Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 38



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Made before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 10 December 2013

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr David Amess

Mr David Anderson

Bob Blackman

Ian Mearns

John McDonnell, Grahame M. Morris and Jeremy Corbyn made representations.

Q1 Chair: John, you came last week. In between, we have had a discussion about Westminster Hall and so on. Go ahead.

John McDonnell: I am sorry to keep pestering you, but we have reached 110,000 on the petition now, so we qualify for a debate. I have consulted on the petition since we last met. The view is that this is a significant matter and we would like a Chamber debate.

You sent me away last week on three issues. One was drafting an appropriate motion, based on the petition, which we have done-I am really grateful to Judith, who is a star for drafting this. You also told us to look for cross-party support among MPs. We are now up to 56-maybe 60-MPs, and I think we have provided you with the list of the ones we have so far, which includes Labour, Lib Dem, Unionist, SDLP, Plaid, Green, independent and SNP, which is a cross-party base, as much as we possibly could.

May I make this plea? The reason why disabled people launched this petition is that they feel that the matter warrants a main Chamber debate, because it is so important for them. It would be making history. This would be the first time in the history of this country that disabled people themselves had secured a debate in the main Chamber. That is why it is so significant for them. I can understand that.

There is no pressure on time, as I explained before. There is no pressure on time, as I explained before. We would like a number of weeks in which we can inform people with disabilities so that they can make travel arrangements to get here, because a large number want to attend the debate. We feel the significance of the matter, the scale of support and the appropriate motion warrant its being a Chamber debate. I do not know whether Grahame wants to add to that-he has organised a lot of this.

Grahame M. Morris: John has covered a lot of the ground. The latest estimate I have is that 111,000 people have actually signed the petition. That is still growing, and the petition has not closed yet. It is a really important issue and, as John has indicated, the petitioners are very keen that the debate takes place in the main Chamber rather than in Westminster Hall. It is important not only to those who are directly affected but to their families and to those who have any direct involvement in the issue. There are a number of aspects, not least the impact on disabled people and what the consequences are for the public purse-whether these policies are cost- effective or in fact a false economy. The issue pertains to a section of society that often does not have a voice, so it is really important that Parliament represents the views of that unheard, vulnerable group of people. It is a chance for MPs of all parties to listen to and represent all voices in society.

Q2 Chair: We did in principle agree to schedule it anyway. The offer of Westminster Hall was to get it done quickly, but if you would prefer to look for a date in the future-

John McDonnell: We would rather wait for the Chamber than have a Westminster Hall debate.

Chair: That is fully appreciated.

Q3 Mr Anderson: I agree with John that to get disabled people here will take a lot of organising. One of my worries is what the weather is like. Have you got a date by which you must have the debate, John? If we said that we will guarantee it but have it at the end of March rather than the end of January, would you have any feelings on that?

John McDonnell: Ideally, it would be before the end of February. We want to maintain the momentum, because people have worked very hard on the petition, so they want to see the debate relatively soon. If we got an early decision on that we could put the transport arrangements in place.

Chair: Thank you.

John McDonnell: Can I just say that I have been told that if we don’t get the Chamber debate we will keep coming back?

Chair: You would be so welcome.

Jeremy Corbyn: We will come back in greater numbers. We will be more and more-growing as fast as the petition.

John McDonnell: There is a proposal for the petitioners to sing carols outside MPs’ offices if we don’t get the result we want.

Chair: That is almost an incentive not to schedule it. Thank you.

Robert Flello made representations.

Q4 Chair: Have you been to the Committee before, Rob?

Robert Flello: Oh, a long time ago.

Chair: You know the format?

Robert Flello: I vaguely remember it, yes.

Q5 Chair: You are also here about an e-petition.

