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Column 53about local government reform in Humberside want to express an opinion, we could have a mini-debate, as we used to do.
Every hon. Member should appreciate how much more effective he or she could be in reforming the procedures of the House by tabling specific questions. It has always amazed me, both from the perspective of the Back Benches and the Front Bench, how few hon. Members, unlike those of 30 years ago, take the opportunity to table a specific question.
Perhaps I should remind the House why hon. Members have opted for the open question. In the 1970s, Harold Wilson and, even more notably, Jim Callaghan, insisted on transferring questions that they felt could be legitimately answered by Departments of State. That is why we invented the open question.
When I came to the House in 1979, I went to the Table Office to table my first parliamentary question. I asked why I had to table a question about the Prime Minister's engagements. The Clerk replied, "You will be interested to know, Mr. Brown, that the new Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, has indicated that so long as your question is in order for the Government, if you wish to ask your question of her, she will answer it." I asked the Clerk whether that meant I could table a question on inflation, trade union laws or whatever and he replied that the Prime Minister had intimated to the Table Office that that was so.
We could reach an agreement between all the parties that the Prime Minister should not transfer any question that the Table Office deemed acceptable for answer by a representative member of the Government. If hon. Members wanted to table that question to the Prime Minister, Back Benchers could, overnight, return to the so-called golden age of Prime Minister's Question Time, when mini-debates were held.
I suspect, however, that if one reads the exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Times in the 1950s and 1960s without the benefit of rose-tinted spectacles, they will appear as much of a bear garden as some might say today's Prime Minister's Question Time has become. It will always be so, because, as hon. Members have already said, this is a debating Chamber. This is where we expect the cut and thrust. The Liberal party is somewhat naive
Mr. Brown : I note what my hon. Friend says.
The Liberal party is naive to have a discussion based on an airy-fairy notion that the public are fed up with the cut and thrust of debate. Members of the Liberal party are only too happy to go in for the cut and thrust of debate on the doorstep, when they say all sorts of things that may or may not be true of their political opponents, when it comes to trying to win by-elections. I make no complaint about that ; it is political life. When politicians are fighting on the doorstep a by- election, county council elections or European elections, it is perfectly right for them, in a democratic society, to choose to use whatever tactic they think will most advance their cause. It is the same in here as it is out there ; that is the richness of our democracy.
Notwithstanding the warnings of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, perhaps there is a case for making some reforms to our procedures now. After all, we spent a lot of time three years ago commissioning my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and his colleagues to study some of our procedures. We should tap
Column 54into the mood that appears to exist across the Chamber in favour of making some reforms. There is no doubt that the House and hon. Members of today are different types from those of 30 years ago. We must recognise that there is a mood in the House for some reform of procedures. We should not accept the terms of the Liberal motion, however, but take the Jopling report as our reference point. Whether we are talking about an individual Conservative or Opposition Back Bencher or a Conservative or Opposition Government, the arcane procedures--calls for the reform of which get cheap claps from our constituents--are the very procedures that sometimes guarantee us, as individual Members, our greatest powers.
Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South) : In practice, our Parliament exists to provide the members of a Government and to scrutinise their proposals and their actions to the extent that that Government will allow. That is the problem. It is absolutely clear that that is no longer good enough. Our system of the combination of powers--having Ministers drawn from the legislature--always carries with it the danger of an ineffective Parliament. The Government have exploited that to the full.
In the course of studying Parliament for some years, I have carried out research into parliamentary reform and I have interviewed hon. Members and Officers of the House. I was surprised at the lack of demand for reform and the absence of imagination as to what our Parliament could be. In fact, our Parliament could be made much more effective quite easily, without any procedural revolution. Two steps are necessary above all else. First, more powers should be given to the Speaker, because the independence of the Speaker is greatly under-exploited. Secondly, more powers and resources should be given to Select and Standing Committees.
The central problem is the overweening power of the Government over Parliament, which diminishes our democratic accountability. Our system is extraordinarily deficient in defending citizens' rights. Indeed, we have no rights which are not in the gift of Government to award or take away. As a consequence of that, Britain has been found guilty of infringing human rights by the European Court of Human Rights more often than any other country that is a signatory to the convention on human rights. In 27 cases, we have been required by the European Court to provide remedies to our citizens. It is clear that Britain should enact the European convention in our own domestic legislation so that British citizens would have direct redress through our courts instead of suffering the protracted processes of the European Court.
