On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your advice on a matter that has caused me some concern. While I was out of the country representing the United Kingdom at the Council of Europe, I received an email from an organisation called Global Justice Now. It told me that I would have received emails over the weekend from my constituents with the subject, “MPs not border guards”. It said that owing to a filtering system failure in its organisation, constituents would be thanking me for signing a pledge, which in fact I had not done, nor am I aware that I had even been asked to do so. This pledge apparently said that if anybody visited a constituency surgery of mine who was an illegal immigrant, I would undertake not to report them to the authorities.
I am really concerned, Mr Speaker, that an unaccountable organisation can actually send out information to my constituents about activities in my constituency surgery, effectively telling lies about me, and I have no opportunity to correct it. I appreciate that I am putting this on the record with you now, but could you perhaps take it away and look at how Members of Parliament can protect themselves against this sort of misinformation about their activities, because it is highly damaging and these organisations are not accountable?
I can well understand why the right hon. Lady is very perturbed about the matter. On hearing her explanation of the sequence of events, I rather imagine that other Members listening will be similarly concerned for her, and potentially for themselves. As she says, this organisation is not accountable. I have to admit that it is not an organisation of which I have previously heard, but I have now done so. The matter certainly warrants some thought, and I will give it that thought, including speaking about it to the Parliamentary Security Director on the right hon. Lady’s and others’ behalf. As and when I have anything to disclose to her or to the House, she or the House—possibly both—will hear it.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I will arrange for my office to send you the email trail so that you have the evidence of what was sent to me. I am grateful for your undertaking to look into this matter.
I look forward to the receipt of that email trail. Well, I do not know whether I look forward to it or not, but I know that I can expect to receive it. I think that would be helpful to all concerned.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman, but it would be a pity to squander him too early.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to raise with you an issue that I have encountered in recent days. The pedestrian entrance at Carriage Gates has relatively new card-swipe machines that are quite glitchy, and there have been a couple of occasions when I have struggled to get in— fortunately not at a time when I was coming in for a vote. However, as someone who often cuts things quite fine in getting to the Chamber to vote, I would not want to find that I, or indeed other hon. Members, could not get through Carriage Gates in a hurry and that that affected our business in the Chamber. To whom should I report this concern, and what is the procedure for trying to address it?
The hon. Gentleman could inform the Serjeant at Arms about the matter, or if he wishes to raise it with Eric Hepburn, the Parliamentary Security Director, it is open to him to do so. I think it is a fairly safe bet, though, that the Parliamentary Security Director will come to learn of the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. Clearly, it is very important that these glitches should be reduced to a minimum and that the system should be operationally efficient sooner rather than later.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have just come from a sitting of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill Committee. To say that temperatures in Committee Room 12 are bordering on stifling would be an understatement. We—Members—and officials are luckily at liberty to remove our jackets, but it was brought to my attention that the same courtesy is not extended to the Doorkeepers, who have to remain in full rig throughout, no matter what the temperature. Might you offer guidance on how action might be taken to allow our hard-working and dedicated Doorkeepers the same rights as ourselves in relation to making their workplace conditions as comfortable as possible in the current conditions?
Personally, I very much agree with that. It is not a matter that has been raised with me before. I remember that when I used to sit on the Panel of Chairs before my fortunate election to the office of Speaker, I was one of those who always took the view that in hot conditions Members should be able to take off their jackets. It was not a view universally held by Chairs. There were Chairs emanating from both sides of the House who took what I thought was an excessively trad view of the matter. However, the point that the hon. Gentleman makes is an important one. That which we make available to ourselves should be made more widely available. I would not want dedicated, hard-working, conscientious staff to be working in conditions of extreme discomfort, so I hope that that point can be registered. I think it is probably a matter of discretion for the Chair. If it is not, it should be, and if it is, they should know how to exercise that discretion in a way that would commend itself to the hon. Gentleman and, I suspect, to Members across the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that due to pressures of time, the Government have pulled the next debate on the principle of proxy voting in the House of Commons. That is of course a great shame, although I understand that there are pressing matters of state in play at the moment. On
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We talk a lot about efficiency in this place, and we demand efficiency of business. I have to say that I do not see today as being a great example of efficiency when it comes to looking at the issue of baby leave. It is clear that we have to discuss issues that arise, such as the dreadful incident in Amesbury, but I urge the Government to look at rescheduling the baby leave debate as soon as possible. Time waits for no pregnant woman, and I can see a bump over there that is significantly bigger than it was five months ago when we first debated this issue.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The biological clock is ticking. Last year I took maternity leave, and I suffered reputational damage due to one of the newspapers branding me a lazy MP who was not here for a lot of the time. Three of our colleagues are expecting babies in the next few months, and Jo Swinson has recently had her baby. I hope we can get proxy voting in place for the recess, in time for those hon. Members during their maternity leave.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This is absolutely ridiculous. People have come here in good faith to debate baby leave, which is very important. As we have heard, time is pressing. Can the Government give us a date for when the debate will happen? Will it happen before recess? How many more babies have to be born to Members of the House before we get some modern practices in place to take care of those women and their babies?
