I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member (House of Commons Paper No. 337) and approves the proposals for changes in the procedures and practices of the House set out in the Government’s response to the report (Cm. 7231), including the proposals for topical questions.
This is my first opportunity to respond to a Modernisation Committee report. I pay tribute to previous Chairs of that Committee: the late Robin Cook, my right hon. Friends the Members for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), for Neath (Mr. Hain), for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), and for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who chaired it more recently. I also pay tribute to the many Members who have served on that Committee and continue to do so, including the current Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), and the Modernisation Committee’s most senior and longest-serving member, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). This House is more effective as a result of their work.
My right hon. and learned Friend has left one name off that list. He was not a Minister at the time, but Bob Sheldon, now Lord Sheldon, when he published the second part of “Shifting the Balance”, did a lot for the modernisation of the Select Committee system and for what happens in the House. There was an interview with the then Prime Minister. Lord Sheldon did most important work. I hope that she recognises that.
I absolutely agree with that point. The Modernisation Committee has done important work. The work that was done by Lord Sheldon and by many others has contributed to taking forward the way in which the House operates and is able to hold the Government to account through the Select Committee and other systems.
Today there are five motions before us, covering the recent report from the Modernisation Committee “Revitalising the Chamber: The Role of the Back-Bench Member”, and the recent report from the Procedure Committee on public petitions and early-day motions, and there is a motion relating to European Standing Committees. I would like to say a few words about the context of those measures.
I think that we would all agree that we need to be prepared to re-examine many aspects of how the country is governed, in order to reinvigorate our democracy and how our Government are held to account. We all know now the statistics of election turnout and the underlying evidence of voter disengagement. That needs to be addressed in many different ways. In his statement to the House in July, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister proposed to the Speaker that a Speaker's Conference be established to look further at some of those issues.
The Modernisation Committee agreed earlier this week that it would take forward short inquiries on the publication of the draft legislative programme, departmental annual debates, regional accountability, and recall and dissolution. I hope that all hon. Members will contribute to the Committee’s inquiries. As I said, they will be short inquiries, and they will come forward with proposals.
It is important that we have regional accountability for the north and other regions. I pay tribute to the first Minister for the North East of England, who is carrying out his important duties. We intend to press ahead with regional accountability, but we must get the processes right. We must ensure that the Committees are practical and work properly and effectively, that the House supports them and that in the regions concerned they are recognised as making a legitimate and important contribution to strengthening accountability.
I do not draw much encouragement from what my right hon. and learned Friend has just said. If there is a retreat from having a Select Committee for the north-east, not only will there be a lot of disappointment within the region but there will be a lot of unhappy Labour Back Benchers.
I reassure my hon. Friend that there is no intention to retreat on anything and that we intend to discuss fully with colleagues on both sides of the House how we go forward in that respect. I know that he would agree that we need a practical solution that enables Members in the region to hold public agencies such as the regional development agency to account effectively. We will work together to ensure that we deliver that. We want to go forward with it as promptly as possible and the Modernisation Committee inquiry will be the first opportunity to look at that.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the concern that has been expressed about the resource implications of creating regional Select Committees should not lead to a retreat from that commitment, and that the answer to that concern is to make those resources available?
My hon. Friend is right. One of the issues that we need to look at is how the resources of the House are allocated between the different functions of the House. That is one of the things that we need to discuss. I can tell from the response already that there will be a lively, open and transparent debate on those issues. There is no suggestion that the matter should be left in the long grass.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend because I believe that she is looking favourably at the amendment that I and other members of the European Scrutiny Committee have tabled to item 5 on today’s agenda. However, on topical debates, it is always a concern to Select Committees that not enough time is given on the Floor of the House for debates on topics that are of importance to those Committees. Can we have an assurance that topical debates will not force out debates that have been requested by a Select Committee after serious scrutiny? They are obviously seen as matters of such concern that the request is made that they be debated here in the Chamber.
The Modernisation Committee will look at departmental debate days. Topical debates are intended to give Back-Bench Members an opportunity to ask questions without having to table them in advance. The intention is to make the work of the House more topical and to have more topical debates. I hope that they will be welcomed. I think that we all agree that we should improve scrutiny of European matters. My hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, has made strong representations about how the system needs to be improved, and I intend to accept his amendment. We will seek to sort this matter out within three months of today, rather than 12 months. The Modernisation Committee reported on this issue in March 2005, so an additional 12 months would be unsatisfactory. Three months should be long enough for us to find a solution that he and others will agree to. I thank him for tabling the amendment.
On resources, I support the principle of regional Select Committees and regional Ministers; the ministerial team is already proving its effectiveness. However, we must address the pressure that is put on MPs in this House. As Chairman of a Select Committee, I am finding that there is a small group of MPs who are free to accept membership of a Select Committee. We have a growing number of Ministers, paid and unpaid, and growing shadow ministerial teams who discount themselves from Select Committee work. We also have a proliferation of Parliamentary Private Secretaries who have, up to now, been prevented from being members of Select Committees. It is becoming difficult to attract Members on to Select Committees.
Whatever change we make to ensure proper regional accountability, we must make absolutely sure that we do not undermine the very important work of the Select Committees. Those involved, particularly the Select Committee Chairmen and the Liaison Committee, will need to be involved in the discussions of how we take forward regional accountability.
On European scrutiny, it is nonsense to have Select Committees doing serious work and producing reports that are not debated more widely before the Government come to a final view. A couple of days ago several Public Accounts Committee reports were debated. In the same way, there ought to be periodic opportunities to debate Select Committee reports by Department before the Government have come to a final view. That would make the work worth while, not just for parliamentarians but for all those who give evidence, orally or in other forms. It would show that we took that work seriously if we had a chance to debate it.
Our view is that it is a good idea for the House to be able to debate Select Committee reports once the House has had the opportunity to see the Government’s response. Otherwise, the House would have an opportunity to debate the Select Committee report proposals, but not to debate the Government’s response unless further time was set aside for debate.
The Leader of the House has been most generous with her time. I am grateful to her for indicating that she intends to bring forward proposals to improve the scrutiny of European legislation, on which the Government, sadly, have been dragging their feet for some time. May I commend my proposals, which include making the scrutiny reserve statutory so that Ministers could not go to Brussels without the House giving its view on their proposed position, and to enable, say, 150 Members to require an issue that is going before the European Scrutiny Committee to be subject to a full debate in this Chamber?
I favour the Leader of the House’s proposals for more topical debates and questions. But before we get muddled up about regional accountability—with which some of us do not agree—could we have some national accountability? One of the frustrations that many of my electors have about this place is that when MPs ask perfectly sensible, intelligent but tough questions of Ministers, there are no answers. We then have “Groundhog Day” with the recital of idiotic banalities of a political kind, instead of Ministers actually trying to answer the question. If they answer the question the first time, we will have rather more accountability.
The right hon. Gentleman will have to come and see me to explain further what he is talking about, as I do not recognise his description. I try to ensure that I give as clear and full answers as possible.
The reform measures before the House today reflect work that began before I became Leader of the House and will contribute to this House remaining at the centre of the nation’s affairs; not just being at the centre, but being seen to be at the centre so that the important role of the House is clearly understood by the public.
The Leader of the House has mentioned the public, who are very important. It is three and a half years since the Modernisation Committee made recommendations about European scrutiny and the Government have done nothing to implement them. She has now said that she will bring forward some proposals. Does she agree that the European Scrutiny Committee should meet in public in the meantime? That would help the public to understand what we are doing on their behalf. It is monstrous that that Committee meets in secret; I know, because I am a member of it. It is not surprising that the gap between us and the public on European issues has widened in recent years. Will she look favourably on an early change to Standing Orders to permit that Committee to meet in public?
Madam Deputy Speaker, I feel that I must press on with my speech. One of my proposals is that Front-Bench speeches should be restricted to 20 minutes. I feel that I am running out of that 20 minutes and I am only on the third page of my speech. I dare not tell the House how many more pages I have.
Although I welcome the Government’s willingness to provide for more topical debates and public interest debates, I am concerned that the character of the process is rather top-down. It appears that the intention is that these matters should be determined principally by the Government Whips, probably with a bit of consultation with my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, but not much more. Given that the Select Committee inquiry was into the role of the Back Bencher, may I exhort the Leader of the House to consider the merits of the evidence given by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who, supported by the Hansard Society, argued that there should be a Back-Bench trigger in the form of a number of signatories of an early-day motion automatically resulting in a debate taking place, whether the Government and Opposition Front Benches liked it or not?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Leader of the House, quite unintentionally, has misled the House by asserting that it is up to Standing Committees whether they meet in public or not. In the last Parliament, the European Scrutiny Committee voted for its weekly deliberative sessions to be in public, but the Leader of the House did nothing to change the Standing Orders. What she said was incorrect and I invite her to correct the record.
We must clarify the record, because it was not under my chairmanship but under a previous chairmanship, when a motion was moved and carried that the Committee should meet in public. The Chairman was, unfortunately, ill at the time, but when he returned, he raised the matter again. It was thoroughly debated and the reasons for the feeling that the proposal was inappropriate were explained. That was felt particularly by our advisers, who give confidential advice to the Committee in their deliberative sessions, and it was explained why the proposal would compromise their position. The Chairman took a fresh vote and the decision was overturned. As it stands, the Committee’s position is that it does not wish to meet in public.
I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. I shall press on with my speech clarifying why we have brought these motions before the House. If the trigger were simply a number of Members signing an early-day motion, we might find that this House would debate the football results. Someone such as myself would need to provide a filter so that that did not happen.
The Government accept most of the recommendations in the two Modernisation Committee reports before the House. They are particularly valuable in placing reform firmly in the context of how Members, in particular Back Benchers, manage the different aspects of their work. Any changes must reflect the priorities of individual Members and their need to devote time both to this House and to their constituents. Those demands have been ever increasing, and particularly marked for many hon. Members has been the growth in constituency work. That has been followed by a necessary increase—almost a doubling, in real terms—in the financial support provided to Members for this work since 1997 in the form of staffing and allowances. In my view, that is a good thing. The Government will publish the Senior Salaries Review Body report on pay and allowances for the House to consider shortly.
No one denies that extra resources have been provided, but the level of work in a major Select Committee is onerous in terms of the amount of research, reading and so on, and a small extra contribution towards the research budget for Members who choose to join one would make a big difference. Sometimes it would make the difference between someone choosing to serve on a Select Committee or choosing to become a Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Very shortly. I must work out what comes next, after very shortly. Perhaps it is very, very shortly.
Hon. Members have an important role in their constituencies, but they also have vital work in this Chamber and in Select and Public Bill Committees. It is a timeless characteristic of our system that Members arrive at the general from the particular. The different roles that make up a Member of Parliament’s work are not separate and competing, but interconnected and interdependent. That is why it is important, as the Modernisation Committee report highlighted, for Members to be able to organise their time as effectively as possible. Thus Chamber debates have to be organised in a way that allows hon. Members to know that they can contribute.
I shall deal first with the Modernisation Committee report on promoting interest in the Chamber. Its central theme is to promote the work of the Chamber by providing greater opportunities for Members to bring issues swiftly into the Chamber while they are still topical and maximising the opportunities for Back Benchers to participate in the Chamber. The Government have accepted most of the recommendations. Some of them—for example, those relating to new topical procedures and speaking times—are quite far-reaching, so it is proposed that in the first instance, they should run for a trial period during the next Session.
The Modernisation Committee proposes that business managers and the usual channels should seek to promote greater topicality in the first instance through trying to find opportunities to bring more topical issues to the House in two ways: by rebalancing the regular slots currently recognised by the House for such matters as the Queen’s Speech, defence debates, the Budget debate and so on—I would welcome a debate in the House with contributions from all parties on the overall shape of those annual debates—and by being readier to hold half-day debates rather than full-day debates. That is not in the gift of the Government, and if we are to secure those changes, we will need the co-operation of the official Opposition and the whole House.
The Modernisation Committee proposes that debates should be seen to be more significant, both to Members and to the outside world. That could be done by holding more such debates on substantive motions—on a form of words enabling the House to express a specific view—and in other cases, through ending the practice of holding debates on the historic motion, “That this House do now adjourn”, when in fact the House intends to proceed to a full debate. The Government have accepted the Committee’s recommendation on that latter point. Accordingly, where the House does not seek to express a specific view on a subject, it should use a standard motion of the form, “That this House has considered the matter of...”. The specified subject matter for such motions, as with Adjournment motions, would be expressed in neutral terms and would not be amendable, but what is going on in this House would be much clearer to colleagues and to the outside world.
I turn to the question of topicality: urgent procedures, topical questions and topical debates. The Government are accepting a range of proposals to maximise the opportunities for the House to consider the pressing issues of the moment, including two key proposals: having so-called “topical questions” and weekly topical debates. Topical questions will mean that most of the major Departments will have a period of their Question Time similar to Prime Minister’s Questions, in which open questions will be allowed. The period will be 15 minutes of topical questions for Departments answering for a full hour and 10 minutes for those answering for 40 minutes. The precise rules, and the calling of Members after the initial open question, will operate as with other questions under the Speaker’s direction, and will allow topical matters to be raised.
Topical debates will be weekly 90-minute debates on a topic of the day that is of international, national or regional importance. The selection of topic will, as proposed by the Modernisation Committee, be announced by the Leader of the House, following representations received and contacts through the usual channels. Some flexibility must be preserved as to exactly when the debate should take place each week. When the House does not sit for a full week, there would generally be no such debate. I would envisage announcing the slot for the topical debate during Thursday’s business questions—I would be able to hear from hon. Members from all parties at that point—and if the slot were for the coming Monday or Tuesday, I would envisage announcing the subject at that time too. To ensure proper topicality, if the slot was to be for the following Wednesday or Thursday, I plan to give notice of the subject not before the Monday afternoon.
I would be happy to receive representations on the subject for topical debates from Members through any route they choose, including business questions. This innovation may be the most significant of all the measures proposed today. It will enable the House to hold the Government to account more effectively and to air issues of topical concern.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) tabled an amendment drawing attention to parts of the Modernisation Committee report that were not in the bold recommendations and were not fully reflected in our response. She asks for the subject for the topical debate to be announced by the Leader of the House following consultation with business managers. As I have stated, that is indeed what we envisage happening, and that would include consultations through the usual channels.
The right hon. Lady also proposes a fortnightly written ministerial statement listing the subjects proposed by hon. Members. I am, of course, willing to see how best the system can operate in terms of representations and how the process can be as open as possible, but the precise mechanism proposed may not be the best one. We do not know how the process will work in practice. Dozens, or even hundreds, of suggestions or requests might be made, given in all sorts of different ways, so it might not be straightforward to compress all such representations into a written statement. Indeed, we would not want to encourage a situation in which Members sought opportunities to manipulate the process by setting up campaigns. It may well be that in practice most representations come through Thursday morning business questions anyway, in which case everyone will be able to hear them at first hand. The whole arrangement is, of course, experimental and we will be able to review it in a year’s time.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for her generosity in giving way. The Modernisation Committee report proposed the fortnightly written statement as a way to ensure that hon. Members can see the subjects that have been proposed and make judgments about the decisions made by the Leader of the House as to which are chosen for topical debates. I accept that there may be questions of practicality, but the process must be open. The Leader of the House, in consultation with the usual channels, must not be left to choose subjects, with hon. Members having no idea whether they genuinely reflect the views of the House.
I agree that we want a process that is both open and practical. We will have to consider in some detail how to achieve both objectives.
The Committee has also proposed that there should be substantive debates in Westminster Hall on motions on Select Committee reports and on balloted private Members’ motions. I think that we have to look at these proposals in the light of how individual Members now prioritise their work. Let us be clear: substantive motions, with the potential for amendments to them, will inevitably bring with them increased whipping into what is at the moment unwhipped business. That would change the character of that business, and would also require the attendance of hon. Members at many more Divisions. I wonder whether hon. Members would consider that a good use of their time.
