Proceedings in the UK House of Commons normally unfold in a very orderly, business-like way (PMQs notwithstanding). However, on rare occasions, things do not go to plan, and MPs are left in an uncharacteristic state of some confusion.
Such an incident occurred yesterday (4 December 2014). The parliamentary day began normally, with oral answers to questions to the Department of Transport, followed by questions to the House of Commons Commission. Then the Leader of the House delivered the usual Thursday statement outlining the business of the House for the coming week.
That was followed by another ministerial statement, this one from the Pensions Minister. Now, ministerial statements in the UK House of Commons tend to last, on average, about an hour. The minister delivers his or her statement, the shadow critic responds and puts questions to the minister, the minister replies, and then other MPs are free to put questions to the minister on the matter covered by the statement. The duration is at the discretion of the Speaker; if there is a lot of interest in the topic, then the Speaker will allow the questioning to go on beyond the usual one hour. However, if there isn’t as much interest, then the proceeding will finish before the hour is up.
And that is what occurred yesterday. Only eight MPs put questions to the Minister, and the shortness of the proceeding apparently caught at least one person off-guard, the Minister from the Treasury Department who was supposed to move the next item of business, a motion to make proposed changes to the Stamp Duty Land Tax which had been announced earlier in the week in the Autumn Economic Statement. Seeing that the Treasury Minister was not in the Chamber, the Speaker then called on the Pensions Minister to move the motion instead. The Pensions Minister complied, and that is when confusion erupted in the Chamber. I will simply paste in the actual transcript from Hansard.
Mr Speaker:I am sure that the Minister who should be here is exceptionally grateful to the Minister for Pensions. I now call Shabana Mahmood.
Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): I am, frankly, stunned. I am not entirely sure what is meant to happen in the House of Commons when a Minister is not present. However, I am sure that the Minister would have spoken in favour of the proposals that were introduced in yesterday’s autumn statement—
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As far as I can see, no Minister is present.[Interruption.] I mean that no Treasury Minister is present. Is this normal practice? How can my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) proceed with her speech when there is no Treasury Minister here to respond?
Mr Speaker: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, on the strength of having been in the House for 17 years, that I have from time to time observed quite a lot of things that do not constitute normal practice. Let me also say to him, for the avoidance of doubt, that government is seamless in procedural terms, and any Minister can move the motion on the Order Paper.
Is it commonplace for the Minister who has direct responsibility to be absent at the material moment? It is not, although, in fairness, it having happened now under this Government, I should point out that it did happen on one occasion under the last. It is an irregular state of affairs, but the Minister who should be here will, as I have said, be immensely grateful to the Minister for Pensions, both for his presence and for his quickness of mind and fleetness of foot in taking to the Dispatch Box. I think that we will leave it there for now.
It must be said that this sort of thing is to be deprecated—very strongly deprecated—but it does not happen very often, and I hope that it will not happen again. No doubt words can be had. It is everyone’s responsibility to keep an eye on the Annunciator. The Minister has a duty to be present at the appointed moment, and the appointed moment can be a movable feast. It is the responsibility of the Minister and the Whips to make sure that the Minister is present. He or she was not present, but the Minister for Pensions has helped out.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I just want to clarify something. If the Minister eventually manages to turn up, will it be seemly for him to take part in the debate, having not been here at the beginning?
Mr Speaker: The point about being here at the start relates to statements. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not feel too sore about that.
Steve McCabe: Not at all.
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his rather adroit piece of time-wasting.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is indeed a day on which we are witnessing parliamentary events that are not very common.
One possible reason for the Minister’s not being here on time is that he was caught unexpectedly—surprised—by the fact that only one Member of the Opposition asked a question in response to the statement by the Minister for Pensions. It is the first time in all my years in the House that I have been present when Opposition Members—apart from the Front-Bench spokesman—have had absolutely nothing to say in response to a statement. Is it not possible that the Minister was held up because he expected the statement to last for the normal length of time?
Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is not only dexterous in parliamentary terms, but he is, in my experience, an unfailingly loyal man, and he has done his best to rescue those on the Treasury Bench in the current circumstances. All that I will say is that Ministers, in any Government, should not be surprised. They must not allow themselves to be put in a position in which they are surprised, and therefore not present. The Minister has not spoken, and therefore if the Minister turns up—and we are grateful to him or her if he or she does—the Minister will have an opportunity to speak.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith) rose—
Mr Speaker: I will take a point of order from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but then we must proceed with Shabana Mahmood’s speech.
Mr Duncan Smith: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I, on behalf of the Government, unreservedly apologise to you if any indiscretion has been performed or any bad opinion has been made? This is not intentional. My Ministers and I will see this debate through to its conclusion on behalf of the Government.
Mr Speaker: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State. We will see whether the Treasury Minister turns up, but the willingness to help of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is noted and appreciated, and I thank him for his typical courtesy in what he has just said. Let us now proceed in a pragmatic way and listen to Shabana Mahmood.
Shabana Mahmood: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am not sure that I can respond to an opening speech that I have not heard. [Interruption.]Well, the case has not been made by the Government—the motion has only been made formally—so may I take some guidance from you, Mr Speaker, on how best to proceed?
Mr Speaker: Yes, the hon. Lady is welcome to take guidance from me, and it is this: the hon. Lady’s responsibility is to speak to the motion on the Order Paper rather than to any particular speech that might be made, so while I understand that this is an unusual state of affairs, the responsibility is to speak to the motion.
The hon. Lady knows what the purport of the motion is, so she should not unduly trouble herself by trying to anticipate what the Minister might say if he were here—because he can’t, because he isn’t.
Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday we heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer about a change to stamp duty land tax on residential property transactions, and I notice that the information he gave yesterday is set out at step 2 of the motion before the House. Would it therefore be in order for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), in making her speech and her remarks, to go through those points which are already clearly on the record and are contained in the motion?
Mr Speaker: It would be. It would be perfectly orderly, and it is good of the hon. and learned Gentleman to offer to help, but I think we can get by without his assistance for now.
I hope my guidance to the hon. Lady is clear. I realise this is an unusual situation for her to face, but if I remember rightly she is a product of Lincoln college, Oxford, so she is what they call prodigiously bright, and I am sure she can cope with the situation.
Shabana Mahmood: Thank you, Mr Speaker, and forgive me for seeking clarification on just one further point: I wonder whether it might be more helpful and conducive to bringing the debate along if I come in later, once the Minister has been able to present himself in the Chamber.
Mr Speaker: The answer is that the hon. Lady would need the leave of the House to proceed in that way, but my strong sense is that the leave of the House would be forthcoming. [Interruption.] I am in receipt of intelligence on this matter—[Interruption.] The Minister is here! I was just about to say he was a minute away. The Minister is with us and we are grateful to the Minister.