I beg to move,
That this House
shall sit on
The right hon. Gentleman has just said that the motion was put to the House on
I want to help the right hon. Gentleman with this, so that he can construct his argument more effectively. My understanding is that the Chancellor had on
I will gladly check my recollection, of course. My recollection is that the date of the Budget was announced in the new year, but I will gladly check that point. I am not sure that it is germane to the argument, however, because whatever the position might be, I had at that point already announced—on
I can develop my argument in my speech, but it might help the right hon. Gentleman if I do so now. The reason why it is relevant whether the Chancellor had already announced the date of the Budget is that the Leader of the House would have put the dates to the House in the knowledge that the Budget was going to be in March and knowing how many days it would require, and therefore knowing how it would fit in with his sittings pattern.
I hear an astute point being made from a sedentary position by my hon. Friend Stephen Mosley, who says that if that had been the case, surely the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would have raised the matter on
As I said, I clearly set out the planned dates on
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for being courteous, and I would expect no less. Am I right in thinking that last year the Government published the Fridays on which we were planning to sit—again, it was beneficial to the House, the staff and others—and, if so, why did the Government not publish the sitting Fridays for this year?
What is clear, as I said, is that in order to facilitate the House, the shape of the recess framework is the most important characteristic. We want to enable hon. Members and the House authorities to structure their future activities around relatively established dates for major recesses.
I give my right hon. Friend 10 out of 10 for publishing his original timetable well in advance, as that is a very good thing, but what has he got against Wednesdays? My view and that of my constituents is that we want to hear from the Prime Minister, especially at the start of a recess period. Why do Sessions always end on a Tuesday?
The motion adds a further sitting day and its effect will therefore be to allow the four-day Budget debate to take place, as well as to accommodate the opportunity for the Backbench Business Committee to schedule business, including the traditional pre-recess Adjournment debate, on the last day before recess.
Sitting on an additional Friday would allow a continuation of the Budget debate but it would not be its last day, so there would be no requirement for Members to vote on that day. That is the best option to provide the balance between the certainty requested by the House, which the publication of the calendar in mid-October permitted, and the disposal of business before it, including providing the Backbench Business Committee with access to the debate opportunities that it would expect.
It may be helpful if I remind the House that there is a precedent for the proposal to sit on a Friday to allow the continuation of the Budget debate before a recess. Just last year, the House agreed to sit on
As you said, Mr Speaker, an amendment in the name of the Opposition has been selected, which seeks to amend the motion to produce the effect that the House would sit not on
The hon. Lady set out her reasons during business questions on
There is a choice here, but my preference—and, I believe, the preference of Members—would be to sit on that Friday and not on the subsequent Wednesday. While the calendar is always issued with the proviso that it is subject to the progress of business, the Government are conscious that having announced dates, Members and staff might have made arrangements for the Easter recess, which it would now be inconvenient, to say the least, to change. Indeed, as I have said, the Friday would not involve the prospect of voting, and I can add that we do not intend to arrange ministerial statements for that day. Those with necessary constituency business will still be able to deal with it, which might not be the case were the House to sit on Wednesday.
The second reason given by the shadow Leader of the House was that if the House rose on a Tuesday, there could be no Prime Minister’s Question Time during that week. I do not think that anyone could accuse the Prime Minister of avoiding his duties in the House. [Interruption.] I must tell Mr Spellar that his view is contradicted by the facts. The Prime Minister has made more statements to the House per sitting day in the last Session than his predecessor, spending more than 30 hours at the Dispatch Box in so doing. He also gives evidence to the Liaison Committee, and he takes all his responsibilities to the House very seriously.
I think that my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone should take a look at the 2013 calendar that I published. It shows six occasions on which recesses have been proposed. There is the February recess, which we have already had, and there are the Easter, Whitsun, summer, conference and Christmas recesses. The plan was for the House to rise on a Tuesday on two of those occasions, on a Thursday on three of them and on a Friday on one of them. No pattern is involved; it is simply a matter of trying to ensure that each of the recesses has the right balance of time overall. A simple examination of the parliamentary calendar will show that there are no grounds for the supposition that we have avoided a Wednesday sitting.
