Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Steve McCabe.)
To misquote one of my contemporary political heroes, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), whom I have come to regard as a friend as well as a colleague, this will be the last speech that I shall ever make as a Member of this House of Commons. It comes at the end of what some have called the Manure Parliament, at a time when the stench of corruption and personal greed has overwhelmed the good that we try to do and the reasons why the vast majority of us come to this place. In my last contribution I want to mount a staunch defence of politics and politicians: not as an apologist for the status quo—because I have always been on what one could call the Hezbollah wing of the reform movement—but because I believe passionately that a precondition for the survival of a healthy democracy is the holding of regular elections, and that for those elections to function there must be candidates. Those candidates who eventually succeed in securing the approval of the electors will, whether they like it or not, grow up to become politicians, just as night follows day.
Yet, if we follow the subtext of much of the media coverage of our politics—and it long predates last spring’s expenses scandal—things would be so much better if somehow we could have politics without politicians and clear out the whole political class. All the ills of the world are easily solved, all problems are simple, and politicians—us lot—only make matters worse. Then, by adding a dose of xenophobia and a dollop of snobbery with some implied racism mixed in from time to time, we have the gospel according to Rod Liddle, Melanie Phillips, Jan Moir, Richard Littlejohn and a dozen other commentators of the fourth estate, who know it all. Well, anyone can write about what other people should be doing. I have spent a quarter of a century of my life as a public representative, often listening to other people telling me what I should be doing. I only wish I had spent half as long hearing people ask how they, too, could come forward and serve their communities assiduously, as the best of us here and in councils and assemblies the length and breadth of this land try to do.
I want to quote—more accurately—another of my contemporary heroes, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who gave the 2009 lecture for The Political Quarterly, which I commend to hon. Members. That provided much of the inspiration for this debate. He said of politicians:
“You see someone has to do it—someone has to take responsibility. As politicians we give voice to the hopes of the people and inevitably we will also feed their disappointments.”
Those are wise words and they apply as much to Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama as to Tony Blair or Winston Churchill.
We should not apologise for coming together to form political parties. It is what the public want us to do. They want us to forge alliances based on common programmes and principles. The notion of a House of Commons filled with 650 Independents, unable to agree on a single thing, has never appealed to the electorate, although it is in their gift to deliver it. At its best this place is the cockpit of our democracy, where the battle of ideas is fought out, and the hopes and aspirations of the people who sent us here receive expression and are sometimes realised. At its worst the Commons can be a craven institution, in thrall to either the Executive or party advantage, and pandering to the baser parts of the media. The day we finally subcontract our law-making to the likes of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch will be the day on which representative democracy dies. Collectively we will have lost the moral authority that we have left.
We have gone far too far down that road already, giving too much power, without accountability, to unelected press barons who draw their political lineage and set their moral compasses from such repulsive headlines as “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in the Daily Mail of 15 January 1934; I think that it has become more extreme over the years. Who will ever forget the famous headline in The Sun of 9 November 1998: “Are we being run by a gay mafia?” It was particularly demeaning to see the former leader of my party attempting to formulate child protection policy on the basis of a News of the World witch hunt that led to a mob attack on the home of a paediatrician, rather than by listening to the sensible, informed opinions of senior police officials and experts from organisations such as Barnardo’s and Save the Children, who know a thing or two about managing paeodphiles released from prison. We have yet to find out what price Mr. Murdoch has extracted from the Leader of the Opposition in return for the political endorsement of The Sun. I worry that we may see the break-up of the BBC and certainly a diminution in the regulatory powers of Ofcom.
This debate almost never happened. My original intention, shared with the Leader of the House, was that the debate should be entitled “In Praise of Politics”. The Clerks ruled that out of order. I then compromised with “In Praise of Parliament”. That was also the subject of a banning order from the men in wigs. We eventually settled on today’s somewhat obtuse title. There we have it: as politicians we cannot hold a debate about politics and as parliamentarians we cannot praise Parliament. There clearly remains much to reform about this place, including the arcane rules that govern our proceedings and the regime that so delights in enforcing them.
Some 13 years ago I made my maiden speech on the case for reform of the House of Commons, calling for nothing less than a new politics for a new century, and a political system that would connect with the public and their aspirations. In the intervening period I have done my level best to put as much of the reform agenda as I could into practice, but collectively we have fallen disappointingly short of those worthy objectives, which seemed so achievable in those far-off days of hope in the summer of 1997.
Anyone who served with good intent on the Modernisation Committee or, more recently, on the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, knows through long and bitter experience how intensely conservative this institution is—how resistance to change has been elevated to an art form and how achieving radical reform is as difficult as nailing blancmange to a wall. Just look at the inordinate length of time it took to allow the citizens of tomorrow, in the shape of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, to hold their annual meeting in the House of Commons. It took five years from the publication in 2004 of the modernisation report, which I helped to draft, for us belatedly to follow in the footsteps of that great reforming body, the House of Lords, and allow the unelected bottoms of the UKYP to sit on those green Benches and participate in what proved to be a lively and articulate debate, which showcased the best of our young people, and hopefully launched a political career or two. I suppose that it was better late than never; but why such fuss and delay?
Of course, there is a powerful case for further reforms—for permanent, if not incremental, revolution. I have argued before for ending moonlighting and paying MPs properly. It is a full-time job and we should work full-time hours. I would provide proper resources to meet the increasing demands of our constituents. They are not the same from constituency from constituency. Constituencies such as mine or those of my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) have, in their nature, vastly more casework. I talk to Members of Parliament for other constituencies who have given up holding advice surgeries, because no one comes. That is fine, too, but let us ensure that the resources meet the demand.
I want genuine public engagement. I want to end the farce of early-day motions, and conning the people that they mean something. I argued for that in my maiden speech and in the Wright Committee. If sufficient Members across the party political divide put their name to a limited number of motions it should drive House business, and there should be a debate in the House. That would properly engage the public.
I have looked at examples from Australia where Members can use interesting devices such as three-minute constituency statements, in which a matter of import—particularly local import—can be raised without a convoluted attempt to tack it onto a question about something else. I am bitterly disappointed that 13 years on we shall still not see reform of the House of Lords completed. I remain a defender of the principle of a second Chamber. All too often, perhaps because of the ineffectiveness of the House of Commons, the second Chamber does a better job of scrutinising legislation, which should be a matter of shame for us all.
