7 Lord Johnson of Marylebone debates involving the Leader of the House

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Excerpts
Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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Sorry, Amendment 15. This just demonstrates that the profession I need to go to is my optician, which kindly cancelled my appointment.

Amendment 15 is very much to think about to what extent this is about particular academic standards. I suggest that it is in effect probing, although my noble friend does not say that.

The next amendment, which I think we all take as being Amendment 16, is to omit

“and controversial or unpopular opinions”.

This is not necessarily to say that these things should not be there, but in the debate on an earlier group of amendments the Minister pointed out that beliefs and views are not the same and that beliefs are protected under the Equality Act. But then there is the question of where we put unpopular opinions. They are not beliefs. Are they views? Should they be in there? My noble friend’s question here is about whether we should expect academics to put forward views based on evidence. Here the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, has a point, because while we would expect to look for evidence, at some point in the intellectual journey you might be looking for evidence and not yet have found it—but presumably we would want the views that academics espouse to be at least based on something that goes beyond the whole QAnon idea of fake news and invented facts. Do the Government have a view on that?

In Amendment 20, my noble friend is again concerned about practicality. To what extent should the Government expect to be involved, or expect the law to be involved, in the way higher education institutions are engaging in promotion and looking at the way people are appointed within higher education institutions? We are not necessarily suggesting in any way that people’s jobs should be put at stake, or indeed that they should not be promoted, but this is a probing amendment to understand how far this legislation is intended to go.

Finally, I suspect the last word from me today is on Amendment 23, also in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. Again, to what extent can the Government and the law be involved? What is the Government’s intention here? How far do they intend to interfere further in higher education institutions?

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con)
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My Lords, I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, around Amendment 15. I was quite pleased when the Government removed this language at an earlier stage of the Bill’s proceedings. I have concerns about it on a number of levels, but I shall focus on just two of them.

First, I think it would be potentially a big brake on the development of greater interdisciplinarity in academia. The ability of people to work across disciplines is vital to our ability to make progress on some of our biggest challenges as a society, climate change among them but far from the only one. Requiring academics in effect to stay in their lane would be a big brake on that and stop a lot of creative thinking. Research suggests that at the moment the most impactful science is happening at the margins of disciplines, when people take the courage to work with their peers in other disciplines and to think about the shared learnings and transferable skills they take from one academic discipline into another. If the Bill inadvertently sent out a message that this was epistemic trespass, it would be very bad for the quality of our science.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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Sorry, it is me again, but this is me as myself. Can the noble Lord explain why it is different for academics working at the margins of their fields but not experts in other fields, whose rights will not be protected by the Bill but who might also be contributing meaningfully to further research and pushing the boundaries of knowledge?

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con)
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I think there is a marketplace in ideas—maybe I am not answering the noble Baroness’s question as she might like. Good ideas stand the test of time, they get picked up by other academics, they get cited, and that whole process of establishing which ideas are good and which are not is pretty effective and works well. The charlatans, the snake oil peddlers and the bullshit artists find that their ideas will not get repeated endlessly and established in the canon of good academic practice.

My second reason for questioning whether it will be sensible to reintroduce this language into the Bill is that I simply do not think it is practicable in any meaningful way. Who is to police the boundaries of someone’s academic expertise? Who is to stand in judgment and say, “You’re qualified to have an opinion”—unpopular or controversial—on a particular subject? I simply do not see that as viable, so I am very hopeful that the Government will not relent and let it back in.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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I apologise to the Committee because I was unable to be here for Second Reading, so I come a little late to it. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, because I share his views on Amendments 15 and 16, but I will also speak in opposition to Amendment 17. He is quite right to say that they would diminish academic freedom. I refer particularly to the humanities and social sciences, although I think he was referring to “the sciences”. It is frequently the case that over a 45 or 50-year academic career someone will follow a particular discipline for, let us say, a decade or two, and then find themselves, as science and research continue, to have something to say about something else and to shift.