However, the Government have agreed with the proposals in the Procedure Committee report that relevant EDMs and petitions, rather than being the subject of any direct debate, should be capable of having a “tag” on the Order Paper if they are the subject of a debate selected by an hon. Member.
The Modernisation Committee has also proposed a regular half-hour Select Committee slot in Westminster Hall, in addition to the existing regular Thursday afternoon debating slots, to discuss recently published reports, perhaps in a very short debate or in the form of a statement. The Government have considered this proposal, but as I said earlier, in our response we have indicated that we do not think it particularly helpful for the House to hold formal exchanges of this kind on reports before the Government have had a chance to consider their response to those reports. Opportunities are already in place to raise such matters in other ways—whether outside the House or inside, for example at Question Time—but questions about the kinds of business to be taken in Westminster Hall, and how it can be handled, may be appropriate for further review in the Modernisation Committee.
I think that I shall press on, if I may. I have answered a great many questions, and there are Back Benchers who have speeches to make. I do not want to run out of time. We had two statements today even before we got to this business, and I must protect the rights of Back Benchers who want to make speeches.
I turn now to the question of petitions, and to the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and others. However, before I move on to the Procedure Committee report on petitions and EDMs, perhaps I could just mention the Modernisation Committee’s recommendation that the absolute bar on the use of hand-held devices for keeping up with emails should be lifted—provided, as the Modernisation Committee noted, that that causes no disturbance. The hon. Member for Congleton and others have tabled an amendment proposing that this change should be rejected.
That is obviously a matter for the House, but my own view is that it is a sensible proposal. The Modernisation Committee, following representations from a number of hon. Members, took the view that it was a sensible measure to accommodate hon. Members’ practical needs if they were to be expected to spend considerable time waiting in the Chamber to speak and listening to the debate. I think that the proposal is realistic and would be genuinely helpful. Hon. Members will note that if the House agrees to the terms of the Government response by agreeing to the motion tabled, and as explained in the explanatory memorandum, the change would come into force only when Mr. Speaker has approved the necessary arrangements.
As we will all recognise, petitions have come increasingly under the spotlight as interest has grown in different forms of direct engagement with the public. Our own petitions procedures have gradually been brought up to date over the years. For example, the top copy no longer has to be handwritten, the rules for eligibility of petitions have been simplified, and the Clerks in the Journal Office can always assist Members in ensuring that petitions are in order. The time is now right to develop the procedures further, to make more apparent the opportunities that people have to address this place directly.
The latest report from the Procedure Committee has been a balanced study of what further steps might be taken. It proposes the retention of the Member link to an incoming petition, but makes a number of proposals to make petitions more visible in the House’s procedures. They include proposals that petitions be published in Hansard, that the Government respond to petitions and that Select Committees specifically include on their agendas the petitions that have been forwarded to them. Another possibility is that there should be a dedicated debate slot for petitions in Westminster Hall.
The Government have accepted most of those recommendations, as outlined in our response document. In respect of Westminster Hall debates, we think it better that existing processes for Back Benchers to procure debates should be used, but that it should be possible to “tag” any relevant petition on the Order Paper for the debate.
When it comes to responding to petitions, it is important to note that the Government have now given an undertaking that
“provided that Members continue to give careful attention to a proposed petition before sponsoring it...substantive petitions should normally receive a response from the relevant government department.”
The Committee has also indicated that it will be looking further at whether some form of e-petitioning—in particular for gathering signatures—can be incorporated into the petitions process, on the basis that the Member link to a petition should be retained. The Government look forward to this second report in due course. The Government have agreed with all the specific recommendations addressed to them concerning EDMs, which continue to perform a valuable role in allowing Members to raise a variety of local or national issues in a measured way.
I turn now to European Standing Committees. The motion relating to European Standing Committees is designed solely to allow the present temporary system for the appointment of European Standing Committees to continue. The appointment of the Committees on a one-off basis as and when there is a need, rather than appointing three permanent Committees as envisaged under Standing Order No. 119, has existed as a temporary measure until any more comprehensive reform of the European scrutiny system is put in place.
I am well aware that neither the system envisaged by the Standing Orders, nor the temporary system currently in place, is satisfactory. The 2005 Modernisation Committee report on European scrutiny identified failings, and I think that many hon. Members here would agree, but we have yet to identify the precise solutions.
The Modernisation Committee report contained several recommendations relating to the European Standing Committee process. My predecessors as Leader of the House and I have all been looking at the matter closely. I agree that we need to identify improvements to the European Standing Committee process. We are actively looking at ways in which this might be done.
I come now to the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and other members of the European Scrutiny Committee. In the meantime, the power to appoint Committees in the way set out under the temporary arrangement—which is what allows the system to work effectively at all at present—will expire at the end of this Session unless we renew it. My hon. Friend and the other members of the European Scrutiny Committee have tabled an amendment to provide that the extension would be for three months only into the next Session.
While I cannot guarantee that we will be able to bring forward alternative proposals within that time, I will be working hard with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to bring forward proposals that command the support of the whole House, including the European Scrutiny Committee. I am therefore content to accept the amendment.
The Modernisation Committee and other Committees of this House have done us a favour in bringing forward some very sensible suggestions about how we could do our business better. I hope that all hon. Members will support the measures, as they will provide greater topicality for our debates, enhance and strengthen the role of Back Benchers, and improve our scrutiny of Government.
Order. I advise hon. Members that motions 1 to 5 on the Order Paper—on Modernisation of the House of Commons; Modernisation of the House of Commons (Changes to Standing Orders); Procedure; Procedure (Changes to Standing Orders); and European Standing Committees (Temporary Nomination)—will be discussed together. Mr. Speaker has selected amendments (a) and (b) to motion 1, on Modernisation of the House of Commons, and amendment (a) to motion 5, on European Standing Committees (Temporary Nomination).
As a member of the Modernisation Committee, may I begin by thanking all those involved in the preparation of this report? During our inquiry, we heard not only from hon. Members but from representatives of the media and from academics, officials and the Clerk of the House. We received the usual high standard of support from the Clerks Department and other staff, and I should like to thank them too for their work, and to commend them on it.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady, but I want to ask about her reference to the hard work done by staff. Does she agree that, given the theme of modernisation, it is absurd for proposals to be made that Members of Parliament should take precedence in tea and photocopier queues? Another proposal has been that what amount to executive washrooms be retained in this place. Are those not precisely the sort of proposals that bring this House into disrepute, and are they not an insult to the very hard-working staff to whom she has referred?
As it happens, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that Members should not take precedence in tea and canteen queues in this House.
To return to the motion, the sovereignty of Parliament in our constitution is known, or should be known, by all, but to ensure that our constitution remains healthy, and that the way we govern ourselves continues to work properly, we have to ensure that Parliament stays strong. We need to do that in a variety of ways—by preventing its domination by the Executive, by protecting and extending its democratic legitimacy and by making sure that what goes on in this and the other place is relevant to what goes on outside this building, in the real world, in the lives of the people who put us here.
The Prime Minister and his Government talk much about making Parliament stronger and more relevant. Indeed, the Prime Minister has said that he wants to make Parliament the “crucible” of our political life. If only his actions matched his words people might actually believe that that was not just another piece of spin. We have had supposedly spin-free statements spun to the press beforehand, troop withdrawals double-counted and announced at a photo-shoot first rather than to Parliament and a pre-Budget report whose detail bore little resemblance to the statement made to the House by the Chancellor.
Sir Winston Churchill said of the duties of a Member of Parliament:
“The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks is right for Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents. It is only in the third place that his duty to party takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there is no doubt of the order in which they stand.”
Given the way the Prime Minister treated Parliament when he was Chancellor and the way he is treating it now, and the way he treated the country by considering a snap election as long as it suited the Labour party, I fear that he has Churchill’s three loyalties in the wrong order.
I thought the right hon. Lady would treat the debate seriously and talk about the motion in a bipartisan manner. I wish she would come back on track. Does she think that the Modernisation Committee proposals have countered one of the great frustrations in this place? Typically, when we have debates on a topical issue or any other issue, there are long speeches from Front Benchers and even longer ones from Liberal Democrat Front Benchers—they all outbid one another in terms of length. We will be doing something about that, but Back Benchers still do not know when we will be called to speak. Grown-up adults wait on the Back Benches wondering whether we will be called to speak. Why cannot we know—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was about to suggest that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) took his own counsel in that regard.
If the Prime Minister is serious about making Parliament the crucible of our political life, he should begin by treating people with respect and Parliament with propriety. If he wants to achieve his supposed goal, he needs to transfer power from the Executive to Parliament, which is part of what the Modernisation Committee proposals are about.
The most positive changes in the motion concern the topicality of what goes on in the House. If the public, the media and, indeed, Members are to pay more attention to Parliament we need to make sure that we debate topical issues and that we debate them quickly enough for them to remain topical. Of course, we can make use of urgent questions, Standing Order No. 24 debates and Opposition day debates, but none is perfect in ensuring topicality. Urgent questions can be turned down and in any case give rise only to questions rather than a proper debate. At present, Standing Order No. 24 debates come at the expense of other business, and Opposition day debates have no regular slot; their timing is up to the Government and they tend to be bunched towards the end of a Session. Moreover, Opposition time is limited.
The answer to improving topicality cannot be simply to limit the freedom of manoeuvre of the Opposition parties, so the provision that there should be topical debates of an hour and a half is welcome, subject to two caveats. First, it would be unacceptable for the innovation to eat into Opposition time; the Government already dominate the business of the House and Opposition time is limited, as I said. If we are to improve the strength of Parliament, that innovation must not come at the expense of the Opposition, as the Modernisation Committee report said, so I should be grateful if the Leader of the House, or her deputy in the winding-up speech, could give the House a commitment that topical debates will not eat into time given to Opposition parties for their debates.
My second concern relates to my amendment, which the Leader of the House addressed. The Modernisation Committee recommended that subjects for topical debates would be announced by the Leader of the House following consultation with business managers and that the Leader of the House would issue—as we discussed—a fortnightly written ministerial statement showing the list of proposals made by private Members and the debates that had taken place. However, the motion merely states that a Minister of the Crown will take the decision about which proceedings will form part of a topical debate.
The issue is important. In her speech, the Leader of the House referred to the fact that suggestions would come from Back Benchers. It is essential that we make it clear in this debate that topical debates will not simply be in the gift of Ministers, but will be announced by the Leader of the House following propositions from Back-Bench Members. It is crucial that debates can be initiated by Back Benchers and not just Front Benchers.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if, to avoid embarrassment or difficulty for the Government, Ministers select for topical debate subjects that are not a hot topic in the media or for the Opposition, it will bring the whole idea of topicality into disrepute, which will pose quite a problem for the Government?
My right hon. Friend is right. An example springs to mind. If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) were to suggest a debate on a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty and the Government refused to accept it, many people would have something to say about the issue.
It is of course important that we know not only the contents of the list of proposed topics for the topical debates but the number of right hon. and hon. Members who have made a request for each. That does not mean that the judgment must be only quantitative; it can be qualitative as well, but we ought to know how many wanted which. Given that the Leader of the House said she was happy to hear from Members by letter, e-mail or in person, does my right hon. Friend agree that there can be no objection to the right hon. and learned Lady’s subsequently letting us know how many people requested which debate? What is there to hide?
I absolutely agree. The innovation is important for the House so when it is introduced we must take every opportunity to show that it is about Back-Bench Members being able to raise topics. In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend about the number of Members who could sign early-day motions and thereby generate debates on them, the Leader of the House referred to the nature of some of the early-day motions that are tabled. I think we all agree that there are some for which it would not be appropriate to take up debating time in the House, but I trust that Back Benchers would be able to judge when a subject was serious enough for topical debate and when it was not suitable.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for talking about Back Benchers, because the report could read as a cosy invitation to the Government to continue to control everything. An amendment proposed in the Select Committee by its Liberal Democrat member would have provided for the use of a ballot, which would be the simplest way of getting out of the craw of the Government or the usual channels. The amendment was voted down, but is not a ballot for all Back-Bench Members—it would exclude Front-Bench Members—the way to assert the vitality of the House?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He has been promoting the ballot proposal not only in the Select Committee but elsewhere. We need to consider the appropriate means for ensuring that Back Benchers can raise topics in the House. I shall refer later to private Members’ motions, because if we are genuinely interested in the House having greater ability both to decide what happens in this place and to hold the Government to account, such opportunities are important.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that although it is important for Back Benchers to have more say about topical debates, we should go further and allow people outside this place to have a say? Does she regret the fact that there is no recommendation for a petitions Committee, which could, for example, recommend that a petition be the subject of a topical debate?
The Procedure Committee has examined the question of a petitions Committee very carefully. I know that there is such a structure in the Scottish Parliament and I have talked to MSPs about it. That Committee is not without its downsides—it is not universally positive. The Procedure Committee has reached the right position after due and proper deliberation.
I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will use her winding-up speech to put it clearly on the record that the Government intend to allow Back Benchers to have a say on the issues that should be discussed in topical debates. Beyond that, however, there is also a need for more topical questions. Under the existing arrangements, there have been many occasions when it has not been possible to raise hot topics of the day during departmental oral questions, despite hon. Members’ ingenuity, simply because a relevant matter was not on the Order Paper. The Government have reduced the time in advance of departmental questions before which questions must be tabled, which is to be welcomed, but a period of time for topical questions is the right way to go.
Prior to today’s business statement, I was worried that there might be a problem with the introduction of topical questions if the existing cycle of questions was retained. Now that the Leader of the House has agreed to move on to a different cycle—I assume that that will be a five-week cycle so that Departments such as the Ministry of Justice will have a full amount of time—topical questions will be practical and an important innovation.
I am a great supporter of the idea that we should have debates on general issues. I have long argued that the House needs to be able to debate cross-cutting issues, so I hope that the general debates will address that shortcoming. However, the Leader of the House suggested that if we increased the number of general debates and private Members’ motions, there would be more whipping. I am on the record as saying that the House should have more general debates that are subject to free votes, although that view is not always shared by my colleagues in the Whips Office. Parliament should have more opportunities to give a view on issues of the day. It should be able to give such a view on issues that are aside from the Government’s proposed legislation, such as by debating the causes of antisocial behaviour and reaching a view. Such opportunities would be important.
The House always tends to address issues according to the way in which Whitehall Departments are divided into silos. However, people do not think of things in such a way. Businesses and organisations in every other walk of life are moving away from traditional models towards matrix models of management. The House needs to find ways of adapting to such models of management. If we asked modern management consultants to design Government Departments, I am sure that they would not produce the structure of Whitehall today. While I realise that that is not a subject for this debate, Parliament needs to move forward in a way that restricts the reliance on debating issues in silos and thus enables general debates to take place.
My right hon. Friend was showing very welcome signs of a commitment to what I call über-modernisation through what she said about the way in which Government Departments should be organised and the House should conduct itself in turn. May I gently put it to her that if we are to apply that principle, of which I am a vociferous supporter, there is a good case for doing so in relation to Westminster Hall as well? Most members of the public in full-time work would ordinarily work on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—and possibly beyond that. Is there any good reason why we continue to deny ourselves the possibility of debates in Westminster Hall, either on a substantive motion or a motion for the Adjournment, on Mondays? Why cannot we have such debates?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. I could probably be described—if I dare to try my German—as a frühe-moderniser rather than the term that he used. We need to look at what happens in Westminster Hall and how it is used. I will be entirely open with hon. Members. I was reluctant to accept the introduction of Westminster Hall in the early days, but I believe that it has been a good move by the House. We need to move on to the next stage of Westminster Hall to determine how we can make better use of it.
Some Members might say that we do not have enough time for all the changes that are being brought forward, such as the proposals for general debates. I say to the Government that the answer to that is very simple. If there was not so much legislation going through the House, Parliament would have time to do its job properly in terms of scrutinising legislation, questioning Ministers and debating important issues of the day.
It is important that as many Members as possible are able to speak in such debates. I support the provision for greater flexibility on Members’ contributions to debates. It is sensible to improve Members’ ability to participate by limiting Front Benchers’ contributions—I am wary of the time that I am taking.