We really must end time-wasting as a political weapon. It is monstrously unfair that we do not have time to put through much-needed legislation and reform and yet waste hour upon hour marching organisations up to the top of the hill for private Members’ Bills and other motions that simply go nowhere because of the ability to filibuster. In this place the most disempowered group are the critical friends of whoever are in Government. In Public Bill Committees Government Members are encouraged to keep quiet—often I do not follow that advice. Why do we not co-opt outside expertise onto those Committees? The notion that a Bill, once published, must travel through Parliament for a form of mock scrutiny, during which not a semicolon, paragraph or phrase can be amended, is ridiculous. We are all paid a reasonable salary to do a little better than that and to apply our judgment and that of our advisers and constituents.
Perhaps we should go further and set a maximum age limit for Members. I am leaving this place because I vowed not to be rattling around the House in my 60s. That is not to say that people here in their 60s do not do a fantastic job, but I became a councillor 25 years ago when I was 29 years old and there are other things that I want to do with my life.
I will raise a point about our staff that has been overlooked. It is difficult for any Member facing re-election to criticise the report and recommendations of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, but we should take a closer look at what it is seeking it to do to our staff. The 10 per cent. staff pension allowance that was formerly paid centrally now comes out of the starting budget, yet with no corresponding increase. If Members pay their staff up to the maximum, and those representing places like Reading have to pay the maximum to get good staff—we are only as good as the people working for us—they will effectively have to implement a 7 per cent. wage cut. That is monstrous. For all I have read about the expenses scandal, which applied to only a minority of Members from across the House, I have never come across a staffer or researcher who spent money on a duck house or a moat or who claimed for a false mortgage, but once again it is the poor bloody infantry who are carrying the can, not the officer class.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Briefly, as I am warming to my theme.
I am loth to interrupt my hon. Friend in mid flow, but I will add that although the amount of money allocated to Members for staffing purposes sounds very large, after taking out national insurance and pensions, it is not only quite a small sum—only enough for three and a half people covering the constituency and Westminster—but smaller than it was last year. We will be trying to do more on less over the coming year.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I will say later in my speech, the public want us to do more.
There is a concern, to which I hope Members will turn their minds, about complaints to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I have been the subject of a vexatious complaint and ended up having to take legal action—I made history by being the first person to sue a sitting Member. It is awful for a Member to have an unresolved complaint having over them. Where possible, I hope that the Commissioner will resolve complaints or publish interim findings so that Members who are the subject of vexatious or politically motivated complaints do not have them hanging over them as they face the electorate, because we all know how easy it is to imply ill of people purely on the basis of an unproven accusation. Furthermore, on the other side of that concern, there are three or four complaints against Members still outstanding because they have failed to co-operate fully with the Committee and the Commissioner in the hope that judgment can be deferred until after the election. That is also wrong, as those matters should be resolved.
We have had our successes, of course. The Select Committees are often still regarded as a 30-year experiment, and I think that we could conclude that it has been successful. In fact, I understand that recently seven consecutive lead stories on the “Today” programme featured either a report or the work of a Select Committee. For many of us, particularly those who will never be given an opportunity to ply our trade in Government, Select Committee work is perhaps the most rewarding we will get to do. The Select Committees must remain the focus of the process of scrutiny in this place.
I am pleased that we introduced topical questions, but it is ridiculous that the Government choose what is topical. We can do better than that, which is why we need our new Back-Bench business committee. We have seen more pre-legislative scrutiny. I would hold up the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 as an excellent example of legislation on which we worked together with the other place. The Bill was published in draft and then amended and improved so that we put forward a superb measure.. It was heavily criticised by the Government Whips Office at the time as a dreadful example of legislation because it had been amended so often. That is what we are here to do and what we pick up the salary for.
The election of Select Committee Chairs was something I called for in my maiden speech. We are on the verge of achieving it, but it has taken 13 years for something so patently obvious. There is the proposal for a Back-Bench business committee, although I read last night that the Government’s business motion does not find time for a 90-minute debate to put through the key recommendation of the Wright Committee. I give notice to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House that if the Government want my votes in the wash-up, and the votes of those Members who participated on the Wright Committee and backed those reforms, she should state when she responds that the Government will make time for a Standing Order to be put in place and not rely on the device of a single Member standing up to torpedo months and months of important, hard work.
The hon. Gentleman has signed the amendment to that business motion, which is on today’s Order Paper, as have I and other Members present. If the Government will not give ground and accept the amendment, does he not think that we should have a last exercise of Back-Bench power in this Parliament and force it through?
I have drafted an e-mail to send to the many people who are prepared to stand up for Parliament and for representative democracy, and unless I receive a satisfactory answer, the button will be pushed.
I want to talk a little about the unsung work that takes place here by Members across the political divide. I single out the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who is leaving under a cloud because of expenses and some unwise comments, but whose contribution on the vital matter of human trafficking often goes unreported and unsung. The work of the all-party group on Gurkha rights, on which I have worked with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), was instrumental in getting that issue right to the heart of Government and forcing a sufficient number of Members on our side either to vote against the proposals or to hold back and enable the Government to come to their senses and give justice to those who are prepared to shed blood for our country.
Everyone who makes it to this place, however inarticulate some may seem, has something about them. Thousands of people try at every election to get into Parliament and very few succeed. To come through that process they have to have some attributes, which, sadly, this place can overwhelm from time to time. Every day Members of Parliament are on their feet, pressing issues and concerns close to the hearts of their constituents. The best advice I ever received was from a Member who has since left my party, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). She told me, “Remember, the House of Commons is the best megaphone in the world. Use it wisely and sparingly and for the issues that matter to you and your constituents and you won’t go far wrong.” I offer that advice to the phalanx of new Members who will join this place.
I worry about this place, particularly under the new rules. The travel arrangements say that my constituency of Reading, West can be commuted to in an hour. I have done that commute for 13 years—I have never had a London flat—and I have never, ever done it in an hour. When we sit late, there are times where I am dragging myself back here again in the morning. I do not regret it for a moment. I certainly did not regret it when The Daily Telegraph published its files. It has enabled me to be a more effective MP. But the idea that a Minister can deliver that job and the ministerial requirements as well as be an effective constituency MP while commuting during all those crazy hours, as I have had to, is for the birds. If we, in our politics, undervalue, underpay and under-resource ourselves, we undervalue our democracy and our political system.
My own parliamentary record is one of modest endeavour, but with the occasional achievement. I am particularly proud of the change in the law to make it illegal to download violent internet pornography. That followed the appalling death of the daughter of a wonderful lady, Liz Longhurst, from Reading. Her daughter, Jane, was horribly murdered by someone addicted to such pornography who had, in the past, sought help in respect of some of the depraved snuff movies and other imagery that is available out there in the wonderful world of the worldwide web. The Evening Post, communities in Reading, Amnesty International, women’s groups and cross-party coalitions all worked together on persuading the Government to treat that imagery in the way we treat child pornography. It is not just its publication that is now an offence—how can we go after a website based in Guatemala or Mexico?—but downloading it becomes an offence, too.
