House of Commons
Wednesday 1 November 2006
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Comprehensive Spending Review
This is the fifth spending review undertaken by the Government and the second comprehensive one. Since 1997, 2.4 million jobs have been created and the UK economy is enjoying the longest period of sustained economic growth for 200 years, which the International Monetary Fund says is a remarkable and enviable record. The present comprehensive spending review is based on an assessment of the long-term challenges facing the UK in the decade from 2007. It will enable us to sustain the momentum of improvements in public services and release the resources needed to meet the challenges of the decade ahead. I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, Cabinet colleagues and others about how to meet the changes.
The spending reviews of the past 10 years show the most enviable economic record, as I have just said, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is our intention to maintain that. The IMF has endorsed that policy, which has not always been the case with Labour Governments or even Tory Administrations. To that extent, it is a bit much for the hon. Gentleman to talk about what he might do about public expenditure—[Interruption.] The implication is clear—what they would do rather than how we deal with public expenditure. Ours is a successful record, which we will continue.
The interim report of the comprehensive spending review in July stated that pay settlements across the public sector should be based on the Government’s inflation target of 2 per cent. Does that target apply to public quangos and, if so, will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how, in Northern Ireland, the Police Ombudsman and the chief executive of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment and many other public bodies could receive pay increases of nearly 10 times that target?
The comprehensive spending review applies to all public sector payments. I am not up to speed on what exactly has happened in Northern Ireland, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the review will apply to all.
Given the demanding level of future housing that the Deputy Prime Minister has willed on the south-east of England, in the course of his discussions on the comprehensive spending review, what representations has he made to the Chancellor to increase the woefully lacking infrastructure in the south-east?
When the Chancellor makes his statement, he will make clear how much of the resources will be available for infrastructure expenditure. But let me be absolutely clear: houses are needed in the south-east, as people in the region make clear, and we shall provide the necessary infrastructure.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us how much money will be set aside in the comprehensive spending review to fund his own new Department? Does he think it right that while 20,000 jobs are being lost from the NHS the Government are having to spend millions setting up a new office for a Minister who has been stripped of all his departmental responsibilities?
As usual, the right hon. Gentleman is not up to speed with the facts. His hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said that 20,000 jobs had been lost in the NHS, but it was made clear by the Secretary of State for Health and, indeed, the Prime Minister not just that the figure is only 900 but that it should be seen against the increase of more than 100,000 jobs in the health service, so the figure was just untrue and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to withdraw that obvious untruth.
I have discussed this important issue with Cabinet colleagues and some postmasters, who lobbied all Members at Parliament on 18 October. The House recognises the important contribution that post offices make to the life of many urban and rural communities, and they will continue play that role in the future. Post offices need to adapt to change, as they are doing, and to offer new services. To support that, the Government have already invested more than £2 billion, and in the coming weeks, once the consultations are concluded, we shall bring forward our strategy.
Under this Government, thousands of post offices have closed, causing real hardship to the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society, people on low incomes and the disabled. Did the Deputy Prime Minister really come into politics to make the daily lives of those vulnerable groups in our society more difficult?
It is a matter of fact that the Post Office has declined considerably over a long period and thousands of post offices have closed, as the House knows from our many debates on the subject over the past 10 or 15 years. The hon. Gentleman should consider the fact that the Government have invested more than £2 billion in modernising the Post Office, whereas the Conservative Government gave it nothing. We have given almost £800 million to develop rural and urban post offices. We are consulting on the issue, we are well aware of the concerns and we will make a statement to the House. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that about 99 per cent. of people live within one mile of a post office.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister use his position as chair of the interdepartmental group on post offices to ensure that his different Departments know that they should give work to the Post Office instead of taking it away? Is not that the real problem—that while we are putting in subsidies, different Departments are not joined up in supporting the Post Office?
I recognise my hon. Friend’s point, but I have to say that many people’s choice has been—[Interruption.] Well, they have a choice whether to take their money to a particular account or leave it with the Post Office card account, and many people have decided to change, which Departments have to recognise. In reality, it is about the use of public resources, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the committee is actively debating how to secure a proper balance between technological change, available resources and customer choice.
Does not the Deputy Prime Minister realise that unless Government Departments give work to the Post Office, people will not be able to use post offices? The most important factor is the continuation of the Post Office card account after 2010. The Government must state soon that there will be a Government-supported successor to that account and make it easy for people to transfer—we do not want all the bullying and badgering to persuade people to go to the banks that happened when pension books were taken away. We want a Government-supported successor and an easy means for people to transfer from the Post Office card account to that successor.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point and I can assure him that these issues are actively being debated in the committees. A statement will be made to the House shortly, so all those questions can be properly answered.
