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This debate will focus on the excellent report produced by my hon. Friend Dr. Wright. Sadly, he cannot be here today because he is chairing a meeting of the Public Administration Committee; we would have benefited from his contribution.
Credit for setting up the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons should go to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, and particularly so for appointing exactly the right person to chair it. My hon. Friend does a superb job in chairing the PAC, and he did so yet again when chairing the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons and reporting in such short order. It demonstrates what a clever and shrewd man he is.
It is a measured report. It is well argued and well thought out. It is pragmatic. Without solving all the problems that confront us, it will undoubtedly take us firmly in the right direction. Reform of the House is badly needed.
I shall come to that later, but of course the hon. Gentleman is right. Nevertheless, pending what happens to the report, the Government deserve some credit. We have been hoping for and arguing for such a report for the 26 years during which I have been a Member of the House. We have taken some steps forward, but as the hon. Gentleman said, now is the crucial moment. Will we see the report implemented-and will it implemented in the bold way that it should be?
I accept all that the hon. Gentleman says. He brings an important matter before the House today. Does he not accept, however, that the report does not go far enough in that it does not tackle the abuse of MPs having second jobs? Being an MP in today's environment is a full-time job. One of the greatest abuses that has been perpetrated is MPs having two, three or four-some of them even nine or 10-remunerated additional employments. We cannot do the job, retaining public confidence in the House and its Members, if MPs are going to moonlight. It simply ain't on.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but the report correctly focuses on the political reforms necessary in the House. Plenty of behavioural reforms are necessary; and this year's events, with the concentration on allowances and expenses, shows that the public are impatient with Members. Much needs to be put right, and I hope that it will be put right. However, the report is about political reform and what we need to do to strengthen Parliament, so that it can fulfil its central responsibility of scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account. That is the heart of the matter.
The hon. Gentleman is right about expenses and double jobs, but the debate is about our job here and how we do these things. What we are doing is a political matter. The report is excellent. It gives us a blueprint for a better and more effective Parliament.
Absolutely not party political. No, I mean the political work that we do here in holding the Government to account. That is what we are about. Party politics is a very different matter. I mean political with a small p.
If the hon. Gentleman is making a case for the separation of powers between the Executive and the legislature, as happens under the American political system, he would find certain Members of the House-including some members of the Committee-most sympathetic. However, I believe that separating powers will bring more problems. We might achieve stronger scrutiny, but we would have less effective government because the Executive would not be rooted in the democratic process. Almost inevitably, they will be appointees. They might be clever, but they would not have roots in the public or in our democratic structures, which I believe has always been a strong characteristic of the House.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is important is the quality of the work done by hon. Members? The report makes some useful comments along those lines, and on how quality might be improved. In the event of MPs' quality of work improving, especially in holding the Government to account, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could seriously consider reducing the number of MPs, perhaps bringing us more in line with the American legislature that he cites?
I agree with all of that. I see no reason why the House needs more than 400 Members. We would probably do a better job at focusing our attention on our work if there were fewer of us. The report was about rebuilding the House, not about casting a new constitutional settlement, although we may well come to that in the fairly near future. I am sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman says, but that is not what the Committee was about. We need to focus on how to improve and rebuild the House, which is badly in need of it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Many newspapers, having seen the disillusion, distaste and disgust with MPs among the wider electorate, have suggested a substantial trimming in the number of Members. There may be something in that, but it can be done only in parallel with a substantial extension and improvement of services such as citizens advice and community law services, as they will be needed to pick up the casework. Four hundred Members simply could not handle the work load that we are experiencing now. We have to find some way to satisfactorily transfer that work.
We are probably going rather wide of the subject. However, I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's view. Indeed, one necessary aspect of that would not be the strengthening of citizens advice, desirable though that would be, but a strengthening of local government, which has lost much of its autonomy and powers. It is now an agent for central Government rather than an entity in itself.
The report gives us a blueprint for a better, more effective Parliament. That would allow us to do what we are sent here to do. We are sent here to do two things. The first is to raise grievances in return for voting the Government Supply. The second is to hold the Government to account. Those have been the defining characteristics and responsibilities of the House for the past 800 years. They have not changed.
I am sorry to labour the point, but are we not here also to represent political parties? Apart from some hon. Members-they are the exception rather than the rule-we were all elected to represent those political parties. We would not be here unless we stood on the political party ticket.
That is self-evident. Those of us who think that we personally are being elected will find when we stand for re-election, in May or June or whenever it is, that it is our party that will be re-elected. Of course, the hon. Lady is absolutely right.
We are sent here to be a check and a balance on Government, which is in the interests of both the public and the Government. If we do our job properly and rigorously, it makes for better government. Sadly, however, we are failing in our duty. Over the past 100 years, Parliament has been getting steadily weaker and more enfeebled, and government has been getting stronger and more almighty, and that is not in the interests of Parliament, good government or the House.
Parliament, therefore, is not working. At the moment, the Government decide everything that happens in this place: when we come here, what we debate, what we can vote on and what substantive motions are put down on the Order Paper. We in this House are the creatures of Government. We come here when we are called, go away when we are told to, debate the subjects that the Government think are proper and vote when we are asked to do so. How we vote is a different matter. Parliament has lost the sense of its own identity. Its identity is distinct from that of Government; the Executive and the legislature have two totally different roles, and there is no longer a clear distinction between the two.
Although I recognise such symptoms and believe them to be undesirable, does not part of the problem stem from the fact that Members of Parliament view their role fundamentally differently from the one of 20 or 30 years ago? Too many Members of Parliament see themselves as super-councillors, who take up issues that should be handled by citizens advice bureaux and local law centres, rather than as representatives who hold the Government to account, which is a particularly important role for Back Benchers in Government.
Yes, but those roles are not alternatives. It is the fascination, complexity and difficulty of our job that we are, quite rightly, expected to do both. We have to be very involved with our communities, respond to them and learn from them. All of our e-mails and mail bags are a political education on a daily basis; we understand and learn what is happening in our country and what the effect is of Government legislation on our constituents. We have a very strong local root, and if we fail in that role, then holding the Government to account in some lofty way on a national forum will be ill-informed.
My hon. Friend Natascha Engel raised an interesting point about party politics. It is a paradox and contradiction that as Back Bench Government MPs, we are here not only to be loyal to our party-we love our party and want it to do well-but to hold the Government to account. At times, that causes tension, which was seen most acutely during the vote on the Iraq war. Tension crops up almost every week in some form, and that makes this job demanding, interesting and very difficult to reform.
I do not disregard or belittle the party political element; it is very important and it is why we are all here. However, we must step aside from that and hold the Government to account regardless of our party affiliations. If we allow our party affiliations to dominate how we scrutinise and hold the Government to account, we become the rubber stamps of Government, which is poor value for the electorate and bad for this House. Such matters are not easy; if they were we would not have the difficulty of this report. They are both important and paradoxical.
