Skip to main content

Leader of the House

Volume 534: debated on Thursday 3 November 2011

The Leader of the House was asked—

Free Votes

1. What progress has been made in implementing the Prime Minister's policy to hold more free votes in Parliament. (78161)

The Government are committed to strengthening the opportunities for hon. Members to hold the Executive to account. We have introduced a number of measures to increase Back Benchers’ power, including establishing the Backbench Business Committee, helping to facilitate the election of Select Committee Chairs and members, extending Select Committee powers over public sector appointments and relinquishing the Executive’s power to call general elections.

I obviously did not make my question clear enough; I was talking about free votes. Quite rightly, the Government have reformed a lot in Parliament and have done a very good job, but as a reformer, here is just a suggestion: between now and the end of the Session, could we have free votes in Committees to test out what the Prime Minister promised us in May 2009 and see how it works?

For my hon. Friend, every vote is a free vote. The speech that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made referred to Public Bill Committees and suggested not total free votes but more free votes; and we have had more free votes in the House on certain issues which, in the previous Parliament, were whipped. Having said that, I hope my hon. Friend will understand that most of us got here wearing a party label, and that it is wholly legitimate for the party to expect some loyalty to the manifesto on which the Member stood.

Since gaining the keys to No. 10, the Prime Minister has alienated at least 81 of his colleagues over the vote for the EU referendum and is yet to deliver free votes on other issues. Is it not the case that here we have a Government led by a cavalier Prime Minister, who is abandoning his cheap promises more quickly than he is distancing himself from his unhappy Tory Back Benchers?

The hon. Lady would be speaking from a position of strength had her party not divided on precisely the same issue as the Government. It is an issue on which all parties were divided last week, and my right hon. Friend has not alienated 81 Back Benchers.


2. How many e-petitions he expects to have attracted 100,000 signatures on the Government's e-petition website by the end of July 2012. (78162)

Since the launch of the site in July, five petitions have reached the threshold of 100,000 signatures, and three out of those five have already been allocated time for a debate. I am not able to predict precisely how many more petitions will reach the threshold by July next year, but the current rate demonstrates the significant interest and support that e-petitions have created.

There is, indeed, a significant interest. I am glad that the Backbench Business Committee has been able to schedule a debate on the FairFuelUK campaign’s petition later this month, and I look forward to a debate now that our campaign for financial education in schools has reached 100,000 signatures on the e-petitions site. Given that petitioners will naturally expect to secure a debate once they reach that threshold, will my hon. Friend keep under review the amount of time that is allotted to the Committee this year?

We have already made it clear that, in the light of the extended first Session of Parliament, the intention is to provide extra days for the Backbench Business Committee, which is doing a very good job of reflecting interests outside. The threshold is one of eligibility—making a petition eligible for debate. It is then for a Member of the House to take that forward, and for the Backbench Business Committee to decide whether it is a matter that has not been debated in some other form.

The substantive point is that when people outside the House are asked to sign a petition they expect it to be debated on the Floor of the House.

The Deputy Leader of the House says no, but many of my constituents believe that to be the case. If that is so, and it is the Government’s intention, will they make available such business in Government time, rather than relying on my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee?

That was never our intention for the petition site. It is a mechanism for allowing members of the public to express an interest in a matter, and it is for the Backbench Business Committee, which has the time available, to consider that. If we find that there is a huge oversubscription, of course we will have to look at it, and I think the Procedure Committee will want to do that in due course. It makes sense to do so. However, we must not lose the capacity for the House properly to consider legislative business as it should, or to consider matters raised by hon. Members, which is also important.

