With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government’s proposal to invite the House to agree further democratic reform, including legislation before the House rises for the summer on the conduct of Members of Parliament.
The past few months have shown us that the public require, as an urgent imperative, higher standards of financial conduct from all people in public life and an end to any abuses of the past. There is no more pressing task for this Parliament than to respond immediately to this public demand. Like every Member here, I believe that most Members of Parliament enter public life so that they can serve the public interest. I believe also that the vast majority of MPs work hard for their constituents and demonstrate by their service, whatever party they belong to, that they are in politics not for what they can get but for what they can give.
But all of us have to have the humility to accept that public confidence has been shaken and that the battered reputation of this institution cannot be repaired without fundamental change. At precisely the moment when the public need their politicians to be focused on the issues that affect their lives—on fighting back against recession and keeping people in their jobs and homes—the subject of politics itself has become the focus of our politics. We cannot move our country forward unless we break with the old practices and the old ways. Each of us has a part to play in the hard task of regaining the country’s trust, not for the sake of our different parties but for the sake of our common democracy. Without that trust, there can be no legitimacy; and without legitimacy, none of us can do the job our constituents have sent us here to do.
We must reflect on what has happened, redress the abuses, ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again and ensure that the public see us as individual MPs accountable to our constituents. It will be what we now do, not just what we say, that will prove that we have learned and that we have changed. So first, all MPs’ past and future expenses should and will be published on the internet in the next few days. Home claims submitted by MPs from all parts of the House over the past four years must, as we have agreed, be scrutinised by an independently led panel. That will ensure repayment where it is necessary and lead to discipline where there have been inappropriate claims. I know that you are working urgently to conclude this reassessment process, Mr. Speaker. We must now publish the past four years’ receipts, and start and conclude the scrutiny process as quickly as possible.
The House has already agreed to restrict expenses further, to those needed for parliamentary duties alone, to cut the costs for housing, to require all spending to be receipted and to ensure that incomes from second jobs are fully accounted for. All parties have committed themselves to accept the further recommendations of the independent Kelly committee, once they are received later this year, provided these proposals meet the tests of increased transparency, accountability and reduced costs for the taxpayer. Those steps to sort out the expenses crisis are necessary, but I think we all know that they are not sufficient. We need to go further.
At its first meeting yesterday, the Government’s democratic council decided to bring forward new legislative proposals before the summer Adjournment on two issues that have been the subject of constructive cross-party discussion. First, we propose that the House of Commons—and subsequently the House of Lords—move from the old system of self-regulation to independent, statutory regulation. That will mean the immediate creation of a new Parliamentary Standards Authority, which will have delegated power to regulate the system of allowances. No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century, whereby Members make up the rules and operate them among themselves.
The proposed new authority would take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members’ claims, oversee the new allowance system, following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, maintain the Register of Members’ Interests, and disallow claims, require repayment and apply firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity. I welcome the cross-party support for these proposals, which will be contained in the Bill that we will introduce very soon. I believe that the whole House will also wish to agree that, as part of this process, the new regulator should scrutinise efficiency and value for money in Parliament’s expenditure, and ensure, as suggested to Sir Christopher Kelly, that Parliament costs less.
Secondly, the House will be asked to agree a statutory code of conduct for all MPs, clarifying their role in relation to their constituents and Parliament, detailing what the electorate can expect and the consequences that will follow for those who fail to deliver. It will codify much more clearly the different potential offences that must be addressed, and the options available to sanction. These measures will be included in a short, self-standing Bill on the conduct of Members in the Commons, which will be introduced and debated before the summer Adjournment. This will address the most immediate issues about which we know the public are most upset, but it will be only the first stage of our legislation on the constitution.
The current system of sanctions for misconduct by Members is not fit for purpose. It does not give the public the confidence they need that wrongdoing will be dealt with in an appropriate way. The last time a person was expelled from the House was 55 years ago, in 1954. It remains the case that Members can be sentenced to up to one year in prison without being required to give up their parliamentary seat. The sanctions available against financial misconduct or corruption have not been updated to meet the needs of the times. This is not a modern and accountable system that puts the interests of constituents first. It needs to change.
There will be consultation with all sides of the House to come forward with new proposals for dealing effectively with inappropriate behaviour, including the potential options of effective exclusion and recall for gross financial misconduct, identified by the new independent regulator and by the House itself.
The House of Lords needs to be reformed, too. Following a meeting of the House Committee of the House of Lords, and at its request, I have today written to the Senior Salaries Review Body to ask it to review the system of financial support in the House of Lords, to increase its accountability, to enhance its transparency and to reduce its cost. For the first time, there will also be new legislation for new disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct of peers in the House of Lords.
We must also take forward urgent modernisation of the procedures of the House of Commons, so I am happy to give the Government’s support to a proposal from my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee that we will work with a special parliamentary commission comprising Members from both sides of this House, convened for a defined period to advise on necessary reforms, including making Select Committee processes more democratic, scheduling more and better time for non-Government business in the House, and enabling the public to initiate directly some issues for debate.
