Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.[Mr. Heppell.]
Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Before I call the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who initiated the first debate, I hope that all Members had a restful and enjoyable, albeit rather short, Christmas break. I also wish all Members a very happy and successful new year.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Thank you for calling me to speak in this very important debate, Sir Nicholas. If there is one thing that should unite politicians of all parties in this House, it is a desire to ensure that Parliament is more effective and that it becomes more relevant and a more important forum. I hope that those of us gathered here this morning will agree on how we might proceed and that the Minister will take our views seriously.
Politicians of all parties are struggling to reignite people's interest in our democracy. It is sad that many members of the public rightly or wrongly perceive us to be out of touch, out of date and unresponsive to outside opinion. They do not understand or even care about what they believe to be our archaic and irrelevant procedures and practices. The media does little to help and much to hinder. Civil servants and Ministers, through fear of challenge or lack of imagination, may feel little need to relax their grip over a supplicant Parliament. Blaming others, however, gets us nowhere. Parliament must take responsibility for itself, and I hope that the Government, who control our agenda, will assist it. This Government, like all Governments, need constantly to renew their connection with Parliament and the public.
The answer is under our noses in the form of online pre-legislative scrutinyan ugly mouthful, but one that means taking our democracy to its next level and to its next era, in which Committees properly examine draft Bills or, even better, White Papers, or, better still, the Minister's instructions to counselthe ideas behind the Bill. That would give Bills the examination that they deserve in advance of their becoming law.
There is a tendency for Parliament to fear technological developments. For many years, the broadcasting of proceedings, first on radio and then on television, was resisted. Some believe that the internet now threatens the principle of representative government, since it offers the possibility of direct decision taking through e-plebiscitea big, if monosyllabic, conversation that would bypass Westminster altogether. We are right to be worried about being bypassed, but pre-legislative scrutiny turns that worry on its head. It can reinforce representative democracy rather than undermine it. It would mean the
If evidence on proposed Bills was broadcast live on the parliamentary and BBC websites, for example, every voter who could get near a computer would be able to view proceedings and could submit their own views using the e-mail address that would run across the bottom of the screen. Those views would be received and processed, not by anyone here or in party politics, but by an independent mediatorperhaps, as in the brilliant example of the Communications Act 2003, the Hansard Society, a much respected and independent institution.
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Allen : I am glad to give way to my hon. Friend, because he was a distinguished member of the Committee that considered the Communications Bill, which successfully pioneered the experiment in online pre-legislative scrutiny last year.
Brian White : Is my hon. Friend aware that one group was unable to participate in that online scrutiny of the Communications Bill? The whole world could watch it, except the 659 MPs in this place, who were barred from watching it on the parliamentary data and video network.
Mr. Allen : It is ironic that while a peasant farmer who had access to a satellite dish in China could e-mail responses on the Communications Bill last year, a Member of Parliament who wished to do the same would have had to leave this placethe mother of Parliamentsand go outside, perhaps to their home, to tune in and exercise a similar right. However, my hon. Friend and I have been working closely with the Select Committee on Information to try to put that right. Indeed, I believe it may now even be possible, for the first time, for Members of Parliament to participate in making laws even though they are not sat in Committee, which is great progress.
The role of the independent mediator, a role taken by the Hansard Society for the Communications Bill, would be to look at the e-mail traffic, distil the gems and nuggets on a side of paper and put that in front of the Committee the next day. One of the beauties of the idea for Members who are technophobesI probably count myself among their numberis that those conducting the evidence taking and those giving the evidence are not in direct interface with the technology. The Committee proceeds exactly as before; the only difference is that it receives a sheet of paper with some bright ideas, from whoever it may, about the evidence given the day before or on the Bill's clauses.
The great thing about the idea is that electors with practical experience in an area can feed the Committee useful advice as it develops its scrutiny of a Bill. Imagine,
The more voices that are allowed to be heard, the more likely we are to get the ideas to make good legislation even better. Many of the legislative disasters that Governments have imposed on ParliamentI speak genericallycould probably have been avoided. To refer to my own experience, I led for my party in opposition on the Child Support Act 1991, which has had to be rewritten about five times. I have no doubt that had we had a sensible process of pre-legislative scrutinyeither online or offlineand had we listened to the practitioners and to those whom it affected, we would have been able to make that law far better, far earlier.
We have all, as constituency Members, heard voices, not as timely advice from those with experience, but as screams of anguish and despair from the most obvious victims of Government mistreatment of the parliamentary process. Not one Member of the House has not had experience of child support cases that we know would have been handled better had the law been framed properly in the first instance. We all share the blame for not getting the process right. That is not merely a dry parliamentary point; if we get things wrongin this instance, the Child Support Agencypeople die, people commit suicide, and misery is inflicted on people for many years. To take an extra few weeks to listen to the voices and get it right is a very small price to pay.
We are now in Second Reading season. Who knows how many of the Bills before the House this week and in coming weeks will have to be revisited next year or the year after? I have heard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary say that people cannot wait to get a Bill on the statute book and that they need the relief and the remedy now. However, by hurrying Bills through without proper legislative consultation we slow, not speed, the process. Time and time again we come back to put things right that we did not get right because we acted in haste and without allowing Parliament to do the job that it is elected to do.