We devote the greatest part of our time--about a third--to legislation, yet badly drafted and defective legislation is rushed through the House. Examples are the Football Spectators Bill, the Dangerous Dogs Bill, the poll tax legislation and the Child Support Act 1991. The Government will not allow adequate time or resources for expert consideration. The special Bill procedure, which would allow Standing Committees to take evidence from witnesses on the purposes and likely effect of a Bill, has been used four times in 15 years and has not been used since 1984. Yet when it was used, it was pronounced a
Column 55resounding success both by the Opposition and by Ministers subject to cross-examination under the procedure.
Every year, we examine 2,500 pages of primary legislation, yet some 10,000 pages of secondary legislation are pushed through the House with little discussion and no scope for amendment. Much of it is important, filling in the detail of primary legislation or determining such crucial issues as social security entitlements.
Mr. Dalyell : Hon. Members on the controversial Standing Committee on Scottish local government reform, which sat for 177 hours, pleaded courteously and seriously that the witness procedure be brought into operation at the first opportunity, but our wish was absolutely denied. It was not for want of trying.
Mr. Garrett : I am sure that it was not for want of trying. When the Standing Committee on the highly complex Companies Bill voted for the special Bill procedure to be used, the Government refused. Avoiding parliamentary authorisation all together, the Government have used the royal prerogative ruthlessly--in effect, government by proclamation--to enable the United States to bomb Libya from places in Britain to declare the Gulf War to authorise jury vetting and telephone tapping to regulate the civil service and to ban unions at GCHQ.
The Government use a derivative of the royal prerogative--Crown immunity-- to enable Departments to avoid the requirements of such protective statutes as health and safety legislation, as they affect Departments. I cannot see the justification for continuing the royal prerogative, because everything covered by it could easily be set before us properly in primary legislation.
We have inadequate arrangements for pre-legislative consideration and no post-legislative scrutiny. When an Act becomes unworkable, no arrangements exist for the Standing Committee that examined it in the first place to examine its implementation and call Ministers to account.
The Government have also been ruthless in their use of the guillotine, which was used six times between 1950 and 1960, and 43 times between 1979 and 1990. In that area of legislation, new powers should be given to the Speaker. For example, the Speaker should deem any Bill that infringes citizens' rights to require exceptionally careful and lengthy examination with, for instance, evidence-taking sessions by a Standing Committee or the use of a qualifying majority. The Speaker should also determine the timetabling of Bills so that adequate time is given for discussing important or controversial legislation.
Parliament's investigatory functions should be enhanced. It is worth noting that the relationship of Government, civil servants and Ministers to parliamentary Committees is governed by the Osmotherly rules, "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" and the Armstrong memorandum, none of which have any statutory force or have been approved by the House. They are simply codes of practice which the Government drop on Select Committees and attempt to enforce. Since their reform in 1979, Select Committees have been successful, but their work is hopelessly superficial and partial and they do not fulfil their terms of reference. They are established to examine policy, spending and administration, but concentrate exclusively on policy.
Column 56They rarely look at Departments' management or spending, mainly because they cannot marshall the expertise or get expert staff to examine the details. A staff of two or three is clearly inadequate for a Select Committee to examine Departments' management and spending, particularly now that the machinery of Government has become so complex and has far outstripped the machinery of Parliament.
A typical Select Committee was originally set up to examine the policy, spending and management of one or two Departments. Now, a typical Select Committee is faced with examining one or two ministerial headquarters ; five to 10 agencies ; several score quangos ; and innumerable contracts with private contractors. They cannot hope to cope with the explosion of information.
As in so many areas, we get Select Committees, which do a reasonable job within their limits, on the cheap. All the Select Committees cost some £3 million a year, of which £2 million is for printing reports. Much more investment must be made in Select Committees if they are to call Ministers to account effectively. They need expert staff capable of analysing the work of Departments, quangos and agencies, and their management and spending programmes. Those skills should be provided by a new research department in the House, staffed by accountants, analysts and specialists. There should also be a department of the Opposition, capable of providing civil service skills to Opposition Members on Standing Committees. The growth of the flow of information from Government agencies and what I have called elsewhere the "dismemberment" of Government--the turning of Government from a unified civil service to a constellation of different agencies--has been matched by no growth whatever in Select Committees' analytical skills. I hope that a current issue in that area will be raised this week on the Floor of the House. I proposed to the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee that it should carry out a survey on civil servants' attitudes. It is conducting a study of the future of the civil service, but it is not enough simply to examine the great and the good--Ministers, experts and trade union leaders. It is also important to find out how that revolution in government affects ordinary civil servants. I made the proposal, first, because it is necessary and, secondly, because I wanted to study the principle that Select Committees have the right to a research budget. To my surprise, the Committee accepted the proposal, yet the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has refused point blank to allow it to be carried out. Not only is that a breach of privilege but he should be censured for it. Although that Committee can summon 500 civil servants to give oral evidence whenever it wants, the Chancellor of the Duchy refuses to allow it to write to 500 civil servants. I hope that we shall have a debate and censure the Chancellor of the Duchy on that subject.
