It may be for the convenience of the House to know that the Backbench Business Committee recommended that there should be a division of time between the two subjects such that the second debate will start at or around, but certainly not significantly later than, 7 o’clock, and possibly a little earlier.
I beg to move,
That this House expects Ministers to make all important announcements relating to government policy to Parliament before they are made elsewhere on all occasions when Parliament is sitting; considers that information which forms all or part of such announcements should not be released to the press before such a statement is made to Parliament, as recommended in the First Report from the Procedure Committee, on Ministerial Statements, HC 602; and further considers that hon. Members who believe the protocol has been breached should first report this to the Speaker for his judgment and that in the case of a minor breach the Speaker may take appropriate steps but in more serious or more complex cases he would refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for further investigation.
The motion is in my name and that of hon. Friends on both sides of the House, but primarily it is in the name of the Backbench Business Committee. Mr Speaker, the motion is in defence both of your advice to this House on many occasions and of the ministerial code.
On 20 July 2010, the Backbench Business Committee held its first debate on the Floor of the House. It chose ministerial statements as its subject because it is an issue that comes to the very heart of the effectiveness of this Chamber as part of Parliament holding the Executive of our great nation to account. We are probably all in agreement that whenever the House is sitting, Her Majesty’s Government should make announcements of policy first to this House. For those who are not familiar with every word, dot and comma of the 2010 ministerial code, as published by the Cabinet Office, let me remind them of what paragraph 9.1 says:
“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”
I am happy to report that Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike are unanimously agreed on the importance of those strictures.
That is a very good question. We will probably discuss that very point during the course of this debate. In my own humble opinion, I think that “in session” means when Parliament is sitting—by that I mean sitting days versus non-sitting days. When there is a sitting day, it is my view, and I suspect that of lots of hon. Members, that Her Majesty’s Government should be making announcements to Parliament first. That may require the Government to contain themselves so that they release that information on the Floor of the House in the afternoon rather than on the “Today” programme in the morning.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important for this Government to abide by the conventions that he has described, given that both he and I, having served in previous Parliaments, can remember countless occasions when we and our fellow Members of the parliamentary Conservative party stood to make points of order to remonstrate about the fact that Labour Ministers had continually broken these conventions?
The hon. Gentleman refers to “both major parties”, so perhaps he is not aware that some of the worst incidents in recent months have involved people such as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, whose statements have been tweeted to The Guardian.
That is a helpful intervention—I shall refer my remarks to all three major parties, if that is better.
All Governments, whether this Government, the previous Government or the one before that, have leaked information, and that is not how our great House of Commons ought to be treated.
No, I cannot. This increasingly has become standard practice, but it is fair to say that it has got worse over the past five, 10 or 15 years. I am sure, however, that it was prevalent before.
Today, we have a golden opportunity that is, in many ways, unique: for the first time, thanks to the Leader of the House and other Ministers of the Crown, we have the Backbench Business Committee, which has been able to bring this motion to the Floor of the House for resolution tonight. Although hon. Members in past decades will have been frustrated by how the Government of the day leaked information, this is the first time that the House has had the opportunity to do something about it.
I might be slightly naive but although there may be incidents of Governments leaking information, there are probably an awful lot more incidents of information being leaked without Ministers’ knowledge. We have to distinguish between deliberate leaking and the response to a leak that could be sensitive and might require a Minister to go to the press, on the radio or in front of the television cameras before making a statement to Parliament.
My hon. Friend makes a good point but at the end of the day we have something called “ministerial responsibility” and the ministerial code.
Tonight’s motion allows us to draw a line in the sand. I am not naive enough to believe that it will stop all Government leaking completely, but were we to pass the motion, it would be an effective weapon in the House’s armoury against an over-mighty Executive. I want to praise the work of the Procedure Committee, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), which, after our debate on 20 July 2010, worked extremely hard on this issue and produced an excellent report and a series of first-class recommendations. Every word in the motion comes from the recommendations in that excellent report.
I shall quote from the summary of the Committee’s report—its first of the Session—which sums up the issue extremely well:
“Parliament should be at the centre of national debate. Too often details of important government statements appear in the press before they are made to Parliament. Such leaks adversely affect the ability of Members of Parliament to scrutinise the Government on behalf of their constituents. At present, it is the Ministerial Code that sets out the requirement that important announcements be made to Parliament first. However, the Ministerial Code is enforced by the Prime Minister and not by Parliament. We do not believe that it is acceptable for the Government to regulate itself in this way. The House must be responsible for holding Ministers to account when they fail to honour their obligations to Parliament. We therefore propose that the House should have its own protocol which states that the most important government announcements must be made to Parliament before they are made elsewhere.”
The Committee goes on to recommend:
“Such a protocol must be enforced if it is to be effective. We recommend that complaints by Members that the protocol has been breached should be made to the Speaker. Where a case is not clear-cut, or when the alleged leak is particularly serious, the Speaker should be able to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for an in-depth investigation.”
I agree with every word of the Procedure Committee’s recommendations, which sum up the issue extremely well.
Mr Speaker, on your first election to your high office, you said that
“when Ministers have key policy statements to make, the House must be the first to hear them, and they should not be released beforehand.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 797.]
You could not, Sir, have been clearer. I commend you on the large number of urgent questions that you have accepted, tabled by Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike, holding the Government to account when they have not properly released information to this House first. However, it was your predecessor, Betty Boothroyd—Speaker Boothroyd, as she then was—who said in her farewell address:
“This is the chief forum of the nation—today, tomorrow and, I hope, for ever.”—[Official Report, 26 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 1114.]
This is our chance to say: are we going to hold Her Majesty’s Government to account for the principle, which they uphold in their own ministerial code, that it is this Chamber, where the elected representatives of the British people are gathered together, that should be the first place to hear of major new Government policy initiatives? Should it be “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, the “Today” programme on Radio 4 in the morning or ITV’s “Daybreak”; or should it be the Chamber of the House of Commons? Would it not be wonderful to see the Public Gallery full of journalists eagerly anticipating the Government’s latest policy announcement, made here first, on the Floor of the House? Instead of which, under this coalition Government, the bad practices of the Blair Government and the Government before them are being increasingly enhanced, such that hon. Members are often the last to hear of new Government policy initiatives, not the first. When our constituents contact us to ask, “What’s the Government initiative on this?”, we are often the last to know, so we cannot respond.
However, it would also be an effective tool against the over-mighty arm of the Executive if the ordinary representatives of the people—not unelected and unaccountable journalists, hard working and well intentioned as they may be, but we the people gathered here in this tremendously prestigious place—were the first to have a go at putting questions to the Ministers of the Crown. We have the honour to represent our constituents. We can use this opportunity tonight, by passing this simple motion, to say to the Government: “Uphold your own ministerial code and let the people’s representatives know first whenever any new major Government policy announcement is made.”
I warmly commend the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) not only on the motion, but on the work that he has done on this issue since he was first elected. There are many others who count among the saints on these issues; there are also many who count among the non-saints. Contrary to what was said by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), who is sitting next to him, the truth of the matter is that, in practice, many Ministers, and in particular their special advisers and those organising “the grid” at No. 10 Downing street, spend a great deal of time deciding when it is best to announce something. If it is unremittingly good news, they do it in Parliament; if it is unremittingly bad news, they try to hide it in a written ministerial statement to Parliament; and if it is a bit streaky—a bit of good, a bit of bad—they will do it outside Parliament, before the House has sat, so that the difficult bits are forgotten and they can get away with the good briefing that they have organised.
I had thought that the hon. Gentleman would say that, but I must confess that when I was a Minister, I was never in charge of anything that was interesting enough for anyone to make any announcements about it. I suspect that even if I had wanted to make an announcement, I should have been in difficulty.
The hon. Gentleman was Minister for Europe.
That is true, and the Europe directorate of the Foreign Office is punctilious in ensuring that announcements are made to the European Scrutiny Committee first. Indeed, many matters go to the Committee with several months of warning before they become public anywhere else in Europe, and I think that is right. However, when I was Deputy Leader of the House I tried my level best, as did many others in Government, to make sure that we adopted such a process.
I certainly do. I should have thought that most people would feel that the later any news about Europe was released, the better. However, what I want to ask the hon. Gentleman is this: what does he think that the newspapers offer Ministers as a reward for letting them have the news early?
Oh, Lord! I think that I have spoken enough about newspapers in the last year not to opine on that now, but obviously the aim is to manage the news in such a way as to ensure that there is as little scrutiny as possible. However, I can say on the basis of my limited experience as a Minister that on the few occasions when we did make statements to the House, the quality of questioning in the Chamber—which was sometimes haphazard, but was often extremely to the point—improved the quality of decisions and the way in which they were eventually transacted, and I therefore do not believe that Governments have any reason to run away from this proposal.
I think that the position has worsened in recent years with the advent of 24-hour news. There is an insatiable beast that needs to be fed all the time, and extra diligence is required on the part of Ministers and Government to ensure that they do not succumb to it.
The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) asked what was meant by the House being in session, but the truth is that nearly every decision made by Government is not time-sensitive. Most decisions can be made at any time, and it is therefore always possible for Ministers to wait until Parliament is in session. When I was Deputy Leader of the House, one of the things that I tried hard to curtail was the number of written ministerial statements made on the last day before a parliamentary recess, because a large number of such statements makes it virtually impossible for you, Mr Speaker, to intervene by allowing an urgent question, or for the House to allow any proper scrutiny before Parliament sits again.
I was so desirous of a moment when I could agree 100% with the hon. Lady, and now she has produced that moment. Yes, I do agree with her: I think that is an essential part of what we need to do. I noted that our sitting last Tuesday, the day of the autumn statement, began in the morning rather than the afternoon. I suspect that that was largely so that the media could be given more time in which to prepare material for the 6 pm and 10 pm news broadcasts.
The hon. Gentleman clearly supports the motion. May I raise a slightly tricky issue? The Speaker has a role in what happens in the House. Are we in danger of putting him in charge of what people say outside the House unnecessarily, and does that pose the risk of his being not tempted to become, but drawn by his job into becoming, more of a player and less of a referee?
The hon. Gentleman said that announcements were not time-sensitive, but they may be time-appropriate; in fact they may be regionally appropriate. I am thinking of local government announcements. It would be much more appropriate to make those at a certain time, and outside the House.
I think that those occasions are very rare. On very rare occasions, something is market-sensitive, for example, in which case there is an argument for Treasury Ministers to be able to exercise that judgment, but it is a rare occurrence. Labour Members are always mindful of Hugh Dalton, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, managing, before the Evening Standard came out, to leak a couple of elements of the Budget, although not deliberately—I think it was accidental. He ended up losing his job as Chancellor of the Exchequer because of that. Therefore, I do not want to create a rule for Ministers whereby, when they think that an announcement is time-appropriate, they can use whatever device they want.