Does not my right hon. Friend accept that what we really need is an early statement? What sub-postmasters and mistresses require more than anything is the security of knowing what is being planned for the network. Will my right hon. Friend include in the statement clear guidance on how local communities can play a part in providing greater support for the Post Office, including the role of social enterprise?
Again, I find myself in agreement with much of what my hon. Friend says. The postmasters who came here two weeks ago made it clear that the present system is unsustainable. We are trying to find a proper balance, as I said, and a statement will be made soon.
This is a classic example of the Government’s policy not being joined up. The Prime Minister says that he wants to keep post offices open, yet the Department for Work and Pensions has been bullying people to move their benefit claims from post offices to banks. People no longer know whether the Post Office card account will be maintained. Furthermore, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is in her place next to the Deputy Prime Minister, talks about social exclusion, when the sub-post offices most likely to be closed are in the most rural areas. Two sub-post offices in my constituency at Bolingey and Portloe have been closed and the buildings sold because a profit cannot be sustained. In those areas, however, one in four people do not have access to a car and it is pensioners, disabled people and those on benefits, particularly young mothers, who have the greatest need for a post office.
The reality is, as I have already pointed out, that 99 per cent. of people live within a mile of a post office. It is true that the number of post offices has declined, but the Government have put in nearly £800 million to sustain the existing service. If the Liberal solution is to privatise the Post Office, I suggest that that is made clear to the Post Office, but I am not sure that it will view that as a happy solution.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend recognises the important role that post offices, whether urban or rural, play in the community, but does he acknowledge that one of the problems has been Government Departments’ strong-arm tactics to get people to give up their Post Office card accounts? We also need a reversal of the BBC decision not to allow the Post Office to supply TV licences. I understand that the DVLA is reviewing its position on whether post offices should be available for car tax.
The Prime Minister made it clear two weeks ago that there has to be a balance in financing the BBC and the Post Office. As the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said, those matters are being given serious thought. We hope to make a statement to the House when the questions can be answered.
The Trade and Industry Committee report, which was published last week, found a lack of joined-up thinking between Departments. It is seriously concerned about the lack of urgency in the remit of the Cabinet committee on the Post Office that the Deputy Prime Minister chairs. If he hopes to leave our Post Office network a better legacy than the mess that he left in regional government and the strategic transport plan, should not the expected Government statement include a review of their decision to scrap Post Office card accounts?
As has been made clear in exchanges between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Government are considering all such matters, including the Post Office card account. We hope to make a statement to the House shortly, once the conclusions have been finalised.
The House will recall our inheritance in 1997, against which we should measure our improvements. Under the Conservative Government, homelessness doubled, housing finance halved, 500,000 homes were repossessed, there were record levels of rough sleeping and 1.2 million homes were in negative equity. Our improvements must be measured against that. The Government’s record, which was implemented by the homelessness directorate that was set up in 1999, is: reducing rough sleeping by 73 per cent.; bringing to an end the long-term use of bed and breakfast accommodation for families with children; reducing new homeless cases to the lowest number for more than 20 years, and doubling housing investment. In March 2005, I set out our strategy for building on those achievements in “Sustainable Communities: Settled Homes; Changing Lives”.
Does the Deputy Prime know that Salvation Army research shows that there will be 100,000 rough sleepers on the streets of Britain tonight, too many of whom formerly served in Her Majesty’s armed forces and too many spent time in care? Will he consider spending more time on the streets of rural England and this country generally rather than touring the streets of far east Asia? Perhaps there would then be fewer homeless people on the streets of this country.
That is the sort of silly question I expect from the hon. Gentleman. The House can make its judgment but let me pray in aid our record, including the fact that
“the homelessness directorate’s target setting, supported by financial support and advice to local authorities, has helped to bring about significant alleviation of the worst consequences of homelessness”—
not my views, but those of the Tory Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who is hardly a friend of the Government’s.
We are doubling the amount of investment in social housing.
I do not accept that. I acknowledge that there are difficulties, and that is one of the reasons I provided that the building industry could establish the £60,000 house, giving people a chance to get a foot on the buying ladder. The previous Administration halved the amount of housing investment, and record numbers of people were homeless and sleeping on the streets during their time in office. We have changed that in a remarkable way and we shall continue to build on that.
The most important part of the homelessness strategy is an increase in the supply of affordable rented accommodation. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give the House today that the welcome increases of recent years will be sustained in future?
As we spelled out in the papers that we produced for the House, we intend to continue with those programmes. When my hon. Friend examines the expenditure in the comprehensive spending review and public expenditure statements, he will realise that we intend to provide the resources to achieve those objectives.
The Government’s policy on finding homes for key workers is clearly failing, and 90,000 public sector homes are still lying empty. What are the Government going to do to help these vital workers to find somewhere to live? Given that we have this huge problem, why is Lord Falconer—who has a mere five homes already—receiving a grace and favour flat? Is it not time for the Government to help the key workers to find homes, rather than helping themselves to homes?
