[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms, HC 82, and the Government Response, HC 910; Seventh Report from the Procedure Committee, Session 2010-12, Debates on Government e-Petitions, HC 1706, and the Government reply; Fourth Special Report of 2010-12, HC 1902; Sixth Report from the Procedure Committee, Session 2012-13, Debates on Government e-Petitions in Westminster Hall, HC 1094, and the Government reply, which is published on the Committee’s website.]
I beg to move motion 3—Petitions—
That this House
supports the establishment, at the start of the next Parliament, of a collaborative e-petitions system, which enables members of the public to petition the House of Commons and press for action from Government;
and calls on the Procedure Committee to work with the Government and other interested parties on the development of detailed proposals.
With this, we shall discuss the following:
Amendment (a) to motion 3, line 1, leave out from “House” to end and add
‘believes that the House of Commons should have its own e-petitions website, administered and controlled by this House and separate from that of the Government, though for cost saving purposes sharing the existing Government platform, that any hon. Member should be able to propose an e-petition for debate, regardless of the number of signatures the e-petition has obtained, that the Backbench Business Committee should allocate time on Mondays in Westminster Hall for debates arising from e-petitions directed to the House of Commons, but that any debate on a petition directed to Government should take place in Government time, that members of the public should be provided at the gateway to the websites with full information about how to ensure a petition is in order and to which institution their petition should most appropriately be directed, and that the House’s e-petitions websites should make it clear that the public may choose instead to contact their local hon. Member about an issue directly; and invites the Procedure Committee, consulting as appropriate with the Government, the Backbench Business Committee and any other interested parties, to develop a system meeting these objectives and to return to the House with proposals which may be implemented from the start of the next Parliament.’.
Motion 4—Parliamentary Privilege—
That, in light of the recommendations contained in paragraphs 226 and 227 of the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, HC 100, this House resolves that legislation creating individual rights which could impinge on the activities of the House should in future contain express provision to this effect.
That this House approves the recommendation of the Procedure Committee in its Sixth Report of 2013-14, Programming: proposal for a trial of new arrangements for the tabling of amendments to bills at report stage, HC 1220, that a trial should take place for the course of the 2014-15 Session of a three day deadline for the tabling of amendments and new clauses/schedules at report stage of all programmed bills.
Motion 6—Calling of Amendments at the end of Debate (Amendments to Standing Orders)—
‘Amendments to address in answer to the Queen’s Speech
(2) No amendment may be selected before the penultimate day of the debate on such a motion.
(3) If, on the last day on which such a motion is debated in the House, an amendment to it proposed by the Leader of the Opposition shall have been disposed of at or after the expiration of the time for opposed business, any further amendments selected by the Speaker may thereupon be moved, and the question thereon shall be put forthwith.’.
We move on to happier subjects. I will speak first to the motion on e-petitions. I will also address the other motions in my name, on parliamentary privilege and on
Hon. Members may recall that, following the work of both the Procedure Committee and the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, I have previously undertaken to bring forward proposals for an improved e-petitions system. I want to build on the successful features of the current system, which has seen more than 10 million individuals sign one or more of the 27,500 e-petitions that have been submitted, 145 of which have reached 10,000 signatures, leading to a formal response from the Government. Of those, 29 petitions have reached 100,000 signatures and become eligible to be considered for debate, 25 of which have been debated.
The system provides a straightforward means by which people can submit a petition to raise an issue and press for action. As we have seen in debates such as those on Hillsborough, the badger cull, Sophie’s choice and the ban on female genital mutilation, petitions can be and are debated in Parliament. However, the system by which they are submitted is not approved or in any way owned by Parliament, and that is what I want to change. I want Parliament to share in the ownership of a modern e-petitions system that allows people to petition their Parliament, engage their elected representatives and, where appropriate, get a response from their Government.
I have already held constructive discussions with a number of interested parties throughout the House on the principles of a new system, but a lot of stakeholders are involved and there is a lot of detail to be worked out. I am therefore not initially coming to the House with a fully worked up blueprint for approval. I want to work with others on some ideas that will produce the best result for petitioners, who are our constituents. This is a therefore a paving motion, which will allow the House to agree on the principle that a new system should be jointly owned and run by the Government and the House of Commons.
To develop the detail of the new system with the House, the Government need a partner with which to work. We therefore propose that the Procedure Committee acts on behalf of the House in helping to shape the proposals. There will, no doubt, be other interested parties in the House and outside who will want to contribute, and that is entirely welcome.
I wish to refer briefly to amendment (a) to the e-petitions motion, tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Mr Allen. I confess that I am disappointed that he has felt the need to table an amendment that is largely about the detail of the new system, not least because those are exactly the sorts of discussions that I hope we can have as we develop it. I do not disagree with all the elements that he suggests, but I am confused by an amendment that rejects the notion of a collaborative system yet goes on to envisage the sharing of the existing Government platform. The amendment is internally inconsistent and, I would argue, flawed in principle as a consequence. I cannot, in any case, imagine what the public would make of our establishing two competing and overlapping e-petition systems, which would be the effect of the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman is usually, and quite volubly, in the business of calling for the Executive to work in partnership with Parliament on legislation, on constitutional principles and on much else beyond. That is exactly what I am offering on e-petitions. It would be uncharacteristic of him to turn down such an offer, so I hope that he might not move his amendment.
I hope that a new system can provide better service and support for petitioners. It would provide more flexibility for the House to consider e-petitions in a variety of ways and an enhanced capacity for the House to ensure that the Government respond to those petitions in a significant and adequate manner.
The use of the platform already developed by the Government Digital Service will minimise the costs of the new system. Any additional staff costs will depend largely on the level and nature of the support provided to petitioners, and it may be that it can best be provided by the House’s outreach and information service. You will recall, Mr Speaker, that in the medium-term financial plan the House of Commons Commission has envisaged the provision of some modest support of that kind for a new e-petitions service.
I do not seek to hide the scale of the system. Just under 10,000 petitions are submitted each year—the number settled down after an initial burst in 2011 to about 20 per day, which is a lot of petitions. The moderating, monitoring and sifting of those petitions is a considerable task, but the rules relating to them can make it a manageable, and I think a fair one. Whether we have a petitions committee to govern that process is a matter for discussion. I confess that I am in favour of some form of petitions committee to act on behalf of the House, to develop engagement with the public on petitions, and in the longer term to liaise with Government on e-petitions and the system. For the avoidance of doubt, this motion and any proposals we have do not impinge at all on the existing paper petitions system. That is a matter for the House, and in particular the Procedure Committee.
The existing Government system will be taken down when Parliament is dissolved at the end of March next year. To ensure that a new system, based on the principles that I hope we can endorse today, is up and running from the start of the new Parliament, we must have reached agreement on the details of that new system by the end of this year, when I hope the House will be able to debate and decide on our joint proposals. With that in mind, I ask the House to approve the motion to allow the work we have started to continue, in close consultation with the Procedure Committee, as proposed.
The Government are happy to support the proposal from the Procedure Committee in the motion on programming, which I hope will benefit the whole House. As hon. Members know, the Government have already addressed concerns expressed about Report stage by providing more time where necessary, with the result that fewer groups of amendments are now left undebated than in the last Parliament. In this Session alone, no fewer than 11 Bills have benefited from more than one day on Report. I remind the House that there were only 10 such Bills in the whole of the previous Parliament.
By extending the deadline for the submission of amendments on Report from two to three days, the Government will be able to take full account of the number of amendments selected and grouped before tabling the supplementary programme motion. That will allow us better to match the available time to the weight and nature of amendments tabled. The deadline will rightly still be subject to the discretion of Mr Speaker. I emphasise that the Government will continue to seek to table amendments one week in advance of Report.
On the supplementary programme motions, I have had to wrestle with getting the amount of time for each group of amendments correct when drafting programme motions. Does my right hon. Friend propose that in each case the Government will use knives to allocate time for each group of amendments, or will they try to balance that—perhaps in conversation with the House—with what they think is the demand? In some cases, it may be better just to let the debate fall in the usual way. I am not sure from the motion what is being proposed.
As my hon. Friend will recall from his experience of these matters, we sometimes believe it necessary to introduce what are known colloquially as “knives” into the programme motion to specify when discussion on certain groups of new clauses or amendments is to be concluded. However, we discuss that with the usual channels, and we try to ensure that the House gets the opportunity to debate all significant groups of amendments. The process of deciding whether we should do that or—as we sometimes rightly allow—whether to allow the debate on the amendments to proceed naturally, as it were, is not changed by the motion.
In effect, the motion creates during its trial period an agreement across the House that amendments on Report should be tabled three rather than two days earlier. The benefit of that is that we are more likely to get the programme motion right and not find, as has happened in the past as my hon. Friend will recall, that Opposition or Back-Bench amendments are tabled on Report at quite a late stage and at a time when it is very difficult—not to put too fine a point on it—to incorporate them successfully into a programme motion that understands where the weight of the debate will be. That is what this motion is principally about. A trial period in the next
Session would enable us to see whether the proposal turns out to benefit Back Benchers and whether there are any unforeseen disadvantages. I am pleased that the Procedure Committee has secured the support of the Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition for the trial period, and has committed to reviewing its operation towards the end of the next Session. If judged successful, the Government will support a permanent change.
Let me clarify that we start from a shared understanding that we use the term parliamentary privilege to describe a fundamental constitutional principle that guarantees freedom of speech in Parliament and allows us in this House to work on behalf of our constituents without the threat of interference from the courts. The motion on parliamentary privilege arises from the work of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which was established to consider the Government’s White Paper on that subject published in 2012. I place on record my thanks for the diligent work of the Committee on that complex issue, and I stress that, as set out in the Government’s formal response, we agree with the Committee in its central conclusion that there is no strong case for comprehensive codification. None the less, there are steps that the House can take—I stress that the operation of parliamentary privilege is a matter for the House rather than Government—to provide greater clarity.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for his endorsement of the work of the Committee on which I served. Will he take this opportunity to make clear that we enjoy parliamentary privilege not as a privilege but as an obligation and duty? It is a freedom we hold on behalf of our constituents; it is a protection for our constituents that their elected representatives can enjoy limited immunity in respect only of what we do in this House, so that we can act in their interests without fear or favour. It does not protect us from any aspect of criminal law should we commit any ordinary criminal offence, which is how it should be.
I am hoping to make absolutely clear that this motion is in no sense about the law not applying equally to us as it would to any other member of the public. It is about what happens in this House and its proceedings, which require to be protected. Parliamentary privilege may have originated centuries ago, but it must always remain true. It may take a different character in terms of judicial activism, rather than Executive action, but none the less on behalf of our constituents we require what we do here to be done without fear or favour, and without risk of impeachment or prejudice from external parties. As my hon. Friend says, it is important for that privilege to be maintained for the benefit of our constituents.
The motion before the House is a means by which I hope we can provide the clarity necessary for the effective operation of parliamentary privilege. An equivalent motion was agreed by the House of Lords on
In practice, that will require discussions between parliamentary counsel and the authorities of the two Houses on whether relevant provisions in Bills should apply to the activities of the two Houses, and for there to be express provision in the Bill where necessary. That is a sensible and pragmatic move towards providing greater clarity on a relatively obscure but important issue. As a matter of principle, I am sure we all agree that the law of the land should apply equally to Parliament, subject where appropriate to the protections of parliamentary privilege. I hope the House will agree to the motion so as to provide for that consistency across the two Houses.
Of the two recommendations in the report by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, the second was for the Government to take steps to ensure that Departments complied with the official guidance, issued by the Treasury Solicitor, to consult with the House authorities on legislation. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will do that in every case? The report said that it happened in some cases, but not in every case.
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. It was not an invariable practice. A moment ago I spoke about the necessity for discussions between parliamentary counsel and the authorities of the two Houses, and I hope that those discussions will enable us to meet the recommendations of the Joint Committee. That is important.
What has, in part, led to the necessity of the motion is that different Bills have taken different approaches, sometimes seeing it as necessary to disapply parliamentary privilege and in other cases seeking to make it clear in legislation that parliamentary privilege applies. Our general proposition is that it is not required to say that parliamentary privilege applies—it does apply. However, we need to make it clear where the provisions of a Bill intend to have an effect on Parliament. In particular, we need to identify and specify where they may encroach on the boundaries of parliamentary privilege, so that the courts have an unambiguous legislative provision that sets out to what extent Parliament has determined that the law, in that respect, applies to it.