I was pleased to work with my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North and for Birmingham, Northfield and many others, including some other hon. Members, in making a bit of parliamentary history. We published the first alternative education White Paper. We did not like the Government’s White Paper in 2006, because we were bringing the marketplace into the schools, much like the Conservative manifesto now. It was clear that local authorities were being removed from the ring and that those wealthy enough and powerful enough would be able to set up their own schools, and the rest could go hang. Instead of promoting a parliamentary rebellion in the conventional sense—waiting until the last moment, with the various troops marched up to the top of the hill—we rewrote the White Paper. Former Secretaries of State for Education were involved. Once 100 Labour MPs had put their names to an excellent document, the then Prime Minister decided that it was time to talk. It is always good to talk.
I will always remember with huge affection leading a delegation from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to Belfast in 1998. We campaigned for the agreement in the Falls road in the morning and in the Shankill road with the loyalists in the afternoon. It really was politics in the raw. Whatever our differences may be on the Belfast agreement, it is a huge achievement of our politics and our political process that politics restored itself to Northern Ireland and that 300 years of killing and hatred started to become a distant memory. Huge credit goes to the politicians of Northern Ireland for being prepared to embrace change.
I have tried to use what organisational skills I have to get us to work collectively on issues, often across the political divide. It was pleasing last year to be working with hon. Members in the Thames valley to defeat the crazy plans of the Environment Agency to sell off all the lock-keepers’ cottages. We did that. Those crucial workers can now carry out their responsibilities without fear of eviction. The campaign for the Speaker of the House, which I will touch on shortly, was another exercise in organisation.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) who, as Sports Minister, made me my party’s spokesman for angling—the great passion of my life—which was a role that I particularly enjoyed. That position gave me the opportunity to give a voice to Britain’s 3 million recreational anglers. It was my pleasure to be able to publish Labour’s charter for angling and to see that we do what we can to promote Britain’s most popular participant sport.
The job has changed over the years. The number of letters and e-mails, and the contact that we have with the public, have grown hugely. Figures from the House of Commons post office show that in the 1950s the average Member of Parliament received some 15 to 20 letters a week. If only! We can reach that number in an hour now. As we know, figures are now in the 400 to 800 mark, and growing.
We live in a culture of instant gratification. We have website polling and we want instant answers. There are those ridiculous bespoke websites, including TheyWorkForYou.com. Tragically, I know hon. Members of the 2005 intake who have tailored their work programmes to get a high score on the TheyWorkForYou website. As we know, an intervention used to count the same as a speech and parliamentary questions were asked to drive up a score, rather than for a purpose.
In the 1950s, one in 11 people belonged to a political party. [Interruption.] I am sorry to say, Mr. Fraser, that a crown has decided to fall out during my final speech. I will hiss for the remaining few moments. [Laughter.] I think that I will turn away from the cameras.
In this decade, one in 88 people belong to a political party. Are we saying that people are engaging more, or is it just a small minority who are doing so? We tried to respond to this situation. I have set up supporters clubs in my constituency. The Conservative party has shown the way forward with open primaries. We have community forums, too.
It was right and proper that we produced constituency reports, keeping ourselves in touch with our constituents. I regret the end of the communication allowance. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who is not in his place, has criticised the publication of constituency reports, yet his own council issues an almost daily council newspaper seeking to achieve the same thing. A degree of consistency on this issue would be helpful.
May I say that my hon. Friend may lose a crown, but he certainly deserves a title for his work as a Back Bencher?
The constituency reports—certainly, the ones that I produce—reflect our constituencies. Some hon. Members represent deprived constituencies where lots of people do not normally come to the Member of Parliament, because they regard the MP, even one who tries to be approachable, as somewhat distant. Putting a report around the constituency and giving a phone number, details and surgery times is an outreach effort that MPs should be commended rather than penalised for, which has now happened since we have been told that we can no longer do this.
I could not agree more. Of course, we are talking about the very people who do not often go online or read local newspapers. We should be attempting to engage with all our citizens, not just the informed minority.
I remain sceptical of people who argue that parliamentary reform and making the House of Commons more effective can be achieved by some kind of magic bullet and that proportional representation will be the answer. I remain convinced—I was 13 years ago and I am now even more so—of the importance of the constituency link. It is our responsibility to try to drive up turnout. I have done some work for the Wright Committee, looking at Australian models. Compulsory voting will drive up turnout, but my goodness it changes the way that politics is done: in a compulsory voting system there is no longer a need to have to inspire, because people have to turn-out, so politics becomes even more negative and even more about trashing the other side and fear. The level of abuse in the Australian Parliament makes that point. I think I shall bottle it rather than mention a particular instance. [Interruption.] Actually, as it is my last speech I really do not care. Perhaps the worst example of abuse was from Mark Latham, the former Labour leader, who managed to get into Hansard that the Opposition Front Bench was
“a conga line of suckholes”.
How lovely! Our reputation may have fallen, but we still have some way to fall yet.
Radical reform of this place needs radical leadership, which is why I backed Mr. Speaker for election to this place and why, in the previous election for Speaker, I backed the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I will always back the reform candidate. May I say a little about the nonsense that has come out—the plot that has been hatched—in the Procedure Committee? The suggestion that the current Speaker of the House of Commons was not subject to the secret ballot that he is calling for his deputies is fundamentally wrong. He is the only Speaker who has been elected by a secret ballot. At the start of the new Parliament, we have a procedure to trigger deselection. If Members of Parliament want to deselect the Speaker of the House of Commons, they should not hide behind a secret ballot; they should walk through the Lobby, and put their names on the record. Not so to do is a coward’s charter.
I believe that Parliament made the right choice. I really do. Our current Speaker has proved himself to be a reformer. We have already seen a brisker style of dealing with oral questions. More Members are called, which is fantastic, and more urgent questions have been granted. There is a tracking system for written questions, and more pressure on Ministers. The Speaker is considering restoring cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall on subjects covered by two or more Departments. He is a reformer and, goodness me, we need a reformer in the Chair of this place.
Have we ever been popular? I thank Peter Riddell of The Times, who is probably our most eminent political commentator, for drawing my attention to the following quote:
“Politicians are a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men. I say this with the greatest freedom because, a politician myself, none can regard it as personal.”
Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln in 1837. There has never been a golden age when politics and politicians were revealed—I intended to say revered, but they have certainly been revealed!
The theory that we are all scoundrels has been a constant refrain. Of course that is unfair, but we do not always help ourselves, do we? The rush to American-style triangulation is dangerous. We could triangulate away and focus-group away, but what would happen to principle? We would achieve the lowest common political denominator. A collective, political class would chase after the lowest common political denominator. Sometimes, we must lead. We would not have delivered civil partnerships by referendum or votes on Sky. Sometimes we must stand up for what is right, and lead public opinion.
What I am perhaps most proud of in my constituency is not when I was everyone’s sweetheart and followed the herd, but when I stood up to my constituents and called for, supported and campaigned for a new mental hospital in the middle of my constituency in a public park, because the old Victorian practice of consigning the mentally ill to asylums with no bus routes and so on was inhuman. When we lead, the public sometimes respond, and some of the fiercest critics of that hospital eventually sat on the steering committee to make the project successful. We must never, ever allow the campaigning process to triumph over the principles of why we seek people’s trust to allow us to govern in the first place.
No valedictory address, even a semi-valedictory one, can be completely depersonalised, so please forgive me, Mr. Fraser, if I take a few moments to describe how I arrived in this place to represent my constituency and my home town of Reading. I was blessed with politically engaged parents who cared. I was blessed with a grandfather who was prepared to make sacrifices for his political principles. He went to prison as a conscientious objector. After experience in the voluntary sector and the trade union movement, I arrived in Reading in 1980 not to become a councillor or an MP, but to go fishing. I bought my first house on the banks of the River Kennet. I have always been suspicious of people who had their lives mapped out on the back of an envelope and who intended to make their first million in their 20s, marry well in their 30s, enter Parliament in their 40s, and become Prime Minister in their 50s. The former right hon. Member for Henley, much as I like, admire and respect him, may have been in that mould. The present hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) is much more modest.
Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman great latitude in the issues that he is discussing because this is his valedictory, but he is trespassing slightly on my generosity, and other people want to contribute to the debate. May I ask him to remember the title of the debate in his final comments?
I accept your strictures, Mr. Fraser. I want to put on the record my thanks to Reading district Labour party for sending me here to help to make the House of Commons more effective, not just in 2010 but in 1997 and during the intervening years. I thank it for making me its candidate in seven elections, in six of which I was fortunate in being successful. My deepest appreciation goes to my constituents who have been most kind and generous in their thanks, words and wishes. I want particularly to thank my loyal staff, who have played their part in helping me to try to make the House of Commons more effective in 2010. They include Moira Dickenson, Viki Lloyd, Ann Morgan, Alex Crampton, Will Sherlock and my current workers, for whom I will buy a drink tonight.
I could not have represented a better constituency or worked with a more pleasant bunch of people. There is no doubt that, as a result of what has gone through the House of Commons when it has been at its most effective, my constituency has benefited from 13 years of this Labour Government. We have had new planning protection for Kennet meadows, and we have two new hospitals. I referred to one earlier, and the other is the Royal Berkshire. We have seen massive investment in our schools with improving results, and the £26 million John Madejski academy, of which I am proud to be a governor, has raised educational standards in a challenging part of my constituency. We have a record number of police officers and community support officers. My constituents are healthier, safer and better educated than ever before.
Perhaps it is fitting, as a former shop steward, to end by speaking up for the trade of politics. I implore those who follow on in this place to promote nothing less than a cultural revolution in our political life. The vicious, build-them-up, knock-them-down culture is a self-defeating road to nowhere except personality-driven politics. This House of Commons must remain central to our national political life. It must never be treated merely as a vehicle for policy announcements and party press releases. To brush it aside is to brush aside the one powerful tool that our democracy bestows on its citizens. We should remember that power vacuums never remain in place for long. Our politics may not be perfect, but when politics fails, people with guns invariably take over.
I would like to start the winding-up speeches at about half-past 10, and at least two Members want to contribute.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. This is the first—and probably the last—time I have done so. As your parents are my constituents, it is right to put on the record my appreciation of your role as a trusted and loyal colleague since 1997.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on his speech, and on introducing this topic, which fortunately is very wide. It includes the effectiveness of the House of Commons in 2010, and I shall refer briefly to matters on today’s Order Paper concerning the Back-Bench business committee. It is perhaps a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not spend more time on that.
Cynicism about politics and politicians is at an all-time high, and the Prime Minister tried to counter that by saying, “Don’t worry. I will give more power back to Back Benchers.” He then set up the Wright Committee, which argued against the Executive and the shadow Executive by making a strong case for a Back-Bench business committee. There was a debate last month, and it was significant that there was strong support for that committee from Back Benchers throughout the House. When it came to the vote, the Executive and the shadow Executive voted against it. Is it surprising that the Standing Order amendments, which are necessary to implement this wish of the House, are still below the line.
The only excuse provided yesterday by the Leader of the House was that amendments had been tabled. However, that did not prevent her from putting other things above the line in priority. For example, I have tabled a large number of amendments—about 15—to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, which is a private Member’s Bill. If the motion before the House today goes through, the Leader of the House will have effectively torn up the Standing Orders by saying that although that Bill was due to be considered further on 23 April, she wants to amend the arrangement. The fact that I have tabled amendments is not a reason to block the Bill; that is a specious argument in the extreme. I hope that we will be able to exercise power on the Back Benches to ensure that we get the Back-Bench business committee, which we have repeatedly been promised.
I want to speak briefly about the effectiveness of the House in another respect, and I shall begin by quoting what the Speaker said in the 31st report of the House of Commons Commission, printed on 21 July last year:
“If the House is to regain public confidence, it needs among other things to demonstrate that it is an effective and modern Parliament, not only forceful in holding the executive to account and scrutinising its activities but also run in a professional and accountable manner.”
That brings me to an issue about which I have tabled many questions: I am concerned about the financial implications of the proposal for the establishment of a day nursery. As you will know, Mr. Fraser, that project was originally designed to provide short-term child care for a six-month trial period, which was the decision taken by the House of Commons Commission at its meeting on 19 October last year. In November, it was decided that a detailed proposal, including fully costed options for a child care facility, should be produced in December. At the December meeting, the Commission decided that a nursery facility should be set up at 1 Parliament street, and that it would begin operating in September 2010. That was done on the basis
“of seeking to recover the full running costs from users.”
I tabled a question to inquire about what would be included in those running costs. On 29 March, I received a reply from the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who answered on behalf of the Commission, and stated:
“This has yet to be finally determined.”—[Official Report, 29 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 625W.]
