I beg to move,
That this House
approves the recommendation contained in paragraph 21 of the Procedure Committee’s Fourth Report of Session 2012-13, Explanatory statements on amendments, HC 979, noting that the Public Bill Office will assist Members as required in the preparation of such statements.
The motion stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House of Commons and the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend Tom Brake, the shadow Leader of the House, Ms Eagle, the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, Thomas Docherty and my predecessor as Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight.
I note that I may detain the House into the small hours of tomorrow morning if I so wish. That is a tempting proposition, as I have lots of scores to settle with many colleagues. However, as I quite like getting elected to things I will not, on this occasion, detain the House for long and will make a very short speech. I hope that colleagues will make very short speeches too, and that we can wend our way into the night for an evening of fun, frolicking and frivolity.
The report “Explanatory statements on amendments” is a serious piece of work undertaken, in the main, by my predecessor, and I was lucky enough to inherit it in October last year. The Committee is saying that explanatory statements to amendments are an extremely good thing: they allow for informed debate, and for people to have an understanding of what those tabling amendments are trying to achieve. We have, however, taken a permissive, rather than a prescriptive, view. We believe that the Government, if given the opportunity to do so, will want to do the right thing, and that the right thing is to put forward explanatory statements to amendments. I look at the Chief Whip and the Deputy Leader of the House and see two people totally committed to doing the right thing. They have done the right thing throughout their parliamentary careers—one of those careers has lasted for more than 40 years—and I am certain that that will continue to be the case for what remains of their illustrious parliamentary careers. I note that the Chief Whip is not smiling too much, so I will move on.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when considering changes to our procedures we should never do anything that might discourage scrutiny? Does he share my concerns that the amendment to the motion, if passed, could act as a deterrent to some amendments being tabled?
One reason for not taking a prescriptive approach is that a disorderly explanatory statement attached to a reasonable amendment—perhaps one tabled in a short amount of time—might lead to it not getting on to the Order Paper, thus restricting debate.
To return to my central point, I believe that Members of Parliament, the Government and the Opposition should want to do the right thing, and I am hopeful that they will do the right thing. If they do not do the right thing, it would be reasonable for the House and the Procedure Committee to revisit the issue in the not-too-distant future.
I am disappointed by the weakness of the hon. Gentleman’s argument so far. I hope it is going to get a bit better. How can explaining one’s amendment possibly be a deterrent to debate? His confidence in his colleagues’ willingness to do the right thing is somewhat undermined by the fact that they did not do that when there was a pilot. If, as he says, he wants people to do this, why does he not make it mandatory, rather than just hoping they will do it despite evidence that they will not?
I think the hon. Lady has indicated that it was not the case that the Government tabled amendments in the pilot, but at the Committee stage of the Small Charitable Donations Bill 42 amendments were tabled by Back Benchers, the Government and the Opposition, and 40 of them had explanatory statements. On Report, all 37 amendments had explanatory statements. If I am misreading that, I apologise.
I have more faith in this place than the hon. Lady. I have faith in my colleagues and believe that, given the opportunity to do the right thing, they will do the right thing. The fantastic thing about the Procedure Committee and about bringing reports to the Floor of the House is that it is open to the House to amend them. This is a vehicle for change. I note that she and colleagues have tabled an amendment, and it will be for the House to decide the way forward, not me, as Chairman of the Committee, or its other members. I will not detain the House much longer. I am sorry that the Committee’s report comes as such a disappointment to a number of colleagues, but I repeat that it is within their gift to amend it, and I hope that they do.
In conclusion, I would simply add that a team of Clerks are champing at the bit to help Back-Bench colleagues attach explanatory statements to their amendments. They are ready, waiting and willing to do these things. I also hope that there is an army of Whitehall civil servants wanting to seize the day and impress their Ministers with their diligence and brilliance. I look, too, at the Opposition, in all their glory, and know that, despite our living in straitened times with limited resources, they will turn to their researchers and their special advisers—they are not really special advisers, but that is what they are called—and will demand that they step up to the plate and provide explanatory statements. I appreciate that it will not be possible on all occasions, but let us make this a new beginning for the way we conduct business in this place. If the House does not take this opportunity, however, the Committee will revisit the matter and bring forward more prescriptive recommendations.
I beg to move, amendment (a), leave out from “House”
to noting and insert
‘notes the recommendation contained in paragraph 21 of the Procedure Committee’s Fourth Report of Session 2012-13, Explanatory statements on amendments, HC 979;
and resolves that explanatory statements on amendments be mandatory, subject to guidelines to be issued under the authority of the Chair’.
Today, we have the opportunity significantly to increase transparency and transfer just a little bit of power from the Whips to Back-Bench MPs. When I first arrived here, I was immediately struck by how difficult it was to work out what all the amendments tabled on the Floor of the House actually sought to do; and I did not seem to be alone, so I joined with others who also wanted a brief explanation of amendments so that everyone could know what they sought to achieve. At the moment, as we run from another meeting, we look to see what we are voting on and find something like: “Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1)”. So then we need to consult several dense documents to work out what that and many other multiple amendments actually mean.
It is quite right, of course, that MPs should, as much as possible, listen and contribute to debates in the main Chamber, follow all those debates and then be enlightened on the effects of every single amendment, but as hon. Members know, being an effective MP involves many other tasks, including responsibilities to undertake work in Committees, to attend Westminster Hall debates and to chair and attend meetings. As a result, colleagues frequently cannot sit in the Chamber all the time a debate is going on. There are many talented Back Benchers in this place who want to scrutinise, and they should not be treated as Lobby fodder.