There are many other examples of the Government's authoritarian, reactionary and anachronistic attitude to Parliament, such as the facilities accorded to Members, the unfriendliness of Parliament to visitors and our constituents, and Parliament's supine attitude in defence of its rights. It is time for a thorough review of the Parliament's role, and I offer a few headings under which such a review could be carried out.
Contrary to constitutional theory, there are some important functions in which Parliament should have an independent locus and standing, neither conferred by the monarch nor in the gift of Government. First, all the
Column 57expenditure authorised by Parliament should be audited. At present, that is not allowed. Secondly, our citizens should be educated in parliamentary democracy. We spend virtually nothing on that aspect of our work. Thirdly, we should improve the quality and intelligibility of legislation. That is a matter for Parliament, not the Government, and the Speaker should ensure that legislation is examined for workability and intelligibility. Fourthly, we should protect and advance civil rights. Parliament has a duty to advance civil rights. Fifthly, we should enact and supervise freedom of information and, sixthly, we should oversee the responsible transfer of authority to the European Parliament. That is happening anyway and it should be done properly.
Those demands are not great. If they are to be implemented, we need a progressive Leader of the House who fulfils his terms of reference. Let me remind the Leader of the House of his terms of reference in the "Civil Service List" :
"to uphold the rights and privileges of the House as a whole". In my time, two Leaders of the House have attempted seriously to push forward parliamentary reform--Richard Crossman and Lord St. John of Fawsley. Since the time of Lord St. John of Fawsley, the Leader of the House--I am sorry to say it, because the right hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) is an amiable enough person--has been transformed from someone whose business is to defend the rights and privileges of the House to someone who simply acts as the Cabinet's major-domo.
Mr. Tony Banks : For the time being.
Mr. Garrett : For the time being. I hope that we get a better one. That is a depressing conclusion. I should have preferred the Leader of the House, instead of spending the first third of his speech being rude to the Liberals or whoever in that silly, schoolboyish way, to devote his attention to what the House of Commons is for and how its rights could be established and entrenched.
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : What a difference an hour makes. An hour ago, the serried ranks of the Liberal Democrats were present for their motion, all sitting "doughnutting" for the television cameras that they knew would be on them. Now the rag-tag and bobtail of the Liberal Democrats remain. Their opening spokesman does not even do them the courtesy of being here to listen to the debate in time for the closing speeches.
This is an issue of great importance to the House of Commons and it is very much an issue which, as many previous contributors to the debate said, can be tackled only through the agreement of the House of Commons and not the imposition of the Executive.
The platitudinous motion, which could have been written on the back of an envelope in the Cock and Bull public house simply to try to appeal to as many people as possible, does not do a service to the House or further the debate. The opening speech did not add much to our sum of knowledge of the subject, except for the extremely interesting admission that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) extracted from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) who admitted that the public's perception of the Liberal Democrats as politicians was that they were lazy and not especially interested in this place. I think that the House of Commons
Column 58deserves better than that, although I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East for at least getting some honesty out of the Liberal Democrats.
The motion begins with the words :
"That this House notes the increasing public contempt for Parliament".
That is trite and when, as an individual, one asks one's constituents about Parliament, one does not receive that answer. Yes, one does receive answers that Prime Minister's Question Time and other big House of Commons occasions may be too rowdy, although people certainly concentrate on watching and listening to them on television and radio because they find them informative, interesting and entertaining. That cannot be taken away, as the figures clearly show it.
I would argue that the contempt that people feel is not for the work that goes on in this Chamber or in the Standing Committees and Select Committees, or for the work that we all do as individual hon. Members on our constituency cases, which was so graphically described by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) in her argument about the hours that we should work. The contempt is at the sharp end of politics which spills over into the House, but which people come up against on the streets and in our constituencies at election time. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but most people respect and admire the campaigning tactics of the Labour party and the Conservative party but utterly reject the campaigning tactics of the Liberal Democrats. They will reject the use of their leaflets. We have seen the handbooks that have leaked into the press, all of which contribute to the contempt of Parliament, telling the Liberal Democrats to jump on to a bandwagon when they know the result so that they can claim the credit when the decision has been taken, and to falsify the opinion polls, to cause confusion in the minds of the electorate as to who may be the main challenger, so that it will benefit the Liberal Democrats. All members of the Labour party and the Conservative party know those tactics. The sad fact of life is that, although it is far divorced from the work in the House, those tactics enhance and increase the contempt for politicians as a profession and for the House of Commons.
