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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In recent months, you will have noticed that, at each Question Time, Ministers are asking Opposition spokesmen questions. Would it be in order for an Opposition spokesman to answer a question at the Dispatch Box ? If an Opposition spokesman were to answer, would you then rule that he or she was out of order ?

Madam Speaker : Many of these questions are rhetorical, but I remind the entire House that "Erskine May", which I am not quoting precisely, states that Question Time is there for Members to seek information from the Government and to press the Government for action. I think that that answers the hon. Gentleman's point of order.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. We are, as we are always reminded, a United Kingdom Parliament. As there has been no statement, will you tell us whether there is any way in which the House can express its concern about, and our sympathy for the victims of, the massacre of six innocent people in Northern Ireland ? All they were doing was watching a football match on television and they were gunned down by murderous psychopaths.

Although I understand why we do not always have a statement after massacres, whether they are, as on Saturday, of Catholics or, as at other times, of Protestants, is not it necessary for us to show that we are not indifferent, that we deeply deplore what occurred and that we hope that those responsible for the massacre will be brought to justice ?

Madam Speaker : As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is not a point of order. We seldom have Government statements following a terrorist attack, but there are opportunities during Northern Ireland questions to raise security matters of that nature.

Mr. Simon Hughes : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Reverting to the issue

Madam Speaker : Order. There will be no reverting to any issue.

Mr. Hughes : It is a separate

Madam Speaker : Order. There will be no reversion to the original issue. The hon. Gentleman will remember my words very clearly. I made it quite clear that it is for Members to seek information from the Executive and to press for action. I have said enough. That is the end of that point of order.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would you agree that the simplest way of resolving the problem--I know that it places you in some difficulty--is for the Government to call a general election, then our lot can answer all the questions ?

Madam Speaker : It does not actually place me in any difficulty at all. My campaigning days are over--so if a general election were called, I would have a holiday.

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Opposition Day

[13th Allotted Day] [1st Part]


Parliamentary Procedure

3.34 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) : I beg to move,

That this House notes the increasing public contempt for Parliament ; believes that its organisation and procedures are anachronistic and irrelevant to the concerns of modern British society ; notes with concern the Government's systematic erosion of Parliament's role in the consideration of legislation and its ability to hold the Executive to account for its actions ; notes with particular concern the Government's use of civil servants for party political purposes ; and calls for urgent and comprehensive reform of Parliament, including changes to the format of Prime Minister's Question Time.

Madam Speaker : I should inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Tyler : Suppose for a moment, Madam Speaker, that you were sitting in that Chair, but Edward VI had not had a redundant chapel available in which the House of Commons could sit ; instead, he had a redundant royal tennis court. Suppose that in Versailles in 1789, instead of a redundant tennis court, there had been a redundant chapel. If one believes architectural determinism, our continental neighbours would have the confrontational system of politics from which we have suffered in this country and you, Madam Speaker, would look at a consensus of political views in a semicircle.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : That is factually true.

Mr. Tyler : As my hon. Friend says, that is factually true. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether the two-party system is a product of that accident of history or whether, in some way, we have determined our own architecture and suffered accordingly. What is certainly true is that the consensus building of the semicircle has proved to be a great deal more sensitive to the pluralist politics of the 20th century-- and possibly the 2lst century--than the anachronisms of confrontation from which we still suffer in this place.

As hon. Members may have already detected, I do not have any great credentials for moving the motion. I studied political history in my long- distant academic past. I am a member of the Select Committee on Procedure-- I do not think that that qualifies me for anything much. But, perhaps more germanely, I am back here as the prize retread, having been first elected 20 years ago, and, therefore, perhaps in a unique position to compare what happened in the early 1970s with what is happening in the 1990s. In the 1970s, television had not arrived and nor had the Select Committees. I shall come back to both those reforms in due course.

My essential thesis is that those two changes, of themselves, cannot resist and reverse the tide of alienation--the alienation of Parliament from the people. The institution of Parliament has become dominated by party games, with the side effect of the stark dichotomy that few people outside this place recognise as relevant any more. Parliament has fallen into public disrepute-- [Interruption.] --as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr.