I was reflecting on the hon. Gentleman’s exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about whether, if the House sat earlier on a Monday and Tuesday, that would reduce the incidence of Ministers leaking information. Does he believe that, when the House sat earlier for the autumn statement last week, that meant that the statement was entirely unknown before the Chancellor stood up?
The only response to that is, “Touché.” By definition, the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I wholeheartedly agree, that large parts of that autumn statement were pre-leaked over the weekend. Although I have my criticisms of what went on when we were in power, may I point out to hon. Members that the last Queen’s Speech was leaked? I do not think that that has ever happened before. Although you, Mr Speaker, investigated what happened—you can investigate what happens here—the Prime Minister, as far as I am aware, made no investigation into how that happened. That is a gross discourtesy to the House. In addition, figures from last year’s Budget were leaked. There is a danger that people have learned the lessons of our Government in the wrong way and are now exercising their powers incorrectly.
In this particular respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman is doing a disservice to the Government of whom he was a member. They decided, under a previous Prime Minister, to make it known what the Government’s main legislative intentions were much earlier than is traditional with the Queen's speech, which was a welcome change.
Indeed we had a draft legislative programme, which we brought forward six months before the Queen’s speech, but that was presented to Parliament. It was not issued in a press release to the regional media or briefed to Andrew Marr. That is the process that we should adopt.
I want to raise one concern in relation to the motion. It says that, where a Member feels that the code has been broken—the ministerial code, which is written into a motion of the House as well; it is not just the Prime Minister’s ministerial code—the Member should report that to the Speaker, who would make a judgment and could then refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. That is not the process that we have for other standards and privileges issues, or matters of privilege. At the moment, we write to you, Mr Speaker, and you decide whether we can have a debate on the matter. At the end of that, either it is decided to refer the matter without a Division, or there is a Division, so it becomes the decision of the House to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges; it is not your decision, Mr Speaker. There is a double anxiety here. The proposed process would bring you into deciding whether a Minister should be referred. That process of referral would probably mean that the Minister had to lose his job at that point, such would be the clamour among the press and so on. Equally, if you were to bring the matter to the House, the almost inevitable conclusion, given that Ministers by definition always enjoy a majority in the House, is that the matter would never be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that protocols introduced for the best possible motives can be taken over and run as political vehicles for the worst possible motives? Not only might Mr Speaker be dragged into a political argument but, heaven forfend, he might be deluged with requests to investigate breaches, which would become just another part of parliamentary graffiti.
The hon. Gentleman has reiterated my point.
I do not want impunity for Ministers, as that would enable the current situation to continue for ever and a day, and get worse. Scrutiny improves ministerial decisions and government so we must put an end to the current process of impunity. However, I do not want to bring Mr Speaker into the decision-making process. That is why I support the motion.
The motion will not in itself make the required change, however. The Government would have to introduce a motion to change standing orders to bring that change into effect. I hope that in doing so we would arrive at a policy that rendered Government accountable to Parliament and unable to exercise the impunity they have at present without bringing you, Mr Speaker, directly into play.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who made a number of excellent points. However, it is unfortunate that, in effect, only one Opposition Back Bencher is present for the debate—two if we count the hon. Gentleman, who today is a quasi-Back Bencher.
I see that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) is sitting in the far corner of the Chamber. On Thursday he told me he did not think he could be present for the debate. Perhaps that was why I did not notice him, but I am delighted that he is in his place for this important debate.
As has been said, the Procedure Committee was asked to undertake an inquiry by the House, which unanimously agreed to a motion inviting the Committee to develop a protocol for the release of information by Ministers. This was the first debate scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee last year.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has pointed out, the current position is that the ministerial code sets out the “general principle” governing the release of information by Ministers. It states:
“When Parliament is in session”—
as I said in an intervention, that is widely taken to mean when Parliament is not in recess—
“the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament.”
The Procedure Committee published its report earlier this year. It set out three principles underpinning its recommendations: that statements were valued by Back Benchers and that Ministers should be encouraged to make them; that important Government announcements should, indeed, be made to Parliament before they are made elsewhere; and that it is a grave discourtesy to Parliament for information to be released before a statement is made.
The Procedure Committee decided without division that it was neither practical nor desirable to produce a detailed protocol, and recommended that the House agree the following resolution:
“That this House expects Ministers to make all important announcements relating to government policy to Parliament before they are made elsewhere on all occasions when Parliament is sitting, and expects information which forms all or part of such announcements not to be released to the press before such a statement is made to Parliament.”
The Government responded, agreeing with the Committee that a detailed protocol would not be a good idea, but rejecting the solution proposed by the Committee and instead favouring the status quo.
On enforcement, the Procedure Committee recommended that complaints should be made to the Speaker in the first instance, and that the Speaker should have the power to dismiss trivial complaints and complaints made without basis. The Speaker could rule in cases where a minor breach had occurred. One might envisage a case where the Speaker receives a complaint and deems it to be a minor breach, and decides to allow an urgent question in the light of that complaint. The Procedure Committee did not envisage the Speaker rapping knuckles in all circumstances. There may well be cases where the granting of an urgent question is deemed sufficient. We also took the view that more serious cases should be referred by the Speaker to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
In their response, the Government did not even acknowledge our recommendations relating to the role of the Speaker, but they rejected our recommendation that complaints be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee and maintained that the current range of sanctions was “adequate”. In our earlier debate, a number of Members, in particular the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is not in his place, discussed what sort of sanctions should be available, over and above what happens now. The Procedure Committee concluded that a recommendation from a Committee of the House that a Minister do come to this House and apologise was a sufficiently serious sanction, and that no new sanctions were required. The Government’s response to that was that our Committee’s recommendations were disproportionately severe, which I find a little odd.
I have looked at the Government’s response in detail, and in my view it is highly unsatisfactory. As I have said, the Government agree with the Procedure Committee that it would not be “practical or desirable” to have a “detailed protocol” trying to cover all eventualities, but they said that they did not support the Committee’s approach that the House should agree a motion in terms very similar to the current position as outlined in the ministerial code. The Government stated:
“It is not clear…what purpose would be served”
by such a motion, in which the current position is simply restated.
The Government had clearly failed to recognise the significance, although it was explained clearly in our report, which was that the House would be taking control of the protocol away from the Government. We are not envisaging setting up double jeopardy; we are saying that it should be the House that should decide—via the process of a complaint going to the Speaker and then, if necessary, to a Committee—whether the protocol had been breached, and not an obviously partial and forgiving Prime Minister, who is currently the arbiter. In saying that, I make no criticism of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, because the natural instinct of any Prime Minister will be to want to defend his or her Ministers—after all, the Prime Minister of the day appoints all Ministers in the first place.
It would sometimes be somewhat hypocritical if a Prime Minister were to complain about a Minister briefing, because often it is Downing street that briefs the policy change, rather than the Minister, doing so with the full knowledge and understanding of the whole ministerial team.
That is a very good intervention and the hon. Gentleman underlines my point.
The Government response went on to suggest that an increase in the number of statements made and urgent questions granted means that
“there is no case for the protocol that the Committee proposes.”
I am not clear what the logic is in that response.
On enforcing the protocol, the Government repeated the assertion made in the oral and written evidence that the Procedure Committee received that the House already has a sufficient range of options to deal with cases in which statements are made outside Parliament first. The Government’s response went on to suggest that the involvement of the Standards and Privileges Committee would risk dragging that Committee into party political disputes, which they say would undermine
“the integrity of its role.”
That response does not acknowledge your role, Mr Speaker, as envisaged by the Procedure Committee, in acting as a “gatekeeper” against frivolous complaints. Under the system that we proposed, any complaint that was a mere cover for a party political row or dispute would be dealt with by you and, in my view, would never reach the Standards and Privileges Committee, which would be asked to determine only serious or complex breaches of the rules
The complainant might indeed be being political, but if a complaint was made with no grounds, in fact I would expect Mr Speaker to block it. I do not know whether my hon. Friend was suggesting that there would be a difficulty in the process, but I do not particularly think that there would. I have every confidence that the occupant of the Chair—whoever it was—would see that justice was done.
The Government made some issue of the fact that the Procedure Committee did not receive any formal evidence from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on this proposal. I am rather baffled by that comment, because the Procedure Committee’s report does not suggest that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has any role in the process, so it is not clear why the Government think that we should have received evidence from him.
The Government said that they do not accept the Committee’s recommendation that the penalty for a breach of House protocol would be a recommendation from the Standards and Privileges Committee that the Minister concerned should apologise to the House. Instead, the Government note that there is no evidence that there is a significant problem with Ministers refusing to apologise to the House when a breach occurs. However, that rather misses the point, which is that the Standards and Privileges Committee would have no need to use its powers if there was no problem to be dealt with. If a Minister had already apologised, there would be no need to go there.
It is perhaps also worth reminding those on the Treasury Bench that the Government have repeatedly expressed support for their own protocol and that the Government are saying that they agree with the majority of Members of this House that the House should be told first when there is an announcement of Government policy. It seems to me, therefore, that the serious leaks that occurred last week should also be deplored by those on the Treasury Bench. I hope that the Leader of the House, when he comes to address us, will add his voice to those that have already placed on record a number of concerns about the leaking of large parts of the autumn statement. Many Members wonder why the Chancellor has not apologised.
My right hon. Friend referred earlier to the discourtesy of leaking to the press, but does he agree that these leaks involve a discourtesy in that they might be given to some hon. Members before others, placing some Members at a disadvantage?
I do indeed, and I believe that that happened last week. For example, the BBC television news in Humberside had the Chancellor’s announcement on the plan to reduce the tolls on the Humber bridge pretty much word for word and ran it 24 hours before the House was told. It seemed rather strange to me that a couple of hon. Members who happened to have seats near the Humber bridge were available on the bridge itself to do media interviews when the leak occurred.
If the Government do not believe what they say about Parliament being told first and want to leak or announce policies or decisions to the press first, they should come out in the open and say so and they should change their ministerial code.
I now turn to the motion before us. Although I think we are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering for bringing this matter before us today, I must say that I would have preferred it had he consulted the Procedure Committee before he settled on the wording of the motion. I understand that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley, to whom I have spoken about this matter and who chairs the Standards and Privileges Committee, was also not consulted on the terms of the motion before it was tabled or the timing. That is unfortunate. I do not want to tell the right hon. Gentleman, who does his own job perfectly well without any intervention from me, what he might or might not want to do, but he might have wanted to take the matter to his Committee and to have shown it the scope of the draft motion before it was brought to the House.
