Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 32



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Backbench Business

on Tuesday 13 January 2015

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Sir David Amess

Bob Blackman

Mr Nigel Evans

John Hemming

Pete Wishart was also in attendance (Standing Order No. 152J(7)).

Rt Hon. David Davis made representations.

Q1 Chair: David Davis, this is for a full day in the Chamber-six hours-on the Iraq inquiry.

Mr Davis: Ideally. In about three weeks’ time, it will be five years since the inquiry took its last evidence, which was from Jack Straw. Since then, we have heard pretty much nothing. This is very important as a forward-looking issue. People worry about blame and so on, but I voted for the Iraq war and the Prime Minister voted for the Iraq war, and Mr Miliband was not in the House at the time of the vote, so I do not see this as politics, but as an important, forward-looking debate about informing ourselves of what happens when we decide to go to war again. Doubt about all that influenced the Syria vote, in which I led the rebellion on the Conservative side and the Government were defeated.

The aim of the debate is to put into the public domain the views of the House on what should happen about the Chilcot inquiry. I will be quite plain: my hope is that we will nudge them into doing something. I might even ask permission slightly to alter the wording of the motion to make it "within two weeks" of whenever the date is.

Q2 Chair: Sure. Could you just read the motion for the record? Read it with your amendment included.

Mr Davis: The draft text, as it stands-I will read it first without amendment-is: "That this House calls on the Iraq Inquiry to publish their findings and all submitted evidence in full and make them available to the public before the 12th February 2015." We might make that "within two weeks of this debate", depending on when the debate falls. A number of people have argued that it would be a bad idea to publish this in the immediate penumbra of an election campaign. I actually do not agree with that argument but, nevertheless, we should press for February. It seemed to me that the better way was to say "within two weeks of the debate".

That is the argument. I have talked to Members of the House. I know that the rule of thumb with this Committee is to try to get 15 supporters; I asked 16 people and 15 agreed to sign up straight away. We have tried to get virtually every minor party-forgive me, smaller party-so we have gone as wide as we can. The public demand outside the House is enormous. It is the one subject that is non-political, if you like, that comes up time and again when talking to people outside the House: "Why on earth has the Chilcot inquiry not yet reported?" That is it in a nutshell. It is a very simple argument.

Q3 Chair: Could I ask a couple of things? The times that we have had allocated to us are up to two hours on Tuesday 27 January-obviously, you want a six-hour debate-and our next full day is 29 January.

Mr Davis: That would be fine if the Committee were willing to allocate that. The main thing from my point of view is that we get a vote on it and that the House actually makes a decision. I think that it is big enough to justify six hours-I am sure that it is big enough-but, frankly, time is also of the essence. If, in order to make it fit, it had to be a half day, so long as I got the vote, I would not object to or complain about that. I understand the pressures on the Committee.

Q4 Mr Evans: I am hugely sympathetic. It has been so long that sometimes Chilcot gets mentioned and I have to remind myself what the Chilcot inquiry was all about. I hope that I live long enough to see it reported. I have no doubts at all about this. It gets mentioned regularly at Prime Minister’s questions and business questions, and it is raised in the House fairly regularly. The Prime Minister himself says that he has no power to get this report published, which I think leads to wider questions in the future about these reports and inquiries, so it is not just simply about Chilcot; it is about further independent inquiries as well and ensuring that we do not lose complete control as to when they are published. You are going to have a substantive, votable motion, but I am just wondering something. If the Prime Minister does not have this power, are you really, credibly expecting that even if the House overwhelmingly votes in favour, which I suspect it would, something will come forward from Chilcot?

Mr Davis: The House does not have the power to instruct in legal terms but, in a way, it is a little like other things that we have had in front of the Committee. My first big one, if you like, was prisoner votes. Technically, the House had no power, but it asserted its right to have an opinion, and this is the same. It might be that there is some legal constraint on Chilcot that we do not know about. We cannot prevail over a legal constraint, but what we might do, if we do not precipitate publication, is to precipitate an explanation as to why we have not had publication. That is not as good, but it is at least better than where we are now.