It is important to emphasise that parliamentary privilege rests solely on an understanding between the courts and Parliament, albeit that that rests on article 9 of the Bill of Rights. It is implicit that the Bill of Rights overrides every other Act of Parliament. All we are saying in the motion, for the avoidance of doubt, is that that is the case unless an Act of Parliament specifically says otherwise. In the absence of any provision in any Act of Parliament, article 9 applies and the courts, who do not wish to interfere in the proceedings of Parliament, will respect that.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend and he expresses that very helpfully. That is precisely what we are looking for. We do not suggest that it is not the responsibility of the courts to determine to what extent legislation applies, but that Parliament, through these legislative provisions and the discussions that will lead to them, should give the courts a clear expression of where in legislation that boundary applies, and legislation should apply, to Parliament in any particular instance. It must be in the best interests of this House, Parliament and the courts for us to be clear about what we intend to achieve in legislation. That is principally what we are trying to do.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend again. The resolution does not need to be followed by any legislation. It is implicit that article 9 applies—end of story. The only time legislation might impinge on article 9, and the only time we are saying that it could possibly impinge on article 9, is if Parliament expresses that explicitly in a subsequent Act of Parliament. However, we do not anticipate doing that, so article 9 applies.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The motion is not about giving rise to legislation. It is about this House sharing directly, in the same terms as the House of Lords, an expression about how we should frame legislation in future to make clear the relationship between this House, and the privilege applying to this House, and legislation, particularly in circumstances in which legislation is intended to apply to this House and its activities. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to agree with that.
I want to be clear that the Leader of the House is endorsing paragraphs 226 and 227 of the report in terms, because they are quite explicit. They set out the position. On the one hand, the objective is simple; on the other, it is quite complex. It is important, for the purposes of this debate, that the words of our conclusions on these matters are explicitly set out and not just referred to as paragraphs 226 and 227.
My hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that I am setting out to secure the agreement of the House on the motion before us. What we intend should be in the motion before us, and not what is beyond or additional to it. We intend to achieve just that.
Would it be convenient if the words themselves were read out, so that we can be certain that everybody understands them? That is really what I am getting at.
My hon. Friend is free to make his own contribution to the debate. For my part, I hope I have explained what we intend to achieve through the motion. Colleagues will have had the opportunity to look at the debate in the House of Lords, and I hope that exactly the same was clear from the nature of that debate. The purpose is to ensure that we have, in both Houses, an understanding that we should not have mutually conflicting approaches to legislation. We should approach legislation in a consistent fashion. As my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin told us, we should have a way of recognising the application of parliamentary privilege to the proceedings of this House. We should also ensure that, in so far as we intend legislation to apply to this House and where it may have an impact on the boundaries of parliamentary privilege, we put express provisions in the legislation to show, for Parliament’s purposes, what we believe the nature of those provisions and their application should be. That is what we are setting out to do.
On proposed new
My right hon. Friend will recall that he put down a motion on the Order Paper last autumn to restrict Mr Speaker’s discretion to accepting only three amendments. I am glad, as the person who blocked that original motion, that he has had second thoughts and is now going to allow Mr Speaker to select up to four amendments. Can my right hon. Friend explain why he feels we need to inhibit Mr Speaker exercising his discretion in this matter?
My hon. Friend asks me to complete my speech, which, happily, is what I intend to do.
The interpretation of the Standing Order that allowed the selection of the third amendment on that final day leaves open the possibility of an unlimited number of amendments for separate debate. That introduces both an unwelcome element of uncertainty, in particular if Members were to table several amendments regretting the exclusion of their favourite Bill from the Queen’s Speech. I am not sure that Members or the Chair would want such a rich choice; nor do I think it was the intention of the Standing Order, when it was originally drafted, to permit votes.
What I am seeking, for the benefit of the House, is greater certainty. Members will want to know the maximum number of amendments that may be selected in order to judge whether to table one themselves. It is a matter of degree as to whether the total number of amendments selected should be limited to three or four. Do we want to spend more time debating or voting? The question in my mind originally was: what is the purpose of amendments, principally when the debate on the motion for an address is concerned? It is, essentially, an opportunity for competing views on the legislative programme as a whole to be debated. Therefore, my original preference is for what we had thought was the status quo—that is, three amendments under the Standing Order—but I am congenitally relaxed about the number being four.
It is good to see the Leader of the House congenitally relaxing in the Chamber. Looking back at the record, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is only since the second world war that we decided to choose so few amendments to the Queen’s Speech. It was, in fact, a regular occurrence previously to see six or eight amendments—or even 13 in 1904. Why has he picked on four for today’s motion?
I picked on four because that was the number recommended by the Procedure Committee as its preferred figure—and I think that is right, actually. It seems to me that going further would tip the balance too far. I take the shadow Leader of the House’s point about what might have happened in the further reaches of the last century, but for nearly 40 years we operated on the basis of having no more than three amendments. Technically, and strictly, the Standing Order was not unambiguous. As it turned out, it had been interpreted previously as meaning three amendments, but it was capable of being interpreted as meaning more, or any number. In my view, it is not the purpose of Standing Orders to be ambiguous; their purpose is to be clear. The Procedure Committee took the view in its original proposal that four was appropriate. I was not of that view, but I am content to support it: there is no point in having a Procedure Committee and then not listening to it; we listened very carefully.
While the Leader of the House is in listening mode to Select Committee Chairs, I should advertise the fact that today the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee published our report on fixed-term Parliaments. This is the first time that we know we are in the last year of a Parliament—from one end to the other. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider, therefore, whether this is an appropriate time to use the House for purposes other than passing Government legislation? Of course that needs to happen, but we could have more private Member’s debates, more Adjournment debates, more consideration of policy and, dare I say it, more amendments to the Queen’s Speech and on important policy issues—ahead of the public taking a decision in 363 days’ time.
Happily, I have had an opportunity to read the report of the hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee. As his Committee was sitting earlier this morning, he was not in his place for business questions, when I took an opportunity to refer to the report. His Committee pointed out that the certainty surrounding a fixed-term Parliament provides greater opportunity for the planning of legislation, with a greater understanding of how much legislative time will be available. When he hears the Queen’s Speech early next month, he will see that a substantial legislative programme is intended for the full Session. That will not prevent us from meeting our obligations under Standing Orders for Back-Bench debates, Opposition time and other requirements. Indeed, in this Session, we have exceeded them, so we are already providing time for precisely the things that the hon. Gentleman seeks.
Let me draw out my right hon. Friend further on whether he thinks it is a good idea that Back Benchers should be able collectively to table amendments in the Queen’s Speech debates. It obviously struck a chord with the people when that happened—on the issue of the EU referendum—during the last Queen’s Speech debates. Were there no coalition after the next election and three Opposition parties with reasonable representation, Mr Speaker might feel that his discretion had to be exercised in favour of those Opposition parties. It is possible that, even with four amendments, the opportunity for Back Benchers to put forward amendments in the hope of their being selected by Mr Speaker would be excluded. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he thinks it is important that Back Benchers have such an opportunity? If, after the next election, there were more official Opposition parties, would he recommend returning to the issue to allow for more than four amendments?
I would say two things about that. First, it is open to the House to reconsider these issues in the future. The original drafting of
That brings me to my second point. At the outset of this part of the debate, I want to emphasise that the issue did not really arise in relation to the Back-Bench amendment last year, because it was selectable and selected on the basis of the previous interpretation of the Standing Orders. That was not the issue—the issue was the additional Plaid Cymru amendment. However, were we to go down the path of thinking that on each motion for an address, it would be appropriate to debate the inclusion or exclusion of individual Bills, that would posit the question whether the purpose of the motion for an address is something other than an expression about the legislative programme as a whole. Amendments designed for that purpose should relate to the whole legislative programme rather than to individual Bills.
I have expressed my view on
I will address each motion in turn, although it is a bit unfortunate that the Leader of the House has chosen to shoehorn all these quite disparate reports into one short debate, because it makes it hard for us to do justice to the detail in the time allowed. However, I shall do what I can to achieve that.
If we are to make our proceedings more transparent, understandable and accessible to the general public, Parliament must always be open to making changes to its more arcane procedures. At a time when there is increasing alienation and disengagement from politics, it is crucial to foster positive engagement and make the case for reinvigorating a lively and vibrant democratic debate with the Commons at its centre. We should judge the motions before us against that aspiration.
The first motion is on e-petitions. In the 21st century, it is surely right to facilitate the use of digital access to Parliament and Government, and may I take this opportunity to congratulate the Government on introducing an e-petitions site on the No. 10 web pages, which has proved very popular? Indeed, some important issues have been debated in the House as a result of the new process—not least the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent injustices faced by the victims’ families.
The problem has been the misunderstandings that the Government’s e-petitions site has fostered among the public. As the Procedure Committee pointed out in its 7th report in the 2010-12 Session, the way in which the Government established the e-petitions system caused a great deal of confusion in the public mind between the Executive and the legislature. Understandably, it also raised false expectations among members of the public who organised petitions about what might be the effect of reaching 100,000 signatures for their proposition. My hon. Friend Natascha Engel, who chairs the Backbench Business Committee, which has a role in trying to schedule some of these debates, has long had to cope with the anger and disappointment of those members of the public who felt that they were misled by what the Procedure Committee identified as the
“failure, on the part of the Government, adequately to explain the process to petitioners.”
So after two years of prevarication about how to improve the e-petitions system, we have now had a sudden late flurry of activity from the Leader of the House, and it seems to have taken some of our Select Committee colleagues by surprise. Last week, he seemed to be on a collision course with three House Committees about the appropriate way forward, in a reprise of his feat on the lobbying Act. He has thankfully backed off a little and agreed the compromise motion we have before us.
It is certainly one solution to suggest that e-petitions are jointly run between Parliament and the Government, and I am encouraged at the prospect of members of the public having a greater clarity and a clearer path to influencing the Government as well as Parliament with their petitions. There is, though, also a strong case for handing the e-petitions system over to Parliament in its entirety. Indeed, that is the case made in the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Allen, who chairs the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. However, his amendment rather pre-empts the work that we should be asking the Procedure Committee to do on the way forward, so I am happy to support the motion unamended, but that does not mean I disagree with every aspect of what he says.
To ensure that my hon. Friend does not have something on the record with which she feels uncomfortable, may I say that I am not proposing that the House takes over the whole of e-petitioning? On the contrary, I am very clear, and I will make this clearer in my remarks, that there has to be a separation, with appropriate petitions to the Government and to Parliament. There are two different functions, and I want to be clear so that she does not misinterpret my amendment.
I am looking forward to my hon. Friend’s speech, in which I believe he will go into the detail of the work we all hope the Procedure Committee will be doing as it looks to the future. I hope it will be able to come up with recommendations that the whole House can agree on as to how to make the e-petitions system more robust, transparent and understandable to members of the public. I know that he will have important points to make about that. The Opposition look forward to working with the Procedure Committee as it drafts proposals for implementation at the start of the next Parliament.
We must be careful not to see e-petitions as some kind of silver bullet that will help us to solve the crisis of political engagement in our country. Undoubtedly they have a part to play, but we have to keep things in perspective. This Government came to office making some very grand promises about the “biggest shake-up” of British democracy since the Great Reform Act 1832, but the reality has been somewhat smaller in scope than that vainglorious ambition: we have had a failed attempt to reform the Lords, a massive and clearly partisan increase in the number of unelected peers, and a lobbying Act so bad it should actually have been described as a charter for lobbyists. Ranged against the massive failure of delivery, making welcome but small and slow progress on e-petitions seems a very small improvement, although a welcome one.
That brings me on to the second motion, which concerns the outcome of the Government’s work on parliamentary privilege. The Conservative party began this in opposition by promising a parliamentary privilege Act to make sure that MPs cannot
“claim parliamentary privilege to evade justice”.