It is a pity that neither of the two Committees that the House has asked to consider these matters was consulted by the signatories to the motion. That is important because we have not yet debated the Procedure Committee’s report in the House, but the motion addresses only some of the issues raised by the Committee in its report on ministerial statements and ignores others. It is a cherry-picking motion and its scope has been determined without any reference to those who have responsibility for looking into this matter, having been asked to do so by the House.
The motion ignores the Procedure Committee’s recommendations on urgent questions and written statements. For example, we believe there are some occasions on which written statements should be open to oral scrutiny. The motion is therefore unsatisfactory and its timing, coming as it does without that consultation having taken place, is unfortunate. I do believe that action on this issue is necessary, as Governments of both political persuasions have been prepared regularly to flout the ministerial code when it suits them by leaking news to the press. However, I also believe that the way this matter has been brought forward today is unfortunate. Rather like the leaks themselves, it is no way to do business.
I welcome the chance to debate this issue today because it is important sometimes to debate first principles about what we are for and what we ought to get up to in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) criticised the Government for behaving in the same old, bad old ways, but of course this debate would not have occurred under the previous Government or in any of the previous 13 years I have been here. The Government have made reforms and have been rather more open-minded about how the House has proceeded than their predecessors.
My criticism of my hon. Friend is that he is harping back to a mythical golden age when all decisions were made in this House and everyone outside waited for the House to hear a statement. The reality, certainly in my time in the House, is that that has never been the case. It was not the case under Mrs Thatcher or in the 1950s when many Governments—Macmillan’s and others—had Information Ministers in their Cabinets. It certainly was not the case when Winston Churchill, one of our greatest Prime Ministers and a great parliamentarian, was running a Government in very difficult circumstances. He had a lot of mates in the press and things were leaked to them. Neither was it the case when Neville Chamberlain arrived at the airport with his piece of paper. He did not say, “I’ve got to nip back to the Commons and make a statement.” He said, “Peace in our time.” So let us be clear about this—nothing much has changed in the way that Governments have done business ever since the emergence of the popular press.
I am disappointed that my hon. Friend has become some kind of apologist for Ministers who leak things. He might be right to say that it has always happened, although I think the pace has accelerated very sharply in recent years. The purpose of this debate is to discuss not whether this has happened but whether it should happen. Surely what we are saying is, “No, it should not happen. Things should be announced in this House first and Ministers should not go to the media and announce things there first.”
I think we have to live in the real world—a world with 24-hour news. We know that when Governments consult on policies, some of those who do not like those policies decide deliberately to leak information, and Government Ministers are then sometimes called into studios to defend or explain their position. If we have a protocol within the House that makes it difficult for Ministers to explain what the Government’s position is, a lot of our constituents will be worried unnecessarily because, to coin a phrase, a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. That quite often happens with people maliciously trying to misrepresent Government policy.
I was tempted to rise because the previous intervention was made by an hon. Friend who was a political adviser to me when I was a local government Minister. He assisted us in deciding whether it was appropriate, with regional issues, to make announcements in the areas to which they related rather than in the House of Commons.
We have to look at the situation realistically. When the Prime Minister goes to the EU to negotiate with other leaders, at the end of that negotiation he stands on a platform next to the Union Jack and the EU flag and announces what has been discussed, what we have agreed with and what we have disagreed with. He sets out how he has been batting for Britain. What we are now saying is that whereas Merkel, Sarkozy or any of the other leaders can put the best face on their negotiation, the British Prime Minister will not be able to do so because he will have to come back here to make a statement, which he does anyway.
We all watch the news. I suspect that the vast majority of us are addicts of the 24-hour news channels. I keep being criticised by my wife for switching from channel to channel watching what is on the news, on Bloomberg, on ITV and on Sky. We all watch what goes on. Other Government leaders can stand up and announce what they have negotiated, but we are saying to our Prime Minister, “You can’t do that. You’ve got to whiz back here and give a statement.”
Let me give another example. We have a eurozone crisis. The markets are moving faster than the Governments and the political leaders. What happens when there is a eurozone crisis at the end of business on a non-sitting Friday, and the Chancellor has to make a statement before the markets open on Monday, which is a sitting day? Does he sit in the Chamber till 3.30 pm before he sets out what the Government are going to do, or does he make a statement setting out the Government’s emergency plans before the markets open in Europe and in the UK? If we think it is more important for him to speak to the House, he shuts up and people get plastered in the markets.
The reality is that we want Ministers in whom we have confidence and who speak for the majority of the people in the House. They have to command a majority. The Chancellor would have to come here eventually to answer questions about why he had conducted business in a particular way, but modern markets and modern international negotiation sometimes mean that Ministers make statements in press conferences and for the TV, rather than in the House.
I have some sympathy with the argument that the hon. Gentleman is making. It is right that we should be realistic about what announcements can be made and when they should be made, but does he accept that the amount of the autumn statement that was leaked was extraordinary? Does he think that is justified?
Certainly, I found that shocking. I have sat in the House since 1997 and I have to say that the present Government leak a lot less than previous Governments in that time, but it does happen. We have to understand that.
Ministers should make more effort. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, said that we want the Government to make a special effort to come to the House when they can. My point is that in the modern world, with 24-hour news, it is not always possible for them to do that.
I am extremely puzzled by my hon. Friend’s speech. He said a moment ago that Ministers should come here when they can. His position is a great deal more extreme than that of the Government. The Government have said that Ministers will always come here and will always make important statements here. My hon. Friend seems to be suggesting that they should sometimes decide not to do so. I am afraid he is probably on his own in the House today.
My view is perfectly clear. It is not always possible for Ministers to get here. If something happened today in the markets, I would expect Treasury Ministers to make their best efforts to come here, as we are sitting, and talk to us, but that is not always possible.
I am an exact contemporary of my hon. Friend and it seems to me that, comparing what happened under the previous Government and what happens under this Government, he is absolutely right about the quantity of leaking, which was enormous under the previous Government. The trouble is that the leaking under the present Government is getting more and more specific. I remember, when I complained about leaks by the previous Government, one of the Deputy Speakers saying to me, “Well, it could have been a case of intelligent anticipation by the media of what the Government and the Minister were going to say.” With the sort of leaking that is going on now, there is no question of that. It is straightforward, direct and specific. The logical conclusion of what my hon. Friend is saying is that we should tear up the ministerial code. If he thinks that is the case, he ought to advocate that.
I am not advocating that at all. All I am saying is that sometimes in the real world briefings are needed to set out the context and background of Government policy, because there are many complex political problems, for example in relation to the financial markets or pensions, in relation to which journalists want to know where the Government are coming from. Sometimes journalists speculate or, as we all know, make things up. I know most of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, and I know that they do their best to keep the House informed. The House must keep on its toes to ensure that Ministers keep to the ministerial code where they can when they come here, but that is not always possible. I am against having a set protocol, which I do not think would work for the reasons I have set out.
I understand the practicalities of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but it appears to me, as a relatively new Member, that the vast majority of leaks to the press are on matters that are not desperate, will not cause problems in our markets and about which it would be quite reasonable to expect Ministers to speak to the House first.
Ministers might listen to this debate and improve their conduct in front of the House, but it is easy to criticise their behaviour and bring in a protocol that will make life a lot more difficult for Ministers who are batting for Britain and doing their best in difficult circumstances. We live in a very unsafe and unsure world. Our Prime Minister and others are going to negotiate in Brussels, and our Treasury Ministers are doing their best to keep Britain out of the storm caused by the eurozone. Parliament ought to accept that they are doing their best for Britain and give them more backing.
I sit on the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee, so I have looked at this issue for some time. It is a question of the separation of the estates of the constitution. Previously, if an hon. Member’s written question was not answered, their best option was to make a freedom of information request. That was changed in the previous Parliament, and there is now a process for investigating why written questions are not answered by Ministers. We now have a system whereby, in the interests of improving governance and scrutiny and ensuring that what is done for this country is in its best interests, new Government policy on substantial issues is, as a general principle, announced first to the House.
The motion does not try to produce a detailed protocol. In the previous Parliament, a written statement would be made on, for example, the banking crisis, a regulatory news announcement would be made in the morning and an oral statement would be made during the day. That achieved a process of accountability—the Regulatory News Service was used so that all the financial market matters were dealt with and an oral statement was made, enabling Members to hold Ministers to account—and I do not think that anyone would say that there was anything wrong with it.
In deciding whether to support the motion, we must ask whether we should leave things as they stand so that, if Ministers take no notice of the ministerial code and make no effort to ensure that information is given first to Parliament and there is no investigation—a point of order can be raised but nothing further happens —or whether we should we have a process whereby we will not tolerate Ministers doing that. I accept that the Government do not like it because it is inconvenient for them, in the same way as answering questions can be, but in the long term, for the Government parties to be re-elected, we need good government, meaning we—
I apologise for my foot fault, Mr Deputy Speaker. I must apologise for my foot faults on previous occasions, which were not raised with me. I am sorry, but I was unaware that I was breaking protocol, and without being corrected I did not know that I needed to stand a sufficient distance to be two sword lengths from the other side and to toe the line, which I am now doing. That makes my point, because the motion simply states that Ministers should toe the line, which is why hon. Members should back it.
I am not the only member of the Standards and Privileges Committee present, but I am probably the only one who is going to speak—and I note a nod from the Chairman, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), sitting on the Opposition Benches. I am not going to speak for the Committee, however, because quite simply it has not looked at the proposal at all, or responded to it, but it should, if we proceed any further with the suggestion—or with a report, because after this discussion it might be more appropriate for the Procedure Committee to take the matter back, look at it again and decide whether to change its approach or to submit the issue to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
As a former Minister, I remember the requirements of the ministerial code hanging over me like a heavy weight if I thought I was ever going to step out of line, and also—taking the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who is no longer in his place—decisions on whether it was appropriate. Many such statements are a matter of judgment, and one has to recognise that there are a vast number of statements.
Many statements relate to timing, to regions or, from my experience, to local authorities, and, if a local authority is awaiting a statement, it is appropriate to make it in that area. The thought of what would happen to the House if we were gummed up with every single statement coming out of the Department for Communities and Local Government alone is beyond the imagination.
There are leaks, but one only has to consider a Minister being stuck with a journalist, particularly one from TV or radio, who has come forward with either a leak or an educated—or an uneducated—guess and a question to which the Minister needs to respond to see how someone with a political motivation might take it as a statement that should have been made in the House, even though it might in fact be made in the House later.
