I beg to move,
That this House believes that the United Kingdom needs and deserves a Parliament that is fit for purpose and free from the taint of partial interests; is dismayed by the slow pace of reform which has failed to deal effectively with the opportunities for abuse; welcomes the suggestions from Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords to introduce powers to suspend and expel Members of that House, require Peers to declare any interest in all legislation, make all Members of that House resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes, put the Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis, bring Members of both Houses into the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and tighten up on the issuing of passes to Parliament; believes however that there is now an urgent need to bring forward plans for an elected House as agreed by a majority of hon. Members; is concerned at the lack of progress on the Prime Minister’s constitutional renewal programme; is disappointed that current legislation fails to provide for limits on donations or spending by political parties; calls for urgent and effective action to reduce parties’ dependence on large donors and trade union interests; believes that comprehensive reform of the procedures of the House is essential to enable it to scrutinise Government and the spending of taxpayers’ money more effectively; and recognises the need for urgent action to restore the trust of the British public in Parliament as an institution and in politics as a profession.
The past fortnight has been a bad couple of weeks for parliamentary politics. We had the aborted attempt to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the revelations about the activities of certain peers and a reminder, in the Standards and Privileges Committee’s report, of the actions of one hon. Member. A week ago, when we discussed the freedom of information provisions, perhaps in a genuflection to Burns, I asked colleagues to try to see themselves as others see us. I despair at what those outside the House who are struggling to keep their jobs and to keep a roof over their heads think when they read in their newspapers of people asking for £10,000, £20,000 or up to £100,000 to affect legislation by the exercise of whatever influence they believe they have. This cannot go on, and it is time that we took action.
A sensible, appropriate and proportionate response is to recognise that Parliament is in urgent need of reform. I refer to Parliament as a whole, as the matter is not simply about those at the other end of the corridor. The title of the motion, as it was read out by the Leader of the House at business questions on Thursday—I am sorry not to see her in her place—referred to this as an “urgent” case. When I took that title to the Table Office, its staff told me that they were unhealthy—[Interruption.] I mean unhappy—they might be unhealthy, too. They said that they were unhappy with the term “urgent” and that it was not a parliamentary term. What could better illustrate the difficulties of reforming this place?
I hope that we can conduct today’s debate in a non-partisan way, because it is desperately important that we do so.
No, there is no “but”. It is unwise for us to try to score political points off one another on these issues, and it is dangerous for anybody to claim moral superiority. I simply say to the whole House that those who are tempted to throw rocks either down the corridor or at other parties in this House should realise that we all inhabit an exquisite, Victorian, neo-Gothic house of glass. Every time we cast aspersions on other politicians, those aspersions are applied to us in our constituencies, however inappropriately. It is public perception that is important.
Will the hon. Gentleman deal also with the question of constitutional reform, which is implicit in the motion? The issues of standards and conduct to which he refers are matched by, if not less than, the problem of whether this is becoming a sham Parliament.
There are all sorts of constitutional issues, and the hon. Gentleman has a particular viewpoint on one of them. The perception outside is that politics is not being conducted in the way that it should be, and that we in this House and in the body politic generally are not clearly free from the taint of partiality that affects all of us. That is very dangerous, but more than that there is a perception that our political structures are not fit for purpose or serving the country well. That is where the thrust for constitutional reform comes from.
I turn first to the other end of the corridor and to another place—the Lords. There was palpable relief that for once, the reports over the past week were about things down that end, not here. That is a wrong-headed relief, because when there is damage to the reputation of politics, it affects all of us. The reputations of all of us are at stake. If the other House does not operate with credibility, it cannot properly perform the role that it is required to perform in our constitutional arrangements.
We therefore need to be concerned, as I know are many hon. Members, and noble Members in the other place who are honourable in their intent, about sorting matters out. Are there not inherent problems, however, with this mish-mash or half-reform that we have left in the other place? We still have 92 hereditaries who are there by accident of birth—never mind the pretend elections among that exclusive franchise. Uniquely among all Parliaments, we have people who are there—
The hon. Gentleman refers to Tonga, but there has been reform there, I think, so we are unique.
We have the 26 bishops as well, and 625 life peers. Those life peers are all placed there by—let us make no mistake about this—patronage. They are placed there because somebody has suggested they would be an ornament to that House. Indeed, some are; some are very able people who work very hard for this country. There are others, however, who, frankly, do not, and I afraid that my respect does not extend to every Member of the other place.
I am not going to name them, because as I have said, I am not going to be partisan, but let us say for a start that it is reported that at least eight were allegedly prepared to change the law for cash in their hands. To me, as to many peers, that is outrageous. Furthermore, however, we have as Members of the House of Lords a convicted perjurer, a convicted fraudster and a convicted fire raiser. What a rum crew we have making laws for this country. We also have four peers who do not choose to be resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes. They do not choose to pay the taxes that the rest of us pay, but they choose to make the laws that the rest of us have to live with. Two of them made solemn pledges that they would become resident for tax purposes—pledges which, since they have been elevated, they have chosen to ignore.
The hon. Gentleman and his party make a big play of the fact that everybody who makes laws in this country should pay taxes in this country. That is a principle I can support, but can he tell me whether that extends to European Commissioners and Members of the European Parliament, who make 80 per cent. of the laws of this country, but who, as far as I am aware, do not pay any taxes in this country?
As a matter of fact, they do pay taxes in this country. [Interruption.] No, not those who represent other countries, of course; oddly enough, they do not, but those who are resident in this country, as our MEPs are required to be, are paying taxes in this country.
Leaving Europe aside—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”]—I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s speech so far, but does he agree that the law should be obeyed not only to the letter, but in its spirit? One of the tax exiles in the other place is funding campaigning in marginal constituencies to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds, to get a political advantage in a way that the public would perceive as totally wrong. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that?
Order. I am beginning to have some forebodings about the way this debate is going. I should remind hon. Members that we must be very careful about criticising particular people, and if they are only allegations or suggestions, that is quite out of order. Only factual matters can be referred to on the Floor of the House. I think the House will do itself a service in the country if we are seen to conduct this debate in a sober and serious way, rather than in the rollicking manner in which it has been conducted so far.
I agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is why I was very careful not to cast aspersions on any particular peer. I was simply making the point that all the people to whom I referred are noble Members—they are all people who are taking part in the making of the laws of this country. I think there is more than an argument that reform in this area is overdue.
I believe the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in saying that the gentleman in question has made no secret of the fact that he lives outside this country—he lives in Monaco, as I understand it—so I do not think we are in a contentious area there.
As I shall explain, this problem can be cured by proposals that have been made, and which I hope the Government will now accept. That is the point of this section of my speech: there are some immediate steps that can be taken—my noble Friends in the other place have suggested them—and the Government would do well to agree to them. Indeed, there are intimations that they have agreed to them. The Lord Chancellor was a very busy man over the weekend, writing columns in various newspapers saying he was minded to do this, that and the other. I rather hoped he might come to the House today when there was a debate on the subject and tell us what he proposed to do. Instead, however, he chose to send the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—
Yes, unpaid. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Rhondda, but I feel that the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the House might have chosen to be here, because they seem to have a lot of opinions on this subject, and they are hinting them to the press but not expressing them to the House.
What do we believe should happen? The following proposals have come from my noble Friend Lord McNally, and some of them are already before the other place as legislative proposals. One of them is that there should be the power to expel and suspend. It is extraordinary that that was discussed 10 years ago and still has not been brought into force. Another is that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be on a statutory basis. That would cure the problem of peers making pledges to the Appointments Commission but then not honouring them. Both those proposals are contained in a Bill introduced by my noble Friend Lord Steel.
It has been suggested that all peers, and indeed all Members of Parliament, including MEPs—let us cover the points made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—should automatically be considered resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes. That could be done at the stroke of a pen. My noble Friend Lord Oakeshott has proposed that, and it can be done now. Will the Government agree tonight to do that?
There is also the view that peers should be brought under the supervision of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. We have improved self-regulation in this House; it is not perfect, but it is better, and one of the reasons for that is the existence of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It is extraordinary that self-policing is considered to be a sufficiency elsewhere, and I believe that all Members of Parliament should be brought within the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
The issue of passes is a security issue, apart from anything else. Passes are issued to Members of Parliament for members of staff to do work in the House, not for any passing lobbyist who happens to want easy access to the parliamentary estate. There should clearly be a tightening up of the issuing of parliamentary passes.
Lastly on my short shopping list for the House of Lords, there should be a declaration of interest irrespective of whether somebody is directly contributing to a debate. Some peers clearly seem to imagine that provided they do not actually make a speech it is all right to go along to Ministers’ or civil servants’ offices and argue the case for a change in legislation, which they are being paid to do, and that in some way that is not paid advocacy. The proposal seems very simple to me and the Government could usefully adopt it.
Surely if people declare an interest it should ipso facto disqualify them from speaking about the matter in question and voting on it. There seems to be a culture in the other place that if someone makes a declaration of interest, they can proceed to speak about it, articulate it and advocate it, but in my view it should be a disqualification.
The hon. Gentleman is right—it is a cultural thing, although I hesitate to say that we always get it right in this House. We have to be much more careful.
I have set out a short shopping list, and if the Deputy Leader of the House is listening he could usefully say in his response tonight that he agrees to it and that those reforms will be undertaken, either through the legislation already proposed by my noble Friends, or through Government legislation if he prefers; but also that something will be in place in weeks rather years. However, to do that will be but to apply an elastoplast to the latest wound. There comes a point when we have applied so many elastoplasts that we tend to look a little ridiculous, which is the thrust of my argument. We have gone past the point when we can simply apply sticking plaster—we need fundamental reform to make our democratic structures fit for purpose. They are transparently not fit for purpose at present. We need fundamental reform.
There has never been a better time. Because of what we have heard over recent months and years, many people—not just commentators, but anyone who thinks seriously about the issue—think it is time to put this House, the other House and our parliamentary structures in order.