Q5 Mr Evans: Can you remind the Committee of whether Chilcot has said anything?

Mr Davis: No, nothing public. There have been lots of rumours flying around and the odd assertion that Salmon letters-the warning letters to people who are going to be criticised-have been sent out, or are about to be sent out, but no, nothing formal.

Q6 Mr Evans: Would you expect this debate, should it happen on the Floor of the House, actually to push him at least into saying something?

Mr Davis: I would hope so. If he cannot publish for a legitimate reason, we should know, because it brings into disrepute the entire process of judicial and quasi-judicial review in this country. We have had a number of occasions now-Libya, Syria and Iraq-when the House has had to make decisions. We are being asked to make decisions without understanding why we got this decision wrong, and I speak as someone who voted for it.

Q7 Pete Wishart: I agree with you. I think that this is immensely topical, and there are a number of issues that could be unravelled in a very useful debate. How important do you think it is to have this very close to the fifth anniversary? Is there a time constraint on this, given that you said the anniversary is at the end of January or beginning of February?

Mr Davis: I am not persuaded of the "We shouldn’t publish during the election period" argument. As I said, no one has clean hands. Well, some people have, but most of the big players in this exercise haven’t. I am one who does not have clean hands in terms of the voting issue.

It would be very difficult to get Chilcot to publish after the end of February, because they will feel they will be criticised for that. I think February is the period. The truth is that, when you make a decision, if you decide in favour of this, that will be a big news story-today, tomorrow or whenever you decide. I assume that Chilcot inquiry members read the newspapers, so they will see. They will have warning it is coming and time to prepare themselves. I am not worried about that. So, from that point of view, the 29th would be fine.

Because there is a propriety issue here, the other thing I would say is that I spoke to Jack Straw this morning-as you know, he is a friend of mine- and he would like to speak in the debate. He can do that week, but he cannot do the week after.

Q8 Sir David Amess: I think we are all frustrated by this issue. Two weeks ago it was raised in the House of Lords by Lord Dykes, and then by two colleagues at Prime Minister’s questions.

Mr Davis: And by Douglas Hurd this week in the Lords, who said it was a scandal. For Douglas Hurd to say that!

Q9 Sir David Amess: When Peter Tapsell was called at the end on Wednesday he got to the heart of the matter. The Prime Minister was saying it was nothing to do with him and that he wanted to publish, and all the rest of it. Are you taking advice from the Clerks on the wording of the motion so that there is some technique to deal with that response? We can’t have all this, "It’s nothing to do with us, the House of Commons," and all the rest of it-it is absolutely ridiculous. Is there some way to sharpen up the wording? It seems a bit vague.

Mr Davis: It is too vague for you, is it? I had written it as vague so that we wouldn’t run into Clerks’ problems. We had the same problem with a previous debate I was involved in. I will talk to the Clerks in detail about it, to get it as sharp as we can. If that is the view of the Committee, I think that is worth doing.

Q10 Chair: Okay. This is Clerks’ advice: there is almost certainly no way that any motion can be made binding.

Mr Davis: Oh, no. We know that.

John Hemming: I would disagree.

Mr Davis: The debate on prisoner votes was not binding, but it changed the course of history.

Chair: And that actually isn’t the issue.

Q11 John Hemming: Obviously, I am in a different category as I was not in the House when the vote happened on this, but I marched against the war in Iraq.

Mr Davis: You mean you would not have been on our Whip for that day.

John Hemming: I don’t think I would have been, no.

Procedurally, though, the House does have the power-Select Committees have the power-to ask why the Chilcot inquiry has not come out. Such a motion, if it instructed the relevant Select Committee, failing publication of the report, to summon people from the inquiry to answer questions on why it has not been published, would have force. They do have the force to ask people what the delays are, so there is a mechanism to have an effect by a redrafting. Obviously, Select Committees are not necessarily that happy to be instructed, as I have had guidance on things, but there is a way to get round it. The real issue is getting to why it has not been published.