We have checked with the Vote Office and our e-mails and we cannot find an explanatory statement for the hon. Lady’s amendment. Given that she did not table one with the Vote Office or circulate one to colleagues, surely she is defeating her own argument.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman raises that matter, because I actually sought some advice on it. We were allowed to table explanatory statements during the pilot, but as I understood it, we were not allowed to do it now, otherwise I would have done it, precisely to make that point.
But the hon. Lady could have circulated one to colleagues. There was nothing to prevent her from using the e-mail system—the green way of doing it—to send an explanatory statement to all 650 colleagues. Why did she not do that?
I want to make it mandatory for everybody. It is very nice to do it voluntarily, as we would have done had we been allowed, but we were not. [Interruption.] Instead of smirking in that rather irritating fashion, the hon. Gentleman should focus on the debate in hand.
I was making the point that MPs should not be treated as Lobby fodder. After two pilot schemes, everyone seems now to agree that 50-word explanations are a good thing, so the motion from the Procedure Committee to make possible explanatory statements to amendments to be discussed on the Floor of the House is very welcome. I wish it was possible all the time; it is a pity that we have to get special permission even to make it possible. On those two pilots, it was possible.
I also welcome statement in the Procedure Committee’s report that it wants the statements to
“become an accepted norm of the legislative process.”
If that is what the Committee wants, why not make the statements mandatory, rather than just talking about an aspiration or a wish? Mr Walker rightly said that the Government did indeed issue explanatory statements on that occasion, and that the Opposition did not do so. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, one day, the Government will become the Opposition and find it less convenient to produce them in future. If we want it to become as natural to issue an explanatory statement as it is to sign an amendment, we have the opportunity tonight to make them mandatory.
A cross-party group of us, including senior colleagues, who are working on parliamentary reform have tabled amendment (a) because we would like the explanatory statements to be mandatory, to ensure that the Procedure Committee’s wish for the statements to become the norm becomes a reality. To clarify, in calling for the statements to be mandatory, we envisage guidelines to include dispensing for the need for them in relation to self-explanatory or consequential amendments. Actually, that is a good reason for not having circulated an explanatory statement on amendment (a), as Thomas Docherty was tempting me to do: it is surely, even to him, self-explanatory.
Unless we have a mandatory scheme, as amendment (a) proposes, there is a danger that the statements would not become part of the culture of this place, and that they would be submitted only when it suited Members to do so. As we all know, the Executive do not behave within the spirit of the legislative system at all times, and we need a system that will ensure that, when they are substantially amending their own legislation—on Report, for example—they have to explain why.
The recent pilot taught us that the Whips pick and choose. The official Opposition did not bother to submit statements on the first Bill, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which was a great shame. However, they appeared to have a change of heart, and were prepared to submit them on the relatively uncontentious Small Charitable Donations Bill. I do not accept that they did not participate on the first Bill because of a lack of resources. Sometimes it is more convenient not to explain, and frankly that is not good enough. That is why we need the statements to be mandatory.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I will try not to smirk. Does she not accept the valid point that the Opposition party and, particularly, Back Benchers do not have sufficient resources to submit explanatory statements as well as putting in the time and effort required to table the amendments themselves, especially on an extremely detailed and complex Bill?
No, I do not accept that point. If the hon. Gentleman has thought enough about an amendment to table it, he must have thought about what he is trying to achieve with it. If he cannot summarise that in 50 words, why is he tabling the amendment in the first place? He could also call on the Public Bill Office to help him with the statements.
I want to ask the hon. Lady a simple question. Has she heard of probing amendments? If she has, she will know full well that their purpose is to elicit information and commitments from the Government, and not necessarily to declare a position.
I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the point of the explanatory statements. They would simply make the aim of an amendment clear. If that aim is to seek information from the Government, that could be made perfectly clear.
I should like to move on to costs and resources. Hon. Members will have noticed that the Procedure Committee did not recommend a mandatory approach partly because it thought that that could take up time and resources, and that it could therefore restrict the ability of the Opposition and Back-Bench Members to table amendments. It feared that that could be damaging to the House’s ability to scrutinise legislation. I believe that there is a strong case to be made that the opposite is true, and that mandatory statements would save time and improve scrutiny.
The evidence from the Public Bill Office is clear on the question of resource implications. It stated that, where assistance was given with the drafting of explanatory statements,
“this took little time (no more than five minutes per amendment), and usually saved time elsewhere by establishing a verifiable shared understanding of what amendments were intended to achieve.”
So the idea that this would create a burden for the Opposition and Back Benchers is not supported by the Public Bill Office, which has made it clear that the statements typically save time.
The Public Bill Office also stated:
“It is not that difficult to draft a brief explanatory statement, and a Member seeking to table an amendment might want to think again about doing so if they were unable to explain briefly what it would achieve.”
This brings us to the nub of the issue. Do we want Back Benchers to participate or not? Do we want our constituents and our local press to be able to follow what is going on? Do we want this to be possible at all times or only some of the time, and who gets to be the judge of when people should or should not necessarily get to receive these explanations? If we want scrutiny, surely we have to make sure that those who might scrutinise are properly assisted to do so; otherwise, one might ask what is the point of the amendments at all.