That intention was repeated in the Conservative manifesto and in the subsequent coalition agreement. Since then, it has become clear from the outcome of court cases, especially the Chaytor judgment, that MPs cannot use Parliamentary privilege to evade justice, and that the current Government were actually tilting at windmills when they were in opposition. Following the Government’s Green Paper on privilege and the work of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which was published in June 2013, it has become clear that there is no need for a parliamentary privilege Act. Today’s motion implicitly accepts that and instead suggests a few minor but sensible clarifications of existing practice.
The motion accepts the Joint Committee’s suggestion in paragraphs 226 and 227 of its report that any legislation which creates individual rights that might impinge on the activities of both Houses should, for the avoidance of doubt, expressly say so. That will reinforce official guidance issued by the Treasury Solicitor in 2002, which has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. It is certainly desirable that there is consistency across government about the way in which Bills are drafted when they may impinge on this issue, and the Opposition support this clarification. As Mr Jenkin helpfully pointed out, it is in the interests of a healthy parliamentary democracy that MPs can speak on the Floor of the House without fear of being sued for libel by powerful interests which may be seeking to silence them—that is an example of how this principle is applied in practice. In many ways, I feel that the term “privilege” could almost have been invented to be misunderstood as meaning some kind of privilege for individuals—Members of this House—which puts them above the rights of others. We have that capacity to speak in this way only so that we can represent the interests of our constituents and those who voted to send us to this place. That is surely in the interests of robust democracy. The term “privilege” is often very misunderstood by people outside in a very unhelpful way.
The hon. Lady puts the point very well. To reinforce what she says about privilege attracting to proceedings in Parliament as opposed to individuals, may I say that members of the public who give evidence in Select Committee proceedings can be protected by that privilege too? That is an important example of the relevance of proceedings as opposed to individuals here.
The hon. Gentleman, who served on the Committee on Standards, makes an extremely good point: the term “privilege” applies not only to Members of Parliament, but, much more appropriately, to proceedings of this Parliament. That is there to protect our democracy from being undermined by powerful forces which may have more finance at their disposal to try to intimidate those who wish to represent their constituents robustly.
Will my hon. Friend consider, or even request the Procedure Committee to consider, changing the word, redefining “privilege” and saying, “In future Acts, past Acts and in Standing Orders we should refer simply to ‘freedom of speech in Parliament.”?
I suspect that will not do, because of the history of how parliamentary privilege has developed. The Joint Committee did think about looking at a review of previous Acts of Parliament so that we could deal with this point and concluded that it would actually cause more trouble and anomalies than it would solve.
I support the hon. Lady’s response to Mr Allen because he has just made the classic error of thinking that privilege refers solely to freedom of speech in Parliament, and it does not, as my hon. Friend Mr Buckland said. The term “privilege” is a technical one that applies in many spheres of life; we talk about legal privilege for solicitors and the privilege of the courts, and we should not try to redefine the term, as we would be tempting the courts to start to adjudicate on the very thing we do not want to tempt them to adjudicate on. That shows the importance of her explicit endorsement of these two paragraphs of our report.
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is a knotty and a thorny issue. I suspect that we need a translation of the term, so that lay people who are not technically proficient in constitutional law can understand that it is a good thing rather than something that gives Members of Parliament, or others who may be giving evidence in the House, a significant advantage.
I am fascinated by this aspect of the debate. I think that the London mob of the 1640s understood what the word “privilege” meant when they used to shout it at the King as he passed by in his carriage. I think we should stop apologising to the public and assuming that they are not capable of understanding such words. If we show leadership and explain the meaning of the words, of course the public will understand them. Let us avoid iconoclasm; let us use these honoured and great words in the spirit in which they were originally intended.
I always worry about iconoclasm. There have been certain ages in our history when it has played an interesting role. Perhaps Members should embark on a tour immediately to explain to people out there how important these concepts are to the health of our democracy. I think we all agree on that, but we need to translate it into phrases that can be easily understood by those who do not have a degree in constitutional law.
As I have said, we are more than happy to support the general view that the Government have now reached, after much work. They have sensibly declined to introduce a codification of parliamentary privilege, and have provided helpful clarifications. However, I have one further question to ask before I leave the issue of privilege. The Joint Committee suggested in its report that the Government should repeal section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996, which might more accurately have been named “the Hamilton amendment”. It was disgracefully inserted by the last Conservative Government to facilitate the issuing of a libel action in the “cash for questions” scandal by the then Conservative Member of Parliament, now UKIP fundraiser, Neil Hamilton, allowing him to waive privilege in order to sue The Guardian. The Joint Committee observed that that had created indefensible anomalies which should not be allowed to continue, and I agree. Perhaps, when he winds up the debate, the Deputy Leader of the House will confirm that the Government intend to repeal section 13 through the Deregulation Bill, which is due to be debated in the House on Wednesday.
The third motion relates to a proposed trial of new arrangements for the tabling of amendments to Bills on Report. I welcome the suggested earlier deadline, and agree that it is important to ensure that we have enough time to draft a detailed supplementary programme motion that will enable us to debate all the groups of amendments. During the current Parliament, too much legislation has been passed without the House having had an adequate chance to debate it. The Government have also got into the habit of dropping controversial changes to their Bills into the legislative stages in the Lords, thereby avoiding effective scrutiny in the Commons.
The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is perhaps the most egregious example of that wholly regrettable practice. It was inserted into a Bill at the last minute during its House of Lords stages. The Bill then returned to the Commons, but our amendments were effectively talked out. We were able to debate the board’s abolition in the Chamber on an Opposition day, but by then the legislation had already been passed.
I am not trying to suggest that the issue rests solely with the current Government. In fact, it has arisen because of the issue of timetabling itself. I am long enough in the tooth to have been in the House before there was any timetabling, although there were guillotines, which could not be applied until a Bill had been debated for three hours. That system had advantages and disadvantages. Programming also has advantages and disadvantages, but I think that, if we are to have it, we must try to ensure that games are not played, and it is not possible for swathes of Bills to be passed without debate because the end of the timetable has been reached.
There is always tension between the time that is allowed for a Bill to pass through its stages and the tactical game-playing in which Oppositions, Governments or large groups of Back Benchers—or, indeed, small groups—may engage in order to have a particular effect on a Bill. I think it important for us to try to ensure that groups of amendments have at least a reasonable chance of being debated.
Does the hon. Lady not find it strange, given the number of Members who assert the primacy of this, the elected Chamber, when it comes to arguments about voting systems and House of Lords reform, that time limits that do not apply elsewhere are tolerated here, along with the convention that Governments who do not accept amendments in this House will, if the amendments are worthy, table them themselves in the House of Lords?
That is an important point. In this House, simply because the Government normally have a majority and because timetabling exists, there is the capacity for Bills pass through their stages fairly quickly. No such capacity exists in the other place, and the Government of the day are therefore tempted to try to get their Bills through this House as rapidly as possible and then fix them in the other House. That is a real problem when the other House is not democratic. I think that we must see what we can do to improve the capacity of this House to scrutinise legislation, albeit in the context of the generally accepted view that, in the British political system, the Government should be allowed to secure their legislation. The Opposition and other Members ought to be allowed to scrutinise Bills adequately as well, and it is with that balance that we are wrestling now.
Another issue that I raised in a letter to the Chair of the Procedure Committee about the proposed trial is the importance of giving Opposition parties enough time to respond to Government amendments when they are tabled. I know the Government say that they try to table amendments a week before the deadline, but that happens too infrequently. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will tell us whether he would consider extending the trial and giving the Government a deadline perhaps a day before that given to other Members, so that opposition Members—be they small groups of Government Members, large groups of Government Members, or members of the Official Opposition—have a chance to respond to Government amendments in a sensible way.
The final motion proposes changes to
I am sure that Members will recall last year’s Queen’s Speech, when nearly 100 Conservative Eurosceptic Back Benchers tabled an amendment to “respectfully regret” their own Government’s legislative programme, and 130 Members backed it in what was a humiliating blow to the Prime Minister’s authority. The amendment forced the Prime Minister to commit to legislating for a referendum in this Parliament on possible European Union treaty changes which have not yet even been talked about and which may or may not happen. This shows we have a Prime Minister who is more interested in managing his own unruly party than acting in Britain’s national interest, but it also demonstrates that his own Back Benchers are running scared of UKIP and do not believe a word he says on Europe.
In the light of last year’s debacle, it is no wonder the Government are so keen to limit the number of Queen’s Speech amendments and it is ironic that the threat of mutiny on their Back Benches, supported by the Opposition, is what forced the Leader of the House to concede that he should now perhaps agree with the Procedure Committee’s figure of four, rather than his original number of three.
I cannot recall the intricacies of what happened. The hon. Gentleman is always assiduous in these things, but I think there was somebody on the
Labour Benches who objected at the same time. The hon. Gentleman has a very loud voice and has a lot more practice in objecting to these motions than almost anyone else in the House, which is why he probably got his objection in first.
I accept that the Leader of the House has now backed down on this, and because he has, we are happy to accept the motion before us today, which will limit, for now, the number of amendments to four. I listened with interest to the earlier debate about how that might change and I welcome the Leader of the House’s admission that if the composition of the House were to change or the circumstances of a future Parliament were different,
First, I want to thank the Leader of the House for being so expansive in his arguments and when explaining the reasons behind many of the Government’s positions. I will focus first on some of the Procedure Committee recommendations, and come on to the issues relating to e-petitions at the end of my short speech.
I think that the decision on
The Procedure Committee has also made some recommendations around programming. I could spend the next 10 minutes focusing on those aspects of our report that the Government rejected and do not feel comfortable about, but that would be extremely churlish. Today, as we head towards the Prorogation of this Parliament, we should focus on the positives that have come out of our reports, not the negatives. I regard this as a journey and all journeys start with a step, and then baby steps along the way until eventually we reach our point of arrival. I might not be alive to see that point of arrival, but it is just possible that my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be able to celebrate that.
Our changes to programming come under the heading “Boring but important.” Anybody who reads The Week magazine, which makes us all instant experts—give it 10 minutes of our time and we become a world expert on what is going on in Ukraine, South Africa or Brazil—will know it has a section headed “Boring but important”, and I think that that applies to our changes to programming. They might be boring but they are very, very important.
As things currently stand, let us imagine what would happen if we were taking the Report stage of a Bill on a Thursday. Colleagues will remember that there were occasions when we did consider Government business on a Thursday. We do not do that any more and many see that as an advance.
I greatly enjoy the opportunity to have Backbench Business Committee debates and to hear from informed colleagues about the subjects that matter to them and their constituents, so I am not harking back nostalgically to having Report stages on Thursdays. Rather, I am just asking us to imagine what the process would look like were we doing a Report stage on a Thursday now. On Tuesday night, amendments and new clauses would need to be tabled by 7.30 pm, when the House rises. On Wednesday morning amendments and new clauses would appear on the Order Paper. That evening the Government, following discussions with the usual channels, would table a supplementary programme motion dividing the time between the various new clauses and amendments. I am afraid that, at present, the supplementary programme motions are often informed guesswork. On that Thursday morning the selection and grouping would be circulated to Members, but the problem is that the supplementary programme motion is tabled before selection and grouping appears so it cannot take account of that selection and grouping. Therefore we get the inefficient allocation of time that creates difficulties for Members.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and he certainly has not made a mistake. It just occurred to me that if the Government are aware of these matters slightly earlier in the proceedings, they may be able to use that information to their advantage to stop debate on things that they find inconvenient.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, mostly because it was not targeted at me.
Let me explain what we are proposing. I think it is important that anybody who takes an interest in our debates or in parliamentary procedure or who reads Hansard should know what these changes mean. As of the next Session, on Monday the amendments and new clauses would be tabled. On Tuesday the amendments and new clauses would appear on the Order Paper. On Wednesday morning the draft selection and grouping would be done by the Speaker, and after that the supplementary programme motion would be tabled, and we would have the Report stage on Thursday.
I do not think that this will create a new nirvana for the House of Commons—that is an impossible aspiration—but let us just hope that this is a small improvement that pays some rather large dividends, because it is important for our constituents to know that their elected representatives will, if they feel strongly about something, get the chance to debate such issues or concerns on the Floor of the House during the Report stage. That is what we are proposing, and I am delighted that the Government have accepted it on a trial basis. I hope that it proves to be an enormous success.
