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6.16 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Governments of all kinds--even the best intentioned--suddenly discover that power is very comfortable after they enter office, and they know what they want to do with it; they want get their way. Even those who have been completely committed to the House of Commons and the democratic system suddenly discover that the exigencies of day-to-day life are inconvenient when they have to return to the House to justify their actions. That is not a party political matter; it is true of every Government whom I have ever known. The reality is that the House allows its powers to slip away at its peril.

Life becomes more complex. More work is done and more decisions are taken outside the House. More people are unanswerable. There are more stand-alone agencies and more parts of Government that impinge on our lives in every way but answer to no one. I am sorry to say that it is not true that the report suggests a revolutionary return to an alternative centre of great power. Would that it were so. The Liaison Committee simply told us that if we continue down the current path, the House will consist of people who regard their constituency work as more important than legislation; who find time for many social occasions, but little for the detailed scrutiny of highly complex legislation; and, most importantly, who do not have access to sufficient informed and accurate back-up to be able to tell when legislation is not only wrong but dangerous. We have seen that with the use of secondary legislation and other measures that give Ministers enormous powers, which are then backed up outside or in subsidiary Committees.

The House must begin to make a stand. We should hold a Speaker's Conference to consider in detail the work that is necessary. While we wait for that, the Liaison Committee's recommendations should be put to the House in an understandable and acceptable way. I have never seen so many Guys put up as I have by the Government in relation to the report. All the details about whether or not people are paid or whether they have access to certain information are totally unimportant. The House can determine those details. However, we in Parliament must be able to tell people that, as life becomes more complex, we are ahead of the game and capable of scrutinising all those changes that affect them in every aspect of their lives. We have let some of that go in the most dangerous way. It is a matter not simply of drafting or organising, but of Select Committees having the time, information and sheer commitment to hold Ministers to account for their actions.

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Of course, Ministers hate coming to our Committees. Of course, when we do too much work, they find it inconvenient. I found one of the comments in the Government reply vaguely amusing. It said, in effect, "The Committees are doing too much work. They are calling us forward too often. We have been called before the departmental Committee at least once every fortnight." Frankly, on occasions, I would prefer to have the senior civil servant. It is Ministers who are determined that I shall not have access to that source of information, not anyone else.

I say to the Government that, in the whole of politics, it is essential to have someone who stands at their shoulder and says, "You may take that decision, but the difficulties and implications are bad for democracy, bad for the country, but above all very bad for you. If you are clever, if you are a good politician, you will ask Parliament to perform the role of scrutiny because you need it." We all need it, but the Government need it more than we do. The Government need it as a protection against the almost unconscious arrogance that goes with the constant exercise of power. This is the place that needs to ask the awkward questions.

I say one thing very simply: put the Liaison Committee's report to the House of Commons. Give it the time to debate it. Do not get involved in absurd details, just accept that the principle is what matters. The principle is that Parliament needs to take back the right to speak for the people because Parliament's greatest enemy is not hatred, but apathy and lack of connection with what we are doing.

6.21 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I welcome you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the Chair.

Having sat through the debate, I have decided more or less to change my speech. Some Members have suggested that, in the past, the House has had lots of powers, has been able to bring the Executive to account on its Budget and to be an effective scrutiniser. I challenge that idea. One of the reasons why I like the report is that it begins the process--it is a very small step--towards the radical constitutional reform that needs to happen to the House.

I quote from the 19th edition of "Erskine May" with respect to the process of supply and the scrutiny of Government Budgets.


The House has had only a negative role in all the Budgets that have been passed over the centuries.

To give another example, the last time that the House told the Government of the day that they could not have the money that they requested was in 1919. The then Government had put forward an estimate requesting money in the royal palaces vote for a second bathroom for the then Lord Chancellor. The House of Commons decided in 1919 that the money for that second bathroom should not be granted. In the current Parliament, there was a hue and cry about a certain Lord Chancellor's expensive wallpaper. Members got up and made some criticism of that expenditure, but we did not vote it down.

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I give that example simply to say that the House has been powerless for far too long. I do not think that it has ever had the power that it should have had. The Liaison Committee report begins to address that centuries-old problem.

Indeed, one of my criticisms of the Liaison Committee report is that it is too complacent about the current situation and therefore conservative in its proposals. The Select Committee system is not the great, wonderful scrutinising system that some colleagues have suggested. With a few honourable exceptions, many of our reports do not have the effect that they should have. They do not lead to changes in policies, to rethinks and to changes in expenditure priorities. They should lead to that because they are the result of an awful lot of work.

The only real effect of Select Committees tends to come from their hearings, when Ministers are giving evidence and the press are listening. If Ministers are given a hard time, they might have an embarrassing headline the next day. That is important and is part of Parliament's role in scrutinising the Executive, but it is hardly a major role. It defines "scrutiny" in a narrow way, relating just to asking a few difficult questions. My view of accountability and scrutiny is a rather more powerful one. I thought that we were elected to this place not just to ask the odd difficult question or give the Minister an embarrassing headline, but to scrutinise properly and attempt to amend or change the direction of Government policy. That is why I think that the report, excellent though many of its proposals are, is too conservative.

I accept that we have to begin somewhere. Page 2 of the white summary sheet to the report makes it clear that the Committee wants to recognise the reality of the current political situation and take a small step forward. It would be unwise of Ministers to suggest that there are hon. Members who would be happy with this rather timid set of recommendations. Many of us want to go much further so as to make this Chamber an effective and active participant in the formation of Government policy.

I shall give just one or two examples and leave some time for other colleagues to participate in the debate. I believe that we need to challenge Standing Order No. 48. For those who do not know that off by heart, it is the basis for the Crown financial initiative. It says that only Ministers of the Crown can propose spending. I believe that parliamentarians--Members of the House--should be able to propose spending plans; not just switches between expenditure heads, as the report suggests, but spending increases.

I am not suggesting legislative anarchy because I believe that the Executive should retain the ability to veto financial proposals. A few years ago, the New Zealand Parliament, which is very much like this Parliament, changed its Standing Orders to get rid of the Crown financial initiative. It has put in its place something slightly weaker, called the Crown financial veto. It has opened up the Budget process so that ordinary Members can make constructive and well-thought-through spending proposals. If a proposal would wreak havoc with the financial stability of the country, the Executive can table a certificate of financial veto, which is not debatable, and defend the viability of the Budget.

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That change in Standing Orders would create a huge incentive for hon. Members to get their hands dirty and get involved in the nitty-gritty of scrutinising the Budget. I believe that the suggestions about changing our procedures and the way in which we scrutinise the Budget that are contained in this report and in the report from the Procedure Committee, on which I had the pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), do not go far enough. We need to ensure that hon. Members are given more powers, more training and greater resources to be able to undertake the scrutiny role.

I hope that, after looking again at the proposals and taking note of the arguments that we have heard today, the Government do not try to sit on this for years, or until after the election. I hope that they come back urgently and realise that there is a need for radical reform of the House. Perhaps they will be even braver than the Liaison Committee.


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