We are talking about 90-minute debates. Under the proposed Standing Order, a third of that time will go to Front Benchers. This is just the old game, is it not? The report was meant to be called “Strengthening the role of the backbencher”—that was what we wanted to do. However, we are handing things over to the usual channels and the Government—the Crown in Parliament—who are not responsible and control the totality of the business that comes before the House.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the need for Front Benchers to be extremely careful about the amount of time that they take up in hour-and-a-half debates. It is not necessary for Front Benchers to take up all the time allowed by the proposals. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) about the increasing length of time for which Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen seem to speak. During one of our Opposition day debates, the Liberal Democrat spokesman spoke for longer than both the Government and Conservative spokesmen.
Let me refer to two recommendations that were rejected. It was proposed that Select Committee reports should be debated in Westminster Hall—this relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) about the use of Westminster Hall. At a time when many of us believe that the imbalance between Parliament and the Executive is too great, Select Committees have been a great success story. Their work deserves a higher profile and debating it more regularly in the House would contribute to that. There are probably other ways in which Select Committees could be further strengthened, and I hope to come forward with proposals in the near future. That perfectly reasonable recommendation would have strengthened Select Committees and Parliament, but the Government ignored it. That was a pity because they have missed an opportunity.
The Leader of the House also refused to entertain the recommendation that the House should experiment with a ballot for opportunities to debate private Members’ motions, to which I referred in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). That would have made a powerful change to the balance between Parliament and the Executive. The Leader of the House has said that there would be practical difficulties, but one cannot help but suspect that, as is the case for debates on Select Committee reports, the truth is that the proposal would relax the Government’s ability to control the business of the House rather too much for the Executive. While today’s proposals are to be welcomed, they fall short in those two key respects.
Although the changes are welcome and will go some way towards making the House more relevant to the public, the relevance test was just one of the three challenges for reform. The other two—the prevention of the domination of Parliament by the Executive and the need to protect and extend Parliament’s democratic legitimacy—will need further inventive and perhaps controversial measures.
As I said earlier, we have heard a lot from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House on how the Government supposedly want to strengthen Parliament, yet the Prime Minister will use his majority to force through the ratification of the renamed European constitution. However, without a referendum, he has no manifesto mandate to do so. He has failed to address the most obvious flaw in the post-devolution constitutional settlement, namely the West Lothian question. I am grateful for the fact that the Leader of the House has said that within three months there will be proposals on the scrutiny of European legislation, but I hope that she is prepared to go far enough to ensure genuinely better scrutiny of European legislation. That is in no way to decry the hard work done by members of the European Scrutiny Committee. However, the current system means that we are poor at scrutinising European legislation. Today’s changes are welcome, but even within the context of the Modernisation Committee, they could have gone further.
I am just coming to the end of my remarks, so the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not giving way.
In truth, if we want a Parliament that can stand up to the Government, we need to go much further than the Committee’s recommendations. The Leader of the House is not just the Government’s representative in the House; she is the House’s representative in the Government. She has responsibility for reform, and if she wants to follow in the line of the reforming Leaders of the House to whom she referred, she needs to take that responsibility. She needs to be bolder, and she needs to ensure that the House can truly redress the balance between itself and the Executive.
First, I once again formally thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for accepting the amendment tabled by the European Scrutiny Committee members who attended our meeting yesterday. We were concerned that another year would be too long to wait; it would seem to signal to the public—and to lobby groups and business organisations that have spoken to us about the lack of progress on European scrutiny, apart from in discussion by our Committee—that we were not giving the subject its proper priority. Europe produces a large burden of regulations, framework decisions and directives that impact on people’s lives and the nation’s business and social community. I think that it was a former chief executive of the CBI who made the accusation that the House seems to be asleep when it comes to the issue of European scrutiny.
I support my hon. Friend strongly in congratulating the Leader of the House on accepting the amendment in the name of the Committee that my hon. Friend chairs, and of which I am a member. Does he not agree that a permanent member of a Standing Committee would take their responsibility more seriously than one who is added ad hoc at the last minute?
I certainly agree with that summation of the problem, and on the positive nature of being a permanent member of a Standing Committee. I came to the European Scrutiny Committee after acceding to a request from a Whip, a former good friend of mine who has sadly passed away, Gordon McMaster. He said that being a member of a Committee would be a way of gaining knowledge that was useful to a Member of Parliament. I do not think that he said that just because he was a Whip seeking members for Committees; it was also because he was a friend. We had known each other when we were in local government, when he was a leader in Renfrew, and I was a leader in Stirling. We understood that knowing the detail of business was the key to being a successful councillor and a successful Member of Parliament.
In the three years between 1994 and 1997, I served on the European Standing Committee that dealt with agriculture, health and safety, and the environment. That broadened my knowledge of those subjects. I also found that practically every topic that we discussed was relevant to my constituents, because it would eventually have an impact on them. For example, the duties on riparian owners to clean up canals and waterways eventually led to a campaign, which we supported, to have the canals opened. That was a millennium project. The pollution of the Union canal caused by the Nobel munitions works was cleaned up under directives from Europe, so it is amazing how people could make Standing Committee work relevant to their local area. I agree entirely with that point.
I commend the Deputy Leader of the House, who was asked by the Leader of the House to be involved in the process, and who has spoken with the Chief Whip, with me and with others to try to ensure progress on the major issue, which is what we can do to bring the Modernisation Committee’s report to a final conclusion that will advance what we do.
I apologise for the fact that after I have asked the hon. Gentleman a question I will probably have to withdraw to attend a Westminster Hall debate. One of the most important issues addressed by the Modernisation Committee was that of the induction and welcome of new Members. Does he support addressing, through the channel that he described, two key issues? The first is the chaotic diversity of material with which new Members are presented, and the second is the chronic lack of offices; we had to suffer the lack of an office for many months in 2005. The situation was probably not even as bad as it had been previously. Would he support measures to tackle those archaic problems?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. In 1992, when I came to the House, I and four other Members were asked to go to the induction week for the new members of Congress in the United States of America. We spent a week at the John F. Kennedy school of government with those members, where they were trained in the relevance of their legislation to the budgetary headings on which they would eventually have to vote. We came back and made a recommendation. One of my hon. Friends was very keen on the idea that we should have a proper induction. There is no doubt that induction would and should take place on European issues.
As a member of the European Scrutiny Committee—and even before I became its Chair—I have spent a lot of time visiting Departments that have requested that either I or a clerk explain how we do our business, how they can help us in our business, and how they can help their Minister better. I have done that for the Industry and Parliament Trust, and I am meeting representatives from the Belgian chamber of commerce next week to talk about European scrutiny and how we perform, and to try to make them understand how systems work in different areas. People realise that understanding the process of scrutiny makes scrutiny better. That echoes a point made strongly by my late good friend, Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, who said that good scrutiny makes for good legislation, and bad scrutiny makes for bad legislation.
That is an important point. In fact, it was considered by the Modernisation Committee under the leadership of its former chair, who is now Secretary of State for Justice. We were extremely sympathetic to it, and indeed the John F. Kennedy school of government programme for new members of Congress was referred to constantly. That point was transmitted, but it could not be put in any Standing Orders. We decided, in an abstract way, that it was a matter for the House authorities, or for the parties. Parties do not want to lose their control over such matters. However, the point is valid: we could provide real induction on business, so that new Members of Parliament understood the dimensions of the job, and were not funnelled into a particular course by either House authorities or parties, which feel that new Members should be mere soldiers on the green Back Benches.
I hear that heartfelt plea from the Back Benches and I am sympathetic to it. Having come from a position of prominence on the Scottish executive of my party and also having been the leader of a council for 10 years, coming to the House was a lesson in personal confidence destruction. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, new Members come to the House, beg for a room or any sort of facilities, fumble around and, if they have a few friends, get some advice about how to survive in this place.
I remember someone saying—jokingly, I think—that when he asked one of the most senior Members on the Conservative Back Benches for the best piece of advice about how to survive as a Member of Parliament at the time, the reply was, “Get a big car, my boy”, on the basis that he could claim 76p per mile for driving around in it. That was probably good advice, but not necessarily the most relevant information for a new Member.
I hope that serious consideration will be given to a programme of induction. We should set aside time to give new Members the kind of training that is given in the Congress. It is not right that parties should worry about whether that would make their Members less useful. They would just be better at their job.
That is why the Modernisation Committee argued for a greater gap between an election and the convening of Parliament, to allow that process. In the United States there is a period of two months in which to organise such a programme, whereas we can be sworn in and sitting as Members of Parliament 12 days after an election.
Does my hon. Friend accept that a powerful case was made in Committee that it is not just a matter of the initial induction? Those of us who are comparatively new Members experienced quite a lot in a very short time. Some of us remarked, “Too much, too soon.” There should be continuing development and continuing opportunities for Members to understand the business of the House and the ways in which they can usefully contribute to it, and to develop their skills, not just during that initial, very busy period.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know that he came from a distinguished career in local government in a much bigger authority than I was ever involved in, and he will have experienced the sudden vacuum of support and, at times, confusion that was described earlier.
All the interventions are relevant, but I shall return to my own topic. The European Scrutiny Committee received a letter from the Deputy Leader of the House about our request. It will be noted by Members that on 8 October I raised the matter, after the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) raised the topic of the European Standing Committees not being collapsed once again. We then wrote to the Leader of the House. I know that she has been slightly indisposed, and I am glad that she is looking hale and hearty today on the Front Bench. I hope that her good health continues.
We received a letter from the Deputy Leader of the House, which stated that
“if the temporary arrangement is not renewed, the immediate effect would be that there are no arrangements”.
That is entirely wrong. What would happen is that we would revert to Standing Order No. 119, which is quite clear. It states that there will be three Standing Committees, each having 13 permanent members, and that any Member of the House may attend and speak at a European Standing Committee, which is still the case.
With regard to openness, although we might not meet in public, it is the right of any Member of the House to request to attend our Select Committee as an observer, and the Deputy Leader of the House took advantage of that provision this week. Any Member can come and watch the business that we are transacting. It is not a secret from the House, but the information given by the officials is privileged and that should not be breached by its being given to the public. That is why when we print the chapters of our report each week, we put in the explanatory memorandum in full, but we do not put in the advice given by the officials to our Committee. That is right and proper and allows us to do our business correctly.
To stress what we have lost over the past two years, I point out that we had three Committees. European Standing Committee A dealt with Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Transport, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Forestry Commission, and analogous responsibilities of the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices. European Standing Committee B dealt with the Treasury, including Customs and Excise, Work and Pensions, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, International Development, Home Office, Department for Constitutional Affairs, including those responsibilities of the Scotland and Wales Offices that fall to European Standing Committee A, together with any matters not otherwise allocated. European Standing Committee C dealt with Trade and Industry, Employment and Skills, Culture, Media and Sport, and Health.
I have been out speaking to voluntary organisations throughout the country, who say, “Who do we speak to if some matter is coming through your Committee?” They cannot speak to members of the European Scrutiny Committee because we are not charged with the responsibility of discussing the merits of any proposal coming from Europe. We are charged with the responsibility of deciding whether something is politically and economically important. If it is considered important enough, after correspondence and evidence taking with Ministers, and we wish the House to be given the right to debate it, we request that it be considered on the Floor of the House or in a Standing Committee. We spoke earlier about the difficulties in getting Select Committee reports debated on the Floor of the House, and we respect the fact that this is a crowded period and a crowded agenda; indeed, the agenda will be even more crowded when we make room for topical issues. The Standing Committees are therefore vital. If they have a permanent membership, they will be the place where business, the voluntary sector or civic society can find a membership that is available to write to and can give information and try to influence their perspective, after which it is to be hoped that the merits of the issue would be discussed in the Standing Committees.
Is not the big problem with scrutiny of European matters in this House the fact that the emphasis is on scrutinising measures after they have been agreed in Brussels, when one can deal only with minor details of the transposition from Brussels directive to British law? What the House really wants is a proper debate prior to the making of the agreement, with a view to influencing the Minister, who may be able to influence partners in Brussels.
I am amazed. I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but he is entirely wrong. A Minister cannot go to a Council and agree a proposal until it is out of scrutiny, and it will not be out of scrutiny until it has been debated. The reality is that the more effective we are in persuading our Ministers to respect that scrutiny, the more we will have a substantive debate in the Standing Committees.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in taking interventions.
The hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do that there are numerous occasions on which Ministers do not observe that scrutiny reserve, but go to Brussels and take decisions before coming to the Scrutiny Committee with excuses as to why they were unable to meet it before they went to Brussels. My proposal to put the scrutiny reserve on a statutory basis would mean that they were unable to do that.
There have been many occasions in the past on which such things have happened. I can think of one Home Office Minister who behaved in such a way nine times in succession, but they were out of office very quickly. I do not know whether they left office for other reasons in their profile, or because they were taken to task and could not defend themselves before the Committee when we called for evidence from the Minister involved. The situation is improving, and it has improved year on year. I do not think that there are now many cases in which a Minister breaks the scrutiny reserve, apart from on a technical problem in respect of which there is an advantage to the UK in agreeing to a proposal, because holding it up would mean that it could not succeed in advancing its position correctly. I do not think that many people give anything away in the European Councils. One of my colleagues approached me recently to say that we needed to discuss many emerging issues on which it has been necessary to say again and again, “We cannot agree this because there is a scrutiny reserve on this matter in our House.”
I think that we have a good system. People often plead in favour of the Danish system. That system is so rigid that the Danish have found many strategies to get around it. Again and again, we have found that the Danish will persuade others to move on a matter requiring a qualified majority vote so that they can get the proposal through and then say, “It wasn’t us who did it; it was someone else. We held our line, but it went through.” Such a process can become a transparent sham, and we must not adopt such a rigid system. We have a persuasive process, and it can be beneficial as long as the people in the Ministries and the Cabinet Office enforce it strongly.
I was trying to say how we collapsed the Committees because we could not report on the Modernisation Committee report. That was the wrong thing to do, because we have had two years of vacuum in which Members have been put on to the Committee on a random basis. I am told by a former Whip that it was called sharing the pain, instead of doing what they should have been doing, putting people on to the Committee to learn their trade—to learn how to do the job properly in relation to Europe and to understand how Europe works and what are regulations, directives and framework decisions. The issue is more imperative than ever, given that it looks as if the reform treaty will go through. It will shift the balance immensely, so we need to be much more aware—particularly of how to deal with the subsidiarity question, the yellow card and the orange card. People may be dragooned by the Whips, but if they do not understand, they will not be acting as parliamentarians on behalf of this Chamber.
I shall leave that hanging on the vine; it is of another vintage altogether.
On the process that we are going through, we made some great suggestions and the Modernisation Committee responded well to some of them. I thank the Leader of the House and all her predecessors who have tried to deal with the issue; we have had many behind-the-scenes discussions in which there has been good will in respect of advancing and getting things right. We could do that if we had the will of the House to carry it forward. Three months is not such a short time, given that we are so near a conclusion. I would have been more radical; in fact, our Committee made a more radical suggestion to the Modernisation Committee than the one being progressed.
Given the proliferation of other Select Committees mentioned in the report, it might be time to reduce the number of their members; that might make them much more focused and specific. We have always asked for five Standing Committees, to give a much more focused agenda; with five, there would be fewer sittings for each member and therefore less of a time burden on them, and there would be a more specific interest and knowledge base than at the moment.
However, we are almost there. I thank the Leader of the House for accepting our amendment and hope that by the time the issue comes back to the House in three months’ time, there will be something that we can all support.
I shall start by dealing with the matters mentioned by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). I thank him for his work and that of his Committee. I support his and his colleagues’ amendment, which the Leader of the House has accepted. I hope that we shall be able to accommodate the changes in the suggested period; I share his view that that should be possible.
I also agree that now might be the time to look again at how we formulate our Select Committees. I absolutely take the view that they should be elected by this place in a democratic process, but that they should probably be smaller. There should be fewer Members on them, but those Members should view their role as a key function of their work. The corollary is that Select Committee reports should have a prompt and automatic slot for consideration.
