Scheduling of Parliamentary Business

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 6:49 pm on 17th July 2017.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley 6:49 pm, 17th July 2017

Kirstene Hair made what could be termed a model maiden speech. She was robust when necessary, she was fluent, humorous and generous to her predecessors, and she stood up for what she sees as the vital interests of her constituency. I am sure we all look forward to hearing further contributions from her. I also thank my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz for securing this debate, because it is both timely and necessary.

During my time in the House, the role of Members of Parliament has been seen as either to support or to oppose the Government of the day. People do not always slavishly follow the Whip in the House, and rightly so on occasions. Occasionally, issues of conscience have to be decided—for example, on end-of-life decisions or stem cell research—and it is right and proper that free votes should be held on those. On other occasions—for example, on our relationship with the European Union—people’s views are perhaps too distinctive to be easily bracketed within the confines of party loyalty.

As we know, the outcome of the last general election changed the political arithmetic of this House. Until such time as we have a further general election, the potential power held by each of us, including the hon. Member for Angus, is greater than it has been in the many years that I have sat in this House. I have two questions on that point. Are we willing to use that power—in my case to bring about greater fairness and address injustices, some of which I will refer to shortly—and can we look not at what we have been in the past as a House, but at what we could become?

I will be brief, Mr Speaker, because I know you want us to stick to the issue at hand more closely, but I want to say a word about party allegiance and how it works in the context of the House. I have spent all my adult life in the Labour party, and I remain in it because I share its values on equality and social justice. That is not to say, however, that we as a party have a monopoly on virtue. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House share those values, at least to some degree. I have one further point of a political nature: because the Government have no majority, the usual argument about having a mandate for measures contained in the manifesto is weak to the point of irrelevance.

I also want to say a word about the right hon. and hon. Members from the Democratic Unionist party. Since entering into a supply and confidence arrangement with the Conservative party, they have, perhaps in some ways understandably, been heavily criticised in some quarters. However, that agreement does not cover every measure that the Government may bring forward. Knowing some of the DUP Members as I do, I am confident that on some issues we can achieve co-operation with them and, certainly on some of the issues that I feel strongly about, I think they will share a similar outlook. It is therefore not a given that on every occasion the Government can rely on their support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South, the shadow Leader of the House, has already referred to the injustice of the women born in the 1950s and the age at which they are entitled to their state pension. Many of us, on both sides of the House—including, I suspect, Democratic Unionists—support the WASPI campaign. If we as a House are firm enough in our resolve on that subject, we could bring about a fair solution.

I also hope we can all agree that the growing inequality in our country is unfair and corrosive. Wherever we look, whether at access to housing, the life chances of young people or insecurity of employment, we see the stark reality of those consequences—reliance on food banks, growing homelessness and unacceptable regional disparities in income and support for public services. That also means that we need to take a more generous approach to public sector pay.

If the House can adapt to the new realities of our power and influence, we can try to resolve those problems. However, in order to realise that power and influence, we first need to take more control of our own procedures and achieve much greater agency in the legislative process. In my view, that means empowering Select Committees to produce White Papers and draft Bills, and giving the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee control over the programming and timing of private Members’ Bills. It would also mean that the Government were held accountable for some motions that were carried by the House with cross-party support. In other words, they should be bound by some decisions of this House in some circumstances.

Finally, I am sure that the Government will object to such changes in the way that we function on the grounds that the House does not take responsibility for the financial consequences of its decisions. However, the Government will have to put that argument on each occasion and Members of this House will have to assume responsibility for the decisions they take. In the recent past, the reputation and standing of politicians in western democracies, not least our own, have fallen alarmingly, the consequences of which we see in the rejection of long-standing political certainties. However, the arithmetic of this Parliament presents us with an opportunity to take our reputations, both collectively and individually, into our own hands. Do we have the confidence to realise what we could become? Surely we have a duty to at least try.