Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark .)

10:03 pm
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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate. Indeed, Adjournment debates are a useful opportunity for us Back Benchers to raise issues that might otherwise not be discussed. The quality of speeches and debates that we have heard on a wide range of fascinating topics in all the many Adjournment debates since the election has really showed that this is an excellent tradition that should be maintained. However, this evening I am here to talk about another parliamentary tradition that is of considerably less worth—early-day motions.

Nearly 3,000 early-day motions have so far been tabled in this Parliament. It is estimated that they cost the taxpayer around £1 million every year. Given that the spending review has looked carefully at every aspect of our public expenditure, it is only right that we take time to reflect on the cost-effectiveness and value of early-day motions. We should ask ourselves whether it is value for money to spend so much taxpayers’ money on a mechanism that has no legislative effect and rarely has any influence whatever. We should consider whether a mechanism that does not ensure a parliamentary debate on a subject, no matter how many Members sign a motion, is an effective mechanism for Back Benchers to raise important issues.

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Robert Halfon (Harlow, Conservative)

An answer to my hon. Friend’s suggestion might be for all early-day motions to be published only on the internet, rather than on the Order Paper, which would save a fortune. Would it not be better to call early-day motions “The Book of MP Petitions”, because that is what they are in essence? That does not negate the fact that they are useful instruments for campaigning.

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

I shall mention saving costs on printing by publishing online later in my speech, but my hon. Friend makes a good suggestion on how we should reform early-day motions and what we should call them, which should be considered along with other things.

We should think about the future role of such a mechanism now that the Backbench Business Committee has been successfully established. The truth is that early-day motions have been devalued by the sheer volume that has been tabled—nearly 3,000 were tabled during the last year. Early-day motions have been devalued by the utter ridiculousness many of them. There are motions congratulating football teams on promotion; motions congratulating two celebrities on their engagement; motions arguing about the origins of Robin Hood; motions suggesting a common hash tag to be used by MPs on Twitter; motions praising Ann Widdecombe’s dancing ability; and even a motion expressing support for an asteroid wiping out the entire human race.

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James Wharton (Stockton South, Conservative)

As my hon. Friend is eloquently setting out, does not the sheer quantity of early-day motions on such a range of topics, which are often rather inconsequential, undermine the function that they were designed to serve?

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. The cost to the House, including in time, means that it is time to consider reform.

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Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend also agree that pressure groups and individuals believe that early-day motions have value, and are therefore disappointed when they discover, despite their best efforts, that they come to nothing?

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Many organisations such as charities employ lobbyists, and early-day motions are often used to justify their existence. I shall come to that shortly.

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Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

I am grateful, and I welcome our new friendship.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is now forbidden in the House to read out the names of the fallen in Iraq or Afghanistan? The only way that the House can confront the results of its own decisions—by reading those names—is through early-day motions. He might have seen 24 early-day motions that record the names of those who fell in Afghanistan. What would he do to change the system so that he does not block the only way in which the House can record its respect and gratitude to those who have fallen in battle?

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

Other mechanisms can be used to pay respects in the House. For example, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition pay their respects at the beginning of every Prime Minister’s questions.

The reputation of the House is damaged even further by the mountains of early-day motions that are drafted by lobbyist firms who use them as little more than a tool to justify their services to naive clients. Plenty of willing Members are more than happy to oblige and table such motions on behalf of lobbyists. All hon. Members know that to be true, because we get bombarded by the same pro forma requests from lobbyists to table this or that early-day motion.

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Andrew Bingham (High Peak, Conservative)

We are besieged by e-mails from our constituents asking us to sign early-day motions that we know are of little consequence because of the volume of them. We have to send a letter disappointing our constituents because they are led to believe that early-day motions will change the world, whereas we know that they will not.

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

My hon. Friend raises another good point: the sheer volume of early-day motions means that many constituents do not get the outcomes they seek.

We need to be totally frank about this. We have lobbyists trying to convince their clients that they are being very influential and making progress on their issue by getting an early-day motion tabled with lots of signatures. We have Members who want to convince constituents that they really care about a particular

issue and have even taken the important-sounding step of tabling or signing an early-day motion. And we have local journalists who, desperate for copy, use the press release from the Member bragging about how they are backing an early-day motion. The cycle repeats, but nothing actually gets achieved.

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Jason McCartney (Colne Valley, Conservative)

Like my hon. Friend I was inspired to give up signing early-day motions in August 2010 and the world has not stopped turning. He proposes some good ideas to take matters forward. For example, my hon. Friend Steve Baker and I went to the Backbench Business Committee and got a debate on Kashmir, which was a much better way to raise that issue than just tabling an early-day motion. I like the way in which my hon. Friend Graham Evans is coming forward with alternative ideas.

