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Tony Wright: Of course I accept that. However, I have sat through enough of these debates to know precisely what happens, the character of the exchanges, and how hard it is to make genuinely House of Commons points, as opposed to those seeking purely to exploit current party political advantage. That is the difficulty that we have in making such proposals.

Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was right to point out, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) did, the central issue that the House will eventually have to confront. Through Richard Crossman and Norman St. John-Stevas, now Lord St. John of Fawsley, we invented a scrutiny system which is undoubtedly Parliament's greatest advance in scrutinising the Executive. Now, however, we have to move on to answering the next question--which is, who owns the scrutiny system that we have created? Is it to be owned by the Executive or by the House of Commons?

We can shuffle round that question, explore some of its difficulties and say, "This is not the right model; that one is better." All that is very proper. However, we cannot shuffle round the central question. At some point, every Member of Parliament will have to answer that question for himself or herself. The answer to the question defines not only what we are, but what the House is.

I do not underestimate for a second how difficult it is to give the answer that ownership should lie with the House of Commons, and realise that all the pressures are in the opposite direction. If we are honest with ourselves--this is a moment to be honest with ourselves--we would admit that this place runs itself as a permanent election campaign. Election campaigns do not happen only every four or five years; they happen every moment of every day in the House. The whole way in which the House is organised reflects the fact that, in the House, there is a permanent election campaign. That is exactly how the Front Benchers of both parties want to regard the role of Members of Parliament. Moreover, Members of Parliament have never been better equipped to perform the role of permanent election campaigners.

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An interesting part of Richard Crossman's speech in the House 34 years ago was on the balance between what he referred to--perhaps rather archaically now--as full-time and part-time Members. He was exploring the difficulties of different sitting hours for part-time Members and for full-time Members. I think that we are now into different territory, as we are all more or less full-time and decently paid Members. I also think that that status brings with it obligations to be proper Members of Parliament.

I am not saying for a second that Members of Parliament are not busy people--they are immensely busy people who work extraordinarily hard--but, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that they are as busy as hamsters in a wheel, going round and round, often doing little of productive value. Although we might try to persuade ourselves that that is not true, I think that, in our hearts, we know it is.

There are many reasons why Members of Parliament feel unhappy with their lot. However--we have to pick our words with care in talking about these issues--large public sums are devoted to enabling Members of Parliament to be permanent election campaigners. That is the important change that has occurred. There are no brownie points, here or anywhere else, for being good scrutineers of government, particularly when that Government are of one's own party.

If we are serious about shifting the balance, we have to be serious about what we think Members of Parliament are all about. I do not for a second say that that will be easy, and I do not even believe that it is possible. Although I was accused a moment ago of being starry-eyed, in fact I am deeply gloomy about the issue. It was Enoch Powell who, many years ago, said--I may not have this quite right, but essentially--that Parliament does not exist. He said that all that exists is the Government and the Opposition, locked into permanent conflict. He said that if one sought to construct an independent, collective entity called Parliament, one would get nowhere. He may have been right about that. Indeed, although she used different words, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was seeking to persuade us of that view. Some of us have been saying that the next step has to be to try to build some independence into the scrutiny system, but that may be impossible, rather than undesirable. I hope not.

We have in this country a system of strong government, and that has many virtues. It provides a great capacity for action and that is not easily to be dismissed, but in my view strong government can be defended only if it is matched by strong accountability. The Government are taking many admirable measures to insert new checks and balances into our political system, but the area where they have not done that--and they have to do it--is Parliament itself.

I end by quoting Crossman again, from the same speech that I referred to earlier. He said:


That was true 34 years ago and it is true today. It will become more true if the House adopts the recommendations of the Liaison Committee.

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5.1 pm

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): I start by making the most important point that needs to be made in this debate. Although the Government claim--and claimed in their election addresses and their manifesto--to be massively in favour of modernising Parliament and to want to do everything to that end, the three documents that are the basis of the report that we are debating today prove one thing absolutely: that, to the Government, modernisation means lessening rather than enhancing the control of Parliament over the Executive. Their purpose in modernisation is to strengthen the Executive and override any major suggestion of allowing Parliament to have a greater impact on the Executive. The documents prove what the Government are setting out to achieve and, if that is their way of modernising Parliament, it is a pretty depressing factor.

I served on the Liaison Committee for 14 years from 1983 to 1997 with the present Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), and I congratulate him on the service that he has given that Committee, for introducing today's debate and for his report.

As I said in an intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, this debate should have been on a motion on which the House could have divided. It really is not good enough that it should be palmed off on an Adjournment debate so that the Government can turn around and say, "We have had all that before the House." The House has not had the opportunity to ensure by a vote that the majority of the proposals in the Liaison Committee report are carried out. I believe that, if a motion were put before the House without the Whips on it, the Liaison Committee's proposals would get a considerable majority. Indeed, I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to the debate that he says to the right hon. Member for Ashton- under-Lyne, "If you table a number of motions and get them on the Order Paper, we will allow the House to debate them and to vote on them without a Whip." That would be the way to test whether the Government are really convinced of the desire to modernise this place.

The Leader of the House, who always speaks with considerable charm and raises temperatures by only a very small amount, made a charming and delightful speech, but it did not add up to a row of beans.

I have another minor criticism to make. Where are all the Blair babes today? I see only two or three ladies in the House.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am here.

Sir Peter Emery: I have known the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) since she was my constituency neighbour when she represented Exeter. At no time have I ever believed that she was in the hands of the leader of her party or any other party.

Maria Eagle: Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that I am in the hands of the leader of my party? He does not know me well enough to know whether that is the case.

Sir Peter Emery: During Tuesday's debate, between 30 and 35 hon. Ladies were usually present. They were pushing forward the reforms, as they saw them, proposed

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by the Modernisation Committee. Their amendments sought to reduce the working hours of the House. I believe that their support was not adding to the control of the House over the Government, but was in fact giving way to the Government and allowing them to proceed with their legislation more quickly than they can do at present.

Fiona Mactaggart: I feel tempted to ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for a ruling on whether "Blair babe" is parliamentary language.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some 50 per cent. of Labour Back Benchers present in the Chamber are women? That is a larger representation of women than in the parliamentary Labour party. If only we were half the parliamentary Labour party. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will accept that women are as interested in issues of democracy in the House as they are in making the House work more efficiently, which is what we were discussing on Tuesday.


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