Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.50 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate on the reform of

4 Jun 1997 : Column 509

the House of Commons. It is important that as a new Member I have been given this chance to express some of the views shared by many new Members coming into the Chamber.

Many of us are quite astounded by some of the things that we have discovered since coming here and we are now learning to get to grips with them. Although it may appear arrogant for a new Member, so early in his parliamentary career, to want to make suggestions about reform, it is important that new Members should have a say in some of the procedures to be considered by the Committee. It is important that new people, seeing all this afresh, can express their views. Of course, we must also respect those individuals who have been in this place for many years and who are aware of the traditions and know far more than I do about the need for reform in certain areas.

One of those traditions is that in a maiden speech it is normal for the new Member to praise his or her predecessor. Some hon. Members on both sides might recognise that, as the new Member of Parliament for Winchester, that tradition presents me with a slight dilemma. To praise my predecessor might be perceived as insulting him, because it is clear that he has yet to admit that he is my predecessor. What should a new Member do in these circumstances? I can certainly say that the former Member of Parliament for Winchester is an individual who never gives up. In his time as a Health Minister, he brought a great deal of intellectual debate to the Conservative party; and he should be credited for having helped the Conservative Government to stabilise their health policy during the past couple of years.

When elected, as I was, by a majority of only two, one starts to realise the importance of democracy and of the tradition of voting. I am amazed by the number of people who have come up to me in the past month and laid claim to those two votes. Many of the police in the House have told me of a relative of theirs living in Winchester, someone who organised a postal vote, or someone who dashed to the polling station just before 10 o'clock. I go to great lengths to inform them that I know where those two votes came from: they are obviously the votes of myself and my wife, so we are responsible for my election.

The message for hon. Members in that tale is the importance of living in one's constituency. I am delighted to be able to live in the constituency of Winchester. It is a constituency with a great history; unfortunately, that history has recently been added to by the longest count ever and the smallest majority in 80 years, but it is nevertheless a most beautiful area in which to live. It stretches to the north to the borders of Basingstoke and vastly to the south, so that one can look out to sea from the outskirts of Portsmouth.

Winchester is a very rural constituency, with a proud tradition, which goes back a long way. I am pleased that I have been called in tonight's debate about the House of Commons because, very many years ago, the Commons did sit in the capital of Wessex, at a time when it was a tradition for Parliament to move around the regions. That would be a radical choice for the Committee to consider, but there may be merit in looking at ways in which we can move some of our debates around the country, to

4 Jun 1997 : Column 510

engage the public in what we are doing and to allow them to see our procedures and debates at first hand in their region.

The constituency's history of democracy is strong. That is demonstrated by the fact that in two years' time we shall elect the 700th mayor of Winchester. Most recently, the city has become established as a centre of excellence in education, not only with the college of Winchester but with King Alfred's college, the art college, Peter Symmonds sixth-form college and the agricultural college at Sparsholt, which helps serve the very rural and agricultural tradition of the constituency that I am proud to live in.

Because I love living in Winchester and am proud to live there, I want to spend more time there and less time in the House in the evenings. I do not want to spend my time--as many new Members have had to--voting at 10 o'clock and realising that a 10 o'clock vote means that we end up leaving the House at 11.30, have a mad scramble to catch a cab and must spend the night in a hotel, when I realise, and must explain to my wife, that I could have pressed a button at 10 o'clock and at least got home to see her at the end of the evening.

I believe that many new Members I have spoken to feel very strongly about that issue, and I hope that they have a chance to express those views later. I also hope that new Members will not succumb to this place and in a year's time start saying "Oh well, that is how it works. Let's not move on." Let us remember how we feel now about being obliged to vote late at night and not forget that when--perhaps in a year's time--we have a chance to vote positively to change that.

I ask the Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), please to look very hard at moving the Committee reports through as soon as she possibly can, while the impetus for change is there, and to be radical about it. While preserving the best traditions of this building, let us be radical about the shape and size of the Chamber and the way in which the Lobbies work, and let us be radical and consider as far as we can reforming this building.

I would also ask the Committee, where possible, to look beyond the reform of the Chamber, because part of the public's perception of the Chamber is not only how we work in it and the procedures that we work by, but the role of Members, and the way in which they operate in the Chamber. Radical reform is needed. We need to consider ways to improve our accountability as individuals to the people who elected us, linking ourselves to them. Members should have much more responsibility for reporting back on their appearance in and representation of constituents' views in the Chamber.

To some extent we can achieve that aim by improving the hours that we work and the voting mechanisms, but more radical solutions may be needed. In the run-up to the general election, I gave a clear commitment to the residents of Winchester that I would abide by several principles. One principle was that I would report back much more fully than many of my predecessors in that constituency had done.

In nearly all forms of public life, Parliament has imposed citizens charters on organisations, and it has required companies and public bodies to produce annual reports. However, when it comes to our own role, which is very much in the public eye, our only form of

4 Jun 1997 : Column 511

accountability is to appear at general elections every four or five years. We need to strengthen that accountability. There should be a principle that hon. Members be obliged to produce an annual report to their constituency. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) may laugh, because he would not like what would be in it.

The report would list the way in which the Member voted and the type of meetings that he or she had attended, and it would publicly list the Member's earnings. I believe that that would be a proper form of accountability, much more accessible than constituents having to collect together a year's worth of Hansard. The principle of an annual report from Members is very hard for anyone to argue against.