The report is based on three good foundation stones. It states that the
"Government should get its business, the House should get its scrutiny and the public should get listened to".
I would amend that slightly. The Government should have the time to get their business through the House. Government have no God-given right to get any business they choose, but having had a mandate from the public, they must have sufficient time to put their business in front of the House, argue for it, and hope to convince the House that their business is good. So, the Government must have time; that is essential to efficient and practical government. The House should have the time and the facilities rigorously to scrutinise the programme, and the public must get the feeling that they are listened to and that their concerns are being reflected on the Floor of the House.
Time is very precious, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Government must be given time to get their programme through so that they can fulfil the manifesto on which they have been elected. None the less, does he not agree that there has been a huge waste of time at the behest of this Government, particularly in relation to so-called topical debates, which have simply become a vehicle for the Government to bring forward matters that are obliging to them on a political level, rather than to deliver things of real topicality? Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that is a matter for the House rather than the Government if we are to continue with topical debates?
One of the really impressive things about this report, which reflects well on the Chairman and the all-party members of the Committee, is that the Committee did not allow itself to get diverted by micro-matters such as that-important though they are. It kept to the high ground of what the principles were and the foundation stones that we need to put in place if we are to rebuild the House.
The first such foundation stone is the control of business. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, if we are to implement this report, we must give the Government confidence that this is not some way of subverting them. They have a mandate; they have been elected and must have the time to put their programme through. By reassuring the Government that that is the case, the Committee is completely right, and that is essential if we are effectively to rebuild the House. I am talking here about the Government's control over their programme for which they have a mandate. I am not saying that the Government have the right to control the whole business of this House. When we look at what happens on the Floor of the House, we find that only half of the time is devoted to Government business. The rest of it is devoted to scrutiny, questions, and private Members', Back-Bench and Opposition business. It is about a 50:50 split between Government time-the time that they need to get their programme introduced and scrutinised-and our time. This is our House and it is absurd that we should be dependent on the Government for how we use that time. We are elected to this House; it is our House of Parliament. They are the Government and have a totally different responsibility. They have the responsibility to take executive action on behalf of this country and to introduce legislation and taxation. They need to get such things through, but they do not need to dominate and run the detailed day-to-day business of this House.
Will my hon. Friend explain to me what he thinks the difference is between a proposal for a Back-Bench business committee and a proposal for a House business committee? When we talk about who controls time, it is important to distinguish between Government and Back-Bench time. Will he make that distinction a bit clearer for me?
I hope that I have made it clear. The time that is properly the Government's is the time that they need to get through the programme on which they were elected and have a mandate for from the public. They have to introduce legislation and have it scrutinised and enacted. All other time is the House's business. If I have a criticism of this report it is that the distinction to which my hon. Friend refers is not made clear.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that sometimes these things are complex? I say that because Government-sponsored legislation is clearly the Government's business to get through and the report is very clear that the Government will be guaranteed the time to get that legislation through, but how that legislation is scrutinised by the House must be a matter for the House and it cannot be right for the Government to decide how much or how little time is available to the House to do that, within reason, what order it does it in and which parts of Bills are scrutinised. The Government should have their way; they can whip and people should vote on party lines. But the House should decide how it scrutinises Government legislation, otherwise it is not doing House business.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; that point goes to the heart of this report. However, I do not think that these things are necessarily great sticking points. One can look at other countries and other legislatures and see that they find a way of negotiating between all parts of their Parliaments and their Governments.
This point is not just a small sticking-point for me; it is a really big point for me. Who controls the time is a really big and important issue. I am a massive supporter of having a Back-Bench business committee that would look at how we can organise our House time better and how we can make better use of things such as topical debates and general debates; I have absolutely no problem with that idea. Where I have a problem and where I think that the report is quite dishonest is the idea that how much time we spend on different parts of Government legislation should be a decision that is made by Back Benchers and not the Executive. That is something that I have an issue with, because it is down to the Executive of the day to decide how much time we spend on different parts of Government legislation.
I must say that I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is our job to scrutinise Government and therefore the time and the manner in which we scrutinise Government-either the scrutiny of Government Departments by Select Committees, or the scrutiny of Government legislation by Public Bill Committees-is our responsibility. It is not for the Government to tell us, "You may only scrutinise our legislation in such and such a way". It is for the Government to have all the time they need to present that legislation, to defend it and to persuade us that it is admirable legislation that we need to enact, but it is not for the Government to say, "You may not scrutinise us in such a way". I think that my hon. Friend and I will have to disagree on this point, much as I admire her.
It is because scrutiny goes to the heart of our role as parliamentarians that control of scrutiny is absolutely essential, which brings me to the issue of the control of the Select Committees. It is absolute nonsense that the Select Committees of this House, which have been a brilliant invention over the last 35 years, should effectively be determined, either directly or indirectly, by the Government. It is like the Government choosing their own invigilators and scrutineers, and saying, "We will be looked at very closely, but only on the terms and by the people who we approve".
Select Committees are a matter for this House to determine; they are nothing to do with the Government at all. The Government have their own job to get on with legislation; the Government do not have the job of scrutinising themselves, which is effectively what Select Committees do. To my mind, it is amazing that the Select Committees function as well as they do and that is thanks to some very brave and very independent-minded Chairpeople, such as Gwyneth Dunwoody, the former Member of Parliament for Crewe and Nantwich, who is now deceased. She was such a brilliant Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport that, as a result, our transport policy in recent years has been hugely strengthened and improved by the rigour that she brought to that role. But the idea that she should have been manipulated by the Government-it would not have been in the Government's interest to have done that. It is actually in all our interests that the Select Committees should be chaired independently and that their members should reflect the views of the House and not the opinions or tastes of a Government.
Will the hon. Gentleman add to his list of fine Chairpeople of Select Committees Dr. Ian Gibson, the former Member of Parliament for Norwich, North, who was a very distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, on which I served? Of course, that Committee came to a sticky end, due chiefly, I think, to the efforts of that gentleman in trying to propagate the best interests of science and technology in this country, which was sometimes uncomfortable for the Government.
Order. If I can interrupt the hon. Gentleman just for a minute, I want to say that he has been very generous in taking interventions but we are very time-limited and there are many Members who wish to speak in this debate. I say that because I cannot influence how many interventions he takes, but perhaps he might bear in mind our limited time.
I absolutely take your point, Mr. Atkinson, and it is very kind of you to attribute the fact that I am taking rather longer than I had intended to my generosity in taking interventions. I feel that I am probably taking too long to introduce this debate anyway, because I know that in Westminster Hall today we have people who sat on the House of Commons Reform Committee and who have very important contributions to make to this debate. Therefore, I will try to bring my remarks to a close.