I understand the Leader of the House’s response—there is a debate to be had on how to maximise the usefulness of Select Committee work. To me, it seems better that the report should be discussed more widely among parliamentarians before the Government formulate their final view; to put it bluntly, once the Government have a view, it is more difficult to shift it, for reasons that we all know about. The Leader of the House said that it might be better for the Government to formulate their view so that it could then be debated. I am fairly neutral on that; it is a discussion that we need to have.
I am clear, however, that we need smaller Select Committees, although they should still be representative. One reason they have been big has been party political representation; clearly, they should still be representative of the House and political opinion. If they were elected by the House, we would take a much more effective step from the Norman St. John-Stevas proposals of the late 70s; we would really have a Parliament in which Select Committees played their full part.
Is the hon. Gentleman similarly agnostic on whether debates on Select Committee reports should always be held in Westminster Hall? Might not some provision be made for those debates to be held on the Floor of the House? I have said to the right hon. Members for Neath (Mr. Hain), for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) and for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that it is most unsatisfactory that year after year we have Adjournment debates on defence in the UK, defence in the world or Wales, simply because the Government have no other business to debate in the Chamber. Why not debate an important Select Committee report on the Floor of the House?
I am not agnostic on that question; I share the hon. Gentleman’s view. When Select Committee reports are concluded there should be a review, probably monthly, whereby one sorts the sheep from the goats—the big issues from the smaller issues—and ensures that they are all debated. The debates on the large, important issues should be brought here, and the others should go to Westminster Hall. Sometimes, two or three reports could be debated on the same day, where appropriate. However, it was nonsensical that the other day we debated eight or nine Public Accounts Committee reports on subjects ranging from the financing of the Olympic games to NHS IT contracts. All the issues were debated, but rather hidden away in terms of the agenda.
I would not argue against having a calendar so that people here and outside know when the key debates on certain issues are to be held. It was absurd that we had the statement on the pre-Budget report and the comprehensive spending review proposals but no debate afterwards, as happens with the Queen’s Speech and the Budget. There were questions to the Chancellor, and that was it, yet we were discussing the Government’s spending plans for the next three years. That should be debated and approved—there should be a vote at the end, as there is on the Budget, with the ability to amend it.
We rightly have annual debates on the armed services divided between the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army, but there are other matters that we should debate annually. There should be an annual debate on Welsh affairs, Scottish affairs and Northern Irish affairs, but that does not mean that there should not also be much more specific debates. I share the implied criticism of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that we have a nonsensical system whereby the Government are sometimes scrabbling around for business when there are so many important, substantive and hard-edged subjects that should come before the House.
That is not meant to be a blast across the bows of the incoming Leader of the House, because she knows, I hope—I have already said it on many occasions since she has been in post and repeat it publicly—that I welcome her modernising tendencies and instincts in these areas. I am new in this post, as she is in hers, so this is my first opportunity to tackle this broad subject and pick up the matters that are on the agenda. I shall do so briefly, because people are keen that we do not overindulge ourselves.
Let me, like the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), put the principles on the table, because they must govern our response. For me, we need a stronger Parliament. I have heard many Ministers, including the Leader of the House, say that. The balance between the Executive and the legislature has gone wrong, and we have ended up with Parliament that has far too little say. The implication is that we have to reorder what we do and the balance between Government and Parliament. We will never get that right, or as right as we are able to, unless we have a representative Parliament. Parliament is not yet representative in two fundamental ways: it is not representative in terms of gender balance, as the Lord Chancellor said today, or in terms of ethnic mix. That diminishes our opportunity to be a forum for the nation. Moreover, it is not politically representative because of our electoral system. I am confident that that will change. That does not mean that I am an unqualified supporter of going straight to a multi-member-seat solution—that would not get through this place, in my view—but we could have a representative Parliament without endorsing a system that loses the important link with constituencies. Roy Jenkins came up with such a proposal.
Today, we have discussed—the Leader of the House and the Lord Chancellor referred to it—how we ensure, as we must, that people participate more in democracy by being on the electoral roll and wanting to engage by voting; and their vote must not be discounted, as far too many were in Scotland.
We also need a much more participative Parliament. The fact that on so many occasions so few Members are here is not a tribute to a good system. There are some good points in the modernisation proposals that will address that. With shorter debates of 90 minutes on topical subjects, with shorter speeches, and with Members knowing that they are likely to be called, more Members will attend. Topical debates and questions will bring more Members into the Chamber. I commend many of the Committee’s proposals. I am referred to on the Order Paper today as someone who has been nominated as a member of the Committee, on which I have not served before. I will be very happy to take part in its work—[Laughter.] I will be happy to do so if that is the will of the House.
I pay tribute to ideas for which I can take no responsibility or claim no credit. There are some very good ones, and I am sure that they will increase activity in the Chamber and Westminster Hall. Therefore, I and my colleagues accept the proposals; they are a positive way forward.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that, in the last election, more than twice as many people did not vote as voted Labour, and more than three times as many people did not vote as voted Liberal Democrat? Given that we know that PR elections lower turnout, what would he do about voters who do not like any political party?
I will be careful not to go off piste, as it were, into a debate about electoral reform, because I was trying to put my remarks in the context of what happens in this place. One of the things that lead people not to vote is that we often hold elections for different things on the same day.
But in the end it means that people do not know the difference between different tiers of government and what they do. They become less well informed and vote for the wrong reasons.
We are in a country where people think that voting does not change anything because they feel that Government, once in office, do not listen, that Parliament rarely defeats the Government and that people are too subject to the Whips once here. As a Front Bencher, I say that it should be perfectly acceptable for the Government to be defeated on something. Unless it is a major issue of the Budget or a key proposal in the Queen’s Speech, that should be a normal part of the course of events.
I am keen that, other than party manifesto commitments on which we stand for election, all the small print of secondary details of legislation and the many other things that the Government often introduce half way through a Bill should not be whipped. We should be able to form an independent view on them. If Members from all parties thought that we were free to take our own view and argue it—other than on matters on which we clearly stood for election—there would be much more interest and people would vote. I see the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) nodding. I am clear on this matter; people often think that they are voting for ciphers, who are sent here to do the will of their party leadership. That is not acceptable.
The other principle that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) hinted at, and I want to underscore, is that we are moving from Government deciding the business of the House of Commons to the House deciding its own business. I realise that the Government will be reluctant to let go, but we should decide our business, and we can then negotiate how the Government get their business into a timetable.
That is my point exactly. The change is not here yet. The amendments to Standing Orders are welcome as far as they go, but there are many others that I would wish to see. The matter should be decided by a business Committee of the House, rather than a timetable determining when we take particular parts of business. The Government would have to negotiate, based on how many Bills they needed, how long they would take, and so on. Such a change would also, I hope, address the issue of the calendar. I am clear about that: it is nonsense. It is another small point, in reply to the intervention of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, that makes us less heeded and people less interested.
People live their lives according to cycles. A family with children knows that the schools year begins in September and ends in July in England or a bit earlier in Scotland. Business people work to a tax year and others work to a chronological year. We work to a ridiculous timetable, whereby we start—possibly—in November; we have holidays that do not fit family life in all parts of the UK equally, in that if they fit English school holidays they do not fit Scottish school holidays; we used to come back in September but now we do not; we attend party conferences, after which we return for an uncertain period, and then we have a week’s recess between Sessions. That is nonsense.
We must be able to organise our timetable not only for us and the benefit of those who work here, but for all those who want to inform us and participate, so that we work when they work. They can thus plan their lives and there is a legislative sequence to events. It would therefore be logical to have fixed-term Parliaments. I am not theological about that, but, on balance, I believe that they are a good idea, not only for us but for the certainty of the public, local government, people whom Parliament funds through its votes, the civil service, people involved in political parties and those who are interested in voluntary sector organisations. Having certainty in such matters would help induce people’s participation in the process and perhaps make them more willing to stand for election because they would know what they were letting themselves in for.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but may I politely put it to him that the proposal for establishing a business Committee to run the affairs of the House, with which I concur, needs to be made intelligible to people outwith the House who will be interested in our proceedings? Will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to underline the fact that, at the moment, the content of the agenda for the House and the allocation of time for it are almost exclusively in the Government’s gift? It is unsatisfactory and an independent-minded business committee could effectively change that.
I agree. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made the point in similar terms. It would be well understood if we put our case clearly that there would be a transfer so that decisions about the business would be made by an independent group of people, representative of all the parties. Of course, there would be party interest in one sense, but Parliament, not the Executive, would make the decisions.
If Parliament took control of the selection of its Select Committees, people would start to perceive it as earning its keep. As the Leader of the House and her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), said today, the better the scrutiny, the stronger the legislature and the better the decisions.
The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill had its Second Reading the other day and is subject to carry-over. That is nonsense because the measure has been introduced in one Session and the Government will amend it significantly in the next. We have suffered terribly from far too much legislation—quantity rather than quality. Of course, I appreciate that there is always pressure on the Government to introduce new legislation. However, the Home Office agenda shows that it has often legislated, repented of and had to undo its legislation. A few years ago, I discussed that matter in Finland, a unicameral Parliament, where the Government introduce draft legislation. That is considered and, if colleagues in the Parliament believe that it is not appropriate or that it has been covered already, there is often much movement. The Government often decide not to introduce part of the measure because they realise that they introduced similar provisions five years ago and that they need time to bed down.
If we are to do our job properly here, we must be able to persuade the Government to legislate less and do it more rationally and more for the long-term. Again, fixed-term Parliaments will help with that because the Government know how long they have and can plan their programme accordingly.
If we are to have a stronger Parliament and do our job better, there is a logic to having a smaller Executive. It is nonsensical that, because of the way in which the constitution has grown, the Executive and Parliament are not completely separated. They are partly separated, but partly together. Whenever a vote takes place, the approximately 100 Ministers and the perhaps 50 Parliamentary Private Secretaries—they are ballpark figures—who are on the payroll are spoken for. The reality is that the chance of Parliament being able to make a decision separate from the Executive is tiny. Of course I am not arguing that the Government should be entirely separate from the system—a bit like the French Parliament, where as soon as Members become Ministers they give up their seats—but we need to think about the issue. After devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and, I hope, further devolution—we do not need a bigger Executive; we need a smaller Executive, which will be more effective, too.
Just three last points—[Interruption.] They are very short, and I hope that I am coming in well short of the time that the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House took. I am not against the proposed Regional Select Committees, but they are no answer to the English question. I am clear that we have not addressed the English question in Parliament, and it will not go away, nor should it. We need to work out how we can have proper accountability and scrutiny of England-only business, just as there is now better scrutiny in other places of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland business.
Penultimately, there is a set of proposals, albeit not really on the agenda, from the Power report about the right of other people to initiate legislation and petitions. I welcome what is proposed on legislation and petitions as far as it goes, but we still do not give Back Benchers enough opportunity to initiate legislation. The opportunity for non-Government legislation to get through Parliament is extremely limited. That is partly because the Whips object, because it might take up time. However, if Parliament is going to be credible out there and, to answer the question that the right hon. Member for Wokingham asked, if people are going to think that it is worth voting, they have to know that he, his right hon. Friend, the shadow Leader of the House, I or other hon. Members can introduce legislation that has a chance of getting through.
A small postscript: I notice that Mr. Speaker has selected an amendment about whether we should use hand-held electronic devices in here to multitask, as the relevant section in the report puts it. Were the amendment put to the vote, I would vote for it. If we manage our affairs and are in this place for a shorter time, we cannot do what people increasingly do, which is to try to pretend that they are in one meeting when they are actually having one somewhere else. I am not a luddite or anti-technology—of course we all see the advantages of being able to receive messages—but we should not have a Parliament in which people are spending all their time doing their correspondence and sending e-mails. Hon. Members either come here to participate, debate, engage and listen, or they do not. I do not know whether anyone will move that amendment—some of its signatories are here—but if they do, they will have my support. Whether they do or not, I hope that Mr. Speaker will be rigorous in ensuring that we do not end up with a system where half the Members here might as well be in their offices, because all they are doing is playing with their electronic devices.
The world is plagued with more and more people with whom one cannot have a conversation, because they spend all their time looking at some blessed machine in their hand. There is time for machines, and there is time for conversation and debate. This should be a place for debate and better scrutiny, in a stronger Parliament. I hope that the measures before us are only the beginning of a radical programme of reform. If the Leader of the House can lead it, she will be supported on these Benches.
The one thing missing from today’s measures is a proposal to put time limits on speeches and contributions by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). We had to sit through his huge contributions on the Legal Services Bill Committee and were relieved when he was replaced by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who made good points but in much less time.
The name “Modernisation Committee” always makes me smile, because if we were anywhere else, we would get done under the Trade Descriptions Act. Quite clearly, we are just playing around at the edges of reform, while many people out in the country do not understand some of the archaic ways in which we still operate.
I welcome the proposals for more topical debates. I had to chuckle, however, when I read that the main thrust behind the proposals was strengthening the role of Back Benchers. Naturally, I am greatly in favour of that, but if we are going to have more topical debates, we also need a system whereby Back Benchers can determine what those debates should be about. I agree with earlier comments that if we leave it to the Government to pick and choose through the usual channels, Back Benchers are unlikely to get the topical debates that they want.
I am very concerned. The hon. Gentleman, whom I love dearly, usually follows debates very carefully, but I am now starting to think that he may be in need of some kind of hearing device. I was making precisely the point that he raised. I was arguing that Back Benchers should determine the content of debates, so that we can have more topical debates that are more relevant to our constituents, while also holding the Executive to account.
I agree with some of the more general arguments made about debates and I thought that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made a very good point in saying that we looked at legislation too readily in departmental silos. Many current issues cut across several Departments. Looking at this place from outside, many would not understand that approach.
I am sorry to say that regional Select Committees are not featured in these proposals. There are outstanding problems in the scrutiny of a whole host of agencies—this certainly applies in my north-east region—such as regional development agencies, the Environment Agency and the Highways Agency, to name but a few. No one is actually looking into what they are doing. Before the north-east regional assembly was thrown out, we faced for a while the ludicrous position of having an unelected regional assembly. Its scrutiny of those agencies was frankly farcical, yet it cost the taxpayer £2 million a year. I actually welcomed the abolition, but it has now left a gap. If I were a regional civil servant on one of these quangos, I would be breathing a great sigh of relief that no one was looking into what I was doing.
When the idea of regional Select Committees was first announced, it was welcomed in all sectors. I know from talking to colleagues in different parts of the north-east that they saw it as an opportunity to scrutinise some of the bodies that exert a huge impact on the daily lives of our constituents but on which we Back Benchers or elected MPs can exert little impact. One good example is the regional spatial strategy.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what type of regional Committee he supports? Does he support a Grand Committee-type arrangement in which every Member from a region is entitled to attend, or does he feel that only some Members from a region should be entitled to do so, or does he support a gerrymandered system whereby every regional Select Committee has a Government majority?
I will come on to that in a minute, if the right hon. Gentleman will indulge me.
The regional spatial strategy, as I was saying, is a good example. I have on previous occasions referred to a soviet-style planning system, which has blighted many constituencies, including my own, in respect of housing numbers, yet there has been no mechanism for me to engage with the problem as a Back-Bench MP. If regional groups of civil servants and others are coming together to take decisions affecting thousands of our constituents’ lives, there must be a mechanism for us to get involved on behalf of those constituents. At present, there is no such mechanism.
I do not support the idea of a Grand Committee. I think that the civil servants and regional quangocrats would love it, because it would be no more than a talking shop, but I would like a Select Committee for each region that could hold the regional Ministers to account and ask for independent reports on the various agencies, as well as preparing its own reports.
The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) claimed that the new Committees would be gerrymandered. I would like a continuation of the present system, which allows Opposition Members to chair Select Committees. Obviously, in some areas the new Committees would not have Labour Chairmen, but the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, works perfectly well under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who is a Conservative.
