I was granted an emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24) on Monday 17 July 2017. An emergency debate is a debate called at short notice in the House of Commons when a matter needs to be discussed urgently. Here is my speech:
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the scheduling of parliamentary business by the Leader of the House and the implications of a two-year session for Standing Orders requirements.
Mr Speaker, I thank you for agreeing that this debate should take place. This is not a debate about a debate. It is about an important point of principle: our parliamentary democracy and the role of this House. It is about the Opposition and other Members holding the Government to account, and it is about the sovereignty of Parliament. This House is not supine. Our constituents—the electorate —expect us to be here. They voted for us, in the official Opposition’s case, to set up our programme for change. This minority Government are not working.
The Standing Orders are set out in the Blue Book. Rules and procedures have to be consistent, certain and clear. What does the book say about Opposition days? Standing Order 14 says:
“Twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business, seventeen of which shall be at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party”.
Given the Government’s announcement of a two-year session, references to sessions in Standing Orders should be interpreted as per year, with dates allocated pro rata.
The Government announced by press release:
“Rare two-year Parliamentary session…Double the length of a normal Parliamentary session”.
Therefore, the implication of those plain words is that the number of days would be doubled.
Wait for this: in the 2010-12 session, extra days were provided for business. Once the 20 Opposition days provided for in the Standing Orders had been allocated, a further 14 unallotted days were provided. We need certainty. The Government have not provided for an Opposition day before the summer recess, making the earliest Opposition day in September 2017. This means a staggering eight months—nearly as long as it takes to have a baby—without a single Opposition day, denying vital scrutiny of Government business. As you know, Mr Speaker, the last Opposition day was on 25 January. At the same point into the parliamentary session in 2010-12, the Opposition were granted three Opposition days, and five in the 2015 session.
We need to be clear. At business questions last week, the Leader of the House said in response to a question—not to me, although I did ask—that a date was offered in September. I was not aware of this Opposition day, whether through the usual channels or the usual suspects, so we need to clarify what a session is. It is now two years, but we would not expect one year’s worth of Opposition days to be allocated over those two years. Why is this important? Today is the 18th day that the new Parliament has been sitting. So far, legislation has been discussed only on four of those days for a total of just under 13 hours.
Why is this important? Decisions have to be made on important matters that affect our country. So far, the Government have been pushed to give us an answer. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) had to table an amendment to the Queen’s Speech. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) had to secure an emergency debate on contaminated blood to set up an inquiry, to which the Government conceded only just before the start of the debate.
As is the usual convention, I have asked the Leader of the House several times for a debate on the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2017, the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 No. 1205 and the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 No. 1026, which have been prayed against. Time was given on 19 April but, given the interruption of the election, no time has been offered for that debate. The failure of this Government to allow a debate and a vote on the regulations has created growing uncertainty for students starting university or continuing their studies in the coming academic year. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the regulations have not been enacted and that there will be no increase for students in September? Paragraph 5 of schedule 2 to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 states that for any increases in the higher amount of tuition fees, it would be necessary that
“each House of Parliament has passed a resolution”.
That has not been enacted yet, so have the Government sneaked this in under another Act and betrayed our young people?
This Government are just not working. There has been no justice for the 1950s women—an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) last week. My hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), have all raised this important issue, as have many Conservative Members.
We need a debate and a votable motion on the health service. There has been a 23% fall in nursing applications. As the shadow Health Secretary said today, more than 12,000 surgical procedures on children and young people were cancelled last year—an increase of 35%. GPs are now charging for visits; that is obviously an end to the national health service as we know it.
A decision has to be made on the Swansea tidal lagoon before the end of July. I have a letter here that has been signed by 107 Members from all parties, asking that the Hendry review is put into effect. I also raised that matter at business questions.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has now been published, and a number of statutory instruments will flow from it. Clauses 7 to 9 of the Bill all state:
“A Minister of the Crown may by regulations make such provision as the Minister considers appropriate”.
It is about Ministers having the power to do what they want. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union deflects this point. He said that if a statutory instrument is before the House, the House of Commons decided whether it debates it and votes on it. He said that that is in the call of the House of Commons and, patronisingly,
“it is what they call a statutory instrument which is, can be debated, can be voted on.”
Sorry, I cannot get his voice right.
The Secretary of State thinks that we should be debating. When was the last time the Leader of the House actually spoke to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union? The minority Government are not working.
Then there is the question of the days allocated for private Members’ Bills: 13 have been allocated up until November 2018—that is 18 months, although the current Session lasts for two years. Why have no Opposition days been allocated? Are the Government scared of the Opposition? No dates have been agreed for Backbench Business debates, despite the diligence of the Opposition in having a Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.
I repeat the Prime Minister’s words: “debate and discussion” are
“the hallmarks of our parliamentary democracy”,
although it seems that her Cabinet are busy trying to push her out. The Government need to know that, for our democracy to thrive, the citizens of this country need to have faith that their MPs will represent their views and not be disfranchised. It is vital for democracy to have debates when required by convention, and for the Opposition to set out what they stand for. The electorate need to see us at work—to see the rhetoric turned into action.
If the Government truly believe in the rule of law, where Parliament, the Executive and the judiciary all play their part in upholding our democracy, the Leader of the House has to honour the interpretation of Standing Orders, clarify them, grant debates and uphold conventions in this Session. The key question is, is this in the public interest? The answer is a resounding yes.