I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the First Report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on the Legislative Process (HC 1097); approves in particular the proposals for the committal of bills to committees with powers to take evidence to become the normal practice for programmed government bills which start in this House; agrees that this be achieved by Standing Orders through the programming process, with such committees having freedom to decide how many evidence sessions should be held; agrees that the notice period for amendments to bills to be selected for debate in standing committee should, subject to the discretion of the Chair, be extended from two days to three days; supports the renaming of the various kinds of standing committee along the lines proposed by the Committee; and endorses the proposals for the gradual development of improved documentation and explanatory processes relating to bills.
I understand that it will be convenient to discuss the following motions: Legislative Process (Standing Orders); Legislative Process (Notice for Amendments in Public Bill Committee); Communications Allowance; and September Sittings.
I notify the House that I have selected the amendment to the motion on September sittings in the name of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).
There are nine other motions covering the legislative process, the communications allowance, September sittings and other matters and I will deal with them in that order. As the House has just agreed, it is for the convenience of the House that they should be debated in one block.
Let me set the scene. The motions before the House have the potential to deliver significant improvements to the business of the Commons and the effectiveness of the legislative process. In so doing, they will help Members to carry out their work and to strengthen their bond, and that of Parliament more generally, with the public, whom we are here to serve.
It is a commonplace that Parliament is weak or out of touch, but the truth is that the Commons is much more active and influential today than at any time since the second world war. Scrutiny of Government is far more substantial than, for example, when I was a special adviser to the 1970s Labour Government. The establishment of permanent departmental Select Committees by the then Norman St. John-Stevas, when he was Conservative Leader of the House, was an important step forward. I paid tribute to him at the time, and I continue to do so.
Since 1997, however, we have sought to make further changes with a view both to modernising and strengthening the role of this place: the introduction of Westminster Hall; greater freedom for Select Committees to establish Sub-Committees and joint inquiries; the honouring of Select Committee and Standing Committee chairs by proper remuneration; reduced deadlines for tabling oral questions; answering parliamentary questions when Parliament is in recess; and the Prime Minister’s appearance before the Liaison Committee twice a year. Those are just several of the changes.
Having seen the work of Government for almost four years as a special adviser in the 1970s, and comparing that with my work as a senior Minister for nearly 10 years, the level of scrutiny to which Ministers are now properly subjected is much greater, in all sorts of respects, than it ever was 20 or 30 years ago. As Michael Ryle, a former Commons Clerk, recently noted,
“a simple factual comparison with the 1950s and early 1960s shows that Parliament— particularly the House of Commons—plays a more active, independent and influential role in Britain today than at any time for many years. Important reforms are still needed, but the major advances in the past fifty years should not be derided.”
Let me now turn to the main part of our debate, the three motions on the report from the Modernisation Committee on the legislative process, which was published in early September. A key part of my role as Leader of the House is to ensure that our work is understandable to, and open to involvement from, the public. The unanimous proposals in the Committee’s report will help to achieve that. I am grateful to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and all the other members of the Modernisation Committee, many of whom are here today, who have conducted the inquiry.
The central proposal in the package is for improved Committee consideration of Bills. There has long been concern about the ritual nature of Standing Committee proceedings. I can see the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) nodding. All that I can say is that it is a bit less ritual than when I entered the House, when the aim of Opposition Members when they first joined a Standing Committee—and none was more practised than me in that regard, for the 18 years that I spent in that penury—was to speak as long as possible into the small hours, in the mistaken belief that one’s constituents or anyone else was noticing. The Government Back-Benchers simply did their correspondence or went outside to make phone calls, to be called back by the Whips. Proceedings gradually ground to halt, which was what everyone was aiming for. Then there was a three-hour guillotine debate, when outrage was expressed by the Opposition, and the Government routinely quoted all the occasions when the Opposition had introduced the guillotine when in government. The guillotine was passed, and the rest of the Bill sailed through without proper scrutiny.
We now have programming, which is a start, but we recognise that the system still requires improvement. Therefore, when a programmed Bill is being considered upstairs, we propose that it should now be considered in a Committee that has the power to take oral evidence before it begins its line-by-line consideration. The model for that would be the so-called Special Standing Committee system, first introduced in the 1980s but rarely used. When it has been used, it has been regarded as successful, but it has only been used occasionally, and very rarely on contentious Bills. I think that the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Bill, which was introduced when I was Home Secretary, was the first example of a contentious Bill being subject to that procedure. I think that it worked to the advantage of both sides of the House, and it certainly improved the Bill, which I witnessed as the senior Minister.
I very much welcome the development of a wider use of the Special Standing Committee procedure, which will help to focus minds on the purposes of Bills rather than just on their wording. Will the Leader of the House consider an aspect of Government practice that might help that process along? Will he ensure that the regulatory impact assessment for a Bill—or the impact assessment, as it is going to be called—contains a comprehensive account of what the Government intend to achieve through a Bill and how they intend to do so? That would help to focus Committee evidence sessions on the right thing.
I certainly accept the point that if Ministers are not explaining what they hope to achieve by a Bill, they should not be bringing it forward. That is a modest aspiration. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip will testify, when colleagues bid for Bills—there are always many more bids than legislative space—they have to explain why they want them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that should be explicit in the regulatory impact assessment, but it should also be spelt out in the explanatory memorandum and in what is said publicly about the Bill, in this place and outside.
In common with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), I welcome the proposed extension of the Special Standing Committee procedure, as I said in my oral evidence to the Modernisation Committee. However, if that is to become established practice, it would make much more sense for such Committees to be chaired by members of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen—I declare an interest as a newly appointed member—than by the Chairman of a Select Committee or another member. The analogy is not with the study of a policy issue, but with the study of a proposed piece of legislation, the Chairman of the Committee upon which should be, and should be seen to be, scrupulously impartial, not a participant in the study.
I know that there is much to be said on both sides on that issue. The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case, but it is ultimately a matter for the House, Mr. Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means. It will come as no great surprise to the hon. Gentleman that the Chairman of Ways and Means shares his view. It is for us to follow what the Chair says on that, not to try to lead it.
Well, I am treading on broken glass on this matter. As I said, I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham makes a strong case.
The benefits of a Special Standing Committee include informing Members better about a Bill; providing an evidential basis for a Bill; and providing for a more consensual approach. If a consensus cannot be achieved, the process will highlight the areas of division, which is an important part of the political dynamic. Some of the worst legislation that I have seen has been the subject of consensus—the Child Support Agency is one example. The process would also engage outside contributors more directly, through written and oral evidence.
Does the Leader of the House recognise—I suspect that he will understand where I am coming from—that there are proposals that could come before one of these Committees in evidence that would suggest that legislation passed in Westminster should override legislation from the European Communities Act 1972, which goes to the heart of the supremacy of this House? Can he give me an assurance, if not a guarantee, that any such evidence could be taken before those Committees? Furthermore, does he agree that the supremacy of this House should override that Act, as and when the House so decides?
Indeed. Having left home affairs and foreign affairs I thought that I had escaped the hon. Gentleman, but the answer to his point about the supremacy of this House is contained in the contradiction in his question. He asks me whether I will assert the supremacy of this House over the European Communities Act 1972. That Act is an Act of this House and it is open to the House at any stage to amend or repeal it. If and when we do so, it can be done by Act of this House and we would not necessarily need a referendum. We would have one, but the hon. Gentleman obviously would not. Then we would be outside the treaty of Rome and released—from his point of view—from the bondage to which he feels so subject. However, the decision would be for this House. It is not the treaty of Rome that requires that bondage, but an Act of this House, passed in 1972.
We have to recognise, as the Modernisation Committee has said, that sending the occasional Bill to a Special Standing Committee is different from adopting it as the norm for the Government’s whole legislative programme, which is what is proposed here, so several points need to be made. First, it would not be appropriate for all Government Bills. It would not be applied to Bills that are not programmed at all. It would thus not apply to the Finance Bill. Under these Standing Orders, all other Bills—except in so far as committed to the Floor of the House or, in rare cases, to a Select Committee—would go to a Committee with the power to take evidence. The Committee itself, via its programming Sub-Committee, would decide how many evidence sessions were necessary. The programming Sub-Committee would be free to propose that there should be no evidence sittings, and that is what we would envisage for Bills that have already been through the Lords—the Modernisation Committee itself envisaged different treatment for such Bills, which will already have had substantial debate. Such a process will often not be necessary for Bills that have received parliamentary pre-legislative scrutiny: one evidence session—or, in some cases, none—would normally be appropriate.
We are also mindful of the long lead-in process for Departments in preparing for a Bill and the fact that the new processes are being introduced—in parliamentary terms—with some speed, only a couple of months after the Modernisation Committee’s report. As a transitional measure, we envisage that evidence-taking would only become the norm for Government Bills introduced a little later in the Session, after this Christmas. All parliamentary Sessions are front-loaded in terms of Bills, so for the forthcoming Session, 2006-07, many fewer Bills will be subject to the process than will be the norm thereafter.
I was in the House when the system of Special Standing Committees was introduced. It was a good idea, but it was not properly bedded down. Proper training was not given to the Clerks, Departments or Chairmen and the system fell into disrepute. It is far better—I know that this is your view, Mr. Speaker—for us to take our time to get the new structure properly established.
Are there any circumstances in which the Leader of the House can envisage it being of benefit for a Committee on Delegated Legislation to have the opportunity to take evidence before coming to a decision? Are there any circumstances in which similar evidential scrutiny might be appropriate for matters taken under royal prerogative, such as treaties?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. We can look at that issue, but it is a different matter. As for treaties, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Ponsonby rules, which require all draft treaties to be laid before the House before ratification, and for there to be some effective scrutiny, where required. When I was Foreign Secretary—I say that in case the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) thinks that this is a late conversion to the principle—I said that I thought that parliamentary scrutiny of treaties could be improved and enhanced. That may be a subject for future consideration.
As I was saying, it is our policy that, subject to the exceptions that I have set out, for every programmed Government Bill starting in the Commons, we will propose to the Bill Committee that it should, other than in exceptional cases, exercise its powers to take evidence. The Modernisation Committee recommends that Committees should hold at least one evidence session with Ministers and officials. We hope that Committees will follow that recommendation.
As well as impacting on Ministers and Departments, the new process will affect House services. Committee Office and Public Bill Office staff, including the scrutiny unit, have been considering how to provide additional support, as have Hansard and other House services. The House’s Board of Management has helpfully, and as requested by the Modernisation Committee, placed in the Vote Office an explanatory memorandum on the costs involved.
The Government are accepting or facilitating a range of reforms proposed by the Committee to promote processes—in Standing Committee and at other stages—that are clearer both for hon. Members and for people outside Parliament. The notice period for amendments at Committee stage is being shortened, and we also propose that the Committees’ nomenclature should be updated. The name “Standing” Committee is often confusing and irrelevant. They are not standing committees—far from it—so we propose that in future they should be called Public Bill Committees, according to the title of the Bill being considered. For example, we would therefore have an Education Bill Committee, or a Local Government Bill Committee.
Will the Leader of the House clarify the point about notice for amendments? He said that the notice time would be shortened, but I understood that the proposal was to lengthen it. That is a problem for Opposition Members, The Government can give more notice of their amendments, but requiring the same of members of Opposition parties could make it difficult for them to perform their scrutiny role effectively.
We thought about that in Committee, but the view was taken that there has to be one rule for amendments, whether they are tabled by the Government or the Opposition. I have experience of both sides of the House, and I know that Governments often bring forward amendments at a late stage. The evidence was that it would be for the convenience and benefit of Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House if notice of an amendment were given a day earlier than has been the norm. That will require some alteration in Government behaviour, but it is an important change.
Moreover, I used to spend many happy hours in opposition writing amendments to one Bill after another. My experience is that the longer the notice period, the better the amendment.
That was the general rule.
The report also makes a number of observations about other stages in the legislative process. I agree with its call for a
“flexible approach to the time available to each Bill, making more time available where it is needed, less where it is not”.
For example, a Bill might not need a full day’s Second Reading debate, but occasionally one might need more than one day. The Government will work through the usual channels to see whether that result could be achieved. However, we do not agree with the report’s recommendation that programme motions moved on Second Reading should not contain the Bill’s so-called “out date” from Committee. We think that the House has enough information to make its decision at the time of Second Reading, and in any case there are appropriate mechanisms if the decision needs to be reviewed at a later date.
Last Wednesday, the Law Commission reported on post-legislative scrutiny, and we will be considering our response in the coming months. I am very grateful to the commission, and envisage that the report would be an appropriate topic for the Modernisation Committee.
The next motion before us refers to the proposed communications allowance, which is designed to assist with the important task of improving the engagement of the House with the public.
Before he moves on to the next motion, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Modernisation Committee’s recommendations about communicating information to the public, internet use and so on will also be put into effect if we agree the motions before us today?
The answer is yes. The requirements of brevity mean that I cannot cover every recommendation. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye and deal with some of those topics in his contribution to the debate.
One of the seminal changes in this place in the last quarter of a century has been the extraordinary increase in constituency demands and expectations. It is worth recounting a story told by Roy Hattersley, who served in this House for a long time. It concerns a man called A. V. Alexander, a long-standing MP for Sheffield. Hattersley says that he
“hardly ever visited his…constituency during or after the war, producing such disgruntlement that his successor, George Darling, was elected on a radical promise of quarterly visits. When he was later appointed PPS to Arthur Bottomley, the constituency wrote to absolve him even of that promise ‘in light of his heavy duties’.”
I know of a Labour colleague who entered Parliament exactly when I did, who recalls attending a constituency association general management committee meeting in 1977 or early 1978. The sitting MP expressed outrage when it was suggested that he might appear in the constituency more often. The MP showed the meeting his diary and said, “There! I was here nine months ago—what more do you expect?”
I had the pleasure of going to the west bank and Gaza with Baroness Williams of Crosby, and she said that when she first entered the House in the early 1960s, she shared an office with a Labour Member from a mining constituency. One day, she saw him depositing in the dustbin a large number of unopened letters from constituents. She reproved him, telling him that the people needed his help. To that, she got the reply, “Nay, lass. If it’s important, they’ll send a telegram.”
I have not been here as long as my hon. Friend, who may just remember Lloyd George—and I shall not make any jokes about his father.
In the past, a drawer or locker full of letters represented many weeks of mail. A few years ago the House of Commons Post Office told me that in the 1950s and 1960s, hon. Members received on average 12 to 15 letters a week. Today the average is more than 300, on top of which, of course, there are e-mails, faxes and telephone calls.