Yes, I would. If there is to be genuine accountability, elected Members of Parliament must be given a key role, and if the system works properly, it will not only ensure that the unelected and unaccountable people who currently make huge decisions are brought to book but will give a role to MPs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) mentioned funding. I have heard the argument before that the Committees would cost money, and that that should be a reason for us not to establish them. I am sorry, but I do not agree. If it is a question of funds, we should make them available to support the new Committees.
It has been said that the Select Committee idea has been kicked into the long grass. I hope that that is not true. I shall be supporting it vigorously, and I know that Labour Members from my region would be very annoyed if all that we had was a sort of Grand Committee talking shop that did not do the effective job that we—along with many members of the public sector, the business community and others in the north-east—want it to do.
The south-east has a Conservative majority. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we decided that we did not want one of these things—if we wanted to get rid of a number of regional quangos, and give the power to local government where necessary—we should be able to do that?
No. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, that would not be the role of a Select Committee. Its role would be to hold the quangos to account. That is a key point.
I have been a member of the Defence Committee for six years, and I agree that we need a system whereby reports are discussed not just in Westminster Hall but on the Floor of the House. It was said earlier that the reports would require Government responses so that there could be full debates on them. I am happy with that idea, but I believe that much good work is being done in Select Committees. The Defence Committee, for example, recently produced an excellent report on accommodation for the armed forces—a topical issue, some would say. In the last couple of weeks we have had two defence debates, on defence in the world and on procurement, but it would have been better for us to have a debate about that one report.
The Defence Committee produces yearly reports on both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those, too, are good reports, which the House should debate rather than holding generic debates that do not really go anywhere. The Committee also produces an annual procurement report. The way in which all Governments deal with procurement has always been a great scandal. If our annual report were discussed in the Chamber, not only would Members be helped to understand the process but civil servants and others who make decisions would know that those decisions would be exposed to debate on the Floor of the House.
The proposals are welcome. Someone referred to himself earlier as an über-moderniser. To get that title, we are going to have to go a long way further, but it is a start.
I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I was delighted to hear of his support. I hope that his party might follow him if there is a Division on the matter. That would be helpful.
I am pleased to support the amendment that is in the name of my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), for Congleton (Ann Winterton), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Shipley (Philip Davies). They apologise for not being able to be in the House. They are on other parliamentary business.
I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing that out. I am sure that he will be used more effectively talking on the wider issues, rather than on the amendment. I am delighted to be able to help him to do that.
Let me read the amendment so that the House and those beyond understand what it is about. It proposes that the following words be added to the end of line 5:
“but excluding the proposed acceptance of the Committee's recommendation 35, as set out in paragraph 31 of the Government’s response, that the use of handheld devices to keep up to date with emails should be permitted in the Chamber.”
We reject that recommendation totally. I remember when I was a young lad—I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will have similar memories—going to the cinema and watching western films. Some of the better films, including ones starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers—I hope that I am bringing nostalgia back for you—showed saloons that stopped people at the swinging doors and asked that they left their guns at the doors. I wish that the Government had taken notice of that particular habit and asked all Members to leave their electrical devices at the door of this Chamber, on the basis that they could cause almost as much trouble as guns in the hands of cowboys in the old west.
Let me read the recommendation. It is on multi-tasking. It says:
“Removing barriers to participation is important and the use of handheld devices to keep up to date with e-mails should be permitted in the Chamber provided that it causes no disturbance.”
I have rarely seen a hand-held device that did not cause disturbance. People forget to turn them off and the things go off inadvertently—we heard of a case of that earlier. Indeed, I have been guilty of the same crime and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were kind enough to recognise that I was a new Member and treated me with great gentleness.
May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman cannot be particularly observant? Were he to have been more observant, he would have noticed on many occasions Members, no doubt with the Speaker or Deputy Speaker turning a blind eye, using such hand-held devices in the Chamber. Indeed I saw a prominent member of his own Front-Bench team using such a device comparatively recently. During an earlier debate, one Front-Bench Member was using one for a good 10 minutes. They were doing so discreetly and caused no disturbance to anyone. Indeed, they did so without the hon. Gentleman noticing.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment. I will refer to it a little later because I think that he is absolutely wrong in his assertion that the devices do not disturb. Not only do they disturb, but on occasions they stop participation. That is the point. What is this Chamber for? Is it for Members to participate, or is it for them to come here in a rather ad hoc fashion to do their homework, or to answer correspondence?
Does my hon. Friend agree that our constituents will be astonished if the amendment is defeated? Given that we receive unprecedented financial support for secretarial and administrative help, there will be astonishment that hon. Members cannot organise their time appropriately so that they do not have to be checking e-mails when they should be holding the Executive to account, doing their job properly, listening and participating in important debates in this House?
Does my hon. Friend think that the Government may have an ulterior motive? Perhaps what they have in mind are controllers outside this House who will watch debates and send messages through to those who cannot think of their own interventions and questions because they want to stage-manage rather more.
My right hon. Friend has immense experience and is hinting that that may already have happened. Pagers have been used to give people hints on how to speak as well as act. That is not what this Chamber should be about.
The Committee’s advice on multi-tasking related to more effective participation. It suggested that Members had called for the use of hand-held instruments and electronic instruments because it might make them more
“willing to spend time in the Chamber… if they were able to do other work at the same time, either dealing with correspondence or perhaps even using a handheld computer or laptop to deal with e-mails.”
Is that the purpose of the Chamber? Much of the massive Palace of Westminster is taken up with offices, yet we want to turn this place into an extension of those offices. That is nonsense.
There is all the difference in the world between getting a message, which has been permitted for a long time by using fairly antediluvian pagers, and communicating by e-mail. It would be unreasonable to suggest that people could not continue to get a message. That is different from spending our time communicating electronically when we should be here concentrating.
As I understand it, we have always received messages, normally in note form. It is important that that should continue. But should we really have the ability to have conversations with others outside when the prime objective of the Chamber is to be the debating centre of the nation? Do we really want television viewers seeing rows of people acting like secretaries in early 1950s films; great rows of MPs all bashing away on laptops? Is that what the Chamber is about? My argument will be that it is not. This is the debating Chamber of the nation and people should come to take part in that process, not be involved in so-called multi-tasking. How widely does multi-tasking extend?
I am really enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. For someone elected in 2005, he gives the impression that he has been here a long time. It is refreshing that the Conservative party can still select individuals such as him. Does he agree that we are not talking about a row of secretaries? The mind boggles at the thought of the hon. Gentleman sitting with a typewriter anywhere.
My mind boggles too, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is why I hope that you will support the amendment to ensure that that does not happen. May I also thank you for your kindness? You have been kind since I came to this place. Bringing a little wisdom and experience is not a bad thing. It seems that you are supporting even more of my ilk—
I understand totally, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let us get back to the business of what this House is about.
We are talking about electronic devices not disturbing people. I have seen occasions when such devices have vibrated in people’s pockets and the people vibrate as a result. Up they jump, and they fiddle about, putting hands in one pocket after another until they find their electronic device, by which time, Mr. Deputy Speaker is glaring at them and the whole House is looking at them. If that does not disturb and break up concentration, I do not know what does.
Furthermore, hand-held devices are becoming more all-purpose. They were initially simply telephones, but they are now mini-computers, providing the ability not only to communicate, as I have said, but to record, to take photographs and even to take video film. How does anybody distinguish between someone simply looking at an e-mail and their being involved in those particular activities? I put it to hon. Members that they would not want to have a video camera, under the guise of a telephone, pointed at them in some of their quieter, slightly more relaxed moments, and for the recording to be repeated and distributed on a cheap compact disc during an election in their constituencies. Such activity might arise if we were to be so lax as to allow hand-held devices in here. We should all be careful about that particular ability and about the growth in the functions of hand-held devices. They are contained in a small package and cover a number of activities, many of which we would not wish to see in action in this House. I maintain that we would not be able to stop such activities once such devices were able to be used on a permanent basis.
May I conclude by making the point that this Chamber is, as I have said before, about the debating of issues on behalf of the nation? It is a representative Chamber; indeed, we have a representative democracy. That is the very description of the parliamentary democracy in which we work. I want to ensure that this place remains at the heart of that process, as a debating Chamber. I want it to be more widely viewed by the people of the nation. I also want them to be able to be more involved with their Members of Parliament—their representatives—in the argument, but that should not occur when we are in the Chamber.
This Chamber is where the elected representatives of Parliament make their points. They do so not as delegates or as members of a political party primarily, but as the elected representatives of the people of their constituency. They are chosen because they are deemed to have wisdom and experience which, if they use it independently, can make a worthwhile contribution to this place. I do not want a situation in which every time somebody wonders what he has to say, he looks at a hand-held telephone, or every time a Whip thinks that something is going wrong, they put a message through and 25 Labour or 25 Conservative Members then look at it and act differently.
Such situations concern me immensely, but I certainly do not want an opportunity for us to be filmed without our knowledge. I am not talking about the official process of filming, but about hand-held videos that are so small that one cannot tell the difference between them and a telephone. For that reason, I want all these instruments stopped at the Door. I want to take a lesson from the wild west: do not have pistols in saloons because they are dangerous; do not have electronic devices in the Chamber because they could be equally dangerous.
I hesitate to follow the authentic voice of the luddite tendency, but I feel provoked to respond to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley).
The Modernisation Committee’s recommendations are very modest, especially where they deal with the use of modern technology by hon. Members in this Chamber. It is not suggested that hon. Members should be able to bring in their desktop PCs, or even their laptops, but that they be permitted to do what many already do while Mr. Speaker and the Deputy Speakers turn a blind eye.
Therefore, I repeat what I said in an intervention on the previous speaker. I shall not embarrass anyone, but on two occasions in this debate I have noticed two Members on the Opposition Front Bench using such devices. I mention them only as an example, as they used them discreetly and appropriately, and caused no trouble or disturbance at all to those around them. It is quite clear that they were multi-tasking, as described in the report, and keeping in touch with the world outside.
I suggest that hon. Members who come into this Chamber should not turn their backs on the modern world and the communications systems that are used in it. I believe that it is perfectly appropriate for hon. Members to be permitted, openly and overtly, to continue to do what many do already—that is, to use such devices in a discreet and appropriate way in this Chamber. If this matter comes to a vote, I very much hope that the House will reject overwhelmingly the calls from what I have described as the luddite tendency that we turn our backs on the appropriate use of modern communication technology.
I want to make only two other points arising from the debate. First, I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said about the excitement that many of us felt at the prospect of regional Select Committees. He gave examples of the bodies that exist already at regional level for which there is no adequate mechanism for accountability. Their numbers are legion, and they exist in every region of the country. A very significant accountability gap exists, and the proposals for regional Ministers and associated regional Select Committees are an attempt to address that problem.
As I did in an earlier intervention, I want to encourage the Leader of the House not to be discouraged by the very understandable concerns that have been expressed about the resource implications of regional Select Committees. I hope that she will recognise that they would fill that very significant accountability gap, but that they would need to have the necessary resources behind them.
I also agree with another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham—that regional Grand Committees would be a poor substitute for regional Select Committees. With only a small number of members, regional Select Committees would be clearly focused and well resourced, and able to hold to account the multitude of regional bodies that at present are not properly accountable to this House.
My final point has to do with the Modernisation Committee’s proposals for topical debates, as reflected in the very welcome measures brought forward today by the Leader of the House. I understand the arguments made by various hon. Members today that the subjects for those debates should be chosen by ballot and, superficially at least, there is much to be said for that approach. However, the Modernisation Committee considered the matter carefully and ultimately concluded that the proposal that the selection should be made effectively by the Leader of the House, in consultation with the usual channels on both sides, was an appropriate mechanism.
Initially, that mechanism would be employed for an experimental period. The House would be able to see how it was working but, as has been noted, other mechanisms would be put in place to ensure that the Leader of the House reported on the subjects proposed to her, and that she was held accountable for the selections that she made. The suggestion that a ballot be used for that purpose was rejected because of the nature of the debates that it is hoped will take place under the proposal.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—a distinguished member of the Modernisation Committee—for giving way. Although there was a vote on the proposal in the Committee, does not he think it was determined by those who owed loyalties elsewhere? The Committee is stuffed with Parliamentary Private Secretaries, former deputy Chief Whips and representatives of the Executive, so the two vital individuals who voted for a ballot were excluded. That is not careful consideration—it is the might of the majority.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that he and the colleague to whom he referred are not the only members of the Committee who can think for themselves. I and a number of others can do that, too, and we gave careful consideration to what initially seemed an attractive option. However, given that the subjects for topical debates are to be matters of
“regional, national or international importance”,
we concluded that the proposed mechanism would ensure that was the case—and if it does not, the House will have the opportunity to reconsider the process.
Notwithstanding the savage ad hominem attack of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on our right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), and the comments of the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) about people having a mind of their own and being willing to express their opinions, I put it to him in all seriousness that it is not simply a question of Members being independent: for the sake of the name of our democracy, it is important that they should be seen to be independent. Therein lies the problem in having Parliamentary Private Secretaries who palpably owe loyalty to the Government, upon whose payroll they sit, also sitting on the Modernisation Committee. Never the twain shall meet, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman.
I suspect that if I pursue the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion at the length he invites me to do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would pull me up short and suggest that it was not something for debate this afternoon.
The proposals made by the Leader of the House in response to the Modernisation Committee are important steps to re-empower Back Benchers and reinvigorate the Chamber, although no doubt many Members want further steps to be taken. However, although we may want to go further in future, that should not prevent us from supporting the proposals today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby). He and I started our political careers about 30 years ago, sitting on opposite sides of the Leicester city council chamber. It is still a pleasure to be sitting opposite him.
I agreed with most of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, although I did not agree with his description of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) as a luddite. I would put it differently. My hon. Friend alluded to the film industry to demonstrate his point; if he were a film mogul, he would probably be the chairman of Nineteenth Century Fox.
I thank the Leader of the House for providing time for the debate. This is important business, dealing with reports from the Modernisation Committee, of which I am a member, and the Procedure Committee, which I chair. It will come as no surprise to the House when I say that I want to focus primarily on the Procedure Committee’s report. I thank its members, of all parties, for giving up their time to serve on one of the least glamorous but nevertheless key Committees of the House.
The Leader of the House said that she wanted more plain language to be used in our Standing Orders. I can reveal to the House that the issue is on the agenda for future meetings of the Procedure Committee, and we shall look at it in depth.
The Procedure Committee report on early-day motions and petitions was published on 22 May, and brought together two inquiries, during which the Committee took evidence from Members and House officials. We visited the Scottish Parliament to look at its petition system, and held discussions with officials responsible for administering the No. 10 e-petitions website.
May I start by making a few remarks about early-day motions? They are often criticised. Members claim that there are too many of them and that many are trivial and tabled on unsuitable matters for debate. It is said that some are initiated by outside bodies and pressure groups. A number of Members told the Committee that they took the view that early-day motions were parliamentary graffiti. However, early-day motions actually allow Members to do several things that they could not otherwise do. They are an extremely flexible parliamentary procedure. They can draw attention to an issue that affects a single community, or even a single individual. They can also form part of an important regional or national campaign. Their popularity is evidence of their success and usefulness. The Procedure Committee was not persuaded that there were good grounds for limiting their number or scope. We believed that the disadvantages of imposing a new restriction, especially to individual Back Benchers, would outweigh the benefits.
The Committee went on to consider whether there should be a mechanism to allow some early-day motions to be debated. Of course, many early-day motions are not intended to be for debate, but are used for other purposes, such as to call attention to the work of a body—often a local charity—or individual. If some early-day motions were to be eligible for debate, it would be necessary to distinguish between those that were debatable and non-debatable.
There are various ways in which debatable early-day motions could be chosen for debate, but the Committee concluded that they all had disadvantages. The most popular suggestion was that the number of signatures received by an early-day motion should be the trigger for a debate. However, as someone who has served in the Whips Office, I am well aware that if we were to introduce such a rule, right hon. and hon. Members would be put under pressure not so much by the public, but each party’s Whips Office, to sign a motion that was embarrassing to the party on the other side of the House and thus trigger a debate on the Floor. Such a system would permanently exclude minority parties from the opportunity of having an early-day motion debated. A large number of early-day motions that attract support from hon. Members on both sides of the House are those with which it is difficult to disagree, which would thus be unlikely to give rise to a lively or worthwhile debate.
