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Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:33 am on 14th January 2016.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 10:33 am, 14th January 2016

May I start by warmly congratulating the Secretary of State for Scotland on joining the ranks of out gay MPs yesterday? His announcement was made with considerable charm, I thought. He said he hoped that he would not be treated any differently because of his sexuality. May I assure him that being gay does not necessarily make you any better as a politician? [Laughter.] Oh, I did not think that was very funny.

It seems particularly appropriate that we should be having a debate this afternoon on space, especially following the death of David Bowie, the ultimate Starman.

I asked for a debate on the English language last week. May we have a debate on the use of the word “menial”? The Prime Minister used it yesterday with quite a sneer on his face, but is that not where he gets it wrong? Those are the people who really graft in our society and he does not demean them by using such language; he demeans himself. There are no menial jobs, only menial attitudes.

May we have a debate on a series of mysterious disappearances that have happened over the past week? It is a bit like Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” First, there was the mystery of the missing Health Secretary. They sought him here, they sought him there, but oh no, even when the first strike by doctors for decades was happening, he was nowhere to be found, not even in a television studio, which he normally loves. Surely he should be here, explaining how he has completely lost the respect and trust of the whole medical profession.

Then there was the disappearance of the Government’s consultation on the future of the BBC. I know the Tories all hate the BBC, but the closing date for the consultation was 99 days ago today and it is still nowhere to be seen. The charter runs out in less than a year, so when will the Government publish the consultation and the new draft charter?

It is not just consultations that have disappeared, though. On Tuesday afternoon a whole Committee disappeared—European Committee A, which was meant to meet at 2.30 pm in Committee Room 10 to consider the Ports Authority regulations, something I am sure all hon. Members think is very important. Members of the public turned up from far and wide in their droves to hear what the Minister had to say, but the Government had pulled the meeting. Why? This is an important matter that affects 47 UK ports. Port workers are very concerned about it. The European Scrutiny Committee has said that it remains

“deeply concerned that the Government continues to refuse to have a floor debate on this issue”.

How can the Leader of the House portray himself as a serious Eurosceptic when he will not even allow the House to debate EU measures?

That is not the only debate to disappear. Do you remember, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House’s promise of a debate on abolishing student grants, which he made here on 10 December? Yes, that is what he said, is it not? I know he is doing his huffy-puffy “I’m going to get very angry about this later” face, but he should admit it. His precise words were:

“On student finance regulations, the hon. Gentleman is well aware that if he wants a debate on a regulation in this House all he has to do is pray against it. I am not aware of any recent precedent where a prayer made by the Leader of the Opposition and his shadow Cabinet colleagues has not led to a debate in this House.”—[Hansard, 10 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 1154.]

We took the Leader of the House at his word. Early-day motion 829 is on the Order Paper praying against the statutory instrument.

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (S.I., 2015, No. 1951), dated 29 November 2015, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2 December 2015, be annulled.]

Therefore, according to the Leader of the House’s own promise to this House, we should be having a debate in this Chamber. But that is not what is happening, is it? Instead, he has arranged for the only debate to be held not in this House, but in a Committee at 11.30 this morning. Because it is in a Committee, even if every single member of that Committee voted against the motion, it would still pass into law. That is not democracy; that is government by diktat.

Let me be absolutely clear that this should not be introduced by secondary legislation. This is a major change that will deprive around half a million of England’s poorest students of maintenance grants, forcing them to graduate with debt—[Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House is talking a whole load of guff. If she does not know the rules of this House, she should go and get another job. Those students will be forced to graduate with debts of up to £53,000 for a three-year course, rather than £40,500 at present. Therefore, as a man of his word, will the Leader of the House now ensure that there is a proper debate and vote in this House before 23 January?

That brings me to the curious case of the missing ministerial backbone. I thought that Ministers were men of integrity and principle, and that when they believed in something, they would fight for it. Last week I suggested that it was time the Leader of the House came out as an outer. There is a vacancy, because the outers want a leader. Surely the time has come—“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Come on down, Leader of the House, the new leader of the Out campaign. Mr Speaker, you heard it here first.

I am delighted that the Leader of the House has started to take my advice. He has even written a piece for The Daily Telegraph about it. I was hoping for a proper, full-throated, Eurosceptic, intellectual argument from him. But oh no; it is the most mealy-mouthed, myth-peddling, facing-both-ways piece of pedestrian journalism that has ever come from his pen. What is the phrase from the Bible? It is,

“because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”

I know that the Leader of the House was born on 1 April, but he cannot treat all of us like fools. I know that he is desperate to keep his place in the Cabinet, and even—God bless us!—become leader of the Tory party, but this is becoming a farce. He is pretending to support the Prime Minister’s renegotiation strategy, when really he is desperate to burst out of his pink shirt and mount the barricades with the banner of English nationalism. Apparently the Business Secretary is going to pretend that he is in favour of leaving the EU in order to bolster the prospects of his favourite candidate for leader, the Chancellor.

But this really is not a game. It is not about the leadership prospects of one or other Tory Minister; it is about our constituents’ jobs and our standing as a nation. It is the most important decision that this country will make in this generation. The Leader of the House says that it would be disastrous for us to stay in the EU. I say that it would be disastrous for us to leave. It would abandon our historic destiny at the heart of Europe, it would leave our economy on the sidelines of the largest market in the world, and it would undermine the battle against environmental degradation, international crime and terrorism. You leave; I’m staying.