Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
That, at this day's sitting, (1) consideration of any Lords Messages that may be received and (2) the Motion in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.- (Helen Jones.)
Question agreed to.
Main Question again proposed.
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To recap, broadly speaking, Members are of the view that there ought to be some review of the Select Committee system and the procedures of the House.
Conservative Members have been talking about the issue for quite some time. Our party's democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke, has made several suggestions to re-energise proceedings in the House. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has specifically called for more powers to be returned to Parliament and, in particular, for Committee Chairmen to be selected by Back Benchers and for Committee proceedings on Bills to be free from the influence of the Whips. That is where much of the detailed work is done, and it is felt that Back Benchers should have freedom to operate on their own merits, rather than be pressured by Whips. I welcome the fact that all those matters fall under the remit of the proposed Committee. I know that Members serving on the Committee-certainly Conservative Members-will be pressing for such constructive reforms to help rebuild our parliamentary system.
It is also right that the new Select Committee should be time-limited. That will ensure that it does not supplant the role of the Procedure Committee, and will concentrate minds on the limited time available in which to draw conclusions and report back.
I am pleased that the Government accepted the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Chope. Given the delays and lack of proper consultation in the run-up to the tabling of the motion, it was perhaps the least that the Government could do in the circumstances.
The amendment in the name of Andrew Mackinlay, raises a very valid point. The recent growth in the number of Cabinet Ministers, and junior Ministers too, in the other place, and the ever-expanding titles of the First Secretary of State make the subject extremely topical. There is justifiable concern in all parts of the House about how we can ensure that the Government are properly and effectively held to account. No doubt Members will have their own views on the amendment itself, and it will perhaps be for the Chairman of the Committee to suggest that the question of making Members of the other House accountable should be looked at in another way. I suspect that given the time constraint-although I hear what my hon. Friend Mr. Harper said earlier-and the fact that the Committee has no members from the other House, the issue may need further consideration.
It is also worth pointing out that the way in which the motion has been handled beggars belief. It is a simple motion that is supposed to improve the efficiency of the House, yet the manner in which it has been handled has been slipshod, to put it mildly. The Prime Minister said in his statement in June that the Government would
"work with a special parliamentary commission".-[ Hansard, 10 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 797.]
Given the number of existing Select Committees well qualified to deal with the issue, such as the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee, it is regrettable that yet another Committee has had to be set up. The problem was compounded by the fact that the Prime Minister did not consult anybody in advance on a matter that is basically House business. All that seemed to be of concern to him was his press release.
Then there was the indecisiveness. Less than 24 hours after being tabled, the motion was withdrawn. On
Only now are we finally getting the chance to debate the establishment of a Select Committee on the reform of the House, some seven weeks after the Prime Minister's announcement, in which he spoke of proceeding with these matters as an "urgent imperative". We are now faced with having to debate this important matter after 10 o'clock on the day before the summer recess. I very much hope that the new Committee will take that as an example of how proceedings in this House should not operate in future.
I very much welcome the fact that we are finally debating the motion, albeit in an amended form. However, the revolutionary zeal with which the original proposal was made has rather evaporated in the mean time. I hoped that we would have a genuinely root-and-branch reform of the way this House works, because many things need to be addressed if we are to make it more effective and more relevant, and work better for the interests of our constituents. I thought that the proposal for the new Committee might be a vehicle for some genuinely radical reforms of procedures. It may still be that, but the way in which the Government have gone about it has been extraordinarily disappointing and, in the end, rather enervating.
Not to consult about the original motion in advance indicates everything that we need to know about how the Government do their business. The motion was quintessentially a House matter, where we needed support from all parts of the House, yet there it was, appearing on the Order Paper at 24 hours' notice, as much as to say: "Like it or lump it-this is the way it is going to be done." When some of us tabled amendments immediately on reading the motion, because we realised that it would not do the job that was expected of it, it was withdrawn, so we were left without the very Committee that we were all so keen should be set up.
As I have already said, the motion was withdrawn to allow for consultation. It is rather churlish of Opposition Members to deny that consultation. We withdrew the motion so that we could incorporate ideas and amendments into it.
The motion was withdrawn because it was incompetent, because it did not have the support of Members in all parts of the House and because, had my amendment been put to the vote, it would have been supported by Members in all parts of the House and the Government would have been defeated. That is why the Government withdraw the motion in the first instance. All that could have been avoided if they had simply picked up the phone to a few people from all parts of the House and said, "What do you think of this motion? Do you think it would do what you hope it would?" However, I am afraid that organising that proved to be beyond the abilities of the business managers of the Government party.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration; indeed, I signed his amendment. It would have been refreshing, in a way, if the Government had allowed his amendment to be debated and then accepted it or been defeated. My only problem with his approach is that there is a tendency on the part of Front Benchers to feel that if they make a few phone calls, there has been consultation. There are 646 Members of this House who often feel left out of such consultations, and I regard the to-ing and fro-ing on the Order Paper as a rather refreshing change. I would not dismiss the generosity of the Government in the way that they eventually handled this.
"Eventually" is the operative word. I was at pains not to say "two phone calls" because that would indeed have been the usual channels deciding between themselves what was right for Back Benchers. Instead a lot of people who had expressed an interest in the matter could have been involved at an early stage in what was proposed, and we could have had a consensual motion before the House.
I do not decry the fact that the Government eventually took away their motion and incorporated my amendment; it would be extraordinarily bad-tempered and unpleasant of me not to welcome that. What I find inexplicable, though, is that having agreed that that was what was going to happen, it took the Government from
The hon. Gentleman is being overly generous to the Government in saying that they allowed this evening's debate. They allowed it to happen only because if they had not done so, and the motion had been objected to again today and tomorrow, they would not have got their business-because they were forced into it, not because they wanted us to debate the motion.
My difficulty with what the hon. Gentleman says is that this is not the Government's business but ours-it is the business of the House in reforming itself and making itself more relevant. I am trying to express my frustration at the fact that this debate has been held up by our not being allowed the modest amount of time that would have been required to have it at a much earlier stage.