Still on resources, the Clerk of the House produced a helpful memorandum pointing out that there would be no extra costs to the PBO, but there could be some printing costs. However, once self-explanatory and consequential amendments are discounted, the printing costs would clearly be very low. In the context of the entire printing costs of this place, the likely cost for this is tiny—less than 0.00005% of a £7 million annual spend on the printing of procedural publications.
For that minimal cost, we would get something valuable—information, and information being given to those who should have it as they vote on legislation that affects us all. When the bell goes, we should all know why. Brief explanations would not only allow Members to check what they are voting on when the bell goes, but allow us to see in advance what Members seeking to amend legislation are attempting to do. This would enhance scrutiny and might even increase participation in the Chamber, as Members could easily see in advance what an amendment was for.
In conclusion, I hope hon. Members will agree that this is more than procedural housekeeping. I think our constituents would be shocked if they knew that their MPs often did not know what they were voting on. When I run down the escalator from Portcullis House at the same time as many other colleagues, I often hear people saying “What are we voting on; what are we voting on?” I am not whipped, so I have to find that out myself, but many colleagues do not necessarily have that information, and I think that they should. This is not a criticism of colleagues. I have no doubt that MPs do not like trying to find out what the vote is on as they run down the escalators. The point is that this information is not being properly provided. It is good that the Procedure Committee is calling for a scheme to make explanations possible, so let us make sure that everyone uses it.
I have some sympathy for the hon. Lady’s argument. The problem we all have is that we are sent here to legislate, but we fill our time with so many other things that we actually forget our primary role, which is to pay attention to what is going on in this place and to scrutinise the Government. One reason why we often do not know what is going on is that we choose—we make the choice—not to know what is going on.
There is some truth in what the hon. Gentleman says, but if the conclusion of what he said is that he genuinely expects 650 Members to be in this Chamber—day in, day out—to scrutinise all legislation, I think he is more optimistic than I am, because I do not think that is likely. I believe we also have other important roles, such as providing scrutiny through Select Committees, which are every bit as important as at least some of the debates in this Chamber. It is a realistic assumption that not everybody can be here.
In conclusion, I hope hon. Members will vote for amendment (a) to give Back Benchers and the public a right to explanations of what we vote on in this House. We have an opportunity tonight to restore trust in what we do, to show that we want to scrutinise and to make the way in which this place operates healthier and more transparent, so let us take it.
It is a great pleasure to follow Caroline Lucas, and it is one of my parliamentary ambitions that, one day, when speaking after her in a debate, I shall actually agree with her. Sadly, that day has not yet dawned.
There are extremely good arguments for requiring the Government compulsorily to make explanatory statements. The Government have legions of civil servants who are able to draw up their explanations; they have all the resources of a Rolls-Royce Whitehall system that is able to provide the explanations to everything that goes into legislation. Crucially, the amendments proposed by the Government usually do end up in legislation, so not only are the resources there, but an invaluable purpose is served in making clear what the Government are trying to do.
If the hon. Lady’s amendment (a) had said that the Government always and invariably had to put down explanatory statements, I would have agreed with it, because that would have enhanced our ability to legislate. When, however, it comes to requiring every Member to do so and to giving exceptional discretion to the Speaker or the Speaker’s deputies to decide whether these explanatory memorandums are sufficiently in order, I cannot agree. Let me explain why briefly, because I know many want to go off and have their dinners or conduct Adjournment debates and things like that—the Adjournment debates are probably more attractive than dinners for most of us.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case for attaching explanatory memorandums to Government amendments. Does he think that the same should apply to official Opposition amendments, and that a distinction should be made between amendments in those categories and amendments tabled by individual Back Benchers?
No, I would not go as far as that. One of the great divides in parliamentary life is represented by the fact that the Government always have officials beside them. We see in the Box this evening three extremely distinguished gentlemen who are there to advise the Government and help them to plan their legislation. The Opposition have some Short money, which helps them with their parliamentary activities, but, unlike the Government, they do not have the depth of resources that would enable them to provide the explanations that might be needed.
It is assumed that we live in a perfect world in which legislation is presented after pre-legislative scrutiny and there is much time for consideration and deliberation, but that is unfortunately not true. A great deal of legislation is quite rushed, and comes to the House at quite a late stage. The Opposition sometimes have to trawl through many hundreds of clauses in a Bill, and, while they may have just about enough time to write out their amendments, even if each amendment takes only five minutes to explain, 100 Opposition amendments will mean 500 minutes that Opposition Members may not have when a Bill is due to begin its Committee stage within a week or two—or sometimes a day or two—of being presented to the House. I therefore think that the burden placed on the Opposition would be unfair and disproportionate.
Given that I am speaking partly from personal experience as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, I want to pay particular tribute to the Clerks of Legislation, who are incredibly helpful and patient in explaining to Back Benchers how to formulate an amendment so that it is in order. However, to ask them then to write an explanatory memorandum when so many hundreds of us could be calling on their time would be to place an unreasonable burden on them. Their patience, courtesy, capability and knowledge of the history of Parliament are an absolute joy to behold, and every dealing that I have had with them has been a real pleasure, but I do not think that it would be reasonable to impose that extra burden on them.
This takes us to the heart of the way in which the Government are held to account through the legislative process. Those of us who table amendments know that our amendments will almost certainly not pass into law. Indeed, on most occasions when I have tabled amendments I have not pressed them to a Division, because I have known that the massed serried ranks on the Government Benches will not be sufficient to get one Back Bencher’s amendment through, however well thought out it may—or may not—have been.