For example, somebody mentioned an international relations scholar—I am married to one—moving into historical research. It would dampen and diminish academic freedom, rather than enhancing it, so I certainly oppose Amendment 15 on those grounds. There is one other ground. I think that this year we are coming out of the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigm shifts, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That provides all the evidence we need that discovery does not move in a linear fashion. It does not have an end goal that you can arrive at. Ideas change, shift and adapt, and that is how new paradigms come about. I do not want the Minister to give way on those grounds.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also wanted to know from the Government about beliefs and opinions and where the boundary lies. I suggest that the boundary lies in a tribunal in interpreting whether beliefs or opinions can be deemed to be protected characteristics. Because I have touched on protected characteristics, perhaps I need to declare that I chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission—to get that on the record—although I am speaking to the amendments in a personal capacity.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Excerpts
Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register, as chairman of Access Creative College, chairman of ApplyBoard and as another visiting professor at King’s College London.

I welcome what the Government are trying to do in this area, and it is obviously of great importance to the vitality of our higher education and research system. The Bill represents a very significant extension of the existing legislation on the statute book in relation to freedom of speech in higher education and, as my noble friend Lord Willetts said in his excellent speech, it will require significant reconciliation with the Prevent duty, the IHRA and other legislation coming through this House in this Session. Some of that tension obviously already exists with the existing legislation, but it will get a lot sharper as a result of the new tort, the statutory complaints system and the creation of the role of the director of free speech within the Office for Students.

Because these issues have already been pretty well debated in the other place, and here this afternoon, I want to focus in my brief time on the Government’s recent amendment on Report in the other place in relation to overseas funding. This came in relatively late and has not received as much attention as it might have done. It is a very important addition to the Bill and, although I very much support what it is trying to do, it requires significant improvement as it goes through this House. This section of the Bill now manages at once to be excessively bureaucratic and to miss a significant part of the problem that arises in relation to overseas funding of our higher education system.

The four categories of relevant funding that are addressed in the Government’s amendment are good as far as they go: namely, endowments, gifts and donations; research contracts; research grants; and educational and commercial partnerships involving foreign Governments, foreign organisations and politically exposed people in countries that are not on the approved ATAS list. If your funding comes in one of these sources from a country that is not a NATO or EU country, or Japan, Singapore or South Korea, you will be captured by the reporting requirement. My concern is that the reporting requirement is ridiculously bureaucratic. That arises because the threshold that has been set is far too low, at a proposed £75,000.

Take UCL, for example. This is an organisation with income of £1.6 billion in the last financial year, £500 million in research grants and almost £50 million in philanthropic donations. Obviously, not all higher education institutions in this country are as big as UCL, but to ask UCL to devote resources to counting every dollop of £75,000 that might come from an overseas source in this way is ridiculous. A more suitable threshold might be £1 million.

The control-freakery of the proposed threshold contrasts starkly with the super-chillaxed way in which the Government’s chosen definition of overseas funding manages to exclude altogether the largest source of such overseas funding: the income that universities receive from the uncapped tuition fees from international students. To be clear, I strongly support the contribution that international students make to the success of and the learning and research environment in our universities. However, it is extremely important, for obvious reasons, to have a diverse international student body, and I worry about the concentration of students from particular countries within some of our most significant institutions. This concentration of students from particular countries has the potential to create financial dependencies on student flows from particular countries that may limit freedom of speech and result in academic self-censorship.

Six of our Russell group institutions had more than 5,000 Chinese students in the most recent academic year. One of our leading Russell group institutions has more than 11,000 Chinese students out of a student body of 44,000. That is a very significant number; by my back-of-the-envelope calculation, they must be bringing into that institution more than £200 million of tuition fee income, representing at least a third, possibly more, of its tuition fee income from domestic and foreign students combined. This is potentially creating a lack of financial resilience in some of our most important research organisations and, with it, the associated threats to freedom of speech and research integrity that arise precisely from this dependence on the income from students from one big and autocratic country. This is a dependence that is now too big to ignore.

Others in this debate have raised the question of self-censorship. This is very difficult to measure precisely but we must not be complacent about it and pretend that it is not a problem in academia. As Professor Kerry Brown, the leading China expert at King’s College London, recently wrote in a paper for HEPI on China and self-censorship:

“While one can sometimes find tangible evidence in the form of conversations, emails, letters or other means, that pressure has been placed, with much self-censorship the act itself is invisible—it occurs in people’s heads, before and as they write and is very private … What is clear is that in the last few years, the fear and anxiety of facing individual and institutional consequences for straying over the ever-shifting red line that manages to offend China has risen dramatically … China is increasingly willing to call out those who criticise it. For universities, this can run the risk of impacting on the recruitment of Chinese students, or undertaking research collaborations with China.”


