Scheduling of Parliamentary Business

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 7:38 pm on 17th July 2017.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda 7:38 pm, 17th July 2017

They could do that. In the 2010 to 2012 Session, the problem was that we did not know that it was going to be a two-year Session until the Session moved along. The Government kept on refusing to announce whether there would be a Prorogation or a two-year Session, so it is not an exact match with what we have now. The Government have already said that this will be a two-year Session, so they should be able to say that there will be a proportionate number of Opposition days and days for private Members’ Bills and Back-bench business. Any ordinary member of the public would say that that is what everybody would genuinely expect.

The hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) said that all this stuff does not really matter and that it is not about democracy. I would ask them just to remember that the big row in this House in 1939 was about whether the House should adjourn in August when there was a fear of war with Germany. That was the row. It was not about some grand piece of legislation; it was about whether the House should adjourn. Ronald Cartland—the younger brother of Barbara Cartland—who was killed while serving bravely in the second world war and who has a shield on the wall of the Chamber, accused Chamberlain of having “ideas of dictatorship” because Chamberlain was using the undoubted power that Government had to decide when the Adjournment was and he thought that that was wrong, especially in a House that was largely composed of Conservative Members.

Another problem is that the recent move towards lots and lots of secondary legislation might be okay if what the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has regularly said in the House were true—namely, that if a piece of secondary legislation is prayed against, it will always come to the House—but it is not. Between 2010 and 2016, 69 pieces of secondary legislation—statutory instruments—tabled by the Government were prayed against by the Opposition. According to the “David Davis” rule, it should have been guaranteed that they would be debated on the Floor of the House, but how many of the 69 were debated in the House? Three. Eight were debated in Committee, but the debates in Committee were not about whether they were good statutory instruments; they were on whether the matter had been considered. Even if every single member of the Statutory Instrument Committee had voted no, the measure would still have gone on the statute book.

When the Government come forward with something called the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which wants to give massive amounts of secondary legislative power to the Government, the Opposition are very sceptical. That is when it starts to look like, in the words of Ronald Cartland, “ideas of dictatorship”, not because any of the individual members of the Government think of themselves as dictators, but because the power that this House has, over the years, given to Government over every element of the agenda is so important.

Several people have already made the point that we should have had an Opposition day by now. I say to the hon. Member for Eastleigh that there is a vital difference between a hot-air debate that ends with a vote on whether we are going to adjourn, as we had at the end of the WASPI debate, and a substantive motion on the Order Paper that has effect, either because it is legislation or because it is an Opposition day debate. When Labour were in government and had a majority, we lost an Opposition day debate on the Gurkhas and that changed what happened—several of us here have scars from that debate. In the end, the Government cannot always run away from those kind of debates. I say to Conservative Members that there has to come a point when the whole House has to consider the long-term future of how we do our business, not just the partisan advantage of today.