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Skinner) no doubt may vouchsafe. This institution is seen as old-fashioned and irrelevant, and its Members lazy, badly behaved and self-indulgent-- [Interruption.] Hon. Members behind me may deny that, but they are all too keen to quote the polls when the polls suit them. The polls show that 56 per cent. of the public are dissatisfied with the way in which hon. Members collectively do their job ; only 32 per cent. are satisfied. Just 12 per cent. believe that we work hard--nearly four times as many think we do not. Four out of five British people believe that "feeding time at the zoo" is a fair description of the House of Commons.

The media stimulate that response because they emphasise the conflict in this place and ignore the consensus. The television cameras are on for Question Time ; they are rarely on in Select Committees.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) rose

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose

Mr. Tyler : I will not give way because I want to make some progress.

We are seen in this place as unnecessarily argumentative, and it would appear that one or two hon. Members now wish to prove that point. Sixty- four per cent. of the public think that politicians emphasise what we disagree about ; only 37 per cent. think that we emphasise what we agree on. Parliament's bad reputation is a prime cause of the public's disenchantment with the whole process of politics.

Mr. Burns rose

Mr. Tyler : No, I will not give way.

The House of Commons is seen as being out of touch because, in many important respects, we are out of touch. Several hon. Members here will vouchsafe that many women in the community think that this Parliament is unrepresentative because only one tenth of our total membership are women while, of course, more than half the general population are.

In 1992, at the last general election, 24 per cent. of the voters did not support either of the major parties. Their views ended up being represented in the House by only 7 per cent. of the Members. Obviously, the argument for electoral reform and a fairer voting system is as strong as ever.

Despite being so unrepresentative, the two major parties continue to dominate the procedures and debates of the House. Almost 25 years ago, 90 per cent. of the population voted for the two parties. Today, that is not the case. In the 1992 election, the combined two-party vote dropped to 75 per cent. A week ago, when the Prime Minister claimed a return to the Buggin's turn two-party system, it dropped to just over two thirds--just less than 70 per cent.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham) : The hon. Gentleman is rightly trying to guide the House into behaving in a way that leads to more popular respect. Could he say whether the expression "Buggin's turn" was used by the Prime Minister or whether it is a phrase which he is ascribing to the Prime Minister ?

Mr. Tyler : The phrase was used as a description of the way in which the Prime Minister referred to a return to the two-party system. I am glad to make that point clear.

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No one can say that our debates in this place represent the full range of perspectives and opinions in the country. Only the most simplistic partisan could pretend that every issue could be viewed as Government versus Opposition or Conservative versus Labour. That is not the real world. None of our constituents and none of the public see the politics of this country in that way. Yet the House continues to operate as if that were true. Parliament's traditions, bizarre as they are, often cause consternation to our constituents and no doubt to those non-present people in the Gallery. "I spy strangers", top hats, convoluted language : is it any wonder that the public feel that we are performing some sort of cynical ritual ?

The reality is that Parliament is not fulfilling its basic functions. Its first function is to call to account those who govern. That is true of the Opposition, whatever party is in opposition. That is our job. It is also the primary function of Government Back Benchers. Every so often, with a little freedom from the Whips, we see that happening--not, unfortunately, very frequently. The second function is the examination, criticism and approval of legislation. I shall deal with both those subjects briefly.

In calling the Executive to account, a fundamental principle of the British constitution is that the Government are accountable through Ministers to Parliament. Such Government accountability is essential if we are to have responsible Government. We have seen the creation and development of the departmental Select Committees. I welcome them and I am sure that all Members of Parliament recognise the effective work that they do. However, few would claim that they exercise such effective scrutiny of Ministers and their Departments that the full House need no longer fulfil that function. The Select Committees report critically, but how often do we get an opportunity to debate their conclusions in full and to follow through those conclusions to some reform ?

I believe that the most important reason for the failure of the House of Commons to exercise its function is a lack of information. Government activities are not made available to the Opposition parties. Our winner- takes-all political system means that members of the Opposition parties are shut out of decisions and policy making. That is obviously exacerbated by the fact that the Conservative Government have been on the Treasury Bench for 15 years.

