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Backbench Business Committee

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 5:26 pm on 15th June 2010.

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[Relevant documents: The First Report from the House of Commons Reform Committee, Session 2008-09, on Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, and its First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Implementation, HC 372. ]

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Mr Speaker has published his provisional selection of amendments. Those selected can be debated as part of the joint debate on the motions on the Order Paper. At the end of the debate, and in the light of what has been said, Mr Speaker will decide which of the provisionally selected amendments should be called formally and, if necessary, pressed to a Division.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons 5:48 pm, 15th June 2010

I beg to move,

That the following new Standing Order be made:-

(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Backbench Business Committee, to determine the backbench business to be taken in the House and in Westminster Hall on days, or parts of days, allotted for backbench business.

(2) The committee shall consist of a chair and seven other Members, of whom four shall be a quorum.

(3) The chair and other members of the committee shall continue as members of the committee for the remainder of the Session in which they are elected unless replaced under the provisions of Standing Order No. (Election of Backbench Business Committee).

(4) The chair and members of the committee shall be elected in accordance with the provisions of Standing Order No. (Election of Backbench Business Committee).

(5) No Member who is a Minister of the Crown or parliamentary private secretary or a principal opposition front-bench spokesperson shall be eligible to be the chair or a member of the committee: the Speaker's decision shall be final on such matters.

(6) The committee shall have power to invite Government officials to attend all or part of any of its meetings.

(7) The committee shall determine the backbench business to be taken-

(a) in the House on any day, or any part of any day, allotted under paragraph (3A) of Standing Order No. 14, and

(b) in Westminster Hall, in accordance with paragraph (3A) of Standing Order No. 10, and shall report its determinations to the House.

(8) At the commencement of any business in the House or in Westminster Hall which has been determined by the committee, a member of the committee shall make a brief statement of no more than five minutes explaining the committee's reasons for its determination.

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss motions 3 to 15 inclusive.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

This is the first time I have spoken with you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I welcome you. As the Deputy Leader of the House said in the final stages of the debate that has just ended, we will not be moving motion 13, and I shall explain why not in a moment.

Today we are presenting the House with an opportunity to seize back some of the powers that have been taken away by the Government. We want to restore to Back-Bench Members greater control over the business of the House than they have had for not only a generation, but more than a century. As Mr Allen said earlier, in future, how long debates such as this last and whether they should be segmented into their component parts will be a matter for the House and the Back-Bench business committee, and no one will be more pleased about that than the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House.

In tabling the motions on the Order Paper, we are pressing ahead with the implementation of the Wright Committee's proposals by setting up the Back-Bench business committee that was endorsed so emphatically by the House in the previous Parliament, and delivering the first of the Government's commitments on parliamentary reform from the coalition agreement. Although many members of the Wright Committee are no longer in the House, I pay tribute to them, and to those who remain, for a ground-breaking report produced in record time. I similarly commend the work of Parliament First, which is continuing to set the pace on reform.

Although many useful reforms were introduced in the last 13 years-debates in Westminster Hall, better sitting hours and the replacement of Standing Committees with Public Bill Committees-on some occasions the momentum was frustrated by the previous Government. If one looks at the delays and prevarications in setting up the Wright Committee and debating its report-and, indeed, reaching a conclusion on its central recommendation of a Back-Bench committee-they make the case more eloquently than anything else for the Government to relinquish their iron grip on the procedures and agenda of the House. Now we are finally giving the House a chance to debate and vote on that issue.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

In the context of the iron grip to which my right hon. Friend refers, is there any reason why we cannot have the committee for an entire Parliament?

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

I will come in a moment to the question of whether the committee should be established for one year or five years.

I turn now to Standing Order No. 14. It is just over 107 years-in fact it was on 1 December 1902-since the House first passed a Standing Order governing the precedence of business at different sittings. That was the predecessor of today's Standing Order No. 14, which provides for Government business to have precedence at every sitting, with certain exceptions. The motions before the House today will change that proposition radically. For the first time in over a century, the House will be given control over significant parts of its own agenda.

The new committee will give Back Benchers the power and time to schedule debates on issues that matter to them and to their constituents, and allow the House to become more responsive to the world outside. Motions 2 to 5 establish the committee, make arrangements for its election by secret ballot of the whole House and set out its powers and role. Much of what we propose is self-explanatory and, in the interests of brevity, I will direct my remarks towards those points that I feel need some further explanation, and on which Members have tabled amendments.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Does the Leader of the House agree that to be effective the Back-Bench committee must include Back Benchers from every part of this House, including the minority parties?

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

The Wright Committee is specific about the size of the committee, which it said should have between seven and nine members. We have proposed that it should have eight members. The chair will be elected by the same process as other elected Select Committee Chairs, but with no prior party allocation-so the hon. Gentleman would be free to stand. There will be total freedom to choose a chair from either side of the House. The remaining members will then be elected by another secret ballot, using the same system as for the Deputy Speakers in order to ensure overall party and gender balance. We propose that, in the first instance, the committee should be re-elected every Session.

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Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is surely not possible to reflect the balance in the House with so few members.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

We are implementing the recommendations of the Wright Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman was a distinguished member. The Wright Committee said that the committee should have between seven and nine members, and we are proposing that it should have eight members- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman may not have been able to persuade other members of the Wright Committee to recommend a larger business committee that would have greater opportunity to include minority parties, but the proposition-

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

If the hon. Gentleman will help me, I will of course give way.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

I cannot remember an occasion on which I did anything other than help the Leader of the House. I even attempted to help previous Leaders of the House. I shall try to elaborate the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Llwyd. The Back-Bench committee is the culmination of a process. When it meets and puts its report to the House, that will be the summit of a process that will involve much wider and deeper consultations with all parties and any Back Bencher who wishes to participate. So we do not need to have a vast, all-encompassing committee that would be too bulky to work properly. The members of the Wright Committee felt that that was an appropriate approach and we had no intention of trying to freeze anyone out.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I may give way to him later if I feel that he can elucidate my points as well as he has just elucidated that one.

I turn now to the question of why the committee should be elected every year. The committee will have power to schedule business in the House and Westminster Hall. Given the significance of this, we believe that members of the committee should be accountable to their peers for the decisions they take in scheduling debates. This will not affect the eligibility of the chair and members, who will still be able to offer themselves for re-election. This will be by secret ballot, so there is no question of Members coming under the malign influence of the usual channels in making their choices. As well as providing accountability, it will, I hope, also provide a way of bringing new blood on to the committee from time to time, to keep its thinking fresh.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

I concur with the point made by hon. Members from the minority parties, because it is important that the whole House has the opportunity to be represented on the committee. However, motion 3(1)(c) states that

"no fewer than ten" of the nominators

"shall be members of the candidate's party".

That may be an oversight, but perhaps the Leader of the House can explain how it would be possible for Members from the minority parties or independent Members to be nominated. I am sure that the intention is not to exclude them, but that wording might need Mr Speaker to interpret it flexibly when it came to nominations.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing out those restrictions which might preclude the nomination of Pete Wishart for chair of the committee, unless he was minded to join a larger party for a day.

If colleagues believe that the committee should be accountable to the House, they might wish to resist the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham North, which would have the committee elected for the whole Parliament.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has tabled an amendment to increase the size of the committee, and I have already dealt with that point. Although I understand the reason behind his amendment, the review may also be able to consider it.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee

My right hon. Friend is involved in a historic shift of power to this House that is extremely welcome, but will he consider the balance that needs to be struck between accountability and independence? Members of the Back-Bench business committee may be able to act more courageously and independently if they do not feel under threat of defeat at an election.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

I am not sure that I buy that point. The object of the Back-Bench business committee is to reflect the views of the House in selecting the agenda for discussion. I am not sure that a display of heroic independence-to an extent that led the committee away from the centre of gravity of the House-is what the committee should be about.

Motion 4 defines Back-Bench business and provides for the committee to have 35 days at its disposal in the House and in Westminster Hall. This is one of the central recommendations of the report, but it is important to remember the bigger picture. The Wright Committee noted:

"The single greatest cause of dissatisfaction...with current scheduling of legislative business in the House arises from the handling of the report stage of government bills."

In implementing one part of the Wright report, it is important not to undermine what another part of the same report says. In addition, the Back-Bench business committee is only half of the picture, and we must not lose sight of the progress that we want to see made in the third year of this Parliament on a House business committee. The creation of a House committee-looking at both the scheduling of Government and Back-Bench time as a single entity-will be better able to balance the time more effectively between debates and scrutiny.

I shall explain briefly how the proposals will work. The committee will have a total of 35 days at its disposal, which equates, as the Wright Committee recommended, to about one day per sitting week. The time will be divided between the House and Westminster Hall. The Liaison Committee will have 20 Thursday sittings in Westminster Hall for debates on Select Committee reports, and all other Thursdays will be for business determined by the Back-Bench business committee. Each of these Thursdays will count as half a day towards the total allocation of 35. In a typical Session of about 35 sitting weeks, therefore, the committee will use seven or eight days of its allocation in Westminster Hall debates, and the remainder-about 27 or 28 days-will be taken in the Chamber. Some of that time may be taken in the form of 90-minute topical debates, under Standing Order No. 24A, which will count as a quarter of a day; and I am happy to say that I see no difficulty in accepting amendment (a) to motion 4, which encapsulates the 27 days in the form I just outlined.

It may also be helpful if I say to the House that it is my intention to invite the Procedure Committee to consider whether the sittings in Westminster Hall could be extended to allow for sittings on Monday afternoons. That would provide the Back-Bench business committee with even more flexibility in how it schedules business. In future, it will also be for the Back-Bench business committee, not the Government, to schedule debates on pre-recess Adjournments, on set-piece debates on defence, Welsh affairs and international women's day, and on topical debates. These decisions will rest entirely in its hands, and just as I am accountable to the House for Government business, so it will be so accountable for Back-Bench business.

Finally on the Wright Committee recommendations, we propose that the operation of the new system should be reviewed at the beginning of the next Session, in late 2011. I recognise that there is concern about the reasoning behind this review, but the object of the review is to enable the House to move forwards, rather than, as some have said, to wind back. There is absolutely no intention to shut down the Back-Bench committee after the first Session. We are committed to establishing a House business committee, dealing with both Government and Back-Bench business, by the third year of this Parliament, so a review of the Back-Bench business committee any later than that would make no sense. I would therefore urge the hon. Member for Nottingham North not to press his amendment deferring the review until the beginning of the next Parliament, which, as I said, will be after the House business committee has been set up.

I shall now deal briefly in turn with each of the remaining motions on the Order Paper.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

If having a review every year is such a good system, will it be extended to decisions on Select Committees, the occupant of the Chair and perhaps even to Government Ministers? If it is so good to review everybody and put everything up in the air annually, does the Leader of the House intend to extend the practice?

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished member of the Wright Committee, which said that its recommendations needed to be implemented in stages. To that extent, the proposals before the House are different from those that govern other Select Committees, which are well established and do not need to be subject to review to make progress. For example, I have just outlined that we have not gone the whole way on the 35 days-they will not all be allocated to the Chamber-but I hope to make progress, and the review that I have outlined will enable the Government and the Back-Bench committee to see what progress has been made and how the momentum might be driven further forward.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Europe)

My experience in the Leader of the House's office was that one was not necessarily in charge of one's destiny in these matters, and that the relationship with Whips tended to be difficult when it came to allowing things to go forward-

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Europe)

I see there is a charming Whip saying the whole world has changed, but I do not think that is true. The Leader of the House is asking the House to take it on trust that at some stage he will come forward with further proposals. That means we have a long way to go.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

At the end of the day, it is of course up to the House to deal with the matter. The Chief Whip is as my brother on these matters. If the hon. Gentleman reads the coalition agreement, he will see a clear commitment to implementing the Wright Committee recommendations in full. That is in the coalition agreement and that is why we want the review-to make further progress towards full implementation.

In February, the previous Parliament resolved that the new Parliament should have an early opportunity to decide on the issue of September sittings-indeed, sufficiently early to be able to decide on them this year. Motion 10 gives effect to that decision.

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Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

The right hon. Gentleman has made a great argument on the importance of increasing the powers of the House as against the Executive. Does he not consider it ironic, therefore, that he is proposing, in motion 10, that in order to reaffirm

"the importance of its function of holding the Government to account" the House should ask

"the Government to put to this House specific proposals for sitting periods in September 2010."?

Should the Back-Bench business committee not have been invited to consider whether September sittings are appropriate, and if so, to come forward with proposals for how they should be organised?

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

The Back-Bench committee does not yet exist, and the recommendation of the Wright Committee was that the House should have an early opportunity to decide on it. The House can only do that if we give it the opportunity today. So we are implementing the Wright Committee recommendations in full by giving the House the opportunity to decide whether it wants to sit in September.

The House already sits for longer than almost any other comparative legislature in the democratic world, but it is obvious that the public do not easily understand why MPs are effectively unable to scrutinise the Government over the lengthy summer recesses, some of which have stretched out over a fairly long period of 82 days. I have already announced that, subject to the will of the House tonight, the House will sit for two weeks from 6 September. Unlike in previous September sittings that the House has experimented with, I fully expect there to be substantive business for the House to consider during that period. This is not a cosmetic change, but a declaration of intent.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I just want my right hon. Friend to know that some of us think that this is a huge advance. We want a Parliament that is serious, and able to dictate more of its own agenda and to hold the Government to account. It is remarkable that a Government are keeping their word and offering just that.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his robust support for the propositions before the House.

The Government have set out the dates of the 13 Fridays provided for in Standing Orders to allow consideration of private Members' Bills. Amendment (a) to motion 11 would provide extra days for the consideration of such Bills in this Session. Private Members who have been successful in this year's ballot will be advantaged by the fact that the longer Session allows for more time between the Fridays provided for consideration of their Bills on the Floor of the House. That will allow more time for Members to progress their Bills outside the Chamber, in Committee or the other place. I told my hon. Friend Mr Chope, when we debated this matter in the last Session, that I would not

"commit any future Administration to an increase in the pro rata number"-[ Hansard, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 228.]

of private Members' Fridays in the first Session of this Parliament, and that, I am afraid, is what I will do.

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Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to Fridays several times. As one who has been fortunate enough to steer two private Members' Bills through both Houses, in very difficult circumstances and on Fridays, I would like to know whether we are stuck with Fridays? Are private Members not to be given the same rights as Government spokespersons?

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

The Wright report recognised deep dissatisfaction with the current system for private Members' Bills, which was last considered by the Procedure Committee in 2002-03, so I understand the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety. My view is that the House might feel it is time, once again, to give this issue proper consideration. The Procedure Committee ought to consider it in one of its first inquiries and look at the procedures and scheduling in the round. That, rather than addressing concerns in a piecemeal way-as provided for in some of the amendments-is the right way to do it.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My right hon. Friend referred accurately to our exchange in the last Parliament. During that debate, he was very sympathetic to the argument that, if we have a Session lasting 18 months, there should be more private Members' time than in a Session lasting for only one year. Surely his argument that private Members will be advantaged by the gap between the Fridays is a bit disingenuous because whether a private Member can get legislation through depends on the time available at Report, which is why we need more private Members' Fridays.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

My response to my hon. Friend is the one that I have just given. Rather than just look at the question of how many Fridays a private Member's Bill has, one ought to stand back and look at the whole procedure for private Members' Bills, and ask whether Friday is the right day, whether the pathway through the House is the right one and whether it is too easy to impede progress. That is the right way to approach private Members' Bills: through a proper consideration by the Procedure Committee, rather than a one-off amendment this afternoon.

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Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

As a member of the Procedure Committee in 2002, I can say that the most fundamental change to have taken place over this period is the reduction in our hours on Wednesday and Thursday. Perhaps the Procedure Committee could look into extending our hours on Wednesday and Thursday nights, so that private Members' Bills could be considered then.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

That is a helpful suggestion that I am sure the Procedure Committee would like to take on board.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

No, I am going to move on, as I am conscious that a large number of Members want to speak.

Motion 12 extends the time allowed for voting on deferred Divisions by one hour, by starting the voting time at 11.30 am instead of 12.30 pm. That means that Members can vote before Prime Minister's questions, which should ease the number of Members trying to vote directly after questions. I hope that Members will support this small but helpful innovation.