If we are to fulfil our responsibilities as a Parliament, we need to get control not only of the business of the House and not only of the membership and chairmanship of the Select Committees, which this report identifies so clearly as an issue, but of the Standing Orders of this House, which the report identifies rather less clearly as an issue. The Standing Orders determine the future of this House and at the moment they can only be amended effectively by grace of the Government. They are our Standing Orders, not the Government's Standing Orders; they are the Standing Orders of this House and we ought to control them.
There are things in the report that one could imagine, in an ideal world, being slightly stronger and places where it could go wider, as hon. Members have already mentioned, but the fact of the matter is that I think that the report is a superb beginning and a superb indicator of where we ought to be going. What we now need to do is to take this debate on to the Floor of the House and have it on a substantive motion, which many Members in Westminster Hall today have been pressing the Government for. There is an indication that we may get that substantive debate by the end of January. I hope that we will get it by that time. It would be very foolish of the Government, having done the difficult job of setting up this Committee, appointing the right people to sit on it and to report on this issue and getting, to their own credit, an excellent report, if we were not allowed to debate the report and take the issue forward as quickly as possible. To leave such a debate to the next Parliament would be a terrible mistake. Furthermore, if we are right in thinking that a third, or perhaps even more, of the Members of the next Parliament will be new MPs, those new MPs will not know how this place works as well as some of us perhaps do, having experienced the virtues and vices of the present system. We need to move fairly fast in the next few months and I hope that we will do so.
It is up to us to bestir ourselves and to identify what is peculiar about Parliament and our identity that is different from that of Government. If we do that, we will be laying a foundation for what this report calls itself, which is "Rebuilding the House".
Order. Before I call Mr. Field to speak, I want to say that there quite a few Members-I think that there are five or six-who are trying to catch my eye and that the wind-ups should start shortly after 12 o'clock. So, if hon. Members can do a bit of quick mental arithmetic, we will get everybody in.
I welcome the fact that we are having this debate today and I thank Mark Fisher for introducing it. Regrettably, I must say that I do not entirely agree with the thrust of what he said. I am afraid that the report to which he has referred was far too timid; it needed to be a good deal more robust. I accept that there was an element of compromise about it and one certainly hopes that at least what has been proposed in the report will go through as a starting-point to what I think will be a radical reform.
I say that because I think that there is little doubt that the allowances scandal, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, will cause what I suspect will be the largest shake-up in parliamentary practice since the Great Reform Act of 1832, and not before time. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the momentous upheaval in 1832 came as a result of a crisis of confidence in many other institutions. At that time, it was the established Church of England and the monarchy-after the scandals that had surrounded George IV and George III before him-that were in crisis. Of course, today's crisis in confidence in Parliament arrives hot on the heels of an unprecedented economic firestorm in the past two years, whereby the catastrophe that has befallen financial institutions has shaken public confidence in the capitalist system, and with the inquiry that is currently being conducted into our going to war in Iraq there is again a sense that the Executive have been allowed to get away with blue murder.
However, I feel that the reforming steps that we have taken so far will not necessarily be sufficient. In the next Parliament, I suspect that we will see a huge turnover of MPs, even without the turnover that my own party hopes will happen as far as the general election result is concerned. However, there is a concern that we will be filling this House with a lot of inexperienced men and women who will regard themselves as being little more than cheerleaders for their party leaders. The worst possible outcome, in my view, would be the reinforcement of a parliamentary class made up of people with little or no experience outside the political sphere.
It is also possible that expenses woes will encourage many of Edmund Burke's "good men", and women, simply to give up on the idea of democracy. I do not lament the scandal's unveiling, but I mourn the hopeless way that politicians dealt with a time bomb that had been waiting to go off for years, as many of us recognised. It did not have to be that way. We must grasp the rare opportunity in the aftermath of the scandal to implement overdue but lasting reforms.
I reiterate some of what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said. First, we must pare back the control exercised by the Executive. In my view, successive Governments and Opposition leaderships deserve much of the blame for the parliamentary expenses fiasco that has blown up so spectacularly over the past six months. We have witnessed repeated grandstanding by party leaders who refused to implement independent salary reviews but turned a blind eye to the cynical-and, at its extreme, fraudulent-manipulation of the second home allowance, whose annual uplift was never reduced, reversed or even capped, and which became a salary substitute. The 24/7 media world in which politics operates militates in favour of any close-knit team around party leadership being on message, but Executive patronage must now be curtailed.
I agree with much of what was said about Select Committees. They need to exercise real power. In my view, the appointment of all Select Committee members, not just Chairmen, should be by a secret ballot of all MPs. As was rightly pointed out, chairmanships have too often been handed out by the Executive to former Ministers or senior Back Benchers on the basis of their compliance and willingness not to rock the boat. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred to the late Gwyneth Dunwoody and to Ian Gibson. Unfortunately, they are the exceptions that prove the rule about our Select Committee system. One of the biggest oxymorons in British politics is a phrase that one often hears in the media: "the influential Select Committee".
Select Committees should be much smaller. I am grateful that the report goes in that direction. The number mooted was 11, but in my view, Select Committees should number between five and eight members, who should all be fully committed to acquiring or developing genuine expertise in the field. The current situation involves a ludicrous charade in which ill-prepared MPs, on the rare occasions when they attend, parrot planted questions cobbled together by a Committee Clerk rather than even pretending to hold witnesses or Ministers genuinely to account.
We should also have a much smaller House of Commons, although I risk talking myself out of a constituency. Curiously, the only Members who tend to propose reductions in the size of the Commons are those on the cusp of retirement. I see a few such individuals here. [Interruption.] I hasten to add that in their case it is voluntary retirement rather than involuntary. The size of Parliament should be reduced substantially. My party's policy is a 10 per cent. reduction, but I think that that should be a first step. Ideally, a fixed-size Parliament of 450 to 500 Members should be our medium-term goal. The primary priority of all MPs, therefore, should be holding the Executive to account rather than acting as local ombudsmen on constituency issues more appropriately dealt with by local authorities, law centres and citizens advice bureaux, to name but three publicly funded bodies properly designed to deal with parochial concerns.
I would like the process of separating the legislature from the Executive to begin. That final element of my wish list is probably a step too far even for my more reform-minded colleagues, for now at least. If Parliament is to have any future relevance beyond making up the numerical armies required by Governments to pass their legislation, we should regard law-making as an end in itself rather than an essential stepping stone towards holding ministerial office. My preference-it will not happen at this election, but perhaps at some future election-is to have two votes on election day, so people can vote for the Prime Minister and for their local Member of Parliament. It might well result in a split slate, but I do not think that that would be an unhealthy state of affairs.
