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9.21 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) on their maiden speeches, which I enjoyed and on which I focused very much. I am sure that they will be an enormous and beneficial addition to the House and to its deliberations.

I had also hoped to welcome and wish well the new Leader of the House, but unfortunately he has not been in the Chamber for many hours. I certainly welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who has only recently been made a Minister and I wish her well. Frankly, there should have been a senior Cabinet Minister on the Treasury Bench. I say that for a good reason, to which I will return. As wonderful as my hon. Friend is, I do not think that she is qualified to respond to a question that I want the Government to answer this evening.

If the Leader of the House had been here, I would have told him that he has the opportunity in this Parliament to re-establish the very radical credentials that were certainly his hallmark for many years. I hope and believe that he can do so and that he will pursue some of the matters outlined in the Queen's Speech with vigour.

I wish to canvass two reforms that have not been mentioned during today's debate. The first is minor. As wonderful as the state opening is--I really enjoy it and I do not knock ceremonial at all--there should be only one per Parliament. It is enormously costly and one must have regard for proportionality, and a Parliament should be a seamless robe rather than having Sessions. Of course, that

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would require legislation because we would also want to protect the benefits of the Parliament Acts, which could be altered so that a Parliament is based not on Sessions but on calendar years--we must ensure that the Government can get their legislation through.

Secondly, I believe that we are unique among parliamentary democracies in that, when we have a general election--this was true in 1997, but it was also true even of this election--there is no period of transition. People should not cease to be Ministers in the early hours after a general election. Furthermore, people should remain Members of Parliament throughout the general election campaign. Of course, there should be ground rules as to what they can and cannot do.

When there is a crisis such as foot and mouth disease, for example, people should have a mandate to tackle Ministers and Ministries and civil servants should not be embarrassed in responding. There should be a week or so in which the new Ministry should be confirmed by an affirmative vote of the House. That should be the beginning of the mandates of the new Members and Ministers.

I raise that as a practical point because, as wonderful as the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is--he is a skilled and able man--I do not believe that he can have gone to the European conferences as Foreign Secretary fully and adequately briefed. It simply cannot be done. That diminishes our opportunities and interests. I know that it happened at other times in history. It happened when Clement Attlee had to go to Potsdam, but that does not make it right. Clement Attlee probably was not fully and adequately briefed for Potsdam, and there may have been some long-term disadvantages to the interests of the United Kingdom as a result.

We should think in terms of providing a transition period until the new Ministry is confirmed by the House of Commons. That would be democratically sound. It should not be just the next morning that the new Ministry comes into force and the new Members of Parliament have their mandate. I hope that the Leader of the House and others will think about that.

I also hope that the Leader of the House will pick up the idea that was canvassed in the Queen's Speech of looking again at House of Lords reform. We cannot be tremendously proud of what we did over the past four years. It is true that we diminished the hereditary element, but we have to face the fact that half of our Parliament is unelected.

I listened closely to the good speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), and I agreed with almost everything that he said. I prefer the idea of direct elections to the upper House. I do not see why it would necessarily diminish the effectiveness and supremacy of this Chamber. However, I would sign up to his proposition that Members of the upper House should be indirectly elected. The fact remains that at present half of the British Parliament has no mandate other than patronage, and some are Members by the abuse of patronage. It is now time that that was stopped.

One bit of business that was unfinished because the general election intervened is the nonsense of people's peers. The idea was not only one of the most silly put forward by the Labour Government but it was wrong. Let us go back a few weeks. We discovered that Sir Herman

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Ouseley was a member of the panel that appointed Lord Stevenson of hairdresser to preside over the commission that would choose the people's peers. He then applied to Lord Stevenson of hairdresser and, surprise, surprise, he was nominated as a peer. By any stretch of the imagination, that is wholly unacceptable. It stinks. I hope that we do not return to the nonsense of people's peers next year. It is outrageous that that should have happened.

We should abandon the nonsense of people's peers and focus on making the other House accountable and elected in some way and on giving it some legitimacy. I was deeply disturbed and irritated by that nonsense of people's peers. As far as I can make out, it was never the subject of an affirmative vote on the Floor of the House of Commons. It was done purely by Executive decision, and it is indefensible.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who like other hon. Members referred to the disappointingly low turnout at the general election. I agree with him that we need to look at many of our practices. He referred to Prime Minister's Question Time. We must step back from the vacuous nonsense of Prime Minister's Question Time; the sterile debate and the synthetic anger.

Especially on the Government side, but not exclusively, we have to stop the industry of planted questions. I know that people say that it does not happen, but I deliberately use the word "industry". Questions are trotted round day after day. It is unfair to Members who are the architects of their own questions. We go into a raffle, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to put a question to a Minister. It is wholly wrong that people take questions off the acolytes of Ministers that are probably written by Ministers. It is simply wrong, and it is unfair to those who take the trouble to write their own lines. It is time that the whistle was blown on that.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: While I understand some of the arguments against the present system, does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there are two benefits to it? First, Members can raise any real issue in Parliament within three or four days, or a week in any case, and Ministers have to be aware of that. The other is that various Departments have to provide briefings to the Prime Minister on issues to which he might not otherwise give much attention.

