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House of Commons Hansard
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Business of the House Commission
02 September 2014
Volume 585

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create a Business of the House Commission to regulate the timetabling of business in the House of Commons; and for connected purposes.

The House of Commons’ historical functions were to vote money for Governments to spend and to scrutinise laws. It now barely bothers with the first and does the second extremely badly. There was a time when legislation that had been formulated after months of civil service and ministerial deliberation was sent to the House of Commons, which would pore over it, shape it, send it back, get it back, look at it again, and improve it some more. Bill by bill, clause by clause, line by line—every piece of legislation would be put under intense scrutiny. Is it legally sound? Will it be effective? Is it worth the cost?

Let us compare that with what happens today. Let me take Members on the journey of a piece of legislation as it passes through the modern House of Commons. It is likely to have been dreamt up on the sofa at No. 10. A Bill gets drafted and is sent to the House for a couple of hours of routine debate among a few MPs. Then the bell rings, the whip gets cracked, and suddenly, out of nowhere, all these other MPs turn up to vote. More often than not, they do not even know what they are voting for. The Bill limps through, then it goes to the Public Bill Committee. The Committee’s duty is to look at the details clause by clause, but it is packed full of people that the Whips have put there, so—surprise, surprise—the Government rarely lose a vote on any of the individual points of detailed scrutiny. Then it is back to the House to do it all again—debate, bell, and then vote to wave the legislation through.

Every Bill now has a programme motion setting out how much time can be spent scrutinising and debating each part. These are automatic guillotines, and the time allowed for scrutiny is set in advance before anyone can see whether a particular issue is contentious or complex. Watching a Minister in the Commons drawing out one point for an hour to fill the time to an audience of dozing Back Benchers—this is not accountability. How is it that the mother of all Parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child?

“If we’re serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it's time to strengthen parliament so it can properly hold the government to account on behalf of voters. The House of Commons should have more control over its own timetable, so there is time for proper scrutiny and debate.”

Those are not my words but those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), the Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition in 2009. As usual, the Prime Minister was correct—absolutely spot on. All I am doing today is helping the Prime Minister in his quest to fix broken politics.

This coalition started its life with a clear mandate and a mission to reform Parliament and restore faith in politics. Accountability is the cornerstone of our democracy—accountability to the people and accountability to the representatives they have chosen to voice their concerns. Thank goodness the coalition promised to put an end to the tyranny. The coalition agreement clearly stated the parliamentary reform that would occur. Equally, it was very clear on the timetables for that reform. I quote:

“We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full—starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.”

That is a clear mandate and a clear deadline—a deadline that has long since passed—to bring forward legislation to create a business of the House committee. As we approach the election, Government and Opposition Whips alike are blocking such a committee.

It was not just the coalition agreement that promised reform. The Conservative manifesto, “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”, stated the need for reform of the House of Commons to make it more accountable and to allow MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively. The Liberal Democrats, in their snappy manifesto called “Change that Works for You”, clearly stated that they would give Parliament control over its own agenda so that all Bills leaving the House of Commons would be fully debated. I could not agree more with the Deputy Prime Minister on that point. This is certainly change that would work for me. Even Labour, which was then in government, pledged to strengthen the power of Parliament to hold the Executive to account and to give a stronger voice to Back Benchers. You can imagine my confusion, Mr Deputy Speaker, when I asked the newly appointed Leader of the House when he planned to introduce a business of the House committee and he responded that due to the absence of consensus there were no plans to do so.

Could there be a stronger mandate for a business of the House commission? All three major political parties in Parliament support such a reform, the Prime Minister has spoken out in support of increasing Parliament’s power so that we are not at the mercy of the Executive, and it is even in that hallowed document, the coalition’s programme for government. They all agree that there should be a business of the House commission. One would say there is total consensus; the only objection seems to be coming from the three Whips Offices. May I suggest that that is no serious objection at all? I would also suggest that when the three Whips Offices agree on something, that is never in Parliament’s interest and it is further evidence of why we need such a commission.

Currently, the Executive timetable all business except on the 13 Fridays when private Members’ Bills are discussed and the 27 days when the Backbench Business Committee decides on the business. Parliament itself should decide how much time is allocated for Bills. Not having enough time to examine legislation thoroughly as it passes through the Commons completely devalues the democratic process, as it undercuts the power of MPs to make representations on their constituents’ behalf. Time and again, amendments to Bills on Report are not debated because there is simply not enough time. Routinely, Third Readings last just an hour. One of the most striking examples of that was when an amendment extending restrictions on the free movement of Romanians and Bulgarians, signed by very many MPs, was not reached because of the timetabling and the programme motion. Though the country wanted it to be debated, the Executive did not, so they arranged it so that Parliament could not discuss it. That is just not democracy.

The business of the House commission would be composed of Back-Bench parliamentarians, not Whips or Ministers. The workings of the commission would be quite straightforward. The commission would sit on a Monday and hear from the Government their proposed timetable for the following week. It would also hear from shadow Ministers and other Members of Parliament who would propose alterations to that timetable if they so wished. The commission would deliberate and announce its business on a Thursday, and that would then be subject to a formal vote. The commission would be chaired by an elected Leader of the House, who would be elected by the whole House and responsible for the running of parliamentary business. He or she would not be a member of the Government or a member of the shadow Government. The Backbench Business Committee would keep its allocated days, as would private Members’ Bills, and the rest of the time would be run by the business of the House commission.

Such a commission would have been incredibly useful this summer, when there has been so much debate about whether or not the crises in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria warranted the recall of Parliament. At the moment, the decision on whether Parliament is recalled lies in the first instance with the head of the Executive, the Prime Minister. It should be for Parliament to decide when it sits, and a business of the House commission would have decided this summer whether to recall Parliament following the numerous international crises. Surely it is far better for a commission of parliamentarians to decide whether Parliament should be recalled than the Government, who may not want their decisions scrutinised.

A business of the House commission would make for a far more democratic system of decision making, ensuring that time is allocated fairly to restore the mother of Parliaments to a strong and flourishing democracy fit for the people of Britain.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Peter Bone, Bob Blackman, Mr Frank Field, Steve Baker, Kate Hoey, Mr Graham Allen, Mr Graham Brady, Mr John Redwood, Philip Davies, Mr Christopher Chope, Mr Philip Hollobone and Mr David Davis present the Bill.

Mr Peter Bone accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 December and to be printed (Bill 85).