Proper parliamentary planning of evidence on Bills could create a schedulea sort of parliamentary Radio Timesif we got our act together and listed which Bills were coming forward and when evidence could be given.
In the past, we might have said something that sounded like a great ideafor example, that we must put the man back into a relationship, even a financial relationship with the woman. However, battered wives might say that that is absolutely the last thing that they want and that if we want to help them we should operate in one way rather than the other. They might agree with our sentiment, but ask us to work in a practical and helpful way. The intelligence, experience and advice in our communities could help make our good intentions real and practical.
Pre-legislative scrutiny has received endorsement from the Government, most notably in the 2002 Gracious Speech. Thanks to the introduction of carry-over Bills and timetabling with a period of pre-legislative scrutiny built in, that is now theoretically far easier than ever before. If we are to believe newspaper reports in what we are told is a post-spin age, there are plans to abolish the monarch's annual address on the opening of Parliament. If that happened, a desire to avoid pre-empting the Queen's Speech would cease to be a valid excuseif ever it were onefor not alerting Parliament, Select Committee Chairs and others about future Bills and allowing each departmental Committee to plan its pre-legislative programme further in advance. What is my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons doing now to plan next October's parliamentary Session? Is he engaging with the Chairs of Select Committees on the long list of potential Bills that is circulating in Whitehall? It is important to plan ahead, so that the procedure can be built in.
The trend is for more draft Bills to be published in each parliamentary Session, and it is important that all of us, whichever party we come from, put on the record our gratitude for the fact that the Government, in co-operation with the Opposition, are putting more Bills through the process. That is a welcome development, and I congratulate not only the Minister but my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), on the progress that has been made. Now we need to take a major step forward. The process needs extra impetus and political leadership if it is to progress. I hope that the Minister will be forthcoming on that issue. Robert Blackburn, the author, has rightly stated:
The Government control our agenda on a minute-to-minute basis, so the ability of the Cabinet and the business managers to decide in advance the legislative programme and of Departments to give drafting instructions, particularly given the limited resources of
The process should not live or die according to who is Leader or Deputy Leader of the House. One of the most helpful contributions that the Minister could make this year would be to settle on one form of pre-legislative scrutiny. Early on, we welcomed lots of different forms; that was important at that stage. Perhaps we should not close off options, as an alternative form might be helpful in some circumstances. However, to assist the civil service, Select Committee Chairs and Members of this House, it is important to pull the strands together and to institutionalise the form in which pre-legislative scrutiny online takes place. There are too many excuses around for those who do not want the process to be a success to allow them myriad possible pitfalls.
It is important to identify the most commonly used and most favoured form of pre-legislative scrutiny, and I hope that the Minister will consider putting it in Standing Orders, so that it can be applied as a matter of course to all future Billsnot the odd one that we think might go well through the processin order for there to be a feeling that that is standard practice. On occasion, it would not be necessary, but the common practice would be to follow the procedure specified in the Standing Orders. We should simplify and institutionalise the process.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): If all legislative scrutiny has to be done by Select Committees, might they not become overburdened? There is a case for Joint Committees that can bring a lot of expertise to a particular measure, as they did in the cases of the Communications Bill, the Finance Services and Markets Bill and other legislation. Would there not be a problem if we were restricted to one method of pre-legislative scrutiny? When the Modernisation Committee considered the matter, it commented that it would not be right to be too rigid.
Mr. Allen : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest and supportit is important that this should remain a cross-party and pro-Parliament issue. He makes a good point; something can be lost if we focus on a single, mainstream type of pre-legislative scrutiny. However, we are at the point at which we need to plump for something that might be regarded as the standard process, albeit one that does not preclude us from acting in a slightly different way in particular circumstances. We are trying to change from thinking that anything goes to introducing something that will ensure that the new concept survives and flourishes.
We have seen that the appointment of a new Leader of the House with a different approach can kill that concept. However, if it is institutionalised, so that it is clear how the civil service, hon. Members and Ministers should operateallowing for some flexibilitywe will be able to maintain and grow the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny online. If I were to plump for a favourite, I would go for a process involving a Special Standing Committee that would be created after First Reading, which would be the announcement of just the
The advantages of such an approach are numerous. It would involve Parliament either in the drafting of legislation or the reality checking of concepts behind it, and it would mean that problems could be corrected before they became part of an entrenched political position after Second Reading on the Floor and the farcical process of Standing Committee, which wastes so much ministerial time, let alone parliamentary time. The end result would be better law.
There would also be political benefitsregardless of party. Recently, there has been a progressive proposal for the introduction of back-loaded university tuition fees, which has been severely criticised on both sides of the House. Why? It is not because of the substance of the policy, which many people adhere to when it is properly explained, but because of the manner in which it has been dropped fully formed on to Parliament out of nowherenowhere being No. 10 Downing street in this instance.