Robert Flello: Indeed, yes. The e-petition runs until 2 May, and although only I am here it is a cross-party issue. At the moment, we have 105,000 signatures on the e-petition, and as I say, we have until 2 May to go. We have come to try to get the last week in March for a Chamber debate on the issue of puppy farming. It has huge ramifications for everything from dangerous dogs through to the main area of my concern, which is animal welfare. Puppy farming is a tremendous problem across the country. It causes problems such as lack of socialisation and animal welfare issues.

I will give you a couple of examples, which were on the form. The RSPCA received a huge number of complaints-1,500-about puppy farming. There is a knock-on issue of internet sales: people buy dogs over the internet not really knowing what they are buying, but quite often it is puppies that have been puppy-farmed. There are some really quite atrocious things.

Q6 Chair: You are asking specifically for a half day.

Robert Flello: Indeed, in the week commencing 24 March. That is to coincide with some major, high-profile campaigning activity outside the House-I won’t tell you what that is, if you don’t mind.

Q7 Chair: Can I just point out that our allocation of time is dependent on Government? That time of year, we start going into the Budget.

Robert Flello: Obviously, it is flexible, but that is the ideal.

Q8 Chair: In that case, we will work with you on that. You are asking for three hours, and that time is protected in Westminster Hall. Also, because it is an e-petition that has reached more than 100,000 signatures, you automatically get access to a three-hour slot in Westminster Hall on any given Monday. That would be secure.

Robert Flello: Sure, but it is the Chamber debate that we are after. We feel that such a widespread issue across both sides of the Chamber-

Q9 Chair: If we were unable to give you a Chamber debate?

Robert Flello: We would keep coming back until March trying to get one.

Chair: Just so you understand, there is a gap from the end of March until the end of May or the beginning of June.

Robert Flello: Sure.

Q10 Bob Blackman: You are asking for a Chamber debate. I am sure that many more Members would support this, but you have got only three Members so far. As the Chair has indicated, our time is limited. You want a debate in March, so can I suggest that you assemble a greater list of potential speakers and supporters for a motion, so that we are clear?

Robert Flello: Indeed. This came in a little bit more hastily than planned, and we wanted to give you a lot of notice. There are a lot of names that we will certainly come back with.

Q11 Mr Amess: Rob, seldom are there any original comments on this. The issue has been dealt with many, many times over. Is your purpose that you want to get some sort of response from the Government that gets something in the Queen’s Speech?

Robert Flello: Ideally, we would like some legislation and some strong guidance. The formulation of the debate will be that we want action to be taken. I am not totally sure-it is always dangerous to disagree with a member of the Committee-that I agree that the all the points have indeed been aired properly. Quite a lot of the points have been aired in different formats, but we are looking to consolidate and come forward with-

Q12 Mr Amess: It is simply that I would not want you to be disappointed with the outcome. This is a great venue for airing grievances, but you actually want something to be done.

Robert Flello: It is about building the pressure on Government that action is needed.

Chair: Thank you very much.

Mike Crockart and Alun Cairns made representations.

Q13 Chair: Have you been to the Committee before?

Mike Crockart: I haven’t, no.

Q14 Chair: Really, what we need is a brief outline of what it is that you are asking for, what time, where and, ideally, when you would like a debate to take place.

Mike Crockart: We are looking for a general debate on the subject of nuisance calls. I could go through the scale of the problem-there have been numerous reports recently on this-but to make it real and relevant I will concentrate on two constituents whose circumstances will be magnified many hundreds of times over the country. I put call-blocking technology in for two constituents, Mrs Moffat and Mrs Manchester, to see the extent of the problem that is hitting them as individuals. Mrs Moffat has had had 120 calls in total since 27 August, when I put this in, of which 83 have been nuisance calls. That is 70% of the total calls that she has received. Since 11 September, Mrs Manchester has had 167 calls, of which 67 have been nuisance calls, so 40% of her calls are nuisance calls.

It is the scale of the problem which is affecting people, and, of course, the breadth of it as well-going into PPI with the claims management regulator, payday lending with the Financial Conduct Authority, general nuisance calls and texts. It is a very wide campaign. A number of petitions have been launched, although there have not been any e-petitions as yet. My petition has now got 18,235 signatures, and the Which? "Calling Time" petition has 108,000 signatures. It is a very widespread and well-supported issue.