Chair: What we can do is look at the wording of the motion outside. What we are interested in is whether you want a votable motion or a general debate, and it is clear that you want a votable motion. The other issue is that it is very unlikely that we will be able to allocate six hours, simply because we have so many other things that have been submitted, and we have had a day taken away from us for next week. The only other thing I would say is about the cross-section of speakers that you have down. You have only two Labour speakers that I can see on the list.

Mr Davis: Three, I think. Fabian Hamilton, David Lammy and Kate Hoey.

Chair: Oh, sorry. Kate Hoey as well.

Mr Davis: I basically did it sort of in proportion to party size. I have had two more calls today from people saying to put their names on if I wanted to. They weren’t Labour, but I had no difficulty. I had one person say no.

Q12 Chair: And you have got Jack Straw as well, you said.

Mr Davis: Jack Straw wants to speak.

Q13 Chair: That’s fine. I think we have got enough here to make a decision. It may not be 29 January. It may be after that, but we are anticipating every Thursday between now and the general election.

Mr Davis: My only point on that is that the longer we leave it, the less likely it is to work.

Chair: I totally understand, but the earliest that we have to allocate is 29 January.

Mr Davis: And three hours would be fine.

Q14 Mr Evans: If we decided on 29 January, would you be ready to go?

Mr Davis: Yes. I can’t do next week, but I can do the week after.

Chair: Great. That’s fantastic. Thank you very much.

Greg Mulholland, Charlotte Leslie and Grahame M. Morris made representations.

Q15 Chair: So you have a debate on pubs and planning legislation. It is on a substantive motion, so you are asking for the Chamber.

Charlotte Leslie: That’s right-this is from the global to the very local. We had one of the most successful EDMs of the Session, and I understand that most members of the Committee probably have some sympathy for the concept, if not our bid today. The issue of pubs being converted to supermarkets, or change of use, is something that all MPs experience. It is important to us and to our constituents. The issue has been long outstanding. The Government have talked a lot about saving pubs, and we have had some debates on it. This issue is doable. All we require is a doable change to planning legislation. It would have a large effect on pubs and on planning in general.

Q16 Chair: Charlotte, could you read out the text of the motion so that we have it on the record?

Charlotte Leslie: Certainly: "That this House believes that pubs play a vital role in promoting community spirit; notes research shows that pubs are the most popular public location for people to meet and get together with others in their neighbourhood; further notes that pubs in England are poorly protected by planning rules which enable a pub to be converted to a supermarket and other retail uses and even demolished without any need for planning permission; notes that two pubs a week are converted into supermarket convenience stores; notes that Assets of Community Value fail to deliver protection to valued pubs and that Councils are reluctant to use Article Four Directions to protect pubs due to the administrative cost and compensation liability; and calls on the Government to amend planning regulations so that a full planning application is required prior to a pub being demolished or converted into any other use."

Q17 Chair: Brilliant. That’s great. Obviously, it affects everybody in their constituencies, but is there any time limit on this?

Greg Mulholland: Thanks to the Committee for considering this. The answer is yes, in the sense that there is a real chance to change the law before the general election. That is what we are trying to do, and to have any realistic prospect of that happening we need to have this debate to show to DCLG that its mantra that this does not need change at national level is clearly wrong. Realistically, for it to do something, it will do something in February or March. It is possible, because it is secondary legislation, so things can be changed fairly quickly-that is why it is realistic.

Also, DCLG is consulting and, we believe, intends to make some minor tinkering changes, when really this needs the simple but fundamental change that the conversion of any pub should require planning permission. At the moment, the question we are posing is a simple one: is it justifiable that communities are denied any say when a valued local pub is turned into a Tesco or another use? The answer to that is surely no, but we are not being listened to by DCLG. It keeps saying, "It’s not us. It’s councils; it’s article 4."