More homes are being provided for key workers than under the previous Conservative Administration. I have already read out the record of that Administration—for which the hon. Gentleman has a responsibility—under whom the amount of housing investment was halved, more people were living in houses with negative equity, and many people were made homeless. We are quite proud of our record on housing, and we are improving on it.
As the House may be aware, during my 10-day visit to the far east, I met a number of senior Asian leaders on behalf of the Prime Minister. These included the Prime Ministers of Japan and South Korea, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, the Foreign Secretary Ban Ki-Moon—the United Nations Secretary-General designate—State Councillor Tang, who is the co-chairman of the China taskforce set up by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and Premier Wen of China. The House will be aware that State Councillor Tang is also China’s special envoy on North Korea, and I spent three hours with him discussing North Korea and other interests.
The main outcomes of my visit were: to confirm our support for the United Nations resolution and encourage the resumption of the six-party talks; to support and strengthen the UK’s political and economic relationships with these countries; to meet senior members of the new Administration in Japan; to exchange ideas on areas of common interest and concern, including the environment, security and inter-faith issues; and to agree a future programme of work for the UK-China taskforce.
The House will welcome yesterday’s statement that the Chinese Government have successfully persuaded North Korea and America to reconvene at the six-party talks. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has made the Opposition’s view clear in calling for tougher United Nations sanctions to get North Korea to participate in the talks. However, North Korea has now agreed to do so without the need for that pressure, which we supported. I hope that the discussions that I had in Japan, South Korea and China will help to press home the Government’s position, supported by the Opposition, that we support the United Nations resolution and that the six-party talks should begin. We look forward to that happening.
Without disclosing any confidential discussions that I had, which I have conveyed to the Prime Minister, I think that it is public knowledge that the Chinese were not happy with the announcement that was made, of which they had very little notice. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that China played a major part in doing what the whole international community wanted—namely, bringing pressure to bear to get North Korea to the table so that the six-party talks could continue. The whole House should welcome that—[Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proposed major Chinese investment in the borough of Wigan. Did he discuss this matter with representatives of the Chinese Government during his visit? Will he use his best endeavours to ensure that there are no blockages at the UK end to this important investment in Wigan?
My hon. Friend knows that I take every opportunity to press the case for British investment in China and, indeed, for Chinese investment in the United Kingdom. There was a great deal of discussion about how we can improve that. Indeed, the subject is one of the major items for the China taskforce, which I chair with State Councillor Tang on behalf of the two Prime Ministers.
If the hon. Lady knew anything about these global problems, which require global solutions, she would know that Members of Parliament have to travel to different countries to negotiate the agreements involved. The Government have a scheme under which all such travel will be taken into account, credited and used as part of the carbon agreements.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Office for National Statistics announced last week that the pay gap between men and women is at its lowest recorded level. I am sure that the whole House will welcome that. However, there remains more to do. The Government have issued a clear action plan to respond to the women and work commission. I have chaired meetings with Baroness Prosser and the general secretary of the TUC to discuss how we can continue to narrow the pay gap. I intend to continue to meet interested parties, including the CBI, to discuss how we can continue to narrow the gap further.
It is important to engage employers on the matter. We have started to build up a set of exemplary employers from both the public and private sectors that have good practice initiatives to improve the situation. We are building on an initiative fund, which stands at approximately £500,000 at the moment, to increase the number of senior, quality jobs that are available part time. We are setting up funding for a network of equality representatives and trade union reps to champion equality in the workplace.
That probably reflects the negotiation techniques that have been used in the past—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is aware of them. The recent Cadman judgment stated that pay related to years of service had definitely worked against women. The Government are having to take that into account.
chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
The Government believe that people with severe mental health problems have the same rights as other citizens and should be supported to manage or overcome their problems, especially if their needs are complex. We all have a role to play in challenging stigma. However, as is recognised in the social exclusion action plan, employers have a particular role and obligation to ensure that they do not discriminate, that our workplaces encourage mental well-being, and that employees are offered support if problems occur.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. With one in three people who visit a general practitioner’s surgery having a mental health problem, with one in five people likely to experience anxiety or depression during their lifetime, and with 40 per cent. of those on incapacity benefit having a mental health problem, employers play a critical role in ensuring that people can build stability into their lives and return to constructive employment. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming BT’s initiatives and work to ensure that its staff have support if they experience mental health problems?
I support the important points that my hon. Friend has outlined relating to people’s well-being at work. The pathways to work pilots, with their strong local partnerships between Jobcentre Plus and the national health service, have been acknowledged internationally as the best way of helping people on incapacity benefit to get back into work quickly. The programme has been the most successful to date in getting people with mental health problems back into work. I hope that my hon. Friend and other colleagues will work locally to ensure that more of that happens in their areas—[Interruption.]