There are two motions on the Order Paper relating to Select Committees. On Select Committee sizes, let me explain the reason for originally tabling those motions. The previous Parliament agreed in February to a reduction in the standard size of Select Committees, from 14 to 11, which was introduced for most Committees at the start of this Session. The Wright report expressed concern about the number of places to be filled on Select Committees, which had doubled since 1979. As well as reducing the standard membership to 11, the Government have eased the strain by abolishing the Regional Select Committees, which has reduced the number of places to be filled by 81, and by abolishing the Modernisation Committee.

However, the Wright report recognised that

"Members in individual cases can be added to specific committees to accommodate the legitimate demands of the smaller parties".

The demography of the House has undergone a major change since then. For the first time since 1974, a general election has returned a House with no overall majority. It was the Government's intention to allow representation in the Select Committee system for the minority parties, which have an important role to play in holding the Government to account in this new-look Parliament. Our intention was to make swift progress on setting up Select Committees, in line with the six weeks that Wright recommended. However, having looked at the Order Paper, I recognise that a large number of colleagues, many of whom are distinguished Chairs of Select Committees, have concerns about the course of action that we have proposed. In line with this Government's desire for a more collaborative relationship with the House than a confrontational one, it is not our intention to move that motion at the end of today, but to come back to the House soon, after further consultation with the interested parties.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee

Let me express my appreciation to my right hon. Friend for taking that matter away. I should be delighted to have Mr Llwyd on the Justice Committee, but not if he has to be attended by an army of four other extra members. I hope that the Leader of the House can initiate a discussion to find a more satisfactory way of dealing with that matter.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

It is just such consultation that I want to promote. Let me put it on record that it is our intention to ensure that minority parties continue to have representation on Select Committees, just as they did in the previous Parliament, as is proper in a United Kingdom Parliament.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

I will give way once more, but then I really must make progress.

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Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. I hope that in finding a solution to that problem, he will remember that on 22 February he said:

"Having been the Chairman of a Select Committee, I have long thought that the size of membership should be no more than 11 to allow for a more focused discussion and a more manageable meeting."-[ Hansard, 22 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 49.]

I am delighted that he is showing both good sense and consistency.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. One of the members of the small Committee that I chaired was from a minority party, so it is possible to have representation, even on a reduced size, from Members from the smaller parties.

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Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. In view of what he has said about the possibility of there not being a vote on the issue today, let me flag up an issue that I have flagged up previously, about the Environmental Audit Committee. Just for the record, it was originally set up along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee, which has 16 members, on account of there being a Finance Minister and shadow Ministers among its members. However, in practice, it has not been easy on some occasions to achieve a quorum on the Environmental Audit Committee from among its 16 members. I would therefore be most grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could give some consideration to the numbers on the Environmental Audit Committee and come back to the House at an appropriate time.

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Photo of George Young George Young The Leader of the House of Commons

I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Lady. I should be happy to engage in that discussion and see whether we can reduce the numbers in line with those in the other Select Committees.

If agreed, motion 14 on the Order Paper would change the name of one of the departmental Select Committees from the Children, Schools and Families Committee to the Education Committee. That will align the Committee to the Department that it scrutinises, the name of which changed following the election. Finally, motion 15 would change the sitting times on Tuesday 22 June, so that the House would sit at 11.30 am, instead of the normal start time of 2.30 pm. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that 22 June is Budget day. I hope that hon. Members will agree that the earlier start time will be for the convenience of the whole House.

This Government believe in a strong Parliament-one that is fearless in holding the Executive to account, effective at scrutinising legislation, responsive to the demands of its constituents and relevant to the national interest. I believe that the decisions that the House will make today will be remembered long into the future, as a defining moment of parliamentary reform. I commend the motion to the House.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 6:16 pm, 15th June 2010

Let me welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, congratulate you on your election and say how much we are looking forward to your chairmanship over the years. I also thank the Leader of the House for setting out the Government's motion on changes to the business of the House.

I want to start by reiterating the important point that my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley made, which is that it would have been genuinely helpful if there had been more consultation on the motions before they were placed on the Order Paper. If there are further proposals in future, I hope that we will be able to have such consultation.

The creation of the Back-Bench business committee is another important step in the implementation of the recommendations of the cross-party Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, which was chaired by Tony Wright, as the Leader of the House said. It is also thanks to the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, that we are now having this debate, as it was he who agreed to the setting up of that Committee. We have already elected our Select Committee Chairs by secret ballot, which was another step forward, and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who were successful in that election.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Europe)

Perhaps we should add Robin Cook to the list of people who should be thanked for the election of Select Committee Chairs, because it was he who brought the idea to the House. Unfortunately the Whips at the time conspired to ensure that it did not happen, but now we have finally got it. However, the one Committee that we have not yet elected a Chair for is the European Scrutiny Committee. Does my right hon. Friend hope that that Committee will be set up soon? Europe is moving on apace, but at the moment we have no means of scrutinising it at all.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend is right on both counts. It is important that we pay tribute to Robin Cook for everything that he did to make many of the reforms happen. He is also right that we should set up the European Scrutiny Committee, which performs an extremely important task.

There is no doubt that we need the proposed reforms to give more power to Back Benchers. I am sure that there will be a lively debate on the proposals today-indeed, it has already started. I will be brief, as I know that many Back Benchers want to contribute, but I want to raise a few issues. Obviously it is important that the Back-Bench committee timetables as much non-governmental business as possible. However, I seek an assurance from the Deputy Leader of the House when he replies to this debate that the operation of the Back-Bench business committee will not impact on either the number or the timetabling of Opposition days.

I was pleased that the Leader of the House was able to assure us that there would indeed be Government business to debate during the September sittings.

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Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian

Would my right hon. Friend also consider allowing the House to rise in June? The children of Scottish Members are on holiday in July, and that is already causing great difficulty for us.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to raise that point during the debate tonight.

At the moment, the new Government legislation is not ready to be debated in September, but I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to assure us that we shall not have a repeat of the situation that we have at the moment, in which about three out of every four days are allocated for general debates. The public rightly expect value for money from Parliament, and it is important that we should be able to debate as much Government business as possible, in the form of Second Readings, at that time.

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Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Opposition Whip (Commons)

With regard to value for money, I am really glad that there is to be a programme of work in September. Does my right hon. Friend think that it would be helpful, however, if the austerity Government could tell us the cost of the cancellation of the contracts for the work that normally takes place on this estate during the summer recess, as well as the cost of any penalty clauses that might be invoked in relation to work that cannot be completed because of the September recall? In that way, we could evaluate the costs and benefits of meeting in Birmingham in September, rather than meeting on a building site.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I know that my hon. Friend is keen for the House to consider seriously his suggestion of meeting in Birmingham. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to tell us what estimates have been made of the additional cost to the taxpayer of meeting in September, perhaps taking into account my hon. Friend's point about possible breaks in contracts.

I recall that the last time we debated and voted on September sittings-I think it was in 2006-the current Leader of the House voted against them, but the Deputy Leader of the House voted for them. I hope, therefore, that we shall not have just half a Government sitting here in September, and that we shall get the full double act-the full Monty, if I can put it that way. Will the Deputy Leader of the House give us that assurance when he winds up the debate? The proposal for extra time for voting on deferred Divisions is also a sensible one, and I am sure that it will be welcomed by all Members.

It is important that Back Benchers have as much time as possible to debate these proposals, so I shall leave it at that, but I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to answer some of these points later.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 6:24 pm, 15th June 2010

It is surprising and novel for me to be called to speak so early in a debate. My speaking note says: "I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for X, who made a powerful and thoughtful speech." Well, the shadow Leader of the House did just that.

This is an historic moment. These are radical reforms of Parliament and we are lucky to have two outstanding parliamentarians in the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House, both of whom believe in the House. If any of my remarks are critical, it is only because I want to improve matters. Some of my concerns revolve around the fact that there is to be a review in a year's time, and we are not assured that the same Leader of the House and Deputy Leader of the House will still be sitting at the Dispatch Box then.

We are leaving behind a decade in which Parliament and the role of Parliament were diminished year by year. Back Benchers' powers were reduced each year, there was more centralisation, and debate in Parliament was either extensively curtailed or, in some cases, non-existent. Parts of some Bills went through without even being debated in this House, and we had to rely on the other place. The media were routinely told in advance about new policy before statements were made in the House, and attempts were made by the Whips to crush the thoughts of independent Back Benchers. Parliament was seen as a rubber stamp for whatever the Prime Minister wanted. The number of sitting days was reduced, and the amount of time allowed for private Members' Bills was savagely cut. People outside Parliament recognised that that was happening, and they wanted not only to see changes to the expenses system but to have a Government-of whatever political persuasion-who could be subject to serious scrutiny and held to account.

Things are changing, however. We have a new Speaker who is determined to protect the role of Parliament and, particularly, the power of Back-Bench MPs. We have only to look at the speed with which questions are dealt with, the restriction on Front-Bench speakers, and the number of urgent questions that are granted to see that improvements have already been made.

We also have a new coalition Government who-this next bit is very important-have abandoned the automatic programming of Bills. I have to say that I do not support the Government's position on the programming of tonight's business, because I believe that this debate could have gone through the night. I was not prepared to support the Opposition, however, because I felt that their stance represented pure opportunism, given that they had constantly voted for programme motions in the past.

We have also seen the Government overseeing the election of Deputy Speakers and Select Committee Chairmen. Real progress has already been made-

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Europe)

But that was put in place by us.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The hon. Gentleman says that that was put in place by the previous Government, and that is true. Tonight, however, we are taking a huge leap forward with this raft of radical proposals. The establishment of a business committee, the introduction of September sittings and the speedy announcement of private Members' Bill days are all signs that the Government have hit the ground running and are really keen on major reforms. But certain things could be improved, and many of the amendments that have been tabled need to be discussed, because they could improve on what are already important, radical proposals.

In the short time available to me, I want to speak to amendment (a), which stands in my name, relating to the number of days allocated to private Members' Bills. In the Executive's haste to bring this matter to the House, they have failed to appreciate that the number of days allowed for private Members' Bills needs to be increased to compensate for the curtailing of private Members' Bills in the previous Parliamentary Session. The amendment states:

"Line 1, leave out from 'That' to end and add-

'(1) public business">Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business) shall have effect for this Session with the following modification, namely:

In paragraph (4) the word 'eighteen' shall be substituted for the word 'thirteen' in line 42; and

(2) Private Members' Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 10 and 17 September, 15 and 22 October, 12 and 19 November and 3 December 2010 and 21 January, 4 and 11 February, 4 and 18 March, 1 April, 13 May, 10, 17 and 24 June and 1 July 2011.'"

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

I am tempted to support the hon. Gentleman's amendment, so I wonder whether he could address this particular point. The Leader of the House said that having the same number of days for private Members' Bills, but extending them over a longer period, would make it easier for those Bills to go through. I did not understand that; I wonder if the hon. Gentleman could explain it.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am grateful for that intervention; I have to say that I thought there was a little bit of smoke and mirrors there. We have already heard the comments that the Leader of the House made during the previous debate on this topic, but some other comments-from both the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House-perhaps express a slightly different view.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Europe)

I wholeheartedly support the amendment that the hon. Gentleman has tabled on private Members' Bills, but I hope he is going to go on to say that the real problem with such Bills is not the number of days we devote to them, but the shenanigans that go on on a Friday morning. Either enough people cannot be got together for a quorum or Bills are talked out, and all the rest of it. Surely what we need is a system that treats Back-Bench Members with respect because they might have very good ideas that they want to get on to the statute book, so we should not be playing these sorts of silly games.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but because of the way in which the business has been set out today, I have not touched on that matter, as it might have been ruled out of order. I have sought to amend the motion in the best way I could.

Early attempts to increase the time allotted for private Members' Bills under the previous Labour Administration sadly fell by the wayside. I very much hope that our new leadership will be taking an altogether happier approach towards something that it is at the heart of ensuring a more balanced and free legislative process. How the leadership responds will to a certain extent be a litmus test of the Government's commitment to the new type of politics.

This is not the first time that I have proposed such an amendment. The last time I did so was on 6 January 2010, when I and several other hon. Members challenged the Government on why they were cutting the days available for debate on private Members' Bills from 13, as required by the Standing Orders, to a mere eight. The then Government's answer was that because the parliamentary Session was a particularly short one, there should be fewer days pro rata for private Members' Bills. I pointed out then that nowhere did the Standing Orders mention any exemption for unusually short or long parliamentary Sessions, but the Government won the vote that day.

I note that, on that day, the Deputy Leader of the House voted for my amendment. In fact, on 6 January 2010, he stated:

"I agree with an interesting point that the hon. Member for Wellingborough made... Perhaps there should be a provision in Standing Orders relating the number of days devoted to private Members' business to the length of the Session. That would be perfectly logical and is probably a view shared by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. There is logic in saying that there should be more days for a long Session and fewer for a short Session, and I do not think that any of us would disagree with that."-[ Hansard, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 230.]

I could not have put it better myself.

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Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries and Galloway

I fully recognise that the hon. Gentleman wants to move the issue of private Members' Bills forward, but I am sure that he heard the words of my very good and hon. Friend Mr Hamilton about using the spare time that exists on a Wednesday evening, for example, so that private Members' business could be dealt with at that stage. Does the hon. Gentleman believe he is in a position to convince his Whips that they should take that issue on board?

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am grateful for that intervention, which deals with a very important point that I will briefly touch on. There is a problem with the way Fridays are run, but because of how the motions were laid before the House by the Executive, as I said before, I am rather limited in what I can say on that particular point.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am sorry that he has had to delve into the internecine conflict between the Conservatives and Liberals who now occupy the Front Bench, so I will try to help him back to the core of the issue. Does he accept that, as my hon. Friend Chris Bryant said, this is not about quantity, but about quality? If we had fewer private Members' Bills, perhaps even only six, but they were brought to a conclusion, that would be much to the credit of this House. On this more than any other issue, people outside this House look to us. Interest groups, charities and others invest immense amounts of time in the process, as did my right hon. Friend Mr Clarke, who incredibly managed to get two such Bills through. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could do better by focusing on that area?

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who shows great interest in these matters. I am aware that I am in danger of getting somewhat out of order here, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I would say that the hon. Gentleman is both right and wrong. Yes, we want quality, but we also want the same number of days, so I do not accept that it is an either/or choice. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to speak of an alleged dispute between the two parties on the Front Bench. I have an interesting quote from the Leader of the House, who was most helpful in the January debate. He was quite right to say he could give no commitment, but let us look at what he did say on 6 January 2010:

"It is important that the House jealously protects private Members' time... Of course, I sympathise with my hon. Friend's desire to maximise the number of days for private Members' Bills."

He went on to say that one of my

"more compelling points was that in a shorter Session, the number of days decreases, but in a longer Session, the number does not increase. The House may want to revert to that in the context of the Wright debate and allocating the future business of the House."-[ Hansard, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 227.]

Of course, that is exactly what tonight's debate is about. I do not think that there is a division among the Front Benchers on that. Furthermore, when the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House were in opposition, they were supportive, and I am sure that nothing has changed just because they are now sitting on the Government side and have red boxes. I genuinely mean that.

I would like to explain to new Members that the issue here is about parliamentary Sessions, most of which run from the beginning of November to the next November. Because of the election in May, however, this Session will run from May until November 2011, which makes it particularly long. All my amendment would do is restore the five days for private Members' Bills that were lost in the last Session to this unusually long Session.

Any member of the public reading this debate in Hansard might wonder why we should spend parliamentary time on such a seemingly arcane matter. However, private Members' Bills are vital for democracy, and every individual in the country should have been worried about the growing power of the Executive over the last 10 years. Private Members' Bills are important because they provide one of the few chances for Members of Parliament who are not part of the Executive to initiate, debate and ultimately create legislation, thus giving power and influence to Parliament and Back-Bench Members-outside the direct control of the Government.

There are many issues that Governments fail to recognise as important, but individual Members might see them as a priority. For example, in my view there should be an Act of Parliament requiring children to wear cycle helmets when they are riding on the public highway, but the Government will not necessarily want to bring such legislation forward. Equally, and perhaps more worryingly, because Government and Opposition Front Benchers take the same view on some important issues, they might not get aired in Parliament or be made subject to a substantive motion in the House. An example might be a referendum on our membership of the European Union. That is clearly an important issue, but the two Front-Bench teams can collude so that it never gets debated, whereas a Back-Bench Member could introduce such a Bill. Indeed, some issues might have no hope of ever getting passed into law, but they are so important that they should be discussed and drawn to the public's attention.