There is no accountability. We have an assertion that the project will cover its costs, but we are not told what those costs will be.
Neither I nor my hon. Friend are opposed to the day nursery in principle, but we are opposed to the principle and method by which the decision was made in the House. It was never formally referred to the Finance and Services Committee, which has been set up in the House to consider important financial matters. My hon. Friend makes the case that no proper business case has been put in place. Does he not think that the Clerk of the House needs to consider the matter carefully before the project proceeds?
I am sure that that is right, and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does as a member of the Finance and Services Committee. I understand his frustration that on this issue, and on that of the Speaker’s adviser, his Committee has been bypassed.
I would like to put on the record that this is one of several occasions when important financial matters have bypassed the Finance and Services Committee. If we are to have such a committee, it ought to consider all financial matters before they come before the House.
Exactly. That is what the Speaker must have meant when he spoke about the need for us to scrutinise activities and run the House in a professional and accountable manner. As my hon. Friend will know, the minutes from the Commission’s meeting of 29 March stated that
“the Accounting Officer will examine the business case, including cost and value for money aspects.”
We now know that the cost has gone up to £511,000 plus VAT—that is £600,000. In addition, there are costs associated with the need for extra evacuation in the event of fire. The costs keep rising, but the matter has not been referred back to the Commission in accordance with issues of accountability.
In the real world, issues of affordability are significant. Families up and down the country are saying, “This is desirable, but we can’t afford it.” I hope that an incoming Government will put at the forefront of the mission statement for every incoming Minister the need to separate what is desirable from what is affordable during the worst financial crisis in our lifetime. We in this House will not set a good example if we do not apply those principles to the way in which we conduct matters. I have already shown that this project has developed into a full-blown day nursery. Now the costs are running away, and we do not even know that there will be a demand for such a nursery.
A lot of cold water has been poured on this way of dealing with child care by a gentleman who is the largest child care provider in central London. He says that it is best for child care for children under the age of 5 to be in a home setting, or as close to the home as possible, rather than in a central London location. He has produced a paper showing how better value for money could be obtained through a different way of expending money on this service. I am not against child care facilities, but we should think this project through carefully and ensure that we get value for money.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are talking about the effectiveness of the House of Commons, not its efficiency. Perhaps he will bear that in mind as he continues his speech.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Fraser, for saying that we are talking about the effectiveness of the House. When judging that effectiveness, one of the top criteria is whether people outside the House think that we are applying the same standards in the House that they apply in their own lives. Ultimately, the money that we spend in the House—whether in subsidising food or whatever else—is provided by the taxpayer. That is important.
Another issue is that of petitions, and the reforms aimed at giving them more prominence. The people who use the facilities in 1 Parliament street submitted a petition—I declare an interest, as the lead signature on it is that of my researcher. The petition gathered a large number of signatures over a couple of days, and only now have we have received a response. However, I am not sure that the response does much for the reputation of the House and its effectiveness. It does not respond at all to the suggestion for providing alternative facilities in Derby Gate. All it does is express regret on behalf of the Commission for the fact that many staff will have an important facility taken away from them, and that there will be a loss of income to the refreshment department of £80,000 a year.
As you can tell, Mr. Fraser, I feel strongly about this matter because in the end the effectiveness of an organisation is judged not on its generality but on specific examples. I do not want to be a Member of a House that gets a reputation for spending money without proper accountability. The House would be more effective if there were a lot more accountability for the way in which we spend money, and if we gave more power and authority to the Finance and Services Committee.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is the Chairman of something called the Administration Estimate Audit Committee. I wrote to him in that capacity on 11 March and I have no record of having received a substantive reply; I have certainly had an acknowledgement. I said in my letter:
“As your Committee’s terms of reference require it, inter alia, to encourage best financial practice, use of resources and governance in the House administration I hope you will intervene quickly to ensure that the proposed works”—
for the day nursery—
“do not proceed without endorsement from the Finance and Services Committee.”
It is not too late for that to be done. In any event, I should have thought it prudent now to defer any final decisions until the beginning of the new Parliament, when we shall know what the demand for those facilities is likely to be. Then we can have another look at the costs and the effectiveness on that issue.
I did not originally intend to make a speech. I was just going to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), but I so much wanted to listen to what he had to say that I never got round to intervening. I shall just say a few words.
My hon. Friend made very important points about what serving in this place means. It is both a privilege and a responsibility, especially for those of us whose commitment to social justice took us into the Labour party and made us stand for election in the first place. It is a privilege to be able to give voice on the national stage to the issues that arise in our constituencies and the issues that our constituents bring to us, whether that be my constituency in Birmingham or my hon. Friend’s in Reading. As he said, it has been a privilege to be able to use our votes in this place to bring about some of the improvements in public services that he mentioned.
However, being in this place is also a responsibility. That sometimes means even telling the Government whom we support that we think they are getting things wrong. As my hon. Friend said, we worked together on education matters to do that in 2006, and we had to tell the Government that we thought they were getting it wrong in 2003 on Iraq.
One thing that underlay everything in my hon. Friend’s speech—this is the main issue that I want to raise and conclude on—was the way he is and has always been committed to shaking up the way this place works. We need to shake it up in a way that opens up politics rather than closes politics down and that allows Members of this place a little more freedom to strike those balances between the privilege of speaking up and the responsibility of sometimes saying things that are a bit discordant, and a little more freedom to say those things in a way that opens up politics and boosts democracy.
My hon. Friend and I believe that part of the process of opening up politics should be a change to the voting system. We perhaps disagree on the level of proportionality that that should involve. I shall pass over that, but certainly as we approach the election, when all parties are talking about opening up politics, for anyone to say that the voting system itself should be a no-go area for debate is entirely wrong.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in his time in this place. If hon. Members are in the same party, they refer to one another as hon. Friends and we normally are, but I have to say that he is an honourable friend of mine and I am proud to say that. Those of us who are standing again in the election, if we are successful and are re-elected, have an obligation to continue the work that he outlined so successfully in his speech today.
First, may I pay tribute to you, Mr. Fraser? I mean that. I know that you are standing down, and many of us deeply regret that, so I should like to get that off my chest to begin with. Secondly, I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). He and I have taken part in these debates on a number of occasions. He, too, is standing down and I pay tribute to him for the effectiveness that he has brought to the House. I also pay tribute—without overdoing it, I hope—to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who has continuously fought for the rights of this place, and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). I welcome very much what he said, because it is exactly what I should like to say. It is simply this: responsibility is the other side of the equation.