In terms of the role of this debate-I note some of the comments made regarding the previous application-we believe this is fundamental and that a Backbench Business Committee debate is the only way that we can show the will of the House. Of course, we did it over the pubco issue. We did that under your auspices. There was also an Opposition day, but first of all there was a Back-Bench debate that showed the clear will of the House on that particular issue, and that was then reflected when we came to the debate on the legislation in November. This is the only chance we have.

Q18 Chair: Grahame, do you want to add anything?

Grahame M. Morris: No, I think they have covered the ground adequately.

Q19 Mr Evans: I am hugely sympathetic towards this, as president of the all-party beer group. Rather perversely, with Tesco announcing that it is closing a number of stores, we might get some supermarkets turned into pubs, so we are ever hopeful. Funnily enough, the former pubs Minister, Brandon Lewis, is now the planning Minister. Would it be your intention to get a planning Minister to answer this debate to give at least an indication that they are sympathetic towards the changes that you seek in the motion?

Greg Mulholland: You mentioned one ex-community pubs Minister. The first coalition community pubs Minister, Bob Neill, is firmly in support of the changes we are calling for now that he is no longer in DCLG, and having seen in his own constituency the threat to pubs from supermarkets. That is the reality.

I imagine that the current community pubs Minister, Kris Hopkins from DCLG, would reply to the debate, because he is in the process of consulting organisations about this issue. We are seeking to influence Kris, Brandon and Eric Pickles, by saying, "This is a simple change and this is a change if you want to show you that are pro-pub Government."

Q20 Bob Blackman: I just want to touch on the time scale, because obviously there is not much time between now and the end of this Parliament to get a change. How urgent is it that this debate is held to inform DCLG, and then, potentially, to get secondary legislation?

Greg Mulholland: Hugely. At the moment, as I say, the Department is consulting and the belief is that it will make some minor changes.

Q21 Bob Blackman: Do you have a deadline? If this Committee agrees that this should be debated, there is not much point debating it in March, for example.

Greg Mulholland: No, absolutely. I imagine that the Department would probably be looking to make an announcement probably at the end of February. But really, to make a difference, we would want something in January or early February.

Bob Blackman: Okay.

Q22 Chair: Brilliant, thank you very much. We have got plenty there to consider, but the problem is that we have got so much on our list and we have so little time to allocate. We will try what we can.

We are sometimes given these end-of-day slots where the Government expect business to run short and they reckon that we will have about two hours to allocate on Tuesday 27 January. At least that would give you the chance to put forward the motion, or would you want to wait for some other time?

Greg Mulholland: How guaranteed would that be, or not? Or how guaranteeable?

Chair: In terms of the amount of time, you mean?

Greg Mulholland: Yes, and the fact that it would definitely happen and the time available would be at least two hours.

Chair: It cannot be guaranteed. We have had situations when the main debate has run on and there is only half an hour left. So you could say, "If it goes down to one hour, then we’re not going to do it."

Greg Mulholland: Yes, I do not think we can risk that, partly because CAMRA, which is the leading organisation with regards to this-and its excellent "Pubs Matter" campaign-is firmly behind this and will want to lobby MPs knowing that there is a going to be a guaranteed day and slot for the debate.

Chair: Okay. Well, I think we have definitely got a provisional day on 5 February, so we will have another look at that as well. Brilliant, thank you.

Jesse Norman made representations.

Q23 Chair: You are asking for a general debate in the Chamber on rural phone and broadband connectivity.

Jesse Norman: Yes, that’s right, Ms Engel. Thank you.

First, I thank the Committee for granting the motion on the governance of the House last year. I hope it feels that that was a worthwhile investment of its time. We are certainly grateful for it.

This is a quite different issue, but in its own way no less important to those affected by it. There have been several previous debates in recent years on issues of broadband connectivity and obviously there is significant public concern about mobile not-spots. I called a half-hour debate recently in Westminster Hall, with the specific purpose of focusing not just on those two issues, but on the combined effect of excluding and isolating a population-generally but not always rural-from any connectivity and the violation of what seem to be basic freedoms and rights in doing that.