Let us consider some of the ways in which the parliamentary question is supposed to be able to elicit information and fails. In recent years, Ministers have developed a number of techniques for evading questions. They have become masters of the art. Holding answers delay a comprehensive written reply for several days. They say, "I will write to the hon. Member", but when the letter eventually arrives, it is not available to other Members.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Tyler : No, I will not give way. There will be time for other Members to speak in due course.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) rose

Mr. Tyler : No, I will not give way.

Thirdly, Ministers agree to put the information requested in the House of Commons Library, which is also an effective way to deny other Members the full explanation given in the answer to the question.

I shall give an example. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) asked the Minister of Agriculture,

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Fisheries and Food to place in the Library the results of market research on her Department's advertising and publicity campaign. He asked her to do so because she had stated in an earlier reply that such research existed for a range of campaigns. What finally arrived, after much pressure, were the results of research on only a couple of the many campaigns. Clearly, the answer did not meet the question. Any hon. Members or members of the public who wanted to look up the answer could not do so.

Ministers also say that the information requested "is not available in the form requested," or "in a complete form". Another of my colleagues asked the Secretary of State for Health for background information and data on monitoring disciplinary procedures against doctors. The Minister of State responded that the data were not available centrally. Presumably inadvertently, however, he then enclosed the data in an incomplete form, with a little note on the top, "Do not send". I do not know whether the civil servant sent it on purpose or whether it was a mistake, but how revealing that is of Ministers' attitudes.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as he was in the House many years ago and can compare different Governments. Does he agree that, irrespective of the merits of our procedures--there is room for improvement--he is properly exposing to the British public, if only the media will so allow, not the failure of Parliament, but the failure of the Government to take Parliament and its procedures seriously ?

Mr. Tyler : I shall come to that matter. The problem has certainly been exacerbated by Governments' attitudes. I recall that previous Government, and some of the gambits that are being used now were developed in those years. We cannot let any Front Bench off the hook.

All hon. Members are well aware of the buck-passing between Departments. The Government have raised evasion to an art form, which is perhaps best expressed in that phrase coined by a former hon. Member, Mr. Alan Clark, who doubtless had experience of it--"economical with the actualite ". We in Cornwall might not recognise that last word, but I think that we understand the sense of the expression. That is a very good way to describe the evasions that are now coming to the surface through the Scott inquiry on arms sales to Iraq.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) rose

Mr. Tyler : No, I will not give way. I have a limited number of things to say and there will be plenty of time for other people to speak.

Whitehall's guidance on parliamentary questions says that answers to Members of Parliament should be

"factual, straightforward and meticulously accurate."

The Scott inquiry was told by a former civil servant, however, that

"Questions should be answered to give the maximum degree of satisfaction to the questioner. That doesn't mean they should necessarily be full."

The Pergau dam affair was another example of the way in which limited information can be given to the House. In 1991, the then Minister for Overseas Development said that there was no question of linking aid and arms deals. Subsequently, the Foreign Secretary said that the two for a time became entangled. Why is entangled not the same as linked ?

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The Minister responsible for open government- -surely a misnomer--has claimed that Ministers have a right to lie to the House of Commons. He said that it is sometimes

"necessary to say something that is untrue in the House of Commons".

He gave as his precedent Lord Callaghan's statement on the 1967 devaluation, for which he later apologised, but he did not withdraw the accusation. The Minister said that evasive answers to questions can be justified because

"much of the Government activity is much more like playing poker than playing chess. You can't put all your cards up at one time." Obviously there must be certain cases when Ministers cannot be completely candid to the House ; perhaps matters relating to sterling and defence are examples. But the Minister, in his misdirected candour, failed to recognise the distinction between the national or public interest on the one hand and narrow party political interest on the other. He failed to see the distinction between lie avoidance and truth evasion, and he unwittingly identified for us all one of the Government's serious attacks on ministerial accountability to the House.

I believe that Whitehall's guidance on parliamentary questions must be reviewed and rewritten, and freedom of information legislation would be an important back-up to effective parliamentary accountability. Already this afternoon, there have been questions about the effectiveness of Prime Minister's Question Time. This is a part of the parliamentary day and it is apparently what most attracts television producers.