On declaration of interest, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be rules about the level of outside interests that parliamentarians, whether of this or the other place, should be allowed while still maintaining their role as a Member?
My personal opinion is that it is extremely difficult to have an outside job and do the job of Member of Parliament. Other may be much better at juggling their time than I am, but as far as I am concerned being a Member of Parliament is a full-time job—and a lot of Members feel that way, too. It will be interesting to see whether the Leader of the House, who is not here today, will bring forward proposals, as she intimated last Thursday, to put into effect exactly what the hon. Gentleman said.
There are three possible reasons why the Government have been so weak in introducing reforms, and all three may indeed play a part. First, the Government do not believe that there is a public appetite for reform; they believe that somehow these are Hampstead liberal or socialist arguments and that people are not interested in them because they are not the real world. The Government are completely wrong; we cannot achieve what we want to do in putting right what is wrong in this country without democratic structures that support and enable reform. There is a public appetite for cleansing the stables.
Secondly, the Government have friends who disagree—as do all parties. We know that, although I suspect that we have less disagreement at this end of the corridor. I make no secret of the fact that we have disagreement at the other end. All parties have members who disagree—those who wish, for reasons of their own, to stick with a system that they believe to be either in the national interest or their own interest. When somebody has been appointed a peer, it is astonishing how quickly they consider that the system that appointed them must be an exceedingly good one, because it had the perspicacity to put them on to the red leather seats. However, I fundamentally disagree with that view. At some stage we have to confront the issues. We have to put the argument and let those who disagree do so and lose the argument.
Is there not an even more bizarre version of the argument? Peers have to vote for an appointed House to protect the primacy of the elected Chamber. If the primacy of the elected Chamber depends on an unelected Chamber voting to remain unelected, there is something very odd about the argument.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, which brings me to the third reason and the core problem with the Government—timidity. The Government are afraid to put their neck out and do those things. They like to hint and suggest; they like to form all-party Committees to spend a lot of time looking at things—I have sat on two of them—but when it comes to putting legislation before Parliament and pushing it through they are not prepared to act.
Is not another problem that the Government are afraid of proper accountability and probing? For example, they spend £37 billion on bank shares, yet none of us can ask them, “Why don’t you do proper due diligence? How much are those banks going to lose? How much will they pay in bonuses?” There is no accountability and what I like about the hon. Gentleman’s motion is that it says we need to scrutinise spending.
The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I was about to say. He is absolutely right.
I have been talking about Lords reform. It has been agreed by the House. It has been agreed by the cross-party Committee in broad terms. As far as I know, it has been agreed by the leadership of all three parties. It has even been agreed by thundering editorials in the broadsheets over the past week, so what on earth is the delay? Why do we have to wait for what we all agree is necessary in terms of Lords reform?
It is not good enough to concentrate only on Lords reform, however. We have to look at Commons reform as well, which is why the point made by the right hon. Gentleman is so important. We have to make this House more effective. Why on earth do we not yet have a business Committee? We waste time on inconsequential measures, but when there are really important matters before the House, such as the Report stage of a big Bill when Members want to say what they need on behalf of their constituents, they are unable to do so because of some ridiculous programme motion that does not take into account the gravity or importance of the measure.
The other point made by the right hon. Gentleman was about scrutinising Government spending. Why are we so poor at scrutinising public expenditure? The nadir for this Parliament was in November—the supplementary estimate that spent £37 billion of taxpayers’ money. What happened? We had a short debate when about only 12 Members were in the Chamber. We could not table amendments or apply proper scrutiny. That is not what people send us to the House to do—allow the Government to spend eye-wateringly large amounts of money on a rubber stamp, on the nod, without proper scrutiny. That is where we need reform in this place.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the need for Commons reform, particularly to make sure that Parliament takes power back from the Executive and has the ability to scrutinise. Does he agree that we need to give power back to our constituents to scrutinise what we do, whether through transparency on expenses or giving them the right, if a certain percentage of them sign a petition, to recall their Member of Parliament and hold a by-election?
If we make this place properly representative, transparent and accountable, we will be giving power not to ourselves but to the people who send us here. My hon. Friend makes an absolutely crucial point.
When we have dealt with reform of the Lords and reform of the Commons, we will still have to deal with reform of the political parties. There is the issue of political party funding. I sat on that wretched Committee for so long trying to reach agreement between the parties on the issue. We should have had agreement; it was within our grasp to have proper caps on donations and on expenditure, to reduce the ridiculous arms war in election spending and put things on a sensible footing. We should not give undue influence to people who were prepared to dig deep into their pockets but who always had a price for the support that they were prepared to give.
What happened? The Conservatives will argue with this, but it is a fact: they walked out, because they did not think the proposal went far enough in terms of trade union funding and affiliation fees—not donations—although they had earlier agreed on that point. Then, those on the Government Benches were too scared to take the proposal forward without the Conservatives, so it was abandoned. What do we have instead? We have the Political Parties and Elections Bill and we have the constitutional renewal Bill, although goodness knows where that is—it is somewhere in limbo at the moment. These are mere mice of Bills; they are horrible little crawling creatures of Bills compared with what is necessary in order to sort out the body politic.
Let me end on this point. We cannot make our politics work unless people have trust in the political system, and hints at reform are no longer enough. The fact that the Prime Minister asserted when he was first appointed that he was interested in constitutional renewal will not cut any ice with anybody until we start to see delivery. The Bills before the House at the moment are not delivery. Britain needs and deserves better than this—and not just on reforming Parliament. I could go on and talk about empowering local government or about reforming the European Union to make it more democratic and transparent. Those are all important issues, but unless we start the process, our democracy will not be fit for purpose. It is demonstrably not fit for purpose at the moment and there is no better time for us to make a start. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House, for it is he who will respond, will be able to persuade us that the Government take this matter seriously.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
‘believes that all Members of both Houses of Parliament should uphold the highest standards in public life, should be UK residents for tax purposes and should face the toughest sanctions if they undermine Parliament’s reputation; notes that the Government has taken significant steps to strengthen probity in the political system, including the revised Ministerial Code in July 2007 and the appointment of an independent adviser on Ministerial interests and the creation of the independent Electoral Commission; notes the inquiries established by the Leader of the House of Lords; further notes that this House has a clear code of conduct governing hon. Members and has adopted tough new rules on Members’ allowances, a new requirement to declare and register any family members employed by hon. Members, a robust new audit system which will see the independent National Audit Office carrying out a full-scope audit of Members’ expenditure and a transparent system of publication of details of their expenses; supports the Prime Minister’s commitment to further constitutional reform as outlined in the Governance of Britain, including the dissolution and recall of Parliament and the power to declare war and to ratify treaties; notes the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill by the Joint Committee; notes that the Political Parties and Elections Bill proposes to restrict political spending, bring greater transparency to political funding and strengthen the Electoral Commission as an effective regulator; and hopes that all parties engage constructively in developing a consensual approach to political party finance.’.
First, I think I speak on behalf of the whole House when I offer an enormous thank you to all members of staff who travelled through the snow to make sure that this building operated properly today. I am glad to be able to tell the House that, starting from 9.45 pm, taxis will be arranged to enable all members of staff to get home safely this evening. We are very grateful to our staff.
The public want, and have every right to expect, the whole of our legislative process to be clean and above reproach and Ministers to be held to account by Parliament. That is why we should always be vigilant and take the necessary action to prevent any abuse of the system and reassure the public. This Government understand people’s concerns, which is why we have taken action to clean up the system and why we are determined to take further action. We should also seek to come together, I believe, across all the political parties on these issues, because no party wins if Parliament is undermined.
It is vital that we tackle any kind of wrongdoing, but we should, I think, take care not to overestimate the problem, lest we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, although some may believe that all politicians are only out for themselves, many none the less hold their own Member of Parliament in very high regard. Although we MPs may be rated only marginally higher for honesty than estate agents, we still beat tabloid journalists by a good 10 percentage points.
I believe that an element of scepticism about politicians is a very good thing. We are a naturally sceptical country. We distrust absolute power; we value freedom of speech; and we love scabrous satire. If anything, British scepticism helps keep us honest.
There is little doubt that fundamental reform of the expenses system is required, as discussed recently, and that it has to incorporate audit, transparency and accountability. On the Minister’s theme of not knocking everything, however, does he agree that robust reform of that system needs to be accompanied by a robust defence of the legitimacy of a decent allowances system, with proper tribute paid to the late Robin Cook for improving it in such a way that we can effectively cater to the needs of our constituents?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am very conscious that the first Member of Parliament for the Rhondda was a man called William Abraham—or Mabon, as he was known. I have a letter from him thanking the local trade union for paying his expenses while he was in Parliament; otherwise he would have had no means of being able to represent the people of the Rhondda, because he was not a wealthy man. It is vital that what I prefer to call our expenditure is properly met so that we can do the full and proper job that today’s constituents expect of us. The days when an MP could visit the constituency irregularly and not bother to reply to letters are long gone—and quite rightly so.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the value of reform, but I invite him not to take too much comfort from and not to be complacent about the spirit of the intervention that he just answered. As far as many of our constituents are concerned, the integrity of Parliament would be accorded much greater respect if the whole question of pay and allowances were taken totally out of the hands of MPs so that we were unable to vote on what we should receive.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about our pay and our salary. As he will know, last year, with cross-party support, we agreed that that decision should no longer be made by us—that it should not be for us to determine our own pay. In future, it will be done in conjunction with the reports of the Senior Salaries Review Body. It is important that there is that degree of independence.
A little while ago, my hon. Friend said that the British people do not like politicians having too much power. I agree with him. Is it not the case that our Prime Minister has more power than almost any other comparable Prime Minister in Europe and that one way of reducing it and making it more acceptable would be to get rid of his powers of patronage now? If our Prime Minister said that, from now on, he was not going to use his powers of patronage and that the system would be reformed, would it not be a great gesture that the British people would appreciate?
