Prorogation of Parliament — [Joan Ryan in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:35 pm on 9th September 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:35 pm, 9th September 2019

I am delighted to speak with you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I thank the thousands of people in my constituency who signed the petition.

I am angry. I am a mild-mannered person, as most hon. Members would agree, but I never thought I would see this in this mother of Parliaments. We created parliamentary democracy, which works because the Government run Parliament—sometimes that is not as clear as it should be—and there is a degree of fair play between Government and Opposition. That has completely broken down, to the extent that there have been a series of guns to our head for a general election and for no deal, as if that is what Parliament should accept. If this were a banana republic, we would understand that a president might manipulate us, but this is the British Parliament. Today is a hard day for Parliament.

I am reminded of an episode of “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?” I apologise to all those who are too young to remember that. There is a wonderful episode where they are trying to avoid the result of the England football game. They spend the whole day in and out of pubs because they do not want to know the score and want to watch it on the highlights as if it were a live game. They get to the very end, and they find the result of the game written on a beer mat. That proves to me that, with Prorogation, the Government can hide and they can run, but they will always be held to account somewhere. Prorogation is about trying to avoid being called to account over some of the most important things.

I bear a grudge, because I spent 37 hours of my time debating the Agriculture Bill as the Opposition spokesperson, along with other hon. Members. No matter how badly I did, I tried my best, and I will never get back those 37 hours. I might be fortunate enough to have another 37 hours, because hopefully the Bill will come back in some form. Why does that matter? If I am trying to plan my farm policy—trying to work out what I will grow next year and what animals I will keep—I need to know the system of agriculture, yet that is in abeyance. Yes, we can carry on with the existing common agricultural policy, but I thought we were trying to get out of it—that was one of the drivers for leaving the EU. That is bad enough, but I also spent a lot of hours debating statutory instruments, some of which will be out of date by now.

It was not our decision to have a two-year Session—that happened at the behest of the Government. Some of us feel it was a mistake, and that Parliament should have an annual programme, but this Government decided they would have a two-year programme. It has come back to haunt us. The Agriculture Bill left this place well before Christmas last year. Therefore, we have been waiting for it to come back for the best part of nine months. I understand through the usual channels that we were offered a deal—let it through and we will not say anything else about it. With the best will in the world, we had arguments against the Bill in its current form.

That is bad enough, but as two of my hon. Friends have said, the situation of fisheries is even more drastic. If we drop out with no deal, the scallop wars over the Christmas period will be just a foretaste. People will start taking the law—whatever that may be at this moment in time—into their own hands.

If we had not been debating this petition today, I would have been summing up for the Opposition in a debate about cages, animal sentience and so on. Again, all that is in abeyance. We do not have a clear statement of the law. The law does not exist anymore. We chose not to put it in the Trade Bill. We have an animal sentience Bill, but I do not know whether that will be carried over. Does that matter? Of course it does. If someone is trying to prosecute a person who has mistreated an animal, what law do they use? Do they use the law that used to exist or the law that could have existed if we had allowed it to go through? Those issues really matter. This is not Opposition Members just kicking off; it is about the way we are being prevented from doing our job.

I would have raised this as a point of order, but I have been told by various Departments—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I shadow; the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—that parliamentary questions I tabled over the recess cannot be answered because of the Prorogation of Parliament. We could all go on about how wonderful Speaker Bercow has been, but one of the great things he has put in place is the ability to ask questions for answer during recess. That was a dramatic improvement on our not being able to do our job of holding the Government to account.

I now have three Departments telling me, in advance of Prorogation, while anything could still happen—we could choose not to prorogue tonight—that they will not answer questions. That does not mean they will answer them in the future; it means they will not answer them. The questions will fall. That is wrong—particularly for me, because I will have to table them all again. However, other Departments have answered questions, so will the Minister put on the record, on behalf of the Government, the process for determining whether Departments should answer a question when we are about to prorogue? Dare I say it, some civil servants seem to work very hard to get us an answer, but others just say, “Here’s a two-line thing. We’re not going to answer it.”

To me, a lot of this demonstrates how Parliament is not really running by the rules any more. The idea is that Parliament should hold the Government to account, but at the moment it seems that Parliament is being held to account by the Government, who say, “Well, we’ll answer when we want to, we’ll let you take part in debates if you have to, but really, this is subject to our whims.” My friend Graham Allen, as Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—when we had one—looked at whether we should have a written constitution. I feel strongly, on the basis of the past couple of weeks, that we must. It is wrong that Parliament cannot hold the Government to account. We should have rules on when Prorogation should take place and on whether Departments should answer questions.

This really matters. As parliamentarians, whatever party we come from and whether we are in government or opposition, we must have the security and knowledge that our job cannot be undermined; otherwise, the people will increasingly lose confidence in Parliament, because they will think the Government just use it to rubber-stamp whatever they want. In a time of a hung Parliament—and of a very hung Government, for all sorts of reasons—it is important that we have a justification for what is going on and that that is put into some form of arrangement so the rules are much more transparent, open and fair.

What is going on is undemocratic; it is unconstitutional, given that we do not have a written constitution; and it is a mess. It is not easy trying to explain to our constituents what we are all up to at the moment. Sometimes, when I write an email, I think, “Do I understand what I’m writing?” It changes from minute to minute, and whether we are in government, opposition or whatever, it is very unclear what our stance is. Deep down, I think this is a shameful period for our Parliament. We should do something about it.