Dr. Wright could have had his Committee up and running-it could have been doing its work and, in due course, have reported on everything that we wanted it to report on. Instead, it has been frustrated by the lack of time and the objections of Members. I do not object to the fact that Mr. Chope shouted "Object" every time that the motion came up, because he had every right to do so if he wanted to debate the matter; what was wrong was the fact that no time was then given to enable the debate to take place. That was entirely in the hands of the Government.
I am not a member of the usual channels. I do not know who they comprise of and I have no idea of how they reach their decisions-all I know is that they often bypass the wishes of most Members of this House. That is what is wrong, and that is why we need a proper business Committee, which I hope will be determined to be the right course of action. That Committee should set out the business of the House in a way that facilitates debate, ensures that we deal with the issues that are important to Members of this House, and does not frustrate the Government's business-that would not be the purpose of a well-organised Committee-but allows the House to debate properly, in good time, the things that are considered to be important and that Members feel that they need to express their constituents' opinions on.
Was my hon. Friend not worried when the Government, in their presentation of their reason for permitting the widening of the motion, said that the consideration of non-Government business might impact on Government business? They did not recognise that the House as a whole had a legitimate interest in the issue of how effectively Government business is considered. Although the Government have the right to bring their business before the House, the House must have the capacity to decide how it can most effectively examine it.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, that is the crux of the matter. The question is whether we are a self-confident legislature that organises its own time, hears what the Government have to say and gives the Government the opportunity to put forward their legislation while not artificially avoiding the opportunities for them to get their business through. However, at the same time, we must be prepared to do justice to the people we represent by debating in this Chamber what we want to debate, not what the Executive feel fit for us to debate-and, more importantly, what they feel is fit for us not to debate, which is the situation at the moment.
While I entirely agree with the comments made by Sir Alan Beith, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the only way that this House can achieve what he has set out is to take control of Standing Orders? That is critical if we are to do what this House wants.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. First we take Standing Orders, then we take business. The two are consecutive and, to some extent, simultaneous. Without one, we cannot control the other. That is what this debate is all about-it is about this House getting up off its knees and reclaiming its position as the Parliament of the people of this country, which is able to control its own business. This position is not anti-Government of any description; it is simply a pro-Parliament position. Parliament must have its say, and must be able to do so on its own terms. I hope that that is what the Committee will enable it to do and that it will get to work in the very near future.
I am pleased with the specific amendments that have widened the reference to the scheduling of business to include all business in the House, so that the Committee can consider other matters that appear to it to be relevant. I am perfectly content that the amendment originally tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch has now been incorporated into the terms of reference.
As for the amendment tabled by Andrew Mackinlay, we will hear his reasoning in a few moments. I know perfectly well the point that he is making, because it is a point that I have made from these Benches, too. It is simply not acceptable to have junior messengers sent to this House to tell us what the policy is in major Departments of State, particularly when one Department of State appears to have swallowed up whole other Departments within the machinery of government without our ever being given a rationale for why that should be. It seems right that we should find a way in which a Secretary of State appointed by this Government can answer directly to this House. Whether it is right for this Committee to do that in its first consideration, I do not know. That will be a matter for the Committee to decide when it considers its priorities. I note that the reporting date is
I beg to move amendment (a), line 3, at end insert-
'( ) arrangements for Ministers who are members of the House of Lords to respond in this House to questions for oral answer and to pilot legislative proposals through this House on matters within their Ministerial responsibilities.'.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for selecting the amendment because it is important to me and many other Members who have, in the past, expressed support for the principles in it.
The amendment does not tell the Committee that it should allow Ministers who are Members of the House of Lords to appear here, but asks it to examine the proposal. I am dismayed and disappointed by the Leader of the House's refusal to accept my amendments, especially when she accepts those of Mr. Chope, which are doubtless very good. I wonder what I have done to offend Front Benchers. I emphasise that the amendment involves a reference rather than an instruction to the Committee.
I am surprised because after the most recent Government reshuffle, I know of many hon. Members-particularly but not exclusively Labour Members-who were dismayed by the volume of Ministers who are now in another place. Some hon. Members were appalled by that. Personally, I simply want to have access to the Ministers-those who are in Government and have Executive authority. There is a powerful case for claiming that Ministers do not have to be members of the legislature; the important principle is that the legislature has access to them. Perhaps that is to go too far tonight, but I simply want to probe and examine the conduct and stewardship of Departments by Ministers, whether they are in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Probing and examining the Executive is one of our primary duties.
If hon. Members will join me in the Lobby and help me with Tellers, I will be pleased to press the amendment. Even if I were not able to persuade the House tonight because of party loyalties and so on, it would send a definite signal to the Government that the matter needs to be addressed and to many Committees of the House that might have an opportunity to examine it. However, I hope that I would win. I appeal to hon. Members to reflect on the fact that we are considering House of Commons business, which is our property.
The Deputy Leader of the House said that the matter was also the business of another place. However, I know Members of the House of Lords who share my view. I suspect that if one of our colleagues in the other place raised the matter there, Baroness Royall would say, "I can't accept this because it might offend Members of the House of Commons." That is nonsense. If the matter were referred to the Committee, the House of Lords would clearly be consulted. If it collectively had an overriding objection, it would communicate it to the House of Commons. However, I believe that reference to the Committee would be welcomed in another place because it would thus also have access to Ministers, who are the architects of legislation that has to pass through the House of Lords, but is simply dealt with by somebody called a Lord or Lady in Waiting.
I am coming to him. I invite particularly, but not exclusively Labour Members with long memories to reflect on the fact that when some of them entered politics-I did so a long time ago; some did so much more recently and have been through various parties, moving from left to right, but we will not go there-the Labour party under Hugh Gaitskell and later under the Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson, deprecated the fact that the Foreign Secretary was in the House of Lords. Lord Hailsham had a significant science portfolio at the same time. When Ted Heath became Prime Minister, Alec Home returned to the House of Lords as Foreign Secretary. More recently Michael Foot, and I believe some Members who are present, derided the fact that Lord Carrington was a Cabinet Minister in the House of Lords. I invite Labour Members to be consistent, not to waver, because they have deprecated this situation in the past.