Bold statements were made today about there not being enough scrutiny. One of the specific examples given by the hon. Member for North Cornwall was that there was not enough scrutiny in the Committees upstairs. I do not know how many Committees the hon. Gentleman has served on in the past two years when he has been a Member of the House, but I have served on a number of Committees in the past seven years and I have witnessed the line-by-line examination of the Bills that come before us. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats made a positive complaint about the scrutiny that takes place in those Standing Committees.
I take as an example the recent Standing Committee on the Intelligence Services Bill. That important issue was taken upstairs in Committee for vigorous examination before returning to the Floor of the House. One would expect the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) to be an expert on that subject as GCHQ is in his constituency. The people of Cheltenham--and also the hon. Member for North Cornwall, if he had done some research before he made that criticism--might be surprised to learn that the hon. Member for Cheltenham did not turn up to all the sittings of that Committee although it was not only a constituency issue, but, according to the hon. Member for
Column 59North Cornwall, an important area in which we must scrutinise the legislation passing through the House and where the House is failing, according to the hon. Gentleman, because it is not taken seriously enough.
If one wishes to make criticisms of procedures in the House--and heaven knows, criticisms can be made--one should at least do it when one's party is whiter than white and squeaky clean. It does no good to the party of the hon. Member for North Cornwall to try to bring the House into disrepute by making accusations of that nature when many hon. Members from all political parties spend a great deal of time in Standing Committees, monitoring and examining the legislation that passes through Parliament.
I was also interested to hear several criticisms about the oral question system in the House. I shall take one example, which my Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) mentioned. Specific criticism was made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall about Ministers replying to questions by saying that they would write to the questioner giving greater details as an answer to the question. That is fine if it will increase the knowledge and information that the hon. Gentleman or Lady who has asked the question requires. Moreover, the hon. Member for North Cornwall is quite wrong to criticise that as a failure of the questioning system when exactly that stance was taken this afternoon in the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham from the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend who was answering questions this afternoon, the name of whose constituency I cannot remember.
Mr. Kirkwood : Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Mr. Burns : If it is all right for the right hon. Member for Berwick -upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to do it, it is reasonable for Ministers to do the same thing when they feel that it would enhance the knowledge that they can impart to a colleague.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will forgive me if I say that while I congratulate him and his colleagues on their report, I wish to make several arguments on the subject.
The recommendation to complete the sitting days Monday to Thursday by 10 o'clock and Fridays by 2.30 pm is, in many ways, attractive and appealing. We would not have the ridiculous situation, which even Members who entered the House after 1987 have had to go through, of being here until 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock or even later in the morning. Obviously, no one in their right mind can think straight and do a decent job of work at those hours on top of all the work that they have done in the morning and afternoon of what may be the preceding day but is still the same parliamentary day. However, I repeat the caution issued by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) : if our sitting hours are restricted, the powers of the Executive are increased.
Although I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, I worked here between 1975 and 1979, when the Labour Government had a small majority and then lost it. The House was kept sitting for long hours, night after night. That may have been a crashing bore for hon. Members on
Column 60both sides of the House--regrettably, it may even have caused some health problems--but it gave Back Benchers and the Opposition of the day more powers to seek to limit and control the Executive. That may be an arcane way of operating the procedures of the House, but I do not consider it wise to jump on the bandwagon of automatically restricting the hours of the House to set times that are unrealistically short. That would limit the powers of Back Benchers--the members of the awkward squad about whom we heard in earlier speeches today- -and of the Opposition.
Mr. Tony Banks : One aspect of the Parliament to which the hon. Gentleman referred was the narrowness of the then Government's majority. Indeed, in a sense they were not a majority Government. In such circumstances, the Back Bencher's power becomes far greater. In subsequent Parliaments, with a Government majority of more than 100, it was obviously far more difficult for the Opposition to catch all Conservative Members out at the same massage parlour on the same night. The power of the Back Bencher is, in a sense, commensurate with the size of the Government's majority.
Mr. Burns : The hon. Gentleman is right, up to a point. Clearly, it would rarely be possible to whittle away a large Government majority ; but if the system and the sitting hours are used to demoralise the Government of the day and their Back Benchers and to argue constantly against whatever is the current issue, it is potentially easier to persuade the Government to backtrack or amend legislation. If we operate in a fixed, rigid straitjacket, the Government will know that at 10 pm or at 2.30 pm that will be it : they will have their legislation.