The Puttnam commission in 2005 was right to assert that Parliament had not done enough to meet its communication responsibilities in this rapidly changing world. As it starkly concluded, in the 21st century institutions that do not communicate, fail. In that respect, therefore, Parliament is failing.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that our constituents’ expectations have risen, and the demands that they make of us have increased. However, unless I am mistaken, there is no demand from them to receive glossy brochures through the post that contain 10, 16 or 20 photographs of their MP behaving like a fairy godmother. That is vanity publishing, and it should not be funded out of the public purse.
That is not the view taken by the various groups that have looked pretty independently at these matters. My hon. Friend has the advantage of representing a seat that for a very long time has drawn its MPs from one party. People may be used to the fact that he is there, but we must keep up with the times. I have represented my constituency for nearly 28 years, but even there people want an annual report. They want not a glossy thing full of photographs of me—heaven forfend!—but something that describes in some detail what I have been doing. With the best will in the world, even the Lancashire Telegraph—the world’s most important newspaper—or the excellent BBC Radio Lancashire do not communicate those details.
The report entitled “Power to the People” was published last year by the all-party, Rowntree-funded Power inquiry. It said that MPs
“should be required and resourced to produce annual reports, hold AGMs and make more use of innovative engagement techniques…what is lacking is the existence of formal, resourced and high-profile methods by which all MPs can listen and respond to the concerns of their constituents between elections.”
Of course, the precise method used by Members varies. We are given a good deal of discretion, so we should be accountable for our exercise of it. In my constituency, I have not until now resorted to annual reports, but in concert with the chief executive of the council, the chief constable, the leader of the council and other public officials, I have held a rolling series of residents’ meetings, which involve a lot of resources, too. It is relatively easy to do that in my constituency, although it may not be appropriate in somebody else’s.
In addition, I point out to my hon. Friend that when the Committee on Standards and Privileges looked into that matter in respect of the conduct of a Member, it said that it was important that the guidance in the Serjeant at Arms leaflet on the use of stationery should be revised
“as soon as possible to set out, in full, the authoritative text of the existing rules, together with appropriate explanatory material, including relevant case law”.
I am not saying that that recommendation was the provenance of the proposal, but if the motion is passed it will be an opportunity to ensure that there are better ground rules both for what would amount to a communications allowance, and also for the use of prepaid stationery and envelopes.
How can the right hon. Gentleman justify a proposal for an additional allowance? Our existing allowance already gives Members a lot of scope to communicate with their constituents. I agree that communication is important, but the proposed allowance could be an additional £6 million of taxpayers’ money, and it is being driven not by the inability of current Members to communicate but by failure to enforce the existing postage rules to combat some of the extravagant claims made by a small minority of Members.
I do not believe for a second that the net cost will be as the hon. Lady describes. As colleagues know, limited funds are already available for some communications work through the incidental expenses provision and the House’s stationery and envelope regimes; but extensive use of the IEP for those purposes means squeezing other resources, and the House’s prepaid envelope regime was not designed with wide proactive constituency mailings in mind.
The motions are tabled in my name but, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead knows, they follow extensive discussions on the subject in the Commission and the Members Estimate Committee over some time. I have also kept the Senior Salaries Review Body in touch with what is being proposed. It may provide the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and other Members with some reassurance to know that the motion does not at this stage commit the House to any particular form or level of allowance; nor does it commit the House of Commons Commission to any particular action in respect of the prepaid envelope regime, although I think it is well understood that the arrangements for that regime would take into account any new allowance. That is an important part of the package. However, the motion commits the Members Estimate Committee to working out a scheme for a communications allowance, the rules for it—taking into account the recent report to which I have just referred—and a proposed level. It would also indicate what the boundary between political work and parliamentary work should be, and how it should be approached in the context of the existing rules in that area.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point, but is he suggesting that the communication allowance would be additional, and that Members would continue to receive headed stationery and post-paid envelopes? There may be further rules for the regime, but would we still be able to receive free stationery and post-paid envelopes as well as the communications allowance?
As the right hon. Lady knows, at present there is no limit on prepaid stationery and envelopes. She has been party to many conversations about that, where it has been not implicit but explicit that part of any change, which is in the end a matter for the House, would be a limit on prepaid stationery and envelopes, and I hope that would meet the convenience of the House.
The detailed rules are to be worked out. The basic rule involves some fine judgments, as we all understand, between what is plainly partisan political work—outwith any provision of taxpayers’ money, for which we are the trustees—and expenditure in respect of our parliamentary duties. I cannot think of an occasion where I have sent out a questionnaire qua questionnaire, but there could be circumstances when I might want to do so—although not out of the blue to seek my constituents’ views about this or that issue that has appeared in the newspapers.
I shall give just one example, which will be familiar to Members on both sides of the House: a controversial planning application. Generally speaking, my view in respect of planning applications—it is a survival technique—is to pass the representations on to the council and get out my tin hat. That usually seems the most appropriate way to proceed, but sometimes we have to take a view about such matters. Sometimes the constituents who come to see us may be very vocal but do not necessarily represent the view of the whole locality. If we are to represent all our constituents, which is a fundamental part of our role as Members of Parliament for single-Member constituencies, there could be a case for finding out their views.
As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, almost every Committee of the House has looked into the issue of Members’ stationery, without finding a real solution. Would it not be better to resolve that problem before we venture down the path of the proposed allowance?
My judgment is that it is better to work together on the issue in a sensible way rather than to change the current arrangements for envelopes and stationery without dealing with the fact that some Members on both sides of the House will use the allowance to the maximum. I can absolutely guarantee that if the rules are written and the allowance is passed, not every Member will make use of it to the maximum extent, but Members on both sides of the House will use it and some will use it to the maximum extent, and quite right, too. The changes arise from the increasing demand on, and expectations of, Members of Parliament.
I have been a Member of the House for nearly 20 years. I have 60,000 constituents, with a huge annual turnover, and I no longer flatter myself by thinking that they know what I am doing. I cannot meet them all personally, so this year, for the first time, I sent out a parliamentary report—entirely non-political. It includes many photographs—for example, of me with members of the many ethnic minority communities in my constituency and at many other meeting places. It is a proper communication, not the same as sending something in a prepaid envelope. It is what our constituents expect in this modern age and my report was well received, but I am now deeply concerned about my budget, because I have had other unexpected expenses. We need clarification. We need a ring-fenced budget so that we can do the work that the House and our constituents expect of us.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which relates to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I suspect that the turnover on the electoral roll in his constituency is relatively low, as it is in mine, but in London and other city-centre constituencies it can be very high indeed and, in a sense, it is our democratic duty to make sure that our constituents know what we are doing.
I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East.
Not for long.
Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that it would be an absolute travesty to describe the communications allowance as a fast-track to glossy brochures? Recently published information on expenditure shows that the most active letter writers in the House are my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is in the Chamber, and the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire)—to both of whom I gave notice that I would make this point. Neither of them is known for glossy brochures, but they are for responding to petitions from their constituents. For the hon. Member for Spelthorne, one case involved a major hospital closure and he needed to use the resources available to him to communicate to his constituents the position that he planned to take. If we are to limit the number of House of Commons prepaid envelopes available to individual Members, there must be another form of communications budget to enable the hon. Member for Spelthorne, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and all of us to carry out the job that we were sent here to do, which is to represent the views of our constituents. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
I agree with my hon. Friend. May I say to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire that if she is concerned about probity, so is the whole House, and one of the best ways of ensuring probity is by having ceilings on all allowances? We do not have that now, but the package that I am outlining offers a sensible way forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Weading, West—[Hon. Members: “Weading?”]—I am sorry, that was a touch of the Roy Jenkins. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) referred to the activities of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). If, for example, there were a proposal to have a third runway at London airport, he might well want to get in touch with his constituents. In those rather existential circumstances for his constituents, who could blame him, or them?
Taking further the example of a controversial planning issue in a constituency, why does the right hon. Gentleman believe that it is the responsibility of a Member of Parliament to do an exhaustive survey of opinion at public expense, rather than the responsibility of the planning authority and local councillors? Is not the problem the fact that local councillors have had their powers emasculated in that respect? Does not the right hon. Gentleman’s example prove that this is effectively a propaganda allowance, which will add substantially to public costs?
If I may say so, with all due respect to parliamentary language, the hon. Gentleman’s last comment was nonsense. Let us leave aside the matter of the discretion of local authorities and whether it has increased or decreased over the last 50 years. I suspect that, in fact, it has increased on planning matters. Local authorities still have considerable discretion and power. If I wanted to, I could detain the House with details of the longest-running constituency case—it has been going on for seven years—that I have ever had to deal with. It involves the planning authority, and although I generally have the highest regard for colleagues in the local authority, on this particular matter, there has been a level of maladministration. It has been my duty to represent a particular family and a wider community—[Interruption.] That is not posturing; it is my duty to do so.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many local councillors do not have limits on their postage to communicate with constituents? On such matters as mileage and car allowances, for example, as a result of the artificial cap that we put on ourselves last year, they claim larger sums than we do.
I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point, and it is worth bearing in mind that there is good evidence that other Parliaments around the world, including Commonwealth Parliaments, are more proactive in making provision—more modest than we are proposing today—to enable their members to communicate better.
The Leader of the House puts his case with his characteristic charm, but he must be aware that most Members see this communication expenses scheme as just an exercise in “save our seats” for the Labour party. Given the massive increases that we have already had in our expenses, does he not give any consideration to the fact that many of our constituents would prefer us to be more considerate of taxpayers’ money, rather than sending them a communication that they have not asked for, and will probably put straight in the bin?
If I may say so, the hon. Lady’s comment is unworthy of her, because the truth is that Members on both sides of the House use existing allowances at a level that varies a great deal. I do not have the hon. Lady’s figures in front of me, but people can fairly say that there have been some increases. I am unapologetically supportive of the increase, because of the corresponding increase in constituency case load. When I entered the House 28 years ago, the total allowance was something like £1,500, which was terrible, because we could not provide a proper service to our constituents. Before any further allowance comes into effect, there will be a further debate—if this motion is carried—on a formal motion on any proposal brought forward by the Members Estimate Committee. Now is not the only occasion for the House to consider the matter, but if the process is worked through and the allowance is agreed, we will see hon. Members of all parties making use of the allowance—there will be no particular party profile involved—according to their different expectations and the pressures on them.
The Leader of the House will be aware that local councillors, far from being emasculated, actually have more power and more ability to communicate than do elected Members of Parliament. We have all faced controversial post office closures—in fact, we are statutory consultees on the closures in our constituencies—and my right hon. Friend will be aware that under current rules, we cannot write to our constituents to seek their views, as we have to wait until they present us with a protest petition before we can write back. We are not allowed to send anything unsolicited, and we are in breach of the rules if we do.
It would help us considerably if we had some idea of what sort of figure the right hon. Gentleman envisages. Are we talking about £5,000 or £20,000? The total amount of our allowances is a matter of great public concern, and there is a wide disparity in the total amounts spent by different hon. Members. What amount are we talking about?
It depends also on the size of the cap, which is related. The combination of the two would mean an overall cap, below the total spending of some Members on both sides of the House now. The actual amount is a matter for the Members Estimate Committee and then the House, but the figure provided to me has been about £10,000—although that is not the only figure suggested.
I now want to make some progress on the third issue—that of September sittings. In October 2002 the House voted to endorse
“proposals…for an annual...calendar which would allow honourable Members to plan work in their constituencies more effectively and provide sittings in September balanced by an earlier recess in July”.—[Official Report, 29 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 689.]
We sat in September in 2003 and 2004. In 2005 there was no sitting because of work on the security screen, and in 2006 there was no September sitting, by way of the inertia of the House. In the light of that mixed experience, the motion now before us gives an opportunity to take a further decision, but we are in a different position from that in 2002.
We have introduced a procedure for dealing with written questions in September, with written ministerial statements, as an added means of holding the Executive to account during the long recess. That procedure has been broadly successful and I also think that there has been a shift in sentiment since 2002 towards regarding September as a valuable period for constituency work. That has certainly been the balance of representations that I have received from both sides of the House.
The particular arrangements for September questions and statements in 2006 applied, by resolution, for this year only, but we are bringing forward proposals for a more permanent system. On the basis that the House will approve such a system, I am happy to propose the motion today.
If I can catch the Speaker’s eye, I hope later to speak to my proposed amendment to the effect that September sittings should continue. When we talk about allowances and all the rest—I do not necessarily object to them—should we not also bear in mind that the overriding responsibility of a Member of Parliament is to hold the Government to account in the Chamber? Even if one can submit written questions, not sitting for about 11 weeks is unacceptable. That is why I hope that a number of hon. Members will support my amendment.
I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to put that point to the House. I supported that argument in 2002, but we must take account of our experience since then, which is that the business of the House in September has not been especially substantial. However, it is for the House, not the Government, to decide what applies in future.
Since all the modernisation—not enough in my view—has occurred, the House sits for longer. There is no question of hon. Members not doing their primary duty of scrutinising and passing legislation. I voted in favour of September sittings, but today I intend to vote against them, because they do not make sense. We require of the Leader of the House—I hope that he will hold an all-party discussion on the matter—a proper review of the parliamentary year. If we divided the year differently, took breaks of a different nature at different times and did not sit in July, for the benefit of Scottish Members, who currently cannot see their families and their children during their children’s holidays, we could sit in September and reorganise the party conferences. Much work remains to be done, but it does not make sense to have September sittings of the sort that we have had.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I must make progress on the remaining motions, beginning with that on sub judice.
The reports from the Procedure Committee, for which we thank the previous Chairman, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and the current Chairman, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), arise from concerns that the House’s existing sub judice resolution causes difficulties for coroners’ proceedings.
Although the Committee ruled out changes to the resolution, it proposed several ways in which its implementation might involve a more relaxed attitude to the exercise of the Chair’s discretion. The effect should be to mitigate the sort of problems that hon. Members faced in the past. The Committee has also proposed a new Standing Order to give more power to the Chair if the extra latitude is breached.
The motion on Select Committee evidence responds to a Liaison Committee proposal to facilitate internet publication of written evidence. By approving the report, we will approve a new practice for certain evidence to be “ordered to be published” rather than “ordered to be printed”. Such evidence will continue to be covered by the privilege granted to documents ordered to be published by Parliament. The power will allow Committees to place evidence safely on the internet at the beginning of an inquiry—that is important—without having to decide that it should also be printed at that point. That is especially beneficial to our constituents and the media.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) will be pleased to hear that the motion on European Standing Committees would simply allow the present temporary system for the appointment of those Committees to continue. Their appointment on a one-off basis as and when needed, rather than appointing permanent Committees as envisaged under Standing Order No. 119, works well as a temporary measure until any more comprehensive reform of the European scrutiny system is established. The power to appoint committees in that way will expire at the end of the Session and I propose that we roll it over for a further Session.