It is quite inappropriate not to recognise those difficulties, but, if we follow the Procedure Committee’s suggestion, we will be hitting with a heavy sledgehammer what is generally—albeit with exceptions—a very small nut. My own experience, which is from some time back, was that there was little or no leaking. I do not remember any, but perhaps my memory is slipping.
If such a complaint were sent, through the normal procedures, to the Standards and Privileges Committee, it would first go to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is an official of the House. He would consider whether it was appropriate to investigate, but many such complaints would verge on the political, because the decision on the appropriateness of a statement made outside the House, whether substantial or not, is subjective and made by a Minister, with a measure of political judgment, be that with a small or large “p”. So, in effect, the motion asks for an officer of the House, the commissioner, to make a decision on a political issue, which I think would be absolutely inappropriate, as I believe and suspect the commissioner, from my discussions with him on other things, would, too.
Essentially, the Committee looks into complaints that Members have brought the House into disrepute. Decisions, including the Committee’s, are non-political, and the commissioner’s report is non-political. Most complaints fall by the wayside, because many sent to the commissioner—on the way to the Standards and Privileges Committee, if they ever get there—are political, are made by the public and are, quite often, from individuals who have been defeated in an election in a constituency. It is a well known technique, but fortunately it does not progress too far, because many such complaints are political, as many would be on the issue before us.
Ministers have to make a decision on a statement, but, with such rules hanging over a Minister, many statements would not be made outside the House when they should be; they would end up in the Chamber and, as I have already said, clog up the business. [Interruption.] There was an interjection, and, if the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would like to stand up and interject, I might be able to respond, because I am hard of hearing and did not catch it.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I, of all people, would not follow that tendency of the previous Government. I absolutely disagree with him, and today’s examples, whether from this Government, the previous Government or the one before, have been of substantial leakages on substantial statements. The majority are not substantial, and we will clog up the business if we bring through all the minor statements, especially the regional or local ones.
We must also remember that we are, in effect, asking the Speaker, who must be non-political, to make a judgment on what will often be a political complaint. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was correct to say that it would be inappropriate for it to be referred to the Speaker.
This debate will be helpful for the Standards and Privileges Committee if the matter is brought before it. However, the debate is being held too soon, because the matter will need to go before the Committee if the Procedure Committee decides, in the light of what is said, to go ahead with this technique. The Standards and Privileges Committee will have the opportunity to look at the whole issue again—I hope that it does—to think again, and possibly to look for another procedure to move forward with in the light of the comments that are made today.
On reading the motion, my initial instinct was to support it, as it seemed intrinsically to be a good idea. However, it has some weaknesses and there are practical issues that we have to consider.
I do not believe that any Minister would ever dream of acting in a dishonourable way by leaking information prior to coming to this House. However, these things can occasionally happen, perhaps through a casual conversation that has been picked up by a journalist and reported at a later stage. More fundamentally, there is the greater issue of the definition of what is important. In my constituency, something that is important to someone in Halfpenny Green, for example, may not be as important to someone in Codsall, Bobbington, Kinver, Featherstone, or many other places. I could come up with a large number of places where it is not as important as it might be in Halfpenny Green. What is the definition of “importance”?
I think that the hon. Gentleman used a great deal of irony at the beginning of his speech. I have always thought it would be good if Hansard could put comments in italics if they are made ironically. I am sure that he would agree that the Queen’s Speech and the Budget are equally of interest to his constituents in each of the different villages that he mentioned, as in those in my constituency. It is not all that difficult to spot what counts as an important issue.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Yes, there are issues of great importance, such as the Queen’s Speech, Budget statements or the autumn statement. It would be nice if no details ever got out into the media before they got to this House, but the danger is that this motion could sweep up much more.
Indeed; my hon. Friend makes a valid point. The coalition agreement set out many aspects of what this Government would be bringing forward in the Queen’s Speech and enacting into law. The key is that this is not necessarily about those issues but about the smaller announcements that are often made in this House. What is important and what is not?
Is my hon. Friend concerned that people may deliberately make frivolous or vexatious complaints, even if they have no prospect of being upheld by the Speaker, with a view to establishing negative press stories about the Minister involved?
My hon. Friend will be incredibly shocked to hear that there are people in this House who act for political motives and who go about trying to damage right hon. and hon. Members on the Treasury Bench who are trying to deliver the business of the Government. He hits the nail on the head: there would be an awful lot of such complaints, and that is not what we want.
It may be a shock to you, Mr Deputy Speaker but I guarantee that every Member who sits on the Government Front Bench lives in fear of angering or annoying you, and of the displeasure that you might feel towards them, let alone the displeasure that Mr Speaker might feel towards them. I have seen members of the Government quake at the thought that they might be dressed down by the Chair. I cannot think of any greater sanction than that. That is a cast-iron certainty.
What is proposed in the motion does not recognise the realities of today. Often, information has to come out before a statement gets to the Floor of the House because the House does not sit in the early morning. That might be true of a financial statement, world events or wars in different parts of the world. The Government have to respond.
It is vital that Ministers are always duty bound to come to the Floor of the House to respond to such events as quickly as possible. That is why I am so proud of this Government. They have made it clear that it is a top priority for Ministers to be in this House. The relevance of this House is much greater today than it was under the previous Government. One of the first great parliamentary occasions after the Queen’s Speech was when the Prime Minister came to this House to report back on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. It was a moving moment, I think we would all agree, and a moment when the House was united. The Prime Minister summed up the feelings and emotions of this House wonderfully. This Government have made sure that this House matters. The Prime Minister has made more statements to this House than any Prime Minister since 1979, when the great lady, Baroness Thatcher, first came to power. How can we doubt that this Government are putting the right foot forward when they are following in such great footsteps as those of the great lady?
We never need to doubt that it is this Government’s intention to deliver great parliamentary scrutiny and great parliamentary involvement in the decisions of the nation. That is what the Government are doing today and it is what they shall do tomorrow. We do not need this motion. That is why I urge all colleagues to vote against it.
This debate is the continuation of a debate that has gone on for centuries in another form. In the 18th century, the line was that the influence of the Crown had increased, was increasing and ought to be diminished. It is the perpetual, almost the eternal, job of this House to try to keep the Executive, Her Majesty’s Government, under check.
There is a wonderful picture in this House of the Commons trying to persuade Elizabeth I to marry. Elizabeth I said clearly, “It is not your business to talk about it.” Governments always wish to do that. They wish to maintain information for themselves, to use at their convenience. As a former Lord High Chancellor said, “Knowledge is power”. Governments preserve knowledge carefully. That is not an unreasonable thing for the Government to do from their point of view. However, the ministerial code, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), says otherwise. It is a splendid document, because its foreword shows the ambition of Her Majesty’s Government and the Prime Minister to restore people’s trust in politics:
“It is our duty to restore their trust. It is not enough simply to make a difference. We must be different.”
I discovered, thanks to listening to “Yesterday in Parliament”, that the previous Government leaked the whole time. Or perhaps, to go back to “Yes Minister”, the approach was “I brief, you leak, he breaks the Official Secrets Act”. There has been a change, and this Government have got rather better at putting Parliament first, coming to the Chamber and telling us what is going on rather than gratuitously leaking every little titbit of information that is available. They have therefore done something to move towards the ministerial code.
However, the ministerial code is a most unsatisfactory document. Although it runs, I think, to some 30 pages, the truth is that Ministers abide by the code as long as they maintain the confidence of the Prime Minister and, as shown by newspapers and other media outlets, of the British people. Those 30 pages are quite a lot of waffle around that main theme, whereas a resolution of the House is something substantial, solid and dignified. It seems to me that things that go on in this House ought to be regulated by the House of Commons, not by the ministerial code.
It is worth bearing in mind that one Deputy Prime Minister could punch an elector on the nose and still not be deemed to have broken the ministerial code in any way. I know that it was secret at that point whereas it is now a public document, but it seems to me that it is flexible in its interpretation. The fundamental point, as I said, is that Ministers must maintain the confidence of the Crown and of Her Majesty, as advised by her Prime Minister. Indeed, the code states that the Prime Minister is foremost within its application and is the judge and jury of it.
That brings us back to the motion, to how we should deal with statements that are leaked and to why statements should not be leaked. That is the rather important question that we have perhaps neglected slightly. With some honourable exceptions, everyone broadly feels that statements ought to be made to the House first, but why? Why does it matter that we hear things before the News of the World, as was, or Sky News or the BBC? The reason is that control of the news agenda gives the Government an extra advantage over the Opposition, over their critics and over those who wish to hold them to account, which they would not be able to afford themselves. That advantage is paid for by public money.
The Government are indivisible but have two parts and two hats. They are party political on the one hand, yet they are the impartial Administration of the nation’s affairs on the other. The Labour party has perhaps two dozen press officers sitting in its current headquarters, but the Government can have two dozen in a single Ministry, able to brief and guide the press. The same is true when the situation is the other way around—the Conservatives have a small number, and the Government still have a massive advantage in controlling the news agenda. They use taxpayers’ money to do that, rather than money given to them through free donations, and they use that power to guide the views of the nation.
Nobody pretends that propaganda is not powerful. We all know it is, otherwise Unilever would not be, as I believe it is, the second largest spender on advertising in the country. I believe the Government are still the largest. Propaganda underlies how all of this works, and it is why the Government are so determined to maintain control of their ability to leak statements when they feel it is right to do so. They feel that if they use that power, they can ensure their electoral popularity and their re-election, at the expense of the British taxpayer. That is when the other, non-political side of the Government has to say, “This is improper. This is wrong. It is all right while we are in office, but we will not be in office for ever. The other side will come in, and they will be more ruthless than we are. They will use this propaganda advantage to ensure their continuation in power.”
The check on that is, and has been for centuries, the House of Commons nit-picking, banging away at the Government and saying, “This isn’t right. We are holding you to account on this. Our electors want to know about this”. It is not about us, or the fact that we are here representing North East Somerset or other, lesser parts of the country. Actually, I cannot say that with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) here, because I get into trouble if I am not very polite about Yorkshire on all occasions. We are representing our constituents, who wish us to hold the Government to account. Once we are elected, our constituents are not necessarily our political friends and supporters, but we represent every one of them and all their concerns.