Given the vital role that transparency plays in sweeping away the decrepit system of allowances and holding power to account, I believe that we should do more to spread the culture and practice of freedom of information. So, as a next step, the Justice Secretary will set out further plans to look at broadening the application of freedom of information to include additional bodies which also need to be subject to greater transparency and accountability. This is the public’s money, and they should know how it is spent.
I should also announce that, as part of extending the availability of official information, and as our response to the Dacre review, we will progressively reduce the time taken to release official documents. As the report recommended, we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, and there will be protection of royal family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions. But we will reduce the time for release of all other official documents below the current 30 years, to 20 years. So that Government information is accessible and useful for the widest possible group of people, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who led the creation of the worldwide web, has agreed to help us to drive the opening up of access to Government data on the web over the coming months.
In the last 12 years, we have created the devolved Administrations, ended the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Just as, through recent changes, we are removing ancient royal prerogatives and making the Executive more accountable to Parliament on central issues such as the declaration of peace and war, appointments and treaties, so, too, we want to establish and renew the legitimacy of Parliament itself by its becoming more accountable to the people.
Democratic reform cannot be led in Westminster alone. It must be led by engagement with the public. That is part of the lesson of the last month: the public want to be, and should be, part of the solution. So we must build a process that engages citizens themselves, people of all parties and none, of all faiths and no faith, from every background and every part of the country. So over the coming months, the Government will set out proposals for debate and reform on five remaining major constitutional issues.
First, we will move forward with reform of the House of Lords. The Government’s White Paper, published last July, for which there is backing from other parties, committed us to an 80 or 100 per cent. elected House of Lords, so we must now take the next steps as we complete this reform. The Government will come forward with published proposals for the final stage of House of Lords reform before the summer Adjournment, including the next steps we can take to resolve the position of the remaining hereditary peers and other outstanding issues.
Secondly, setting out the rights that people can expect as a British citizen, but also the responsibilities that come with those rights, is a fundamental step in balancing power between Government, Parliament and the people. It is for many people extraordinary that Britain still has a largely unwritten constitution. I personally favour a written constitution. I recognise that this change would represent a historic shift in our constitutional arrangements, so any such proposals will be subject to wide public debate and the drafting of such a constitution should ultimately be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people themselves.
Thirdly, there is the devolution of power and the engagement of people themselves in their local communities. The House will be aware of the proposals for the completion of the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. Next week, the Calman commission will report with recommendations on the future of devolution in Scotland within the United Kingdom. The Government of Wales Act 2006 permits further devolution in Wales, on which discussions are taking place. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will set out how we will strengthen the engagement of citizens in the democratic life of their own communities as we progress the next stage of devolution in England. So we must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly defined powers to local government and city regions and strengthen their accountability to local people.
Last year, we published our review of the electoral system and there is a long-standing debate on this issue. I still believe that the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that the constituency is best able to hold its MP to account. We should be prepared to propose change only if there is a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and our politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both Government and Parliament and by enhancing the level and quality of representation and public engagement. We will set out proposals for taking this debate forward.
Fifthly, we will set out proposals for increasing public engagement in politics. To improve electoral registration, we will consider how we increase the number of people on the register and help to combat fraud. On receipt of the youth commission report, and having heard from young people themselves, we will set out the steps we will take to increase the engagement of young people in politics, including whether to give further consideration to the voting age.
As we come forward with proposals, in each case the Government will look to consult widely. All proposed reforms will be underpinned by cross-party discussions. Our proposals will also be informed by leading external figures, including academics and others who command public respect and have a recognised interest or expertise in the different elements of democratic reform. I expect this to conclude in time to shape the Government’s forward legislative programme and to feed into the Queen’s Speech.[Interruption.]
In the midst of all the recriminations, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard—[Interruption.] I do not think the House is behaving well today when it is debating its own future and how the public see what we do. In the midst of all the rancour and recriminations about expenses, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard. In the midst of doubt, let us revive confidence. Let us also stand together because on this, at least, I think we all agree—Britain deserves a political system that is equal to the hopes and character of our people. Let us differ on policy—that is inevitable—but let us stand together for integrity and democracy. That is now more essential than ever, so I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, but I have to say that he read it so quickly that I am not sure he convinced even himself. He has spoken a lot about constitutional change and innovation, but is not the real change we need not much of an innovation at all? Is not the answer to our discredited politics, to our disillusioned country and to our desperately weak Government a general election?
Two years ago, the Prime Minister did not call an election because he thought he would not win it; three weeks ago, he said he did not want one because it would bring “chaos”; and Lord Mandelson, the man who now runs the Government, says that Labour is against one because it might lose it. How many more excuses will they come up with before they recognise that it is time for people to have their say?
Let me turn now to the proposals themselves. The country is too centralised, Parliament is too weak, and the Government are too top-down, too secretive and too unwilling to give up power. Above all, is not the real problem the fact that people feel shut out of decision making and unable to control the things that matter to them?
There is much in the statement that we support, not least because it is taken from the comprehensive case for reform that I made to the Open university. The Government have at least mastered the art of copying things. We agree with giving more power to local government, but let us not stop there. Why not abolish the regional quangos that have taken so much power away from local government? We support greater independence for Select Committees, which got a mention today, but why cannot the Prime Minister say today that these watchdogs should be freely elected and not appointed by the Whips Office? I accept that it is a difficult decision for the Prime Minister, and in a way it is a difficult decision for me, because it means giving up patronage. However, I am prepared to do it. Is he prepared to do it?
