[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, Session 2008-09, on Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, and the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Committee on 10 February 2010, HC 372-i.The First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 2009-10, on Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, HC 272.]
As the House will be aware, I have imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. I hope that the House will also understand that that limit will apply after the contribution by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I call the Leader of the House.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the report from the House of Commons Reform Committee on rebuilding the House.
This is going to be an important day in the history of reform of this House. If, as I hope, we take forward the reforms which we are debating today, this will be the most far-reaching package of reforms that has ever been agreed. We will debate the reforms today, and then we will return to these issues next week, on 4 March, to vote.
The House needs reform to give more power to Back Benchers and to give the House more power over the Government. And the House needs reform to help restore its reputation, which has been battered by the expenses revelations.
This is House business; it is not Government business. When we come to vote on Thursday next week, it will be a free vote for Labour Members, not a whipped vote.
Will the Leader of the House spell out in a little more detail how she envisages our business on next Thursday will be conducted? Will this be our sole business, followed by a vote, or will there be topical debates and other business beforehand? I know that the right hon. and learned Lady will agree that not only must there be a free vote, but as many Members as possible should vote, and it would therefore be extremely helpful if we were to have as much notice about this as possible.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I can get on with explaining how I want to take this business forward, and I hope I will be able to answer most questions before they are asked.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave you advance notice of a matter relating to Standing Order No. 24B that causes me a good deal of concern. I tried to table a manuscript amendment because it seems to me that we must be able to ensure that an amendment can be put to this motion in order to guarantee that the Standing Orders are not simply with the Executive, but revert to the Speaker himself. I would be grateful if you would take that point on board, Mr. Speaker, because it lies at the heart of the debate we are about to engage in.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter, although I am not sure that I am all together grateful to him for raising it when he did, as the debate has already begun and, although the hon. Gentleman is not technically out of order, it is a little discourteous to raise a point of order when the Leader of the House has already started her speech. I hope we will not see a repetition of that, but let me address this matter as I understand it. I understand that the hon. Gentleman did, indeed, seek to table an amendment to the motion on the Order Paper, and what I say to him is that I think he will know from his extensive knowledge of procedure that Standing Order No. 24B provides that when such a motion is tabled
“in neutral terms, then no amendments may be tabled to it.”
I hope the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his substantive point later in the debate. Meanwhile, however, I call the Leader of the House.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
As I was saying, this is House business, not Government business, and when we come to vote on Thursday next week, from our side it will be a free vote, not a whipped vote. However, I want to set out to the House—
Will the Leader of the House give way?
I think it might be helpful if I get on with delivering my short speech, because, at the end of the day, it is for all hon. Members not to ask me what I think, but to work out for themselves what they think about the motions on the Order Paper. I will therefore press on with my speech, and then the right hon. Gentleman will be able to work out for—
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way to any other Member.
I am very grateful to the Leader of the House, as what I want to say relates precisely to the point she has just raised. She said this would not be a whipped vote. We have had votes before that were said not to be whipped votes, but at which people bearing a striking resemblance to Government Whips were visible outside the Lobby giving general directions to Government party Members as to where they would like them to go. Will that happen on this occasion?
This is not going to be a whipped vote; it will be a free vote. If people want to accept advice from dear friends and colleagues of any political party, they can do so, but the serious point here is that this will not be a whipped vote. I should also point out that in some of the votes to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, he will have seen that different members of the Government went into a different Lobby and, indeed, different members of the Whips Office went into a different Lobby, so the fact that there might be lively debate at the entrance to the Lobby does not mean votes are not free votes. I want it to be absolutely clear that, from our side, this will be a free vote, not a whipped vote, and there is nothing mysterious about that.
I want to set out to the House my views, in particular on the four key recommendations of the House of Commons Reform Committee. Before the general election, I want us to have done the following: to have approved and put in place plans to elect Chairs of Select Committees by secret ballot and to elect members of Select Committees by each party in the House by a secret ballot; to have provided for Members’ motions, where Members can table a debate on a motion that the House will vote on; and to have established a Committee of the House to decide on Back-Bench business. Those are the four key recommendations of the House of Commons Reform Committee that I would like the House to take through. These measures will mark a major step forward in the process of reform that has been under way over the past years, and which was given new impetus by the Prime Minister in his statement of 3 July 2007, when he said:
“All Members of this House and all the people of this country have a shared interest in building trust in our democracy, and it is my hope that, by working together for change in a spirit that takes us beyond parties and beyond partisanship, we can agree a new British constitutional settlement that entrusts more power to Parliament and the British people.”—[Official Report, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 815.]
This process of reform has—
I am sorry to interrupt, because I know that my right hon. and learned Friend wishes to be brief in order to allow hon. Members to contribute. I believe that underlying much of the report without being mentioned—I have said this to the Committee—is the slippery slope to the separation of powers. Will she reaffirm that she and others in the Government do not want to see the Executive removed from this House and do not want to see the future of this House put in the hands of personalities who do not have the loyalty to values that they told their electorate they came in to share?
I do not think that the proposals from the Committee, which I am supporting, are the slippery slope to the separation of powers; what they are is an opportunity for this House to hold the Government more to account and to help in the work of this House.
Indeed, that process of reform has brought major changes over the past 13 years, including improvements in the process of legislation. Such improvements have included: Bills being published in draft, thus enabling pre-legislative scrutiny; Bill Committees taking evidence in public sessions before they deliberate on a Bill; and the establishment of a new system of post-legislative scrutiny, so that we check on the impact of legislation that the House has passed.
The changes have involved more power for Back Benchers, through their being able to ask a Minister questions without giving notice; through the election of the Speaker by secret ballot; through the Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs questioning the Prime Minister twice a year; and through the strengthening of Select Committees by increasing research resources and by paying Select Committee Chairs.
Progress has been made on getting greater public involvement in and understanding of this House. That has come about through a big improvement in our education and information programmes, and by allowing the UK Youth Parliament to meet in this Chamber. I hope we can build on that by letting other organisations, for example, the pensioners annual convention, to meet in our Chamber when we are not sitting.
No, I am not going to give way.
Improvements have been made to the way in which the House works, for example, we now have an earlier start and an earlier finish on two days of the week—we could still make more progress on this, and perhaps we will when the new Members arrive after the next election. We also now have an Order Paper that Members can understand and, thanks in large part to you, Mr. Speaker, we will at long last have a nursery for the children of Members and of House staff.
I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He really does not need to ask me any questions, because he can read the Order Paper, he can make his own speech and he can make up his own mind. I am sure that he has the answer to his own question.
So we are not starting from scratch. The proposals that the House will consider today and next week are not the beginning of reform, nor will they be the end of it. However, they are substantial reforms, and I should like warmly to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) for making the suggestion of setting up this Committee and for accepting the Prime Minister’s invitation that he should chair it. I should also like to thank the members of the Committee for working hard in a short space of time.
I know that many Members are waiting to speak, so I will not speak at great length today. In addition, this is House business, so it is important for all Members from all parts of the House to have their say. Members will have had the chance to see my written ministerial statement of 9 February and some will have had the opportunity to hear the evidence that I gave to the House of Commons Reform Committee on 10 February, and I have had the opportunity on successive Thursdays at business questions to set out my views. The Deputy Leader of the House and I will listen carefully to the debate, but at the end of the day—or at least at the end of 4 March—this is a matter for the House, not the Government, and it is for the House itself to decide. The Government are facilitators here, not deciders. Because we want to see further reform of the House, we have taken this forward by doing the following: bringing the motion to the House to set up the House of Commons Reform Committee— that was a Government initiative—tabling motions on 5 February, again that was a Government initiative; tabling this debate today; and providing for the votes next week.
I want to say a few words about the process that I have set out for making progress. The Committee reported at the end of November last year. We then identified 21 proposals that could be turned into motions and we have accordingly tabled 16 motions to give effect to those 21 proposals. We tabled those motions 17 days before this debate to give plenty of time for hon. Members to consider them and to table and support amendments.
I have told the House that, in particular, we want to see the four “big ticket” items taken forward. There are, therefore, on the Order Paper motions that would, if passed, mandate further work or give effect to those four big ticket items by making the changes to Standing Orders and other changes that are required. I thought that it was important to have those motions on the Order Paper today for three reasons. First, they constitute the Government’s response to the Reform of the House of Commons Committee’s report. Secondly, they frame the debate today. Thirdly, when we conclude the debate tonight we have the opportunity for at least some of the motions—if everyone agrees to them—to go through on the nod. By leaving the substantive votes to next week, I have spared the House the prospect of starting what might turn into a series of 20 or more votes at 10 o’clock tonight.
What is wrong with that?
I do not think that it is in the interest of the House for us to be voting until 5 o’clock in the morning on these proposals. The hon. Gentleman should be reassured that any motions that are not agreed to tonight will be tabled as substantive motions for debate and vote on 4 March, and there will be a series of votes on those motions and on the amendments to them. We will have a full day’s debate today. Any motions that are not objected to will become resolutions of the House.
What about the resolutions that the right hon. and learned Lady has not tabled today to implement some of the Committee’s recommendations? Will they be tabled on 4 March?
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to outline in his speech the recommendation that he feels should be the subject of a motion, we can consider it and bring it to the House in a substantive motion. We have plenty of time to do that. If it is suitable, it could be tabled by way of an amendment. We have tabled these motions to say what the Government’s position is—I think that it is fair enough that we should be able to set out our position—but there is nothing about this procedure that prevents other hon. Members from bringing issues that arise from the Wright report to the House for a vote. Hon. Members should be reassured about that. They will be able to vote on everything on which they want to vote that arises from the Committee’s report not tonight but on Thursday week.
I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Lady can help us on this point. She will know that the major omission in the motions that she has tabled comes in motion 9, which concerns the Back-Bench business committee. She will know that an amendment has been tabled by myself and a great number of other colleagues from around the House to establish a House business committee. May I be clear about whether she supports that amendment and, if she accepts it, how we can make that happen under the procedure that she has adopted? The only way that we can debate and vote on that amendment is if we object to the first part of the motion, which many of us would not wish to do.
I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance on that. I was planning to deal with it later, so I shall carry on and, I hope, he and all other hon. Members will be reassured.
Any motions objected to will be tabled as substantive amendable motions for a short debate on 4 March and we will then vote on those motions and any amendments selected by the Speaker. Amendments have already been tabled—in particular an amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and 129 other hon. Members—to enable the House business committee to deal with Government business as well as non-Government business. As I said when I gave evidence to the Reform of the House of Commons Committee on 10 February, I think that the best way forward is to set up a House committee for non-Government business. The next step—a committee to set Government business—should be proceeded with subsequently and in the light of the experience of the non-Government business committee.
The Committee itself recognises, in paragraph 16 of its report, that the proposals
“will inevitably need implementation in stages”,
and that some
“can only come into effect in a new Parliament”.
It also recognises the importance of building on experience of the changes.
The amendment to our motion setting up a House committee for non-Government business would approve the establishment of a House business committee for Government business
“during the course of the next Parliament”,
and when it comes to the vote, I will vote for it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is concerned that there should be an opportunity to vote on something that the Government are not putting forward—that the House business committee should be able to put forward the agenda for the House in relation to Government business as well as non-Government business. As that is not one of the four main items that we are recommending to the House—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Will hon. Members bear with me? We are trying to make our position clear. As that is not one of the four big ticket items that we want to see taken forward, we are not tabling it as a resolution, but we have seen the amendment and we assume that it will be selected as an amendment and can therefore be voted on. If it is selected, I will vote on it—[Hon. Members: “For it?”] I will vote for it, yes. What did I say? [Hon. Members: “On it.”] I will vote for it. I want to reassure the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and other hon. Members that I understand full well that if 130 Members ask for a particular proposal from the Wright Committee report to be voted on, the House needs to be able to vote on it. I will make sure that the House can vote on it one way or another. If Mr. Speaker decides, at his discretion, to select it as an amendment, it will come to the House, and if he does not select it, a substantive motion will be tabled to ensure that it can be voted on. I will vote for it, but that does not mean that it is one of the four big things that the Government are urging the House to do.
All this might appear to some people to be nothing more than procedure and technicalities, but I believe that it is important. The relationship between the Government and the House of Commons is important.
I am grateful to hear that the Minister will support the amendment—or words to the same effect—of which I am one of the sponsors, but would it not be sensible and less confusing if she were to table in her name, as a Minister, the wording on which all the sponsors agree? If she did that, we would not have to rely on it being selected as an amendment to something that might otherwise not be on Thursday’s Order Paper if it is not objected to tonight. Would not it be clearer if she co-operated with the process, made it clear that she supports the measure and joined others in proposing it?
I do not think that things need to be unclear. I have said that I will make sure that the issue comes to be voted on by the House—the issue being that there should be a House committee that will decide Government business. When we come to vote on that issue, all hon. Members will be able to decide for themselves, on a free vote, how to vote, and they should not find it confusing because it will be there on the Order Paper. We have not put the wording in a substantive motion because the motions that we have tabled are those that we support and urge the House to support. Other hon. Members have proposed that the House committee should deal with Government business as well as non-Government business, and I, as a Member of the House on a free vote, have said that I will support that amendment. Hon. Members should be reassured that, whether or not the issue comes to the House by way of an amendment to a substantive motion, if it looks as though it might not be selected or that we might not get to vote on it, on 4 March, I will arrange, as Leader of the House, for it to be voted on. I do not know how many times I must say that to make it absolutely clear. I recognise that there is a climate of suspicion. [Interruption.] There need not be a climate of suspicion—this is perfectly clear and straightforward—and it would be helpful to the House to realise what the Government are urging on the House and what other colleagues are urging on the House, and we can support their proposals or not, depending on the view that we take.
A lot of people outside the House might think that this is very procedural and technical—I should think that they would be encouraged in that thought by the last discussion that we have just had—but it is important because of the relationship between the Government and the House of Commons, and it is important to the House of Commons and to our democracy. It is important for public trust that a Government can implement the manifesto on which they were elected. There is keen public concern about Governments keeping their election promises. Although few, if any, of us have met someone on the doorstep who raises the matter of House of Commons procedures, people want an effective House of Commons, which scrutinises legislation and properly holds the Government to account.
This is House business, and we should work together on it. I look forward to hearing the shadow Leader of the House, and I hope that we can debate this in the spirit of House business. This is important for Back Benchers and Front Benchers and for hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that, together, we can take through these major reforms.
I respond to that challenge from the Leader of the House by saying that they do not come much more consensual than the shadow Leader of the House of Commons. We are grateful for this opportunity finally to debate these important reforms, although, of course, we will not be able to vote on them today. I agree with her that the report represents a chance for the House to change, and it is chance that we should seize.
We all acknowledge that the past year has been a disastrous one for Parliament, and I believe that there are two ingredients if we are to rebuild public confidence in this institution. Putting right the expenses scandal is one half, which has occupied much of our time. The other half is enabling Parliament to do its job better. A Parliament untainted by sleaze would be a step forward, but it needs to be accompanied by reforms that enable us to hold the Government to account more effectively and, indeed, to represent our constituents more effectively.
These opportunities come relatively infrequently, and we muffed the last one in 2002, when the Cook reforms to Select Committees were voted down. We can show the public today that we can be constructive and collaborative, not just confrontational and relentlessly partisan. In that spirit, I congratulate the cross-party Committee on Reform of the House of Commons on a landmark report that was produced in record time.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there are some problems with the Committee? It was elected by the different parties in the House, but because there had not been proper discussions beforehand, it ended up being fairly unrepresentative. [Interruption.] A Committee of 19, with only two women and no one from Scotland is simply not acceptable any more. If the House is to proceed with the recommendations, there must be ways to ensure that what he says is important—decent representation—is reflected in how we do these things.
I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree. The best way to get a representative sample on a Committee is to have an election. After all, that is how we all got here.
I was congratulating the cross-party Committee on its report. In June last year, I welcomed the fact that the energies of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) would be applied to this subject; he is an experienced Chairman of Select Committees and that experience underpins much of the report. I had the pleasure to serve, briefly, on his Committee until I was persuaded to go elsewhere; had I remained on it, I am sure that I would have signed the report. I have a background of work on Democracy Task Force that has indicated my interest in and appetite for reform. On behalf of all my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I pay tribute to the Committee.
The Leader of the House is always keen to point out that there has been a continual process of what the Government like to call “modernisation” since 1997. I recognise that there have indeed been some real improvements to the working practices of the House. Westminster Hall has been a success. Public Bill Committees have benefited from formal evidence sessions. Our sitting hours are less extraordinary and more amenable to family life. No one wants to return to all-night sittings. The Prime Minister’s appearance before the Liaison Committee is another welcome innovation.
Parliament may have needed modernising, but it certainly needed strengthening, and some of the measures that modernised it also weakened it, such as the automatic guillotining of Bills. The reduced sitting hours were accompanied by an increase in legislation which we have been unable to digest. One source of the problems that we seek to address today was the creation of the Modernisation Committee, chaired not, as would be appropriate, by a senior Back Bencher, but by a Cabinet Minister—an arrangement that my party is committed to ending.
The Government said that that would allow Parliament to own the process, but it has not. It ensured that the Government dictated the pace of change. When it suited the Government, the reforms happened, and when it did not, they did not. The report says as much in paragraph 4.
The right hon. and learned Lady spoke a great deal about consensus, but where was the consensus on regional Select Committees when she used her casting vote to force the report before the House? Nor was there consensus when it reached the House with 254 in favour and 224 against. When the Government want reform, as they did a fortnight ago when they wanted voting reform, we got a debate, we got amendments and we got votes. But when they are less than keen, as is the case today, we do not get that. We get a “take note” debate, and a single shout of “Object!” obstructs progress.
Would the right hon. Gentleman like to see votes today or on 4 March? He objects to the fact that a Member can shout “Object!” and the debate and the votes are thereby deferred until another time, but I get the impression that most hon. Members want the so-called reforms to go through on the nod. I do not understand.
In all the previous debates in which I have taken part, we have had a debate and then we have voted on a series of propositions, with amendments. That is how, in the past, the House has dealt with reform. It is a perfectly acceptable way of doing that and one that the House is used to. What is being proposed today is unusual. This is an unorthodox way of dealing with reform, and I happen to prefer the way that we have dealt with it so far.
On the report, it was encouraging that the Prime Minister agreed to the proposition from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and, in doing so, appeared to understand that, as the report says,
“the Modernisation Committee has run out of steam”,
but despite the Prime Minister’s assurances in his statement that this would be an “urgent” process, it was a full seven weeks later, and just one day before the summer recess, before the Committee was formally set up.
Lethargy also seemed to settle on the Government once the report was published on 24 November. The Committee made it clear in paragraph 15 that it expected a debate
“within the next two months when a House majority can freely determine the outcome.”
What it has got today, three months later, is a debate at the end of which, as we have heard, one shout can block a recommendation. Also, only the recommendations of which the Government approve are on the Order Paper.
That contradicts the astonishing claim made by the right hon. and learned Lady in an interview yesterday with the BBC that the Government have been “on the front foot”. In fact, the Government have been always one step behind. They tried to restrict the terms of reference to exclude Government business. That is what they did at the beginning, then they backed down. They stalled on having a debate. They originally wanted to avoid bringing back to the House any proposals that were objected to, but that is now going to happen.
Ten days ago, the Government said that they did not think the time was right to have a House business committee, but yesterday, in a welcome but rather blatant about-turn, the right hon. and learned Lady said that she would vote for the amendment that would see a House business committee established in the next Parliament. Far from leading from the front, she has rather been dragging her feet. Like the Duke of Plaza-Toro, she has been leading her regiment from behind.
Following his comprehensive indictment of the Government’s attitude, does my right hon. Friend agree that serious consideration should be given to whether the Executive should control the Standing Orders? Will he go further and suggest that we should return to the practice when Parliament was really vibrant, as a former Clerk of the House clearly indicated in a recent article, and that the Speaker, not the Executive, should have control over the Standing Orders?
I shall shelter behind Mr. Speaker’s ruling at the beginning of the debate.
The proposals before us give the House much more power than it has, and we should rally behind them and try to get them up and running. I should welcome the chance to embark on the broader debate about where control of Standing Orders should lie, but that is separate from the debate before us. Nevertheless, I am glad that the right hon. and learned Lady now backs the stance that we publicly took before the Wright report was published, namely that the Government should relinquish their grip on the agenda of the House.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will spend some time on that issue, because my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement today was the most significant one that we could expect. She did not say whether the Government would vote for the proposition, but she did say that she would. Do not we as a House have to reassure Governments that they have a right to get through mandated business if the electorate are to hold them to account? This House might determine the timetable by which Governments get it through, but for unmandated business, which is not in election manifestos, there will be much more of a struggle between the new business committee and the Government. My right hon. and learned Friend made an important point when she stressed that the issue is not just about how we govern our affairs, but about how Governments are held to account by the electorate.
I also drew a distinction between the propositions that the Government support, which are the motions before us today, and the proposition that the right hon. and learned Lady will personally back, namely the proposal for a business committee. I deduced from the way in which she gave her commitment that other members of the Government may not share that commitment in the same way that they share the commitment to the other motions before us.
On the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises, I think that any Government should take some comfort from paragraph 29, which states:
“We should recognise that the Government is entitled to a guarantee of having its own business, and in particular Ministerial legislation, considered at a time of its own choosing, and concluded by a set date.”
That guarantee on the mandate in the manifesto gives the Government—any Government—the comfort that they need, and once paragraph 29 is set in statute they can afford to be more relaxed about the rest of the business of the House.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I move on.
The right hon. and learned Lady asked me what I thought we should do on 4 March. I think that the Government should table all the resolutions of the Wright Committee and let the House come to a judgment on them, rather than picking, choosing and tabling only those that they prefer. That would be in the spirit of the establishment of the Wright Committee and the respectful way to proceed with the report.
The right hon. and learned Lady referred to the big ticket items, but there are some important little ticket items, which the motions before us do not cover, such as giving the Opposition more flexibility on Opposition days. Will she look at some of the other recommendations and see whether they cannot be progressed?
On the little ticket items, does my right hon. Friend not accept that, unfortunately, there is no motion to be voted on relating to the way in which the House deals with amendments on Report and Lords amendments? Those stages are currently programmed, and important issues often cannot be debated at all because time runs out. Is it not inappropriate that programming be used on Report and for the remaining stages of a Bill, when that could be a Member’s only opportunity to contribute?
What a first-class intervention from my hon. Friend! His point is covered in an amendment, which he has signed, that specifically refers to ensuring
“more effective scrutiny of legislation at Report Stage and consideration of Lords Amendments.”
More broadly, however, none of that will happen unless there is some self-discipline by any Government over not only the sheer volume of the legislation that they put before the House, but its quality. Unless they get that right, they will simply pre-empt House time and squeeze out many other debates.
Ultimately, the process that we have been through in the past few weeks has made the case even more effectively than the report for the Executive to relinquish their grip on the business of Parliament. I cannot put it better than the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who said with characteristic panache:
“The power of these shadowy forces at work behind the scenes demonstrates more clearly than ever why the Wright Committee recommendations need to be implemented in full, and that the clammy fingers of the whips and Government business managers are prised once and for all off matters that are for Parliament rather than for party”.
I do not have bloody hands. I have never believed in doing things in any way other than straightforwardly and openly.
Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that his suggestions will not mean that instead of people talking and coming to agreements in this House, the media will have campaigns as to who they want to be Chair of this Committee or that Committee, and that we will get the grandstanders rather than the workhorses? In any democracy, one needs a balance, as he well knows.
The right hon. Lady devalues the judgments of those who share the Labour Benches with her. The notion that when they vote in a secret ballot for members of a Select Committee they will be unduly influenced by the media is strictly for the birds. They will vote for the people they think will do the best job on that particular Committee—
Such as the hon. Member for Reading, West.
I thank the shadow Leader of the House for reminding me of one of my better quotes. Let me point out to him that I was talking about shadowy forces on the Opposition Front Bench as well. I congratulate him on winning the battle in his shadow Cabinet to come off the fence on the Wright Committee proposals, because the dark forces are on both sides of this Chamber.