There has been a great deal of upheaval in politics over the past year. We have a coalition Government and Liberal Ministers. Just a few weeks ago such a situation would have been unthinkable, but I have to say that the addition of Liberal Ministers to the Government has been remarkably successful so far as they have seemed to turn themselves into neo-Conservatives.

Let me make a more serious point. We have a remarkably large intake of new Members of Parliament in all parties, who have shown themselves to be very impressive and independent-minded. I have sat here and been amazed at the style and substance of maiden speeches. Surely that proves to everyone that the public are hungry for change, and if we are to deliver that change-which means more than just setting up reviews on transparency, or creating an unworkable expenses system-we must ensure that Back Benchers can hold this Government to account, and that the House is truly a place for debate. As the Speaker said recently, MPs must become citizens of the Chamber, and as I look around the Chamber tonight, I see a very good example of that. I think that there are more Members in the Chamber now than we saw at almost any time in the last Parliament.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Although a number of issues that have been raised tonight are outwith my hon. Friend's amendment, which relates to private Members' Bills, I can assure him-as Chairman of the Procedure Committee-that we will examine the points that have been made.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I think that Members throughout the House will consider that to be good news. There are problems with private Members' Bills, and it would be most welcome if the Procedure Committee could examine them.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

In the light of what has just been said by my right hon. Friend Mr Knight-the Chairman of the Procedure Committee-and in the light of the important points made by my hon. Friend, does my hon. Friend accept that any restriction on the number of days will exert pressure on private Members' Bills? For example, a Bill may need more time, particularly on Report. In my 26 years in the House, I have so often seen Bills fall at that point because they needed Government time to reach their final stages and that was not possible. My hon. Friend is entirely right to insist that the maximum possible number of days should be available.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I thank my hon. Friend. I was intending to deal with that issue shortly.

I suggested five additional days to balance the Sessions, but I have not moved the trigger forward. That means that after the eighth private Members' Friday progress can be made on Bills, which will make it easier for Members taking part in the ballot to ensure that their Bills are heard and passed into law. I thought that there was a bit of smoke and mirrors in the statement by the Leader of the House.

I have not much more to say, but I want to tell the House where I think the five extra days should go. I was going to say something about Wednesdays, but that point has already been dealt with. I propose-this touches on a point made earlier about September sittings-that two of the extra days should be in September, so that the September weeks become even more important. I was not here on the last occasion when the House sat in September, but I understand that there was a feeling that the House was almost "going through the motions". If two of those Fridays were devoted to private Members' Bills, the sittings would become even more important. I have also proposed adding one day in October this year, one day in June, and one day in July next year. Sittings on those days would inconvenience no one, and would add dramatically to parliamentary democracy.

Another of the last Government's objections to more sitting Fridays was that they would somehow prevent Members from carrying out constituency business. As my staff members have reminded me today, constituency business continues throughout the week, and is certainly not restricted to Fridays. Moreover-new Members may not know this-Members do not come to the House on days when private Members' Bills are debated unless they are interested in those Bills. Normally there is no Whip to ensure that Members attend, so there would be no requirement for a full House.

In proposing the five additional days, I am merely suggesting that the number should be returned to what would be expected in a normal two-year cycle. In a two-year period, we would expect 26 Fridays for private Members' Bills. Given that there were only eight in the last Session, an additional 18 in the current Session would produce the 26 that would normally have occurred. I am not proposing to increase the number of days for private Members' Bills; I am proposing to keep it in line with the spirit of Standing Orders and the House.

The public are still clamouring for change in the way in which politics is conducted, and for a check on the power of the Executive. Parliament must be allowed to fulfil its role, and Members of Parliament must be allowed freedom to express their opinions and those of their constituents. How the Government respond to this issue will be an important public indication of their commitment to real openness. I am pleased to have received a pledge from them that this will be a free vote, and that there will be no guidance from the Whips. This is a genuine House matter, and it could lead to a huge leap forward. Tonight, Members will have a chance to express their opinions about private Members' Bills without any influence.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. Can he confirm, in his peroration, that there is no reason why any Back Bencher should vote against his amendment? If a Back Bencher were so to do, they would be voting against the interests of other Back Benchers, and the only people who can possibly lose out if his amendment is carried are members of the Government.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I agree and disagree with my hon. Friend. I agree with his remark about Back Benchers, but I also believe that it is very much in the interests of the Government and Front Benchers to support my amendment, because that would show that the Executive are open to scrutiny and new ideas.

We are experiencing the dawn of a new age. We have a coalition Government who are charging forward with reform. If I have an opportunity to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall press my amendment to a vote.

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire 6:47 pm, 15th June 2010

I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not had the opportunity to congratulate you since your election.

Before I deal with the main issue, I want to reflect a little on the time when we all served on the Wright Committee.

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

They were indeed happy days, and very interesting. I am sorry that Tony Wright is not here to take part in the debate. I also want, especially, to say a big thank you to Mark Fisher, who did so much work with Parliament First, and to Evan Harris. He, too, is no longer with us. The Chamber misses him greatly, and I hate to think how he feels about not being in the Chamber any more; indeed, it does not bear thinking about.

I may not have agreed with the conclusions reached by the people whom I have mentioned, but I certainly agreed with much of the analysis of the problem that we had here in Parliament-in the context of scrutiny of the Executive, what we did as Back Benchers, and our control over our time. When I was on the Wright Committee I produced a minority report, but I consistently supported the establishment of a Back-Bench business Committee. I have always thought that, if established in the right way and for the right reasons, it could not just make debates livelier, but give Members much more control and a greater feeling of ownership of debates. Moreover, if we, as Back Benchers, could decide what issue to debate, by definition they would become more topical.

Many members of the Wright Committee are present today. I believe that our motivation was the same: we wanted to make proceedings in Parliament far more open and transparent. The detail is being discussed today, but the principle of the proposal was transparency. What people really objected to was not having an input, and not being able to see what was decided behind closed doors. The purpose of the Wright Committee was to begin re-establishing trust between not just the House, but us-its Members-and those who have elected us to represent and serve them. If we are to do justice to that intention, we must be much more open and transparent about what we do here. Without openness and transparency, people outside cannot have any say about what we do, far less have any influence on what we do.

In supporting the establishment of a Back-Bench committee, I think that we need to guard against a few things. We need to ask ourselves whether we are making a change for change's sake. In the case of the Back-Bench committee, that is absolutely not the case-it is a necessary, good change. We also need to guard against unforeseen consequences. Jo Swinson spoke earlier about the membership of Select Committees and said that the proposals on nominating Chairs and members excluded some of the minor parties. Those are all examples of unforeseen consequences. We need to take our time and to be careful to ensure that this is as open, transparent and fair as possible, so that we do not have unforeseen consequences-or even foreseen consequences.

My greatest concern-the thing that we most need to guard against, which I mentioned again and again when I was on the Select Committee and afterwards-is in relation to the transfer of power from one elite to another. The way that the Back-Bench committee is to be formulated and the way that its membership is to be elected means there is a danger of transferring power from the Whips Office, where deals are done behind closed doors and we learn what deal has been done when it is announced here by Front Benchers, to another back room where seven members and the Chair of the Back-Bench committee make the decision. I am not convinced that a member of that committee making an announcement of five minutes or less about its deliberations, or laying a report before the House about those deliberations, is enough. I would much rather see all the proceedings-every meeting-held in public. That is the only way in which we can ensure absolute openness and transparency. Not only that-it will engage people outside in what Back Benchers do in dealing with business here. It will engage them in a way that we have never engaged the public before. That would be a massive leap forward.

All of us would like to see an end to the current system of power and patronage held by the Whips, but we would be naive to think that, just by moving the power away from the Whips and giving it to a small group of Back Benchers, we will get rid of the patronage. We will not. If meetings of the Back-Bench committee are held behind closed doors, there will just be a direct transfer of patronage from the Whips Office to the Back-Bench committee.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

The hon. Lady is making a powerful point about the transfer of power from one Westminster elite to another Westminster elite. Does she therefore not see some merit in the amendment that I have tabled to increase the membership of the committee to 16 to ensure that we get a bigger range of people on it? In that way, there will be a minority party member on it, as well Back-Benchers from all sides of the House.

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

That is something that we should look at. Smaller memberships are not beneficial-we should look at having a much wider membership.

I want to look at the ways in which we can participate better, not just as Members, but by engaging people who have an interest in this matter. Many democracy organisations and members of the public have a deep interest in what we do. The instinct to restrict the size of things is a bad one-I would much rather see it broadened out.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's strong, clear and valuable contributions in the Wright Committee. I must, however, perhaps test her on one thing. If we had a business committee that always met in public, would there not be a danger that some of the necessary decisions that have to be taken on a give-and-take, wheeler-dealer basis, where someone does one thing and another person does another and where things are postponed, would go into the undergrowth? We might be no better off. Although I agree that some of the sittings should be in public, other sittings would benefit from being in private.

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Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. May I say to the hon. Lady that the amendment that Mr Allen is encouraging her to discuss has not been selected? May I also say that I am letting the debate run, but the interventions are getting a little long now, so could we keep them sharply related to the debate?

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The amendment was not selected, and that is a great shame. However, it will at least be a marker, and something to campaign on in future. I will discuss that with my hon. Friend later.

On the reason that we seek to establish a Back-Bench business committee, the idea that we should bring things out into the open, and whether those meetings should be in public or in private, the first motion states that the Back-Bench committee

"shall be a select committee".

On the whole, Select Committees-I think that this is mentioned in "Erskine May"-have public meetings. That is part of the point of Select Committees. They are not just bodies of scrutiny; they are also bodies of public engagement. Although deals will be done, our starting point has to be that we want to be open, transparent and accessible to the public. I take my hon. Friend's point but our starting point has to be openness.

I want to ask a few specific questions about the way in which the Back-Bench committee will work. I have written them down. I will read them out and pass them over behind the Speaker's Chair so that the Minister does not have to take copious notes. Given that the Back-Bench business committee is going to be a Select Committee, does that mean that members of the public will not be excluded from the meetings? It is not mentioned either way in the motions. Does it mean that members of the public can attend those meetings, or are they excluded from the meetings of the committee?

The same goes for MPs who are not members of the Back-Bench committee. Will they be allowed to attend even the private meetings of the committee? Will they be there during its deliberations? What will the committee's party political make-up be? Has there been an arrangement that we do not know about yet on the allocation of the different memberships? If so, what will they be? How many of the seats will be allocated to the smaller parties and to Independents?

Can a chair of another Select Committee stand to be elected either as the chair of the Back-Bench committee or as one of its members? Whatever the answer to that is, I would love to know who made the decision, because the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend Andrew Miller was not selected. I will pass those questions over via the back of the Chair. I thank hon. Members for their attention.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire 6:58 pm, 15th June 2010

As this is the first time I have spoken while you have been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, I take the opportunity to congratulate you on your new position. I am delighted to follow Natascha Engel, who made a powerful and convincing case in favour of transparency in relation to the Back-Bench business committee, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I endorse also what she said about three former Members: Tony Wright, Evan Harris and Mark Fisher, who did so much to campaign for the committee and to bring it to fruition.

I am somewhat disappointed that we are discussing this today. The reason for my disappointment is that, in the previous Parliament, on 4 March, the House passed a motion saying that it looked forward to the House being offered the opportunity

"to establish, in time for the start of the next Parliament, a backbench business committee".

We are several weeks into the new Parliament. Unfortunately, that was not done in time for the start of this Parliament. That was despite assurances from Ms Harman, who said:

"I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election."-[ Hansard, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]

She also said:

"I am under a duty and a responsibility to ensure that this happens before the next Parliament".-[ Hansard, 18 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 986.]

Unfortunately, that did not happen, which is a great tragedy, but perhaps it should also serve as a salutary lesson for those of us in this House who are keen to see reforms progress in general-I suspect that that is most of the Members present in the Chamber-that there is not always an easy path to reform. It is therefore important that those of us who are reform-minded make sure we continue to campaign, rather than assume that everything will be fine just because the House has agreed to a motion on something or other.

I am, however, absolutely delighted that the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House have introduced these motions so speedily in the new Parliament, and I think that goes some way towards making amends for the House's inability to get things done before Dissolution. I am especially pleased to see my hon. Friend in his new post; he was made for it, as he has always been a staunch defender of Parliament, and, indeed, of Back Benchers. I know that all of us who are eager for reform to happen take great comfort from knowing that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House are also very much reform-minded.

In terms of control of the business of the House, the proposals are indeed an historic transfer of power from the Government to Back Benchers. The new Government are passionate about decentralisation, and perhaps that decentralisation is starting at home. My comments will be highly supportive of the Leader and Deputy Leader's efforts to make progress with reform, but I also want to tease out some issues that could be improved upon still further.

It is clearly excellent that the Back-Bench business committee will now be set up as a result of the motions laid before the House today, but there is still a slight concern about the number of days allocated, as I raised in business questions last week. The Wright report suggested 35 days for Back-Bench business. I understand that the Leader and Deputy Leader's motivation for splitting the 35 days between this House and Westminster Hall is to enable proper scrutiny of legislation by allocating additional days to the Report stages of Bills. It has been a valid criticism of how Bills have progressed that they have not received proper scrutiny on Report and entire swathes of Bills have been left undiscussed on the Floor of the House. I understand the motivation, therefore, but I very much hope that at least amendment (a) to motion 4, which would insert a reference to 27 days into Standing Order No. 14, will be accepted. That would certainly go some way towards giving reassurance. [Interruption.] I am very pleased that that is the case.

There is another issue I wish to raise, and which I hope my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader will be able to address in his winding-up speech. I appreciate that these measures are about moving towards Wright rather than about the Wright reforms being implemented all in one go, so in respect of this agreement that there will be 27 days of Back-Bench business in the Chamber, will there also be a move towards increasing the number of days from 27 in the future? I hope my hon. Friend will be able to say something positive about that, as that would be very helpful.

Obviously, we are at the very beginning of a new Parliament with a new Government so the legislative programme is heavy, but perhaps as the Parliament continues there might be additional time on the Floor of the House for Back-Bench business. It is also worth looking at the innovative use of time to create room for Back-Bench business. For instance, Tuesday mornings and Wednesday evenings have already been mentioned in reference to private Member business.

The next issue I want to raise in respect of the Back-Bench business committee is to do with permanence. It has been suggested that its members should be re-elected every year, and that there should be a review of its progress and how well it is working in a year's time. In some ways, that sounds very good. As a democrat, I like elections; and as somebody who likes to learn how we can do things better, a review might sound like a good idea. Taken together, however, these proposals cause a certain amount of concern, and there is a genuine danger that such a review might be used to try to get rid of the Back-Bench business committee, and that if the committee were seen as being too effective, annual elections might be used as an opportunity for the Whips to remove a particularly effective Chair.

One issue of pertinence in that regard is who will vote for the committee members. If the Government in effect have a block vote of more than 100 MPs, it will become very difficult for any candidate who is not supported by the Government to become the Chair of the committee. We recently elected the Chairs of Select Committees and the convention as originally recommended by the Procedure Committee was that Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries of the relevant Department would not vote in the election of the departmental Select Committee Chair. Although this was not made explicit in the Wright report, I wonder whether it may be possible for the Government to take the same self-denying ordinance in voting for members of the Back-Bench business committee and its Chair. It does not seem unreasonable for the Back-Bench business committee, which represents Back Benchers, to be elected by Back Benchers. If that can be done, it might assuage some of the concerns about annual elections.

I also want to press my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader about the same issue on which I intervened on the Leader of the House: motion 3(1)(c). That is not only about the Chair of the Back-Bench business committee; it is about any candidate to become a member of the Committee. It clearly states that of the candidate's nominations,

"no fewer than ten shall be members of the candidate's party".

That would exclude members of the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru, the other minority parties and, indeed, independent candidates.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend as she has, I think, spotted a defect in the proposals, but I have to say that it is not a defect in the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and myself; it is, rather, a defect in the proposals from the Wright Committee, which, unfortunately, was not spotted in the motion drafted by the Committee. I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says about the unfortunate effects of that, and I think we may want to look at it again. I hope, however, that she will accept our defence, which is that here we have religiously stuck to the recommendation and, indeed, the draft motion of the Wright Committee.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

I greatly appreciate that intervention from my hon. Friend, and that reassurance. I am sure that this can be solved. The Speaker certainly seems to be given a lot of power in these elections as almost a de facto returning officer, so I suspect a solution can be found.