Among MPs, an all-party parliamentary group was set up last year, which has 28 members: nine from Labour, nine from the Conservatives, nine from the Lib Dems and one from the SNP. Again, it is a wide cross-section. In putting together the information for this we have garnered the support of a further 16, which brings the total up to 44 so far. Those have come in over the weekend. The reason why we are looking for a debate very soon is that on 1 November I tried to secure a Second Reading for my Communications (Unsolicited Telephone Calls and Texts) Bill. Unfortunately it did not manage to get any time, because the preceding Bill was talked out. Alun introduced a ten-minute rule Bill relating to caller IDs, which again got its 10 minutes, but did not manage to air many of the issues. The all-party parliamentary group carried out an inquiry in October and launched its report on 31 October. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee has also carried out an inquiry and launched a report last week. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has promised to come up with an action plan, which was first promised for launch on 31 October. I am now told that it is likely to be some point in January, probably in the first half of January.

Q15 Chair: I appreciate that those are all good reasons. You have asked for the Chamber or Westminster Hall and we have a three-hour Westminster Hall slot on 19 December, which is the last day of term. If we were to offer you that, would it be something that you would be willing to take up?

Alun Cairns: May I come in on that? I raised this issue when I came to the Backbench Business Committee earlier in the year and you granted me a Westminster Hall debate on the same day as the Eastleigh by-election, when many of our colleagues were elsewhere. However, the attendance was quite remarkable, considering the timing and the day. Therefore, my feeling is that because of the widespread concern that exists and the number of reports that been produced, the main Chamber is the place where many Members could air the concerns of their constituents in order to press the Government for change. Having been in Westminster Hall and having had a very successful debate much earlier in the year, the time has come to have a debate in the main Chamber to show the priority that this issue merits.

Q16 Chair: Apart from that one slot, we have no time available this side of Christmas, so it would have to be in January. In terms of options, if we were to offer you that Westminster Hall debate, does that mean that you would then turn it down and wait for the new year?

Mike Crockart: You are asking whether a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.

Alun Cairns: My view is that after having had a lot of attention around the last debate, some very valid points were lost in the media in terms of reporting because it was the day of the Eastleigh by-election. The last day of term on 19 December would get lost in the Christmas festivities, but it is your call-pardon the pun.

Mike Crockart: The difficulty is knowing the likelihood of getting a debate in January. The time constraints are important because it would be better to have this before the strategy document is launched by DCMS. There are 16 recommendations contained in our report and a similar number are in the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s report, so there are good, defined plans in here. They need a good and proper airing to have an effect on the Department.

Q17 Mr Anderson: On that point, you say there is timeliness. As the Chair said, the one thing about Westminster Hall is that you would be guaranteed three hours. Even if we scheduled you in the Chamber, we cannot guarantee three hours, because we might have all these other debates. Will you consider that? I will be up-front with you-the Chair might not be as up-front-but there are a number of other issues that we will debate later on where people have specifically asked for a vote on a motion, which has to be in the Chamber. There is no option on that. I am guessing, but if you are looking for the Chamber you will probably wait a lot longer. If you really are under time constraints, you should accept what is on offer. That is my advice.

Q18 Mr Amess: Mike and Alun, if I could just patronise you for a moment. I am glad, Alun, that you reminded us that you had a debate-I think Jackie Doyle-Price was involved. Other than MP after MP standing up and saying that they have a constituent who is fed up with these calls-we’re all fed up with the calls-are you really going to have this number of speakers to keep a debate going in the main Chamber? You are nodding. Are you really?