I reject unequivocally any implication of dissent within the shadow Cabinet. The Chief Whip and I are as brothers on this issue.
Turning briefly to the substance of the Wright reforms, I can tell the House that the report has the broad support of those on the Conservative Front Bench. The votes are, of course, free votes, but as a possible Executive-in-waiting we have had to take a view on the proposal that the Executive should relinquish some of the powers that they have, and we believe that they should.
We are already committed to the election of Select Committee Chairmen and members—a long overdue reform. I served on the Committee of Selection in 2001, when the Government Whips proposed Select Committees that excluded Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody. I called a Division, and it was like something out of a Bateman cartoon—the man who called a Division in the Committee of Selection. Had it not been for the activities of the Government Whips, a system such as the one before us would have been introduced eight years ago under Robin Cook. They now have a second chance to redeem themselves.
We have no problem with the Government’s motions, as far as they go. We are grateful for the amendments that the Leader of the House has taken on board during the past week in the light of suggestions that have been made. I welcome the call for the Liaison Committee to review the whole system of Select Committees, particularly to consider the competing demands on Members’ time. Having been the Chairman of a Select Committee, I have long thought that the size of membership should be no more than 11 to allow for a more focused discussion and a more manageable meeting. I think that the six-week time scale that is envisaged for establishing Select Committees at the beginning of a Parliament is rather unambitious, and I hope that it might be possible to act faster.
Having strengthened the independence of Select Committees, the next step should be to give them greater access to the Chamber. That is touched on but not fully developed in the report. My party’s proposal would be to give the Liaison Committee a quota of 12 statements per year that it could draw on to enable a Select Committee to present its report to the House and answer questions on it. That would challenge the monopoly on statements currently held by Ministers and give Select Committee Chairmen access to the Chamber during prime time. I would have liked that to happen in November, when the hon. Member for Cannock Chase presented his report.
We think that there should be a Back-Bench business committee. I hope that it might be up and running at the beginning of the next Parliament, as suggested in the motion; it would be a disappointment if that did not happen. I personally would like it to set the subject for the first topical debate in the next Parliament. We should then progressively give the committee more influence, with the Government handing over to it the 15 days currently allocated for set-piece debates such as those on defence and Public Accounts Committee reports, referred to in paragraph 145 of the report. If it wanted, it could have a different configuration of debates from the one that we have at the moment. It could then be given the days for general debates mentioned in paragraph 146, totalling about 12 days, which might lead to its being given a day or half a day a week for Back Benchers’ business. Once that system is up and running, we should move in the lifetime of the next Parliament towards a more collaborative and transparent system of dealing with House business as a whole, as I have made clear by signing the amendment on the Order Paper.
May I take the right hon. Gentleman back slightly to his point about reports and statements from Select Committees? I agree about the need for statements and proper debate on reports on the Floor of the House, but when a Select Committee comes up with an innovative proposal for legislation or for a change that requires Government support, the Government can simply acknowledge the report but do nothing about it. Does he recognise that there is a need for Select Committees persistently to be able to follow their own agenda and make proposals on the Floor of the House?
There is a specific proposal, which I support, that Select Committee debates should take place on a substantive motion, but that would be separate from what I was just talking about, which was Select Committee Chairmen being able to present a report in prime time on the day it comes out.
Where do the Opposition stand on allowing the House, subject to the Prime Minister’s approval, to elect the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee?
I have no difficulty with the recommendation of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons on that subject.
Both I and the Leader of the Opposition have given public commitments that the Government should relinquish their grip on the timetable of the House. When the Leader of the House gave evidence a fortnight ago, she accused me of not being in favour of a House business committee. That was particularly unfair as we had not had an opportunity to put our views in the public domain, and I hope that she now accepts that that is not the case.
There has been a lot of talk, including by the right hon. Gentleman, about how the House business committee will open up business and make it more transparent. How exactly will it do that? Will it not just add seven or nine Back Benchers to the general backroom dealings?
The Committee’s proposition was that the business committee should meet and then put a proposition before the House, which the House could agree to or amend if it did not like it. That would be a more transparent and collaborative process than the one that we have at the moment, in which the business is announced on a Thursday and we have to take it or leave it. There is no opportunity to amend it or come up with a different version.
The Committee has talked of putting together the pieces of the jigsaw, and as its report states, the reforms will
“inevitably need implementation in stages.”
I agree with that. No Government should be expected to put the whole jigsaw puzzle together on day one. Indeed, the Committee has not asked for that. However, I hope that what I have set out today will reassure the House that we are genuinely in favour of a more collaborative and transparent arrangement of business than has existed until now.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make progress, if the hon. Lady does not mind, because a lot of people want to speak.
I turn finally to the section of the report on public engagement, which is perhaps the least engaging part of it. I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that we must start to reflect on the wider of question of how to open up better lines of communication between us and our constituents. My party has made proposals to introduce debates in Parliament on public petitions and other citizens’ initiatives. We welcome the Government’s commitment to make progress on a number of the recommendations on outreach, and I welcome the House’s views on that.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
No, I am in mid-peroration. [Interruption.]
Order. I think the shadow Leader of the House has made it clear that he is not giving way.
Today we have a chance to move our agenda on from the expenses scandal to making the House work more effectively. We must make an early start on cutting the democratic deficit and restoring confidence in our political system. A credible package of reforms must be in place by the time of a general election. Many of the reforms before us are long overdue, but they are steps in the right direction. They will make the House more responsive to topical events, more relevant to national debate and better equipped to scrutinise Executive decisions and hold the Government to account. My message to the House is simple: let’s get on with it.
Before I say something about the product of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee’s labours, I want to talk about the process. Much of the commentary on it has been negative, and we have heard some of the same today. Many have pointed to the long delay in getting the Committee established after its urgency was announced by the Prime Minister, the even longer delay in finding a way to enable the House to express a view on the Committee’s recommendations and to other delays and difficulties as an illustration of some of the issues identified in the Committee’s report. However, I want to say something positive about the process.
The fact that members of the Committee were elected by their party colleagues, with the embarrassing exception of myself, gave its work an energy and authority, and indicated future possibilities. The fact that we were working to a very tight timetable—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am working to a very tight timetable, but how can I not give way to a former Chief Whip?
As my hon. Friend knows, I want reform but I do not agree with some of his proposals. Does he agree that there was a problem with those elections, certainly in the Labour party, because no one was given details of what people were proposing? We went into the ballot booth blind, and did not know how many people who supported the separation of powers were going to end up on the Committee.
I am genuinely puzzled by what my right hon. Friend is saying, not least because she did not put herself forward for election. There was no requirement to be a reformer of the House—anybody could have put themselves forward for membership of the Committee. I had no idea what kind of Committee we were going to get. That is what the electoral process does.
As I said, the Committee worked to a tight timetable, but the fact of election indicated future possibilities. We were not finally established until the day before the summer recess and were committed to report by the end of the Session, which gave an urgency and intensity to our work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his report, which I warmly welcome. Does he acknowledge that the proposed modernisations are a modest step, and that they should form a platform for much more ambitious change in future Parliaments? Does he accept that?
Not only do I accept that, but the hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was going to say.
We recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the modern Select Committee system. The Procedure Committee that recommended that sat for more than two years, but we produced a report in less than two months. That would not have been possible without the commitment of members of the Committee, which made it particularly invigorating to chair—we had vigorous argument, but managed to achieve considerable agreement —nor without those who assisted us, and above all our formidable Clerk, David Natzler, without whom so much could not have been achieved in such a short time. The House has many deficiencies, but in my experience the quality and dedication of its Clerks and Officers are not among them.
I need not remind the House of the circumstances in which the Committee was established. It used to be said that political reform was a matter for constitutional anoraks, which overlooks the fact that anoraks are precisely what are needed in a storm. Parliament has been battered by the most ferocious and damaging storm in its modern history. There is a massive enterprise of restoration and reconstruction to undertake. Let no one think that once we have attended to the expenses issue, or had a general election, all will be well. As you said yourself, Mr. Speaker, in a speech in Oxford just a couple of weeks ago:
“The challenge that faces the House of Commons is not simply about rescuing its reputation but is about restoring its relevance.”
Parliament’s reputation will be restored only if its relevance is re-established. A window on our world has been opened by what has happened, and it will not be closed again. Fundamental questions are now being asked about what the House does and what its Members do. If anyone doubts that, they need only look at the consultation document on MPs’ expenses issued by the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority:
“The time is right”,
“for a discussion on the proper role of Member of Parliament, with a view to establishing a shared national understanding.”
Members should be warned that the issue is not going to go away; but nor should it.
Why, then, did our Committee not start with that proposition? Our Committee started with the election of Chairs of Select Committees and the establishment of a House business committee. It never asked what was the point of Parliament, and what was the point of Members of Parliament.
My hon. Friend—for whom, as she knows, I have great affection, whom I encouraged to be on our Committee, and who is a unique dissenter to be cherished—anticipates my next point.
Our terms of reference were deliberately more modest, although, I believe, not unconnected with this larger task. We were not invited to reform Parliament in a more general sense, or to pronounce on the role of a Member of Parliament. I am the first to recognise that there are important matters with which we have not been able to deal, even given a generous interpretation of the “closely connected matters” in our terms of reference.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No. I have given way to my hon. Friend once, and I want to continue my speech.
Reform, however, is a process, not an event, and we claim only to have made a start. The three matters that we were directed to examine—appointments to Select Committees, the scheduling of business, and public initiation of proceedings—had long been recognised as requiring attention, but they also raised fundamental issues about the role of Parliament to which we sought to apply consistent principles.
For example, in relation to Select Committees, we concluded that it could not be right for the House’s scrutiny Committees to continue to be chosen, directly or indirectly, by those whom they were charged with scrutinising, hence our recommendation for election of Chairs by the whole House and members by their parties. That would not only remove some of the problems that have caused difficulty in the past, but would—more significantly, in my view—give a positive boost to the profile and authority of the Committees themselves. In case anyone is worried that our proposal is too radical, we remind the House in our report that in the 18th century members were elected to Select Committees by secret ballot, with Members placing their preferred names in large glasses on the table.
In relation to the business of the House, we concluded that it could not be right for a sovereign Parliament to have its business controlled so completely by the Executive, as enshrined in those stark words of Standing Order No. 14. As we say in our report, that both demonises Governments and infantilises Members, hence our recommendation for a Back-Bench business committee to take responsibility for non-ministerial business, and for a House business committee to construct an agreed programme of business, ministerial and non-ministerial, to be put to the House for its approval.
A Back-Bench business committee would not only reclaim for the House what had been lost and rightly belonged to it, but provide a mechanism enabling the House to introduce imaginative innovations to the way in which it organised non-ministerial business. Similarly, a House business committee would want to ensure that all legislation received proper scrutiny, which, as we all know, is not the case at present.
Thirdly, in relation to the public initiation of proceedings, we concluded that representative democracy could be strengthened if the public had a more active role in our proceedings, hence our recommendation for an improved petition system and for further work on public initiatives. We also suggest a mechanism whereby Members can give their support to propositions which, if sufficiently endorsed, can trigger motions for debate and decision.
I welcome the recognition of petitions. The Procedure Committee did a lot of work bringing forward the e-petition system, which was never debated by this House and, in a sense, that justifies the need for a business committee that could get things debated. What would be the position of the Procedure Committee? As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman’s Committee did not think the Procedure Committee needed to be elected, because it is not a departmental Select Committee. Should not the Procedure Committee also be linked to the House in that way?
In the time that we had available, we did not turn our mind to the composition of the Procedure Committee, although perhaps we should have done. On e-petitions, the fundamental argument—although there are arguments on both sides, not least that of cost—is that the House should have an opportunity to express a view. That is something that underpins our whole report.
In my submission to the Committee, I made the point about the need for more time on the Floor of the House and in Committee for private Members’ Bills. My hon. Friend’s proposal to create a House business committee would presumably provide a mechanism for addressing that issue. Is that the case?
My hon. Friend raises a fundamental aspect of our recommendations. The problem in the past was that many interesting proposals were made about how we could do our business better, but the House lacked an instrument or mechanism to bring any of those into play, so we spend all our time asking Governments to do things that the House should have a capacity to do itself. It is clear that in relation to private Members’ Bills and other types of business, if we acquire the mechanism, we will then gain the benefits of using it in these imaginative ways.
To return to the point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), would it not be appropriate for the Procedure Committee, which will absorb the Modernisation Committee, to be the voice of the House, as it is chaired by an Opposition Member and could drive forward future revolutionary and even radical proposals for progress in how the House deals with the public and its own business?
I agree, and one of the misfortunes of what has happened is that the Procedure Committee has lost its centrality in the working of the House. I want that to be restored, and I want the Committee to have guaranteed access to the House to bring forward its propositions.
We make many other recommendations, from the size of Committees to the operation of Opposition days, from sitting times to the Intelligence and Security Committee, but the three areas that I have mentioned are the main focus of our attention. Some hon. Members, as we have heard, may wish to dissent from some of our particular recommendations, but it would be disappointing —and troubling in terms of how Parliament is viewed—if there were to be dissent from the principles that underpin these recommendations.
Another principle appears in bold throughout our report—and I am looking at my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) as I say this—and it is that an elected Government should have the means to implement the programme on which they have been elected. Nobody reading our report could doubt that that was one of our fundamental principles. It is fundamental to democratic politics that that should happen, and nothing in our report cuts across that, contrary to what some may believe. It is why ministerial business is protected, but it does not follow that effective scrutiny is therefore unnecessary or that the House should not control its own business. As Robin Cook never used to tire of saying, good scrutiny makes for good government. The best batsmen really do need the best bowlers. That is a particular challenge in a system of unseparated powers, which I support, whereby the Executive control the legislature and the party battle dominates everything.
However, that makes it even more necessary to meet the challenge. That is what our report tries to do, in attempting to get the balance right between the Executive and the legislature, between governing and scrutinising, between party and Parliament, and between democratic politics as the exercise of power and democratic politics as the control of the exercise of power. There has been an imbalance in those respects in the past, as is now widely acknowledged. Any reforms have to get the balance right now.
On the issue of balance, the Committee also concluded that it was important to have voices from all parties in the House fairly represented on Committees of the House. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that parties from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are currently not represented on a great many Committees of the House. How does he believe that places for the smaller political parties in the House can be guaranteed in the proposals that he has made and in those that will come forward, when Committees are being reduced in size?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises this, but if he reads our report, he will see that we say over and over that one reason why we are not being too rigid is precisely to give the flexibility that enables those good traditions of the House, as well as the under-representation of minority parties, to be recognised. If he looks at the report, he will see that, in a sense, his argument is ours.
I would like to make a little more progress.
Oh go on, I cannot resist.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. May I draw his and other hon. Members’ attention to recommendation 9, which covers exactly that point about allowing members of the smaller parties a chance to get on Select Committees? There is also another crucial paragraph, which says:
“We believe there should be clear consequences for unreasonable absence from select committees.”
If hon. Members are on a Select Committee, should that not be almost their first priority and take precedence over other events?
I am delighted that I decided to give way to the hon. Gentleman and genuinely pleased to have an endorsement from that source.
The issue of balance arises on every occasion that parliamentary reform is contemplated or discussed. I have been reading my way through the two-day debate in the House in February 1979 on the Procedure Committee report that proposed the Select Committees. The report was introduced by the Conservative Member Sir David Renton, who commended it to the House with these words:
“For many years Governments of both main parties have enjoyed dominion over the House of Commons. That is not merely because they have had a majority, large or tenuous, but more because of their power, which has grown over the last 100 years or so, of controlling business, including controlling, in effect, the amendment of Standing Orders. The recommendations in the report would help to restore the balance between the Government and the rest of the House in ways that would be advantageous to both. They would also be advantageous to the people who sent us here.”—[Official Report, 19 February 1979; Vol. 963, c. 55.]
I could use identical words today in presenting our report. In that debate, almost the only voice of resistance to the Procedure Committee’s recommendations came from the then Leader of the House, Michael Foot, who feared for the vitality of the Chamber. Now we fear for the vitality of the whole House.
Might my hon. Friend also underscore the movement that we have seen this afternoon from the current Leader of the House? Previously, all debates were stalled by the traditionalists, who said that if we had the power to control our own business, we would wreck Government business. Today we have seen—not only from my hon. Friend but, importantly, from the Leader of the House—that a Government can envisage that the House should control the order of business, but concede that, for those parts of a manifesto that are brought to the House, the Government have a right to get that mandated business through. There seems to be some opposition to that idea, but if we cannot do that, it is impossible to hold the Government to account.
I would go a little further and say that my right hon. Friend is seeking to achieve what the late, great Robin Cook failed to achieve. For that to happen, however, the House will need to be in an altered state from the one it was in in 2002.
I was talking about the debate on Select Committee formation that took place in 1979. I want to say a further word about it. The most interesting contribution came from Enoch Powell. I offer it—I am not sure why I am looking at my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham again at this point—as reassurance to those who think that we are seeking to redress the balance too far. Enoch Powell reminded hon. Members:
“The House comprises parties and, for most of the purposes of the House, its partisan character overrides its corporate character.”
He went on to say:
“It is therefore courting disappointment to take the report and say ‘Here are proposals which, if we enact them, will redress the balance of power between Government and House of Commons and will put us, the Back Benchers, in the envied positions of power and influence now occupied by those upon the Treasury Bench.’ If that is the notion on which we approach the proposals, we are in for a disappointment, but that does not justify our not addressing ourselves on a lower plane of expectation to the major recommendations of the Committee.”—[Official Report, 20 February 1979; Vol. 963, c. 336.]
There seems to be much political wisdom in those words, and I call them in aid of our proposals if that will enable some to support them on such a lower plane of expectation.
In response to the charge that the report smiles on the separation of powers, I must say that it does not. It does, however, smile on the proposition that good government needs good accountability. It seeks to refute the proposition that is often put that, without a system of separated powers—as in our case—we will necessarily have a weak Parliament. I do not believe that that is the case, and I do not think that we should sign up to that proposition.
I hope that this will be a helpful intervention. There has been a lot of discussion about manifesto government, but is that not, in this new century, a rather weaker argument? This is not like the 1970s; Governments no longer come with a detailed manifesto in the same way they used to.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fascinating point which would, if we let it, lead to a much longer argument. I do not want it to do that, however. I have great admiration for certain individual Members of the House who do not sit for party, but it is a fact of political life that political parties are the instruments for organising political choice for the electorate. They are indispensible to the system, and nothing that our report proposes seeks to depart from that proposition.
I am sorry to have detained the House with a reminder of a similar moment in the past, but I hope that it will be helpful to us in the present. I note in passing, by the way, that a decade earlier still—in 1965—a large number of reform-minded Labour MPs who had been newly elected in that reform Parliament of 1964, including the present Father of the House, tabled a Commons motion calling for comprehensive modernisation of the House of Commons. Among their demands was one for hostel accommodation for Members. It has taken half a century and an expenses scandal to revive that one.
Whatever 45 years may say about my consistency, they are hardly complimentary about my effectiveness.
It has been a great joy to work with my right hon. Friend over the years; he knows full well how effective he is.
It has not been entirely straightforward to reach this point with our report, but I believe that we are now nearly there. It has been cheering to see the enthusiastic support for our proposals, from both within and outside the House. It is clear that people have not given up on their Parliament, even if they have recently despaired of some of its Members. Even in this pre-election period when party disagreement is seemingly obligatory, it is significant that all the party leaders have given their support to this reform initiative. I pay particular tribute to the role of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and, indeed, to the shadow Leader of the House and to the constructive tension between them in a good cause.
I say that we are “nearly there” for two reasons. The first is that it is essential that the House has an opportunity to vote on all the proposals in our report, not just those that meet the approval of Front Benchers. That is why I would have liked the House to be given an opportunity to vote on the draft resolution proposed by the Committee, which could have been done on an amendable motion. This is not, however, a moment to be churlish. We still have to nail down one or two matters, and we shall do so in looking at the motions that will be before the House next time, but we are nearly there.
Secondly, and crucially, we are nearly there because this package of reforms is not for the Front Benchers to accept or reject; it is for Members to decide on. They have to decide what kind of House they want and what they believe their own role in it is. When Robin Cook asked that question in 2002, Members opted—narrowly but depressingly—for the status quo. After what has happened recently, I hope that enough Members will conclude that the status quo is no longer an option.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s chairmanship and to his contribution today. I cast no aspersions on present or future members of what will be a Whip-appointed Back-Bench business committee, but given that motion 9 on the Order Paper, which delegates definitions to that procedure committee, would it not be wise to provide it with a little more guidance in requiring that the Back-Bench business committee should be elected and that private Members’ Bills, for example, be defined as parts of our business that will be covered by it? That would be a wise thing to do, would it not?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to our work, which was, as ever, energetic and important. On the particular point he makes, I would say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House is at this moment being extraordinarily amenable to suggestions about how to improve the motions, so I will continue in that spirit.
Let me conclude. There was no parliamentary golden age. When there was supposed to be one, in the middle of the 19th century, Gladstone was already writing about the “declining efficiency of Parliament”. Neither was there a golden age in which politicians were loved. It was in the 1960s that Henry Fairlie wrote:
“Today, more than ever, the politician appears to be held in contempt”.
Members of Parliament work harder now; they are more professional and we are much better supported in our work.
When all that is properly said, however, we know that the House stands at a critical moment in its history. Something has gone wrong—beyond the expenses issue—and we have an obligation to put it right. Our constituencies are cultivated as never before, but the vitality of the House is diminished as never before. More is expected of us than just cheering or jeering. Members of this House have a number of roles, but the fundamental task of Parliament is to hold power to account. Our proposals are designed to strengthen Parliament in that fundamental role. We call our report “Rebuilding the House” because that is what is required and because this is the moment to do it.
May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I thank him for the work that he did in chairing his Committee and I thank the other members of the Committee.
When the hon. Gentleman started his comments, I rather thought that he wanted to give the impression that the history of his Committee until this point was not an example of exactly the ills that he described, but he proceeded to give us myriad examples of precisely why Executive control over the procedure of the House holds up the proper scrutiny and proper initiation of business.
If we wanted a more up-to-date example, however, we had only to listen to the comments of the Leader of the House. I do not think that it was deliberate provocation, but she boasted that only the Government had tabled the motions to allow the debate to happen, apparently oblivious of the fact that only the Government can table them, because that is what Standing Orders say. If we want an illustration of what is wrong with Parliament, it is the fact that only one Member of Parliament is in the position to table a motion for reform of the procedures of the House. If she chooses not to table a motion, as she did for a while, there is absolutely nothing that any other Member of the House can do about it.
The Leader of the House went on to say that this is an historic day. I suppose that it is historic in that we have a new carpet in the Chamber, which I admire, but I am less convinced that it is historic in terms of the reforms before us. I see these reforms as necessary, but as a very small step in the right direction. Reform ought to be a tide coming in. At this point, we have perhaps reached high water in terms of Executive power, but it will be high water only if Members of the House are prepared to accept their responsibilities and actually do something in the Lobby over the next week or so.
Reform of the House is necessary and urgent, but the Government’s view is that that urgency has yet to be demonstrated. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase was very polite about the numerous procedural barriers that appear to have been put in the way. Let us remember that the Prime Minister himself initiated this process. Soon after he became Prime Minister, he said that wanted reform of the House. What happened? Nothing. Eventually, we had the proposal to set up the Wright Committee. What happened? Nothing. Eventually, at the last possible moment before the summer recess, the Committee was set up and it did wonderfully expeditious work in bringing forward its proposals and reporting to the House. What happened? Nothing.
After we had asked week after week when we would have the opportunity to debate the matter, we eventually got the extraordinary procedure before us. In another illustration of what is wrong with this process, we are not allowed to debate the Committee’s recommendations in their totality; we are allowed to debate only what are described by the Leader of the House as big tickets. Issues with small tickets are apparently destined to oblivion; those with big tickets, as defined by the Leader of the House, can be debated.