The Leader of the House started his speech by saying that the public should understand our procedures better. He knows that the European Scrutiny Committee meets in private by Standing Order. Although it resolved in the previous Parliament to sit in public, the Government ignored that. Even hon. Members, let alone the press and the public, are excluded from those deliberations. Why does the comprehensive review of our procedures not tackle that? When will the right hon. Gentleman introduce measures for better scrutiny along those lines?
Now is not the moment to debate why the European Scrutiny Committee has a discretion to sit in private. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have given evidence before it in public. The wider issue is complicated and we are still examining the Modernisation Committee’s important recommendations. My right hon. Friends the Chief Whip and the Minister for Europe and I want some changes—it is a matter of pinning down those that would work.
The motion on short speeches makes permanent the temporary power—due to expire at the end of the Session—to limit speeches to as little as three minutes at specified times.
Indeed. The power will allow a relatively large number of Members to speak briefly towards the end of a debate. The hon. Member for Buckingham cannot have it both ways. If I give way to hon. Members, I am bound to speak for longer than I anticipated.
The power was proposed in a 2004 Procedure Committee report and is additional to the power to impose a basic speaking limit, which is currently at least eight minutes, under Standing Order No. 47.
I aim to cover the subjects in the order in which they are set out in the various motions, as the Leader of the House did so comprehensively in his speech and in his generous responses to requests to intervene.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s last comment, the point of the proposals is to improve the way in which we debate matters and introduce legislation in the House, not only for Members’ convenience and to ensure that the work that they undertake in the House is more effective, but to improve the ability of people outside the House to access our legislative process, participate and understand the processes that we go through.
We have several tasks apart from holding the Government to account, although that is a crucial job for Members of Parliament. We must also pass legislation and raise and debate issues in the House. Given my previous comments, it will not surprise the Leader of the House to hear that one of the issues that I should like to see covered more comprehensively—although the Modernisation Committee cannot tackle it—is the amount of legislation that is introduced. Only the Government can deal with that.
Paragraph 2.5 of the Law Commission’s good recent report on post-legislative scrutiny states:
“The need for post-legislative scrutiny arises in the context of the huge and increasing amount of legislation enacted every year, much of which does not, due to practical constraints, receive the fullest scrutiny during the legislative process.”
That should concern hon. Members. Indeed, the Modernisation Committee referred to the matter in its report, stating that, if more time were available for each measure, it would be possible to subject legislation to better and more careful scrutiny. We want to make good law, not simply pass legislation that is rushed through, without opportunity for proper scrutiny or for Members to contribute.
I am grateful for the Modernisation Committee’s proposal for more flexibility in timing and the amount of time that is granted for debate. However, when we talk about moving to a position whereby Second Reading debates on specific measures may last for two days rather than one, that simply constitutes a return to a former tradition of greater flexibility to ensure that all the hon. Members who wished to contribute to Second Reading of significant Bills could do that. That avoided the position in which many hon. Members could not contribute, which is what happens now.
Surely, in the context of programming, which I regard as necessary but requiring flexibility, the issue should be who determines the flexibility. The otherwise innovative and welcome Modernisation Committee report does not tackle the management of programming. Would not it be better if it were undertaken under the auspices of a business management committee, independent of the Executive, rather than by the Government of the day?
My hon. Friend has moved on to the subject of programming, which I was about to address. He has raised it in reference to the possibility of a business management committee, an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has long supported—
That suggestion has not been received with complete approval in all parts of the House, although my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield does have a fine record as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel. I shall be entirely honest with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow): I am not completely convinced of the need for a business management committee.
I am disappointed that the Government have been unwilling to accept the Modernisation Committee’s simple and practical proposal on programming. At the moment, programme motions are put immediately after Second Reading, having been determined in advance in order to be taken at that stage. That means that they have been tabled before the House has had the opportunity to air its views on Second Reading, and before the issues that are likely to be controversial have been identified. It is therefore impossible to programme properly if the motion is taken immediately after Second Reading. We should allow more time, and any programme motion that is taken immediately after Second Reading should be limited in its content, with a further motion following it a couple of days later, after it has been possible to have discussions on the information that came to light during the Second Reading debate. By that point, hon. Members’ views on the subjects under discussion will have become clear. I am sorry that the Government have not picked up that point in the Modernisation Committee’s report.
The Modernisation Committee has raised a number of issues that relate to tidying up the way in which the House operates, including ways of making it easier for Members to manage their business and to find out what is happening. The Liberal Democrats made a point earlier about amendments having to be tabled one day earlier than at present. From my experience, I believe that it is not only the Government who would benefit from such a change. It would also make it easier for members of the Committee considering the amendments to take a view on them, which would improve the quality of the debate. It is crucial, however, that the Chairman of the Committee should retain the ability to accept amendments tabled at a later date, albeit in special circumstances.
The motions leave out two crucial matters that the House needs to consider in relation to improving the legislative process. One is the need for post-legislative scrutiny—I mentioned the Law Commission’s report earlier—which is a matter that we need to look at. Any business would find it very strange that we pass laws that people have to abide by, but have no regular process to determine whether they have worked or achieved what they set out to achieve. I accept that Select Committees sometimes consider certain pieces of legislation, but there is no regular, agreed way of ensuring that key legislation always receives such scrutiny.
In order to provide such post-legislative scrutiny, we need greater clarity from the Government on the whole purpose of the Bill in question. That matter was raised earlier by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). Such clarity of purpose is important but, sadly, has been reduced. This is particularly the case now that more and more business is passed down to be dealt with as secondary rather than primary legislation. Large amounts of legislation are now being passed through secondary legislation, most of which receives no debate at all. Those proposals that are debated are normally debated for only an hour and a half in Committee. The recent exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and the Deputy Leader of the House on the delegated legislation to establish the new strategic health authorities provided a good example of this. That legislation was introduced in June and came into force on 1 July. The strategic health authorities came into being on 1 October. However, the order was debated in the House in the middle of October, after all that had happened. We need to consider not only the volume of secondary legislation but the process by which we handle it, to ensure that we are subjecting it to an appropriate level of scrutiny.
I strongly agree with the right hon. Lady’s last point. The world outside thinks that it is nonsense that we debate legislation after it has come into effect. Does she agree that both Houses ought to be able to amend secondary legislation, rather than just being presented with it on a take-it-or-leave-it basis?
Yes, having some ability to amend such legislation would be appropriate. If we were to consider the matter of secondary legislation, we could incorporate that suggestion into our debate.
The proposed changes to Standing Committees are entirely sensible. They will clarify the Committees’ role, and enable us to provide much better legislative scrutiny. The ability to take evidence also represents a significant step forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham raised the issue of who should chair the Public Bill Committees, as they will be known, assuming that the motion is passed today. I shall now perhaps put my head on the block by saying that, in my view, they will be more akin to the present Standing Committees than to Select Committees, and that it would therefore be appropriate for them to be chaired by a member of the Chairmen’s Panel. There could, of course, be issues involved in taking a piece of legislation from its pre-legislative scrutiny through its scrutiny in the House, in relation to the amount of time that a Member would need to spend on the Committee. However, they will essentially be Standing Committees considering legislation, rather than Select Committees, and their chairmanship should be determined on that basis.
The proposals on the legislative process are good; they will help us to help Members become more effective in the management of business, in the scrutiny of legislation and in ensuring that we have better legislation at the end of the day. However, the House still needs to address the key areas of post-legislative scrutiny and of secondary legislation, and I am disappointed that the proposals on programme motions have not been taken up by the Government.
Overall, we need to consider the volume of legislation that goes through the House, and to enable hon. Members to have more opportunity to debate the issues that lie behind the legislation. All too often, debates on the issues can be constrained only in a debate on a Bill that the Government introduce. I apologise to the Leader of the House for citing an example that he has heard before, namely that, although we have considered a number of criminal justice Bills that have dealt with antisocial behaviour, we have not had a proper debate in the House on the causes of antisocial behaviour. It would be of benefit to the House and to our holding the Government to account to debate those issues. It would also be of benefit to our constituents if they could see us debating the issues that are crucial to them.
The communications allowance has already excited considerable interest across the parties in the Chamber today. The present situation needs to be changed. We have seen from the recent publication of the details of Members’ allowances that a small number of Members spend a significant amount of taxpayers’ money on their postage and stationery. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—who is in his place today—came top of the list, but my quick calculation tells me that seven Members spent more than £20,000 on stationery and postage.
The present rules on stationery and postage allowances are, in some senses, confusing. We are told, for example, that
“House stationery should not be used for circulars of any description”.
“Members who wish to send out circulars may purchase…House stationery…at their own expense”,
although, if they do so, they must not use post-paid envelopes. The present rules are therefore sending out confusing messages, and we need to look at this issue.
We also need to look at a situation that reflects the job of a Member of Parliament today. During the Leader of the House’s speech, hon. Members swapped amusing anecdotes across the Floor of the House about the approach of past Members to post received from their constituents. When I first became a Member, I was told that Enoch Powell used to sit in the Library and write responses to all the letters that he received by hand. That action would be inconceivable today due to the volume of correspondence that we receive.
The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) described the communications allowance as a save-our-seats allowance for Labour Members, although it would be available to all Members and would improve communications for those of all parties. How does the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) contrast an allowance that would lead to a clear, transparent, on-the-record statement of the sums expended with the activities of the midlands industrial council, for example, which is a shadowy, murky organisation that makes covert payments in the run-up to general elections, but not during the period of a general election, in seats held by Labour MPs—
Order. I think that our own affairs give us enough with which to concern ourselves.
I welcome the comments of the shadow Leader of the House about the confusion over circular letters. Does she agree that it is completely ridiculous for the definition of a circular to be so narrow that if we receive 20 letters on the same subject, as we often do, we have to produce 20 different replies to fulfil the rules? The right hon. Lady talked about the Members at the top of the postage league, but there is a bigger issue that the media often miss: what is a Member of Parliament doing by drawing £59,000 in salary, but not sending a single letter during the course of a year?
The Leader of the House indicates that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) might have been thinking about not a Sinn Fein Member, but a Member who used to sit on the Labour Benches, who perhaps felt that communicating through “Big Brother” was rather more appropriate than communicating with his constituents through correspondence.
Let me return to the question of whether we should have a communications allowance and the job of being a Member of Parliament today. Communication with our constituents has changed. They expect to get more information from us and for us to keep them more aware of what we are doing as their Members of Parliament. The ruling on unsolicited mail is confusing and does not reflect the job of a Member of Parliament.
The Leader of the House cited the example of a planning matter. I was also going to use that example, although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who is no longer in the Chamber, would have intervened on me if I had gone down that route. Let me cite a different example: it would have been entirely reasonable for Members of Parliament to have wished to write to all the head teachers in their constituency to get their views on the Education and Inspections Bill. However, such letters technically would have been unsolicited pieces of mail, so they would not have fallen under the categories of mail that we are able to send.
There is a need to ensure that Members are able to undertake their job as they are expected to in the 21st century. However, there is also a need to ensure that we are good guardians of taxpayers’ money, that we are not abusing the system, and that we are not putting in place allowances that will enable Members to do what is not part of their job. The enforcement of the rules will be important.
Does the right hon. Lady understand that there is all the difference in the world between Members responding adequately to unsolicited requests from constituents for help or our views—some Members have huge case loads that are not prompted by any effort to recruit work, including those representing inner-city seats, seats with mixed communities and seats with many asylum and immigration cases—and unsolicited party circulars that are prompted by not a single issue, but a Member’s desire to get re-elected? Such circulars should be out of the system. Parties should fund them if they want to, but the taxpayer certainly should not.
Indeed, it is appropriate for parties, not individual Members, to fund some circulars, although I know that some of the circulars sent round by the Liberal Democrats in my constituency have been part-funded by Members of the European Parliament, which raises an interesting issue. However, some activities undertaken by Members to respond and deal with problems in our constituencies are over and above the job as perceived by the original stationery requirements. Those requirements assumed that Members just responded when someone wrote to them. However, we all now take up wider issues with community groups and so forth, as well as responding to individuals.
Does the right hon. Lady not think that hon. Members are deluding themselves if they think that their constituents are waiting by their letter boxes for a glossy circular from ourselves? Is this not a case of panicking about how to deal with the situation, given the difficulties that are being caused to political parties due to funding issues?
I do not pretend that constituents are always waiting eagerly by their letter boxes for a glossy to come through so that they can see the latest photograph of their Member of Parliament. However, hon. Members should have a choice about how to communicate their activities properly to their constituents.
May I make a little more progress? As I was going on to say—knowing the hon. Lady’s interests, this might have been a point that she wished to raise—there are a variety of ways in which Members may communicate with their constituents these days in addition to glossy newsletters. The use of websites and e-mail is often the best form of communication, especially for reaching the younger generation of voters who will not read circulars, but will access websites and blogs.
My view on the communications allowance is simple. My preference would be for a single sum with an overall limit that hon. Members would have as their budget. They could then choose how to spend the sum, albeit within certain appropriate rules, such as not allowing commercial or party political correspondence to be funded from taxpayers’ money. My worry about the proposal that we are considering—this was why I asked the Leader of the House a specific question—is that we will find ourselves in a situation in which a variety of resources will be available to Members. A communications allowance that is additional to Members’ ability to get a limited amount of stationery and post-paid envelopes is not the right way forward. I would prefer Members to be able to choose how to use a limited single budget. It might be that special dispensation would be needed for Members who experienced something such as the Lockerbie disaster in their constituency. However, in general, we should have a budget to which we have to stick, rather than various allowances on which we can draw, with the risk of abuse by Members.
My principal concern about the communications allowance is that it will be used to promote the image and reputation not of the House, but of individual Members of Parliament, which is an entirely different matter. The danger is that the allowance will strengthen the position of incumbents because Members could spend the money to shore themselves up and make them more difficult to challenge. There is no better example of that than the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who should be embarrassed by his postage allowance.
Indeed, that concern underlies several comments made by Conservative Members. There is a fine balance to be struck. Members have a duty to inform their constituents about activities related to their job. That job does not just involve sitting in this place and passing legislation. It involves working on community issues and matters that have been raised in the constituency. However, if correspondence does not inform constituents about Members’ activities in relation to their job, it becomes party political literature, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, rather than literature that should be funded by the taxpayer.