I sympathise with the Government. I say that not because I am a loyal hack—I do not think I am the loyalest of loyal hacks—but because I absolutely understand the predicament in which they find themselves.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the non-political side of things, which I suppose in part means the civil service. One problem is that when we make an accusation—it could be an important one, such as, for instance, that the Government have issued false immigration statistics deliberately four days prior to the real statistics coming out—we write to Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, and he writes a beautiful episode of “Yes, Minister” back. The Cabinet Secretary will never find against a Minister. Without the motion, there is no proper arbiter.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is a model in opposition of how people ought to approach this matter. As I understand it, he was a model in government, although not as invariably successful as a model ought to be.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the indivisibility of the Government, who are both political and impartial. In a sense, it is much easier to be a judge or to be the Speaker, because people in those positions are always impartial. The Government are always seeking re-election, but at the same time, they must make decisions in the interest of the nation impartially and fairly—one hears Ministers talk about being in a quasi-judicial position in certain circumstances. Parliament seeks to divide those indivisible roles and to say, “That bit is political. Therefore we are holding you to account for political reasons, not necessarily because we disagree on the benefit to the nation.”
The Procedure Committee debated with a great deal of amusement whether impeachment could be reintroduced. I would love to see the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) introduce articles of impeachment against a Minister whom he thought had misbehaved. If that did not work, perhaps he could go further and attaint a Minister, which would be the final sanction.
However, the Committee decided, cautiously and prudently —to some extent this answers the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms)—that, as the conclusion of part 1 of the report states,
“We do not believe that it is practical or desirable to produce a detailed protocol that would cover all possible situations”.
That is clearly right, because there will be circumstances in which Ministers must answer questions urgently—perhaps they would be pressed to do so or the financial markets demand it. However, there will also be occasions on which the Minister knows perfectly well that he has a jolly good, fat, juicy news story that he would like to put out to his chums and he does so. That is what we ought to be trying to stop.
I have great confidence in this Government when I think of what they have done so far to restore the standing of Parliament. We can see how much better debates are attended than they were under the previous Government.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution to this debate. In essence, is not our problem that the ministerial code, upon which we rely for justice in this respect, is presided over by the Prime Minister acting as a judge, when in reality he must also be an advocate for, and on the same side as, his Minister?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is important that this be brought to the Commons as a matter of our procedure, and that we do not rely on the good will or benign nature of the Government to see that it is enforced.
I want to finish on the sympathy that I have for the Government. They have allowed the formation of a Backbench Business Committee, which is letting debates such as this take place. Ministers are regularly making statements and they are answering questions for over an hour on those statements. There is a more rigorous approach to the treatment of scrutiny, and the House of Commons is being treated more seriously. That is a thoroughly good and admirable thing. None the less, the House of Commons should be greedy and say, “We want more scrutiny of the Government. We want to push the Government further so that we may keep them under control and under a proper check because they wield the most gigantic power.”
The Government have all the organs of state at their control. They have as many press officers, briefers and leakers as one may wish to cast a stick at. The Opposition do not have that. Nevertheless, the day will come when the Conservatives are once again in opposition and we will want to claw our way back into government and will not want to have the dice loaded against us as they were between 1997 and 2010. For that, we must make tough decisions to hold the Government to account when it is a Government whom we support, and that scrutiny must be firmly embedded, reinforced and made solid in the culture of the House. Although the motion may not be ideal, it unquestionably moves in the right direction. If the Government do not accept it today, I hope that they will at least indicate what they will accept and how quickly they will pass this from the Government, the Crown, and back to Parliament.
I have spent only a year and a half of my 46 years inside this place. I have observed that there is no time when the House of Commons makes itself more ridiculous than when it is suffused with self-serving piety. I accept that there is no one here with a greater claim to true piety than the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and he has made, as he always does, some brave and bold arguments. However, it was with some relief that I saw my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr Syms) and for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) breaking through that self-serving piety with a little common sense.
I was accusing the House of being suffused with self-serving piety and giving the hon. Gentleman a bye on the basis that his past suggests that true piety is one of his qualities.
Let me start with where I am in agreement with other Members, including my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). Holding Government to account is one of Parliament’s primary functions, but it is not its only function. Parliament is also there to supply and support a Government.
If Parliament’s primary function is to hold Government to account, no Government in recent times have done more to strengthen the power of Parliament to do such a job. It was this Government who introduced elections by Back Benchers of Chairmen and of members of Select Committees. Previous Governments, including the one of which the hon. Member for Rhondda was a member, appointed as Chairmen people who unfortunately needed to be eased out of their ministerial berths, where they had not been a success, and to be bought off for the rest of the term of that Government. This Government have turned their back on that naked attempt to suborn Parliament and have empowered Select Committees through the introduction of direct elections by Back Benchers.
As a member of the parliamentary Labour party, I have to correct the hon. Gentleman’s assertion. The PLP instigated a rule stating that nobody straight out of serving in government could become a Select Committee Chair. After I left government and served on the PLP, which is the equivalent of the Conservative party’s 1922 Committee, no person coming straight out of ministerial office went into a Select Committee chairmanship.
I am happy to be corrected on that point, but I hope the hon. Lady will confirm that it was this Government who introduced the election of Select Committee members and Chairs by Back Benchers, which significantly strengthened the independence of Select Committees and their ability to hold the Executive to account.
This Government also introduced the Backbench Business Committee, and so far have allotted it about 30 days of debate in Parliament for the subjects of most interest to Back Benchers. It was also this Government who introduced the concept of e-petitions to allow the House to debate not only the subjects of most interest to Back Benchers, but those of most interest to members of the public. It is clear, therefore, that it is this Government who have done most to strengthen Parliament’s ability to hold the Executive to account.
To be fair, we must also acknowledge that Mr Speaker has done more than any recent Speaker to ensure that Parliament can fulfil its function of holding the Executive to account. No Speaker has used urgent questions more regularly to force Ministers to come and account for their decisions and to answer questions from hon. Members.
I am sure that Mr Speaker will be gratified by that vote of confidence—I say this without irony—from my hon. Friend, but does he not agree that it was at least unfortunate that, as Mr Speaker made explicit in response recently to a point of order from me, he felt it necessary to keep the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Dispatch Box as long as he did during the autumn statement precisely because he considered that the Chancellor had been saying far too much, in far too much detail, about that statement in advance to the media?
No, I do not actually, and I shall explain later why I do not agree with my hon. Friend.
No Speaker has done as much as the current Speaker to place strict controls on Front-Bench waffle during questions, thus ensuring that more Members can ask their questions and get answers on behalf of their constituents. And no Speaker has presided over such long statements, including the Chancellor’s autumn statement, thus ensuring that all Members with questions to ask on behalf of our constituents can be heard. It is clear, therefore, that this Government and this Speaker of the House of Commons have done more in a very short time than any recent Government to strengthen the power of the Chamber to hold the Executive to account.
What puzzles me about the argument put forward by most Members who have spoken is the suggestion that holding the Government to account requires a monopoly on first communication of the Government’s decisions. Surely the days are gone when Parliament should think of itself as and behave like a priesthood that gathers together the only people in the country with the intelligence and education sufficient to consider matters of state. Surely what matters is that Parliament has an opportunity to discuss any announcement by Ministers on the day that it is made or, if it is made over a weekend, on the next sitting day. Is it not our duty, in this place in 2011, to adapt this ancient institution to modern democratic principles, and does that not require that we strike a balance between Parliament’s essential role of holding the Government to account and the public’s right to know what their Government are doing as soon as possible?
It seems to me that the best way of tackling the matter is this: when a Minister or a member of the Government needs for urgent reasons to make a statement publicly, he or she should do so and then come here as soon as possible. I am thinking, in particular, about matters in which military forces are involved. I do not see a problem with that. I think that the motion might allow for that—I hope that it does because that is how I interpret it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important and interesting intervention. I would go further, although I accept that very few people are of the same mind. We make a mistake in thinking that we can somehow reserve to decisions of military or financial sensitivity and urgency the possibility of their being made outside this place and then discussed fully inside this place.
Does my hon. Friend not agree—from his vast experience in this place, and perhaps also looking from the outside—that although a considerable number of statements are of little or no interest to the House because they are regional, specific or small, perhaps involving one or two MPs, and so on, the decision on that, which the Minister takes, must be subjective, which makes the Minister vulnerable to attack, as we are seeing?
I agree with my hon. Friend. This House has many opportunities to embarrass and annoy Ministers who seem to act with discourtesy towards us. I am not for a minute arguing that we should not make full use of that; I am just arguing against this motion.
I would like to move on to the example of the autumn statement—which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) raised earlier—in which, as I think we can all agree, some of the most important announcements of this Session were made. It is true, as we should admit without embarrassment, that many of the proposals in the autumn statement were discussed widely in the media—on television, in the newspapers and in the blogosphere—in the several days before the statement. I have no idea whether that was by accident or by design, but I fervently believe that this ensured that public awareness and understanding of the contents of the Government’s plans and their response to the difficult economic situation in which we find ourselves was far higher than it would have been if nothing had been revealed until the statement was made. I ask Members to ask themselves two questions. First, how many people are willing and able, in their busy working lives, either to watch the autumn statement as it is broadcast on television or to read parliamentary reports? Secondly, how many of them, given the slightly weird way in which we all speak, will understand it when they do?
Is it not also a rather unsatisfactory and unsafe assumption for those supporting the motion that it is the Minister, or a servant or agent acting for the Minister, who leaked sensitive information? Is it not also possible that the information was accidentally leaked, or in some way given by a third party, against the interests of the Government? Might not passing this motion also open up the sphere for misuse of the complaints procedure, whereby the mere fact of a complaint would bring down adverse criticism on the head of the Government and the Minister?
My hon. Friend is a distinguished member of the legal profession and therefore well understands the ability of people to abuse otherwise well intentioned elements of the law. However, I intend to go further than he suggests, because I argue that we should move away from this idea that it is a leak when the Government decide to announce in advance to the media some elements of their proposals. I believe that it is directly and strongly in the public interest that the public are given a chance to understand the detail of the Government’s proposals and the range of views and arguments that will be expressed, and for Parliament also to contribute to that debate, but not to have the monopoly on first communication.
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly reasonable point. It would be perfectly possible to write a ministerial code that said, “Her Majesty’s Government will take not a jot of notice of Parliament, but will issue statements to whomever they feel like, whenever they feel like it.” If that is what my hon. Friend wants, will he redraft the ministerial code and send it to the Prime Minister?
My hon. Friend asks a cunning question, but one I think I can sidestep by saying that, as I discussed with him before the debate began, I think that the ministerial code is a load of nonsense. The truth about the ministerial code is what he said, which is that a Minister can stay in their job while they have the confidence of the Prime Minister, but as soon as they lose it, it does not matter what the ministerial code says, they should lose their job.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about helping the public better understand, is his argument that the Treasury leaked the entire contents of the autumn statement for the benefit of some public good, rather than because it wanted to get its excuse in first?