There is one important caveat, which I mentioned in my intervention, that must be addressed before we begin a headlong rush to empower individual parliamentarians. Many MPs-perhaps even most of us-do not regard any of the foregoing, and still less the constitutional duty of holding the Executive to account, as their main role. Increasingly, the House of Commons consists of a cadre of super-councillors who keep much of their attention and their burgeoning work load in a constituency-focused comfort zone. We are all proud of the work that we do in our constituencies, and it is important to have a finger on the pulse, but if we are to ensure reform and put power back into the hands of Parliament, this generation of MPs and the next must be properly equipped to play their key role in the transformative Parliament that democratic renewal in this country so desperately needs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Fisher on securing this debate. It takes place not just as a result of the report "Rebuilding the House", by the Select Committee on which I served, but against the backdrop of the MPs' expenses scandal, which is not going away. Part of the reason is that there is a much wider democratic deficit. I had hoped that the report would address it, but it has failed absolutely to do so, which is why I submitted a minority report. I am grateful for this opportunity to explain briefly why I did so.
One main reason why I thought that the report missed the mark slightly is that we never defined at any point what we meant by reform. Unless we have a clear idea of what it is we mean by reform or modernisation-there is lots of talk about modernisation as well-it is perfectly possible that I could be discussing something completely different from any other Member of the House. Also, we must define our purpose. What do we want our Parliament to do, and therefore, what do we see our role to be as Members of this House?
None of those questions was really addressed. Although the report is important-it considers Select Committees, the question of who scrutinises business and how best to do so-those are details. Unless the context is much wider and we consider exactly what we do and why we do it, we could end up making things worse rather than better. One key element of the report that many Members have spoken about today-it has also been discussed in the Committee and elsewhere-is wresting control away from the Executive. We may all agree that the Executive has too much control, but how we wrest it away from them and who we give it to is a key issue not addressed in the report.
The proposal for a House business Committee-not a Back-Bench business Committee, which I support-to determine who controls Government time in the House would give such decisions to a group of seven sensible Back Benchers elected by secret ballot of the whole House, but it could make the situation worse. We did not go into detail about how we would do so and exactly what the outcomes would be, but they could be dangerous.
I will be brief, because I intervened on my hon. Friend many times. I think that we all agree that Select Committees are good. They are the one thing that enhances the reputation of the House. Again, I urge caution. What are we proposing, and why are we proposing it? What are we trying to improve? Gwyneth Dunwoody and Lord Anderson, formerly MP for Swansea, East- I was not a Member of the House at the time, but I remember watching from outside-became members and Chairs of their Select Committees, so even though the system was imperfect, it worked.
I am worried that by saying, "We don't think it works well enough; let's do something completely different, like having an election by secret ballot of the whole House," we might make things worse. We have not thought through the consequences. The only time when we hold a secret ballot of the whole House is to elect the new Speaker, and many Opposition Members felt that, like it or not, somebody whom they found unpalatable was foisted on them by a Government majority. Given that this is a party political institution and that we tend to revert to type, what guarantee is there that we would not do so when electing Select Committee Chairmen?
I partly agree with my hon. Friend. However, it is not fair that certain Members, who have been democratically elected, are blocked from ever joining a Select Committee because they are independently minded.
I do not know the details of individuals who have been blocked. I was elected in 2005, which was quite late in the 12 years of Labour Government.
The current issue with Select Committees is filling the spaces because there is no mad clamour to serve on them. There are four or five big, sexy Select Committees that everyone wants to be on, including the Home Affairs Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Treasury Committee. Members will not put their names down for any number of other Select Committees, and cannot be persuaded to do so for love nor money.
If Select Committee members are elected by the House by secret ballot, how can we ensure that there is an adequate gender balance, the right amount of age and experience, and a regional mix? The Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons considered that in detail and it is not possible. Through the gain of making Select Committees more democratic, something else would be taken away. We must caution against making the situation, which we all agree is not perfect, an awful lot worse because we might not be able to go back to the system that we think works okay. Nothing is perfect.
Finally, I will make a point that I made time and again on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. It is six months before a general election. As other hon. Members have said, there will be an unprecedented number of new MPs and they will have fresh ideas on what to do. They will have fought an election against the backdrop of the MPs' expenses scandal and will have to have an idea of how Parliament can be reformed. If we go too far down the line of House business committees deciding who controls what bits of time, we risk tying the hands of the future generation, which is not fair. I would welcome the opportunity to debate this in greater detail on the Floor of the House, but I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few brief points today.
The confidence that Natascha Engel has in the Whips and the usual channels is touching. When she has been here for a few more years, perhaps she will catch the embittered cynicism of some of us who have been here for a long time. I will be brief because other hon. Members want to speak.
I challenge hon. Members to consider one point. Mark Fisher said that there should be a balance between Government time, Back-Bench scrutiny and representing the wishes of the general public. If there is to be effective scrutiny, we often require the Executive to share information with us. If they do not do so, we are incapable of making judgments.
I wonder how many hon. Members who voted for the war on Iraq would have done so if they had known what we all know now. The House was entirely dependent on the information given to it by the Executive. [Interruption.] Well, some of us voted against it. I voted against it as I believed that it was against international law because it did not have UN backing. That was a simple position to take. Many colleagues from all parts of the House felt compelled to support the Government because they genuinely believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he could deploy within 45 minutes and so forth. Unless we work out ways to ensure that the Executive are honest and straightforward with the House, it will always be difficult to scrutinise them because we will be hobbled.
I will give a simple example. When the issue is whether the nation should go to war, I see no justification for the Attorney-General's advice to the Government not being shared with the House. Either it is legal to go to war or it is not. One of the most shameful aspects of the Iraq saga, which I am sure the Chilcot inquiry will highlight, is the way in which Lord Goldsmith was effectively bludgeoned into producing advice that satisfied the Prime Minister. Independent legal advisers to the Government should be allowed to be independent. It appears that when Lord Goldsmith put in writing an opinion to Government that was hostile and said that the war was not lawful, he was punished by being excluded from Cabinet meetings until he produced an opinion that satisfied the Prime Minister. Almost the day before British troops were deployed, he said that it was lawful. As Sir Jeremy Greenstock, our permanent representative to the UN at the time, was obliged to say to the Chilcot inquiry, this was not a legitimate war, but it was legal. That is not a distinction that lawyers really understand.
If we had an independent Parliament, it could have reconvened in that long summer. As it happened, some of us created our own parliament, which forced the Government to allow Parliament to be recalled. Secondly, an independent Parliament could have commissioned its own legal advice, which the Clerks have informed me was not possible. We could then have taken a view on whether the proposed war was legal.