I will respond to all these points at the end, but I may as well take the remaining points of order.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I impress upon you and Members of the House, including members of the Government who might be listening, that it was many months ago that we debated this issue and Members on both sides of the House made urgent and eloquent contributions about how important this was? That was in advance of us knowing how many colleagues might be affected, and now we are at a juncture at which many of our colleagues will be affected. The reputational issues for many of us who have previously been in this situation were extensive, and we do not know what is around the corner in terms of future elections. For a variety of reasons, it is critical that the Government respond.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The motion on the Order Paper was just for a general debate. Perhaps matters could be shortened if the Government were now to table a substantive motion that could be debated next week. We could then reach a decision on this, because we were not going to be able to reach a decision today anyway.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise to support the Chair of the Procedure Committee, Mr Walker. Our Committee did this work at an accelerated pace and published a report some time ago, as he said. There is no reason whatsoever for this delay. As I said to the Leader of the House in business questions last week, we need to get on with this. I agree very much with Sir Christopher Chope that it would be a good idea to move to a vote on the recommendation of the Procedure Committee, which has diligently done its job under its excellent Chair.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Many Members have mentioned the bumps and the time pressure. There will also be expectant fathers, so to speak, who are feeling the time pressure.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. On that very theme, this is a picture of my daughter who will be born in the autumn, so I am particularly keen to see this measure put in place as soon as possible.
On a serious point, where is the Leader of the House? The Government have just unilaterally changed the business of the House this afternoon. I am the acting Whip for the Scottish National party today, and I found out by a rumour that this had happened. It is a gross discourtesy to the House, and the Leader of the House should have come to the Dispatch Box and made an announcement.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not expecting a baby any time soon, but I have great sympathy for my colleagues on both sides of the House and fathers who are expecting. Would it be helpful to reassure colleagues that this House stands firmly behind expectant mothers and mothers who take leave from the House that they are not in dereliction of their duty and that no female Member should be traduced in this way? Would it also be helpful to confirm that the pairing system is alive and well and working, so that even if this excellent recommendation is not passed into the Standing Orders, people who are expecting babies or have to take maternity or paternity leave will be paired by our Whips Offices?
The Leader of the House has arrived; we are grateful to her.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I was in a position 25 years ago where I was told by the Chief Whip, “I’d be very happy for you to be there when your daughter is born, but be here on Monday night because we’ve got an important vote on Maastricht.” The birth of my child was therefore going to determine whether I was breaking the whip or not. Pairing is not satisfactory in those circumstances. We have to have proxy voting.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am a member of the Procedure Committee, and we looked at this issue in great detail. Colleagues have spoken about pairing, but of course, pairing does not apply at the moment to Members from the Scottish National party. May I urge that similar arrangements be made for our SNP colleagues, to allow them to experience the same facility as Opposition or Government Members?
I am grateful to colleagues for all their points of order. Let me emphasise that I understand completely how very disappointed and, indeed, aggrieved many Members are that the debate that had been scheduled will not now take place today. In fairness, I think it only reasonable to point out that from the Government’s point of view, it was a choice between having an extremely truncated debate of less than an hour or choosing not to move the motion. When David Linden understandably complains that the debate was summarily withdrawn, he has a point, but the response to that is that of course, there was a motion for a general debate. The motion was to be moved by the Leader of the House, and if a motion is not moved, by definition, the debate cannot take place. I would not want to impugn anyone’s motives in this matter.
