Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
That, at this day’s sitting, the Sittings of the House (
The House divided:
Ayes 265, Noes 84.
I am pleased to continue the argument. I slightly regret the absence of Mark Pritchard, who seemed to want to intervene. Maybe he has been nobbled in the meantime.
As you will recall, Mr Speaker, before we voted I made it clear, in answer to the hon. Member for City of Chester, that the Government are responsible for their own parliamentary business. With their considerable resource, they should be able to take account of the many factors required for a proper parliamentary timetable, not least with the current absence of legislation. Because they have messed up in other areas of the legislative programme, they are not actually bursting with items to be discussed.
I am greatly enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, but does he not agree with me that the Government have promised the House that they will introduce a House business committee in 2013 to avoid these circumstances arising, and that were the committee established, these unfortunate proceedings could be avoided?
It is hugely tempting to follow the hon. Gentleman down that path, because it reveals a degree of misunderstanding of how the Westminster parliamentary system works. If the committee he mentions—this will be a long debate when we get to that—is in control of the parliamentary timetable, it will effectively become the Government, because it will control Parliament. The committee might deal with a particular part of the parliamentary timetable, just as the Backbench Business Committee does. However, responsibility for the entire parliamentary timetable—and there is nothing more intrinsic to the maintenance of government than supply and this expression, “Through the Budget”—is fundamentally the role of the Queen’s Government, as determined on a daily basis by the maintenance of a parliamentary majority.
The right hon. Gentleman might be right in some respects, but were this business of the house committee to be established, it might well have on it a Government majority and be able to determine non-legislative time, even if it could not determine legislative time. Given that PMQs on Wednesday is non-legislative, I would have thought that the committee would be able to determine that the House sit on a Wednesday.
Not just of recent vintage, I said. I know the hon. Gentleman is a new Member who thinks that history started with Tony Blair’s election. I know this belief is common within the Conservative party, but actually we did have Prime Ministers—both Labour and Conservative alike—before that. I was actually thinking of Harold Macmillan, but the hon. Gentleman was probably in short trousers when he was Prime Minister.
I am interested in the line that my right hon. Friend is taking, but actually we are talking here not about the procedures of the House, but about the incompetence of the Government in handling the timetable. They have tabled this motion tonight because they did not realise that they needed the extra Friday to fit in the four days of debate on the Budget.
My hon. Friend rightly draws me back to the immediate topic, tempting, interesting and attractive though it is to discuss the broader issues of parliamentary sovereignty and procedure. He is right that most of the factors, including the date of the Budget, were well known when the motion was laid. The number of days that we traditionally take for the Budget debate was known, as too was the date of Easter. In fact, the date of Easter could have been known several decades, if not centuries, ago. The procedure for calculating Easter was decided at the Council of Nicaea in 325. At that time, they could probably have calculated when this Easter would be.
The date of Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox. I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to ask me whether this was under the Julian or Gregorian calendar, but he did not.
Several areas did. Of course, we would be straying into history if we noted that the last time we changed the calendar and the method of calculation, it did not work out too well and London got substantially burnt down. “Give us back our 11 days”, was the cry of the London workers.
I said 325, not 7.24.
It is absolutely right that we need a full debate on the Budget. I therefore question why the Budget needs to be on a Wednesday—I hope the Leader of the House will intervene—if we wish to fit in those four days and, quite rightly, have the Back-Bench pre-recess debate. Why not have the Budget on a Tuesday and the debate on the following days? That would work perfectly well, although I do think—mention has been made of staff who work here, and so on—that having recesses in the middle of the week rather than in full blocks can affect many people, particularly those who are trying to adjust to have holidays with family or, frankly, those without children who are trying to avoid going on holiday at the same time as those with family. Not much thought seems to have been given to how these things are organised—or, indeed, to parliamentary delegations. These partial weeks do not seem to be a particularly good idea.
The right hon. Gentleman prompts me with his talk about the Budget perhaps being on a Tuesday. For many years it was on a Tuesday, but it was changed to a Wednesday. That was before my time in the House, so I wonder whether he could tell me when the Budget was changed to Wednesday from Tuesday in the first place. Did it have anything to do with Tony Blair changing Prime Minister’s questions to Wednesday so that he could not be questioned about the unravelling of his Chancellor’s Budget the day after he had delivered it? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could help us.