The hon. Gentleman, who has been persistent on this issue-quite sensibly, he has tabled items on the Order Paper and campaigned elsewhere-makes some extremely good points. The Iraq conflict demonstrated that the House cannot entirely trust the Executive, who often have their own imperatives, desires and objectives. If a Government command a large majority in the House, irrespective of which party they represent, there is always a temptation to use the majority to get their business through.
[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]
I conclude with a quotation from Ken Macdonald, who was the Director of Public Prosecutions for five years from 2003 to 2008. It is a damning indictment not just of Tony Blair, but of Parliament as an institution:
"The degree of deceit involved in our decision to go to war on Iraq becomes steadily clearer. This was a foreign policy disgrace of epic proportions and playing footsie on Sunday morning television does nothing to repair the damage. It is now very difficult to avoid the conclusion that Tony Blair engaged in an alarming subterfuge with his partner George Bush and went on to mislead and cajole the British people into a deadly war they had made perfectly clear they didn't want, and on a basis that it's increasingly hard to believe even he found truly credible."
We have to accept that that subterfuge and deceit was perpetrated on Parliament and that we did not have the effective means, tools or mechanisms to discover what was truly happening. We did not even have the basic legal advice that was given to the Government as providing legitimacy for the war.
From my 26 years in the House, what happened with Iraq causes me the greatest concern, because as an institution we were sucked into something that many of us will regret for the rest of our lives. Any reforms of the institution must ensure that such a thing never happens again.
It is a pleasure to follow Tony Baldry. I can give him some comfort. I have just done a quick count around the Chamber and a clear majority of Members did not vote for the Iraq war. Let us glory in our purity for a few moments. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. It was a pleasure to serve on that Committee and work with colleagues on it.
I shall respond to some of the issues raised and then make a couple of points. I say to my hon. Friend Mark Fisher that he should beware of giving too much praise either to the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House, because thus far the reaction to and reception of our report has been lukewarm. The Prime Minister is on the record as saying that he fully supports some of the recommendations, and the Leader of the House has yet to give us time for either a debate or a decision-a substantive vote-on the report. So the pressure needs to be put on not just my Front Benchers but Conservative Front Benchers-I say that to Mr. Field. As someone who has organised many events in this place, I assure him that dark forces are gathering and manoeuvrings are taking place.
Opposition Front Benchers' enthusiasm for reform is wilting as the day of the general election gets closer, because all Governments like to control everything and feel that they have to be control freaks. It is part of our job to challenge that, whoever forms the next Government. I want to challenge the notion that we can somehow do our job better with fewer MPs. I ask hon. Members to reflect on the arguments they have made. What they are saying is that too often we are super-councillors, we are doing too much casework, we should be doing more scrutiny, and we should therefore have bigger constituencies and do less casework. That does not necessarily add up, because there may be some transitional problems. People might want to think their arguments on that through.
I say to my hon. Friend Natascha Engel, for whom I have huge affection, that I utterly reject her minority report. I thought it was a cop-out and that it merely talked about transferring the decision-making process to another Parliament. That report did not address the clear terms of reference that were set up for our Committee to a very tight time scale, which the Committee addressed. We did not have time to dance on the head of a pin concerning what we mean by reform or anything else.
With due respect, I say to my hon. Friend that she should beware of being sucked into the arguments that were given to us in the evidence from my right hon. Friend Hilary Armstrong, the former Chief Whip. She gave us a staggering thesis that basically went along the lines of, "It's all in the manifesto and it's the Government's job to get that through, so what are you doing here?" I am not entirely sure that we are paid £64,000 a year merely to nod through what is in a manifesto without any element of parliamentary scrutiny. We need to be careful about going down that road.
On the comments of Bob Spink, who is sadly not in this Chamber now, I absolutely support getting rid of MPs' second jobs and moonlighting-in fact, I proposed a private Member's Bill on that issue back in 2007. If we contrast the top 50 outside earners in this place with their voting records, it is clear that the public lose out in that regard.
On the recommendations of the reform Committee itself, we considered three issues. We passed over the matter of the election of the Deputy Speaker, but I very much support the principle of that, particularly the election of the Chairman of Ways and Means, who may have a key role to play in a future business Committee. That matter has been passed to the Select Committee on Procedure and, again, its recommendations need to be implemented sooner rather than later.
We also considered the election of Select Committee Chairs. In 2001, a fiasco occurred within the parliamentary Labour party because of the Executive's attempts to determine who their scrutineers were and to decide that Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody were too good at their jobs and would therefore be excluded from the list of people put forward for the Select Committee. The parliamentary Labour party for once was not a poodle, and it rose up. As a result, we brought our internal democracy into that process, and the elected Back-Bench Members in the PLP had a say in the names put forward. We are relatively content with our internal system and I commend it to other parties.
We grappled with the notion of electing every single place on a Select Committee, which would be very difficult to do. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire: in the context of a new Parliament, how are we going to weigh up the credentials of one newly elected MP against another? I am not sure that I would want to say who the 11th member of a Select Committee should be from a particular party. That is a matter for the parties themselves.
If we agree the balance-the public decide that as a result of the number of MPs from different parties who are sent here-it is for the parties themselves to come forward with a sensible, coherent and transparent system. However, it is for the House to decide who the Chairs of those Select Committees should be. Let us be honest: the Select Committee Chairs are not going to be newly elected Members of the House; they will be people with some experience who have a contribution to make. It is healthy for us to have that internal debate, but there is no doubt that the type of people who will triumph in those elections will be those who have shown independence of spirit and who really are formidable scrutineers. It is those people whom we need to chair our Select Committees.
The case for the House to have control over its own business is overwhelming, particularly regarding non-governmental time. I would like us to go further. The farce of private Members' Bills is currently an exercise in using up time. We march the non-governmental organisations and lobby groups up to the top of the hill, and an inordinate amount of time, paper and rain forest is wasted in debating matters that will never get through, because a Government Whip can stand up on a Friday morning and shout, "Object." For goodness' sake, we have to be better than that. We have to have something better than a system of institutionalised filibustering, which is effectively how a lot of our time and energy is wasted. I would like us to go further in terms of the House controlling its own business.
A small part of the report that I had some influence on concerns how the public can be better engaged in what goes on in this place. Currently, early-day motions are no more than political graffiti. We sign too many of them, there are too many of them and they are on too many subjects. I would like early-day motions to be limited and a system introduced-we allude to this in the report-whereby if an EDM gathers support from across the House in sufficient numbers, a debate can take place on the Floor of the House.
No, I will not. The public could then genuinely engage and drive some of the discussions that we have in this place.