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

My hon. Friend raises the point that there are now other mechanisms. The Backbench Business Committee is one and Westminster Hall debates, in which Ministers are held to account and have to give answers, are another. There are new avenues for Back Benchers now.

It is this frustration that led me to table my own, admittedly tongue-in-cheek, early-day motion 432, calling for early-day motions to be reformed or abolished. I believe that the other 44 Members who have kindly signed my early-day motion share my frustration—

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Steven Baker (Wycombe, Conservative)

If I signed early-day motions, I would have signed my hon. Friend’s early-day motion.

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

As I was saying, the signatories include Members from both sides of the House, with several senior Members and former Cabinet Ministers and, astoundingly, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley. When I first discovered he had signed my early-day motion, I wondered whether it was perhaps by accident—

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

I acknowledge that I have signed a number of early-day motions—[ Laughter. ] I think we should consider the issue along with parliamentary questions. Questions take up more space in Hansard than early-day motions do, and most of them are pretty useless. Of the early-day motions that I have signed, one helped to get Krishna Maharaj off death row in Florida, and another helped to get cervical cancer vaccinations to include genital warts, which will save 125,000 people a year from having an unpleasant, antisocial disease. So there are purposes that can be met by early-day motions, but I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech.

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

I am most grateful for that intervention.

There is considerable and growing support from colleagues from both sides of this House for this issue to be looked at. Personally, I am very much open to debate on whether we simply abolish or dramatically reform early-day motions. I have had a number of conversations with colleagues and the staff of the Table Office and there are plenty of ideas floating around

about how early-day motions can be improved. They must be made more cost-effective, but we could also look at limiting the number that an individual Member can table and sign in a single Parliament and perhaps guarantee that the few early-day motions with the most support are guaranteed to be debated.

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Bob Russell (Colchester, Liberal Democrat)

Following the hon. Gentleman’s theme, would he also put a limit on the number of parliamentary questions an MP could table?

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale, Conservative)

I am not sure what the answer is to that question. Perhaps we could discuss it over a cup of tea in the Tea Room later.

It might be possible to formalise the mechanism of early-day motions within the framework of the Backbench Business Committee. Mr Allen has suggested that Members should be able to add their name to only one early-day motion each week, with the most popular one being debated the following week. The remaining early-day motions would then fall off the agenda. That way, Members would be forced to think very carefully about which early-day motion to back, rather than mindlessly tabling and signing dozens at a time. Members would be most unlikely to want to waste their single early-day motion on something daft or a pro forma drafted by lobbyists.

As I mentioned, the current cost of EDMs could also be slashed dramatically. Last year, printing costs alone accounted for £776,000. On top of that, substantial staffing costs add up to more than £1 million a year. There is no need to print multiple copies of every EDM each sitting day. EDMs could be kept largely electronic, with paper lists printed only on request. That is nothing complicated, only common sense to help save the taxpayer substantial sums over the course of a Parliament.

I hope that I have set out a clear case why EDMs are unsustainable in their current form and how we might go about reforming them. I also hope that this debate will help inform constituents about the reality of EDMs. Perhaps many charities and businesses that spend millions hiring lobbyists will listen to tonight’s debate and be more sceptical when public affairs consultants try to convince them of their effectiveness by getting an EDM tabled. Most of all, I hope that members of the Procedure Committee are listening carefully and realise how much support there is for change. I urge them to consider EDMs carefully and begin the process of reform as soon as possible. If we get it right, we can improve Back-Bench Members’ ability to raise topical issues, get better value for taxpayers’ money and restore faith in the House. There is no better time than the present.

10:15 pm
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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I congratulate Graham Evans on securing this debate, and on securing such a sparkling attendance by colleagues for a late-night Adjournment debate. Since entering the House in 2010, he has shown consistent interest in reforming early-day motions, most notably by tabling—with tongue in cheek, as he said— an early-day motion entitled “Early-Day Motions” in July 2010.

I ought to begin by saying that there are, rightly, limits to the Government’s responsibilities for the matters under debate. That was not always so. Between 1994 and 2010, the Government had a very large element of control over whether motions tabled by Back Benchers could be debated on the Floor of the House. The Government were thus the proper recipient of requests for debates on or arising from early-day motions. I seem to recall that that was often a feature of the weekly business question.

Since the welcome advent of the Backbench Business Committee following a decision of the House in June 2010, it now rightly falls to that Committee to decide what subjects will be debated in Back-Bench time and what form motions for debate should take. Of course, the Government, and particularly my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, continue to examine early-day motions as barometers of opinion on public policy and matters meriting debate.