My hon. Friend will know that when my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister, one of the first things he did was to publish “The Governance of Britain”, which made it very clear that there were large areas where the Crown traditionally held power, which could be dealt with more appropriately by Parliament. That is part of what we will want to achieve when we introduce the constitutional renewal Bill. I think it is difficult to remove every single element of power and patronage from the Government because part of exercising power is trying to ensure that it works in the interests of the whole community.
The demise of the age of deference has not, of course, affected only Parliament; other British institutions have suffered, including the Church, the trade unions, very notably the BBC, the police and even the armed forces.
There are also elements of our political system in which we can take genuine pride. This Chamber, for instance, is one of the most critical arenas of any political assembly in the world in which to advance an argument. At times, we may be too rumbustious and the public are perplexed by why we have to confront each other so aggressively, but the truth is that no British Prime Minister can avoid having to put his or her arguments to the test. Nor, for that matter, can a Minister saunter along the corridors of power unquestioned.
This Government have strengthened many of our parliamentary traditions. Tony Blair made Prime Minister’s questions a weekly half-hour occasion rather than a twice weekly 15-minute session, and volunteered to appear before the Liaison Committee. Few Heads of Government around the world have to submit themselves to such a rigorous grilling, having to face questions on literally any subject unannounced every week.
Given that the Minister is making a very compelling case for Ministers appearing before Parliament, will he include in the constitutional renewal Bill proposals to ensure that Secretaries of State sitting in the other place are allowed to present their proposals here and be questioned by us?
I am not sure a Bill is the precise way of advancing such a suggestion. It might be possible—indeed, it might make more sense, because one would be changing the traditions of the House—if such a proposal were advanced by the whole House. I am not saying that I entirely oppose the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. Indeed, if he looks back at questions that I once asked when sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), he might see something that would interest him.
Ordinary oral questions to Ministers and our tradition of allowing interventions in speeches, which I have not noticed in any other Parliament, mean that those in power are held robustly to account. Only last year, we made that regime even tougher by introducing topical questions, thereby allowing Members to ask Ministers completely open questions on any subject. I think that all hon. Members would agree that that has been a significant innovation.
Will the Minister reflect on the House’s legislative powers? He knows of the widespread concern about hon. Members’ inability to seek to amend and debate major Bills’ new clauses and amendments on Report. We shall consider two criminal justice Bills that contain nearly 10 parts on average. We will never get through 10 groups of amendments in a day. As a measure of his and the Government’s commitment to parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive, will he ensure that there is enough time to debate all those groups of amendments?
The hon. Gentleman has asked me that question before, and, doubtless, he will ask me it again. I will try to give the same answer as I gave last time. The truth is that the most important thing that the Government can do is not to introduce Bills until they are thoroughly prepared, to ensure that they do not suddenly choose to introduce additional elements to Bills halfway through their progress—in particular, to Bills that look somewhat like Christmas-tree Bills—and to make sure that the amendments that they table are genuinely concessionary and meet the concerns that Opposition or, indeed, Government Members raised in Committee. It is also true that we sometimes need additional time to fulfil the duty of scrutiny for Bills on Report. That is why, for instance, the next major Bill that is coming up for consideration on Report is the Political Parties and Elections Bill, for which we have allowed two days on Report.
There must be a degree of consensus in the House that reform of the House, let alone of Parliament as a whole, is necessary. Does the Minister agree that we should tackle the Whips’ system? Although the system may be necessary, it is overused. In particular, on questions that relate to consideration on Report or in Committee, more free votes would enable, if enforced by Standing Orders, Members of Parliament to express their opinions. Ultimately, the final debates on a Bill could be whipped in accordance with the manifesto.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I have often heard. Clearly, there are occasions when, by tradition, all the political parties have offered free votes, particularly on matters of conscience. However, I have a majority of 16,000, not because I am such a wonderful person that the people of the Rhondda suddenly decided that they would vote for me. The truth is that the vast majority of them vote Labour because they have done so historically and they want a Labour Government, given that they know what a Tory Government would do to them. Consequently, it is incumbent on me often to support my party, because that is what my voters want me to do. Those who argue that every vote should be a free one or who want to weaken the Whips’ system do not understand that countries with a very weak system often have the worst pork barrel system of politicking.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he has been generous in doing so. I agree that, so far, the introduction of topical questions has been of benefit to the House, but they should not be distorted or polluted by the continued interference of Opposition Front Benchers in the process. In my view, topical questions should be principally, if not exclusively, for the benefit of Back Benchers to challenge the Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that was made in the original Committee report that suggested topical debates and topical questions; they were intended to enable Back Benchers to have more time and more opportunity to question and scrutinise the Government. As some Opposition Front Benchers have not wanted to give notice of what their questions will be about, they have chosen only to ask topical questions, thereby sometimes crowding out Back Benchers. However, Mr. Speaker is very keen to ensure that Back Benchers have their fair crack of the whip.
One of the issues that comes up in the House from time to time and at Question Time when the Minister or the Leader of the House is answering is the time that it takes for written questions to receive a reply. Some Departments manage to answer 80 per cent. of questions on the named day; other Departments—for instance, the Ministry of Defence—manage to answer only 20 per cent. on the named day. Respect for the House will help to generate respect outside the House, and the hon. Gentleman could deal with that matter himself.
The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I want to tackle, and I am very keen to ensure that, where pinch points exist in individual Departments, hon. Members receive swift and full answers and that every Department lives up to the highest standards that we all expect and, indeed, that the ministerial code of conduct lays down. I should point out that my Department has a 98 per cent. record.
We have also strengthened Parliament with pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and with evidence sessions before the line-by-line consideration of a Bill starts in Committee, and there will be post-legislative scrutiny soon as well. Similarly, the Government have taken significant steps to improve probity and transparency in our electoral system. The Government created the independent Electoral Commission. We banned foreign donations. We required every Member of Parliament to declare any gift or donation above £1,000 that he or she receives. The public can see that information listed on the Electoral Commission’s website. That is on top of the House’s own requirement to register any financial interest worth more than 1 per cent. of a Member’s salary. We also required local political parties to declare any contribution of more than £1,000 and national parties anything over £5,000. We required loans to political parties to be declared. We introduced a toughened ministerial code of conduct and an independent adviser on Ministers’ relevant interests.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion, but it is important to understand what counts as a lobbyist, not least because one of our constituents’ ancient rights is to come to the Lobby and demand to see us as their Members of Parliament. Obviously, nothing should undermine that, but my colleagues will want to reflect on the interesting point that he makes.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Given that a substantial amount of the Government amendment is obviously welcome, given that there is a consensus across all parts of the House about the importance of electing the House of Lords and given the events of the past few weeks, is he prepared to make a commitment to introduce election to the House of Lords in the forthcoming Bill, particularly given that the Queen’s Speech contains only 14 Bills this year and that there is plenty of parliamentary time to discuss and pass them?
The hon. Gentleman will have to wait to hear what I say a little later in my speech, when I come to those issues.
All the things that the Government have done have been vital, because the truth is that, although the instances of wholesale corruption are blessedly rare in the United Kingdom, we should never be complacent about the body politic. Equally important is the reputation of Members of Parliament—vital to the golden thread of trust between the Government and the governed and between the elected representative and the citizen. The public rightly expect those who are in a position of trust to exercise their duties without fear or favour and with sole regard to the common good. As this House’s code of conduct puts it,
“Members shall base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest, avoid conflict between personal interest and the public interest and resolve any conflict between the two, at once, and in favour of the public interest.”
This House has a robust disciplinary process, with an independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards and Privileges Committee, whose Chairman is with us this evening. Only two weeks ago, the House agreed to tough new rules on our own expenditure, a tougher system of audit including a full-scope audit by the National Audit Office of all Members’ expenditure, and a far greater degree of transparency regarding our expenditure than we have ever had before.
Let me now turn to the rules governing the House of Lords, particularly in the context of the allegations made last week in The Sunday Times. The Leader of the House of Lords, Lady Royall, has acted swiftly. She has referred the allegations to the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests for a swift and rigorous investigation. In addition, as she told the House last Monday, she has asked the Chairman of the Committee for Privileges—the Chairman of Committees, Lord Brabazon of Tara—
“to consider any issues relating to the rules of the House that arise, especially in connection with consultancy arrangements, and in connection with sanctions in the event that a complaint against a Member is upheld.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 10.]
As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), the Lord Chancellor has also said:
“We want to see very, very clear laws brought in that deal with misconduct by members of the House of Lords so that if they commit a criminal offence or something else which is wholly improper then they can be expelled”.
He has made clear that that should also apply to those who are not resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes.
If I catch the Speaker’s eye, I shall develop the theme of how disappointingly conservative the Labour Government have been on constitutional reform. I buttress that by drawing my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the late Robin Cook gave me an undertaking at the Dispatch Box that they would address the question of Members of the House of Lords who had been in prison, and it did not happen. That is the reason for my disappointment, my frustration and my charge against the Government tonight: they say one thing, and never do it. It is time that my hon. Friend broke that pattern, and said that we will have legislation immediately to address the problem.
I think that my hon. Friend did. If he did not, it was someone sitting in the seat where he is sitting now who argued that it was important that we should not undermine possible future substantial reform of the House of Lords by merely dealing with the de minimis elements that Lord Steel, for instance, would like to introduce in his Bill. I merely point out to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that although he agrees with some elements of Lord Steel’s Bill, it says absolutely nothing about elected peers.
I should also say this to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. He said that the views that he quoted had come from the Lord Chancellor entirely out of the blue. In fact, the White Paper on House of Lords reform, published last July—the hon. Gentleman may have had time to read it by now—makes it clear that we would like to change the rules on disqualification, and that we would like to put the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis.
That is precisely the point: putting it in a White Paper does not make it so. We want it in legislation. I am afraid that the Deputy Leader of the House sounds dangerously complacent when he simply says that things might be done at some stage in the future without giving a commitment to make them happen now.