When I questioned the Prime Minister on the subject a few weeks ago, I suggested that the Government’s sense of urgency was such that they exhibited all the dispatch of a particularly arthritic slug on the way to its own funeral. I might have added, “In a snowstorm.” A number of pedants came up to me afterwards and said, “You can’t have an arthritic slug, because a slug is an invertebrate,” but I have to say that, given the progress of these proposals, the metaphor is all the more accurate.
As has already been said, this issue ought not to be determined by those on the Front Benches. It should not be for the Leader of the House—or the shadow Leader of the House, or me—to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business. It should be for each and every Member of the House to take a view as to whether they believe that we conduct our business in an acceptable way—whether they believe that we fulfil the expectations of those who send us here to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government to account. If Members think that they do fulfil those expectations, they will vote for the status quo. I have to say that I believe that the vast majority of people outside this House think that at present we do our job extraordinarily badly. Part of the reason for the opprobrium that has been heaped upon the House in recent weeks is that people do not understand why we allow this situation to continue, and why we allow this House to be so ineffective in doing its work.
It has been suggested by some that the proposals constitute an argument in favour of the separation of powers, but in fact we currently have a separation of powers: we have a separation between this weak, ineffective, useless House and the House at the other end of the corridor, which is unelected and has no mandate, but which has the time to scrutinise our legislation properly and to amend it and make appropriate suggestions. What sort of political arrangement is it that allows this House no power while allowing an unelected and unaccountable House all the power in the world to hold the Government to account? That cannot be right.
I really am a bit surprised by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I want there to be effective scrutiny, but he should include Committee sittings in this House in his calculation of the amount of time spent on scrutinising Bills here. I used to look at this matter regularly—although I have not done so in the past couple of years—and I know that people often include the time on the Floor in the other place and the time on the Floor of this House, but the other place does not look at Bills in Committee. If the hon. Gentleman were to add that time into his calculations, he would find that frequently the other place spends less time on Bills than this House.
That completely ignores a couple of facts. One fact is that Report stage provides the opportunity for every Member of this House to represent the views of their constituents on a matter, and to bring forward proposals for debate. Fact No. 2 is that the Government—in their wisdom—often introduce large chunks of Bills that are never seen by the Committee, as they appear only on Report, and often in a very unfinished state at that.
We fail to do our job, therefore, and I defy anyone to accept the current position, under which, for instance, large parts of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill were not debated in this Chamber. Despite extra time being given, large parts of a constitutional Bill were not debated on the Floor of the House. An education Bill will come before this House tomorrow. In Committee, only about 15 clauses of that 50-clause Bill were considered. Nevertheless, that Bill’s remaining stages will be put before us in a single day, and it will then be dispatched to the other place, which will be expected to do the job that we are elected to do. It is indefensible that we conduct our business in that way.
To those who argue that we must allow the House as a whole, rather than the Executive, to determine how we conduct our business, and that all Members of the governing party must have loyalty to the Government whom they support, I say that of course I expect loyalty to the Government from Government Back Benchers. Of course I expect them to support legislation that is in their party’s manifesto, and the Government to have the time to introduce their legislation and to ensure that it makes progress. That is not in question. However, I find very difficult the logical somersaults required to support positions that change diametrically, through 180°, from one year to the next, whereby one Bill repeals the work of another that was put before us the previous year, as I am sure do many Government Back Benchers. We owe loyalty to our constituents, as well as to our parties, in considering Bills and deciding what position to take on them, and it is difficult to fulfil that within that constraints of the arrangements as they are.
My prime contention is that this House must have the time to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government to account in an appropriate way, and that is not allowed for in the current arrangements. The reform of the Report stage is key to securing that and we will obtain it only if this House is prepared to adopt a position other than supine acquiescence in whatever the Government of the day want and to say, “We will do our job as Members of Parliament and we insist that we have the time necessary to do it properly.”
I am a passionate reformer. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is posing the argument as if put-upon Back Benchers are unable in any way to make a difference to Government policy and a wicked Government—whichever party is in power—prevent scrutiny from taking place. Like me, he has served on Public Bill Committees where hours of debate have been used by Opposition Members in a way that did not focus on key issues and it has almost appeared—I have seen this when I have been an Opposition Member serving on such a Committee—as if the Opposition wanted to run out of time so that they had something to complain about. Does he agree that it is important for all Members on both sides of the House to use the time we have to maximum effect, rather than just to blame the Government for providing a lack of time for scrutiny?
Order. May I gently say to the House that I understand its enthusiasm for these issues, but some of the interventions are becoming mini-speeches? I am sure that the House will take note of that.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
I want a rational use of our time; I do not want to misuse or abuse it. I want the House to have enough time to ensure that on important issues everybody’s voice can be heard—that is not the case at the moment. I want us not to spend all day and all night discussing Bills on which there is a consensus and have people drafted in by the Whips to fill time uselessly, while other Bills on which there are key issues of contention that matter to Back Benchers and Front Benchers go undebated. A House business committee would use time rationally—at least I hope it would. There is certainly a greater chance of its doing so than the current arrangements. I support all the recommendations of the Wright Committee—I have no power to induce other Members to support them—in so far as they go. I acknowledge the limits of the remit and I have some doubts about the way in which they have been translated into motions before the House this evening, but I support the proposals. There is one exception, but I shall come to that in a moment.
The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) made a very important point: even if we have enough time for scrutiny on Report, we cannot have it monopolised in way that is not efficient, whereby speeches fill the amount of time available. The Wright Committee was clear on that. Recommendation 33 proposes as a quid pro quo that time limits on speeches and interventions could apply on Report.
You might need to consider a time limit on interventions in this debate, Mr. Speaker. However, of course my hon. Friend is right; that point is key.
I shall support what the Wright Committee has said when it comes to the two-tier arrangement of a Back-Bench business Committee and a House business Committee, although I would prefer one Committee. I do not see the logic of having two other than as an inducement to others to support the idea. However, if that is the case and if a gradualist approach is necessary in order to avoid startling the horses, then so be it. The logic that most sensible parliamentary democracies adopt of having a single committee on the business of the House is something that we should consider.
Let me draw my comments to a close. We have these proposals before us this evening. It is open to a single Member to shout “Object” and the motions will then be debated at a future time. If there is no objection, they will go through. That prompts the question of what will happen to the other recommendations that are not before us, which have been arbitrarily removed from consideration on the basis that they are not big tickets. I do not know the answer to that—the Leader of the House might illuminate the House on that issue at a later stage.
Another question is how we can engineer the vote that many of us want on the amendment on the House business committee in the name of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), which is signed by many other colleagues, including myself. Of course, it would not come into play if the motion on the Back-Bench committee were agreed to tonight, unless the Leader of the House is prepared to table it as a new and separate motion. I understand that she has said that she will do that, which is great. If the Leader of the House supports that proposal—although the rest of the Government do not appear to do so—that is good news and I welcome it. We have been told that there are four big tickets, and I think that that is the fifth.
If Members are minded not to object to a House business committee for Back-Bench business but their only reason for objecting might be that they want the subject to be carried forward to 4 March so that an amendment to it can be tabled and to secure a vote, I would tell them not to worry about that. My assurance is that I will not jump round afterwards and say, “See, it’s not there. There’s nothing to attach an amendment to, so you don’t get to vote.” I hope that that position is absolutely clear.
It is clear—the procedure is not, but the intention is—and I accept it as that. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that.
An important point has been raised about the fact that the proposals allow only the election of departmental Select Committees and not House Select Committees—in particular, the Procedure Committee, which will be key to all the rest. Such appointees could stymie the rest if they choose to do so. I hope that whoever is appointed will not do that, but it would be far more logical for the Procedure Committee to be elected like all the rest.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am just coming to a conclusion.
The Members from the nationalist parties have all gone home, which seems a shame as they had rather an important point to make about the size of Committees and their representation on them. However, if they are not here I shall not bother to make their point for them.
I close on this point: an awful lot of this debate comes down to one single instrument, and that is Standing Order 14. Standing Order 14 is the obstacle to this House behaving like a responsible, sensible, modern House of Commons. Like Cato the Censor of old, who said, “Carthago delenda est,” we need to say, “Standing Order 14 delenda est.” It has got to go. Until it goes, we will not be able to make the progress that I think the House wants. We shall test that tonight and on 4 March, but I hope that the House realises that it has the opportunity to make that first step to returning ownership of the House to the House. I hope that Members will not be deluded into thinking that they are acting at the behest of the present or future Executive if they turn down that opportunity. I think that their constituents will find it very difficult to understand.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. To clarify, lest the House might be proceeding in some ignorance about the procedure in front of us, am I correct to say that the motions to which amendments have been tabled have effectively already been objected to and that those motions are no longer available to us and can be moved only on Thursday 4 March and not tonight?
The hon. Gentleman is correct in his interpretation of the situation. I do not think that there should be any basis for ambiguity or confusion. If there is, other hon. Members will no doubt either raise points of order or sidle up to the Chair in the conventional manner. I hope that the position is very clear and fully understood.
It was a great pleasure to serve as a member of what is now known as the Wright Committee under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I thought that he made a superb speech tonight and set out a powerful case for the modest package of reforms that the Committee put together in the short space of time that was given to it.
I put particular emphasis on the elected nature of the Wright Committee’s membership. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) that when she did not vote for me as one of Labour’s representatives on the—
That is not true—and I thought it was a secret ballot.
When anyone on the Labour Benches did not vote for me or for any other candidate, I hope that they did so on the basis of careful consideration of the reform credentials of all the candidates who put themselves forward for election. Once and for all, we need to nail this nonsense that somehow the election of the Wright Committee was fundamentally flawed. You cannot comb your hair in this House—you cannot utter a single word without it appearing on the internet, in a speech, in Hansard, on a blog or somewhere else. There is no excuse for anybody who voted for any member of the Wright Committee not knowing exactly where those candidates stood on the issue of parliamentary reform. I am delighted that the balance of force and opinion on that Committee was in favour of reformers. The recommendations of the Wright Committee are testament to that.
The Prime Minister himself clearly supports the Wright report. I worried at times about that as there appeared to be some ambiguity in some of the announcements and pronouncements that were made, particularly on procedure, which I shall come to in a moment. However, the Prime Minister said of our recommendations in his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on 2 February:
“These reforms will increase the ability and the legitimacy of Parliament to hold the Government to account—as I believe that the proper role of Parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive, it should be given all the necessary powers and tools to do so.”
The guy at the top is in favour of this, and I hope that an awful lot of the people who work for him are in favour of it.
I certainly know that the proposals have been welcomed in the sensible realms of Her Majesty’s media. On 24 November, Peter Riddell wrote in The Times:
“We need our MPs to be not only honest but also effective in raising our concerns and scrutinising the Government. The former has obviously got the most attention with the expenses row. But the latter is crucial if confidence in Parliament is to be revived. That is why this morning’s report, ‘Rebuilding the House’ from a special Commons reform committee, chaired by Tony Wright, matters.”
We had endorsements from the Financial Times and from The Guardian, which stated:
“Dr Wright’s committee focuses on three subjects that may seem like Westminster arcana but which, separately and together, go to the heart of much that exasperates and angers the public about the workings of parliament…A debate is promised, which is good, but there is no guarantee of a vote, which is…bad. Ministers must get off the fence. They must give unambiguous support to the Wright committee report”—
and said that they must “Do it now.” We appear to have unambiguous support for the recommendations as a result of the helpful statement from the Leader of the House, who has agreed to facilitate a debate on all the matters contained in the 50 recommendations made by the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman has told the House that the reform proposals have the support of the Prime Minister, but that might not be enough. Can he tell us whether they have the support of the Labour Chief Whip?
It is unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman came late into the debate, because we had an exchange earlier about the ambivalence shown by the Whips on both sides of the House, but it would be churlish to dwell on that. We are moving forward in a consensual bubble and we should seek to capture the mood.
I strongly welcome the endorsement of the recommendations from the Hansard Society and from the six major organisations that have been involved with constitutional and parliamentary reform issues. The letter and the communications that they have put out to Members of Parliament have been helpful and will be useful in focusing people’s minds.
As a Member who stood unsuccessfully for election to the Wright Committee, I welcome the work of my hon. Friend and his colleagues. He spoke about the consensual bubble that has existed during this debate, but I am concerned that, with very few dissenting voices, the people who are attending the debate this evening are enthusiasts for the Wright Committee report—
Not all of us.
I accept that not all are, but generally those who have spoken or intervened have been enthusiasts. I am anxious that the consensual atmosphere will not sustain itself on Thursday 4 March, and that we might see the same thing that we saw with the Cook reforms, when those who had been most involved in the debate got overridden by organised votes at the end. My hon. Friend has a great tradition of organising for progressive courses, so can he offer some words of comfort to the House on that matter?
I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that this was not scripted, but you will certainly be aware of the need for organisation in the House, and I assure you and the House that a level of organisation will be put in place to provide clarity and guidance to those who wish to ensure that when they face the electorate on polling day, they will not be in danger of being cast as roadblocks to reform. I hope that that will give some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not because I have been very generous in giving way, and I think that we have probably heard enough.
In many ways, this debate could have been entitled the “Robin Cook Memorial Debate”. For me, it was a huge pleasure to work with Robin Cook on parliamentary reform. He was, in my view, the greatest leader that the Labour party never had. That work went back to the disgraceful decision to try to exclude Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from their chairmanships of Select Committees by procedural wranglings, through to the internal processes that we adopted within the parliamentary Labour party that stopped the Executive from handing out Select Committee Chairs as booby prizes to sacked Ministers. We had a ridiculous situation—it happened on both sides of the House—in which someone would be removed from Government and, as a consolation prize, given a Select Committee Chair and they would then scrutinise the decisions that they had made some months previously. If there is one simple principle to which we should all adhere, it is that we cannot have those who would be scrutinised selecting their own scrutineers, and we certainly cannot have Government Ministers or former Government Ministers scrutinising their own decisions in that way. I am glad that we have moved on from that. In many ways, the changes that we have introduced within the parliamentary Labour party, through our internal elections, are reflected in the Wright Committee’s recommendations, and I am delighted that other parties are moving on.
It is worth giving more air time to a couple of other issues. I think that the game is up for us, as Members of Parliament, in terms of the validity of many of our procedures. It is time for us to be honest with the public and to say that early-day motions have become a con trick. They are political graffiti, and we sign too many of them. I am guilty of this; indeed, we all are. I sign too many of them; in many circumstances, I sign them to make people who write to me happy. I should be limited on the number of early-day motions that I may sign—we all should. Frankly, if we were allowed to sign only four or five a month, and if a debate on the Floor of the House were automatically triggered if 50, 60 or 70 per cent. of the House signed up to an early-day motion on a suitable cross-party basis, that would be a way in which the public could meaningfully drive the agenda of this place. Of course, we have to do better with petitions. In many ways, the Scottish Parliament is showing the way forward on that issue. What an absurd treatment of a petition and of the thousands of people who sign it to put it in a bag and forget about it. I cannot quite believe that we are having this debate in the 21st century. These reforms should have been introduced 200 years ago—but better late than never.
I conclude on a serious point. I am leaving this place in a few weeks’ time, but I want to say that this Parliament, of all Parliaments, has been tainted not by the actions of the majority of Members of Parliament who are, on the whole, diligent, hard-working and tremendously committed to the people who they represent, but has been let down by the actions of a minority. This Parliament of all Parliaments needs to show that it is capable of reform, but reform is not 50 recommendations of the Wright Committee, or resolutions tabled by Robin Cook or by Jopling; it is a continuous process, but it has stalled—and for far too long. We now have an opportunity, despite the procedural wranglings, to get the reform agenda back on track and to reconnect this place with the people who sent us here.
I do not think that I have ever said this before, and I never thought that I would say it, but it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). He made a very powerful speech, in which he encapsulated what needs to be done by this place to recover the confidence of the people of this country. I believe that the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons has, under the distinguished leadership of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), made a very good start on the reform of this place. As I come to the end of my parliamentary career, I would love to be able to say that I have helped to restore authority back with the House, over the Executive. I repeat that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee has made a very good start.
Let me refer directly to you, Mr. Speaker, if I may. Standing Orders have been mentioned, and those who control Standing Orders control the House. It is time that that control was taken away from the Government and put under the authority of a Committee of this House under your chairmanship. That would ensure that they would represent the best interests of Back Benchers and not just those of the Executive.
I hope that I will be forgiven for mentioning briefly my involvement with the Procedure Committee over two Parliaments, and my time as the longest-serving member of the Modernisation Committee, which I am sad to say has not met for some 18 months. The Procedure Committee is now under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is doing an excellent job. I meant what I said in an intervention: the future driver of change and reform in this place should be the Procedure Committee, which should encapsulate the current responsibilities of the Modernisation Committee and should be under the chairmanship of a senior and experienced Opposition Member. To pick up the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), we should seek to formalise the election or selection of people who sit on that Committee, because it will be even more important to the House in future than it has been in the past.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
May I develop my argument a bit further, and then I will certainly give way?
Let me tell the House that, from the experience that I have had here for nearly 39 years, it is not Parliament that has undermined people’s confidence in the House of Commons; the political parties themselves have contributed to that, by seeking to take more and more control over what their members say in the House and, perhaps even before then, to control the type of person whom they are prepared to admit into the House. That is a crying shame. We need more independents. We need more free thinkers—people who are prepared to stand up, put their heads above the parapet and identify what they think and what they believe in—and they should not be frightened that that will jeopardise their careers.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way first to the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong).
The moment has passed now.
I am sorry.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that our affiliation to political parties allows us to stand up for what we think?
I believe that political parties have a philosophy, within which there could be a very broad church. From time to time, people will not necessarily agree with the view expressed by their party or even with a policy that it proposes. With due notice and appropriate discussion, if they need to vote against that policy or the view expressed by their party, not to do so in the House undermines its whole credibility and their role as Members of Parliament.
I pay to tribute to the vision and focus of the late Robin Cook. I had the pleasure to serve on the Modernisation Committee under his chairmanship when he was Leader of the House. He was an exceptional person to work with. He knew where he wanted to go; we might not have agreed with him, but he listened to us, and at the end of the day, we were perhaps persuaded by the force of his argument. Of course, that leads me on to the next issue that I want to raise: the election of the Chairmen and members of departmental Select Committees by party groups.
Robin Cook sought to propose to the House in 2002 a motion that would have led perhaps not quite to what we are debating now and the motions that we will vote on perhaps later. He sought to break the logjam of the dark side of the House—I refer to the Whips Office and perhaps to my experience when I was unseated as the Chairman of the Health Committee because I did what I believed to be right. I believe that the Chairman of a Select Committee is there to guide that Committee to reach conclusions and to make recommendations based on the evidence, both oral and written, that is given to the Committee; he is not there to decide on the prejudice of its individual members. That was not necessarily received very well by my party. However, as one door closed, another opened, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire knows, I was asked to chair the Procedure Committee. If I were a Member and there was an election to that Committee in the future, I hope that the House, in its wisdom, would elect me to do that job, which I very much enjoyed.
The hon. Gentleman allows me to return to the issue of the Procedure Committee and the House Committees. I notice that hon. Members are not recommending that House Committees should be elected, precisely because it is extremely difficult get full membership of them. The reality is that there had to be all sorts of cajolements to encourage people to become members of many of those Committees.
Because they were worthless.
My hon. Friend may think that, but had he been party to some of the conversations, he would not have taken that view of how we were trying to get people to serve on those Committees. It is very difficult to get Members to serve on those House Committees, and we must take that into account. Perhaps they also want to have the chance to serve on Select Committees, and I suspect that the two will not happen.
The right hon. Lady has made her point yet again and what she says has some substance, but as someone who is committed to the House, to being a Back Bencher and to trying to restore the authority and integrity of Back Benchers, I personally believe that there will always be sufficient people, so long as we attract the right people into Parliament, to play their proper role as members of all the House Committees.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if Committees are worth while, Members are queuing up, knocking on the door to try to get on them? It is only when Committees, very often at the Government’s request, are not effective, are neutralised and have people put on them who will not hold the Government to account—as, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) and I used to do in the Whips Office—that they are often not worth Members’ time in attending.
I can do nothing but agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes a sensible point. I believe that many hon. Members would like to serve on all the departmental Select Committees and certainly a majority of the House Committees as well, and I speak as someone who found tremendous challenge and great enjoyment in chairing the Procedure Committee.
On electing Committee Chairmen, my experience is that the first time that the unpleasant arm of the dark side of the House was clearly brought to bear was way back in 1992. I saw letters from the Whips Office to members of the Cabinet and other Ministers urging them to attend a debate that should have been decided by Back Benchers. In fact, there was an unofficial Whip and a particular execution of a Member took place on that occasion, but I do not think that what my party carried out did it any good. By the time that the current Government sought to unseat Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody, the House was aware of what was likely to happen and reacted, and their attack on two very distinguished Members was unsuccessful.
Let me now move on to what the right hon. Member for North-West Durham just talked about: the Back-Bench business committee and the House business committee. I should like both of those committees to be established and the Back-Bench business committee included in the House business committee, so that there is a Back-Bench input at all stages into how the House spends its time. I very much support the case made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase. I repeat that I believe that he has done the House a great service in the constructive and robust way in which he has described the proposal of his Committee, which undertook its work in a very short time but produced an excellent report none the less.
Let me perhaps finally move on to an intervention that I made about the programming of the remaining or Report stages of legislation in the House and the way in which the House deals with Lords amendments. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said in very clear terms, tranches of amendments and new clauses are tabled—sometimes by the Government, and often by the Opposition in seeking properly to scrutinise Government legislation and to improve it—for the remaining stages and pass to the House of Lords undebated in this House.
I am an avowed supporter of the other House in its current form. I believe that it does a uniquely good job in doing part of what we should be doing in this House— scrutinising Government legislation—but this House very often leaves much of that scrutiny to the unelected, appointed House. Whether it has a democratic mandate I do not care one way or the other—we always have the final say in this House—but because of its expertise, it can do a wonderful job.
I believe that it is wrong to programme the debates on amendments and new clauses in a Bill’s remaining stages because they have not been debated in the Public Bill Committee upstairs, as has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, the remaining stages of a Bill—Report and even Lords amendments—are the one occasion when a Member of Parliament who was not on the Public Bill Committee and was not called on Second Reading has an opportunity, on behalf of his constituents, to raise matters that may be very important to them and to a particular constituency. I am surprised that although the issue was considered by the House of Commons Reform Committee, there is no specific proposal to limit programming at the remaining stages of a Bill and at consideration of Lords amendments.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House made the point, as have other speakers in the debate, that too much legislation comes before the House. We get constipated with the amount of legislation before us. I can only say to the Leader of the House and to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who led the Committee so well, that his proposals have my full support. As long as they go through, I will feel that in my almost 39 years in this place, I have made a contribution to the improvement of Parliament and to increasing the confidence that people have in it to do the job that they send us here to do.
I welcome interventions from any hon. Member, and as many as possible, to make up for the fact that I tried to intervene so many times. Part of the reason I tried to intervene so many times is that although I am not alone in the way that I feel, I know I am a minority in the House. I believe in reform, but I feel passionately that the proposals before us are not reform.
One of the big problems for me has been the narrow focus of the Committee, looking chiefly at the role of Select Committees and the so-called democratisation of them. Introducing a Back-Bench business committee and a House business committee are both technocratic changes that might be a move in the right direction, but I think they are a step in the wrong direction. The danger is that we will thereby say to ourselves and to people outside that we have done reform—that we have responded to people outside who said they wanted Parliament to change, and that having done that, we will move on.
My hon. Friend circulated to members of the Committee her objections to what is proposed, and I respect those, but I have not yet heard her set out the reforms in which she is interested. Can she give us a clue?
I will deal briefly with those reforms, but unfortunately we have a 12-minute time limit, and I want to set out my objections to the proposed reforms in order to explain my actions which may or may not take place later.