I am bemused by some of the arguments that we are hearing in relation to the communications allowance. It depends on whether we consider ourselves constituency MPs who communicate with our constituents, or Members who just sit in the House and spout Opposition arguments. Those of us who are constituency MPs communicate with our constituents as much as we can, as many times as we can. An annual report adds to that. I have found that people contacted me after receiving an annual report. As the right hon. Lady said, our job is not confined to the House. We have to communicate with our constituents. Those MPs who are not doing so should be ashamed of themselves.
Order. Over-communication there, I think.
It is up to individual Members to decide how they wish to communicate with their constituents. One does not have to be a constituency Member who communicates or a Member who participates in the House. One can be both—a Member who plays an active role in the House and who also communicates regularly with constituents. Ultimately, the decision whether that communication is appropriate is taken by the voters. They will decide at the ballot box whether they think their Member of Parliament is doing an appropriate job.
Is not part of the answer to the reasonable concerns that have been expressed to have strict rules as to the content and use of the communications allowance? That would have to be done at a later stage. There may be Members who will try to stretch the rules, as it is alleged some Members do now, but the House must deal with that. Is not the answer to accept the principle and go for strict rules as to how the allowance is used when the details are decided?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent: we need a set of rules so that every Member knows where they stand. The concern is that it is difficult to draw those rules up in a way that meets all the requirements of Members of Parliament. That is why I prefer an overall budget, which allows the Member of Parliament to choose how they communicate—whether they wish to produce an annual report, whether they wish to communicate electronically or by correspondence, and so on. Those are the issues for a Member to decide. Ultimately, voters will determine whether or not they have done a good job.
It is a matter of striking the right balance. Of course our constituents need to hear from us about what we are doing. Most of us in the House know what is legitimate communication and what taking the Michael is. A few Members, especially in the run-up to the 2005 general election, took the mickey out of allowances.
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a valid point, although at least one of those who took the Michael, as he calls it, in relation to allowances lost their seat, so the voters gave a clear message to that individual.
I am conscious that I have been speaking for a considerable time, so I shall move on to the chunkier topic of September sittings. I agree with the Leader of the House that September provides an opportunity for Members to visit constituency organisations which it is otherwise not possible for them to visit, because such organisations often meet on weekdays and do not meet in August. In September Members have far greater opportunities to get around the constituency and do constituency business. It is important that they have September to do that.
My view is simple. We could change the order of the terms of our sittings. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who is no longer in her seat, raised a wider issue. In my view, the party conference season is in desperate need of a shake-up. I would far prefer party conferences to take place over weekends, than during the week. In terms of enabling more people to have access to them—[Interruption.]
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey asks whether I am in favour of votes at party conferences. I suspect that he did not pay quite as much attention as he might have done to every day of the Conservative party conference. I will tell him that on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday—not the Sunday—of party conference, I chaired a session where members of our candidates’ list put policy proposals to the conference and conference voted on those proposals, which are going forward to our policy review. So we did indeed have votes, and what is more, they were votes on policy.
We need to change the party conference—[Interruption.] I am not sure what the hon. Member for Reading, West is saying as he bounces up and down in his seat. I have always found the hon. Gentleman most stimulating in our exchanges. He is almost a neighbour, but not a direct neighbour because of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson).
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way once again. I support her in her efforts to reform the party conference season. We are discussing September sittings, but the conference season seems to last the whole of September. Why can we not come back earlier, in the first or second week of September? The only reason, it seems, is party conferences. Surely holding the House to account is much more important than the party conferences. The parties should accommodate an earlier return of the House.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the motion tabled by the Leader of the House closes the option of September sittings? The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who said she would support the Leader of the House, nevertheless recognised that we needed to reform the year. The option of September sittings must form part of any review. Does the right hon. Lady agree that if we close the option of September sittings, we close off the possibility of an orderly balance in the year?
Whatever the House may choose to do today, the House may choose in future to reconsider the balance of the year and come back with a different proposal. What we are debating today is whether we reintroduce the two weeks of September sittings that we had in 2003 and 2004. I do not think those worked particularly well in terms of the business that was dealt with during those sittings. There were other issues in relation to the works on the House, but the way in which the House manages those works can be addressed. For the reasons that I have set out, I believe that September is a good month for Members to be in their constituencies for longer periods than would otherwise be possible.
My two final points touch on that aspect. First, I welcome the opportunity that was introduced this year to table questions during the summer recess. It was a limited opportunity. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider expanding the opportunity for Members to table questions to Ministers during the summer recess, so that to some extent Government can be held to account.
The second point is one that I raise tentatively, as I do not have an immediate answer to it. An amendment which was not selected referred to it, although I do not agree with the proposal that it contained. The House may have to consider the matter of how Parliament can be recalled if necessary. It would be right and proper to consider that as part of a wider review. I support the motion tabled by the Leader of the House.
I shall briefly deal with the other points raised. We welcome the proposals on matters sub judice, and particularly the extra flexibility that they will introduce. The new discretionary powers for the Speaker will, if exercised well, give us greater opportunity for debate. I welcome the proposals relating to coroners’ courts, too. I echo the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) about the European Standing Committees. The Government promised to introduce proposals on European Standing Committees and on the scrutiny of European legislation. The Leader of the House’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), now the Minister for Europe—
Yes, he is the silent Europe Minister, as the hon. Gentleman reminds me.
Proposals on the subject were promised a considerable time ago, and hon. Members are beginning to wonder whether the Government were being genuine when they said that suggested changes would be put before the House. There is a real need to consider the issue of public sittings of the European Scrutiny Committees, and the way in which we scrutinise European legislation, because like secondary legislation, all too often it simply does not receive proper scrutiny in the House, although we know that it has a considerable impact on our constituents and the country.
I support the proposal on short speeches, as it makes sense, although if we had longer time for certain debates—for example, if we had two days for Second Readings—more Members could make a full contribution to the debate, without time restrictions applying.
In conclusion, I support the proposals on the legislative process, but the proposed communications allowance is not the right way forward. I support the Leader of the House in his other proposals, particularly those on September sittings.
I intend to press my amendment to the motion on September sittings to a Division at the appropriate time.
As a preface to my remarks, the House may be interested to hear what occurred—or did not occur—with regard to allowances 40 years ago, when I first entered the House, for another constituency. There was no secretarial allowance, but hon. Members got a third of what they paid their secretary back in tax. It was rarely a full-time secretary, for obvious reasons. We paid postage for all letters, which was not an incentive to do any copying, and for telephone calls outside London. Notepaper was strictly rationed, and I can remember trying to argue the case for more. Some might say, but not necessarily me, that we have gone from one extreme to another.
I accept that my amendment, which is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, probably represents a minority viewpoint. I have no illusions: I know that all the indications are that the majority of Members will reject it. Nevertheless, it is important that the point of view that it represents should be put to the House and voted on. As I have said in interventions on other hon. Members, it seems quite wrong for the House to go into recess for a continuous period of 11 weeks. The issue is not whether we sit for longer than other Parliaments—we may well sit for longer than others in western Europe, and than the United States and Canada—but whether it is right that the House should be in recess for such a long period. That is the crux of the issue. I, like the hon. Members who will vote with me, find that unacceptable. There has been some progress: one could cite the example of written questions, which is obviously an advance, but it cannot possibly be considered a substitute for the House sitting.
Does the hon. Gentleman see any merit in the suggestion that the House should return earlier for the Christmas session, so that we do not come back for two weeks in September only to go away again, and so cause disruption to Parliament? Surely the sensible solution is to return in the middle or at the end of September, so that there is no disruption to the House, and so that we can subject the Government to scrutiny from that time onwards?
One thing is absolutely certain—as has already been pointed out, if the amendment is rejected and a Government decision supported by the Opposition Front-Benchers is accepted, all options are closed down. I have no illusions on that score either. If the amendment were agreed to, which it will not be, it would obviously give us a great incentive to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests and to consider other options that are put forward. I repeat that if we accept the Government proposal, which is supported by the Opposition Front Bench, all other options are closed down—and for a pretty long period, I should imagine.
First, the purpose of the motion in my name is to enable the House to make a decision on the subject, rather than having one foisted on it by the Government. Secondly, the motion will enable us to make a “permanent” decision, but such decisions are not for ever. Thirdly, if it assists my hon. Friend and other hon. Members, I am happy to give an undertaking on my own behalf—and I shall make the suggestion to the Modernisation Committee—that, before the end of the coming Parliament, we will review the practice of not having September sittings, if the motion in my name is passed.
I have a great deal of respect for my right hon. Friend, as he knows, but my view is as I stated it a moment ago. As regards the end of the next Parliament, that is some time away, and I shall be rather pessimistic if the Government’s motion is accepted—but it is, of course, for the House to decide on that.
The recommendation in the 2002 report of the Modernisation Committee was clear:
“We believe that Parliament could be more effective if it was not absent for such a long continuous period. We recommend that the Commons should rise in mid-July for the summer recess and return in early September.”
Robin Cook, our late esteemed colleague, argued in the report’s favour. In debate in the House, he said:
“Better scrutiny is also why I believe that the Commons should be prepared to return as a matter of routine for September sittings. It is not healthy for the elected representatives of the British people to be absent for three months at a stretch. Too much happens while we are away, and too many decisions necessarily have to be taken by Government in our absence, for which there is no opportunity for Ministers to give an account to the Commons.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 692.]
It should be said that the Modernisation Committee’s report was passed by a very large majority—by 411 votes to 47.
It has been argued that the matter of the September sittings was all very unfortunate, and that when we met in September in 2003 and 2004 it did not work out well, but I have no evidence of that. Government business was undertaken. It is true that on the last occasion, in 2004, hooligans invaded the Chamber, but that is hardly an argument for not having September sittings—hooligans could have invaded the Chamber at any period. Where is the evidence that it was wrong to hold those sittings, or that the Government, the Opposition and Labour Back Benchers did not have all the opportunities that they usually have when the House sits? I do not accept the argument that it was all a failure. I was present on both occasions and I cannot remember any such verdict being reached.
As regards the issue of what Members of Parliament do, I do not argue that we are all lazy. Indeed, it could well be argued, especially on the evidence of the past few years, that Members of Parliament are more likely to be workaholics than lazy. I do not work on the assumption that we all go to the beach in some foreign land for the whole recess. That would be rather boring and expensive. Like most hon. Members, I take a fortnight’s holiday and then I do my constituency work, and I do not pat myself on the back for it. That constituency work is important, but surely it is not argued that if we came back for a period in September we would not have time to do it. If we go into recess in mid-July, as we did in the two years in question, we would have time to do that work in July, or in the latter part of August. If we sat for two weeks in September, we could do that work between those two weeks and our return in October. It cannot be argued that if we were in the House, debating and doing our job, we would not have sufficient time for constituency work.
I take the view—I hope that it is not outdated—that however important our constituency work and however many letters we send, our main job, as I said in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, is to hold the Government to account in Parliament. Indeed, that is the reason why we were elected. I accept that some of my hon. Friends are not enthusiastic about the amendment, but they might be more enthusiastic about September sittings if we were in opposition. It is difficult to understand why Opposition Members are not keen on September sittings. If I were in opposition—and I served in opposition for an 18-year stretch—I would be even keener.
Of course I do. I have tremendous respect for my hon. Friend and I do not dispute her assertion. Surely, however, she would not challenge my view that our main job is nothing other than our work in the Chamber, Select Committees and so on? I hope that that is always the case, as it is the basis of our parliamentary democracy.
Much criticism has been levelled at MPs, particularly last week when our expenses were published. It is difficult to accept the way in which expenses are designated. My secretary, for example, does not receive expenses—she receives a salary, and my constituency assistant does, too. We are subject to a good deal of criticism—some of it ill-judged, I accept—much of it directed at our salaries, pension entitlement and expenses. No doubt there will considerable public controversy about the new allowance that may, or may not, be justified. The perception that we will reject the opportunity to sit in September does not help the House of Commons, and we should take that into account.
May I chastise my hon. Friend, because he does not do himself or his argument any favours by referring to the allowances and budgets that we receive to pay our staff, and provide a service to our constituents, as expenses? Expenses are what journalists receive; budgets and allowances are what MPs receive to do the job of work that we are sent to Westminster to perform.
My hon. Friend would be perfectly entitled to make such a remark about me if he would only listen for once. It is the first time that I have been criticised in an intervention for the opposite of what I said.
In conclusion, the word “recess” is virtually unknown outside the Westminster village. Members may have met constituents and others who talk about the recess, but I have only done so once or twice in all the years in which I have been an MP. It is a Westminster word. To the average person, it is a holiday. Most people generously accept that during that “holiday” we do a good deal of constituency work but, nevertheless, the term is not used outside the Westminster village. My amendment gives the House the opportunity to sit in September. If it were carried—I accept that that is unlikely—there would be consultations between the Front-Bench spokesmen of the three main parties and the usual channels to try to remedy the arrangement whereby we returned for two weeks in September before the recess resumed. Urgent steps would be taken, as recommended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) when he was Leader of the House. In a reply to a question that I asked during business questions almost a year ago on 10 November, he said that the political parties could be consulted about conference arrangements and so on.
There is therefore a solution—we could return to Westminster in late September, so the recess would not resume. I emphasise that if the House rejects my amendment, it is unlikely, despite what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, that there will be any change for a long time. That is unacceptable and we would not do ourselves any favours. I therefore urge right hon. and hon. Members to give serious consideration to my proposal.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I shall come to his amendment, but may I pick up one point that he made? He said that the term “recess” is not used outside the House. It is in common usage in America, where it means playtime. One problem we face is that many of our constituents think that that is what “recess” means for us—it is a playtime that is not used effectively to hold the Government to account.
The most important commodity in the House is time, which is needed by the Government to ensure the progress of their legislative programme. It matters to people affected by the legislation, as it ensures that there is proper scrutiny. It is important to Opposition Members, who should have the opportunity to raise serious matters on their parties’ behalf. It is important, too—this ingredient is often forgotten—to Back Benchers, who often do not have the opportunities that are afforded to their Front-Bench colleagues, to raise issues that are vital for their constituencies during the passage of legislation and at other times. Any discussion that enables us to use the time available to the House more effectively is therefore valuable. I applaud the Leader of the House for introducing a wide-ranging series of motions. I do not agree with every proposal in that gallimaufry but, nevertheless, the House should have the opportunity to discuss them. He introduced them so promptly that some of them probably surprised some of his senior colleagues, but that is a matter for another day.