These are issues to be discussed in greater detail in Committee, but this is why I would welcome a broader definition of overseas funding than we have at present in this Bill. It would be sensible to add a duty on the Office for Students to consider whether a registered higher education provider is overly reliant on overseas tuition fee income from students from a single country of origin. If we are to legislate again on freedom of speech and higher education, this surely must be part of the discussion.

Business of the House

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Excerpts
Thursday 10th May 2012

(11 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Sir George Young
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Mr Speaker, before I address the issues raised by the hon. Lady, I should say that you will have seen today’s announcement of the death of Lord Glenamara, who, as Ted Short, was Leader of the House from 1974 to 1976—my first two years in the House. He has left his name as the author of Short money, an important constitutional reform that enables Opposition parties better to hold the Government to account. As Leader of the House, he gave the shortest answers at business questions; whatever was asked for, the answer was “not next week”. The answers today may still be the same, but they are at least couched in more user-friendly terms when people ask for a debate.

The local elections did not produce a famous set of results for the governing parties, but if we add together the votes for the two coalition parties, we find that we comprehensively beat the Labour party. The Labour party was, of course, beaten by a monkey in Hartlepool and it did not even put up a candidate in more than 110 wards—the penguin did not even have a chance to beat the Labour party because the Labour party did not stand.

I move on to the Queen’s Speech. The hon. Lady complains that there is not much in it; if that is right, I hope that we will have no complaints from her on a Thursday that the Government have not allowed adequate time to debate the legislative programme. If she looks at that programme, she will see that we are addressing a whole range of issues that her party simply ducked when it was in government—energy, electricity market reform, public sector pensions, House of Lords reform, adult care and executive pay. Her side ducked all those policies, but we are now dealing with them.

On high rates of tax, the fact is that for 13 years Labour’s top rate was not 50% or 45%; it was 40%. Labour left us with a legacy of a 50% tax rate that raised no money at all and a letter saying that there was no money left. As a result of the Budget, those earning above £150,000 will pay £1,300 a year more, which means that there will be less pressure on those who are not in the top tax bracket, who will obviously pay less. The question to which we have not had the answer is whether, if Labour Members know that that rate raises very little, they are pledged to reinstate it.

Turning to the question of Ministers, of course Ministers remain subject to the ministerial code, and of course they are accountable to Parliament for the actions that they take.

On growth, if the hon. Lady looks at the Queen’s Speech she will see that it contains some good Bills for businesses. There is an enterprise Bill giving employers more confidence to hire new staff and grow, there are repeals to save businesses time and money, there is a £3 billion green investment bank to stimulate the green economy, and there is an energy Bill delivering long-term, affordable electricity. Also, we have just had the Budget, and the Finance Bill is going through the House at the moment. That is the main vehicle for economic policy rather than the Queen’s Speech. The Budget included cuts to corporation tax, more funding for the Business Finance Partnership, the scrapping of health and safety legislation, investment in technology, and more investment in infrastructure—all in addition to the measures that we announced in the autumn statement last year. Of course there is more administrative action that we can take and will take. We have set our course and we must stick to it. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting higher growth in the UK this year than in Germany, France and the eurozone. I very much hope that we will have the hon. Lady’s support for the measures in the Queen’s Speech, which promote growth in this country.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con)
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Southeastern has just opened a consultation on its December rail timetable, which presents the Department for Transport with an opportunity to give commuters in Orpington the fast services during peak hours for which they have been crying out for a long time. May we please have a debate on the urgency of providing Orpington with a service that is commensurate with the town’s importance and its sizeable commuter base?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Sir George Young
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My hon. Friend speaks for the large number of commuters in his constituency who need a fast train service into the centre of the capital. As a former Transport Secretary, I understand the importance of what he has said. My understanding is that the Department for Transport has to sign off any revised timetable, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will need to be satisfied that it meets the aspirations of my hon. Friend’s constituents. I will certainly pass on his concern to her so that she can be aware of it before any such validation takes place.

