David Lidington: I want to start by reiterating without reserve the apology for the error that was made last week in respect of pairing with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). Both the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith)—the Government Chief Whip—and the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend...
David Lidington: First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, as the Minister without Portfolio, is a member of my ministerial team in the Cabinet Office, so I think it is perfectly appropriate that I should be answering the urgent question from the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. First, let me say that my right hon. Friend the Member for...
David Lidington: My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience. It is true that what happened last Tuesday did not actually affect the outcome of the vote. It is worth pointing out that, of the 66 pairs that have been broken since the general election, 14 were broken by the Government and 52 by the Opposition.
David Lidington: I have to say that when the hon. Lady complained about my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip not being here, I glanced across at the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and wondered why he was not at the Dispatch Box instead of her. I suspect that, when he whispers in her ear afterwards, he might suggest to her that trying to apply the Nolan principles to the inner...
David Lidington: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend.
David Lidington: The hon. Gentleman seems to be working himself into a lather of indignation about an informal practice that he says that he and his party have no intention of participating in. I suspect that that question was an intentional distraction from the recent publicity on the dismal attendance and voting record of SNP Members in this House.
David Lidington: I understand the case that my hon. Friend makes and the arguments for greater transparency, but I ask him also to reflect on this point. In my experience in this House, Whips Offices in all political parties exercise a very important pastoral role. As in any large workplace, there are often Members who are going through periods of ill health or great family and personal stress, and in those...
David Lidington: At the risk of repeating myself, the breach of pairing that took place last Tuesday did not make any difference to the outcome of either of the Divisions in question. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has undertaken to use the summer recess to carry out a review of the internal arrangements within the Government Whips Office to try to make certain that this type of error, which should not...
David Lidington: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The very fact that we are talking about 66 pairs having been broken for one reason or another since the general election, out of a total of around 2,000 agreed pairs, tells its own story.
David Lidington: The difference between the incident in the 1970s that the hon. Gentleman cites and what happened last week is that the majorities—both against and for the Government—in the two Divisions were completely unaffected by what happened over pairing.
David Lidington: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although I have to give him this warning: those who start out not being the blue-eyed boys of the Whips Office usually end up being recruited into it.
David Lidington: Every pair other than that with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire was honoured last Tuesday.
David Lidington: I do not know whether that was an eloquent bid to be the beneficiary of future pairing arrangements, but my hon. Friend makes an important point. I think it is true that Conservative Members right across the spectrum, from left to right of my party, have always found the Chief Whip to be someone with whom they can do business and whose integrity and honesty they can completely trust.
David Lidington: I think that after the general debate on the matter there will need to be, at some stage in the not too distant future, a substantive motion on which the House can take a view. Important questions were raised in the Procedure Committee report—for example, about the exclusion from a general proposal for proxy voting while on maternity, paternity or adoption leave of particular...
David Lidington: My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head.
David Lidington: As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in business questions last Thursday, she is willing and indeed keen to engage with right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to see whether we can agree, as consensually as possible, a way of addressing these matters in the future.
David Lidington: It is a good principle that hard cases make bad law, and I think my right hon. Friend is right.
David Lidington: An error took place. Full apologies have been given.
David Lidington: My hon. Friend gives good advice that I am sure my colleagues in the Whips Office will wish to follow.
David Lidington: As I have repeatedly said, what happened last week was a genuine error. It ought not to have happened. The Whips Office is taking steps through its internal procedures to try to prevent a repetition, and the Leader of the House is eager to talk to Members from all parties in the House about the way forward to address the points the hon. Lady refers to.