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Column 250

Tyler, Paul

Viggers, Peter

Waldegrave, Rt Hon William

Walden, George

Walker, Bill (N Tayside)

Waller, Gary

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Waterson, Nigel

Watts, John

Wells, Bowen

Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John

Whitney, Ray

Whittingdale, John

Wiggin, Sir Jerry

Wilkinson, John

Wilshire, David

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Yeo, Tim

Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Ayes :

Mr. Sydney Chapman and

Mr. Andrew Mitchell.


Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Barnes, Harry

Bermingham, Gerald

Betts, Clive

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Cann, Jamie

Chisholm, Malcolm

Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)

Cohen, Harry

Connarty, Michael

Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)

Dalyell, Tam

Davidson, Ian

Dixon, Don

Donohoe, Brian H.

Dowd, Jim

Eagle, Ms Angela

Etherington, Bill

Faulds, Andrew

Flynn, Paul

Foulkes, George

George, Bruce

Gerrard, Neil

Godman, Dr Norman A.

Graham, Thomas

Gunnell, John

Hall, Mike

Hanson, David

Hinchliffe, David

Home Robertson, John

Hoon, Geoffrey

Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)

Illsley, Eric

Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)

Lewis, Terry

Loyden, Eddie

McAllion, John

McAvoy, Thomas

Macdonald, Calum

McMaster, Gordon

McWilliam, John

Mahon, Alice

Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)

Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)

Meale, Alan

Mudie, George

Pickthall, Colin

Powell, Ray (Ogmore)

Rooney, Terry

Salmond, Alex

Skinner, Dennis

Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)

Steinberg, Gerry

Welsh, Andrew

Wicks, Malcolm

Wise, Audrey

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Bob Cryer and

Mr. Bill Michie.

Question accordingly agreed to.



That Mr. David Nicholson be discharged from the Committee of Public Accounts and Sir David Mitchell be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Michael Brown.]



That Mr. Bruce Grocott be discharged from the Select Committee on Broadcasting and Mr. Nicholas Brown be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Michael Brown.]

Column 251

Legislation (Consultation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Michael Brown.]

10.44 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science, for agreeing to answer this short debate. I am particularly grateful since I know that the luck of the draw has landed him with this additional burden in an exceptionally busy week. For my hon. Friend to have made the transition so successfully from the secret society of the Whips Office to the Department of open government gives me real hope that my arguments, which seek a substantial change in establishment attitudes, will not fall on deaf ears tonight. I should make it plain from the start that my contention is in no sense partisan. If I appear critical of some aspects of parliamentary procedure, or indeed of Government procedures, my purpose is to put on the agenda of public debate the effectiveness or propriety of some of the ways in which this country is currently governed--ways that would be adopted by any Government of whatever political complexion, but which in my view need to be questioned. Professor Crick's book was published in 1964, and in 1976 the Labour Government set up a Select Committee for what in some ways was the last serious look at the functions of Parliament. Lord Hailsham's "Elective Dictatorship" was published in the same year. So this is hardly a matter to be laid at the door of any one Administration or party.

"Consultation in advance of legislation" is Table Office speak--distilled with all the inventiveness and courtesy of that ingenious office to enable me to use the Adjournment debate slot to raise matters that are seldom debated in this place. It is strangely hard to achieve such a debate because in practice Governments tend to control Parliament, although in theory the Members do. I believe that there are weaknesses in the ways in which Governments consult in advance of legislation, not least that they tend to ask the questions and then process the answers in ways that create no chance for the consultees to build on each other's contributions. There is a strong argument for more policy questions to be posed to the public as questions rather than as draft solutions to a problem, as is usual at present. The public are capable of making much more sophisticated contributions than they are usually encouraged to do.

My main question is this. What, in effect, is to be the role of a Member of Parliament in the 21st century? Its trigger is what contribution a modern Member should make to the formulation and communication of policy. Let me explain. In the past 40 years or so, huge changes have come over our world. Communication to any part of the world or any chosen group of people has become instant. Not only verbal, but visual messages can be shared in microseconds. As a result, our constituents no longer expect to learn of great events from their representatives, but directly from the media. That is one reason why the well-attended public meeting is such a rarity. Yet in this place we fall between two stools and, like all who do that, we end up in something of a mess. Our procedures pretend that policy will be announced first to Parliament and only then to the world outside. Yet as we all know, in practice that is increasingly rare. The first that most Back- Bench Members know of policy announcements is when they hear

Column 252

them on the radio or are rung up by a journalist for a comment. In the case of most announcements, the average Back Bencher can not even comment knowledgeably because the machinery for acquainting him or her with the news is so archaic. If the House is sitting, news that has been given to the media at 11 o'clock in the morning may reach a Member's pigeon hole by 5.30 pm, to be picked up if the Member happens to pass through the Members' Lobby. If the House is in recess, even that device fails. A statement may percolate through the mail to the Member's office for onward transmission via a secretary. By that time, the news story has been put to bed, and any subsequent comment is likely to appear such old hat that the journalists will not use it. That simply will not do.

I understand that Ministers--who are extraordinarily busy people, with a country to run--may well feel that they have quite enough to do in informing the media of their policies, without taking on the additional burden of simultaneously informing Members of Parliament, some of whom may be hostile to the policy. I sympathise. The burden on modern Ministers is indeed enormous. The feeling should be resisted, however. Our constituents do not send us here to be treated as second-class citizens ; they are entitled to expect their representatives not only to be given prompt information about policy, but to be able to comment on it as it may affect them.

That brings me to a basic question : what is to be the role of Back-Bench Members of Parliament in the 21st century? We are confronted by a paradox. There has never been a time in the history of this ancient Parliament when so many Members have devoted such a large proportion of their time to serving their constituencies, or working in this place. The part-time Member is fading fast. Whether that is for good or bad is material for a separate debate ; what cannot be denied, however, is that most Back Benchers now regard themselves as full time.

Yet it is arguable that these full-time paid servants of the public have never had less influence, and I believe that the public sense that. It is not--as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury suggested- -that the intrusion of the television cameras has lowered our reputation in the country, so much as that the cameras have simply revealed to the country just how little its representatives are able to affect policy. That revelation is made more shocking each time a Member of Parliament has to confess to a journalist that the first time he heard of a policy announcement was when the journalist raised it with him.

I have one or two sugestions to make to my hon. Friend the Minister. I shall not weep if he tells me that he cannot commit himself to supporting them tonight, but I shall be disappointed if he does not take my arguments seriously. The first suggestion is simple : why, in this technically advanced age, cannot Members of Parliament be informed of press conferences at the same time as the press, and why cannot a room be set aside here in the Palace to provide closed-circuit television coverage for any Member of Parliament who cares to watch it? That would ensure that the press conference was not disrupted--or even interrupted--by Members, while simultaneously ensuring that those who were free to do so could comment on the policy announcement afterwards with as much knowledge as the media. Arrangements rather more modern than the 19th-century board on which we currently rely could be made for the distribution of documents.

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