We want to make these things happen, and we will present proposals to do precisely that.
I think that the hon. Gentleman also underestimates the desire of most people in this country to see major constitutional reform happen as far as possible on a cross-party basis, with as much consensus as possible. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor for achieving precisely that.
The hon. Gentleman said that there had been interminable meetings. I sat on the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, and those were pretty interminable meetings, but the truth is that this is a goal that the hon. Gentleman’s party, when in government, espoused back in 1911, and these are measures that we want to pursue. We want to build on the Government’s White Paper on Lords reform, published last summer, which outlines our commitment to a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber, to a statutory appointments commission for any appointed peers, and to introducing the system that applies in the House of Commons and automatically disqualifying a Member of the second Chamber who is convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to more than 12 months’ imprisonment.
I think that there is a clear majority across all parties in favour of what the Deputy Leader of the House has sought to do, which is to reform the House of Lords and make it either wholly or substantially elected. I see no reason, from the point of view of this House, for that not to happen in the current Parliament. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to convey to his colleagues that if they were to allow that proposal to take up some of the time in the current Session, they would have the full support of the Liberal Democrats and, I suspect, significant support from the other two parties, so that we could get it through at least for the first time in this Parliament.
It is also worth pointing out, however, that legislation has to go through two Houses, and that is a different matter. I heard the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—who chairs a Select Committee—say earlier that this was the primary House, but I think the second Chamber would have significant views on the matter of Lords reform.
I remember Lord Howe saying that he did not want an elected second Chamber because he did not want clones of the clowns—referring to us as the clowns. All that I thought at the time was that it was particularly sad that a former clown should have so changed his mind.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be fatal to many of the sensible proposals made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to link them to the question of elections? The reason reform of the House of Lords has eluded us for 100 years is that we keep opting for “big bang” solutions rather than concentrating on the issues on which we all agree.
I think that my hon. Friend is at least two thirds right. It is important to proceed in a way that carries a large body of opinion. However, there comes a time when one must declare whether one is in favour of a wholly appointed Chamber, as some Members of this House are, whether one believes that there should be no second Chamber, as others do, or whether, like me—as my hon. Friend knows, I have argued this for as long as I have been in the House—one supports a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber. The difficulty, late in a Parliament, lies in ensuring that that agenda can be taken forward.
My hon. Friend is a recent adornment to the Front Bench. I am very pleased that he was appointed to be part of the Government, but he did enter the House a little later than most of us, and he will not recall that we were being told in those first years that now—or, rather, then—was not the time for Lords reform. A time would come, and we would know when it was. Now we are being told that it is too late. What has happened? Why has my hon. Friend lost his radicalism in his transfer from the Back Benches to the Front Bench?
I merely say that I want to see reform of the House of Lords. I do not want to squander through impatience the opportunity that exists; nor, for that matter, do I want fear of radicalism so to infect us that we do not advance reform.
Action is vital in this area. As Lady Royall pointed out in The Guardian last week,
“it is obviously wrong—wholly wrong—if what peers do to earn a living warps their work as parliamentarians”.
As she also said, in the House of Lords,
“We in this House have a responsibility to adhere to high standards, and we have to ensure that we adhere to those high standards in order to ensure that there is trust in the whole of our parliamentary process.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 11.]
It is the whole of the parliamentary process that matters here, and the Government stand ready to act.
Of course, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome himself said, our constituents are primarily concerned about their families, their homes and their jobs; but they also want to be as certain as possible that, in the words recited every day by the Speaker’s Chaplain, we, as Members of Parliament,
“lay aside all private interests and prejudices”
“seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.
They want to know that Parliament is entirely focused on the sole purpose of the common good. That is why in every era we need to restate our high ideals. When the Nolan Committee produced its report in 1995, it pointed to seven principles that it saw as vital in public life and that have since been included in the code of conduct. They are worth repeating—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It is also why Parliament must always be ripe for reform.
There can be no doubt on either side of the House that both Houses of Parliament need to be reformed urgently and brought up to the standards of the 21st century. As servants of the people and as legislators, we must set an example in all our doings—in our dealings with taxpayers’ money, in the way we do business in Parliament and in the way in which we operate and work within the political process.
Parliament and parliamentarians have come in for much criticism recently, and it is vital that we address those concerns head on. Public confidence in politicians—by which I mean parliamentarians, Members of the European Parliament and local councillors—is at an all-time low, as is confidence in our political institutions. Let there be no misunderstanding: the current malaise is not a passing fashion or a temporary aberration of the political process. It is a matter of very serious concern, and it should be a source of concern for all politicians.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have much to do to earn the respect of the public, both here and locally. However, will he accept that there are some encouraging signs that, at local government level, there is much greater satisfaction with certain councils than there has been for many years? I am not making a party political point, because that applies to councils run by all parties. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, there is often considerable satisfaction with individual Members of Parliament and their performance. While the hon. Gentleman is right to encourage us, I hope that he will not downplay the progress and support that exists in many places.
The hon. Gentleman makes two valid points. While there are many well-meaning councillors and much is being done that is worthy of credit, let us not delude ourselves. It does not take much for local councillors to acquire a bad reputation, especially when it comes to postal votes and the rigging of them. I shall come to that issue later. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned individual Members of Parliament, and it is fair to say that the vast majority do their work as diligently as they can, they claim their expenses honestly and fairly, and they should have nothing to worry about. It is only a small number who earn the bad reputation that we have, and we must address that.
I agree strongly that there is a danger that Parliament is held in disrepute by the electorate, and that is a serious danger because it is when external forces—the street—take over. We are not far away from such a situation now. Indeed, we saw such a situation today when those on the three Front Benches were all patting each other on the back and agreeing about the particular economic model that has caused the problem. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that differences in Parliament are healthy for democracy? When those on all the Front Benches speak the same language, that is not good for democracy.
I have news for the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned keeping this debate consensual and said that he did not wish to make it partisan, but I am afraid that I will break rank with that particular pledge. I have certain issues to address, and I will not be taking the side of the Liberal Democrats.
It cannot be right that we expect individuals and organisations outside to show openness and transparency in their dealings with public finances, but that we should seek to draw a veil of secrecy when it comes to public money being dealt with by parliamentarians. We must have full transparency in all our dealings with money, and proper accountability for all that we do in our role as parliamentarians. By doing so, we may make some progress. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said that confidence was at a dangerously low level, but I hope that if we make reforms we will be able to regain some of that respect and confidence, both for ourselves and in the political system.
Some good research shows that the only thing that correlates with low and decreasing turnout at elections is the growing similarity between the philosophies of the political parties. That is a fundamental problem that we have not addressed, and it is up to the parties, as much as Parliament, to do something about it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I certainly believe that there is a fair amount of difference between the parties, but we will have to wait until the manifestos are produced for the general election. It will be for the electorate to decide not only which party they wish to support in policy terms, but in which political group they have the confidence to run the country properly. It is not only an issue of policies, but of the public judging our characters and who is best to serve the country.
Approving remarks have been made about the new standards regimes in parish councils and elsewhere as a possible model for reform here, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of those standards boards have become a way for people in a local community to grind axes and pursue vendettas? Some of those boards are over the top. The Secretary of State for Health, with a budget of £100,000 million, has much less responsibility for standards than does the chairman of a parish council with a budget of £10,000. The whole thing is out of kilter.
The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points. When he talks about the standards boards, it is important to recognise that some local councillors are unfairly penalised. For example, a complaint can be made against a parish councillor who, in order to prove his innocence, will have to incur costs of a few thousand pounds, simply for being a good citizen and trying to do the best that he can. Let us not forget that there are issues in local government that need reform. We need to consider the matter of local councillors not being able to vote on planning issues if they declare their views. They have an enormous problem in that they cannot effectively speak up for their constituents if they cannot say where they stand publicly.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that he hoped that we would all speak with the same voice, but if a political party tables a motion like the one that the Liberal Democrats have tabled, it is worth putting on record their inconsistency and examining how they have behaved in ways totally contrary to the way in which they expect the rest of us to behave.
For example, the motion speaks of
“the need for urgent action to restore the trust of the British public in Parliament as an institution and in politics as a profession”,
but this is the party that has taken £2.4 million from a convicted criminal. The Lib Dems talk about trust in parliamentarians, but that man gave them money from a fraudulent company that never traded. He did not live in Britain, and he was not allowed to vote here. What happened to the due diligence that one would expect from anyone taking such a huge sum of money? So much for due diligence.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does his homework a little better in future before he makes an intervention. He should be aware that it was my party that suggested, a long time ago, that there should be a cap of £50,000 for individuals, companies and organisations. It was not accepted because the governing party did not want to put a cap on trade union donations.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman and he will have an opportunity to speak later.
The Lib Dems speak of restoring
“the trust of the British public in Parliament…and in politics as a profession.”
Let us consider the idea of the Lib Dems talking about trust in British politics. On page 21 of their campaign document, “Effective Opposition”, produced by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, it says:
“Be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly.”
On page 23, it says:
“Don’t be afraid to exaggerate. For example, responses to surveys and petitions are always ‘massive’. If a council is doing something badly public expressions are always of ‘outrage’”,
and on page 4, it states:
“Positive campaigning will NOT be enough to win control of the council.”
On page 6, it says that
“you can secure support from votes from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and similarly in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory.”
It goes on to say:
“Oppose all service cuts…No cut is going to be popular and why court the unpopularity that goes with the responsibility of power”.
Finally, the document—[Interruption.] I see that my reminder to the Lib Dems of their campaigning tactics is too much for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who moved the motion, because he has had to leave the Chamber. It is a pity. I presume that he knows it already, and that was why he felt it necessary to leave.
On page 33—I am coming to the end of my quotations from this document—it states:
“You are NOT running the council. It’s NOT your problem.”