Finally, I want to talk about e-petitions. The Procedure Committee is delighted to look at the issue. It has been bubbling away for a number of years and the systems we have, and have had, are by no means perfect. I hear the concerns raised by my fellow Select Committee Chairmen on the Opposition Benches. First, it is important that when we have e-petitions we do not set unrealistic expectations as to what can be achieved. We sit in a representative democracy; we are elected by our constituents to come here to represent them and our seats, and to raise their concerns in this place. We are not delegates; we are representatives and it is important to remember that. That is why an e-petitioning system that provides for additional debates in this place must not come at the cost of existing debates relating to Members of Parliament or those moved by Members of Parliament in approaches to the Backbench Business Committee. It is possible in the parliamentary weekly calendar to find more time for these debates to take place. Westminster Hall, for example, is still not fully utilised. Again, in bringing forward this additional time, we do need to set realistic expectations of what can be achieved. Having a debate in this place allows for issues of the day to be aired and for the Government to take note of those issues and go away and reflect on them, but it does not lead to a guarantee of legislation, and it is important that people entering the e-petition system understand that.
I agree with Mr Allen, Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, that, ideally, the House of Commons will play a lead role in the petition system. I wish to see the wonderful officers of the House at the forefront of this process, guiding and explaining petitioners through the process, and explaining to them what they can hope to achieve from an e-petition. I very much see the House of Commons at the heart of this process, and that is not to be churlish to the Leader of the House or to the Government. I hope that the Procedure Committee will hear from the Government and from interested parties across the House and outside this place who want to see the best possible petition system put in place. The system should carry the confidence not only of the public, which is of course important, but critically of Members of Parliament, who will have to be at the forefront of taking a petition forward and moving it through the House of Commons.
That is really all I have to say. I thank the Clerk of my Committee and his team for all their hard work, and also those members of my Committee who have turned up today from beautiful places such as Birmingham, Somerset and Bury. What a fantastic effort it is for all these people to be here today supporting this Committee report when I know that they have pressing engagements in their own constituencies that they have had to put on hold.
Without detaining the House much further, I will make just one final point. There is one outstanding report left—it is outstanding because of its content and because it has not yet been dealt with—and that relates to private Members’ Bills. Our Committee is not suggesting anything revolutionary. We have come to a good agreement and compromise with the Government on what is achievable in the next Session, and I hope that we find time to debate that report on the Floor of the House before this Session ends in the next few days.
Let me start by touching on a couple of democratic principles that underlie some of the issues before us. The first is about whether we are a representative democracy or whether, because we are held so much in contempt by the public, we want to become a direct democracy. That is why e-petitions could either be advantageous to us or play into the hands of those who want to see a Parliament even more diminished, especially those in newsrooms and media offices up and down the land who have the ability to get up 100,000 signatures and put pressure on Government and Parliament. Under motion 3 as it stands, that pressure could be transferred from Government to Parliament. Parliament is a handy whipping boy for so many of these issues, including expenses. Governments of all parties have shown a great facility in ditching Parliament—leaving Parliament holding the baby for issues that have been the responsibility of Government.
One issue is about explaining what we are. Earlier, we had a mini debate about privilege. It was all about these poor people out there who do not really understand these arcane bits of judicial archaeology, and the fact that there is something wrong with the public. One Member said that we need to lead them and be stronger in explaining these things, but we have tried that for many decades. We have all discovered that even when we try to explain the concept of reimbursements using the word “expenses”, it does not always work. Explaining how Parliament and Government are different from each other is one of our main duties, because people lump us together. Indeed, this business in front of us today is an example of the Government trying to get that conflation of two institutions. Even though we will not change minds today on the Government Front Bench, it is important that we keep those Front-Bench Members honest and point out that we know what they are trying to do, even if there is not much we can do about it other than heckle the steamroller.
That choice over whether we go to a serious representative democracy and continue to try to rebuild Parliament or whether we abstain from that and hand over to a plebiscitary democracy is one that all Members need to consider.
I think the hon. Gentleman is being a little cynical about those on the Front Bench. The problem with what he is trying to do, which is to have two petition systems—one to Government and one to Parliament—ignores the fact that Government are accountable to Parliament. They are only the Government because they have a majority in Parliament. Having two separate systems would be worse than having this House and the Government working together collaboratively. With respect, what he is suggesting is not helpful; it is the opposite.
Obviously, I do not spend all my time in the Chamber, but during the 26 years that I have been here, I have missed that occasion when Government were accountable to Parliament. What we have here is the mythology of parliamentary sovereignty—the hon.
Gentleman knows that and we have discussed it in front of my Committee—in which Government can use and abuse Parliament on a daily basis. They can set the agenda of Parliament on a daily basis. It is a little disingenuous to pretend that it is Parliament holding Government to account. If we conflate two systems, we will make things harder. Rather than Parliament being able to say, “The Government have not responded to a legitimate petition”, we will have to share the blame for the problem. If we do not have a petitioning system of our own, we will not have direct redress, through which we can say to the Government, “We have discussed this, as many people have requested of us, and we have a view. What are you now going to do?” Parliament legislates and, in theory, holds Government to account, but it is the institution of Government who execute and put Acts into the parliamentary sausage machine. Putting the two together continues the deception that Parliament can effectively hold the Government to account. What we need to do is build our accountability function, not give it away to Government.
The problem is that, if we have a petitioning system directly to Government, we then suggest to Government that they respond directly to the people who have petitioned them, completely bypassing this House. I would prefer Government to interact with the public through Parliament, keeping Members of Parliament in that conversation rather than excluding them.
We have an e-petitioning system at the moment which is to the Government and to which the Government have to respond. What we are discussing is giving Parliament its own e-petitioning capability, so that it can engage as a partner in a debate with Government. That has to be healthier than one organisation or the other imposing its will, as happens continually in our proceedings, with Government dominating Parliament. This is a minor demonstration of the mythology and fallacy of parliamentary sovereignty, and therefore it is useful to bring it to the attention of the House.
Is the hon. Gentleman’s point not even more marked when one considers that the current e-petition system is widely talked about as the Downing street e-petition system for securing a debate in Parliament? When it is talked about in those terms it is as though debate in this House is absolutely controlled by Downing street, and that is bad for the reputation of this House.
It is bad for the reputation of the House, but it is the truth. It is useful to call a spade a spade and to call a Downing street petition a Downing street or Government petition. Let us keep it like that and people will see the response they get from Government and will, through the processes of the House and its individual Members, be able to do something through the House of Commons itself. We cannot change the law for people, but we can bring issues to the attention of the Government. We need that capability to keep the Government honest and to hold them to account when many people see that as the way forward.
The fundamental question is about the separation of powers. We ought to have that, as it would be quite useful and would develop a more pluralistic view of our politics. People might not share that view and might think that we can somehow collaborate beyond merely using the platform and technology that are already there—I am perfectly happy to use that platform and technology to save the House money, as we all want that, and I am prepared to compromise on that alone—but an e-petition site for Parliament should be run by Parliament, not the agency we are meant to be keeping under control and holding to account. It is a contradiction in terms that the very people we should be holding to account will be running our system. I hope that the Procedure Committee will be very clear about that as it considers the issue. We all want to be pally and we all want to have little chats with the Leader of the House, but at the end of the day we either have our own e-petitioning system or we have not. If we have not, let us concede that and admit it clearly.
My only issue with my hon. Friend’s amendment is that I support the idea that a proposal should be developed by the Procedure Committee and cannot understand for the life of me why he does not submit what he has written in his amendment, much of which I agree with, to that inquiry, rather than tabling it for debate on the Floor of the House today. On that point, does he intend to press it to a vote?
I can guarantee to my hon. Friend that I will make representations and, if I am allowed, I will give evidence to the Procedure Committee on the views held by many people in the House about the independence of the House’s institutions and agencies. I do not see Parliament as a sub-office of Government, a Government Department or an offshoot of Government. It is an independent institution that is legitimately and directly elected by the public, as are we all. The current Government and all Governments of the past cannot claim to be that.
The proposal in motion 3 smacks a little of a tidy-up job. The Government have said, “It is a little inconvenient to get all this stuff coming to No. 10 Downing street. We have to deal with it, so why don’t we push it over to the House of Commons and run the system for them? Then they can take the blame if we fail.” My hon. Friend Natascha Engel knows more than anybody in this House that if a petition reaches the barrier of 100,000 signatures there is an expectation, which has been deliberately inflated by Government, that it has somehow earned and deserves a debate. It is a difficult to pin down where that idea came from, but it was put out there and that is the assumption. That is why in every newsroom—in The Sun, the Daily Mail and elsewhere—the idea is to reach that barrier of 100,000 signatures on a petition to put pressure on my hon. Friend to grant a debate. There are other ways in which that pressure can be seen and relieved rather than by perverting and twisting the honourable institution that is the petitioning of this House.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Petitions cannot be a panacea for the public. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have often received a communication from one individual that has spurred me into action, so powerful has it been. That has led to my approaching Government and colleagues in the House to ask for action to be taken.
I agree, and I shall come on to the point about how we direct people to a better way of doing what they want to do. It is risky to give people the idea that by submitting a petition to the House of Commons they are making their demands, only for them not to be met. The Leader of the House said that would be a great advantage, as it would make people think that the process represents progress and is more inclusive, and it would encourage people to use the House of Commons. On the contrary, if we allow the idea to be out there that if a petition reaches 100,000 signatures it somehow deserves a debate, which those horrible people in the House of Commons are preventing, it will lift people only to drop them back down again. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire has some experience of that, but it will be as nothing compared with the expectation that could be built up if we operate the Government’s petitions process rather than having our own based on open and honest rules that do not try to deceive people into thinking that if they write in they will get a debate.
My hon. Friend is a very powerful person in the House, but she does not yet have the ability to respond to a debate and to accept or not accept the proposals in my amendment. I shall listen carefully to the Deputy Leader of the House’s response. When he accepts most—not all—of the points in the amendment, as he no doubt will, I am sure we will be able to reach an accommodation. Somebody has to stand up and say that the House of Commons is a separate institution. The Government cannot just walk in here and set up a petition system on our behalf when we are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves. As Mr Walker says, we have some excellent and expert people, who do not need to understand the software and the hardware to be in control of a petitioning system. We need to ensure that all those things are in place before we say that it sounds like a great idea to get together and run one petitioning system on behalf of two separate, distinct and independent bodies that are elements of our democracy.
Let me move on to the particulars of my amendment. First, on the subject of Parliament’s having its own site, let me repeat that I am happy for the technology to be shared if it means we can save a little money and can get on with what we are meant to do in Parliament. I would rather that than continuing this move towards Parliament as a theme park, where the sittings of the House get in the way of tourist trips and movies being filmed—the Chamber could have been hired out this afternoon to some Hollywood film company. If we can make a little bit of money by sharing the Government’s platform and technology and can have less of the theme park stuff, we should all be happy about that and could have a little more self-respect about being a legislature.
My second point, which was also touched on by the hon. Member for Broxbourne, concerns Members of this House and their role in the process. It should not be possible, willy-nilly, for a newsroom campaign to get a debate going in the House of Commons. “What are we going to do next week with our House of Commons, lads? Let’s get a few ideas, a few headlines, a cut-out in the newspaper and a debate next week—but on what?” As with the paper petition, the process should take place through a Member of Parliament: I have to stand up at the end of business and make a little speech to get a paper petition in the bag behind the Speaker’s Chair. I own that petition. That is the way to reinforce a representative democracy, rather than have stuff coming in, willy-nilly, from people who cannot sleep, have seen something on late-night TV at 3 am and have got up a petition to try and get a debate in the House of Commons.
I urge members of the public: use your Member of Parliament. Convince your representative. Get them to put the subject that concerns you before the House. To me, it is just as valid if one person contacts their Member of Parliament—I am thinking of the elderly lady who I met at the weekend who is trying to find an extra 40 quid so that she is not turfed out of her house because of the bedroom tax—as if somebody down in Wapping decides that we should have a debate on the increase in fuel duty, for example.