You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that there was also a man called Lord Young in Margaret Thatcher's Government-the man who brought her solutions. He had a very senior portfolio, not dissimilar to Lord Mandelson's. It was called something different, but basically it meant he was responsible for trade and industry. His membership of the House of Lords was deprecated by the Labour Opposition, who said we should have access to him. That is in the living memory of some Members who are sitting here tonight and of some who are absent despite the fact that they have been anointed and appear on the motion as members of the Committee. People need to reflect on that.
Now we have a new invention called GOATs-Ministers in a Government of all the talents. We have had a man called Digby Jones, a Lord Carter, a Lord Ryde Pier of Spittle, or Spithead, or whatever it is, and Malloch-Brown, who I incidentally thought was a breath of fresh air. [Hon. Members: "Gone."] But he is gone.
As well as those GOATs, who are here today and gone tomorrow, there are some junior Ministers in the House of Lords whose names I do not know and whom, as a Labour MP, I have never met. I think that it was just before you became Speaker, Mr. Speaker, in the last Prime Minister's Question Time under Speaker Martin, that I referred to junior Ministers who act in the other House for the Secretary of State-the architect of legislation and the person who presides over the Government's policy-as "superior parrots". I did not mean that disparagingly, but I was illustrating the point that when a junior Minister is acting for a Secretary of State who is not in the same House, all they can do is repeat what has been handed down to them in a brief. They cannot exercise discretion and say, "We will accept that amendment", or "We will come back to it on Report", because they are frightened of doing so. It would improve our legislative process if the architect of a piece of legislation were to pilot it through both Houses.
That is quite apart from parliamentary questions, where even more so, the more junior the Minister, the more nervous he or she is about saying anything constructive. I appeal to colleagues that to consider the matter would be a common-sense approach.
Not so, because this works both ways. There are still a number of distinguished Ministers in the House of Commons, and they would be able to go to the House of Lords. There are also some very significant Ministers in the House of Lords. Until a few days ago our Minister with responsibility for the UN and the middle east was Lord Malloch-Brown, and I understand that Lord West of Spithead is the Security Minister. Colleagues and comrades should pause and think about it: this is the elected House of Commons, and we do not have access to the Minister who is in charge of national security. Surely that is both breathtaking and an abdication of responsibility by this place.
I do not want to go down that road, but one thing that I acknowledge is that Lord Mandelson could certainly cope in this place. He did before, and he could do so again as a Lord. However, I postulate the view that there are some Ministers in the House of Lords who could not cope here. They would not stand up to the grilling that this House still gives Ministers on occasion. They would not be able to cope, and that is not satisfactory. They are being kept from us, and some of them would not be prepared to be Ministers here, because they would burst into tears if they came here. That is the reality. They would not pass muster.
The Minister tells us that there was consultation. I was waiting for her to say "My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock could have come along," but she did not. In a way, I did consult, and I am disappointed that my point was not taken on board. If Members look at the Hansard of
I sense a way out of the dilemma: now that the hon. Gentleman has put it to Labour Members that his amendment implicitly carries the endorsement of the Prime Minister, he should test the will of the House. He will be even more successful than he would have been five minutes ago.
As hon. Members know, it is put about that the Prime Minister is indecisive, but that is a travesty; on that occasion he was decisive-he told me to refer the matter to the Committee, but Ministers still have not picked the matter up.
I come to my last point. The fact is that the proposal is not rocket science. In the vast majority of parliamentary bicameral legislatures around the world, Ministers appear in both Houses, arguing for their legislation, and defending their stewardship of their Department. That is true of many, but not all, Parliaments that are modelled on Westminster throughout the Commonwealth. I am a bit of an anorak-a student-when it comes to Irish political history. The Republic of Ireland very much still has a Westminster-style constitution. The Northern Ireland House of Commons and Senate, which endured from 1920 to 1972, had, until 1972, a provision whereby Ministers appeared in both Houses. Today, Ministers appear in both Houses in the Oireachtas of Ireland. Dail Eireann Ministers appear in the Senead, and on the few occasions when there have been Senead Ministers, they have appeared in the Dail Eireann. The proposal is not world-shattering, and it does not require lengthy consideration. Why do we not just do it? The answer is: because this place is so deeply conservative.
What causes me the most regret is that the most conservative element, when it comes to change and constitutional innovation, are my party's Front Benchers. I could burst into tears with the frustration of it. It really is bad. I invite all hon. Members, left right and centre, to join me in the Lobby and to support my modest, sensible amendment, which does not say that such a change will take place; it just says that the Committee will consider it.
Not for the first time, the House is indebted to Andrew Mackinlay for raising a serious constitutional issue. He is right to say that over the past few years, in Government, there has been a shift in the centre of gravity of decision making from this House to the other place. That shift has been focused in the Treasury and the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. That raises issues of accountability, which he touched on with his normal frankness and candour.
I should like to qualify what the hon. Gentleman said about precedents. I think that I am right in saying that when my party had Cabinet Ministers in the House of Lords, there was a Cabinet Minister in the Commons who answered with them or for them. In the case of Lord Young-no relation at all-my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke was in the Cabinet and answered for the Department in the Commons. The criticism that I would make of the present Government is that they have not replicated that pattern of having Cabinet-rank Ministers in the Commons, accountable to this House.
I have a lot of sympathy with the point that the hon. Member for Thurrock raised, and we need to look at it. My only reservation, given the amount of time that the proposed Committee has already lost, is whether we can do justice to the important issue that he raises in the remaining time available to us, or whether the subject is of such importance that it deserves separate scrutiny of its own, so that it can be looked at in depth. If it is tagged on to the responsibilities already proposed, we may not be able to do the subject justice.