I have not heard today any reasons for saying that the proposals are proper reforms which will change fundamentally the way that we do things. What I have heard is what we collectively do not like. In the Committee I heard that we do not like the Executive having so much power. Everybody agrees with that, but what we have not discussed is where we want to put the power that we are taking away from the Executive. That is what worries me.
The other issue for me has been Select Committee Chairs. I was elected only in 2005 and I served briefly on a Select Committee. I think Select Committees are the one thing in the House that we do really well. Select Committees enhance the House’s reputation outside, and they are one of the very few opportunities for the outside world properly to engage with what we do in the House. When we talk about changing the way in which Select Committees work, we must be careful not to change it for the worse.
When we say that any change is better than none, which many Members said in response to the e-mail that I sent out, and that this is our only opportunity for some kind of change, which we call reform, I worry that there is a chance that that reform will be worse than what we currently have.
Will my hon. Friend explain to me and to the House why electing the Chairs of Select Committees, which she says are one of the best things that we do here, would damage that process?
I am saying that it could damage that process.
The reason why I think it could damage the process is that the only time we have had an election by secret ballot of the whole House was recently, when we elected the Speaker of the House. That is the first and only time that we have done that. Rightly or wrongly, many Members felt that we on the Government Benches, as the ruling party with a Government majority, imposed on the other side of the House, the minority, somebody who was unpalatable to them. That, rightly or wrongly, is what many on the Opposition Benches felt.
Was it true?
I do not know. If we duplicated that process in the election of Select Committee Chairs, we could have a situation in which the party in government imposes on the party of opposition somebody who is unpalatable to them.
If my hon. Friend refreshes her memory of the report, she will see that we built into the recommendations provision for nominees to have a sufficient proportion of support from both sides of the House. The problem that she identifies has been dealt with in the recommendations of the Committee of which she was a member.
I absolutely disagree with that. Simply because somebody has support does not make them an effective Chair.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a level of naiveté in this debate if we believe that a Government in power will not use every bit of influence they have to ensure that, for example, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, taken from the Opposition Benches, is the weakest and most useless of the candidates available, rather than the strongest, precisely to defend the Executive?
One of the other issues tangentially raised by that point is the fact that whipped or unwhipped —the vote by secret ballot of the whole House cannot be whipped—Members will vote on party political lines. That is because we were sent here to represent not only our constituents but our political parties. The vast majority of us were elected only because we stood for those parties. That is something that the report fundamentally moves away from and undermines. That is my biggest worry.
The next biggest worry that I have about the report is the shift of power. I referred earlier to taking power away from the Executive, which in the report we call wresting control away from Ministers. I worry about where we put that power and that control. The same applies to the Chairs of Select Committees. As I wrote in my e-mail, my concern is that we are shifting power away from one elite—in this case, the Executive—and handing it to another—a group of senior Back Benchers. The election both of Chairs of Select Committees and of members of the business committee will favour longer-serving Members. That does not make them worse; it just makes them longer serving, and it puts at a disadvantage those Members who are newly elected.
In the next Parliament, there will be an unprecedented number of new Members. All of them will be disadvantaged when it comes to the election of Chairs of Select Committees and the election of a House business committee.
I do not think the hon. Lady is right to describe an elected Back-Bench business committee as an elite. First, it will be elected. Secondly, if new Members want new Members to serve on it, as I believe they should, they will vote for them. Most secret ballots and transparent and democratic electoral systems will ensure that there is a range of membership of the Back-Bench business committee, which will certainly be less elite than having a Whips Office decide who should serve.
I completely disagree. Members will vote for people they know, not for people they do not know, and there is a serious risk in that. The proposed process also absolutely favours people who have been Members for a long time—those who tend to be in safer seats. That in turn disadvantages people in marginal seats—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made when we were on the Committee.
My hon. Friend is certainly adding something to the debate, and I agree that it is important to move the pendulum of power away from this place towards the public. The reforms before us are not perfect, but they are a step in the right direction, so does she not agree that the issue is about moving the pendulum at least to the 20th century, before we reach the 21st?
I absolutely agree. That brings me back to my main point and my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). When we were elected to the Committee, why did we not start with the questions, “What do we think Parliament is for? And, therefore, what is the role of Members of Parliament?”? Those questions were not asked at any point during the Committee’s deliberations. Many Members said, “We all know what Members of Parliament are for. They are there to hold the Executive to account and scrutinise legislation,” but there are so many other things as well. The MPs’ expenses scandal has brought the issue to a head. It has been going on for years, and we have just pottered about, but with the scandal we have the opportunity to do something about it and ask some fundamental questions.
When the Scottish Parliament was set up, people started with a blank sheet of paper, with founding principles and with the four key themes on which they really wanted to base their parliamentary system. Why did we not start with something like that? What are the key principles on which we want to build our Parliament? We never discussed those questions, so whatever reforms were proposed, they would not have had clear aims. Therefore, the reforms before us may be good, or they may not be very good at all. Indeed, they may do some damage.
I agree with the hon. Lady and share her frustration that the reform process has not been ambitious or wide-reaching enough, but I take a different view from her about whether the report’s reforms are a step in the right direction. I think that they are, so I shall support them; she genuinely does not. Does she agree, however, that all of us who are passionate about the need for further reforms after the next election, if we are still Members, should work together to ensure that this is not the end but the beginning of a process?
Absolutely. If this was the beginning and not the end of a process, I might feel differently. These proposals, whether they are the recommendation that the Committee presented at the back of its report or the Government motions before us, do not make much difference to me. They are still finite proposals, stating, “We think there should be a Back-Bench business committee, or a House business committee, or election by the whole House of Chairs, or election by the whole House or just by political parties of members of Select Committees.” They are tiny, tinkering reforms. If they were part of a much bigger picture of reform, I might spend some time thinking about them. It is not that they do not go far enough; they go nowhere at all, and the danger of then saying, “We have done reform; that is reform over and done with,” is so big that I shall vote against the motions before us, because they stop reform in the first place.
Interestingly, the Committee started its life as a constitutional reform Committee and very quickly changed its remit to that of a parliamentary reform Committee. I should love to see it carry on. Many of its 18 or 19 members were long-serving Members and experts on constitutional and parliamentary reform. Many have books under their belts on parliamentary reform, and it would have been helpful and much better to gather that experience together. Many of the Committee’s members are standing down at the next election, and it would have been helpful if we had started looking at the pros and cons of the separation of powers and the role of political parties. Do we want to strengthen or weaken the role of political parties? Do we think that Parliament supersedes the role of political parties or not? We should look at the pros and cons of those issues in order to take them into the next Parliament.
As a fellow non-expert member of the Committee, and a fellow innocent, may I ask the hon. Lady what representations she made to her friends in the Whips Office when the Committee’s terms of reference were being drafted in order to say that they were far too narrow? What representations did she make—perhaps she did make them—saying that the Whips should have established the Committee much earlier so that we might have had time to do something even more ambitious than we did?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase can help me with it. I understood that the terms of reference were drafted as a result of a letter from my hon. Friend, which included suggested terms of reference. I understood that my hon. Friend proposed a Committee with those terms, including the time limit.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s invitation to help. It is true that I suggested this was a good opportunity to take stock of Parliament and how we might change it. There then followed a process of deliberation and consultation on the terms of reference—
Order. I am sorry, but time is up. The hon. Gentleman will not have time to finish his intervention, nor will the hon. Lady have time to respond.
I shall focus on just one section of the Committee’s report—the section that is far and away the most important if we are to achieve rebuilding. It is about restoring the legislative authority of this House, which has been emasculated in three ways during the lifetime of this Government. The Committee’s report partially addresses one way, but on the other two it is, sadly, totally silent. I shall address the three ways in turn.
First, prior to 1997, successive Governments of all political persuasions followed a critical, unwritten convention on changing the procedures of this House. The convention was that those changes were made only with all-party agreement. If anybody has any doubt about that, or about the fact that the convention continued late into the life of the previous Conservative Government, the Jopling reforms are a case in point. Those reforms, which included, as the House will remember, ending Thursday sittings earlier than 10 pm, were introduced only once all-party support was achieved. Until it was, they were held back.
That was a critical convention for the House. Sadly and reprehensibly, it was torn up by the current Government, who, unlike any previous Government of any political complexion, have chosen to use their majority to set up their own Select Committee and use their majority on that Committee and on the Floor of the House to make fundamentally retrograde changes to our procedures and Standing Orders as far as legislative scrutiny is concerned.
I acknowledge that the House of Commons Reform Committee, in just one single, forlorn line—the first sentence of paragraph 16—says:
“The proposals which we make must only be implemented with all-party agreement, and not imposed on the House by a Government majority.”
However, that recommendation relates only to the Committee’s proposals. It does not address at any point the crucial need to safeguard the future legislative authority of this House against any Government being returned at a general election and abusing the House, as the current Government have, using their majority, not obtaining all-party consent and changing the procedures and Standing Orders to their advantage. The absence of any such proposals is a serious deficiency.
That brings me to my second issue: the guillotining of Bills. I always use, and will try to use in my remarks, the word “guillotining”, and I do so very deliberately. I do not accept saccharine euphemisms such as “timetabling” or “programming”—guillotining is what it is. It is a mechanism to cut off the time allowed for this House to debate legislation. Guillotining has been transformed, for the worse, from what it was prior to 1997. We now have a frankly deplorable parliamentary and democratic situation in which every single Bill is guillotined after Second Reading without debate. That is an utterly shameful situation ever to have been created in the House of Commons.
If the hon. Lady will allow me, I am going to make a little more progress.
I am fundamentally opposed to and in disagreement with one of the principles listed in the Committee’s report—principle 1(d), on page 83, which states:
“We should recognise that the Government is entitled to a guarantee of having its own business, and in particular Ministerial legislation, considered at a time of its own choosing, and concluded by a set date”.
That principle applies to each and every piece of legislation, and I do not accept it. For me, the principle that is absolutely fundamental and all-important—sadly, it does not feature in the Committee’s list—is the principle that this House is entitled to a guarantee of adequate time to consider each and every Bill that comes before it: to debate that Bill, to be able to amend it, and to vote on it.
The position prior to 1997 was based on a subtle and, I believe, very successful balance. It did not prevent the Government of the day from getting their legislation through; if any Member in this House is in any doubt about that, the figures and statistics available in the Library make it absolutely plain. The overwhelming majority of Government Bills, under Governments of all political persuasions, went through without a guillotine. That is because of the balance that was struck by having a guillotine available but not using it except as a weapon of last resort.
The balance worked like this: the Opposition parties knew perfectly well that if they filibustered, they would walk themselves into a guillotine motion; equally, on the Government side, the Minister responsible for the Bill knew that he or she would have to go to the Dispatch Box to handle a debate to try to persuade the House that the guillotine motion was justified, and if he or she could not do it, they would, rightly, get a really rough ride from the House. That is how the balance worked, and it worked successfully; and that is why the overwhelming majority of Bills went through without a guillotine. I am not going to support what the Committee has proposed in this respect. I believe that the House would be well advised to go back to the pre-1997 situation.
I come now to my third issue, which is of crucial importance but, sadly, is not referred to at any point by the Committee and has not been mentioned so far in this debate: the boundary between primary and secondary legislation. Secondary legislation, again as a result of an unwritten but vitally important convention of this House, should be confined only to issues of detail that are broadly non-controversial. I had an interesting reminder of that very early on when I was responsible for drafting the “right to buy” Bill in the very first Session of the previous Conservative Government. I requested an order-making power, and a crisp minute came back from the first parliamentary counsel, who had made himself responsible for drafting the Bill because it was the Government’s flagship Bill, saying, “Minister, you’ve drafted this order-making power far too wide. You must either narrow the power you are seeking or put it on to the face of the Bill so that it can be scrutinised as primary legislation.” The reason why secondary legislation should be narrowly drawn, as the House is well aware, is simply that the House has very marginal control over it. The great majority of secondary legislation is not debated or voted on, and none of it, whether under the affirmative or the negative resolution, can be amended.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to finish making this point.
The House has very limited control over secondary legislation. Sadly, and very seriously, the convention to which I referred has been completely torn to shreds by this present Government. If the House wants an example, I give it section 2 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2010, which has very recently gone on to the statute book. Under the heading, “Further duties for securing sound public finances”, subsection (1) states:
“The Treasury may make an order imposing on the Treasury a duty or duties framed by reference to any one or more of the financial years ending in 2011 to 2016.”
So here we have an order-making power putting on to the Treasury statutory obligations that vitally affect macro-economic policy, jobs, employment, and so on—legal powers that the Treasury will be obliged to adhere to, all whistling through this House on the basis of a 90-minute non-amendable debate. That, in my book, is a gross abuse of the legislative power of this House.
It is for those reasons that, while I recognise that these reforms are a very small step in the right direction, I take the view that they are wholly inadequate to restore the legislative authority of the House of Commons.
I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). I agree with him that the timetabling process has been abused in recent years, although I am not against timetabling in principle because there were also many abuses of the old system. However, I think that our proposal for a business committee that dealt with all the business of the House would help to address some of the problems that he rightly highlights, and I would direct his attention to that.
I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) with great interest. I always have respect for someone who goes against the tide, because I have done that myself from time to time, but I was hoping to hear from her at some stage, either during the Committee’s proceedings or tonight, some clue as to what reforms she wants. She did not give us that tonight, and she did not do so in the Committee, so I remain curious on that point. I will leave it at that.
I add to the tributes of others my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who, like me, is sadly leaving this place in a few weeks’ time. He has led a most distinguished career here during which his contribution to the way in which the House has functioned is a model for those who come afterwards as Back-Bench Members. It has been a great honour to serve on the same Committee as him.
I regard the issues that we are debating today as a test of how seriously we take ourselves. If we do not take ourselves seriously, we cannot expect people outside this place to do so. In the 23 years I have been in the House, one thing that has disappointed me has been how some of our number are prepared to fight with great passion to remain impotent. I remember that when I was Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, one of the Clerks remarked, “Members have considerable power, it is just that they choose not to use it.” The time has come for us to start using some of the power that we have. The proposed reforms are not a revolution—the process is evolutionary—but most of the them are no-brainers. It surely has to be right that the House decides how it will go about scrutinising the activities of the Executive. That is the core of what we are here for.
I well remember that when I first came here, it was made clear to me in no uncertain terms that I could expect no preferment whatever. I put my name down for membership of the Home Affairs Committee for three or four years running, because I had a certain interest in how the criminal justice system was functioning at that time. Nothing happened, of course, and after three or four years I went to see the Chief Whip, my noble Friend Derek Foster, a good friend of mine. He said to me, “Talk to Roy.” Roy was the shadow Home Secretary, Roy Hattersley. It did not seem right to me that the shadow Home Secretary should decide who was on the Home Affairs Committee, because he might one day become the Home Secretary.
Anyway, I went to see Roy, who stood with his hands in his pockets, looked at the floor and said ambiguously, “I’ll see what can be done.” I know exactly what was done, because my friend Derek Foster told me afterwards. A message came from the Leader of the Opposition’s office to the Chief Whip saying that the Leader understood that there was a vacancy on the Home Affairs Committee, and that he had one or two names in mind for who should fill it. When the Chief Whip got to there, he discovered that in fact he had no names in mind for who should fill the vacancy but one name for who should not. It seems quite wrong that that is how Select Committee members are selected.
After a while I became very respectable, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There came a moment when Law Lords, cardinals and Tory Home Secretaries were happy to be seen in my company, and I could no longer be denied a coveted place on the Home Affairs Committee. In due course I became Chairman of it, and I remarked to the Chief Whip of the day that I would like to be consulted when vacancies arose. I said that I would just like to be shown the names of the applicants and allowed to express my view—I was not asking to decide. She—I should make it clear that it was not my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong)—showed me a book one evening in the Division Lobby in which the names were written down, and it closed so quickly that I could not see any of the names on the page. I think the situation has improved since then, but in those days that was consultation. The imperfect system that we have all put up with for far too long needs to be challenged, and this is the moment to challenge it. As I said, it seems to me a no-brainer.
It is absolutely right that the size of Select Committees needs to be brought down again. It went up only temporarily a few years ago, I think as a way of finding the boys and girls something to do. A Committee of 14 is far too large, and we rapidly found ourselves in a situation in which both sides were having to put Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Front-Bench spokesmen on Select Committees, which defeated the object of the exercise. I believe that there is general agreement that we need to go back to a more manageable size, so that that is not necessary. I hope that we will never again see PPSs and people from the Government payroll on Select Committees. I also agree entirely with those who say that there must be consequences for Committee members who do not attend.
The single greatest omission is a motion to set up a business committee that would cover the entire business of the House. I am glad that the Leader of the House has said that that omission will be rectified. Incidentally, I am grateful to her also for reading out at the beginning of her remarks a list of the reforms that have occurred in the past 20 or 30 years that have made this place work better. I hear people outside here, and sometimes inside, say, “You’re all useless and nothing has changed”, but the list that my right hon. and learned Friend read out shows that some of the reforms that have taken place have been rather bigger than some of those that are being suggested today. We have gone backwards in some respects, but in other respects those reforms have had the effect of making the business of the House work more effectively.
I should like the Intelligence and Security Committee to come within the ambit of the House and become a Committee of it, rather than one appointed by and accountable to the Prime Minister. I have pressed for that for many years. When I was Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee there were two inquiries on precisely that point. I make no comment on the recent difficulties over whether the security services have been mixed up in torture overseas, but it is in their interests that they are seen to be scrutinised independently on such issues. I hope that the Government will eventually concede on that.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we did a double act of trying to get the reform of the ISC into the Wright Committee report. He knows that the proposal that has been put forward is not to make it a Select Committee of Parliament but merely that Parliament should elect its chairman, with a veto still in the hands of the Prime Minister. Does he support that as an interim measure, and how does he believe we can best ensure that we have an opportunity to vote on it when it comes to the votes early in March?
I support that as an interim measure, but I should like us to get to a position at which it becomes a Committee of the House. There are obviously some special considerations to be taken into account, and perhaps the Prime Minister does have to be consulted, but in general I support that idea. I am not a procedural expert, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I shall not attempt on my feet to devise a way in which the matter can be voted upon.
I wish to refer to an issue on which the House of Commons Reform Committee was split down the middle. I suspect that I am in a minority in the House on it, although I believe myself to be in a comfortable majority outside the House. It is the 80-day recess that we award ourselves and the 80-day holiday from scrutiny that we award the Government.
It is not a holiday.
I agree with my right hon. Friend—I used the term “holiday from scrutiny”, I did not suggest that we are all on holiday during the recess. I know that he is not, and I know that I am not, but I know the public think we are. That is the problem.
It is important to say that part of the reason why the Committee was split down the middle on September sittings was that a lot of people thought that they would not in themselves be the solution to rebuilding trust outside, and that we should examine the whole parliamentary timetable and consider why we have overblown public school sitting times, rather than just consider sitting again for two weeks in September.
We have to start somewhere, and I get more and more puzzled about what my hon. Friend actually wants. She said that many of the proposals that we are discussing this evening were arcane and too complex for the outside world to understand, but this is one that the outside world has grasped readily. It is about time we grasped it, too. We are not asking for anything revolutionary, just for probably eight days sometime in September. That would still allow time for the conferences and all the other things that have to happen. Members often forget that we actually voted for that six years ago as a part of a package put to the House by the late Robin Cook. The words he used when he introduced that measure—I remember them well—were, “The deal is”. The deal was that in return for making the House’s sitting times family friendly by giving us half-terms and so forth, we would sit for a week or two in September. That was the deal, and we reneged on it. The first excuse was that a security screen had to be set up, and when that ran out, the excuse was that there would not be enough business. I do not buy that and nor do the public, and it is time we addressed it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should base our working year on our constituents’ working year, and that there is absolutely no reason why we should have such incredibly long holidays?
I do not accept the word “holidays”—they are parliamentary recesses—but I agree that there is no reason why they should be so long. We are going to make progress slowly and I do not want to trouble the House with anything too revolutionary, but eight days in September is not too much to ask.
The Committee’s conclusions, some of which were compromises because the Committee did not agreed on everything, are a reasonable beginning to what we know needs to be done to make this place function more efficiently. The two core proposals—the big-ticket items, if I may use my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House’s phrase—are for a business committee that covers all House business and to take election to Select Committees out of the hands of the Executive. I hope I live long enough to see them implemented.
It is now or never. There is no point in saying that we should leave this to another Parliament consisting of a lot of new people with no experience. It will take them, as it took me, at least 10 years to work out what is wrong, which is a recipe for doing nothing. It is now or never, and I say it should be now.
It was a pleasure to serve on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I learned a lot from members of the Committee, both older and younger, because everyone brought their experience to it, including the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and his fellow conspirator on the Intelligence and Security Committee, the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).
If the House of Commons Reform Committee was in any doubt about the issues when it started its work, the situation was made clear by the way in which the Committee was set up and how the House, by which I mean the Government, handled it. It took so long for the Government to put the motion to set up the Committee in a place on the Order Paper that meant that it could be debated and pressed to a Division, which was reasonable for the House to expect, that there was originally no proper consultation on the terms of reference. It would have been sensible for the Government to consult the House, given that the motion was on reform of the House. It also took a long time for the Government to respond—I would not have minded had they swiftly tabled motions as a response—and for us to be in a position in which we could decide what reforms we wanted, even before the bizarre process that we now face.
All of that should tell us that the House, especially on House matters, should be able to put motions on the Order Paper in an orderly way, promptly, and in a way that Members of the House, and preferably the public, can understand. That is why it was bizarre to hear the Leader of the House claim credit for the fact that we have reached this point. Only the Government could set up the Committee, so they are claiming credit for something when they have no competition—[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Lady is saying something from a sedentary position and I would be happy for her to intervene. My point is that the House should be grateful to the Government for what they are doing and for reaching the point that they have reached today, and recognise the commitment to reform that the Prime Minister originally gave in 2007, but given what I said about what has brought us to this point, I do not think they did things better than anyone else could have done, because no one else could do anything, and the way they have gone about things has been unsatisfactory.
However, the process has shown us that there is an appetite for reform. The Government have seen that, because they rightly conceded, as they had to, a variation to the terms of reference. They also had to concede amendments to some of the motions on today’s Order Paper. Amendment (a), which I helped to draft, to motion 9 has now been signed by 128 Members, and it would have been signed by more if we had had more than a day to collect signatures. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), and to the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) for the urgency and energy that they put into collecting those names. That shows that there is huge appetite for reform.
We were warned—I was certainly told this—that we would not get anywhere with the concept of a House business committee and that we ought to concentrate on getting support for other measures. However, once the Government support those other measures, the only game in town is getting the measures that the Government are not minded to support. The fact that the Leader of the House is going to support amendment (a) to motion 9 —I hope that others in the Government will follow her into the Lobby—shows that there is very wide support for it.
That the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), was able to support the amendment enthusiastically at a relatively early stage, and that he has been such a strong supporter for a Back-Bench business committee, is very telling. He regards himself as the Leader of the House in waiting—although I pay tribute to him and cannot think of a better person, I hope that that does not happen—and he must recognise that the Government of whom he hopes to be a part would not be able to manipulate business in the way that previous Governments have if the amendment to which he has now signed up is made. That is statesmanship and very worth while. It is wrong to criticise people for changing their minds, and I therefore make no criticism of the Leader of the House for now saying—I will not use the word “U-turn”—that she supports the amendment. That should be welcomed unconditionally.
However, on the Back-Bench business committee motion, and as I mentioned in an intervention, the Procedure Committee, to which we are entrusting the matter, is not initially down to be an elected Committee, although there will be review after two years. Therefore, by definition, the Procedure Committee will remain Whip-appointed. I do not cast any aspersions on the intentions of those who have served, do serve and would serve on that Committee, but motion 9 needs to be a little more detailed. If we are going to ask a Whip-appointed Committee to set out what the Back-Bench business committee does, it should specify that it should be elected by secret ballot and that all House business except primary and secondary legislation and associated orders and motions, ministerial statements, Opposition business and motions for an address, is Back-Bench business, which means estimates days, Liaison Committee matters and, critically, private Members’ Bills.