I find it strange that the hon. Gentleman should talk about unravelling Budgets, given the experience of the last Budget—it was never fully ravelled, let alone unravelled. As I recall, he played some part in helping to unravel that Budget. We are happy and pleased that he took such a principled position. [Interruption.] Fortunately his Whip is in conversation with someone else and will not have noticed.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I tried to check how far back Budgets were changed from Tuesday to Wednesday. It is some way back, although I do not know whether it was anything to do with the bank rate or whatever. It is an interesting subject; unfortunately, I did not have time to research it. However, when Budgets were on a Wednesday, with PMQs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, that would have enabled questions to be asked of the Prime Minister. It would be perfectly proper—I would have thought it would be extremely helpful for the public debate—if the Budget was on a Tuesday and then the Prime Minister answered on the Wednesday. However, that is slightly separate; we would be able to fit in that time scale. What all this shows, yet again, is an inattention to detail and organising the business of the House.
My right hon. Friend is a distinguished and long-serving parliamentarian. Can he recall whether it was custom and practice under the Labour Government that if the Budget was on a Wednesday, Prime Minister’s questions were sooner than four weeks later? Is that not one of the big problems we have with the proposal before us this evening?
It is very much—this ties in with when Easter is. It would be much better not to have such substantial gaps. Given the Prime Minister’s experience of trying to answer questions about the bedroom tax and his inability to answer the questions or, even more fundamentally, show an understanding of his own legislation, that is fairly worrying.
Let me turn to the question of Fridays. I am slightly surprised by the Leader of the House’s comments—as though Friday and Wednesday were comparable in terms of the constituency pattern. Members of Parliament often establish a pattern with their local organisations—schools, charities and businesses—that ties in with having their advice bureaus on a Friday. Members will ensure that they have a full programme during the day on a Friday and, often, an advice bureau in the evening. It might be all right for Members who only have to nip up the road to St Albans if Parliament sits until 2.30 pm, but for those who have to go further afield, getting back to undertake their advice bureaus becomes a significant problem. I suspect that most Members will have publicised when and where their advice bureaus will be at least six months in advance; many will have done it a year in advance. Indeed, they will have put up posters around their constituencies to advertise them, because they had not anticipated that the Friday under discussion would be a sitting day in the Commons.
Surprisingly, the Leader of the House has said that Members can speak on other days, but that is not how things work. Usually, under a very helpful Speaker, there is a bit of flexibility with regard to Budget debates, but the reality is that particular issues are debated on particular days. Members therefore need to know when subjects in which they are interested will be the prime focus of debate.
The Leader of the House has also said that the Government do not intend to make statements, but if he does some research, he will find that statements have been made on Fridays in the past. That would make the situation even more difficult for certain Members.
The point is that it is up to the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to decide where they want to be on the Friday under discussion. If he decides that it is more important for him to turn up at the advice surgery that he has advertised six months in advance, there is nothing to prevent him from doing so, even if the proposed debate takes place. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman already does that during the House’s sitting Fridays for private Members’ Bills. He did not want to prevent the Opposition from calling for a recall of Parliament when the riots were taking place, but Members may have arranged to do other things during that summer recess.
I am not entirely sure that I follow the hon. Gentleman’s train of thought. He is right to say that debates on private Members’ Bills occur on Fridays, but Members know about them for a long time in advance. They can, therefore, set their constituency calendar some distance ahead and say, with assurance, “This is a non-sitting Friday, so there won’t be a Bill that’s of interest to my constituents and I can make arrangements.” That seems perfectly sensible. My point is that all of those elements were known and we find it slightly strange that, initially, the Leader of the House, at fairly short notice, tried to spring this change on the Commons. Fortunately that was spotted, so we are having a proper debate and exploring the issues.