I shall now turn to the issue of private Members' Bills and the two amendments in my name: amendment (d) to motion 2 and amendment (b) to motion 4. I want to share with the House why I think this is an important issue, although I also appreciate that some new Members are present and I do not wish to scare them or put them off. I just want to describe my experience of the horror of Friday sittings.

One of the first Friday sittings I attended dealt with a private Member's Bill sponsored by Mark Lazarowicz. His Bill was on climate change and I was keen to support it, and many of my constituents were also keen for me to do so. The second Bill on the Order Paper was about the management of energy in buildings, and we thought that because there would be five hours of business in the Chamber, we might be able to get one Second Reading finished and have another one well under way. We had not counted, however, on a two-hour speech from one Member, and then another Member standing up to try to make a speech of a similar length.

In order to get a private Member's Bill passed, there need to be 100 MPs for the closure vote, so there were dozens of MPs in the Chamber who had come along to support this private Member's Bill. Indeed, some of them wanted to make some comments on the record, perhaps through an intervention, but had we all done that, the Bill would have been talked out, and all because one or two Members were being, frankly, quite rude about using up time to talk it out.

I remember sitting in the Chamber and thinking that if I wanted the Bill to go through, I would just have to be quiet and say nothing-and not even say that I supported the Bill. I accepted that but, along with many other new Members at the time, I left the Chamber appalled and furious that this was the way we did our business, and I thought that it absolutely had to change.

I also remember that when I spoke to Members who had been in the House for longer than me, it was clear that they had got used to things as they said, "Well, that's the way it is." I thought to myself that I never wanted to accept that such a ridiculous way of working is the way it had to be. I suspect that current new MPs would be equally appalled if that happened, but I am sure that there will be an opportunity to make a change, because there needs to be one.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

I well remember the progress of that particular private Member's Bill, and I am grateful for the hon. Lady's support on that occasion. She will also recall that that Bill came back not only on one Friday, but that it had to come back a total of three Fridays precisely because some Members chose to use their right to speak at length. Does she agree that that underlines that until such time as there is a more fundamental reform of procedure for private Member's Bills, we do not want to lose any days for private Member's Bill discussion on Friday, which is why we support the amendment of Mr Bone?

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman, and I think that the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Wellingborough is sensible. As he outlined, it just deals with the fair allocation of the equivalent of 13 days per year-or 26 days over two years. My amendments would also allow the Back-Bench business committee to programme the remaining stages of private Members' Bills, so that once a Bill had received its Second Reading a timetabling motion could be tabled and, thus, the ability of Members to talk out the Bill would be removed at that stage. Although I think that that ability should be gone from the beginning of proceedings on such Bills, and that people who wish to defeat them should do so on the merits of the argument and through a vote of this House, my amendments would be a good step in the right direction. Making a change on the ability to programme private Members' Bills would be helpful.

I was pleased to hear the Chair of the Procedure Committee say that his Committee will examine this issue more widely, because I accept that my amendment and that of the hon. Member for Wellingborough deal only with small parts of the problem and that the issue of private Members' Bills and Friday sittings needs to be examined much more in the round and more generally. I urge that such a report should be conducted quickly and acted on soon, so that we do not lose the momentum for reform. We do not want there to be an excuse to kick these issues into the long grass. I hope that if we do get some good recommendations, the demoralising and soul-destroying experience that many MPs have sat through on frustrating Fridays will be a thing of the past.

I was pleased to hear that motion 13 is not going to be moved this evening, because that motion is one of the best arguments against leaving things to the usual channels that I have come across in a long time. Expanding three Select Committees to 16 members was a very inelegant solution, and the fact that it was cooked up by the Whips without even consulting the Chairs of those Committees beggars belief. The Wright report made it clear that 11 should be the maximum number of members on a Select Committee, but we face a genuine problem in ensuring that the minority parties are represented.

There are different ways of solving that difficulty. In the previous Parliament, when the Liberal Democrats were in opposition, we made sure that some of the places that we were allocated went to the minority parties. I know that that certainly happened from time to time on Committees such as those discussing statutory instruments. One solution might, thus, be for Labour to be similarly generous. Another solution might be to add one minority party representative to these Committees, rather than for them to have an additional four members also. If necessary, in order to maintain the Government-Opposition balance, perhaps we could add a Government Member, but the arguments for adding five extra people to Select Committees do not stand up. I am pleased that the Government have listened on this issue and are going away to find a better solution-it is important that a solution is found.

In conclusion, when we examine the issues in the spirit of the Wright report we also need not to forget that further reform is required; radical and exciting as today's reforms are, this process should not stop here. The "Involving the public" section of the Wright report contained a lot of good ideas, but much further work needed to be done, particularly on petitioning and the online engagement of this place. Good ideas come from, and reformers can be found in, all parts of this House, and on issues such as these we have been practising the new politics for a very long time in our cross-party working. With the Leader and the Deputy Leader both being so positively disposed to reform, I, for one, am optimistic that most of the motions on today's Order Paper will constitute an important next step in the vital reform of this House.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 7:13 pm, 15th June 2010

I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, as other Members have rightly done. First, I wish to reflect on how pleasing it is that we are discussing not whether the procedures of this House should be reformed, but how that should be done. We have taken the debate forward from the Wright report, and it is pleasing that the House has chosen to do so.

I wish to concentrate particularly on one aspect that has not been mentioned very much, if at all, and about which the Wright Committee had some discussions; feelings were equally divided about September sittings, but clearly the Government have chosen that we should resume the practice of having them, at least for this parliamentary year. We held an experiment about seven or eight years ago, when we came back in two successive Septembers, without having particularly glorious results. On one occasion, we managed two votes in a fortnight, and we encountered certain problems with the hunt supporters getting into the Chamber because of security issues resulting from the amount of construction work being carried out on the site while the House was sitting.

It is often made out that supporters of September sittings are reformers and those who do not support them have their heads in the sand and are looking backwards. In fact, there can be a genuine division of view on how Members would most productively spend their time in September-whether that is in the House or in their constituencies-and on how much time this Parliament sits for compared with other Parliaments around the world. However, I wish to raise a more boring, domestic issue relating to the functioning of this place.

I wish to discuss maintenance and the building's being fit for the purpose of enabling meetings to take place at which the Government are held to account. It is no use passing motions that say that the job of this House is to hold the Government to account-of course, that is its job-if we do not have a building in which that can properly be done. Having lots of construction work going on around us as we carry out that function was not a happy experience when we tried it before.

When we consider Government Bills, Government legislation or private Members' Bills, we try to inform ourselves of all the issues involved. However, this House has a terrible habit when we discuss this sort of domestic issue. Things seem like a good idea, we vote one way or the other-if we are allowed a vote on such matters-and then we pass on without any proper advice and information having been made available to Members.

When I saw the September sittings motion on the Order Paper, I was pleased that it referred to this parliamentary year only. I took the opportunity to go to the chief executive's office, where Philippa Helme is always very helpful, and I then spoke to John Borley, who is the Officer in Parliament responsible for all our building and maintenance works, along with Mel Barlex. I meet them regularly because I was a member of the Finance and Services Committee in the previous Parliament and a member of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee too. The meetings were not always terribly exciting, but they were crucial.

John Borley told me that they had rightly anticipated that the House might want to sit in September. With a new Government perhaps coming in they could not guarantee that, but the thought was that it could happen and that at a beginning of a Parliament, because business might not happen quite so early, there would be a need for legislation to come through then. As Officers, they rightly predicted that September sittings might be held and they set their maintenance programmes up accordingly. Therefore, there will not be any dramatic effect this year in terms of altering what was already in train and what was already being planned.

My concern is that on these sorts of issues we do not bother to take account of the people who have to do the detailed professional work in building up maintenance programmes that keep this building functioning, not merely as a place of work, but as one of the most important historic buildings in this country-that is important too. We have seen the work that has been done on the cast-iron roofs, which has been crucial in keeping the fabric of this building going.

I know that in the past there has been an awful lot of criticism of how we have managed the parliamentary estate. We encountered major difficulties with Portcullis House and problems with the visitor reception area, and they created major problems for the budget of Parliament. We have run over budget and over time on the visitor reception area, which was an unhappy experience from which we have had to learn the lessons. With the appointment of these new Officers to manage our parliamentary estate, I have seen a much higher degree of professionalism, and a much greater willingness to plan ahead, to look at the options, difficulties and costs involved, and to see how we can develop a forward programme for budgeting, which is crucial. I have also seen the work of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee and how internal auditors now work with it to try to ensure that we have best practice in procurement.

Officers will say two things to us. First, they will say that they need a degree of stability and of advance warning, because it is not sufficient simply to try to pick, on a whim, when Parliament will sit on a year-by-year basis. We need significant and serious forward planning so that Parliament looks, as quickly as possible, at the longer-term arrangements over a number of years and gives the Officers advice about when it will be sitting and when time will be free to carry out essential maintenance work. The second thing that those people will say is that if, having examined the situation, Parliament is bent on having simply a five-week recess year on year, it will not be possible to keep the building in which we work-and that we treasure and have grow to love over the years-in a proper state of repair.

If hon. Members have any doubts about the situation, they should take a trip down to the underground passages under the House to look at the state of the mechanical, engineering and electrical systems, because they are very bad indeed. We know that a massive work programme will be needed. That will need planning, organising and funding, and it must be cost-effective. If we can shut down the building for only five weeks at a time, it will probably not be possible to carry out the programme.

It is not sufficient that I report these concerns to hon. Members second hand, so it is important that proper reports are made to the Commission and the Finance and Services Committee, with the audit Committee having a look, so that there can be a report to the whole House to inform Members' decisions. We should try to plan our sittings for a whole Parliament, which would also help Members to organise their activities outside the House. If we could achieve all that, we could better approach these issues that are crucial to our working, even though they are quite dry and sometimes turgid matters that might not excite people politically. It is also important that we send a message to the public that if we have to make cuts to the services that they receive-we might disagree about where the cuts should fall and how great they should be-we will take proper account of the money that we have for the House and ensure that we spend it cost-effectively. Unless we carry out proper planning, however, that simply will not happen.

It is absolutely right that, if the Government wish, we should come back in September on the basis of the motion. However, if we are looking at future sittings, planning will be required, as will proper advice from the Officers who run the Palace of Westminster for us. All Members should have access to that advice before voting on such sittings in the future.

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Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Treasury Committee 7:21 pm, 15th June 2010

I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and congratulate you on your election.

The fact that motion 13 has been pulled makes my life a lot easier, and my main intention now is put down a marker to ensure that we do not get something that is almost as bad next week.

Before I talk about the size of Select Committees, however, I should say that we are fortunate to have such an enlightened Leader of the House-I am glad that he has just returned to the Chamber. If it were not for him, in his role as shadow Leader of the House and now as Leader of the House, we would not have made anything like as much progress on a business committee or the strengthening of Select Committees. A less enlightened Leader of the House would have found a reason to kick much of this into the long grass for the convenience of his ministerial colleagues, not least his blood brother, the Chief Whip-I cannot help wondering whether that is a sort a Jacob-Esau relationship.

I am, of course, very glad that the Leader of the House has pulled the motion that would have increased the membership of three Committees from 11 to 16, the ostensive reason for which was that we needed to provide better representation on Select Committees for minority parties. I strongly agree that those parties need appropriate representation, but the argument that an increase in the size of Select Committees is required to achieve that is completely bogus.

The minority parties must have adequate representation on the territorial Committees-I am appalled that they do not-and they should have three Chairs on the other Committees. [Hon. Members: "Seats, not Chairs."] I am sorry-we would have Chairs sprouting everywhere. Those parties should have at least three members of the other Committees, and those places should come out of the Opposition quota. I know that this might be controversial among Labour Members but, by my reckoning, the Labour quota provides for 4.39 people on each Committee. When that number is rounded down, as it should be, it implies four members, although we will all have noticed that the Labour party is getting five members per Committee. The obvious solution is to provide the three Committees cited in motion 13 with a combined quota for the Opposition parties. There are 23 Members representing "others", so their quota comes out as 0.39. When 4.39 is added to 0.39, the result is a figure of just under five, so that is reasonable justification for adopting such an approach.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I thank the new Chair of the Treasury Committee for giving way. I totally agree with his powerful point that the minority parties should get three Chairs. However, does he agree that we should be over-representing minority parties to ensure that their voices are adequately heard? Such parties get more seats than they are entitled to in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, so surely we should follow that example here.

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Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Treasury Committee

As someone who comes from a large party, I will not rush to argue that the smaller parties should be over-represented, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman and I can make common cause that they should be adequately represented. I advise him not to over-egg things but to take the support that he is getting at the moment to justify increasing their membership-not Chairs-by three across the 24 Committees, albeit without wrecking those Committees by increasing their membership by too much.

The increase in the membership of some Committees to 16 must have been proposed by people who were determined to ensure that those Committees could not operate effectively. Anyone who has worked on a large Select Committee will know that that can be difficult. It is not easy to achieve cross-party consensus on such a Committee, and its members come together less and are less cohesive. I have served on the Treasury Committee twice. The first time was when it was a Committee of 11 and it worked very well. When I returned to the Committee a little under a couple of years ago, however, its membership had increased to 14, which led to several difficulties. Many of its members were unable to participate in the questioning of particular witnesses, and several hearings during which everyone wanted to participate were extremely long. It was impossible to hold a short hearing, and although we got by, it was with difficulty. That was why the Liaison Committee proposed limiting the membership of Select Committees to 11 and why the Wright Committee suggested limiting the membership to nine, although it said that it could live with 11. It was also why the Leader of the House concluded much the same, as we heard from the quotation that was cited earlier.

I note that the coalition agreement of 20 May states:

"We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full".

If that means anything, it must be that a Select Committee's membership will be nine or 11, but not more. I am sure that I speak for all the newly elected Select Committee Chairs when I say that we should stick with nine or 11, but not more, and I hope that Front Benchers are listening.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution) 7:28 pm, 15th June 2010

Madam Deputy Speaker, you are the last of the new Deputy Speakers whom I am able to congratulate on your election and elevation. It is always good to leave the best till last-if that does not get me called early in debates, I do not know what will.

Is it not unfortunate that we have heard no maiden speeches today? I am really missing the kaleidoscope tours of UK constituencies that we have become used to hearing each day, but perhaps a new Member can run to the Chamber and get in.

Although I am probably alone in this, I cannot share the enthusiasm for the Back-Bench business committee and the great reforming zeal of the Wright proposals. There are serious problems for the minority parties. We have already recognised some of the problems that have inadvertently been created, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House and his deputy for trying to address our concerns and for speedily withdrawing motion 13. I, like all my colleagues, am grateful to both of them for ensuring that the question of whether minority party Members can be considered for Select Committees will be addressed.

Jo Swinson -unfortunately, she is no longer in the Chamber-made a pertinent point about the quota for securing a place on the Back-Bench committee. We just cannot do it. We have only six Members. Plaid Cymru has only three. The Democratic Unionist party is the largest of the minority parties, and the fourth largest party in the House, but it cannot do it. I am glad that there is a genuine attempt to address the matter. Hopefully, we can make sure that we are in the race to get a place if we can increase membership of the Committee to a reasonable size that will allow us the opportunity to participate in the House.

This has not been a good few weeks for the minority parties; things have been really poor. I do not know what is going on. I came back to the House expecting that we would secure more input into the House and better representation, but since coming back we have experienced further entrenched exclusion. Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister got to his feet in the House and announced a new Committee on reform of the House of Lords. There was no consultation with the minority parties-or much consultation with the rest of the parties. We found that there would be no place for minority parties on that Committee. There is now a Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Constitutional reform is what our parties are about; it is our reason for being here, but there is no place on the Committee for the minority parties.

There is still no resolution on the issue of the Liaison Committee. Fair enough, we do not have a Chair of a Select Committee, but the Liaison Committee is a Select Committee of the House, and arithmetically, we are entitled to a place on it. That was conceded by the former Government, and I hope that it is conceded by those on the Government Front Bench. We need that opportunity to question the Prime Minister on a monthly basis. That opportunity should not be confined to the three main parties of the House. The minority parties have to get on the Liaison Committee.