Parliament Week

3. What steps he has taken in support of the Parliament week initiative; and if he will make a statement. (78163)

5. What steps he has taken in support of the Parliament week initiative; and if he will make a statement. (78165)

I pay tribute to all hon. Members and staff of the House who are contributing to the excellent array of events in Parliament week. As part of that, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will meet members of the UK Youth Parliament, and will speak at the beginning of its debate in this place tomorrow.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and associate myself with his remarks about congratulating all the staff involved in making the events possible. Parliament week is a fantastic initiative, with events around the UK, the BBC’s “Question Time” in Westminster Hall, and the excellent UK Youth Parliament debate here tomorrow. What does my hon. Friend think can be done to extend the spirit of Parliament week in promoting democratic engagement to the other 51 weeks of the year?

I commend my hon. Friend for her contribution; I understand that she took part in a young people’s “Question Time” event on Monday evening before an audience of more than 200. That was excellent. Engagement with the public, particularly with young people, is extremely important. The programme takes place not just in this place in Westminster; the whole point is to take that engagement out to the country, using a variety of methods. My hon. Friend makes a very good point that it should not be just for one week a year. We must make sure that the general public understand what the House is for, and how they can engage with it. We are determined to make that a reality every week of the year.

Following on from what the Deputy Leader of the House has said, as part of Parliament week I gave a tour of Parliament for sixth-formers from Landeau Forte college this week, and next week I will see students from Rawlett college. What can the Government do every week of the year to make sure that students learn more in schools about our Parliament and its history, so that they are more engaged with Parliament and the democratic process?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his involvement with young people. As I said, we must build on the extremely good work being done by the Department for Education, the education services in the House and others to make that a reality. A variety of things are happening that may engage the interest of young people. For example, there is even a parliamentary week app for tablets. I have downloaded it, and it is very good. The only drawback is that for some obscure reason, it has a 12-plus rating on the grounds of mild or occasional sexual content, nudity, fantasy violence, alcohol and drug abuse, profanities and crude humour—all of which are far from the normal life of hon. Members.

I took the opportunity to write to all the schools in my constituency to inform them about Parliament week and the excellent resources that were available to them. As a result, I was at a school last Friday and I will be visiting another school tomorrow. Does the Deputy Leader of the House know how many hon. Members have actively taken part in promoting and attending Parliament week events? How will he encourage those who have not participated on this occasion, to make sure that they do so next year?

The honest answer is that I do not know how many hon. Members have taken part, but from speaking to colleagues around the House, it seems that a significant number have done so. Those who have not done so have missed an opportunity, and let us hope that they will do so at different stages, not only during Parliament week next year but throughout the year, as the hon. Lady suggests.

The promotion of Parliament is of course a noble cause. However, does the Leader of the House agree that the continuation of allowing Members who do not take their seats in this place to claim expenses from this place, to claim offices in this place, and to claim salaries from this place is a scar on Parliament? When is he going to bring a comprehensive statement to this House—

Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to place his thoughts on the record on that very important matter, but unfortunately it does not relate to Parliament week, and therefore we will have to leave it there for today.

Pre-legislative Scrutiny

4. What plans he has for future pre-legislative scrutiny of Government legislation; and if he will make a statement. (78164)

The Government recognise the value that pre-legislative scrutiny can add and we are committed to seeing more measures published in draft. So far this Session, we have published draft measures on Lords reform, financial services, defamation, detention of terrorist suspects, individual electoral registration and electoral administration, and a groceries code adjudicator. The Government expect to publish further measures in draft this Session, including on parliamentary privilege.

I am seriously grateful to my hon. Friend and to the business managers for arranging more pre-legislative scrutiny, which is very important. Can he assure us that, as the plans are laid for the next parliamentary year, starting next May, all Departments understand the benefit of, and the priority for, pre-legislative scrutiny and the disbenefit of introducing Government changes to Government Bills after they have been published?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. That is exactly the point that we repeatedly make to Departments: it is in everyone’s interests including theirs that we have proper scrutiny, because better legislation has an easier passage through the House. Increasingly, we have dealt with measures rather than whole Bills, because when a measure is ready for publication it makes sense for the House to have an opportunity to scrutinise and improve it prior to the publication of a Bill.