A further suggestion was a ballot of early-day motions, but that would lead to the tabling of multiple early-day motions on the same subject in the hope that they would be chosen for debate. Unless early-day motions were regularly weeded to exclude those that were no longer topical or had been overtaken by events, there would be a risk that the early-day motions chosen would no longer be suitable for debate.
We were then asked why, if there was to be a ballot, there should not be a ballot of Members rather than early-day motions. If that were the case, there would be no need to link the ballot to early-day motions at all, because Members should be free to select the subject of their choice. As many hon. Members will know, we used to have a ballot to select debates on private Members’ motions before they were abolished in 1994. My Committee recognises the strength of the argument that the abolition in 1994 was a mistake.
It is a weakness of Parliament that a Back-Bench Member has no opportunity to initiate a debate on a substantive motion. We are one of the few Parliaments in the western world in which such a facility is not available. The Committee’s report thus urged the Modernisation Committee to give serious consideration to recommending the reintroduction of an opportunity for Members to ballot for a motion of their choice. Indeed, it was largely at my behest that the Modernisation Committee went on to recommend that there should be an experiment, with such motions chosen by ballot being considered in Westminster Hall. However, for the moment at least, the Government have rejected that recommendation. I hope that the Leader of the House will be willing to keep her decision on the matter under review because Back-Bench Members of Parliament should be given the right to seek a debate on a substantive motion of their choice.
Moving on to petitions, the Procedure Committee inquiry was limited to public petitions, so we did not consider the procedures for petitions in respect of private or hybrid Bills, such as the Crossrail Bill, which of course are very different. We decided to look at the current position. A number of Members of the House told us at the outset that they find the current procedures for public petitions totally unsatisfactory. Some argued that once a petition was presented, it seemed to fall into a black hole. Nothing more was heard of it, and there was no feedback to the petitioners.
We looked at the evidence and found that although the Government do respond to most petitions, there is no obligation for them to do so. We discovered that well over 20 per cent. of petitions presented to the House do not receive a response from a Department. Of those that do, some of the responses were cursory and unhelpful. They often simply restated the Government’s known position, adding nothing new. Many of them did not even answer the specific point that the petitioners were making.
Of course, any response is provided to the Member who presented the petition. It is up to him or her to pass it on to the petitioners. Petitions and Government responses to them are published once a week in a supplement to Votes and Proceedings—and those supplements must be strong contenders for the title of the House’s most obscure publication. They are hard to find on the parliamentary website, and there is no effective way of searching for specific petitions, or Government responses to them. My Committee unanimously took the view that that is not good enough. Since 2005, following a recommendation of the Procedure Committee in the previous Parliament, all petitions have been forwarded to the relevant departmental Select Committee, but as we note in our report, informal surveys that we carried out showed that most Select Committees have rarely taken any action as a result of receiving a petition.
On the other hand, the system does have its strengths. All our witnesses—and, ultimately, all members of the Committee—agreed that having a Member of Parliament formally present the petition was an indispensable part of the system, which should not be lost. Members often advise the public on how to prepare their petition. Indeed, they may on some occasions steer a constituent away from the petition route if they feel that there are better ways for the person to pursue their objective. We felt that the requirement to find a Member to present a petition was useful and should be kept. Members can also act as a filter for trivial or inappropriate petitions.
As for our proposals, we took the view that it is far better to build on the strength of the current system than to recommend a totally new system. In our report, we suggested how to remove some of the weaknesses of our procedures. Our proposals are as follows. We propose that the Government be required to respond formally to all petitions within two months of their presentation. It was the view of the Procedure Committee that every petitioner should ultimately get an answer to their petition. The text of petitions and Government responses should be published in Hansard, and on a Friday, the time of the formal presentation of a petition should be moved to just before the end of the day—just before the Adjournment debate; that is when they are presented on other days. Access to petitions through the parliamentary website should be made easier, and there should be opportunities for petitions to be debated in Westminster Hall.
The Government have accepted all those recommendations except, regrettably, the last. I am grateful for the Leader of the House’s support for the Procedure Committee’s report, but I am disappointed that she was not prepared to add her weight to the proposal to add just one half-hour debate slot to Thursday’s Westminster Hall sitting. That would provide a dedicated petitions slot, in which the presenting Member could discuss the petition and the reply.
Such a slot would have demonstrated that the House was now committed to taking petitions seriously, and it would also have served to concentrate Ministers’ minds not only on their responsibility to reply, but on the content of the reply.
Although petitions are addressed to the House of Commons, the remedies that they seek can often be secured only through Government action, so proper Government responses to petitions are an essential part of any effective system. I am pleased that the Government have given an undertaking to respond to petitions. However, I am slightly concerned that the wording used by the Leader of the House is that normally, only substantive petitions should receive a response. Despite that wording, I hope she will issue guidance to Ministers that except in very exceptional circumstances, all petitions should receive a response, even if the response is to the effect that the issue raised is one for local government, rather than for national Government. That is none the less a response.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who is no longer in her place, and one or two other Members have said that the Procedure Committee should have been more radical in its proposals for petitions, and that we should have suggested the setting up of a petitions Committee and an e-petitions system. To them I say, “Watch this space”. We expressed support in our report for e-petitions, and we have said that we are going on to examine the practical and procedural implications, with a view to bringing a worked-up system back to the House.
The Government—I applaud them for this—have placed it on record that they are in favour of an e-petitions system for the House of Commons, and have encouraged us to complete our work on that as soon as possible. I can tell the Leader of the House that we have already made a good start. E-petitions to the House of Commons have the potential to make a significant contribution to the House’s aim of improving how it connects with the public, but if e-petitions are to fulfil that potential, the system must be robust and properly resourced, and the House must be willing to listen to what the public are saying, which means that there may have to be some sort of system whereby certain petitions are then eligible for debate.
The petitioning procedure has for a long time been an obscure one and relatively little used. The proposals that the House is being asked to approve this afternoon will bring the petitioning system some way out into the light to make it more accessible to our constituents. But make no mistake—the introduction of e-petitioning will take us much further. If anyone doubts the potential impact of e-petitions, they should look at the No. 10 website.
My right hon. Friend is almost overflowing, like Vesuvius, with enthusiasm for the idea. Does he conceive of such petitions as an automatic trigger for debate? For if that is in his mind, I dare to bid caution that we do not end up creating, deliberately or inadvertently, a charter for professional activists, when we have not even got round to assuring, underpinning and extending the rights of Members of Parliament to trigger debates if they happen to occupy the Back Benches. That seems to me a more important and immediate priority.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Enthusiasm is not, of itself, a decision, and I would not wish to prejudge what the Procedure Committee may or may not decide in due course. May I underline to him that even in the realm of e-petitions, my Committee is strongly of the view that the link with the constituency Member should not be broken, because one can well see a scenario where, if e-petitions were allowed without a Member facilitating the petition going on line, candidates for all other parties in marginal seats might start bombarding the House with e-petitions to give the illusion that they are somehow responsible for some parliamentary activity. We are very conscious of the fact that the link with the sitting Member is important. Our initial thinking—we have not yet taken it to a formal decision—is indeed that if we are to recommend e-petitioning to the House, we would want to keep the link with the sitting constituency Member.
Partly for the reasons that I have just given, it will take the Procedure Committee a little more time to reach a conclusion on e-petitions, and I am sure the House will understand why we are determined as a Committee to ensure that any further proposals we make are robust and well thought through, and will prove to be effective and useful to all Members of this House in due course. Subject to the caveats I have mentioned, I commend the Procedure Committee motion to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who chairs the Procedure Committee with such distinction, and it is a tribute to his chairmanship that the recommendations from his Committee have been so consensual and robust that they have not so far generated a lot of controversy in this debate. I agree with what he said at the beginning of his speech, when he gently disassociated himself from our hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) on what is called multi-tasking. I think that that is a somewhat misleading title. All that is recommended is that
“the use of handheld devices to keep up to date with e-mails should be permitted in the Chamber provided that it causes no disturbance.”
It seems to me that that simply validates what has been the practice for some time, and I do not find it enormously controversial—
No; my concern is not that the issue is controversial. My concern is whether my right hon. Friend recognises that hand-held devices go way beyond the simple act of e-mailing, and how he would control their uses so they are not used in a manner that he might not wish to see.
I understand that, but it is not the proposition that is before the House. The proposition is that we should keep up to date with e-mails, and just e-mails. There is no proposition that we should take photos of each other during a debate or participate in any other mischief that might be done with the devices with which the Whips have very kindly provided us.
I want to move on.
If I may say so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is particularly appropriate that you are in the Chair, as the evidence that you gave to the Modernisation Committee clearly helped to inform its conclusions. Several hon. Members have referred to regional Select Committees. I think that that proposal would aggravate the problem that is before the Chamber this afternoon rather than alleviate it. It would be yet a further demand on the time of the hard-pressed Back Bencher and cut across the work of existing Select Committees. It would not provide proper accountability, as the regional Minister is not the budget holder for the money that is being spent in a region. As I indicated in business questions, I very much hope that the Government will not go down the regional Select Committee route, as I think that it would simply aggravate the sort of issues that we have been discussing this afternoon.
As is usual when we debate the work of a Select Committee, in one hand we have the report and in the other we have the Government’s response. What is unusual today with regard to the Modernisation Committee is that both the report and the reply were drafted by the Leader of the House. It is like something out of “The Mikado”, in which Pooh-Bah was lord high everything, and consulted himself in his various capacities. I do not think that W. S. Gilbert had Pooh-Bah as the Minister for Women and the chairman of the Japanese Labour party, but there is a certain incongruity and circularity in the process that has been gone through in putting the report before us this afternoon.
It is simply wrong that a report whose title refers to “the role of the back bench Member” should be drafted by a member of the Cabinet. Indeed, because of the abundance of talent from the Leader of the House and her predecessor, neither of them has ever spent much time as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament. That brings me to the first point that I want to make. Such reports should be produced by a Select Committee of Back-Bench Members of Parliament chaired by a Back Bencher. That is what happens in every other Select Committee, and there is no reason why it should not happen in the Modernisation Committee. I have made that point unrepentantly for several years, regardless of who was Leader of the House, and I am happy to say that I now have third-party endorsement.
Last week saw the publication of “The House Rules?”—a Constitution Unit report by Meg Russell and Akash Paun. It provides a worthy route map for the Modernisation Committee and I hope that Members will find time to read it. That report says of the process that we are witnessing today:
“However, to sign up to the committee’s”—
that is, the Modernisation Committee’s—
“conclusions, the Leader of the House must ensure they are acceptable to the government. This can easily be seen as in conflict with the principle that the House controls its own procedures”.
Indeed. That process of securing approval from the Government in advance, before publishing the report, is an unacceptable constraint on a Select Committee. The Constitution Unit report goes on to say that if the reforms are adopted,
“we see no need for the continuation of the Modernisation Committee. This should be merged with the Procedure Committee, under a strong backbench chair.”
I can think of no better candidate for that post than my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. It is simply wrong that the Cabinet Minister whose job it is to deliver the Government’s legislative programme should also be the Chairman of the Committee that decides the process that that programme should follow in the House. That is a constitutional short-circuit that should set alarm bells ringing and red lights flashing.
That leads me to my second point, which is about the title of the report: “Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member”. The report should be about empowering Back Benchers—strengthening them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said. It is all very well to raise the Back Bencher’s profile, to give him more speaking opportunities and make better use of his time, but does the report actually increase his authority? I am not convinced; it does not change the terms of trade between Parliament and the Executive.
Let me give a couple of examples of where I think the report should have gone further. I welcome the recommendations on Select Committees as far as they go, but the Chairman of a Select Committee should be able to present his report to the House on the day of its publication. He should be allowed to make a statement; I see no reason why Ministers should have a monopoly on statements to the House. Many Select Committee reports have been far more important than some of the statements that we get from Ministers—for example, the Rural Payments Agency report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and some of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Public Administration Committee reports.
At the moment Select Committee reports get time for debates, but debate time is worth less than statement time. Statements come early in the day and get much more media coverage. More Members will come in for a statement because they have a greater opportunity to take part than during a debate and can intervene without tying up half a day. Furthermore, statements on the day of publication are topical, whereas debates weeks after the Government have responded are not. If the issue were left to me, the Minister would have the opportunity to put a question to the Select Committee Chairman after his statement, just as we put questions to Ministers after their statements.
To continue with the same theme, the debates on Select Committee reports at the moment are Adjournment debates; they are often thinly attended and consist only of Committee members talking to each other. We should be able to vote on Select Committee reports and I am sorry that the Government cannot bring themselves to contemplate that. Voting on reports would give them a higher profile, concentrate the Government’s attention on what was being said and engage the attention of a broader range of Members of Parliament. I accept that if the Committee members knew that their report was likely to be voted on, it might be more difficult to secure a consensus, but I think that a price worth paying.
The Government keep telling us that they are interested in making the Chamber more topical, but on Tuesday we debated the Members’ fund when we should have debated the pre-Budget report and the comprehensive spending review. Vital Government statements of financial and political priority that set the parameters for the next three years are not being debated at all—and that from a Government who want to make the Chamber more topical.
I agree that we need less time on the Queen’s Speech; many of the Bills in the next Session will have been carried over and will have had pre-legislative scrutiny. The Queen’s Speech was announced in July; indeed, it was debated in July. The spontaneity of the Queen’s Speech is not what it was, and we should recognise that it needs less time for formal debate after the Loyal Address.
The report includes a section about advice. If I can put on my “Standards and Privileges” hat for a moment and encourage Members to get advice, the Tea Room is very good for gossip but not always good for advice. The report recommends that Members should get proper advice from the right channels if they need it.
There is a big chunk about induction, which has not been touched on in the debate. I went to one of the induction meetings at the beginning of this Parliament. It was enormously valuable; I learned far more from that session with new Members than they learned from me. It is right that we make recommendations to improve the induction process.
In fact, induction was discussed earlier; several Members referred to it. The point was made that induction should not just be a one-off event when new Members are overwhelmed having just arrived—there should be an ongoing process of enabling Members to understand the business of the House and make best use of its procedures.
I entirely agree. One can be invited to accumulate too much information in a short space of time—it needs to be over a longer period and regularly refreshed.
On length of speeches, I do not think that I have ever said to a neighbour, “That speech was too short”, but I have had occasion to say—I may have said it earlier today—“That speech was too long.” I endorse the recommendations on length of speeches. The report was kind enough to attribute to me the view that four eight-minute speeches are likely to be of higher value than two 16-minute speeches. I like the idea of moving time limits. It could be like the variable speed limits on the M25. As there is congestion, so the speed limit is reduced; as the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker sees that the debate is congested, so he could reduce the time available.
In a sense, time is what this debate is about. The Government’s response says:
“The report reflects…a careful examination of how backbenchers want to use their time to best effect and of the obstacles standing in the way of contributing directly to the work of the Chamber”.
When I first got here, time was not a problem. We used to sit around waiting for the votes. By 10 o’clock in the morning, one had dealt with the constituency, the post had come in, there were no Select Committees, and one could devote time to the Chamber. Now, time is the most important commodity that we have. All the Select Committees should see whether they can reduce the pressure on Members’ time, including the Administration Committee and perhaps even my own Committee. Why do we have to fill in that travel form every month and try to remember which tickets we used? How much time do we spend trying to get our swipe card to open some of the doors and turnstiles into the building? How much time do we spend chasing Government Departments for replies, or deleting e-mails from other people’s constituents and all-party groups?
That brings me to my final point. All our activity is shoehorned into two and a half days. One of the proposals that I made to the Committee—one of the many that it ignored—would have stretched the parliamentary week and made Thursday a proper day. I think that Prime Minister’s questions should take place on a Thursday. If it took place at 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening, the Chamber would now be filling up; but more importantly, it would make Thursday a proper parliamentary day when Select Committees and all-party groups could meet, instead of squeezing everything into Tuesday and Wednesday.
