The challenge for those of us who have no direct contact with Parliament and yet are interested in finding out what goes on, is to know where to look that will inform us of the latest reversal decisions that are going to emerge. The changes that keep on being made by very senior Politicians who seem to have made U turning a vital part of their career are hard to anticipate. At four minutes past midnight this morning an email arrived announcing that the Government plans to allow for a petition I have signed to be debated next Thursday in the House of Commons. This is of course very good news and in normal conditions it would be no great surprise, after all these sort of petitions have existed since 2006 with only a few breaks such as between 2010 and 2011 and more recently between December 2019 and now. However given some of the news in the last 6 days it was very unexpected.
There was a relatively predictable delay in such things after the 2019 Election and then came COVID-19 which ended Parliament in its conventional manner and understandably it took some time for the numerous petitions to be revisited in a debatable sense. The closure of Parliament on 25th March took place before any petitions had been debated and then when the MPs returned on 21st April there was no obvious capacity for such debates, given that they had previously always taken place in Westminster Hall and that the revised Parliamentary arrangement would be limited to around 7 hours a day for three days a week and only in the Chamber of Commons. However just as Parliament was closing down for its next recession on 21st May a letter was sent to Jacob Rees-Mogg by Catherine McKinnell who is the Labour MP for Newcastle North and also the Chair of the House of Commons Petitions Committee. As is explained on her Committee’s website she was calling on the Government to end the suspension of Petitions Committee debates to ensure “thorough, proper scrutiny” of Government policy. It transpired later that another letter was sent to Rees-Mogg on 26th May by Justin Madders who is the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port & Neston. When Justin received a response he tweeted a copy of the letter which was dated the 14th June (last Sunday) and it included the following text.
Thank you for your email of 26th May regarding arrangements to allow petitions to be debated. At the outset, it is important to state that the government acknowledges the important part that petitions and debates on petitions play….. However as you would no doubt agree, we are in extraordinary times. As I have set out to the House, the priority has been to reconvene physically in accordance with government guidelines so that Parliament can resume its vital work of scrutinising the government and passing legislation in a thorough and effective fashion…. This means that hard decisions have to be made about how to best use Parliaments resources and which business ought to be prioritised. It is clear to me that the government’s legislative agenda, which gained a democratic mandate at the 2019 General Election, must be a priority. Nevertheless, I understand that a large backlog of petitions which have reached the signature threshold to be debated is now accumulating. I assure you that I will work with the Chief Whip to facilitate these debates as soon as resources, which are currently and inevitably constrained by social distancing regulations, allow. I have written in similar terms to the Chair of the Petitions Committee.
It would of course been very inappropriate for Rees-Mogg to say that the petitions would never occur, but given he wrote this on the 14th June, 24 days after Catherine’s letter and 19 days after Justin’s letter it seems very strange that within four days of his clear refusal that he then made this statement on Thursday during the Business of the House session
The business for the week commencing 22 June will include: Thursday 25 June—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments followed by a debate on a petition relating to the recognition and reward for health and social care workers; followed by a debate on a petition relating to the support for UK industries in response to covid-19. The subjects for those debates were determined by the Petitions Committee.
A day earlier than this statement which I did not see until today, I wrote my second blog on the need for petitions to be debated as a matter of priority and indeed measured that over 5million people across the UK had signed the various petitions including around 150,000 people in Sussex and nearly 50,000 in Brighton and Hove. It is certainly clear that along with Justin and Catherine, than many of the 5 million people will be delighted that at long last, Jacob has reversed his decision. However some us who will have also spotted the piece above in the Times newspaper may also wonder which subject his next U turn will be based on and what is the opposite of some of his promises?