The strong view coming out of that well-attended half-hour debate, during which I took nine interventions, was that there should be a debate on the Floor of the House. As you will see from the accompanying paper, this has been well supported by the major parties across the House and I have no doubt the minor parties would come in as well to a debate. Therefore I hope that the Committee will be able to support it.

If possible, I would be looking for 90 minutes or two hours-certainly, no more than that. I think that would be adequate and I understand the constraints on your time, but I do not think it could be less than 90 minutes, but I would like it to be the longer of those two ends, because a large number of Members want to speak on these issues.

Q24 John Hemming: Looking at the Order Paper yesterday and today, there are a lot of extensions and carry-over motions, which implies that there are lots of Bills floating around and we cannot be sure what time is going to be available. You have marked this down as a Chamber debate, but actually it may be difficult to do that. There could potentially be a Tuesday or a Thursday Westminster Hall debate, although we have not even got those at the moment. Are those options you would look at, given that it is a general debate?

Jesse Norman: I think the answer is no. The very strong consensus from the first Westminster Hall debate was that this was something that was not merely due a longer debate, but one on the Floor of the House itself.

Q25 Bob Blackman: I notice that you did have this half-hour debate and a lot of people contributed. One of the things we often say is, "Have a Westminster Hall debate. If the demand then means that it transfers to the Chamber, so be it." May I suggest that you amend slightly both the title and the votable motion, should there be one? At the moment the subject matter appears to be rural, but I can speak for the fact that my constituency, which is a suburban one, has a large number of areas where broadband connectivity is hopeless and not being provided. My constituency would not be classified as a rural area, and in terms of attracting a broader swathe of opinion and actually getting some action, it would be helpful if you expanded the scope of the topic.

Jesse Norman: I absolutely understand the concern. The specific concern of the malign impact of the combination of a mobile not-spot and lack of connectivity tends to be more rural, but there certainly are examples of it in suburban areas and even, potentially, in some urban areas. I am absolutely not opposed to your suggestion, but if we expand the terms of the debate, it would mean a longer debate, more like a three-hour one. In a way, I would like to see where the Committee comes back on this and then we will, as it were, amend the motion accordingly.

Q26 Chair: This is a general debate, isn’t it?

Jesse Norman: Yes, it is.

Chair: One of the things that we could do-apparently our first available three-hour slot is Westminster Hall is not until 12 February, which is quite far down the line. The problem is that we have already got so many things on our list that are for debate on votable motions. In the past, when people have asked for a debate on such an issue, we have said that if they were to include more urban areas as well, such debates have a huge amount of take-up. We advise them to start in Westminster Hall, and then to come back to us, because often something specific comes out of those general debates. People then come back to us with a votable motion on what it is that they want, so they kind of get two bites of the cherry.

Jesse Norman: I don’t think there is any absence of potential votable motions that could come out of that if that is what the Committee is looking for. The difficulty is a simple one, which is that I rather doubt-you must guide me, Ms Engel-that there is going to be enough time for a long debate. I am not even sure that there would be enough time, certainly not as we get nearer the election, to run both of those two things, so I have slightly thought that half a loaf is better than none, and certainly a half loaf that responds to the concerns of those who did not get to speak in Westminster Hall the last time around. Their obvious concern about the importance of the issue would be better expressed on the Floor of the House.

Chair: That’s absolutely fair enough. If you have had a Westminster Hall debate already and now ask for a Chamber debate, that is fair enough.

Jesse Norman: In a way, we are following your procedure.

Q27 Chair: Okay, that’s absolutely fine. It is just the matter of how many debates we have already got down, the amount of time we have available and the general election coming up. That combination is-

Jesse Norman: If we have to push the Chilcot debate, we are happy to do that.

Chair: We will bear that in mind.