Andrew Mackinlay: I hope that the House will note that I did not say that Prime Minister's Question Time should be done away with; it should be more like the Canadian system where Members are called at the complete discretion of the Speaker and which is open to everyone--the whole Ministry attends and can respond. That would be good. Preparation and briefing are priceless jewels: it is the abuse--not only of Prime Minister's Question Time but of other Question Times--that we have to stop. It is essential that we maintain our Question Times--that is vital. However, we must stop the silliness and the abuse--it has not occurred merely in recent years but has been going on for a quarter of a century. It is time that we stopped it.

I revisited my maiden speech, given in 1992, as a checklist for the things I had pursued. I was pleased to see that many themes that I then raised continue through

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my activities in the House of Commons. For instance, I welcomed John Major's announcement of his hope that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic would enter the European Union by the end of the decade. They have not yet done so, but that is not the fault of either the Conservative or the Labour Governments. One of the things of which the United Kingdom can be proud is that Governments have pursued the question of European enlargement. Ultimately, that is a moral issue, although it is also commercial, political and economic. Those countries are entitled to join this organisation of free, democratic states and would have done so but for the disfigurement of Europe by the Yalta conference more than half a century ago. I hope that Her Majesty's Government pursue that matter with the utmost vigour--it is one of right, as well as being in the interests both of the central European countries and ourselves.

In my maiden speech, I also referred to the problems for my constituents and for those in Basildon--now the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith)--caused by the closure of the accident and emergency department at Orsett hospital, which is just inside her constituency. As I then predicted, it has placed an enormous strain on the A and E department at Basildon hospital, which serves my constituents. It is time that the problem was revisited by the Department of Health. I do not know what machinery it has--the equivalent of an Ofsted or whatever. The fact is that the system is not working; there are intolerable and unacceptable pressures on the staff and facilities at Basildon hospital, which covers two urban areas. That is wholly inadequate and can no longer be tolerated. I am not prepared to acquiesce in the matter by holding back--it needs to be looked at. I think that is also the view of my colleague.

A further point is the poverty of the transportation system. I was pleased that, as the Under-Secretary at the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) visited the London, Tilbury, Southend line, now run by an outfit called c2c--Cancellation to Cancellation, as we call it. My constituents know that one of the consequences of the crackpot privatisation scheme was a significant diminution of what was already a parlous rail service in my constituency and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Hornchurch (John Cryer) and for Basildon and for many people throughout Essex.

The service is wholly inadequate. I do not intend to let that outfit off the hook. It is, I think, part of the National Express group. The franchise should be revisited, to consider whether the company should hold it. Indeed, there should be a review of whether the National Express group should be allowed to attract new franchises until it can fulfil both the letter and the spirit of the franchise it entered into for the LTS line.

In my maiden speech, on 6 May 1992, I said:

It so happens that nothing seems to have changed. Demonstrably, there is some discussion in the press about shilly-shallying in setting up Select Committees. I wish a senior Cabinet Minister was in the Chamber--either the Chief Whip or the Leader of the House, because I want to share with you what I believe is going on, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope that, if I do an injustice to the

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Government--or the Opposition Front Bench--both or either of them will stand up and give me an assurance that I am wrong.

I tell you what the plot is, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I listened very carefully to the Leader of the Opposition today. He mentioned Select Committees. I listened to every word with precision. However, he did not do his duty and tap and rap on the Dispatch Box and ask, "When will you set up the Select Committees? I demand that you set up the Select Committees." He did not do so because the Conservatives now do not want the Select Committees to be set up until the autumn, after the leadership election. It is perfectly right that they should hold their election, but it should not interfere with the parliamentary process of scrutiny and accountability.

The Conservatives do not want the Select Committees to be set up because some of those people are candidates who, if they cannot be leader of the party, would like to be Chairperson of a Select Committee. There are also people who will not serve on the shadow Cabinet if a particular Member is chosen as leader of the Conservative party. There are some who will not be acceptable to the successful new Leader of the Opposition, and they want the opportunity to parachute in to be a member of a Select Committee or--some of them are very grand--a Chairperson.

I invite the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) to get up--I shall invite the Minister to get up in a minute--and give a categoric assurance, on behalf of the Opposition, that here tonight he demands that the Select Committees are set up this side of the summer recess. I am prepared to give way. Can the hon. Gentleman get off his backside and make that declaration to the House on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition? Of course he cannot. Do you know why, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Because the problem with this place is the cosy consensus between the two Front Benches. Earlier, I referred to the synthetic anger at Question Time. The truth is that it is a carve-up between the two Front Benches. They do not care about scrutiny and accountability.

Now I come to the Government. The Government's plot is to blame the Conservatives. The unspoken, unwritten agreement is that both of them blame each other, but not very loudly. The Government have no excuse. There should be no halt, no hesitation, in bringing forward to the House the process to set up the Committee of Selection and in setting up those Committees before the summer recess. Not to do so will be scandalous for the Government. Bearing in mind our very large parliamentary numbers and the fact that the Opposition are in such a parlous state, we have a duty--a moral responsibility--to provide scrutiny and accountability.

Members of the Fourth Estate know what is going on. Instead of writing acres of print about the boring Tory leadership election, they should be writing about the fact that the Conservative and Labour Front Benches are not setting up the Select Committees.

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