We will back the establishment of a Parliamentary Standards Authority to supervise all matters relating to Members of Parliament’ pay and expenses, but there are still serious questions to be answered, not least about how it will relate to the House and to whom it will be ultimately accountable.
The problem is that the Prime Minister has promised constitutional change countless times before. He promised it when he launched his campaign for leadership of the Labour party two years ago, he promised it in his first statement to the House as Prime Minister, and he promised it in his speech on liberty in the autumn of 2007. He promised it in two Queen’s Speeches, when he specifically pledged the delivery of a Constitutional Renewal Bill. That Bill was first mooted in November 2007, then again in December 2008. Why has it taken so long?
Let us consider the things that the Prime Minister has proposed in the past. He has proposed a British day, an institute of Britishness, a Bill of Rights, a written constitution and reform of the House of Lords. They are all endlessly launched and relaunched, but nothing ever happens. It is not so much a Government strategy as a relaunch distraction strategy, intended to give the Prime Minister something to talk about when he is in desperate straits.
The Prime Minister’s latest brainchild—you could not make this one up—is a National Council for Democratic Renewal. That sounds like something out of North Korea, but let us be clear about what it is. It is not some outward-looking convention that is open to the public. It is not even cross-party. It is just a bunch of Ministers talking to themselves.
What these proposals fail to address is the central question that we believe should lie behind any programme for constitutional reform: how do we take power away from the political elite, and give it to the man and woman in the street? Let me give the Prime Minister some real ideas. It is not time to allow people the opportunity to present a proposition and have it voted on in a local referendum? Should we not introduce so-called citizens’ initiatives? Is it not time to give local people the right to stop excessive taxation? Should we not give them the right to hold a referendum on massive council tax rises?
When we, as democratically elected politicians, promise a referendum, as we all did on the European constitution, should we not stick to our promise? Is it not things of that kind that really sap people’s faith in politics? At the heart of any programme of constitutional reform should be proper taxpayer transparency. Is it not time to publish all public spending, national and local, online, so that each taxpayer can see precisely how his or her hard-earned money is being spent?
If the test of effective constitutional reform is pushing power downwards, is it not the case that nothing fails more than proportional representation? Let me reaffirm our belief that it is a recipe for weak coalition Governments. Rather than voters choosing their Governments on the basis of manifestos, does it not all too often mean party managers choosing Governments on the basis of backroom deals? Our view is clear: we should not take away from the British people the right to get rid of weak, tired and discredited Governments. The most powerful thing in politics is not actually the soapbox or the Dispatch Box but the ballot box, particularly when it leads to the removal van. I have to ask the Prime Minister this: will not people conclude that he has started talking about proportional representation only because he fears he will lose under the existing rules?
If we want an electoral system that is fairer, should we not consider ensuring that each constituency is of equal worth? At present some constituencies have twice as many voters as others, which puts a premium on some votes. Is it not time to ask the Boundary Commission to redraw boundaries to make them all the same size? At the same time, should we not be reducing the size of the House of Commons?
Is it not the case that it is not the alternative vote that people want now, but the chance to vote for an alternative Government? Are these proposals not a pretty sorry attempt to distract attention away from a Prime Minister who has lost his authority, a Cabinet full of second preferences, and a Labour Government who have led this country to the brink of bankruptcy?
All MPs sitting in this Chamber must know what their constituents are telling them, but I do not think the Leader of the Opposition’s statement reflects what they are saying to him. Nearly 70 per cent. of people did not vote in the elections of last week, and 40 per cent. voted for parties other than those represented here, and we have to accept that people want us first to clean up our politics quickly. I would have thought he would make more mention of that in his response to the statement.
We want all-party support for the new code of conduct and the parliamentary standards commissioner, and also for the way we deal with issues of exclusion from the House of Commons, which is something that has not been faced up to before. The precondition of any debate about the future of our democracy must be our determination to recognise, with humility, that this House has got to clean up its affairs as a matter of urgency, and every Member of Parliament shares a responsibility for doing that. Before we get into the different issues that divide our party—[Interruption.] Before we get into the different issues that divide the parties, I think the Conservative party—[Interruption.]
It is our responsibility to recognise that the problems of expenses are in every party in the House of Commons, and we must all accept the responsibility for sorting them out.
The Leader of the Opposition is quite wrong about the Constitutional Renewal Bill. It has been discussed by Committees of both Houses, and it was published in draft form some time ago. We have been debating it so we can get it absolutely right. It will come before the House of Commons for its Second Reading very soon, but before that we have to deal with the expenses crisis. The Constitutional Reform Bill removes the royal prerogative in key areas: the ability to declare peace and war is no longer a matter just for the Prime Minister or the Executive; it is a matter for the House of Commons, as are the declaration of treaties, the selection of people and pre-appointment hearings. There are a range of areas where the Executive have surrendered power to the House of Commons, and will continue to do so.