Members table amendments to ensure that the issue is debated, that the Minister is able to think about it, and that it is considered in proper detail by the Minister and the Minister’s officials. The Opposition do exactly the same, in the knowledge that the points that they raise will be considered during the overall process. That process would be weakened and made more difficult if the explanatory memorandums were compulsory. If they were compulsory, the Opposition would perforce table fewer amendments, and Back Benchers would be deterred from tabling amendments because of the extra burden that it would place on them, and because of a certain diffidence about putting more pressure on the Clerks of Legislation.
In an ideal world, everything would be spelt out and there would be a few more pages of printing. I am delighted that the Greens seem to be in favour of that: it appears now to be their official policy. Normally a desire for more printing reflects my view of the world rather than theirs. The reality of legislating, however, is that it is often done in a hurry because the necessary time is not available. It is a matter of holding the Government to account, and anything that obstructs that process makes it harder for Members to do their jobs.
Not for the first time, I find myself in complete disagreement with Jacob Rees-Mogg. I shall endeavour to explain why, but let me first express my genuine appreciation to Mr Walker, the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who has brought a breath of fresh air to the important issue of reform of parliamentary procedure.
I support amendment (a). Despite what I have just said, I believe that the Committee’s modest position represents a major missed opportunity, in that the gain from making brief explanatory statements mandatory is enormous, while the extra effort required to achieve it—and here I strongly disagree with the hon. Member for North East Somerset—is minuscule. At present, particularly on Report, Members who have not participated in Committee often do not know, and have made little or no effort to find out, what precisely they are casting their vote for. Anecdotal evidence suggests the proportion could be as high as seven or eight out of 10. This is of great significance because, particularly if the Government Whips have exercised a tight leash over Committee stage, the Report stage is often the only real opportunity for the House to modify the content of the Bill. The debates on Report are usually focused on important issues where strong views are known to be held by the public. Echoing what Caroline Lucas said, it is a reasonable assumption that if the public were more widely aware that these matters of considerable importance to them were treated in such a cavalier fashion by many, if not a great many, Members who often vote blind—and I confess that I am one of them occasionally, because of the difficulties of finding out exactly what we are voting for—there would be a huge outcry that Parliament was abusing its proper functions.
Currently, if a Member is diligent—and many are, of course—they will need to obtain a copy of the Bill, a copy of the list of amendments and, on the day, a copy of the grouped amendments selected by the Speaker. A number of Members with a particular interest will undoubtedly do this, but in most cases I submit it will be a minority. In the absence of obtaining the necessary documentation and reading it in order to understand the point at issue and reaching a considered view, the default position, as we all know, is for Members to follow their Whips on arrival in the Chamber.
Even if a Member did take the trouble to get and read the relevant documents, it is often quite difficult for someone who has not been following a Bill closely to understand what precisely the amendment is designed to do. This adds up to quite a serious flaw in the whole process of scrutiny of Government legislation, which is the central function of Parliament. It can be so easily remedied by requiring that a short statement of no more than 50 words explaining the purpose is attached to every amendment on the Order Paper and reproduced on the television monitor.
What are the objections? Here I come to the points made by Jacob Rees-Mogg. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for reform of parliamentary procedure, and the only objection raised with us is that while the Government have their civil servants to deal with amendments and provide explanatory statements, the Opposition do not have the same resources and adding the requirement for explanatory statements would impose too great a burden.
I simply do not accept that that objection is tenable. Speaking as someone who in my 43 years has taken many Bills through the House, I know that it certainly takes a huge amount of time to get to grips in particular with a large Bill—to consult outside experts over all its detailed aspects, to identify areas where modification needs to be sought and to draft amendments in an appropriate parliamentary form. Once hundreds of hours have been expended on doing that, however—that has to be done by any responsible Front Bench—adding a short statement distilling the essence of an amendment would take less than half a minute.
There is already evidence that a large majority of the House is in favour of this proposal Many hon. Members have indicated how helpful they found the two recent pilots when the Government introduced this reform for two recent Bills. In addition, Parliament First—that is the name of our all-party group—carried out a survey of all Members seeking their reaction to six proposed reforms of the House procedure, including explanatory statements. I have the results here and I will show them to anyone who cares to look. The response rate was more than 20%, which is not bad for parliamentarians. Of those respondents, 87% were in favour of explanatory statements, and there was very little difference between the two main parties.
This is a modest reform. The gain to everyone would be enormous and the effort to bring it about in practice is relatively tiny. I hope that, for those reasons, the House will support amendment (a).
Those hon. Members who recall that I used to sit where my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House now sits, long into the night discussing similar matters, may think it an act of sublime masochism for me to be standing here prolonging proceedings this evening, but I feel strongly about this issue. I do not want to detain the House for long, but I wish to express my support for the position of Caroline Lucas, because I simply do not recognise the arguments adduced against what has been suggested. I well recall the pilots, because I was the Deputy Leader of the House who proposed the pilot scheme. I was also one of the Ministers for one of the two Bills—the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill—involved in the pilot. On the part of government, I did not see it as an excessive burden, and nor do I believe that the civil servants who supported us found it an excessive burden simply to state the purpose of Government amendments for that Bill.
