Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 12:45 pm on 8th February 2006.

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Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal 12:45 pm, 8th February 2006

I beg to move,

That, at this day's sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr Geoffrey Hoon relating to Opposition Parties (Financial Assistance) and Support for Members who have chosen not to take their seats not later than Six o'clock and such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved;
proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption;
and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.

The motion is designed to facilitate today's business. It provides for the motions on financial assistance for Opposition parties and support for Members who have chosen not to take their seats to be considered together. The debate may continue until 6 pm, when the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motions, and on any amendments selected by you, Mr. Speaker, will be put.

The House has already considered the principle of support for Members who have chosen not to take their seats on two occasions, in 2001 and again last year, when it agreed to suspend the allowances. Today we shall also debate a motion relating to financial assistance for Opposition parties. I do not intend to take up any time now in talking about the substance of the debate, and I hope that the House will agree to the motion swiftly, so that we can proceed to consider the important business before us.

I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 12:46 pm, 8th February 2006

I can relieve the House by saying that I have no intention of speaking at length, or indeed of opposing the proposal from the Leader of the House. I think that we have been allowed a reasonable amount of time for the debate. As many Members will wish to speak in that debate, I shall take up no more of the House's time.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 12:47 pm, 8th February 2006

I am a little surprised at the attitude of Mrs. May. This is House business, not party political business. There is every probability that every single Member may have strong opinions on such a contentious matter. We have heard no explanation of why the time that is normally allotted—the time before the point of interruption—is to be abbreviated.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

If the hon. Gentleman recalls what was said during business questions, he will know precisely what the reason is: the Leader of the House wants to have his photograph taken. In fact, the motion is not intended to facilitate the business of the House; it is intended to facilitate the parliamentary Labour party.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I was aware of that, but I did not imagine for a moment that, in fulfilling his duties to the House, the Leader of the House would allow a photographic opportunity for the Labour party to get in the way of the business of the House. Even if we assume that it would be possible for all the members of the Labour party to face in the same direction, that cannot be a reason for abbreviating the business.

I do not want to take up too much time, but it seems to me that three important issues need to be debated, and that we shall need to hear explanations from Ministers. We shall clearly need to know why the allowances are to be resumed, and I have every expectation that that will form the main part of the debate. We shall also need a clear explanation of why it is felt necessary to backdate the allowances. I know that an amendment to that provision has not been selected, but Members on both sides of the House will clearly wish to explore the issue.

A third aspect that I think will bear careful scrutiny is the proposal to provide funds for the parties that do not take part in our parliamentary business in support of what is described as their representational role. That is in sharp contradistinction to what is already in the Short money resolution of 1975, which clearly states

"that the expenses in respect of which assistance is claimed have been incurred exclusively in relation to that party's parliamentary business".

This is a matter for the Leader of the House rather than the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I want to ensure that there is time for him to explain why the distinction exists between parliamentary business that applies to parties whose Members take their seats in the House and parliamentary business that applies to those whose Members choose not to do so, who apparently have carte blanche to spend money from public sources in different ways.

It is important that we have long enough to ask whether the description of a representational role applies to parties in this House, because if it does, it will affect the way in which the money that is given to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives is administered and used. I need an explanation without ambiguity of why there is a difference between the two resolutions, and of their implications in terms of what would be permissible for Sinn Fein under the new motion, were it to be passed. I also want to know the implications of the motion for parties that are already in receipt of Short money arising from the 1975 resolution.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I fully support what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is there not a long-standing principle that all Members of the House are equal? If that is the case, why should the members of one particular party be treated differently from Members who are here under the banner of different parties?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. To answer that intervention, the hon. Gentleman would have to go beyond the terms of this timetable motion.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

That was exactly the point that I was going to make, Mr. Speaker. It would be quite wrong to go into the content of the resolutions. My point is simply that the Government have, for reasons of their own, tabled a business motion that truncates our business and requires it to be completed before the time at which it would normally have to finish. They must have a reason for doing so, but they have not produced it in evidence to the House. I really cannot believe that it is something as silly as a photograph.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us, if it is not a secret, whether any discussions have been held between the Government and the Liberal Democrats on whether this could be a consensus moment? That is an important aspect to the matter. Have there been any such discussions?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am not aware that there has been any debate with my party on the terms of the resolutions before us, and I imagine that that is also the case for Members on the Conservative Front Bench, although I obviously cannot speak for them.

It is important that we have sufficient time to elucidate these matters. This is not a silly issue; it is a very serious one for many Members of the House. I ask the Leader of the House not to allow the opportunity to respond to this debate to pass by. If he can satisfy us on this matter, it could help our understanding of the Government's position later. He cannot just ignore the very important differences that I have highlighted; we need an explanation.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 12:53 pm, 8th February 2006

I rise to support what has been said by Mr. Heath. I approach this business motion with a great deal of hostility. We start with the proposition that this is a matter for the House. It raises important questions relating to the status, rights, benefits and privileges of Members of Parliament, and hon. Members should be entitled to debate them for as long as they wish, consistent with the proprieties of the House.