The time is also right for Parliament to make its affairs more accountable to the public. I think I am the first Prime Minister to propose a review to ensure that Select Committees can work in a new way, and I hope everybody will take up the opportunity to discuss that. I am also proposing that we look at means by which the public petitions that now come to No. 10 could come to Parliament in such a way that they could be debated.
As for the devolution of power, let us be clear that we devolved power to Scotland and Wales against the views of the Conservative party, and we also put forward constitutional proposals, including on freedom of information, which are now being seen to be changing our political system as a result of transparency. We want to expand that. The Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposal is to open up information more widely, and if we do that the Leader of the Opposition’s proposal about information about money can be put on the internet. There are, therefore, a range of proposals.
On electoral reform, I think it is fair to say that before the Leader of the Opposition asked me questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time, he had sight of the statement that I was to make to the House of Commons—
He had sight of the statement I was to make to the House of Commons, and it was therefore clear to him what I was proposing and what I was not proposing, and it is clear from what I have said that the debate is to be one in which we take into account the relationship between the constituency and the Member of Parliament; that is something we want to do. We are not going to turn our back on any discussion of reform; I suspect that only the Conservative party—not the Liberal party, nor other parties—want to do that now.
The Leader of the Opposition must also wake up to the fact that many systems of representation are already used in the United Kingdom. He did not reply to our proposals on the House of Lords. I take it that he still favours 80 or 100 per cent. elected representation in the Lords, and that he favours the proposals we are going to put forward to reform the House of Lords. The House of Lords has also got to face up to its responsibilities in that its discipline procedures and procedures for dealing with its finances are not good enough, and that is very much part of the measures we are putting forward.
These proposals are an essential element of restoring trust in politics and I hope they will gain all-party support.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Of course everyone agrees that the political crisis requires big changes in the way we do things, so I welcome this deathbed conversion to political reform from the man who has blocked change at almost every opportunity for the last 12 years. Everyone knows that the Labour party will lose the next general election, so any reforms must be in place before the election if they are to mean anything at all. Anything else would be a betrayal of the British people, who are angry and demanding that we change for good the rotten way we do politics. Does the Prime Minister not see that this is no time for more committees, more reviews and more consultation? We have been debating these issues for decades; is it not now time to get things done?
I strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to moving towards an elected House of Lords, but will he give us a date by which this reform will be complete? We have already voted on it in this place; there should be no more delay. I also strongly welcome the move towards a Parliamentary Standards Authority and an MPs’ code of conduct. These changes should be implemented immediately with no more delay, so will the Prime Minister ask this House to forgo its summer recess so that we can push through all the necessary changes to clean up politics, and will he make sure that his immediate proposals include the right for people to sack their MP if it has been shown that they have done something seriously wrong?
I am dismayed that the Prime Minister is completely silent on the issue of party funding. How on earth can he possibly justify that? We cannot allow our politics to go the way of America’s, where elections have become a contest of advertising budgets, not ideas. Why delay when he could just implement the Hayden Phillips recommendations in the party funding Bill that is already being debated in another place? The way forward has been agreed; why does he refuse to act?
On electoral reform, I welcome any movement away from our discredited system: a system that gives the Prime Minister’s Government untrammelled power when only one in five people voted for them; a system that gives MPs safe seats for life. [Interruption.] That’s why they like it. As Robin Cook recognised, and as the Prime Minister’s new Home Secretary realises—[Interruption.]
As Robin Cook recognised, and as the Prime Minister’s new Home Secretary realises, this cannot go on. So why is the Prime Minister seeking to restart a general debate on electoral reform? We have had the debate: we had Roy Jenkins’s report and the independent Power inquiry. We cannot afford to wait for a cross-party consensus because the Conservatives will never want to change this cosy Westminster stitch-up. We do not need to wait for the Cabinet to make up its mind; it is not up to it to decide how our democracy works. People should now be given a say, so will the Prime Minister now call a referendum this autumn to give people a choice—a choice between the bankrupt system we have now and serious proposals for reform which finally put the people in charge, not politicians? The Prime Minister has nothing to lose. This is no time for his trademark timidity. Just get on with it. Will he now cancel the recess, pass the legislation we need, and give people the say we deserve?
First, let me say where we agree. We agree—I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has said this explicitly—that we will all support the new Parliamentary Standards Authority; we will move from self-regulation to statutory regulation. We can therefore do that very quickly; it can be enacted very quickly to start almost immediately. We will all agree to the code of conduct, which means that the conditions under which MPs may be excluded from the House of Commons will be set down for them. We will modernise the means by which we deal with those issues where exclusion or recall is a possibility; I think there should be a debate on that over the next few weeks. We have got to make sure first of all that the country sees us dealing with the changes that are necessary, and I think that the mood of the House today still does not sufficiently recognise the gravity of the problems we face with our constituents and that we have got to deal with as a matter of immediacy.
As for the summer adjournment, I hope we can make progress, but I must ask the leader of the Liberal Democrats not to perpetuate the myth that for 12 or 14 weeks during the summer and autumn MPs do absolutely nothing. MPs are in their constituencies, and working there, and let us not perpetuate a myth that is not the correct story. Most MPs I know are working very hard indeed in their constituencies. That deserves to be said so that people understand that that is the case.