The Minister referred to the pathways to work pilots, but is she aware that the evaluation suggests that they have not been especially successful for people whose first reason for claiming benefit is their mental health? Will she thus consider what the Government’s response should be to the proposal of Lord Layard to increase substantially investment in cognitive behavioural therapy so that measures to help people with mental health problems back into work can be more effective?
The hon. Gentleman is right: it is more difficult to get people with mental health problems back into work than any other single group. That is why we are implementing pathways to work, which has been more successful than any other programme. It is also why we have been working with Richard Layard and others on the increased use of talking therapies so that we can ensure that more people do not get on to incapacity benefit. That strand of work is important. I am working with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and other Departments to ensure that we make the best of that and build capacity. A significant amount of work has already been done through the Department of Health to fulfil our manifesto commitment on the issue.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in condemning the incendiary bomb attacks in Belfast last night. The republican terrorists behind those attacks have nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland. As the Democratic Unionist party continues to consult widely on the St. Andrews agreement, will the Prime Minister once and for all confirm that the Government will not grant an amnesty to IRA terrorists who are on the run, and will not reintroduce the deeply offensive legislation that was previously brought before the House or seek to achieve the same objective by any other means?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already made it clear to the House that there will be no amnesty for on-the-runs, and that we have no intention of bringing back legislation on the issue. On the first point that the hon. Gentleman makes, I entirely share his condemnation of the attacks last night. He is also right to point out why they are taking place—because people do not want the prospect of agreement that was offered at St. Andrews. They are trying to disrupt it and change the stated desire of people in Northern Ireland to live together in peace. The best response to such acts of violence is to make sure that the St. Andrews agreement is fully implemented, that we get the institutions back up and running, and that the peace process thrives and moves Northern Ireland forward. If we can do so, that is the best response to those who use violence.
Apropos the St. Andrews agreement, does the Prime Minister agree that secret side deals can frustrate even the most creditable agreement? As the parties have very many difficult points further to negotiate, will he lift the veil, so to speak, from these side deals so that we have a better relationship, as was said before, and no further side deals can be done? For example, does he agree that the question of education by academic selection or otherwise in Northern Ireland is not for one party alone, but for the entire community?
The most important thing is that the decisions on matters such as education are taken by the directly elected politicians in Northern Ireland. That is one reason why we want the St. Andrews agreement to succeed. The agreement is very open about what is necessary. We need to resolve the issues in relation to policing, but there is a tremendous desire right across the political parties in Northern Ireland for the St. Andrews agreement to be implemented. The basic deal that has been at the heart of it since the outset has been peace in return for exclusively democratic means being used in order to further people’s political objectives. If everyone can get behind that essential position in Northern Ireland, the St. Andrews agreement will be implemented and the peace process will move forward.
Members do not like hearing about Labour cuts in our NHS. The Government’s chief medical officer has said that evidence
“from within the NHS…tells a consistent story for public health of poor morale, declining numbers, inadequate recruitment and budgets being raided to solve financial deficits.”
Was the chief medical officer speaking for the Government?
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what is actually happening within the national health service. There are 400,000 fewer people on waiting lists than there were in 1997, waiting times for cataracts and heart operations are down, people now get their cancer treatment on time, and there are 300,000 more staff in the NHS. If he wants the best evidence of improvement in the NHS, someone said this morning:
“if you were to say to me is the NHS better now than it was in 1997, I think there have been improvements”.
Who was that? The shadow health spokesman.
What about the chief medical officer, who advises the Government? As ever, the Prime Minister never answers the question. Let us hear from someone else in the NHS. The chairman of the British Medical Association says:
“This year has seen vitally needed healthcare professionals losing their jobs.”
He says that he is “dismayed” by what he calls
“the incoherence of current government policies and the damage they have caused to the NHS”.
Did the Prime Minister ever think that, after nine years of Labour Government, morale would be so low in the NHS?
The comprehensive report on the health service was published by the Healthcare Commission just a few days ago. This is what it says:
“There are real improvements to applaud and celebrate.”
Patients are seeing real improvements to health care services in England and Wales. They are waiting less time for treatments. There are now more doctors, more nurses and more health care professionals. Of course changes are taking place in the NHS—and rightly, because more cases are being dealt with as day cases, new technology is shortening waiting times, specialist care is being developed, and more is being done in primary care settings now. All that is part of necessary change. The Conservative party, having first opposed all the investment in the NHS, now apparently also opposes reform. The only way in which the NHS will improve is if we keep the money coming in, not cut it back, which is his policy, and make sure that we make the reforms to get value for money.