That would mean that Back Benchers could determine whether private Members’ Bills—or at least the top seven—live or die on the basis of the support of the House, and that such Bills would not be quorumed out, talked out or procedured out. It is ridiculous for hon. Members and the public to spend much time dealing with those Bills only for them to be lost on procedure. If that means that the Government must whip because they find a private Member’s Bill unacceptable, so be it. Not everything that comes out of the Whips Office is bad. It is legitimate for Government Whips to whip to carry their majority—that is their right—but it is not appropriate or acceptable for the Whips Office to manipulate business so that we do not properly scrutinise it.
I want to make another point on the scrutiny of legislation. The Leader of the House knows—I have raised this on one, two or perhaps 14 times with her at business questions—about my concerns that we cannot debate on Report what we wish to debate or press what we wish to press to a Division. Scrutiny on Report is critical, because the Public Bill Committee does not deliver. A Report stage provides the only opportunity for Back Benchers who are not on a Public Bill Committee to debate and vote, the only opportunity for Back-Bench amendments to be promoted, the only opportunity for Select Committees and their Chairs to join in detailed debate, and the only opportunity for Members to debate Government amendments tabled after the Committee stage or tabled at short notice in Committee.
Timetabling in Committee may mean that some clauses receive little scrutiny there. Votes are often postponed until Report, and if we do not reach those clauses on Report, it will not be possible for votes to take place. That applies particularly to free votes. Free votes in Public Bill Committees are meaningless, because, by definition, they cannot be represented in the selection for those Committees. The Report stage provides the only chance for rebels to rebel, and that puts pressure on the Government to justify, to compromise or, I suppose, to persuade.
The Library has identified a number of instances in which proper Report stage scrutiny has not taken place. The list is too long for me to give all the details, but I think I should give four random examples. On the Bill that became the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, nine groups of amendments were selected by the Speaker, and 20 Government amendments or new clauses and 47 Opposition amendments or new clauses were not reached. On the Bill that became the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, 14 groups of amendments were selected by the Speaker, and 18 Government amendments and new clauses and 48 Opposition amendments and new clauses were not reached. In the Coroners and Justice Bill we reformed the murder law in this country, but we were not given a chance to debate it on the Floor of the House. The law of murder was reformed in that Bill, but only the unelected House was able to debate it.
What the House business committee would deliver—along with a guarantee that the Government would have enough time to get their business through, would have first choice of dates and would have a set end date, as they have at present—is determination, by consensus, that everything that the House needed to debate would be debated, and everything on which the House felt that it needed to vote would be voted on. That might mean more work for the Whips Office to ensure that the Government, given their majority in the House of Commons, could exercise that “mandate” at the appropriate time, but it would at least mean that those of us who wished to express concerns or make suggestions could have their day in court, or rather their day in Parliament.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to give effect to his excellent suggestion, we would need time in which to debate those matters properly?
Absolutely. The House business committee would, I think, be better able to identify, as the Library and the Clerks Department have done—without increasing the number of times that we sit, and there are no proposals in the report to increase them—all the days on which business finishes early. Second Readings of simple Bills to which there is little opposition do not require a whole day of debate. Some of that time could be banked to ensure that, more often, two days were allotted for Report stages, and—crucially—that the knives that are currently inserted to protect the business that follows were inserted before, rather than after, the business that we most want and need to discuss.
That can, of course, be achieved in the case of the Finance Bill, which is subject to no programme or guillotine but is debated properly.
Indeed. In fact, there are many such examples.
Clearly, if there were more time for debate on Report, Members’ speeches might expand to fill that extra time. In its holistic report, the Committee made the legitimate point that restrictions on the length of speeches on Report might well be appropriate and could be identified in advance to ensure that we completed our business on Report.
Scrutiny of legislation is critical. The real question is, whose business is it to scrutinise Government-sponsored legislation? Is it the Government’s business, or is it the business of the House? It is clearly the business of the House, and therefore, at the very least, it should be within the purview of the House business committee. Front Benchers must clearly be represented, because they must identify their priorities. Both the report and our amendment guarantee that they would be given the time that they require to get their business through, which may be why the Leader of the House felt able to support the amendment. However, it has also been pointed out that it is important for us to improve scrutiny, and to recognise that what happens at present is often the opposite of scrutiny.
Select Committee scrutiny is also critical. As we heard from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, it is simply wrong for the Government to appoint members of Committees that scrutinise them. The same applies to the Opposition: as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South, the shadow Minister will soon be the Minister. More than that is required, however: we need to ensure that Select Committee reports do not just sit on a shelf. The Government must be bound to respond to those reports, because sometimes they do not even do that. I serve on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and we have written time and again to request even a response to some of our reports. Sometimes, when the Government do respond, they do not address the issues.
If we could ensure that, in due course, some Select Committee recommendations were subjected to a decision on the Floor of the House, the Government would be forced to respond properly and to justify their rejection of recommendations. They would have to whip the House to oppose them, as they have a right to do, but those who serve on Select Committees would see that there was an end point at which the House itself considered and, indeed, voted on selected amendments. If Select Committee members felt that that would happen, they would be more engaged, they would turn up, and we would have stronger scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and to pay tribute to the part that he has played in getting us where we are today. He played an enormous part in ensuring that the amendment was tabled, and in working so constructively and coherently with the Leader of the House and members of all parties. That is an admirable example of the way in which non-partisan but very principled work can deliver enormously constructive and helpful changes in the House.
However, the Member at the centre of the whole debate, and of all our thinking today, is the Member sitting behind me, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Tributes to him have been implicit in all the speeches that have been made so far. We owe him an enormous amount. The best way in which we can ensure that sufficient tribute is paid to him—although probably only the Government can do this—is to arrange for him no longer to be our hon. Friend but to become our right hon. Friend. If anyone has gained, indeed earned, the honour of being a right hon. Member of this House, surely it is he.
Make him a Lord!
Certainly not. He is first, foremost and always a democrat.
In the excellent speech in which he effectively introduced the motion—I hope the Leader of the House will forgive me for saying that—my hon. Friend said, “We are nearly there.” The question is, who are the “we” and where is the “there” that we are near? With one or two very creditable exceptions—it is vital, in any debate, to hear distant voices that make people think—the “we” has been represented by Members in all parts of the House, many of whom have worked for reform for years. At the beginning of the debate, when the Chamber was rather fuller, it was interesting to look around and see, gathered in one room, people representing all the organisations, all the time and all the thinking that has gone into reform over the 27 years during which I have been here and, indeed, before that. I am thinking of the Hansard Society, numerous committees, and all the conferences outside this place.
Being one of little faith, I have to say that five years ago I would not have put any money on our reaching the point that we have reached today. It seemed that battering our heads against the House and its resistance to any sort of reform would see me out. It is an amazing tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, to the Leader of the House and to many Members in the Chamber today that, almost in the last few weeks—certainly in the last few months—we have made such enormous strides. We really are nearly there. We are on the brink of reform, but we are not there yet. This is the start of the process. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) kept anxiously saying, “Surely this is not it; this must be just the start of the process.” Of course, anyone who believes in the reform of this House knows that these are tentative first steps, but they are vital. They are the beginning of the process, not the end.
Throughout her speech, my hon. Friend asked why we were not asking more fundamental questions. There cannot be a more fundamental assumption behind our reforms than the need to get the balance between the House and the Executive right. That is what has gone so wrong with Parliament politically over the last few years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that rather than this being a technical and navel-gazing issue, nothing could do more to raise the esteem in which MPs are held by the public than taking back a little power into the hands of elected Members through these reforms?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but it is more a rebalancing of two distinct roles: that of the Executive—who have a role of their own in proposing legislation, imposing taxation and taking action on behalf of this country—and that of this House. The two are often confused, but the role of this House is to hold the Government to account, scrutinise them, ask them severe questions and test them on behalf of our constituents. Those two distinct roles are at the centre of all the reforms that we wish to make, and we are getting there, gradually.
Parliament has not been working well, and that is only partly to do with the expenses issue of the last year. It has not been working well politically, and we have not been holding the Government to account. It is not just an idealistic point that the role of Back Benchers is to hold the Government to account, because it is in the Government’s interest that they are held to account more effectively. Governments who are rigorously scrutinised are bound to be much better Governments. We so often confuse power and strength with effectiveness. Governments have always had difficulty with freedom of information, because they feel that they are giving away control, and therefore power. However, if the Government give away power through freedom of information, they become stronger and their actions are improved. So it is with the reform of this House. A reformed House will lead to a stronger and better Government, and will help to distinguish between power, which Governments have, and strength, which they often do not have because they do not carry things through this House.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it will be an important legacy of these reforms if we do not stop here, and if we recognise that the issue is not only about process and rules, but about the attitude to those rules and the approach that Members take when they come into the new Parliament in taking advantage of the system that has been left by this Parliament?
I do agree.
The interesting thing about the report is that it tends to concentrate on structures. They are a necessary and vital first step in achieving reform, but they are not in themselves sufficient. We will also have to change the culture of this place if we are to achieve real reform. For example, we must stop seeing total party loyalty as the be-all and end-all of everything. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire questioned whether parties should have primacy. Of course we need Whips and strong party discipline for the effective running of government, but we also need MPs with an independence of mind if we are to be an effective Parliament.
In the last 10 years, we have the perfect example of failing to be independent of mind, and the country is still paying the price. When the former Prime Minister made that extraordinary speech introducing the Iraq war, many Members of Parliament from all parties had enormous doubts. Had they been left to their own consciences, they would not have given their support to the Government that night. Many of them have felt let down subsequently and doubted themselves because they were seduced into being loyal to the then Prime Minister, who certainly made a very powerful speech. I suspect that the House did not cast its votes in the way that Members really believed that night, and we have paid an enormous price. If there had been a genuinely free vote, and Members had voted as they felt the arguments led them to do, the result would have been different and we would not have been involved in that disastrous war.
That is an interesting point. I have given some thought to whether, if the Wright Committee proposals had already been in place, we might have had a different outcome. Does he think that if they had been in place we might have had that debate a few days or weeks earlier and that we might have had two days for debate, in which we would have had more time to think about it and listen to the arguments, possibly resulting in a different outcome?
We could go on with interesting hypotheses, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the recent study by Phil Cowley from Nottingham university demonstrated that this Parliament and other recent Parliaments have been the most rebellious Parliaments of all time? We are more independent of political parties than we have been in the past, so the issue is not the independence of mind of MPs, but the way in which this place works—or does not work.
I am not entirely sure which Parliaments my hon. Friend has been a Member of if she really thinks that this is a Parliament of free and independent minds. She seems to have lived through a different Parliament than the one that I have lived through.
We are on the brink of reform, and we now need to step over the brink. This is just a start, and we must not forget why we are here and how we got to this point. What is sad is that we need to make that step to reform quickly and decisively now, because—as others have said—come the general election we will have a great many new Members and, tragically, some of the most important voices in the reform debate over the last few years will be lost, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase, for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the hon. Members for Cambridge (David Howarth), for Congleton (Ann Winterton), for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Those people are leaving and the new Members will come hot from the election and all the excitement of standing for their party in the general election. They will find it difficult to see themselves as parliamentarians, after their role in the election as proud flag wavers of the party cause. The House will lose the benefit of some of the wisest and most thoughtful people on the reform agenda.
Does my hon. Friend see the importance of revitalising local parties? We relate better to this place if we can go back to our local parties, which are not the same as the national party, as well as to our constituencies. These changes will help to move us in that direction.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, as I do on so many occasions. The importance of local party democracy is central.
Although throughout this debate we have identified the importance of this House in holding the Government to account, the other thrust, which we have perhaps not discussed enough, is the sense that reform will help us to create and sense our own identity—an identity distinct from that of the Government. It is difficult in this House to hold that paradox in one’s head. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has a solution to that: the separation of powers. That is not a solution that appeals to me. We have to hold on to that paradox and get the tension in it to work in our favour. However, in doing so we have to see a distinct identity for this place, and not see it as simply a rubber stamp for the party in government.
That has been the weakness of the Parliaments of the past few years, a weakness that has been compounded by the enormous majorities that the country has sent us here with. I suspect that the next Parliament will not have the same kind of monumental majority, which has been a source of huge weakness, so it might not have the same problem. However, if the next Parliament—albeit without the benefit of many of the people who have spoken in this debate—can find a sense of its own identity, it will be able to carry forward the reform that the committee of inquiry chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase deserves. He has given us the foundation of the reform that we desperately need. If we are to carry it forward in the next Parliament, we have to have that sense of our own identity.
It is a great pleasure to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher). I am sure that I speak on behalf of all who know him in saying that I am delighted that he is back in the House after his recent illness and hope that he will soon be completely fit again.
What a pleasure it is to take part in a debate that, effectively, was initiated by another Staffordshire friend, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). If he will forgive my saying so, from the moment that he came into the House he has been an exemplary next-door neighbour, and he has been an exemplary Chairman of his Committee too. The House owes him a great deal. His legacy is the report that we are discussing; the effectiveness of that legacy will depend on how truly people implement it.
I say that because there are two or three weaknesses that one must face up to. First, the hon. Gentleman’s Committee was fairly constrained in its terms of reference, a point alluded to by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). Secondly, the Committee was time-constrained. It was set up in a bit of a hurry and—I chose my words carefully—in a little bit of a panic reaction. It was to the credit of the hon. Gentleman and all who served on the Committee with him that they produced such a sensible and workmanlike document in such a short space of time. However, we must not become euphoric, because there is a danger that the changes advocated in the report could become cosmetic. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central made an important point towards the end of his speech, when he referred to the enormous majorities in recent Parliaments. We all have to recognise that, to a large degree, the power of the House of Commons depends on the size of the Government’s majority.
I had the good fortune to be elected to this place in 1970. The Government of Ted Heath had a workable but not an enormous majority. They had to fight for some of their policies and, in the case of the European debate—I mention this merely as a historical event and not to antagonise my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)—they were dependent on votes from the Labour party to get that key element of their policy through the House of Commons. Because of that, that Government had an implicit respect for the House of Commons.
After that there was what I will always consider the unnecessary election of February 1974—I spoke against it at the time—when the Prime Minister asked who governed the country. It was he who should have done so; he did not need to go to the country. He went to the country and he lost his majority. Paradoxically, he got a majority of the popular vote, but he lost his majority. From February 1974 until March 1979, this place truly had power and influence, because there was never a vote that the Government could absolutely accurately predict that they would win.
Then we moved to Mrs. Thatcher’s first Government, for whom the arithmetic was not very different from that for Edward Heath’s Government. Again, the Government had to argue. I well remember when there was a majority of 42 going with 21 signatures with my now noble Friend Lord Higgins to see a Cabinet Minister and saying that we could not wear a particular policy, which was subsequently significantly amended. All that went in 1983, after the longest suicide note in history, when we had the next Thatcher Government. Since the brief period between 1992 and 1997, when John Major had a dwindling and at the end non-existent majority, we have had Governments with majorities that have been so large that the House of Commons has not really been able to do anything about it.
I have often thought that the famous motion that Dunning moved, I think in 1782—that the power of the Crown had increased, was increasing and ought to be diminished—has been the subtext for those of us who have been unhappy about the overweening power of the Executive. The power of the Executive has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. Whether the reforms before us this evening will have that effect I know not. We stand on the brink of a general election, and although I love this place with a passion, I will not be in the next House of Commons, whatever the electorate does. I just wonder what will happen, because of the power of the Whips, with perhaps 300 new Members in the new Parliament, although I do not say that in any vicious sense. There has to be a whipping system, as others have said. Party is essential for civilised democracy in this country—it is part of the system—particularly if we are not to abandon, as I do not wish us to abandon our concept of the separation of powers. However, influence is not just overt; it is also covert.
When we look at the proposals—we will vote on them next week—we have to remember that there are more ways of influencing a Member than the crudest and the simplest, just as we have to remember that any system devised for the examination and scrutiny of legislation is open to abuse, whether the abuse of the filibuster, if we have unlimited time, or, as we have seen in recent years, the abuse of the timetable, which has created the absurd situations referred to so graphically by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Time is terribly important in this House. If we are to constrain our time so much, for whatever reasons—and there were some good reasons for changing the hours in 1997—we must recognise that there has to be a self-denying ordinance on the part of the Government in relation to the amount of legislation that they place before the House.
I shall conclude by making one or two specific remarks about the proposals. In my memo to the Committee, I suggested that there should be a properly appointed Committee of Selection, chaired by either the Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means, that would, to a degree, be the fount of appointments. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire made some important points in that regard. Elections are not the only answer to having more independent Select Committees. Whether we have elections for their Chairmen and members or not, however, we want a Committee of Selection that will be the creature of the House and not the creature of the Executive. We also want a business Committee, and again I would favour one that was the creature of the House and not of the Executive. It would be entirely logical for the Chairman of Ways and Means to preside over the Committee of Selection, and for the Speaker to preside over the business Committee. There are other countries in which something like that happens.
It is also terribly important that, as we move forward towards sensible reform, we do not abandon some of the things that mark the traditions of this place. I think it was the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) who made a jocular reference to the new carpet earlier. The new carpet is not a Cyril Lord concoction with a gaudy pattern on it, and none of us would have wanted it to be. It bears the two red stripes, which are symbolic in our parliamentary life. It is therefore part of our traditional Chamber.
I make no apology for being a traditionalist, which is why I have tabled amendments to get rid of the silly notion of calling everyone who is in charge of a Committee a piece of furniture. That is a nonsense up with which we do not need to put. Certainly the great women in recent parliamentary history, such as the late Gwyneth Dunwoody and the very much alive Baroness Boothroyd, would have scoffed at such a suggestion. Indeed, I have heard Baroness Boothroyd do so—not in this particular context, but in others.
The proposals would bring about an utterly unnecessary cosmetic change. One of the reasons that I oppose them is that, if I love anything as much as I love the House of Commons, I love the English language. Next year, we shall celebrate one of the seminal works in the English language, the King James Bible. It would be a pretty poor parliamentary recognition of the importance of the greatest worldwide language since Latin if we started in this place to call people pieces of furniture. I hope that my minor amendments will be accepted, even perhaps by the Chairman of the Committee that produced this report. For the rest, I will vote for the motions to implement his report. I think that I shall vote for every proposal, although I might just reflect on one or two things. The report contains a small series of imperfect but necessary steps, and I hope that they will serve well the new House of Commons and those who sit here, and help to redress the balance that we all want to see redressed.
I have just overheard one of my colleagues describing the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) as a magnificent parliamentary specimen. I am sure that he was absolutely right. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman. I clearly recall an occasion a few months ago when I had to speak after him. I think that it was during one of the Hansard Society debates during the speakership campaign. We were both asked to talk about our experience. He said that he had served the House since 1970—that is nearly 40 years—and I had to confess that I was not even born until a year after he began to serve the House.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and with most of the other speakers in this debate. I should like to join the consensus supporting the excellent work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and his Committee. I also think that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) made some good points, however, and I want to pick up the gauntlet that was thrown down by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) when he suggested that we could go further.
The Committee’s report will drag the House forward towards the 20th century from the 18th. After the election, however, we shall probably need the equivalent of a Wright II to drag it into the Facebook and Twitter age. I believe, having talked to colleagues here and outside the House, that there could be a real danger in the months and years to come of a divide between the 30-something parliamentarians and the others in the House. I shall explain why. Some of the newer group of Members will not have had their children yet and might be planning to do so in the future; others might have young children. Others will be more savvy than I am about new forms of communication and about how to contact and be involved with their electors. They will have different ideas about how we should engage with the public than the House has traditionally had in the past.
My hon. Friend’s excellent report will move powers distinctly from the Executive to the Back Benches and to Parliament. In the eyes of the public, will that give the country new confidence in us? No, I do not think that it will. It will give confidence to us as Members of Parliament, and to those in the Westminster village. It will support and help those with a trained Westminster eye. It will make a difference here, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire and others are saying, if we are to make Parliament stronger, we need to shift the pendulum of power away from this place and into local communities. I have talked about this before, and I believe that it is relevant. We shall have to come back to the issue of the settlement between the citizen and our Parliament and debate it again in the future.
I want to outline three key areas in which we can make a difference. They were not in the remit of my hon. Friend’s review, but he had a limited period in which to complete it, and he has come an awfully long way. He has proposed great recommendations for change, and we should all support them. They are changes that we need to make, but we will need to make further changes down the line. One relates to representation. If Parliament is really to be in touch with society, we need to look, act, sound and be more like it. I see one or two heads shaking on the Conservative Benches, but I do not think that that sentiment is necessarily shared by all of those on the Conservative Front Bench.
We are seeing an emerging consensus on this matter. We saw that after the Speaker’s Conference. Indeed, several Members who were involved in that are here today. We have come some way, but it is important that we now look at and listen to the recommendations of that Conference. I hope that they will be discussed on the Floor of the House, and ideally not in a debate tucked away on a Thursday. Let us debate these matters on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, when the House is busy, because the report produced by the Speaker’s Conference is important. It is not just about getting more people from an ethnic minority background or more women into Parliament; it is also, in this modern world, about being fair and understanding towards people with mental health issues, and about getting more people with disabilities into the House.
I understand that that was not part of the remit of the review carried out by my hon. Friend’s Committee, but those and other measures are still relevant. We need to consider how we can better relate to younger people and encourage them to come into the House and become Members of Parliament. Again, some small steps in the right direction have been taken and Mr. Speaker has done the right thing in moving towards providing crèche facilities in this place, but as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire has already pointed out—[Interruption.] One or two Members may smirk, but I suspect that in the months and years to come, recognition of the importance of such facilities will become part of the political consensus. At least I hope it will, in the same way that measures to move power from the Executive to the Back Benchers have become part of a consensus. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, as Parliaments change—we may well soon get a big churn in the membership of this place—some of these issues may get forgotten, so it is very important that that does not happen and important to ensure that these changes are driven forwards in the next Parliament, whoever is here after the election.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that reform is always an ongoing process and that there should never be a time when we say that it is over?
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. I was making the point that, as we have heard in today’s debate, the hunger for change is greater among some than among others. Some Members want it faster and swifter, while others are more pragmatic about it. I am outlining some of the key proposals that I believe are relevant to us now and in the future.
I will give way, but then I want to come on to what I think is the key change that we need to make in the future.
On the question of representation, my hon. Friend is right, but was not one of the things discovered at the Speaker’s Conference that much of the responsibility will fall to the parties? Even if, through the action of the parties, we have a much more racially diverse House of Commons, is it not the case that if the Executive retain their death-grip on Parliament, the colour of its skin might be different, but it will not do anything to win back the public’s confidence in it being independent and in us thinking for ourselves?
My hon. Friend has much more experience than me as she has campaigned for many years on these issues. Her voice was heard loud and clear through the Speaker’s Conference, and I think she makes her point incredibly powerfully.
Let me come on to the issue of power and where it lies, which is the key to engagement with the electorate. That is what they really want to see—to make a real difference to rebuilding Parliament. To change people’s attitude towards this place, we have to look at our structures and think about how we shift the pendulum of power away from here towards local communities. I know that there is a great deal of uncertainty and fear among Members about that proposal, but I do not think that there should be because, ultimately, it will make us stronger. As has already been said, this is similar to the Executive becoming stronger by being subject to greater scrutiny by Back Benchers.
As I have said before, I would like to see far more opportunities for parliamentary processes and practices to reach out to town halls and communities in the country at large. Our Adjournment debates provide one good example of that, because holding such debates outside this place in the regions would make a huge difference and attract much local interest, involving local communities and the local media as well.
On that subject, we need a long hard think about how we should use new media. I would like to see us showing enough trust in our public to allow them to participate in more direct democracy so that they could help to shape and decide what we debate when we have discussions about topical issues. Yes, Back Benchers and business committees should be able to shortlist what the key issues are, but why do we not allow our constituents out there in our communities, through online voting, to decide what issues should be debated? We need to revisit all these issues as early as possible in the next Parliament if we are to get up steam and put this institution behind reform and change.