I merely caution hon. Members to think carefully. I fear that I shall be an old man before it happens, but at some point--probably just before my retirement--we shall have a non-Conservative Government. The torch of opposition will be passed to my younger colleagues, with whom I shall have grown up ; I may not have had the experience of opposition. They will feel frustrated if they are put in a straitjacket and prevented from opposing because they have been deprived of the time in which to harry the Government in the traditional way.
Mr. Garrett : In two consecutive sentences of an increasingly fatuous speech, the hon. Gentleman said both that the smallness of a majority enabled Government Back Benchers to exercise more power and that they were demoralised. Which was it ?
Mr. Burns : I said that if the Opposition harried the Government, and kept it up night after night, Government and Back Benchers might become demoralised by the sheer physical fatigue of the exercise and the increased time available to Opposition Members to argue their case for change. The Government might then backtrack or amend legislation. I did not say that that would definitely happen, but it is a possibility that would not exist if the Government of the day knew that at 10 pm, for instance, the business must end and a Bill or a Report stage would be secure.
I certainly believe that the time came many years ago for us to amend the early-day motion system radically. It is a gross abuse, and a ridiculous, pathetic opportunity for parliamentary graffiti. Some absurd motions have clearly been tabled for the benefit of the "Wapping Times", the
Column 61"Brentwood Gazette" or whatever the Member of Parliament's local paper may be. We should get a grip : the system is a waste of time and money which genuinely misleads the public. Special interest lobbying groups tell them, "Write to your Member of Parliament : get him to vote for this motion, or sign that motion--we can change the world by ensuring that it is passed by the House of Commons." As we all know, most of these ridiculous motions never see the light of day on the Floor of the House. Some of those prayed against by the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats reach the Floor of the House or are dealt with in Committee : that, indeed, is what the procedure should be for. The others, however, are a waste of time. The system should be changed as quickly as possible, to save time and money and to lower the expectations of people outside who assume that because the motions are on the Order Paper of the House of Commons they are much more important than they are. I hope that the issue will be re-examined soon by my right hon. Friend and by the relevant Committee.
I welcome the reference in the report to restricting ways and means debates to 45 minutes. The late Bob Cryer was a past master in this regard, rightly using the procedure to highlight what he perceived as injustices or other faults in legislation, but open-ended ways and means debates were potentially vulnerable to abuse. The implementation of the recommendation for reform will benefit the workings of the House.
Paragraph 98 of the report, which deals with proxy voting, recommends that
"the Speaker and representatives of all parties should convene a conference with a view to making recommendations on this matter." Again, I urge caution. Part of the nature of the Chamber is that we must enter the Aye and No Lobbies through what some may consider archaic procedures. After eight minutes, the doors are locked and they are not unlocked until the end of the vote. We cannot have a system--I accept that the recommendation does not suggest such a system, but it has been suggested--enabling hon. Members to press a button to vote. There are only 437 places in the Chamber, and it does not possess the "desk" system that many other legislatures have. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East has suggested pressing buttons in the Lobby walls. I do not think that that would work ; it does not get round the system of proxy votes. If we are to vote here, all who wish to vote should be present to cast their votes. The 1979 general election was triggered by the fact that one Labour Member was unable to come to the House to vote ; due to illness, he had to stay up in Yorkshire. Paradoxically, I believe, a late Member of Parliament who represented Fermanagh and South Tyrone came over as a guest of the Labour Whips to abstain in person--much to the shock of the Labour Whips who, having flown him over, had apparently locked him in the Strangers Bar with plenty of light refreshment to keep him happy. It would take away a great deal from the nature of the Chamber and the way in which we do our business if we were to introduce a form of proxy vote.
Mr. Jopling : I am interested in what my hon. Friend says as I did a little research into the matter some years ago. We know that the average large Division in this House takes about 12 minutes. I inquired into the amount of time it takes for a Division in the United States, which has electronic voting. I discovered that even with that system
Column 62a Division takes no less time. In addition, our system of voting gives Back Benchers a tremendous opportunity to buttonhole and cross-examine, on the move, members of the Executive.
Mr. Burns : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I whole- heartedly agree with him, especially on his latter point. As he says, our system gives us a golden opportunity to speak to Ministers and even the Prime Minister, which would not be possible with a different voting system.
We could, however, make a change which would not need legislation or debate and end the prolonging of open-ended debates and the wasting of time by the calling of unnecessary and fatuous votes simply to delay our Adjournment each evening. It is within the power of even just two hon. Members to call a Division. If Members would act in a more mature and restrained manner, we could overcome that problem.