Business of the House

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Excerpts
Thursday 19th April 2012

(11 years, 12 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Sir George Young
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We had a fairly extensive debate on the subject yesterday. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was able to catch the eye of the Deputy Speaker. It is open to him to table a parliamentary question in order to get the answer to the question that he asked—what is the impact on a particular region of the imposition of the tax?

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con)
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The Prime Minister was in Orpington on Tuesday, making him, I believe, the first serving Prime Minister to visit the constituency in more than 40 years, since the days of Edward Heath. May we have a debate on the historic neglect of the outer London boroughs that this mayoralty and this Government inherited and which this mayoralty and this Government are working so tirelessly to reverse?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Sir George Young
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My hon. Friend has, of course, an interest in the outcome of the elections. It is certainly the case that Boris Johnson has given consideration to the outer London boroughs that was denied to them by the previous incumbent. I very much hope that on election day those who share my hon. Friend’s concern that the outer London boroughs should not be neglected at City Hall will turn out in force and vote for Mayor Johnson.

Business of the House

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Excerpts
Thursday 3rd November 2011

(12 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Sir George Young
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Obviously, I am sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent. I am not quite sure why a software application should not continue to be relevant even though the tariffs have changed. I hope Mr Bennett can recalibrate whatever product he has, in order to cope with the new regime.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con)
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Heathrow and Gatwick are operating at 99% capacity, leaving little scope for the UK economy to take advantage of the growth opportunities in the BRIC economies—those of Brazil, Russia, India and China. After the debate on the airstrip on the island of St Helena, in which the Leader of the House expressed such interest, might we perhaps find time for a further debate on UK aviation strategy and proposals for a new hub airport for London, so that such important opportunities do not go begging for a moment longer than necessary?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Sir George Young
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There will be an opportunity at the next Transport questions for my hon. Friend to raise that issue. He raises a serious point about the future of aviation policy. I would welcome such a debate in Westminster Hall, either according to the guidance of Mr Speaker or in Backbench Business Committee time, so that the Government can set out their current aviation policy and those who are in favour of alternative provision can make their case.

Parliamentary Reform

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Excerpts
Thursday 3rd February 2011

(13 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman raised that point because I have another proposal, which I will come to in a moment, that against each amendment there should be an explanatory statement that explains what it is about. That would mean that far more hon. Members had a better idea of what they were voting on. In terms of electronic voting devices, I am suggesting not that such voting should be done in the isolation of one’s office, but that there should be a particular time when we vote each day. That would deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) about not knowing when to start running over from Norman Shaw North. We would have a particular time when we would vote. It would be done by hon. Members either sitting in the Chamber or, because there is not room for everyone, in the Lobbies. People would still get the chance to lobby Ministers, but there would be a fixed time in the day when we could vote electronically. I will explain why we would have a better idea of what we were voting on shortly. From my experience in the European Parliament, I can tell hon. Members that six votes take a minute and a half with electronic voting. Six votes in this place take at least an hour and a half. I find it hard to justify that.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con)
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Parliamentary democracy has not been destroyed in a large number of other parliamentary democracies where electronic voting works very well. The Indian democracy, for example, is one of the most vibrant in the world. In the US, people manage to vote in that way in both Houses very successfully. There is plenty of evidence to show that it can work well.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the French Assembly and the US Congress all vote using elements of electronic voting, and I see no reason why we should not as well.

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Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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One reason is that it would make electronic voting an awful lot easier. Another is that it would make the Chamber more orderly than the sort of crush that we have when everybody rushes in. I know that it looks good on TV screens, but if Members have to stand they may not be able to follow the debate as closely; they certainly find it harder to take part in the debate if they are crushed at the back of the Chamber, far from the Speaker’s Chair. However, that is rather theoretical, because we cannot get away from the Chamber that we have.

I am aware that there was a consultation paper on voting methods back in 1998. I admit that at the time, 64% of MPs preferred to stay with the present system, but one reason given for that was that they did not want to lose the opportunity to speak informally with Ministers in the Lobbies. My proposal for a set time for Members to go to the Lobbies to use their electronic voting devices would still enable them to lobby Ministers.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson
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That advantage belongs only to Members of the governing party; it is not shared by MPs from Opposition parties. That argument cannot be used to justify a continuation of the Lobby voting system.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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The Government are by definition the majority. It struck me that, when trying to get measures passed, I could perhaps be kinder to the majority in addressing their concerns. I agree with the hon. Gentleman; I have not nobbled many Ministers during my time here.