I am not surprised to hear that my hon. Friend supports the amendment, which I will also be supporting if it comes to a vote. Does he agree that even if it does add an extra burden and its requirement leads to extra work, it is a small price to pay for improving the legislative process? The one thing we are all paid to do here is to legislate, and people often have no idea what they are voting on. Surely that is a scandal and it requires a bit of investment to address it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I agree that it is better to have clarity, so that not just Members in this House but others looking at our proceedings can understand what we are debating.
There are other benefits to be had. I have always had this romantic view that we can improve the procedures of this House and do things in a more effective, focused and timely way. That would help everybody who has come to a debate on amendments and found that the purpose of the proposer of an amendment was quite different from what they had imagined when they first read it. That applies not only to Back Benchers, but to the Government. Very often Ministers have learned screeds of paper telling them what the civil servants who support them in the Bill believe the Opposition Member was intending by their amendment, only then to find that that was absolutely a wrong guess.
Inadvertently, the hon. Gentleman has made an astute point, because it is wrong to believe that all amendments have an objective truth about them. Amendments, particularly those from the Opposition, often have different interpretations attached to them. He mentioned the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which is a good example of when our interpretation of what we were putting forward was objectively different from that of the civil servants. The essential clarification often is provided through debate, not by declamatory written statements.
The hon. Gentleman will find that I make many astute comments and they are never inadvertent. No, that is not the tension we want in the House; we want understanding, and we want sensible debate focused on the issues at stake, not guesswork as to what those might be. It does not matter whether it comes from the official Opposition, a Back-Bench Member or the Government: clarity is an addition and support to the value of our debate in this House. I find it difficult to understand why anyone would take a different view.
I know that whichever way the debate goes this evening, the Government will produce an explanatory statement every time an amendment is tabled. I have no confidence, I am afraid—for the reasons exemplified by the approach of Wayne David—that the Opposition will do the same. I am afraid that the argument that they do not have the resources to produce such statements is a canard. First, as Mr Meacher said, it takes very little resource to do so. Secondly, let us explode the myth that every Member who tables an amendment writes it himself or herself. That is not the case. Amendments are often prepared by well-resourced outside bodies that would have no problem whatsoever providing an explanatory statement. If all else fails, the official Opposition have something called Short money—a considerable amount of money to support their parliamentary activities, including the tabling of amendments. What is the problem?
I believe that the amendment is sensible and I will support it this evening. Let me finish on one specific point. I note that the Chair of the Procedure Committee has been supported in a remarkable act of solidarity by the Leader of the House, the Deputy Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and the shadow Deputy Leader of the House. Although I am glad that they can provide that support to the Procedure Committee, I wonder whether that is appropriate on what is essentially a House matter concerning our procedure. It appears to oblige the payroll vote to support the original motion rather than to vote according to what those Members consider to be the rights and wrongs. I am afraid that I think that this is a matter on which the House should decide, not the Government.
May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that in the past three and a half years I have never sought the support of the Executive in any way, as demonstrated by my voting record? If they want to support a recommendation made by the Procedure Committee, that is entirely down to those on the Front Bench, but it is not something that I have sought or would ever want to see.
I absolutely accept that statement and it doubles my admiration for the solidarity expressed by those on the two Front Benches in supporting the hon. Gentleman. However, as a consequence of that, many members of the Government are sitting watching monitors wondering whether this chap will ever shut up so that they can move towards a vote. They are obliged to stay here to ensure that a rebel amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion does not succeed. I regret that, but I hope that we will have a sensible debate and that whichever view prevails this evening, every amendment will eventually have a short explanatory statement stating what the devil it is for.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in what I am sure will be a short debate. It is perhaps worth clarifying one point for the benefit of the Chair of the Procedure Committee, on which I have the privilege to serve. He referred to those who had signed the motion and I think he perhaps inadvertently suggested that I was the shadow Deputy Leader of the House. I do not have that great privilege; that more august position is held by my hon. Friend Angela Smith. I think that reference was probably an oversight on his behalf.
The debate so far has been fascinating and great passion has been expressed about clarity and resources. Like other colleagues, I have the highest admiration for the House and the House service. I am always in bewildered awe at the great education that our Clerks have had compared with ours. As colleagues who have tabled amendments over the years will know, we are often up against tight timetables. There are archaic rules about when amendments must be tabled by and I think it places an undue burden on the House service to expect that when someone comes in up against the deadline—[Interruption.] Mr Heath chunters from a sedentary position, as ever, about short deadlines. I cannot help but recall the number of amendments he tabled at the very last minute when he was a Minister, yet he criticises those colleagues who are forced to wait until the very last minute. The notion that we would rule out a perfectly reasonable and well thought-out amendment because it did not have an accompanying explanatory statement is anti-democratic. I am disappointed—I genuinely have great respect for the hon. Gentleman.
I am puzzled by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he saying that the procedures of the House really do not matter, and that we do not have to be in accordance with them when tabling an amendment, provided that it is a really important amendment, or does he accept the fact that the rules are there to aid debate, and that there is a back-stop provision, as the Chair can always rule something in order, as they do frequently with manuscript amendments?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which leads me nicely to the point that I was going to make about “Erskine May” and the discretion of the Chair. You are a wonderful Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, held in the greatest regard by Members on both sides of the House. The whole House has the highest regard for your observations and the way in which you guide us through difficult debates. “Erskine May” makes it clear that colleagues should not read out speeches, but with great discretion, Mr Deputy Speaker, you allowed Caroline Lucas to read her speech. The House rules would say, following the intervention of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, that that would not be allowed. The notion, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we would expect you to overrule the consensus of the House is probably unfair on you, and the hon. Gentleman has therefore placed too great a burden on your august shoulders. It is wrong to place the Chair in that position.
