Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 28 June 2010

Sir George Young: Good at his job

Last Thursday lunchtime I bumped into an MP in the Commons on his way to business questions, after which the parliamentary weekend officially kicks off. He was hugely excited. "There's something about business questions - it's so unpredictable," he enthused.

This is because there's a fundamental tension in the role of the man in charge, Sir George Young. As leader of the House he can be asked about absolutely anything - and must be as adept at coming up with an answer as David Cameron is in PMQs. He also has to look after the interests of backbenchers, too, who are constantly clamouring for debates on this and that.

Sir George, who was the runner-up to John Bercow in last year's Speaker election, is doing what appears to be an excellent job. Here's a few examples to illustrate the point:

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Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I am not entirely sure about this new democracy malarkey. Although we are not allowed to say it, the Whips did a very good job in previous Parliaments of ensuring that Select Committees had a good balance, geographically and in terms of gender and experience. Under the new system, I am not sure that that will be possible. May we have a debate at some point on whether this new experiment in democracy within the House has worked? I am not sure that the Wright reforms were the right reforms.

Sir George Young: I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we go back to the old system whereby the Whips nominated Members to Select Committees. It is astonishing that in the House of Commons, the cockpit of democracy, an hon. Member should make such a regressive suggestion that we abandon elections and go back to nominations.

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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Further to the comments of my hon. Friend and best mate the Member for Cardiff South-sorry, I mean Glasgow South- [Laughter.] It is a bit further north than the Cardiff constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) obviously agrees with a predecessor of yours, Mr. Speaker. Bernard Weatherill once told me "You can't have civilisation without sewers, and you can't have Parliament without the Whips." May we have a statement, or perhaps a debate, on the cost of democracy and of some things we have lost which are valuable, including the ability of Opposition spokespeople to travel in order to carry out their duties? That has been taken away by our handing over such matters to people who know nothing about politics. Is it possible for the Leader of the House to look into the matter? I am sure that he will want to make certain that the Opposition can do their job properly, as he did when he was in opposition.

Sir George Young: The Government are very anxious for the Opposition to be able to hold us properly to account. Having been an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman myself, I recall that the Short money makes provision for travel for Opposition spokesmen. That is the source to which the hon. Gentleman should look in order to fund his important travels around the country.

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Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): If the Leader of the House granted a debate on public sector cuts, I could inform him of my plans for alternative cuts. The Foreign Office recently admitted to me that the ministerial wine cellar was worth £860,000 a year, and that it had just spent nearly £18,000 on replenishing it after the election. However, it was less candid about what was held in the collection. Does the Leader of the House think that Ministers should tell me what is in it, and should we sell it so that we are "all in it together"?

Sir George Young: I could have said that the chief secretary was not the only person who left the cupboard bare, and that the government hospitality cellar had to be replenished when we came to office; but I will not.

It says here: "The Government hospitality cellar is a carefully managed resource that is integral to the service delivered by government hospitality for all government departments. Expenditure since the election has been part of the normal buying pattern for the cellar, on which between £80,000 and £100,000 is spent per annum."

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