I like the report as far as it goes, but I would have preferred several recommendations to be taken further. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to revisit the subject during the remainder of this Parliament.
I have no objections to the proposals before the House, but I cannot tell whether they will make a contribution to reviving democracy in this Chamber, because that will very much depend on the spirit in which they are implemented by the Government of the day. We have a majority-based system and I think that that is right. I fully accept that when a Government win a sizeable majority, as this Government have, two very important powers or privileges are extended to people who are Ministers. First, Ministers can do anything they like under the law with the moneys raised by the state, and with the Administration at their command, they can instruct officials to do whatever they wish. Secondly, if they do not like the law, they can change it in any way they like. Both of those great powers are great privileges and Ministers exercise them with care if they are sensible. All that they have to do in order to carry on exercising those powers is to ensure that enough of their hon. and right hon. Friends continue to support them at crucial times.
However, there is one other thing that they have to do. Every four or five years, they have to face the question whether the electors think that they have used their powers intelligently and well. We live in a country that has a great sense of fairness. The country feels that a Government are stronger for licensing dissent, debate and disagreement than they are for trying to close it down. We live in a country where people respect a Government who allow minority parties and interests in this House decent opportunity to give voice to their views, which may, on occasion, be the views of the majority in the country, not the views of the minority who voted for the Government.
The public also like to feel that the Government do not just afford the minority that opportunity in order to give vent to feelings, but are listening and seriously engaging with those different views. An intelligent Government, who wish to stay in power for a long time, have to understand that this is an intrinsically democratic country and that people expect give and take, and expect their Government to learn sometimes from those who oppose them, as well as those who advise and support them in good times and bad.
When I was a Minister, a group of Labour MPs launched a strong, interesting campaign, saying that there were too many quangos, that they had too many powers and that too many supporters of the Government were involved with them. I listened to that campaign and watched it for a while before I realised that it was right. Within the limits of collective responsibility and Government debate, I tried to move what I was doing in the direction of responding to those criticisms—cutting back the powers of the quangos, cutting their budgets and balancing up the appointments—because I thought the campaign was making powerful points.
Ironically, because those MPs were rather good at opposition, they often started opposing my measures to correct the initial problem, but they were right about that problem, and it was my job to fight it. If I had just decided that they were completely wrong and dealt with everything they said with a political put-down or a cheap point, or reminded them about the problems of the Labour Government in 1978, I would not have been doing my job properly. I would not have gained any respect from the people I sought to serve if I treated them as beings who had no right to a view, and assumed automatically that their view was wrong and decided that the way to deal with it was to make cheap political points about dim, distant past history.
The idea that we need topical debates is a very good test of whether the Government are new and more democratic in a way that the outgoing Prime Minister’s Government were not. The Government have a choice. As they will effectively control what the topical debates will be about, they will, in any given week, have a difficult choice to make.
Most weeks there is a crisis in one Department or another. Most weeks, there is an illustration of bureaucratic mess or ministerial mistakes. Some weeks, Ministers are on the rack. The Opposition and many people in the media would like the topical debate to highlight that crisis or that Minister under pressure. That would provide excitement in the Chamber—somebody would be on trial. There could be a real consequence of the Minister doing very well, in which circumstance the Government would be strengthened, or the Minister doing badly, in which circumstance the case for getting rid of them is enhanced. If the Government are brave enough to do that, democracy wins. The Government may have a bad week or a good one depending on how skilful they are. If they duck such issues every time and say, “No, that isn’t what we want by way of a topical debate; the debate will be on some worthy topic that attracts cross-party support because it is something nice to talk about”, the proposals will fail to invigorate and improve our democracy in the way we are told they might.
Topical questions are a good idea. It is often frustrating to find that one’s question has not come high up the Order Paper, and that all the questions that have could have been tabled in a county council chamber and relate to specific matters in specific constituencies, leaving no room for open questions that enable a Back Bencher to intervene on a matter of national interest. The report rightly gives instances of topical matters being well without the scope of the limited range of questions on an Order Paper. That means that departmental questions that month are a waste of time. The press and public, to the extent that they are watching, think that it is nonsense because a big issue faced the Department but it did not even come up in departmental questions. The press and public often claim that nobody bothered to ask about it. They do not understand that our procedures prevent Members of Parliament who are desperate to ask about the subject from doing so because nothing on the Order Paper enabled them to go in that direction.
The Government are set on dividing England into separate regions. They wrongly believe that that will prevent the English problem from growing. It is no answer to people who wish England to have some balanced treatment of its affairs to reflect the devolution in Scotland and Wales to say that it will have some regional treatment in the Palace of Westminster. That is a red rag to a bull and not a way to tackle the tension. I hope that the Leader of the House understands that it will incense people who are worried about the plight of England; it will not reassure them. She should also understand that it poses grave questions about whether the Government have any belief in devolution.
I am a Member of Parliament from the south-east, as the Government see it. Many of us in the south-east do not recognise it as a region. It is drawn so clumsily that it means that London is not part of it, yet people in my region look to London for shopping, leisure and employment. We have much conversation and many dealings with London. We have almost no links with places such as Kent and Sussex, which are in my region. There is no regional feeling—the region is an artificial construct.
Furthermore, the south-east happens to be the region in England that always elects a Conservative majority. My hon. Friends and I strongly object to wasting money on regional government. We do not want the regional assembly, the development agency, the regional planning system or the housing quangos. We want them to be swept away. When the Leader of the House suggests that we need a body to provide accountability for the unaccountable quangos, she faces a genuine dilemma. Those who represent the so-called region do not want the quangos. We do not want to make them accountable; we want to get rid of them. If any sort of public intervention or expenditure of public moneys is needed—we would prefer less of both—that should be done through elected local government, which is democratically accountable and has some sense of locality and belonging. We have no sense of that in the south-east region as a whole.
I look forward to seeing how the proposals bed down. They could be an important step in the right direction. If we had the right topical debates, the Chamber would fill up more, the press would be more interested and the public would realise that we were responding to more of the daily issues that worry them. If the question system worked better, that would reinforce the idea of topicality. If we want the Select Committee system to work well, I support the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that creating more Select Committees for bogus regions will detract from concentrating good people on the existing Select Committees and letting them do a better job. If the Government wish to strengthen Select Committees, they should not have more of them but give the existing ones more power.
On topical debates, may I underline the fact that I am persuaded neither by the arguments of the Leader of the House nor by those of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) against the notion of early-day-motion-triggered debates, or debates triggered by a secret ballot, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) advanced. What is my right hon. Friend’s position on that?
I tend to see early-day motions as parliamentary graffiti. I always point out to my constituents when they want me to sign them that they are meaningless, that they never get debated and that the Government do not take them seriously. Those things are all clearly true. I understand that some colleagues think that it could be possible to make early-day motions more significant. If someone came up with a working model for that, I would be prepared to consider it. I tend to sign the jokey early-day motions. If I notice an early-day motion congratulating a sports team that I support, I am happy to put my name to it, because it can do no harm and is obviously meant nicely.
Occasionally I sign serious early-day motions if there is no other way of making the point. I do not do so because I think that that is the best way to make the point—I know that it is the worst—but because it is sometimes a sign of frustration at the fact that an early-day motion is the only way left to make Ministers consider an issue on which we cannot get a debate or question. The big problem with early-day motions is that Ministers do not have to consider them, whereas if there is a debate in this place, a Minister has to come and answer it. If an hon. Member writes a letter to a Minister, the Minister—unfortunately, it is often someone on the Minister’s behalf these days—has to write back. There is no such trigger with an early-day motion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) might be right that it could be possible to devise a scheme for triggering debates if enough hon. Members signed an early-day motion. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, there would then have to be a way of distinguishing those early-day motions that congratulate a soccer team on winning a game—I trust that most colleagues would not wish to spend an hour and a half debating such a motion in the House, pleased though they may be with their team’s result—from one about a serious question that warranted debate. There has to be a filter, and ultimately that filter is the Government, because they have the majority and they will decide what will be debated.
The Government should see this debate in the context of the fact that a large number of people are disengaged from party politics of the kind that the three main parties offer and from how this place does or does not conduct its business, for the various reasons that others have already mentioned. If the House could have more topical debates, with more power, passion and real exchange, that would be good. However, that will work only if the Government wish it to work and if they come to Parliament with a certain democratic humility. If they want to live in a world where minority opinions can be forcefully expressed and will occasionally make an impact on the Government, our democracy will start to flourish. If they wish to continue with a system in which all minority opinion is briefed against and dealt with in a brutal and politically crude way that does not answer the question or point that that minority opinion is making, our democracy will not flourish and the House will be largely wasting its time.
It will come as no surprise to friends and colleagues in the House that I have reservations about the process by which we have arrived at this point. Anyone who has had sufficient time even to glance at the Modernisation Committee’s report will see that it is now called “Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member”. The report started life earlier in the year as two inquiries. The one that interested me was the one into revitalising the Chamber, because I have been around and I have come to a conclusion. The revitalisation of the Chamber depends on the initiatives for debate and on the business of the House being controlled much more by the Members of the House, rather than through the partisan allotment of time by the Crown in Parliament—the Leader of the House, who, in the generosity of the new Government, combines several posts. I am glad to see her in her role as the Leader of the House.
We agonised over what to call the second and very important inquiry, because the then Leader of the House, who is now the Secretary of State for Justice, was conscious that we had to do something as a House about its standing. We came up with “Strengthening the role of the backbencher”. We laboured long in this vineyard. The Constitution Society and the Hansard Society were mentioned earlier. I strongly recommend that people read the evidence given to the Committee. It is very good, reasonable and intelligent—everything that one would expect—and from it sprang certain interesting ideas. Unfortunately, many of them are a “back to the future” approach to life, inasmuch as it is difficult to reinvent the wheel.
One crucial issue relates to the all-encompassing Standing Order that effectively says that Government business takes precedence over all other business in this House—save for the days allotted to the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats and the time given to Back-Bench Members on Fridays for private Members’ Bills. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) will recall as I do when we had something called private Members’ motions. Any Member could enter a ballot for the ability to move a substantive motion and, if necessary, secure a vote on it.
That is the star role in the House. No Government want to surrender it, and certainly no Opposition posturing to be a Government want to surrender it. Not even the sub-Opposition hoping to be a Government want to surrender it. We are suppressed because, in some of the magic moments after Jopling had reported, successive Leaders of the House—they were Conservative—somehow did away with substantive motions proposed by Back Benchers on a ballot. They just went. They were bought off when the Opposition were offered yet more guaranteed days for these wretched three-hour debates in which it is virtually impossible for a Back Bencher to participate. It is all in the hands of those who hope to form the Government.
The Prime Minister, who made a statement on Monday, reassured us that all was well in the Scottish elections and that in any event we were all to blame. Would a Government table a substantive motion to discuss the actions of the present Secretary of State for International Development, the former Secretary of State for Scotland? Would the Opposition propose such a debate in a partisan spirit? There must be many Scottish Members—I am thinking of members of the Scottish National party, whose Benches are empty, and independent Members—who want to know why no Minister has been held to account, but where is the substantive motion? The Government are unlikely to choose to table one.
I think of how this House has handled the war in Iraq; I think of the vitality of the United States Congress in discussing such matters; and I compare it with the leaden way in which debate has proceeded here. In five years, we have had—I think—three debates on the war. Who could be responsible for that? Standing Order No. 41 gives the Government absolute pre-eminence in the selection of debates.
Let me quote what the Clerk of the House had to say about these matters. Page 51—to help those who ever read Hansard—of this sad report states:
“The Clerk of the House pointed out that ‘What back bench Members cannot do currently is initiate debates on a substantive motion which would enable them to test the opinion of the House on a subject at their own initiative.’ He went on to say such a reform would be a significant strengthening of the role of a back bench Member. Reintroducing Private Members’ Motions could also provide a vehicle for those who felt that there should be some mechanism for Early Day Motions to be debated.”
Does my hon. Friend recall that in the days when we could move private Members’ motions, we could even move them in respect of the business of the House? We could even move that the House sit beyond its normal finishing time on a Friday, for example, in order to consider something, and if the majority of the House so voted, that is what we would do. Was that not real power?
It is the very essence of what Parliament, or the House of Commons, should be about. The total blanket imposed by those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches who carve up what we shall do and how we shall consider things has brought us to our present parlous state in the public perception. “What is the point of Members of Parliament? They never talk about what is happening in the real world,” people say ill-advisedly. It is two tin armies banging against each other, while the rest of us wander off somewhere else.
How will the report be interpreted by those who read it? I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) about the suggestion by the Leader of the House that we should now be able to multi-task. The Leader of the House must have invented that expression in this context, because I do not think we used it in the report. It must be in the Government’s response. Anyway, it is an extraordinary concept.
It may be that I am so underprivileged that I had a Neanderthal education, but the very essence of life, and of success in life, is concentration: concentrating on the issue at hand. The issue at hand in this Parliament, this House of Commons, is the making of laws. We go round in circles saying these things. We make laws that can have criminal intent. Can there be anything more serious than the thought that we will send someone to prison, that we will incarcerate someone? Ours is serious business—but we understand the boredom and tedium for the Front Benches. I see that the Leader of the House has already vacated her position. Presumably she is performing her role as Minister for Women and Equality, or perhaps she is planning another election campaign.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am very glad to hear about her domestic arrangements; one is interested in that. The substance of what we are about, however, is her subject. I have been in the House when Home Secretaries have sat not just for six hours, as the Deputy Leader of the House has indignantly said, but for a whole debate. I saw Willie Whitelaw, when he was Home Secretary, sit through the whole of a debate on immigration policy, which is a very sensitive subject. He left only once for about a minute and a half, and I cannot imagine what that was for.
This is the banality into which the House has descended, and that we put up with it as Back Benchers is absurd. Here we had an opportunity—a real and genuine opportunity, if a small one. My amendment, which was defeated so narrowly by seven to one, was a modest proposal. I would read it out, but it is available to be read by those who are interested. It proposed just four a year, and the debates would not have been held on Fridays but during the week. [Hon. Members: “Four what?] Four motions, and which Members were to move them would be determined by ballot.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield unfortunately could not move an amendment in the Committee because he was absent, but his amendment was taken. All that it requested the Government to do was consider not arranging for Government statements to be made on Opposition days. There was another request: could the Government be a little more generous, and not impose the guillotine in such a rigorous way? The great Committee, on its knees, was affronted to think that something like this could be taken away from the Government, and voted it down.
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not. I have heard him and I am grateful for his interventions, but I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is anxious to set us right on the wrongness of our ways.
That is what it has always been about. Ten years into the Modernisation Committee, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said in his interesting and important contribution—there is no question about that—in the end, where do we go? We have been around these circles. The Modernisation Committee has been the instrument of the Executive, who have taken total control over the Standing Orders. The report shows us that. It is total control. It is set out. All Government business takes precedence, save for the few days—the crumbs—that are left to those below the salt. That is what it has achieved. If it did nothing else but that, it would gladden the heart of the most reactionary old “divine right of kings” in the Government. They have a divine right. They were elected. They tell me the Prime Minister was elected.
It was an appointment. My hon. Friend puts his finger on something that has been said both by my own Front Benchers and the Liberal Democrats. They said that we want to strengthen Parliament. It is an absurd proposition. Parliament is supreme. That is an important constitutional doctrine. In theory there is nothing one needs to do to strengthen it. It has all the powers. They are, however, not exercised by the Members of the House of Commons; they are exercised by the Executive. They are the Executive by the appointment of the Crown and they control a majority.
We see this Chamber merely in terms of majoritarianism. That is what it has descended to. I remember Whitelaw wanting to know, meet and head off and genuinely engaging in debate. When Douglas Hurd was a Member of the House, however outrageous my opinions were on freedom of information, he engaged with them. I think of the repressiveness of the Home Office. My goodness, looking back, the Home Office was a bastion of liberality compared with the hurried visitors through the offices of it now—authoritarian is being redefined even as we speak on the Floor of the House. [Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton).