The hon. Gentleman’s argument seems in part to rest on the proposition that the petitions that have reached 100,000 signatures have somehow been generated in the newsroom of a newspaper. I have the list of 29 petitions that reached 100,000. I do not know of any, from what we know of them, that started in the newsroom of a newspaper. Which of those 29 does he think started in that way?
I have not gone through the list. I am happy to go through it and write to the right hon. Gentleman if he does not have the researchers to enable him to do that job for himself. I am saying that if we introduce a system without the safeguards that I am proposing—a quasi-Government system based in the House of Commons—it will be very easy to generate petitions and put pressure on Parliament, and to put pressure on the Backbench Business Committee, and so on, to take time that would otherwise be used for purposes for which in the past we have all used our judgment.
My judgment, returning to the lady who has to find £40 out of a very low income to remain in the house where she was born 60 years ago, is that I want to get that subject raised on the Floor of the House because I think it is very important, but some other colleagues—I alluded to the all-party parliamentary groups—for one reason or another, or as a result of one influence or another, may want a specific debate. Let us all start equally. Let us hold sacrosanct the view that the House is a place where anyone may petition, anyone may convince their Member of Parliament and anyone, ultimately, time allowing, may get a debate. We should not compromise on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time; I will not detain him again. We must be careful to avoid promoting the idea that it is only through petitions that the House will debate matters of interest to our constituents. Whether I agree with the substance of the debates or not, we have had debates on badger culling, the spare room subsidy, Europe, immigration, and so on. Those subjects and many more have been debated on the Floor of the House. It may well be that our constituents do not like the outcome of those debates, or the decisions taken at the end of them, but actually very many debates of interest to our constituents happen anyway because we are in touch with our constituents, despite what the media would try and have them believe.
Indeed many of those debates, and many of the 29 listed by the Leader of the House, did not arise from a petition. They arose because Members of Parliament were very interested in the subject matter, and there is a device of tagging documents to a debate, as we have done today. We have tagged three or four reports to this debate. Is there a single Member in the Chamber who knows what those reports are? They are on the Table.
There are some very eminent Members, of course, who know absolutely everything, and that is why I always bow to their view. But similarly, in many of those 29 debates, although a petition was tagged to the subject, the petition was never even referred to in the debate. Those were the debates, actually, that Members got going, and petitions were tagged to them. If we get to a position where that is reversed—where, if there is an inference that if you can get to 100,000 signatures, there is an expectation, not that Government should find time, but that the agent of Government, the sub-office, Parliament, will have to look after those things—I can tell Members what happens next. It is that your time, as Back Benchers, starts to get squeezed out.
If there is a petitions committee, imagine being the Chair of that petitions committee. Will you just pass the petitions through? Or will you ask, “Would my hon. Friend on the Backbench Business Committee give us a little bit of time? This is so important; I have had more than 100,000 signatures and my petitions committee thinks it is really important”? Is it likely that members of the petitions committee will go to the Government? Will they pop up at business questions and will the Leader of the House say, “Absolutely; very important. I will find you a couple of hours next week”? No, they will not. They will go to our Backbench Business Committee.
I remind new Members that the Backbench Business Committee did not pop out of thin air. It was fought through against the wishes of the Labour party, fought through, it seems now, against some of the wishes of the governing parties. The Committee is a very precious thing and its time is very precious. It is not to be bandied about and traded to a petitions committee in order, really, to salve the conscience of the Government, who, if they are interested in specific issues, should be using the vast majority of the House’s time, which they own and control, to hold debates on them. We do not need to be manipulated into using valuable Backbench Business Committee time for Government debates.
On that point, I am interested in the subject of a petitions committee and the Scottish Parliament comes to mind.
Would not the best role of a petitions committee, if it were working properly, be not to fight for time from the Backbench Business Committee but to sit in public, calling Ministers of the Government in front of it to account for the problems that were brought before it by petitioners, and to insist that Ministers explain to it—the petitions committee—what was going to be done to address those problems?
The hon. Gentleman has probably put the final nail in the coffin of a petitions committee by making it clear that Ministers should be brought before it to answer on matters that are in the Government’s, rather than Parliament’s, domain. Either that, or it may well be that the people who are members of the petitions committee will be so pliant that they will never bother to do anything like that and will just pass most of the responsibility over to the Backbench Business Committee, pretending that the job has been done, and that those petitioners have really been listened to. They do not get listened to easily. Every Member of the House knows that they have to fight for time. You have to fight for your airtime. You have to campaign. You have to really demand that something that incites you as an individual gets in front of Government. We should be extremely careful about compromising that.
My final point was pre-empted by the hon. Member for Broxbourne, the Chair of the Procedure Committee. It is about gateways. I do not pretend to be an expert on these things, but I do know that when people log on and have a look at how they can progress a petition, it is really important that they are given good advice from the first moment, just as we are in the House. If a Member goes into the Table Office with an idea for a question, they will get some good advice about who to send it to and how to word it. The same standards should apply in the House to petitions. That is why each petition should be in the ownership of an individual Member. Rather than the petition starting with the words, “We, the petitioners, call upon Parliament to declare world peace”—or free beer for everyone—there should be a check, and advice to the effect: “Hang on a minute. You are the Member in charge. We need to get the words right and ensure that your petition is in order. Then you may go crazy and get 100,000 signatures if you can.” But if we leave things as vague and open as they are at the moment, we again do the public a disservice, because they will not know, any more than they do now, the difference between Government and Parliament.
As the Chair of the Procedure Committee said, people need to know what other options exist. Petitioning may not be a very effective way to proceed. It may be better to write to the local Member of Parliament and get them to ask a question or appear before a Minister or write a letter to a Minister. Unless the gateways are really clear—the parliamentary gateway being very different from the Government gateway—I am afraid we are again perpetrating that deceit upon people. It would be no better than the origins of petitioning—prostrating oneself before a mediaeval monarch in the hope that they might grant a favour. I think we can do better than that.
My hope is that if the Leader of the House or the Deputy Leader of the House respond positively, the Procedure Committee will take what is before us now and do a really great job on it. I say to the Chair of that Committee, directly across the Chamber, that the responsibilities are onerous. People have been kidded about e-petitions. It has been confusing. It has not been clear even to many Members of the House, let alone to members of the public. It is easy to misrepresent. He needs to clean this up, and his Committee has a job to do that. One of the best ways he can do that is to ensure that a separation between Government petitioning and parliamentary petitioning is clear in the report that he produces for the House. I wish him well.
We have had a good debate. I shall say some brief words on the motions about petitions and parliamentary privilege and devote most of my remarks to the motion on programming.
The motion on petitions is sensible. I view the word “collaborative” in the phrase “a collaborative e-petitions system” rather more favourably than does Mr Allen, as meaning the House and the Government working together. The House is not a sub-office of the Government. I prefer to think of it the other way around, with the Government being a sub-office of the House. The hon. Gentleman and I have had many discussions about this. I know that the theory of Ministers being accountable to Parliament sometimes does not work as well as it ought to, but rather than throwing it away and adopting a different model, we should all work hard to make sure that it does work properly.
The multifaceted role of the Leader of the House as both the member of the Government responsible for the Government’s legislative programme and also—I know he takes this responsibility seriously as the Leader of the whole House—the person who has to ensure that the House functions properly is reflected in the motions tabled by him.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North talked about the technology of the platform. The Leader of the House mentioned the Government Digital Service. When I was doing my job as Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, I worked with it on some of the individual electoral registration technology. This is one of the rare occasions when the words “Government digital service” and “Government IT” refer to positive things. It works in a modern way, producing material iteratively and on quite tight timetables. The Leader of the House is right: if we can give it a clear direction by the end of this year, we can realistically expect a good process to be up and running at the start of the next Parliament.
Giving the Procedure Committee the responsibility to lead on doing that is sensible. It will enable Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Gentleman, to make representations to the Committee over and above what we have said today, and the Committee, as can be seen from its reports on other matters, can be trusted to reflect and balance the views across the House and come up with a sensible set of proposals. I agree with some parts of his amendment, but not all. I hope he reflects on it, does not press it to a vote, takes the content of it as an input and gives evidence, if necessary orally, to the Committee.
Finally, let me expand a little on what I said about the difference between the Government and Parliament. I do not want two different systems to operate because I do not want the public to make representations to the Government separately from representations made through this House. I want to make sure that Ministers remain accountable to the House. When the petitions that the Leader of the House mentioned were debated in the time provided by the Backbench Business Committee, part of the point of the debate was not only that Back-Bench Members could debate it, but that a Minister had to come to the Dispatch Box, answer questions and account for the Government’s policy. That is why it is important that any petitioning system keeps the House at its centre, rather than having two separate systems. There would be nothing more confusing for the public than an e-petitions system to the Government and a separate one to the House of Commons, and the two not being connected in any way. A collaborative approach—yes, with education and a clear set of messages to the public about what the system is for, how it works and what expectations someone might have after going through the process—is very important and is more likely to improve the reputation of the House.
I take a more optimistic view on the motion on privilege than my hon. Friend Mr Buckland set out. Privilege is well understood by many people in various professions. We should explain what it means, rather than think about an alternative label for it. The problem is that the misunderstanding is often created deliberately by some of the hon. Gentleman’s favourite people, by the sound of it—those in newsrooms—who deliberately try to create confusion about what privilege means. We must explain what it means and we have people in the outside world who are familiar with the concept as well. It is our job to explain, as Members have ably done today, the purpose of privilege, which is to enable us to speak on behalf of our constituents without worrying about powerful interests.
The only question that I had on the privilege motion has been answered by the Leader of the House. It was about making sure that we follow through recommendation 227 on Treasury Counsel working with the House. He made it clear that the Government would do that.
I welcome the report on programming, which I read very carefully, and the Government’s response to it. The Leader of the House is right. This Government have worked hard to try to improve how the Report stage works. He referred to a significant number of Bills having two days on Report. I should say in passing that the Government have also done a good job of increasing the number of draft Bills brought before the House for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Mr Walker has done an excellent job. In response to one of the measures debated in the earlier Standards motion on recall, his Committee scrutinised the draft Bill that I introduced and made some sensible recommendations, which may or may not be debated in the future.
The Government have done a good job of dealing with the House. Listening to the comments of the shadow Leader of the House about scrutiny and the time allowed for the Report stage of Bills, it was difficult to believe that she had something to do with the previous Government. I do not pretend that the current Government are a paragon of virtue and get absolutely everything right, but I remember frequent occasions when there was a single day for Report, there were a large number of amendments and we barely got through any of the groups. She did not acknowledge that anywhere in her remarks.
Let me say one more thing, which might affect what the hon. Lady says. The sensible remarks she made about the difficult balance that has to be struck between allowing the Government to get their business and allowing scrutiny was a positive point and her tone was welcome.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his final remark. What I was trying to say was that there is an issue with timetabling in general. I have been in the House at the time when we had no timetabling, apart from guillotining on specific Bills. That is certainly one way of working, but it leads to 80-hour working weeks. I have experienced them; I do not know whether he would like us to go back to that. Given that we have a timetabling structure now, we have to make certain that we can get away from some of the game-playing with timetabling that leaves large swathes of legislation not discussed in the Commons. As the Minister who took through two extremely important constitutional Bills at a rapid rate, perhaps he should get his own House in order.
I am glad the hon. Lady raised that. I was going to come on to those. I accept that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was taken through at something of a pace because of delivering the referendum. There is sometimes a slight cynicism in the House, with the suggestion that all Ministers do not like having things debated. When that Bill was going through, I took great pains to make sure that all the important issues were debated in the House, and they all were, even though in the debate on thresholds I had to indulge in the device of moving a Back-Bench amendment from the Government Front Bench—following the model of Mr Straw—in order to ask Members to vote against it, to ensure that this House was able to take a decision and not leave it to the other place.
Another Bill that I had some responsibility for was the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, for which we did not have that imperative. In fact, we ran out of Bill before we ran out of time, and we debated all of it fully. My hon. Friend Mr Heath, who ably assisted me in taking that legislation through, and I took great pains to ensure that the House had ample time to debate all of it. I will say a little more in a minute about how I think the Government should do the timetabling.