During the summer it was my privilege to visit Australia, where they have some interesting mechanisms. Select Committee reports are debated on the day of publication, and there are three-minute constituency statements through which Members of Parliament can make a statement on a matter of import. Topical debates are decided not by the Government but by the House as a whole. I see this process as just the start. I want the report to be implemented now and a process set up, so that reform can continue on into the next Parliament and into the Parliament after that.
In the brief time available, I want strongly to support the recommendations from the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. My objection is that the Committee was not allowed to go far enough, so I shall build on those foundations.
First, it is essential not only that the Chair and members of Select Committees are kept free of the influence of the party managers, but-even more importantly-that the main recommendations of major reports by Select Committees in the course of a year are debated and voted on on the Floor of the House. I would like the Liaison Committee to be given the power to select some of those reports, so that there can be a vote on the Floor of the House on a substantive motion that reflects its recommendations.
Secondly, I support the call made for Members to elect their own business Committee. There is no question but that, over time, the Executive have encroached increasingly on the rights of Members of the House, until they can do little more than rubber stamp what the Executive want without any prior consultation with the legislature. Thirdly, it has traditionally been the practice for members of the public to petition Parliament. That has largely fallen into desuetude, because there is certainly no guarantee that such petitions receive proper consideration or, indeed, any consideration at all. I therefore support the idea of a public petitions Committee, which would hand every petition either to a Select Committee for consideration, to the relevant Minister for action, or to the proposed business Committee for consideration for debate on the Floor of the House. To improve the public's sense of engagement, it would be a good idea if a petitions Committee rotated its meetings around the country, as, indeed, is already the case with the Public Petitions Committee in the Scottish Parliament.
Again, as happens in some other countries, there is a strong case for allowing petitions that have attracted the signatures of a significant proportion of the electorate- 5 per cent. or whatever threshold we choose-automatically to have the right to be debated on the Floor of the House and be voted on. That does not, of course, preclude the tabling of amendments or the House reaching whatever decision it may make.
I would have liked the Committee to have been given the right to go further. In particular, I think that Parliament should have the right to adopt its own commissions of inquiry when it considers that to be appropriate and necessary and, indeed, that it should have the right, when a Prime Minister proposes a committee of inquiry, to ratify that decision before the committee begins work. Similarly, I believe that Cabinet Ministers should be subject to ratification by the appropriate Select Committee of the House. That might seem a revolutionary proposal, but it is exactly what happens in congressional confirmation hearings in the United States.
Finally, as other Members have pointedly asked, when do the Government propose a debate and vote on the Committee's proposals? Will the terms of that debate encapsulate the draft resolution proposed by the Committee, incorporating all its proposals, and will there be a vote signifying the House's decision to go ahead with the reforms straight away before the election? It would be helpful if the Minister could give clear and definite answers to those questions.
I congratulate Mark Fisher on securing the debate and on his comments, and other Members on their comments as well.
The report, "Rebuilding the House", opens with a quote from Sir Robert Worcester:
"The public are sullen, some even mutinous."
You can say that again. There has been no such disquiet in recent times about the state of our politics and our Parliament. Although the expenses scandals are part of that, let us not confuse what is symptomatic with what is causative. The problem is that people do not know what Members of Parliament are for, and if they do know what they are for, they know that we are not doing the job in the way they would want it done. That means that we must reform our political processes to make them more effective and relevant. It is instructive that those newspapers that were most vocal on the inadequacies of Parliament were unable to devote a single column inch to the Committee's report when it was published. They do not want to see Parliament made more effective, but I am happy that some Members do.
I believe that there is a much wider agenda on democratic renewal, which other Members have touched on today. It would not be appropriate in this debate to discuss all the things I believe we should be looking at, but they include fixed-term Parliaments, the way in which we are elected to the House, the funding of political parties, which I spent six months discussing with colleagues and which has resulted in very little, and reform of the House of Lords, which I spent another six months discussing with other parties and which also resulted in very little. That agenda would include proper devolution and subsidiarity so that we move power to local government in this country and from the European level to the national level.
Today, however, we are concentrating on Executive control of our legislature. We ought to recognise-those who do not should look at other Parliaments around the world-that this country is almost unique in having a Parliament dominated by the Executive. It is within our power to address that issue, if only colleagues from all parties in the House recognised the need to do so. It is within our power to address it, but we only have the opportunity to do so if the Executive allow it. That is the conundrum at the heart of the matter: we can change the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature only if the Executive let us do so, and we need to look at that.
I do not believe that the Committee's report answers all the questions. It is a good report, but the Committee was constrained by its terms of reference and the time frame within which it was required to report, so there are issues with which its report does not deal. However, it does deal with much of what is going wrong. For instance, it questions what happens to Bills on Report. It is a catastrophe for the House that large and important Bills, often dealing with matters literally of life and death, pass unscrutinised to another place so that it can do the job that we in the elected House should be doing. That is an outrage.
Even when Bills are brought before us that we are told will set a paradigm for the way in which such matters will be treated in future, that is not the case. When the Equality Bill was recently introduced in Parliament, the Leader of the House told us that it would be an example of the way to do it. Well, it was an example of the way we do do it, because half of it was not scrutinised on Report and was passed to the other House for it to do the job we should be doing.
Access to the agenda of the House is a key area, and not just for the public. I absolutely agree with hon. Members who have said that the public should have a way of influencing what we discuss, but Back Benchers, Opposition parties and Members who have a genuine interest in bringing a matter forward, must have better access to the agenda. It is in that regard that the proposed business Committee becomes so important, but it is the one area on which I have doubts about the Select Committee's recommendations, because I would prefer a single business Committee. There should be a business Committee-I have no doubt whatever about that-because that is transparently what works in other legislatures, yet we leave it to the Executive to decide what we debate, which I find extraordinary.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned public participation. Is he at all attracted by Simon Cowell's idea for an "X Factor" approach, not on whether we should have Gordy from Cowdenbeath, Dave from the home counties or Nicky from south Yorkshire as our leader, but on particular and specific issues? Would that not go some way towards engaging the public in the important things we discuss here?
My personal view is that it would be a Committee for all business of the House. I believe that we scrutinise expenditure extraordinarily badly. On the days on which we are supposed to deal with estimates, the one thing we do not discuss is the estimates. It is extraordinary that we devote a minimal amount of time, with minute participation, to eye-wateringly large amounts of taxpayers' money. That is what we are there to scrutinise on those days, but we do such a poor job of it. That problem is not fully addressed in the Committee's report. It does deal with control of Select Committees, which is an important issue, but, in the great scheme of things, not the most important issue. However, it is certainly something on which we should make progress.
Private Members' business is important, as it is about re-establishing respect for the role of the individual Member in the House and for the idea that we are here as legislators and we have things to say on behalf of our constituents. It is for Parliament to determine whether what we have to say is relevant in the wider statute book, rather than for a single member of the Government-a Whip-to shout "Object" and ruin many months of detailed work.