A number of other fundamental questions will be raised in our debate today. Why does not Sinn Fein participate? Should taking the Oath be a precondition to participation? My view is that it should not. Should failure to participate be a disqualification? Again, my view is that it should not, because Members who are elected as Sinn Fein Members are elected by their electorate. If we believe in parliamentary democracy, we must recognise that Sinn Fein Members are as equally Members of the House as any one of us. If we deny that proposition, we are playing into the hands of over-mighty Government.

We ought to be able to debate those questions at length, because they are a matter for the House of Commons. I agree that there are divided opinions on them, and that is all the more reason why we need time to discuss them. I know that my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, most of all, disapproves of what I am saying on this point—

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Indeed, he has said so on many occasions, and he may be right. However, that makes my point that we need to have extended time for debate. These motions are not about whether Sinn Fein has renounced violence in the Province, but about whether Members of the House of Commons should be treated differently because they have chosen not to participate in our proceedings. That is a quite different matter, and we need to debate it at length.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the fact that there are considerable differences of opinion within parties as well as across the Floor of the House makes it even more important that, on a matter for the House, full time should be given to the debate, not least because my experience of the views of a number of Conservative Members, including my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, is that they have quite a lot to say on these matters, and they ought to be given plenty of time in which to say it?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. Friend is quite right. There is a diversity of opinion within the parties on both sides of the House. Furthermore, opinions change. I have long opposed the Oath, but I have previously voted for taking away the allowances from Sinn Fein Members. I now think that that was a mistake, and I should like the time to explain my reasons.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

While I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend on the narrow issue of this timetable motion, it is possible to make a convincing case against giving allowances to those Members in a very short compass, and he could do that.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

That might be true, but a lot of people want to participate in the debate. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend can wrap up his arguments extremely succinctly, but he is of course a very concise speaker. There are quite a few hon. Members of whom that cannot be said, and quite a lot of people wish to participate in the debate.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend, in that I am surprised that the Government are dragging this idea of giving Sinn Fein allowances through the House yet again, when international courts and courts in Northern Ireland have repeatedly stated that, under our democratic processes, Sinn Fein should not be given any allowances.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I suspect, Mr. Speaker, that if I were to respond to my hon. Friend's point in detail, you would tell me that it was a matter for the substantive debate that is to come. He makes a perfectly legitimate point, but I would prefer to debate it in the substantive debate rather than during this debate on the timetable motion.

This is a matter for the House, and we should therefore be very slow to impose a timetable. This contrasts ill with the position adopted by the late Mr. Robin Cook when we debated these matters in 2001. He made it plain at the time that the debate would be open-ended and that there would be a free vote. That is what we ought to be doing today, and I very much regret the fact that we are not. I suspect that the reason is related to the Labour party's internal jollifications, and that is pretty discreditable.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 12:59 pm, 8th February 2006

The motion has to do with the time that we shall be allowed to debate this very important matter. The police in Northern Ireland have stated:

"No paramilitary group has ceased its involvement in organised crime".

Our country is in a very sad state, as right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Front Bench well know. They know that for every man, woman and child in Ulster, £80 from the economy is stolen by paramilitaries. Some £140 million a year goes into the pockets of the paramilitaries, and £245 million is lost each year as a result of fuel-laundering rackets. The latter problem is so great that one of the leading fuel companies, Shell, has pulled out of Northern Ireland. Moreover, 6 per cent. of all cigarettes sold in Northern Ireland are illegal; that 6 per cent. consists of imported and counterfeit cigarettes. Such illegal activity takes 12 billion cigarettes out of the economy every year.

Those responsible for that drain on our economy are now going to get more money, not less, because the amount being paid to them is to be increased. We need time thoroughly to discuss this issue and to see where we are going. One hour is to be cut off the debate. Why can we not have the full time and conduct the debate in a reasonable way? [Interruption.] I do not care whether the Leader of the House wants his photo taken or not. He learned, along with me, that in Europe it is important to have one's photograph taken, but he is not in Europe now and—thank God—nor am I; I am in the British House of Commons. We need time and that time should be given to us.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 1:01 pm, 8th February 2006

My intervention will be brief. On this specific issue, I support my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg, and I also endorse the comments of Rev. Ian Paisley, who leads the Democratic Unionist party. Are the Government and the Leader of the House not treating this House with contempt? This important issue is not only a House matter but a constitutional matter, yet they are reducing the time for debate for purely party convenience. In my view, there should be no time limit at all. We should suspend the 7 o'clock rule today in order to debate this issue fully.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am following my hon. Friend's argument with great care. He has it in his power, if he can manage it, to ensure that the timetable does not apply today. The debate on the substantive motion has to finish at 6 o'clock and I believe, Mr. Speaker, that my hon. Friend could in fact to speak to the motion before us until 7 o'clock. Perhaps he would like to find that way out of the situation.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I listen with great care to what my hon. Friend says, but I suspect that although I may have the ability to speak until 7 o'clock, Mr. Speaker, neither you nor the House would wish me to do so.

