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Leader of the House

Volume 542: debated on Thursday 22 March 2012

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Privilege

1. What plans he has for consultation with hon. Members on the Government’s proposal for a draft Bill on parliamentary privilege. (101327)

Which particular aspect of the current system of privilege does the Minister feel is in most need of reform and why?

I am going to have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he will need to read the paper that we are producing, because it will, I hope, be a comprehensive survey of everything that relates to privilege and ask some pertinent questions about whether reform is necessary and whether it would be helpful to Members of this House in going about their business. He will have to be patient and wait for the paper, which we hope to publish before the end of the Session.

I hope that whatever the Government produce will indeed be a “green” paper, because there is one key issue that has to be resolved before we move any further, and that is: should we be putting anything about parliamentary privilege into statute? The danger is that the courts would then choose to interpret our actions and proceedings in this House, which would rather undermine the Glorious Revolution.

For once, I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Green Paper will ask the specific question whether the case has been made for legislation. We have approached this issue with an open mind, and we want to seek the views of both Houses on whether legislating further on parliamentary privilege is either necessary or desirable.

Legislative Programme

2. What criteria were used to determine the Government’s legislative programme for the next Session of Parliament. (101328)

The Government intend to introduce a legislative programme in the next Session to deliver deficit reduction, boost growth, support aspiration, reform public services and implement the priorities in the coalition agreement.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. That same coalition agreement described the introduction of a groceries code adjudicator as a “first step” in protecting the interests of consumers and farmers, not least those in the hard-pressed dairy industry. I do not know of any Member who represents as many dairy farmers as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), so will he use his influence with the business managers to ensure that a Bill to introduce a groceries code adjudicator makes its way into the next Session?

Obviously I cannot pre-empt what will be announced on 9 May, but the Government remain committed to introducing the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. I am pleased that the draft Bill has received pre-legislative scrutiny and that it has been warmly received across the House. As my hon. Friend rightly says, I have a clear constituency interest in the progress of that particular piece of legislation.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that the Committee stage of the House of Lords (Amendment) Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House? Will he also ensure that the Government will not ram the legislation through the Commons, as they did with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, and that there will be sufficient time for debate?

The House of Lords (Amendment) Bill is a constitutional Bill, and it is normal that the Committee stages of such Bills are taken on the Floor of the House. I have no reason to suppose that this Bill will be an exception. We will of course provide adequate time for debate.

May I propose a change for the Government when they are considering their legislative programme for the next Session? Will they bear it in mind, just for a change, that they are in coalition with the Conservative party?

Public Reading Stage (Government Bills)

The Government conducted an experiment with a public reading stage on the Protection of Freedoms Bill. Following an evaluation of the experiment, we intend to conduct trials in the second Session to determine the best ways for members of the public to comment on specific details of legislation. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I will update the House on our detailed plans early in the next Session.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he tell the House from whom he will seek advice on how best to push this measure forward?

It is very important that, before we undertake further pilots of public reading stages, we have an opportunity to reflect on any improvements that could be made to the technology and the processes involved. That will involve talking to many people. Hon. Members may have seen the recent announcement that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has agreed to advise the Government on improving open government, and we will want that work to influence how we proceed with public reading stages.

I welcome what my hon. Friend says about improving public engagement, particularly with regard to public reading stages. Does he agree that we need to make it easier for the public to follow Committee stages of Bills, too, once the public reading stage is over? Will he have discussions with Jimmy Wales and others, particularly those involved in social media and online engagement, on how we can demystify the legislative process in this country, so that more members of the public can contribute their views?

My hon. Friend highlights the purpose of what we are trying to do, and she rightly says that we are trying to demystify the process. The more that members of the public can interact with the House and understand how we go about our business and how they can influence the progress of legislation, the better. I can certainly give her a commitment that we will be looking at that. We will be looking at a variety of innovative ways to help the public to understand the process of legislation and the legislation itself, when it is presented to the House and to the public.

Legislative Scrutiny

The Government recognise the value of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. We have ensured that Bills have adequate time for proper scrutiny in the House. The Government are also committed to publishing more legislation in draft to enable pre-legislative scrutiny.

In this Session, five Bills have had a Report stage taken over two days. Indeed, both the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and the Finance (No. 3) Bill were considered over three days. This is more than in any Session of the previous Parliament, when there were none whatever in the first and last Sessions.

How many Bills had pre-legislative scrutiny in the last Session, and how did that compare with this Session? Will the Deputy Leader of the House make a statement on plans for the future?