My right hon. Friend is making some very good points, and this is not a black-and-white issue, although I must add that I think that, when the rising of the House on a Tuesday can be avoided, it should rise on a Wednesday or a Thursday. However, this is not just about Prime Minister’s Question Time; it is also about all the other business of the House. It is about all the Select Committee meetings and all the sittings in Westminster Hall that take place on Wednesdays. All that business is, in effect, lost when the House rises on a Tuesday.
It is a matter, overall, of the number of days on which the House sits. My hon. Friend may take the view that it should sit more often. As it happens, I suspect that at the end of this year it will have sat for more days than it sat in any of the preceding four calendar years. I also think that before, for example, the Easter recess, it is preferable for us not to continue our business until Maundy Thursday.
I know that the Opposition are keen to ensure that the Government are held to account, and that is to be expected, but they really ought to focus on the substance rather than the processes. When it comes to the mechanisms of accountability, the Government are achieving greater and more meaningful scrutiny than has ever been achieved before. Let me name just a few positive developments. There is more pre-legislative scrutiny, there are many substantial debates via the Backbench Business Committee, there is the work of Select Committees and their elected Chairs that we discussed in the Chamber a couple of weeks ago, and there is extra time for scrutiny during the Report stages of Bills. Those are major changes that have shifted the balance from the Executive to the House.
I understand the Opposition’s intentions—I understand them very well—but I assure them that any fears that they may have, in reality, about lack of time for scrutiny are wholly misplaced, and I commend the motion to the House.
This may seem a dry issue on which to take up the House’s time. After all, recess dates are rarely the subject of much contention; they are rarely, if ever, noticed, and much less often divide the House. So what is the problem with the sittings motion, and why are we trying to amend it?
We decided to table our amendment because, after two and a half years of experience, we have begun to perceive a pattern in the Government’s behaviour, and especially in that of the Prime Minister. We have realised that he does not much like being accountable to the House at Prime Minister’s Question Time, and that he therefore arranges for the House to rise on Tuesdays as often as he thinks that he can get away with it. Mr Hollobone made that point from the Government Benches. That way, the Prime Minister avoids Prime Minister’s questions, which take place on Wednesdays. In contemplating this emerging trend, I thought it might just be one of those random patterns that occurs by accident, until I noticed that our Prime Minister seems to be anxious for the House not to sit long enough for him to have to face Prime Minister’s questions, especially after a Budget.
That is the crux of the issue before us today. For the second year running, the House has been asked to sit on a Friday to accommodate the debate we must have on the Chancellor’s Budget, and to allow the recess date therefore conveniently to fall on a Tuesday, thus letting the Prime Minister off his Prime Minister’s questions duties.
Was the hon. Lady listening when the Leader of the House explained that this year we will be breaking up on a Tuesday twice out of six occasions? That is a ratio of one in three, and therefore a minority, so this is not a trend; it is completely the opposite in fact.
The hon. Gentleman should hear me out, because I have a few other things to say about the trends we on this side of the House have perceived. Perhaps when he has listened to me he might form an opinion, rather than having an opinion before he has heard what I have to say.
Both last year and this year the Government decided to sit on a Friday and begin the recess on a Tuesday, and this year that means the Prime Minister will next have to appear at Prime Minister’s questions and justify the Budget to the House fully 28 days after the date of the Budget. Perhaps it takes him 28 days to plough through all the Budget documentation, but the rest of us have to react instantly, and so should he.
Let me readily acknowledge that when the original sittings motion suggesting this arrangement was put to the House on
I often worry about the adversarial nature of our parliamentary system putting people off politics, so I considered the possibility that the observation I have made about our current Prime Minister’s strange aversion to the House sitting on Wednesdays might just be partisan criticism on my part.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a matter of opinion, and he and I may disagree about the judgment he has just presented to the House.
