House of Commons Modernisation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:58 pm on 20th November 2000.

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Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk 5:58 pm, 20th November 2000

I welcome the chance to comment on the third and fourth reports of the Modernisation Committee. In view of some of the comments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends, I hardly dare admit the fact that tomorrow I shall be initiating a debate in Westminster Hall on the extremely important subject of reform of the European Union sugar regime. The debate has already attracted enormous attention; I expect it to be extremely well attended.

I intend to support the stance taken by my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House: to support the reforms as experiments. The principle that should guide the Modernisation Committee is that of making the House carry out its work more effectively. It is not a question of whether the House's procedures are viewer friendly, focus group friendly or even Member friendly; the real question is whether they are democracy friendly. Do they help the House more effectively to scrutinise legislation, hold the Government to account and, more important, to act as the voice of the electorate between elections?

The third component—the Bagehot—friendly component—is supported by the Hansard Society's commission on parliamentary scrutiny, but it has been neglected in the debate. We have talked about holding the Executive and Ministers to account and of scrutinising legislation, but another purpose of Parliament is to act as the voice of the electorate between elections. To that extent, Westminster Hall is a useful addition to the weapons that the House holds.

Some changes achieved by the Modernisation Committee are to be welcomed. The clearer Order Paper, the new arrangements for the Division Lobbies, the greater flexibility for the Speaker in calling colleagues to speak and the naming of hon. Members and their constituencies on the annunciators have all helped to clarify what we do. However, those changes cannot disguise the fact that, sadly, the Chamber is in decline. Some functions have moved elsewhere—for example, to Europe, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly—and others have become the preserve of judges and the media.

Some changes spring from the attitude of Ministers in this Government who have taken their cue from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was reported two and half years ago as saying that the era of pure representative democracy is coming to an end. He went on to claim that people's panels, focus groups and so on demonstrated a different kind of participation in the democratic process. Only one type of democratic process counts, and that is the ballot box. From the ballot box and the House comes the legitimacy of Governments, and any Government who forget that will be in trouble.

The Minister and hon. Members will be familiar with the document produced by the scrutiny commission of the Hansard Society. "Creating a Working Parliament" points out: The Chamber's primacy as a forum for political debate … is now being challenged by the media, the judges, a devolved parliament and Europe. It adds:

The failure to recall Parliament during the fuel crisis of September 2000 was interpreted by many commentators as evidence of its irrelevance and the extent to which direct action has now superseded parliamentary representation. Those who criticised direct action as a means of bringing deep concerns to Government's attention should ponder those comments. The pamphlet points out: The crisis illustrated the problem for Parliament. The chamber's work can often appear irrelevant to most voters. It rarely sets the day's news agenda and is often slow to respond to issues of public concern. This, the pamphlet continues rather superfluously, has serious implications for democracy. Quite so.

We should use those principles to appraise the motions and all the other proposals made by the Modernisation Committee. On that score, I support the proposal that, as an experiment, some work should continue to be done in Westminster Hall. Debates on the Adjournment of the House enable Members to raise issues—not to hold Ministers to account—and act as the voice of the electorate between elections. Such an opportunity is useful.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) made strong and apposite remarks about Select Committees and their discussions. He was right. Ministers wait, perhaps with anxiety, for the publication of a Select Committee report on the work of their Department. However, if those reports are buried in the sand, Ministers may be aware of the issues, but they will not be examined on their record. Any opportunity that we have to put further pressure on Ministers regarding the findings of a report must be welcomed, even if that pressure is exerted in Westminster Hall. I say that knowing that my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) have misgivings about Westminster Hall. Any opportunity is better than none.