Then there is the biggest disappointment of all: the Wright proposals. We are to be excluded for all the "good" reasons. We are excluded in the name of democratic reform and making the House accountable-things that we agree with. There will be no place for us on the Back-Bench business committee. It is just not possible that there will be, given that it has eight members; it is not going to happen. I just wish that the Wrightinistas, as I call them-those pioneers of reform, those champions making sure that this place is much more accountable, out there fighting the good fight against the dark forces of the Government Whips-would concede that, and acknowledge that on a Committee of eight, there is absolutely no way of that happening.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

When the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, he had a great deal of sympathy from all parts of the House, but now that he is flailing around, blaming absolutely everybody, he is in danger of losing his friends as rapidly as he made them on this issue. The Wright Committee proposed that on every Committee of the House there be one reserve place for the Speaker to allocate-a Speaker's pick-so that justice could be done. That place might be for the minority parties or, indeed, those with minority opinions within larger parties. That proposal was not brought forward, but that was the doing of not the Wrightinistas, or whatever pejorative term the hon. Gentleman wishes to make up, but the Government and the Front Benchers of the day.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I thought "the Wrightinistas" was quite an endearing term. If the hon. Gentleman takes offence, I am sorry about it, but he is being a tad sensitive. He is possibly right that what was suggested by Wright was probably okay, but there have been inadvertent mistakes, such as the 10-Member quota; that was a result of the Wright Committee, and there is a problem with that. Thank goodness that the Front Benchers have decided that they will address that. The hon. Gentleman cannot in all honesty say that the Wright proposals were bulletproof, soundproof and correct in every instance, because they were proven to be wrong in that instance.

The hon. Gentleman is right, but it seems to us that we are caught in the middle of a fight between the Wrightinistas-I apologise to him-and the Whips. It is a fight between the two big boys in the playground. They are battering lumps out of each other, trying to gain ascendency, and all of a sudden they see the little boy sitting eating his piece in the bike shed. That is us-the minority parties. It is we on whom they have decided to take out all their frustrations, we who are losing places on Committees, and we who are being excluded in this House. It just is not right or fair. We should be on Select Committees, and we should be making sure that we make our contribution.

Where we have served on Select Committees, we have made a constructive, useful contribution, as has been recognised by several Members from across the House tonight. We have played a part on cross-party Committees of the House, trying to ensure positive reforms, particularly with regard to expenses. My hon. Friend Mr Llwyd served on the Wright Committee, and pointed out some of the inconsistencies and difficulties that emerged. Unfortunately, he was not listened to on those issues.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I feel strongly that the case that the hon. Gentleman puts is entirely justified. It is incredibly important to remember that according to "Erskine May", the first duty of the Speaker is to protect minorities. That is absolutely fundamental. There is no reason whatever that I can think of why any Member from a minority party, be they an independent, or a member of Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party, or the Democratic Unionist party, should ever be excluded from full participation in the House.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. He is right. As I said to Mr Tyrie, minorities should be respected. If anything, we should be over-represented to ensure that differing voices are heard. What is wrong with hearing diverse voices in this House? What are people afraid of? Of course we should be on Select Committees and should be part of them. The Government should be listening to this, because our party is not just a minority party, but the party of government in Scotland. Our party is in a minority Government in Scotland, and the party of my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd is in a coalition Government in Wales. Why do the Government not want to hear those diverse voices in all the workings of this House?

I will tell the House how bad things were. It was not just that we did not have a place on the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee; when we turned up at the House for our customary little chit-chat with the usual channels, we were told that there were no places for us on any Select Committees, because that is what the Wright proposals suggested. Before Mr Allen gets on his high horse, let me say that that was how the usual channels interpreted the Wright proposals-no places for us on Select Committees, and effective exclusion from scrutiny of Government Departments. That is what was offered to us.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Sometimes, it is from minorities that major parties develop. That has to do with what is called freedom of speech. When people hear the minority view, they have the opportunity to get that view across to the public. To be excluded is a complete derogation from freedom of speech.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I am pleased that I gave way again to the hon. Gentleman, because he is spot on. That is what the issue is about. I hope that the House hears tonight that we have a meaningful contribution to make. My modest little amendment (e) is an attempt to address the issue. It aims to make sure that the minority voice is heard, as the hon. Gentleman says. It is about saying, "Let's see what we can do to get the smaller parties of the House involved and on board."

As I have said, there is no way that we would ever be considered for a place on the Back-Bench business committee; that is just not going to happen, and I hope that that will be conceded. We do not yet know how its members will be determined. I know that it will be through an election, but there will be some sort of mechanism or procedure to ensure that Labour, Liberal and Conservative Members are on it. That is 100% certain; I bet you any money, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there will be one Member from each of those three parties on the Committee. It is also almost entirely certain-again, I bet you any money-that there will be no Member from the minority parties on it. We have to change that; we have to ensure that that does not come to pass.

My amendment suggests that we increase the number of members of the Back-Bench business committee from eight to 16. Why 16, you ask, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is because that always seems to be the magic number at which we start to come into play.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head; he may want to intervene. Sixteen is always the number at which there is at least a chance that we will be included. That is why I seek in my amendment to increase the number to 16.

It is good to get more Members involved. What is wrong with that? Why restrict the number to eight? I know that the Committee might get more business done that way, but the term "Backbench business committee" suggests that it should be full of Back Benchers. There should be lots of them involved, from Labour, the Liberals, the Conservatives, the DUP and the SNP. What is wrong with having a reasonable-sized Back-Bench business committee? Restricting membership to eight just does not make sense and I cannot see the reason for it. Surely there are loads of Back Benchers who want to be part of what could be a very exciting and promising Committee.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case, but does he not accept that a smaller Committee is important to allow business to be conducted efficaciously? As he knows, although there were a large number of Green and Scottish Socialist party Members in the previous Scottish Parliament, they were not members of the Business Committee by right. It is difficult to strike a balance, but I accept that the hon. Gentleman has some powerful arguments.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I am not so sure about the hon. Gentleman's contribution. There is a good case to be made for the business committee to be larger and more open, to ensure that we hear a different chorus of voices on the Back-Bench agenda. I see nothing wrong with a bigger committee, and I hope the House supports us this evening.

We went along with Wright-as I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd served on the Committee-but we believed it was a good thing to do. As Natascha Engel mentioned in her speech, it seemed to be starting from the right premise, taking on the powers of the Whips, making the House more accountable, and making sure that there is a proper Back-Bench voice in the House. We accepted that that was an agenda that needed to be addressed and we went along with it in the hope that we would get some sort of change.

We even accepted in good faith the assurances given by Wright Committee members. I remember intervening, as did several of my hon. Friends, on Tony Wright when these matters were being debated, and he would say, "Don't worry, it will be okay. Don't worry about the fact that it is not specifically mentioned that you will get a place on Select Committees. It will be all right." It was not all right. It has been a disaster. We were given no places at all on Select Committees initially. We have no place on the Back-Bench business committee as it is currently to be constituted. That must be addressed.

We accepted those assurances in good faith, and I ask those who are the fervent champions of the reforms to get out there and make sure that the issue is addressed. They should approach it with the same enthusiasm as those on the Government Front Bench seem to be approaching it, and make sure that it is resolved. We must fix it. It is not good enough that we are excluded. We have to find a mechanism to ensure that minority parties will have a place on the Back-Bench business committee. It is important that the committee is seen to be legitimate, and that it is representative of the House as a whole. As the hon. Lady said, there is no point substituting one Westminster elite for another.

As the committee is currently to be constituted, it will not be representative. The only way that we can change that and make the committee truly representative, to give everybody an opportunity to serve on it, the only way that we will get minority party members on it, is to increase the size. I hope the House supports us this evening in increasing the committee's size. I cannot see any other solution to ensure that we have a place. If any Member has any other suggestions, I may consider not pressing my amendment to a Division, but as far as I can see, I have no alternative but to ask the House to determine the matter on a vote this evening. We need those numbers to ensure that we have a Back-Bench business committee that is representative of the whole House.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone 7:42 pm, 15th June 2010

Congratulations, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your election to that important post.

I begin with the constitutional background to the role of Members of Parliament in general and Ministers in particular. I have said on several occasions over the past few years that one of the reasons why the importance of the House in the public mind has been so reduced is Members' lack of involvement and attendance in the Chamber, which has not been the case during this debate or since the new Parliament commenced. The use of procedural devices such as the guillotine, and the manner in which the previous Government handled Government business over the past 10 years, have been a disgrace. Indifference on the part of Members of Parliament has increased to an extent that I did not think was possible when I entered the House 26 years ago.

However-I say this as one who has a certain scepticism about coalitions-I congratulate the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader on the speed with which they tabled the motion. I say that with feeling, because if used properly, it has the capacity to improve greatly the involvement of the House and the quality of debates.

People often imagine that we do next to nothing in the Chamber. That is partly because of the failure of parliamentary reporting of what goes on in the House. For those who do not have the parliamentary channel, for example, and who are reliant on the few minutes that are given to "Today in Parliament", it is difficult to have any concept of what goes on here. That is partly due to the fact that Back Benchers have been largely excluded from the briefing processes now available to the media and the machinery that is available to enable Members to be heard by the public outside.

I say that with feeling as one who, if not a serial rebel, has consistently held strong views, if I may say so-for example, on a debate that took place in Westminster Hall this morning on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament and the European Union. I would be extremely surprised if that makes the "Today" programme, "Yesterday in Parliament" or "Today in Parliament".

The way in which the House is perceived is profoundly affected by the sucking away of the deliberations of the House from the Chamber at a time when the whole of Europe is imploding, the German Government is in a state of implosion, the Greeks are in a state of implosion, unemployment is rampant and the impact of immigration is flowing all over the continent. It is astonishing that, as heard from the outside, matters of such importance cannot get the coverage in Parliament that they deserve.

We heard yet again from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that the Wright Committee proposals will be accepted in full. If I have slightly misunderstood, I am happy to be corrected, but I see that paragraph 177 states:

"On some business there needs to be an explicit partnership between Ministerial and backbench scheduling: this includes the length of debates on the Budget and Queen's Speech, the timing of Estimates Days and the handling of secondary legislation and European documents on the floor."

One of the things that I noted was excluded from the province of the Back-Bench committee is European documents. If the Wright Committee proposals are to be accepted in full, I cannot see why European documents should be excluded.

I say that for good reason. I have been on the European Scrutiny Committee for 26 years. I doubt whether many other Members have served on a Select Committee for anything like that length of time. As I said in the debate this morning in Westminster Hall, not once, at any time in those 26 years, has any vote ever been passed on the Floor of the House or in a European Committee to overturn a decision in the Council of Ministers, bar one that I can recall, and that was immediately overturned on the Floor of the House. In other words, the very fact that we are committed to the European Communities Act 1972 has meant that we are not allowed to pass any legislation inconsistent with it. So I am puzzled as to why that partnership arrangement, which was described in paragraph 177, has not been included, as far I can judge, in the proposals before us.

However, on the extent of the committee's terms, I again have considerable sympathy with those who have tabled amendments to the proposals to restrict the period for which the chairman and committee members can be elected. Indeed, that is why I have put my name to a variety of them. Despite the responses of the Deputy Leader of the House and the Leader of the House to interventions, I cannot understand the real reason behind restricting the chairman and members to election merely for one year-until, perhaps, we consider the review of the committee's operational arrangements. Despite the sophistry that I heard from the Deputy Leader of the House and, indeed, the Leader of the House regarding the length of time, I am still extremely unhappy about the idea that the chairmanship, the membership and the length of time for which the committee is to be given a full opportunity to be seen to operate should be temporary arrangements. The operational restriction to one Session is a very suspicious business.

I know my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House quite well; I have watched him over many years and I would not normally regard him with suspicion. He is very shrewd and intelligent, and he tells me that he can justify a review after one year, but I am not impressed by the answers that we have received so far. The measure just does not stand up, and I know that many other hon. Members feel the same way. It has-to use another expression-a bit of a pong about it.

Some people might use the Back-Bench business committee to advance causes, and that, after all, is what Back Benchers are supposed to do. Members do not just react to Government business; they might want to promote ideas. I do not agree with all the arguments that the minority parties have presented on, for example, aspects of devolution, and there are many arguments on the Barnett formula and all sorts of things where we might have serious differences, but they and Back Benchers generally have a right to be heard.

As I have said on previous occasions, what we need more than anything else in this House is Back Benchers with backbone. During my 26 years in the House, I have been involved in quite a few controversies and I have seen some serious ones develop. Ultimately some Members have seen them through and some have not. I hope that the Back-Bench business committee will not just represent a vague opportunity for people to have their say but that they will actually do something, and that the committee will therefore be used effectively in relation to causes as well as Government business.

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Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I would never suggest that the hon. Gentleman lacked backbone, and I doubt whether any Member would. Some might accuse him of being a little rigid, but lacking backbone-never. I agree very strongly that if someone were elected for one Session only, they might be put under pressure by all manner of people, and that would deny the committee an independently minded chairman who would fight for the rights of Back Benchers. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

By way of tribute to the hon. Gentleman, I note how strongly he feels about matters relating to Africa, for example, as I do. We have shared many arguments and discussions on that subject. The question is whether, in that sphere or any other, a person's cause might be affected via a behind-the-curtain attempt by the Whips to undermine them and thereby get them away. I remember the late Gwyneth Dunwoody, who was removed from the Transport Committee, and Sir Nicholas Winterton, who was removed from the Health Committee. Let us not for a minute imagine that the machinations of the Whips' magical powers would not get to work if somebody stepped into the arena and started to make use of the Back-Bench business committee.

However, I really do pay tribute to the Leader of the House, the Deputy Leader of the House and, indeed, the coalition Government, because they have stepped into the arena and, with those proposals, allowed Parliament to become an arena where risk is part of Government business. That is a tremendous step in the right direction, but it will be fulfilled only if the ingredients are allowed to develop and evolve. The termination point on the committee's chairmanship, membership and operation puts square brackets around it, as if the Government are saying, "We think it's a good idea and we do want to give power back to Parliament, but we don't want to give them too much, because we want to put them on notice, and when we put them on notice the Whips get to work."

I say that with respect, because I see my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright and Whip sitting on the Front Bench. We get on well together and have got on in the past at a personal level. The issue is nothing to do with personalities; it is to do with the operation of the Whips Office, which is driven by what the Prime Minister and No. 10 want, and by senior Ministers and Secretaries of State. That involves the interplay of personalities and principles, and questions of compromise and how business is to be put through. Do people who really believe in something, even within their own party, have the opportunity to express their views and to carry them through? That is why European business is constantly before the House, but on the basis of "take note", rather than a vote. In other words, one is allowed to discuss such business and one is tolerated but, even having been right over an extended period-for which one must not of course try to make any claims-one is not allowed to vote on it or to obtain other people's support, because that is beyond the pale.

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

Before the hon. Gentleman is diverted too far down the European track, may I bring him back to his point about the Back-Bench business committee and the influence of the Whips? Does he not fear, as I do sometimes, that the committee could itself become a powerful elite of senior Back Benchers? How can we best guard against that?

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

We cannot guard against it at all. The Government have all the powers that they need, and Parliament is sovereign and omnipotent-we are told so. Ministers are appointed by the Crown, and they have the patronage, the salaries, the prestige and the opportunities to direct business and make policy. They are chosen-they are appointed. They are certainly elected to the House, and that is where they get their true reason for existence, because they are elected by the people. As I have said so many times, it is not our Parliament, it is the Parliament of the people, so a Minister is no more important in the sense of election, and that is one of the great virtues of our parliamentary system. It is not like the American system, in which there is an elected President and the separation of powers.

Members of Parliament and members of the Government who are Members of Parliament are in this House; there is no distinction between them in respect of their position as Members of Parliament. If Back Benchers are part of the aggregate of those who are elected, they must be given the opportunity to participate in the making of policy-that is why I mentioned the word "causes"-and in taking decisions relevant to Back Benchers' business. That is why I applaud these proposals so much.

I understand why ministerial business is excluded in this context, because such business is the job of the Government. We are often told that this Parliament is one of parliamentary government. I do not like that phrase; our Parliament is a Parliament made up of people who are elected, some of whom are appointed by the Crown and some of whom are given the opportunity, through the leaderships of their respective parties and the Whip system, to have the right to promote their ideas and policies and turn them into legislation.

I simply say to Natascha Engel that it is wrong to imagine that too much power can be vested in Back Benchers. Back Benchers are no more or less important than Ministers in terms of their parliamentary engagement and involvement. Ministers are, of course, important, because they have the right to make decisions on behalf of the Crown. However, their importance does not extend beyond that in parliamentary terms.

