HC Deb 27 February 2001 vol 363 cc847-54 12.11 am
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I beg to move, That, at the sitting on Wednesday 7th March, notwithstanding the provisions of the Sessional Order of 7th November 2000 (Deferred Divisions) votes on divisions which have been deferred until half past Three o'clock on that day shall be recorded for one and a half hours after half past Five o'clock, no account being taken of any period during which the House or committee proceeds to a division. I think that it would be helpful and appropriate, even at this late hour, to explain the effect of the motion. I shall be brief because it is straightforward. It simply shifts the time for taking deferred Divisions on Budget day, Wednesday 7 March, from 3.30 pm to 5 pm to 5.30 pm to 7 pm. I believe that this will be for the convenience of the House, as it will enable Members to listen to the Budget statement in its entirety, provided that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer speaks with the brevity that is traditional on such occasions. I have no knowledge either of the length of the speech or its content. I hope that the House will agree to making this minor and convenient change.

12.12 am

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I was sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office did not include in his remarks the time that will be allocated to the Opposition to respond to the Budget statement. We would wish to hear that speech in its entirety too. That appears not to have come into the Government's consideration.

I understand why the Minister has brought the matter to the House—

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

It is not only the Conservative Opposition who are involved. I suppose that some people might want to hear what the Liberal Democrats have to say.

Mrs. Browning

It is not often that I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend, but I think that his supposition is questionable.

When the House debated deferred Divisions on 7 November, it was a rather hurried affair. It was the night of the American presidential elections; Labour Members had other matters to consider. However, the Opposition flagged up our discontent with the length of time that the House had to consider the matter that night, and our principled opposition to deferred Divisions per se. That opposition, having seen such Divisions in practice, is no less now than it was then. Deferred Divisions are an abomination and we shall scrap them when we come to office later this year, or possibly next year, depending on events.

The fact that the Minister has had to come to the House to vary the Sessional Orders for one date only shows the lack of consideration and preparation that was given to and made for them when they were put before the House and debated on 7 November.

Can the Minister indicate what other parliamentary occasions might take place on a Wednesday that would require him to come before the House with such a motion again? Clearly, he will not be able to tell us the day of the Queen's Speech but in the time that remains to this Parliament it is unsatisfactory to have deferred Divisions that have not been properly thought through in practice—quite apart from the fact that we oppose them in principle.

I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be helpful, but the motion simply shows the weakness of the system. We are all busy, and Wednesday afternoon is a busy time even when there is no Budget statement. Hon. Members have just about got used to the time allotted for the papers to be handed in, but row it is to be varied. If that keeps happening, the chances are that people will miss Divisions. Nor will Members focus on the important matters debated in the previous week. That can only diminish Members' understanding and appreciation of the work done in the previous week on matters that they themselves may not have considered, but which other Members have dealt with.

I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be helpful, but deferred Divisions are an abomination. The sooner they are finished with, the better.

12.16 am
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). The point of deferred Divisions, which, like her, I opposed, was that we should hold them when everyone was here. Yet the motion asks us to defer them further because everyone might be here. I do not understand.

Originally, we were meant to have Divisions on Wednesdays because everyone turned up that day and it would be convenient for them to vote. Now we are to have them at another time because everyone has turned up. Somehow, it seems, people cannot stagger round to the No Lobby to vote. That seems to negate the purpose of deferred Divisions. If everyone will be here on Budget day, it will presumably be possible during the two hours allocated by the Minister for the Budget for hon. Members to walk from the Chamber to the No Lobby.

Given that the votes take place in the No Lobby, let me assure the Minister that we Conservatives will be in our places in the Chamber, listening as the shadow Chancellor makes his reply. There will be no inconvenience for Ministers or Labour Members who want to walk past us to vote at that time. We shall be rivetted to the shadow Chancellor's speech because we shall want to know what tax rates and spending decisions will apply from April, May or whenever it There will be no question of Conservative Members getting in the way while the Government's Back Benchers seek to troop from their side of the House to vote in the Lobby behind us.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has lost faith in his leader, who, I believe, usually replies to the Budget. My substantive point is that I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, as a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, does not support a motion that will allow the whole House to listen to the Budget statement. Is he against that idea?

Mr. Fallon

We have had no indication from the Minister that the Budget statement will last the full two hours that he has allocated, if it is anything like the previous Budget statements to which we have all had to listen, I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity, while the Chancellor drones on about the latest research and development tax credit, or whatever wheeze he may have dreamt up to appease some lobby group, to slip out to vote.

Mr. Hogg

In all probability, the Budget will be leaked in advance anyway.

Mr. Fallon

That possibility had occurred to all of us, and may afford us more time to vote.

My third reservation about the Procedure is that the Minister assumes that the Budget will consume a full two hours. The previous Budgets introduced by the Chancellor have not consumed two hours, so I am a little puzzled about why the Minister is allowing us from 5.30 until 7 pm to vote. He may want to detain or divert his troops into voting in the Lobby so that they do not have time to plough through the press releases attached to the Budget. Who knows? He may not want them to focus entirely on the Budget message.

