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2.56 pm

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): I shall speak about an issue that, I hope, is of concern to colleagues and hon. Members--the House itself. The issue is typified, in a sense, by the fact that the shadow Leader of the House is on the Opposition Front Bench, but the Leader of the House is not on the Treasury Bench. For three years, I was parliamentary private secretary to Lord Wakeham when he was Leader of the House. It was inconceivable that the then Leader of the House would not be present to respond to such a debate. It is a great pity that this debate has been downgraded. Although I obviously respect the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), it is also a great pity that the Leader of the House will not respond to the debate.

I want to speak briefly about an important issue, but I do not expect that it will receive any coverage in my local newspapers or in tomorrow's national newspapers, because it is not worthy of a soundbite. My concern is the way in which the House is being dumbed down by the Government and the fact that Parliament, as an institution, seems to matter less and less. We see that not just in the way in which the other place has been stripped of its independent powers, but in the way in which the House is treated. We also see it in the way in which Government Back Benchers seem not to appreciate that calling the Government to account is part of their role.

When I was a Minister, I found a number of my Back Benchers a complete pain in the neck, but I loved them dearly. They served an important constitutional role, and one Nick Budgen was, on occasion, worth 10 placemen. If the House is simply full of placemen and placewomen, it ceases to have any effect; we need grit in the wheels for it to work. We have an unwritten constitution, which has developed and evolved over the years. It is like an English wood; it did not appear suddenly in the aftermath of war or revolution--like the American or French constitutions--but it works.

My concern is that the Prime Minister seems increasingly to want to enhance his powers so that they become almost presidential. He seems to have forgotten that this is a parliamentary democracy. I would be very disappointed if I were a new Labour Back Bencher. Judging by the Prime Minister's voting record, I suspect that the opportunities for Labour Back Benchers to talk to him are pretty limited. When I joined the House, the then Prime Minister was in the Division Lobby every night, but I have to say to my constituents that the present Prime Minister is not in the Division Lobby every night; he votes in only about 10 per cent. of all Divisions.

In the whole of this Parliament, I have never yet seen the Prime Minister in the Tea Room, whereas, when I joined the House, the then Prime Minister was often there, taking an interest in every one of us. When I was a junior Minister, the one thing that I was wary of was seeing the Prime Minister bearing down on me in the Division Lobby, wanting to understand what I had--or, more

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important, had not--been doing that day on a particular policy issue. We seem to have moved away from all that, which is desperately sad.

We have witnessed the decimation of the House of Lords. By that, I do not mean the removal of the hereditary peers. Intellectually, one can see why it was difficult to defend hereditary peers, but in a strange and quirky way, the system worked. It was independent. When the Conservatives were in government, our concern at being defeated in the House of Lords frequently made Ministers adjust their policies. We frequently had to compromise with the House of Lords, and the system worked.

The House of Lords was the one institution of Parliament that had an element of independence, and that element has been removed. No one fully understands where the Government are going with their proposed reform of the House of Lords. In fact, one suspects that they have no idea where they wish to go with it. There was much debate about the new people's peers, but the proposal is a great cynical exercise. It is merely a commission to appoint Cross-Bench peers. I suspect that, at the end of that exercise, all that will happen is that 10 Cross-Bench peers--worthy individuals such as vice-chancellors of universities or past presidents of the Royal College of Physicians--will be appointed by that commission.

We have no idea what the Labour party proposes to do with the House of Lords to make it an independent institution again. The Prime Minister has appointed more life peers to the House of Lords in three years than Conservative Prime Ministers did in the previous 18 years. That is the extent of the patronage in the House of Lords. It is no longer an independent body, and no longer a body with any grit in the system.

There seems to be an implied understanding, as far as Labour Members are concerned, that if they have a majority in the House of Commons, they should also have a majority in the other place. If that happens, the system will become an "elective dictatorship"--the concept about which Lord Hailsham expressed concern some years ago. We hope to gain a clear understanding of how the House of Lords can, again, become a body that will ensure that the House of Commons and the Executive are kept in check.