It is becoming clearer that there are two fundamental issues, the first of which is the steady disorganisation of parliamentary business and the Order Paper. For example, there are increasing incidents of the House of Lords and the House of Commons not sitting during the same weeks. In some cases, that causes considerable discontinuity for Bills moving between the two Houses.
Before the right hon. Gentleman concludes his remarks—[Interruption.] We can be hopeful. If he looks at the motion, he will see that it is for the House to sit on
I fully understand that when business is announced, it is always with the caveat that it is subject to the progress of Government business. As far as I am aware, no proposition has been advanced that this change is necessitated by the progress, or lack of it, of Government business.
If, for example, the Government had continued with their legislation on the reform of the upper House, but without a programme motion, that business might have taken up a considerable amount of time over the past few months. The Government might then have said that they had other issues that needed to be dealt with, that there had been insufficient progress on Government business at that point, and that they therefore needed an extra day. That would have been understandable, but this proposal is not of that order. A number of elements were involved, all of which were known, and the Government have mishandled it.
I mentioned the fact that the Lords and the Commons often meet in separate weeks. Many Members of Parliament are involved in groupings, organisations and even some formal bodies that go across both Houses, and it can be very difficult for people who organise events here, often in connection with extremely worthy causes and important issues, who are hoping to draw an audience of Members of both Houses. Similarly, parliamentary delegations from other countries often come here and want to meet up with fellow parliamentarians. The Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, for example, are fully integrated between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and peers and Members of the Commons are involved in them, but their events become much more difficult for them to attend because of the disconnection of the parliamentary timetable.
All those examples provide an indication that the Government felt that running Parliament was easy. They did not understand the dynamic of the Commons, in particular, and of Parliament in general. They did not understand the rhythm of the place. The change to the timing of the Queen’s Speech, for example, has had an impact. It has gradually worked its way through, but there is still some disconnect there.
The Government have introduced changes without really understanding how Parliament works, and this motion is another symptom of that. It should therefore quite properly be dealt with by the amendment, which will enable Members of Parliament to undertake their constituency activities, and enable the Prime Minister to do what he is trying to avoid doing, week after week—namely, to turn up here and answer to the Commons and to the country.
I rise to support the amendment, because in my view the House should sit on a Wednesday in preference to a Friday. I am second to none in my admiration of the skills of the Leader of the House. He is a politician of legend throughout Cambridgeshire. He has had the good grace to visit Kettering general hospital in the past, and he is a politician without equal in his knowledge of this country’s health service. I am thus second to none in admiring his political skills, but I get the impression that he is feeling his way gently into his present position, and I feel that he has misjudged this element of his portfolio.
I give him 10 out of 10 for setting out the parliamentary timetable well in advance. I really think he has done his very best to inform the House and the House authorities about when the Chamber should be sitting, but there has been a miscalculation over the Budget. I do not know whose responsibility that is. I doubt that it is the responsibility of anyone in the Leader of the House’s office. I expect that the guilty suspect probably works somewhere in No. 11 and has not communicated the dates far enough in advance to the Leader of the House. We are therefore where we are tonight.
We are debating this matter at gone 7.30 on a Wednesday evening because the House has voted for the debate to continue until any hour. If any Members were keen to get away early this evening but voted for that motion, they would have only themselves to blame.
My hon. Friend makes a fundamental point. Hundreds of Members voted for the resolution, so it is quite clear, at least on the Government Benches, that they want this debate to continue until any hour so that everyone can have a chance to speak.
As always, my hon. Friend is right. In both the last Parliament and the present one, he and I have ploughed quite a lonely furrow on the issue of the House rising on a Wednesday.
The hon. Gentleman mentions two parliamentary colleagues whom we all hold in extremely high esteem. He is quite right that they have been parliamentary champions in many respects. I have to say, however, that I am rather cross with my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Moggthis evening, as he made an excellent speech but drew the wrong conclusions from his remarks.
