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Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:33 am on 7th January 2016.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 10:33 am, 7th January 2016

I am certainly up for that one!

Happy new year, Mr Speaker, and if you are a Russian, happy Christmas. Also, many congratulations to Sir Henry Bellingham and to our wonderful Chief Whip who proves, of course, there’s nothing quite like a dame! Warm congratulations, too, go to our new Serjeant at Arms elect, Kamal El-Hajji—we look forward to working with him. In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “I’m still here!” [Interruption.] Division? No.

I am delighted that Nadhim Zahawiyesterday joined my call for a proper parliamentary commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, although I thought he rather marred the effect by referring to Shakespeare as “our greatest living bard”, which I notice Hansard hascorrected for him. May I suggest that we have a St George’s day Shakespeare debate, which would give us a chance to consider the Government’s own rather special use of the English language? After all, yesterday the Leader of the Opposition about the £190 million flood defence project on the River Aire in Leeds that was cancelled in 2011. The Prime Minister stated quite categorically:

“No flood defence schemes have been cancelled since 2010”.—[Hansard, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 277.]

But that is not quite the case, is it, Mr Speaker? In fact, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman had to dig him out of that hole by resorting to the most extraordinary bout of circumlocution yesterday afternoon, claiming that

Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion was that the scheme had been cancelled”,

whereas in fact:

“There was a proposal made, it wasn’t adopted.”

In Shakespeare’s English, that does mean it was cancelled, does it not? The truth is that families do not want spin; they want proper protection from flooding.

That was not all. When my hon. Friend Kevin Brennanasked the Prime Minister about the number of special advisers, the Prime Minister said:

“There are fewer special advisers under this Government than there were under the last Government.”—[Hansard, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 283.]

He obviously meant us all to believe that he had cut the number of special advisers since he came to power. Oh no, he can’t have meant that, can he, Mr Speaker, because under the last Prime Minister there were 71 special advisers, and now there are 97. I know the Secretary of State for Education cannot do her times tables, but even she must be able to work out that that is a net increase of 26. The Prime Minister’s words yesterday can be true only if when he said “the last Government”, he did not mean the Labour Government but the Government he led last year. It is as if he has not existed for five years. I have heard of people being airbrushed out of history by their opponents, but this is the first time I have ever heard of a Prime Minister airbrushing himself out of his own history books.

I note that yet again the Leader of the House has given us only the dates for the Easter recess and not for the prorogation for the state opening of Parliament or, for that matter, for the Whitsun recess. Is that because he does not yet know when he will table the motion for the date of the EU referendum? Will he now come clean and tell us how he is going to vote? It is not a matter of conscience for him any more; he will even be able to keep his two special advisers, his ministerial car and his salary. He can tell us—in or out? It’s an out, isn’t it? He is an outer. Come on, come out!

May I suggest that after every recess, the first day back should be devoted to no business other than statements from Ministers and urgent questions? That might stop the Government piling up bad news announcements for the very last day before the recess. This December was the worst ever, with 36 all in one day. In one day, we learned that immigration officers had given up hunting for 10,000 missing asylum seekers, that HMRC had lost out on £16 billion of tax, and that there would be a massive expansion of fracking for shale gas. During the recess, we learned that the Government had abandoned the Financial Conduct Authority review of the culture of banking, and that half the Cabinet had gone to pay tribute to Rupert Murdoch, bearing gifts of a licence fee cut, an end to Leveson, and an inheritance tax cut for millionaires. Is it not time that they learned that Rupert isn’t the Messiah but a very naughty boy?

On Tuesday, we shall debate the remaining stages of the Housing and Planning Bill, and for the first time in our history, some Members will be barred from voting in a Division in the Chamber. Was it not preposterous that we started to debate the Bill at 8.50 pm last Tuesday, and that over the recess the Government tabled 65 pages of amendments to a Bill that is only 145 pages long? Moreover, there was not a single amendment on resilience and sustainable drainage.

Will the Leader of the House clarify a few aspects of the operation of English votes for English laws next Tuesday? Because of the programme motion that the Government have tabled, we shall have to proceed on the basis of manuscript motions from the Government and manuscript amendments, if there are any. That is right, is it not? Surely it is wrong for us to proceed on the basis of manuscript business when we are dealing with such important measures and when EVEL is operating for the first time. Would it not be far better to devote the whole of Tuesday to the Report stage, and to keep the remaining stages for another day?

Could there be a clearer symbol of how incompetent Conservative Ministers are than the events of Monday afternoon, when two of them visited flood victims in Pooley? Not only did they arrive late, but they turned up at the wrong end of a bridge that had been washed away a whole month ago. A farmer had to be dispatched on a quad bike to fetch the two MPs—which involved a 30-minute ride—while their bewildered entourage of civil servants, bag carriers and party hacks had to trundle along in a minibus. I suppose one could have just about understood the confusion had it not been for the fact that the two Ministers concerned were the Secretary of State for Transport, who really should know when a bridge has disappeared, and the local MP, who had visited the bridge once before when it had already disappeared! I gather that there was some signalling from the villagers on the other side of the river, although it is not entirely clear what they were trying to suggest. As Mr Leeroy Fowler put it,

“You couldn’t make it up.”

Four new elements in the periodic table were discovered this week, and scientists are looking for names for them. Apparently, these elements are dangerous and short-lived, rather like the policies of the Leader of the House when he was at the Ministry of Justice—so may I suggest that one of them should be named “Graylingium”?