This is a matter of principle and I say to the Leader of the House that to make the speech that he has just made in justification of the business of the House motion is to treat this House with contempt.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for not speaking until 7 o'clock. Perhaps he can enlighten me on the following point. It is something of a mystery to me why the debate is to be curtailed at 6 o'clock. Does he think that the Leader of the House could have been somewhat clearer in giving the reason for doing so?

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

My hon. Friend is extremely shrewd, in that he has anticipated my next utterance. Will the Leader of the House, with whom I work relatively closely on the Modernisation Committee, do the House the honour of explaining precisely why he has tabled this motion, which limits debate to 6 o'clock, rather than the normal time of 7 o'clock?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Before commenting on how long the debate should last, I am rather keen to know what your attitude is to this question, Mr. Speaker. I spent last night reading about the noble Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell's opinion when she adjudicated on the same issue in 1996, and I am very keen to know what yours is before we carry on.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman is a new Member and I should tell him that during debates, the Speaker does not have an attitude.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I should point out to my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski that I, Mr. Speaker, as a member of your Chairmen's Panel, would in no way seek to draw you into this matter, on which you have no opinion so long as the motion before us is in order with the Standing Orders of the House. I point out to my hon. Friend that sadly, it is in order.

The Leader of the House should do the House the courtesy of giving us a full and appropriate explanation for this motion. As a long-serving Member, I take it and the main motions extremely seriously. I should point out, however, to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham that I fundamentally disagree with the view that he is going to take in discussing the main motions.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Leader of the House's failure to explain here today the reason for this motion is not the only example of contempt for the House; we—or our party, at least, which is the fourth biggest in the House and the one most intimately interested in this motion—were not even shown the courtesy of being consulted through the usual channels. Does not that discourtesy also show contempt for the procedures of this House?

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I agree—reluctantly, in a way, because I have a regard for the Leader of the House—that it was extremely discourteous not to consult the Democratic Unionist party; no doubt the official Unionist party also was not consulted. We heard from Mr. Heath that the Liberal Democrats were in no way consulted, and given that I have not had a nod or a wink from my party's Front Benchers—the shadow Leader of the House and the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—I am assuming that we were not consulted, either.

I tell the Leader of the House, who is a courteous, highly intelligent and articulate man, that the House would benefit from a real and full explanation of the reason for the motion and the time limit on debating what is a critical matter of principle. In my view, it is also a matter of constitutional importance—of importance to the future of this House and the way in which it operates.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 1:08 pm, 8th February 2006

I detected through my radar that the Leader of the House indicated earlier from a sedentary position that if we sat down, he would give a reason for the motion, but the reality is that the appropriate time to do so was when he opened the debate. Of course, there are two reasons why the Government want to spend no longer than is necessary on this debate. First, doing so is for their convenience. A photograph is to be taken to celebrate the Labour party's centenary—

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

It is one of the rare occasions when they will all be facing in the same direction, and hopefully all smiling at the same time.

The reality is that the Government do not want a long debate on these motions because they have struck a deal with Sinn Fein. I have in front of me a copy of the parliamentary Labour party briefing on these motions, which is very poor in terms not only of quantity but quality. I also have a copy of the Conservative party briefing, which is more substantial in both senses. The PLP briefing makes it clear that these motions arise from a deal that the Government have done with Sinn Fein-IRA. They did another deal with Sinn Fein-IRA on the on-the-runs legislation, and we all saw what happened to that. So it is not in the Government's interest to have a long period of embarrassment in the House.

The other factor is that, uncharacteristically and unintentionally, the Leader of the House may have misled hon. Members when he said, in the very brief remarks with which he opened the debate, that the motion was designed to facilitate the House, when in fact it is to facilitate himself and his party colleagues. In addition, he said that the debate was to be truncated because we had gone over these matters before.

That is not correct. One of the motions has been debated before in this House, but the other has never been debated here. The unique proposal is that a new fund should be set up that will be available exclusively to Sinn Fein-IRA. Other parties in the House will not enjoy the same freedom, when it comes to the expenditure involved, that Sinn Fein-IRA will have. That is a completely new subject for debate, and a major issue that we need time to discuss.