May I deal with the Modernisation Committee report as a whole? The Leader of the House has urged us to welcome it, telling us in parenthesis that proposals that have not been selected to appear as motions on the Order Paper will receive the implicit approval of the House if we agree the third motion. I applaud the work of the Modernisation Committee, but I wish to raise a number of issues on which it has not done such a good job and which give cause for concern. Addressing the thorny issue of programme motions and their consequences, it helpfully proposed that programme motions should not prejudge the interests of Front-Bench spokesmen on Second Reading or, as I suggested earlier, of Back Benchers with a particular concern that they wish to pursue in Committee. It is absurd that Government business managers affect to understand, before Second Reading, which issues are likely to be important, producing a programme motion on committal proceedings and an end date before assessing interest in the Bill. That is a perverse way of doing business, and I am sorry that the Leader of the House did not agree to the Committee’s proposal.
I am even sorrier that we have not received, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, a proper response to the earlier proposal from the Procedure Committee to establish a proper business Committee for the House. In most modern legislatures, parties meet to programme business effectively, not by edict but by agreement, thus determining the legislature’s opportunities to scrutinise business. We must return to that matter because the programme motion regime is simply not working. Programme motions work as guillotines, but they are introduced in circumstances in which guillotines are not required, as the House can manage its own timetabling business.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the process in the Scottish Parliament includes pre-legislative scrutiny and a business committee? All the public and private interest groups that are concerned about legislation in Scotland have found that the conduct of legislation in Scotland is much superior on a practical basis to that in Westminster. Is there not some advantage in learning from a devolved Assembly that has developed ideas, which this Parliament has failed to do?
That is a good example, but, as my hon. Friend knows, we have turned our backs on many other sensible procedures through simple reaction, although such procedures could make us a more effective legislature.
The Modernisation Committee did not properly address two other parts of Bill procedure, the most important of which is the Report stage. First, when a Bill is on Report, it is the one opportunity for Back Benchers to table and debate amendments. The opportunity is often denied by the timetabling, which curtails discussion on Report and which orders the business in such a way that Front Benchers have their say while later amendments are not debated. Secondly, swathes of Government amendments that are barely scrutinised are often introduced on Report, which denies the House the opportunity to do justice to its scrutiny role. The other place is offended when it gets a half-scrutinised Bill, large elements of which have never been seen or discussed by this House, because it has to try to put right what we have failed to do on primary legislation.
Another issue is when we find ourselves in dispute with another place. The Modernisation Committee report refers to the Reasons Committee, and it concludes that that Committee is not very good, but we cannot do much about it. The Reasons Committee is a farce. We all troop into the little Room behind the Speaker’s Chair, and the Minister reads out an entirely spurious reason for disagreeing with the other place. There was a classic example of that when I spoke on home affairs—the reason was “this House does not believe that the amendments are appropriate”.
That is not fair enough in a sensible, grown-up legislature. When we disagree, we should have a sensible dialogue between the two Houses. We should have a conciliation procedure that respects the views expressed at each end of the Corridor and tries to assimilate them, whenever that is possible. Then we would not have sterile ping-pong between the Houses, one-hour sittings dealing with half a dozen amendments from another place, which do not do justice to the views expressed, and the feeling that that is a dysfunctional part of our legislative process.
I want to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about programme motions. I am sure that he wants to avoid the possibility of cosy arrangements being made between party managers in smoke-filled rooms, which impedes this House’s ability to hold the Executive to account.
That is the reason why I have made my suggestions. At the moment, there is a nod and a wink between the usual channels, and then a programme motion is plonked before the House, which can take it or leave it—the answer is that we take it, because there is a Government majority in favour of the programme motion. That is not a good enough way of doing business, and it does not do justice to hon. Members.
The hon. Gentleman is giving the House a catalogue of complaints about the work of the Modernisation Committee, but that Committee is unique, because its members include the Leader of the House, who is Chairman, and the shadow Leader of the House. In view of the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench position, if he is that concerned about what the Modernisation Committee gets up to, why does he not sit on it?
The right hon. Gentleman should think for a moment, because it is an extraordinary proposition that one can only comment on a Select Committee report if one sits on the Committee. He may be surprised to learn that I do not entirely agree with him. I sat on the Modernisation Committee for a short time, but it became irreconcilable with the other duties that I perform on behalf of my party, which is why I stood down from that Committee and asked my hon. Friend the Chief Whip to sit in my place. I am sure that my hon. Friend does a good job in Committee, but that does not stop me giving my opinion on the conclusions of the Modernisation Committee in a debate such as this. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to prevent me from giving my views.
Turning to the specifics, the proposal on public Bill committees will commend itself to the House. There is widespread support for the suggestion that we should take a more reasoned view, including taking evidence, before conducting line-by-line scrutiny, although one should not be at the expense of the other. I hope that we will not lose the capacity closely to scrutinise what is written in statute, because I am one of those old-fashioned people who thinks that it matters what we write into laws and that what we write into laws should be right. At the moment, that happens in Committee, and I do not want to lose that procedure.
In an earlier intervention, I raised the issue of delegated legislation with the Leader of the House. Given that so much legislation that has a crucial effect on our constituents is now secondary legislation, there may be occasions when it is appropriate for a Committee considering delegated legislation to take evidence before reaching a conclusion. I support the view that it should be possible to amend delegated legislation, because we often make bad law simply because there is no way to express a different view. It would also be in the interests of the Government to be able to accede to a sensible amendment in a Committee considering delegated legislation rather than passing flawed legislation that must be amended later.
The communications allowance is a more difficult matter, and I have listened carefully to the exchanges on the subject. It is a matter for individual hon. Members, so I can only speak personally, but I have not been persuaded that the communications allowance is necessary. I find it difficult to understand how some hon. Members manage to spend quite as much as they do on their postage allowance within the rules of the House, as I understand them. Some hon. Members have extraordinarily busy inner-city constituencies, and they deal with a huge volume of correspondence that is far beyond what, for example, I would expect to receive in my constituency. Those hon. Members reply to all that correspondence by letter, but they get nowhere near the upper limits that other hon. Members find it appropriate to claim.
I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that there are widely differing interpretations of the current rules. The starting point should be interpreting the rules consistently and ensuring that the rules are clear. There are instances in which it is appropriate to write on House of Commons notepaper to a particular constituent, because one is aware of something that will affect that constituent directly and one would like their view, which is legitimate parliamentary business.
I am equally certain that something that is essentially a party political leaflet in a House of Commons envelope is not an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money. We should be able clearly to distinguish between the two. I do not take the view that annual reports are a waste of time. They communicate directly between hon. Members and their constituents and ensure that constituents are aware of the range and availability of services that Members offer them. However, Members who put out a glossy leaflet on a much more regular basis than an annual report are probably abusing the use of taxpayers’ money for party political aims. It is important to get the balance right and to ensure that the rules are clear.
Some Members face difficulties because our allowances system does not properly cater for the variances between the running costs of constituency offices. The most appropriate cost to ring-fence might be that of office rental, because that can differ hugely as between a central London location and somewhere in an extremely rural area. It seems perverse that some Members can spend a large part of their so-called expenses just on ensuring that they have an office available to their constituents while others will pay much less and have more money available for other activities that they undertake. I worry that the rules sometimes seem to be applied in a very arbitrary fashion, not because the Fees Office wants to be arbitrary but because we have failed to provide sufficient and adequate guidance as to what are appropriate expenses.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the logical corollary of his line of argument is that we could be on a slippery slope to creating different types of Members of Parliament based on value judgments as to the type of casework that they do and their geographical location? For instance, I have a lot of asylum and immigration cases in my constituency, but it would be a retrograde step to make a value judgment that my case load was more deserving of a bigger allowance in delivering my duty as a Member of Parliament than someone in a rural area such as himself.
It is not a value judgment, but merely a recognition that different costs are involved. Given that our allowance system is supposed to equalise Members to make it equally possible for us all to do our work effectively, where there are fixed costs, which take a very large percentage of some Members’ allowances and not those of others, it is sensible to recognise that rather than to pretend that it is otherwise. We do that in relation to accommodation, so why not office accommodation? That is an odd discrepancy. I will not support the communications allowance because I suspect that it acts as a strong support for incumbency, which is not necessarily a good outcome.
On September sittings, I have always taken the view that it is wrong for the House to be absent from this place for a quarter of the year. It is not right that Government should not be scrutinised during that time while we are all away in our constituencies. My problem with the Leader of the House’s proposal is that removing the possibility of September sittings will lead to stasis. That is why I shall support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walsall, North, as I would have supported that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) had it been selected. Having said that, I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North that we should not be too dogmatic about the form that this should take. There must be careful discussion between the parties. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) said, we need to reconsider radically the whole parliamentary year to see how we can use time effectively to reduce the gaps between our sitting times. If that means adjusting the party conference season, so be it. Let us go to the parties and say: “We want to do this; please accommodate the requirements of the House of Commons.”
The hon. Gentleman has thought of my point in advance. Would not right hon. and hon. Members find the proposed two weeks’ scrutiny of the Executive, which should happen, more attractive if at the same time we proposed scrapping the seaside conferences for the three main parties? They are out of date, too long and no longer fit for purpose, as the Home Secretary might say. Were that a combined package, we might find that we had a majority.
Our conference is not a waste of time, because it determines the policy of our party. We have this strange idea that we vote at our conference, so we would have to find an alternative time to hold it.
We need to look sensibly at how we structure the parliamentary year to reduce the gaps. We should accept the fact that important constituency activities go on during the recess for which we need to find capacity. One of my activities—it will not apply to some of those who sit for urban seats—is to go round all the small villages in my constituency. I have about 120 villages and get round about 100 of them in a two-week period. I would not want to lose that opportunity, because it is an important part of my role in keeping in touch with my electorate. However, I do not have to do it in the last two weeks of September; I can arrange my timetable around the parliamentary timetable, as can the parties.
Further to the recess, it is wrong that we have no power to recall Parliament, and we must reconsider that at some stage. It is not satisfactory to leave it in the hands of Ministers. If Members feel sufficiently strongly that there is a matter that should be considered, they should be able to raise that with Mr. Speaker, who should then have the discretion to recall Parliament. One of the consequences of the very long summer recess is that we hear almost immediate calls for a recall. This summer, someone asked for a recall before we had even gone into recess, which must be a record. It is like Christmas—we shall start to think about when we should be recalled in the summer recess before we have started the Easter holidays.
I entirely support the proposals on sub judice matters, coroners’ courts and Select Committee evidence.
On European scrutiny, the House has a huge deficiency and the sooner we get to grips with it the better. I agree with the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) that the meetings of the European Scrutiny Committee should be open; I have not the slightest idea why they are not. That upsets me. It also upsets me that sessions of the European Council of Ministers are closed, not open and transparent, but that is not within our remit.
The proposal on short speeches is sensible. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I say that at the risk of casting opprobrium on myself.
I will oppose the proposal on the tabling of amendments in Committee. I entirely agree that the tabling of Government amendments at the last minute is not helpful and should be avoided. The Government should have protocols requiring Ministers to table amendments in good time. It should be good practice for Opposition Members to be able to table amendments early as well, but an unreasonable constraint will be imposed on Opposition members of Committees if they must produce amendments so early that they cannot consider them properly.
There is currently a very narrow window between the selection of a Committee and its first sitting. Tuesday sittings often raise questions that can be dealt with by means of amendments at Thursday sittings, but if the House accepts this proposal it will be impossible—other than at the Chairman’s discretion—to table an amendment as a result of a ministerial reply on a Tuesday that can be dealt with on the Thursday. That would restrict the capacity of Opposition parties to hold the Government properly to account and to improve legislation, and I shall therefore resist the proposal.
I particularly welcome the motion relating to the legislative process, and the proposal for Bills to be sent to a special Committee that can take evidence directly from those interested in them. I had some direct experience of that in the last Parliament, when the Bill that became the Children and Adoption Act 2006 went to a Joint Committee of both Houses. We took evidence from a range of organisations and experts. I am pleased to say that the then Minister accepted some of our recommendations, and that changes were made to the Bill before it went to a Standing Committee.
That Bill was not uncontroversial, as it introduced new court powers to deal with parents who disobeyed court rulings on contact orders. In the special Committee we were able to consider the best way of legislating in a difficult area without a confrontation between Committee members, which resulted in much better legislation. That was a valuable experience for me as a Member of Parliament, and a direct contradiction of my previous experiences on Standing Committees. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who described some of his own experiences on a Standing Committee.
Does my hon. Friend agree that special Committees are also an important way of engaging the public with our legislative process? An evidence-based system helps them to feel more connected to Parliament, and more a part of any legislation that we produce here.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, she advanced those arguments powerfully on the Modernisation Committee, of which she is a member.
The other great advantage of special Committees is that they enable organisations with an interest to send representatives to a Committee directly rather than doing what they do now—relying on Committee members to read prepared briefs into the proceedings. The advantage for Committee members is that those people in turn can be examined on some of their evidence. An Opposition Member recently complained bitterly about material put out by a children’s organisation, saying that it was untrue and inaccurate.
The value of a special Committee lies in the fact that an organisation that had produced such evidence could be challenged by Committee members to justify it. As we all know, not everything that organisations say is entirely accurate or, indeed, entirely true.
If Back Benchers believe that Bills will be changed in the light of proper evidence, much more constructive work will be done when proposals are presented to Committees. At present Back Benchers in both Houses do not believe that a Bill can be easily altered once it is in Committee, so they tend to “go through the motions”. Standing Committees are hugely important to the making of laws. They are not given much of the limelight of publicity, but they engage hours of people’s time, and what emerges from them is the law that we have made. That is one of the most important things that we do as Members of Parliament. If we do not believe that we can change what we do in any way, it is hardly surprising that Members themselves sometimes become disengaged from the legislative process.
When I visit schools and am asked what I do as a Member of Parliament, I say, “Well, Members of Parliament make the laws.” Part of our problem is that to most, if not all, members of the public, the process is not understandable. They therefore do not understand how they can influence the way in which we make laws, although they care passionately about some of the proposals that we may or may not advance. We talk of disengagement from our democracy. We cannot engage with the public unless what we do is seen to be transparent, and unless the public feel that they can play a part other than by electing us once every four years. Most people currently believe that that is the only way in which they can influence what happens.
Like other Members, I receive hundreds of requests to sign early-day motions every year. Recently I have been receiving even more, generated by postcard and e-mail campaigns—initiated, usually, by lobby groups. The public understand what signing an early-day motion means, and they believe that it has an impact on what happens in this place. That is not entirely true, of course: thousands of early-day motions are signed each year, and few of them have any influence at all. Nevertheless, the public understand what is meant by asking a Member of Parliament to sign an early-day motion.