When the Procedure Committee last considered early-day motions in 2007, seven categories or purposes for early-day motions were identified: first, to express opinions on matters of general public interest, often to assess the degree of support among Members; secondly, to continue a political debate, for example by criticising the Government or the Opposition; thirdly, to give prominence to a campaign or the work of some pressure group outside the House, and I will return to that in a moment; fourthly, to highlight local issues, such as the success of a local football team, the achievements of constituents or the need for a bypass; fifthly, to pray against a statutory instrument subject to the negative procedure, both to draw attention to opposition and to encourage referral of the instrument for debate; sixthly, to criticise individuals, including other hon. Members, whose conduct can be criticised only on a substantive motion, and I think that Paul Flynn has raised that matter before now; and seventhly, to set out detailed criticisms, such as of a company or body, under the protection of parliamentary privilege.

As the above categories suggest, the scope for early-day motions is wide. Individual hon. Members’ freedom to table them is great. EDMs can be viewed in some ways as a safety valve when Members find their ability to express views limited by the availability of time or by the rules of the House.

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Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for outlining that helpful list. Does he agree that many of those categories also apply to business questions every Thursday, when hon. Members ask for statements or debates on subjects close to their hearts in the full knowledge that no such statement or debate will follow but because it enables them to make a point? That is what the EDM does, but it has the additional feature that many Members can sign up to it, which enables them to make a point and show that it is widely supported. Would that not be a loss to hon. Members?

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

It was for precisely that reason and connected reasons that the Procedure Committee in the previous Parliament decided against recommending the abolition of EDMs or their substantive reform. However—there are several “howevers”—a major area of discontent for many years, as reflected in the Procedure Committee’s

report in the last Parliament, concerned the lack of connection between EDMs, whose ostensible purpose was to set down a motion for debate in the House on an unspecified day, and the provision of time on the Floor of the House. The House has taken a major step to respond to this problem with the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, as I mentioned at the outset.

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Robert Halfon (Harlow, Conservative)

To be fair, the Backbench Business Committee is slightly different, because any MP can ask for a debate regardless of whether they have tabled an EDM. As I have suggested to my hon. Friend Graham Evans, is not the answer—I say this as someone who supports EDMs—to change their name to “MPs Books of Petitions” and to publish them online? That way, no one would be misled over whether they might be debated.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I will return to that point in a moment. Yes, the Backbench Business Committee considers any matter brought forward by Back-Bench Members, but it has shown its willingness to enable EDMs to be debated. It demonstrated that by providing time for a debate, on 10 March last year, on an EDM concerning the work of UN Women.

Drawing on a Procedure Committee recommendation in 2007 that was endorsed by the House on 25 October 2007, the Committee also enabled an EDM to be tagged as “relevant” to the debate on parliamentary reform, which took place in Westminster Hall just over a year ago, on 3 February 2011. The Committee can also draw on EDMs to provide evidence of the breadth of support among Members for a subject of debate, as it did in the case of the Fish Fight campaign. Were they to be named something else, their effectiveness at introducing subjects, with the support of Members, for the Committee to consider would not be reduced. It is a fact that EDMs have that function.

Although the Committee has fundamentally changed how business in the House is determined—and changed it for the better, in my view—some myths about EDMs linger on, although the hon. Member for Weaver Vale exploded some of them this evening. We are concerned about the propensity of pressure groups effectively to mislead our constituents into thinking that EDMs are something that they are not—an avenue to a procedure in the House—and to suggest that there is a magical number of signatories on an EDM that will cause it to be debated, which of course there is not.

That notion has persisted over the years, despite the absence of evidence to support it. It might be expedient for some pressure groups and lobbyists to perpetuate that myth and to raise false expectations among our constituents. We have all received e-mails stating that such-and-such an EDM is of critical importance and that we must sign them—I, as a Minister, cannot sign them any more, so I have a ready excuse, but I know that other Members sometimes feel pressurised by that sort of campaign.

The new House, selected in 2010, seems to have many more Members sceptical about the value of adding their names to EDMs. The average number of new signatories per week fell from 3,704 in the last financial

year of the previous Parliament, to 1,965 in the first financial year of this Parliament. More Members have decided to adopt a policy of not signing early-day motions—I think we heard an example earlier. Indeed, I understand that Members can record that view with the Table Office. Above all, the Backbench Business Committee has demonstrated through its work that the link between early-day motions and debates is not a crude numbers game. For those reasons, I hope that all Members agree that the myth of a magical number of signatories should be confined to the dustbin, where it belongs.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale identified a further problem—others have amplified it—in the triviality of some early-day motions. He referred to what he saw as some examples of early-day motions that devalued the currency. I certainly do not want to comment on any individual cases, but I agree with him that it seems highly questionable whether some early-day motions are appropriate, and that Members should pause for thought about the reputational and cost implications of their actions.

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

Might not the same thing have applied to William Wilberforce when he first had the rather revolutionary idea of abolishing the slave trade, or Samuel Plimsoll and his idea of painting a white line on the side of ships so that they would not be overladen with sailors who would otherwise go down to Davy Jones’s locker?

