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Scheduling of Parliamentary Business

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 6:21 pm on 17th July 2017.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons, Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee 6:21 pm, 17th July 2017

I think I am grateful for that intervention. It seems to have energised Conservative Members, so it must have been particularly good.

It is not as if this Government have been over-exercised or energised by business thus far. Perhaps unfairly, this Parliament has already been dubbed the zombie Parliament, but I think that that comparison gives the flesh-eating undead a bad name. This is turbo-charged political zombie-ism, but a curious type of zombie-ism, because the Government are not only tearing flesh from the public but starting to consume themselves. If we look around Whitehall, we see that what passes for normal discourse among Secretaries of State amounts to briefing and counter-briefing. I say to the Leader of the House that this is what happens when Governments do nothing—bad stuff happens. This is a Government at war with itself, where briefing and counter-briefing take precedence as they all jostle and compete to be the next captain of the SS Tory Titanic.

According to one anonymous Minister, the Chancellor is trying to “stymie” Brexit. If only he would get on with it! Apparently he believes that Brexiteers are a “bunch of smarmy pirates”, whatever a smarmy pirate is. I have an image in my head of a cross between Captain Pugwash and Jack Sparrow re-enacting the battle of the Thames between Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof. I do not know what a smarmy pirate is but—shiver me timbers and pieces of eight—I wouldn’t mind being one myself.

Mr Duncan Smith says that the plotters should

“just shut up for goodness’

which would deprive this House of so much comedy value. The International Trade Secretary says that members of the Cabinet “should drink less prosecco”. And there was I thinking, “Cheap prosecco? Surely only the finest champagne is good enough for my Conservative friends.” According to the Transport Secretary, there is nothing to see here, concluding:

“We’re not a group of clones.”

Well, thank goodness for that. It is no wonder that the Government do not want scrutiny when they are in such chaos and turmoil.

I agree with the Leader of the House on one thing, namely the question of public enthusiasm for this debate. During my surgeries over the weekend, I did not notice any banners calling for more Opposition days for the Labour party or for sorting out the membership of statutory Committees. The issue is important, however, and I think that our constituents expect us to come down here to ensure that we arrange the optimal conditions for debate and scrutiny and get on with the job of ensuring that this Government are held to account.

This is a very different type of Parliament. Perhaps that will excuse the Government’s behaviour in not getting things back in place. I do not think there has been such uncertainty about a Parliament lasting a full term since the 1970s and the days of Callaghan and Wilson. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has proved to be possibly the biggest waste of parliamentary time in history. It was supposed to give certainty to the scheduling of parliamentary debates, but it was always going to fail when a Government wanted to have an early election, assisted by an Opposition who would not be able to resist.

We therefore have a Parliament and Government on political life support, always requiring emergency treatment and always vulnerable to the infection of events as they try to define some sense of purpose and meaning. The Government’s condition is all their own fault. After hubristically and unnecessarily calling an early election to try to take advantage of the crisis and chaos that they observed in the Labour Opposition, they have returned humbled, embarrassed, diminished, chaotic and in turmoil.

This is most definitely a House of minorities, and the way in which we conduct our business and scrutinise legislation must reflect that. Arrangements must be put in place to ensure that the new political arithmetic across the House is observed. That is why it has been profoundly disappointing that instead of rising properly to the challenge, the Government have done all they can to frustrate, delay and thwart the creation of all the arrangements that are essential for proper scrutiny in these new conditions. The Government’s main strategy has been to try to make their legislative programme as opaque, meaningless and uncontentious as possible. They hope that we will get bored and take little interest in it, so that they will not lose any votes in Parliament.

The only thing that will be contentious—the one big deal of this parliamentary term—will be Brexit. Of course, the Government are unburdened in that regard, too. When it comes to the main themes of the Government’s hard Brexit, the Labour Opposition agree with practically everything that the Government want to achieve, whether the leaving of the single market, the leaving of the customs union or the ending of freedom of movement. The Government will therefore have no difficulty getting their Brexit business through, on top of a legislative programme that is so light it is almost totally opaque.

We also have to look at what was agreed in the early days of this Parliament. One of the most concerning and damaging of all the initiatives that the Government have embarked on is the appalling deal that they struck, right at the outset, with the Democratic Unionist party. That deal was agreed behind closed doors, and the House has not had the opportunity to debate it, scrutinise it properly or consider its consequences—not least how it turns the normal and usual funding allocations for the nations of the United Kingdom on their head. This is a deal designed to buy the Government their majority, and it has unfortunately set the tone for this Parliament and defined the Government’s contemptuous approach to their business.

The other thing that has to go, very early on, is the appalling and divisive English votes for English laws procedure, which is opposed and loathed by every political party in this House apart from the governing Tories. It is clear that it no longer secures a parliamentary majority in this House, and it is ridiculous that in order to get their business through, the Government have to rely on a party that is subject to the constraints of EVEL. EVEL is disruptive to the House, and it divides the membership of this House by geography and nationality. Its days should surely be numbered. Let us get shot of it from our Standing Orders and see whether we can, through debate, secure a solution on which we can achieve consensus. Let us get something that reflects proper scrutiny and attention and serves all the nations of the United Kingdom.

We need to get down to business. It is simply unacceptable that the Select Committees will not be up and running before the recess. We have had a little exchange about where we are in the logjam of creating the Select Committees. I hope that the Leader of the House will take the matter seriously, so that we can get on and do it. We have to have the Standing Committees in place. Because we have no Standing Committees, Bills cannot receive proper consideration at Committee stage, so the Government have had to bring Bills before Committees of the whole House. Three Bills have been subject to that procedure. No Statutory Instrument Committees have been set up, and, as a result, we will be considering another statutory instrument after this debate. The situation is clearly unsatisfactory, and it is unacceptable for it to continue.