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Leader of the House

Volume 494: debated on Thursday 18 June 2009

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Standards Bodies

17. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the respective roles of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the proposed Parliamentary Standards Authority; and if she will make a statement. (280588)

The Justice Secretary and I have had significant discussions about a Bill to create the Parliamentary Standards Authority. As well as having discussions within Government, we are consulting all parties represented in the House, and the Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges has attended those meetings.

Last week, the Prime Minister announced that the Government’s democratic council—whatever that is—wanted the immediate creation of the Parliamentary Standards Authority, which would have wide-ranging powers over the House, including those of disciplining and fining Members of Parliament. Since that task has been very well discharged by the Committee on Standards and Privileges for some years, why do the Government want to transfer it to an external, unelected, unaccountable quango, which would in itself turn the clock back several hundred years as regards the powers of this House—a move that would be heartily welcomed by King Charles I?

It was not just the Prime Minister, but all the party leaders who agreed to my right hon. Friend’s proposal to put the setting and administration of our allowances on an independent footing. We should all recognise that a public perception has emerged that we arrange the allowances in our own interests rather than in the interest of our doing our job, that we then administer these allowances within the House of Commons and lean on officials to exercise their judgment in our interests. We need to address that perception so that people can have confidence in the high standards of the House of Commons. The proposal to overcome that perception, which has been subject to wide-ranging discussions and on which we will have further such discussions, is to create an independent Parliamentary Standards Authority so that we can no longer vote on our own allowances, which will be set independently; the functions of the Fees Office will be transferred to that authority. That is the remit of the Parliamentary Standards Authority; rather than questions of conduct in this House, it is all about putting our allowances on a proper, transparent footing with fair and firm rules that will allow us to get on with our job and give the public confidence that the allowance system is being run independently.

The Leader of the House, and, indeed, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) have had the pleasure of giving extensive evidence before Sir Christopher Kelly’s Committee over the last couple of days. Given that Committee’s interest in this matter, would it not be sensible if the draft legislation for the Parliamentary Standards Authority were sent as soon as ready to it for its early consideration so that it can give advice to the House before we set in statute something with which it might profoundly disagree?

The Justice Secretary will meet Sir Christopher Kelly this afternoon, but it might be helpful for Members to see the Parliamentary Standards Authority as the hardware and the inquiry into allowances conducted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and its recommendations for a new allowance system as the software. If, as I hope, we can legislate for and set up the new independent authority before the House rises for the summer, if Sir Christopher Kelly is able to report in, say, October—obviously when he reports is a matter for him, because he is independent and arranges his timetable and inquiries according to his wishes and those of his committee—and if the Parliamentary Standards Authority can begin work in November, it will then be able to deal with Sir Christopher’s proposals on allowances.

We need to make absolutely sure that we get the system right. I hope that no one will think that we can simply carry on as we were after this crisis. There has been a profound undermining of public confidence, and the best way we can handle that is to say “We are not doing this ourselves any more. The allowances are being set independently. What we are doing is getting on with our job of representing our constituents and holding the Executive to account.”

Will the Leader of the House explain what role, if any, the commission headed by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) will have in relation to the Parliamentary Standards Authority—and, by the way, when will that commission report?

The Prime Minister has said that he thinks it would be helpful if a parliamentary Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase addressed a number of issues relating to the way in which the House operates. We must address the knock that confidence in our Parliament has taken by dealing with the allowance system, but that will also give us an opportunity to look more widely at a number of issues that have been on the agenda and should now be dealt with. We intend to table a motion shortly to establish a Committee that will be able to consider direct representations from the public through e-petitioning—the Procedure Committee has already done a good deal of work on that—as well as how the House itself could decide what constitutes non-Government business, and time-limited Select Committees.

Order. May I plead with the Leader of the House for shorter answers? We have only four questions to get through, but we are going to struggle at this rate.

Does the Leader of the House recognise the important principle that except when a serious criminal offence has been committed, the ultimate court of appeal to decide whether a Member is allowed to continue to sit in the House must be the voters? There have historically been a number of occasions on which a Member of Parliament whom the authorities do not like—a rebellionus Member—has been returned at the insistence of the voters.

The right hon. Gentleman has just enunciated a fundamental constitutional principle. We are accountable, because we are accountable to the electors at every general election. If the electors do not want to send a Member back to the House, they do not have to do so. In addition, we are accountable individually to the collective of the House. The House has wide-ranging powers to chuck out any Member at its discretion, and that will cause a by-election. We need to consider whether or not we have used those powers in the way in which the public expect us to.

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been producing rather long answers. I shall try to shorten them, but I thought that we were not going to use up the time. I shall try to get into less expansive mode.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask the Leader of the House briefly and unequivocally to confirm that, while the Parliamentary Standards Authority will deal with the financial matters about which she talked—we all accept that—it will not become an appointed quango with jurisdiction over Members of Parliament? That would be intolerable and unacceptable to any right-thinking Member of Parliament.