The health service professionals are not here protesting about our policies; they are protesting about his cuts. If the Prime Minister will not listen to people within the health service, will he listen to his own health guru, Sir Derek Wanless? Derek Wanless told the Chancellor that the money could have been better spent. We now have an account of how the conversation went. Sir Derek said to the Chancellor that the Government’s policies since 1997 had made the NHS worse. There was then
“an uncomfortable silence… Brown was no longer interested in the conversation.”
Does that sound at all familiar to the Prime Minister?
There is one issue: whether the NHS has got better since 1997 as a result of the investment and reform. Now, even the right hon. Gentleman’s own shadow health spokesman admits that it has. It has got better because we got the largest ever hospital building programme under way. It has got better because there are more staff in the NHS. It has got better because the very targets that he wants to scrap are resulting in reduced waiting times and reduced waiting lists. Yes, it is true that there are real difficulties in the NHS—of course there are. There are bound to be when we undergo a process of change. The right hon. Gentleman says that staff are protesting about our policy, not his, but that is hardly surprising when we look at what his policy is. [Hon. Members: “Order!”] I was just about to indicate why we would not follow it.
The reason why we have managed to get waiting times and waiting lists down, why people are being treated for cancer far quicker and why we have 150,000 fewer deaths from heart disease since 1997 is precisely that we have laid down targets for minimum treatment. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that he is going to get rid of targets inside the NHS, that will mean that those patients who are currently guaranteed proper waiting times and treatment, or who are guaranteed that when they go to accident and emergency departments, for example, they can be seen quickly, will no longer have those standards. If that is his policy, he is not merely committed to cutting the investment in the health service, but to taking away the very minimum standards that have delivered the improvements that his own health spokesman admits to.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about the Chancellor—he cannot even mention his name—but let us just spend a moment on the subject. Let me put the question that I put to him three weeks ago. In January, the Prime Minister said:
“I'm absolutely happy that Gordon Brown will be my successor.”
Does the Prime Minister—
Order. I allowed the right hon. Gentleman to get away with that before. I will not labour the point—the Prime Minister is here to talk about the business of the Government. [Interruption.] Order. I am giving a ruling on an important point. Questions should be about the business of the Government. The issue of who will be the next leader of the Labour party is for the Labour party to talk about and decide. [Interruption.] Order. I am giving a ruling. Ultimately, that leader may become the Prime Minister, but I am telling the right hon. Gentleman that it is not a matter for the Floor of the House. [Interruption.] Order. Hon. Gentlemen should not keep interrupting me, or I will suspend the sitting and the Leader of the Opposition will not be able to speak. I am making it clear that it is not a matter for the Prime Minister, who is responsible for Government business.
Order. May we have some calm? Of course, anything that I say from the Chair is said honestly, and I tell the right hon. Gentleman that he has no right to ask, on the Floor of the House, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, who the Prime Minister is supporting for an office within the Labour party.
I was simply going to say—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I am about to answer. The Chancellor’s record of having delivered the lowest inflation, lowest unemployment, and lowest interest rates in this country’s history, and of having managed the strongest growth of any major industrial economy, which, as a result, has delivered record investment in the national health service, is a rather better recommendation than having spent some time advising Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that Turner and Newall is in liquidation, which means that there is very little money available for compensation for people suffering from mesothelioma. Will he join me in congratulations, as last Thursday it was announced that benefits previously paid will not have to be deducted from compensation, following the campaign that I conducted with Amicus? Will he confirm that that could only happen under a Labour Government?
I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done in campaigning on the issue, to the Amicus union, and to all the others who have taken up the cause of that particular group of employees. As a result of that successful campaign, about 4,000 people will each receive about £6,000 in compensation. That, along with all the money paid out in miners’ compensation, is an indication of the profound difference in values that the Labour Government bring to the government of this country.
The Foreign Secretary stated the position very clearly in yesterday’s debate. We certainly do not rule out such an inquiry, and our motion stated that lessons must, of course, be learned, which is always important, but this is not the time for such decisions. Had that motion gone through last night, it would have sent a signal that would have dismayed our coalition allies and the Iraqi Government and heartened all those who are fighting us in Iraq. That is why we opposed the motion and why it is important that we stand up and fight those in Iraq who are trying to prevent the democratic process from taking root.
Let me explain something to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. British troops have been in Iraq for three and a half years with a United Nations resolution. When British forces are trying to help those who want democracy to function in Iraq, and when American forces are trying to make sure that that democratic process is secured, they are not simply acting on behalf of America or Britain; they are acting in accordance with a United Nations resolution and with the full support of the Iraqi Government. The trouble with Liberal Democrat Members is that they want to pray the United Nations in aid when it suits them, but when it does not suit them, they ignore it.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that last Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of bus deregulation outside London. He may not be aware that in south Yorkshire for every three people who rode on a bus in 1986, there is now one passenger and two empty seats. Will he accept that bus deregulation for most areas has been a failed Thatcherite experiment? Will he back the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport not to turn the clock back to 1986, but to give real powers to passenger transport authorities to ensure that our constituents outside London have the same access to decent public transport as is currently available to people in the capital?