On the other issues, we agree about the reforms within Parliament, and there will be a chance for a group of people to look at those under the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee. On House of Lords reform, we agree about what needs to be done. The reason that reform of the Lords has been blocked is not the House of Commons, but the House of Lords itself.
As far as party funding is concerned, we have been looking, on an all-party basis, at how we can improve and reform party funding, and it is very much on the agenda. On electoral reform, I gave my statement to the leaders of the other parties before questions, and it made my position clear. I am sorry that some people misinterpreted that position during Prime Minister’s questions, but my position is the clear position that I put to the House when I read out my statement. Other Members did not have a copy, but the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats had it before questions.
My right hon. Friend has made an important announcement today that may even turn out to be historic. Will he consider adding one item to the list? It is an item on which I was elected in our manifesto in 1992, and I introduced a Bill on it eight years ago. It is an item that most people in the House now seem to have signed up to, and it is the proposition that we should have fixed-term Parliaments. May I ask him to signal his commitment to fixed-term Parliaments by announcing now the date of the next general election? May I suggest that 6 May 2010 would be an excellent date?
I know that my hon. Friend, whom we are asking to undertake new responsibilities in this review, has strong views on these issues, including fixed-term Parliaments, which would be part of the discussions on a written constitution. He will understand why I am making no specific announcements today, and I do not propose to do so. It is more important to get on with the work that we have set out, both in cleaning up the politics of this country and in making the reforms that he, to his credit, has been proposing for years in this House.
There is much in what the Prime Minister has said that I welcome, but his suggestions for a statutory code of conduct for Members of Parliament, enforceable in the courts, have enormous implications for all of us, our relationship with and accountability to our constituents, as well as the role of the House as the supreme court of Parliament. May I ask that this particular section of his proposals is not rushed through the House?
As the distinguished Chairman of the Committee that deals with the conduct of MPs, the right hon. Gentleman will be consulted on this issue, but there are many other legislatures that have a statutory code of conduct. Once in a generation a crisis builds up—it has happened in Australia, Canada, the United States and Germany—and people who should probably have taken action earlier to deal with it had to take action to reassure the public that everything possible was being done. A code of conduct is a necessary means by which the public will know that the behaviour of MPs will be regulated. That can be set down in many ways, but we cannot evade our responsibility to do it. We can discuss how it can be done and, at the same time, we will have to modernise how we deal with issues of suspension and exclusion from this House. As I understand it, only three people have been excluded from this House in a century and, given all the scandals in that time, that might sound strange to people. A person can be imprisoned for a year or in detention for six months, but still not be expelled from the House of Commons. We have to consider how our 19th century procedures line up with the common sense of the public in the 21st century. We will have discussions about this, but a statutory code of conduct is something that most of the country now wants to see.
It is appropriate for the Prime Minister to remind the House that during June we will publish the redacted receipts for expenses for the past four years, and we will also have the Kelly committee’s recommendations. It is also appropriate—and I speak as a member of the House of Commons Commission—that the House authorities work with my right hon. Friend and the Government on procedural reforms. Is it also not appropriate that, by the end of the present Session of Parliament, we will have a new statutory code of conduct so that we can all go back to our constituents and tell them, “We have understood you.”?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work on the Commission. He does a very good job and he should be applauded for the time that he gives to discharging his responsibilities. He is right: there is no way that the public will accept that this House has dealt with the problems that have been revealed unless we can pass that legislation as quickly as possible, and unless the review of the expenses of the last four years is confirmed by an independent auditor who has assessed the regularity of Members’ expenses. We should have the humility to recognise that that has to be done as a matter of urgency. The sooner that the audit can be done—and the publication of the full expenses can be made, as ordered by the courts—the better.
Does the Prime Minister accept that it is not the Government’s job to decide how the House of Commons should use its time in examining Government legislation? Will his reforms allow a body in which Back Benchers play a stronger role to be at the centre of the House’s decision-making on its timetable?
That is exactly what the group convened by the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee will want to look at. The Government need to be able to get their business through, but there is also non-government time, and that can be discussed in more detail by a group of people who are experienced and have views on this issue. It will make recommendations to see what can be done. That is one way in which we can make progress on the government of this House.
Since my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister, he has spoken of a new settlement with the British people. I welcome his commitment to a written constitution. He will accept that this process will take a long time, but there is no excuse for not starting it. Does he agree that it is essential that as we write this new constitution, it is not just law-makers, parliamentarians and the good and the great, but members of the public, who are directly involved in writing what will be the most important document in our constitution?
We have at the moment a consultation on a Bill of rights and responsibilities. My right hon. Friend is right—as I said in my statement, any written constitution would have to involve the widest possible consultation with the people. Let us be clear where our constitution is at the moment. It is not unwritten, in the sense that there are no written documents and no pieces of legislation. We have devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which in a sense creates a written constitution for those parts of the United Kingdom. There is the European Union legislation, which in a sense creates the conditions in which we operate as members of the EU. The Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act and other Acts guarantee equality, including the Equality Bill before us at the moment. There is no shortage of legislation that defines some of our rights and some of the responsibilities of institutions. It is a fact that we have not brought those elements together coherently and cohesively, nor have we set down a statement of objectives and aims as other constitutions do, and that is the subject for our debate. We should recognise that the circumstances in which the debate about a written constitution should take place are completely different from where we were 20 years ago, when there was no devolution, when we did not have the same relationship with Europe and when we did not have human rights or freedom of information legislation. Things have changed fundamentally in the last 20 years.
