Previous SectionIndexHome Page


The President of the Council was asked—

Oath of Allegiance

43. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What proposals he has to reform of the Oath of Allegiance for hon. Members taking their seats in the House. [25058]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The form of the Oath is prescribed by statute. The Government have no plans to amend it.

Mr. Winterton: The Leader of the House will appreciate the reason for my question and, I am sure, my total commitment to this place. Does he believe that anyone who becomes a Member of Parliament should have a true allegiance to the country in whose Parliament he or she seeks to serve? Is not there a danger in what the Government have done recently that we will establish two classes of Member of Parliament, which is a dangerous precedent indeed?

Mr. Cook: I fully recognise the commitment of the hon. Gentleman to this place and the service that he has given to it. I assure him that I fully endorse his view that people should not take their seat here unless they are committed to making a success not only of this place but of the nation that this place represents. That is why we have made no change that would enable any of the Sinn Fein Members—or anybody else who does not take the Oath or affirm—to take their seats, to take part in votes or to speak. On the issue of two classes of Member of Parliament, I take the view that what we did in December erodes the distinction between those who have not taken the Oath and those who have in relation to allowances and access to this place, but in no way does it erode the difference between those of us who take our seats and those who do not.

Appointments Commission

44. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): If he will invite the House of Lords Appointments Commission to discuss with people's peers their experience of their membership of the Lords with a view to informing its future recommendations. [25059]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The first round of appointments made by the Appointments Commission included the chief executive of Centrepoint, the chief executive of Childline, and a trustee of Oxfam. The appointments also brought a welcome balance to the membership of the Lords. [Interruption.] I shall get to the question, if Members will be patient. Almost a third of the new members belong to ethnic communities and a similar proportion are women. They have brought their experience and authority to proceedings in the Lords on

15 Jan 2002 : Column 150

immigration, child poverty, equal opportunity and public services. I cannot speak for the Appointments Commission but I am sure that both my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and I would listen with respect if its members wished to comment on their experience.

Mr. Prentice: If appointed peers are expected to make a contribution in the House of Lords, is the chair of the Appointments Commission setting a good example by having spoken twice in the two and a half years since he was ennobled in 1999?

Mr. Cook: I do not think that it is any part of my remit or that of the Government to encourage even more people to speak in debates in the House of Lords.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): In addition to taking advice from the Appointments Commission and the people's peers, will the Leader of the House say what his proposals are for a further consultation period beyond the end of this month? He will be aware of the gathering consensus that the White Paper represents nobody except the Lord Chancellor, and that he is in a minority of one. What steps will the Leader of the House take to ensure that the House and the other place have a proper opportunity—without the Whips and on a free vote—to discuss the issues, and when does he expect us to be given that opportunity? Does he accept that there is one thing on which there is a unanimous view—that doing nothing is unacceptable?

Mr. Cook: I wholly endorse the last sentence of the hon. Gentleman's question, and since it is the only part of his question that I can wholly endorse, I shall seize upon it. It is important that we continue the process of reform of the House of Lords to create a modern second Chamber. As I warned last week, we must not let divisions among those who want reform to prevent there from being any reform. We had a full opportunity for the House to express itself last week and, as someone who sat through the entire debate, I can say that the House expressed itself robustly. The views expressed last week are being reflected upon. The consultation process goes on until 31 January. It is perhaps premature now to announce any further consultation. It is important that we reflect on the views expressed in the House and in the country and, as I said last week, seek to find the centre of gravity that will enable reform to proceed with support.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): If only the Government had kept to the 1976 policy and abolished the House of Lords, they would not be suffering all this heartache at the present time. It is sad that nobody knows what the new proposal will be at the end, despite all the consultation that is taking place. In the knowledge that there are not enough Members like myself who want to abolish the House of Lords completely, irrespective of the percentage who are elected, my right hon. Friend must remember one thing—do not give it very much power.