Mike Crockart: Yes, absolutely. I am sure there will be a lot of anecdotal evidence, but just looking at our report shows the breadth of change that we need. It talks about compliance; data protection, which brings in Europe; concrete issues for making reporting easier, which involve much technical detail; charging for caller ID, which some companies are proposing; and regulatory capacity, which includes the Information Commissioner’s Office, the telephone preference service and direct marketing associations. A huge number of different but linked issues need to be brought together. To be frank, I could probably fill three hours with the details that we have already gone into in our inquiry, and that of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee backs that up to a great extent.

Q19 Chair: The Clerk has reminded me that we have 11 debates waiting for Chamber time, so the queue is quite long. You may be trying to outline certain proposals for ways ahead. You referred to individual cases and the fact that they are nuisance calls, and there is nothing that anyone would disagree with, but you would be highly recommended to take Westminster Hall because the list is getting very crammed.

Q20 Mr Anderson: How big a hint do you want?

Mike Crockart: I think I will take the hint.

Q21 Chair: Should we decide to schedule it, we will get in touch with you.

Mike Crockart: I will take the hint.

Q22 Bob Blackman: I have two confessions. I have not read your report, and I spent 12 years in regulatory compliance with BT before I was elected, so I know quite a lot about the subject. You may want to consider that you have had a Westminster Hall debate and you have produced reports, but you still want a general debate without a votable motion at the end. I suggest that it is now time for conclusions and recommendations on a votable motion that the Government can take action on. Otherwise, I think we are minded to say, "Westminster Hall or wait for ever." You can draw clear conclusions about action that could be taken to form the basis of a votable motion.

Mike Crockart: We would need more than that-we need a Bill, but we will not go into that.

Q23 Chair: At this point, I thank you for bringing that to us. We will let you know when we have deliberated.

Apparently we are vote imminent. Thank you for coming.

3.23 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.38 pm

On resuming-

Nigel Mills, Mr Peter Bone, Mr Philip Hollobone, Sammy Wilson and Mr David Ruffley made representations.

Q24 Chair: I am sorry about the break.

Nigel Mills: No problem. This is a one-off, urgent request for a debate on extending the restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migration when they expire at the start of January. We were hoping to get this debated and voted on as part of the Immigration Bill on Report, but the Government, for reasons above my pay grade, have tactically decided not to do that before Christmas. That is a terrible situation.

We have a petition that more than 150,000 people have signed. This matter is causing great concern in the country, and it really is something that Parliament ought to be able to debate and vote on before the restrictions are lifted. The purpose of asking for this urgent debate with a votable motion before Christmas is so that Parliament can make its voice heard on this issue, which is probably of great concern to all our constituents. It has cross-party support. As I say, 68 people have now signed the original amendment to the Immigration Bill, and various cross-party names are listed in the support for the debate. It is a one-off chance to use your last day before Christmas to give Parliament the chance to have its say on this issue.

Q25 Chair: Would anyone else like to say something before we open it up?

Mr Hollobone: This is a huge issue in the country and in Parliament. Frankly, I think there would be public disbelief if Parliament was not able to have its say on the issue, one way or the other, before the transitional controls come in on 1 January. Our understanding is that you have some time allocated on the last day of term, which I know is normally allocated to an Adjournment debate. Ideally we would like six hours, but we could ask for three hours on that last day with a votable motion. The motion has exactly the same wording as new clause 1, which was signed by 68 Members. The public could then see that their Parliament is debating and voting on the issue before Christmas. We will never trouble you again on the issue. This is our one and only shot, and if we are not able to debate it, our chance will have been missed.

Q26 Chair: There is one big issue: what is the point of it? The debate is one thing, but the vote is another. Any vote, in itself, will have no effect in doing anything other than what will inevitably happen on 1 January.

Mr Bone: With all due respect, I disagree. I think a vote in Parliament is extraordinarily powerful. I do not accept that Backbench Business Committee votes in Parliament are any less important than Government votes. In fact, I would argue that Backbench Business Committee votes are more important. No Minister has ruled this out, and we know that, at the highest level of Government, there are discussions on whether to do this, but they are having those discussions without knowing the view of the House. I do not know which way the House will go, but I think that, before finalising those discussions, the Government should know what the House thinks through a substantive vote.