Mrs Madeleine Moon made representations.

Q28 Chair: This is another request for a three-hour general debate on the financial support available for the restoration of open-cast coal sites. Mrs Moon: It is, although I would be happy to take it down to two if that would accommodate the Committee’s problems. The most dangerous thing in politics is to turn over a stone and that is one of the things that I did here. I have in my constituency an extensive open-cast site. Mid Glamorgan county council refused an application for an extension to the open casting in 1989, but it was granted on an appeal, through the Wales Office in 1991, on the recommendation from the inspector, who agreed to four more years open-cast, partly because of the amazing restoration plans. It was said that the site would not impact on Kenfig Hill from which it would be screened by a line of trees and that two years restoration were needed anyway.

The reality is that Celtic Energy, which had that site, had £136 million for a restoration fund in 2010. By 2011, £63 million had gone from that fund. Part of the problem that we face and that is faced across the UK is that when open-cast coal sites were privatised, there was no requirement for them to have restoration funds. There was no requirement on British Coal-on the nationalised industry-because there was a general requirement for it to restore, so it was not written into the privatisation. In fact, the Government gave a 10-year exemption to the requirement to have a restoration fund.

Local authorities are now desperately cash-strapped. My local authority has to find £50 million saving. It does not have money for restoration. Devolved Administrations do not have money for restoration. The Welsh Assembly has lost £1.6 billion of its budget. On the other hand, the Treasury took restoration money of £2 per tonne during the time of the National Coal Board. Restoration money is available in the Coal Authority.

Across the UK, many MPs have areas that are blighted by open-cast coal mines that are not being restored. I currently have a huge area with a void that is at least half a mile-if not, three quarters of a mile-deep, which is now full of water. If that tips over, we are in serious problems. The fencing around the site is weak, to say the least. The danger to children is huge if they are going in there and deciding to explore. There has been a debate on the issue, which was brought by my colleague, Sandra Osborne, in terms of the impact in Scotland.

Q29 Chair: When was that debate?

Mrs Moon: That debate was recent-certainly within the past few weeks since the House has been back. In exploring the issue, I have discovered that there are 32 sites in Scotland, 19 sites impacted in Wales, and innumerable sites in England. It is time for the Government to face the problem that they are building for themselves with the lack of funding for restoration.

Q30 Chair: You said that you would be happy to go down to two hours.

Mrs Moon: I would.

Chair: Brilliant; okay, Bob.

Q31 Bob Blackman: Madeleine, I express my ignorance on the issue; could you just explain something to me? When you talk about restoration of an open-cast mine, does that mean restoring it to producing goods or preserving it for the future for people to visit? In which case, to do so would you not restore a few and literally do away with the rest? Is that not reasonable?

Mrs Moon: We are not talking about extension. What we find at the moment, for example with Celtic Energy, is that it says, "Give us more planning permission and we will extend the mine even further, and then we will build up a restoration fund." The problem is that, legally, there is no way of committing it to doing that. There is huge local opposition to further extension on mining. The restoration basically means filling in the hole.

Bob Blackman: That was what I thought.

Mrs Moon: You are never going to be able to make these attractive in any way, shape or form, or to make them fishing or boating lakes. They are too deep; they are highly dangerous.

Q32 Chair: Thank you very much. As you heard us say to others, we have a huge number of debates and very little time to allocate. However, we have that end-of-day two-hour slot, but it may not be two hours, so we can talk to you about that at another point. We will put that on the list and let you know in due course. Thank you for bringing that application to us.

Mrs Moon: Thank you very much. May I just say, I think that this is more immediately impacting on people than Chilcot? If it was a case of broadband, perhaps you should talk to the House of Commons authorities about doing something about the broadband because by the time it gets to Wales, it virtually disappears in my constituency office.

Mr Evans: It is always good thing to come last; you can just trash all the others.

Chair: We won’t tell them, Madeleine. Thank you very much.

Prepared 15th January 2015