Looking back at Hansard for 1974--before television--I was interested to note that the then Prime Minister, now Lord Wilson, and the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who sometimes we think still is, were able to exchange real information. The Leader of the Opposition asked only one question and did not make three miniature speeches, and there were not three miniature speeches in reply from the Prime Minister.

Does it really persuade any hon. Member--let alone the public--that that 15 -minute partisan jousting match elicits information ? Does any hon. Member really believe that the series of miniature speeches from the Leader of the Opposition, the patsy questions from Government Members and the point scoring of the Prime Minister in reply produce any form of accountability ? The traditional view of Prime Minister's Question Time is that is the centrepiece of parliamentary democracy. Heaven help us if it is.

A number of suggestions have been put forward and I was delighted to see that the Prime Minister agreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) that there is a need for reform ; but we must see what is on the table. I have great sympathy with the view of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that advance notice will just give more warning to the Prime Minister of how partisan he can be on the day.

Mr. Simon Hughes : Does my hon. Friend also accept that it would be helpful to democracy if Prime Ministers in this country did what Prime Ministers in other European countries do, which is to accept that good ideas do not always come from their own party and to say so publicly at Question Time and also to apologise when they and their Governments have made mistakes ?

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Mr. Tyler : Having now given proportional representation to hon. Members from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, I do not propose to take any more interventions.

I agree very much with my hon. Friend. It is interesting that the Australian and New Zealand Parliaments--where I understand they have advance warning of questions--have not achieved any improvement in their Prime Minister's Question Time, but that in the Scandinavian Parliaments, to which I think my hon. Friend is particularly referring, there have been notable improvements.

I believe that unless we deal with the root disease, we will not achieve any improvements in the beer garden of Prime Minister's Question Time. But that is much more deep-seated than simply giving advance notice.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : The hon. Gentleman read that wrong-- he means bear garden.

Mr. Tyler : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kindly intervention.

I shall now move on to the matter of extra-parliamentary accountability, and the many institutions that have been taken away from us and which are no longer accountable to us through Ministers. The growth of quangos under the Government has been dramatic.

Mr. Skinner : There are 7,000.

Mr. Tyler : There are 5,521 quangos, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, if one adds the next steps agencies the total rises to 7,000. In 1993, those quangos spent £50 billion of taxpayers' money without our having the opportunity to bring them to book here in the House. Parliament's opportunities to question them are very limited and our ability, even in Select Committees, to ensure that they are answerable is very constricted by the Osmotherly rules. The hiving off of those many unaccountable organisations is an affront to the effective parliamentary democracy of this country. I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will cite just one example of such behaviour.

A few months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Further and Higher Education to intervene in a dispute over contracts of employment at the City of Bath college of further education. The Minister said that he could not do so. The Further Education Funding Council said that it had no power to intervene and the college governors said that they had delegated responsibility for such matters to the college principal. On the very same day that the Minister said that he could not intervene, however, he announced that he would hold back £50 million from further education colleges nationwide if they did not establish new, more flexible staff contracts. What bunkum it is when Ministers pretend that they cannot intervene.

In most cases, all too often Ministers dip in and out of controversies, simply to suit themselves. Awkward questions about the practical implications of their policy decisions are often sideswiped to agency heads. Witness what has happened to the Child Support Agency. It is surely objectionable that Secretaries of State have sub-contracted state responsibilities for prisons, higher education and social security benefits.

A veil has been placed between Parliament and those who are responsible for public services. I believe that the

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next steps agencies should be put on a statutory basis so that we in Parliament know where we stand in relation to them and can bring them back under parliamentary control.

As for the examination, criticism and approval of legislation, Parliament is still passing far too much legislation and even more speedily than it did in 1974, when I was previously a Member of the House. The speed at which legislation is considered has been a source of criticism for many years, but the pace is accelerating. Although the House spends about one third of its total time considering Government legislation, there is little effective scrutiny of Bills. All too often, they are considered in a hasty, excessively partisan and sloppy manner. For a variety of reasons, including partisanship, lack of resources and insufficient technical expertise, Standing Committees do not always scrutinise Bills properly. In performing our legislative role, Parliament has not done itself justice in the eyes of the public.