In my brief contribution, I want to make three points. First, we should be grateful for small mercies: just before the House rises for the recess, the Government have at last found time for a debate, so that we can get this show on the road. As Mr. Heath pointed out, it would have been perverse if a Committee set up to make better use of the time of the House could not start working because the Government had denied it the time to do so. I am glad that we are now going to look at this. As my hon. Friend Mr. Vara said, the democracy taskforce, on which I have served, has been brimming with ideas that I hope will be fed into the new Committee.
The Deputy Leader did not really explain why we need a new Committee. We have a Select Committee on Procedure, chaired by my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight, and a Select Committee on Modernisation. The latter cannot be described as being overworked, because it has not met for more than a year. The terms of reference for the proposed Committee fall neatly within those of either the Procedure Committee or the Modernisation Committee. The Deputy Leader did not explain why we need a new vehicle, which has had to be constructed and assembled, causing some seven or eight weeks' delay, when we have two vehicles already on the road and ready to go. They could have started work on this process immediately. Indeed, the Procedure Committee has already looked at one of the subjects that are to be addressed by the new Committee-namely, engagement with the public and e-petitions.
My ingenious solution-which I am sorry the Government did not adopt-was to dismiss as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee the Leader of the House, who has no business being Chairman of a Select Committee of the House, and parachuting in Dr. Wright as its new Chairman. That would have saved everyone a lot of time, we would have benefited from his energy and ideas, and we could have started work some seven weeks ago. But that idea was not acceptable to the Government.
My last point is about the delay. We have lost about half the sitting time of the new Committee because of the delay in setting it up. There was an inelegance-to put it at its mildest-in the lack of consultation and in the delay in getting the show on the road. We are now going to have to work at double time to catch up the time that we have lost. We are also going to have to sit during the recess. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase has set a cracking pace for his Committee, in setting the agenda and convening a huge number of meetings.
The real test will be what happens to the Committee's work when it has reported. I have to say that the signals over the past seven weeks, given the difficulties we have faced getting this far, do not augur well. I hope that the Minister will give us a specific commitment that, before we rise for the Christmas recess, there will be a substantive debate in Government time, with a free vote on both sides of the House, on all the recommendations of the Committee. That would give us time to resolve the matter and get the new machinery up and running in the tail end of this Parliament. I hope that the Minister will understand that the mood of the House is one of impatience and of anxiety to make progress, and I hope that when she replies to the debate-which could happen tomorrow, given the number of Members who want to speak-she will give a very positive response to the points that I and other right hon. and hon. Members have made.
I congratulate the Government on at last giving us time to discuss this vital Committee. I also congratulate them and the House on setting up the Committee and on choosing an extremely good Chair, who I believe has the support of all parts of the House, and an excellent membership of people with a great deal of interest in, and experience and knowledge of, these matters.
The matters that we are giving the Committee to discuss are of historic importance, because they will correct the imbalance that has been growing since the House gave up control of its own agenda and allowed the Executive to determine the business of the House in order to break the impasse on Irish reform. For the past 120 years, we have been on a sliding slope, and over the past few years we have been mere ciphers. In my 26 years as a Member of this House, we have effectively been a rubber stamp for the Executive, and we must now assert our own distinct identity.
This is a matter not of attacking the Government, but of understanding that the role of the House is separate and distinct from that of the Government. The Government are elected to introduce a programme of legislation and to recommend taxation, and it is our job to scrutinise them-but it is our job to do so in our time, and in our way, and not at the behest of the Government.
That is why it is important not only that we set up this Committee to look at the business of the House, but that the Committee understands the definition of "the business of the House", which includes everything for which the Government do not have a mandate, especially the nature and method of scrutiny. That is why the House must not only elect Select Committees but be in control of scrutiny. It is our job to scrutinise the Executive, not the Executive's job to tell us who should be on Committees, when they should sit or when there should be a vote.
We have allowed the Executive to dominate this House increasingly for the last 100 years. At last-thanks to this Government, thanks to the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Dr. Wright and thanks, I am confident, to the work that it is going to do-we will have an opportunity to correct that imbalance and have a proper relationship between this House, which is scrutinising the Government, and the Government, who are getting on with the work of the Executive. The two should be in proper tension. I am confident that with the business Committee and the election of Select Committees and their Chairs, we will make enormous strides towards getting a proper relationship between this House and the Executive. If we do that, we will be doing something of enormous historic importance. I hope that the Committee will be set up and will report. I am confident that it will and that it will do an extremely important job.
I believe that Mark Fisher is unnecessarily modest about his own role in bringing the House of Commons to this point. He is chairman of a cross-party group: we call ourselves Parliament First, and we have been agitating for Parliament to have a greater role and a greater say in its own affairs. We have a list of aspirations-"demands" would put it too strongly-to put Parliament back at the centre of our national life. The hon. Gentleman has played a welcome role in that. His warm words for the Government in bringing us to this point are all part of the consensual atmosphere that we need to generate around this proposal.
It struck me as odd that while we were attempting to set up a Committee to strengthen the House's control of its business and its Select Committee, the Government imagined that that could be achieved without debating the motion. It is, as Mr. Heath said, an irony that underlines the gulf between those in government or who aspire to government and the rest of this House.
There was a failure of imagination among those on the Treasury Bench. They thought that simply accepting the amendments and including them in the motion would obviate the need for debate, but that was to underestimate what this House thinks of itself, and, indeed, what my hon. Friend Mr. Chope thinks of himself. I think that he was unfairly criticised in The Guardian leading article today. His behaviour was not bizarre; it was principled. He insisted that if we were to strengthen the House, we should do it by the proper procedure and on the basis of debate.
One thing that our hon. Friend Mr. Chope has achieved is to provide an opportunity for a large number of members of the Committee, including its Chairman, to listen and gauge the feeling of the House, which will inform the way in which they conduct the Committee. If for no other reason than that, it was surely worth having a debate in this Chamber.
My hon. Friend is entirely right about that point.
The importance of this moment is that it grows out of the crisis that we have all endured as a result of the publication of our expenses and allowances. That issue did not just excite public anger; it was a lightning conductor for the fury felt by many people-not just about how politics has been conducted in this country in the past 10 or 15 years, but, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, about a trend reflecting, particularly in the post-war era, the ever-increasing ascendancy of party over the individual judgment of Members of Parliament.
