House of Commons Reform

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:35 am on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire 11:35 am, 15th December 2009

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?