It has been a busy first week back after the Conference Recess with a number of important debates. In addition to the Finance Bill in a Committee of the whole House on Tuesday, we had three Urgent Questions and six Ministerial Statements:
- Job losses at BAE Systems [UQ]
- Higher education funding [UQ]
- Recent disturbance at HMP Long Lartin [UQ]
- Monarch Airlines [MS]
- UK plans for leaving the EU [MS]
- Race Disparity Audit [MS]
- Bombardier [MS]
- Retail Energy [MS]
- Clean growth strategy [MS]
I was also extremely pleased to have made Government time available for general debates on the important issues of Gypsies and Travellers and local communities on Monday, and Baby Loss Awareness Week on Tuesday. Many Members had raised both issues with me before the House rose for the Conference Recess, and both debates had excellent contributions from all sides.
It was disappointing, however, that on Tuesday the Liberal Democrats chose to take up valuable time in the Commons by calling for yet another debate under Standing Order 24 on procedural matters relating to the Opposition Day motions on the 13th September. This was the 14th hour the House has spent debating procedure rather than the subjects that people really care about.
Despite this, I guaranteed the Members for Eddisbury and for Colchester, Antoinette Sandbach and Will Quince respectively, that I would extend the sitting hours of the House on Tuesday to ensure that the vital debate on Baby Loss Awareness Week was held.
I made absolutely clear at the Despatch Box on Tuesday that the Government took full part in the Opposition Day debates. The Government matched the Opposition speaker for speaker. Notably, as was mentioned by my Right Hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean Mark Harper, the Liberal Democrats failed to put up a single speaker in the tuition fees debate and put up only one in the NHS pay debate!
As I said in the Chamber, the Government take our duties in the House very seriously, but I am afraid that those Opposition day motions were meant for party political point scoring. The Government sent our most senior Ministers along to take part in the debates and our Backbenchers fully participated. We listened, we heard what was said on all sides of the debate, we took part fully, and then we chose to allow those motions to go through unchallenged.
In my Business Statement on Thursday morning, I was pleased to confirm that the business for next week will include the Second Reading of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill as well as a debate on a motion on the persecution of the Rohingya by the Myanmar Government. We will also have the second allocated Opposition day debate with a motion on the roll-out of universal credit and debates put forward by the Backbench Business Committee on the tobacco control plan and foetal anti-convulsant syndrome. At the end of the week we will have the first sitting Friday dedicated to Private Members’ Bills.
With World Mental Health Day having taken place earlier in the week, I was delighted to highlight the excellent efforts of the parent-infant partnerships right across the UK that help families who are struggling to bond with their newborn babies. Cross-party consensus has been reached on the need for help in the earliest years, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Conception to Age Two: First 1001 Days does a fantastic job in promoting this work.
As always, Members took the opportunity to raise a number of important points across a wide variety of issues. These included:
- progress made by so many schools and colleges in GCSEs and A-levels;
- spending of money as necessary on contingency arrangements for a “no-deal” Brexit;
- levels of violence against innocent people in Catalonia and the need to resolve the matter constitutionally;
- human trafficking and modern slavery;
- the important role of market towns in our communities;
- the future of the Red Arrows (who fly every year over Silverstone);
- the Westminster Dog of the Year competition;
- the importance of the UK textile and fashion industry to the economy;
- defence spending and the amazing contribution of our armed forces;
- and many other issues.
As the former Environment Secretary, I was grateful that the question put by the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, Chris Davies, allowed me to once again evangelise about our excellent food and farming industry, which contributes a massive £108 billion to our economy and employs 3.9 million people in agriculturally-aligned sectors. As I said in my response, this sector has huge potential for innovation, improving productivity and making more of our superb food and drink exports, which are growing rapidly.