The report has produced a draft resolution for the consideration of the House, so the question is this: why on earth are the Government not simply putting that draft resolution before the House? They said that that was a matter of urgency, but they have dillied and dallied for weeks. They have written to me and to Mr. Vara, the shadow Leader of the House, whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber, and asked what we think about the matter. It is not for me alone to think about those issues, but for the House to think about them. I believe that that resolution should be put before the House and that we should have a debate on it, because there is still detailed work to be done on making changes to Standing Orders if the House agrees to the draft resolution, as I hope it will. The most important issue before the House is how we make Parliament work effectively. It is a matter of urgency, of massive import and cannot be delayed.
There was a Roman senator-I believe it was Cato the Censor-who used to finish every debate with "Carthago delenda est": Carthage must be destroyed. If I had the same discipline, I would end every speech with "
I congratulate Mark Fisher on securing this debate and on his contribution. I would like to put on the record the valuable work that he has done prior to this debate. He was the founder of, and then an assiduous contributor to the cross-party efforts of, Parliament First, which for some time has been advocating reform of how we do our business. Among its publications was a report in April 2003, "Parliament's Last Chance". While the title may have seemed a little apocalyptic at the time, perhaps with hindsight the sentiments were not so wrong.
May I also congratulate Dr. Wright and all the other members of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee on their efforts in producing their report, especially given the relatively short time they had to do it?
In the wake of revelations concerning Members' allowances and expenses, Parliament's reputation has reached a low ebb. Therefore, any proposals for reform must be considered in the light of enhancing public confidence in Parliament and its Members. The revelations shattered many people's faith in our political system, but it is fair to say that the cracks in our institution had been growing for many years.
Before touching on the report's specific recommendations, it is worth highlighting the Government's record to date. I am happy to give credit where it is due. On the constitutional front, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have received widespread support, and there is some expectation that the Northern Ireland Assembly will help to deliver a lasting peace settlement. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has helped to make Parliament and the Executive more open and accountable, while some of the working practices of the Commons have been brought up to 21st-century standards, certainly in terms of being in tune with modern family life. Those changes are welcome, and if we were in government we would keep them.
However, welcome though those changes are, and leaving devolution aside, the changes introduced since 1997 have not substantially changed the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. In fact, they have tilted it in favour of the Executive. For example, we have the use of the automatic guillotine, control by the Whips of nominations to Select Committees, unacceptable delays in obtaining timely and proper replies from Ministers when Members ask oral and written questions, and regular briefings to the media on statements before a word has been uttered in the House-for example, today's announcement by the Defence Secretary.
I am afraid I will not. As I have very limited time, I must press on.
The Defence Secretary briefed the "Today" programme prior to a statement. The Freedom of Information Act has helped, but there is still much more that needs to be done before we can truly say that we are connecting with the public.
A week after the Prime Minister's coronation in July 2007, he spoke of entrusting
"more power to Parliament and the British people."-[Hansard, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 815.]
He also spoke of reducing the power of the Executive and of increasing their accountability. Those fine words were of course welcomed by all, but as has happened so often, the Government simply failed to follow through. Even the reforms we are discussing today are not from a Government initiative. Instead, they stem from a letter written by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase to the Prime Minister in which he suggested setting up the Reform of the House of Commons Committee.
The absence of any genuine desire for reform is also illustrated by the shambles that is the Modernisation Committee, which has not met for 18 months. As well as being chaired by a Minister, one of its last actions was to force through proposals for Regional Select Committees. That was done despite the objections of the Opposition parties; they were forced through on the casting vote of the Leader of the House.
In contrast with the Government's dithering and procrastination, my party has shown real leadership. We have been calling for reform of the Commons for some time. In February 2006, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition, established the Conservative party's democracy taskforce under the chairmanship of my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke. Also serving on that committee were my right hon. Friend Sir George Young and my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie. The taskforce's report called for radical changes to how Parliament operates, and I am pleased that many of its proposals have been adopted by the Wright Committee.
For example, in May my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made a speech in which he stressed the need for Select Committee Members and Chairmen to be elected. Select Committees are an important part of parliamentary scrutiny, but the undue influence of party Whips on membership is a matter of concern. The last time reform in this area was seriously pressed was in 2003 by the late Robin Cook, who was then Leader of the House. He was outmanoeuvred by his own party Whips and voted down in the House on a recommendation of the Modernisation Committee, of which he was Chairman.
Put simply, Select Committee chairmanships should not be offered as rewards for party loyalty. The situation encountered in 2001, when Government Whips attempted to remove two Select Committee Chairmen who were seen as "difficult" to their own party, should not be allowed to happen again. We should have Select Committee Chairmen and members who enjoy the support and confidence of the House. They should be the best people for the job. At times, that may be inconvenient for the Opposition and the Government, but it is the way forward.
We agree that Deputy Speakers should be elected, and we look forward to considering the Procedure Committee's recommendations in the not too distant future.
The proposals regarding petitions are especially welcome and long overdue. Again, they follow proposals previously made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Other more radical comments regarding the triggering of debate or legislation after a certain number of signatures have been received are also welcome. The Committee is right to caution against the effect that such changes may have on the operation of the House, but, if implemented correctly, they would help in the process of reconnecting the Commons with the public.
However, we would go further. We have specifically said that we would introduce citizens' initiatives: if a petition to Parliament secures 100,000 signatures, there should be a formal debate, and if members of the public are backed by a petition of 1 million electors, they should be able to table a Bill to be presented and voted on in Parliament.
We have also called for the House to have more control over its own business. Of course, the Government have the right to pursue their legislative agenda according to what has been set out in their manifesto, but that does not mean they should control the whole timetable. It is important to allow MPs proper time to debate. One of the Government's most retrograde parliamentary innovations has been the use of programme motions for every Bill. They have stifled debate and resulted in numerous instances where new clauses and amendments tabled to Bills have simply not been debated; for example, that happened with the recent Equality Bill.
The way in which proposals will be implemented is almost as important as the changes themselves. It is clear that some can be introduced immediately, such as changes to how petitions are presented. However, as the report says, any changes would have to be implemented in stages. That is sensible, and we need to ensure that the implementation of any new Standing Orders does not inhibit the ability of a new Parliament to hit the ground running.
But we should go much further. The Wright Committee was constrained by its terms of reference. Members will of course be aware that much time was wasted at the outset, not least because of changes to the original motion, but that should not stop the process of ensuring that Parliament is reformed further to serve the public better. For example, we would like to see the abolition of wasteful Regional Select Committees, a reduction in the size of the Commons and equalisation of constituency sizes, a vast improvement in the scrutiny of European Union legislation, a cut in the overall cost of politics and a determined effort to resolve the West Lothian question so that only English MPs can vote on wholly English matters. Those and other measures are necessary if we are really to reform Parliament and make its processes and procedures fit for the 21st century.