What is the House of Commons, or Parliament, for? Surely we exist for three fundamental purposes: to check the abuse of power by the Executive; to ensure that legislation is properly scrutinised and is fit for purpose; and to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent wisely and efficiently. In all honesty, has the House been doing a good job over the past 10, 20 or 30 years? Actually, we have been doing less and less of that job. More and more legislation goes through without being debated. Fewer and fewer Supply debates are about Supply and scrutiny of the Executive's expenditure. It has become harder and harder to check the power of the Executive, as more power has been handed over to agencies, quangos, the courts, Brussels or the European Court of Human Rights. Whatever part of the House one comes from, one can choose one's list of organisations to which power is handed over, which destroys the accountability and authority of the House.
I put it to those on the Treasury Bench, and to anyone who aspires to sit there, that there is a fundamental truth about our democracy: the weaker that Parliament becomes, the weaker the Governments who derive from Parliament become. It is an irony that respect for politics and politicians has declined as the power of the House of Commons has declined. I do not dismiss the difficulty of exercising representative democracy in a world in which 1.5 billion people are on the internet and expect their say over every issue, in what we now call the network world. The world is very different from that conceived by, say, the 1832 reformers, or by Edmund Burke, who coined the immortal phrases about representative democracy and Members exercising their judgment on behalf of their constituents in the national interest, rather than being their delegates.
Ultimately, the more complicated government and politics become, the more inevitable it is that those who devote their lives to politics and to service in Parliament will have to exercise their judgment on behalf of the 99 per cent. of the population who are far too busy leading a normal life to worry about the things that we worry about.
Is not the deeper irony that as the process described by my hon. Friend has occurred-Parliament has become more emasculated-expectations of both Government and individual MPs have grown? Does not that deep irony lie at the heart of this debate, and of the wider debate that has taken place over the past few weeks and months?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely apposite point, and I do not hold an instant answer to the problem he raises. The demands on individual Members of Parliament are less and less to conduct ourselves as national politicians in this Chamber, and more and more to act as super-ombudsmen and super-councillors-as representatives of our national Parliament in our constituencies, as opposed to representatives of our constituents' interests in Parliament. That is the context in which the Committee will have to conduct its investigations and inquiries and make its recommendations.
As result of the crisis that has occurred, we have all been humiliated-I have certainly felt humiliated. That has served as a reminder of the real purpose of each of our existences in the House. It has been telling to see exposed how ineffective we have become at performing our real task, which is to check the abuse of power, to check the legislation, and to check the expenditure of the Executive.
I feel that there is now a drive-a determination-in the House to put matters right. I do not want to raise expectations beyond what might be delivered by the Committee chaired by Dr. Wright, but I believe that, of all the reactions to the expenses and allowances crisis, this is the most significant. It may be a small first step, but it is the most significant; and the most significant step that the Committee might recommend is one that would enable us to regain control over our own business.
For most of the period since the debate about Irish rule, the only constraint on Government business has been the power of delay. Even during the 1970s and 1980s, when the guillotine began to fall more and more often on Government business in order to expedite its progress, delay was still the weapon. When, as shadow Secretary of State for Transport, I conducted the Bill that became the Transport Act 2000 through its Standing Committee, it was decided that we should delay the Bill for as long as possible on a particular point because we were so concerned about it. That kind of attrition is no longer available to the House. What is termed "modernisation"-and I think that even the most ardent advocates of modernisation would recognise that it has become a loaded term when connected with parliamentary reform-has come to mean emasculation. It has meant the withdrawal of that final sanction.
It is interesting to note that the former Leader of the House, now the Secretary of State for Justice, said during debate on the Parliamentary Standards Bill that he believed that Parliament had become more effective in recent years. He holds that belief because the number of Divisions that the Government have lost has begun to increase, despite the enormous majority that the Government have enjoyed in recent years.
I will in a second.
I submit that the reason the Government are now losing Divisions is that the weapon of delay is no longer available. Whereas concessions used to be extracted through delay, the only way to force concessions now is by defeating the Government in the Division Lobbies. That may be a healthy development and a healthy response, but I do not think that it necessarily demonstrates that the House is working more effectively than it used to. The fact that so much legislation now passes through the House without debate and has to be scrutinised at length in the other place-and even the other place has a difficult job, given the present volume of legislation-leaves a serious gap in the armoury enabling our Parliament to hold the Government to account.
The hon. Gentleman has partly answered the question that I was going to ask. He has said that delay means that the Government may give way and concessions may be extracted. I do not want to return to that scenario; I should like Members to engage fully in the debate about legislation, and then vote according to the strength of the arguments. How can we ensure that, rather than returning to an old situation, we move forward to a situation of that kind?
The hon. Lady has led me precisely to my next point. The task of the business Committee will not be to return us to the war of attrition represented by the ludicrous all-night sittings of Committees and the whole House, although I believe that we lose something by our determination not to engage in such action. Here we are sitting at 10.55 on a Monday night, and I see no difficulty with our sitting late on occasion when there is pressure on the timetable and no other way of conducting our business.
It strikes me as extremely frustrating when stacks of Members want to speak in a debate and the Government limit it to five hours and will not lift the 10 o'clock rule to allow more Members to speak-and indeed more Members to speak at length. There may be an advantage in limiting speeches to 12, 10, eight or six minutes in one respect, but I believe that it destroys the real purpose of this Chamber, which is to debate the issues and to allow every Member to speak and to take part in those debates.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, when the Modernisation Committee initially put forward its proposals for programme motions, it was intended that the programme motion should be discussed at least between the usual channels before it was taken immediately after the Second Reading Division and without debate. The decency of having some consultation before the programme motion was put down was withdrawn by the Government.
It is interesting that my hon. Friend should remind the House of that. It shows that efforts have been made to do programming in an intelligent way. I was an Opposition spokesman on the two devolution Bills at the beginning of this Government's term of office. Our great fear was that there was going to be an arbitrary guillotine that cut off debate on vast swathes of the Bill that we wanted to discuss.
