Orders of the Day — Executive and Legislature

– in the House of Commons at 11:45 pm on 9th November 1999.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mrs. McGuire.]

12. 48 am

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

The Adjournment debate tonight is about the role of the House of Commons. If it is any relief to the Minister who is to reply, I am not really expecting any sort of response. If he listens, I shall be very content because what I want to talk about deals with the House itself.

My qualifications for opening this debate are that I was elected 49 years ago this month and have fought 17, and won 16, contested elections, which the Library tells me is a record equalled only by Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Churchill. The Library also told me that 431, 622 people had voted for me, and it is on their behalf that I want to speak tonight. Having sat in 14 Parliaments under 11 Prime Ministers, with eight Speakers, I feel qualified to comment on the work of the House.

I should like to make clear what the debate is not about. It is not about relations between the Government and the Opposition. It is not about relations between Front Benchers and Back Benchers—what one might call the Privy Councillors and the rest. It is not a debate between Conservative and Labour. It is not a debate between left and right. In the long history of Parliament, all those are relatively new issues. The debate is about the oldest issue of all—the relationship between the Government and the governed. The House of Commons speaks for the governed. The debate is about the role of the House of Commons as a legislative assembly and about relations between the Commons and the Government of the day.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I look back for a moment at our history. We say that we are and always have been a parliamentary democracy, but I am afraid that it is not quite as simple as that. When I take visitors round the House, I point out that all the statues here are of people totally opposed to parliamentary democracy and in particular to votes for women. The truth is that there has been a long struggle from the very beginning of time for the common people to be represented in such a way as to have some capacity to influence the Government of the day.

Britain has always had a Government. Julius Caesar was a Government. He introduced a single currency, but I will not go into that. William the Conqueror, in Westminster abbey on Christmas day, in his coronation speech which I know almost by heart, pledged to govern the country himself. There was no question of popular consent. Then there was Charles I, and so on. But the universal adult franchise has been developed only in my own lifetime. I was born in 1925. Women were not trusted with the vote then until they were 30. Men were so arrogant that they thought that women were not really up to it until they had reached a certain maturity of years. The abolition of the secondary vote—the business vote—and the university vote took place only in 1948, about 18 months before I arrived here. So we are discussing how the development of the franchise impacts or should impact on the Government of the day.

The nation votes for a Government. That is obvious. When people vote at a general election they are concerned not just with their own representative. To be a Minister is a very hard job. I did it for 11 years, so I know that side of the story as well. The powers of a Minister and particularly of the Prime Minister are immense. In most cases, they derive not from the House but from the Crown. I want to come in a minute to the difference between Executive powers and the powers of the Government to legislate. Ever since 1688, when we had the glorious revolution, the powers of the Crown have been restored. When the Prime Minister appoints a bishop, he uses the powers of the Crown. When he appoints a judge, he uses the powers of the Crown. When he appoints a Minister, he uses the powers of the Crown. When he appoints a peer, he uses the powers of the Crown. When he appoints a commissioner, he uses the powers of the Crown. When he appoints the chairman of a royal commission or the BBC, he uses the powers of the Crown. For none of those powers is there any accountability to the House of Commons.

I once got into some difficulties for advocating the appointment of 1,000 peers to deal with the House of Lords. The Prime Minister is showing some move in that direction himself, having appointed 150 peers in the past two and a half years, and having offered peerages to members of the royal family, which is an innovation that I am trying to sort out in terms of our history. The powers of the Crown are the powers of the Government, and they have not much altered over the centuries. They include patronage and the power to go to war or to make peace. We had no vote on the war against Yugoslavia.

Of course, all the laws in Europe are made by the royal prerogative of treaty making. I was on the Council of Ministers for four years. Every time that I agreed to something, I was using the royal prerogative of treaty making. Indeed, since we joined the European Community as it was, the power to make laws by prerogative has returned for the first time since 1649—with a significance that I will not go into in any greater detail. The parliament in Europe is not the European Parliament but the Council of Ministers, which makes the laws and meets in secret—the only Parliament that does so. The Government control the agenda of our Parliament and the parliamentary timetable. Although I shall not go into the matter, it is well known that, wearing their party hats, Prime Ministers and the party machine have much influence over the conduct of Members in all parties.

If we move away from the election of a Government to the election of a Member of Parliament, constituencies vote for a representative. The electors want to be represented. Any Member who deals with correspondence—as I am sure we all do—will know that people write to us because we represent them. If people write to us from another constituency, we suggest that they get in touch with their own MP. The idea of representative government is quite different from the idea of government from the top.