I wondered whether this strange aversion to Wednesdays might be randomly generated happenstance or unsupported by any evidence. I was even beginning to chide myself a little for developing such unworthy thoughts about Machiavelli or anybody else, so I decided to check the evidence. I looked back at the record to see how often the House has risen for recesses on Tuesdays, and it turns out that during the period when Tony Blair was Prime Minister the House rose on Tuesdays 22% of the time, and when my right hon. Friend Mr Brown was Prime Minister the House rose on Tuesdays 29% of the time, but since 2010 while Mr Cameron has been Prime Minister the House has risen on Tuesdays a whopping 58% of the time.
These figures prove that this Prime Minister is categorically no heir to Blair in his desire to be answerable for the actions of his Government in this Chamber. They prove he truly has an aversion to Wednesdays and a reluctance to let the House sit on Wednesdays if he can possibly avoid it. What on earth can the Prime Minister be scared of?
The length was not reduced; as hon. Members may recall, Tony Blair put the two sets of 15 minutes together into one half an hour. The figures that I have just given the House are unaffected by the changes that were made to Prime Minister’s Question Time, because the half-hour, one-day-a-week session is common to all three figures. That point does not address the pattern of avoiding Wednesdays which the statistics demonstrate we are dealing with in this debate.
I do not understand the point the shadow Leader of the House is making. She says that when Mr Brown was Prime Minister the House rose for a recess on a Tuesday on 29% of occasions. She can see from the calendar that I published that the House is intended to rise twice on a Tuesday out of six occasions, which is 33.3%. Is the whole strength of her argument really the difference between 29% and 33.3%?
If one takes into account all the recesses since this Government have been in office, the figure goes up to 58%. That is a difference and it rather proves that this Prime Minister has a strange aversion to the House sitting on Wednesdays. That is what we are dealing with in our amendment.
Why on earth can the Prime Minister be frightened of Wednesdays? Last year’s Budget was enough to put the frighteners on anyone, let’s face it. It certainly set the bar high in standards of incoherence and incompetence, which even our part-time Chancellor will find hard to match this year. Let us remember that we had the granny tax, the churches tax, the charities tax and the pasty tax. The Chancellor had been so busy swanning around Washington in search of President Obama’s coat tails that he had forgotten to pay enough attention to one of his day jobs.
Last year’s Budget was unravelling even before the Chancellor had sat down. It was so disastrous that it spawned its own new word—omnishambles—which became the “Oxford English Dictionary” word of the year. There was open revolt against Budget measures on the Government Benches. Nine Tory MPs and four Liberal Democrats voted against the pasty tax, in defiance of their Whips. Sixteen Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat voted against the caravan tax, with two Liberal Democrat Ministers strangely missing the vote completely. No lesser person than Lord Ashcroft was moved to observe:
“The main problem is not so much that people think that the Conservative Party is heading in the wrong direction, it is that they are not sure where it is heading. And that includes me.”
Does this not speak to a greater truth, which also affects the issue before us, given that the Budget date had already been announced prior to the motion being put to the Commons? If my hon. Friend has read analyses of how Budgets have traditionally been made up properly, under Labour and Conservative Governments, she will know that many of the proposals in the last Budget had been proposed a number of times before by the civil service and had been batted back. What we have with this Government—here is the relevance to this debate—is a failure of process: a failure to attend to detail and a complete failure to attend to proper parliamentary and governmental process.
I agree wholeheartedly with the points that my right hon. Friend has made. As a former Treasury Minister, I can attest to the fact that some of the more disastrous bits of last year’s omnishambles Budget had indeed been put up to Ministers for their consideration prior to their adoption last year and had been batted back for the nonsense that they were.