My hon. Friend seems to labour under the apprehension that the Chair will be put in an undue position of power over selection, and will have power that they do not already enjoy. However, has he not noted the point made by the Public Bill Office on page 10 of the report that
“An alternative would be to allow orderly explanatory statements to be tabled on the day after the deadline for tabling the amendments themselves. It would, of course, be for the Speaker or Chairman of Ways and Means…to select an amendment” afterwards? That would overcome the problem that my hon. Friend raises that Members should not be expected to provide an explanatory statement before the deadline.
I am always grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a genuine parliamentarian. However, as I have said, this is about putting a greater onus on the Chair of a Bill Committee or the Chair in the Chamber. I do not think that we want to add to those burdens. We have some wonderful Chairs who chair proceedings with a light touch. I fear that there would be complaints from the Government, the Opposition, the minority parties and Back Benchers saying, “Why has that one been allowed in, as an explanatory statement was not scheduled in time?” We have seen too often that, because the Government have tended to introduce Bills at the last minute—I am thinking of the gagging Bill in September—it would be difficult for my hon. Friends to table amendments, then produce explanatory statements.
I genuinely welcome the fact that the Government have made it absolutely clear that they intend for all their amendments to provide explanatory statements whenever practicable—I take their word on that. I had a slight exchange with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who said with some justification, to be fair, that when he was a Minister explanatory statements were produced for all his revisions. I suspect that his civil servants had a hand in the drafting of those statements, but that is not a luxury that the Opposition or, indeed, Back Benchers enjoy. If the Government wish to expand the resources available—
That is a fair point. I do not think that I am giving away anything when I say that that was one of the discussions that the Procedure Committee had with the Front-Bench team and the House service. Regrettably, however, in these austere times, that is not on the table. If it were, I would wholeheartedly support the amendment, with the caveat that Back Benchers should be given greater resource.
It is something of an insult to parliamentary colleagues to maintain the myth that Members of Parliament are confused or vote the wrong way. I am conscious that Liberal Democrats may see that as a good excuse at the next general election to explain why they voted for a series of measures—“I am very sorry. I didn’t realise what I was voting for”—but I am not aware of a single case where a Liberal Democrat MP will argue that they voted to increase tuition fees or break their other promises because they were confused about what the motion or amendment meant. Perhaps the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will correct me. The idea that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is promoting that Members are confused about what they are voting for is utter nonsense.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. He must recall that friends of his in the House were perturbed to find that they had voted a particular way on an amendment to the Succession to the Crown Bill without realising, they said, that it had implications for religious equality—something for which they would not have voted. If explanatory statements had been required on all amendments to the Succession to the Crown Bill, Members would have known exactly when they were voting to keep sectarianism in the British constitution and when they were not.
I want to wind up to let others get in.
A Select Committee has considered the issue at great length and brought forward a procedure. It is slightly ironic that we are now hearing so-called Parliament First parliamentarians saying that we should reject the wishes of the Select Committee which was tasked with examining the issue. I look forward to hearing other views.
There are essentially two issues before us this evening. The first is whether explanatory statements are a good thing or a bad thing. There is pretty much agreement on both sides of the argument that they are a good thing. The second and more difficult question is whether explanatory statements should be compulsory. My view is that they should not be compulsory. I think they are a good thing and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Walker on the way that he opened this short debate. I thank, in his absence, my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight, who was the previous Chairman of the Committee.
Opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne made clear the view of the Committee that, having considered all the evidence, we felt that on balance a permissive regime was better than a mandatory one. I accept that the argument is very finely balanced. My own view is that, although it is easy for the Government to table explanatory notes, as they do in the case of a Bill, which is entirely right, it should not be made mandatory for a Back-Bench Member to do so. However, any Back Bencher who takes their amendment seriously and wants to persuade the House of its merits will want to table an explanatory note, but it may be that, for whatever reason, they do not wish to do so. They may prefer to inform Members of the merits of their amendment by circulating a letter to colleagues, circulating an e-mail, holding a briefing meeting or even establishing a website or tweeting about the amendment. They may have other ideas about how to do it. I do not think that they should be precluded from tabling an amendment just because they have not filed an explanatory statement.
I am conscious that it is late and Members have other engagements, but I wanted to place on the record my view on the matter. I support the substantive motion and oppose the amendment.
I think that this is quite straightforward: if a Member cannot explain the purpose of their amendment, why did they table it in the first place? Perhaps my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg would find that his amendments had greater support if their purpose was set out clearly for Members to see. Many Members have referred to the extra costs that might be involved, but surely they are nothing compared to the costs of poorly drafted legislation. As for the cost in trees, not a single extra tree would have to be felled if the House moved towards the 21st century and had all amendments and explanatory notes delivered to Members’ iPads so that they could be absolutely clear about what they are voting for. I see no excuse for not moving towards such a system, which would improve the quality of legislation. I hope that Members will support the amendment.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a very short speech in support of the amendment tabled by Caroline Lucas. There is no job description for Back-Bench MPs, but if there was it would be to hold the Government to account on behalf of their constituents. That is very hard to do, given the busy schedule, with Select Committee meetings and all the other obligations MPs have, if the likelihood is that when the Division bell rings we will not know what the amendment we are being asked to vote for actually represents. I would be interested to hear whether Thomas Docherty can tell us honestly—he is welcome to intervene—that he has never voted for an amendment that he did not understand. I would be very surprised if he can.