I fully understand why the Secretary of State for Transport has said that, and I fully support it. My hon. Friend has made his point in relation to Sheffield, and I have heard it in many different parts of the country. In London, where there has been a tougher system of regulation, some of the same problems have not appeared. Without in any sense turning the clock back, it is entirely right to look at the issue again.
I think that the Defence Secretary has just indicated that there have not been any such requests. In any event, if there were such requests, or indeed requests for any type of equipment whether for Afghanistan or elsewhere, it would be a duty to meet those requests. The work that we are doing in Afghanistan is extremely important, and, yes, it has proved to be very tough in the south of Afghanistan. When our forces begin operating in an area such as Helmand, they adjust their tactics and strategy, which is perfectly natural. They may well ask for more forces, troops or whatever they think necessary to accomplish the mission, which is entirely natural. What is happening down in the south is a remarkable tribute to what British troops are doing. It is absolutely vital to support the democratic process in Afghanistan. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, let us be clear that the very people who are disrupting the democratic process are the same people whom we are fighting world wide in this battle against terrorism, so we should support our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in taking them on.
I know something about the project, and I am very happy to follow its progress, because it is an extremely big development that involves a lot of potential jobs in the area. As my hon. Friend will know, Warrington Collegiate, for example, has a major £27 million project. In her constituency, there is about £1,000 a year per pupil in extra funding. We want to keep that funding going. It is important that the Government’s position in respect of education and health remain that we do nothing that interrupts the flow of investment that is delivering real results on the ground.
I look forward to meeting the chief executive of the MNDA foundation shortly. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), will attend the reception, and I hope that as many other hon. Members attend as possible. We are not yet at the stage of being able to respond to specific proposals from the foundation, but we will do so when we get them.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work that he is doing on behalf of the foundation. MND is a very serious condition. The people who campaign on it are often incredibly brave and committed people who, unfortunately, know that they will die as a result of having the disease, and we would like to support them in any way we can.
We will strongly consider what my hon. Friend says. There was virtually unanimous support for raising the age for the sale of tobacco to 18 from health groups, retailers, the tobacco industry, parents, schools and young people. We hope shortly to put measures before Parliament to bring that into force, and we are looking carefully at my hon. Friend’s proposals.
What my right hon. Friend is doing on behalf of this country in Europe is absolutely excellent. For example, we are able as a result to negotiate difficult matters on behalf of this country in the European Union. That, I may say, is a rather better position than that of the hon. Gentleman’s party, which is to renegotiate the terms of our membership of the European Union and to separate itself out even from other conservative parties in Europe.
My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that although it is important that we exercise leadership here in relation to climate change, the solution to this, given that Britain accounts for some 2 per cent. of worldwide emissions, must lie at an international level. That is why in the European Union we are working with partners to extend the European trading system, and why, in the G8 plus 5 dialogue that was started at Gleneagles last year and which includes not only G8 members but India, Brazil and China, we are trying to secure a framework agreement whereby, when the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012, we will have a binding set of commitments on behalf of the international community. That will send the right signal not only to countries but to business and industry to invest. In the end, that is the only way in which we will tackle and defeat climate change.
I do of course recall the correspondence, and I have corresponded with the priest who has been leading the campaign. I entirely understand the concerns that people have, but I think that such decisions must be taken at local level.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, over the past few years there has been a major expansion in the number of people working in the national health service in Worcestershire. Nevertheless, when trusts balance their books and make changes for the future, they must also make those decisions. I hope that they make them sensitively, recognising the tremendous pastoral care that is given and its value to local patients; but I do not think it would be right for me to interfere directly in that process.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me—and with trade unions, business leaders, the people of Copeland and nuclear industry analysts—that a policy of nuclear generation as a last resort is really a policy of no nuclear generation at all?
I know that, for obvious reasons, my hon. Friend has a specific interest in this issue. If we do not make the decisions on nuclear power now, both our energy security and our effort to defeat climate change may be put at risk. The reason is simple: over the next 10 or 15 years, we will move from self-sufficiency in oil and gas to importing 80 or 90 per cent. of it. We will lose the existing nuclear power stations. We have already done an immense amount in terms of energy efficiency, renewables and so on, but without the component of nuclear power it is hard for me, at least, to see how we can both reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ensure that we are not dependent on foreign imports of oil and gas in the future.