My feeling about all the proposals is that they are a thoroughly good step in the right direction. Given the sense of uncertainty resulting from their being confined to merely one Session, I hope that their tentative nature will not be sustained. I shall be voting for the amendments in the name of Mr Allen, whom I greatly respect. I am delighted that he is now Chair of the Constitutional Reform and Political Committee-or is it the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee? Whichever way round the name is, I am absolutely certain that he will do a very good job. Other than that, I am delighted that the Leader of the House and Deputy Leader of the House have agreed not to press the last of the proposed motions.

Finally, I turn to Westminster Hall. I have heard from the Leader of the House about the number of days allocated to the Floor of the House as compared with Westminster Hall; it is a mathematical thing, I suppose. If only seven days are to be involved, perhaps the issue will not matter quite as much. However, I am concerned about one aspect. There are no votes in Westminster Hall, but there are on the Floor of the House. I leave the House with this thought. I would not want days on which there should be votes on big issues to end up, by some means that I cannot envisage at the moment, being Westminster Hall days on which there is no vote. Westminster Hall is a good innovation, but some matters need votes on the Floor of the House and we do not want Westminster Hall to be used as some kind of cul de sac into which matters arising from Back-Bench business could be driven when a vote would be inconvenient.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee 8:04 pm, 15th June 2010

I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on being the first woman elected to the senior position of the deputy speakership. It is symptomatic of what is a really exciting time. I envy the new Members, whether they are from Beckenham, Sherwood or Brighton, Pavilion. They are entering the House of Commons at a fantastically exciting time. There has, of course, been a change of Government and there is a sense of new politics, if only because of the need for a coalition. Furthermore, we are seeing a number of very significant and serious changes in Parliament. The election of our Deputy Speakers has been one.

Last week, for the first time ever, there was an election by secret ballot of all the Chairs of Select Committees. This week, individual parties will be selecting the Members whom they wish to put on to those Select Committees. In 1832 and subsequently, our forebears kicked off with the liberating effect of the ballot box. The ability of Members to make decisions as their consciences see fit is having remarkable impacts on the House of Commons.

I hope that this burst of activity will not be confined to the first week or so; I hope that we sustain it. In particular, I hope that the new Members take it for granted that the House is their base. I do not mean that they should think that we have done well in the first week and that we can relax-instead, they should say, "No, we've got to go further." Whichever party they come from, I hope that they will seize this opportunity to move things forward. The past week or so has been exciting for Members, and I use the word advisedly.

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Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent election to the chairmanship of his important Select Committee. Does he agree that the momentum for change, of which we are clearly a part this evening, must be maintained and that an important part of maintaining it is the setting of a clear timetable, to go on from what we are doing this evening towards the establishment of a House business committee? That would ensure not only that the Government had the opportunity to get their business on to the statute book, but that we as a House had an opportunity properly to scrutinise it as it went through our processes.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Left to their own devices, Governments and Front Benchers never become more radical. They start with ideas and radicalism, and it is the role of Back Benchers not only to hold them to account but to stimulate them into maintaining their reforming and radical instincts. I do not want this to develop into too much of a love-in, but if we-certainly those on the Opposition Benches-had been able to select a Leader of the House from the Conservative party, it would have been the current Leader of the House. Similarly, had we been able to select someone from the Liberal Democrats to be the Deputy Leader of the House, it would have been the current incumbent.

We have a conjunction of remarkable, coincidental fortune that means that we can take the issue on now-and we should. Now is not the time to be timid. We have free votes on the motions from 9.30 onwards. I hope that Members-above all, new Members-will seize that opportunity. Obviously, I want them to vote with me in my Lobby tonight, but if they do not, they must please vote according to what they feel is important rather than because they are trying to figure out the main chance of getting on to the slippery slope and getting that red box one day. They will be respected more if they use this unique opportunity to take our Parliament further than if they merely look around to see which Whip-unofficially, of course-is twitching in the leftwards or rightwards direction.

There is a fundamental balance-imbalance, perhaps-between Parliament and the Executive. It has been evident throughout my political life, but newcomers particularly may be able to taste a rebalancing through which, for once, the parliamentary midget is growing and taking on the 800-pound gorilla of the Executive. I hope that the midget has been working out over the past couple of weeks and building muscles, although it should not challenge or frighten the Executive. Governments should welcome a strong Parliament. A strong Parliament is not a threat; it helps to produce better law and better value for money. It makes life better for our citizens. It complements and is a partner to Government, occasionally drawing attention to their defects. Are not we stronger when our defects are remedied? Perhaps I am too optimistic, but in my political lifetime, the moment has come when there is a sense that we can push on and have a Parliament worthy of the name.

Although the subject of business is the Back-Bench business committee, the occasion is far more important than the particular internal committee that we will set up. It is important because, in the past two or three years, not one Member who is not new has not felt pressure and shame about the way in which we have been portrayed-occasionally deservedly so. Now we have a chance to show that Members of Parliament are not as they are described day after day in The Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail, but that they bring genuine value to our political life, that they are an asset to our politics and can make a real contribution through Select Committees, on the Floor of the House, through questioning or in Westminster Hall. We need to have the passion returned to our Chamber so that we can do such work. If we can do that openly and honestly, we will win people over. They will say that we are once again worthy of being the British people's forum-not a nice little ancient backdrop to Government statements or simply leather Benches and ornate wood work, but fundamental to what people want to discuss in our democracy.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Leader of the Green Party

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Hearing him speak makes me think that he is well chosen. He is giving voice to incredibly welcome ideas. As he says, it is an exciting time to be elected to this Parliament-there is a wind of change, and a real step forward in, for example, the election of Chairs and members of Select Committees. I welcome the amendments that would increase the House's transparency and democracy-that is incredibly important-but hope that we can go further. I take comfort from his comments that we are the beginning, not the end of a process. I would like us to learn from other legislatures, too. That might be a radical suggestion, but there are many legislatures that do an interesting job from which we could learn. I therefore warmly commend that the hon. Gentleman consider other things, too.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and welcome her to the House. I am sure that she will contribute not only to environmental politics but to a broader sphere, particularly in the ideas that she has expressed about our democracy. We should have humility and learn from not only other nations but from the operation of the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where-dare I say it?-one can sometimes find a more real Parliament than we have here. Sometimes, one can find genuine debate and exchange, which has been so rare here. However, we can recapture it if we work at it.

The Back-Bench business committee will help us create such a Parliament here. It will help us revert to being the people's forum. Rather than the debates in which we are all interested happening on the "Today" programme or "Newsnight", those interactions and key conversations could take place here. When I woke up the other morning, I listened to "Today", which was considering three main issues: a possible increase in student fees; a report about a possible 3 million unemployed; and a report about abused children and whether there is a way in which to sort out the problem much earlier in their lives. Those are three genuinely important issues, which we all want to discuss. I came to the House of Commons and the whole day went by without a single one of those items, which had been headline news that morning, being debated or discussed. It should be the other way round. If we recreate our Parliament, we will raise the issues and the media will follow behind us. We should all aspire to that sort of House of Commons. The Back-Bench business committee is a small flame that can move outwards and ensure that we do that job particularly well.

Like so many hon. Members, I must say that the Government have done a remarkable thing in introducing the proposals today. Within weeks of a general election, they have moved on the subject. I must be blunt-I do not wish to offend any Labour colleagues, but we dragged our feet. The Wright Committee made every possible effort to conclude the matter. We tried to engage with the most senior people in our party to show that we cared about that and if only for purely political and electoral reasons, demonstrate that we cared about the future of our political system. The new coalition Government deserve credit for, and should be congratulated on, tabling the proposals. That needs to be put on record.

Some 95% of the proposals are what the Wright Committee suggested, but there is a bit of slippage with some. That has happened because, when one gets into government, certain practicalities get in the way. There is a desire to ensure that other priorities are fulfilled, as well as the dead-weight, often of senior civil service bureaucracy, and sometimes of our colleagues in the various Whips Offices, who feel that things must stay exactly as they are because that is how they control things. It reflects the old joke, "How many MPs does it take to change a light bulb?" "Change? Change?!" Sometimes we get a sense from our colleagues of better safe than sorry. If there is a little risk-taking in the Chamber, I hope that Labour Members will make allowance for it and grant it leeway, particularly if people fall flat on their face when it happens. We need to advance our system so that our democracy can prosper.

In the past week or so, we have witnessed the beginning of a sensible conversation. In trying to create a Back-Bench business committee, the interaction between all the different people who are involved-certainly the minority parties, which have been sorely tested by the failure of the usual channels to give them a fair crack of the whip-has been important. Back Benchers have been involved, and Select Committee Chairs, within days of being elected, have shown their muscle and their desire to protect the rights of the House. Front Benchers have also played a positive role-I include my new Front-Bench colleague as well as other Front Benchers in that. I hope that, rather than proposals having to be withdrawn on the Floor of the House-for which I am grateful; I will deal with that later-the dialogue can take place a little more formally and a little earlier in future. If we can make progress with the conversation, perhaps we can address such matters by consensus rather than by withdrawing stuff on the Floor of the House. It is a difficult task, especially so for two new incumbents, but I wish them well in trying to get the conversation under way.

Let me deal with the amendments. Many are in my name and the names of 32 other Back-Bench colleagues. It could have been 232, and I claim no credit for the amendments, but my name appears first, so I am happy to speak about them. But first, I should like to give a little more perspective on what can be very dry, dusty stuff-the Back-Bench business committee, what is a quorum and how we elect the Chair-and say what the proposed committee is really about. The committee is about taking the chunk of business that all of us accept is the province, property and interest of Back-Benchers, pulling it together and taking a Back-Bench view on how best to use it. Rather than the Leader of the House deciding that we should have a general debate next week on something or other, there would be a process by which all of us, collectively, could decide what that debate should be about. We could decide that tomorrow's debate will be about something that happened overnight or a Government announcement on widows' pensions. The debate could be on the terrible murders in the north-west, how we respond to the BP crisis or whatever, but it should be on a cause that we feel, collectively, should be debated, and that our constituents would like us to debate. They might even want to turn the television on to see us talking about that subject live, rather than see a digest later with John Humphrys, Jeremy Paxman or somebody else.

However, we need to be clear that when we talk about a Back-Bench business committee-the Wright Committee made this absolutely plain-it is not a case of, "Tomorrow, the world!" Some distinguished colleagues on that Committee, including my hon. Friend Natascha Engel, who spoke about this tonight, made it very clear that the Government have a right to discuss their business. It is part of the House's role to examine seriously legislation that the Government introduce, but at the end of the day, providing they have a majority, they should carry their business. We are talking about that bit of business that is non-legislative but which involves the keen interest of Members of Parliament.

Too often, we see Members of Parliament rattling through lists of things that they regard as important. If I may say, Mr Deputy Speaker, you are one of the greatest exponents of the early-day motion. With the proposed committee, we are almost turning the early-day motion into a motion that we can genuinely discuss at an early day. If there is so much interest in debating a particular topic, it could be on the agenda the next day or the day after that, even if we would need a further mechanism for that. The Government need not fear that their agenda will be taken over, but Parliament could for the first time say, "Our agenda, at least in part, is our possession," and it will be able to decide, on a small number of days, what we will discuss. That is very important-it is one of the key things that the committee will do.

There is a group of amendments on the Order Paper that addresses a questionable aspect of the Government's proposals; namely, the one-year termination. The Government proposal is that members of the Back-Bench business committee will be members for only one year, which is unlike tenures for other parliamentary offices and institutions, which last five years. Chairs and members of Select Committees-there can barely be a Member in the Chamber tonight who is not standing for membership of a Select Committee-will be in office for five years if they are successful, which gives a sense of continuity, and members and Chairs have the ability to learn a subject, and to grow as a Committee with their colleagues.

Let us imagine if we were on Select Committees for only one year. We would already be counting down the time, thinking, "There might be something else on the way. I might want to swap over. Somebody doesn't like me and I don't get on with so-and-so, and the chair is a bit of a pain." The Chair, of course, would be saying, "I've only got a year, but I really want to do something long term with this Select Committee, so let's pick up whatever is in the papers."

There is a more insidious problem. If Members are really good as Back Benchers, they might just cross Front Benchers-the wrong people. They might be so good-they might expose something, or scrutinise and call their those on their Front Bench to account-that instead of being lauded and given plaudits, they go on a list. I have been in the Whips office, and I have had my lists. The vow of silence forbids me from going further on that, but I can tell the House that we were not lining up to give accolades to the Gwyneth Dunwoodys-precisely the opposite. Let us imagine the whispering campaigns that would take place if Select Committee members or Chairs had a one-year tenure, and the undermining that could go on. People would say, "You can get rid of that Chairman and have a go yourself," or, "You're not on a Select Committee. So-and-so is not very good. She or he always creates a problem, so why don't you think about putting your name forward."

I know that colleagues on the Government Bench-the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House-do not intend that. However, much as I wish them longevity, they might not be here this time next year, and some less benign people might be. The latter might propose a review not to strengthen the Back-Bench business committee, but to undermine it. If someone took that chance, we would all greatly regret it, because we have a historic opportunity. This is the one and only time in my long political lifetime in this place that such an opportunity has come to pass. The right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have been incredibly flexible today, so I ask them, before the winding-up speeches, whether they wish to continue to oppose the amendments in my name and those of my colleagues by which we seek to provide the same sort of lifespan and stability that we expect as members or Chairs of Select Committees, so that this new bud can be protected should there be some stormy weather a year out that we cannot predict now.

Perhaps I am being too suspicious-it may be those years in the Whips Office and my brain is still a bit frazzled. We could pass the matter over if there were just one proposal to undermine the committee-the proposal to review the committee after one year. However, there is a second occasion when the committee might be undermined, because its members must be elected after a year. There is even a third occasion, because the Chair must be elected after a year. With those three proposals we are, as Sherlock Holmes said, starting to develop a pattern. With great respect, I say to Government Front Benchers that there is still a moment when they might ask themselves whether they want to perpetuate that pattern, or whether they could generously reconsider the matter and either allow the amendments to be made, or decide not to promote their proposals.

There is another, rather demeaning aspect, which I was surprised to see included. When the Back-Bench business committee meets, it will have arguments. I intervened, regretfully, on this point in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire, who otherwise made some very good points. If the meetings are wholly in public, decision-making will be driven underground, because sometimes it is dirty and messy. It can be a compromise, with promises made, so that something else is done in six months' time when people will not know that it is the result of a deal already done. I would like as much of that as possible to take place openly in the business committee, but not necessarily in the full glare of publicity. If decision-making is totally open, people will behave differently, and we may end up with worse decisions.

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Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a distinction with which we are already familiar in other Select Committees? Evidence is heard in public, but the deliberations take place in private, for the good reason that that enables us to work collaboratively and informally, and we come to better conclusions as a result.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

We are trying to move to a better place, but we cannot do it all in one go. There is not only a Back-Bench business committee now, but other business committees-the usual channels, which get together in a cabal, and, semi-formally, the Committee of Selection. Let us not pretend that we do not already have a business committee. We do, and it is underground and tolerates no dissent. Furthermore, it allows no Back-Bench influence. We need to strike a balance-I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire was trying to do that. She was not laying out one particular view-neither am I-but we need to try to ensure that the Back-Bench business committee works effectively. If it does not, we cannot get to stage 2, which is a fully fledged business committee, with Back Benchers, Whips and others represented.

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. In my speech, I was trying to say that our starting point should be that the Back-Bench business committee should be open and transparent to avoid what he-of all the members of the Wright Committee-most disliked, which is the murkiness of the usual channels. If that is our starting point, we can examine the question of meeting in private or public, but we need to establish how Back Benchers will make representations to the committee to have an influence on the business of the House. Those discussions should be held in public. The decisions that are then taken can be taken in private.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

With good will-and the only reason we are here tonight is because there is good will, and the Government have provided time on the Floor of the House tonight for this debate-we can overcome all those problems and ensure that the Back-Bench business committee works. The prize of making the committee responsible and practical is not just topical and sensible debates in the House, but the next stage, which will mean a fully fledged business committee. If new members can help to achieve that, over the next two to three years, it will be an irreversible step in parliamentary history.