At the last elections—the London elections—the party that has so graciously tabled the motion decided to break the rules. In December 2008, Ofcom ruled that the Lib Dem London mayoral television adverts were in “extremely serious breach” of guidance outlined by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice. Indeed, the television companies were fined a total of £40,000 and it was later revealed that the Lib Dems could have been breaking Electoral Commission rules by not declaring the adverts as donations in kind.
It is important to put on record all that I have just said because it highlights the inconsistency between a party’s putting forward such a motion and the practice on the ground.
I cannot possibly deal with all the points that the hon. Gentleman made. However, I make it absolutely clear, as someone who had some responsibility for the first matter that he raised, that we would never have taken a donation from anybody who at that time had a criminal conviction. The conviction followed much later. The party carried out all the due diligence tests and the Electoral Commission confirmed that we had done so.
A quick look at the electoral register would have highlighted that the individual concerned did not vote in this country. A quick analysis of the situation would have determined that the individual was not resident in Britain. A simple search of a company or two would have confirmed that the company did not trade. That alone, I would have thought, would have raised alarms to an average amateur in politics. However, I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said. He has put it on the record, and I have put my comments on the record, too.
I feel like I am intruding on private grief, but let us put the record straight. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what he thinks the incentive would be for somebody who is not registered for tax purposes in the UK to fund a political party and seek to influence the outcome of elections? What would be the incentive for a political party to accept such a donation?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about overseas issues. He will, of course, be aware that the noble Lord Paul, who more or less agreed to underwrite the general election campaign that never was about a year or so ago, is non-domiciled. I accept that overseas issues to do with Members of the other Chamber cut across both sides of the House. That needs to be looked at. I suggest that he refrains from trying to score cheap political points and perhaps does his homework a little bit in future.
I agree entirely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was simply addressing some of the questions raised by hon. Members.
Clearly, the upper Chamber is in need of urgent reform in terms of both accountability and composition. The Opposition support a substantially elected upper Chamber. People who legislate for the people should have the mandate of the people on whose behalf they legislate. That should be a guiding principle. Of course, it is important that we take an urgent look at the financial aspects that apply in the other place. Incidentally, may I put on the record the fact that my colleague, the noble Lord Strathclyde, leader of the Conservatives in the upper House, has been a vocal proponent of Lords reform for a very long time?
When addressing electoral reform, we must also consider the issue of Members of the European Parliament.
My hon. Friend will know that I share his belief that we should have a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber. Did he share my disappointment that the Deputy Leader of the House gave as a reason not to proceed too quickly on Lords reform the fact that the other House would have strong views about it? Surely the point is that the Lords will always have a view about it and we should not put off until tomorrow what could and should be done today.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. Clearly, the other House will have views. We need to listen to those and move on rather than putting such matters into the long grass, which is what has been done by the Government so far.
I turn back to the issue of Members of the European Parliament.
On the issue of Lords reform, if the Government were persuaded that this Parliament was the time to legislate for a wholly or substantially elected House of Lords, may I take it from what the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have said over the past months that the Conservative party would support it?
My party is in favour of a substantially elected House of Lords. We need to go through the process and when that happens we will support what we have voted for in the past in this Chamber.
On the third attempt, let me turn to the issue of Members of the European Parliament. We need to extend reform to that institution and those individuals, too. We have started the process and have produced a full list of the breakdown of our MEPs’ expenses as part of our commitment to transparency and openness in public life.
If we are to regain the public’s trust, we must make changes to the way in which political parties are funded. For our part, we have put forward a comprehensive set of radical proposals for party funding. As I said, at the centre of them is an across-the-board cap on donations of £50,000 a year, covering individuals, companies and trade unions. It was unfortunate that the Government decided that they would not go with that proposal, but that was hardly surprising given that some £12 million was given to the governing party last year by trade unions and that since 2001 the Labour party has received some £75 million from trade unions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for coming back to this topic. May I take it that he is committing his party to voting for the Liberal Democrat new clauses on the £50,000 cap and on the trade union matter when the Political Parties and Elections Bill comes back to the Chamber next week and the week after?
The answer to that question will be given by whoever is at this Dispatch Box when that Bill comes before the House. I shall certainly not give the hon. Gentleman an answer to a question on a future debate; I would much rather concentrate on the motion that he and his party have tabled in the debate at hand than discuss matters that are not on the Order Paper at the moment.
It is important that the integrity of Parliament should be taken on board by all of us. It is not only the issue of finance that brings this place into disrepute; it is also the way in which politicians and Parliament operate. For example, if a party gives a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the European Union constitution, that party—the Labour party—should honour that pledge when it is elected back into government. It demeaned the Prime Minister and the office that he holds when he said that the Lisbon treaty was a different document. This was particularly highlighted by the fact that many of his European Union counterparts said that the Lisbon treaty was a European constitution in all but name.
As well as ensuring that there is proper accountability in the House, we must also ensure that any announcements are made in this House first, and not announced on the “Today” programme or leaked to the newspapers. That issue comes up regularly at business questions, and the Leader of the House gives us many assurances—as have her predecessors—that she will take it on board and pass it on to her Cabinet colleagues, yet we still find that, week in and week out, announcements are made outside the House rather than here, where Ministers can be held to account by the parliamentarians who were elected to hold them to account.
The matter of written parliamentary questions was raised in a point relating to the consistency and timing of replies to those questions. I suggest that the issue of proper answers should also be addressed. It is absurd for the Government to give answers such as, “We do not hold the information in the format requested.” If that is the case, they should give the information in whatever format exists, rather than withholding the information completely. The former Leader of the House, now the Secretary of State for Justice, often said that one of the problems was that too many questions were being tabled. But if the questions were answered properly in the first instance, there would be no need for the huge number of supplementaries that have to follow. It is bad enough that written questions do not get proper answers, but it is even worse now that the Government simply do not bother to give any answers at all. At the end of the 2007-08 parliamentary Session, nearly 500 questions, which had been tabled for more than a month, received no reply at all—not even the usual Prorogation reply.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that it is appalling that there is an industry of planted questions? Will he give the House an undertaking that those on the Conservative Front Bench do not do that, or that, if they do, they will stop it? This industry of planted questions being hawked around every day is a debasement of Parliament, and it denies the people who are the architects and authors of their own questions the opportunity of succeeding in getting them on to the Order Paper.
The Conservatives certainly do not do that, because we are not in government and we do not have to take questions every day, as Ministers do. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes was highlighted when, during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister stood up and started to answer a question before the Labour Back Bencher had even asked it. The question had clearly been planted, and the Prime Minister clearly knew the answer. That gave away the tactics with which this Prime Minister operates.
It is also important that Parliament exercises proper scrutiny over legislation that comes from Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has made proposals on this, including strengthening the European Scrutiny Committee and giving it the power to force a debate and a vote on a motion, and placing on a statutory basis the convention that Ministers must gain parliamentary approval before agreeing a decision in the Council of Ministers.
It is important to bring the integrity of the ballot up to 21st-century standards. There is some merit in the Electoral Commission’s recent warning that Britain’s system of elections was designed for the 19th century and not for the modern world. Who can forget Judge Richard Mawrey’s comments in 2005, when he found two Birmingham city councillors guilty of being involved in ballot rigging and postal vote fraud? He spoke of
“election fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”.
I absolutely understand that, in talking about the integrity of the ballot, my hon. Friend referred to public elections, which are very important. On the subject of the integrity of the ballot, and the entitlement to elect, does he agree that the House should have the self-respect and self-confidence to elect its own Select Committees, a commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) some years ago?
I certainly know that there has been an abuse of the election of a Chairman of a Select Committee, when the chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee was forced through in the House, rather than the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) being elected by fellow Select Committee members.
In relation to the scrutiny of European legislation, does my hon. Friend agree, especially given the strikes that we are facing in the United Kingdom, that when European law is trapped by its own system into having the European Court of Justice make decisions that cannot be reversed, it is vital to our national interests to reassert the supremacy of our own Parliament and require the judiciary to obey the latest relevant Act of Parliament? The Conservative party agreed to that proposition when it supported my amendment to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill two years ago.
It is important that we are the final arbiters of which rules are used to judge us. That is why we should have the final scrutiny of such issues and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead has proposed, the right to vote on specific motions.
It is a privilege to be in this House, and we have chosen to put ourselves forward to be here. If we do that, we must accept that 21st-century standards require proper accountability and proper transparency over funds. We should conduct our affairs in a way that inspires confidence in what we do, rather than derision. There has been much debate—and many words—on this subject in recent months, and the time has now come for us to stop talking and to start doing something about it.
Order. There is a general consensus, for reasons that we all know about, that the debate should come to an end at 9 o’clock. There is therefore a limited amount of time left, and a lot of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If they could tailor their remarks to the time remaining, that would be extremely helpful.
There cannot be a Member of this House who does not know that Parliament—and this Chamber in particular—needs to recapture its relevance to this day and age and to our politics. There can be few Members who do not also agree that Governments need to understand that they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by helping to build a strong and effective Parliament to help them to do their business. The present relationship of dominance and subservience between the Executive and the legislature serves neither institution well. I make no distinction here between the parties. Whether Conservative, Labour or Liberal, all the parties have been equally at fault over the years, either as abject parliamentarians or overbearing members of Government. All of us share the responsibility, and all of us need to help to find a way forward.
The Executive rule without test or challenge, and the legislature adds little or no value. That is a bargain that cheats not only those players, but the public, who expect better of us and clearer benefits from our democracy. Business as usual will not be good enough, and neither will yearning after some golden age when Parliament and Britain ruled the waves. Those days—if ever they existed—are long gone, and we now need to work together to find a way forward to ensure that our Parliament and politics are relevant to people. There needs to be a new settlement, and one that commands support across the whole political spectrum. Under such a settlement, the Government would maximise Parliament’s contribution and Parliament would respect the need of Government to pass their laws after a process that, I hope, would improve them.