What I do accept is that there is a role for public subsidy. Indeed, I believe that over the past few years we have put some £2 billion of subsidy into the post office network, precisely because we recognise that it has a social as well as a commercial purpose. Now we are thinking about how we can sustain that purpose. The trouble—as the hon. Gentleman will know—is this. I met the sub-postmasters, or their representatives, last week. They are people doing an excellent job, often in very difficult circumstances, and providing a tremendous local service. However, we must ensure that that service is viable for the long term. We can support it, but it will still have to be viable—sufficiently viable, in fact, for people to volunteer to run the post offices.
We will make an announcement in response to the sub-postmasters’ campaign shortly. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the network has a social purpose, but obviously it must be limited by the extent of the funds available to us to subsidise it. We should be considering whether post offices can provide other services that give them a different and more modern rationale.
I certainly agree that the excellence cluster in Plymouth has worked very well. Similar things are happening in other parts of the country. In London, for example, as a result of targeted investment in education and action through the excellence in cities programmes, whereas in many boroughs 25 per cent. of kids or fewer would obtain good GCSEs, the figure is now no lower than 40 per cent. in any borough. In places such as Plymouth, results have improved dramatically over the past few years. I think that we should sometimes pay tribute not just to teachers and other school staff, but to the work that pupils and parents are doing throughout the country in giving us the best school results that we have ever had.
I met some child protection officers in Downing street the other day—although they were not from London, but from different parts of the country—and they do a superb job of work. I simply say that the Metropolitan police budget has increased significantly over the past few years. Such decisions are principally for the Met Police Commissioner. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated that he is very happy to raise this issue with the Met Police Commissioner. I am sure that he will be in touch with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) about it.
I wish to make a statement to the House about ministerial statements. A ministerial statement is an important aspect of Government’s accountability to Parliament, but to be effective the occasion needs to conducted efficiently so that as many Members as possible can contribute with direct questions. Following a recommendation from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons in October 2002, the House agreed that, of the hour or so allotted to statements, the opening ministerial statement should last no longer than 10 minutes and that the reply from the official Opposition should be confined to five minutes. My view is that it is appropriate for the Liberal Democrats, or any other party, to be confined to three minutes. [Interruption.] I knew that I was being generous. The purpose of these restrictions, as the Committee made clear, is to give Back Benchers a fair chance to question Government Ministers on matters of public importance. I would expect Back Benchers to ask one supplementary question each. I am therefore informing the House that these rules will be adhered to in the new Session, so as to give Ministers the opportunity to make full statements to the House and be questioned effectively about them.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning’s edition of The Sun newspaper carries a report of a threatened crime wave arising from immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. The report appears to be based on a leaked Cabinet Office memo that was given to a reporter from The Sun. It seems that, once again, the press have access to a document that is not available to this House. Could you use your offices to cause the document to be placed in the Library of the House of Commons?
Registration of Off-road Bikes
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require off-road bikes to be registered; and for connected purposes.
This is the third time in the past four weeks that a Member has asked for leave to be given to introduce a Bill related to off-road bikes. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) introduced a Bill to deal with scrambler bikes three weeks ago, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) presented a Bill for the regulation of mini-motos one week ago. Further, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) recently tabled early-day motion 2040. It was signed by 79 Members, and it calls on the Government to ensure that mini-bikes are clearly defined as motor vehicles.
I agreed some months ago to support the Greater Manchester police authority’s “Stop off-road motorcycle nuisance” campaign, which has been ably supported by a campaign in the Manchester Evening News. Those campaigns were prompted by the 26,000 complaints about off-road bike nuisance that were received by Greater Manchester police in the 12 months to July of this year.
The Motor Cycle Industry Association estimates that as many as 300,000 such bikes have been sold since 2001. Yet the existing statutory vehicle registration scheme applies only to those vehicles required to be licensed, and the requirement for licensing a vehicle is that it is to be used on the public highway. That means that bikes introduced into circulation as off-road bikes are not registered and do not have to undergo any meaningful safety evaluation, and that they can be marketed as toys and sold to children, despite the fact that many now reach speeds of up to 60 mph.
I believe that mandatory registration should be extended to cover motorcycles, motor tricycles and motor quad-bikes that are designed for use off-road. Early-day motion 2852, which I tabled last week, has been signed in its first few days by 52 hon. Members. It notes that off-road bikes are associated with antisocial behaviour, which disrupts communities, and calls for a mandatory and retrospective registration scheme for these bikes.
During the summer and autumn months, my constituents and those of many other hon. Members were affected badly by noise nuisance and damage to land and property, and were put in physical danger by the reckless, dangerous and illegal use of off-road bikes. Those who live near open land, canal banks, football fields or even local parks can be affected by the relentless noise nuisance generated by off-road bikes ridden across these places. This can cause particular aggravation to the most vulnerable in our society. One Worsley constituent who has very limited eyesight told me he feared to go out of his own gate on many days in summer, in case one of the young people constantly riding off-road bikes on the adjacent field rode into him. Evidence has also been given to Greater Manchester police by the brother of a child with learning difficulties on the autistic spectrum. The child found the constant noise from two off-road bikes ridden near his home so distressing that he could not go out to play in his own garden.