I hope that the House recognises that a major constitutional issue is involved that we have never discussed before. We should be given the time to debate it properly.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills 1:11 pm, 8th February 2006

This House has become accustomed to being routinely guillotined. For the reasons that have been given, it is inappropriate in this case. The matter before the House determines the nature of membership of the House, and so affects all hon. Members. My hon. Friends are right to say that this is a constitutional matter and therefore significant.

There is no reason for us to restrain our debate on the proposal. Each generation of hon. Members has a right to ascertain the reasoning and basis of its standing in this Chamber, and to claim the associated rights and revenues. That is why it is a constitutional issue. Moreover, the forthcoming debate is to be constrained by a motion tabled by the Government, not by the House or Back Benchers. Let us make no mistake: it is a motion tabled by the Executive.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My hon. Friend makes an important point that he may want to emphasise. He spoke of the rights of each parliamentary generation. The Leader of the House mentioned the debates in 2001 and on 10 March 2005, but they took place in earlier Parliaments. Surely, this Parliament, sitting afresh, should have a full opportunity to consider these matters.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I said what I said about the motion and the guillotine with full intent. The Government have sought to change the culture of this House over three Parliaments. This House now routinely subscribes to the truncation of debate on matters that are for the House itself to decide. That is why I resolutely oppose the business motion, and I urge all hon. Members to do the same, for the sake of our standing. At the heart of the debate is the ability to determine whether a person elected by an electorate should receive the rights that go with that position.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal 1:13 pm, 8th February 2006

With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly to the debate. In saying that I shall do so briefly, I mean no discourtesy to those hon. Members who have spoken, but I do note that they had difficulty in formulating their observations on the business motion. They have said that the issues involved are important, yet the longer they speak on the business motion, the less time is available for dealing with those important issues.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Heath, devoted much of his contribution to the subject matter of the motions that are to follow, and not to the business motion. It is important that the House has sufficient time to debate those matters, and I shall not speak at length now. However, Mrs. May made it clear that she and her Front-Bench colleagues have judged that the business motion will allow sufficient time for debate of the important matters to come. That is also the view of the Government.

Sir Nicholas Winterton speaks eloquently on questions of procedure from as far back on the Conservative Benches as one can get. He illustrated the sort of difficulty that might arise without a business motion such as this when he said that he believed that debate should continue indefinitely.

I have had many opportunities to enjoy the delights of hearing the hon. Member for Macclesfield speak about matters of procedure. For those of us with a legal background and training, nothing could be more enjoyable, but the important thing about the debate to come is that the House will have an opportunity to debate the substantive motions.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I want to put one point to the Leader of the House that I think is germane to the amount of time needed to debate the substantive motions. There is a proposal to give what for convenience I shall call Short money to Sinn Fein: does that imply that Sinn Fein Members will have a greater ability to spend that money than those others who receive Short money through the resolution of 1975? The debate will be truncated if they are not to have greater scope for spending, but it will be extended if they are to have greater licence. The answer to my question is crucial to our understanding of the matter.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

That is an important matter, and I shall deal with it when I open the debate on the substantive motions. However, to help the hon. Gentleman, I stress that proper restrictions will be placed on the spending of that money and that, even though the purposes are different, they will be wholly consistent with the restrictions currently attached to the expenditure of Short money. I am not suggesting for a moment that we are dealing with Short money, but the restrictions on how the proposed money is spent will be supervised by the House authorities in exactly the same way, and the proper safeguards will apply.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

The reason that some of us are puzzled is that Short money is given to political parties for their functions at Westminster. As the hon. Members involved do not wish to appear here, why should they get Short money?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. We are now getting into the merits of the argument, rather than the timetable motion.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am sure that my right hon. Friend Mr. Field can ask the same question during the debate on the substantive motions. The answer that I shall give him then will be the same as the one that I would have given him now.

I recognise that this is important House business. I do not suggest that hon. Members should not take it seriously. I am sure that they will, but it is important that the main debate is allowed to take place and that we do not continue discussing the procedure motion.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Reference has been made in the debate to the Leader of the House having his photograph taken later this evening. Does that have anything to do with the centenary of the parliamentary Labour party?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I was asked at last week's business questions whether a great Labour party "bash" was scheduled for tonight. At the end of our proceedings today there will be an Adjournment debate that is concerned with the Labour party's 100th anniversary. I understand that a photograph will be taken—but also that the photographer involved has another engagement afterwards that Conservative Members are likely to attend. It would be unfair to use the word "bash" about that other event, but it is likely to take up the time of Opposition Members. The photographer will be busy this evening—[Interruption.] I am sorry that some Opposition Members have not received an invitation to the Conservative party winter ball. I want to make it clear that I have not received one either.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

Of what concern is that to the House and its ability to debate a motion?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good intervention. We must keep to the timetable motion.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I accept entirely, Mr. Speaker, that I should have brought my remarks to a conclusion much earlier. I do so now.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 285, Noes 104.

Division number 154

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.