We should honestly recognise that the unbalanced relationship between Parliament and Government lies at the core of this debate. If we realise that, we can soberly and in partnership improve the interaction between those two great institutions. If we do not, we will divert into tinkering with minutiae, which has typified our debates on this subject over the years. MPs sometimes pretend that they run the country; Governments sometimes pretend that they lead a healthy democracy. If we can consign those self-delusions to the rubbish bin of history, we will at least have a chance to restore public respect and interest in our democracy and Parliament, to improve government and governance in the United Kingdom, and to recreate the respect not only for Parliament as an institution, but for MPs as important individuals with a central and serious contribution to make.
Our democracy will function much better if we can grow out of the “winner takes all” fixation. Virtually all other western democracies have healthy and lively partnerships between their Executives and legislatures—a real separation of powers that enables debate from independent positions and reconciliation between institutions whose representatives have the interests of their people and nation uppermost in their minds.
I agree entirely that we should raise the status of Parliament and redress the balance with the Government. Recently, I was at lunch with a Danish politician, who said, “We have proportional representation in our country; we have a strong Parliament and a weak Government—you are the other way around.” I support the first-past-the-post system, but how does my hon. Friend propose to strengthen Parliament without some arrangement of that kind?
I do not think such an arrangement necessary; willpower is the most important thing that we need in this Chamber. As was mentioned earlier, we also need the self-confidence to take the responsibility. I do not propose that the monopoly politics that the Executive have enjoyed should somehow be shifted over so that Parliament has a monopoly position. Gladstone got it right when he said that the role of the House was not to run the country, but to hold to account those who do.
Again, there can barely be a Member who feels that we have held that baton of accountability tightly. We have dropped it and it has often been picked up by the media, particularly the “Today” programme and “Newsnight”—and thank goodness for them on those occasions. However, we in the House should seize back that baton of accountability and work in partnership with the Government to ensure that our Parliament and Government work better for the future of our democracy.
To make that a reality, we could look again in a number of ways at what we do in this place. For example, a Parliament that is willing, as a principle, to give Government their laws after serious scrutiny, should expect to control the rest of its business. That could happen if the House elected its own business Committee that reported to the Floor every week. To remove any residual temptation that Governments might feel to influence the outcome of such an election, there would be a secret ballot. Imagine a parliamentary timetable this week in which we agreed and discussed a budget amendment on the recent bail-out of the banks and we scrutinised the impact of energy companies’ policies on the most vulnerable in our constituencies. Imagine if we thought through the concept of “British jobs for British people” and we pondered and were careful and thoughtful about the relationship between the United Kingdom and United States following the advent of a new President. Such a Parliament would be worth listening to, watching and covering—and, for electors, it would be worth influencing. All of a sudden, Parliament would mean something and it would recapture the place that it should have.
Equally, if parliamentarians elected their own Select Committees, the Committees would get a new legitimacy and lease of life, as well as new and onerous duties in respect of interacting responsibly with the Government of the day. The same could be said of Public Bill Committees. If they were run effectively, they could draw on the immense experience of parliamentarians from all parts of the House, who could create and use their own networks to involve their electors and improve the law. That is why we have Public Bill Committees in the first place. Governments and civil servants should not fear the process, but use it to pick the brains of parliamentary representatives and the public alike.
I am one of the House’s strongest proponents of pre-legislative scrutiny, but the truth is that we would not need to invent pre-legislative scrutiny if legislative scrutiny were as effective as it should be. We have heard a lot tonight about the need for people outside to have confidence in us, but we also need to have confidence in ourselves. We could consider many other reforms openly and transparently, debating them in the Chamber and deciding the way forward. There should be the right of the House to reconvene itself, not the right of the Executive to reconvene the Parliament that should be holding them to account. We could debate each week’s most popular early-day motion and make Question Times more topical and conversational. We could use the Chamber’s dead hours much more imaginatively. The House could decide again on electronic voting or reconsider this sterile seating plan that defies debate.
We give the House chances to divide at every opportunity; let us also give it chances to unite at every opportunity. As everyone in the Chamber knows, the truth is that Parliament, as a forum for the nation and for holding the Government to account, is not fit for purpose. The public’s view of MPs is at an all-time low and power is sclerotically over-centralised in Whitehall. The moment is approaching when the Government and Parliament must change and reinvent themselves as the leading parts of a revived and modern UK democracy. That chance comes along very rarely, but the House should seize it for the good of our democracy.
I recall listening to an interview with David Steel in the 1970s—it might have been on “Desert Island Discs”. He said that being a politician should be like going into the Church; it should be one of the highest callings. That was against a background of local government corruption and of a popular belief that MPs were in it only for themselves and that they would say anything to win an election. That view was reflected in a play that I think was called “Vote, vote, vote for Joey Barton”—[Hon. Members: “Nigel Barton!”] Of course, it was Nigel Barton. Some 30 years before that, Howard Spring wrote “Fame is the Spur”.
It has been said that Members of Parliament are held in high esteem in their constituencies, but that Parliament and politicians in general are held in low esteem. Since David Steel’s comments, there have been problems and scandals on both sides of the House and at both ends of the building. Cheap comments from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman do not aid the debate. Sounding like a budgerigar does not take us forward.
Some of the problems in the House of Lords have been experienced in the House of Commons. We had full-time Members of Parliament and Members of Parliament who were employed in part-time work elsewhere. The latter had a night job and a day job. Members of the House of Lords still have to do that. Their lordships are given a small allowance and most have other employment to supplement it. Some work as lobbyists.
That sum includes accommodation and other matters. We get money for such items in addition to our salary, so the hon. Gentleman does not compare like with like.
If we are to reform the other end of the building, we should consider making their Lordships full time. If they are to be full time, they need to be salaried. If they are to be salaried, they need to be elected on the same basis as us.
At our end of the building, it is often said that the media hold us in low esteem. They correctly pick up on corruption and instances when hon. Members have not done right. They pick especially on cases of people who appear to get away with blue murder. A former Member of Parliament—I know who it was but I shall not name him because my point is not party political—was brought before the Standards and Privileges Committee on a charge of being offered shares for influence. That Member was found not guilty because the business that offered him shares had gone bankrupt, so he had not committed an offence. The public do not understand that.
If the public are to esteem us, we must reform the way in which we pay ourselves and deal with our expenses, but not in a hair-shirt manner, as some hon. Members would have us do sometimes for cheap political purposes. That is not just. We should also refuse to listen to those who say that they want to keep things as they are. Although, by and large, most Members of Parliament do nothing wrong in what they claim, the public do not believe it. As has often been said, justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.
We must therefore consider a system whereby what we claim is not only clear and transparent but beyond reproach. The public do not understand Members of Parliament making profits from buying flats. In 1992, several Conservative Members, who were elected in 1987, lost money because of the condition of the housing market at the time. No one in the media said, “Oh dear! These MPs need to be recompensed for their loss.” It will also not be understood if Members who were elected in 1997 and 2001 make tens of thousands of pounds on the appreciation of properties that they have bought. We should move to a system that gets away from that. It would be best if we did not pay ourselves allowances for some items. For example, the House of Commons could rent accommodation and allocate it to us in the same way as our offices are allocated. If flats were furnished, we would not need to be paid an allowance to do that. That would be clear, transparent and non-corrupt.
I want to concentrate on the “constitutional renewal programme” aspect of the lengthy motion because I am disappointed that, after 12 years of a Government whom I support, there has been little to show in the way of genuine constitutional reform. Indeed, our manifesto in 1997 made it clear that we were intent on reforming the House of Lords and said that we would introduce proposals to do that. It does not matter how much Ministers try to get round that; we have not fulfilled the manifesto commitment. That is only one example.
Earlier, I said that the Labour Government’s hallmark in respect of constitutional reform is deeply conservative. Let me share something that grates on me. I left school at 16, and many contemporaries of mine have turned up on the Labour Front Bench over the past 12 years. They did not go out to work at the same time as me, but went to university, and they peddled some of the most God almighty rubbish in the late 1960s. They were radical and all that, but when they came here, they became deeply conservative. Some of us have political anchorage and we believed from the beginning in tackling the House of Lords and making Parliament more responsive. However, those former radicals have shifted to an establishment position. Even at this late stage, matters can be corrected. It is not sufficient for the Prime Minister to say that he has a programme for constitutional reform. The test is whether he implements it with dispatch. The jury is still out.
Let me illustrate the conservatism I mentioned. When we came to office, I asked the Government whether they would amend the anomaly in the law that prevented someone who had been ordained as a Roman Catholic priest but had given up the priesthood from standing for Parliament. The Labour Minister responsible said no. Then the Labour party selected a candidate who had been a Roman Catholic priest and wanted to stand for Parliament, and we introduced a law to allow him to stand. We did the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that shows how deeply conservative we are.
One subject has not been mentioned because the Conservatives are asleep, perhaps the Liberals are, too, and the Labour party does not want to raise it, so I shall do it now. It is the West Lothian question, about which we must not speak. My colleagues present arguments about needing votes from Scotland and so on. I understand those arguments, but I say to Front Benchers that they are in denial. If they do not begin to address the West Lothian question, somebody else will, on different terms. It will not go away. One can argue for a time that there was a settlement for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but simply to stop there is madness. The question must be tackled—the sooner, the better. The very Union, which we are all committed to maintaining, will be imperilled by not addressing the West Lothian question.
The hon. Gentleman has much support, often much less vocal than it should be. There may be differing views from the Liberal Democrat Benches, but we are clear that the issue needs to be addressed within a UK context, and urgently, because our constitutional renewal has stopped short of England, whereas the other countries have seen much progress.
Absolutely. If I may return to the historical point, some hon. Members may remember the late John P. Mackintosh, the Member of Parliament for Berwick and East Lothian. I am a disciple of John P. Mackintosh, who produced a programme for the devolution of Britain to make all the parts of the United Kingdom much more coherent, and to allow greater scrutiny at local level where decisions are taken at local level.
