Business Questions 16 May 2019

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the House has routinely sat for 150 days a year. This Session is now double that, and there is absolutely no end in sight. We are now straddling three calendar years.

Below is my speech in full:

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. I am pleased that she said we will be debating the withdrawal agreement Bill, but I would just like some clarification. Will that be on 4 June, or 5 June as No. 10 has announced? Are we going to get business from No. 10 in future, or will it actually be announced here in the Chamber? Can the Leader confirm whether we will have the meaningful vote before the Bill? Will she also clarify what the Brexit Secretary said—I know she said the Bill will be introduced—to the Lords EU Committee yesterday? He said he accepted that MPs need to see the Bill before the vote on Second Reading, but that many of the issues raised by the Bill have already been debated. It would be helpful to know whether there will be something new in the Bill or whether everything in the agreement will be in the Bill.

There have been noises off from No. 10, who have said that the Bill will be published next week. If it is published before 23 May, will the Leader publish the advice on whether that would breach the purdah rules, and perhaps lay it in the Library? We do have an impartial civil service and do not want it compromised while an election is going on. It is important in the interests of democracy that we see the Bill as soon as possible but purdah rules must not be breached.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) has said that the agreement could be done and dusted by the summer recess. I assume that that is confirmation that we will get a summer recess. Will the Leader say when that is likely to be?

This is so sad for Parliament. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the House has routinely sat for 150 days a year. This Session is now double that, and there is absolutely no end in sight. We are now straddling three calendar years. There have been no Divisions for a month apart from the one on the Opposition day earlier this week. On Monday, the House sat for just 3 hours and 34 minutes, and the Government, having refused to grant Opposition days for 150 days, have now given us five of them. We are grateful for that, because we can show people that there is an alternative.

Parliament is in paralysis, with the Government in their offices but not in power. Some of them are moving offices, and I also want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who served the Leader well as her deputy.

I turn now to something the Leader said last week. I will write to her formally, but I thought she was somewhat discourteous in saying last week that I did not read my emails. My question to her was, as it is today: will she ensure that Ministers are aware of the ministerial code, which says:

“Ministers intending to make an official visit within the United Kingdom must inform in advance, and in good time, the MPs whose constituencies are to be included within the itinerary.”?

Please will she ensure that all Ministers are aware of that code when they visit our constituencies?

Will the Government look again at the voter identification pilots: their key policy that is subverting democracy? In the local elections, 819 people were denied their vote, and the Local Government Chronicle identified that this included an 87-year-old woman in Pendle. The Leader and I both know how hard we as women have struggled to get the vote. The number of people turned away in some areas could have influenced the election result. In Mid Sussex, 78 people were denied a vote, and in three cases a candidate won by fewer than 25 votes.

The Electoral Commission has said that if the Government pursue this policy and people are not able to provide identification, 7.5% of the electorate—3.5 million people—will be unable to vote. If people are asked to produce their passports or driving licences, 11 million citizens will be disenfranchised. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) has called for a debate. Can we have a debate in Government time on this dangerous, discriminatory and undemocratic policy?

At business questions last week, the Leader of the House said that the Government are “determined to be world leading in our actions, not words, to tackle the global challenge of climate change.” She gave us a few examples. It is actually a climate emergency. Will she explain why the Government announced last week that they will increase VAT on domestic solar installations from 5% to 20%? The Renewable Energy Association has said: “This change risks setting back the UK decarbonisation of homes and businesses in the UK by a number of years.” The Government are relentlessly supportive of fracking, despite the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy having found that only 12% of people support it. We want action, not words, to combat the climate emergency.

I join my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and other hon. Members in mentioning that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) have passed the 40-year mark. My hon. Friend is an assiduous attender of business questions. He is also a great supporter of John Clare, so he will be pleased that we have a new poet laureate in Simon Armitage, whom we wish well.

I also pay tribute to the late Brian Walden, who served here in the House and was an excellent interviewer on television. When I was applying for a job in TV, he was a practice interviewee for me. I did not get the job, which means he was a good interviewer and interviewee. We acknowledge his public service in all those fields.

I wanted to mention Philippa Helme, who is leaving next week, so that people would have a chance to say goodbye to her properly. She is the Principal Clerk of the Table Office, and she joined the House of Commons in 1983—as, incidentally, did our Chief Whip.

Philippa has been Clerk of the Welsh Affairs, Science and Technology and Defence Committees, where she formed excellent relationships with formidable Chairs from Renée Short to Michael Mates and James Arbuthnot. She was parliamentary adviser to the Cabinet Office between 2002 and 2005, and head of the Office of the Chief Executive between 2008 and 2010. She was deputy head of the Committee Office for four years before becoming Principal Clerk of the Table Office in 2014. Throughout her career, she has restlessly questioned received wisdom and settled convictions—I suppose she got on well with you, Mr Speaker—and has combined that with kindness to more junior staff. People have liked working for her, and being given space by her to develop themselves. Her door is always open, and has always been open to me, and she has never failed to answer my questions. It was a delight to see her at the Clerks’ Table, and she got there on her own terms. It must have been incredibly difficult at the time to combine a career with family life, but she did that. It was not easy for women.

We all thank Philippa for her service to the House, and wish her clean sailing, fair winds and following seas. She will know what that means.