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Leader of the House

Volume 488: debated on Thursday 5 March 2009

The Leader of the House was asked—

Procedure Committee

1. If she will bring forward proposals for amendments to Standing Orders to incorporate the remit of the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee within that of the Procedure Committee and to stipulate that the Procedure Committee shall be chaired by a Back Bench. (260749)

The Modernisation Committee has made a number of recommendations in the past, on which the House has been delighted to act. The Committee has yet to complete its inquiry into recall and dissolution, but once that work is complete, I will give further consideration to the best way to take forward the modernisation of the House.

Does not the Deputy Leader of the House accept that changes to the processes and procedures of the House are best devised and put forward by Back Benchers of the House, and not by a Committee led by a Cabinet Minister? Does he not believe that the changes would carry more weight and have more support right across the House if the Modernisation Committee were merged with the Procedure Committee, and if the Procedure Committee, with those new functions, were chaired by a Back Bencher—preferably an Opposition Back Bencher?

It certainly is the Winterton show today, and it is a delight to be asked a question by the hon. Gentleman, who is the longest-standing member of the Modernisation Committee. If that does not show that the House has a sense of irony, I do not know what does. I do not entirely agree with him, however. This Government were elected on the prospectus of being able to deliver modernisation of the House, which is why we set up the Committee in the first place. Once the Committee has completed this last issue, the Leader of the House and I will look at ways of bringing forward further measures on modernisation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one issue, however. The work of Select Committees should, on the whole, be the embodiment of Back-Bench opinion.

What possible remaining justification is there for having a Cabinet Minister chairing a Select Committee of this House?

As I just said, the whole idea of creating the Modernisation Committee in the first place was to take forward the agenda that this Government were elected by the people to deliver. Part of that involved modernising the House. The Modernisation Committee has brought forward many proposals that have benefited Back Benchers, not least the introduction of topical questions, which I note were extremely popular just now.

But was not the absurdity of the current position emphasised when, in November, the Leader of the House wrote:

“The Government welcomes the report from the Modernisation Committee on Regional Accountability”?

As she had written the report from the Modernisation Committee on regional accountability, was it surprising that she welcomed it? If the Prime Minister means what he says about strengthening Parliament, should not the Government release their stranglehold on the Modernisation Committee by giving up the chairmanship and restoring it to the role of a Back Bencher?

I think that I have now heard three bids for the chairmanship of that Committee, but I have to say that none of them is from the most modernising Members of the House. I am not at all surprised that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House agreed with a report that she had written—she is always entirely consistent in these matters. On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about Back Benchers and Select Committees, I would throw back to him the fact that the Procedure Committee has done significant and important work; I am appearing before it next week on the matter of written parliamentary questions, and I know that when that report comes forward, it will contain interesting material for the whole House to digest.

“The Governance of Britain”

2. What progress has been made on those proposals in “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper for which she is responsible. (260751)

The House has agreed proposals for regional Select Committees and Grand Committees, which were among the issues raised in “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper. In addition, we have today published detailed plans for strengthening Parliament’s role in scrutinising Government expenditure, aligning budgets, estimates and accounts.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a truism that the longer Governments are in power, the more comfortable they become with the subordination of Parliament? Does he also agree that, if that is the case, we have only a small window of opportunity for genuine democratic reform when there is a change of Government, as there was in 1997? Will he reassure us that the Government have not run out of steam on democratic reform in the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend, with whom I have waged many campaigns from the Back Benches, is an ardent supporter of the independence of this House and the significant role it must play in holding the Government to account. As I have just said, we have published another command paper today on the question of how better to align estimates and budgets so that the House can do a better job of looking at expenditure. I do not think that this Government have run out of steam on modernising this House or on ensuring that we have a constitution that is fit for purpose.

The Deputy Leader of the House mentioned regional Select Committees as something to be proud of, but the Government not pushing them through when there is no consensus in the House and the appointments to those Committees consist only of Labour MPs at a cost of more than £1 million of taxpayers’ money? Does that not make a mockery of modernisation, demonstrating, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, that the sooner we get a change of Government to restore the powers of this House, the better?

The hon. Gentleman has lost this debate on three occasions and he is going to lose it again. I understood his question to be a bid for him to sit on the regional Select Committee for the south-west—[Interruption.] If he does not want to sit on it, that is a shame because the regional Committees will do a very important job, holding people who spend significant amounts of taxpayers’ money to account, ensuring parliamentary scrutiny of expenditure.

I was interested to hear what the Deputy Leader of the House had to say about his command paper and I wonder whether it amounts to the proposals that the Leader of the House said only last week she would like to talk about with me and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan)—with no such discussions yet taking place. Is it not the case that, in reality, no progress on proper modernisation of the House’s procedures has been made? Indeed, the Government have been retrogressive in their increasing use of bullying programme motions, reductions in time so that Bills are not properly scrutinised and their inability to organise our business to the satisfaction of all Members of the House rather than that of the Executive?

Conservative Members should not agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is a very unfair gentleman. Last week, he called for proposals on better scrutiny of Government expenditure, and we have today made some suggestions on how we might achieve that. We are happy to consult on them; it is merely a command paper, so legislation would not necessarily have to follow. It would be nicer of him—in fact, it would be nice if he was nice occasionally—if he came before the House to say thank you for the changes we are proposing that will make for better and more effective scrutiny of the Government.

“The Governance of Britain” document says that the Executive should be more accountable to Parliament, yet the Government have refused to ensure that the noble Lord Mandelson is answerable to Members in this House. At a time when thousands and thousands of businesses are in a desperate state, why is it that the Government will not allow the unelected Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to be answerable to elected Members in this House?

That is a load of poppycock. For a start, all Ministers appear before Select Committees and the hon. Gentleman undervalues the role of Select Committees when he says that noble peers are not able to appear at all. Secondly, I have never heard from him or any Conservative Member the suggestion that peers should be able to answer questions in this House, although some Labour Members have called for that. It would be a significant departure, but it seemed to be what he was calling for. Now he is looking rather shamefaced about it.

Parliamentary Proceedings

We have already done a great deal, including the introduction of explanatory memorandums, changes to the Order Paper to make it easier to understand and the inclusion of more information on the parliamentary website so that all members of the public can understand what is happening in the Chamber. We are, of course, always happy to consider any good ideas that come from any source other than the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. My constituents tell me that they are confused by the way we address each other in the House, using terms such as “hon. Member”, “right hon. Member”, “learned Member”, “learned and gallant Member” and so on. The public really do not understand those terms. What can we do to make them more understandable?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I gather that, at one point, there was a debate in the House of Lords about whether one could refer to somebody as a “gallant peer” when there were no longer any four-star generals. It was only four-star generals who previously were referred to as “gallant”. I know that many hon. Members find this very complicated and in this House it is sometimes difficult for members of the public to understand whom we are referring to when we refer to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe or to the right hon. Member for this, that and the other. It is not—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) says that it is not simple. It is not very simple for ordinary members of the public and this is perhaps something that we ought to look at. However, parliamentary language is primarily a matter for your consideration, Mr. Speaker, not ours.

The Deputy Leader of the House referred to all members of the public, but I would like to ask him about members of the public with disabilities. For example, may we consider having sign language interpreters, when appropriate and requested, in Select Committees? May we have documents written in Easyread for people with learning disabilities where the issue is of interest to them? For instance, my Select Committee produced its report on services for adults with learning disabilities in Easyread.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I know that the House authorities have worked hard to make it possible for Members of the House with disabilities to be able to function perfectly as well as any other Member of the House. That is clearly vital. He makes some interesting points that I will seek to take up with the House authorities to see whether there are further ways to make those issues available.