I also welcome the Government’s suggestion of a three-day deadline for tabling amendments, which supports what the Procedure Committee has said. I welcome the Opposition’s support for that. It will of course be challenging for Opposition Front Benchers and for Back Benchers, but I think that without it we cannot ensure that time is used more sensibly.
Another point that I want to put on the record—I got the answer I wanted, and expected, from the Leader of the House when I asked how the Government and the usual channels would approach programming—is that I think Back Benchers can help in this regard by indicating where the focus of debate is likely to be. With the best will in the world, timetabling is an art, not a science. Having amendments tabled earlier in the process would enable their full scope to be seen by the Government and the usual channels before the supplementary programme motion is devised, so the amendments could indicate what the issues of controversy are and on which provisions debate is likely to concentrate. Even so, it is still an art, not a science. I think that it will take good will on both sides of the House to ensure that the right decisions are made on whether to allow a debate to flow or to put knives in place and manage it more tightly.
I also think that it might be worth engaging the Chair in this process, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that there are rules about avoiding repetition and so forth, but clearly the Chair must be mindful of the need to allow a proper debate by making the proper judgments when Members step over those lines and engage in game-playing. If the House is to debate things properly and table amendments earlier, and the usual channels are going to try to ensure that that happens, it will be interesting to see whether the Chair experiments with the severity with which it imposes the rules of the House, and the extent to which Members find that agreeable, to ensure that we balance properly progress—
Order. I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and this seems to me to be an opportune moment to make it clear to the House that, although he is perfectly in order and has not taken a unreasonable amount of time this afternoon, it would nevertheless be helpful if Members speaking from the Bank Benches could limit their remarks to between 10 and 15 minutes, and possibly 12 minutes. That way, everyone who wishes to speak will have an opportunity to do so.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. When putting on the record things that the Chair might wish to consider, there is always a risk of provoking the Chair, as I have just done. I can hardly complain, having invited you to do that.
There is sometimes game-playing on the Back Benches, on both sides of the House, to try either to get something debated or to ensure that it is not debated. The Chair has quite a lot of scope, both in the selection of amendments and in enforcing the rules of debate, for ensuring that we make progress.
My final point, and an important one—I agree with the shadow Leader of the House on this—is that this House, the elected House of Commons, should have the opportunity to debate and vote on all the important issues when legislation starts its journey through the House. Sometimes it is unavoidable that important matters have to be added to Bills in the other place, and often that is in response to issues raised in this House. Indeed, if issues are raised in this House and Ministers say that they will take them away and consider them, clearly it would be absurd for the Bill not to be amended in the other place.
However, I think that it is important that this House does its job properly to avoid the other place using the refrain, as it frequently does—it is sometimes justified, but often not—that we do not do our job properly and that we always rely on it to do so. This House can and does do its job properly, and it does it increasingly well, for example because of the extra time that the Leader of the House often makes available for us on Report. I want to ensure that we step up to the plate and do not give the other place the opportunity to pretend that it has to do our job for us.
I will speak today only on e-petitions and their future. I have put my name to the motion tabled by the Leader of the House and supported by the Chair of the Procedure Committee. I am very much looking forward to explaining to the Procedure Committee our experiences and some of the background to how the e-petitions system came about.
The way the system works now might not be perfect, but it is part of an evolution, and it is certainly a vast improvement on the system in place before, which was entirely passive. I fully understood the Government’s desire to have a petitions system in which something actually happens, in which something triggers a response so that people feel that their views are listened to.
I think that problems have arisen from the current e-petitions system because it was imposed on this place without any consultation or debate, and certainly without a vote. The intentions were good and it was in order to introduce something quickly, but I think that, as a result, certain things have not worked as well as they ought to have done.
I fully appreciate—although I did not realise that the numbers were so high—that 10 million people have signed an e-petition and that there are 10,000 e-petitions in total. I do not think that that equates to 10 million people who are happy with the process; it just means that 10 million have signed a petition. I will outline why I think the system as it stands is not working as well as it should be. I will write to the Procedure Committee about that and give oral evidence if it is taking it.
I do not think that we can have a hybrid system. We have had long discussions about that. It is perfectly all right to work collaboratively to create a better system, but the problem comes first and foremost from the fact that a person is petitioning the Government but the petition ends up in Parliament if the 100,000 threshold is reached. It might be that people are not clear about the distinction between Government and Parliament. As we heard in the previous conversations about privilege, it is absolutely up to us to make people understand what the difference is. Perhaps we could even use e-petitions, changing the idea of them being simply a way of influencing Government policy. We could be very explicit that this is about educating people about how this place works and making it a piece of public engagement so that every single person who puts their name to an e-petition learns something more about how this place works in order to influence it better. If that is our motivation behind e-petitions, we could put together a system that really works well.
I think that the threshold of 100,000 was chosen arbitrarily—picked out of the blue. It has actually worked out relatively well in terms of the number of e-petitions that reach 100,000 signatures, but that in itself does not mean that we should have a threshold at all. When e-petitions first came to the Backbench Business Committee, we went up to the Scottish Parliament to see its petitions system, and we were very impressed. That system was not perfect when it was first set up, but it has since evolved into something that works very well. They have a separate Committee to look at all petitions, and I urge the Procedure Committee to look at that.
I understand perfectly well that there are arguments for having an e-petitions Committee, but I am worried that the process of petitioning Parliament by paper is withering on the vine because the e-petition system is seen as being sexier. It would be good if the Committee at least looked at that and at the pros and cons of having e-petitions and paper petitions together under one Committee.
The Scottish system does not have a threshold and every petition is looked at, but only after it has gone through a gateway, so there is a person to whom someone can speak if they want an e-petition. We have had discussions about this. If, let us say, the House of Commons Information Office provided that gateway, someone could phone or e-mail Parliament, explain their aim and ask how best to achieve it. There may be a Select Committee inquiry at that very moment on that very issue and that person could be directed to it; it may be a matter that they should take up with their MP and they could be signposted to their MP and told when they hold surgeries; or it may be a local government matter.
Many e-petitions that are still live on the e-petitions website could be better dealt with elsewhere and should certainly not be sitting around waiting to reach 100,000 signatures before anyone looks at them. I welcome the fact that the Government will now respond after 10,000 signatures, but we should be much more proactive about what we do.
If something is appropriate for an e-petition, the wording could be worked on better. That is when someone’s expectations can be managed so that people do not feel that as soon as an e-petition reaches 100,000 signatures it triggers not just a debate and a vote, but an instant change in the law. The website makes it very clear that that is not what it triggers, but that is the public perception and that is what damages their perception of e-petitions. Their expectations are not managed properly, and I am delighted that the Procedure Committee is taking this on.
As we have many e-mail addresses of people who have signed e-petitions in the past, perhaps we could consider having e-consultation with them to find out what they would like to see. I do not know whether that would be possible, but it would be an interesting exercise. There is a lot of research out there, but perhaps we could commission some more to find out how satisfied people have been when they have signed e-petitions in the past.
I welcome the fact that the motion is giving us the opportunity to take e-petitions away from the Backbench Business Committee. We have been urging that for a long time. Our Committee is very narrow in its focus. We are a forum for Back Benchers, not for members of the public. Back Benchers bring to us issues that are raised in their constituencies and that concern them. We always hope that they chime with the interests of people outside, but we are a Committee for and of Back Benchers; we are not an e-petition Committee.
I welcome the fact that the whole House will have the chance not just to submit ideas and suggestions for developing an e-petition system that works properly but that, when Mr Walker has produced his report, there will be an opportunity to debate the matter and to come to a decision so that there is then a petition system that starts, is processed and finishes only in Parliament. The Government may set up their own system if they want to, but there must be a petition system for and by Parliament.
I, too, will concentrate on petitioning, although I may say a few words on other issues. I will start with the Bill of Rights. We have heard a lot about article 9 of the Bill of Rights, but article 5 maintains that
“it is the right of subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.”
The right to petition is an ancient and important one, and tends to go through this House to the King or, as now, the Queen. It is not unique to this House, which is why the Lord Privy Seal is right in his proposals for a collaboration—not a Vichyesque collaboration because we will not all become quislings so “collaboration” is the right word—because the Queen in Parliament is the correct organisation or body to be petitioned.
The Leader of the House may be modelling himself on Edward I. During the Parliament of 1305, in the reign of Edward I, there were many petitions—450. What is so interesting is that they then began to become legislation. More Members of Parliament subscribed to the petitions coming in and they ended up becoming Bills. A complaint from Simon Le Parker is the first petition that can be identified as being listed in the statutes of the realm. I mention that because petitioning is extraordinarily important in the development of our democracy. By 1316, there was a claim that Edward II was not following the procedures of his father in taking proper notice of petitions. He duly did so and petitions were dealt with and acted upon. That is how this House gets redress of grievance from the Crown.
It is important to look at the procedure along the way. Since Parliament began to sit, constituents have come to their Members of Parliament who have then come from the counties or boroughs they represent to Westminster, or wherever Parliament was sitting, to say that something is wrong and needs to be changed. We, as Parliament, can do it through legislation, but much can be dealt with by the Crown without the need for legislation.
That is the twofold aspect of petitioning that we are rightly bringing under one e-petitioning system. It is entirely in line with our history and proper in terms of the constitution division—the separation of powers—because there are clear and distinct roles between Parliament and the Crown, and Parliament and the Government. It has the chance of re-energising the petitioning process. I would not go as far as Natascha Engel in saying that paper petitioning is withering on the vine. It is still an important means for individual constituents to get a message to Parliament and through to the Government.
E-petitioning is hugely exciting. I heard the Leader of the House say that he was congenitally relaxed. On this occasion, and perhaps rarely, I am enormously excited by what is happening with e-petitioning because 10 million people have suddenly thought that it is worth while and in their interests to engage with the political process and to say that they feel strongly about something. The carrot that is dangled in front of them is a debate in the House of Commons. How proud we should be that 10 million people think that a debate in this place is so important and could be so transformative that it is worth their while organising and signing up to petitions.
I disagree with Mr Allen who worries about the press becoming involved or Parliament being guided too much by what people outside think. I take the opposite view. If people want to launch campaigns to highlight important major issues, we would be a pretty funny sort of Parliament if we said that we did not want to consider them because they were not organised by an hon. Member. Indeed, I would have thought that most hon. Members, with their fine politically attuned antennae, would grasp such issues and think that if their constituents were so strongly in favour of something and 20,000 people in north-east Somerset think something is a good idea, it might be in their interests to pay attention, bring it to the House and perhaps go to the Backbench Business Committee to ask for some time.
I wonder how many of those 10 million people feel that they have had a good shake out of the system as it currently operates. Are not many of them, if not a large majority, having signed a petition with probably nothing arising from it other than it being tagged on to another debate, reinforced in their view of a plague on all your houses and all your parties?
The hon. Gentleman thereby makes the case for bringing petitions under this House so that we can ensure that people have a proper response that they feel meet their needs.
Although they are not strictly petitions, hon. Members do receive e-mail campaigns. I find that when I reply to these, as I do—I reply individually to everybody who has sent in a missive—there is always a percentage who get in touch absolutely amazed that they have got a response. Indeed, some have completely forgotten that they ever signed up in the first place, are rather surprised to get a response, and wonder why I am writing to them out of the blue. Then, when I send them a copy of their original e-mail, they continue to be in a state of surprise. We need to give a response that shows that we are listening and doing something about the matter.
Of course, our constituents understand how this works. I should rather say my constituents; I can speak only for my own, who are the most intelligent people in the world. It is well known that the people of Somerset have more brain cells than can be found in the whole of the rest of the United Kingdom put together. The people of Somerset know these things. As you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will say the same for Bristol on this occasion. People understand that just because they are in favour of something, not everybody in the country will want it, and that the petition will not necessarily end up achieving what they want. Equally, though, they want to know that the matter has been taken seriously by the people who have the power to do something.