The fourth and final reason why I am suspicious about the motion is that yet again we are changing the Standing Orders of the House to please the Prime Minister. It is he who has not been turning up to vote in Divisions. We have arranged Divisions specially on a Wednesday so that he can be present and vote on all the various matters on which he has missed voting at 10 pm. The Minister now wants to change the Orders of the House yet again.

The Budget has had to be moved from the Tuesday to the Wednesday because the Prime Minister cannot come to the House on the Tuesday. Notwithstanding his duty to the House, he will be making some speech on the environment on the Tuesday. The changes are all because the Prime Minister cannot be here o i the Tuesday and he must be here on the Wednesday. Once again, we must change the hour of voting to accommodate him.

We have been messed about enough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, deferred Divisions are an abomination. If Divisions are to be deferred, they should be deferred to the day after the debate has taken place. If there is a problem with hon. Members attending at 1, 2 or 3 am, why cannot they turn up the next day?

To move the entire procedure to a Wednesday—as one of my hon. Friends once said, just to allow hon. Members to turn up to sign the visitors book—is an abomination. Now, because there is some special event on the Wednesday—there will be other special events and speeches on Wednesdays—we are told that voting will have to be shifted yet again. To time the voting for the entire previous week to a particular hour and a half to suit the Government of the day is an abomination piled on an abomination. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose it.

12.22 am
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I echo the remarks of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). Let us be clear about what has caused the proposed change. We have seen many examples recently of the Government's casual and arrogant attitude to the House and its traditions and procedures.

It is bad enough that we have the ghastly deferred Division nonsense on a Wednesday—I hope that when the Library starts to produce the Division lists, that will be shown as the sham and the mockery that it is—but it is compounded by the fact that the Government have decided that the Budget will be on a Wednesday this year, for reasons that are not clear to any of us. That has caused the Government to get themselves into what they perceive as a difficulty. There is a conflict between the nonsense of the deferred Divisions and the Budget statement. Why does that conflict arise?

I question the assumption that underlies the motion. The assumption is that at 3.30 on Wednesday 7 March the Chancellor will start to deliver his Budget speech, and of course, 3.30 is the time specified in Sessional Orders for the deferred Divisions. But how do we know that that will be the case? Is it not possible that a private notice question could be granted on that day by the Speaker? We live in times of crisis. Crises surround us daily—almost hourly. I saw on my television this evening that there was a crisis Cabinet meeting this very day. How do we know that there will not be further crises? Regrettably, the existing one may still be with us on 7 March, which is not so far distant. It is entirely procedurally possible that Mr. Speaker may see fit to grant a private notice question for that day.

Mr. Tipping

The right hon. Gentleman knows the procedures of the House. If he reflects on them, he will remember that private notice questions always come after statements.

Mr. Forth

Yes, but the issue that arises has been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Sevenoaks: the casual assumption about whether my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition will be squeezed out by some combination of events that we cannot foresee. With their usual arrogance, Government Front Benchers are saying that they want to arrange the business of the House to protect the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech, but they do not give a damn about the contributions of my right hon. Friend and—let us be charitable just for a moment—of the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

One way or another, the House is being asked to change its own arrangements, including even the Sessional Orders that were thrust upon us only a few months ago, because the Government cannot get their act together or organise their business properly. For that reason, they are asking us to sweep aside for their convenience not only longstanding Standing Orders, but the Sessional Orders that they imposed to deliver this ghastly sham of deferred Divisions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said that the proposed arrangement was designed to protect the Prime Minister. I wonder whether that is the case. On the face of it, it is designed to enhance the Chancellor's glory, but whether that is to the benefit of the Prime Minister is another matter altogether. Some people—admittedly they would be uncharitable—might argue that the glorification of the Chancellor would not benefit the Prime Minister. However, the question of whose benefit the arrangements are designed to serve is significant and deserves exploration. Are they for the benefit of the Prime Minister or the Chancellor? I shall not dwell on that question; I leave it hanging in the air, as it is relevant to the motion.

All in all, the new arrangements now appear to be a complete shambles. There are conflicts of Standing Orders and Sessional Orders, and the Government want simply to move things around to suit themselves and the Chancellor. They are arrogant enough to ignore one of the great longstanding traditions of the House: the guaranteed opportunity of the Leader of the Opposition to respond immediately to the Chancellor's Budget statement. That task is always acknowledged as one of the most difficult to be faced by a Leader of the Opposition. It was regularly mangled by Commissioner Kinnock, but has been carried out with some brilliance by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), so I can see why the Government might want to conspire on this little plot. They are afraid of him and they might want to squeeze him out.

We are not afraid of that, but, in the context of granting the Government ever more frequent opportunities to play fast and loose with the traditions of the House and its Standing and Sessional Orders, we are afraid that the motion is merely yet another example of how they regard the House of Commons and way in which it works. That is deplorable. The Parliamentary Secretary tried, as Ministers now routinely do, to say that this was a small technical matter of little consequence. He seemed to suggest that it could be dealt with late at night and nodded through, and that nobody need be concerned or interested. We are concerned and interested, however, and I hope that we will hear from him some more substantial and persuasive reasons for the Government's actions than he has so far been prepared to provide.

