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House Business Committee

Volume 600: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the creation of a House Business Committee.

Welcome to the Chair, Mr Pritchard. It would probably be hard to think of anything more technical, boring or dry than a House Business Committee—that is what people would like you to think. But it is actually the heart of political power in respect of Parliament’s relationship to Government. It is amazing that in this day and age, at least 200 years since Montesquieu wrote “The Spirit of Laws”, which talked about the separation of powers, the good old United Kingdom still does not have a written settlement. It does not have something that we can all refer to so that we know what Parliament does, what Government do and what the judiciary does, and that keeps them separate.

The lesson learned at great cost in the French revolution, and enacted with some blood in the American revolution, has bypassed the United Kingdom. We still have a system that Charles I would recognise, in which the Executive have supreme control and what they say goes—only Charles I would see that instead of a monarch, we have a Government. They are benign, because we live in a democratic culture, and people are normally very nice to each other and quite polite. The reality, however, is that power is exercised by Government over Parliament, rather than Government seeing Parliament as a partner. That makes our system dysfunctional and incapable of providing a serious process of reconciliation or holding to account.

[Mike Gapes in the Chair]

Of course, many people have vested interests in keeping the system exactly the way it is. I put it to the Government, at both ministerial and official level, that that is an immature way of viewing our politics. It weakens our politics and our governance, particularly in this day and age when people are so turned off by politics in general. This is a moment where we can win people back, and say, “You know what? We are going to listen to people. We do not always want to do what they tell us, but we will listen to them and their elected representatives because that is part of the warp and weft of our democracy.”

By doing that, we could bring people together and command greater consensus on our decision making. The decision-making process would be less arbitrary and much stronger if we had that level of maturity in our politics—if the Government did not cynically laugh up their sleeve and say, “We are going to ram this through if we possibly can, come what may, despite what people think,” rather than, “I wonder whether any of these people in Parliament who are not in government have a contribution to make. Shall we listen on the off-chance that they have?”

Perhaps if we had a proper Report stage in the House of Commons, we could find a way of making better law. Perhaps it would save us time, because we would not have to come back to things, as we infamously did on, I think, five occasions during one Parliament on a criminal justice Bill. If we listened to people, we would not have to swallow, give in or U-turn, but we could distinguish the good from the bad and help to make our system better. Doing so would make our politics and our democracy stronger, and it would certainly make our Parliament and governmental relationship stronger.

That is not the way we have chosen to do things so far, however. The Wright Committee suggested that we should have a House Business Committee. Why would we want such a thing? It would bring to the table Parliament and the respective Whips. In addition to those who work for the Government and the alternative Government, it would bring to the table some people from the institution—perhaps the leader of the 1922 committee, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, a couple of people elected from the Back Benches, someone from a minority party and a nominee of the Speaker. The committee could have a majority from the Government so that, having heard all the voices, the Government could still, if they wanted, ram through whatever they felt was convenient to their long-term interest, whoever was in power.

We would not lose a lot by having such a meeting once a week, and we would risk gaining an incredible amount. For instance, the 90 minutes allocated for the debate in the main Chamber tonight, which everybody seems to feel is incredibly important, on whether there should be a legally binding obligation on deficit reduction could be extended. We could use parliamentary time more effectively. Perhaps, Mr Gapes, someone of your distinguished history on that committee might say, “We are going to clear off early if we possibly can on Tuesday, and we will have only four people in the Chamber. Why don’t we use that time effectively to discuss important issues?” It would not be necessary to find a clerkly device to wangle one’s way on to the agenda and squeak in a few words to heckle the Executive steamroller; instead, we could have a proper debate on refugees, on the Redcar steelworks or on tax credits. We have just had such a debate in Westminster Hall, which is a well-attended but none the less secluded venue for something so important.

I do not raise this matter—yet again—in anger; I raise it in frustration at the fact that our governance is such that we would rather keep control than find a sensible way to conduct a modern and mature democracy.