The big states—the big players around the world—are federal. The Bundestag, the Parliaments in Ottawa and in Canberra, and the United States Congress deal with defence, foreign affairs and broad macro-economic social policy, but the rest is left to the states, the provinces or the Länder. Here we try and do too much, and we do it badly. That needs to be addressed with some dispatch.
We are constrained tonight, for obvious reasons. If Parliament were in charge of our timetable, the subject matter that we are discussing tonight would be debated at much greater length. Clearly, there is a demand among hon. Members to talk more fully about constitutional reform.
I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has been saying. Does he agree that too frequently we have too little time for debates, and that Back Benchers are often squeezed out? In the previous debate, which I tried to get into, I counted the minutes. Front-Bench speakers had 113 minutes and Back Benchers 17 minutes. Seven eighths of the time was taken up by Front-Benchers and I did not manage to get in. That is not right and something should be done about it.
I totally agree. Also, what we always get from the Front Benches is the sterile party political line, rather than Back Benchers of all persuasions being allowed to make a contribution to the debate.
Much of the focus of tonight’s debate has been on the reform, or lack of reform, of the House of Lords. I shall make one or two observations. I am for a democratically elected House, but if that cannot be achieved, I think there is nevertheless a consensus for some immediate changes, which should be implemented. We are honoured and privileged to go round the world sometimes to talk to countries about parliamentary democracy. I have asked people, “Have you ever thought about this? We go round and speak in countries where democracy is very fragile and new, but half our Parliament is not elected.” Can’t we see the perversity of that? We show unbelievable arrogance when we tell other people about parliamentary democracy and half our Parliament is not elected.
It is absurd that when Prime Ministers need someone in Parliament to be a Minister, that person serves one year but is in Parliament in perpetuity. If Prime Ministers have the power to make people Ministers, those Ministers should be answerable to Parliament, they should appear and be answerable in both Houses, and if they are the architect of legislation, they should pilot it through both Houses, rather than somebody acting as a parrot, which is in nobody’s interest. Such Ministers should be temporary. They were put into Parliament only as Ministers, and when they cease to be Ministers, their membership should cease. They should not remain in Parliament in perpetuity.
I want to say more about perpetuity. This is a very sensitive point. Many people are appointed to the House of Lords and give good service left, right and centre over a long period, but they go on and they go on and they go on. I say this in all seriousness, although people sometimes treat the subject with frivolity. I remember some time ago that I was in my room right at the top, above the House. There was a peer, a very distinguished peer who had given long public service, but he had lost his faculties. He was senile and incontinent. A member of the public tackled me and asked, “Can’t you do something about this?” I said, “Madam, I will do what I can, but I have to say to you that he is a legislator.”
This is not unique. It is a highly sensitive subject and is not written about. People do not like touching on it. If peers go on and on and on and if there is no capacity for them to resign their seat, that will happen. It diminishes our Parliament as well as being deeply hurtful to individuals, who do not know how or when to give up. There should be a cut-off point, as happens in the Canadian Senate, and for judges and so on. That should be addressed.
I am deeply concerned that senior civil servants almost automatically become peers. It is offensive and it is a reward for those who know where the political bodies are buried. Lord Jay, who incidentally is presiding over the appointment of people’s peers, was head of the Foreign Office. He is the man who stopped Jeremy Greenstock publishing his memoirs and tried to stop the former United Kingdom ambassador to Washington publishing his memoirs, but he was prepared to take a peerage and what is more, was elevated to decide who is appropriate to be appointed under—I think it is called the House of Lords Commission, but I call it people’s peers. That is the kind of cosy thing that goes on. There was a man who presided over a disaster in the national health service. He was immediately dismissed, but he also got to sit in the House of Lords. The bigger the mess up, the greater the rewards in this country, and that has to stop.
I reminded the Deputy Leader of the House that Robin Cook said, from that Dispatch Box, that he would tackle the question of peers who had gone to prison. If a Member of Parliament had gone to prison in comparable circumstances, they would have lost their seat. He said that he would tackle that issue, and then there was a change of ministerial portfolios and the chance was lost. That is why I return to the charge that the Government are so conservative on these matters. If anyone saw my hon. Friend’s body language earlier, they would have seen that he felt awkward. I think that he agrees with me but cannot articulate it from the Dispatch Box. He reminds me of the man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among sinners—[Hon. Members: “Thieves”] I shall stick to “sinners”. The test is whether he can, in his unpaid position, influence the Government and persuade the Prime Minister that we need immediate action.
We need swift legislation to put a cap on the age of Members of the House of Lords, to allow people there to resign and to allow for the dismissal of those who have been disgraced or have committed crimes that result in imprisonment. That would be a big start, and it would be a signal that the Government are listening to the House of Commons’ will. We should introduce legislation to make a fixed House that I hope will be elected, but if it is not, it should be one with a definite membership, and its membership should not be determined by the patronage of the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal party or the Prime Minister. Human nature being what it is, they will always appoint people in their own image and likeness. That is the inevitable consequence—we will be swapping the hereditary principle for a house of clones. It is time that Parliament addressed this matter. I believe that that is the will of Parliament, and the test is whether the Government are prepared to listen.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who would top the poll in any secret ballot for Leader of the House. He made a typically defiant, courageous speech, and I agree with what he says about the Government’s constitutional programme. The previous Lord Chancellor said that we have not a constitutional renewal Bill, but a constitutional retreat Bill. On Lords reform, I remember being told that the first elections to the upper House would take place at the same time as the 2001 general election. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman is quite right about allowing peers to retire so that their party can refresh their troops in the upper House, allowing younger people to play their part.
One of the paradoxes of life is that people like their local Member of Parliament, but refuse to believe he or she is typical. Wherever I go, I am told, “We’re frightfully lucky here, but the rest of you are up to no good.” The reputation of the House would be much higher if people had confidence in their own judgment, based on their experience of their own MP instead of what they read in the press.
Much has been achieved in this House in recent years, and with the imminent end of dual reporting for MPs, a new guide to the rules—it was published today, coincidentally—a new allowance regime and Select Committee, and greater transparency on receipts, we have the opportunity to build on past strengths and to do even better. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life said about the Commons:
“We endorse the view that standards in the House of Commons are generally high, and that the overwhelming majority of members seek to, and in practice do, uphold high standards of propriety.”
I see many of my opposite numbers from other countries who come to look at the regime here, and by any international standards, our political system is pretty clean. We deal with the inevitable lapses well, but we must never become complacent.
One of the consequences of introducing a tougher regime in this House is that it has led to pressure being applied to other parts of the body politic, and it is helpful to put our disciplinary regime in the broader context of that for Members of the European Parliament, Ministers and members of the other place. Anyone can make a complaint about an MP to the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If the complaint raises matters of significance, he will produce a report for my Committee, which we will publish unamended, saying whether or not that complaint is upheld, and we can then propose appropriate punishments, some of which are career-ending. None of the other regimes—neither the ministerial code nor the current code for Members of the upper House—has our features of open access, independent scrutiny, publication of findings and harsh reprisal. The code for MEPs has the most generous of all allowance regimes, with the most relaxed audit trail.
The ministerial code is policed by the Prime Minister, who can decide whether to refer a matter to his independent adviser and whether to publish any report. Neither procedure has ever been invoked. I once complained that a Foreign Secretary had broken the ministerial code. My complaint was passed by the Prime Minister to the then Foreign Secretary, who replied to me, saying that he had not broken the code, showing a circularity of process. In the upper House, the complaints procedure has no independent element and limited sanctions. There would be greater confidence in the two other codes if they adopted those features of ours.
One of the recommendations that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made is to extend the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to cover the upper House. That recognises the regulatory strength of our regime. However, the proposal to extend the remit of the commissioner raises questions about the capacity of his office to take on additional work, while at the same time carrying out with due rigour his inquiries into complaints made against Members of this House. The present commissioner is contracted to work four days a week, although I know that he works more than that. If we are going to extend his remit to the House of Lords, which has more Members than our House, there will be questions to do with resources and whether he will be able to deal with all complaints personally. We therefore need to think that proposal through.
Some have suggested that by electing the upper House, we reduce the risk of abuse. I am a firm believer in a predominantly elected second Chamber, but I doubt whether changing the mode of entry would of itself drive up standards.
Let me turn to a case that has given rise to some comment, both inside and outside the House. Last week, my Committee published its report on the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). We required the hon. Member to apologise to the House through the Committee Chairman and to repay nearly £4,000, which in our judgment he had overpaid to his son. Some hon. Members felt that those sanctions did not go far enough and said as much, possibly before having had time to read the report in full. Those who have read the Committee’s report will have seen that the breach was less serious than the case on which the Committee had previously reported and that it predated that case, so it can hardly be said to have compounded it. My Committee claims no monopoly of wisdom, but we had a thorough process of inquiry, with a 55-page report and annexes. We considered the case in detail in two meetings and came to a unanimous conclusion.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that I repeat, without qualification, the apology that I have already given him in writing and that I accept, without any reservation, the Committee’s conclusion that I breached a rule of the House? I would also like to withdraw the statement that I made to the media last Thursday.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention, which means that I can discard the next three pages of my speech.
There will be an opportunity to debate the revised guide to the rules next Monday. The rules are lengthy and even intimidating, but perhaps I can condense them into two short and easily remembered rules. Rule 1 is: if in doubt, ask. Rule 2 is: if in trouble, tell the truth. If all colleagues observed those two rules, the commissioner and my Committee would be a good deal less busy than they are at the moment, and the reputation of Parliament would stand higher than it does now.
There has been an extensive discussion of what is wrong, with which I broadly agree, and in the short time available, I just want to make four proposals for reform.
The first proposal is that membership of Select Committees, which are the most important channel of accountability, should not be chosen by the Whips, but should be chosen via a secret ballot of Members of the whole House. Indeed, I would go further than that. As many Select Committee reports are extremely good and deserve the attention and decision of the House, there should be a right in a limited number of cases—perhaps four or five a year, subject to prioritisation by the Liaison Committee—for a Select Committee to propose a motion for debate on the Floor of the House, with a vote at the end. That would give the House real influence in laying the foundations for future legislation and reform.