Getting e-petitioning right is a tremendously exciting opportunity for the House of Commons. It can ensure that we are back at the centre of public debate, with the public knowing what is going on. I really welcome the Government’s decision to proceed along these lines. In a spirit of generosity, the system they already have is basically being handed over to the Commons free, gratis and for nothing—which is better for us in terms of the expenditure of the House. It is then up to us, as a House, to grasp it. I agree with much of the amendment tabled by Mr Allen as regards how we must deal with the implementation of petitioning to make sure that it is a House of Commons-owned process that is about holding the Government thoroughly to account.
Let me deal briefly with a couple of other matters—first, timetabling. My hon. Friend Mr Harper, who is in his place, took through two constitutional Bills that I opposed at almost every turn. This gives me an opportunity to say how helpfully he always engaged with those debates, which were a model of Government ensuring that the Commons had the chance to debate things and to do so seriously. If that is what is being done by having amendments tabled earlier for Report stages, it is hugely to be welcomed. Although I disagreed with almost everything my hon. Friend said in the constitutional debates, the courtesy with which he responded was a model for Governments to follow. I am glad to have had the chance to say that properly here.
On privilege, I am pleased that the Government are not going down the legislative route. It is better that the privilege of this House is rooted in history, is not open to challenge, and is simple and straightforward, in the straightforward language that people used in the 17th century. [Laughter.] Seventeenth-century language is much more understandable than the legislative language used today. In the 17th century, people wrote clear, straightforward, simple Bills that a layman can read. We now write legislation that is completely incomprehensible unless one is a silk. It seems to me preferable that we stick to the clarity and beauty of 17th-century English rather than confusing ourselves by allowing too many draftsmen to get involved with confusing privilege, and potentially undermining it. The one thing we do not want is learned judges interfering in the procedures of this House, and avoiding legislation is therefore greatly to be welcomed.
I am, for once, at one with the Government in all that they are trying to do, and I am grateful for what they are trying to do. As the Lord Privy Seal begins to think about where he may go for the brief holiday that we have during Prorogation—perhaps to Weston-super-Mare or another suitable beach—he can go a happy man thinking how well the petitioning system will do in the next and future Sessions of Parliament.
I want to confine my remarks to motion 5 on programming. I am pleased to follow Jacob Rees-Mogg, with whom I enjoyed serving on the Procedure Committee. I am pleased that he took us back to the 1300s, because he has shown the context in which we can understand the glacial pace at which the Leader of the House seems to want to proceed in making changes to programming.
When we are thinking about improving the processes of this House, it is really important that we understand the poor reputation that the House has at the moment and has had previously. Maybe we have turned a corner, but maybe not. It is incumbent on all of us to show that this House is responsive, effective and understands what the public expect of us.
Broadly speaking, the House has three functions, all of which have been discussed today: holding the Government to account; raising matters of general concern and supporting campaigns; and legislating. Legislating is the one thing that only we can do. The media take part in holding the Government to account, and all citizens are involved with campaigning, but legislation is the one thing that is solely our responsibility, and we should therefore do it as well as possible. It is appalling that things get on to the statute book without any debate in this Chamber, but that is what has been happening. I do not want to take part in a partisan debate on this. From my experience in this Parliament and the previous Parliament, things were not altogether as they might have been in the previous Parliament.
In my view, the efforts that the Leader of the House has made to extend the time on Report do not do the business. We need a system that works so that we are not reliant on the good will of whoever happens to hold the office of Leader of the House and be in charge of timetabling business. The basic problem is that because there is a fixed time for amendments on Report, if there are too many groups, the early groups are debated and the later groups are not debated. This creates two problems. First, sometimes amendments tabled by Her Majesty’s Opposition or by Back Benchers do not get debated at all, so new ideas and possibilities are not floated. Secondly, because of our practice of voting on all the amendments, when the Government get their legislation through, the Government amendments are put on to the statute book without any discussion. Across the House, people are appalled by this, and if the public knew about it, they too would be appalled. That is what we need to address.
The Committee that produced the major report on this House, the Wright report, was particularly concerned about the fact that Back Benchers’ opinions are not voiced. The evidence that the Procedure Committee gathered about which Government amendments are put on the statute book without debate reflects a more serious problem. In the Session that we looked at, 28 clauses were put on to the statute book without any debate in this House. That is the equivalent of a small Bill; it is quite a substantial amount of legislation. Some of the subject matter might not have been so exciting, and in some cases, had there been an opportunity, it might have taken only 10 minutes to debate, but that is not true of all of it.
The extradition provisions were not discussed in this Chamber. Whichever view one takes—whether for or against the legislation—it is absolutely clear that those provisions were highly controversial. Such was their significance that it would have been right to discuss them properly. The problem did not begin on
The Clerks of the Procedure Committee came up with an excellent way of dealing with the problem. It was suggested that if amendments could be tabled earlier, the Chair would have more time to produce a schedule for the day, and that the time given for debate on Report could be divided in proportion to the number of groups of amendments so that every group could be debated. Members have always been dependent on the excellent work of the Clerks in getting into the nitty-gritty and making a reality of our vaguer aspirations, and the Procedure Committee could not have produced a report as good as its third report without their help.
I made a tactical error because, having produced that third report, which suggested a solution to the problem, I resigned from the Procedure Committee. That was obviously a mistake, because I resigned before we received the Government’s response and I was not involved in the sixth report. The resistance of the Leader of the House to the suggestion that every single group of amendments should be debated on Report takes the heart out of the matter. We have the disadvantages of tabling amendments earlier, without the advantages of being confident that every single group will be debated, which was the whole object of the report.
If we are taking the glacial approach that has been taken over seven centuries towards the issue, I am prepared to go along with the motion; we have part of what we wanted, but not all of it. I am not confident, however, that in future we will feel that all parts of every Bill will have been debated, and we will have the disadvantage of having to do everything earlier.
May I say to the hon. Lady, before she gets too depressed, that we have reached the shoulder of the mountain, but the summit remains to be conquered?
I am glad that the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who chairs it most ably, is showing once again his political nous in his attempts to corral us. I hope he is right and that, after this experiment, the Procedure Committee will be able to return to matter and see whether it has achieved its purpose. If not, I hope not only that the experiment will result in a permanent change to Standing Orders, but that all of the third report’s proposals will be fully implemented.
My intervention is likely to be more prosaic and not as poetic as that of my hon. Friend the Chair of the Procedure Committee. Having read the Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations, I am not as depressed as the hon. Lady, because all it said was that they did not agree with the suggestion for a proportionate and rigid allocation of time. They said they wanted to be able to exercise judgment on how to allocate the time and that a proportionate model would be complex and unwieldy. The sense I got from the Government’s response is that they want every group of amendments and all the major issues to be debated; they just do not want to do it in the mechanical way suggested by the Committee’s report.
We will hear whether that was the intention when the Deputy Leader of the House winds up the debate. What the Government actually said was this:
“The Chair would have to make rapid calculations on the number of minutes available per group in response to the progress of the...business”,
as if the Chair is not capable of doing some straightforward arithmetic. I know that education standards in this country are not what they ought to be, but I am absolutely confident that the Chair, supported, of course, by the Clerks, would be able to do that. The Government’s response also said that there is no evidence of a “systemic problem”, but there is a systemic problem, which is precisely why it is worth changing the rules of the game.
The systemic problem is not purely on the Government’s side, whichever party is in government or in opposition. As long as an Opposition’s main weapon of debate is seen to be the ability to delay and prolong debate rather then make points succinctly, we will never have a rational distribution of time in this House.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. I have said that I do not think that the fault lies on the Government side or the Opposition side of the House. If the time were divided in proportion, we would be confident that every group of amendments would be debated. Without that, things will get squeezed out and there will be maximum scope for playing games.
It is obvious that, in order for the House to work well, we need sensible rules and a degree of co-operation. That requires a constructive approach from the Government and the Opposition and responsible people in the Chair who are interested in facilitating debate. If we had those things and all the right rules, we would be able to do it. I simply do not understand why the Leader of the House has resisted the proposal in the third report that would provide the best guarantee of debating every group of amendments.
I enjoyed serving on the Procedure Committee under the chairmanship of Mr Walker, who showed his skill on many occasions. I am prepared to take his advice once again and not to push the motion on programming to a vote. We should, however, return to the issue in a year’s time and make sure that we absolutely lock it in.
I do not intend to go back to the 1300s, but I do intend to go back to the 1600s. In 1624, the master of the felt-makers was arrested while attending the House to proffer a petition. The House considered that he had the protection of the House to proffer the petition and established a committee to consider whether the arrest itself was a breach of privilege. In 1696, Thomas Kemp and other Hackney coachmen were arrested as a consequence of proceedings by Richard Gee, a commissioner of Hackney coaches. The House concluded that Mr Gee was guilty of a breach of privilege and a high misdemeanour and that he was to be imprisoned by the Serjeant. In 1699, John Kelly was imprisoned in consequence of having given Members an abstract of several articles against the commissioners of victualling. That was referred to the Privileges Committee. The fact that people used to be imprisoned for petitioning Parliament shows how important petitions were.
To return to the current day, about a month ago the London borough of Redbridge was upset that a 94-year-old woman wanted to petition Parliament. Sadly, before it could get an injunction to stop her petitioning Parliament, she did so and the petition is now bagged behind Mr Speaker’s Chair and in Hansard. Obviously, there are still issues with regard to petitioning Parliament.
One of my fundamental principles in politics is that people have a right to complain to Members of Parliament. An issue about schools in my constituency and others in Birmingham has been debated. It is a particular principle of mine that nobody should be frightened to speak to me. There is no question but that Mr Davis did excellent work, with the support of the Business Secretary, in getting a statutory instrument through that stated that disclosures to Members of Parliament are protected disclosures for the purposes of employment tribunals. I have asked the schools to put in their staff room a copy of the Library briefing saying that a disclosure to a Member of Parliament is a protected disclosure, and they have both agreed to do so. The staff at those schools can therefore have absolute certainty that they are protected, from the perspective of employment law, in talking to Members of Parliament.
Parliament should go further and do what it used to do in the 1600s, because it used to protect people’s right to complain to Members of Parliament. In our debates, that is what privilege is about. It is about the people of this country being able to use Parliament to redress all grievances. Although Jacob Rees-Mogg referred in his excellent speech to article 5 of the Bill of Rights, he did not mention article 13, which defines one function of Parliament as the redress of all grievances. However, if we do not know what people’s grievances are, how can we redress them? Through parliamentary jurisdiction, Parliament has powers to protect people when they talk to Members of Parliament. I have two live cases: in one, somebody has recently been injuncted in an attempt to stop them talking to me; in the other—I have only just got the e-mail on my phone—somebody is frightened that they might face litigation if they petition Parliament.
There is an issue about e-petitions, which are not proceedings in Parliament, although paper petitions are. I agree with the Government motion, which is sensible. I am a member of both the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee, and I congratulate both the Chairs on their able work. I agree that e-petitions need to be looked at, and I disagree with the amendment of Mr Allen, which would fetter the Procedure Committee’s discretion. Although I accept some of the amendment’s content, if it is pushed to a vote, I will oppose it.
As a House, we must emphasise that parliamentary privilege is a form of privilege akin to absolute privilege, qualified privilege and legal professional privilege, all of which are about protecting people’s rights. Parliamentary privilege is about protecting our citizens’ or constituents’ rights to complain to us, with those complaints being addressed in some part or other of the system. Frankly, we should explain that fact, rather than change the name, because privilege has an important function. How else can people ask somebody to stand up on their behalf to complain about what has happened to them without fearing that they will be imprisoned?
Lots of things still go wrong in this country. Hon. Members will be aware that I have often complained about people being intimidated in an attempt to stop them talking to me. Normally, it does not work; sometimes it does. Obviously, I do not know the circumstances when intimidation has worked in that way, because the people stop talking to me. We need to protect people’s rights to talk to us.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with interest. If I had to explain privilege, I would describe it as the unfettered right of Members to stand up and speak on behalf of their constituents. That is the simplest way to describe it. Does he not think that it is extraordinary for an English judge ever to believe that there are circumstances in which it is appropriate for them to name a Member of Parliament as a person to whom a constituent should not speak, as has happened in an injunction?