If my constituents—and, I suspect, those of Thomas Docherty—ever tune in to watch Parliament, they do so on two occasions: on a Wednesday at 12 o’clock to watch Prime Minister’s questions or to watch the Budget. The Opposition amendment basically conflates those two pivotal parliamentary events in the parliamentary year. My hon. Friend Mr Bone and I, in ploughing our lonely furrow and arguing that the House should rise on a Wednesday in the last Parliament, perhaps attempted the impossible in looking at the issue through the prism not of party politics but of Back-Bench opinion without any political colour applied to it. Although I welcome the amendment from Her Majesty’s official Opposition, I have to say that they have some cheek when it comes to the House rising on a Tuesday, as they were as guilty when they were in charge as are the present Government now. I would welcome an intervention by the official Opposition Front-Bench team to give us a commitment that if they ever return to office, they will pledge that the House will only ever rise on a Wednesday. I notice no stirrings on the Opposition Front Bench, which is hugely disappointing.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and I were, heaven forfend, ever to be in charge of these things, one of our first priorities would be—
Indeed. I do not want to be ruled out of order for being too hypothetical, but if there were a House business committee, I would hope that my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall would be a member of it, if not its Chair; and if my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and I were in government, one of our first priorities would be to set up that Committee and for my hon. Friend to be ennobled as its Chair. If we were in charge of these matters, we would put in place the necessary regulations for the House to rise always on a Wednesday.
In the event that the Business of the House Committee were set up, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be important to have representatives of the smaller parties on it so that it became totally inclusive?
I am listening attentively to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the notion of guaranteeing that the House will always rise on a Wednesday. As he is not a Liberal Democrat, I think that he is probably true to his word, but surely there will be occasions—before Christmas or Easter, for instance—when it will not be practical for that to happen. The hon. Gentleman would probably accept that if Christmas day fell on a Friday, it might be appropriate for the House to rise on a Monday or a Tuesday.
I follow the hon. Gentleman’s train of thought, but I do not think that those circumstances would arise. I think that there would always be a convenient Wednesday before the dates that he has mentioned.
That is an interesting argument, but there would then be the danger of a long gap if the House rose on the Friday before Christmas, perhaps on 17 or
Possibly, but I think that the purpose of tonight’s debate is to try to avoid the long gap that has been identified by Her Majesty’s official Opposition. That brings me back to the point about the conflation of the two events, Prime Minister’s Question Time and the Budget. When my constituents tune into the parliamentary channel on those two occasions, they do so because they are interested in what Members are saying in this place. They are particularly interested in what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to say about the Budget, and in what the Prime Minister has to say about the Budget a week later.
I have done my best to apprise my constituents of the value of tuning into the parliamentary channel on one of the 13 sitting Fridays, and to lead by example by watching my hon. Friend from my room, even if I am not in the Chamber myself, and listening to his words of wisdom on so many issues. I am afraid that the message is not getting through to my constituents yet, but I will keep on trying.
My constituents do, however, want to watch Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesdays, and the problem with the motion as it stands is that they will be denied the opportunity to hear the Prime Minister being questioned on the Budget a week after it has been announced.
Let me attempt the near impossible and not view this issue through a party political prism. I think that my constituents, whichever party they vote for—and whether they vote for any party or none at all—want to hear what the Prime Minister has to say about the important issues of the day before the House rises for a long recess, and that, on any level, that is not an unreasonable proposition. I think that the Prime Minister himself would be keen to do that. What I am questioning is the advice that the Prime Minister is being given in this respect. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset observed, the Prime Minister does extremely well. Indeed, most Prime Ministers do well at Prime Minister’s Question Time. It is not a level playing field: the balance of advantage lies with the Prime Minister of the day. I think that the Prime Minister would be up for it, but I think that he is being badly advised.
I also think that the timetable proposed by the Leader of the House does a discourtesy to the House. That is to do with private Members’ Bills. Half a dozen Members have tabled important Bills for debate on
I certainly feel the Government should give some ground on this issue, just out of generosity to the Members I have mentioned in the course of my remarks, because those Bills would be extremely worthy legislation, and given that the parliamentary timetable is not exactly chock-a-block at present, I think there is some room for manoeuvre for the Leader of the House.