Because of the Government’s cynical manipulation of the recess dates, it took 28 days after that botched Budget for the Prime Minister to find himself back at the Dispatch Box to account for it. By then we had also had the fuel strike scare and the jerry can scandal to add to the chaos. Understandably, he was so unnerved that, red-faced and angry, he started attacking his own side. Mr Carswell was wholly unfairly ticked off for having a sense of humour failure by a rattled Prime Minister who was demonstrating to the House just how easily he seems to be able to channel his inner Flashman. The memory of this omnishambles is obviously still raw, Mr Speaker. According to samizdats emerging from the 1922 Committee, the Chancellor has admitted to Tory Back Benchers that last year’s Budget was a disaster. Why else would he have been seen nodding vigorously as he was being exhorted, in language so earthy that I cannot repeat it here, not to—how can I put this politely and stay in order—mess it up this time?
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s reluctance to appear at the Dispatch box the day after the Budget debates to answer for his Chancellor’s omnishambles is an understandable human failing on his part, but it is not one in which this House should be assisting or that we should allow him to repeat this year. However, that is precisely what the motion will do unless our amendment is accepted. The Budget will be on
If the Prime Minister finds it impossible to appear before the House to answer questions on the Budget before 28 days have elapsed, he could do what all Prime
Ministers in the past have done and let his deputy do it for him. After all, we are told that the Liberal Democrats are intimately involved in all of the decision making about the Budget. We know that they are so central to the Government’s inner core that they make up two of the “quad” who, we are told, make all the final decisions. They are so closely involved in Budget decisions that they leaked most of it in advance last year so that they could take credit for all of the nice bits and distance themselves from the nasty bits. The only thing left for the poor Chancellor to surprise us with was the granny tax, and that was all he had to take credit for. No one seemed to benefit—unless of course they happen to be a millionaire awaiting their huge tax cut this April while everyone else feels the pain.
In the spirit of being a team player and recognising the Liberal Democrats’ acts of selfless sacrifice on tuition fees, why does the Leader of the House not just accept our amendment, change the sittings motion and let the Deputy Prime Minister step in and help out with Prime Minister’s questions straight after the Budget? Surely the Prime Minister trusts him to do a good job.
Yes, we intend to press the amendment to a vote.
“The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fairer society” and to remind voters that the Tories only want to look “after the super rich”. I am sure, given those comments, that the Deputy Prime Minister would be welcomed to the Dispatch Box the day after the Budget to support all its content. Perhaps he might also be asked by the Tories on the Government Benches why the Liberal Democrats keep sending out press briefings criticising the Government’s tax policies just after the Chancellor has finished announcing them.
Last December, for example, the Liberal Democrats were caught out saying:
“The only tax cuts the Conservatives support are ones for the very rich. At the General Election, their priority was to cut inheritance tax for millionaires. In the Coalition, Liberal Democrats have blocked these plans.”
After all, just this week the Business Secretary has expressed his
“deep disappointment at the lack of capital investment in the economy” while declaring himself the shop steward of the newly formed “National Union of Ministers”, fighting cuts to his own departmental budget openly in any TV studio and newspaper that would have him. I can see why the Prime Minister might be reluctant to let his deputy fill in for him at the Dispatch Box given that level of loyalty, so perhaps he should just bite the bullet and do it himself.
If our amendment were carried, all it would do is restore a status quo that has been long experienced in this Parliament: the Prime Minister comes to this House regularly to be held accountable during Prime Minister’s questions for the policy and the behaviour of his Government. That is even more vital after major Government announcements, such as Budgets. It cannot be acceptable that we are expected to put up with a month-long gap between the Budget and the next appearance by the Prime Minister to answer questions at that Dispatch Box.
If the Government resist the amendment to the sittings motion, it will become emblematic of their wider disdain for parliamentary accountability and even for democracy. After all, they have had no democratic mandate for the economic policy that they have pursued since June 2010, because the Liberal Democrats fought the election espousing a completely different economic policy from the one that they now support. The Government have had no democratic mandate for their disastrous top-down reorganisation of the national health service. They explicitly ruled it out during the general election, but now they pursue it with the certainty of zealots and the competence of Mr Bean.