Sammy Wilson: Further to that point, regardless of how the Government regard the vote, the vote itself is important. The raising of the issue in what to me is the highest possible forum in which one could raise it would help to reflect that to the community. There is widespread support across the UK that Parliament should address the main issues that concern people. One of the signatories to the amendment is William McCrea. If the debate is not granted, we will unleash him on all of your offices singing carols. That might be a fairly potent argument.

Mr Ruffley: Pursuant to Mr Bone’s point, when the House voted on the issue of votes for prisoners, the vote in and of itself did not have any substantive impact on legislation, but it certainly influenced the way that the Executive dealt with the issue. It also gave vent to a great deal of public concern. I see the votes for prisoners issue in the same mould as this issue. The House should be allowed to express its view, in the absence of the Executive allowing time on the issue.

Mr Hollobone: If the motion were debated, voted upon and passed by the House, given the level of public concern on the issue, I think it would be very difficult for the Government not to do anything about it. The public would see Parliament voicing their concerns, and I think it would force the Government into action.

Q27 Mr Anderson: First, on a point of clarification, you mentioned a petition. Is that an e-petition?

Nigel Mills: It is a paper petition.

Q28 Mr Anderson: I was coming round to what you were saying, Sammy, except that I would love to hear Rev. William McCrea singing every day of the week, so you have lost a sure vote.

The debate I keep coming back to, and it has big resonance in my part of the world, is the one on the fusiliers. That has been done twice and we have won twice, but nothing has changed. With something happening within days of the debate, if it is agreed, when nobody is around, is the debate likely to influence the Government?

Mr Bone: I entirely understand, if the Government had said they were definitely not doing this. But the question has been put to Minister after Minister and they have given answers that have refused to say one way or the other. It is my understanding that this debate is going on at the highest level. This would be Parliament’s chance to influence that debate. There is absolutely a possibility that the Government will say, "We are going to extend these restrictions." Of course, it has to be done before 31 December, which is why the debate must be this side of the new year.

Q29 Chair: On a technical note, I am on the record as having really serious issues about this. The debate in itself is obviously important, but the fact is that, no matter what happens, and for the very reasons that I oppose-which is that these decisions are taken in Europe and not here and that in itself is a problem-this will be going ahead on 1 January. That is why I am really concerned that, if we then pull a pre-recess Adjournment debate, which as you know better than anybody else, is always massively oversubscribed and always squeezed, for something that is inevitably going to happen anyway, I think that would be quite difficult to justify.

Mr Hollobone: I disagree with your assertion that it is inevitable. If Parliament expressed its will in support of this motion, I do not think anything is inevitable. What Mr Bone and all of us are trying to say is that if Parliament expressed its firm will on this motion with this one last chance, it may well be that the Government have to listen.

Q30 Bob Blackman: I want to flag up two things. First, from your intelligence, is there a view for saying, "Given this debate took place and there was a heavy vote for a votable motion, and therefore the will of the House being expressed, how could the Government then effect the treaty change that takes place on 1 January"? Can they do anything logistically, given that the House will not be sitting?

Mr Bone: The simple process is that the Government announce at any time their decision to invoke the power-as I understand that Spain has done-that says that because there is a national vote, these restrictions will continue. It is not something they cannot do, it is something that they could do and we think, before they make that decision, they should have the view of the House.

Q31 Bob Blackman: Would that require a vote of the House, or would it be just an edict?

Mr Bone: They can do it.

Q32 Bob Blackman: The second issue is, were we minded as a Committee to say we will allow this to have a split session of three hours, would you be in a position to ensure that people who speak on the motion do not then try to speak in the recess Adjournment debate, because that would squeeze others who might otherwise have a say? Assurances on that might be helpful.

Q33 Chair: Before you answer, can we leave that hanging, because that is in the gift of the Speaker.