I believe that it would be better if, pre-legislation, Select Committees were empowered to instigate consultation and examination of legislation rather than for that to be left, always, to White Papers and departmental trawls, which the Government have conspicuously failed to make effective.

I will cite, briefly, three examples of poor legislative work. On the Railways Bill, the Government produced a huge number of amendments on the day that they were due to be debated. Once those amendments had been pulled apart, they were withdrawn, but further amendments were tabled at the eleventh hour. Therefore, once that Bill had received Royal Assent, a supplementary Bill had to be introduced to tidy up the mistakes. The Criminal Justice Bill of 1993 required about 100 Government amendments and some parts of it were not even capable of being enacted.

The House spent hours debating the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, the Maastricht Bill, but that time could easily have been halved if there had been prior agreement on the length of debate on each group of amendments. Existing procedures allowed for lengthy filibustering, which was meaningless because it was virtually impossible to amend the Bill. The majority of amendments selected for debate were either wrecking or probing ones. During the Committee and Report stages, there were 24 closures, which meant that about six hours were wasted while hon. Members went through the Lobby. The delaying tactic of "motion to report progress" was used on three occasions.

The Committee stage of the Bill took 163 hours over 23 days, and more than 600 amendments were tabled. Yet the Foreign Secretary told the House that, in effect, the vital amendment No. 27 on the social chapter would have no legal impact whether it was passed or not. What an extraordinary comment on our proceedings.

Few outside observers believe that we are too scrupulous in our examination of legislation, yet the Government curtail Parliament's consideration of important Bills by using the guillotine procedure. In December, the Government took two Bills through all their stages in just two days. We need to change Parliament's procedures so that there is more time for the scrutiny of legislation. We need to give Select Committees a greater role in preparing legislation for the House.

A matter of further concern is the increased use of, and scope for, statutory instruments. In 1993, there were 3,276 statutory instruments--two thirds more than 10 years ago.

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Four statutory instruments are now in force for each statute. What degree of scrutiny does the House exercise when fewer than a quarter of Prayers are debated and about a third of statutory instruments are not subject to parliamentary procedures ? Statutory instruments are growing like Topsy. Even when they are debated, they are not fully scrutinised in Committee. It should be possible to move amendments within the rules of debate. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn attention to the way in which those devices are used increasingly for political ends rather than for legislative means. That must be reversed.

The Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, on which other hon. Members may wish to speak, takes the matter a stage further with the so-called Henry VIII clauses. The 1932 report of the Donoughmore committee said that those would be used only in exceptional circumstances. They will now be used increasingly.

The Select Committee on Procedure was permitted to examine the best way to give some semblance of effective scrutiny to "fast track" procedure, but it was not allowed to consider whether there should be one at all. Of course, its limited recommendations fell foul of the Government Whips.

The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will no doubt speak about his Committee's recommendations and I shall not deal with those in detail at this stage. But is it not remarkable, if not deplorable, that the usual channels are currently carving up what was intended to be a report for the full House and Back-Bench Members in particular ?

The domination of the party in British politics has been effectively analysed by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) in both his academic and practitioner roles. I hope, Madam Speaker, that he will catch your eye, because he can obviously develop his argument better than I.

Mr. Burns : He is not here.

Mr. Tyler : I am sure that his absence from this important debate will be brief. He sums up his case as follows :

"My argument, then, is that party substitutes for constitution in Britain (with party groups substituting for effective scrutiny) and that provides for a winner-takes-all kind of politics."

There is a deep-seated malaise in our Parliament and politics. The medieval jousting in this Chamber is as irrelevant to the real concerns of the British people as the mumbo-jumbo of our neo-Gothic rituals. Only the built -in self-interest of the cosy cartel, which Front-Bench Members are only too happy to maintain, as it monopolises power between two rival and alternating establishments, keeps it that way.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Tyler : In 1780, the House passed a motion that the power of the Crown

Several hon. Members rose

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