We need radical reform in the House, and furthermore we were promised it. When I say “radical reform”, I mean radical reform. We must bring the House back to where it belongs—being respected by the people. It must also be in line with what the freedom of choice that lies at the heart of our democracy really means. The question is who governs and how, and the abandonment of the business committee by the Government yesterday is not in any way a reflection of the direction in which we should be going. We also have the matter of the House business committee, which slipped off the agenda about 10 days ago. That is also vital to bring back the conduct of matters in the House to where it belongs, which is not with us because we think that we are important, but with the voter because we are elected by them and it is their freedom of choice that enables us to speak on their behalf.
I deplore the introduction of the proposal for the alternative vote system and the gimmickry that lies behind it, for the same reasons. It will not make the House more effective. It will not bring it back to the people. It will simply act as an artificial mechanism to achieve the results that the Liberal Democrats want. It is no more than a piece of political chicanery as far as the Government are concerned. I have had this out with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) in the past, and he knows that Lloyd George himself switched horses on this subject over and over again.
We dealt with the Equality Bill yesterday, and the issue of Christians wearing crosses came up. There is not only a question of equality, but a necessity for responsibility. I deplore the decision that was taken in the employment tribunal yesterday. The issue hinges ultimately on the question of the application of human rights. I referred yesterday to the remarks of the Lord Chief Justice, who issued severe strictures against the way in which the human rights culture and human rights decisions have been advocated even by judges at the expense of our own common law and in relation to the European Court of Justice as well. That is there in the speech that the Lord Chief Justice gave only a few days ago, on 17 March.
I believe that the effects of the Lisbon treaty in relation to the criminal justice law will make the position even worse. Ultimately, the question turns on how we are governed and who governs us, and the bottom line is that it is increasingly the legislation and abstract principles that come from Europe, adjudicated by unelected judges instead of the people themselves. We must tell the British people the truth both on the economy, which is not being done, and on the way in which the European Union is taking away their right to govern themselves through their elected Members of Parliament.
My final point is simply to repeat what Churchill once said. I am paraphrasing, but it is so important: “You should put your country first, your constituency second and your party third.”
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser, although this is the last time, as both of us are leaving the House. I thank the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for negotiating his way to this debate. He said a lot of things, many of which I agreed with—it is especially good to greet a fellow commuter. Nevertheless, I can respond to only a couple of the points in the time that I have.
First, the question that the hon. Gentleman raises itself raises a further question: what is Parliament’s job? We cannot tell how effective a body is until we know what its job is in the first place, so I shall make some remarks about that. Secondly, he raised the question about what kind of people are coming into Parliament and into politics. That is a very important question and I shall say something about that as well.
On the first point, the key issue is what Parliament’s job really is. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have found a great contrast between this place and local government—between what a Member of Parliament is supposed to do and what a member of a local authority is supposed to do. A member of a local authority is there to make decisions about things that happen, whereas the job here seems to be just rhetorical. The hon. Gentleman has made that rhetoric effective on a number of occasions, but it is a very different thing.
It comes back to two problems. One is the idea that the job of Parliament is not to govern the country but only to hold to account those who do. That was said originally by Gladstone, and the time has come to question it. If our job is not to set at least the outlines of policy, why are we here? What kind of people are attracted to a job that is not to effect policy, except when they are promoted to be Ministers along the route of patronage? That is a real problem.
The second problem is that this country seems to operate according to a theory of a single source of authority, which used to be the Crown, under the hereditary principle, but is now the leader of the winning party in the election, who holds power as a single source of authority under current assumptions. Therefore, from the point of view of the media, when Parliament does the job mentioned by the hon. Member for Reading, West—changing proposals for laws as they go through the House—it seems to be rebelling and defying that authority. The theory is wrong. We need a different idea of Parliament’s job, whereby it is perfectly legitimate for Members of Parliament to do their job and not be accused of defying the single source of authority. Otherwise, we shall end up in a situation in which the only supposedly legitimate job of a Member of Parliament is to act as a member of an electoral college in the first week of a new Parliament, but after that to be a kind of drone or cheerleader.
I have supported nearly all the proposals for reform. I am a great supporter of changing the electoral system, and believe that a different configuration of parties, and majority rule not being so common, would change the single source of authority theory. I am in favour of the business committee and will have more to say about that this afternoon—we need to get rid of the idea of Standing Order No. 14, under which the Government, just by being the Government, control the agenda of the House. I am also in favour of an elected Lords and all that. However, such proposals all come down to this: do we have a political system that has moved from having an hereditary monarch to having an elected, presidential monarch? I do not think that we should have such a system.
The second question is about who comes here. In part, the answer depends on what the job is. I think I am observing a serious change in who comes here, because of what the job is seen to be. Often, members of the public think that Parliament is dominated by lawyers. I am a sort of lawyer, but an academic one, not a real one, so I notice how many lawyers there are and it is only about 11 per cent. of the House, not the 60 or 70 per cent. that people think. In fact, the percentage of lawyers in the House is going down. I suppose we can get up to 14 per cent. if we include people such as me, who are academics, and those who have law degrees but did not practise. Instead, the type of person coming into this place has a background as a professional in politics or in the media, in marketing, public relations or journalism. In the current House, nearly 40 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party have some such background as political professionals, and across the House as a whole about 20 per cent. have a background as media professionals.
In case people think such a situation will change if lots of Conservatives are elected, of the incoming Conservatives in their held and target seats, exactly the same percentage have been political professionals and even more—nearly a third—have been in the media professions. The life of such people involves not making real-life decisions, but manipulating symbols and getting themselves ahead by their ability to manipulate symbols.
Has the hon. Gentleman done any research on the number of Members of Parliament who have a business background? Both Houses seem to be lacking people with business experience and, consequently, we are getting too much legislation that is not business-friendly. After all, businesses in this country are the bedrock and the wealth creators.
One of the problems with such research is defining “business” as including all sorts of businesses. I would be interested in finding out the sorts of business that people were engaged in and the kinds of position they held.
Should we despair of the present situation in politics and of the changes, in personnel in particular? Can anything be done about it? The hon. Member for Reading, West is right that there never was a golden age—politics has always been difficult, even if we go back to the classics of political sociology. I want to read out what Max Weber said in 1919 at the end of his great essay, “Politics as a Vocation”, because it is still true:
“Politics is a hard, slow boring down through hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. All historical experience confirms the truth that we would not have attained the possible unless time and again we had not reached out for the impossible. But to do that, one must be a leader, and in a very plain sense, a hero. And even those who are neither must arm themselves with a steadfastness of heart that can take strength even from the shattering of all hopes, or else we will not be able to achieve that which is possible right now. Only those who are sure that they will not be destroyed when the world, from their point of view, seems too stupid or too debased for what they have to offer, who can say, in the face of all of this, ‘in spite of all’, only they have a true vocation for politics.”
