The Government is a “shambles” which is trying to loosen the rules on foxhunting by changing the rules of the Commons to avoid defeat, Opposition MPs have claimed.
Commons Leader Chris Grayling was forced into an impromptu business statement after announcing, via a point of order, that Wednesday’s (15 July) debate and vote on foxhunting had been shelved in the face of likely defeat.
Speaker John Bercow said convention dictated such an announcement should properly be made via a supplementary business statement on which MPs can ask follow-up questions - before demanding Mr Grayling take part in one on the spot.
Amid chaotic scenes, the Cabinet minister was then peppered with questions about why the foxhunting vote had been cancelled, what it meant for the proposals on English votes for English laws (Evel) and why his amended Evel proposals had been delivered late to MPs.
A redraft of Evel proposals had been due by Monday, but were not published until today. The changes in them proved minor and sought only to clarify the position around Budget measures.
In bad tempered exchanges, Mr Grayling insisted there was no connection between his announcement cancelling the foxhunting vote, and his proposals for Evel, which will be the subject of a major Commons debate - but no vote - tomorrow.
But he did tell MPs he did not think the SNP should take part in a vote on hunting in England and Wales, as the party announced it would do following a meeting with Scotland First Minister and party leader Nicola Sturgeon last night - all but ensuring defeat for the measure.
Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael, whose emergency debate on Evel last week appeared to trigger a U-turn on Government plans to rush through its measures before the summer recess, said: “When you (Mr Grayling) came to the House last Thursday, you told us ‘on Monday I will having listened to comments from MPs and publish a modified set of draft standing orders on Evel’.
“As a consequence, I spent yesterday in a state of fevered anticipation, but went home at the end of the day an empty handed and disappointed man.
“The draft set of modified standing orders were not published until after midday today. Do you have any reason for that, and how many hounds are we allowed to employ to flush out an explanation?”
Mr Grayling said: “I will answer those questions in detail tomorrow - suffice to say rather than publishing a draft order at the end of business last night, it was published at the start of business today.”
Pete Wishart, the SNP’s spokesman on Commons business, said: “What an utter and absolute shambles. It seems a number of things need to happen - first of all this looks very much like the Tories knew they were not going to win the vote tomorrow so they want to change the rules.
“We need these (Evel) plans to be withdrawn from the House, absolutely and totally, they are a complete and utter mess. What you have to bring back is a proper approach to dealing with this, which is a piece of legislation.
“Will you now totally withdraw these plans for Evel, come back with a total rethink and allow the House the opportunity for proper scrutiny to look at this properly and in order?”
Mr Grayling replied: “This matter (foxhunting) is nothing to do with Evel, which will be debated extensively tomorrow - in fact in a debate that will now be longer than it would otherwise have been.
“The issue of hunting and the debate that might otherwise have taken place tomorrow has nothing to do with Evel.”
Labour’s Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) said: “Isn’t the real reason the Government withdrew the hunting amendment is they would have lost a vote, with or without the SNP, given the very large number of Conservative MPs including the sports minister (Tracey Crouch)?”
Mr Grayling said: “There are different opinions on both sides of this House, but do you not think it is appropriate this is decided in a mature way by English and Welsh MPs who are affected by the change, and not by members of Parliament who are unaffected by the change?”
Labour MP Sir Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) said Mr Grayling was “completely contradicting” himself, adding: “I have to say after 32 years in this place, I have never seen such a shambolic decision.”
A vote on the Evel proposals is not due until a promised second day of debate in the autumn.
The statutory instrument on foxhunting, which would have removed a limit of two on the number of hounds which can be used to flush out a fox in England and Wales, is yet to be rescheduled for debate and vote.