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Mrs. Beckett: I do not want to detain the hon. Lady, because I know that she wants to get on with her speech.

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However, the Leader of the Opposition committed the Conservative party to supporting the Norton report. He was careful to say, and wisely so--more wisely than he sometimes is--that he wanted to consider the detail of the recommendations. She says that the Conservative party supports the proposal that the Whips should not have the sole say and that there should be a proper structure of nomination and self-nomination, as we have in our party. Is the Leader of the Opposition introducing such a system for the Conservative party? I understand that that is not the case at the present time.

Mrs. Browning: I am delighted that the right hon. Lady takes such an interest in our policy development. I assure her that, in my new position, I am carrying on the work of my predecessor. We are examining the Norton committee proposals in great detail.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has already accepted some of those proposals, and they are now part of the Conservative party's common-sense agenda. By the time we draw up our manifesto, we will have produced our commitments based on research and on the work that has been done. I assure the right hon. Lady that many of the Norton committee's recommendations will influence our policy in time for the next election.

Tony Wright: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: I am responding to the right hon. Lady's intervention, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

If the right hon. Lady would like me to keep her informed of progress on our policy development, I would be happy to make her party to that information on a confidential basis. I am delighted that she shows such an interest.

Mrs. Beckett: I think it would have been simpler if the hon. Lady had said "No".

Mrs. Browning: The right hon. Lady is being far too uncharitable. As a new girl in this job, I am trying to learn what "other channels" actually means. I hope that the right hon. Lady will help me: I am sure that she would be a very good tutor, and I am trying to show willing.

Tony Wright: While the hon. Lady is endeavouring to learn, perhaps she will reflect on the experience of the last Parliament, when her party was in government and many of us were pressing issues such as this on that Administration. They refused even to allow the House to discuss a major Hansard Society report on parliamentary reform, over many years. Does not the approach to such issues depend very much on whether one is in government or in opposition?

Mrs. Browning: I shall study what the hon. Gentleman has said very carefully. When his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was at the Dispatch Box, she seemed to be trying to persuade us that these matters were all so new that we could not make decisions about them too soon, because the ideas involved had not been around very long. I will look at what the hon. Gentleman says was

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being debated in the last Parliament, because that is the reason the right hon. Lady gave for our not making those decisions soon.

Mrs. Beckett: I think that the hon. Lady has misunderstood me. If I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) correctly, he was making the same point as me. The issue was not debated in the last Parliament. My hon. Friend argues that it could have been, because reports have been produced, but the hon. Lady's party refused even to discuss it.

Mrs. Browning: When the right hon. Lady's party was in opposition it was against guillotines, but it has now changed Standing Orders so that our debates can be curtailed. I do not think it is appropriate for Labour Members to keep praying in aid what happened in the last Parliament; we must concede and move on, and that is what I intend to do.

We in the Conservative party, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, have commissioned our own report, which I think shows willingness and a genuine interest in the subject. We have done that in the last year, and it shows that we really are interested in making progress.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am sorry to say that, whenever it is suggested that the House of Commons should take to itself powers that would not only improve its scrutiny but give it a real role and return the powers that it once had, all Governments--whatever their complexion--resist the suggestion to their dying day. I am very sad that my Government are following a well-worn path set by Governments of other colours.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Lady is a well-respected Select Committee Chairman, as I am only too well aware, and she is absolutely right: Governments resist things.

It is very easy for an Opposition to present proposals. I hope, however, that the Leader of the House accepts that I, as shadow Leader of the House, am pressing for proposals to be presented in a timely manner so that they can be implemented in the certain knowledge that we support them in opposition, and will be bound by them in government. There is a vast difference between our saying that and what the Liberal Democrats say: knowing that they will never come to office, they support just about anything that is going.

I say, in the sure expectation of a Conservative Government next year: give us a timetable. We will scrutinise and support these changes, and will do so knowing that we will be bound by them when we come to office.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) rose--

Mrs. Browning: I will give way to a Liberal Democrat.

Mr. Stunell: The debate is altogether more lively than I had expected it to be, but may I remind the hon. Lady that my proposals at least add up?

Mrs. Browning: In that case, it is probably the only Liberal Democrat policy that ever has added up.

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I think that I have detained the House for long enough. There is a genuine willingness on this side of the House--and, I think, on the other side--to make progress. We do not want to be cavalier about decision-making; decisions require proper scrutiny, and need to be thought through. However, I urge the Leader of the House to produce a practical timetable before the end of the debate, so that all Members understand how the report can be implemented.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I appeal for more brevity, so that hon. Members seeking to catch my eye will not be disappointed.

4.15 pm

Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham): Debates in the House remind me of London taxis: for a long time there is never one in which you want to take part, and then, all of a sudden, they all come along at once. A debate affecting my constituency will take place on Monday, and I hope to speak in that as well, so I will be brief on this occasion.

This is an extremely important debate. I am not disappointed that there will be no votes, because that provides us with an opportunity to give the issues a good airing today. Although I support the thrust of the report, and support almost all the report itself, it contains issues that need further consideration, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House pointed out.

In terms of increasing accountability and empowering Back Benchers, this debate strikes me as being more important than last Tuesday's debate. I do not think that that debate was primarily about increasing accountability; in fact, I thought that it was like moving deck chairs on the deck of an oil tanker and suggesting that that would somehow make it change course. Today's debate gets to the heart of bringing about a change of course in terms of accountability and scrutiny.

I see this as a natural progression in the debate about devolution. As a new Back Bencher, I quickly became aware that I had been far more influential as chairman of a major committee in my town hall than I was in the House of Commons. I see a great deal of devolution: quangos are being empowered, individuals are being empowered, and--quite rightly--we are creating regional development agencies and the like. However, we as Members of Parliament are being given no power to scrutinise all the issues that we are discussing today. We are not automatically being given a role in the development that is taking place in the constituencies that we represent.

I would go so far as to suggest that some Select Committees could be given a scrutiny role in regard to issues outside the House. I am thinking of, for instance, regional development agencies. We might want a regional basis for Select Committees, which would allow us to call in the mayor of London. As London Members, we could perhaps scrutinise the role and activities of the new Greater London Authority. That would give us some say and some influence in the way things develop in the communities we represent, and the way in which the new bodies that are being established affect those communities.

I believe that our Select Committees and their membership are influenced far too heavily by the Executive. I want to examine ways in which the two could

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be separated, because I think that such separation would empower the House a great deal more, and would give Back Benchers a more influential role. The report suggests a panel of Chairmen; I would like to know more about how such a panel would be established and how it would be accountable to me, as a Back Bencher, rather than to the Executive. Like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I would like that to be given more serious and thoughtful consideration.

Before I became an MP, one of the things that impressed me most about the House was the cross-party co-operation that existed in the Select Committee system, and how effective that co-operation could be. That, I think, portrays the House in a favourable light outside. The public often see the House at its best when it is dealing with Select Committee business. Having said that, let me add that it is unfortunate that today's debate has already featured a petty attempt at party political point-scoring, which has added nothing to its value. It draws attention to the fact that we Back Benchers should debate that issue among ourselves and, with respect, try to ignore the influence of Front-Bench Members because, frankly, our Front Benchers will want to resist devolving power to us on the Back Benches and Opposition Front Benchers will certainly not want to tie themselves to proposals that they would not want to agree with if--heaven forbid--they ever managed to sit on the Government Front Benches.


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