My main contention, however, is that Wednesday is, rightly or wrongly, in many respects the most important day of the parliamentary week. I think it is a great shame that following the Budget—one of the pivotal events of the parliamentary year—the House and the country are to be denied the opportunity of holding the Prime Minister to account for the contents of that Budget a week after it has been delivered. Our parliamentary democracy is eroded as a result. I will support the Opposition amendment tonight, and I hope the Leader of the House takes my remarks in the spirit in which they are offered.
I take a slightly different view. Considering what has happened with past Budgets, does my hon. Friend agree that a passage of four weeks before the Prime Minister is questioned on the Budget would give Members an opportunity to digest all the various opinions about that Budget and perhaps therefore ask more incisive questions than would be possible if they asked them immediately afterwards?
As always, my hon. Friend makes a very good point, but those Members who spend that month going over the Budget papers in the way he suggests will have the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister about them at the first Prime Minister’s questions when the House returns, but there will be other Members who will want rather swifter answers on behalf of their constituents, within a week of the Budget. The timetable currently proposed by the Leader of the House denies them that opportunity.
I will not speak for long, Mr Speaker, as I am sure that you, like many other Members, are keen to hear Fatboy Slim, who is on the Terrace this evening. I know that is why so many Members are present. Some of us remember Fatboy Slim from The Housemartins. For the benefit of Jacob Rees-Mogg, The Housemartins were a popular beat combo from the ’80s—the 1980s.
Perhaps my broad Scottish accent is to blame, but I said beat combo. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, very familiar with a Fife accent. We had the pleasure of his company in central Fife in 1997. He mentioned cricket earlier, and was slightly surprised that cricket is played in Scotland. Dunfermline Knights are a very good cricket team. I am sure he will recall that central Fife, which is now ably represented by my hon. Friend Lindsay Roy, has also got a useful local cricket club. Perhaps we could arrange a visit.
First, may I commend the Leader of the House on the Government’s relatively early U-turn and the fact that we are having this debate early in the month? Some other U-turns have tended to come much closer to the date. I also want to pick up on the valid point made about Cambridgeshire’s finest parliamentarian. I think the Leader of the House has made a pretty good start to his tenure in his current distinguished and important role. I was going to suggest he was probably going to be the finest Cambridgeshire parliamentarian since Cromwell. I am conscious that we have colleagues here from across the water who will tempt me into debating Oliver Cromwell. Whatever his faults, Oliver Cromwell was always a great believer in the rights of Parliament to hold the—
Order. These exchanges are most entertaining but they are somewhat wide of the mark. I cannot encourage Thomas Docherty to dilate any further on the matter of Cromwell. He must dilate, if he has to dilate, on the terms of the matter before us, which I feel sure he will now do.
I am grateful for that, Mr Speaker; of course, I never require any encouragement to do something.
I have the privilege of serving on both the Administration Committee and the Procedure Committee, and it is with those hats on that I wish to focus the majority of my remarks. Nobody has been a greater champion of parliamentary outreach than you, Mr Speaker. I think that the House would agree that in your time in the Chair you have done a vast amount to encourage Parliament to reach out, to open its doors and to do more to get the public in to see Parliament in action. The Leader of the House should be careful about what he wishes for in his motion. I am sure that he will have the answers to the following questions to hand, because he is an astute Minister. Will he clarify what discussions his office has had with the indomitable Mrs Aileen Walker who, as you know, Mr Speaker, is in charge of the tour office? I have the pleasure of serving on the Administration Committee with my right hon. Friend Mr Spellar and my hon. Friend Mr Jones. You will know, Mr Speaker, that our tours are constantly over-subscribed. Will the Leader of the House clarify how many members of the public—how many taxpayers—who have booked travel well in advance to come down on the Friday to see Parliament in all its fine glory will not now have an opportunity to walk here on the Floor of the House of Commons because the Leader of the House wishes to take away that very valuable part of our democratic process? I hope that he has the figures to hand. I know that he is deep in conversation with one of his parliamentary colleagues, but I am sure he will be able to respond with those figures.