We could also overcome the ridiculous procedure that has been evident on Fridays in recent months of hon. Members calling "I spy Strangers" simply to disrupt the business. On one occasion in December it was done to obtain an automatic change of business because there were not sufficient hon. Members present to vote--despite the fact that it was an extremely important debate in which a number of hon. Members wanted to participate because it was of specific interest to their constituents. After about an hour and a quarter of that debate, which should have lasted five hours, it was automatically curtailed through the arrogance of two hon. Members who felt that it was their duty and right to end a debate in which they had no interest. There is something ridiculous about a system which allows that and it could be amended overnight by hon. Members behaving in a more restrained and respectable way.
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) : Anyone listening to this debate and hoping that the decline of Parliament will be arrested or reversed will be disappointed--unless he or she is married to a member of this Government or the next Government, in which case they will be delighted because it is obvious that the system is dominated by the Executive or the alternative Executive. If we add together the members of the Government, their Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the shadow Cabinet--almost as numerous as the Government--the former Ministers who still think as they did when they were in the Executive, the "wanabees"--those who would do almost anything to become members of the Executive--and those Members of Parliament who are coasting gently towards retirement or life after death in another place, the potential block of reformers diminishes to such an extent that hardly anyone is left to bear the torch of parliamentary reform. There are those who are happy to watch the game of Government and Parliament being played between the Government and Opposition Front Benches. In a way, we undervalue ourselves as individuals, as parties and as a collective if we assume that once we make that journey in a car driven by a chauffeur and have our hands in a red box, somehow qualitatively and in intelligence and knowledge we are apart from the rest--that somehow on the two Front Benches there is a monopoly of competence and a residue of all the intellect, demands and requirements necessary for governing a country. Many people still think that, but surely experience should have taught even them that that perspective is wrong.
Column 63I do not argue for a Congress-style government. The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) spoke of Congress being rather bland. I would swap the noise and excitement of this House for a little of the blandness of the US Congress because that is a real legislature--a policy-making legislature and not a policy-influencing or rubber-stamp legislature such as this place has been for a century. We shall go into the next century as supine in relation to the for the moment invisible Executive as we have been in the past.
Some of us do not necessarily want our Chamber to be called a legislature if we do not meet the basic requirements of a legislature. Almost every part of our society has seen major change during the past 20 to 50 years. Few structures in society have been left unaltered ; yet parliamentary procedures and structures have been left almost intact. Apart from the lack of top hats, beards and gas lighting, a returning Disraeli or Gladstone or an analyst such a Trollope would find the House of Commons almost exactly as he had left it.
There have been changes--many, many changes--to the way in which our procedural proposals have been implemented, but let us not mistake change for reform. Changes there have been many ; reforms there have been few. There has been much constitutional tinkering, but what is needed is basic reform--not necessarily immediate reform of the structures, but first a reform of attitude. I suspect that the attitude to reform is as weak now as it ever has been.
Some 10 years ago, after the 1980-81 reforms, I wrote a chapter on parliamentary reform in a book and I was rather excited about the changes that had taken place. Using something of a D-Day analogy 10 years in anticipation, I said that we had now stormed the beach head and it remained only to fan out into enemy territory and capture more and more of the bastions held by the Executive. Ten years later, however, we are as far away from reform as ever. Reform flickers on, kept alive by a few distinguished colleagues--my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) is one, and there are hon. Members on both sides who maintain the desire for reform--but tradition is strong and inertia even stronger.
In the early 1980s, there were many important changes. There was a Procedure Committee report in the mid-1970s, although only about one third of its recommendations were implemented. In 1980, we gained Select Committees, Special Standing Committees, better staffing levels, better salaries, financial reform and a House of Commons Commission. Those were substantial changes. I had hoped that a new Parliament would be strong enough to defy the Executive in some ways. There was a large influx of Conservative Members who previously had been in business, who were used to being the shakers and the movers. I had hoped that when they came to this place they would shake and move--and so they did, but into inertia. The result was that those reforms stalled and came to nothing. The Leader of the House mentioned the few little, titillating things that may come about. That is not fundamental reform. It is reforming on the edges and it will not remotely deal with the fundamental weakness of this House. We are too supine, too prepared to listen to what the Government say on their side of the House and to what our
Column 64Front-Bench spokesmen and spokeswomen say on ours. Those great days of the 1970s were great days because Government Back Benchers had some influence. The Government had to take their own Back Benchers into account, which is not often done. The Opposition were happy because they had a great input in decision making. The Liberal party was happy because, for a while, it had some sort of input into decision making.