Can the hon. Gentleman explain to me why in May 2009, the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, made a powerful speech about fixing broken politics, in which he said that there should be a business of the House committee; why he committed in the coalition agreement to establishing such a committee within three years of the Parliament; and why it never actually happened? What evil forces behind the scenes are stopping this?

I do not believe that there are any evil forces. There is a desire when in government not to be bothered with explaining things any more than one has to. Governments want to get on and do business. There is a feeling that parliamentarians can be treated with contempt, because Parliament is a holding pen for the sheep who will troop through the Lobby to enact measures that have been in a manifesto or on the Government’s agenda, and that is the way things are done. I do not think that people are evil, unpleasant or malicious; I think that they are simply missing an opportunity.

I want to mention the two most powerful people in the House of Commons: Roy Stone, the principal private secretary to the Chief Whip, and Mike Winter, the head of the Office of the Leader of the House. They are decent civil servants, but they could be told by an incoming Prime Minister, “This is simply not good enough. We are a laughing stock compared with other legislatures.”

We are elected on election day and the electorate give us legitimacy, which is sucked out of us by a Government who have no legitimacy of their own. They are not directly elected, so they have to get legitimacy from somewhere. It is rather like a scene from a science fiction film in which people are tied to a wall and pipes attached to their veins, so that they can give sustenance to a beast that sucks their blood. Government suck out the legitimacy that the electorate give to Parliament and leave us a shell, and we are the worse for it. Government stride off, pumped up with the legitimacy that is rightfully Parliament’s, because they have none of their own.

I do not blame any of the civil servants or incumbent Ministers, because that has been a feature of governance in this country—this includes Labour Governments and Labour Prime Ministers—for as long as I have been in Parliament. I am simply trying to put on the table yet again the fact that there is a better way of doing things, as a result of which we would not be held so much in contempt. If the Government involved Parliament and listened to people, they would act as a symbol to people out there that we are doing things in a different way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important subject, as he has for many years. The lesson is that all Governments and Governments-in-waiting are power retentive, with an addiction to hanging on to every scrap of power. They think that, in setting up a House Business Committee through which the House decided its own business, they would lose a minute part of their power.

Because of the Petitions Committee, earlier this week this room was filled with members of the public, who were all allowed to use their iPads to send messages, intent on a subject of their choice through petition. That is one step forward but, unfortunately, it tends to end in disappointment because no decisions are taken at the end of those petition debates.

Yes, the petitions question is one that my Select Committee—the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) was a distinguished member—looked at, along with all the Wright reforms. Indeed, one of my anxieties is that new Members coming to this place just assume that some of those bits of progress are part of the atmosphere here and have been for several hundred years—not true. Select Committee Chairs and members, some of whom are present today, have just been elected for only the second time in parliamentary history.

Before that, the Government—the very institution that is meant to be held to account—decided who went on those Committees. What an absolute nonsense that was! I was in the Whips Office; of course the people who the Whips think will do more appropriate things were put on Committees. They are not going to put difficult people into politically tender situations. People are going to be rewarded with Select Committee Chairs and so on. That is no way to run a democracy.

Fundamentally, GCSE-level politics says that unless we have a plurality of institutions, each with their own legitimacy, independence and standing, we cannot say that we have the structure of a genuine democracy. That is where we need to get to and where we will get to, either by kicking and screaming as the Union is dismembered, mass cynicism pervades the electorate and the concept of democracy starts to come under threat, or by using our brains to try to get people to pull together and act in partnership, in a plural way, to build the democracy that the country deserves and needs.

I just managed to squeak in, Mr Gapes, moments before your good self because I was on the Floor of the House where we were talking about devolution, democracy and giving people power. I welcome the Cities and Local Government Bill and the efforts of the Secretary of State who has done a fantastic job on it, perhaps to the alarm of some of my colleagues. But we need to spread that further. We need to say to people, “We cannot do this in little isolated blocks. We actually need to renew our democracy.” That is my ask of Government Ministers and officials.