I have spoken this week to two Worsley constituents who have seen damage done to land and property by off-road bikes during the summer months. Mr. Les Higgins coaches a junior football team in Little Hulton, in my constituency, and on many occasions the team could not continue with their practice or play on the football pitch due to being ridden at by off-road bikes. The bikes, which were often ridden by two or three young people at a time, were ridden at the young football players, with the riders only swerving at the last minute. Mrs. Renee Cavanaugh, who also lives in Little Hulton, has been plagued by the nuisance from off-road bikes being ridden at the rear of her property, sometimes from as early as 8 am on weekends. Damage was also caused to her car when an off-road bike ran into it. Those riding such bikes illegally in this way are uninsured, so people whose land or vehicles are damaged by these riders have no source of redress.
Sadly, we now have the concept of the “hit-and-run” off-road biker. A police officer in Greater Manchester was injured when he was knocked off his bike and ridden over by an off-road biker riding in a gang of 20 such bikes on a public footpath. Pedestrians aged from 14 to 77 have also been injured in collisions with off-road bikers, and a 16-year-old cyclist from Greater Manchester died after a collision with an-off-road bike.
So off-road bikers can cause death and injury to others, but they are also at risk themselves. I am saddened whenever I drive past a particular lamp post in my constituency, which is strewn with floral tributes to the young man aged 18 who died there last year when the off-road bike that he was riding along the pavement hit the lamp post. In Greater Manchester alone, one teenage rider per month dies as a result of riding off-road bikes illegally or dangerously.
Greater Manchester police believe that preventing the irresponsible use of off-road bikes is difficult because the nature of the bikes enables a speedy getaway, and current legislation is not strong enough to enable police enforcement. There is an inherent problem for the police in trying to catch those misbehaving on these bikes. An untrained teenager is at grave risk of accident or injury if he or she tries to flee at speed from the police on an off-road bike. Chases would also endanger the police and pedestrians.
Although the police do have some powers under section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, Greater Manchester police believe that these powers are cumbersome and ineffective in dealing with the scale of the problem. The powers are also seen as balanced in favour of those who commit antisocial behaviour. To deal with this, the Greater Manchester police authority has set out plans for a registration scheme for off-road bikes analogous to that for licensed road-going vehicles. That will have the following benefits. First, it will reduce the theft of such bikes, as a clear system of ownership will be established. That will also help to deal with the flourishing criminal market in stolen bikes. Secondly, it will improve consumer protection. Bikes will be subject to safety checks and it will also be impossible to market the bikes as toys. Thirdly, it will increase the efficiency of police action through the ability to identify owners.
Those are the benefits of a mandatory registration scheme, which will help to reduce the danger posed to communities and also help to militate against the antisocial use of off-road bikes.
I accept and welcome the measures already taken to combat the problem of off-road bike nuisance. The Government's respect taskforce recently published a step-by-step guide for practitioners, and additional finance has been made available for communities affected by the problem.
I mentioned earlier that Greater Manchester police authority has been running a campaign called “Stop off-road motorcycle nuisance”. As a result of an intensive crackdown in late spring and early summer, the local police were able to seize 78 bikes, make six arrests, issue 94 fixed penalty notices and issue 233 warnings. That was commendable work by the police and it has made some difference. However, as the testimony from my constituents Mr. Higgins and Mrs Cavanaugh shows, such campaigns by the police have only limited scope for success while the registration of off-road bikes is not mandatory or retrospective.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have shown through their tabling of questions, ten-minute rule Bills and early-day motions that the need for such a registration scheme exists. In a month in which we have heard so much about the nuisance of off-road bikes, I hope that I have helped to convince the House that it is time we stopped that nuisance by bringing in a mandatory and retrospective registration scheme.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Barbara Keeley, Anne Snelgrove, Chris Bryant, Natascha Engel, Lynda Waltho, Mr. Ian Austin, Jim Dobbin, Mrs. Sharon Hodgson, Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods, Mr. Andy Reed, Sarah McCarthy-Fry and Mrs. Siân C. James.
Registration of Off-road Bikes
Barbara Keeley accordingly presented a Bill to require off-road bikes to be registered; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 November, and to be printed [Bill 239].
BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE
That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr Jack Straw relating to:—
(1) Legislative Process;
(2) Communications Allowance;
(3) September Sittings;
(4) Matters Sub Judice;
(5) Select Committee Evidence;
(6) European Standing Committees; and
(7) Short Speeches
not later than Seven o’clock; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—[Mr. Straw.]
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.