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Westminster View

Gale's Westminster Diary - March 2024

It is now fifteen months since I was asked, as the senior Member of the Speaker’s panel of Chairmen, to serve as a Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. An assignment that was initially expected to last for a couple of months was, by Order of the House, extended first until the end of the last parliamentary session in October 2023, then further until Easter of this year. It now seems likely that I shall be required to continue in the role until the Summer Recess and possibly right through to a General Election at some time in the Autumn.

During this time I have continued to observe the rules of strict impartiality adhered to by the `home team`. I may not speak from the back benches, vote or comment to the media about all but local issues that directly affect my constituency and those that I represent. I can, and do, continue to assist my constituents with very many on-going problems on a daily basis.

Given the number and range of national and international issues that have arisen since I first took the Chair it has at times been frustrating and inhibiting not to be able to express my own often strongly held opinions. The trade-off, however, is that those of us on Mr. Speaker Hoyle`s team are granted the ear of Ministers more readily and are therefore able to air views in private and sometimes more effectively that those speaking in the Chamber. On balance quietly delivering results can be more worthwhile than public acclaim!

All that said I have concluded that, in response to many requests from constituents, that I can and should try harder to let my constituents know what I have been up to in the House and in my constituency.  This `diary` therefore replaces my `View ‘as a way of reporting back.  Inevitably, given the constraints of the office that I currently hold, it will be less abrasive, less satirical , less speculative and possibly more objective than hitherto but I hope that it may fill a gap until I am once again `free range`. 


Contrary to popular belief most of the work of Members of Parliament takes place outside of the Chamber, whether that be in legislative or back-bench committee meetings, in briefings, in constituency advice `surgeries`, out and about in schools, hospitals or businesses or hour-after-hour in an office in the evenings and at weekends dealing with the tidal waves of emails and social media matters that break upon our desks on a daily basis. 

Following changes to the rules governing the Officerships and Memberships of `All Party Parliamentary Groups`, of which there must be at least a thousand-and-one, Mr. Speaker has decreed that his Deputies may not hold office in or be a member of any APPGs.  This is because we are now required to preside impartially over the Annual General or Emergency General meetings of all such Groups. With good reason. Hitherto it has been far too easy for Members to be roped into make up numbers of groups representing causes or countries that have wafer-thin parliamentary support. 

I have, therefore, had to surrender my Chairmanship and office with the APPG on Frozen (overseas) pensions, Cyprus, General Aviation, Anti-Trophy Hunting and a myriad of others. But before doing so  I was able to lend my weight to John Spellar`s Private Members` Bill to ban the importing of body parts from  wild animals slaughtered for `sport` and under the spurious guise of `conservation in the name of `Trophy Hunting`. This bill is a re-run of the same measure thar was introduced by Henry Smith in the last parliament, passed through the Commons and then `talked out` by a handful of pro-hunting members of that endangered species known as `The House of Lords`.  For obvious reasons I did not take the chair for this bill, which I have wholeheartedly and publicly supported, but I am pleased that it is on its way again and with Government backing hope that this time it will make the statute book. 

All Members of Parliament have received a deluge of emails, from pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian correspondents, about the appalling situation in the Middle East. In an incredibly complex situation `Palestine` and `Gaza` and `Hamas ` are all too frequently conflated and with the horrific scenes that are depicted on our television screens daily it is not surprising that feelings are running high. It would, indeed, be worrying if they were not.  I have issued, separately, statements about my own position which, because they are not polarised will, I appreciate, satisfy nobody. I have drawn particular attention to the statement made by the Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell in the House on 19th March. His assessment, published on my own website, chimes with my own very precisely.  While I understand the “do something” public reaction it is important that we do the right, the practical and the painstaking thing to bring this grotesque loss of life to as swift an end as is achievable. 

Given the starvation or malnutrition that is prevalent in Gaza, in Sudan and in too many countries in the `developing` world it was inevitable that the Speaker`s decision to hold a dinner in the House on the eve of Commonwealth Day was bound to attract criticism.  However, if you want to promote peace getting people to sit down and break bread together is a time-honoured way of breaking the ice. I was privileged, as a member of the `Home Team` to be asked to host one of the fifteen tables set out, extraordinarily, in the Central lobby of the Palace of Westminster and it was, I believe, a worthwhile and successful exercise in soft diplomacy.  It is only the second time in the history of the Palace that the Lobby has been converted (on a Sunday evening) into a dining room but the clans gathered from the four corners of the earth, were welcomed by Mr. Speaker Hoyle, addressed by the Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations ,  Patricia Scotland , and further greeted by the Minister of State for Overseas Development, Andrew Mitchell. Trumpets were sounded, music was played and some one hundred and fifty people sat down to enjoy each other`s company. 

On the Monday morning of Commonwealth Day a short ceremony  was held in Portcullis House, the flags of the fifty-six member states of the modern Commonwealth were paraded, the Speaker was inveigled into participating in a little Kenyan tribal dancing and the caravan moved on to a more solemn event in Westminster Abbey. The mean-spirited will say that this gathering is a relic of a bygone colonial age that has no place in a modern world. The more generous will, I think, recognise that an organisation capable of peacefully representing the opinions, the needs and the aspirations of more than 2.5 billion of the human inhabitants of the planet is probably a force for good and deserves support. 