12.29 am
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I rise to support my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

I have particular and general reasons for opposing the motion. My particular reasons are those identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. The motion makes provision to protect the Chancellor, but Government Front Benchers entirely overlooked the need to provide time for my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). They also overlooked the need, if that is the proper word in this context, to provide time for the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Three possible conclusions can be drawn, and they probably overlap. One is that Government Front Benchers are plain selfish; another is that they are plain discourteous; and another is that they are wholly incompetent. Indeed, there is another—that they are all three together, which I suspect is the truth.

The Government's decision was probably taken this way: "Oh, we must protect the Chancellor." They did not initially think of the Opposition's response, because they never think about the Opposition. They do not want to hear a response; they simply want to ram their business through. Someone probably then said, "But what about the Opposition?" to which they said, "Damn the Opposition", as they usually do in one way or another, and "Wouldn't it be funny to see their Members going out to vote while the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks was speaking?" Plain selfishness, plain discourtesy and plain incompetence are bound up together, which is rather typical of this Labour Government. That takes me to the second point.

We should not be conferring respectability on deferred Divisions. The Parliamentary Secretary is doubtless worried that none of his right hon. and hon. Friends will vote in a deferred Division. If that happens, I say jolly good show. We should not be having deferred Divisions. It is profoundly humiliating to see right hon. and hon. Members with their little pink forms in their hands, scurrying around to see a little Whip to say, "Oh do tell me how I should vote", when they had not attended the debate, know nothing about the subject, care not about it all—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I must remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we are not discussing the principle of deferred Divisions but the particular deferred Division that is to take place next week.

Mr. Hogg

Indeed I am talking about the particular as well. I was theorising that the Parliamentary Secretary was concerned that Members would not vote in the deferred Division on 7 March. I was saying that it would be a jolly good thing if they did not, and was explaining why, not in general but in particular terms—the particular term being that the process is a disgrace. Therefore, on 7 March, if Labour Members choose not to vote or are unable to vote, that will be a jolly good thing.

I shall be careful not to vote on Wednesday 7 March because I do not wish to confer respectability on the process. I was very cheered by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton saying that we would bury the practice. If she had not said it, I would have done so. When we are in government, let me make it plain that I shall never, ever vote in a deferred Division because I think that the practice is a disgrace.

Mrs. Browning

I reassure my right hon. and learned Friend that he will never be asked to do so.

Mr. Hogg

That is a good thing because if I were asked, I would not do so. Little pink forms and little Whips, running around asking how I propose to vote on 7 March or, indeed, at any other time are an absurdity.

There is the final Point, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst drew attention: this Government's fast and loose practices. Not so long ago, we laid down the Standing Orders that provided for this nonsense. In order to placate or accommodate the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or the Prime Minister of the day—here today, gone tomorrow—we are being asked to change our rules again. Why on earth should we? Here we are in this old, established legislature, and we are being made a monkey of by monkeys.

12.34 am
Mr. Tipping

This has been a lively debate. It has become more lively and enthusiastic as the evening has progressed. I do not wish to curtail the debate, but hon. Members who have opposed the motion opposed in principle the issue of deferred Divisions. They have made their position very clear. The position of the House is very clear: deferred Divisions are an experiment and the time will come when Members will have the opportunity to reconsider the experiment.

A number of points have been made about the time available for deferred Divisions. The No Lobby will be open until 7 o'clock, which will give Members ample opportunity, if they wish, to listen to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the Leader of the Opposition's reply. The shadow Chancellor may reply to my right hon. Friend after the next general election when a new leader of the Conservative party is in place.

The point has been made by Members who are well versed in the traditions of the House that it is traditional for a Budget statement to be made on a Tuesday. If they looked back at the record they would see that Budget days are not always on a Tuesday. In 1997, it was on 2 July, which was a Wednesday. In 1980 and 1963, it was on a Wednesday. In the 1960s, it was always on a Monday. There is nothing in particular about this year's statement being on a Wednesday.

I am disappointed but not surprised to be called selfish and discourteous.

Mr. Hogg

And incompetent.

Mr. Tipping

I am happy to live with that last insult, but not selfish and discourteous.

Mr. Hogg

And incompetent.

Mr. Tipping

I shall not engage in that debate. It was a lively debate, and it gets livelier as we proceed. I believe that the motion is for the benefit of all Members. I do not believe that it is selfish or discourteous. It is right that all Members should have the opportunity to listen to the Chancellor and to the response, and to vote in deferred Divisions if they wish.

Question put:

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Tipping

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that this would be a deferred Division.

Madam Deputy Speaker

My apologies to the House. It must have been the liveliness of the debate.

Mr. Hogg

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Once a Division has been called, I think that it has to be proceeded with.

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is not the case. The Division will be deferred.

Division deferred till Wednesday 28 February.