The special Committee system will enable my constituents, some of whom have considerable personal and expert experience in particular fields, to contribute to the passage of legislation. Presumably they will able to submit written evidence and be called to give evidence on matters of which they have special knowledge. They will see that as a real, understandable way of contributing to debates on legislation and to the parliamentary process, enabling them to connect with this place. That can only be good for us and for democracy.
I believe that modernisation must be about changing our procedures, making them more transparent to allow wider engagement with the public. That, for me, is the modernisation agenda, and these proposals for change are an important step along the modernisation road.
I am very interested in the citizenship curriculum. In my constituency, teachers are doing excellent work. Many schools have school councils, and the children are involved in projects. We have an active youth council. Only last week I attended a meeting with some young people to discuss transport with representatives of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority and Stagecoach. The young people made very interesting comments, having spent a great deal of time thinking about what they wanted to say. The problem then was where to take the concerns that they had raised, and where they perceived those concerns to have been taken.
It is disappointing that a recent Ofsted report referred to a poor national standard of teaching in schools. That is not my experience in the constituency. It cannot be right for young people to leave school with excellent A-levels or GCSEs and no idea how our democracy works, but it is not enough for us to ask for higher standards of teaching if the young people to whom I talked on the youth council do not know how to contribute their comments to the democratic process. The two things that we must do should go hand in hand. We have to offer engagement to the public, and also ask for the standard of citizenship teaching in our schools to improve.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for schools to be able to arrange visits to the Palace of Westminster? The cost of visiting the Houses of Parliament is a big hurdle for many of my constituents in North Durham. Would it be helpful if support could be given to schools and youth groups that wish to come and see the House in action, and how our democracy works?
We on the Modernisation Committee discussed at length how we could support school visits. I know that the education department of the House of Commons is visiting various constituencies to try to find out their needs in accessing to Parliament. After it has finished those visits, I hope that it will report back to the Committee.
Yes, as my hon. Friend says, there is a lot of interest in Parliament among young people; theirs is not a totally disengaged generation, although that is sometimes the perception.
We must find a way of ensuring that the important citizenship curriculum in schools is taught properly and well, but at the same time ensure that we modernise Parliament so that young people, whose interest in it we have encouraged through that citizens’ agenda, feel that they can have some input into this place.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has introduced the modernisation proposals, and I look forward to there being many more of them, particularly to those that might arise out of our current inquiry into the role of the Back Bencher, which I know that he welcomes.
I shall start by referring to the two motions relating to sub judice, but before I get on to the meat of my argument, I wish to thank all members of the Procedure Committee for their support and hard work. It does not involve trips to exotic places overseas, and often there is no media coverage, but, nevertheless, it is very important. I also join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to my predecessor as Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who I am pleased to see in his place.
Parliament’s sub judice rule effectively prevents debate on individual cases while they are active before the courts. The rule is set out in a resolution that was agreed by each House in 2001. Our predecessor Committee reported on the resolution as a whole in March 2005 and, while recognising that it has sometimes created difficulties for Members, particularly in delaying debates, that report did not recommend any change to the rule.
We decided to return to the subject mainly because of representations that we received from Members that the implementation of the rule was preventing them from debating issues that deserved to be raised in Parliament. There was particular concern about coroners courts, where an inquest could be opened that then adjourned for months, and even years. One case that was drawn to our attention was adjourned for more than two years while police inquiries and other investigations were carried out. I shall return to the issue of delay.
It was put to us that the House authorities were repeatedly over-cautious in the advice that they gave, and that, as a consequence, Members were finding that any hint of active court proceedings was enough to prevent debate or questioning not only on the case itself, but on related issues of general policy. That is not the purpose of the rule, and Members should not be given the impression that it is.
As we pursued our inquiry, we discovered a number of reasons why that impression had been created. First, the rule is, in its entirety, subject to the discretion of the Chair. Mr. Speaker has the power to set it aside if it is his opinion that a particular case is of sufficient importance that debate, or questions relating to it, should be allowed. Our predecessor Committee recommended in its report that where Members believe the rule to be unreasonably impeding the work of Parliament they should refer the matter to Mr. Speaker and ask him to exercise his discretion.
However, many Members have not always understood how they should go about asking Mr. Speaker to exercise his discretion. In particular, some Members did not appreciate that the discretion can be exercised only by Mr. Speaker himself. It cannot be negotiated with Clerks in the Table Office. We have therefore recommended that the Table Office should produce a short printed guide to the rule, which I hope will provide a clear explanation of that, and of other aspects of the rule.
Secondly, the House authorities have, perhaps, been somewhat over-cautious in their advice on the implementation of the rule. That is because—to be fair to them, and to borrow the frank words of the former Clerk of the House, Sir Roger Sands—
“we have quite often been let down by Members in this matter.”
This is how he explains what he meant by that: for example, some Members have, applied for an Adjournment debate on a general matter of public policy but without any warning produced
“a string of details about a very specific case, referring to individuals by name and generally looking to the Minister to do the job which the judge or the coroner should properly do”.
I hope that the House will agree that Mr. Speaker cannot be expected to exercise his discretion to allow debate if he cannot rely on the Member concerned to keep to the agreed terms of that debate.
For that reason, we have recommended that there should be a new Standing Order that explicitly gives Mr. Speaker power to direct a Member to resume his or her seat if he or she oversteps the agreed mark in relation to sub judice matters. It is proposed that that power also be extended to those who chair Westminster Hall debates and non-legislative Standing Committees—or “General Committees”, as we are soon likely to call them.
It is my Committee’s belief that, armed with the specific powers in the new Standing Order, Mr. Speaker will be much better placed to exercise his discretion in a greater number of cases, and in more sensitive cases he will, we hope, be able to agree to allow a Member to have a debate, its scope having been agreed beforehand by the Member concerned.
On discretion, the Order of the House regarding sub judice restricts Mr. Speaker’s discretion to a case that
“concerns issues of national importance such as the economy, public order or the essential services”.
In the recommendations of my right hon. Friend’s Committee, it is simply said that the phrase “national importance” in the resolution should be interpreted reasonably. Why, in view of the other things that he has said and the submissions that I and others made to the predecessor Committee, did he not recommend that that part of the resolution should be amended so that the definition encompasses only the facts in dispute in the court case, rather than all the peripheral issues, which currently get banned?
We took the view that it was better to proceed by a moderate degree, rather than to suggest, for example, the wholesale abolition of the rule or a wide exemption from the rule. I think that this will be acceptable to Members, should the House agree to the suggestion tonight, for the reasons that I have partly outlined and shall continue to outline, and also for another reason that I shall refer to later, to do with delay. The issue of delay, too, was causing a great deal of concern in all parts of the House.
I accept the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes that Members could apply for an Adjournment debate and then introduce information or subjects that were not in its title. However, will the Speaker or the Chair be given guidance on how to interpret what is being put forward? A Member could bring something forward and at that time the Speaker, or the Chair of Westminster Hall, might not have detailed knowledge of that individual case. How will the Speaker and the Chair be able to decide whether what has been put forward breaks the rule?
If I may, I shall deal with that issue a little later, because a development is taking place, to which I shall refer, that has great bearing on it. If, once I have dealt with it, the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied, I invite him to intervene on me again.
If the House agrees to these proposals, I should expect to see fewer refusals to allow a debate where there is an issue to discuss that can be dealt with without compromising pending cases. In approving our report and the introduction of the Standing Order, the House will be establishing a new and firmer base from which the Speaker will be able to exercise his discretion, confident that he has both the power of the Standing Order and the support of the House.
We did consider whether the rule itself was wrong or needed amendment, but like our predecessor Committee, we concluded that the rule should stand, that there was no need for a change to the wording of the resolution, and that coroners courts should remain within the scope of the House’s sub judice rules. These conclusions are based, first, on the risk of prejudice to specific cases or inquests, and, secondly, on the ground of comity or non-interference with the judiciary.
The Committee also considered in detail the issue of delay, which has been a particular problem with coroners’ inquests. As I mentioned earlier, an inquest can be opened and then adjourned for months or even years. It is ironic that if a constituent is seriously injured it is likely that the Member concerned will have no difficulty in raising the issue in the House, but if that constituent is killed rather than seriously injured, because the death results in an inquest, which is likely to be opened and then adjourned, the matter instantly becomes sub judice. We considered whether it would be practical to establish a trigger point later than the opening of the inquest for the application of the sub judice rule to coroners courts. I am afraid that in the light of the evidence that we took—including from the Attorney-General—we were forced to conclude that there is no alternative point to which the trigger could be connected.
We did, and I do, recognise that these delays are very frustrating for Members. However, under the Contempt Of Court Act 1981, the length of time between an alleged contempt and the proceedings of the case itself is an important criterion by which the extent of the contempt is judged. Although I do not believe that that Act can or should be applied to proceedings in this House, we do recommend in our report that Mr. Speaker take particular account of the question of delay in considering whether to exercise his discretion. Moreover, I believe that the Government’s proposals in the draft Coroners Bill for a more professional coroner service and a chief coroner’s office offers the prospect of more timely and accurate advice on the state of individual inquests than has previously been possible. I hope that that partly answers the point raised earlier by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones).
The problems associated with delay might be resolved in the not too distant future. I received a letter from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs that is very relevant to the issue of delay, and I should like to share part of it with the House. I had told her that the Committee was looking into this matter, and particularly the very long delays that often occur when inquests are adjourned. In referring to the draft Coroners Bill, she said the following:
“I should like to draw your attention to one change of policy, underpinning the draft Bill which may reduce the number of occasions when the sub judice rule needs to be invoked. The Bill makes a distinction between coroners’ duty to investigate and their duty to hold an inquest. This distinction will mean that, in practice, coroners will not, as they do now, routinely open and adjourn inquests at the start of their inquiry into a death. Instead, when coroners believe that a death falls into a category which they are obliged to look into, they will begin an investigation. They will not, therefore, open an inquest until later in the process when they are ready to either hold a pre-inquest hearing or to hear the case in full.”
That is very important. She continues:
“We will need to assess how this change will impact on the exemption that coroner’s cases receive from debate in Parliament under the sub judice rule, but certainly one interpretation could be that a coroner’s investigation and inquest would equate to the distinction in the criminal justice system between a police investigation and the commencement of court proceedings.”
I hope that the problem that some Members have experienced of an inquest being adjourned for a very long time, and of their being unable, therefore, to debate the issue, might soon be consigned to history.
May I commend my right hon. Friend on his Committee’s report? Does he agree with me that if Members of this House are to do their duty on behalf of their constituents and of other constituency interests, his proposal is absolutely essential? Does he further agree that the very telling and extremely lucid evidence that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) gave to the Committee when I chaired it—and, I believe, subsequently—in respect of a constituency case has had an important influence on his Committee and its decision, which will ensure that Members can do their job in this place?
I am very grateful for the support of my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former Chairman of the Committee, and I agree with what he says about the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). I hope that the very encouraging letter that I received from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs will mean that in future, when a coroner realises that a considerable period of time will elapse before the evidence is assembled, he will open an investigation, not an inquest. That will mean that in the interim period, issues of wider concern could be discussed in this House.
That clarifies the position and is helpful to those of us who have experienced the lengthy delays associated with coroners courts. However, what will happen when the complaint is about not an individual case, but a multitude of cases—in other words, when the core complaint is about the coroner himself? In such a situation, reference might have to be made to individual cases in order to argue that the coroner in question was at fault. For example, there is one coroner in the north-east who was appallingly slow in dealing with inquests.
The matter is not yet cut and dried. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs goes on to say in her letter that the Lord Chief Justice is being consulted, and I should hope that concerns such as those expressed by the hon. Gentleman will be examined by the right hon. and learned Lady and the Lord Chief Justice before they finalise the scope and terms of the Coroners Bill, which I understand will be pursued initially as a draft pre-legislative Bill. The hon. Gentleman can therefore pursue these matters further when we debate that Bill. However, this development suggests to me that the Government are looking at this issue thoroughly and sensitively, and for that they should be congratulated.
I therefore hope that, for the reasons that I have outlined, the House will decide not to divide on this aspect of today’s business and will instead give the proposals their full support.
I welcome the report of the Modernisation Committee, of which I am a member; indeed, I took part in the deliberations that led to the report’s formation. I particularly support the proposal that pre-legislative scrutiny should become more widespread; that is good news for the parliamentary process and for effective scrutiny. Too often, when Ministers bring a Bill to this House, they are unwilling to countenance changes to it, regarding such changes as almost a personal attack on themselves or their policy. Having a pre-legislative phase to draft Bills will, I hope, mean that we get more debate and discussion, and a greater willingness on the part of Ministers to accept amendments where they are deemed appropriate.
It is precisely that characteristic that is also the advantage of the new Committee stage of Bills. Speaking from direct experience of asylum and immigration legislation, because there were four evidence-taking sessions, I was able to withdraw gracefully a couple of proposals that we all thought were very good ideas in opposition, but which turned out to be rather less than good on further examination. I was able to withdraw them far more easily than if they had come up in the adversarial part of the Committee stage, or on the Floor of the House.
That is a powerful point. Anything that allows a Minister to change tack without losing face should be encouraged.
Moving on to the Public Bill Committee proposals, I again fully support what is in the report. I hope that it will lead to less yah-boo politics at the Committee stage and a greater opportunity for constructive scrutiny and enlightened debate.
In his opening remarks, the Leader of the House treated the House to his experience when he first came here as an Opposition Member. When I was the Government Whip on a Standing Committee that was about to be appointed, I had a list of names and showed it to the Chief Whip. He said, “Why do you want to put him on your Committee?” I said, “He knows something about the subject.” He said, “Yes, that is a very good reason for keeping him off the Committee.” We should move on from the days when Government members of committees were told to shut up and keep quiet and Opposition Members felt that they had to talk and talk to fill the time. We can do better. I believe that the proposals in the report will show that that is the case.
The Modernisation Committee report contains a suggestion that we introduce the innovation of requiring Members to table an explanatory note on their amendments. That is an interesting suggestion. My Committee is happy to look at it, including in the context of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who was worried about extending the time for tabling amendments. If we can find a way of having a satisfactory system for tabling explanatory notes to amendments, some of the concerns about a raft of amendments being tabled at the last minute, particularly where they refer to other legislation and therefore are not immediately intelligible, may be allayed.
On the issue of September sittings, I realise that there are differing views on the subject. I want to share with the House some of the discussions I had when I was shadow Deputy Leader of the House to the late Eric Forth, who delegated to me all the responsibility for dealing with the then Leader of the House on that issue; the Leader of the House at that time was the late Robin Cook. Although in debate he obviously made the point about holding the Government to account, Robin Cook's main concern—in fact, it was an irritant with him—was that every year the press had the headline, “MPs away on a three-month holiday”. His argument to me was that, if we had a system where we came back for two weeks, and the recess after that time was a constituency and conference recess, the press would not be able to say that MPs had gone away for three months’ holiday. Judged by that aspect of it, the experiment has been a total failure because, in the years when we had September sittings, we still had the headline, “MPs have gone on a three-month holiday”.
