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Leader of the House

Volume 501: debated on Thursday 26 November 2009

The Leader of the House was asked—

Modernisation Committee

20. When she next plans to arrange a meeting of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons. (301685)

Modernisation of the House is taken forward in a number of ways. The parliamentary reform Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), is the most recent development, and it has now reported. The Procedure Committee also looks at ways of reforming the House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that all that is important work.

What the House of Commons desperately needs is sensible and considered reform. When this Government came into office in 1997, they set up the Modernisation Committee, under the cloak of which they have severely restricted the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Executive to account and, furthermore, have stopped us scrutinising legislation properly. Will the Government now scrap the Modernisation Committee, which has not met for over a year, and give us a proper opportunity, through making time available in the House of Commons, to debate the Reform of the House of Commons Committee report that has just been published?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Modernisation Committee has achieved a number of things that have all helped with House scrutiny.

The commitment to more draft Bills, earlier sittings on Thursdays, sittings in Westminster Hall—[Interruption.] Select Committee reports can be debated in Westminster Hall. Deferred Divisions—

Yes, topical debates. For Select Committees, there has been the introduction of core tasks and the creation of the Scrutiny Unit. For oral parliamentary questions, notice has been reduced so that they are more topical. There are also earlier sittings, the carry-over of Bills, the connecting of Parliament with the public and Public Bill Committee evidence-taking. I rest my case.

A Justice Department Bill is due to come before the House in early January. Can my hon. Friend give me a commitment that the compensation scheme for the victims of Mumbai, Sharm el-Sheikh, Bali and other terrorist incidents, which was promised by the Prime Minister and other colleagues and which the Government were supposed to put in the Queen’s Speech, will be included in the Bill?

Order. As always, the right hon. Gentleman’s ingenuity is to the fore, but the relationship between that question and the question on the Order Paper is at best tangential, and at worst non-existent, so I suggest it is not answered.

As the longest-serving member of the Modernisation Committee in this House, and as a past Chairman of the Procedure Committee, may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether she thinks it is time for the Modernisation Committee to meet again, not least to discuss the proposals in the Reform of the House of Commons Committee report, bearing in mind that many of them originated in the Modernisation Committee under the inspired leadership of the late Mr. Cook?

The hon. Gentleman put a question to me on this matter some weeks ago. As he has said, there is a continuum of modernisation. On that earlier occasion, I said that we would bring forward our proposals to establish a new Committee on parliamentary reform. It was established, it has reported, and we are now considering its proposals.

Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that we need to discuss the report of the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and that we also need quickly to secure cross-party agreement to introduce the reforms before the next election? We must do this quickly.

Of course the House will need to debate the report and come to a decision on any changes, but we should reflect on the fact that the report was published only two days ago.

The Minister has acknowledged that although the Modernisation Committee has not met for some time, the process continues. Can we therefore have an early opportunity to make a decision on the Procedure Committee’s report on the principle of electing our Deputy Speakers?

Having served on the Modernisation Committee, the Procedure Committee and, more recently, the parliamentary reform Committee, may I say that it makes eminent sense for the Modernisation Committee to be rolled into the Procedure Committee and for us to bolster the powers of that Select Committee, which has done valiant work and could do so even more?

That is very disappointing, because a lack of urgency is being shown by those on the Government Benches, given just how little time is left to make these reforms stick before the end of this Parliament. The Modernisation Committee was a great betrayal, because it was meant to bring forward reforms to improve the accountability of Parliament. The promise was that we would get proper management of the business throughout the year in return for the programming of Bills, but instead we have just had guillotines by the back door. Many of the reforms that the Minister talked about have come from the Procedure Committee. It should be left to get on with reforming the procedures of this House and the Government should make clear how much urgency will go into ensuring that these reforms are introduced.

I have said that we are expecting to have a debate and to come to decisions about any changes on which we need to proceed. A great deal of work is going on in this place; I have read out a number of the things for which the Modernisation Committee was responsible, and a great deal of consideration is being given at the moment to reform.

Expenses and Allowances

21. Whether she plans to bring forward proposals for legislation to implement recommendations contained in the report on MPs’ expenses and allowances from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. (301686)

The Government have accepted the recommendations in the Committee’s report and will bring forward any legislation that may be necessary to implement them.

I note that answer, but it is rather unspecific. The Kelly report contains specific proposals that require primary legislation, so can the Deputy Leader of the House give us any more detail about when those specific measures will be brought forward, given that relatively few sitting days are left before the end of this Parliament and therefore it will not be able to introduce some of those measures if she does not get a move on?

We are in discussion with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Committee on Standards in Public Life about what legislation is necessary. When we reach agreement as a result of that discussion, we will introduce the necessary measures.

Parliamentary Questions

22. What steps she is taking to ensure that hon. Members’ parliamentary questions are answered by Ministers in as full a manner as possible. (301687)

25. What steps she is taking to ensure that hon. Members’ parliamentary questions are answered by Ministers in as full and timely a manner as possible. (301690)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has today responded to the Procedure Committee report on written parliamentary questions. That response sets out how the Government plan to improve the quality and timeliness of answers to written parliamentary questions.

Which Minister did the Deputy Leader of the House admonish for tardiness most recently, and have things got better since she intervened?

The hon. Gentleman is talking about a very recent meeting with a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions. As it took place only very recently, we would not be expecting that quick a recovery to have been made, but we hope for an improvement.

I note the Minister’s comment about the production of the report. Does it include a league table of the quality, timeliness and performance of Departments? If not, why not?

The Government have accepted the following recommendations: that there should be regular monitoring of the number of questions answered later than the answering period of five days; that better guidance should be provided for Ministers and officials on answering questions; and that further work should be done by the Procedure Committee on challenging unsatisfactory answers. It certainly is a good idea to list performance by Department so that people can see that.

As well as the admonishment referred to by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), are the Government considering any sanctions that would deal with the issue of questions that are not answered in a timely or substantive way?

It is a question of transparency monitoring and reminders at this stage. We have also recently published guidance on answering written questions in a guide to parliamentary work that is published on the Cabinet Office website. There has been a great amount of activity in guidance, monitoring and transparency and we hope that that will do the trick.

In June, I raised the issue of inadequate answers to written questions, because the practice was simply to refer to information being available in the House Library. The then Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), said that he would write to every Minister to ensure that that practice did not continue. However, since then matters have not changed, as Members on both sides of the House will confirm. In fact, I have received five replies that conform to the old practice.

For example, a reply on carer’s allowance on 7 July from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), simply said:

“The information has been placed in the Library.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 740W.]

Again, a reply on 12 October from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), simply said:

“A set of tables containing the information requested has been placed in the House Library.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 356W.]

That is not acceptable. Rather than simply going to a Committee and giving evidence, as she has just mentioned, will the Deputy Leader of the House have stern words with her colleagues and ensure that we receive the proper information, particularly on behalf of members of the public who do not have the easy access to the Library that Members have?

It was not me who gave the evidence to the Committee, but my predecessor. I have quite recently had a meeting with an individual Minister and officials, when I used very stern words; I am prepared to do that. I am always happy to consider individual cases. If the guidance that my predecessor set out has not been followed, I would be very happy to take up the cases that the shadow Deputy Leader of the House has raised. Let me reiterate that the Government’s recent response to the Procedure Committee’s report supports further work on challenging unsatisfactory answers. I shall take that forward and I hope the Procedure Committee will decide to do so, too.