Business Questions 14 February 2019

More than 40 former ambassadors and high commissioners have written to the Prime Minister warning that Brexit has turned into a national crisis. I called on the Leader of the House to announce the timetable for the meaningful vote today.

You can read my speech below:

I thank the Leader of the House for next week’s business, but I am afraid that I do not find any of it very funny—this is really serious.

Last week, I asked for an Opposition day debate, and the Leader of the House did not respond. Can we have an Opposition day debate? The last one was on 13 November, which is as long ago as when we were first promised the meaningful vote.

The Leader of the House read out a list of statutory instruments for debate next week; perhaps she will consider a debate on the Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018. There is a possibility that the order may be ultra vires: “The government can call it a service charge or a graduated fee but asking those who have larger estates to pay more is in effect a tax hike through the back door.”

Those are the words of the vice-president of the Law Society, Simon Davis. [Interruption.] I will, but I am just waiting for some silence. Will the Government say whether they are inappropriately introducing a tax through a statutory instrument? It cannot be a service charge, because it is graduated, depending on the size of the estate. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has raised concerns, so can we have a debate on the Floor of the House to give the measure proper scrutiny?

The Leader of the House has allocated time for a debate on serious violence. My hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) both welcome the debate, particularly the latter. He passionately asked the Leader of the House for the debate, but unfortunately he will be away in the Falklands, so I hope he gets another opportunity to debate this important issue.

Can we have a debate on due diligence, or perhaps a written statement setting out the tests for awarding contracts? We also need a statement on the definition of taxpayers’ money. The Secretary of State for Transport said that no taxpayers’ money was used in the Seaborne Freight contract, yet the National Audit Office said it was. Can we have clarification?

Every week there is chaos, which is an appalling way to govern a country. Employment and support allowance assessors said Jeff Hayward was fit to work. He then won an appeal—seven months after he died. When that happens, something has to change. I have already raised the matter of delays to appeals. What are the Government going to do to stop these assessments that do not work?

Students are having to pay off their loans at 6.3% interest, while vice-chancellors earn up to half a million pounds. Is the Leader of the House aware of the joint letter from the House of Commons Treasury Committee and the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee calling on the UK Statistics Authority to seek consent from the Chancellor to fix the retail prices index? The lower-rate consumer prices index applies to incomes, but the higher-rate RPI applies to outgoings such as student loans and rail fares. The UK Statistics Authority says that the Treasury will say no to fixing RPI, so it has not asked; and the Treasury says that it has not even been asked. Lord Forsyth called it a “ridiculous merry-go-round.” Can we please have a statement on when this will be fixed?

This week, the Leader of the House told the media—not the House—about when we will have a meaningful vote. There would not be loose talk in a Brussels bar from any civil servant of the stature of the one reported to have made the remarks unless they wanted the information out there, so he was clearly kite-flying. It is upsetting for the House that the Leader of the House has not come here to announce the date of the meaningful vote, instead announcing it on the radio. The vote is clearly not today. We have a vote, but all we get is a meaningless motion. How can the motion be passed? It states that the House notes that the discussions between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop are ongoing, but Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said yesterday: “No news is not always good news. EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break Brexit impasse.”

More than 40 former ambassadors and high commissioners have written to the Prime Minister warning about this national crisis, so who is she actually talking to? When will the Leader of the House announce the timetable for the meaningful vote? She could do it today.

I was going to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner).

My hon. Friend is doing a lot of chuntering, but I want to wish him well. He had an important day earlier this week, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, also hits a milestone today.

We paid tribute to the Clerk of the House of Commons yesterday, but bizarrely he was not in his place. While he is sitting here, I want to say that he will be missed. I hope he read the important tributes to him.

Finally, Eve Griffith-Okai has been in the Speaker’s Office for 33 years, and we wish her a happy retirement.