Sammy Wilson: It is possible for people to volunteer that if they get an opportunity to speak in the debate, it would be on the condition that they would not seek to catch the eye of the Speaker later.

Chair: We can speculate on that, but let’s leave that hanging.

Q34 Mr Anderson: I understand completely why you want a vote, but if there were not one, surely people could speak in the Adjournment debate and make the point. If it is a normal pre-recess debate, what is to stop people attending en masse, putting in to speak and raising the points that you would debate on a votable motion? It might not be as good, but you could still make the case.

Mr Bone: But you would not have the votable motion. If it was not for the votable motion, we would say, "Let’s have a Westminster Hall debate. The petition has over 100,000 signatures", but the key thing is that you have to have the will of Parliament expressed before 31 December.

Mr Hollobone: You will know, Madam Chairman, through your experience that occasionally the Backbench Business Committee has the chance to make history with important votes on important issues. At those moments it captures the attention of the public. You will know from that first referendum vote, for example, how Parliament came alive in the public’s mind. This is another of those occasions. There is only one shot at this, this is the only chance, and if Parliament were to express its will in support of this motion, big things could happen.

Q35 Chair: With all due respect, that is exactly the decision that we have to take. As you know, we do not shy away from making such decisions, but I am not convinced that this is one of those moments. If this has absolutely no effect, whichever way things go, there will be a pointlessness to it that emphasises exactly the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. That is the decision we have to take.

Sammy Wilson: In terms of this being sacrificed for the Adjournment motion, you could make the same argument: people get to raise issues on the Adjournment motion, but there is no actual outcome. Many Back Benchers and their constituents are concerned about this issue, so even if the outcome-I do not accept this will necessarily be the case-is that the Government just ignore the motion, giving Back Benchers the opportunity to raise an issue about which there is widespread concern would be an effective way of using part of the time available on the last day. In fact, that would carry much more weight than simply allowing them to raise the issue as part of the Adjournment debate, because a debate targeted at a particular issue would probably attract much more public attention than the issues raised in the Adjournment debate.

Q36 Chair: There are lots of issues to do with this, the main one being that the pre-recess Adjournment debate is the only opportunity Members have to raise issues they have not been able to raise before. For many Members, it is an important opportunity to do so. The other big issue is that you are here because the Immigration Bill is currently going through Parliament, and we try to avoid scheduling debates on issues that are in the legislative sausage machine.

Mr Hollobone: That is absolutely right, Madam Chairman. That is why we have not troubled you at your door before. We expected a debate on the new clause in the Immigration Bill. The issue is so time-sensitive, if the debate does not happen before 1 January, it will be irrelevant.

Q37 Chair: I am seriously concerned that it is irrelevant anyway and that it will make Parliament look irrelevant if we schedule it. But that is a decision that we have to take. You have made your case very strongly. What we are balancing up are the needs of those who want to take part in the pre-recess Adjournment debate and what you perceive as the importance of having this debate and a vote before Christmas, given that the Government have delayed the course of the Immigration Bill. But that is something we need to weigh up. I would like to make further inquiries about the possibility versus the impossibility of influencing change, but that is something we can do this afternoon without any problem. Did you want to add anything else?

Mr Ruffley: Briefly, this is no more than rumour, but I know from speaking to Government sources that there were strong rumours on the Back Benches that the Government were considering tabling an amendment not dissimilar to the provision in the name of Mr Mills. Former Cabinet Ministers on the Conservative side spoke to me about that yesterday afternoon and last night.

Q38 Chair: I do not quite understand that. They were tabling an amendment to what?

Mr Ruffley: The Immigration Bill.

Mr Bone: Our argument is purely that we want Parliament to speak on this before it is too late. If that is not possible, and you do not want do this, that is obviously your decision.

Chair: Absolutely. I understand that. We absolutely understand the urgency and the time-sensitive nature of this. It is so late in the day-that is the real problem. But we will take a decision this afternoon, and we will let you know as soon as we can.

Prepared 13th December 2013