First, I have no idea whether it was, in fact, the Treasury that leaked any of the details. Our journalists are cunning ferrets and they have remarkable ways to get information out of the leaky sieve that is a modern Government. However, more importantly—and to take the hon. Gentleman’s concern seriously—I do not know whether that was done for the public benefit, but I am absolutely certain that it was in the public interest. It was to the public’s benefit that there was wide discussion, over several days, on all the leading television programmes and in all the leading newspapers, about proposals that would have received much less attention if they had been left until Parliament heard the autumn statement.
Let us focus, then, on our true duty. Our duty is not to serve ourselves, to puff up our roles as Members of Parliament or to bolster our privileges; it is to serve the public. We do so by holding the Government to account, not by requiring them to leak all their information in this strange room, rather than out there, where people are listening. Nobody in this debate has yet explained why the public are better served by announcements being reserved to Parliament. That is why I will not support the motion.
I speak as a member of the Procedure Committee. I congratulate the Chairman, who is in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) on their sterling work on the report, alongside the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and other colleagues.
I have been fascinated by many of the contributions, which have again served as an excellent way of spotting who is on the fast track up the ministerial ladder. It is perhaps with some regret that, yet again, the hon. Member for North East Somerset has put his principles ahead of the greasy pole. However, he reminded me of a fellow old Etonian, Mr Hugh Dalton, who is probably the most obvious example of a member of a Government having to resign over this issue, because the contents of his Budget found their way into a newspaper before being read out to the House of Commons. Everyone is familiar with that story. What they are probably not familiar with is the fact that Hugh Dalton’s reasoning for giving that information—apparently as he was passing through Members’ Lobby on the way into the House of Commons—was that he believed that it would be said to the House before appearing in that day’s London newspapers. Even Mr Dalton, who is often held up as an example, as the first great leaker, said that his intention was for the House of Commons to hear the statement before the public at large. Unlike the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), I believe that it is to the public’s benefit that this House has an opportunity to scrutinise what the Government are proposing first, a point to which I shall return.
On the earlier point about why the Prime Minister is the wrong person to oversee things, the hon. Member for North East Somerset mentioned a rather good British Broadcasting Corporation programme, “Yes, Prime Minister”, and the famous and funny episode about a leak. For those who can recall it, the Prime Minister’s office was leaking against a member of his Government—something that I am sure the Leader of the House will tell us never happens in this Administration; they use tweets, apparently—if their fingerprints are not found on their iPhones. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman requires no reminder, but the outcome of the episode to which he referred was that the whole farce was brought to an end by a leak inquiry, which, as Sir Humphrey reminded the Prime Minister, would result in no evidence being found, no guilt being established and nobody losing their job. As is too often the case in this place, comedy—in this case, BBC comedy—imitates life. The problem is that, despite some incredibly serious leaks of Government statements, on not a single occasion during the 18 months for which the present Government have been in office has a single civil servant, special adviser, parliamentary private secretary or Minister been found to have breached the rule. I believe that in the last month alone no fewer than three Secretaries of State have been admonished by Mr Speaker for the fact that serious leaks have occurred, but as far as I can tell, their best excuse was, “It wasnae me. I didnae do it. A big boy did it and ran away.” Responsibility was mentioned earlier. It is the responsibility of a Secretary of State to ensure that information is not leaked from his or her Department.
I am conscious of the danger that we will slip into the subject of our next debate, but I believe that Members of Parliament, including those who have the privilege of serving on the Treasury Bench, should be held to the highest possible standard, and I regret to say that that has not always happened in the case of a small number of Secretaries of State and their Departments.
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) cited Neville Chamberlain. Let me first remind him that what Chamberlain said was “peace for our time”, not “peace in our time”. Given the hon. Gentleman’s close association with the Secretary of State for Education, who I understand is very keen on British history, that is the kind of thing that we should expect him to get right. What he did not mention, however—[Interruption.] I hear a mobile telephone ringing. It is probably The Guardian, asking for the latest statements.
What the hon. Member for Poole did not mention was that the then Prime Minister, having left the airport tarmac clutching his piece of paper, went straight to the Chamber of the House of Commons, where he gave a detailed account of events in Munich and responded to questions over a substantial period during which he was subjected to considerable heckling from Members on his own side.
The hon. Gentleman is giving us a delightful piece of history. However, the reality is that nowadays the Prime Minister would arrive and be flooded with television cameras, microphones and so forth, there would be educated and uneducated guesses, the Prime Minister would be trapped into having to respond—and he might indeed use the words “in our time”.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has such a low opinion of his party’s Prime Minister that he does not consider him to be sufficiently fleet of foot to outfox a handful of Fleet street’s finest, but we are discussing something more substantive than a Prime Minister’s arrival from the tarmac to make a major policy announcement. We are discussing the habit that the Government have fallen into, after just 18 months, of considering no announcement too big or too small to be given to the media before they can be bothered to get around to giving it to the House.
We saw an example of that only a few days ago. The Department for Energy and Climate Change contacted The Guardian’s twitter feed more than half an hour before it was known that a statement was to be made, let alone what the contents of that statement were to be. It is a matter of great regret to many Members on both sides of the House that the Secretary of State and his cohorts have such a low regard for this place that they cannot even be bothered to tell Mr Speaker or the Opposition that a statement is to be made before they tell the media.
What worries me is that Ministers are supposed to govern, that “governing” sometimes means making decisions, and that there are a heck of a lot of decisions that Ministers must make. Given the flood of decisions that would end up in the House if every single matter had to be referred to it, we should never be able to do anything. Ministers should be allowed to get on with things, and then come to the House to announce particularly important decisions. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is proper for a Minister to be allowed to make a quick statement and come to the House as fast as possible in such instances.
I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful contributions. I know that he has had some experience of the perils of leaks in recent days, and that he shares my concern about leaking. However, there are two types of statement.
The hon. Gentleman will not need to be reminded that today’s Order Paper lists no fewer than eight written ministerial statements. We are not talking about the need for every statement to be made orally on the Floor of the House; it is perfectly legitimate to place written statements in the Library of the House of Commons. Some of them are quite important. For instance, the third on today’s list is a statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the single payment scheme, a vital subject that is of great concern to many farmers throughout the country. As a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I know that the Government have repeatedly failed to meet their obligation to ensure that our farmers receive the money that they should receive, and that is a subject to which the Opposition may choose to return. The key point is, however, that such statements should be made to the House—in either oral or written form—before being punted not just to the “Today” programme, not just to “Daybreak” or the programme that follows it, and not just to “BBC Breakfast”, but to the new media. The constant leaking suggests that it is almost a case of “Anywhere but the House of Commons”.
I believe that the reason is quite straightforward. Let me return to a point made a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. This is actually about softening bad news—about trying to get the Government’s version out there. As was rightly pointed out by the hon. Member for North East Somerset, there are hundreds of press officers, employed at taxpayers’ expense, whose job is to try to soften that bad news. Unfortunately the country will be given a great deal more bad news over the next three and a half years as the Chancellor’s economic policies continue to fail, as the economy continues to flatline, as the Government refuse to accept the need for a plan B, and as week after week the Chancellor is forced to come back and downgrade his growth forecast. That is why the Government do not wish to come to the House: they do not wish to scrutinise themselves.
Those of us who are historians, or history buffs, often enjoy taking our constituents around the Chambers of both Houses. One of our great pleasures, which I am sure you have experienced, Mr Deputy Speaker, is taking our constituents to the Chamber in the other place and showing them the table at which Winston Churchill stood during the years when the House of Commons Chamber was unavoidably out of action following the bombing in May 1941. We can see the mark on that table that was made when Winston Churchill, who I would argue had more on his plate than any other Prime Minister—not just his Sunday lunch, but all the matters with which he was dealing—banged his hand on it. He came to the House, made himself available for scrutiny and answered questions for hour after hour, because it was important for the country to feel confident that the House of Commons had exercised due diligence and scrutiny.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford—in one of the most creative speeches that I have heard for some time, during which he tried to justify his former flatmate’s leaking of the whole autumn statement the previous weekend—claimed that this was about the public interest.
I apologise on the second count, although I suspect that it was the Chancellor’s loss rather than the hon. Gentleman’s. As for the first, I was referring to the hon. Member for North East Somerset, who is sitting next to him, and whom I know to be the finest old Etonian currently serving in the House—bar one, obviously. I am sure that he will have an equally long career.
A fundamental point was made earlier about the public good and about debates. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford will know, every Budget is followed by a Finance Bill, which requires the exercise of due diligence and is debated at some length. I am sure that if he has not had the privilege and pleasure of serving on a Finance Bill Committee, the Government Whips, who are doubtless paying attention, will be more than happy to introduce him to the process, which allows outside stakeholders, representing the interests of his City friends and those of the country at large, to make their cases to Members.
I have served on only one Finance Bill Committee, as a researcher many years ago, and the public gallery was packed. Of course, there is a wider debate about how we can further open up our Bill Committees to the wider public, but it is not just about the debate itself; it is also about the process post-Budget, pre-Bill Committee, when all interested groups can make representations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members on both sides of the House received many representations on the Budget from constituents. That is the correct forum for having a good discussion about the merits of the Budget, not the Sunday papers and the Sunday programmes beforehand.
That is the problem with the Government: they have no regard for the House, the public at large or the many interested groups. They have got it back to front. The first thing they should do is lay their policy before Parliament; then they should allow the House to have scrutiny; and then they should welcome proper consultation on their policies—three things that they have repeatedly failed to do.
I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and the Leader of the House need to respond to the debate. This is not a light matter. It is genuinely about whether we want a Government, regardless of their political hue or whether they are a rainbow coalition, who believe that they are accountable to the people through the House, or a Government who continue to be accountable to a handful of editors of newspapers and TV programmes. It is genuinely about whether the House remains the primary point at which the Government will be held accountable.
We have had an interesting debate, which has sought to address the continuing tension between the Government's desire to get what they see as favourable coverage in the media for their announcements, and Parliament's requirement that it, and not the media, should be told first of any important new announcements, so that it may do its job in holding the Government to account. Some of the tension between the different approaches to that particular job has been expressed in the speeches that we have heard tonight, not least those by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who is a pro-House of Commons man to his very core and made that clear in his contribution, and the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is not, if I could put it that way, because he seemed to spend most of his contribution questioning whether the ministerial code should exist in its current form at all, which is probably one of the more radical suggestions in the debate.