We proposed to the Government that there should be timetabling of the devolution Bills. It was quite controversial at the time. Many of my colleagues in the House were quite cross that we should co-operate in that way, but we calculated where the knives should fall during the Committee stage to ensure that the really important bits of the Bill were discussed and debated at least in some form. I am bound to say that my experience of that was not entirely satisfactory. Often, a new amendment would be moved. The former Father of the House, that great opponent of devolution on the Labour Benches, Tam Dalyell, would start a debate on a new group on an aspect that none of us had thought of and the motion would be closed off instantaneously.
The purpose of a business Committee is to manage the business on behalf of the House and that includes managing the Government business. That was an important concession to extract from the Government. Its purpose is not to prevent the Government from obtaining their business, least of all their manifesto commitments, but to ensure that the House as a whole, including Back Benchers and the minority parties, have their say on Government proposals. Its purpose is also, if necessary, to provide the extra time by lifting the 10 o'clock rule and proposing changes to the business of the House-
I must press on, unless my hon. Friend thinks that it is an urgent matter.
For that reason, the business Committee must be composed of Back Benchers. There is a great temptation for the Government to insist that the Committee should deal only with non-Government business, that it will only deal with Government business because non-Government business impacts on Government business and that there must be a Whips majority from the Government on the Committee to ensure that the Government's business is obtained. That misses the point and misunderstands the spirit in which the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and his Committee will want to set up the Committee. It should not have a Government majority. It should be like a Select Committee. Perhaps it should be like the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend Sir George Young, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which does not have a Government majority, to ensure that it does not become another means by which the Government control the business.
The Committee needs to discuss a lot of other matters. Why is it that only the Government can propose a business motion? Surely if we are going to control the business, either the business Committee or any Back Bencher should be able to put down a business motion. If there is sufficient support, it should be called for debate. As my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton said, why should the Government have a monopoly on proposing changes to the Standing Orders? If the business Committee is going to obtain control of the business of the House, it should surely be able to make proposals on Standing Orders. Indeed any Back Bencher should be able to put down a motion to change the Standing Orders.
There are some positive proposals on Select Committees. Anybody could provide a shopping list of things that need to be done. I think the Select Committees need to consider taking more business under oath. If we want our Select Committees to be respected, why do we treat our witnesses so casually? Why do we not ask them to swear in before they give evidence so that they respect Parliament and there is respect for what is said? In particular, those who serve in Government but are not Ministers should realise that they are answerable to this House and not to the people who provide them with the line to take.
I support the amendment tabled by Andrew Mackinlay. It is quite a simple matter to bring Members of the other place to the Bar of this House, or, indeed, to the Dispatch Box, to account for themselves. The advantage of allowing more Ministers to sit in the other place-of allowing more GOATs, or more representatives of the Government of all the talents-is that we may finish up with fewer Members of this House on the Government payroll. I reminded the House a short while ago that before the second world war there were perhaps as few as 50 Members of this House on the payroll. Today, there are more than 140. If we want this House to be more independent, perhaps we should look at how many Members of it are on the Government payroll.
Just as with the Kelly inquiry, we should generally be minded to accept whatever proposals arise from the Cannock commission-if I may call it that. I realise that that puts a heavy responsibility on that Select Committee, but I believe the Government should appoint this Committee in good faith and we should do our best to make sure its proposals are implemented-and there should certainly be no whipping of either Back Benchers or Front Benchers on votes on those proposals.
There have been a number of occasions in the past few weeks when some of us have actually seen a glimmer of what it might be like to be in a proper House of Commons. There were the debates on the Parliamentary Standards Authority. Anyone who sat through, or has read the record of, those debates would know that there were high-quality contributions from throughout the House that will stand the test of time. There have also been debates on the matter we are discussing now: the creation of a Select Committee to look at the reform of Parliament. We have had some unusual procedural niceties and some strange, quirky, individual additions to the democratic process, but there has also been an honest and open debate between colleagues-parliamentarians first, rather than members of the Government or the alternative Government. The quality has been there for people to see: it has been a glimpse of what the House could be.
The election a few weeks ago of the new Speaker was another such occasion. Regardless of which horse we had our money on, there was a sense of the House taking a decision, and of individuals not being whipped or being pushed in a particular direction. There was a sense of excitement about that decision being made. That should be our prerogative every single working day in this Parliament if, indeed, we are to be a Parliament worthy of the name-and, boy, we need to become that institution.
Reform is needed now more than ever. I see in the Chamber many of the old lags who have pursued the reform agenda along with me, but we are now joined by Prime Ministers and leaders of political parties, and the only reason why members or putative members of the Executive are queuing up to talk the talk about parliamentary reform is that Parliament itself has been exposed for what it really is in recent weeks. That is a result of the revelations about allowances and such like. In themselves, they have not destroyed Parliament's reputation, but they have uncovered in the British people a contempt for Parliament because we are not relevant. What we are doing tonight by, I hope, allowing Dr. Wright to chair this Committee is allowing Parliament to take the first few faltering steps towards becoming relevant once again.
If we become relevant, people outside will forgive many things-they will not forgive everything-about this House. They will understand that we have a job to do and that we are not just here to claim the cash. They will say, "They are holding the Government to account and scrutinising law effectively, as they are meant to do." Throughout my 20-odd years in the House, try as I might I, like other colleagues in the House, have never been able satisfactorily to carry out those functions in the House of Commons. It is about time that we did so.
What we must do to establish those capabilities in the public mind is get the mechanics of how this House works right. We need to do two key things in that regard, both of which are addressed in the Government's motion. I congratulate them on tabling it, even though they did not do so because they wanted debate. They did not put the motion forward for debate, but they wanted the work to start, and they deserve credit for having put it that way. The only people who have held up the work starting are those who have found procedural niceties to get in the way. I am sorry, but that is the truth of the matter.