Those of us who have lost our vocations should at least say that we have not lost our faith. Politics is still the most important thing for anyone to do—it is about everything. Even those of us who are liberals and believe that the most important thing to do in politics is to draw a dividing line between what politics should be active in and what it should not be active in—between the public and the private—recognise that that question itself is a political one, which must be defended and argued out in places such as this.
Politics is about defending political views—it is about all the other things that the hon. Member for Reading, West mentioned, but in the end that is what it is about. Even though a lot of us say that politics is something that we should do less, we should all end by saying that it is something that a lot more people should do more of.
My final message echoes something said by the hon. Gentleman. Politics is only safe when it is done by more people and when more people participate and have the experience of responsibility. The reason that he is right about the media and their effect on our politics, is that it infantilises our population. We need to do the opposite and to make sure that we have ways of encouraging more people to take more responsibility. Only in that way can we maintain our democracy.
May I start by paying a personal tribute to you, Mr. Fraser, for your personal friendship to me over the years? You will be very much missed in the House—on both sides of the House, I believe I am correct in saying. You have been a trusted friend and we shall certainly miss you.
I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing today’s debate on the effectiveness of the House of Commons, a subject on which he has spoken consistently and with irrepressible force since entering Parliament. As far back as 1997, in his maiden speech, the hon. Gentleman called for restraints on the powers of the Whips, which caused great excitement on the Government Front Bench, holing his parliamentary career below the waterline even before he had made it out of port. There is perhaps no more fitting way to round off his time here than by drawing the battle lines for the next generation of Members before he sets sail into the sunset.
In recent days, many Members have made valedictory speeches in the Chamber. As a self-proclaimed moderniser, it is only fitting that the hon. Gentleman should make his valedictory speech in Westminster Hall. I also pay tribute to his work as a member of the Wright Committee, a subject to which I shall return. Incidentally, may I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)? He, too, has made his last speech in the House, and I wish him well.
Few would deny that Parliament has been subject to a gradual and relentless attack on its powers and prerogatives, something to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred. Although it has been happening over many years, it has been particularly acute in the years since 1997. On his last day as Prime Minister, Tony Blair said to a packed Chamber that he was not
“a great House of Commons man”—[Official Report, 27 June 2007; Vol. 462, c. 333.].
That was an understatement of considerable proportion. Parliament suffered greatly under his premiership. For example, statements were regularly issued to the media before being made in Parliament, and Parliament suffered from the growing payroll vote.
Many of those traits continued under the current Prime Minister. We have seen the routine use of the guillotine; the quantity of legislation has become more important than its quality, and whole groups of new clauses or amendments are often pushed through without debate—for example, in what became the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 and the Planning Act 2008. Most recently, many groups of amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill were not debated. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the other place has often improved our legislative drafting, which was needed because of the lack of debate in the Commons.
However, the attacks on Parliament’s prestige and standing have not all been caused by the Executive. As we have heard, Parliament collectively has done itself huge damage. The expenses fiasco and, latterly, lobbygate, have meant that this Parliament will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. In dealing with these issues, there has been a distinct lack of effective leadership from the Government, who have regularly been seen to be reactive rather than proactive. The resulting damage to Parliament and to politics generally has been considerable, and the public’s dismay is completely understandable.
Of course, there have been some changes over the past 13 years. Indeed, the hon. Member for Reading, West has been at the forefront of many of them. They include an end to all-night sittings; the Prime Minister giving evidence to the Liaison Committee; the introduction of debates in Westminster Hall, along with a more family-friendly general approach. Most of those improvements were about making life easier for MPs, but too often they also made life easier for the Government. A good example of that is the routine use of the programme motion.
The Opposition believe that, after more than a decade of power ebbing from the Commons to the Executive, we need to make life harder for the Government. If the Government have a harder time of it, ultimately the citizen will benefit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I join him in paying tribute to those who have made valedictory speeches. I think particularly of you, Mr. Fraser; we have had a long and good relationship.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of things being made harder or easier for the Government. Is it not the case that all who hope to return here after the election should want Parliament to be more relevant to voters rather than easier or harder for the Government?
The hon. Gentleman is correct that Parliament should be made more relevant. I maintain that we should make Parliament an institution that makes it harder for the Executive, effectively making the Executive more accountable. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. In the 21st century, we clearly have different modes of communication—for example, the internet—and we need to adapt to them. I shall speak about that in connection with petitions. We certainly need to become more relevant. That may also increase the number that can be bothered to vote.
More radical changes are needed. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) for his contribution. I disagree with his concept of proportional representation. Those who propose PR often say that it brings about an equality of votes, but they conveniently overlook the fact that PR systems give a disproportionate amount of influence and power to minority parties in hung Parliaments. They also overlook the fact that minority parties would more or less be in permanent power, as they would be prepared to do deals with whichever party had the higher number of votes. Many people would agree that it is only fair that one party should not hold on for ever and a day.
The hon. Gentleman and I may disagree over proportional voting systems, but if Labour wins the election it is likely that we will have not the proportional system but the alternative vote. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should not be we politicians but the people who decide these matters through a referendum? Does he agree that the people should be given a choice about what voting system we have?
Order. I remind the House that the debate is not about voting systems but the effectiveness of the House of Commons.
With that in mind, Mr. Fraser, I say simply that although I agree with having a referendum, it is important that all arguments are put to the public.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in the current wash-up, the Government and the Conservative party are doing the negotiating, and excluding all other parties? How can he explain his remark about minority parties having disproportionate power when, for example, the Government have no majority in the House of Lords?
The hon. Gentleman makes specific reference to the next 48 hours. With proportional representation we are talking about Parliaments, which last up to five years. That is a huge difference, and the arguments are quite different.
We welcome the recommendations of the Wright Committee, not least because many of them were suggested by the Opposition. However, although we are pleased to see the passing of some of those measures, it is deeply disappointing that there has been no further progress. One area where more action is needed is in Parliament’s engagement with the public, a point to which I referred earlier. For example, we suggest that citizens initiatives should be introduced: if 100,000 or 250,000 people signed a petition, it should be recognised by the House in some form.
We need to do more to restore trust in this institution. That is why the Conservative party suggests that Parliament should have the power to recall Members between elections. The ultimate power would lie with the electorate; MPs would not be here for the duration of an entire Parliament, but could be kicked out mid-term. We also need to return more control of parliamentary affairs to Parliament itself. That is the larger prize identified in the Wright report, as it would give the House more control of its time and business. That was always the most significant part of the report, but it is the part that the Government, control freakery being deeply ingrained in their very soul, have shied away from. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Reading, West and by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope).