I do not think tension between those two issues—the Government's desire to get favourable news coverage and Parliament's understandable desire to be at the centre of national debate—is anything new. Many previous Governments, of all political hues, have been found wanting when it comes to ensuring that their announcements of important policy decisions happen first in Parliament. Many right hon. and hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) in what was an extremely wise speech, have pointed out, not only in our debate today but in previous debates, that the situation has been exacerbated by the advent of 24-hour news.
We have also seen the explosion of new platforms for the dissemination of information, which simply were not envisaged when our Parliament first formulated its now rather antiquated procedures and Standing Orders. The increasingly cut-throat competition between print and broadcasting media has not been mentioned, but it is relevant to the issues that we are struggling to resolve appropriately in the Chamber. There is a battle to obtain “breaking news” first, and the cavalier approach to rules and standards of behaviour in the media, now being highlighted in evidence to the Leveson inquiry, does not provide an easy backdrop against which to expect improvements in that state of affairs. Thus the trade in exclusive first access to important Government announcements in exchange for favourable and uncritical coverage of the good bits appears to benefit Ministers and the media outlets alike. Whenever that potential exists, there will be a difficulty that we as a Parliament have to struggle with if we are going to ensure that this Chamber gets a look-in. Unfortunately, that trade is flourishing as never before.
The lack of any real sanctions on Ministers when such leaks occur does not help Parliament to achieve its proper aim: to ensure that it is elected Members of the House, who are here to represent the views of their constituents, who are first to question Ministers on their policy announcements and thereby hold them directly to account. That is despite the clear instructions in paragraph 9.1 of the ministerial code 2010, which has been quoted in our debate:
“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford had a separate argument that that should be expunged from the ministerial code. It is a point of view. It is not a point of view that I feel would get a majority in the House, but at least he has been open and up-front enough to advance that argument. However, I think that the vast majority of us here want, in considering these difficult issues, to find a way of making the ministerial code work properly, so that this Chamber can be what it was always meant to be: the place where the most important debates about Government direction happen.
It is clear that that statement of intent is a good thing but is far from being achieved in reality. Indeed, I think that it is flouted regularly by senior members of the Government, from the Prime Minister down. The ministerial code itself now appears to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance, as I pointed out last week on a point of order. My observation followed the systematic and premeditated leaking of every piece of good news in Thursday's autumn statement to the media in advance, usually accompanied by photo calls with Ministers in high-vis jackets.
I was unaware at the time, although we have been informed of this today, of the Humber bridge coincidence, if I may put it that way. There was an announcement of the decrease in tolls on the Humber bridge and some hon. Members, just by coincidence, happened to be available on the Humber bridge. Obviously they had no idea that the media might be on the Humber bridge with their cameras waiting for an instant reaction to something that, clearly, the Members in question had no idea was about to be announced in the autumn statement. Perhaps there are people who believe that that is indeed what happened on the day, but many of us have some suspicions that there may have been something slightly improper going on with the autumn statement. The fact that the autumn statement was in essence a mini-Budget simply made the offence all the more blatant. In my view, it showed a cynical and total contempt of this House and a complete disregard of the ministerial code itself.
While I am on that subject, another important part of the ministerial code was also ignored ahead of the Chancellor delivering his autumn statement to the House last Tuesday. That was the requirement in paragraph 9.5 that the text of the oral statement should be shown to the Opposition “shortly” before it is made. Although no precise time is specified, the paragraph requires copies of the statement and associated documents to be sent to the Chief Whip and his office 45 minutes in advance. I would like to take this opportunity to ask the Leader of the House whether he had the documentation in his office 45 minutes in advance. His answer is important because, in the event, my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor got barely 10-minutes’ notice and a heavily redacted copy of the statement. This puts all opposition parties in difficulty when trying to reply to complex announcements. Like everyone else however, my right hon. Friend had been able to piece together what all the positive Government announcements were likely to be from watching the news, but that is not what is intended by the requirements for oral statements under paragraph 9.5 of the ministerial code. I would be interested to hear what the Leader of the House has to say about that.
There have been further worrying signs of escalating ministerial disregard for Parliament. Notable among them was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change’s astonishing discourtesy to the House two weeks ago. His intention to come to the House to make an energy statement—laudable in itself—was somehow tweeted to the world 30 minutes before his Opposition shadow was told by an environment journalist at The Guardian. An hour later the statement’s contents were leaked to the same journalist and were up on the website hours before the Secretary of State was due to deliver the statement in this place. As far as I can tell, absolutely no action has been taken by the Government to reassure us that this will not happen again, and the Secretary of State has offered neither an explanation nor an apology to the House for this strange coincidence.
As the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) set out in his speech moving the motion, and as was also pointed out by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), the Chair of the Procedure Committee—which has done an extremely good job—the Procedure Committee produced its February 2011 report on ministerial statements at the request of this House, which is an unusual way of doing things. That followed the first ever debate initiated by the Backbench Business Committee, which took place last July. At that time, the Leader of the House supported the Procedure Committee’s inquiry into how Parliament’s understandable determination not to be the last to know about ministerial intentions could be translated into a workable system that would improve the current sorry state of affairs. In that first debate, the Leader of the House said:
“We devalue ourselves if the news is being made elsewhere. We therefore risk losing our position as the centre of British national debate. That is surely why the principle that we are debating today is important…We are elected here to scrutinise the Executive and to hold Ministers to account on behalf of our constituents. It is therefore crucial that Ministers explain and justify their policies in the Chamber in the first instance.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 263.]
That provides the most eloquent response to the comments of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford.
We had to wait until May for the Government’s response. When it finally arrived, it was disappointingly dismissive—as the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire hinted—and since then an uneasy stand-off between the Executive and the House of Commons has prevailed. No action on the recommendations in the report has been taken. In his speech, the right hon. Gentleman described the Government response as “highly unsatisfactory”, and I agree.
Throughout this period, there have been ongoing briefings and announcements of Government policy to the media rather than Parliament. The large number of urgent questions that Mr Speaker has seen fit to grant during this time is a good measure of the extent of the Government’s current disregard for the rules on ministerial statements. Never have the high ideals proclaimed by a new Government at the beginning of a Parliament so swiftly turned to dust. Their laudable early determination to put Parliament back at the centre of national debate has been throttled by the cynical opportunism of myriad SpAds—special advisers—and spin doctors. Their headline-chasing, public relations-fixated masters have meanwhile been busy driving a coach and horses through the ministerial code. So much for hoping that the Government would be capable of resisting the temptation to trade with the media in early announcements to the detriment of Parliament’s right to know first. So much for hoping that the Government would be content to allow the recommendations in the Procedure Committee’s report to be put into effect, or at least that some progress might be made on this issue.
What is to be done? It appears that the Backbench Business Committee has grown impatient waiting for the Government to deal with the recommendations in the report on ministerial statements, and I cannot say I blame it. It has decided to try to force the issue, and the motion before us seeks to put into effect just one of the recommendations contained in its report: the recommendation specifying a new procedure for complaining to the Speaker about a breach of the protocol that statements should be made first to Parliament. It would allow the Speaker to judge whether a minor, or more serious, breach had occurred. It would empower him to take appropriate steps in the event of minor breaches, and to refer more serious cases to the Standards and Privileges Committee for further investigation. In essence, this gives the Speaker—and therefore, by definition, this House—the power to begin to enforce the protocols that exist to guide Ministers’ conduct on announcements. Perhaps this is the only way progress can now be made, given that the Government’s enthusiasm for making improvements in this area seems to have evaporated completely.
In the Government’s response to the report, on the suggestion that the Speaker should be empowered to enforce the protocol, they consider that an adequate range of “sanctions” for such misbehaviour by Ministers is already available. In what is one of the weakest sections of their response, the Government list the granting of an urgent question, an investigation by the relevant Select Committee, or raising the breach at business questions or Prime Minister’s questions as adequate sanctions to prevent ministerial disregard for the rules. I have raised various breaches of the protocol either as points of order or in business questions during my short time as shadow Leader of the House, and I cannot say that I have seen Ministers either worried or apologetic about any breach. A complacent smirk seems to be the most usual response. The Government’s claim that adequate sanctions already exist cannot be true, or there would have been evidence that ministerial behaviour had changed and that Parliament was being bypassed in favour of announcement by media on fewer occasions. If anything, the opposite is true.
Given the Government’s obvious reluctance to embrace the recommendations in the Procedure Committee report and the evidence of ongoing and serious breaches of the protocol about Ministers making important statements to Parliament first, the Opposition will vote for this motion tonight. I also want further consideration to be given to how other recommendations in the report can be put into action in the future, and I look forward to working with Members on both sides of the House to ensure that we can take these important matters forward to a sensible conclusion.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, which is being held only because this coalition Government established the Backbench Business Committee, giving it the opportunity to set the debate and allow a vote. The shadow Leader of the House raised the availability of the autumn statement. We always use our best endeavours to get the documents to the Opposition Whips office within 45 minutes, and we will continue to do so.
Let me set out the Government’s position on the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). As he said, it arises from, and refers to, the Procedure Committee report on ministerial statements published in February. The Committee was asked to prepare its report as a result of the debate on the first Backbench Business Committee day on 20 July last year and the motion, also moved by my hon. Friend, that was agreed that day.
The Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), sought a debate on a motion taking note of that report, which would have covered more issues than are under discussion today, but the motion was never debated. The Backbench Business Committee has now chosen to introduce its own motion on the subject, drawing on parts of certain Procedure Committee recommendations —although, as my right hon. Friend implied, it is unclear why we are not debating the whole report. As the shadow Leader of the House said, we responded in full to the Procedure Committee’s report and our views on its recommendations have been available to hon. Members since May. We made it clear in our response that we did not support the relevant recommendations of the Procedure Committee and so it should come as no surprise to the House that we are not able to accept today’s motion.
Let me begin by setting out where the Government are at one with the Procedure Committee and, indeed, with the majority of those who have spoken in the debate, before setting out where we disagree. The ministerial code states:
“When Parliament is in session the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, to Parliament.”
My Cabinet colleagues are very mindful of that requirement, and I do not hesitate to remind them of it. But there is clearly a “tension”—that word was used by the shadow Leader of the House—between the realities of the 24-hour news cycle and the requirement of the ministerial code. As the Government said in their response to the Procedure Committee in the spring:
“Ministers’ obligations to Parliament are paramount, but the Government also has a duty to communicate its policies and programme effectively to the wider public, including through the platform of a 24-hour news media. These dual pressures have been a reality under all recent governments”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) made that point in his effective contribution.
I looked through the evidence to the Procedure Committee and read that a former Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), said in his:
“I don’t think we should complain about Government trying to maximise the positive media for its policy. Any Government is going to do that.”