One of the most enjoyable aspects of parliamentary life is the opportunity afforded by the excellent education unit to meet and talk with students from schools in the constituency. On budget day pupils from St. Gregory’s Catholic Primary School from Margate came up to the House, were given the professional tour and then engaged with me in a Q&A session afterwards. These sessions are always stimulating and the questions very often searching and to the point. I only wish that more schools had the resources to enable them to take advantage of the facilities and the opportunities that are available. What the young visitors made of the budget itself I do not know but for me it was another first to be able to survey the event from the Deputy Speaker`s bench and then later to preside over some of the following four days of budget debate. The packed chamber of the Chancellor`s budget and the Opposition response quickly  gives way to a handful of Members with the knowledge and understanding of fiscal detail that enables them to swiftly analyse and challenge measures that it takes most of us days if not weeks to fully comprehend.

On 12th March the Home Office announced that it was to conduct an inquiry into conditions at the Manston Processing Centre in my constituency. This appears to have been stimulated by concerns expressed by the “recently fired Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Neal”  who, press reports say “ visited the camp in October 2022 and said that there “were 2,800 migrants” in a facility designed to hold about 1500 people for 24 hours while being processed.  “In late 2022” says the press release that I have in front of me “thousands of migrants were placed in tents at Manston leading to overcrowding and disease including diphtheria”.  Really?

Massive improvements have been made and continue to be made to the processing centre at Manston and I do not pretend that all is even now perfect but it might be helpful to temper media hyperbole with a little fact.  Over the weekend of 31st October, 2022 , following the fire-bomb at Dover Western Docks when asylum-seekers had to be transferred to Manston for their own safety,  there were, at the peak, about 4000 people housed not in `tents` but in solid marquees. The Minister of State and I visited the site at the time and while the situation was less than ideal people were treated as well as possible and dispersed within a very few days.   The medical facilities were and remain excellent. Four cases of diphtheria were not caught in Manston but were brought into the country from France. Three of the patients were treated and moved on and one was transferred to the QEQM hospital in Margate where he sadly died.   Not quite the `story` as incorrectly reported!

In the course of another month in the chair I have, in addition to the Budget debate, presided over ten successive divisions over Lords amendments to the `Rwanda Bill` and seen that piece of legislation sent back to the Upper House for further amendment and from whence it will no doubt return after the Easter recess.  I have also handled the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Dogs, Cats and Ferrets) Bill that is designed to further prevent the illegal importing of domestic animals.  This measure on a Friday was wrongly reported as being `filibustered by the Government` to prevent a bill introduced by Liz Truss and lower down the order paper from being debated.  In fact it was not the `Ferrets Bill` (as it is now known)   but Sarah Champ[ion`s Public Procurement (British Goods and Services) Bill that was under discussion at the critical time   and it was not a Government Minister but the Opposition Front Bench spokesman who was quite properly on her feet when the knife fell at 2.30 pm.  That Ms Truss was denied her opportunity to speak on this occasion is regrettable but such is the fragile nature of private members` business.

I have, in March, visited the wonderful Evelina Children’s Hospital in Lambeth and I am delighted that the Evelina has now been selected as the appointed Children’s Cancer Centre for the South East, serving Kent, Sussex and Surrey. I have attended briefings relating to British Sign Language, Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, Water Aid, The WWF Earth Hour , The Marie Curie appeal, The Parliamentary launch of the Race for Life, The Future of Social Care, Men`s Sheds, Sustainable Aviation, The Dogs Trust Puppy Smuggling campaign, World Book Day Cancer Research UK, The Halo Trust`s work in Ukraine, Demelza House (Organised by Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson), and the Persian “Nowruz” Spring festival. 

In Kent I have enjoyed Stephanie Selsby`s well-organised “Let Girls Play” Schools Football day at Ramsgate Football Club, the Duke of Gloucester’s visit to Richborough Fort , the hilarious Thanet Police Pantomime rendering of “Treasure Island “ (which South Thanet`s then Labour MP, Steve Ladyman and I took part in many years ago)  and , with Deidre Wells,  Visit Kent`s participation in English Tourism week and a visit to the Wonderworks’ exhibition at what used to be the Hornby Visitor Centre   The tourist industry is worth in the region of £3.7 billion and getting on for 75,000 jobs in Kent. 

I have been briefed on  and will be submitting comments about  the draft Canterbury Local Plan, have hosted another meeting of the Canterbury and Coastal Business Club at Quex Barn, and have received another of the regular updates supplied to me by Anthony March and his team at the East Kent Jobcentres.  I have noted with pleasure the selection of  former Canterbury City Councillor Louise Harvey-Quirke as the Conservative candidate for the Canterbury parliamentary seat, have noted the inclusion on the agenda for the Joint Transportation Board the proposal for the North Thanet Link Road (aka `The Birchington by-pass) and have received confirmation from the Home Secretary that there will be no “mission creep” or the construction of a removal  facility at the Manston Processing Centre. 

Before they both left St Thomas`s Hospital for further treatment elsewhere I was able to visit my old friend and successor as leader of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, John Howell. John has suffered a stroke and is now in re-hab. And I was also able to call upon Craig Mackinlay in the same hospital and to see him and his wife, Kati and their beautiful little daughter Olivia. For a man who nearly died of sepsis and has undergone life-changing surgery Craig`s spirit is indomitable. He intends to fight the newly-created East Thanet seat at the next general Election and to become “Britain`s first bionic MP`. We can only admire his courage and wish him well. 

Finally, a notice appeared on the order paper on the day before the Easter recess saying that

“The appointment of Sir Roger Gale as Deputy Speaker shall continue to have effect up to and including 23rd July 2024. (Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House).”   So now it`s official.

More next month.

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