Pre-legislative Scrutiny

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 6th January 2004.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 9:30 am, 6th January 2004

My honourable colleague makes a sensible point. Indeed, if we take the process seriously, people will come to realise that they can influence the process.

I conducted my own pre-legislative scrutiny online when on the Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Act 2003. A network of people helped me—local police officers, lawyers, housing officials and so on. I e-mailed them clauses of the Bill—I said that the provisions were not negotiable—and asked whether practicalities of the clause worked for them. Because of the responses to those questions, I was sometimes able to table amendments—rather to the annoyance of my Whip. None the less, changes were made on a number of occasions.

One such change was on drug testing; it was inspired by a local inspector of police, supported by his assistant chief constable. We made an impact on the drug testing of young people using class A drugs—heroin, crack or cocaine—at the age of 14. The Minister was keen to seize on that. The Home Secretary originally intended the sentencing guidelines council to be a wholly judicial body. Because I was able to take views from outside, as well as across parties, we gained a broadening of the sentencing guidelines council to include not just the judiciary but a serving prison governor and a serving police officer. That was a practical move, and once we had got over the culture shock, the Minister on the Committee took on board a number of the bright ideas that came, if not from me, through me because of that process. Imagine if we had opened that out to everyone else. Instead of coming back in 18 months with a new Criminal Justice Bill to close some of the loopholes, as we will, we could have got matters right first time.

If the process works, and that is proved to people, they are less likely to be abusive. All parliamentary colleagues have been in situations where someone in the street has started off by being quite aggressive but, once we have sat them down and talked through what has happened in a particular case, they have then understood, even if they have not been convinced, and have perhaps entered into more serious dialogue with us. If we institutionalise online pre-legislative scrutiny, people's mindset, as on the Communications Bill, will be to say, "Thank you for letting me participate in the making of better law that will affect me in my field or interest."

Online scrutiny is a good means of bringing public and Parliament closer together, an admirable objective in itself. It would display our democratic process at its best, rather than leaving people thinking that that is irrelevant and that we are all a bunch of sheep, yah-booing at Prime Minister's Question Time. The perception could change so that people say of us, "These are people who are serious about making the laws that affect me and my family." We would develop the genuine participation of people in our democracy.

This is also a matter of widening access and communication. I mentioned earlier that the media have done little to help Parliament. I think that they enjoy the dance between themselves and the Executive at No. 10 Downing street, the only two serious players in British politics at the moment. We can broaden that, restoring a role to Parliament and to our people and letting everyone else come to the party.

Whingeing is pointless, so I shall focus on the BBC, of which I am an ardent supporter. I hope very much that it will help to facilitate licence payers' access to their democracy by hosting and branding online pre-legislative scrutiny of this place on its popular and respected website. No editorial would be necessary or welcome, and costs would be minimal because the technology is pretty much in place throughout the House already, but maximum exposure could be generated through trailers on the corporation's radio and television channels, inviting people to become involved in their democracy. Instead of complaining in an "Any Questions" format, people could get involved in the reality of changing the law the very next day by participating in the democratic process.

The BBC, which has itself been subject to unfair attacks from various quarters in recent years, could then rebut many of its critics and build on its already excellent public service role. It could re-centre itself as an integral element of our democracy, not some marginalised commentator, and make itself fulfil abundantly the public service obligation in its charter by facilitating the public's working closely with their elected representatives to make better laws for everyone. That would be a prize indeed for the BBC, as well as for us in Parliament and for the public.

A massive leap forward for our democracy is now on offer, which would restore a useful function for our Parliament, provide a 21st-century role for the BBC and open the door to participation for all our people. This is the last great extension of the franchise for a mature democracy, and it lies in the Minister's hands to seize that opportunity. I hope that he has the courage to do so. I know him personally, and I know that that is well within his capabilities. During the next year, we will watch him closely. I wish him well in the difficult times that lie ahead, and hope that he draws strength from the fact that to rebuild and strengthen our Parliament as an effective partner of the Executive is not just the right thing to do. I hope that he realises that he will carry the House with him on this matter, regardless of Members' political stances on various issues. Parliament, and Members of all parties in Parliament, will wish him well in making this serious contribution to the next step in our democracy.