Let us not forget that people were elected to be members of the Select Committee, not Whips' narks, safe pairs of hands or people who have been lobotomised. They were elected by their own colleagues-that was certainly the case in the parliamentary Labour party and in the Conservative parliamentary party-and had their names put forward on behalf of their colleagues. Those who have wished to slow the process down are not so much acting on principle as flying in the face of their colleagues, who elected colleagues for the first time to a Select Committee. I say for the first time, because it is an important principle that colleagues can be elected to a Select Committee.
I cannot let that point pass. The work that my hon. Friend Mr. Chope did in objecting has achieved significant changes to this motion. The original motion talked only of non-Government business and did not allow the Committee the power to look at the election of the Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means. The Government accepted that only-
We all know this, so I do not know why the Minister is insisting otherwise. If all the Labour MPs who signed my hon. Friend's amendment had voted for it, they would have defeated the Government. That is the only reason why they accepted it-the Minister knows that and we know that. Mr. Allen is gallantly preparing some great covering fire for her, but she knows that it is not true.
My objective is not to defeat a Government of any political persuasion; it is to allow Parliament to exercise its rightful duties. That is why I want the Committee to be established, as we hope it will be at the end of the evening. The two main foundations that need to be put in place can be regarded as boring or technical, but they are fundamental-Governments know that, which is why they will fight hard unless it is put over in a very sensible and sophisticated way that change needs to take place.
The first foundation is the election of Select Committees. As I have mentioned, colleagues in this House have, without civilisation as we know it or the Government falling, managed to elect their own colleagues to a Select Committee. One tiny link in a very strong chain may just be breaking as a result of that precedent. In addition, very recently we have all been allowed to elect our own Speaker in this House, which again established a precedent. Why on earth can we not be treated as mature individuals who can elect our own Select Committees and who have the sense, as individual Members of the House, to make a decision about whom we regard with respect and who we feel could do a good job for us without the Government and the alternative Government making our minds up for us? It is up to us to seize that opportunity and to exercise that right. Unless we do that, we will continue to play the game in which the Government dictate every movement in this House, instead of individual Members of Parliament.
I would have thought that the Government will accept the recommendations of the Committee only if, first, its work is focused on its terms of reference and, secondly, it accepts that one of the fundamental tenets of this place is that the Government need to get their business. We need to consider the balance between Government business and non-governmental business. If we are silly enough to fail to make proper provision for Government of any colour to get their business, the Government will always command a majority and will blow out the recommendations of the Committee. Our responsibility is to reform the House-and, in so doing, to push the envelope as far as is humanly possible-but also to accept the practical and political realities of this place. Without a written constitution, if we challenge the Executive, they have the majority to overturn any recommendations, whether in November or December.
I do not, but I am willing to listen to arguments from the Government and other colleagues on the Committee about whether that is a practical way forward. There are problems at the moment in getting sufficient people to serve on Select Committees. It may be that one of the answers is to have smaller Select Committees, but I hope that the Committee will have a chance to look at that point.
The nub of the issue is how the Government exercise their power. The hon. Gentleman is right that the Government have not only a right, but a responsibility to get their business, but the exercise of power can be restrained by the prevailing political culture. Historically, that was a culture based on a modest, measured and moderate exercise of government, and respect for both sides of the House-and the Opposition in particular. That is the difference-the change in political culture.
What was accepted 100 years ago by gentlemen's agreement now needs to be enforced and put into writing so that we all know the rules. Clearly the Government must get their business, and that is their right, but Parliament must have its scrutiny and accountability, and that is its duty. We need to ensure a balance between the two. Both should be strong, capable partners producing better law and better accountability, as well as better value for money for the electorate. Working together as partners is something that the Government need to do, and a refreshed and re-energised Parliament would also need to play its part. Even in the best of times, it cannot be a partner if it says, "This is our view and we're going to have our way, come what may." The Government have done that for far too long and Parliament would be foolish to do that itself.
May I clarify two points that have emerged again during my hon. Friend's contribution? Two different motions were proposed and the change to accept the amendment on scheduling business rather than just non-Government business was made first. The objection that held up the establishment of the Committee was not made at that stage but later, so my hon. Friend is right: the objections that have been made night after night have held up the work of establishing the Committee-[Hon. Members: "No."] Yes, they have. Motions were proposed on two occasions and this is the second set of amendments. Secondly, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House made the point that she will be happy to schedule a debate to consider the Committee's report.
There has certainly been a lot of game playing, which we are often reduced to in this place. We are in the play pen. Often, we are not exercising proper scrutiny and accountability so we find ways to entertain ourselves. However, this is a serious moment when some reform could take place. Many of us thought such a moment would never come, but because of other events we are now in a position where some reform can take place and I very much hope that the House seizes that opportunity. In doing so, we must look at a second group of issues in the terms of reference relating to the business Committee. I shall say a few words about that and then sit down.
As the hon. Gentleman is to serve on the Committee, I encourage him to be as bold as possible. Does he believe that if a business Committee of the House had an entrenched Opposition majority, the Government would still be comfortable that they could get their business through?
Order. I am sorry to delay the hon. Gentleman, but I have a sense that the House is getting ahead of itself and is debating matters that may, or may not, emerge from the Committee, if the Committee is set up by a decision of the House tonight. The only issue before the House tonight is whether to set up the Committee, not to start anticipating what the Committee may say. That debate will come in due time, so I counsel the House that we cannot go on having a debate about what may happen. The question that we have to decide tonight is whether or not the Committee is set up.
Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We all have a shopping list of personal parliamentary reform favourites-I have at least 10 on the Order Paper most days, as do a large number of colleagues. There is a need for discipline, given that we need to report in November on a strict timetable. That is why focusing on the election by secret ballot of Select Committees is very important. So too-finally-is the creation of a business Committee, which is something I and a number of colleagues will press in the Select Committee.