I return to the subject of having votes held over to a certain time of day. The Modernisation Committee noted:

“Members seem interested in the possibility of holding divisions over, so that all votes could be taken after one another at a convenient time, instead of holding divisions immediately at the end of each debate.”

That was back in 1998, but despite the fact that a majority were interested, little has changed. Although 2004 saw the introduction of the so-called deferred Divisions, when some votes that would otherwise have taken place at the end of the day’s sitting would be conducted in writing on Wednesday morning and early afternoon, the option is seldom used.

I acknowledge that there will be occasions—the votes on tuition fees for example, or the vote on the Iraq war—when it will be appropriate to vote straight away, because of the significance of the vote and the public’s interest in it. However, the fact that there are certain exceptions to such proposals does not undermine the direction of the proposals themselves. I still believe that they are worth considering.

I shall talk briefly about abstentions. I got myself into trouble when talking about abstentions in the past, with people telling me, “Well, if you can’t make up your mind you shouldn’t be in Parliament.” Abstention does not mean that we cannot make up our minds. It does not mean that we do not know. Abstentions are often the result of being presented with two opposing ideas, but being asked to vote on them as one amendment. One may agree with one part of an amendment but not the other, yet there is no way in this Parliament of taking amendments in parts. I note in passing that in the European Parliament, which uses 20 languages, it is possible to take an amendment in parts, but we cannot do that here. We might then think to ourselves, “What shall I do? I know, I’ll abstain.”

It is difficult to abstain in this place. In 1998, a majority of MPs indicated strong or general support for an option to record abstentions, but 12 years later nothing has happened. Richard Taylor, the former Independent MP for Wyre Forest and the late David Taylor, the independent-minded former Labour MP for North West Leicestershire, were both known for voting yes and no. Of course, the media made much fun of them, making it seem that they were not able to make up their minds.

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Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con)
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Thank you, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. My speech will be very short, and I will not dwell on any points that have been made before.

There is one proposal that has the potential, if adopted, not only to save time but to improve the image that we project, both internally and externally. It is rather controversial, but we could save three or four minutes every day by not having Prayers in the main Chamber. If we want to have Prayers, let us shift them into the secondary Chamber—Westminster Hall. There are various reasons why we should make that move. First, it is important that Parliament reflects the country as it is today. It is increasingly not a monotheistic country —we are not an overwhelmingly Christian country any more.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Bone
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My hon. Friend is making a hopeless point, but in a very good way. Is it not correct that, in a recent poll, 75% of British people thought that they were Christians?

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Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson
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That is as may be, but institutionalised prayer and congregational worship have fallen out of practice in this country over the past century, as people may notice from the attendance at their local church. I am not against going to church, which is something that people should feel free to do, but it is something that MPs should be encouraged to do in their own time. There are plenty of places of worship in the Palace of Westminster for them to go to if they want to be put in a God-fearing state of mind at the start of play. I can recommend the chapel of St Mary Undercroft. It has some fine—

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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It is hideous.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson
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It has some fine depictions of the fates of those who are not sufficiently respectful of others in their daily activities. There are plenty of ways for MPs to put themselves in the right frame of mind—a selfless frame of mind—at the start of play. Institutionalised worship in the main Chamber is not a good use of everyone’s time.

Business of the House

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Excerpts
Thursday 13th January 2011

(13 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Sir George Young
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I think the shadow Leader of the House asked not for a debate but for a written ministerial statement on exactly which responsibilities have been transferred. As I said a few moments ago, such a statement will be made very shortly.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con)
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Is it possible for the House to debate the lamentable value for money of commuter rail services provided by Southeastern? Its fares have just risen by a higher rate than any other operator in the country to the outrage of my constituents in Orpington and doubtless those of many other MPs in the franchise region.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Sir George Young
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I understand my hon. Friend’s concern on behalf of his constituents. There will be questions to the Secretary of State for Transport on 27 January, but in the mean time, he and other Members for south-east London might like to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall or an Adjournment debate. Let me say finally that the comprehensive spending review provided a generous settlement for rail investment. That has to be funded and I think it is legitimate to look to travellers to pay their part in funding that investment.