The Government have published nine draft measures this Session, and are committed to publishing more measures in draft in the next Session, with a view to pre-legislative scrutiny. Further specific announcements will be made at the start of the new Session. In the last Session under the previous Government, two Bills—just two—were published in draft.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House say more about the Government’s plans for post-legislative scrutiny?

Like their predecessor, the Government are committed to reviewing every Act of Parliament three to five years after it has passed. Government Departments publish Command Papers, allowing Commons Committees to decide whether or not to conduct further post-legislative scrutiny of each Act, when it is appropriate to do so. Forty-four of these memorandums have been published since this system was introduced in 2008. We welcome the work undertaken so far by Select Committees to examine such memorandums, but it is up to the Select Committees to decide whether they wish to do more.

I am a member of the European Scrutiny Committee which receives a thick bundle of policies and proposals from the European Union each week. What measures can be taken to ensure that more of these can go before departmental Select Committees, as they cover the whole vast area of UK national policy?

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The Government are keen to explore possible ways further to improve the effectiveness with which this House deals with European legislation. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is in discussions with Select Committees and others about possible changes.

The effectiveness of scrutiny of legislation is important, and so is the cost of the effectiveness of such scrutiny. One mechanism that arguably assists with that scrutiny is that of early-day motions. I congratulate the Government on reducing the annual cost of early-day motions by 38% since 2010, but I hope my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the Procedure Committee’s announcement that it will carry out a fresh review of early-day motions in the near future.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and the fact that he recognises that the House of Commons Commission is looking across the House to establish where savings can be made. The interest of Members in the hon. Gentleman’s recent Adjournment debate, to which I responded, highlighted the variety of views on this issue. It is quite right that, if there is a swell of opinion for further reform in this area, it would be appropriate for the Procedure Committee to consider the issue of early-day motions.

Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), will the Leader of the House look again at establishing permanent membership of European Standing Committees? The ad hoc approach, frankly, does not work.

Again, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. The Government are continuing to explore ways to improve scrutiny, and there remain areas that we need to explore. One issue to bear in mind is whether hon. Members would be willing to serve on such a Committee. If that is the case and if we can make satisfactory arrangements, we will of course bring them to the House.

If there is a new look at early-day motions, will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that Members will not be deprived of one of the rare opportunities to criticise parliamentary answers? A recent EDM suggested that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), gave a parliamentary answer that reached a new low “in evasiveness and vacuity”, and recommends that in future Ministers should read the question before answering parliamentary questions.

Order. I am sure we are talking about these matters with reference to the scrutiny of legislation.

Yes, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s question was about the scrutiny of legislation. I have already set out our position on EDMs. We recognise that they have value, but sometimes some can, shall we say, come close to an abuse of the House in terms of their cost compared with their benefit. On the subject of questions to Ministers, the hon. Gentleman knows that if there are deficiencies in the responses Members receive, I and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House are always happy to take that up with the Departments and Ministers concerned.

What plans does the hon. Gentleman have to extend the time available for the consideration of Bills on Second Reading? It has become traditional for Second Reading debates to be considered on a single day. May we extend the time available, as many Members, especially Back Benchers, want to contribute on Second Reading?

First, let me make the important point that the scrutiny of legislation is an essential part of the business of this House. People often talk about Government time as if it were unrelated to the business of the House when, in fact, it is Parliament’s time in order to scrutinise legislation. I merely make the observation that the more time that is eroded from so-called Government time by consideration of other matters that are no doubt of enormous importance—such as urgent questions and emergency debates—the less time is available to the House to scrutinise legislation properly.

Devolution

5. Whether he plans to submit evidence to the commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons. (101332)

I welcome the announcement by the Minister for political and constitutional reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), of the terms of membership for the commission, and I will be following its work closely. Although I have no plans to submit evidence to the commission myself, it will no doubt wish to take account of the authoritative works and voices on this issue, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be among them.

When in opposition, the Leader of the House produced a distinguished pamphlet on the topic that the McKay commission will be studying. Does he propose to send that work to the commission? Also, does the commission intend to take written evidence, and to meet in public to take oral evidence?

The commission will be meeting in public and it has asked for evidence. My hon. Friend is too kind about the work of the democracy taskforce to which I contributed when I was on the Back Benches, but I am sure this exchange will have drawn the commission’s attention to the existence of that important work.

Is not the easiest and most elegant solution to the West Lothian question for Scotland to become a normal, independent, self-governing nation?

“Bring it on” is what we on the Government Benches would say. That particular issue is beyond the remit of the commission, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will do what he can to bring forward the date when we can resolve it once and for all.