I thank my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour for giving way. I would love the new media to be interested in this place, but it would also be helpful if the old media took an occasional bit of interest. One deleterious effect of recent developments is that this place has become greatly weakened as the media have taken less and less interest; as it has become weakened, the media have then taken even less interest. Is it not about time that the media took some interest in this place?
I disagree with my hon. Friend, as I think the media take quite a lot of interest in this place. They do not, however, always take an interest in the positive elements of what goes on here. As Members, we have all had to deal with that problem, particularly in recent months.
In conclusion, I truly believe that these reforms are positive and I hope that the whole House will get behind them. I congratulate all Members who served on this important Committee, but if the public are to view this not just as deck chairs being moved around a floating parliamentary Titanic from the Treasury Benches to the Back Benches, we must be honest and see this as only the first stage of making even greater reforms that will reach out to the electorate.
I very much welcome many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), although what he said amplifies how this debate can become a Christmas tree on which everybody hangs their particular enthusiasms for what they might call parliamentary reform. I think that our debate must concentrate on the report before us and on what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has presented to us this afternoon, which provides a great opportunity to take a modest but extremely significant step.
All parties, including the Committee itself, have described our response to the expenses scandal as being necessary but not sufficient to wider reform; it will be sufficient only if we reform Parliament itself. Even you, Mr. Speaker, made the reform of the House of Commons part of the platform for your election. The fact that all party leaders have essentially embraced the re-empowerment of Parliament as an essential part of that reform enjoins us to give a hearty welcome to the Committee’s report.
By far the most important issue before the House is control of the timetable of business. As any A-level politics student will know, the degree to which the Government control the Commons timetable is the degree to which they control the House itself. I was extremely taken by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who reminded us that what used to be one of the key weapons of opposition in the House—available not just to the Opposition, but to Government Members as well—was the opportunity to delay by extending the time of scrutiny for a measure. That is why I was so taken by the point that this categorical assurance about the time-in and the time-out is perhaps given too lightly. That is where we are at the moment, however, so we should still welcome the proposals.
I disagree with my hon. Friend, as I do not think that the key to increasing the power of the Parliament is increasing our power to control the timetable. Rather, I believe that the key is our power to control the supply of money. Does he agree that although these reforms are a wonderful first step, the next big step is to go down the route that the American Congress has long since taken, so that our Select Committees have much greater control as the Government increase their spending?
I agree. I am not going to address the role of Select Committees, because the subject is too large, but the fundamental point about them is far more significant than the fact that they should be elected; it is that they should be given resources. Our Select Committees are very modest in comparison with their congressional counterparts, and they have very limited ability to get ahead of the political agenda and to start to set it in the way congressional committees do. We are going to need to look at that further.
The key point is the importance of having control over the timetable from which the House currently suffers. The present arrangements are damaging in two particular respects. First, far too much legislation passes through this House without proper scrutiny—indeed, not just without proper scrutiny, but with barely any scrutiny at all, as has been pointed out. Let us remind ourselves of what Lord Butler, the former Cabinet Secretary, said this month: “Successive Governments have come to take Parliament for granted so they rush through very bad legislation.” As has been pointed out, we now rely almost wholly on the other place to do the job of scrutiny that we are elected to carry out.
That leads to the second danger: our powerlessness in the House damages the whole credibility of our democracy. If the hon. Member for Gloucester reflects on the other points that he raised, he will see that this is the key point. We are elected to the House for three principal purposes: to prevent the abuse of power, to ensure the passing of good laws, and to raise money for the Government, while guaranteeing that it is spent wisely, as was said earlier. Who today honestly believes that the House begins to carry out those functions effectively?
That brings me to the separation of powers. When Montesquieu studied the British constitution in action in his “The Spirit of Laws” of 1748, he observed, albeit partly mistakenly, the separation of powers between the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The separation of powers has become a founding principle of democratic constitutions around the world; it is not something that we should fear, but something that we should seek to promote. It is particularly exemplified in the constitution of the United States.
In fact, there never can be a complete separation of powers. The US President, for example, can veto new laws—a legislative function. He also personally appoints new Supreme Court justices. However, the founding fathers of the US constitution would have shuddered at the idea that the White House could determine the weekly business in the House of Representatives. Yet that is what our Government can do in our Parliament. That is not Montesquieu’s separation of powers, but a fusion of powers.
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but, somewhat rarely, I could not disagree with him more. Going down the route of the separation of powers presupposes—if he is going to use the analogy of the American system—that the President himself would have to be elected.
I will come to that point, my hon. Friend need not fear.
The truth is that our Parliament is no longer composed mainly of part-time citizen parliamentarians, but of professional politicians, most of whom wish, or have wished, to become Ministers, or who are Ministers. When an MP becomes a Minister, he virtually ceases to function as an MP. Ministers continue to do their best for their constituents, but they cannot hold the Executive effectively to account, because they are the Executive. That is ironic given that the House has become obsessed by conflicts of interest, and one need think only of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, outside interests, Members of Parliament owning investments, retiring Ministers taking jobs in private sector businesses that they regulated and the role of lobbyists.
A Minister’s loyalty is to the Executive, but as an MP, his loyalty should be to Parliament. Inevitably, that presents a fundamental conflict of interest on occasion. One is reminded of Christ’s words in Matthew 6:24:
“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.”
Christ was, of course, referring to God and Mammon, but he might as easily have been talking about the House of Commons and the Prime Minister offering a ministerial salary to one of his Back Benchers.
It is worth considering that before the second world war perhaps 50 Members of the House of Commons were on the Government payroll; today, 141 MPs are on the payroll. In a parliamentary system, there must be a recognition of that conflict of interest. As the parliamentary ombudsman recently told the Public Administration Committee—this is quoted in the report—there is
“no visible distinction between Parliament and government.”
That is something that we must address.
We have also seen the increasing power and centralisation of political parties in recent times. As has been said, political parties are indispensable, but Members of Parliament are no longer elected and then apply to take the Whip of this or that party. Parties are now defined and regulated by statute. The Burkean principle of MP as representative has been progressively eroded and replaced by the notion of MP as party delegate. Party leaders can now get rid of MPs they do not like, as we saw in the Conservative party before the last election. They can also block candidates of whom they disapprove. For the modern political party, the House of Commons has become more of an electoral college for the office of Prime Minister than a deliberative assembly. That must change.
Parliamentary government arose precisely because Parliament wanted to limit the power of the Crown. That is why the Commons insisted in 1713 that no demand for money would be met unless proposed in the House by a Minister of the Crown. Today’s Standing Order No. 48 derives from that time, when it was one of the very few Standing Orders of the House—quite why it is No. 48 is perhaps a reflection of the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of this place.
The House has two options. First, we can embrace the modest proposal from the Wright Committee for a House business committee. That will not challenge the ultimate authority of the majority to get its way, but it will increase transparency, allow some discourse and create more of a requirement for some explanation. A tactful and rational Government have no need to fear such a reform. If that fails, we will need to discuss something far more radical and start a process of visibly removing the Executive from Parliament altogether, although I have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who is now addressing the Clerk, that I am still far from persuaded that that would be desirable or achievable. It is far preferable, before we turn to the radical option, that we consider the chance for moderate reform offered by the report. The proposed House business committee can begin to redress the imbalance of power in the House, which so corrodes good government and accountability. There can only be strong government if it rests on a strong and more independent Parliament.
I strongly support almost all of what I have just heard; it was a very interesting speech. Today is one of those rare occasions when I feel that we have all been let out. We are hearing some very unusual and thoughtful remarks. I particularly enjoyed the brilliant speech by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I am a bit nervous of his taking too much notice of my judgment, because I agree with absolutely every word, and agreeing with a speech so fully tends to cloud one’s judgment. However, it really was an outstanding speech.
I am not going to go into great procedural detail in supporting the proposals. Instead, I will try to make a few general remarks about why we have reached the pass that we have and about the extent to which the reforms will make any significant contribution.
We are here less because of expenses than because of Iraq and Blair. Tony Blair’s disdain for Parliament, and Parliament’s failure to expose—even after the event—the full extent to which the country was misled when we went to war, have been decisive in confirming in the public mind the weakness and powerlessness of this institution. That weakness is deep-seated.
I did not comment on this particular issue, because I wanted to keep my remarks short, but it would be dreadful if we thought that we could insulate Members of Parliament from the pressures involved in such decisions. Two opponents of the Iraq war have made the same point, but I doubt whether the decision would have been different, given that even public opinion was in favour of going to war by the time the vote took place.
One of the points that I made was that we failed to get to the bottom of everything, even afterwards. We have just had a succession of inquiries from outsiders, who have made far better progress than Committees of this House, which is tragic. That is a reflection of the powerlessness of Parliament, rather than just the decision itself—I made both points. Parliament became Mr. Blair’s poodle, at least until Iraq—things began to change after that—and our job now is to try to make sure that after the next election it does not become the poodle of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) or the current Prime Minister. We must link that with the idea that our starting point must be to work out what Parliament is for, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said.
We need Parliament, in order to legitimise Government, to hold the Executive to account and, most importantly, to force the Executive to explain their actions. That is a requirement of any healthy democracy, and in order for Parliament to do that, some independence of mind must be shown on the Back Benches, along with some sense of responsibility when exercising their powers.
In that context, does my hon. Friend agree that when referring to Back Benchers, more often than not we should also refer to the word “backbone”?
My hon. Friend makes his own point in his own way.
Parliamentary democracy also requires there to be strong political parties, and there has been some discussion of parties today, but a Parliament that is worthy of the name can operate only if political debate is not entirely within, and controlled by, the parties, even if much of that discourse takes place behind closed doors. So we need both parties and independent-minded Back Benchers.
As has been pointed out, it is certainly the case that there have been a fair number of Back-Bench rebellions since Iraq. It is therefore not true that this has been a complete patsy Parliament, but the trouble for Parliament as an institution is that, on at least three counts, our task is getting more difficult all the time.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way.
The first of those three counts is the growth of presidentialism, the second is the growth in the power of interest groups, and the third is the understandable enthusiasm in the modern media for encouraging those other two counts. The Committee’s proposals will do something, if only a little, to act as a counterweight to all three of them, but before discussing how much the proposals will do this, I want to talk about those challenges in a little more detail.
On presidentialism, we have just heard an interesting speech suggesting a separation of powers. I do not think that this is practical politics, even if it is good theory. All the pressures on a Prime Minister will be for him to appeal beyond party and Parliament, and instead to appeal directly to the public. That will not change. In fact, I think that it will grow, and that eventually the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) alluded will resurface.
The public choice theorists were right about the tyranny of interest group politics. They said that policy could be disproportionately influenced by a relatively small number of voters, often, but not always, in the centre ground, and often influenced by vocal interest groups. That leads to a tyranny not of the majority, but of the minority. It is no coincidence that at present the agendas of all three major parties are very similar. That does not necessarily make them right, of course.
This kind of politics gave us the middle way of the early post-war years, the monetary policy that collapsed in the face of inflation, and a growth policy that folded in the face of excessive regulation and interest group power led by the unions, which culminated in the ungovernability of Britain.
There was a period in the ’80s when we appeared to be able to roll back interest group power, but interest groups have returned and their influence is now considerable. Understandably, as we approach the election, parties are rushing to influence the swing voter in the political centre. We need only look at the speed with which all the parties now produce policies to satisfy the lobbies on health, aid and green issues, to name but three.
The fact is, however, that we have a massive economic crisis, and if fiscal policy is to be stabilised the toxic link between interest groups and Government spending decisions must be countered and counterbalanced. I think that independent-minded Back Benchers can help in this regard, but only if the parliamentary tools to do the job are available.
The third area I mentioned is the change in the balance of power from Parliament to the media. We live in a media age, and the power of the media to set the political agenda is greater than ever. We need only think of issues such as immigration, law and order, and prisons and sentencing policy. Very few people who have thought about prisons policy think we have got it right at present, but it is very difficult to get any change. A Justice Select Committee report set out what is wrong, but no party wants to be on the wrong side of a newspaper campaign on prison reform policy; it is just too risky, particularly in the run-up to an election.
In the face of this headwind of presidentialism, interest groups and the media, what can the Wright Committee’s proposals accomplish in acting as a counterweight? We can apply three tests to see if they will be of some use. First, will Parliament shape the political discourse a little more than at present? To what extent can we wrench setting the agenda back from the media? Secondly, will these reforms temper the growing power of patronage in the hands of the Executive, and particularly of the leadership, in an age of increased professionalism in politics? We should be under no illusion that the more we turn working in this place into a full-time salaried job, the greater will be the efforts of our parties at the centre to control how we get selected. Thirdly, it is also inevitable that in a fully professional, salaried House, a higher proportion of those selected will want Front-Bench jobs, and the result of that will be greater dependence on party leaderships and Whips. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) made that point, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex referred to it.
In respect of all three of those issues, the Wright Committee proposals can do something to help. There is much inexorable logic to the growth of presidentialism and of the power of the media and interest groups. So they will not do a lot, but they will do something. We have to be realistic. The Executive will not lie down like a lamb in response to a request from our Committee for more scrutiny powers. With the media being more powerful, the Prime Minister will see it as a prerequisite for hanging on to power to get reported by them and he will use his presidential tools to ensure that. Also, the Whips will, if possible, suppress any signs of independence; in the eyes of a Whip, “scrutiny” means “making trouble”, and that will remain the case.
Reform will be difficult, therefore, and fundamental reform will be impossible; it would be blocked entirely. That is why these proposals score; they score because they are incremental—and one of them is both incremental and potentially extremely effective.
The election of Select Committee Chairmen by secret ballot of the whole House has the potential to alter the terms of trade between the Executive and the legislature, just as the ’79 reforms have over the past 30 years led to Select Committees becoming serious institutions in this place. Through the election of Chairmen, the legislature will have spokesmen who are accountable to Parliament and who have been put here to do that job by us. The Select Committee corridor will gain, and the Committee of Chairmen, the Liaison Committee, will also be empowered, such as, perhaps, through demanding more frequent appearances by the Prime Minister—I certainly think they should do that. Over time, that could develop into there being more effective scrutiny of a presidential Prime Minister than we currently have.
All these changes in respect of Select Committees will, of course, come at the expense of the Chamber, but I think that that should be the case. We are one of the last Parliaments in the world which still tries to conduct so much scrutiny of a modern Executive in plenary session. The idea that in the late 20th or early 21st century an Executive can be held to account in this way is a fanciful illusion. In debates there is rarely much light to match the heat generated. Of course there are exceptions—I mentioned the debate on Iraq, and the debate on embryo research was another. However, it is important to remember that the first of those was made possible by the weakness of party discipline and the second by a free vote, such as we are having tonight—I began by saying that somehow we had been let out.
The business committee proposals can and should be judged not so much on whether they can revive the day-to-day scrutiny of the Executive in the Chamber, but on whether, on the really big issues, a reformed machinery can force the Executive to provide sufficient time for major set-piece debates on substantive issues. I began by discussing the Blair and Iraq example, where scrutiny could have been better and that might have led to a different result—that applies in respect of post-event scrutiny too.
I wonder whether the time has now arrived for us to have a set-piece debate on a substantive motion on Afghanistan—if these proposals were already in place, we might have got one. When a Select Committee Chairman is alert, he or she can do as much as anybody to ensure that this place is empowered again, and that is what these proposals would do. They are only a small step in the right direction, but it is one that we should take, and soon.
I, too, wish to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and all the members of his Committee, who put so much work into these proposals. However, I share the disappointment expressed by many Members about the way in which this process has been dealt with since the publication of the Committee’s report.
The report made it clear that the Committee would like the proposals to be voted on by the House within two months. It is now more than three months since the Committee’s proposals were published and it would be a fair characterisation—it would perhaps even be charitable—to say that the Government have dragged their heels on this issue. They announced the date for this debate only after being questioned week in, week out in business questions. In fact, it has taken them longer to bring forward these proposals for debate than it took the Committee to form, call for evidence, consider the evidence, meet, debate and come up with all the proposals.
The Government’s lack of urgency has shown that this important subject of reform has not been given the level of priority within government that I would have liked. There seems almost to have been confusion about the different parts of the motions to be put forward and how that could be done, given that page 94 of the report contained a sample motion that was drafted and ready to be put before the House. That would have allowed us to discuss it, rather than to have the Government decide, after asking the Committee to investigate an issue and bring forward recommendations, which ones to cherry-pick and put to the House.
The proposals in the report are somewhat timid. I agree with those who say that they are a step in the right direction, but I would describe them as a baby-step. Given the difficulty that we have had even in getting to this stage of the debate, it has been like trying to take a baby-step through treacle. I appreciate that the Committee was constrained in its terms of reference. We heard an interesting exchange earlier, when a lot of interest was expressed by Members in different parts of the House for taking forward some of the ideas that were not able to be developed in full within the confines of the Committee. Too much was left to later decision or future review, whereas we needed to have strong and robust recommendations, be they on the issue of September sittings, Public Bill Committees or public engagement, to which I shall return.
It is worth asking ourselves why reform is so necessary and vital. We need to remember that this is happening in the context of the reputation of Parliament and, indeed, of our democracy having been dragged through the mire in recent months. Cleaning up our discredited expenses system is a vital part of the solution, but it is only part of the solution.
In May, I asked hundreds of my constituents who are signed up to an online consultation what they thought was necessary to restore faith in politics. I received dozens of answers. Alongside people saying that we needed transparency, an end to personal profit through the expenses system, proper sanctions when people did things that were wrong and a new expenses system, much wider issues were raised in the consultation. Even when the expenses scandal was at its height, my constituents were raising issues such as electoral reform and how to ensure that people’s votes count no matter where their constituency, rather than having them count only in some marginal constituencies. Even reform of the House of Commons was a theme that emerged in that consultation exercise; it was common for people to say to me that they thought that the power of the Whips should be reduced compared with the power and influence of individual, independent-minded MPs.
Some of the reforms, such as the election of Select Committees, will help to rebalance that power, because they will reduce the power of patronage of the Whips Offices. Scheduling business through a committee that is representative of Parliament, rather than just Government, will enable individual MPs to hold the Government to account better. My name stands alongside those of 120 other hon. Members in support of amendment (a) to motion 9, which is in favour of the proposal for a House business committee, even though that cannot be voted on tonight. It is important to remember that this is how Parliaments across the world work, and that includes the Scottish Parliament; the sky does not fall in if a committee of people drawn from across the parties decides what Parliament will discuss. This is, thus, a very important reform.
I am looking at an article by Dr. Meg Russell which says that we should not be too romantic about those notions because those cross-party business committees tend to be dominated by Whips. I believe that that is the case in Scotland, as in many other places. As we take this issue forward we must be careful about making comparisons with other places.
I agree that what has been proposed is not a perfect solution, but the Minister will know that the report recommended that Back Benchers should also be represented on the committee—that is a very important part of representation. The issue of whether newer MPs would be represented has been raised. If a business committee is properly elected and if there is a large proportion of new Members in the House after the next election, it is highly likely and desirable that new Members would also be elected to it. This is about who sets the agenda. I can understand why it is very convenient for the Government if they do so, but there is no good argument for why they should do so, particularly in our system where Governments are elected without receiving a majority of the popular vote. Parliament, not the Government, needs to control what we debate. The proviso is that we understand that a Government who are elected on a manifesto should have the time to put their business to the House.
One of the problematic things is that, because of the way in which scheduling works, controversial parts of Bills are often not discussed properly in this House. If Parliament, rather than the Government, were to set the agenda, the issues and the parts of Bills that Parliament was most concerned about would be given the most time. As MPs, we need to be able to influence the agenda in order to represent our constituents. I think that this report should be just a stepping stone in the right direction, because I want the public to be able to influence the agenda of this House as well as MPs.
On the issue of business and scheduling, it has been a source of huge frustration to me that there is so little advance notice of business, when we all know that the Government decide and plan in advance on which date the Second Reading of one Bill will be and on which date another Bill will be discussed on Report. It is used as a tool of control and the information is not shared with the rest of the House. That is a ridiculous way to do business. I represent a constituency that is a five or six-hour commute from the House and the business on a particular Monday makes a big difference to me. If I want to be here for its start at half-past three, that affects whether I can hold a surgery on a Monday morning. For this matter to be held out as a case of, “We can’t tell people, because it is not decided,” when it has been decided is ridiculous. Businesses would not operate in that way, with nothing planned more than 10 days in advance, and nor would other professions. We should certainly operate in a much more organised way.
In what way will a House business committee stop that happening? My understanding is that we will not have business scheduled months in advance. It might be that things are far worse and that business is planned less far ahead.
If we remove the power from Government alone, we will open the door to that debate. I agree that such changes will not necessarily follow, but I was raising the point as I think that it is ridiculous how we plan business. I hope and have more confidence that, if I have colleagues on a House business committee, they might be more likely to listen to my views—I will certainly argue for those views. It will also be in everyone’s interest if not only one party knows what business will be discussed on a particular day.
Let me turn to public involvement and engagement, which is what I particularly want to mention. The report is good on warm words, but light on specific actions. At least it opens the door to greater public engagement in future and suggests that it should be reviewed and reconsidered in the new Parliament. I think that this was a missed opportunity, and so I have sympathy with the comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) about the fact that the Committee did not consider in full all the issues that it could have.
On public engagement, there is much that needs to be done, because this place is so alien to most people who turn on BBC Parliament—if they do—and watch what we are doing in this Chamber as well as the way in which we do it. There are many opportunities, particularly with new technology, to reach out and to engage the public better, yet this House seems to be good at missing those opportunities. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) mentioned the Procedure Committee’s report on improving the petitions system. The Committee produced an excellent report, and what happened to it? Nothing. We have had the report, which said how we could do it, but we are still saying, “Oh, we should consider this at a future date.” It is not rocket science—we could just get on and do it.
Two years ago, I started campaigning to allow clips from the filming of Parliament to be shown on YouTube so that people could share them with their friends or so that members of a pressure group that might be interested in a particular exchange could see them. It is getting there, but progress is so slow. Now we are allowed to put clips on YouTube, but there are ridiculous restrictions—we cannot share them, for example, and comments need to be moderated—that are wholly inappropriate when it comes to understanding how the internet works and how people engage with it. There has been an excellent campaign called “Free our Bills”, which seeks to ensure that legislation online is tagged to make it easy for the public to follow different stages and to comment on what is happening, but the cogs move so slowly in this place when we try to get change.
I have sympathy with many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), which he also raised in his speech during the hustings for the speakership, about allowing our constituents to vote directly to express the things that they would like us to discuss—whether they do so through online or telephone polls or through encouraging people to sign early-day motions that, once they have received a certain number of signatures, will require a debate to be held. There is no reason why we cannot consider engaging the public in such ways. It is a real shame that we do not yet have those proposals on the table to vote for today, or for next Thursday when the many votes might happen.
I wholeheartedly hope that this report is not a conclusion to the process of reform but the beginning of it. We need radically to increase public engagement in this place. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) talked about the process of reform. Let me say to hon. Members that people outside this place look in and wonder what planet we are on with our archaic rules, procedural wrangling and bizarre traditions. The measures outlined in this report represent modest progress, but progress none the less.
It is frustrating how even these mild reforms require such energetic campaigning to get votes on the relevant measures and to get 130 signatures so that we can have a debate on a particular motion, but I am glad that we are doing that. I truly believe that this House will be able to regain credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the public only when it wholeheartedly embraces reform, but that does not seem to be the case currently. Today, we have heard impassioned voices from both sides of the House in favour of reform. We need to back this report as the first step to that reform, and to work together in the coming months and years to continue the process of creating a House of Commons that is fit for the 21st century.
I had not intended to speak in this debate, just as I had not intended to be a member of the Wright Committee, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the Minister for Borders and Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), persuaded me that the Committee needed my thought processes.
I will admit that I did not take a leading part in proceedings, but I would like to think that I have wholeheartedly backed my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) as he has taken the Committee through some quite treacherous waters. What I have done, however, as my hon. Friend knows, is to try to engage with my constituents in parallel with all this. It was pleasing to hear what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said in that regard, but I went one step further. I contacted every household in my constituency, which involved sending out something like 46,000 survey forms. I must say that I used the communications allowance for that, but that is absolutely what it should be used for. [Interruption.] We just asked them to say what they thought about a range of issues such as electoral reform, reform of the House of Lords, recall of parliamentarians and spending limits. We had 7,000 replies, which is pleasing, especially considering that they were in stamped, addressed envelopes and that people had to make the effort to respond.