I know there is a speech ready. I know it will say, “Have we have passed the test set by Mr Lansley? Yes we have. Blah blah.” There will be a defence that although it appeared in the coalition agreement and was reneged on, there were reasons for that. There will, no doubt, be a statement saying, “It was in the manifesto but we didn’t do it. The Prime Minister himself committed to serious reform and certain things got in the way.” I am not interested, to be honest. I would like the Minister to get to her feet and engage me in debate about why we cannot build a better way of running the relationship between Government and Parliament without it being a relationship of subordination and domination. Why can we not get that fantastic added value that we all get in our family affairs by having a properly balanced relationship where discussions happen and decisions are made when people come to a consensus?

I will put this matter on the agenda again if I can. There is a lot more to be said. I could say a lot more but it would be very repetitive because we have raised the issue since the Wright Committee. In other words, we have raised the issue with all parties in government. We have raised this issue with coalition Governments, Labour Governments and Conservative Governments. At one point in this historical process—I hope I am still alive to see it and cheer: from afar, no doubt—the Government will accept that building an effective, honest and open partnership with Parliament is a better way to govern a democracy than what they do now, which is often to impose and to control.

Let a thousand flowers bloom. Let a debate take place. Perhaps a House Business Committee—minor though that may be, and technical and dry though it may sound —could be a symbol of that new start.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, and to respond to the debate on the creation of a House Business Committee. May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)on securing this debate? Although I recognise that I might not be about to relieve his frustration, I am sure that he will understand, as he said, the points that I intend to make.

The Government’s position on the creation of a House Business Committee remains as set out in an answer to a parliamentary question tabled in July by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, which it may be helpful to read out:

“There was an absence of consensus on this issue at the end of the previous Parliament, and there is still no consensus at the beginning of this Parliament. The Government therefore have no intention to bring forward proposals.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 448.]

That remains the Government’s position and although this could be a short speech, I want to add something to that response, including comments on some issues raised during this debate.

I will start by addressing the issue of a House Business Committee directly. During the previous Parliament, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee proposed a House Business Committee, based around the idea of a consultative committee, from a list of several different options. I think that five or six options were put forward and one was plumped for. By its own admission, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recognised that each of its proposals for a House Business Committee had

“virtues as well as disadvantages”,

and it had concerns that it did not wish to do anything that

“would undermine the advances already made”

on the reform agenda.

While the principle of a House Business Committee has its supporters, agreement on its purpose, function and composition has been lacking. It is fair to say that a typical week in the House since 2010 gives the Government two days in the Chamber to progress their legislative agenda, with a day for Opposition scrutiny and another for Back-Bench nominated, House-controlled business. Those supporting the creation of a House Business Committee need to address the issue of its purpose and to answer the question of what deficiencies in the current system it would address.

When Lord Lansley was Leader of the House, he set out a number of tests that any Committee would need to meet to be able to operate effectively and add value to our current arrangements. Those tests are still valid. In particular, such a Committee must

“provide Government control of its legislative programme; respect the remit of the Backbench Business Committee; take into account the views of all parts of the House without becoming unwieldy in size; co-ordinate business with the House of Lords; and retain the flexibility to change the business at short notice in response to fast-moving events.”

As he said then, he was not able to identify a proposal that met those tests, nor did he suggest a means of doing so. The hon. Member for Nottingham North will be aware that we did not agree with the option that was suggested. There has certainly been a wide diversity of views in support of different options. Indeed, I recall the passing words of the former shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle):

“All I would say is I look forward with a great deal of interest to how you square the circle of the House Business Committee.”

That remains true today.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and not reading her prepared speech. The situation is that this was in the coalition agreement—the bible of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) and the Prime Minister. How on earth could it have got in the bible if it had not been thought through and agreed? I do not think that my hon. Friend’s speech is career enhancing if she is going against what the Prime Minister wants.