That was the very same Prime Minister who did not even allow a debate in the House on a votable motion. It is preposterous for the hon. Lady to deny that from the Dispatch Box and say that our Prime Minister does not put himself before the House on a regular basis for it to scrutinise what this Government are doing.
I know that the hon. Lady was not a Member when there was a vote on Iraq, but there was a vote in this Parliament, and a very large majority for the action that was subsequently taken in Iraq.
Sarah Newton makes a point which I think needs to be on the record. She says that the House voted for action, not war. The hon. Lady, who is fairly new to the House, will not be aware of the fact—I am sure that my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House is aware of it—that this country has never formally gone to war since 1939, but we have been involved in a considerable number of military actions. It is quite understandable that the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth, not having been around at the time and not having been here long, would not understand that difference.
For clarification, the application is not mine. My application is for a less contentious debate on Romanian and Bulgarian migration to the United Kingdom. The application for the debate on Iraq was made by the leader of the Green party, Caroline Lucas, but I think it is in the national interest. The debate would be in the interests of the Opposition and a cathartic exercise for them, and I hope Ms Eagle will support it.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we are awaiting the publication of the Chilcot report, which I am sure will occasion us plenty of opportunity to have a debate and consider the way these matters worked out.
We know why the Prime Minister is running scared. He knows that his Chancellor’s economic plan is not working. His Back Benchers know that their Chancellor’s economic plan is not working. Little wonder, then, that our Prime Minister wants to hide away and hope that we will forget about it over a long Easter recess. He keeps organising these long Easter recesses for his, rather than for our, convenience. The only way to stop him getting away with it is to vote for our amendment to stop the Prime Minister evading scrutiny after the Budget for an entire month. I certainly hope that the House will do so.
Of course, many of us wish the House to sit at every possible opportunity, because it is the debating chamber of the nation and its sitting gives us an opportunity to represent our constituents and hold the Executive to account in a way that keeps them properly on their toes. When I read the amendment, I must confess that I was struck by the nobility of Ms Eagle in wishing to offer up the Leader of the Opposition as a sacrificial lamb. He is put out weekly and then resuscitated, only to be brought back again and laid on the Dispatch Box of slaughter before our great Prime Minister, who week in, week out—
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because his intervention allows me to inform the House that I am observing my Lenten abstinence and, therefore, took great delight in nothing stronger than Her Majesty’s Sandringham apple juice.
On occasions such as this, one’s mind always turns to cricket, because there is a great similarly between Prime Minister’s questions and cricket. The Leader of the Opposition has six questions, and those Members who are up on their cricket will know that there are six balls in an over. That takes us back to 1968, to the great occasion at Glamorgan when one Malcolm Nash came on to bowl. I see Edward Miliband as the Malcolm Nash of Prime Minister’s questions, but I see our Prime Minister as the Garfield Sobers. Malcolm Nash runs in to bowl and the Prime Minister smites the ball for six. The next ball goes over Big Ben. The next goes over the Victoria Tower. The fourth ball is in the Thames, and the fifth is at the London eye.
It is a great joy to have a Scotsman in the Chamber who is knowledgeable about cricket. It is a triumph of English civilisation spreading north and is extraordinarily welcome. Mr Geoffrey Boycott is one of the most successful cricketers of all time. If the Chancellor is like him, a man of noble dedication to his task, the only batsman to have averaged over 100 in a season twice in his career, one of the highest-scoring batsmen in the history of cricket, and that is what a socialist thinks of him, what then will a Conservative say of a man of such aplomb, ability and foresight?