I said that this process might be a little demeaning. When a subject for debate is chosen by the Government-as it always is at present-we do not say that someone must come and explain to us why it has been chosen. We do not, although perhaps we should, get the Chief Whip to the Dispatch Box to explain-

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Yes, but the Leader of the House explains the business on a Thursday. He does not have to get up before every debate and give a little reason or excuse for its subject matter. I accept that I am finding fault in a generally excellent set of proposals, but if I do not do so now, we could be stuck with the proposal that a member of the Back-Bench business committee must give an explanation before every topical debate, general debate and Adjournment debate. That is an onerous task. The Wright Committee expressed the view that every member of the Back-Bench business committee should play a part, so would the most junior member have to stand at the Dispatch Box to give a little trailer of what is to come? Would they be cross-examined by Members about why the committee did not pick an important constituency issue or why it neglected another vital issue? How silly! This is a piece of trivia that we should reject tonight. I hope that the Leader of the House, who has got so much right here, will not hang himself on a vote-whether he wins or loses it-on getting Back-Bench business committee members to explain why a particular subject was chosen, other than at business questions, as he does, where the committee chair would be available, as the Church Commissioner and others are during different question times, to chip in and answer questions, make sensible changes, and respond to requests. We would all like to see that.

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

I really do not understand. How then is the Back-Bench business committee accountable? How is it open and transparent, and how will other Back-Bench Members know how it has gone about selecting the business for the day?

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

The Wright Committee went into this in detail. Essentially, we decided that the chair of the Back-Bench business committee would be seated in the House during business questions. The Leader of the House would give the normal business statement, and if someone had a specific question about Back-Bench business, the chair could answer it.

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

How is that different from the usual channels?

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

It is very different from the usual channels, who do not say anything-in fact, are banned from saying anything-on the Floor of the House. So this would make it more open. However, to insist that that person appears three or four, five or even a dozen times a week to explain why one person's topic, rather than those of 50 other people, was chosen would take it, in this case only, to a level of absurdity. That would fly in the face of all the other very sensible provisions in the Back-Bench business motions before us.

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Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

Would it not be even more absurd, because it would not be the same person every time? As I understand the proposals, it would be just a committee member making a brief statement, with no debate, no opportunity for questions and, frankly, no purpose.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Indeed, but I do not want to labour the point, because it is just one piece of silliness in what is generally an excellent effort by Government Front-Bench Members. So I shall not continue on that.

I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for deciding to provide in Standing Orders for 27 days' debate on the Floor of the House. It is not easy to come to the House and say, "Someone else has got it right, and I will take that on board." That has always been the situation-in fact, he was quoted earlier saying it would always be the situation-but he, to his great credit, has taken that step forward and said that he will put it in the Standing Orders. I am sure that I speak for everyone who signed amendment (a) to motion 4 when I say that I am extremely grateful to him for doing that.

That is not all. On Select Committee membership, the response of the Leader and deputy Leader of the House to the newly elected Select Committee Chairs was excellent politics. I am sure that other colleagues will talk about this. Had they been involved a little earlier and been able to delve, holding their noses, into the usual channels, they could have helped much earlier. Instead, we have today's late decision to pull motion 13, which would have driven a coach and horses through the idea that Select Committees should be nimble and have, as standard, 11 members. As the Wright Committee and the Liaison Committee said, there is an optimum number of members on a Select Committee. Having served on many Select Committees, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know that they start to ramble on, and get frayed at the edges, cliquey and difficult to manage when they get to 13, 14, 15 or 16 members. That is why the Liaison Committee and the Wright Committee said, "Nine is optimum, 11 is maximum," in order to try to put right what was, frankly, a cock-up by the usual channels, which resulted in Committees being bumped up to 16, thereby destroying their credibility and coherence. That is why there was such resistance from the Select Committee Chairs and why almost every newly elected Select Committee Chair signed the amendments requesting that the proposal not go ahead. It is to the great credit of the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House that they listened to those representations, so that we now have a much better situation than we did earlier. Motion 13, which is about membership, will therefore not proceed.

I hope very much that over the next week or so, the difficulty that we were all trying to address-the representation of minority parties on Select Committees-will be addressed sensibly. I hope too that minority parties will have representation on the territorial Committees-the Scottish and Welsh Committees-as they should do and as they are entitled to expect, and that the numbers are brought back to the Floor of the House. [ Interruption. ] I know that the Leader of the House is listening, even though his colleague the Secretary of State for International Development is talking to him-he is listening with one ear, which is his important ear. He will understand that next week, when we bring the motions relating to Select Committees back to the Floor of the House, and particularly those relating to Scottish and Welsh Committees, there should be minority representation as of right. Of course that might require a small increase in the numbers to get through the current problems, but the other Select Committees should remain at no more than 11, so that they can be effective.

The people who devised the system whereby Select Committees are bumped up to get round particular difficulties are people who do not care what Select Committees do. They do not mind if they are rambling, if they do not produce coherent reports or if they have lots of members who do not show up. The job of those people is just to set Select Committees up and get them out of the way, so that they can get on with the other business. That is no longer acceptable in a Parliament that elects its Select Committee Chairs and members by secret ballot. Until other people are elected by secret ballot, those people have absolutely no right whatever to destroy the work of one of our key arms of accountability, the Select Committees in this House.

I congratulate those on the Government Front Bench on withdrawing those proposals to change Select Committee memberships without one word of consultation with the Chairs of the Treasury Committee, the Justice Committee or the Defence Committee. That shows a contempt and arrogance on the part of certain people who are not in the Chamber towards the conduct of the House, and I for one hope that we will never see that again. In putting on record what I hope is an important caveat about the role and rights of minorities in this House-rights that must always be defended, which is something that you said in one of your hustings speeches you were determined to do, Mr Deputy Speaker, and something that I know you will stick to-let me say that it is important that we should continue to ensure that balance.

Finally, I would like to add my thanks to those who have gone before us-we are, as the saying goes, standing on the shoulders of previous generations. First and foremost is Tony Wright, but there were also many other members of the Wright Committee, such as our colleagues Chris Mullin-we can refer to them by name, as they are no longer Members-David Howarth, David Drew and Nick Palmer. I am sure that other colleagues can think of those who also worked incredibly hard-Phyllis Starkey is another-over a short period to produce the Wright report. They were aided by people such as Meg Russell from the constitution unit and many others. We took evidence from the Chief Whips and from academic and media experts to produce the Wright report. However, there are many others who worked incredibly hard. Robin Cook has been mentioned, but there are lots of other colleagues, from all parts of the House, Front-Bench and Back, who would have given their right arms to be here today.

I finish where I started. These past couple of weeks have been some of the most exciting weeks in our recent parliamentary history. Incredible changes have been made: changes to elect Select Committee Chairs and members; changes to elect, for the first time ever, those who serve in your Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, with the first woman ever to be elected to that position. This is a moment when real change is possible-we have a new Government and, for the first time in our present political system, a coalition-but it is a moment that will not last long. It is a moment that needs to be sustained by our new Members, and a moment that we need to continue tonight by supporting the amendments tabled by myself and 32 Back-Bench colleagues. I hope that as many colleagues as possible will join us in the Lobby to maintain the momentum that the reform of our House of Commons needs if we are genuinely to win back the trust of the British people.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith 8:45 pm, 15th June 2010

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your election to your new post, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I wish to speak in support of amendment (a) to motion 11, tabled by Mr Bone, on providing more days for the discussion of private Members' Bills. There are all sorts of good democratic reasons for doing that. I had intended to expand on them a little tonight but, given the excellent, comprehensive and wide-ranging speeches that we have already heard, I shall merely say that I endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments, as well as those from Jo Swinson, on why there should be more days for the discussion of private Members' Bills than the Government are currently proposing.

I have not heard any good arguments against the hon. Gentleman's amendment. The Leader of the House of Commons put forward an argument that the hon. Member for Wellingborough described as consisting of "smoke and mirrors". With respect, I am not sure that I would even dignify it with that description. The Leader of the House's argument seemed to be that it was important to have more days between private Members' Bill sittings to allow things to go on outside the main Chamber. I was not sure what was meant by that. I can only assume that it was felt that that arrangement would allow the Committee stages of private Members' Bills to take place between the different Fridays, and that that would be easier to achieve if there were more time between the sittings allocated for private Members' Bills. If that is the case, it reveals a misunderstanding of the way in which the private Members' Bill system operates. If three successive Fridays were allocated for private Members' Bills, with a Second Reading one week, the Committee stage the next, and Third Reading on the third Friday, the next private Member's Bill in line would simply be debated on the subsequent Friday. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough has suggested, it is hard to see how allowing more days for private Members' Bills would jeopardise the Government's position.

It has been suggested that, if we were to adopt a private Members' Bill system that worked more effectively, fewer days could be allocated for the purpose of dealing with them if a positive outcome could be achieved in the time allowed. As my hon. Friend Chris Bryant said earlier, however, we all know that what matters on private Members' Bill Fridays is not the quality of the measure, or even the number of Members present to support the Bill, but whether the proposer and those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches can find their way round the arcane procedures that are used on such Fridays-procedures that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda described as "shenanigans". I have had the experience of taking three private Members' Bills through the House over the past six years, so I certainly know how the system works. I know some of the ways of getting round it, but I also know that it is a very unsatisfactory procedure for all concerned.

Addressing the way in which private Members' Bills are taken through Parliament will require a number of procedural changes, and I welcome the commitment from the new Chair of the Procedure Committee that his Committee will look at that at an early stage. One way of allowing private Members' Bills proper time for debate would be to move them from Fridays to Wednesdays or to Tuesday evenings, which would give Members the opportunity to attend the debates in much greater numbers than they are able to do on Fridays.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Wellingborough-I otherwise agreed with much of what he said about private Members' Bills-as it is not satisfactory to say that Members can decide whether or not to turn up on Fridays to consider those Bills. We all have to make such a decision at the moment, but because of our constituency commitments, it is difficult for us, with one or two exceptions, regularly to attend on Fridays-and the further away from London our constituencies are, the less easy it is for us to do so.

I would often like to participate in private Members' Bills debates on Fridays, and they often relate to issues that are important to many of my constituents who understandably expect me to debate them. They are likely to find out, however, not only that I and many other Members are unlikely to be there, but that what they thought was going to be debated on a particular day-and hoped had a chance to get through-is likely to be talked out because of the use of some parliamentary procedure and never reach any further stages. Not surprisingly, members of the public get angry at Members of Parliament and at the political system that allows that to happen.

I believe that Fridays should be recognised and named as a constituency day, on which Members can allocate their time to their constituencies. It should be named as a constituency day so that those out there who want to condemn any absence from Westminster as equivalent to some form of extended holiday can, if they wish, carry out a study to ensure that we are indeed in our constituencies as opposed to sunning ourselves on a beach. Let us make it a regular commitment, with Fridays acknowledged as a constituency day. I hope that the Back-Bench business committee will discuss this proposal at an early stage of its considerations. It could look into the constituency issues more widely, and demonstrate that MPs spending some of their time in their constituencies is essential to our democracy. We cannot represent the views of our constituents in Parliament if we are not regularly in touch with them.

That brings me to the issue of September sittings. On the one hand, I support the proposal to come back in September, as I believe that Robin Cook's initiative when he was Leader of the House was totally justified. It is hard-indeed, impossible-to justify to the public why we need this long 13 or 14-week gap in the summer, in which we are unable to hold the Government to account unless the House is brought back for a special Sitting. On the other, we have to recognise that we cannot keep adding days and days, weeks and weeks to the parliamentary Session without it having knock-on effects somewhere else in the system.

We have to recognise that Members need to be in their constituencies and we also need to recognise, bluntly, that Members have family commitments. I have an interest here in that I have four children in either primary or secondary schools in Scotland; my children are likely to be on holiday from the end of June and will be back at school in mid-August. I would like to have the same opportunity that colleagues in England have to be at home for a fair part of my children's school holidays, but I will not have that opportunity. Anything that makes it harder for people to combine their role as Members of Parliament with a normal family life is not exactly going to encourage this place to be open and more representative of the public in the way that we all want. I hope that, in addition to considering the procedures for private Members' Bills, the Leader of the House will look at ways to recognise our constituency commitments as an important aspect of all MPs' work and reflect them in the sitting days of the House.

I invite the Deputy Leader of the House to clarify in his closing remarks the Government attitude towards an early proposal to move away from Friday sittings for private Members' Bills and replace them with Wednesday sittings. I certainly gained the impression that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House were sympathetic to the idea of moving to Wednesdays for private Members' Bills. There was quite strong support for this across the House, so I hope that the Government will be able to give that proposal at least a favourable and general welcome today. I believe that such a proposal would be welcomed not just by individual Members, but by all those who want to see private Members' business getting the status it deserves.

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Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Labour, Oldham West and Royton 8:54 pm, 15th June 2010

I think we have had a good and thoughtful debate, although it had a rather rickety start. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Allen, who, in an eloquent and comprehensive speech, spelt out how exciting and important this period is in Parliament's history; and, like others, I pay tribute to the Government for the promptness with which they introduced Standing Orders to allow the establishment of a Back-Bench business committee. There is no doubt that that reflects the good will, commitment and supportiveness of the Leader of the House and his deputy, and I thank them for all that they did in preparing the orders.

The debate marks the culmination of a long struggle that stretches back many years to the formation of the cross-party Parliament First group, which has consistently and effectively campaigned for parliamentary democratic reform under the chairmanship of the former Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, my very good friend Mark Fisher. We will, of course, continue to owe a great and continuing debt of gratitude to the Wright Committee, chaired so admirably by my former hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase.

Having issued those plaudits-with great sincerity-I have to say that I think the Government's initial ardour seems to have cooled just a tad. A number of modifications have crept in, which, in my view, have undermined some of the original commitment. It is because the combined effect of those slippages has clearly been to weaken the position of Back Benchers that, along with many of my hon. Friends, I have tabled a number of amendments designed to ensure that the Government's initial commitment survives.

The most important amendment relates to a question that has been raised a number of times, and because of its importance I make no apology for raising it again. It concerns the term of membership of the Chair. The order proposes that members and the Chair should serve for only one year after election, but we strongly reject that proposal on the ground that no other parliamentary Committee-including Select Committees -is being treated in that way. The elections to Select Committees, which, admirably, are taking place at this time-for the Chairs, who have been chosen, and the members, who are about to be chosen-are for a full Parliament of five years, and there seems to be no valid reason for diverging from that principle.

The Leader of the House was questioned about the issue, and I noted what he said. He spoke of the importance of accountability-of course we all agree with that-and of the need for new blood to refresh the Committee. Of course I understand that too, but it applies to Select Committees as well. I do not think that the Leader of the House took on board adequately the point made behind him about the question of independence. We believe that members, once elected, should be fully independent. We do not think that they should have continually to look over their shoulders, or feel liable to the Whips or Front-Bench pressure in order to secure repeat elections year after year.

Annual elections give too much power to the Whips and the establishment, allowing them to exert influence on the Chair not because he or she is inadequate or incompetent, but precisely because he or she is too effective. Let me suggest to the Leader of the House, in all friendliness, that annual elections will profoundly undercut the impact of reforms that are excellent in so many other ways.

Another issue-I was not going to mention it until my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North did so and I think he was right-is that the Government are proposing that, before any business starts that has been decided on by the Back-Bench business committee, a member of the committee must make a brief statement of up to five minutes to explain why the committee made that decision. Again-it hardly needs repeating-no one else does that in any other part of the House. No Minister is ever required to do that. If for any reason either the chair or any member of the committee wishes, with permission, to make such a statement, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so. However, to require that to happen in every case, when in most circumstances Members will be well aware of the thinking behind the decision, seems unnecessary, a waste of time or even obstructive.

The Leader of the House will know perfectly well that Members will want to get quickly on to the debate. They will not want to be diverted by what they will perceive as superfluous formality. I hope that he will consider whether that proposal should just be quietly dropped.

I recognise that, when the Leader of the House was questioned last Thursday, he went as far as he could, leaning in our direction, by offering an allocation of 27 days. He has now gone further still by agreeing to accept our amendment. I thank him warmly for that. However, always wanting to go a bit further, I think that 35 days would be even better, not least because it is only on the Floor of this House that the votes will take place. The Leader of the House pointed out that the implication of that, to which he is probably quite sympathetic, is that the House might have to sit into August. However, I hope that he will reconsider and be prepared to consult about various alternatives that could achieve the objective of 35 days on the Floor of the House without encroaching into August.