If hon. Members wanted to be much more radical, we would set down standards for the time within which we answer letters. We require many Government Departments to do that, so why should we be different? If we wanted to be radical, we would set down standards for the number of surgeries that hon. Members must hold and for the number of times that they should be seen in their constituencies. Why should hon. Members object to that suggestion? If they want to be good Members of Parliament, they should sign up to it.

Is it not interesting that Conservative Members choose to ridicule such ideas? Perhaps they should note the result of the general election and realise that if they had introduced such policies, they may not have lost so many seats.

I ask the Leader of the House to consider these broader principles, to examine the role of Members and to try to improve accountability.

There is a further way in which we could improve the Chamber and our debates. I refer to the length at which hon. Members speak. We must have shorter speeches. I shall take my own advice and draw to a close, but I call on hon. Members to be as radical as they can, while preserving the best traditions of the Chamber.

11 pm

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York): It is a great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on a fine and lucid maiden speech. In a debate such as this, which challenges the way in which Parliament usually conducts its business, it was interesting to hear him break with the parliamentary tradition that maiden speeches are non-controversial.

I was particularly interested to hear a Liberal Democrat Member singing the praises of the first-past-the-post electoral system, but I understand why, with a two-vote majority, the hon. Gentleman does that. I hope that he will come over to my way of thinking and back electoral reform when the House gets round to discussing that subject.

The hon. Gentleman dealt skilfully with the tricky matter of paying tribute to Gerry Malone, his predecessor, to whom many hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish to pay tribute.

I have one piece of advice for the hon. Gentleman. He indeed secured a two-vote majority in Winchester, but those were not his vote and his wife's. Those were the votes of two Tory party members who decided that Winchester was so safe for the Tory party that they used their votes in their holiday home constituency in Scotland to try to retain a Scottish seat for the Conservatives.

4 Jun 1997 : Column 512

I would not go so far as to describe the House as a house of ill repute, but it has a low reputation in the minds of many members of the public. There is an onus on us in a new Parliament to reorganise our affairs in a way that gives the House greater respect among those who vote for us and send us here to represent them.

We could do a great deal to make the House and the Palace more welcoming to the public. I once had a party of disabled visitors coming to see me in the House. I wanted to know how they could get access to the Central Lobby, and the Serjeant at Arms suggested a route that involved using the lift round the back of the post office and passages that led through to the Central Lobby. The passages that I was advised to use were too narrow for an electric wheelchair to go through. It is intolerable that the House should exclude people with disabilities from seeing what goes on and from lobbying Members of Parliament.

There are no refreshment facilities for the public who come to the House. We need an overflow Gallery. Naturally, the Strangers Gallery is not full at this time of night, but during Question Time it is, and with the television link, there could easily be a small cinema or theatre so that people who do not get into Gallery but who come to London to find out what happens in the House of Commons could listen to debates. It could be used in the morning to put on educational shows for schoolchildren and other visitors to the House to explain how Parliament works.

When I was first elected, I told myself that I would never get involved in debates about parliamentary procedure. My constituents ask me to do something about the local hospital, about unemployment, about the school that their child goes to and so on, but no one has come up to me and said, "And another thing, Mr. Bayley--there is a little parliamentary procedure that you ought to change." However, having been here for a short time--five years--I think that it is imperative for us to modernise the House so that we can more effectively do the job that we should be doing for our constituents. Page 115 of "Erskine May" deals with contempts, one of which is long overdue for abolition:

This came to my attention because one of my constituents was told to stop taking notes. He was sitting in the Strangers Gallery during an esoteric debate on a Friday morning about the Medicines Information Bill, brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice). There was virtually no one in the Chamber or the Gallery at the time, and because my constituent had a particular interest in the pharmaceutical industry he was following the debate and taking notes of what was said. He was told to put his pen and notepad away because that was a contempt of the House.

What an idiotic way to carry on. If we want to restore our reputation in the eyes of the public, we should encourage them to come in and understand what we are doing. That naturally involves following our debates. Nowadays it is possible, after all, to switch on cable television and take notes of our debates from the comfort of one's own home. Why, then, do we regard note-taking as a contempt of Parliament? It is indicative of the sort of barriers that this place builds between the institution and the public whom we should be serving.

4 Jun 1997 : Column 513

I hope that the new Committee, as well as looking at procedures of the House and its Committees, will look at how we relate to the public.

This House must do more in future to set a good example. I had to make a special request that the stationery cupboard in Norman Shaw North be stocked with recycled notepaper. I find it extraordinary that we still print stationery on unrecycled notepaper. Why do we?

Today the Government launched a good initiative to encourage people to cycle to work. As it happens, I cycle from my flat to the House of Commons every day. Because I come down Millbank I used to cut in through Chancellor's Gate. It has now been closed, so I cut in through the new entrance, the gates at the House of Lords end of the Palace. It is a wonderful new entrance which has been beautifully cobbled. It is very convenient for cars, but it is very bumpy for those riding bicycles. No one thought of putting through a small path with a smooth surface to encourage people to come here on bikes.

Achieving change of any sort in this place is enormously difficult--

Next Section

IndexHome Page