When we arrive in this place, we elect a Speaker. Long may that be the case. I do not want that to be interfered with by an extension of patronage. We are here to scrutinise and challenge the Executive; we can table parliamentary questions and motions, hold debates and serve on Select Committees. We can accept, amend or reject Government legislation.

My next point is so obvious that it might shock people. Governments do not make laws. Members of Parliament make laws. I have heard Members say, "The Government have decided to do this or that—the Government have decided to introduce means tests for disability benefits. " They do not; we do. When one of our constituents asks, "Why did the Government do that?", it is no good our saying that the Government did it—we did it. We are legislators. The function of the House as a legislative body has been obscured, to a large extent, by the requirements of party loyalty and by the practice of the House falling into line with the parliamentary majority of the day. However, those are our duties. They are duties that we must discharge. That is the meaning of a parliamentary system of government.

Of course, during the time I have been a Member, great changes have occurred—at an accelerating rate over recent years—that have altered the focus of power. There is a growing centralisation of power in all parties. I said that I would not say anything that was politically controversial, but the House will agree that the tendency to the centralisation of power did not appear recently, although Mrs. Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, was known to be a strong central leader. Earlier Prime Ministers shared that characteristic. However, we must note that centralisation of power.

Another phenomenon that we need to examine constitutionally is the tendency for an informal coalition to bypass the electors. I shall not go into great detail on the question of Liberal Democrat Members being on a consultative Cabinet committee, but people did not vote for that in the general election. They voted for one party, which received a majority of the votes, and for another party, which received fewer votes, and the Government of the day are now bringing in the party which received the smallest number of votes. That creates the impression in the public mind—not so wrongly—of a huddling together at the centre. That factor is changing the nature of the House. When we hold debates, I have no idea, as a Back Bencher, what announcement made by Ministers has already been agreed with the Liberal party. No report is made to us on such matters—and no report is made by the Liberal party. I do not criticise that—indeed, as I hope to show, I am not criticising anything—I am trying to examine clinically what is happening to our system.

There is the impact of technology and globalisation. Globalisation is not entirely new; the old empires were global in character—when I was born, I think that the British empire covered 20 per cent. of the world's population. That was a form of globalisation. Now, of course, the free movement of capital creates enormous power. International organisations now have greater power—the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation or, to a lesser extent, the United Nations itself. Those powers have taken over from this House and, as we shall discover increasingly, if the House were to take action, or to try to take action, that protected our citizens in a way that ran counter to an agreement reached, under royal prerogative, by the Government with the WTO, we should find that what we were doing was illegal.

Of course, Europe has had a profound effect, as has devolution, with the result that the boundaries will have to be examined. In addition, there is now a far bigger role for the media. As I have always explained to people, Parliament is merely a "parlement"—we are an elected talking shop, but the real talking shop has long since moved elsewhere. I want to be clinical so as to avoid being controversial, but I think that, without any announcement of any change being made, this country is moving from a parliamentary to a presidential system. It appears to me as an observer that, increasingly, all effective power comes from No. 10 Downing street. I understand that the current Prime Minister has twice as many advisers as his predecessor, although I do not know how many that is—20, 30, 40, 50 or 60. That is not a new development—I had two advisers when I was Secretary of State for Industry and for Energy—but it is new in the sense that it is now becoming apparent to many people, certainly to me, that the real cabinet is now in No. 10 Downing street and that policy announcements made have been discussed within that cabinet. However, that cabinet has not been elected, nor have its members been through the rigorous selection process applied to the civil service. It is far more like the American system.

That has clearly altered the character of the real Cabinet. My diary from January 1968 tells me that I had eight Cabinet meetings in a month, most or many of which lasted morning and afternoon. I understand that the Cabinet now meets for between 20 and 40 minutes. I have not probed in an improper way, but I can only conclude that the Cabinet is no longer the centre of real decision making. That has changed the relationship between the Government and Parliament, because Cabinet members sit on the Treasury Bench and answer questions. They might be less able to do so now that relations between Ministers and the Prime Minister are conducted on a one-to-one basis. I am told that no Cabinet papers have been presented by individual Cabinet Ministers since the election. When I was a Minister, I presented many, as did other Ministers, but that process has passed away without comment.

It is often said that the House of Commons is being bypassed. It is known that most statements made at 3. 30 pm have been fully aired on the "Today" programme, and that Members of Parliament are secondary recipients of the information. All Governments have done that, but I do not recall its being done in quite that way in the old days.