I take the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but does not he think that we should not be concerned about that just because of what the press say? Many of us take the view that it is unacceptable that the House is away for 11 weeks and not calling the Government to account.
That is a fair view. I said at the outset that there are differing opinions on the matter. Having served in a Government Whips Office, I just feel that, for the business managers, it is difficult to get substantial business marshalled for a period when the House is sitting for only two weeks. One has to find out where Ministers are and then discuss with the Opposition where the shadow Ministers are. I was rather of the view on the occasions when we sat in September that, for most of the time, considering the business we were dealing with, it was like treading water.
It is not cost-effective to bring the House back for two weeks and for us to go away again. Many hon. Members—I am not one of them—like to go abroad on fact-finding visits, which they can undertake only in the recess. They found the September sittings disruptive from that point of view.
May I raise a matter that has just been touched on and that is the need for Members of Parliament to have bilateral contact with and bilateral visits to countries throughout the world? It is an important part of Parliament's duty to be in touch with countries throughout the world. The work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the British-American Parliamentary Group is very important. The Whips in this House are less and less prepared to allow people to go abroad unless there is total parity between the political parties. That makes the work of those groups increasingly difficult. Is that not something that should be taken into account when we consider September sittings? A great many of those visits take place in September.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Business managers on the Government side now have a far easier job than I had when I was in that position, because our majority went down to three and, with defections and deaths, it went down to zero. Current business managers have a certain luxury, which I envy; I never had it. My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the IPU is allowed to continue because of the benefits of contact with politicians and parliamentarians around the globe.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Leader of the House, was at best ambivalent about and perhaps, at worst, mildly resistant to the establishment of a business Committee of the House to take responsibility for programming out of the hands of the Executive and to put it into genuine parliamentary hands. Does my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), as a distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee, agree that we would have much greater credibility and transparency in the system if, while keeping the benefits of programming, we gave responsibility for determining its form to such a Committee, which would be outstandingly chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton)?
I agree with every aspect of that intervention. I think that a business Committee would be good news. I say to the Leader of the House that that issue is not going to go away. We will have to return to it, for the reasons that have been explained earlier in the debate. Therefore, I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right. I hope that the Leader of the House will be prepared to return to the issue sooner rather than later.
I thank the Leader of the House for providing time today for us to debate a number of wide-ranging but important issues. He has shown thus far that he is willing to look at new ways of improving parliamentary scrutiny, even if that may involve some inconvenience to the Executive. If he continues in that way, he may not win a parliamentary popularity contest with his colleagues, but he will rightly have the gratitude and growing respect of the whole House.
At the outset, may I say that I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that the quality of scrutiny in the House has improved considerably during the past 25 years? I am anxious to see continued improvement—there is scope for further improvement.
I wish to address just two of the motions before us: motion 6 on the communications allowance and motion 7 on September sittings. Starting with the communications allowance, I do not welcome that. On the contrary, I am wholly opposed. I believe that it is a misuse of public money and I intend to vote against it. Some of our discussion earlier this evening has confused two issues. There are legitimate constituency issues, some of which do require quite large-scale mailings. I have no problem with that.
The other issue is the recent growth in thinly disguised party propaganda paid for out of the public purse, which I am wholly against. As I see it, the purpose of the proposed allowance is to legitimise a practice whereby Members increasingly spend public money, which is rightly made available to us to provide a service for our constituents, on what amounts to vanity publishing for the purposes that I described. It consists usually of unsolicited glossy brochures, often in party colours, advertising the good works of the Member concerned, who acts as a sort of fairy godmother to his or her constituents. As I mentioned, I have seen examples that contain 16 or even 20 photographs of the Member concerned. The brochures are often indistinguishable from party political propaganda, except that, if the Members concerned are sensible—and not all of them have been—they take care not to mention their party or to criticise their opponents. They are not only printed but, often, distributed at public expense. We need only consider the huge discrepancies in Members’ spending on postage to recognise that there is a rabbit away somewhere. I read recently that one Member would have to be sending out 680 letters a day to justify his postage bill. It is hard to see how that could be justified.
Some such brochures sail very close to the wind. I sit on the Standards and Privileges Committee, which receives a steady trickle of complaints, often from other Members but sometimes from members of the public, alleging abuses of the postage and incidental expenditure allowance. Were I a candidate for Parliament running against an incumbent who was using public funds to publish and distribute what looks to most people like campaign literature, I would be mightily upset. It is only a question of time before the practice is challenged in the courts.
Does not my hon. Friend accept that the communications allowance, coupled with the impending cap on the hitherto uncapped free postage-paid stationery at our disposal, will mean that a substantial number of the high spenders will have their practices limited? That includes Members on both sides of the House.
I certainly agree that it includes Members on both sides of the House. Whether it results in a serious reduction in the practice, however, remains to be seen. My view is that the practice needs to be stopped, not legitimised, and that allowances should be used for legitimate purposes. I can see a case, for example, for permitting the distribution of a card or leaflet advertising the name of the MP and details of how he or she can be contacted, but no more. I shall vote against the proposal, and I encourage anyone who is concerned about the reputation of Parliament to do likewise.
With regard to September sittings, I support them, and am in favour of retaining them. I therefore support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I am not wedded to any particular days in September, but I just cannot accept, as other Members have said, that it is right for the House to award the Government a three-month holiday from scrutiny. I recognise that all of us have things to do in our constituencies when the House is not sitting, but let us remember that we are only talking about sitting for eight days in September, in the second and third weeks of the month; we are not talking about sitting for the whole of September.
I note that many of those who are not keen on sitting for eight days in September regard themselves as modernisers. I am a moderniser, too, but I am puzzled that so many of those who describe themselves as modernisers are wedded to recesses of almost Gladstonian proportions. I am told that there is little enthusiasm for September sittings. Well, there was once. As recently as 29 October 2002, the House voted, as has already been pointed out, by a margin of 411 to 47 for September sittings. I suspect that many Members have forgotten that they voted for September sittings, and I shall watch with interest as they file sheepishly into the Aye Lobby today in support of the motion that will do away with them.
We are not talking about sitting for longer. As our late friend Robin Cook said when he introduced his reforms, the proposal was part of a deal:
“The deal is that the House will rise two weeks earlier in July, which will be for the convenience of those Members with children at schools that go back in August. In return, Members will be expected to come back for two weeks in September.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 693.]
The House voted enthusiastically for that deal. Our late colleague Eric Forth, then shadow Leader of the House, I believe, complained that we would only be returning for two weeks rather than three.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and seeking fully to justify what he supports and does not support. Will he clarify whether, when we had September sittings, the House rose a fortnight earlier in July? If my memory serves me correctly, it did not, and that was part of the problem. If it had risen a fortnight in advance, it would have been helpful for Members with children at school.
My recollection is that the House did rise early in that way once, but, as with many aspects of Robin Cook’s proposals, that started rapidly to erode.
The House voted enthusiastically for that deal, so it is not a question of a small group of zealots trying to impose on the majority of the House our way of doings things. We are merely asking that we stick to what we agreed, or at least to something closely resembling it. Almost immediately, however, it was apparent that there was little enthusiasm for the new arrangement, either at the highest levels of Government—with the sole exception of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—or among the establishment of the House. We sat in September 2003 and 2004, but last year we were told that we could not sit because a new security screen had to be erected in the Public Gallery and, blow me down, the work could only be carried out in the first half of September. I asked at the time for a guarantee that once the screen was up we would be allowed to resume the practice to which we had previously agreed, and I have to say that the answers from the Minister concerned were opaque. I was not in the least surprised to discover that we could not sit in the autumn of 2006.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that when we did sit in September it seemed somehow impossible to timetable the necessary maintenance works to coincide with the sitting of the House, so that it was in a poor state of repair? I am sure that that was not an attempt to sabotage the proposals, but it was not conducive to good parliamentary business.
I prefer the word “publicly”.
Whatever the current degree of enthusiasm for September sittings in the House, I am in no doubt that there is great enthusiasm for them among our constituents, many of whom firmly believe, despite our protestations to the contrary, that when the House is not sitting we are all sunning ourselves in the south of France. We all know that that is not true, but the best way to knock the myth firmly on the head is for the House to sit and for us to be seen to be doing the job for which we are primarily paid.
I am aware that September traditionally provides us with an opportunity to carry out many engagements that we might not otherwise have time for during the rest of the year. However, I repeat that we are talking about only eight days in September. Moreover, the House sits for only a little over half the year. Assuming that we do not regard the remaining half of the year as holiday, we can surely adjust our constituency engagements to allow for sitting eight days in September.
I have seen the answer supplied to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who speaks on behalf of the Commission, setting out the likely impact on the maintenance programme. All I would say is that it cannot be beyond the wit of those concerned to organise the works programme to fit in with September sittings, especially if they have plenty of notice.
The amendment is part of a wider struggle against the erosion of the esteem in which Parliament is held. To some extent, we have only ourselves to blame for that erosion. It always puzzles me that we fight hard to get into this place, but having got here, many of us cannot wait to get home again. Last Thursday, we discussed the White Paper published by the Department for International Development, and the Opposition spokesman actually complained that the Government were holding the debate at a time when many hon. Members could not be present—that was a Thursday afternoon, for goodness’ sake. How can we expect the public to take Parliament seriously if we do not?
I did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) or my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) make that observation. The gravamen of the criticism of the timetabling of that debate was not that it was on a Thursday afternoon, but that it was going to be so incredibly short for such important matters.
If that is so, I stand corrected, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noticed that many hon. Members seem to find Thursday afternoons an inconvenient time to do business here.
If we care about how we and Parliament are regarded, the solution is in our own hands. We have an opportunity this afternoon to demonstrate that we do care about how we are regarded outside this place. I therefore urge the House to put an end to the practice of vanity publishing—it has grown up only in the past few years and needs to be nipped in the bud before it gets totally out of control—and to support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North on September sittings.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He carried me with him for half of his arguments. One of the motions before us relates to short speeches, but we are not doing frightfully well on that score this afternoon. I propose to bring down sharply the average length of speeches in this debate.
When the Leader of the House opened the debate some three hours ago, he painted a rosy picture of parliamentary reform since 1997. He rightly said that there have been some improvements—including Westminster Hall and the Prime Minister’s appearance before the Liaison Committee. Had the Leader of the House’s speech been even longer, I am sure that he would have recognised the items to be put in the scale on the other side. For example, there is a widespread view that Parliament is increasingly bypassed. Ministerial announcements are made outside the Chamber. We had the fiasco of the Robin Cook reforms to the Select Committees being voted down. We have seen a loss of flexibility in Standing Committees because of the automatic programming of Bills. We have more and more Government amendments. The House of Lords has to put right legislation that we have not had time to put right here—and we have had the shambles of House of Lords reform. Whether we are better able to hold the Executive to account is a more balanced question than the Leader of the House implied when he opened the debate.
On September sittings, I do not mind sitting in September, but I do not want to come back then and sit for two weeks. The Leader of the House suggested an eminently sensible way forward—that we do not deal with this question in an ad hoc way, but take a more holistic view of how and when we sit. We could then revisit the question of whether to sit in September against the background of that debate.
I want to speak briefly to motion 6, which invites us to endorse the principle of establishing from 1 April next year a separate allowance to help us to communicate with constituents about parliamentary business. It also instructs the Members Estimate Committee to prepare a detailed proposal for such an allowance. Motion 6 differs from the others in that no explanatory memorandum is associated with it, nor any Select Committee report that sheds light on the case that it makes.
I recognise that there is always a balance to be struck between the need for prudence with public expenditure—something that has not been mentioned in the debate as much as it should have been—and the imperative of bridging the gap between elected and elector that could undermine Parliament’s legitimacy. We should never forget that one reason why we are all here is to keep a watch on what happens to our constituents’ taxes. We need to be doubly careful when, as is the case with motion 6, hon. Members rather than the Executive are the conduit through which the taxes pass. We must also recognise that the House’s reputation is involved when it votes increased allowances for itself.
We discuss motion 6 in something of a vacuum as we do not know what it will cost. It need not cost anything, but the Leader of the House’s response to an intervention suggested that the motion will have an associated cost. Nor is it clear how the motion relates to the work on fixing our allowance in which the Senior Salaries Review Body is presently engaged. Will the SSRB be asked to contribute to the work mentioned in the motion, or does the motion, in effect, pre-empt one aspect of the board’s work?
If the proposed allowance is approved, it should replace rather than supplement the two existing IEP funding regimes—one of them for free stationery and postage, and the other for funding stationery and postage, parliamentary newsletters and similar publications, and websites. If those hopes were fulfilled, there would be consequential implications for the scope and level of the residual IEP allowance. However, if the proposed allowance is to be introduced not at nil net cost, but as a way of providing additional headroom for expenditure, I have not heard a compelling case so far today in support of the House voting in favour of providing up to £6 million in increased public expenditure.
The current regime has featured in recent cases considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee. Like the one chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), my Committee does not travel far: since I have been Chairman, I do not think that we have ever ventured beyond Committee Room 13. The Committee has found significant shortcomings in the regime for free stationery and postage and in the IEP regime. Our concern about those shortcomings, which affect all parties in the House, is shared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
The cases at the heart of the Committee’s ninth and 12th reports highlighted some of the weaknesses and ambiguities in the existing rules for postage and stationery. In our ninth report, we supported the replacement of the current arrangements by a single unified stationery and postage regime, governed by one clear set of rules. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) noted that it was somewhat farcical that one cannot claim back money from the IEP in respect of a House of Commons envelope, but that one can do so when one bought a postage stamp and put in on a plain envelope.
The Committee considered that the introduction of a unified regime would benefit both hon. Members and the wider public’s confidence in the system. We also said that we would work with the House of Commons Commission and the Administration Committee, as appropriate, to ensure that the rules surrounding such a regime, whatever form it ultimately took, were clear and capable of effective enforcement.
The question of the scope of material that properly could be included in an IEP-funded publication has also concerned the Committee, and was dealt with in our ninth report. That report found that there were considerable differences of interpretation, to put the matter tactfully, among Members of Parliament about where the boundary lay between legitimate parliamentary activity, which can be funded out of the IEP, and party political and campaigning activity, which cannot. I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South about the incumbency factor that we are building into the allowances.