Ministers must adhere to the responsibilities of the code, but we also need to bear in mind the need to address the public’s desire for timely, accurate information, especially when fast-moving events have a capacity to distort or misrepresent the Government’s policy. The public’s appetite for that does not start and end with the day’s sitting hours—again, that point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole.
Of course the House has legitimate expectations in this area, and this Government are making many more statements than their predecessor. We have so far made 163 oral statements this Session, and compared with the last two Sessions of the previous Government, this Government are making 40% more oral statements than Labour Ministers—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). We have only to look at the record of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to see how importantly the Government view the House’s role in scrutinising policy. My right hon. Friend has spent almost 30 hours at the Dispatch Box, making 24 oral statements so far this Session, which is a considerably better record than his predecessor.
None is the answer; urgent questions are in addition to the statements to which I have just referred.
I do not believe that the motion either sets realistic standards or proposes an appropriate path for what might follow from a departure from the standards. I say in passing that it also threatens to undermine the basis that all Ministers are equal under the ministerial code, because the motion applies only to Commons Ministers.
The Leader of the House is being slightly unfair. Often what happens—indeed, it happened today—is that a Member applies for an urgent question and the Minister, by some miracle, immediately decides that it would be a good idea to ask to make a statement. In those circumstances, would it not be a good idea if the Minister just started his statement with an apology?
However one looks at the statistics, there has been a marked increase in the willingness of this Government to come to the House to make statements; the figures speak for themselves.
I turn to the question on which we disagree: whether or not the standards set out in the motion are the right ones. The Cabinet manual is clear that
“When Parliament is in session the most important announcements of government policy should, in the first instance, be made to Parliament”.
The words in the Cabinet manual were used in terms in the resolution of this House on 20 July, which again referred to “the most important announcements”. However, the motion before us today broadens the requirement massively, and in an open-ended manner, to “all important announcements”. At a stroke, the motion seeks to sweep away the intention of the Cabinet manual to draw a distinction between those matters that are properly for Parliament first and those matters that can be announced in other ways. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) said, almost all announcements made by the Government are important to someone. I commend the way in which he managed to get into his speech the names of a number of large villages in his constituency, and I am sure that the people in all those were delighted to hear of his commitment to them. If the House were to agree to this motion, it would replace a text that acknowledges the need for a sensible judgment about relative importance with a text that invites consideration of importance wholly in isolation.
The motion seeks to lay down a blanket requirement for statements to be made to the House first “on all occasions”, without any exceptions or qualifications. Let us consider a recent example. Does the House seriously imagine that the Government’s policy on the advice to be given to British nationals on travel to Iran should not have been announced before the House sat? Equally, the motion contains no recognition that certain market-sensitive announcements must be made when financial markets are closed. For example, a whole series of announcements by the previous Administration about Government support for the banks were made at 7 am. As the then official Opposition, we understood why Parliament could not be told first. If this motion is passed, any Minister making a similar announcement would face an inherent conflict between their obligations in relation to the financial markets and their obligations to this House.
First, the motion did not do that and the hon. Gentleman did not table such an amendment. Secondly, if he listens to the rest of what I have to say, he will understand that the Government have other difficulties with the motion.
Similarly, the motion contains no acknowledgement that announcements of policy that are the subject of international agreement must often be made simultaneously and on terms acceptable to the other parties to such agreement. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister successfully negotiated an agreement among the 16 realms at Canberra about the royal succession, and being able to announce that decision together with other Heads of Government at Canberra was part and parcel of the negotiation. The motion, if agreed to, would limit the Government’s ability to reach and announce joint or multilateral agreements—my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) also made the relevant point about military intervention.
The motion also seeks to establish as a protocol the requirement that any information that forms all or part of an announcement to Parliament should not be released to the press before such a statement is made to Parliament. That would be very difficult to interpret where the development of a policy has gone through several stages, some of them in the public domain. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham pointed out, the inevitable increase in statements, both written and oral, that would result from a blanket interpretation would risk squeezing the House’s other business, including Opposition day debates and Back-Bench debates, as well as putting at risk the effective scrutiny of Government legislation. That is one of the central tasks of the House; it is not an optional extra.
The ministerial code of conduct makes it clear that all Ministers are equal, even those in the other place, so is the Leader of the House not concerned that this motion is particularly in error because it is silent about the Ministers in the other place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct and I believe that I touched on that a moment or two ago.
The motion would create new, enforceable rules of the House, and that is a novel step. In 1995, the House passed a resolution setting out the principles that should govern the conduct of Ministers of the Crown in relation to Parliament. The resolution referred to broad principles of accountability, and the duty not to mislead Parliament and to be as open as possible. It made no mention whatsoever of a duty to make statements in the House first.
I shall now deal briefly with the process outlined in the motion, which my hon. Friends did not touch on. The first step in any case where a Member believes the standards had been breached—
If I may, I will make some progress and then give way.
The first step in those circumstances would be to refer the matter to Mr Speaker. The relevant recommendation of the Procedure Committee says the following about what happens next:
“If he determined that the complaint was without basis or trivial, it would be open to him to dismiss it.”
The motion makes no mention of that. Where a minor breach has occurred, the motion, like the recommendation, refers to Mr Speaker taking steps. But Mr Speaker already has the power to summon Ministers to the House to answer urgent questions—a power used more extensively by this Speaker than by any of his predecessors. One should not underestimate the value of that tool. The former shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), told the Procedure Committee that Ministers take urgent questions very seriously indeed.
A range of other options are already available to the House to hold Ministers to account and can be used as sanctions. Ministers can be cross-examined by departmental Committees, they can be called to account through debate in the House—more so than ever before as a result of the Backbench Business Committee—and there can be a debate, in extreme circumstances, on a motion of censure. Indeed, I recall answering a debate in which it was proposed that my salary as a Minister should be reduced—a motion that, in its wisdom, the House did not carry.
In those circumstances, we oppose the suggestion that it would be a useful addition to give Mr Speaker the power to refer a more serious or complex breach to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. That proposal was made by the Procedure Committee, although I note that the Committee has not published any written or oral evidence to show the views of the Standards and Privileges Committee on the proposal, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). Given that there is no proposal to change the terms of reference of that Committee, I assume that a referral would be treated as a matter of conduct. The code of conduct, which applies to all Members, contains no reference to the conduct of Ministers. Indeed, this subject was not raised in the recent consultation on the code. Out of the blue, the motion seeks unilaterally to change the principles behind the code before the House has even had an opportunity to review them.
As a former Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I think that those proposals could conflict with the fundamental role of that Committee, which is to regulate the conduct of individual hon. Members. It is not the function of the Standards and Privileges Committee to enforce the ministerial code and there is a real risk of double jeopardy if two institutions—the Prime Minister and the Standards and Privileges Committee—police the same code.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, who chairs the Procedure Committee, said that the Government preferred the status quo. That is not quite the case. We proposed a number of reforms to his Committee. First, we suggested that there should be time limits on certain oral statements, so more could be made. That was rejected. Secondly, together with the then Shadow Leader of the House, I expressed an open mind on the proposition that oral statements could be made in Westminster Hall, but the Procedure Committee made no recommendation on that. Thirdly, I proposed that the earliest time for the release of written ministerial statements should be brought forward from 9.30 am to 7 am, which could be coupled with arrangements that the House already has to ensure the prompt availability of such statements on the parliamentary website. The Procedure Committee rejected that suggestion.
The Government are keen to pursue proposals that enable the House and its Members to be informed first of the most important announcements of Government policy in helpful and innovative ways. In the light of recent events, I will remind all Cabinet colleagues of the terms of the code and the strong views of the House in the debate this evening. However, the proposal before us does not take matters forward constructively. It seeks unrealistically to change the standards expected of Ministers and then seeks to subject them to additional policing that muddies the waters surrounding the role of the Standards and Privileges Committee. For those reasons, I urge the House to reject the motion.
With the leave of the House, and on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, I want to thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have attended and contributed to this afternoon’s debate over the past two and a half hours. In addition to the speeches made by me, the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, there were nine Back-Bench speeches and some 47 interventions. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) reminded us that we live in a world with the insatiable beast of 24-hour rolling news and that Government announcements often were not sensitive, but he was worried that Mr Speaker might be drawn into party political warfare.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) said that the Government’s response to the Procedure Committee’s report was highly unsatisfactory, but pointed out quite fairly that there were further recommendations in the report that we are not debating tonight. He also stressed that one of the problems with the ministerial code is that it is up to the judgment of the Prime Minister and that Parliament has no role in enforcing it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) accused me of harking back to a mythical golden age and quoted Neville Chamberlain on his return from Germany, saying “Peace for our time.” My hon. Friend also said that we need “to live in the real world—a world with 24-hour news”. He was worried that the protocol would not work.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who has the privilege of serving on both the Backbench Business Committee and the Procedure Committee, urged Ministers to toe the line while visibly crossing the line himself.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who is a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, was unhappy that the Committee had not been involved in the preparation of this motion and said that the debate was too early. He was also worried that the Chamber would get clogged up with lots of minor Government statements on all sorts of different subjects.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), who, I believe, is a Government Parliamentary Private Secretary, said that it was difficult to decide what would be and would not be important as far as Government statements were concerned. He accused those who tabled the motion of not recognising the realities of the present-day news media.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who serves on the Procedure Committee, placed the debate into an historical context, going back to Queen Elizabeth I. He reminded us that the ministerial code says that the Government have a duty to restore trust in politics, but he also said that a resolution of this House is substantial, solid and dignified, in contrast to the ministerial code, which is merely a lot of waffle around the main theme that Ministers remain Ministers almost whatever they do so long as they enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister.
In complete contrast, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) accused me and the House of being suffused with self-serving piety. I commend him for his forthright honesty in saying that the ministerial code, in his view, was a complete load of rubbish that ought to be torn up and that the Government should be quite open in making their news announcements to the public first without coming to this Chamber. I commend my hon. Friend for his honest approach; I condemn those Members of this House who pretend that this Chamber is where important news ought to be announced while routinely leaking that information to the press.
Finally, we had a contribution from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who reminded us of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, who resigned for leaking details of his Budget statement. The hon. Gentleman also made a very good point in answer to those who are worried that the Chamber will be clogged up with large number of oral statements about policy announcements: written ministerial statements are perfectly acceptable.
This has been a very well-informed, enthusiastic and interesting debate. For my part, this is not about Conservative versus Labour or Government versus Opposition. It is about this House of Commons, as one part of the Houses of Parliament, holding Her Majesty’s Government to account for their decisions and announcements. I leave hon. Members with one thought before we divide: do we want this Chamber to be the centre of the political life of the nation, or should we surrender to the 24-hour news media?