The Prime Minister's patronage extends to the House of Lords; Select Committees are to be reviewed by the Government—the Executive attempting to control in some way the Committees that we set up; and there are rumours that the Speaker might be replaced. There are no effective checks and balances in our new presidential system comparable to those in the United States. As we know from recent history, an American President has to think about the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Supreme Court, but the president of this country does not have to think about any of those things.

Those are facts—although I hold strong views, I make no comment. Every Prime Minister can do what he likes, and the current one certainly does. My concern is the quite different question of how the House of Commons should respond to the situation I have tried to describe clinically. People say that our power has slipped away with the merging of our sovereignty, but the problem in politics is always how to respond to a situation over which one has no control. Very few people control their own situation—even the Americans could be destroyed by a nuclear weapon launched by China or Russia. The question is, how do we respond to that?

I shall set out what I take to be the obligations of Members of the House of Commons. We have obligations to our political parties, both nationally and locally. With the possible exception of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), none of us would be here were it not for the fact that we stood as party candidates. I am well aware that I would never have become a Member of Parliament or a Minister had I not been a member of the Labour party.

It is therefore right and proper that we recognise that we are carried into the House by a party at an election. I joined the Labour party on my birthday in 1942 and I intend to die in it—but not quite yet. We are all committed to the manifesto that brought us here. It seems quite reasonable that, if the party promises something, we, as individual Members, have an obligation to support it.

We are also committed to the electors that we represent, who choose us. They employ us, they can dismiss us and we must speak for them. I have learned far more from letters from constituents, and from my surgeries—500 or more people come to them every year—than from listening to debates in the House. I say that without discourtesy, because they bring the real experiences of life to me.

We are also responsible to our consciences and convictions, because the only image that matters is the image in the mirror when one shaves in the morning. No other image matters; we have to live with ourselves.

However, we—I am speaking of whoever happens to be a Government Back Bencher—are not required to take orders from the Government when a policy has not been in the manifesto, has not been put before us and has not been the subject of consultation. This very day we have had examples of that.

On welfare reform, I did not vote against the Government; I voted for disabled people. I very much resent the press talking about a rebellion. There was no rebellion. There were Members of Parliament voting according to their convictions, in the interests of their constituents. Some may disagree, as people did, but those who voted for the Government were not actually voting for the Government; they were voting for the changes in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. I greatly resent the current personalisation of media coverage-the references to the "awkward squad", the "mavericks", the "rebels". This place is elected to give a judgment on the measures or motions brought before it, whether by Government or Opposition.

This evening we also debated immigration issues. Europe divides us. Why should the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) follow the line of his leader if the leader is changing the line on Europe? He is under no obligation to do so. Our duty is to speak and vote as we believe to be right, within the framework of loyalty that I have described to our party, to our constituents and to our conscience.

We must defend our Speaker from any attempt to remove her. I say that because, recently, a second rumour appeared that Ministers wanted to remove our Speaker.

We must control the Select Committees. Select Committee members should not be appointed by the Whips; we should elect them in the House by secret ballot. Select Committees should elect their own Chairs and not allow the Prime Minister of the day to change them. Select Committees should be given power to enforce their theoretical powers to call for persons, papers and records. Professor John Griffiths, a retired professor of public law, has sent me a most interesting memorandum in which he says that a Select Committee should be able to punish people who do not answer questions, subject to the House reversing that punishment. I also believe that there should be more free votes.

With the help of Members across the Floor, I have tabled an early-day motion. The preamble rehearses much of what I have said, but I simply read the operative passage: That this House…therefore invites all…Members, while honouring their personal and political obligations and loyalty to their own party and the manifesto on which they were elected, to speak and vote more freely in the House on the proposals put before them, and by doing so to re-assert their historic role as elected representatives, their right and duty to express their own deeply-held convictions and their responsibility for maintaining the role of this House as a democratic legislature holding all governments to account, having been elected by the people for that purpose. I believe that that is the right responsibility for all of us, whichever party we belong to.

These are very moderate and reasonable proposals, but the issue raised by this discussion is enormous—the future of democracy. It is certainly true that the public, or many members of the public, feel unrepresented. That may even be true of some people in the House and, for all I know, of some people in the Government. There is cynicism—it is not a new problem—because people feel that after one has got over the election, the Government of the day do what they want.

I believe that Members of Parliament must reassert their role as Members of the House of Commons, and that the Government must accept it.