We also have to address the important issue of the staff of the House. Again, you have been a champion of looking after them, Mr Speaker. Has the Leader of the House had discussions with the Clerk of the House and with the trade unions about the disruption that will be caused to their plans? It is fair to say that our staff work incredibly hard, particularly those in Hansard, who do so much to clean up the expression of our thoughts. Has the Leader of the House made sure that they are not going to be unduly inconvenienced by having to come in on that Friday? He is clearly deep in thought about how he responds on that point.
On the issue of the Procedure Committee, Mr Hollobone raised a valid point about the sitting Fridays. I will not be tempted into explaining the contents of private Members’ Bills, but at this afternoon’s Procedure Committee sitting we had the Clerk Assistant, Mr David Natzler, as well as Miss Kate Emms and Mr Simon Patrick, and we were asking the Clerks what happens to those private Members’ Bills. As I understand it—you will correct me if my understanding is at all inaccurate, Mr Speaker—without the Leader of the House’s consent, those Bills cannot be placed on the Order Paper for the Friday. That would look extraordinarily confusing to people outside Parliament; they would see the Bills on the Friday but those Bills would not be able to be taken. So will the Leader of the House guarantee the House today that, as the hon. Member for Kettering proposed, if, for whatever reason, Members on either side finished early in the Budget debate on the Friday, the six Bills we have at the moment—I suspect, depending on the Leader of the House’s answer, that the number may grow—will be placed on as orders so that they can be considered? That is an important issue to clear up before we decide how to vote in this debate.
Order. I follow the logic and development of the argument made by Thomas Docherty, but I counsel him against pursuing the point about the treatment of private Members’ Bills any further. I politely suggest that the question of whether the House should sit on the relevant Friday stands as it is and that the intention is for the Budget debate to be conducted. The question of what would or would not be the treatment of private Members’ Bills does not arise, as the proposition is either that the House sits on that day to consider the matters in the Budget or that it does not sit on that day. I know that he would not want to refer to a diversionary matter. He has made his reference and I am sure that he is now moving on in the development of his argument.
As ever, Mr Speaker, I know exactly where I am heading and I think I have placed my marker down on that point.
The Friday after the Budget, as colleagues on both sides of the House have mentioned, is normally a day for visiting our constituencies and for going to see our loved ones, our staff and our constituents. Over the past couple of years, I have attended a post-Budget seminar organised by a local accountancy firm, Thomson Cooper.
It is always hugely informative and I am sure that many other colleagues take part in similar events on the Friday. I find Mr Andrew Croxford’s presentation extremely enlightening and often come back with nuggets of information that I am able to use in the following week’s Budget debates. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, judging from last year’s performance, could probably benefit from finding an accountancy firm in Cheshire that could do a similar exercise for him.
As a good parliamentarian, I will make every effort to be in the Chamber on the Friday to take part in the debate and I will therefore have the opportunity to take part in the post-Budget analysis. As my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House has pointed out, it will perhaps benefit everyone, including the Chancellor.
Although I was persuaded by the case being made by my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone, I am less persuaded by the case that the hon. Gentleman is making. These are the kind of decisions that people have to make. The hon. Gentleman does not have to be in the Chamber for the Budget debate on the Friday. If he has a better date somewhere else, he can make the decision to be somewhere else. The same applies when Parliament is recalled during recess, as people might well have things organised and they then have to make the choice about which is most important. Surely the same applies in this case.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He and I have shared quite a few Fridays over the past year and I must attest that the debates are extremely good. In fact, I would suggest that the quality of debate on Fridays is often of a higher standard than that of some of the other debates we have had in the past year.
The key point is that the Government announced the Friday sitting dates as long ago as last May. Some reference has been made to the fact that this motion was tabled in December, but the sitting Fridays were set out 10 months ago. At that point, the Leader of the House’s predecessor did not say that this Friday would be coming up. A number of colleagues will have made constituency plans and will have engagements that it will be difficult for them to break. For those who come from Belfast and elsewhere, travelling back to their constituencies on a Friday afternoon can be quite challenging. Anyone who has been to City airport or Heathrow knows how busy they can be. The fact is that the House will be sitting until 2.30 pm, and if our constituencies are outside the M25, it will become difficult to engage at all with our constituents on that Friday.
