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Leader of the House

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011

The Leader of the House was asked—

Grand Committees

The Welsh Grand Committee and the Northern Ireland Grand Committee have a valuable contribution to make to the work of the House, and I am pleased that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee will be meeting again in November, following the agreement of the House on Tuesday.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for his answer. Given the advent of devolution, opportunities for Members from Northern Ireland—I can speak only for them—are somewhat limited, so it is important that meetings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee take place. Will he ensure that there are more frequent meetings at which matters of relevance to the Province can be debated in more time than is available on the Floor of the House?

I certainly hear what the right hon. Gentleman says and I am happy to speak to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see what arrangements can be made. Obviously, there are limits to the number of times that any Grand Committee can sensibly meet, but I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Earlier this week, my excellent Whip informed me that on 20 October the Welsh Grand Committee will be meeting in my constituency. Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that it was extremely discourteous of the Government not even to have told me about the meeting and for that information to have been conveyed to me by my Whip rather than by somebody acting on behalf of the Government?

I am sure that no discourtesy was intended. Of course the decisions of Grand Committees to meet are presented to the House, and so the hon. Gentleman would be aware of it by that means. I would have thought that any discourtesy was more than outweighed by the convenience to him of having the Grand Committee meet in his constituency.

Parliamentary Questions

3. What recent estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of parliamentary questions for written answer. (70620)

The average cost to the taxpayer of a question for written answer is estimated at £239. In the financial year 2010-11, a total of 46,825 written answers were published, at an estimated total cost of about £11.2 million.

We would all agree that written parliamentary questions are an important way of holding the Government to account, but what steps is the Deputy Leader of the House proposing to take to limit exposure to the public purse? Should hon. Members be in more control of this process?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I really do not think it is for the Government to limit or try to ration the supply of questions, because, as he says, it is very important that hon. Members have that opportunity to hold the Government to account. However, I do think that hon. Members, like other public servants, should consider the impact of their activities on the public purse. It is particularly important to recognise that the right to table questions belongs to hon. Members, and hon. Members alone.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that if he is to fulfil the Prime Minister’s pledge to

“increase the power of Parliament”,

he should be worrying less about the quantity of questions and more about the quality of the answers? What is he going to do to ensure that Ministers give full and timely responses to Members, and that they end the increasing practice of giving holding answers to named day questions and transferring orals at very little notice? Or is this going to go the way of other prime ministerial pledges, such as those for more free votes on Bill Committees and text updates on the progress of Bills?

The hon. Lady has a very short memory span if she really thinks that this Government are performing worse than the Government of whom she was a member. I recall that many times her Government were quite incapable of providing timely, or indeed adequate, responses to questions. We always try very hard within the Departments to make sure that people get their questions answered properly and on time. If Departments fall short of those ideals, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I are very happy to chase up those Departments to see whether we can improve the performance. However, I have to say that I do not think the performance is lacking at the moment.

Lobbying (Transparency)

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform announced on 18 January, the Government remain committed to creating a statutory register of lobbyists and are working towards developing proposals for that register. The Government hope to hold the consultation exercise later this year before bringing forward any necessary legislation in due course.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Given the erosion of trust among the public in politics and politicians over the past few years, will he ensure that that process proceeds as quickly as possible and tell the House precisely when the register will be in place?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman and I entirely agree with him. This is a priority issue and we need such a degree of transparency in the arrangements for lobbyists. As I said, we have a consultation exercise and it would be wrong for me to prejudge it, but it is certainly our hope and intention that we will be in a position to introduce legislation on this matter in the next Session of Parliament, as has been indicated by my hon. Friend the Minister.

House of Commons Reform

6. When he plans to implement the remaining recommendations of the House of Commons Reform Committee’s report “Rebuilding the House”. (70623)

This Government successfully implemented the recommendation to establish a Backbench Business Committee, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomed. The majority of the remaining recommendations of the Wright Committee are a matter for the House rather than Government. The Government will be bringing forward a Green Paper on intelligence and security later this year in which we will make initial proposals on how to reform the Intelligence and Security Committee. As set out in the coalition agreement, the Government are committed to establishing a House business committee in 2013.

I congratulate the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House on the swift way in which they brought before the House for decision the Wright Committee proposals on the election of Select Committee Chairs by the whole House and the election of Select Committee members by their parties as well as on the speedy creation of the Backbench Business Committee. Will they sustain this great record by bringing forward the pledge to create a proper business committee for this House so that we in this Chamber control the business in future rather than the Government we are meant to be holding to account?

I am happy to repeat the assurance I have already given. It is in the coalition agreement that we are committed to establishing a House business committee in 2013. We look forward to wide consultations with the hon. Gentleman and others about the best way of delivering on that commitment.