I record what my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House said about that big prize. He said:
“We have always said that the Government should find time for debate on Standing Orders so that we can implement the Wright Committee’s recommendation and get the Back-Bench Committee up and running at the start of the next Parliament.”
It is highly regrettable that, despite regular assurances that it would happen, the Leader of the House has shied away from it. It is telling that she failed to turn up to this debate; at the last minute—late yesterday—it was signalled that she would not be responding to this debate but that her deputy would be here in her stead. Doubtless she did not wish to face her critics.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I would like to, but I have only one minute left and I wish to wind up.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Given that it is the hon. Gentleman’s debate, I will give way briefly.
I am bitterly disappointed that the motion to enforce the Standing Order is not on the Order Paper. The Leader of the House wanted to come to this debate but was called away by the Prime Minister. I am not in any way slighted by that, and I am listening carefully to what the shadow Deputy Leader of the House says.
Hansard will record the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I am a little more enlightened now than I was earlier.
In conclusion, this place needs urgent reform. Although there has been some progress, it is highly regrettable that the Government have failed both Parliament and the public in not stepping up to the mark when required. They have failed to implement the most important part of the Wright report despite the fact that the House wanted them to do so. I hope that the public will make the correct decision on 6 May, and then it will be for others to complete the work of reforming Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing this debate. I should like to thank other hon. Members for their contributions to what has been a wide-ranging and stimulating debate.
My hon. Friend has been a Member of the House since 1997. At the start of his contribution, he described the 2005-10 Parliament in very strong terms. His description was disturbing, but we all accept the need for profound change to restore the public’s faith in Parliament. I hope that the reforms that we have already put in place and the others that will come will do that. The Prime Minister is expected to announce my party’s commitment to reform and constitutional change today, and I greatly look forward to that announcement.
My hon. Friend has served in public life for 26 years; he started out as a councillor in Reading borough in 1984, and was deputy council leader from 1987 to 1996. In the House, he has campaigned against violent pornography, championed many causes, such as Gurkha rights, advised the Minister for Sport on shooting and fishing—I guess somebody had to do that—and been a member of both the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee and the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that that will be the last time in my reply that I shall mention the Modernisation Committee. He always takes me to task when I refer to the delights of that Committee.
My hon. Friend has championed the cause of the use of the Commons Chamber by the UK Youth Parliament, which I support. I am pleased that the arguments in favour of such a use prevailed. I was astonished by what I heard from the Opposition on the matter, and it took us many occasions to get the measure through. There were some good debates and some very confident performances by members of the Youth Parliament. I hope that the UK Youth Parliament debate can take place again and that the Commons Chamber can be used by other groups. We are considering allowing pensioners to have a Parliament in the Chamber, which would also be appropriate.
My hon. Friend has been speaking up for the trade of politics. Since he has been a Member, he has worked on opening up politics and boosting democracy, which is important. He spoke eloquently about the reform agenda, which was something that he first did in his maiden speech, and I pay tribute to him for his work on that. He was concerned about IPSA’s new budget for Members’ staff and the fact that pensions have to be paid out of the budget. There is no provision for child care vouchers or for temporary secretarial cover for staff who are on maternity leave or who are sick. Many hon. Members have raised concerns about that, and I will ensure that relevant parts of today’s debate are sent to the board of IPSA, because it is important that it understands our concerns. My hon. Friend also touched on IPSA’s new rule for travel, which will have an impact on Members of the new Parliament. Perhaps such an issue gives fresh impetus to the idea of this place returning to normal office hours, which would alleviate the problem to some extent, and I hope that we—if other Members and I in the Chamber are returned—can discuss that in future.
Let me talk briefly about the Wright Committee motion, which my hon. Friend raised. Members will know that there is a business motion today. It would not be appropriate to pre-empt the debate; I should not get outside my particular role, as the Speaker constantly says. Members can make their points in that debate, which is only a couple of hours away, and I hope that they will do so.
My hon. Friend touched on the suspension of the communications allowance. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) led a debate on the subject in which some very powerful arguments were made. On that occasion, I agreed—and I still do—on the necessity and importance of supporting hon. Members who produced constituency reports. In that debate, some Members expressed concerns about the matter, but this issue of standing up for constituents, which sometimes means taking up unpopular stances and causes, shows that it is a factor not just in incumbency, but in helping Members to do their job.
Briefly, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) referred to the setting up of a child care facility in the House. I know that that has been a contentious issue, but I applaud the a suggestion by the House of Commons Commission. I cannot believe that Members are questioning such a facility; its establishment is overdue and it brings the House into the 20th century—not even into the 21st century.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I do not have time to do so.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) discussed reform and, importantly, what the role of an MP is seen to be. Interestingly, I have looked into the matter for my own party and found, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that parties are increasingly selecting Members who have a background in politics or the media. Perhaps I should say to him and the other Opposition parties that they should select more women candidates. I was one of the 2005 intake of women MPs. There were 26 of us out of 40 candidates, so we made history coming into this place. My hon. Friends will know that the 2005 intake of Labour women MPs does not reflect the profile that has been discussed—of people with backgrounds in politics and the media. The solution, therefore, is to select more women. I support the view that politics is something that we should do more of, and that it is wrong for it to be infantilised.
The hon. Member for Cambridge, who was elected on the same day as me—5 May 2005—is standing down at the election. He has served in public life since 1987, having been a councillor and council leader in Cambridge before being elected as an MP. I pay tribute to him and wish him well for the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West has announced that he will step down at the forthcoming election, so this was his valedictory speech. I should like to congratulate him on his achievements, both in the House and more widely in politics, and wish him well for the future. Looking at one of his blogs last night, I had the impression that we will continue to hear from him. I hope that he will carry on commentating and shaking up politics by telling us how he thinks people in the House are doing. I pay tribute to the work of hon. Members from all parts of the House who will not be standing for re-election at the next general election, including you, Mr. Fraser. I think this is the first time that I have taken part in a debate in which you have been in the Chair, so it is a very brief acquaintanceship, but I wish you well.
As my hon. Friend said earlier of the work that we do: “Someone has to do it, someone has to take responsibility and give voice to the hopes of the people.” Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, have taken that responsibility, made important contributions to the work of Parliament and have represented the hopes and the issues of their constituents. I wish all Members who are standing down well, and say that for those of us who hope to return here, we will take forward the work and the sentiments that have been expressed here today.