I also disagree with the logic of the Leader of the House when he states that the dates are published and cannot be changed. I am not yet aware that the Government have announced the date for the Queen’s Speech or for Prorogation. Someone who was not a parliamentarian or a knowledgeable member of the public might think, looking at the calendar, that once the House came back on
The Leader of the House also referred to the fact that the Budget date was set for March in December. Given the Chancellor’s record on U-turns, we on the Opposition Benches were not entirely convinced that that would hold water; of course, the autumn statement took place in December. I know, Mr Speaker, that Buckinghamshire is a wonderful, delightful county and that every day must feel like a summer’s day in Buckinghamshire, but in Dunfermline and West Fife it is probably fair to say that
A valid point was made about the House business committee. May I gently correct some of the assumptions made by Government Members? My understanding, having read the Wright report, is that the chair of the House business committee would be the Leader of the House. There is a fair possibility that Mr Hollobone may receive a promotion in the near future, and he may become the Leader of the House, but my understanding is that he would have to be the Leader of the House in order to chair the House business committee.
Order. I seek to be helpful to Thomas Docherty. I say to him in that regard two things. First, those are speculative matters. They are not matters set in concrete, and there is potential for all sorts of different views. Secondly, if it is of interest to the hon. Gentleman, who is a keen if not anorakish student of parliamentary matters, I can advise him that I myself made a lengthy speech on this subject at the university of Hull in February last year, but I do not encourage him to seek to emulate the length of my oration on this occasion.
May I humbly suggest, Mr Speaker, that you place a copy of that speech in the Library? I am sure all Members would benefit from an opportunity to share your wisdom and your thoughts on the matter. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to update the House as to when he will be making his announcement on the House business committee. I will not press the matter any further, beyond saying that we all look forward to his thoughts on that issue in due course.
A valid point was raised about the role of the Prime Minister in relation to the Budget. I confess that it has been a while since I have been invited to Downing street. I am sure I am on the guest list for the current temporary occupant’s next supper club, but I have been led to believe that it says on the plaque on the door, “First Lord of the Treasury”. I am not an eminent parliamentarian like you, Mr Speaker, but I understand that the First Lord of the Treasury is notionally in charge of the Treasury, so it is not unreasonable to expect the First Lord of the Treasury, in his capacity as Prime Minister, to be able to answer some basic questions in the week after the Budget.
I stand to be corrected by eminent parliamentarians such as yourself, Mr Speaker, but from my brief research I can discover only one occasion in the past 15 years when a Prime Minister did not take questions within a week or so of the Budget. From the evidence of the past two years, one might think that the Prime Minister did not do detail and did not have a full grip of the answers that he might need to give to questions from Members on both sides of the House. I accept that the Prime Minister needs some “chillaxing” time. I understand that there is an updated version of Fruit Ninja available for the iPad. For the benefit of the hon. Member for North East Somerset, the iPad is a modern piece of technology favoured by many distinguished parliamentarians and is worth investigating.
However, if the Prime Minister did find that he had other engagements, he is of course entitled to delegate. Mr Bone has been trying for some time, and I think with some success, to find out who is supposed to deputise for the Prime Minister. Some might suggest that it is the Deputy Prime Minister—perhaps the clue is in the title. To the best of my knowledge, the Deputy Prime Minister has been let loose at the Dispatch Box for Prime Minister’s questions on only two or three occasions—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend Ms Eagle, who is far more knowledgeable than I am, confirms that that has happened on only two occasions.
Perhaps the Leader of the House can confirm whether that is because the Prime Minister does not think that the Deputy Prime Minister is up to the job, or is it because, after the Eastleigh by-election result, he is concerned that the Deputy Prime Minister—I will try to keep a straight face—might outshine him? Is the Prime Minister concerned that the two parties might contradict each other, as we saw on the first occasion, when the Prime Minister’s press office had to clarify several of the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks? Of course, on one occasion when the Prime Minister was unavailable he got the Foreign Secretary to stand in for him.
It would be helpful if the Leader of the House confirmed whether the Prime Minister is available on the Wednesday after the Budget. Is he on important Government business? Is he intending to “chillax”? Is he planning to visit any of the constituencies? [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Lyn Brown asks a valid question: is he planning to visit a food bank? It would be a useful opportunity if he visited a food bank and spoke to some constituents.