We accompanied the survey with a series of meetings. I am eternally grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase because he came along with Peter Hennessy, who is a professor at Queen Mary college, and Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy to our final meeting at which there were about 150 people who wanted to discuss all manner of issues to do with constitutional reform. I do not go along with the view that it is entirely the chattering classes who are interested in such issues. I accept that the economy and housing, health and education will always be more important when it comes to people’s voting preferences and opinions, but constitutional issues matter to many people. They matter not a little when people see this place not representing them and when they see the mess that we have got ourselves into. I feel wiser from having taken part in those proceedings, and I certainly feel more engaged with my constituents as a result of how we were able to proceed on some of the relevant issues, and I intend to continue doing that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase knows, I was also elected to the Back-Bench committee of the parliamentary Labour party, although I did not manage to survive on that for as long as I survived on the Wright Committee. Perhaps people sussed out that my stance on renationalising the railways, keeping the Post Office public and withdrawing from Afghanistan was not quite what the rest of the Labour party, in a parliamentary sense, was prepared to go for. However, I am pleased that I was part of the majority opinion on the Wright Committee that wanted reform and that we did things consensually. Of course, we had our disagreements—there was a minority report, which was from a minority—but we have made progress.
Given my nature, I take quite a narrow approach to what I want to do; I have always found that it is better to know what we want to do and to focus on it. I have a very simple request: I have believed ever since becoming a Member that it is absolutely wrong for the Whips to decide who serves on Select Committees and, more particularly, who does not serve on them. It is part of the important role of parliamentarians that, if they want to take part in a Select Committee, provided that there are enough places, they should have the right to do so. First, preventing them from doing so does not allow them to be parliamentarians in the true sense of the word, because they cannot engage in that aspect of scrutinising the Executive. Secondly, I have never understood where the Whips were coming from because that is perverse psychology. If those are the most awkward people in Parliament, the best place to put them is on a Select Committee, which uses their time and expertise far better than having them run around the House, tabling all sorts of motions that cause embarrassment to the Government. I therefore tried to persuade the Whips on numerous occasions that those are just the sort of people whom they want to serve on Select Committees.
The good thing is not just that we will elect Chairmen through the process of Parliament, but that we will, through our party groups, have an open process of electing people on to Select Committees. Of course, not everyone can necessarily get on to the Committee that they want. If they do not curry favour with their colleagues, they will not necessarily get on to a Select Committee. However, they at least have the right to put themselves forward, and it is up to their party as a whole, rather than a small group of individuals, to decide whether they will serve on a Select Committee.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I give way to my hon. Friend and nominee.
Given that Select Committees were set up as, and technically remain, Committees of the House, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a complete abuse that party Whips should decide who serves on them and who does not?
I agree with that; unfortunately, my friends in the Whips Office did not seem to do so. That is why I did not make much progress in my time on parliamentary Labour party Back-Bench committee. Nevertheless, we have moved on, and I hope that we can now see the benefit of doing so.
I shall move on quickly, as a number of other hon. Members want to speak. I welcome the business committee. I am not quite sure how it will cohabit with the way in which the usual channels will, I suppose, continue to operate; but, if nothing else, we can be much more transparent in how we plan our business and in how we know what is coming up and why. I will point the finger at the Opposition as well as the Government. There is nothing more galling when a debate is coming up next week than preparing a wonderful speech—just as I have not on this occasion—and finding at a moment’s notice that that debate has been pulled and something else put in its place. There ought to be fairness, and Back Benchers ought to have some security in the knowledge that the debates that they are expecting will take place. It is not beyond the realm of personkind to have topicality, without wrecking one’s ability to programme one’s life and willingness to engage in the House.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire commented on how petitions need to be organised much more meaningfully. We have made a small amount of progress. We need to ensure that petitions are properly recognised in the House and to allow hon. Members to debate the issues properly, so that our constituents can feel that they have some traction on us.
I want to finish by referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is not in his place, but I will embarrass him by saying that the art of the possible is to keep on raising the same issue so many times that people eventually get so sick of hearing it that they give in and take notice. He is absolutely right about September days. It is right that the House should sit then. In the good old way that we referred to Baker days when I was teaching in the 1980s and we got formal in-service days for the first time, we should call them Mullin days, so that we can recall his dogged persistence. However, I would go even further: I would make those days in September parliamentary days, with no Government business, other than when the Government are being called to account. We could have a series of debates based on topical issues that perhaps were not the ones that we were able to discuss before the recess.
More particularly, given the way in which our timetable works, I should like some opportunity for private Members’ Bills to be carried through, rather than their being culled because we do not have enough time. That would be an important standpoint for Parliament. The Government would have to respond to Parliament, rather than Parliament responding to the Government. That is an important reason why that couple of weeks should be used and should be different from the usual business. They come round only once a year, but that would be an important way in which Parliament would assert itself, or—dare I say?—reassert itself.
I hope that those are the sort of things that we can take forward. As everyone has said, this is not the end of the process. Indeed, we hope that it is the start of the process, and we could move forward with many other things if only parliamentarians had the independence of mind, the will power and the sheer gall to ensure that, from time to time, the Executive respond to us, rather than our always having to respond to the Executive.
Order. On my reckoning, six hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye, and the Front-Bench winding-up speeches will begin at or very close to 9.40 pm. Hon. Members are capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves, but if a self-denying ordinance can be observed and each speech is kept to 10 minutes or preferably less, it should be possible to accommodate everybody.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to speak in this hugely important debate.
May I say, as a member of the Public Administration Committee, what a marvellous Chairman we have in the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)? He has brought his brilliance on the Public Administration Committee to bear on the Wright Committee report. Yes, it is a small step, but it is a fundamentally important step, and a very brave step that he has taken.
During this debate we have asked ourselves what is the role of a Member of Parliament. Of course, a Member of Parliament must be here to scrutinise legislation. We have a duty and obligation to ensure that our constituents are governed by good legislation, not just by any legislation. We have failed at times to ensure that. We must also hold the Government to account, regardless of whether or not they are drawn from our own party. Beyond that, we must be courageous and true to ourselves. We must be representatives of the people who elect us, not delegates.
It is interesting that over the past 30 years, the more we have done for our constituents and the more visible we are in our constituencies, the more people despise us. Gone are the days, 50 years ago, when a Member of Parliament would make a twice-yearly regal visit to the constituency to meet the mayor or go to a fête. We are now mostly based in our constituency for more than half of our time, and many of us make our primary home in our constituency. I am very concerned when I hear hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber talking about direct democracy. Have we lost faith in our own ability to be the effective representatives of those who elected us?
We have representative democracy in this country, and by and large it has served us well for 350 years. If we get it right, it will serve us well for the next 350 years, but radical changes need to be made. The current constitutional settlement is not working. We know and the public know that it is not working. If any good has come out of the expenses scandal, crisis, nightmare of the past nine months, it is that at last we will have a healthy distance between us as Back-Bench Members of Parliament and the Executive.
Our interests are not the interests of the Executive of this country. We have been led up a dead-end road over the past 30 years. We willingly followed and we should not be forgiven for that, but the Executive were prime movers in getting us into the position that we found ourselves in. We should not forget that.
We have a presidential style of government in this country. Do we have government by Cabinet any more? Of course not. We know that. Secretaries of State in the current Government would go to No. 10 to talk to the Prime Minister about policy, and he would turn to them and say, “Funnily enough, my special adviser disagrees with you on that. We’re going to do something different.” So we do not have government by Cabinet. We do not have a Prime Minister, a first Minister of the Cabinet: we have presidential government, and it is driven by 24-hour media.
We in this place know that only three people in any political party matter. They are the ones who make the weather. In the Government, it is the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and Lord Mandelson. In my party there are many people better qualified than I who will make that judgment, but I am convinced that only three people in each party make the weather.
Is it possible that in the Conservative party one of those three is the former editor of the News of the World?
The hon. Gentleman is being ungenerous. There are only three parliamentarians who make the weather in our party, but that is the nature of 24-hour media, which is driving a presidential style of government. I am afraid the truth is that on most occasions we are just backdrop to the big issues of the day.
I have some time for the Prime Minister. I do not think that he is a bad man; he is mistaken in most things, but he is an honourable fellow. However, he came to the House and, with great pride, said, “We bailed out the banks without taking it to the Floor of this House.” The decision on the greatest expenditure of public money in living history, or in history, was made without one minute of scrutiny in this place. That really is disgraceful, and it must not be allowed to continue. Our constituents are furious that we allowed it to happen.
Does not the complete absence of debate about the issue in this House reflect poorly on the British system and contrast with the extensive debate—whether or not we agree with what people have said—about the very same issue in the United States?
The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. We in this place sometimes forget why we are sent here—to represent those who elect us. Sometimes we forget that and spend too much time propping up the Executive of the day or making excuses for them. Let us be in no doubt that the expenses scandal of the past nine months has perversely played into the hands of the Executive, because they like nothing more than a weak and humiliated Parliament, and my word are we not weak and humiliated, bereft of any self-confidence?
I shall conclude with these thoughts, because I have had seven minutes. The public do not want their Members of Parliament to be their best friends or to act like minor celebrities, gurning at the camera week in, week out. We have tried that model for 20 years, and it does not work. What our constituents want more than anything is legislators whom they respect and trust—legislators whom they send to this place, and who they know will stand up for their interests. What is so sad about this place, however, is that so many good people come here with the best of intentions and then the poison of patronage takes over, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said. More than one in two Members hold Front-Bench positions, and when the press say, “We have so many Members of Parliament—646. Why do we need them?”, they forget that we draw the Executive from Parliament.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), for whom I have a huge amount of time, I really am in favour of the separation of powers. I have had enough. I did not come here to make up the numbers, and I am afraid that I did not come here to be the lackey of the Whips. I came here to represent the people of Broxbourne. I am and always will be a Conservative, but the idea that one has to agree with every policy from one’s Front Benchers, or with every policy in the manifesto, is total and utter nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly not seeking preferment under a future Government. Does he not agree that, far from bellyaching and whining about the Whips, we parliamentarians must collectively get off our knees and use the powers that we already have? We can call Ministers and even shadow spokespeople to account if we act collectively and have the courage to organise in the Lobbies.
The hon. Gentleman makes a great point. We give the Whips their powers. If we chose to ignore them on occasions, they would have no power. If we chose to put a parliamentary career ahead of a ministerial career, they would have less power.
“Back Bencher” is now used as a term of derision by the public, by the press, and at times, shamefully, by our own Front Benchers. I am proud to be a Member of Parliament. Funnily enough, the leaders of the political parties are simply Members of Parliament. They should, on occasion, remember and recognise that, because I feel that the time is fast coming when we shall remind them of it.
My hon. Friend is a wonderful Member of Parliament and an example to new Members coming into this House. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) that Back Benchers united can always defeat the Executive, and that that is what we should do?
I say this to my hon. Friend: we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more!
We are told by the press that the public want strong leadership and that that is what they deserve. In 1974, turnout in the general election was more than 80 per cent.; in 2005, it was just over 60 per cent. That is the answer that the public give to strong government. It has got to end, and it has got to end soon.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Like everyone else who has spoken, one has to bow to the tenacity and insight of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who has steered these proposals thus far. We can see consummation so close that we can almost touch it, and we can only hope that next week things will go as we all wish.
Several hon. Members have spoken about the expenses scandal as if that is the origin of the decline in the esteem in which the House is held. In fact, the decline in esteem for Members of Parliament is a fairly long-term thing. I am very pro-European; none the less, the decline has come about because of power flowing to European institutions. It has come about because of power flowing to quangos. I came to this House in 1987, and questions that one would once have asked of a Minister one now has to write to a quango about. It has come about because of the decline in deference. Above all, perhaps, it has come about because of the spiralling power of patronage, which has undermined the will of the House to stand up for itself and undermined the role of the Back-Bench MP. The power of patronage has increased and is increasing.
I do not agree with colleagues who have said that these proposals are sterile, meaningless and technical; I think they are probably among the most important things we will have the opportunity to vote for during this Parliament. I say that for a number of reasons. First, it is easy for hon. Members—beaten and battered by the media, dealing with a deluge of letters from constituents, knocking on doors in the run-up to what is going to be, on the basis of what we have seen so far, quite a bitter and unpleasant election—to forget that the public are in fact very interested in politics. I occasionally appear on the broadcast media, and I want to assure hon. Members that in my experience the public—not just party members and young people, but people of all ages and all colours—are interested in and want to talk about politics; they have views on issues such as Europe, what we should do about the banks, and so on. However, they are not so interested in Parliament. Our task is to make Parliament relevant to the public’s concerns, because they do not see it as such. In particular, they do not feel that politicians say what they think.
I want to say to hon. Members who may not have been here pre-1997 and in the ’80s, as I was, that Select Committees are wonderful, and all their Chairs and members, without exception, are wonderful, but the role of Select Committees and the seriousness with which they are taken is not what it was.
I came into Parliament in an era when we took seriously the notion of Select Committees being Committees of the House. That is not to say that parties did not seek to interfere. I served on the Treasury Committee throughout most of the ’90s, with some reasonable success, in the teeth of the opposition of the party leader of the time. The Whips Office, which in those days saw its role as balancing the factions of the party, saw it as a triumph to put on an important Committee someone who in its view represented a particular current in the party. Now, lip service is no longer given to Select Committees being Committees of the House.
In that era, it was accepted that Select Committees could elect their own Chairmen. I served on a Committee in the 1990s for which the Whips were suggesting one Chairman, but we all voted for another. We have gone from that position, in which it was accepted that Select Committees had to have that right, and it was accepted at least on paper that they were Committees of the House, to a position that I believe is outrageous, although no one else in my party seems to think so. Chief Whips appear before the parliamentary Labour party and read out who is going to chair Committees. That seems extraordinary and an abuse of the technical position of what Select Committees are about.
Wonderful though Select Committees are, we have never fully explored their powers and their possibility to rejuvenate politics and make it relevant. Too much turns on their Chairmen, and, as was said earlier, Whips have weakened them by not looking for the most experienced, able or knowledgeable people but filling them with people they believe will cause no trouble. I speak to Select Committee Chairman after Select Committee Chairman who talks about the difficulty of simply getting a quorum, when there are many people on the Back Benches who would serve with distinction. Select Committees have been weakened, and the proposals before us would strengthen them and strengthen the House.
I am giving away my age, but I started as an MP in an era when timetabling was the exception, not the rule, and Front Benchers had to apologise if they were going to timetable a Bill. Now nearly everything is timetabled. Hon. Members will say, “We have to timetable or we wouldn’t get through the business.” I entirely accept that we have to have Whips, order and procedure, but am I the only one who has noticed in recent months how important legislation is savagely timetabled because Front Benchers do not want discussion on it, and then we end up spending days on matters of no importance whatever? That is timetabling taken beyond what is rational. It is one thing to timetable to get business through, but when timetabling has reached the point at which we cannot debate important things and rely on the House of Lords to pick up on poor legislation, yet we come here day after day to debate matters that do not need to be debated, it has gone out of control. The proposals that I hope we will vote for in a very few days will enable timetabling to go forward on a rational basis.
Everyone accepts that the Government must get their business and that Back Benchers must vote for matters that were in the manifesto, but the power to timetable at will has gone completely to the head of the usual channels. We are getting an arrangement of business of the House that makes no sense. Worse, legislation keeps going through that the Lords are not able to clean up, and we have to come back to the same subject again and again rather than put through sound legislation in the first place.
Hon. Friends have talked in most baleful terms about the dangers of allowing Back-Bench MPs to vote for Chairs and members of Select Committees. “What will come,” they ask histrionically, “of allowing Back Benchers to vote without the Whips telling them what to do?” I will tell them what will come of allowing Back Benchers to use their judgment without being whipped. Members may disagree about the choice of issues that I will refer to, but some of the most important moments in this House, such as the abolition of the death penalty and introducing the right to an abortion for women, were brought about by Members voting unwhipped, using their judgment. If any Member of this House has no confidence in Members of Parliament being allowed to vote and use their judgment, what they are doing as MPs? We are elected, but if we are not respected enough, even by our colleagues, to use our judgment on matters such as the composition of Select Committees, why would we become MPs?
I am a great believer in direct democracy and I have a website of which I am very proud. Perhaps my constituency differs from others, but with direct democracy, one must be careful that one does not empower a small group of technologically literate people at the expense of people who are, for example, not educated, too old or simply uninterested. I am all for direct democracy, but not if it produces an imbalance in the forces in a constituency.
I am very glad that the Government are coming forward on this matter and that they will help us to make these reforms—I will not go so far as to say that they have seen the light. Mystifying as it may be to Members of Parliament who know only the current regime, and annoying as allowing Back Benchers to vote and use their judgment may be to Front Benchers—and as traumatic as it is for the Whips Office—this House is at its best when Members of Parliament feel free to say what they wish and when they can use their judgment. Only if the public are allowed to see more of the House of Commons at its best and what MPs can be if they are not trammelled by the Executive will we restore confidence in this House of Commons, this Parliament and the politics of this country.
Order. There are no more than 33 minutes remaining and four hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves. If each takes no more than eight minutes, all will get in. I hope that that happens.
The one thing that is bothering me about this debate is this: where are the opponents? I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) for his marvellous chairmanship of the Committee and to its staff for getting us through the process of the report, but as a member of the Committee, I know that there are large numbers in the House who are against our proposals, yet they have not spoken tonight.
Given that I have only eight minutes, I want to talk about one aspect of the report—the reform of Standing Order No. 14 and the House business committee—and to try to reassure people who are not here tonight but who might be listening to those voices of reaction that the proposal is not that radical. In fact, I am amazed by its moderation.
It is said by opponents of our proposals that Standing Order No. 14, which gives the Government complete control over the House’s timetable, is necessary to get the Government’s programme through, but that is plainly untrue, given what happens in other countries. Standing Order No. 14 is completely over the top given how other European legislatures work. The only legislature that is subject to anywhere near the same degree of Executive control as ours is the Dáil, presumably because of the historical connection. However, in the Dáil, private Members’ Bills cannot be talked out because they can be carried over to the next slot, and Opposition parties can introduce legislation on which they can require the House to vote. If the Government do not like it, they must vote it down.
It is important to realise that the Committee is suggesting not the radical Dutch system, in which the House decides almost from minute to minute what it is going to talk about, but a very moderate system. We are suggesting that a Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, acts as a mediator between the Government, the parties and the Back-Bench committee. The Deputy Speaker then brings to the House the motion concerning what it will discuss in the following week.
That would give the Government two enormous safeguards. First, it would be possible for a Standing Order to require the Deputy Speaker to ensure that the Government had time to get their Bills through the House, and had an out date. We can build that into the system.
Secondly, the Deputy Speaker would put to the House a motion that would be amendable. If the Government—with their majority—did not like what was proposed, they could, in the final resort, propose an amendment in order to get their way, but they would have to do it openly and transparently, and that would itself constitute the main change. The Government would no longer fill the week with pointless debates with no vote in order to avoid a proper debate on the Report stage of a Bill, because if they did so they would have to do it openly, on the Floor of the House. For the same reason, they would be less likely even to want to try to restrict the number of days for debate on Report or in Committee of the whole House. The House would therefore be more likely to end up talking about, and voting on, matters of public concern—and that is what would make us more relevant.
I suppose that, in the end, it is a matter of principle. Ultimately, the House should decide its own agenda. The present system provides for the Government as the Government, not as the majority, to decide our agenda, and that is different from the majority deciding it.
I feel that those who think we are moving away from our present system of a fusion of powers towards a separation of powers—and I know that some Members would like us to move in that direction—do not understand what we are proposing. What we are proposing would give the majority more power. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) is worried about the transfer of power that our proposal involves, but what, in fact, is that transfer of power? It is not even a transfer of power between the Executive and the legislature, but a transfer of power between the Government Front Bench and the Government Back Bench. The single group of people who will be most empowered by what we are proposing are Government Back Benchers. It seems to me, from where I sit, that they are the most disempowered group of all in this Parliament, but they are the people who would benefit most from our proposal, and they would be able to do their job better.
There are opponents who claim that we are somehow interfering with the “manifesto mandate” theory. I am not a great fan of that theory, because I do not see how a mandate can result from a manifesto that very few people read, on 35 per cent. of the vote. However, even those who do believe in it must ask themselves the big question: who will be given the opportunity to interpret that mandate? Will it be simply the Front Bench of the governing party, or will it be the whole of the parliamentary section of the party that won the election?
That is the question that we are posing in our proposals for reform, but at this point we are proposing a different answer. Our answer is that we are transferring power, but we are transferring it from the Government Front Bench to the Government Back Bench.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way briefly. I have not much time.
The Government may have a manifesto mandate, but surely the whole point of legislative scrutiny should be to establish whether the legislation that they propose will be effective in fulfilling that mandate.
Obviously that is what Government Back Benchers should be doing, but they also have the right to judge whether their interpretation of the mandate is being put into effect.
Some opponents have given the impression that the present system is one of vast antiquity, and that our arrangements would fall apart without it. That is simply not the case. The present system came into being in 1963, without debate, following a report by a Select Committee on Procedure which simply said vaguely that the old system was obsolete.
What happened, historically, is quite interesting. The arrangement allowing the Government to take all the time of the House was not introduced until 1915 under Asquith, who promised that he would not use it to enact any party or partisan legislation. Churchill repeated that promise in the 1940s, when it was used again. Only after the war—in some very bad-tempered debates under the 1945 Government—was the arrangement extended to peacetime. But even then it was only Session by Session. It became a Standing Order in 1963 because people had forgotten how to oppose. In an era of consensus and bipolar politics, with very low rates of Back-Bench rebellion, Parliament forgot its job. But now, in a different era with multi-party politics and the end of consensus politics, it is still the basis of our politics. In a situation of fragmentation, the idea that the Government should dominate the agenda of the House entirely is an idea whose time has gone. If we are to revive our politics, this is where we must start.
I shall not take more than five minutes, as my hon. Friend the independent Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) wants to speak, as does the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).
Several quotations from newspapers and other sources have been put to the House tonight, but the two quotations that I would like to use are from a constituent of mine. He said to me some weeks ago, “If politics was a business, you’d close it down.” Given the comments tonight about the inefficiencies of the product of politics, that is probably true. He also said to me, when I explained to him what we do in the House and outside in the community, “Yeah, but you’re not digging coal, are you?” That is probably true too. In years gone by, digging coal and other occupations were real jobs, and ours is not seen as a real job—although the hours that we put in are not recognised, especially by the press.
I came to this place in 2006 in a by-election—I think that I am the most junior Member in the Chamber this evening. From that day to this, I must have given evidence dozens of times before the Modernisation Committee, the House of Commons Commission, the Senior Salaries Review Body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others. I do not know how we keep up with them all. But if someone asked me what we had actually achieved, I would find it difficult to put into words how great the change has been in those four years.
I also submitted written evidence to the Wright Committee, as it has become known. It has done a fantastic job and a tremendous amount of work. However, I take the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that we are rebuilding the House from the top down, not from the bottom up. We should have started at the foundations, but we are now chasing our tails in a knee-jerk reaction.
What worried me most about the evidence in the report was the fact that Committees have not had a quorum. Other Members who, like me, may not be aligned to a party, would have taken part in those Committees and brought their experience and knowledge to them. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) is on the Health Committee and gives great service to it. Others are yet to have that opportunity because Committees have been a closed shop, decided by the party structure. The opportunity will be provided with the new Parliament and the likelihood of some 200 new Members, and we need to get this right. If they are to play their part, they must be allowed to do so, without barriers being put in their way.