Mr. Cook: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that I am in no danger of forgetting that very important maxim. It is precisely because of that that I sought to warn the House last week of the danger of a wholly elected second Chamber. I find it hard to see how we could preserve the present supremacy of the House of Commons

15 Jan 2002 : Column 151

and the present balance of power between us against a second Chamber that would claim an equally valid democratic mandate.

With regard to my hon. Friend's first point, I do not wish to rehearse the debates of 1966.

Mr. Skinner: 1976.

Mr. Cook: 1976. I have enough difficulty rehearsing the debates of last week. However, it has been the case in the past, particularly in the 1966 Parliament, that what stopped reform was division among the reformers. We must not let that be the case now.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Before the Leader of the House has any discussions with the Appointments Commission, will he confirm that his own proposals for reform of the Lords, which were criticised in every quarter of this House last week, are in effect now a dead duck? Will he seek to use his influence with the Prime Minister—however great or small that might be—to ensure that the correct way forward is to propose a House of Lords where the majority of the membership is elected, not where the majority in the House are Tony's cronies?

Mr. Cook: Without getting engaged in a discussion about the extent of my influence with the Prime Minister, I suspect that, such as it is, it would be sharply diminished if I announced to the House in advance what my advice would be.

The right hon. Gentleman has to take on board the fact that Conservative Members must also face up to problems with their proposals, as some Labour Members have pointed out. The Conservative party has supported the hereditary principle for a century, so it is entirely welcome that it has finally recognised that that principle is indefensible, and has been so throughout the century that the Conservative party has defended it.

I welcome the Conservative party's move towards democracy, but its proposals show that it believes that democracy means providing in the second Chamber the same representation for Surrey as for London. That shows that Conservatives have some way to go before they understand democracy as it is understood in Britain, and certainly as it is understood in London.

Information Technology

45. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): If he will ask the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons to consider in what further ways the use of Information Technology can assist the work of hon. Members. [25061]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): The memorandum from my right hon. Friend the President of the Council to the Modernisation Committee raised a number of ways in which information technology might be used to assist hon. Members, ranging from electronic voting in the Lobbies to ways of giving opportunities for communication between members of the public and Members of the House.

15 Jan 2002 : Column 152

I believe that the Select Committee on Information may soon look at the issue of information technology in the House, and I very much hope that the Modernisation Committee will draw on its work.

Mr. Jack: I thank the Minister for again giving an enthusiastic and encouraging reply. As part of his agenda of action, will he look at the possibility that Departments might send answers to parliamentary questions by e-mail? Will he also investigate the feasibility of a case-tracking system, so that hon. Members might know where letters go to when they disappear into the black hole that is a Department, and of supplying information electronically to hon. Members about what has happened to them? Finally, has any progress been made on the question of using laptop computers in Committees of the House?

Mr. Twigg: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the persistence with which he has pursued that final point. I believe that the matter will be addressed by the Information Committee and the Chairmen's Panel. The right hon. Gentleman also raised some broader issues, some of which fall within the Modernisation Committee's remit, but others of which fall within the remit of the newly established Cabinet Committee on e-democracy. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will chair that Committee, which will have its first meeting next week. I shall ensure that the matters raised by the right hon. Gentleman are drawn to the Committee's attention.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston): When my hon. Friend the Minister looks at the rules governing the modernisation and constitution of the House of Commons, will he bear in mind that, as a member of the Council of Europe and the Western European Union, I find it very difficult to get oral questions accepted by the Table Office? The office will not allow my research assistant to hand in a question from me, so he has to run about to find a Member who is willing to hand in the question for him. Some Members are too busy and do not want to hand in a question.

Mr. Twigg: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter, which clearly falls within the remit of the Modernisation Committee's discussions. We want to ensure greater flexibility, so that hon. Members from all parties can balance their commitments outside the House with their commitments here. I shall ensure that the point is considered in the Modernisation Committee's inquiry.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was asked—

Next Section

IndexHome Page