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Reform of the House of Commons Committee

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 21 January 2010

20. When the Government plans to respond to the report of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons; and if she will make a statement. (312136)

The Government firmly believe in strengthening the role of the House of Commons, and making Parliament more effective is an essential part of restoring public trust in our political system. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, the Government propose to accept a large number of the recommendations of the Wright Committee’s report, including the election of Chairmen and members of Select Committees, a House Committee for scheduling non-Government businesses, and allowing Back Benchers to initiate debates on motions that will be voted on by the House. We intend to bring the matter to the House for debate and decision on 23 February.

I thank the Leader of the House for that response, and particularly for giving us the date, for which we have all been waiting, on which we will be able to discuss and vote on the Wright Committee proposals. I welcome the fact that the Government are minded to accept many of the proposals, although I would imagine that we are talking about House business, and therefore a free vote, and that it would not be for the Government to accept or reject the proposals. If the Government are accepting most of the proposals, which will she personally be rejecting?

There will be a free vote on this—of course, this is House business—but the hon. Lady will be aware that it is for the Government to table the motions. We take the Wright Committee’s argument that that needs to be done with two characteristics: first, we need to seek consensus in order to take the matter forward, which is certainly what our approach will be, and I look forward to working with her and other hon. Members; and secondly, we need to make progress bit by bit. We will be making a good start and, I hope, a substantive and major start, with four key areas that I have outlined for debate and, I hope, decision by the House on 23 February.

So now we know, after months of prevarication, that the full recommendations of the Wright Committee are not to be put before the House, that the House is not to be trusted to vote on all the recommendations, that the Government will choose those they accept, and that those will be the only ones put before the House. May I suggest to the right hon. and learned Lady that that is simply not right? It is not what was anticipated when the Wright Committee was set up, and it will be a grave disappointment to those who want genuine reform of this House.

I do not think it acceptable to suggest that what we have done is prevaricate. I think the Wright Committee worked with expedition and on a wide-ranging area of complex issues. The Committee itself said that the matter needed to be dealt with bit by bit and that further work was needed on some proposals. The hon. Gentleman has a choice. Either he can seek to work with us to make progress, or he can get in a huff about the process. It is down to him to choose.

The Wright Committee did indeed work with expedition, as the Leader of the House has just said, which is more than the Government have done—23 February is a long way off the eight weeks that the Wright Committee proposed for a response. Further to the question posed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), can she confirm that, whatever the House decides on 23 February, those recommendations will be implemented before the Dissolution of Parliament?

Indeed, we intend to give the House an opportunity to decide on a series of motions that will go beyond being an endorsement in principle and actually give to recommendations. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reflect on his attempt to suggest that we are dragging our feet on this issue. We want to ensure that we work together to bring forward changes that are comprehensively agreed.

The convention is that, after a Select Committee report, the Government have two months in which to make a response. It is 21 January today and the two months is up on 24 January, and I am giving the Government’s response here. The response is that we will have a debate on 23 February and suggest that we go forward in four key areas. Rather than a written response that can be debated generally outside the House, we think that it is better for the Government to give the House the opportunity to debate and decide these issues. Again, I put to the right hon. Gentleman the point that I made to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). He can either get tangled up in an argument about the process or he can accept my suggestion that we work together to make substantive progress on four key areas of the Wright Committee’s proposals.

Having campaigned for the handing back of authority from the Executive to the House for more than a decade—certainly while I was Chairman of the Procedure Committee and as a member of the Modernisation Committee—may I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House, which was signalled yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions? The Leader of the House has chosen the important and fundamental issues that will give greater authority to Back Benchers. As long as the motions will be decided on a free vote, I warmly welcome what she has said in answer to this question, and I look forward to the House having more authority by the time that I leave it at the general election.

The request from the House to the Wright Committee was to make proposals that will—as the hon. Gentleman suggests—strengthen the way in which the House works.