The Prime Minister has said many things in his statement that are entirely acceptable to my party and its sister party, and to others. He referred in passing to the imbalance between the power of the Executive and of Parliament. That is very detrimental to this Parliament. May I suggest that the daily abuse of guillotines is a farce? Bills come back on Report and 80, or even 100, amendments are passed on the nod without discussion. That is undemocratic and wrong, and it has to stop.
We have always got to get the balance right between a manifesto commitment that has been made by a party that is in government and the legislation that is necessary to get it through. If we are truly accountable to the people, a manifesto commitment that involves legislation is something that we have a responsibility to enact. Of course, time permitting, there must be the maximum—[Interruption.] Someone says it is a feeble excuse when I say that people should implement their manifestos. I think that we will remember that when Opposition Members talk about manifestos in the future. The governing party makes a commitment to implementing its manifesto and, at the same time, there is the commitment that we want to give for the maximum possible consultation, but that depends on the time available in the House of Commons.
Why on earth do we allow tax exiles to bankroll political parties? My friend talked a lot of sense about the Constitutional Renewal Bill, but on Monday the Lords will be discussing the Political Parties and Elections Bill on Report. Will he take that opportunity on Monday to close the Ashcroft loophole?
May I, in the kindest possible way, suggest that today’s statement is a rag-bag of ill-considered proposals brought forward in the last 11 months of this Parliament by an exhausted Prime Minister. That is no more apparent than in regard to his proposals for a written constitution. He knows that although much of our existing law is written, one thing that has made our democracy evolve in such a vibrant and straightforward fashion has been the conventions that have enabled change to be made without the rigidities associated with a written constitution. May I ask the Prime Minister whether he agrees that it would be premature for his Government to commit themselves to a written constitution until some proper deliberation has taken place—not just on what a written constitution might say, but on whether it is desirable in the first place?
The problems of this House of Commons and the workings of our political system being ad hoc and evolutionary have been revealed in the expenses scandal in the House of Commons. It is absolutely clear that a gentlemen’s club, operating with its own rules and its own powers of discipline, has proven unsatisfactory and inadequate to meet the needs of the times. I believe that there are other areas in our constitution whereby our inability to be straight about what we are trying to do and to put that down in legislation means that we sometimes fail the public. I said that there is a debate to be had about a written constitution, and I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman took my words carefully. There is a debate to be had on it. It is a major decision for our country, and he is clearly against it. Given that so much of our constitution is now written for the different parts of the United Kingdom, for different areas of policy and for the relationship between individuals and the state, it is worth considering putting that into one written constitution.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the authority and power of Parliament have been diminishing for decades under successive Governments and that in fact—programme motions have been mentioned in this context—we have reached a situation where, far from the Government being accountable to the House of Commons, the House of Commons is now accountable to the Government? The programme is determined outside the legislature, and, if we are to look at the renewal of the constitution, perhaps we should be even more sweeping. Perhaps we should even consider—I did not believe in this at one time—a separation of powers between Parliament and the Executive.
My hon. Friend is proposing the American constitution for Britain. He knows the deadlock that often happens with the American constitution when Congress, the Senate and the President cannot agree on what needs to be done. If he looks back to what has happened over the past few months, he will see that we were able to persuade Parliament to put our banking reforms through and were able to finance our banks so that we could rescue them, whereas it took the Americans weeks and months to get those provisions through their legislature as a result of the issues that arise from the separation of powers. However, that is a debate for the future.
On the subject of the future of Parliament’s role in dealing with legislation and issues, I remember the debate that John P. Mackintosh, who was a Member of this House in the 1960s, started about the role of Select Committees and how they could play a big role in the management of this House. There are two reasons that Select Committees have not had the effect that I know that my hon. Friend would want them to have. First, the reforms that we are talking about, which could have been made, have not been made. Secondly, Members have not seen them as important enough in themselves for them to put forward proposals to the House following the reports of Select Committees that would then lead to legislation. We need to have this discussion in the talks led by the Member who has great expertise in this matter to see what can be done. I am open to these discussions, as most Members are, but we must recognise the background. We have been trying to reform the Select Committee system and to make it more relevant for 40 years.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to reforming the Select Committee system, but would it not make sense to give Select Committees real powers, such as, for example, providing that whenever a new Secretary of State is appointed to the Cabinet he or she must be subject to confirmation by the appropriate departmental Select Committee? Would that not be particularly appropriate when the Prime Minister is appointing Secretaries of State from the House of Lords and when he is considering the major constitutional step of appointing a new First Secretary of State?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a point about pre-confirmation hearings, and I think that I am right in saying that as a result of the announcements that we made two years ago, 62 positions are now subject to Select Committee hearings, which work very well. As far as Ministers are concerned, Ministers are responsible to this House. At the moment, if people want to bring forward motions on the suitability or unsuitability of Ministers, they can do so. Obviously, these matters can be discussed by the committee that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) is looking at.