I hoped that the Select Committee on Procedure and that environment of the 1970s would provide the push for reform, which would have made the House a genuine legislature. What happened after the first reforms which introduced the four Special Standing Committees ? Why was that experiment abandoned ? It was abandoned for one simple reason. The Bills considered were non- contentious and absolutely non-controversial. The Criminal Attempts Bill--a little
controversial--the Education Bill, the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Bill and the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill were not basically fundamental dividing pieces of legislation, but the Government got a bloody nose. One Bill to amend the sus law was based, apparently, on the recommendations of a professor from Nottingham, but when he came before the inquiry part of the Standing Committee he said that he might have supported the Bill's principles a little time previously, but that, having seen the legislation drafted, he was totally opposed to it. It was game, set and match, and clause 1 of the Bill was withdrawn. It happened to the other Bills, too, so the Government said that they did not want the legislature to start legislating because it would be the end of the existing system of government. I have set examination questions, such as "Legislation is more the function of Government than the legislature--discuss," and it is absolutely true.
Special Standing Committees are out of the window. Select Committees, the St. John-Stevas--or the Jopling--reforms were very important, but what happened afterwards ? What powers did we have ? We had great powers to send for persons and papers, to meet from time to time, to appoint advisers. They were basic powers, but the whole thing hardly amounted to a row of beans. We may increase the transparency of Government, if they are prepared to have a little light shone on their activities, but after some 14 years of Select Committees and a great deal of effort involving staff, witnesses, advisers and hon. Members, what have we achieved ? On how many occasions have we compelled the Government to change their mind ? I suspect that the answer would not be too illuminating because it would be too humiliating to admit that, after thousands and thousands of hours of endeavour, we have made precious little impact on the process of decision making.
With other hon. Members, I have talked to those involved in the newly emerging democracies in eastern Europe. I was in eastern Europe quite recently and people there said that it was wonderful to have me come along from the mother of Parliaments, with a fine Defence Committee, and asked me to tell them what we do. They asked me to give them the secrets of our control over the budgetary process. I said, "I am sorry, but we do not have much control". They asked me what control we had over intelligence services. I said, "I am sorry, but we do not have any control at all over the intelligence services". They asked me to tell them what impact our Select Committees have on legislation. I said, "Actually, the process of legislation and the Select Committee procedure are quite
Column 65separate. We have not the slightest effect on the legislative process". They said to me, "You are on the Defence Committee, Mr. George. What impact does your Committee have on the procurement process ? How much of your budget is taken up with defence expenditure ? What part do you play in deciding whether major or smaller items of expenditure are allowed to continue ? I said, "I am very sorry, but we do not have the slightest impact." It is humiliating and embarrassing. I am not surprised that they are not asking us to tell them any more about how to become a Parliament, as we have very little to tell them. In the Ukraine recently I asked someone what they did in their Parliament and they rattled off a list of functions and powers. I told that person that people there had have achieved more in two years than we had in 700 ; they should not be listening to us--we should shut up and listen to them.
Mr. Jopling : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that most members of the departmental Select Committees in the House would die of shock if they were told that they had to deal with legislation as well ?
Mr. George : It is not that members or supporters of the Government would necessarily feel excluded. I suspect that, if we had Special Standing Committees, Members on the Opposition Front Bench would feel a little excluded from the process. I should like to see Select Committees having a bigger legislative role. We spend a lot of time on the issues of foreign affairs, defence and education and it may be sensible that those people who develop an expertise should have some input into the process of legislation.
I am sorry to have gone on for far too long--almost as long as the Minister, the Opposition spokesman and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Back Benchers will probably spend less than half the amount of time talking about parliamentary reform that those on the Front Benches took. I am conducting a survey of defence committees in 50 countries throughout the world and one thing is patently obvious from the 35 replies that I have received. I can put historical and contemporary defence committees from all those countries into three bundles. The United States Congress is alone. At the other end of the continuum is the supreme soviet of the Soviet Union and those former communist eastern European legislatures which had no effect on policy whatever. I would put the mass of other legislatures in the middle, but they all do more on their defence committees than we do. We have one thing in common with France : we are both supine legislatures, totally dominated by our respective Executives. So long as we are prepared to tolerate that
Mr. Garrett : Will my hon. Friend give way ?
Mr. George : Yes, but I was about to finish.
Mr. Garrett : I very much sympathise with what my hon. Friend says and he is absolutely right, but surely our Select Committees have all the terms of reference that they need. All that they lack is the ambition on the part of their members to be more effective. That is the heart of problem.