After the Prime Minister’s performance today I understand why the Leader of the House is so admirably trying to defend the indefensible. It is quite clear that, despite the soft drinks proffered last night, my right hon. Friend the Leader of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition wiped the floor with the Prime Minister. For that reason, I understand why the Leader of the House is reluctant for the Prime Minister to man up and come to the Chamber to face up to his decisions.
It is a great pleasure to follow Thomas Docherty. I do not agree with all the comments he made, but the gist of his speech was very good. I rise to support the amendment. Were I sitting on the Opposition side of the House, I would support a similar amendment. Of course, I supported similar motions and amendments in the previous Parliament, as did my friends on the Front Bench, but they seem to have changed their position. It is also rather interesting that the shadow Ministers, when they were in government, took exactly the opposite position to the one they are taking today. It is the national union of Executives that we have to deal with tonight. Parliament—the mother of Parliaments—should decide the timetable, and it should do so through a House business committee. If that were the case, we would not have debates such as this one.
I want to deal with some of the points that have not been touched on. Members have pointed out that business is listed as provisional, and of course that is always the case; it says that on the handy card showing the calendar. The only way there could be an extra sitting day is if business has not been proceeded with. If business had not been proceeded with, obviously the Budget could be on an earlier day. We therefore have to assume that business has not proceeded as the Leader of the House wanted.
I should have taken the opportunity at the beginning of my speech to apologise to the House and to the Leader of the House for not being here early enough to hear all his comments. Unfortunately, I was in another part of the Palace and had made the real mistake—I apologise profusely for it—of listening to my Whips, who told me that this business would not start until after 7 o’clock. I will never make that mistake again.
I wonder whether it has occurred to the hon. Gentleman that his Whips may not have been entirely helpful to him in suggesting the timing of the debate.
No, that is an outrageous slur; I just put it down to incompetence. On a more serious note, the abuse from the Whips has already started, and I am still in the Chamber, so when we get out of the Chamber there will be even more. That is a bad thing for this House.
Going to the heart of the matter, the real problem is that Prime Minister’s questions has gone down to one day a week on the Wednesday. If it were still two days a week on the Tuesday and the Thursday, it would not really matter what day the House rose on, because there would be an opportunity to scrutinise the Prime Minister close to the rising of the House.
There is a principle involved that is not just to do with this motion. I gently say to the shadow Leader of the House that she is being a little opportunist in making a political point rather than taking the politics out of it, as my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone wanted to do. There is a strong argument for the House not rising for a recess on a Monday or a Tuesday other than in very exceptional cases. It should rise on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and then we would get rid of all these problems.
My hon. Friend said that it would not make any difference if there were Prime Minister’s questions on a Tuesday and a Thursday, but in fact it would make a difference in this case. If there were Prime Minister’s questions on the Tuesday, the Budget would follow immediately afterwards. If the House then rose on the Thursday, that would mean that it rose on
Maundy Thursday. As my hon. Friend shares my views about the Christian religion, I am sure he agrees that that would not be a sensible idea.
I hate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but the timing of the Budget is entirely at the discretion of the Executive. They have chosen to have it so late and that has caused all these problems.
My hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg made an absolutely first-class speech, as always, but drew completely the wrong conclusions.
I want to keep very closely to the subject of the motion, and I think that that is straying rather wide.
I feel exceptionally strongly about this issue and the fact that Parliament—[Interruption.] The Whips are already having a go at me from a sedentary position. My hon. Friend Greg Hands asked why I was not here at the beginning of the debate. I have already explained that to the House. I am really annoyed by the attitude of the Whips in this place. That is what brings this House into disrepute. They do not care about Parliament; all they care about is getting Executive business through. They are shameful. I wish my private Member’s Bill had gone through, as that would have abolished them.
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.
The House having divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.
Amendment proposed: (a), leave out from ‘shall’ to end and add
‘, notwithstanding the Resolution of
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House divided:
Ayes 53, Noes 222.