Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:41 pm on 30th December 2020.

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Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 5:41 pm, 30th December 2020

I think the answer is “da-da-da-dah, da-da-da-dah”, which I seem to remember is Morse code for “V for victory”, which is very much the spirit that we are in today.

I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for her support on today’s business. It is the sensible way—the right way—to have conducted our business. It is one of the glories of our constitution that this Parliament—this nation—can be flexible when necessary. It has to be said that the debate on this subject has gone on for many years: there is hardly a new thing that can be said upon it. Therefore, it was quite right, it was suitable and it was appropriate that we met our international obligations in the way that we did.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her tribute to Brian Binley, who was a much loved Member of this House on all sides. He showed great personal kindness to new Members, including to me when I first got into the House. He was always available with a wise and friendly word. He never appeared grand or pompous in his approach to Parliament but was a committed and true parliamentarian. He will be sadly missed.

The right hon. Lady asked whether business might change subject to the vote later this evening. She is, as always, accurate in her understanding of parliamentary procedure. There is a vote on the Adjournment until 11 January. If that does not pass, we will be back tomorrow morning at 9.30, with Mr Speaker in the Chair, as if it were any ordinary Thursday, but we will have to see how the vote goes.

The right hon. Lady’s main point about thanking the staff is of fundamental importance. As she rightly says, they were up until 4 o’clock in the morning to ensure the papers were ready for today, but that is not the end of it. Many staff will be working late into tonight, once Royal Assent has been given, to ensure that the statutory instruments are available, and that is why I think the proposed recess extension is absolutely suitable.

MPs will be working in their constituencies, or should be working in their constituencies, and they should be attending to their constituents’ interests and seeking redress of grievances outside the Chamber, but we owe it to the officials, the professionals, the staff of this House, who have worked unceasingly over Christmas to ensure the business was ready for 31 December, that they should be allowed to have a week off to recover.

It is not only just this last week, but this House sat an exceptionally long time in 2020, for 40 weeks, which is the highest since 2010. I am not saying it has not been higher over a longer period, but we have only checked back to 2010. We did not have the conference recess, so the staff of this House have really come up trumps for us and deserve great tribute. Hansard cannot see your elegant nod, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I hope the Hansard reporter from her eyrie will note in her report that you are nodding in agreement, because we owe them a great debt and the least we can do is allow them to have a few days off. But of course they and we stand ready to come back if circumstances require it. That has always been the case. Recall is an accepted part of our constitution, and it would not be impossible to speculate on the circumstances that might lead to a recall in this business session.

As regards Members coming, Members have an absolute right to come to this House and have done so since 1340—not to this specific House, because it had not been built then—to attend Parliament, and that is a right we should defend. It is important that Parliament works.

As the right hon. Lady kindly said, the proxy system is working and also has the advantage of a fallback system so that if the card readers do not work, as we found when they did not work on one occasion, the vote can be taken immediately. That is of great importance, because it did fail in the House of Lords and they had no standby procedure. If it were to have failed today, imagine the inconvenience it would have caused, so having a robust, effective system is absolutely what we want. We really do not want to model ourselves on the House of Lords on this occasion, worthy and noble though their lordships are.

The right hon. Lady is right to thank the NHS staff, who have worked so hard and are doing such terrific work to ensure that people are vaccinated, and the reports I am hearing anecdotally from my friends who are 80 and older are very encouraging. On her request for a statement from the vaccine Minister, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care himself spoke about the vaccine earlier, and it is going well. The vaccine is being rolled out and is fundamental to the hope we have for next year.

The right hon. Lady rightly raises the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe every week. I have always been with the former Foreign Secretary, Palmerston, who, at the end of the Don Pacifico debate—one where people were saying he was overreacting in defence of a British subject—said:

“the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum;
so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.”—[Official Report, 25 June 1850; Vol. 112, c. 444.]

The Government always wish and always seek to defend British subjects from injustice and wrong. The Prime Minister has raised the case of Nazanin directly with President Rouhani, and the Foreign Secretary did so with his counterpart two weeks ago, on 13 December.

I pass on to the Foreign Secretary the questions that have been raised in this House every time they are raised, and the right hon. Lady is right to raise them because it is fundamental that a state must defend its subjects when they are treated unjustly in other countries. That is what the Foreign Office tries to do wherever it can.

Finally, on new year’s resolutions and anniversaries, I cannot resist reminding everybody that yesterday was the 850th anniversary of the murder of Saint Thomas à Becket, a great defender of religious liberty.