I think the answer to that is yes. The jurisdiction will be in respect of considering and paying Members’ allowances. Once we have a Parliamentary Standards Authority, if there is a general consensus that we want it to do more we can discuss that, and if there is a consensus we can ensure that it happens. However, that is not a matter for the initial Parliamentary Standards Authority Bill.

Procedure Committee/Modernisation Committee

18. If she will establish a cross-party committee to review the functions, objectives and roles of the Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee; and if she will make a statement. (280590)

I am sure that the whole House agrees that the starting point for the further modernisation of the House should be the reforms to deal with the loss of confidence caused by the expenses scandal. We will shortly put proposals to the House to establish the new Parliamentary Reform Committee that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last week and to which the Leader of the House has just referred.

The Modernisation Committee has not met for many, many, many months. The Procedure Committee is doing good work and could easily take over the role, functions and responsibilities of the Modernisation Committee. It is chaired by a Back-Bench Member of the House, as are all other Select Committees. Does the Deputy Leader of the House accept that the Committee announced by the Prime Minister should consist of those who have experience of the Modernisation Committee? I have been on the Modernisation Committee since it was formed, chaired the Procedure Committee for two Parliaments and have been in this place for some time. It would be helpful if the Leader of the House or her deputy indicated who is to be appointed to this Committee. Why has the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) been selected? He is a member of the governing party. Would not it be better for an Opposition Member to lead the Committee?

The Modernisation Committee has not met because five of its members, from all parties represented on the Committee, have indicated their desire to leave it. It is up to the parties, through the usual channels, to re-nominate members so that the Modernisation Committee can continue. On chairing the Committee, the Modernisation Committee was aimed at taking forward the Government’s modernisation agenda, so it made sense for the Leader of the House to chair it. Notwithstanding those points, there are many Members, of whom the hon. Gentleman is one, with great experience in these matters. I am sure that they would be welcome members of the new Parliamentary Reform Committee. It is of course up to the parties to decide on nominations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment. My understanding is that the Modernisation Committee was established to drive forward modernisation at a time when there did not seem to be a broad consensus in the House on that objective. Now that there does appear to be a consensus on modernisation and on strengthening the role of the Commons, may I suggest that my hon. Friend looks at ways of simplifying the various Committees that have been set up? There is a danger that many Committees will have difficulties getting members to sit on them to drive forward the agenda. Would not it be better if the agenda were driven by one Committee rather than a plethora of Committees that might not meet very often in some cases?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on my appointment. The Modernisation and Procedure Committees have secured some considerable achievements, but my hon. Friend is right, which is probably why the Prime Minister has accepted that the new Parliamentary Reform Committee should run for a defined period. It can take forward some of the excellent work done by the other two Committees. The Modernisation Committee has a piece of work to finish and will do so shortly. Following the interest shown in this topic, I hope that hon. Members will carry forward the excellent work of the two Committees and will volunteer to sit on the new Parliamentary Reform Committee. Clearly we can look at simplification later in the year.

I congratulate the deputy Leader of the House on her appointment and look forward to working with her as closely as I did with her predecessor on the best practice and business of the House.

On Committees, will the hon. Lady inform us whether the Government have any intention of establishing a Select Committee on science. There is a huge amount of pressure to set up such a Committee, not least from the Minister for Science, the noble Lord Drayson. What is the Government’s position on setting up a Select Committee to consider science policy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Next Thursday we will be considering House business and our aim is to bring forward proposals for the Committee structure he has talked about. We are mindful of the fact that the previous Select Committee on Science and Technology was very popular, and I am sure it would be very welcome in all parts of the House if we were to table a motion to re-establish it.

May I join other Members in welcoming my hon. Friend to her new post? Speaking as a member of both the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee, I urge on her the need for us to be prepared to take forward the work that will be done by the Parliamentary Reform Committee, which, as she said, will meet only for a defined period. I urge her to recognise that the work of the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee significantly overlap and could easily be merged into the Procedure Committee, so ensuring that co-ordinated progress is made.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. This was a question that my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), found himself answering on many occasions at the Dispatch Box, so we really must consider the question put today, and make progress.

I welcome the fact that the energy of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) will be applied to parliamentary reform, but could we not have achieved the same objective by his taking over the chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee?

That is a difficult one for me to answer. The Modernisation Committee, which I have been reading a lot about in the past few days, has registered some great achievements, as has the Procedure Committee; we are very much looking forward to the Procedure Committee’s report on written questions. This is a new initiative, however, and it is very welcome; I do not want anybody to think that we do not very much welcome the new Parliamentary Reform Committee. It is an idea for its time, and the time is now.