I am so pleased that my hon. Friend is interested in the future of my career. At the time, the noble Lord Lansley said that, yes, it had been in the coalition agreement but that he feared he would not be able to effect it because he had not been able to find a model that satisfied those tests. The tests are still valid. Could such a Committee co-ordinate the business of the House of Lords? How would a weekly meeting react to fast-changing events and the need to change business at short notice? How could it represent all Back Benchers without becoming unwieldy in size?

The current system gives every Back Bencher a weekly opportunity to hold the Leader of the House to account for the proposed business, to question him on that business and to make requests for future business. The previous coalition Government gave evidence to the PCRC on the large amount of consultation that had been undertaken and on the diversity of views that had been expressed, none of which fulfilled the tests or looked capable of securing consensus.

I remind Members of the positive reforms and developments in the last Parliament, which should be rightly celebrated. A PCRC report in the last Parliament considered the impact of reform and welcomed the progress that had been made since 2009—indeed, we voted for most of the reforms in 2010. The PCRC stated:

“There have been clear advances in the effectiveness of Commons select committees… The Backbench Business Committee has been a success and we welcome the good working relationships which it has established with the business managers”.

We should also consider our recent experience of scrutinising legislation. There have been an increased number of multi-day Report stages—there were 25 in the 2010 to 2015 Parliament, compared with 11 in the previous Parliament. There has been increased use of pre-legislative scrutiny, with 17 measures in the last Session being published in draft. We have allocated more time for scrutiny, but four in five Public Bill Committees, 83%, finished early last year, which is more than in the previous year. We have also implemented explanatory statements on amendments.

The House and the Government have not rested on their laurels. Ten of the reforms highlighted by the 2009 House of Commons Reform Committee report related to better engagement with the public. I am pleased that, following collaborative work between the Procedure Committee and the Government, this House agreed to a joint system of e-petitions, thereby meeting the public’s expectation to be able to petition their Parliament and to seek action from their Government in response. The Petitions Committee created in this Parliament as part of the joint package fulfils that expectation. Two debates have been organised by the Committee, including one on Monday led by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), which attracted wide attention.

I am disappointed by the reference of the hon. Member for Nottingham North—dare I say it?—to colleagues being lifeless clones who are just part of the machine. He referred to executive power, and he needs no reminder that the Executive are part of this House. This place may be unusual, although not rare, in not having a separate Executive and legislature, but I do not believe that this is a weak Parliament, far from it. Parliament does hold the Government to account. He referred to legislation being rammed through but, despite what people think, my party has a mandate from winning the election. Nevertheless, it has not been my experience, either as a Back Bencher or as a Minister, that the Government ignore other people; in fact, I find that the Government have listened to people’s views. Debates have been extended and Bills have been amended in Committee and on Report to reflect discussions with other MPs. That is mature politics, unlike what was suggested earlier.

There has already been a large amount of scrutiny on the subject of tonight’s debate, but I am pleased that we are debating it once again. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will decide whether some of his colleagues are mindlessly walking through one Lobby or another. The result will be interesting.

I hope that I have addressed the points about the coalition agreement by simply reiterating what the noble Lord Lansley has previously said to the House, but I recognise that the hon. Gentleman will still be disappointed. I conclude by assuring him, and other Members present, that we will continue to work constructively and positively with the relevant Committees and others on both sides of the House. Ultimately, we are all parliamentarians, and we all fought an election to get here. We are all proud of that and want Parliament to work, but we need to do something feasible that allows scrutiny while allowing the Government to enact their legislative agenda.

On a point of order, Mr Gapes. Would it be in order to squeak against the steamroller one last time by having a vote?

Mr Allen, this is not the appropriate time to raise that point. You should raise it after I have put the question.

Question put.

The Chair’s opinion as to the decision of the Question was challenged.

Question not decided (Standing Order No. 10(13)).

Sitting suspended.