Thank you for allowing this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his answer. I mean no disrespect to him, but I am disappointed that he is at the Dispatch Box today and not the Chief Whip.
There are serious questions still outstanding about the events of last Tuesday evening, and the only person who knows the truth about them is the Chief Whip himself. There is a serious lack of confidence today in the system by which we run our business, and the only person who can restore that confidence is the Chief Whip.
I understand the convention that the Chief Whip does not normally speak in this Chamber except to move a by-election writ. Under normal circumstances I would see that as a sensible protection for the office of Chief Whip, but the House should not lose sight that there is an important distinction to be drawn between a protection for the office and a protection for the holder of that office.
When I was first made aware of the presence of Brandon Lewis in the Division Lobby last week, I was quite relaxed about it. We all know these things happen from time to time and, in a system that relies on the best of faith, these things should not be the source of excitement. My view started to change, however, when I learned that any mistake was made not by the right hon. Gentleman but by the Chief Whip himself. It may have been a mistake to cancel the pair, but it was not an inadvertence; it was a deliberate act. We now understand that the instruction to the right hon. Gentleman that he should vote came from the Chief Whip himself. The explanation from the Chief Whip that he did not know this was, as he terms it, a “pregnancy pair” neither clarifies nor excuses what is a prima facie act of bad faith. A pair is a pair, whatever its purpose. If the system is to work, it should be honoured and not broken at the 11th hour.
The House should be aware that I gave the Minister advance notice of these questions. When was the decision made to cancel the pairing arrangements for the votes on new clauses 17 and 18, and when was the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth informed of this? Did the Chief Whip inform either the Liberal Democrat or official Opposition Whips Office that the pairs would be broken? My information is that neither office was informed. Was the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth aware that he was paired with my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire for the day’s votes? Was the decision made to cancel pairs taken in consultation with the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House? When were the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House informed that the pairing arrangements would be broken? Crucially, was the Prime Minister informed of the Chief Whip’s decision to instruct Conservative MPs to break pairing arrangements before she told the House at Prime Minister’s questions that it was an honest mistake? Do these repeated references to an “honest mistake” refer to the decision to break the pairing across the board or specifically to the decision to break pairing with a maternity/paternity leave MP? If it is the latter, is it now Government policy that the breaking of pairing arrangements at the instance of the Chief Whip for non-pregnancy-related pairs is acceptable?
There is an old truism that there is no smoke without fire. In fairness to the Chief Whip, we see no flames today—[Interruption.]