I am not asking the Government's permission to make my speech, or even asking them to respond. Every Government must learn that their majority and their power depend on the consent of the House. No one who has worked as hard as I have to get the Government into power would wish to withdraw that consent. I campaigned for Labour in 1935, and I shall campaign for Labour all my life. However, if we could approach the role of the House in the way that I have described, both Parliament and the credibility of the parties would be strengthened.

I hope that this will not be the last speech that I shall make in the House of Commons, but the House will understand that I should not be sorry if it was remembered. It has expressed my deep convictions and my determination that the new tendency towards centralisation should not obliterate the very thing of which we boast most proudly.

1. 10 am

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) on securing this debate. As ever, his speech was extremely interesting and erudite. The attendance in the Chamber at this time of night shows how much interest there is in his views. I should also like to place on the record my personal thanks to him for the kindnesses that he has shown me in my years in the Labour party, particularly during the 1980s. He has always been willing to discuss, argue and be supportive.

Having said that, I have listened carefully to his arguments, and I believe that he built them completely on fresh air. It was not becoming of him to repeat rumours.

If there is evidence of a Government threat to the House's right to choose the Speaker, my right hon. Friend should bring it to us. That would be an outrage. If there is no evidence, my right hon. Friend does not help our debate by repeating rumours.

On the day before the majority of hereditary peers lose their right to vote, at a time when the Government have decentralised power to a Parliament in Scotland and an Assembly in Wales, and at a time when the Government intend to decentralise power to a new authority in London, it seems strange to accuse that Government of centralising power. All the evidence goes against that argument. The Government have given power away and increased the level of democracy.

My right hon. Friend's next accusation was that the Government have adopted a presidential style. However, his supporting argument was that the Government have advisers. I am glad that there are twice as many advisers in Parliament as there used to be.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I beg the House's pardon, and apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I meant to say in No. 10 Downing street.

When my right hon. Friend was a Minister, he had advisers. It is good to take as much advice as possible from as many people as one can. It is no denial of democracy to have people from different positions giving information. It is no evidence of presidential style to count, as though in a classroom, attendances at Cabinet meetings.

The Government gain their authority from the House. If they could not secure a majority in the House, the Government would not continue. That is the essential point about parliamentary democracy in the Commons. The record shows that the number of questions that the Prime Minister has answered in the House and the number of statements that he has made since the general election compare favourably with the figures from the same period before that election.

I should move on to my right hon. Friend's solution to the so-called problem of centralisation, although I simply do not believe that the problem exists. The solution is to have more free votes. Every Member of Parliament is free to pass through whatever Lobby he or she likes when a vote is held. That is not the basis on which the parties—[Interruption.] I hope that, if that comment is quoted, it is quoted in context. Hon. Members have the right to pass through whatever Lobby they wish. Of course, hon. Members have party loyalties and they may choose to support or oppose the Government. If all hon. Members decided to vote this way and that in this place, it would be not a parliamentary democracy but chaos.

I do not believe that any sensible person, including my right hon. Friend, thinks that a Government could work in a completely unwhipped system. In such circumstances, party manifestos would have to be 2 ft thick—and I remind my right hon. Friend that the Labour party did least well at the polls with its longest manifesto in 1983. Labour has done better when we have focused on simple policies.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

No; we have principled policies that we can communicate directly to the electorate.

It is absurd to suggest that there should be free votes in this place and that Whips should not be involved in debates. My right hon. Friend was heard tonight to say, "Where's our Whip?" as he voted against the Government.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This has been a very interesting debate, promoted in a serious vein by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), to which the Minister is making an absorbing response. However, I seek your guidance. I take exception to a Government Whip suggesting that I was being somehow improper in exchanging with the Deputy Chief Whip

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must take his seat when I am on my feet. This is a half-hour debate and time is extremely precious. It is not a general debate.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's point of order.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's point of order and I do not intend to take any more.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

My simple point is that when my right hon. Friend said, "Where's our Whip?", did the voters of Chesterfield and the local branch of the Labour party know that he was associating with a Whip from no known political party?

The House is being modernised, and democracy in this place is increasing. Select Committees are not toothless watchdogs. One has only to read reports from Select Committees comprising a majority of Labour Members to know that they are tough. There is now more pre-legislative scrutiny-in fact, it is often occurring for the first time. Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend is losing the argument. He holds a perfectly respectable position in the broad spectrum: he advances essentially republican arguments. My right hon. Friend is entitled—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past One o'clock