One democratic reform that I feel that the British public would like to see is a referendum on the principle of whether we remain in the European Union. No one under the age of 50 has had a chance to vote on the question of Europe and I think that, as a matter of course, we should have a referendum once every 15 to 20 years.
This issue was not put to the people by the Conservative Government who put us into the European Union. It was not put to the people when we went into the European Common Market, but it was put by a Labour Government in 1975. The conclusion was pretty clear—two thirds of the people wanted to be part of the Union. I do not think that that opinion has fundamentally changed.
Many in the House, on both sides, agree that it is now time for radical change to the way in which this place does its business. In the discussions that I have had, many Back Benchers have agreed that one of the biggest problems is that the Executive have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Is not the point today that the Prime Minister has come forward with a statement in which the Executive tell the rest of us what we shall now reform? Should not the rest of us be telling the Executive what they should or should not do?
First, I am talking about powers that the Executive are surrendering to Parliament or powers that Parliament should have. I put forward proposals two years ago for a whole range of areas, such as pre-confirmation hearings, where the Executive should surrender some of their powers to Parliament. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to perpetuate the myth that somehow the problems of the past few weeks are not the problems of Parliament and are not problems that people consider to have been caused by mistakes made by Members of Parliament and this House, I do not think that he will get an echo in the country for what he is saying.
This House has to face up to the fact that it let the country down. We have to make the changes that are necessary. Many MPs who work hard, who do their duty and who have made no mistakes are being penalised because of the mistakes made by others, but we have a collective duty to clean up this House in the interests of democracy and everybody who saw last week the votes that were given to parties that are not represented in this House knows what our duty is. To say that the problem is not Parliament and that Parliament does not have to deal with its problems is, in my view, a mistake and a misreading of the situation. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman, who usually brings his wisdom on these matters to the House, will reconsider his view.
Although I warmly applaud the broad thrust of these proposals, does my right hon. Friend accept that the House’s power to hold the Executive effectively to account is an essential part of any parliamentary democratic reform? If so, does he accept that this House should have the right to elect its own business committee and to share control of the agenda with Government, the right to elect both Chairs and members of Select Committees by secret ballot and the right to set up, where appropriate, its own parliamentary commissions of inquiry?
I know that my right hon. Friend, with whom I have talked about these matters, has taken a huge interest in this issue. He has been very vigorous in pursuing the case for reform over many years. I think that I have read work that he did 30 years ago, as well as 20 years and 10 years ago, so he is absolutely right to raise these questions. These are the very issues that can be examined by the group that is being set up. The role of Select Committees, the election of their membership, the business management of the House, how non-Government business should be dealt with, the role of public petitions and what we do about them—these are all issues that I feel that the public have the right to know that Parliament is investigating, as they all affect our accountability to the general public.
Does the Prime Minister recall that he was recently in Normandy? People fought and died in the last war because they wanted to maintain a free democratic system in this country, based on a direct link between Member of Parliament, Government and constituents. They died for a democratic vote. Does he also accept that they did not die for judicial supremacy over and above the parliamentary supremacy that they fought for, regardless of whether decisions are made in our courts or in European courts?
I was able and had the honour to pay tribute to those who died during the D-day landings and their aftermath, as we moved from France to the fall of Berlin, the end of the Third Reich and the freedom of Europe. Those men and women who died in the service of their country deserve the gratitude of everyone in this House, and they will never be forgotten. I wanted to represent the British people, as did the Prince of Wales, and say that the result of the sacrifices that were made is that a Europe that was once divided is today free of conflict. People who once thought that wars would happen between their countries now know that there is peace and unity in Europe. I agree also that people fought for freedom, and freedom means that we have a British constitution that we can be proud of.
May I put it to my right hon. Friend that, if we wish to enhance the standing of Parliament in the eyes of our constituents, there is one simple measure that we can take immediately and that requires no legislation—that is, to resume sittings in September? That is something that we voted for several years ago, but then reneged on. How can it be right in a democracy for Parliament to give the Executive an 80-day holiday from scrutiny? How can we expect to be taken seriously in the 21st century when we are still awarding ourselves Gladstonian-length recesses?
The Prime Minister will know that I have asked him on two occasions—and the Leader of the House on nine—about what he can do to end the scandal and embarrassment caused by having huge chunks of Government legislation and Government amendments going through the House at Report stage without adequate scrutiny. Of course the Government must get their business through, if the House supports it, but does he accept that, if the scandal that I have described is not ended, the process that he has set out will have been a failure? This House must make sure that everything that it needs to debate and divide on is reached at Report stage. Unless that happens, we will not be able to take seriously what I hope is his serious commitment to moving from being a reform conservative to being a reform radical.
The House, of course, has developed pre-legislative scrutiny that allows some of the problems that have arisen in the past to be dealt with. However, the specific issue of amendments tabled during the course of a Bill is something that can be looked at in the review.
I am sure that the public will welcome very much the measures being taken to speed up the process of sorting out the terrible expenses scandal, but is there not something missing from the statement? It does not deal with the fact that, although we are trying to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament, roughly 75 per cent. of our laws are still made in Europe, where we have no real democratic involvement. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), is it not time for us to have a serious discussion of our position in the EU? Should we not look again at having a referendum on the EU constitution?