Westminster Hall

7. If he will take steps to encourage Secretaries of State to participate in debates in Westminster Hall pertaining to their Department. (70624)

Westminster Hall debates are an important mechanism for holding the Government to account. Secretaries of State do participate in debates in Westminster Hall, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development did recently.

May I make the Leader of the House aware that the Backbench Business Committee is keen to allocate as many days to Backbench business in Westminster Hall as he will give the Committee? That task would be made easier were he to encourage his fellow Secretaries of State to attend, listen to and respond to those debates.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Government have no ownership of the days in Westminster Hall—that falls between the Liaison Committee and the Backbench Business Committee—but I take to heart what he has said. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who attends Cabinet, will be speaking in a debate in Westminster Hall next Thursday.

Following on from that, if Secretaries of State attended Westminster Hall, perhaps Monday afternoon could be opened up for Westminster Hall debates, and the general debates we used to have in this Chamber on defence and Europe could be held there?

That is a helpful suggestion from my hon. Friend. He will know that the Procedure Committee is at the moment undertaking an inquiry into the calendar. Whether or not we open up Westminster Hall on a Monday afternoon is a proposition that my hon. Friend could usefully share with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), who chairs that Committee.

Ministerial Statements

8. What assessment he has made of the process for using ministerial statements to make major Government announcements. (70625)

10. What assessment he has made of the process for using ministerial statements to make major Government announcements. (70627)

So far this Session, there have been 139 oral ministerial statements and more than 1,500 written ministerial statements made to the House. My assessment is that this Government have a much better record than the previous Government.

The right hon. Gentleman has something of a reputation as a parliamentary reformer. Is he not concerned that that reputation is now under threat given his churlish and I have to say uncharacteristic response to the Procedure Committee regarding ministerial statements?

I presume that the hon. Lady is referring to the response from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I can remember not a single occasion on which he has even hinted at churlishness, let alone expressed it in response to a Select Committee. Of course we look carefully at what is proposed by Select Committees, and there will be times when we do not entirely agree with them for very good reasons, but that does not mean that we do not respect what they say, while being prepared to argue our case in due course when relevant matters are debated in the Chamber.

Why is the hon. Gentleman so against using Westminster Hall to ease the burden on this Chamber and allow us fully to scrutinise the misguided legislation that his Government are pushing through the House?

I am not sure that I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman. He is a new Member of the House and I hope he will not consider it patronising when I say that he may not know why Westminster Hall sittings were first proposed, which was to allow for non-legislative and non-contentious business to be taken in a parallel Chamber while the House was sitting. It was not meant to create impossible dilemmas for Members in having to attend two important venues at the same time. Having said that, if we can make better use of Westminster Hall we are certainly open to doing so. If we can find other ways of reducing the pressures on this Chamber then it is better that we do so. The biggest difficulty that we have is the huge appetite that the House understandably has for hearing Ministers make statements and its proper appetite for scrutinising legislation fully and properly.

E-petitions

The Leader of the House’s office is constantly monitoring the effectiveness of the e-petitions site. Following its launch, the site now hosts more than 6,500 petitions, which have received more than 1.5 million signatures. This unprecedented interest in the site is a useful indicator of its effectiveness. For the first time, the e-petitions website is not just graffiti, but offers the public an effective route for engaging with Parliament.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for that answer—I was going to ask him about the overall visitor numbers to the site and the number of petitions already hosted on there. Will he comment on the decision of the Backbench Business Committee about the most popular two petitions not being discussed until we reconvene in October?

I think it would be entirely improper for me to answer on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, but let me make it clear that we have provided a way for the public to engage with Parliament. What the petitioners want, presumably, is for the topic they have raised either to be dealt with effectively by the Government or to be debated in due course by the House when the opportunity arises. The idea that when a petition reached the threshold there would be an immediate debate is not the purpose of the site, but it does mean that proper consideration is given to whether the matter has been debated or will be debated in another form or whether the Government have changed their policy to meet the concerns, which may be the case in relation to at least one of the petitions that has already reached the required threshold.

But does the Minister agree with the Daily Mail, which says that this amounts to an e-petition con? The Government said to the public, “If 100,000 of you sign one of these petitions, there’ll be a debate.” What discussion did the Government have with the Backbench Business Committee about how the time for those debates would be allocated?

May I caution the hon. Lady, first against reading the Daily Mail, and secondly against agreeing with what it says? The Government have never said that when a petition reaches the threshold it will have an automatic right of debate. It will be considered with a view to seeing whether the matter raised has already been debated or is already going to be debated in a different context or whether the request has already been met by the Government. If there is then a need to debate something that the public have registered as an interest, the Backbench Business Committee will respond to that request. That seems to me an entirely proper way of doing things and it is a huge improvement on the old No. 10 petition site on which the petitions went precisely nowhere.