Mr. George : I said earlier that it was an attitudinal problem more than a procedural problem. Our Defence Committee is very active, there is a 76 per cent. attendance rate, we produce many reports and we do a very good job, but we have been so used to being spoon fed and to having big brother tell us what to do that we would not know what
Column 66to do if we were given the freedom to do it. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South is absolutely right. There ought to be collusion between all the eight sets of Back Benchers. That happens occasionally when we discuss pay and research assistants, but those are the only occasions on which there is a cross-party Back-Bench alliance. I like to think of myself as a Back Bencher in the House. I am not ashamed of being a Back Bencher only. I am not ashamed that I have not been called to high office. I believe that being a Back Bencher ought to be important, but regrettably it is not important. I should like to see Back Benchers on both sides of the House getting together against the Government Front Bench, the Opposition Front Bench, and perhaps even against hon. Members on some part of the Liberal Democrat Bench, to say that we must do more. We have a collective expertise that is not insignificant. Let us try to exercise those powers more strongly than in the past. Let us try to defy our Front Benches a little more and perhaps we shall see a Palace of Westminster that is vibrant and not merely an echo chamber for our respective Front Benches.
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives) : The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) struck a chord in his concluding remarks with those of us who have never held office, and never will, in this place. I congratulate him on the content of his speech and on the atmosphere that he created. To be honest, I think that he is rather pessimistic about the reforms or changes that have taken place. I suspect that, deep down, he is arguing for a separation of powers between the House and the Government, but that separation cannot take place. A relevant comparison, perhaps, is the way in which the House does its work and the approach adopted by the United States Congress. That, however, is a wider subject and I do not want to trespass on it.
Shortness of time--perhaps this is just as well--precludes me from saying very much about the Liberal Democrats' motion. The leader of that party, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), sets out in his book--I hasten to add that I have not bought a copy ; instead I obtained a copy from the Library--with some pride how he decided to leave the House for two and a half days every week to travel round the country.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates a free plug for "Beyond Westminster : finding hope in Britain". I suppose that most of us do not have the luxury of leaving the House for two and a half days a week, depending on our parliamentary duties. There may be a few who think that the right hon. Gentleman's approach is treating Parliament with contempt, but I let that pass.
I want to talk about the Jopling Committee's report because I was a member of that Committee. I agree very much with the comments of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Indeed, I often agree with the hon. Lady, as she knows so well. We serve together on a Standing Committee on European Documents. I agreed with her so much when she said that the House cannot be treated like a factory. Basically, parliamentary democracy is a messy business. It cannot be organised to the nth degree. In modern Labour party terms, I suppose that I count myself as a moderniser of the House. Given all the arguments that the hon. Lady advanced so
Column 67eloquently, we should not be prevented from trying to do our job or from trying to ensure that the House does its job that much better than it does now.
Things have changed dramatically in the past 20 years or so. I arrived in the Press Gallery as a journalist more than 30 years ago. That being so, I am aware of the changes that have taken place, not least in the workings of the parliamentary press.
Mr. Dalyell : Its representatives are not here.
Mr. Harris : One or two are. At 5 o'clock, there was only one reporter in the Press Gallery, who was from the Press Association. When I came to the Press Gallery decades ago, The Daily Telegraph , for which I worked, had a substantial Gallery staff as well as a Lobby staff. Two of us were always left on until 4 am, which was the final time for the last edition. We remained so that we could flash through to the stop press the immortal words, "The House was still sitting at 4 am." Nowadays, not many journalists are in the Press Gallery, and certainly not after 6 pm. I am not saying, of course, that we should tailor our proceedings in response to the publicity that we get or do not get, but attendance in the Press Gallery is one change in the equation.
There have been many other changes, including some that I think and hope make it inevitable that the time has come for the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). The tragic death of the Leader of the Opposition, the late John Smith, has given impetus to the report. It is recognised that there is a need for change.
In addition, there was the lamentable breakdown of relationships between the two Front Benches a short while ago. I shall not go into the reasons, because I think that most of us have forgotten what the argument was about. That breakdown told us, however, that the Opposition do not achieve their aims by trying to keep the House up all night. Those days have gone. They might have applied some years ago, but the Great British public are certainly not impressed nowadays by the macho business of the House sitting right through the night. That cuts no ice outside. Oppositions do not achieve their aim by going in for those tactics. Governments, both Conservative and Labour, are usually resilient enough to withstand that sort of pressure. As I have said, no one is listening and no one is impressed. That is a great change.
The attitude of the membership of the House has changed. It is true that many of those who have come into the House in recent intakes regard staying up all night as nonsensical.
The most important reason why we should change our procedures is that we need to make the current way in which we approach legislation much more effective. It is nonsensical for us to spend hours and hours, especially in Committee or on Report, either in Committee Rooms or on the Floor of the House, on matters that do not count--time-wasting matters. When that happens, the Government introduce a timetable motion. We then have to rush through the concluding parts of the Bill without due consideration. It is far better to have a sensible timetable--we can argue about how we arrive at it--and consider the Bill in a measured way. I think that that approach will make for much better government.