To conclude, my party has been leading on this matter for some time. We welcome the majority of the proposals in the report, but we must ensure that changes and their implementation are made in an appropriate and achievable way. This is not the end of the line but only a station stop along the track of necessary reform and modernisation. In last week's business questions, several Members spoke of having a full day's debate on the report. I very much hope that this short debate will not constitute a whole day's debate or, indeed, a contribution to it. Moreover, will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that every effort will be made to ensure that no ministerial statements and the like interfere on the day? Will she also clarify a particular point from last week's business questions, when the Leader of the House spoke of responding to the debate? Will she confirm that there will be a statement, either written or oral, followed by a proper debate?
The Government have asked the Opposition parties for their views on the report. Will the Deputy Leader of the House take my contribution today as our response to the Wright report? We look forward to hearing from the Minister about what the Government's view is on the report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood, and that of Mr. Atkinson earlier in the debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Fisher on securing this debate and on opening it so well. It is an important issue for the House to discuss: we can see that from the number of contributions. I counted about 17 hon. Members at certain points in the debate, although slightly fewer are present now.
As this debate has developed in the House, I have been grateful for the chance to listen to the views of all hon. Members who have contributed to it, including today the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)-always difficult to pronounce-and for Castle Point (Bob Spink), my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, Dr. Murrison, my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry), my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Reading, West (Martin Salter), my right hon. Friend Mr. Meacher, and the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen, the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara).
As many hon. and right hon. Members have said, reform of the House is a broad, important subject, but it is not new: it is a continual process and we should regard it as such. There should be change as procedures become outdated or new systems develop. I support a number of the reforms that have been advanced by both the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee since 1997. Indeed, it was recently 10 years since Westminster Hall started to be used as the parallel Chamber, and it is useful, as we have seen today, in allowing debates that are open to all hon. Members. The Modernisation Committee recommended establishing this room as a second debating Chamber. That change was not met with support throughout the whole House. It is interesting to note that our current Speaker was a key opponent of that reform. But I think that we can agree, particularly today, that this change has been a successful innovation.
Other reforms brought about by the Modernisation Committee have been important too, including changes to the sitting hours of the House and deferred Divisions. We do not always want to find ourselves-particularly those hon. Members with children-voting at 11.20 pm or 11.40 pm, as we did last night: that is not family-friendly. Another reform is the introduction of core tasks for Select Committees. More recently we have had topical questions and topical debates, which hon. Members have mentioned. As with the use of Westminster Hall for wider debates, topical questions and debates will be reviewed in terms of how they are working. I think most hon. Members would agree that the topical questions innovation is working.
Recently, we debated the House of Commons annual report, although that debate was not as well attended as this one, and discussed the importance of public engagement and involvement. There were not many contributions on that matter today, but it is a vital part of what we need to develop in our reform agenda.
Another change stemming from the Modernisation Committee was the report that set up the Regional Select and Regional Grand Committees. I defend the Regional Select Committees and particularly the Regional Grand Committees that met throughout the summer. I read the reports of those Committees, in which some useful debates were held, particularly on factors such as the economic downturn.
Does my hon. Friend not realise that there is a distinct danger of those hon. Members who served on the Reform Committee beginning to self-harm if we have to listen to any more canters through the wonders of the Conservative party democracy taskforce or the history of the Modernisation Committee? Does she not agree that we want to hear whether both Opposition and Government Front Benchers are signed up to the Wright Committee recommendations? We had a non-response from the Conservatives; will we get a proper response from her?
There have been some important changes and reforms. It is important, as we look forward, not to lose sight of the fact that there have been some good reforms that have helped matters.
The systems of pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny give a more systematic approach to scrutinising Bills. I understand that there are issues regarding the scheduling of Report stage and so on, which hon. Members have raised, but we have got better at our task of scrutiny: the current Bribery Bill is one example of that. Post-legislative scrutiny memorandums have also helped.
The Equality Bill, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, was complicated legislation that replaced eight former pieces of discrimination legislation. Although perhaps not all the processes helped, some of them, including interleaving the easy-read guide, helped hon. Members and the public to work on the Bill. Those things are important.
Most of the changes I have mentioned have been welcomed, although some more than others. Last night we were here from 10.20 pm to 11.20 pm, setting up the London Regional Select Committee. That took a little while, but those innovations are important.
As hon. Members know, events this year related to the crisis surrounding hon. Members' use of allowances have created a pressure for reform of the system, but more generally too, and that is mentioned in the Committee's report. On
The Committee reported three weeks ago. It recognises that its report contains conclusions and recommendations that are directed not at the Government, but at the House, Ministers and Back Benchers alike. The Committee said that it expects a Government reply on some points, and that it would be due around the end of January. The Committee also said that it expects a debate. The Leader of the House has said that the Government intend to make time for a debate on the important matters we have debated today, and she reaffirmed that at business questions last week. I cannot add more detail to that, but I expect her to announce a date in the usual way. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire about ministerial statements being made on the day. The Leader of the House said she would try to make sure that that did not happen.
Returning to the report, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West said, the appointment of Deputy Speakers was considered by the Procedure Committee, and we will respond on that debate too at the same time as discussing the other matters I have mentioned.
The report of the Reform Committee touches, importantly, on areas in which further work is needed, such as the Liaison Committee's re-examining the current role of Select Committees. We have heard a great deal in this debate about the role of Select Committees. The task of looking again at them may tie into the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire. There has been strong support voiced in a number of contributions about changing the way the House appoints the members and Chairs of Select Committees, but an important difference was expressed by my hon. Friend, who said that, although we accept that Select Committees work well, we need to consider what we are proposing. As she said, secret ballots of the whole House may not work. The Government could, with a majority, foist their choice of Select Committee Chairs on the House. That needs thinking about. My hon. Friend also asked how such ballots would get a gender and geographical balance and a mix of levels of experience. That deserves detailed consideration. As we have mentioned previously, there will probably be a large number of brand new MPs in the 2010 intake. We need to consider how a ballot would work with a large number of new people.
In the less than one minute remaining, could my hon. Friend be crystal clear with hon. Members from all parties and the House itself and say whether there will be a substantive motion on the report that the Reform Committee has put forward at some time, and will she tell us when that will be? That is why we have had this debate, and that is the question that virtually every hon. Member who has spoken has raised with her. Will she make that clear so there is no misunderstanding?
I have to say that I disagree. I do not think that is why we have had the debate today. We have had this debate because there is a continuing process of debate. We have opened a debate that will continue into the new year. I have already mentioned that I cannot-