. I think all that Alec is saying is that there are other options that you can also try.

Our only problem is time. We may have some time at the end of the day on 10 March-provisionally, possibly. If that were available, do you absolutely have to have a three-hour debate, or would it be possible to have something at the end of the day that may be two hours or one and a half hours?

Richard Drax: Bearing in mind the timing, if we then don’t get something for much longer after that, I think we would be grateful for anything, frankly. I think it is the sort of the debate that would spark a lot more interest, perhaps, once people are aware of it.

Chair: Sure. Could I have brief questions?

Oliver Colvile: My slight concern is that this is, frankly, an issue for the next Parliament, not for this one, on the grounds that you cannot tie the next Parliament into what may actually end up happening.

Q9 Chair: The issue also is that any vote would not in itself repeal the Act. It would give voice to the House.

Richard Drax: It would give some feedback.

Q10 John Hemming: My earlier point was that I was taking your answer as indicating that if we only had time in Westminster Hall, you would refuse it, because you have to have the motion. If, for instance, given all the pressures we have, and the lack of time, we could only offer time in Westminster Hall, without a votable motion, would you refuse that?

Richard Drax: No, if that was all that you had, but, as Sir Edward said, this is a major constitutional issue which I think needs debating in the Chamber.

Chair: And in fact we have more Chamber time than we have Westminster Hall time at the moment.

John Hemming: But the question needed to be asked, so that we know the answer.

Q11 Ian Mearns: I am also concerned and I would look forward to receiving more names of people interested in participating in the debate. We have a significant list of as yet unallocated debates on our waiting list, as it were, therefore, I am more interested in time sensitivity. This does not seem to be a massively time-sensitive debate requiring much urgency. If we were to allocate other business in the next couple of weeks, would it be a massive problem for you if it was to be allocated at the back end of March?

Richard Drax: No, not at all.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming and sorry for detaining you.

Keith Vaz and Pauline Latham made representations.

Q12 Chair: Thank you for your patience, Keith. You are on.

Keith Vaz: Thank you. Chair and members of the Committee, this is an application supported by all members of the Home Affairs Committee, and by Pauline Latham, chair of the all-party group on FGM, for a three-hour debate in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber. It needs to be three hours because of the number of people who will participate in a debate on this very important subject. We have suggested that it should be on Monday 10 March. There is an e-petition with 106,000 signatures on the Downing street website. There is another petition with 229,000 signatures.

So far, 66,000 women and girls who are resident in the UK have been the victims of FGM.

Q13 Alec Shelbrooke: Sixty-six thousand?

Keith Vaz: Yes, 66,000. Another 24,000 girls are at risk, and there has not been a single prosecution since the law allowed prosecutions 20 years ago. The Select Committee is about to start a major investigation, and we felt that, as a curtain raiser, it would be a good idea to have a debate in Parliament. That is the urgency of it, and it is why we have suggested this particular day.

Q14 Chair: Would you like to add something, Pauline?

Pauline Latham: Yes. This would be a cross-party event. Members of all parties have raised the issue at various intervals. There has only ever been a half-hour debate, and it is now such a big topic. The press are interested, and with there having been no prosecutions-there may be one in the pipeline-I think it is very important that we have this debate. I know that we would get a lot of speakers.

Chair: Obviously, we have the facility to open Westminster Hall especially for e-petitions, and because this is an e-petition I can foresee no problem in scheduling the debate on Monday 10 March.

Q15 Bob Blackman: Very briefly, what is the time frame for the Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry? I know you are starting the day after 10 March, but when will the report come out?

Keith Vaz: We are looking to have a report by July. We are taking evidence from various groups, the victims, the police and Ministers, of course. The Committee is going to Kenya next week to look at counter-terrorism following the Westgate situation, but we will also talk to victims of FGM there because Kenya and Nigeria are two of the biggest countries where FGM is encouraged. We hope to get our report ready by July.

Chair: That is wonderful.

Q16 Bob Blackman: As an early suggestion, we should get an application for a debate in the Chamber on that report because I think there will be a lot of interest.

Keith Vaz: Indeed. That is a very welcome suggestion.

Chair: We have had a number of three-hour debates in Westminster Hall that were so oversubscribed, as I suspect this one will be, that people have returned to ask for a debate in the Chamber. Some quite specific points may come out in a general debate and it is then useful to have a votable motion in the Chamber afterwards. I think that is a very good idea. Thank you for your patience.

Prepared 4th March 2014