That sounds more like luck than anything else. If he did not know what he was voting for, there is every chance that afterwards he might have regretted it, so he is very lucky that has not happened.
Order. One at a time. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wants to respond to Dr Wollaston first.
I do not want to detain the House, but I should make it clear that if I have ever been confused in advance, I have asked one of my parliamentary colleagues, or perhaps those friendly Whips, about what was going on. Also, it would have been really helpful if there had been an explanatory statement for this amendment.
I take the point. There have been many occasions in the short time I have been in the House when I have had to seek advice on votes I was being asked to cast. I have asked many Back Benchers on both sides of the House and the Whips but have still been unable to understand them or get any kind of clarity. I have had to abstain in Divisions because I simply did not know what the amendments I was being asked to vote for were about.
I think that we would stand a much better chance of understanding what we were voting for if the amendments had explanatory statements.
I reject the argument that this would place an undue burden on Back Benchers. I accept up to a point that an extra burden would be placed on opposition parties because, as my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg said, for Members tabling 100, 200 or 300 amendments that amounts to quite a lot of minutes, but I believe that they should be given the administrative support they need to achieve that. However, that does not apply for Back Benchers, because they rarely table more than a small handful of amendments, unless they have set out to become parliamentary pests. They will have spent a lot of time understanding how to table them, so the extra five, 10, 15 or perhaps 30 minutes required to explain them is not much to ask. If a Back Bencher is not willing to invest those 30 minutes in the explanatory notes, perhaps they ought not to be wasting our time with the amendments in the first place.
This is a very small measure—a very small price to pay—that would undoubtedly, unavoidably and unarguably improve the legislative process in this place. I believe that people are appalled by some of the things that have happened here over the past few years, not least the expenses scandal and the more recent issue relating to fuel, which could be described as a scandal. The far bigger scandal is the fact that the one thing we are paid to do, we do not, on the whole, do anything like as well as we should, because we often simply do not know what we are doing. That is a scandal that can be rectified so easily with this small measure proposed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion.
Let me place on record my thanks to the Procedure Committee for all its work on this important issue— not just on this report but on previous reports. I particularly thank the Chair of the Committee, Mr Walker, for the work that he has done and I know will continue to do on matters relating to House business. We welcome the recommendations made by the Committee and the commitment in the motion to ensuring that the resources of the Public Bill Office will be made available to Members to assist in the preparation of explanatory statements.
We have had a very good and robust debate, but one point that has been overlooked is the actual wording of the motion, which corrects an anomaly in the current system that we have enjoyed so far in the pilots whereby it has not always been possible to call on the Public Bill Office to support the work we are doing in tabling amendments and making sure that explanatory statements are available. We are pleased that the Committee is recommending a further period in which to allow this innovation to embed itself, because more time is needed to test the process further—this time in a context whereby the practice of tabling explanatory statements is used more extensively by Members.
There are two reasons, as we see it, for supporting this approach. First, it is important for the House to bear in mind that the official Opposition, who of course have to take a comprehensive approach to the scrutiny of legislation passing through this House, would face a significant extra burden through engaging in the business of drafting explanatory statements to all amendments that they wish to table for discussion in the Chamber. Much of the legislation we deal with is very complex and requires careful consideration on a political and a technical level, and we have to bear this in mind if we want to avoid a situation in which we actually deter effective scrutiny of legislation because we have, in practice, restricted the number of amendments that can realistically be tabled by the Opposition. It is probably the first time I have been able to say this, but I agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg in the comments he made on this point.
Secondly, we need to test how the Government respond to any significant extension of the use of explanatory statements, in the sense that it could prompt serious questions about the timetabling of legislation in this House. The pressure on the official Opposition to develop their approach to scrutiny of Bills in Committee is, more often than not, intense, and an extra work load would make it even more incumbent on the Government to improve their scheduling to ensure that adequate time is made available for the development of Members’ approach to scrutiny. Having served with my hon. Friend Wayne David on the Bill teams for the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill and the recent gagging Bill, I can absolutely testify to the intensity of the process and the very short time frames that were made available, in both instances, to table the amendments and get them ready for discussion on the Floor of the House.
In our view, the permissive approach rather than the mandatory approach should be agreed by the House to ensure that any problems are teased out and, we hope, resolved. That is an important part of the process, and it should precede any decision to make explanatory statements mandatory. We think that explanatory statements are a positive innovation. We hope that Front Bench teams and other Members of the House adopt them as we work through legislation.
We are confident that the Procedure Committee, so ably led by the hon. Member for Broxbourne, will monitor progress and bring the issue to the Floor of the House to report on progress and make further recommendations if that proves to be necessary. That is the key point—if it proves to be necessary. We hope that the new system, whereby explanatory statements can be tabled for all legislation, will embed itself so successfully that we will not have to return to the issue. We must give it a chance to see how it works before we move to the more draconian measure of making such statements mandatory.
The Government support the motion. I thank the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, for his thoughtful and charmingly concise opening comments, and for explaining to the House the reasoning and conclusions of his Committee. I will set out a little of the history that has led to this debate, although I am a little disappointed that my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg did not do so. I will then explain why the House should support the motion and reject the amendment.