Of course I will come to the Leader of the House.
I want simply to say at this stage the following. First, this matter has been considered over some period. I want to join the tributes to the excellent and indefatigable Chair of the Procedure Committee, Mr Walker, whose Committee did treat of this matter in some detail. Indeed, as is not uncommon in relation to procedural matters, the Committee asked me whether I would be willing to give evidence to it, which I did. It is no secret whatsoever that I expressed support for the principle and practice of proxy voting in circumstances where people were enjoying or seeking to enjoy maternity or paternity leave. That was my very firm view. I appreciate that there may be a mixture of views on this matter, but that was my very firm view. [Interruption.] What has caused the amusement?
Perhaps I should have used a more neutral term.
Secondly, I think it is not a secret that the support for this idea is not universal, and it is not specifically a party matter. There are people on both sides of the House—particularly those who are accustomed to operating through the usual channels—whose enthusiasm for the idea of proxy voting is, shall we say, not unalloyed. Whether that has anything to do with the way events have transpired today, I have no way of knowing. To be fair, the Home Secretary’s statement was very important, and that statement did have to be made. The Home Secretary was earlier, as he said, chairing Cobra and could not make his statement until he got here.
The Government’s rationale for choosing to have a statement on the industrial strategy is a matter for the Government. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Richard Harrington, addressed us with his usual charm and courtesy. He displayed no little knowledge of the matters under discussion, and was widely questioned. Whether that statement had to be made today was a judgment for the Government to make.
As people have asked about when the debate might be rescheduled, I would say that I asked the Deputy Chief Whip, who courteously came to the Chair to inform me that the debate would not go ahead today, whether it would soon be rescheduled. He said that the Government would look to reschedule the debate, but that it would have to be done by agreement through the usual channels.
My own very firm view, having heard what colleagues have said, is that the debate, preferably on a substantive motion—to go back to the point made by Sir Christopher Chope—so that the House can decide whether to proceed with proxy voting, should take place before the summer recess. It would be perfectly possible for that to happen, but it is for others to determine whether it shall. It would be my preference, but it is not to be decided by the Chair.
The Leader has come into the Chamber, and we appreciate that. She has also signalled that she wants to say something on this matter, and I think it is important that we hear from her.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I say that nobody is more disappointed than I am that we have not been able to carry on with this debate? I have always made absolutely clear my 100% commitment to the vital importance of a secure early bond between parents and their babies. It is something for which I have had an absolute passion for 20 years, so nobody should be in any doubt about that.
I have had a number of meetings with colleagues. In fact, last November, when this issue was first raised with me, I asked the Chairman of the Procedure Committee whether the Committee would be so good as to look into how to provide proxy voting arrangements for baby leave. He was kind enough to do so, and I pay tribute to him and to all members of the Procedure Committee for their very well-considered report.
The purpose of today’s debate was to open up the discussion about what would actually be quite a significant change to the conventions of the House. My speech, were I delivering it, would have asked Members open questions about how they believe this could best be handled, whether there are alternatives and, indeed, whether there might be unintended consequences. My intention was to facilitate such a debate.
You are absolutely right, Mr Speaker, that the events in Wiltshire meant that the Home Secretary could not get to the House to make his statement until after the end of Cobra. Unfortunately, that has led to our having insufficient time to air the issues under discussion properly today. It is absolutely my intention to bring back that debate as soon as possible.
I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for what she has said. Colleagues, I think we have all put our cards on the table, and we need to leave the issue there for today. However, knowing the perspicacity of my colleagues and the strength of feeling that exists among them—not least the Chairs of the Procedure and the Women and Equalities Committees, to name but two—there is no way on earth that this issue will go away, even if anybody in the House, and I know the Leader of the House does not want it to do so, thought that it could be pushed into the long grass. Thinking that would be a triumph of optimism and self-delusion over reality and common sense, and no one would want knowingly to be guilty of that.