I apologise. I thought it was my bounden duty, as if it were a three-line whip, to allow my hon. Friend to intervene.
I do not think that I will oppose any of this. Perhaps I will oppose the motion on the jangling machine in our pockets, as someone said. Even with the 90 minutes, the Government get the first 10 minutes, the Opposition get 10 minutes—up to 10 minutes, I was reminded by the Leader of the House—and the Liberal Democrats get six minutes. Then there may be a little winding-up session. By the time we have carved up the 90 minutes, what is left for the poor suckers, us the Back Benchers? To consider that a sincere, determined effort, as the former Leader of the House said, to strengthen our role!
We come to the present Leader of the House. Her first public act in this House was to suspend Standing Orders, in order that she could impose on the Home Affairs Committee the choice of the Executive as its Chairman. She has been the first contested Chairman of the Modernisation Committee as a consequence of that and rightly so. She has three roles. We talk about a new constitutional settlement. It is a joke. We hear the Secretary of State for Justice peddle those things. At the expense of the taxpayer—perhaps I should not be so derisory but it is at great expense—we produce a report wherein the wisdom lies in the submissions made to the Committee, not in the deliberations of the Committee. That is why the greatest possible opportunity for Back Benchers is snuffed out and passes away.
We could have done something that would have strengthened the role but that wily old Secretary of State for Justice sits there and says, as is said at every meeting, “There is no point at all in suggesting this, Aldridge-Brownhills. The Whips won’t accept it.” We have the absurdity of the Chairman, the Leader of the House of Commons, consorting with the Whips. That is the real world—not a world of aspiration or of ideals, but a world of practicality. The practicality lies in the Committee; it is its way of controlling the House of Commons. We should remember that in what we do.
There is no more impassioned or articulate speaker in the House of Commons than my hon. Friend, but although there are real grounds for dissatisfaction that some of the evidence given to the Committee was not accepted and that not all of the recommendations are quite as thoroughgoing as we would like, it is reasonable at least to consider the proposition that the glass if half-full rather than half-empty. There are good things in this report that the Government are commending and which the House will take forward. I do not think that one wants to take a view that the world has been going progressively downhill since the 11th century and probably for some period before.
I defer to my hon. Friend’s knowledge of the 11th century. I am dealing with our immediate history; today, yesterday and the day before. That was an absurd intervention and I will now sit down and allow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield to speak.
First, I apologise for not being present for a major part of the debate; I have been chairing an important Public Bill Committee.
I am delighted to have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), whose commitment to this House and to democracy is unequalled, as is his courage in advancing his arguments on behalf of Back-Bench Members. I agree with my hon. Friend, supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), about the importance of private Members’ motions. They gave authority to Back Benchers—Government or Opposition—to move motions that were embarrassing to the Government.
Programming has not featured greatly today. Programming, or guillotining, is unacceptable. If Members who want to speak on an important Bill are not called on Second Reading or appointed to the Public Bill Committee, the only opportunity that they have to speak is on Report or during remaining stages. Even those stages are now subject to programming, which is fundamentally wrong. A Member must have at least one opportunity during the passage of a Bill to speak to it.
The report recommends that programming be kept under review and that the Government agree. I do not want that; I want a commitment that there will be no programming of remaining stages. We would then become much more democratic and the public would believe more in the House, because Members would be able to speak to—if not have influence over—Bills and could indicate their view or that of their constituents.
I say to the Deputy Leader of the House that there are quite a lot of good things in this report. I comment with some experience and knowledge. I have been on the Modernisation Committee since its establishment in 1997 and I am its longest-serving member, and I have also had the honour of chairing the Procedure Committee for the longest period that one is permitted to do so—in my case, that was eight years. I come to this debate with some experience and commitment. My final years in this House are being committed, and will be committed, to the integrity and sovereignty of this Chamber and the role of the Back Bencher. I want that role strengthened so that the Government are held more to account and people feel closer in touch with the House than they do at the moment.
It is a great privilege to respond to this debate, in which so many hon. Members have spoken with such great passion. I congratulate all those who took part in the Modernisation Committee’s work, both those who gave evidence and Committee members.
I would like to draw Members’ attention to two particularly illuminating pieces of evidence. The first is the memorandum submitted by Professor Philip Cowley from the university of Nottingham. In both his oral and written evidence he touched on the myth of the golden era and the fact that Back Benchers are much more assertive now than they have been at any time since the mid-19th century. When describing the rebellions in the past 10 years, he said:
“Such behaviour has continued since the 2005 election. Within the first year of its third term, the current Government were defeated four times in the House of Commons as a result of backbench dissent. No other post-war government with a majority of over 60 in the House of Commons suffered that many defeats in so short a time. Labour…dissent in the 2005–06 session ran at the rate of a rebellion in 28 per cent. of divisions”.
I understand that the rebellion on the Iraq war was the largest since the difficulties that Peel had with the corn laws. We need to avoid engaging in too much myth making. It is clear, as Professor Cowley says, that Back Benchers are themselves strengthening their role. Clearly, the era of sycophancy is dead.
The second piece of evidence was given by one of the Deputy Speakers, Sir Alan Haselhurst. He most interestingly pointed out that the amount of time available to Back Benchers in Westminster Hall is more than 300 hours, which is almost three times what they had under the previous procedures. It is important that we have a realistic picture of what is going on, because that will allow us to make realistic and sensible improvements to our procedures.
I turn to the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). She welcomes the proposed introduction of topical debates and topical questions, as I believe did every hon. Member who spoke, but she is asking the Government to publish on a regular basis—fortnightly—as a written ministerial statement, a record of what representations have been made. I think that what she proposes would be rather inflexible. That is not to say that it will not be necessary to look at how we can be open about what hon. Members have requested, but something as restrictive as a written ministerial statement every fortnight would probably prove impractical.
I want the Government to make three commitments about topical debates. First, I want them to find a way of making known to hon. Members the subjects that have been proposed. We would thereby be able to see what decisions the Leader of the House took in choosing a subject. Secondly, I want the Government to find a way to enable Back Benchers to nominate subjects, so that topical debates are not discussed and determined only by Opposition and Government Front Benchers. Finally, I want the Government to commit to ensuring that topical debates do not eat into Opposition time.
We entirely accept the principle set out by the right hon. Lady; the matter really boils down to the modalities of how the information should be produced. We are completely open to Back Benchers nominating subjects, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House pointed out that they could do so at business questions. If we have topical debates, the whole timetable will inevitably have to be looked at. At the moment, I am not in a position to say that all the time allocated to topical debates will come out of Government time.
Many other hon. Members have spoken and I want to respond to them.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead said that she wanted topical debates to go beyond departmental silos. That is a very sensible proposition, and the matter will partly be in the hands of those who suggest the debates as well as those of the Leader of the House.
I am grateful for the Deputy Leader’s generosity in giving way, but I want to pick up on her saying that she cannot guarantee that topical debates will not be taken out of Opposition time. The point of such debates is that they give Members of the House greater freedom and increase the opportunity for debates that are not led by the Government. If they merely replace Opposition day debates and the time set aside for them, the House will be no better off.
I did not say that topical debates should replace Opposition time. I said that we will have to look at how the whole week is reshaped and that I could not guarantee that there would be no slicing of any Opposition time.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead asked us to review the use of Westminster Hall, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House said that she would do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) spoke about the work of the European Scrutiny Committee. I attended a sitting very briefly yesterday, and it is clear that it does its important work extremely well. However, it is also clear that the processes are inadequate, which is why the Government are committed to looking at them again. It is also why we accept the timetable offered by my hon. Friend and other members of the Committee.
Many hon. Members spoke about the importance of induction, and we can all agree that that needs to be improved. Obviously, induction is not primarily a matter for the Government, but I understand that the Board of Management and the parties are already discussing how it can be improved. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) intervened on that point to say that we should increase the gap between the election and the return of Parliament. In our written response, we say that we are prepared to consider favourably a probable doubling of the amount of time that has elapsed between the election and Parliament’s return in recent years.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoke about the role of Select Committees and the importance of debates on Select Committee reports, as did the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). We do not believe that there could be sensible or coherent debates on reports before the Government had had an opportunity to respond, but we have agreed to look into a more measured timetable for considering them.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire suggested that such debates should be on substantive motions. However, votes in Select Committees might have the opposite effect to the one the right hon. Gentleman wants. If Members knew that they would have to take part in whipped votes, it could destroy the bipartisan approach that most Members take in Select Committees and which produces such high quality scrutiny.
I am sorry, but I do not have time to take interventions if I am to respond to the points raised by Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) welcomed topical debates and gave us a good analysis of the accountability gap at regional level. With the Modernisation Committee, we are looking into regional accountability and the forms that can be used to deal with it.
The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) made a passionate speech about multi-tasking and electronic devices and spoke to us as I often do to my children when I think they are not listening properly. On the emotional level, I am entirely sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman, but the Modernisation Committee, for all its weaknesses, is an all-party body and recommended those small changes. The Government have accepted the recommendations but it is for the Speaker and the House authorities to look at the practicalities, which will in part address the issue of disturbance to Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who is a member of the Modernisation Committee, spoke about multi-tasking, regional Select Committees and the benefits of topical debates.
The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is the Chair of the Procedure Committee, gave a sensible speech and his Committee produced a sensible and helpful report. We agree with most of its recommendations. From time to time, the use of petitions needs to be reviewed and, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, in the 1270s Edward I had a special initiative to increase petitions because then, as now, the Government had a rosy picture of their performance and needed to be reminded of how things are perceived.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) all spoke on important matters of principle—very sincere they were, too. The hon. Member for Macclesfield spoke about programming. I would like him to look at paragraph 122 of the report, where the evidence shows that programming has not had the dire effects that he described.
I would like to conclude by commending the motions to the House.
It being Five o’clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [22 October].
Amendment proposed: Amendment (a) to motion 1, at end add
‘but excluding the proposed acceptance of the Committee’s recommendation 35, as set out in paragraph 31 of the Government’s response, that the use of handheld devices to keep up to date with emails should be permitted in the Chamber.’.—[Sir Nicholas Winterton.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes the First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member (House of Commons Paper No. 337) and approves the proposals for changes in the procedures and practices of the House set out in the Government’s response to the report (Cm. 7231), including the proposals for topical questions.
MODERNISATION OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS (CHANGES TO STANDING ORDERS)
That in the next session of Parliament the following amendments to the Standing Orders, and new Orders, shall have effect:
(A) Topical debates
The following new Standing Order:
(1) A Minister of the Crown may indicate that proceedings on a motion, That the House has considered a specified matter, being a matter of regional, national or international importance, are to be conducted as a topical debate.
(2) A topical debate shall last for not more than one and a half hours, at which time the motion, unless previously disposed of, shall lapse.
(3) A topical debate shall be opened by a Minister of the Crown who, when called by the Speaker, may speak for up to ten minutes.
(4) A Member speaking on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition, when called by the Speaker, may speak for up to ten minutes either immediately following the Minister at the start of the debate or immediately before the Minister at its conclusion.
(5) A Member nominated by the leader of the second largest opposition party, when called by the Speaker, may speak for up to six minutes either at the start of the debate or before the Member speaking on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition or the Minister, as the case may be, at its conclusion.
(6) Members speaking under paragraphs (3), (4) or (5), when speaking at the start of the debate, shall be permitted to speak for an extra minute for each intervention they accept up to the same number as the number of minutes allocated to them to speak.
(7) The Speaker may direct any Member speaking under paragraphs (3), (4) or (5) to resume his seat when he has spoken for the period provided for in those paragraphs and paragraph (6).
(8) Time limits on speeches by other Members may be announced by the Speaker under Standing Order No. 47 (Time limits on speeches).
(B) General debates
(i) The following amendment to Standing Order No. 9 (Sittings of the House):
Line 31, at end insert ‘, or that the House has considered a specified matter,’
(ii) The following new Standing Order:
Amendments to motions to consider specified matters
Where, in the opinion of the Speaker, a motion, That this House has considered a specified matter, is expressed in neutral terms, no amendment to it may be tabled.
(C) Emergency debates
The following amendments to Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration):
Line 4, leave out ‘to move the adjournment of the House for purpose of discussing’ and insert ‘that the House should debate’
Line 7, leave out ‘discussed’ and insert ‘debated’
Line 15, leave out from ‘made’ to the end of the paragraph and insert—
‘(a) the debate shall be held on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter; and
(b) the Speaker shall announce either—
(i) the length of the debate and the time at which it is to be held; or
(ii) that he will make such a statement at a later named hour during that sitting.
(2A) Proceedings in respect of a debate under this order may last not more than three hours and, at the conclusion of the time allocated to them, pursuant to paragraph (2)(b) of this order, the motion, unless otherwise disposed of, shall lapse.’
Line 23, leave out ‘to propose to move the adjournment of the House under the provisions of’ and insert ‘make an application under’
Line 43, leave out paragraph (6).
Line 49, at beginning insert, ‘If the Speaker announces that the debate will take place on the same day as the application is made,’
Line 49, leave out from ‘postponed’ to the end of line 52, and insert ‘as the result of that announcement, may continue, following the conclusion of proceedings on that debate, for the same time beyond the moment of interruption as that taken by the debate, and’
Line 54, leave out from ‘business)’ to the end of the paragraph.
(D) Time limits on speeches
(i) Repeal of Standing Order No. 47 (Short speeches)
(ii) The following new Standing Order:
Time limits on speeches
47.—(1) The Speaker may announce that he intends to call Members to speak in a debate, or at certain times during that debate, for no longer than any period he may specify, and he may at any time make subsequent announcements varying the terms of an announcement under this paragraph.
(2) Whenever the Speaker has made an announcement under paragraph (1), he may, subject to paragraph (4), direct any Member (other than a Minister of the Crown, a Member speaking on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition, or not more than one Member nominated by the leader of the second largest opposition party) who has spoken for that period to resume his seat forthwith.
(3) The Speaker may announce, at or before the commencement of any debate (other than a topical debate) in respect of which he has made or intends to make an announcement under paragraph (1) of this order, that speeches by a Minister of the Crown, Members speaking on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition, and not more than one Member nominated by the leader of the second largest opposition party shall be limited to twenty minutes and he may direct any such Member who has spoken for that period to resume his seat forthwith.
(4) In relation to any speech, the Speaker shall add to any period specified
(a) under paragraph (1) of this order—
(i) one minute if one intervention is accepted, plus the time taken by that intervention;
(ii) two minutes if two or more interventions are accepted, plus the time taken by the first two such interventions;
(b) under paragraph (3) of this order, one minute for each intervention accepted up to a maximum of fifteen minutes.—[Mr. Watts.]
That this House welcomes the First Report of the Procedure Committee on Public Petitions and Early Day Motions (House of Commons paper No. 513); and approves the proposals for changes in the procedures and practices of the House set out in the Government’s response to the report in Cm. 7193.—[Mr. Watts.]
PROCEDURE (CHANGES TO STANDING ORDERS)
That the following amendments to Standing Orders be made, with effect from the beginning of the next Session of Parliament:
(1) In Standing Order No. 154 (Time and manner of presenting petitions):
(i) line 5, leave out from ‘be’ to the end of line 6 and insert ‘presented’
(ii) line 10, leave out from the word ‘conclusion’ to the end of line 19
(iii) line 20, leave out ‘(a) and (1)(b)’.
(2) In Standing Order No. 156 (Printing of petitions and of ministerial replies)
(i) line 4, leave out the words ‘ordered to lie upon the Table and to be printed’ and insert the words ‘published in the Official Report’
(ii) line 7, leave out from the word ‘be’ to the end of line 9 and insert ‘published in the Official Report.’.—[Mr. Watts.]
EUROPEAN STANDING COMMITTEES (TEMPORARY NOMINATION)
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Order of the House of 7th July 2005 relating to European Standing Committees (Temporary Nomination) shall continue to have effect in the next Session of Parliament.—[Mr. Watts.]
Amendment made: in line 3, at end add
‘for a period not longer than three months.’. —[Michael Connarty.]
Main Question, as amended, agreed to.