The report to which the motion refers was published by the Procedure Committee on
“when we are briefing our ministers and advising them how to respond, the issues the Member really wants debated are covered and we really are responding to the queries or concerns that are being raised.”
It is of assistance to Ministers, Members and the public if there is clarity about amendments, if debates are informed and if scrutiny is as effective as it can be.
Following the report, several pilots were conducted. Although the Procedure Committee concluded that explanatory statements were useful, take-up of the facility was disappointing. The overall assessment of the value of explanatory statements was inconclusive.
Following discussions in this Parliament between the Procedure Committee and the Leader of the House, it was decided that a further pilot should take place on two Bills, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill and the Small Charitable Donations Bill. Criteria for evaluating the pilot were agreed and the Public Bill Office was tasked with preparing a memorandum evaluating the pilot. That was published as part of the Procedure Committee’s report, so I will not attempt to summarise it. The memorandum led the Procedure Committee to recommend a system of voluntary explanatory statements for all Bills at the Committee and Report stages. The Procedure Committee concluded:
“The evidence from the pilot suggests that there are few downsides to a permissive approach.”
I agree with that.
The amendment asks the House to resolve
“that explanatory statements on amendments be mandatory”.
After a playful intervention by Thomas Docherty, Caroline Lucas, who moved the amendment, said that he was smirking in an irritating way. I know the hon. Gentleman well and he does not smirk in an irritating way. I would describe it more as an impish smirk. I accept that there is sense behind the amendment, particularly given the argument that it is easier to instil a cultural shift by making something mandatory and that a failing of previous pilots was the low take-up of the facility. However, I hope that I will be able to persuade supporters of the amendment not to press it to a vote, but to join those of us who want explanatory statements to become
“an accepted norm of the legislative process.”
The publication of explanatory statements will not guarantee that a Member understands the Bill. A Member who looks at the explanatory statements in isolation and does not have an understanding of the Bill will not be guaranteed to understand the amendments. If explanatory statements are published, it will require Members to read them to understand their implication. As Mr Meacher said, according to a statistic he has, seven out of 10 Members apparently vote without knowing what they are voting on. I am therefore not sure I have full confidence that if explanatory statements were put on a mandatory basis, each and every Member would read them and be fully informed about the purpose of the Bill.
There are good reasons to argue for a permissive approach, and I thank my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall for his support in that respect. The Procedure Committee argues that a mandatory requirement would restrict Opposition Back Benchers in tabling amendments. I am afraid I have to disagree with my hon. Friend Mr Heath—a gamekeeper turned poacher in this respect. He referred to Short money being available to the official Opposition. That is true, but he will remember that when we were in opposition, even with Short money, there was difficulty dealing with the volume of amendments. I am sure he will also acknowledge we are now in a coalition Government, and Short money is not available to the coalition partners. In fact, in many cases when one of the parties seeks to table an amendment, there is no support for that at all. I must therefore disagree with my hon. Friend, as I do with Zac Goldsmith, who must acknowledge that simply producing explanatory notes is no guarantee that a Member of Parliament will read them—although clearly I hope that that would be the case.
It is accepted, I think, that the burden would fall heavily on Her Majesty’s official Opposition, who table a significant proportion of amendments. It is always best to proceed in this area of parliamentary reform on the basis of consensus. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, and others who support the amendment, do not want to proceed on the basis of consensus. Of all Members in this House I would have thought the hon. Lady favoured the idea of proceeding on that basis.
Should the House decide to go down the mandatory route in future, it would be free to do so, but it would be on the basis of a fuller consideration of the burden— perhaps with a further pilot on a mandatory basis—and full consideration of some issues not fully addressed in the report. Those could include, for example, whether an amendment would be refused for tabling by the Public Bill Office if it were not accompanied by an explanatory statement, or if that statement was felt to be in some way disorderly—that could certainly put the Public Bill Office in a difficult position. If explanatory statements were made mandatory, more thought would need to be given to what constitutes adequacy and accuracy in explanatory statements, and who would rule on such issues. Those issues could be considered by the House in the future, but it should not be left to the Chair to consider and rule on such procedural reforms in the way proposed by the amendment to today’s motion.
I am grateful to those in the Public Bill Office, in particular the Clerk of Legislation, for the assessment of the pilot, and for confirmation that they would be happy to consider further the issues we have discussed today if that is felt necessary. I am extremely grateful for the positive commitment they have made to assist all Members in preparing explanatory statements—the hon. Member for Broxbourne referred to the fact that he could hear them champing at the bit, and if we listen carefully I think we can hear them champing right now to assist Members in preparing explanatory statements. That commitment is noted in the motion before the House and will help encourage the facility to become part of the culture of the House.
As with the pilots, I expect Government Departments to play their role and actively participate in the new arrangements. Should the House agree the motion tonight, I expect the Government to table explanatory statements on amendments for Bills introduced to this House after
I am sure Her Majesty’s official Opposition, with the assistance of the House authorities, will also up their game from the pilots. As the Procedure Committee said, a more widespread use of explanatory statements “should underline their utility”. I thank the Procedure Committee for its work on this issue. I urge colleagues not to press the amendment to a vote and for us to push forward on a consensual basis, and I commend the motion to the House.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House approves the recommendation contained in paragraph 21 of the Procedure Committee’s Fourth Report of Session 2012-13, Explanatory statements on amendments, HC 979, noting that the Public Bill Office will assist Members as required in the preparation of such statements.—(Amber Rudd.)