Secondly, I very much agree with the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen); we should have a business Committee, which would act as co-partner with the Government in determining the agenda of this House. Of course the Government, as the elected party, must have the right to take through their full legislative programme, but there are many other areas of business on which the Government have no direct electoral mandate, and they should be agreed and decided on by this House. I am thinking particularly about choosing subjects for debate in light of the occurrence of major national and international issues. It is, to say the very least, striking that the two most important issues in the past five years have not been the subject of debate with a vote at the end—I refer to the lessons of the Iraq war and the current economic meltdown—despite the fact that the latter is arguably the most traumatic international episode since the last war 65 years ago.
I come to my third proposal. Just as there are congressional hearings in the United States, there should be confirmation hearings, held by the relevant Select Committee, for all Cabinet appointments nominated by the Prime Minister—and, I would add, for the most important public sector appointments made outside the House. The Prime Minister would, of course, propose the Cabinet appointments, but it would be for Parliament to ratify them—and indeed to recall the appointee if the Select Committee thought it appropriate. There would then be dual accountability—accountability, of course, to the Prime Minister, but also to Parliament.
The fourth proposal, which I have to say is not mine but that of the Public Administration Committee and its excellent Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), is that in cases where the Government, for whatever reason, decline to set up a commission of inquiry, this House should set up its own commission of inquiry, if it sees fit to do so. It could then investigate matters of great public concern. That is not a very radical proposal—it was actually the regular procedure of our forebears in the Victorian Parliament—but it certainly is important.
There are other proposals that I would like to make, but in deference to the wishes of the House and to your good self, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will leave it at that. There are major issues for reform, and I very much support the Liberal Democrat party in introducing this debate, which is long overdue.
This debate is really about a crisis of confidence in politics. If we do nothing about that crisis, it could turn into a crisis of confidence about democracy itself. We face a conjunction of crises. The crisis in the political system is happening at the same time as a crisis in the financial and economic system that threatens people’s jobs and their confidence in the future. We should take very seriously what the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said: this is a dangerous situation. Just as with the financial and economic crisis, if we do nothing about the political crisis, or just simply try to get away with the minimum, it could be disastrous. In the case of the political crisis, it could be disastrous for our democracy.
Some of the things that will have to be done about the economic situation will be unpalatable, and what is done will amount to choosing among options all of which are bad. Similarly, some of the measures that are necessary for dealing with the political crisis will be uncomfortable for many Members of the House. Old certainties will have to be discarded. Politics as normal will not be enough. Many will have to let go of ideas from the past—and jibes from the past; I look particularly at the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) when I say that—if we are to avoid being swallowed by the future.
The essence of the political crisis is that millions of our fellow citizens do not feel like citizens any more. They no longer feel that they play any role in the government of the state in which they live. They think that the only people who have access to political power are people with very large sums of money—either their own money, or that of large corporations. They feel politically excluded. It is a feeling that one comes across everywhere, including on the picket lines of places such as the Lindsey oil refinery. Decent people should not have to resort to such measures. Whether or not we agree with what they are calling for, they should be heard here. That feeling of exclusion existed well before the recent revelations about what was going on in the House of Lords. What has happened there simply confirms, in the most dramatic way, what people already believe: that power lies with money and that the only part that ordinary people play in politics is as spectators—of either a tragedy or a farce.
The Government have simply taken on the role of holding the ring between the real players—the lobbyists, the media and big money. That is why the first imperative is to get big money out of politics. There should be a strict cap on how much money one person can donate to a political party. There should be strict limits on what parties can spend at both the national and local level. No one should be able to buy an election or be seen to be buying an election. Legislators who have been bought or who do not care whether they are seen to have been bought should just be thrown out.
Tackling political exclusion goes beyond dealing with the power of lobbyists. We have to look at ourselves and what we achieve in this place. The very idea of an appointed, non-elected second Chamber—a House of patronage and of networking—is an affront to the mass of people who will never have the connections to get there. That is why we should move now, not later—not in due course—to an elected second Chamber, regardless of what that means for the status and self-regard of Members of this House.
This place needs radical reform too, not least in the form of election and how we get here—the hon. Member for Luton, North mentioned that. A form of election that means that a tiny number of electors in a tiny number of seats decides the entire general election is part of the problem of political exclusion. The political system ignores the vast majority of voters nearly all the time. We have lost everything that we had in this place that made us a Parliament—a place to which people would look for their voices to be heard.
The most important aspect is the point raised by at least three Members—the hon. Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), and the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher): we do not have the power even to set our own agenda. What we discuss here is what is served up to us every day, under Standing Order No. 14, by the Government. That must go. We must take the power back; we must talk about what the people in the country want us to talk about, and not what the Government want to talk about.
Is the hon. Gentleman going to address the question of guillotines and programming? Exactly what he has said about the question whether there is a connection is demonstrated by the fact that we are simply not debating things properly, and therefore Bills that affect people go through without being discussed in this House.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point.
What we have also lost is our power over money—over Government expenditure. In the opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the £37 billion that was passed in 90 minutes in a debate before Christmas. An example of something worse is the £50 billion that the Government have devoted to the second bank bail-out, which went through using a procedure that completely bypasses this House; the Treasury simply authorises the issue of Treasury bills, the Bank of England creates an account and that is it. We have entirely lost the historical power over expenditure.
We need to become a Parliament again. We are not a legislation machine to be turned on and off at the whim of the Government. We should represent the whole nation—in some sense, we are the nation. If we do not do that, and if we fail again to take these powers back, we will become contemptible—we, ourselves, will become a threat to democracy. One of my predecessors as MP for Cambridge once told this House that it was a
“pack of mercenary wretches”—
“like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage.”
“Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?...Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation.”
We have not got to that state yet, but we must take care that the nation does not come to view us in the same way that Cromwell came to view the Rump Parliament. If we do not change, and change fast, its fate might well await us too, although perhaps in a different way. I appeal to the House to refuse, at this time of all times, to vote yet again for its own enslavement, and to vote instead for the motion that we propose.
I say to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that hyperbole hardly ever helps in these debates. The debate has been well attended by Members of all parties, and throughout it we have heard shared concern about the issues that face Parliament. There is real determination in all parts of the House to put right things that need to be mended and ensure that we have a Parliament that is respected by the whole nation.
I have already spoken at considerable length, but I wish to respond to some specific points that have been made. The Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee referred to the Committee’s report on dual reporting, which has been published today. The whole House will be grateful to the Committee for the work that it always does in trying to ensure that our reputation is maintained. We will have an opportunity next week to examine the specific recommendations of the hon. Gentleman’s Committee.
The Lord Chancellor reminds me of the right honourable nature of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young).
If the House is able to end the business of having to report separately to the Registrar of Members’ Interests and the Electoral Commission, the Government stand ready to commence section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 so that we, as parliamentarians, have to report to only one place.
Several hon. Members referred to the matter of whether we should elect all members of Select Committees and whether we should elect the Chairmen of Select Committees by secret ballot. Although that sometimes seems an attractive option, there is a danger that if the majority vote were always to carry the decision on the membership and Chairman of every Committee, we would not have the independent Committees that we need. The minor parties would suffer most.
I say to those who call for a business Committee of the House that they fail to understand the major and significant difference between this House, in which the Government are constituted solely by virtue of their majority, and other Parliaments that operate differently, in which Ministers are often precluded from being members of the legislature. To those who believe that a nirvana might come if we were to have a business Committee, I say that other Parliaments that have such committees have precisely the same complaints about whether there is the right allocation of time and whether individual Back Benchers have their interests met and can make speeches.
Some hon. Members suggested that this Government have not been radical enough on constitutional reform. All that I would say is that when the Liberals were in power, they never managed to reform the House of Lords in any way at all. The Conservatives never had any desire to do so, and it is only this Government who have managed to remove the majority of the hereditary peers. It is only by virtue of our work that the Law Lords have been reformed. We are proud to be a Government who have brought forward devolution and freedom of information.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) demanded that I agree with every single thing that he said, but I am afraid that I am unable to do that. He said that I have fallen among thieves by virtue of my membership of the Government. Well, there is honour among thieves, and the truth is that this Government are committed to the reform of Parliament. Nobody should have a job for life, we should have a smaller Chamber and we have laid out a clear path to reform.
I am glad to have my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House and the Lord Chancellor by my side as I point out to hon. Members who have said that we are not being diligent enough in bringing forward constitutional reform that we committed ourselves in the Queen’s Speech to introducing a constitutional renewal Bill later this year. I believe that the whole House is united in wanting to protect its reputation and in its determination to do everything necessary to ensure that that happens.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31 (2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31 (2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2).
That this House believes that all Members of both Houses of Parliament should uphold the highest standards in public life, should be UK residents for tax purposes and should face the toughest sanctions if they undermine Parliament’s reputation; notes that the Government has taken significant steps to strengthen probity in the political system, including the revised Ministerial Code in July 2007 and the appointment of an independent adviser on Ministerial interests and the creation of the independent Electoral Commission; notes the inquiries established by the Leader of the House of Lords; further notes that this House has a clear code of conduct governing hon. Members and has adopted tough new rules on Members’ allowances, a new requirement to declare and register any family members employed by hon. Members, a robust new audit system which will see the independent National Audit Office carrying out a full-scope audit of Members’ expenditure and a transparent system of publication of details of their expenses; supports the Prime Minister’s commitment to further constitutional reform as outlined in the Governance of Britain, including the dissolution and recall of Parliament and the power to declare war and to ratify treaties; notes the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill by the Joint Committee; notes that the Political Parties and Elections Bill proposes to restrict political spending, bring greater transparency to political funding and strengthen the Electoral Commission as an effective regulator; and hopes that all parties engage constructively in developing a consensual approach to political party finance.’.