The Committee commented that those significant differences of view among hon. Members represented a very unsatisfactory position from the perspective of those who have to enforce the rules, and that they needed to be addressed. We said that we would look further at the general matter of publications funded from the IEP and determine whether there was scope for a tighter definition of permissible expenditure.
If the House agrees the motion, the Members Estimate Committee will, in effect, be given the task of making proposals for a communication allowance and will have to address the shortcomings to which I have just referred and which we planned to examine. I do not envy the Committee its task of dealing with the various interpretations of what exactly constitutes parliamentary business. As someone who, along with the hon. Members for Sunderland, South and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), will have to enforce the rules if a new communications allowance is introduced, I stand ready to assist the Members Estimate Committee in drawing up clear, readily understood rules for the new allowance, which are capable of effective enforcement. That is in the common interest of Members and those responsible for enforcing the rules; it is also in the wider public interest.
Finally, if the communication allowance were to be introduced on a nil net cost basis I would support it, because it would bring in a cap, which we do not have at present, for postage and stationery. If, however, there were to be a net cost to the taxpayer—as seems likely—I would oppose it. I am not persuaded that the case has been made. At a time when public services are under pressure—for example, today there is a rally on behalf of those concerned about difficult decisions in the NHS—I do not believe that the case for higher expenditure to support that particular aspect of our activity has been made.
I particularly want to refer to the communications allowance, as I have been named three times directly in the debate and once obliquely, based on my expenditure on stamps. My response to that is that I would rather be No. 1 than at the bottom—at No. 640, or whatever it is. My position reveals that I have been trying to do my best to keep my constituents informed about what is going on. It is a matter of pride to me to be at the top rather than the bottom of the list. Indeed, I would question what some of those at the bottom are doing to earn their wages—a point that has already been made in the debate.
What exactly is the problem we are trying to address? Ours must be the only job in the world where high productivity is seen as something to be criticised rather than praised, as would happen in the real world outside. There is a generational issue: Members who have arrived here since 1997, on both sides of the House, take a different attitude to the job from those who have been here longer. Those of us elected in 1997 and subsequently have more of a constituency focus in our work; we are much more alive to the need to try to keep our constituents aware of what is going on—not just what we have been doing, but what is going on in the House and also in our communities. They often cannot find such information anywhere else. Local newspapers tend to be relatively superficial because they have limited column inches, and the approach of the national press to the issues can only be described as generic.
I am satisfied that I perfectly comply with the rules. If I did not, there would be many complaints. I go out of my way to inform my constituents about what is going on, in a non-party political way. I put out material on my website and I try to encourage people to use e-mail whenever possible. I defy anybody to find a party political slant—the accusation that has been levelled at me—in any of that material. Even if I had sent out letters in the numbers talked about in the press, it averages out at rather less than one letter per resident in my constituency, which contains 110,000 people.
Other people have sent out annual reports under the IEP. I do not do that. They may have communicated with every person in their community more than once. I do not do that. I respond, in detail, to requests for information that people cannot find anywhere else. I do not use the IEP fund for that. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised the important point that the IEP does not go as far in London as in other parts of the country. In fact, most of mine goes on the rent for the hovel we call home—my constituency office. I do not have excess money to spend on leaflets and the vanity publishing to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) referred; I just want to make sure that my constituents are among the best informed in the country about what is actually happening in their communities.
That does not mean just writing to people, but going around, as I do, knocking on doors every Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning or on weekday evenings in September—a point to which I shall return. It means having tea parties that people can attend to meet me, constituency surgeries, street stalls and visiting council estates regularly to listen to complaints and take them up, all of which generate a significant amount of work, as do the petitions that I receive almost daily. Constituents in Hendon like writing letters and signing petitions.
I can illustrate my point by quoting some of the letters that I have received. Since I knew that we were going to conduct this debate—there were rumblings for several months—I started to ask constituents, whenever I wrote to them, whether they would let me have their e-mail address if they had one and to warn them that there might be restrictions on the amount of correspondence that we could send. I have received a huge sheaf of letters, but I shall refer only to one or two.
Mr. Morris said:
“We very much appreciate these reports… We read frequent reports of the drop in the turn-out at elections and the fall in public interest in political matters”.
He continued by saying that
“to reduce the budget of MPs’ correspondence with their constituents - which will save a trivial amount of money compared with the wastefulness and mismanagement of… other public expenditure shows a remarkable degree of stupidity. The ‘House of Commons authorities’ must be mad! Please pass this letter to them.”
No, it is signed by Mr. Michael Morris of The Rise, NW7.
How much are we talking about? If we are talking about allowances of about £10,000, only 20 Members have spent more. The total cost of that excess is just more than £100,000, and I suspect that if we introduce the allowance it will cost rather more than the £100,000 that might be saved. If we put that against some of the waste mismanagement to which Mr. Morris referred—£400,000 spent on a covered walkway in the yard downstairs, for example—that would have paid for four years’ worth of envelopes for everyone who has been criticised for using rather more allowance than they should.
Other constituents wrote to me. A gentleman from Burnt Oak wrote that
“it disappoints me to hear that your budget to keep constituents informed by post may be cut. I do not possess an email facility and bearing in mind the vast sums of public money that are wasted this seems to be a miserly posture by the House of Commons.”
I received a raft of letters from satisfied constituents. For example, one wrote:
“Such a comprehensive report is to be commended and is much appreciated.”
That was a report on transport and traffic that I compiled for my constituent. Another constituent from Colindale said that she
“much appreciated being kept up to date”
on matters of great interest. A constituent from Edgware said:
“We appreciate all the communication we receive from you, and feel that you are the only MP that seems to genuinely care”
about what is going on.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and not least for sparing the House from hearing any more about the people of Edgware. Does he accept that if we vote for the communications allowance, his activities are likely to be curtailed substantially? Is it not the case that the real scandal is not what we spend on serving our constituents, but the number of MPs who are happy to draw the full parliamentary salary on top of outside income earned elsewhere?
I am not sure about the last point, but the allowance certainly will curtail my activities and my constituents will not appreciate it.
Several constituents have written to tell me that they do not have e-mail and pensioners in particular will be discriminated against if I can communicate only through that means. A lady from Edgware wrote:
“I really do appreciate your letters and they are certainly passed on to quite a few people.”
That particular constituent did not have e-mail and wanted me to continue by post. A pensioner from Colindale said that she did not have e-mail or computers. A pensioner from Southbourne crescent wrote:
“Thank you for the letter that is so informative about the new health proposals”.
My correspondence put her mind at rest about her concerns. She does not have e-mail and wanted me to continue to write to her.
Yes, my mother is one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and he has helped her on a number of occasions, so she can happily be spared the privilege of a visit from him on a Sunday morning outside her home. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it is a reasonable surmise on my part to suggest that, following this debate, each and every one of the people to whom he just referred will have popping through the letter box very soon a copy of the Official Report of today’s proceedings.
Those who have communicated by e-mail will get a copy but I am not sure about the others. Some constituents have even offered to pay for me to communicate with them. A lady from Mill Hill writes:
“I should be willing to pay a subscription towards the cost: I have no e-mail address.”
The hon. Gentleman grew up there so perhaps he could tell us.
Another lady wrote:
“I would be happy to consider making regular payments to cover the costs of continued mailing”.
Even an active Conservative party member sent me a book of stamps to ensure that I continued to send her my letters.
I believe that it was about 60 per cent., which is good for London. However, that is not the point. It is not about party political campaigning, as has been alleged, but doing the job right and keeping people informed.
I shall quote from one more letter and I hope that hon. Members will listen. It states:
“It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that my father… passed away.
I have spent the last few days going through his paper work and files and came across a file marked ‘Dismore’.
I always knew my father took a great deal of interest in charitable affairs, it was not though until I glanced through this file that it became clear what a compulsive letter writer he was to you about not only things close to his heart but of numerous local and international affairs.
What was so nice was that you in turn always took the time to answer not only his letters but to keep him informed of previous questions he had asked.
For that I thank you.”
That is from a bereaved constituent.
I, too, have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), will the hon. Gentleman explain how that productivity, which he claims is so important and can encourage turnout at elections, led in Hendon to a turnout of 58.3 per cent., when in Maidenhead the turnout was 73.3 per cent.?
In London, turnout is traditionally lower because we have a much higher turnover on the electoral register. I regret to say that Conservative-controlled Barnet council does an appalling job on electoral registration and in keeping the register up to date. That has been well documented.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
My main concern about the communications budget is whether it creates more problems than it solves. I am worried that if we cannot use the envelopes, some of my constituents will be disfranchised, especially the elderly who do not have access to other means of communication. I am also worried about what will happen towards the end of the year when we come to the end of a budget and a major issue arises. For example, faith schools arose last week. My constituency has the largest Jewish population of any constituency in the country and my constituents were not enamoured of what was happening. It happens to have the smallest Christian population of any constituency in the country, although last week it seemed as though all my constituents were Catholic. I faced a tsunami of correspondence from my constituents, Jewish and Catholic, protesting against the proposals. If that happened at the end of the financial year and I could not respond to them, I do not believe that they would be happy about it.
Sometimes I do and sometimes I do not. On Monday, I signed 350 letters and it took me an hour. I have a fast signature.
I hope that we will be given some examples of how to overcome the problem of the budget at the end of the year. I am worried that the proposals will cost more than they do now. If people use generic vanity publishing as a method of communication, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South suggested, there will be a lack of the sort of detail that I can provide to constituents now.
My other concern is the lack of a level playing field in relation to councillors. My constituency has a Conservative council. Some six weeks before the last election, the leader of the council wrote a letter to everyone on a council estate that was undergoing regeneration attacking my position on the regeneration scheme. I was not allowed to answer those attacks, because that communication would have been unsolicited. It cannot be fair or right that we are subject to more controls than the councillors in our areas.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this question relates not only to councillors’ and council leaders’ access to mailings but to the glossy magazines produced by some councils, irrespective of their political persuasion, the cost of which makes our proposals today seem quite trifling?
My hon. Friend is right. When I was leader of the Labour group on Westminster city council 10 or 12 years ago, the then leader, Lady Porter, had a communications budget of more than £1 million for sending out glossy leaflets. Judging by what hon. Members with London homes in Westminster see coming through their letterboxes, I suspect that even more are now being sent out, at an even higher budget. I am very concerned about that.
The same problems apply to Scottish and Welsh Members because MSPs and AMs are not subject to any restrictions. Countries such as France have no restrictions either. Other parts of the world are much better at recognising that part of a Member of Parliament’s job is to communicate effectively with their constituents. Whether the communications allowance will provide a solution remains to be seen when the details are worked out. Obviously, it will depend on how much it is. I shall certainly not use it for glossy leaflets; I shall want to buy stamps with it. I hope that we shall be able to introduce some common-sense rules. I agree with the point made by other hon. Members that the present rules are unclear.
I also hope that we shall be able to carry out surveys on important issues. The only time that I have had a complaint against me sustained was when, a few years ago, Transport for London wanted to widen the north circular road. It held a consultation, which had a very short shelf life, but we then found all its consultation leaflets dumped in a skip. On that occasion, I felt justified in writing to my constituents who were directly affected to ascertain their views. A Liberal Democrat councillor objected to that and I had to pay the postage costs. I made no objection to doing that, however. I felt that it had been the right thing to do—it is the kind of thing that we should be allowed to do, whether using the communications allowance or by some other means—to ensure that those constituents’ views were heard in time, given that the official consultation had gone so pear-shaped. The answer to hon. Members on both sides of the House who do not want a communications allowance is that they do not need to claim it if they do not want to use it. However, those of us who do like to communicate with our constituents should be permitted to do so.
I do not favour September sittings. September is an important time for us to communicate with and meet our constituents. It is also a good time to visit schools. The rest of the time that we are in recess, schools tend to be on holiday or half-term holiday, which makes it difficult for us to visit them. Once they have settled down after the start of term in September, it is a good time to visit them to see whether there are any problems that they would like us to take up.
Also, the evenings are still light in September. Those hon. Members who, like me, wish to call on their constituents can do so for a couple of hours on a weekday evening during September, but that is not a practical proposition in November, for example.
The short answer is that, bearing in mind the hours that the House sits, I would not get back to my constituency in time to do anything useful in the evening. That is one of the problems that London Members face as a result of having sittings during term time, as we do now. The only day on which there is a possibility of getting back in time is Thursday.
It is important that we keep in contact with our constituents in both ways. I write letters in response to requests for information from constituents, and I think that that is the right thing to do.
That is the most extraordinary speech that I have heard in the House. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) protests far too much. What appears to be the wholesale abuse of the postage allowance by some Members is wrong. I have been here for some time, and my understanding—perhaps it is incorrect—has always been that we are not allowed to use the franked postage system to send out circulars. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said that he had worked out that the hon. Member for Hendon was sending out 600 letters a day—
Well, the hon. Gentleman worked out that people who were spending £25,000 a year on postage were sending out 600 letters a day. I cannot believe that all those letters were individually signed, and if they were not, they were circulars. It is expenses more than anything else that brings us into public disrepute, which is a reason why the communications allowance should be stopped quickly. The only comfort that I can take from the situation—I say this to the hon. Member for Hendon—is that there is considerable statistical evidence showing that such local efforts make absolutely no difference to the election result whatsoever because the seat experiences the national swing.
I had planned to speak about the sub judice rule, but since I have had to sit through three and a half hours of a somewhat Alice in Wonderland debate about all sorts of introspective issues, I thought that I would chuck some of my prejudices in as well. There is an illusion, or perhaps a delusion, that what we do is hold the Government to account and that if we were here more often, we would do it better. If we were serious about holding the Government to account, we would do two things that are never on the agenda at all. First, there should be a rule in “Erskine May” that Ministers have to give proper answers to written questions, which they do not at the moment. Secondly, Select Committees should have the power of their own volition to summon particular officials and ask to see particular documents. A Select Committee cannot do that at the moment because it has to go to the House for a resolution, which it never gets because the Government whip their troops against it.
We do not have the power to hold the Government to account. We have the power to drag Ministers down here every so often and make them listen to the moans of Back Benchers, but that is not holding the Government to account. We had the opportunity to do that yesterday and we saw what happened. Holding Ministers to account is not to do with September sittings or how much of our allowances we spend on our staff, but proper answers to parliamentary questions and proper powers for Select Committees.
I realise that my hon. Friend has moved on from this matter, but in light of the importance of his earlier remarks, I have checked the record. He is absolutely right about the relatively ineffectual consequence of large-scale expenditure, because the share of the vote of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) fell by 8.1 per cent. at the past general election.