One of those options is the use of more Fridays. In previous years-indeed in previous decades-the House has sat on Fridays to a far greater degree than it does today. I am well aware that, whatever one suggests, it will not please everyone, but I hope that the Leader of the House will genuinely consult to find a way forward that is acceptable and desirable to the majority. The important point is that 27 Back-Bench business committee days in this House should be the bottom line, consolidated by the Standing Order and not dependent on discretion. That is why I am grateful-I am sure that we all are-that he has accepted the amendment.

By and large, this is an excellent set of Standing Orders, for which the Government are to be congratulated. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that the amendments that we have had to table are not in any way designed to oppose what he is trying to do; they are designed to improve that. I hope that he and other hon. Members will look upon them in that spirit.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 9:03 pm, 15th June 2010

We have had an extremely good debate. We have teased out a lot of the issues that relate to the establishment of the Back-Bench business committee and to the various proposals that we have put forward, which are in line with the Wright Committee proposals. There are some areas where the House will wish to take a view. There are others where there is a clear preponderance of voices, at least in the debate, in favour of what we have proposed.

I want to take a little time to deal with the issues that have been raised because they will repay further consideration. I will deal first with Ms Winterton. I am grateful for her general welcome for what we are doing. She asked some specific questions and she deserves specific answers. She asked whether there would be any impact on Opposition days. The answer is categorically no. The Standing Orders that relate to Opposition days are not to be changed, so there is no change to the present position. She asked me to confirm whether there will be substantive business to address in September and pointed out that we have recently had several general debates-which, in fact, I think the House has welcomed. I think it is equally fair to say to her that we are in the immediate aftermath of the Queen's Speech and it is necessary to get legislation right. One of the commitments we have made as a Government is not to present to the House legislation that is not in a fit state to be considered by it, because we felt that that was one of the failings of the previous Government. Very often there were subsequent amendments at later stages in a Bill's progress simply because the preparatory work was not done. I repeat again, however, that it is our intention to bring substantive business before the House in September, if the House agrees to meet in September, which is subject to a decision this evening.

The right hon. Lady was intervened on by her party colleague Mr Hamilton, who made the valuable point that we need to get the entire parliamentary calendar right. In respect of this evening's motions, we are talking about what we will do in September this year, but I am perfectly well aware that there are Members on both sides of the House who will want not only a degree of certainty about the future calendar of the House, but to express their views and concerns about their family circumstances, such as Scottish school holidays not coinciding with English school holidays. It is right for the House to consider that, and I hope we will be able to consult widely on what ought to be the future shape of the parliamentary calendar and bring back proposals that try as far as possible to accommodate the various different interests of Members of all parties.

The right hon. Lady asked about the costs of bringing the House back in September, and that point was strongly supported by Mr Betts. He has expertise in this area, and I am grateful to him for his comments because he perfectly sensibly set out possible difficulties with a September sitting. I remember the last time we tried September sittings, and I do not think the arrangements behind the scenes lived up to the expectations of the House. In fact, I would go further and say that there was a suspicion that in some cases the maintenance that took place was planned to cause the maximum disruption to Members during that September sitting, rather than the minimum; that was certainly the way it seemed. I accept, however, that this is a difficult and complex building, and that it has to be maintained properly. We must take careful note of the hon. Gentleman's quite proper warnings that if we are going to meet regularly in September, we have to organise House maintenance and other works around that, and that we need proper forward planning to achieve that and we need to do so on the basis of proper advice. Those are perfectly sensible points.

On the specific point about the maintenance contracts, the right hon. Lady will recall that Mr Speaker wrote to all the parties following the decisions in February and March indicating that the House may wish to sit in September and saying that the possibility of September sittings would be taken into account in the organisation of contracts. I hope that that will be the case and that any disruption to those contracts will be kept to a minimum.

On the costs of a September sitting, I should point out that of course it costs the same for Members to sit regardless of the time of year. The total number of days that we are sitting is the relevant factor, not the dates on which we sit.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, cost is an important issue, particularly with regard to maintenance and forward planning. When he looks further into this for future years, will he ensure that the Officers are allowed to produce their advice independently and that it goes to the appropriate Committees, and also that all Members of the House have access to the advice that is given about the costs and the advisability of postponing maintenance programmes and not carrying them out properly as Officers advise that they should be carried out?

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am not a member of the House of Commons Commission and I do not wish to tread on its toes, but what he says makes perfect sense to me and I shall ensure that that is communicated to members of the Commission.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

Is the Deputy Leader of the House aware that radical and far-reaching repairs need to take place in the basement of this place, where high pressure steam calorifiers are located right next door to very high voltage electrical cables? That is so much the case that I understand that in the previous Parliament the House of Commons Commission even considered whether there would be a need to move out of this building. Has he taken that into consideration in these proposals?

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I can say only that the House of Commons Commission is considering this. As I say, I am not a member of that body, but I would not be putting forward this proposal today-I should remind hon. Members that it is one of the things that the Wright Committee asked us to put before the House- if we felt that there were impossible hurdles to cross this year. However, this matter may be something that we need to consider in future years.

I wish now to deal with the points made by Mr Bone-they were also reflected in the comments made by Mark Lazarowicz-about the important matter of private Members' Bills. The hon. Member for Wellingborough rightly drew attention to what I had said on a previous occasion when he tabled a similar amendment. He quoted me, so may I quote myself? That is always an invidious thing to do but as he quoted me, I shall quote myself. He said that I had said that "perhaps there should" be a change in Standing Orders. I stand by that comment-perhaps such a change should be made-because I want us to do a much better job of dealing with private Members' Bills.

We do not do a good job on these Bills at the moment and the process contains procedural hurdles that are absurd, and are seen as such by our constituents. Far too often, excellent measures that are introduced by individual Members do not make it to the statute book, despite substantial support in the House, simply because of the way the system works. I am therefore delighted that the Chair of the Procedure Committee, Mr Knight, has volunteered that his Committee will examine this as an early matter of priority. It is essential that the Committee does so and I hope that it will make proposals. I also hope that the issue of how many Fridays are made available will become redundant because we will have so improved the way we manage private Members' legislation that Fridays are not the crucial factor in deciding whether we make progress.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Given the comments that the Deputy Leader of the House has just made and those made by Opposition Members, I accept that this is not about the number of Fridays, but about the quality of debate on private Members' Bills and how we put them through this House. Given what the Deputy Leader of the House said, and given this happy frame of mind that we are in tonight, I shall not press my amendment to the vote.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am delighted to have satisfied the hon. Gentleman in his quest; we are making progress.

I am grateful to Natascha Engel for her comments. She has made it perfectly clear throughout that she was a member of the Wright Committee who did not agree with all its proposals. She has taken a proper position. She had a minority view, she has expressed it and she has been consistent in her position. She amplified that a little by raising specific issues in tonight's debate, so I shall deal with them. She asked whether members of the public will be excluded from the meetings of the Back-Bench business committee and indeed whether Members of Parliament who are not members of that committee will be allowed into the meetings to hear the deliberations. The rules that will apply will be the same as those for any Select Committee. I genuinely think that it is not for a Minister of the Crown to tell the Back-Bench business committee how it should undertake its role. However, I hope that it will consider, carefully and early on, how it will manage its business, and in what circumstances it will have open meetings and in what circumstances it will not, in the same way as Select Committees across the House do. She has raised an important issue, and it is a matter that the Back-Bench business committee-if we constitute it-will need to consider.

The hon. Lady asked about the party political make-up of the committee and whether seats would be allocated in the same way as for normal Select Committees or whether the system would be entirely open. As she knows, a formula reflecting the composition of the House is generally used, and it is intended that that formula will be used to determine the make-up of this committee. However, there is an issue of how we accommodate the minority parties in the Select Committee process, and I shall come later to the points made by Pete Wishart.

The hon. Lady also asked whether a Chair of another Select Committee could stand for election as chair of the Back-Bench business committee or one of its members. Nothing in the proposed Standing Orders would preclude that, but she raises an important point. It would be extraordinarily bad practice if a Chair of another Select Committee stood for election to the Back-Bench committee because their membership would inevitably raise the suspicion that that Member's Select Committee had enhanced access to the business of the House. I would hope that that would not happen, so I strenuously urge those hon. Members who were lucky enough to be elected as Select Committee Chairs not to put themselves forward for the Back-Bench business committee.

My hon. Friend Jo Swinson made an excellent contribution to the debate. She emphasised the frustration that we did not get the committee up and running before the general election. The previous Government failed to give us the opportunity to make the necessary changes to the Standing Orders, so I am proud of the fact that, in the first week following the conclusion of the Queen's Speech debate, the House is determining the matter-that represents excellent progress.

My hon. Friend emphasised the need for a minimum of 27 days' Back-Bench business in the Chamber and, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, we are happy to accept amendment (a) to motion 4 because that was always our intention. She also asked whether further progress could be made, including on the innovative use of time. I hope that we can find innovative ways of using time more effectively, and of course we firmly intend to move to a House business committee within three years. That will mean that we have a totally different way of managing the House's business, which will be a good thing.

I think I have already dealt with my hon. Friend's point about private Members' Bills. She also said that the Wright Committee had further ideas that she would like to see progressed, such as some about public engagement. I agree that the Committee made further excellent suggestions. We have not lost sight of them and hope to come back to them in the future.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

Given the assurances about private Members' Bills that we have heard from my hon. Friend and from the Chair of the Procedure Committee, I will not press amendment (b) to motion 4 to a Division. However, my hon. Friend has not answered my question about whether Ministers will vote on the membership of the Back-Bench business committee, or whether they will follow the self-denying ordinance that applies to elections for Select Committee Chairs.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend is right that I did not respond to that question. I will take her points back to my colleagues in government because there is clearly an argument that, as she says, it should not be for the Government to elect those who serve on the Back-Bench committee. That issue is not specifically addressed in the motions, but we ought to listen carefully to her point.

I congratulate Mr Tyrie on his election as Chair of the Treasury Committee. He was absolutely right to say that we are lucky to have such an enlightened Leader of the House. He likened the relationship between the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip to that between Esau and Jacob, although I am not quite sure who is in possession of the mess of pottage. He is right to say that the Government's attitude is to bring forward proposals for modernisation and then to take them forward. It is about not just paying lip service to an idea, but actually making it happen, which is what we are doing this evening.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the representation of minority parties, and of course that was the main thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. Wright has something to say on the subject. The Wright Committee report says:

"Members in individual cases can be added to specific committees to accommodate the legitimate demands of the smaller parties."

I repeat to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I are absolutely determined to find ways to make sure that the minority parties are properly represented in the Select Committee system. I have to say to him that enlarging the Committees beyond the size that Wright recommended and that the Liaison Committee wanted is probably not the way to do it. We have to find an alternative way of accommodating his request, but my door is certainly always open to him and his colleagues, so that we can discuss the matter further and make sure-with, I think, a degree of dispatch-that something happens.

Mr Allen made the point that the Wright Committee suggested having an added Speaker's Member on Select Committees. Unfortunately, the Committee did not make that a recommendation; I wish that it had, because it would have made our life a little easier when dealing with this difficult problem.

Mr Cash raised the issue of European business-no surprise there, perhaps-but it is specifically mentioned in the motions as "government business". Indeed, in the second report of the Wright Committee, the draft Standing Order changes specify that that should be the case. Of course, when we have the House committee, we will be able to enter into the sort of partnership arrangement suggested, and we will be able to make sure that those matters are dealt with properly. I have to say that I was a little put off by the hon. Gentleman accusing me of sophistry in my approach to annual elections; I had not said a word on the subject. I must have given him a sophistical look at some stage. I will deal with the issue of annual elections in just a moment.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's remarks on the committee's annual nature, given that every other Committee runs for five years. We started off with the possibility of 10 Divisions tonight, but because of the generosity of Members in all parts of the Chamber, and because of the strength of the replies from the Front-Bench team, we are now down to five Divisions, virtually all of which refer to the question: why should the committee not have a life of more than one year? Why is it on probation? If the hon. Gentleman can give us some satisfaction by saying that he will take the issue away and look at it seriously, and not press the proposal tonight, we may all get home a lot quicker than we would if there were five Divisions.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I was about to say what a huge contribution the hon. Gentleman had made to the debate not just this evening, but over the past few years in which he has pressed the case for reform. That is appreciated. He, among others, has been making sure that we are true to our word on many of these subjects. We have already agreed that we will accept his amendment (a) to motion 4 on the issue of the 27 days. I will go further: having listened to what he and Mr Meacher said, we are prepared not to press forward this evening with the proposal for the introductory statement. We hear what they say, and we will accept the relevant amendment on that basis.

As far as the one-year election is concerned, that is a suggestion that puts the Back-Bench business committee into the hands of Back-Bench Members, making it accountable to them. It may be that Members do not want to have the committee in their hands; they may wish to have a one-off election and not review the matter, but it is right that the House has the decision. That is not a matter for the Government and Ministers; it is for the House to decide whether it believes that the proposal is a useful introduction. I am happy for the House to have its say on the matter.

To recap, we will not move motion 13. We will accept amendment (a) on 27 days tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North and the amendments on the introductory statement. Annual election is a matter for the House to decide. On private Members' Bills, I hope we will make rapid progress in improving the situation. We need to address the representation of minorities as a matter of urgency. September sittings are, again, a matter for the House.

We have not in any way resiled from the spirit of the Wright Committee recommendations, but we cannot treat them as holy writ because, as in so much of holy writ, there are occasionally internal contradictions. There are competing pressures. The House would not thank us if we made sure that there were no end of general debates on the Floor of the House, but we had no time, for instance, for Report stage of important Bills. We have tried to be practical about it, and I hope we have succeeded in that intention.

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Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

I very much welcome the tone of the Deputy Leader of the House and the progress that we have made tonight on private Members' Bills, but given that some of the impediments have come not from here but from another place, can we assume that discussions are taking place?

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Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am happy to give that assurance. We need to look at the matter in the round.

It has been a frustrating pathway to reform. Sometimes there has seemed to be little movement, but we have an opportunity this evening, and I am particularly pleased that so many new Members will have the opportunity to participate in the decision. Usually, when we talk about historic days in the House of Commons, the expression is overblown, but I genuinely believe that this evening is an opportunity to change the relationship between the Executive and the legislature. If right hon. and hon. Members believe in Parliament and in a strong legislature, if they believe that a strong Parliament leads to stronger government, they will support the proposals on the table this evening. I commend them to the House.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

I must now put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on motions 2 to 15 and selected amendments which may then be moved. I will go through the motions in the order in which they stand on the Order Paper, dealing first with selected amendments to each such motion.

Amendment proposed to motion 2: (e), in paragraph (2), leave out from "and" to end of line and insert

"fifteen other Members, of whom eight" .-(Pete Wishart.)

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The House divided: Ayes 100, Noes 331.

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Division number 6 Business of the House — Backbench Business Committee

Aye: 100 MPs

No: 331 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

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Question accordingly negatived.

It being after 9.30 pm, the Speaker put the remaining Questions (Order, this day),

Amendment proposed to motion 2: (b), in paragraph 3, leave out "Session" and insert "Parliament".- [Mr Allen.]

The House divided: Ayes 171, Noes 263.

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Division number 7 Business of the House — Backbench Business Committee

Aye: 171 MPs

No: 263 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

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Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment (c) to motion 2 made: Leave out paragraph (8)- ( Mr Allen .)

Main Question, as amended, agreed to.

That the following new Standing Order be made:-

(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Backbench Business Committee, to determine the backbench business to be taken in the House and in Westminster Hall on days, or parts of days, allotted for backbench business.

(2) The committee shall consist of a chair and seven other Members, of whom four shall be a quorum.

(3) The chair and other members of the committee shall continue as members of the committee for the remainder of the Session in which they are elected unless replaced under the provisions of Standing Order No. (Election of Backbench Business Committee).

(4) The chair and members of the committee shall be elected in accordance with the provisions of Standing Order No. (Election of Backbench Business Committee).

(5) No Member who is a Minister of the Crown or parliamentary private secretary or a principal opposition front-bench spokesperson shall be eligible to be the chair or a member of the committee: the Speaker's decision shall be final on such matters.

(6) The committee shall have power to invite Government officials to attend all or part of any of its meetings.

(7) The committee shall determine the backbench business to be taken-

(a) in the House on any day, or any part of any day, allotted under paragraph

(3A) of Standing Order No. 14, and

(b) in Westminster Hall, in accordance with paragraph (3A) of Standing Order No. 10,

and shall report its determinations to the House.

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