We are also concerned about the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has a strange view of this place. He has attended only about 10 per cent. of Divisions during this Parliament, which is distressing because it seems to indicate a state of mind in which scrutiny is not important. Furthermore, dissent in this place has almost entirely disappeared. I appreciate that eliminating dissent is good news from the point of view of the Government Whips, and from the point of view of business managers such as the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who has a duty to get the Government's business through with the least possible difficulty. However, eliminating dissent is not good news for Parliament.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House who introduced the Jopling proposals? Does he think that those proposals enhanced this place or diminished it?

Mr. Baldry: I shall come to that issue in a moment. The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point, but I do not wish to detain the House for long, because I appreciate that many other Members wish to speak.

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The concept of modernisation has been about altering hours and changing voting arrangements and the times at which voting takes place. Nothing that has happened so far, supposedly in the name of modernisation, has enhanced the ability of elected Members to hold the Executive to account. The opposite is the case: nothing that has happened in the name of modernisation has enhanced by one jot the ability of Back Benchers on either side of the House to call the Government to account. Instead, we have witnessed some elegant moving of the furniture. However, the ability to vote 10 times in one minute on a Wednesday afternoon in the Division Lobby does not enable me to hold the Executive to account any more ably.

This Parliament has seen the fewest rebellions by Back Benchers of any Parliament since the second world war. By this stage in the previous Parliament, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was Prime Minister, there had been almost two thirds more Divisions in which Ministers had been confronted with dissent from their own Back Benchers. Of course, that was an irritant for us--it was often a complete pain in the neck--but it made the system work. One was accountable to one's own Back Benchers and to people at the other end of the Corridor. That made Ministers think. This Government have the most compliant group of Back Benchers since the 1940s. They might think that having everyone on message on their pagers is good news, but it is not good for Parliament as an institution. It is sad news, because such practices tend to be passed down from generation to generation.

Derek Draper, a former lobbyist and adviser to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), observed that only 17 people nowadays count. Practically none of those people is an elected Member of Parliament. I want us to try to work out ways in which elected Members of the House of Commons will have greater opportunities to call the Executive to account.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition set up the Norton report under the chairmanship of Lord Norton of Louth. It made 90 interesting suggestions, including the restoration of Prime Minister's Question Time to twice a week, which would give us a greater opportunity to call the Prime Minister to account. The report also called for more Question Times and shorter debates with more opportunities for Back Benchers to speak. Shoving us all off into Westminster Hall--a sort of empty cavern--does not assist us in calling Ministers to account. We need to strengthen Committees, and to improve the opportunities of Select Committees to make representations to the House.

We should improve the way in which European legislation is monitored in the House. I was the Minister responsible for fisheries in the previous Conservative Government, and I find it extraordinary that we did not have a debate on the Fisheries Council meeting this year. Every year, we used to have a full day's debate on the Council's proposals, which would enable colleagues from fishing constituencies to express their concerns and to vote on them. There has been no such debate this year. Indeed, at best, the relevant documents were referred to a Committee to be scrutinised. That is no way for the House to perform.

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Part of our agenda for 2001 must be to strengthen the institutions of Parliament on a cross-party basis. As an increasingly tubby and gnarled Back Bencher, I do not believe that the work of the Modernisation Committee is strengthening accountability and democracy in this place, no matter how much I may or may not support breast-feeding in different parts of the Palace. What has happened in the name of modernisation is nothing other than a matter of convenience for the Leader of the House and business managers. Nothing has enhanced and increased the ability of Back Benchers on both sides of the House to call the Executive to account.

If we allow Parliament to continue in that way, we will become increasingly irrelevant. We are moving towards an elective, almost unaccountable and uncheckable dictatorship, which would be to no one's benefit. As we go further into this century, I hope that Parliament as an institution can start to apply its mind to ensuring that we modernise in a way that restores the checks and balances that have evolved for centuries, but which seem in danger of disappearing.

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