Let us get back to the issue of Wednesday and what I think is the Christian charity of the Leader of the House, who feels that it is unfair to put the Leader of the Opposition through the torment of Prime Minister’s questions on an additional unnecessary occasion and that it would be showing off to allow the Prime Minister to smite him to the boundary once again. Therefore, we will come back on a dutiful Friday, a proper working day, rather than one for doing other things. I cancelled my commitments with pleasure so that I could be in the House, not necessarily to speak, but for the pleasure of listening to others debate the Budget, enumerating the triumphs of Conservatism, the success of the proposals that will have been brought forward and the enthusiasm we will have for the way this Government are boldly, satisfactorily and rightly marching forward to get the economy back in shape after the horrific errors made by the socialists. I must therefore oppose the amendment.
His party was socialist, his Government were socialist and his successor was a socialist; I think that there is a lot of socialist still left in the Labour party.
We will have that Friday, a day of jubilee, to come in and praise the Government for what they have done and for their wisdom and foresight. We are being kindly and charitable—nice, really—to the Opposition by not inflicting upon them the terrible experience they must have every week. None the less, I must confess that I admire the nobility of the hon. Member for Wallasey in bringing forward her amendment. For the Labour party to take this on puts one in mind of the charge of the Light Brigade. How does it go?
“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them”
Does the hon. Gentleman not care about the employment prospects of the fact checkers for Channel 4 and various journals who are regularly employed every Wednesday, including today, when the Prime Minister claimed that the bedroom tax did not apply to those with disabled children? Does he not feel for them in that they will have less work to do because the Prime Minister—I would never accuse him in this Chamber of misrepresenting the position—does not understand his own policies?
I believe it is orderly, Mr Speaker, to say that the right hon. Gentleman is guilty of terminological inexactitude. The Prime Minister said nothing about a bedroom tax, for there is no bedroom tax The Prime Minister is somebody who deals in truth, right and justice, and therefore does not talk about things that do not exist.
I am delighted that, as always, my hon. Friend has come up with a novel argument. I hope that it is approved of by Mrs Bone, although I would have thought that she would like to have him back for Easter by Holy Wednesday, which does seem a little late to be sitting.
Let me remind the House of my admiration for the nobility of the Opposition in offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs. Perhaps it is appropriate, in the context of Holy Wednesday, for them to be thinking of sacrificial lambs. However, it is better to save them the embarrassment and humiliation of having to watch, and save the nation its pity at having to watch, the poor Leader of the Opposition being filleted by our noble, illustrious and great Prime Minister, who on every Wednesday comes forth and ensures that there is success, a spring in the step of Conservatives, and joy across the land.
This really is a most curious debate. We managed to tease out the information from the Leader of the House, slightly reluctantly on his part, that he seemed not to have been aware before he spoke that the Chancellor had announced the date of the Budget. He can rightly say, to some extent, that perhaps that should have meant that the motion would be opposed. Frankly, however, as I said to him from a sedentary position, it is the job of the Government business managers—the Leader of the House, the Chief Whip and their very able and extensive staffs—to look out for these things, let alone, perhaps, those who are in charge of the grid at No. 10, if anybody is. This is not just about the simple issue of not having a whole series of clashing announcements on one day; it is about the good management of business and the stress-testing of propositions before they see the light of day.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that none of these problems would arise if we had a House business committee? Then it would not just be a case of the Executive trying to force through such changes but of also having a committee to which every Back-Bench Member could make representations. Would that not be the answer?
In this context, I am not criticising the Executive for forcing things through but for not being on top of the job. Unfortunately, that is only too typical these days in a whole number of areas. There were several examples with the last Budget, where there were clearly issues that should never have got to the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Chief Secretary, or perhaps even other Ministers. They should have been knocked out long before by Treasury officials or special advisers.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about people not being on top of the job. Does he admit that when this was voted through on
I think that the hon. Gentleman’s meaning was clear, but it was notably colloquial—obviously too colloquial for the advanced and refined taste of Thomas Docherty.
Essentially, the Government determine the business of the House. It is absolutely right that that can be voted on, but it is the Government who work out the pattern of the parliamentary year—
Debate interrupted (