Indeed; it is extraordinary for a judge to go so far, but there has been some pulling back from that position. The Neuberger committee considering the issue of super-injunctions concluded that it is not possible for an injunction to prevent people from talking to Members of Parliament. However, not everybody has read the Neuberger committee’s report. I am the sort of sad person who reads judgments, committee reports and the like, but most people who are told that they will be imprisoned if they talk to an MP believe that that is true—in fact, it is not true—and that, sadly, guides what they do.
A very serious concern is therefore a live one in 2014. Even if petitioning has gone on since the 1300s, it is a live concern today. Although the work of the right hon. Member for Haltem and Howdenprice or whatever it is—[Interruption.] I apologise to Mr Davis for not getting his constituency name right. Notwithstanding the complexities of his constituency name, his work is excellent. That work has gone part of the way, but we need to go further. It is a job for Mr Speaker through referring issues to the Privileges Committee, because we need to stand up for our constituents’ rights to talk to us.
On timetabling on Report, I want to make two points. The first is that procedure is how one exercises power and is therefore crucial. From time to time, all Governments want to use procedure to prevent difficult votes from happening. I do not think that Governments are frightened so much about debates as about votes in which difficult Members—perhaps like me—will not necessarily vote with the Government, so if they can avoid such votes, all the better. That will always be a difficulty, although we are making useful progress in the form of the motion on programming before us.
The second point about process is one that people should be aware of when they consider votes in Public Bill Committees and whether amendments should be made in the Commons or in the other place. The reality is that for amendments to be accepted by the Government, there has to be a consultation process throughout Whitehall, which is sensible, but takes a certain time. If an amendment is tabled in a Public Bill Committee to be voted on three days later, the consultation process will not have happened and the Government are not therefore in a position to agree to it. That is why many amendments, however well argued, are not generally accepted until they appear again in the other place. The Procedure Committee has suggested using the recommittal process, and I believe that there are mechanisms to facilitate the Government’s accepting amendments in this place rather than the other place. We must, however, take into account the real and realistic requirements for a process of consultation, and the fact that a vote in a Public Bill Committee at short notice is insufficient. In other words, we are making glacial progress, although in some areas we should assert ourselves, as Members did in the 1600s.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend John Hemming, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I do not plan to speak at length, and I have already made my primary point about parliamentary privilege in an intervention. Privilege—we should not seek to re-label it, but we should explain it—is the unfettered right of Members of Parliament to speak up on behalf of their constituents without any fear of the consequences, and it includes the unfettered right of people to go to their Members of Parliament so that that can take place.
I want to dwell on what happens to petitions. I recently re-read the obituary of Lord St John of Fawsley in The Guardian on
“was as vivid a personality as politics can bear.”
I do not think that I am doing my right hon. Friend an injustice if I say that people have not often said that of him, but he has an opportunity to go down in history every bit as significantly as Lord St John of Fawsley.
The issue of petitions cuts to the quick. As hon. Members have said, the right to petition goes back a long way and it is part of why we are here. Indeed, we might say the same about the English courts. The whole development of English administrative law was about the process of seeking remedy for specific grievances. That is how we have grown as a polity during the past 1,000 years.
What interests me is not so much whether there is an “e” in front of the word “petition”. I was particularly intrigued and delighted by the excitement my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg showed for technology—it seems slightly out of place with his normal demeanour and with his area of expertise, which usually dates back several centuries—and that was interesting to witness. However petitions end up in Parliament, it is what is done with them that really matters.
I know that the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker—he is rushing back to his place—is at an early stage of thinking about these issues. I encourage the Leader of the House, too, to think about what happens to petitions next. It seems to me that, later in the process, we should have a petitions Committee that has real teeth and before which Ministers have to appear.
For example, Keith Vaz presented a petition about Alphonso mangos last night. He had only 329 signatures because he had only since the middle of last week to arrange his petition. The petitioners included significant street traders and representatives of traders in his constituency and elsewhere. That is an issue that will affect many people, that will damage many businesses to the tune of many millions of pounds and that outrages many people.
It ought to be possible for such issues to be addressed quickly in Parliament, not only through a debate but in Committee. If a Committee member does not like the answer that they receive from a member of the Executive, they should be able to press them further and harder to answer the question again and again until they get the answer that they want. They should be able to hold the Government’s feet to the fire, as it were, until they get a sense of what action they will take. In the case of the Alphonso mangos, that will be the pressure that they will put on Brussels to ensure that there is a quick solution.
Having a petitions Committee with teeth could transform the level of respect for this House among members of the public. They should feel that when they bring their grievances and concerns here, there is a swift mechanism for dealing with them that does not relate only to the number of people who have petitioned. I agree on that point with Mr Allen. The number of people who petition should not be the only criterion. A small number of petitioners could be just as important or even more important. That ought to be down to the judgment of Members of the House and members of Committees, such as a putative petitions Committee. In that way, we can retain and strengthen the respect with which Members of Parliament are viewed.
It is a pleasure to wind up this debate.
I pay tribute to members of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege and the Procedure Committee for their service in considering a range of important parliamentary matters. In particular, I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, who manages, with good grace and good humour, a wide range of views across that Select Committee, many of which are held with passion. He has skilfully steered the Government towards a sensible conclusion. Today, we thank him for his service.
The Leader of the House came slightly unstuck when explaining the motion on the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. I think that it is fair to say that he attempted to skip over paragraph 225 of the report. I note that the former Deputy Leader of the House, Mr Heath, is in his place. Paragraph 225 said that the Government’s original thinking was, to put it charitably, unnecessary. There are less nice things that could be said about it. What the Joint Committee said in paragraphs 226 and 227 was that the solution, if it was not to be legislation, would be to have the debate that we are having today and the debate that was led by the noble Lord Brabazon in the other place.
I note that the Deputy Leader of the House was not in his place when the shadow Leader of the House was at the Dispatch Box. In case he has not been briefed on her speech, she pressed the Government on the so-called Hamilton law. The Joint Committee was absolutely clear that that should be repealed. We support that. I understand that there might be an opportunity to deal with that next Wednesday, time allowing, ironically. Will the Government confirm that they will support the amendment tabled by Mr Cash, Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr Jenkin and the Opposition, so that we can take that iniquitous piece of legislation off the statute book?
There was a range of excellent contributions on privilege. It is good to see Mr Harper joining the ranks of parliamentary experts on the Back Benches, if only temporarily. He explained better than most what privilege is. He was right that we should all do more to explain to the public and to those who watch our proceedings what privilege is, rather than rewriting it in a more modern fashion.
Speaking of a modern fashion, I turn to Jacob Rees-Mogg. I am sorry that he is temporarily not in his place. He has been described previously as a Victorian figure. It turns out that the observers who dubbed him that were out by two royal dynasties at least. He has been a driving force in the Procedure Committee.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset made some valid points about privilege, as did John Hemming, another survivor of the Procedure Committee, who provided us with a good run through the history of the links between petitioning and privilege. He made an incredibly interesting point about privilege and e-petitions. Will the Deputy Leader of the House answer the following straightforward question? Privilege obviously extends to e-petitions that have been considered by the Backbench Business Committee or debated in Westminster Hall. However, if the Parliament website hosts an e-petition that has not yet reached 100,000 e-signatures, do the Government believe that by hosting it, Parliament has extended privilege to the e-petition? If the Deputy Leader of the House does not have the answer to that important question to hand and is yet to be inspired, it would be helpful if he wrote to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley and I, and placed the answer in the Library.
It was right for Members to highlight the fact that
On programming, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean acknowledged that he took the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 through at “a pace”. I can only assume that he was thinking of the pace of Usain Bolt. I want to remind him gently of how little time was spent on Lords amendments. When the Government came back from the House of Lords with the proposal to create two seats for the Isle of Wight, but not to create two seats for Anglesey, less than an hour of debate was provided by the Government for the contributions from the two Front Benches and the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). Perhaps, on reflection, that was not the finest hour of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean in upholding parliamentary democracy.
My hon. Friend Helen Goodman is right that legislation is the sole responsibility of Parliament. I praise her for being the main driver of the programming inquiry. She showed tenacity and vigour in hounding the Government to make the process fairer. The report is testimony to her hard work.
Finally, on e-petitions, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean argued for a single system to ensure that Ministers are held to account. He said, rightly, that we should not create further confusion for the public. The Procedure Committee drew attention to the concern that the e-petitions system is misleading because it refers to an e-petition as an easy way to influence Government. I am not sure that many Members of Parliament think that being in Parliament is an easy way to influence Government. We therefore believe that further work needs to be done to ensure that the public understand.
My hon. Friend Natascha Engel estimates that 10 million people have signed petitions. That is an impressive number, but I wonder whether, as with some popular television shows, the number of individuals who have taken part is not quite the headline figure. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House corrects me and says that the figure refers to 10 million individual people and not the same people signing several petitions.
I am happy to be corrected. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire made an important point about gathering evidence from those people. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will say in his response whether the Government are considering contacting those who have previously e-petitioned them to ask for their feedback on the matter.
My hon. Friend Mr Allen made some interesting points, to which I am sure the Procedure Committee will give due consideration. However, the amendment is premature, so I urge him not to press it today and to make a written and perhaps oral submission to the Committee in the near future.
It has been a very good debate and we have had a great history lesson as well as considering some key issues about parliamentary democracy. The Opposition support the motions.
Some interesting and substantive contributions have been made to the debate this afternoon by the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, Mr Allen, my hon. Friend Mr Harper, Natascha Engel, my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, Helen Goodman, my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and, indeed, Thomas Docherty, as well as interventions from several Members. I hope to comment on at least some of the more specific points.
I welcome the Opposition’s support for the process that has been outlined for e-petitions and the co-operation of the Procedure Committee and others in taking the matter forward with the Government. However, I regret that the hon. Member for Nottingham North appears reluctant to engage with his colleagues, including those who are members of the Government, on designing a system that meets the interests of both parties and, even more important, those of petitioners.
One of the main problems with having two petition systems, which the hon. Gentleman advocates, is the difficulty for petitioners in trying to identify which of the two they should use and, indeed, what happens when they request one thing through one route, which they also need to achieve through the other route. I will not engage with the detail of the amendment—that is for the Procedure Committee to consider in concert with others. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feed his ideas into that Committee.
The Government support some aspects of the amendment and, indeed, some things can already be done. For example, the provision that
“any hon. Member should be able to propose an e-petition for debate” can already happen. That also applies to the provision that,
There are, therefore, matters on which we agree. However, there are others, particularly the suggestion of setting up a completely separate e-petition site, that the Government do not support. However, as I said, this is a joint exercise and joint system, and further discussion with colleagues is required before trying to identify the detail.
The intention is to enable the House to hold the Government to account in responding to petitions, and to give it greater control over how they are treated and debated here. Given the nature of our debate, I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham North will not press the amendment. If the House agrees to the motion, the Leader of the House will be in a position to meet the Procedure Committee to begin discussions on the new system. We look forward to proposals emerging later in the year.
On programming, I am grateful for the support for the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne. I note the thoughtful remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, based on his experience, and the comments about the effect of the new deadline and how the Chair will apply it. The new deadline of three days for amendments on Report will apply from the start of the next Session, and we look forward to the Procedure Committee’s review before the end of the Parliament.
The difficulty with that is that it would effectively create two classes of Members—one required to provide more and another required to provide less notice. That presents problems.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to intervene about the couple of other points that were raised while I was temporarily out of the Chamber. He will be pleased to know that I got inspiration even while not within these Chamber walls. On defamation, the shadow Leader of the House called on the Government to support an amendment to the Deregulation Bill to repeal section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996. The Government have previously made it clear that they support the repeal and will act when a legislative opportunity arises. I am pleased to say that one such opportunity will arise next week.
The shadow Deputy Leader of the House made a point about e-petitions and privilege. That is a matter that the Procedure Committee could consider. There may be implications depending on the decisions reached—for example, on whether a petitions Committee considers all petitions, potentially accepting them as evidence. Once the system is designed, clarity on that will be important.
We have had a focused and concise debate on these House issues, and I hope that we are now in a position to move forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House supports the establishment, at the start of the next Parliament, of a collaborative e-petitions system, which enables members of the public to petition the House of Commons and press for action from Government; and calls on the Procedure Committee to work with the Government and other interested parties on the development of detailed proposals.