By the red lines that we drew for the Lisbon treaty, we have done everything in our power to protect the position of British citizens in areas where we want this Parliament and this country to make their own decisions. However, while we are thinking about Europe, I must remind my hon. Friend that 3 million jobs depend on our membership of the EU, that 700,000 British companies trade with the EU, and that 60 per cent. of our exports go to the EU. We have a purposeful relationship with the EU that is in the interests of our economy, environment and security, and the idea that we should not have that relationship at this point in the 21st century seems to me to be wrong.
The Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister a very pertinent question about the devolution dividend that would be gained from bringing parity to the size of constituencies. The Prime Minister failed to address that, but is not reducing the number of Members of Parliament something that we could do almost immediately?
There are probably 3 million people who are not on, or who are not counted on, the electoral register. That means that our constituencies do not reflect the total number of people available or eligible to vote. I think that the first thing that we should do is get the register in a position where everybody is on it. After that, we might want to discuss the fact that the number of seats in this House is far lower than the number of seats in the House of Lords. We might start by reducing the size of the House of Lords.
May I welcome the wide-ranging statement that my right hon. Friend has made today? I should like to say a word or two about electoral systems. Does he agree that the statement addresses unfinished business from our 1997 manifesto? We have different options if we want to ensure effective Government, voter choice and a link between MP and constituency, and if we want to ensure that votes cast broadly result in a Parliament that reflects the balance of support for parties. The essential thing is that those choices are not for politicians, whether in government or opposition: instead, they should be made by the British people themselves. Does he agree that they should have the right to make those choices?
In his statement, the Prime Minister referred to the messages sent by the electorate at the recent elections. However, the messages that he referred to were not the ones that I heard. The first message that people expressed—more in anger than in sorrow, on many occasions, and sometimes the other way around—was that the Prime Minister must go. The second message was that the people wanted to pass judgment on Members of this House, and to do so now and in an election.
The third message was that we should have the promised referendum on the European constitution and the Lisbon treaty. The Prime Minister has ruled out the first two requests but, given his statement today about involving people, why can he not grant the third?
I have to say that any MP coming back from these elections knows that many people in the country were giving their verdict, not just on the Government but on how we had conducted ourselves over our expenses. If we ignore that, and do not take the action that is essential—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is proposing an election and no action on expenses, whereas I am proposing action on expenses now. I am proposing that we clean up the system now. If I may say so, it is the Government who are proposing the Parliamentary Standards Authority and the code of conduct. I am glad that the Opposition parties and I can agree on that, and we should get those proposals through, but I think that there is an unwillingness on the part of the Conservatives to admit the seriousness with which the public have taken the expenses crisis. I hope that they can face up to that.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s reference to Select Committees, but would he support making available to them a vastly increased amount of resources so that they can be even more effective in challenging the Executive? Does he agree that they should be able to call for any papers that they require?
Is the Prime Minister aware that what really matters to our constituents at the moment and what fuels their anger over parliamentary allowances is the state of the economy and their fear for their jobs and livelihoods? They see the attempt to divert the agenda to consideration of a rag-bag of constitutional reforms as simply a form of displacement activity by the Prime Minister. Is he aware of the definition of “displacement activity”? It is defined as follows:
“A pattern of behaviour believed to be a means”—
by which animals relieve—
“tension resulting from two contradicting instincts.”
The definition continues by stating that this activity
“often involves actions such as scratching, excessive grooming or chasing one’s own tail.”
Does the Prime Minister agree that we should focus on the economy? If he wants a constitutional reform, he should support my ten-minute Bill, which will deal with a problem raised by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) about Bills leaving this House unconsidered and will suspend the right of the Government to guillotine debate so long as they are forcing this House to sit fewer days than it used to in the past.
I cannot really understand the statements that are now coming from Conservative Back Benchers. We must face up to the expenses issue; the right hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that we do not need to face up to that issue, but we do. That is not displacement activity; it is essential activity in order to restore the reputation of politics. I happen to agree with him about the economy, but the action that we have taken is to move the economy as quickly as possible through the downturn. The Leader of the Opposition fails to ask any questions about the economy at any time we meet.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement on constitutional renewal and urge him to ignore some of the protestations of Conservative Members. Can we end, once and for all, the anachronism of constitutional convention, which is all too often used as shorthand for doing nothing or for resisting necessary change? Secondly, can he go a little further and end the scandal of MPs moonlighting to line their own pockets? We are paid a full-time salary for a full-time job and we should honour that.
I believe that on 1 July all second incomes will have to be published, in the greatest of detail demanded by the House, by all Members who have second jobs and second incomes. I am glad that the House agreed, and that everybody was satisfied, that that was the right thing to do. The public will then be able to judge for themselves what is happening in that area. As for convention, there are some conventions, but the whole debate about a written constitution is about whether things that are seen as conventional should be made into statutes so that people are absolutely clear about their rights and responsibilities.
Fuel Poverty (No.2) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Dr. Alan Whitehead, supported by Mr. Paul Truswell, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Martin Caton, Colin Challen and Mr. David Drew, presented a Bill to make further provision about fuel poverty; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June, and to be printed (Bill 110).