The other aspect of the evidence that worried me was that in times gone by Select Committees have not been allowed to put their reports before the House. In my evidence to the Wright Committee, I suggested that Members should be allowed to participate in Select Committees not as members, but through giving evidence. We should encourage participation by all. The proposal is to reduce the Select Committees to 11 members, so the opportunity to sit on them will be tight to say the least. But Members could give written or oral evidence both to Select Committees and Public Bill Committees. It is very important that everyone has an opportunity to play their part.
We have heard about consultation with the public—I encourage as much of that as I can in my constituency—but the worst thing that we can do is consult and ignore. If we are going to encourage the public to take part in debate, we must listen to them, and then we wonder why we come here. We come here because our constituents tell us their concerns. We come here to express those concerns and, with a petition, all that adds weight to what we say. I am sure that no Member comes here without consulting their constituents, whether in the surgery or, in the modern era, through e-mails, of which we get hundreds. We are the voice of the community—that is why we come here—and it is extremely important that we express those views and that we are allowed to do so.
The expenses crisis was just the end result of the many things that built up to it, but there is one thing in the political structure that worries me. We have heard tonight about parties and party Whips—I can talk about this because I stand outside, although I was a member of a political party for some 25 years—but the party structure has changed so much that it has moved completely away from the grass roots. What are conferences now, other than rallying calls? Policy was made by the grass roots and passed up to the top. We are now talking top-down politics. We are driving people out of the political process, instead of encouraging them in.
We have national elections—the elections to the Welsh Assembly Government are one example—in which less than 50 per cent. of people vote. Is that even a mandate to govern? There are some council elections in which the turnout is under 20 per cent., yet we claim that people are interested in politics. I think that they are, but we are not showing them the need to be involved. We are driving them away, and that cannot be right.
The most important thing is that we work together. There are differences—there always will be differences—but if we allow those differences to pull us apart, we will destroy this country’s democracy. When we come together we are stronger. We heard the points about Back Benchers standing together, but this debate is about this place standing together. The Committee’s report has given us the opportunity to kick that off. I agree that we should have acted a long time ago. The structure of this place, the way we hold our debates—everything has to be in that melting pot. However, if we do not take the opportunity now, it could be destroyed for ever.
Although I am very much in favour of the proposals put forward in the report, I regret to say that it does not go anything like far enough. In saying that, I understand the point about the terms of reference, but the bottom line is that we need really radical reform in this House.
What we have witnessed over the past few months is an indication of the disrespect in which Parliament is held. I would maintain that that has more to do with the way Parliament conducts itself, in relation to the business in the House, the consideration of Bills and the problems of timetabling, and with what generally happens in this place, as in the debate only two weeks ago on the economic crisis, when there was not a single person on the Government Benches—not one—except for the Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, and there were two or perhaps three people on the Opposition side of the House. When Members have absolutely no interest in dealing with something as fundamental as the British economy in the context of the European Union, is it surprising that people should disrespect Parliament? In those circumstances, I am not surprised.
I have said many times that this is not our Parliament; it is their Parliament. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) for the work that he has done, but he knows that a lot of the ideas have their genesis in Parliament First—I would prefer us to be called “People and Parliament First”—and the Hansard Society, which gave some trenchant evidence, much of which is reflected in the outcome of the report, which also comes from the Modernisation Committee.
When the Modernisation Committee was dealing with the role of the Back Bencher, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who is not in his place, repeatedly put down amendments saying that much more emphasis should be given to the real role of the Back Bencher, and not merely to the establishment thinking that was pouring out in the evidence that was given, and he was right. He repeatedly forced Divisions on his own. He was there on his own, but he was right, just as many of us have been when we have fought—sometimes unsuccessfully, regrettably—for the national interest as we have seen it. We have fought as a matter of conscience, conviction and principle for what we believed was in the interest of the British people. An example was the Maastricht treaty. I do not doubt that we were very unpopular at that time, but who would say now that we were wrong? Not many people. We also fought over monetary union and the exchange rate mechanism.
The independence of the Back Bencher is absolutely fundamental to the working of the House. That is why I appreciate, and will vote for, the proposals in the report. In my evidence to the Committee, I described the working of Parliament as a sham. A great deal of it is a sham, because so much of its work is driven by decisions that are taken outside Parliament—in the European Union, for example—without being properly debated. Even if they are debated, we cannot vote on them.
Everything ultimately comes back to one central issue, the Standing Orders of the House. That is why I proposed a manuscript amendment urging that the House give consideration to the procedures that should be applied so that we could have a proper debate on these matters and go further and deeper into these issues, but—irony of ironies—I have not even been allowed to table it. I was refused permission because of Standing Order No. 24B. If a motion is a take-note motion, it is unamendable, so my amendment could not even be debated. That demonstrates the failure not only of the Standing Orders but of the Whips.
About 150 years ago, there were only about four Standing Orders; in fact, they were not Standing Orders but Speaker’s rules. There are now between 160 and 170 Standing Orders, which have been imposed by the Executive through what is effectively an elective dictatorship. The powers and freedoms of Back Benchers are being restricted by the imposition of more and more Standing Orders. Every time there is a problem, the Executive introduce another Standing Order to frustrate Back Benchers and prevent them from speaking. If Back Benchers are right in their fight against their own Government, that proves the point in itself.
Parliament is not reported properly outside this place. Much of the reporting results from the Government giving out handouts. The BBC does not give the proper degree of reporting that is required. I also believe strongly that there has been a diminution in the amount of reporting in the national newspapers, as Messrs Riddell, White and Robinson illustrated in their evidence to the Modernisation Committee. Why should the people have respect for this place, if they do not even know what is going on or what we do? That is the problem. This is a matter of reporting, a matter of the Standing Orders and a matter of political will.
I shall conclude by repeating what I said earlier. This is not simply a question of using the term “Back Benchers”; we need some backbone in this place. That will involve people standing up to the Government and taking action in the national interest. In his famous speech of 1774, Edmund Burke gave an indication of what he believed a Member of Parliament was. He said:
“You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.”
That is the point. We have a national role to perform, and that is what our representative democracy is based on. It has now been degraded by the Whips system. Some kind of Whips system is required, but not the excessive use of it that we now have.
I congratulate the Committee on the report, so far as it goes, but we shall need radical reform to return the rights of the British people to them, through their representatives. They vote in general elections and express freely their choice of the kind of politics that they want. Given the disgraceful programming for which the Leader of the House and this Government have been responsible over the past decade, and the reduction and degradation of Parliament that they have brought about, it is no wonder that we are held in such disrespect. That can change, however, and this is the beginning. We must do something about it.
The partnership of independent Members has a great respect for this place and a great love for it but, in common with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), we feel that it is very much time to do politics differently. Although our debate is restricted by the terms of reference, we have to accept, sadly, that in some ways these are very modest changes indeed when it comes to reforming Parliament and that we will have to wait for a new Parliament to undertake significant reform.
When the Leader of the House suggests that we are dealing with a new British constitutional settlement, it is, unfortunately, an overblown statement. People outside this place are at the end of their tether, partly because of the expenses scandal, as they see Members making themselves millionaires on the back of the public housing subsidy, and it is certain that changes to the election arrangements for Select Committees will not touch on the concerns of those people.
Many have referred in this debate to the issue that cannot be spoken of: the relationship between party and MPs. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) was happy to refer to it, which was most welcome. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) also emphasised the key influence of the Whips perhaps even over the daily lives of MPs. For example, if a Whip has power over whether or not someone will be allocated a room with a window, it might well have an impact on whether they vote one way or another. Most importantly, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) emphasised the real sense in which this place has become an electoral college in which Members of Parliament are given things to do to keep themselves occupied once the presidential election has taken place.
Parties were an important process and an invention of the 19th century, but in the age of Facebook, the internet and Twitter, the democratic process can be liberated from the control of political parties. As was said, when the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) challenged the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), it is in the power of MPs to take power back to themselves; it is merely their trepidation in the face of the Whips that is holding them back.
Unfortunately, when Back Benchers are part of political parties, they feel a little bit reticent about speaking for fear of accidentally embarrassing their Front-Bench colleagues. It is the responsibility of all of us, as Members of Parliament, to represent the people first, not a political party. All too often, the Gilbert and Sullivan approach of not having to think for oneself at all has become one of not daring to speak in this Chamber for fear of such embarrassment.
This has much to do with the history of Tony Blair’s determination to ensure good discipline within the Labour party and to prevent the media from exploiting Labour by talking about divisions. The media are too quick to sit on MPs when they express slightly different views, suggesting that it amounts to a political division. That is why huge discipline was added on to the party Whip system, which ensures that this place does not act as a true Parliament or a place of speaking. Unfortunately, that has continued as discipline has been applied to Her Majesty’s Opposition as a result of the Leader of the Opposition’s determination to cleanse the party brand by stopping division from breaking out.
Also unfortunately, there is far too much partisanship in this place. Too much questioning goes along the lines of “Bearing in mind what rubbish you are, what do you think about this or that?” and the response is typically, “Well, you were rubbish 10 years ago”. That does not sell well with the voters. Disagreements over the issue of care for the elderly over recent weeks provide a good example, as they have not played well for this place.
Many Members of Parliament come to this place having spent their whole careers working only for their political party or bodies close to it. In those circumstances, they are in no position to speak out against their political party to protect the interests of their constituents. As many Members have said, there is often a real stress on people expressing their outside interests, but we should not discourage those who have experience outside politics from representing constituents in this place.
In many ways, it is important that we have a far more radical agenda, perhaps following the Chartist approach, with Parliament being much closer to the people and having elections yearly, with a fifth of Members retiring at each election. This place cannot speak for the country when its system allows one party to have a huge majority on the basis that it received 4 per cent. more of the vote than the main Opposition party. That is not a way of empowering this place to speak. Such a process means that the Government inevitably take this place for granted.
Much has been said about the separation of powers. In many ways, such a separation would be an evolution, not a revolution. We have heard about people such as Harold Wilson having a presidential style of premiership and about Lord Hailsham talking about an elected dictatorship. We should recognise that that has been very much at the heart of our politics for many decades. Many of us have been fans of the programme “The Thick of It”. When Nicola Murray said, “I can’t achieve anything. I’m only a Cabinet Minister,” that jest unfortunately had far too much truth to it. The reality is that power is not even in the Cabinet. We should recognise that the system is such that the Executive are in many ways already very separate from the rest of Parliament and we should recognise that that should be the case.
We should introduce 48-week Parliaments. As well as declaring the hours that we work outside this place and declaring our outside interests, we should perhaps also declare the number of hours that we work in this job. It would do colleagues great credit if they could actually tell people how many hours we work in our job.
We might even consider moving out of this place. In some ways, the history of this place can put a burden on our culture and on the way in which we do our business. There would be no harm in our moving down to ExCeL—there is plenty of space there. We might even have open-plan offices so that we could organise the resourcing of our staff in a much more economical way and achieve economies of scale, with Members of Parliament specialising in migration or benefits. That would be a much modern approach for Parliament.
Reform of our approach is vital. If I can be a little more light-hearted, however, we must also recognise that this is a place of entertainment for the people. Prime Minister’s Question Time has an important role in that process, so let us not have it at midday for the purposes of news management. Why not have it on Thursday at 9 pm, in the run-up to all the political programmes that are on the BBC that evening? Obviously, we should have it after “Coronation Street”, but it would also be a natural climax at the end of the parliamentary week, and Members of Parliament could perhaps stay until Thursday.
Finally, I want to make a more important and serious point. This House failed to prevent an illegal war. We failed to hold in check a Government who are so authoritarian that they talk about introducing ID cards, who are responsible for a tremendous amount of intervention in people’s lives and who may well have been complicit in torture. The House is not holding the Government to account. With reference to earlier guidance from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), may I suggest that if we were to return to a situation where Parliament has the power to vote moneys to Government—perhaps in combination with Parliament having our own budget office and our own power, as a separate body from Government, to set down our own legislation—we might be a much more powerful place and be able to hold Government to account properly?
I thank all Members on both sides of the House who have taken part in this very important debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and all the other members of his Committee, especially for producing such an excellent report in double-quick time. However, it is regrettable that the Government did not rise to the challenge before them. The Committee called for a debate on its proposals within two months of publication, yet it has taken the Government more than three months to hold today’s debate, and even then it is only a take-note debate on selected proposals from the report. Put simply, the way the Government have handled this entire affair provides a clear example of why change is needed.
Few would disagree that there is a need for reform to redress the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament. Moreover, there is an appetite for urgent change outside the House, from a public whose faith in politics and Parliament had been slowly eroding for some time. The remnants of that faith were shattered by the expenses revelations of the past year. While today’s reforms are no panacea, they are certainly a step in the right direction. Let me be clear: the Conservatives support the recommendations before us today. Indeed, many of the reforms are similar to those put forward by my party’s democracy taskforce, which was chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase explained the Committee’s perspective in what was regarded by all present as a truly outstanding speech. He spoke of a window having been opened on our House and the fact that it will not be closed again, and he also said that the status quo is no longer an option. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) highlighted the inadequacies of the way we work and endorsed the Committee’s report. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) spoke of the reform that has been stalled so far, and I would like to know what his constituents might have to say about his candid comments on early-day motions and the reasons why he signed them in the past; it would be particularly interesting to know whether he told his constituents his true views before he announced that he was stepping down from Parliament.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) reminded us that he is the longest serving member of the Modernisation Committee, and he rightly paid tribute to the late Robin Cook and spoke of the need to have less legislation. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) wanted a wider focus on the issues, starting with the role of the MP. She spoke with courage in favour of her minority view.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) reminded the House that it was Labour who broke the convention that procedural reform went through only with Opposition support, and he rightly raised concern about the Government’s use of the guillotine, which should be used only as a last resort. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) raised the subject of September sittings in order for us to be rid of the public perception of Members being on holiday then, even though they may not be so.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who served on the Wright Committee, praised the shadow Leader of the House, and I am sure my right hon. Friend will take comfort from those words. The hon. Gentleman also expressed his concern about Report stage scrutiny, as well as Select Committee scrutiny. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) made a very learned contribution, and may I take this opportunity to commend him on all his contributions over the years with Parliament First? He said this report represented the vital first steps on the way to reform, and he rightly spoke of the need to have a culture change, not only a process change. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who gave a speech that reflected his considerable experience in the House, discussed a business committee that could be presided over by the Speaker.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) spoke of issues beyond the remit of the debate and at one point was critical of Conservative Members and of my party-in particular of how it is reflective of the mainstream community. May I simply take the opportunity to say to him that we very much hope that after the general election we will have made huge strides in that respect by having more ethnic minority and women MPs? If he doubts my words, I suggest that he looks at yesterday’s edition of The Mail on Sunday, particularly pages 2, 24 and 25.
I am sorry but I will not give way, because I have a limited amount of time available to me and I am keen that the Government have their fair share too.
We heard an excellent intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who spoke of the reform process needing to be an ongoing one. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who is a key signatory to the amendment to motion 9, spoke of the need to restore the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament, concluding with the powerful point that a strong Government can come with a strong Parliament.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) gave a thoughtful speech, in which he enumerated the reasons for the existing balance of power being against Parliament and provided a possible way forward. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) accepted the proposed reforms, but struck a critical tone in her speech and also spoke of reforms beyond the report, such as the need for us to have more clips on YouTube. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was candid in saying that he had not intended to take part in this debate at the outset—given the subject at hand, it was hardly surprising to hear cries of “Whips’ influence”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) gave a passionate speech, in which he reminded us that we are not delegates, but representatives. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) spoke of her experiences in the House when she was first elected compared with now, citing the timetabling of the business of the day as a prime example. The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who pointed out that he was a member of the Wright Committee, spoke of empowering Back Benchers, particularly those on the Government side—that was greeted with approval from Labour Members. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) emphasised the need for reform by making reference to inquorate Select Committee meetings. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) gave a typically passionate speech in which, as would be expected, he managed to mention the Maastricht treaty.
I am sorry, but I will not give way. In the concluding speech before the winding-up speeches, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) spoke of more radical changes being required.
We now have the irony that on the one hand the public are disenchanted with the political process, yet on the other they have more opportunity than ever before to engage with us. Technological advances mean that members of the public are much better informed and have instant methods of expressing opinions to their elected representatives. I do not deny that the changes will be difficult to start with—a Back-Bench business committee will take some getting used to, for example—but these are challenges that we should take on and accept. We should not shirk the challenge because of a misplaced fear of failure.
The Leader of the House has spoken of establishing a consensus before we can proceed, but what she really means is that there should be unanimity. That was clearly confirmed by the Prime Minister when he spoke of the
“agreement of all the parties and all Members of the House”.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said in his opening speech, in the past the Government have been happy to press pet reforms through when it suited them but the demand for unanimity now strongly implies that the Government are not full square behind these proposals. If the Leader of the House disagrees with that assertion, I invite her deputy to confirm in her reply that on 4 March all the resolutions will be tabled. There really is no excuse for not allowing the House to express its views on all the proposals in the report. A failure to receive that confirmation will remind Members of the Leader of the House’s earlier comments, when she spoke of a “climate of suspicion”—her words, not mine.
There is still time to recant. Today, we have the opportunity to restore to Parliament some of the powers that it has lost over successive decades. We have an opportunity to restore the balance of power, strengthening Parliament so that it can hold the Executive more fully to account. We have an opportunity to reach out to a disillusioned public as part of the process of regaining their trust and faith in us and we have an opportunity for Parliament more to reflect the political standards of the 21st century. Let us not waste that opportunity. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to support the proposals.
I, too, want to thank all our speakers. We have had a wide-ranging debate today, with contributions from 30 right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House—20 main speakers and 10 other contributions. That was a tremendous effort. It might have been a Christmas tree debate, as the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who is no longer in his place, said earlier, but, as I am sure the shadow Leader of the House will admit, it was much more themed than the pre-recess Adjournment debates.
I believe that our aim tonight should be to support reforms that help to create a more vibrant and balanced House of Commons in the future. There have been a number of comments in the debate doubting the Government’s commitment to reform issues and I want to refer to the most recent appearance before the Liaison Committee on 2 February of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He spoke about reform and said that
“there are major changes we can make that can improve the working of our democracy.”
These were to:
“Make power more accountable to people, make people have a more direct relationship with their representatives and, of course, make the Executive give up some power it should not have to the House of Commons and to the elected authorities.”
I believe that was an important statement of intent before our debate tonight.
Many Members have referred to the pressing need to rebuild public confidence in this House and one of the key aspects of that change will be to increase public engagement with the House. We must consider how we can make what happens in this House more relevant to the public and also how we can give the public influence over some of the subjects for debate in Parliament. A number of Members have talked about this issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) said that the way in which we deal with petitions is “absurd.” It is clear that there is a case for change and that our processes for presenting petitions from the public are no longer satisfactory. Indeed, the presentation of petitions is a practice of great antiquity as well as a method of modern democratic participation. A recent survey by the Hansard Society found that signing a petition was the most popular democratic activity and that 76 per cent. of the people surveyed had done so in the previous year. This figure was only 2 per cent. less than the number of people surveyed who had voted. As a Back-Bench MP—this was a role of which I was proud—I presented petitions on a range of subjects. One was directed at the G8 leaders when they were meeting at Gleneagles, whereas others concerned local bus services. All were equally important and I understand the importance that constituents attach to petitioning this House.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?
I do not think that I have time.
Five of the motions tabled tonight would reform how the House handles petitions and would give opportunities for debate on certain public petitions. We could say that that is a small step, but it is worth taking.
Let me turn to the other motions. The Committee’s report proposes a road map for reform. As we have seen in this debate, there is, unsurprisingly, disagreement about certain elements of that road map. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West said that we were moving in an consensual bubble today, but there were differences of opinion, as there have been in the past. Consensus has proved, across the decades of reform, difficult to reach and to agree. The past reforms of the House have not been a continuous process, as many hon. Members have emphasised that they should be. That is one of the most important things that we can take away from the debate. We have moved to a position where we have a fairly continual process of reform, and Members support that.
Much of the focus on reform in the past has been based on procedural change, aimed at improving efficiency. Since 1960, successive Procedure Committees—
Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Will she take the opportunity, briefly, to confirm that every proposal in the Wright Committee report will be on the Order Paper so that we can vote on it?
I will come to the process at the end.
Successive Procedure Committees have looked into aspects of streamlining the Commons and its working practices, focusing on the use of questions and the structure of Commons sittings. Looking back at past reforms in the light of today’s debate, it is striking how much time it took to consider and gain agreement on such reforms, with further time being needed to implement them. For example, the idea of introducing a time limit on speeches in the Chamber was first considered in 1960. The Procedure Committee recommended a trial of the idea in 1978, but time limits were not used routinely until much more recently. Issues regarding sittings, such as whether the House could rise earlier at night, were first considered in 1975 and examined again by the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, the Jopling Committee, in the 1990s. It then took two years to implement that Committee’s recommendations. So we have had not continuous processes on such matters in the past, but processes that took many decades in some cases.
In the past 13 years, since the establishment of the Modernisation Committee in 1997, a more continuous stream of changes has been considered. Many changes focused on the efficiency of the House, but some measures have focused on increasing its effectiveness—an issue that a number of hon. Members have raised this evening. The introduction of Westminster Hall as a debating Chamber has allowed much more time for Back Benchers to raise issues. There were more than 330 hours of debate in Westminster Hall in the last Session, which is more time than would have been available had the House sat on every Friday of the year. There have also been important changes to allow greater topicality, including the introduction of topical debates and topical questions. More recently, Mr. Speaker has also allowed a greater use of urgent questions.
Today’s debate is clearly about differing views on how to improve the effectiveness of the Commons. The scale of the reforms before us is much greater than on previous occasions. Taken together, the reforms represent the largest set of changes that the House has considered for some time. It is fair to say that right hon. and hon. Members have been particularly keen to debate these reforms. We have had three Adjournment debates on this issue, the first of which was 48 hours after the Committee’s report was published. We have also had two 90-minute debates in Westminster Hall about reform, and, more recently, a debate with independent Members about the revitalisation of the Commons. This subject was also raised during the pre-Christmas Adjournment debate. The House has, of course, already approved the recommendation for the election of Deputy Speakers by ballot.
Before I make my final comments, I want to refer briefly to some of the comments in the Committee’s report on the current operation of the system. It states:
“We acknowledge the excellent work of the professional civil servants in the Chief Whip’s Office, in the Leader’s Office and in the Opposition Chief Whip’s Office…The smooth running of the House, whatever the political arguments, owes much to the talents of those operating the business system.”
I have worked with the professional civil servants in both the Chief Whips Office and the Office of the Leader of the House, and I want to thank them, particularly the staff of the Leader of the House’s office, of my office and Tom Healey, who have worked hard on the motions for today’s debate, as they do on all aspects of House business.
We have heard many comments about Whips in the debate, and we are joined by a few of them now. The shadow Leader of the House said that he and the Opposition Chief Whip were as brothers. Perhaps, as a former Government Whip, I can continue the allusion to siblings. In keeping with the greater female representation on the Government side, I can say that our Whips Office has sisters, and I was proud to be one of that sisterhood.
My right hon. and learned Friend, the Leader of the House of Commons, has been clear regarding the process required to take the Committee’s report forward. Her written ministerial statement of 9 February stated that any motions that are objected to tonight, or that have amendments that Members do not wish to withdraw, will be brought back to the House as amendable motions for votes scheduled for 4 March.
Will the Minister confirm whether there will be an opportunity to vote on appointments to the Intelligence and Security Committee next week?
Just to be clear, this was covered when the Leader of the House opened the debate. We have listened to the debate and we have tabled a number of motions, the terms of which would be a big step forward. It is has been made clear that big items were tabled for consideration tonight. We will come back on a different day to vote; we will have motions, and amendments can be tabled. That has been made clear time and again.
So that there is no doubt whatsoever, can the hon. Lady confirm that all the Wright recommendations will be tabled for decision on Thursday week?
Not all of them require decisions.
I should like to conclude by reminding right hon. and hon. Members that this is House business. As the Leader of the House made clear earlier, for this evening and for all other occasions on which we vote on the issues, there will be free votes—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).