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

If I may gently say so, I think there is a difference of kind between those causes, which I think most people would consider to be serious causes, and the fortunes of the local football club on a Saturday afternoon. I think there is a difference, perhaps, in scale of import between those topics.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I will, but I will have to make progress soon.

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Bob Russell (Colchester, Liberal Democrat)

Perhaps I can ask the Deputy Leader of the House to consider these examples: the Gurkha rights campaign and the Royal British Legion’s military covenant campaign, on which I tabled early-day motions, or indeed early-day motion 1—I think—in 2009, which I also tabled and which the then Conservative Opposition thought was so brilliant that they brought it to the House and we had a vote on it.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

There is no doubt that some early-day motions are of considerable importance in the topics they raise. What I think the hon. Member for Weaver Vale was saying is that there may be better ways of bringing those matters to the House than the current system. There are also things that, frankly, I would be amazed if the House spent its time debating in real life, as opposed to the application that an early-day motion purports to be.

There are ways in which the issue could be dealt with. The hon. Gentleman suggested that limits might be imposed on the number of early-day motions that an individual Member could table or sign. Those are matters for the Procedure Committee to consider, should it decide to do so, but numerical limits, which were also

suggested in an intervention, might be seen as an unexceptional constraint on hon. Members’ freedom of action. The implementation of a limit might encourage the syndication of motions. Limits would certainly provide an incentive for hon. Members to ensure that they used their right to table or support motions wisely, but at a cost, in terms of the limitation of their action.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I do not think I can really take any interventions at this point, because of the time.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I will give way to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, because he has a role in taking this matter forward.

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Greg Knight (East Yorkshire, Conservative)

Let me place on record the fact that I am here listening to the debate; I am not here as an advocate. I am happy to give an assurance that I will take hon. Members’ views back to the Procedure Committee.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who rather pre-empts the final comment that I was going to make. I was going to ask him and his Committee to take this matter forward. I now know that when I make that request, the answer will be in the affirmative, for which I am grateful.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

All right, yes—very clever.

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Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry, Conservative)

I am a Member who refuses to sign early-day motions, as I believe they are the tool of a very poor lobbyist. Will the Deputy Leader of the House reflect on whether a campaign is devalued if a vast number of Members do not sign the relevant early-day motion? If I were someone who signed these things, I would dearly like to sign early-day motion 2637, on diabetes care, which has achieved only 27 signatures. I would say that the EDM devalues that campaign, rather than adding to it.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I think there is some substance to it, as it in no way undermines the fact that it is an important issue that—

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I really cannot give way again, because we are coming to the end of what is normally an Adjournment debate between one Back-Bench Member and a Minister, and tonight we have had a cast of thousands.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale mentioned the cost of early-day motions. The House service estimated that the cost of administering EDMs in 2009-10 was

approximately £1 million. The annual cost may have fallen somewhat as a result of the decision not to print the weekly compilation of EDMs, but those costs should certainly give hon. Members pause for thought before they table motions.

One possible solution is the one suggested by the hon. Gentleman, who proposed that EDMs should only appear electronically. The cost estimate to which I referred earlier indicated that about three quarters of the costs of EDMs were attributable to printing. It is clear that the database is now the main means by which people outside this place, as well as many inside it, access EDMs. My own view is that the time is fast approaching when more categories of business papers can be made available primarily or exclusively in electronic form—I imagine that some will gasp with horror at that suggestion, but I believe that it is one way in which we can actually save the taxpayer money—and that early-day motions may be in the vanguard of change in that regard.

I think the debate has demonstrated that the time may soon be ripe for the Procedure Committee to look again at the subject of early-day motions, and we have just heard its the Chair, Mr Knight, say that he would be more than happy to put the matter to the Committee. It is for the Committee and for the House, rather than the Government and this Minister at the Dispatch Box, to specify the appropriate procedure. If proposals for reform were presented—either along the lines advocated by the hon. Gentleman, or in another form as a result of the Procedure Committee’s considerations—it would be for the House to decide on the appropriate solution following a debate in Back-Bench time. In the context of a reformed House with more control over its own affairs, it is not for the Government to present proposals for change in this area. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue relating to the way in which we as a House conduct our business.

Perhaps I might surprise Dr Lewis by telling him that I now have time to allow him to intervene, if he does so quickly.

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Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)

What a marvellous Deputy Leader of the House we have! I just wanted to record the fact that my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris, who opposes the signing of EDMs, secured my signature, along with those of more than 100 other hon. Members, to a letter that he wanted to send to the press. If it is good enough to send a letter to the press, it is good enough to get a large number of MPs’ signatures on an early-day motion.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman has done very well to get his intervention in.

Let me end by thanking the hon. Member for Weaver Vale for raising the issue. We have had an interesting debate, and I look forward to hearing the views of the Procedure Committee in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.