It is nonsense that the House cannot influence its own agenda-that every day the Order Paper is full of stuff from the Government that the House is meant to scrutinise and hold to account. That is an affront. It renders Parliament powerless, which is why when we have a problem-as we have in the past couple of months-we are seen as pathetic in the face of what the Government bring to the party. The Government do not only control our agenda; they can introduce a Parliamentary Standards Authority that could even abolish the right to speak freely and openly in the Chamber. Such unmitigated, unmediated power is the fundamental corruption of this place. It is not financial corruption, but political corruption, where our institution of freely elected individuals is controlled by Government. That balance has to change and it can change only if there is a business Committee that works closely with the Government but is not in the pocket or the pay of Government.
It is important that we create the Select Committee. It is important that we allow it to do its business. It is important that we have the discipline to focus on some of the key issues and that we move as swiftly as possible to a vote, if that is necessary, so that we have a Committee that can get on with the job of reforming the House of Commons.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Allen, although I do not take precisely the same position on the way in which the Government have operated in introducing the motion.
Can I please get from the Deputy Leader of the House a specific answer as to the question-initially asked by my right hon. Friend Sir George Young-why the Government did not consider referring this matter to the Procedure Committee and/or the Modernisation Committee? Both are respected Committees of this House and would have been able to do the job that we are talking about very adequately. I take my right hon. Friend's advice that Dr. Wright could have been appointed as the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee. As the longest-serving Conservative member of the Committee I have to say that I would have been honoured and privileged to serve under the hon. Gentleman's chairmanship. I hope that I speak with some authority on this matter, having chaired the Procedure Committee for two Parliaments, as well as having been on the Modernisation Committee since it was set up early in the Blair Government, in 1997.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman's questions lies in what he is saying: those Committees will continue. This is a time-limited Committee to look at a specific set of reforms that we hope can bear fruit in the next Session, which is a very different thing.
We hope that that is the case. However, one can always be a little suspicious-I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase-when a Committee is established by the Government and the Chairman is automatically put forward by the Government. I hope that I am not in any way breaching the guidance that you gave the Chamber a few minutes ago, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The Deputy Speaker has given some guidance, and I shall certainly endeavour to keep to that, although I believe that the criteria for the Committee-its mission as spelt out on the Order Paper-should be subject to some comment in this debate.
I am very pleased that the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Heath took on board my intervention, in which I said that the House could take control of its business only if the House itself, or a Committee of the House, ideally under a Back-Bench Chairman, could draw up and table Standing Orders that governed how the House proceeds and how legislation is dealt with. Without that, all the wonderful euphemistic statements about what we hope to achieve cannot have results.
I say to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase that I hope that he will be a very aggressive Chairman. I hope that he will be-I say this with some difficulty-a radical Chairman, or could I say a traditional progressive Chairman, so that the right decisions will be taken.
That leads me to my second question to the Deputy Leader of the House. I think that she may have gone some way to allaying my concern, which is that all the recommendations of the Committee, when it reports to the House on or after
This has been said by a number of speakers already, but this House now has a unique opportunity to restore some integrity and independence to the Back Benches and to the Floor of the House, so that Members can again carry the confidence of their constituents.
Let me express another concern. I was delighted with the speech that Mark Fisher made. He leads the Parliament First group with great intellectual rigour and distinction, and he has done a great service to the House. I should, however, express my sorrow, and that of other Opposition Members, that he was not nominated as a member of the Committee, because he could bring great wisdom to it. I suppose that I should declare an interest, in that I am sorry that I was not included either, but perhaps I am in some ways a little too controversial. However, I have, with a combination of my heart and my head, the interests of this Chamber very much at the core of what I want done in the House before I leave in 10 or 11 months' time. If, with the other Back Benchers of the House, I can help to restore the integrity that the House needs to do its job properly, in order to deal with matters such as programming, which my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin raised, we will have done a service.
The amendment in the name of Andrew Mackinlay is certainly worth serious consideration. I would not go quite as far as my hon. Friend in saying that I would support the hon. Gentleman if he pushed it to a vote, but it would do a great deal for the reputation of this House if important Ministers who lead critical Departments but who sit in the House of Lords were brought here to deal with important statements at the Dispatch Box in this Chamber. I do not believe that that would be an over-revolutionary idea. It deserves serious consideration, and I hope that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase will give it that consideration, whether or not the hon. Member for Thurrock presses his amendment to a vote.
Let us take this opportunity to do good to the House of Commons. It has gone through a difficult period. Many people feel very unhappy about the way in which the House and individual Members have been treated. Let us restore to the House the authority that will enable it to stand up, not only for its own interests, but against the too often overweening power of the Executive.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that the title of the motion is "Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons", how can the fact that the Government allowed only an hour and a half for debate and the Chairman of the Committee voted in favour of the closure give Back Benchers any confidence? Is that not an abuse of the House, and does not it negate what we have just voted on?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In your opinion, is it not wrong that the person who was responsible for the debate in the first place-my hon. Friend Mr. Chope-was unable to make a speech, when people who had been against such a debate-
Order. The hon. Member must not question the decisions of the Chair about who is called to speak in the debate. Responsibility for terminating the debate lay with the Chair on accepting the closure motion. The Chair does not have to explain decisions, but some might think that it was fairly obvious why it was reasonable to conclude the debate at that point.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
(1) That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and make recommendations on the following matters:
(a) the appointment of members and chairmen of select committees,
(b) the appointment of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means;
(c) scheduling business in the House;
(d) enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House; and
(e) such other matters as appear to the Committee to be closely connected with the matters set out above, and to report on these matters by
(2) That the Committee also consider such other matters as may be referred to it from time to time;
(3) That the Committee consist of eighteen Members;
(4) That Mr Graham Allen, Mr Clive Betts, Mr Graham Brady, Mr David Clelland, Mr David Drew, Natascha Engel, Dr Evan Harris, David Howarth, Mr Michael Jack, Mr Greg Knight, Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Mr Chris Mullin, Dr Nick Palmer, Martin Salter, Dr Phyllis Starkey, Mr Andrew Tyrie, Dr Tony Wright and Sir George Young be members of the Committee;
(5) That Dr Tony Wright be Chairman of the Committee;
(6) That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to adjourn from place to place, to report from time to time and to appoint specialist advisers;
(7) That this Order be a Standing Order of the House until the end of the present Parliament.