Can the Deputy Leader of the House therefore give a guarantee that in future all Bills will have had pre-legislative scrutiny before they get on to the Floor of the House, so that we do not have the debacle that we had over the Health and Social Care Bill?

I cannot give that guarantee any more than the previous Government, of whom the hon. Lady was a supporter, could give it. There will, for instance, be Bills that start in the Lords, where there is a different procedure, which means that they would not be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny in this House. However, it is our intention, wherever possible, to ensure that it happens. Inevitably, there is a slightly different position with an incoming Administration, when it is in no one’s interests for the House to do absolutely nothing for six months while we await Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Access to Ministers

6. What steps he is taking to improve access for hon. Members to Government Ministers and officials. (78166)

The Government are committed to hon. Members having access to Ministers and, where appropriate, Government officials. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has recently taken up a number of cases with his ministerial colleagues where it was felt that meetings with Ministers were not forthcoming. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific concerns, my right hon. Friend and I will be happy to take them up on his behalf.

I am grateful for that reply. I have never been admitted to a Government Department—at least, not since I was a Minister—without having a prior appointment, showing my parliamentary pass, and being accompanied by a pass-holding civil servant. How was Adam Werritty able to avoid those restrictions? Will the Government regularly publish details of all official meetings between Ministers and other people to reassure Parliament that access to Ministers is transparent and not partisan, and based on need and Government policy?

The report from the Cabinet Secretary has been published, and changes in the ministerial code have been put in place. Clearly things happened in this instance that have been regretted and have resulted in changes, but I do not think we should have free access to Departments. It is very clear that that is also the Prime Minister’s view.

The Leader of the House is aware of my interest in having access to Ministers taking decisions in Europe, and particularly in Back Benchers having the power to amend draft regulations. Rather than being able to amend a motion to hold Ministers to account, may we please have the power to amend the actual implementing regulations?

I think we have strayed a little far from the original question, which was on access to Ministers, but—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says more from a sedentary position than he does standing up, and that is saying a lot. [Interruption.] He is carrying on doing it now. [Interruption.]

I am so glad somebody does.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) raises an important point. She may like to approach the Procedure Committee, because it is really a question of procedure, rather than one of access to Ministers, on which I might reasonably be expected to have some impact.

Back-Bench Business

This issue could be considered as part of the review of the operation of the Backbench Business Committee. The hon. Lady knows, because we have had discussions, that we hope that will be undertaken fairly soon.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House, but what reasons can he give for not having a regular slot? Would it not just be much, much easier?

The hon. Lady will recall that she sat on the Wright Committee. I did not, but she did and so did my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and we were committed to putting into effect the recommendations of the Wright Committee. She will recall that the Committee stated, in paragraph 214 of its report, that

“it could be left open to a process of regular discussion and negotiation as to which day of each week would be devoted to backbench business. This would avoid the rigidities referred to above.”

We have simply taken that recommendation—she may or may not have agreed with it, because I know she did not agree with all of what the Wright Committee recommended—and put it into effect. I have to say, there are advantages to having that flexibility.

Civil Society Select Committee

8. What plans he has to bring forward proposals for a Select Committee on Civil Society; and what representations he has received on the remit of any such committee. (78813)

In light of the recommendations of the Wright Committee that the House should reduce the number of Committees and end overlapping or duplicate remits, we have no plans to do so.

It is very interesting that the Cabinet Office website, which announced with great passion that that Committee would be provided, does not record the withdrawal of that offer. Why has the Government’s decision been reversed, and why is it being kept secret?

The establishment of Committees is a decision for the House, not the Government, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware. The Cabinet Office is scrutinised by the Public Administration Committee, which is currently undertaking an inquiry into civil society entitled “Smaller Government: Bigger Society?” I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and his Committee for their work on that matter and on other issues that are important to the Government. The matter is being looked at by a parliamentary Select Committee.