If hon. Members will permit me a flight of fantasy, I ask them to imagine that at some point after the last general election, when the Government realised that their manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees was becoming untenable, they came to Parliament and said, "We made this manifesto commitment in complete good faith, but now, in equally good faith, we cannot be bound by it when faced with the financial collapse of our world-class university system. We are putting to youParliamenta proposal for variable tuition fees, and we would like you to take the time to work through it, find the snags and suggest the improvements." Several parliamentary Committees could have begun scrutinising that idea from different angles. The proceedings and evidence taking, broadcast over the internet, would have allowed students, prospective students, parents, teachers, the National Union of Students and other interested parties to register and submit their comments.
Even with the half-baked process that we have, there have been a lot of improvements in the past few weeks. In a proper process, the package would have been tightened and improved along the way with, for example, larger maintenance grants for poorer students or less subsidisation of tuition fees, so my proposal would be cost free. If the matter had been handled in that way, the different groups participating, including the Government, would have mutually educated themselves about the policy and bought into an agreed package that they had all helped to produce; we certainly would not be engaged in the brinksmanship and last-minute crisis management that we are now involved in.
Full online pre-legislative scrutiny might yet offer a sensible way forward for a new and positive relationship between all Governments and Parliaments, regardless of parties. It would also send a clear signal to Members of Parliament that Prime Ministers of all political colours would be willing to listen to them and take their ideas on board, as well as those ideas from the public that hold water. Above all, we in the House, with our new partners, the public, would be able to make better lawlaw proposed by another new partner, the Government.
Mr. Heald : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and hope that I am not trespassing on his good will. Although I am very supportive of the initiative that he proposes, one of my concerns is that the process of online pre-legislative scrutiny could be subject to volume lobbying, such as the sort of postcards that we all receive in vast numbers, which could be sent in their thousands with the same representation being made at the same time and in a co-ordinated way. What is the hon. Gentleman's view of that? Should we treat it as legitimate lobbying, or would it need to be tackled in some way to make the process more effective?
Mr. Allen : Again, that is a sensible and helpful point. Indeed, we went into that in our debates on the Communications Act 2003. We need to consider the role of the mediator. The Hansard Society said about that Act that it did not receive a single e-mail in response to evidence that had to be "taken down". In other words, it received nothing that was racially abusive or insulting, which shows that such participation was sensible on that occasion.
Equally, were there to be a campaign, the number of identical or similar responses would be noted by the mediator, and that would go before the relevant Committee. I think that it could be left to the Committee or the Secretary of State to decide whether such responses were a good idea or whether someone was trying to lobby. I think that lobbying would be counterproductive. Indeed, as we found with the Communications Act, on which many people were well equipped to organise that sort of mass lobby, they instead decided to make practical and sensible contributions to the debate, and they were respected for it. Were they to have organised a mass e-mail flaming of Committee members, we would have taken a very dim view and disregarded what they had to say. However, that would be for the judgment of the relevant Committee.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): To assist the hon. Gentleman on that point, another example of online consultation was that carried out on stem cell research by the House of Lord Select Committee. One would have expected that consultation to be subject to much lobbying, as the pro-life lobbies are very effective at putting their case, but it did not happen. It is my understanding that, unlike the open e-mail system, it is inherent in the online consultation system that such lobbying can be prevented. People have to register and go through various stages in order to access the system to express their views, which discourages everyone except those who have something serious to say. It is
Mr. Allen : My honourable colleague makes a sensible point. Indeed, if we take the process seriously, people will come to realise that they can influence the process.
I conducted my own pre-legislative scrutiny online when on the Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Act 2003. A network of people helped melocal police officers, lawyers, housing officials and so on. I e-mailed them clauses of the BillI said that the provisions were not negotiableand asked whether practicalities of the clause worked for them. Because of the responses to those questions, I was sometimes able to table amendmentsrather to the annoyance of my Whip. None the less, changes were made on a number of occasions.
One such change was on drug testing; it was inspired by a local inspector of police, supported by his assistant chief constable. We made an impact on the drug testing of young people using class A drugsheroin, crack or cocaineat the age of 14. The Minister was keen to seize on that. The Home Secretary originally intended the sentencing guidelines council to be a wholly judicial body. Because I was able to take views from outside, as well as across parties, we gained a broadening of the sentencing guidelines council to include not just the judiciary but a serving prison governor and a serving police officer. That was a practical move, and once we had got over the culture shock, the Minister on the Committee took on board a number of the bright ideas that came, if not from me, through me because of that process. Imagine if we had opened that out to everyone else. Instead of coming back in 18 months with a new Criminal Justice Bill to close some of the loopholes, as we will, we could have got matters right first time.
If the process works, and that is proved to people, they are less likely to be abusive. All parliamentary colleagues have been in situations where someone in the street has started off by being quite aggressive but, once we have sat them down and talked through what has happened in a particular case, they have then understood, even if they have not been convinced, and have perhaps entered into more serious dialogue with us. If we institutionalise online pre-legislative scrutiny, people's mindset, as on the Communications Bill, will be to say, "Thank you for letting me participate in the making of better law that will affect me in my field or interest."
Online scrutiny is a good means of bringing public and Parliament closer together, an admirable objective in itself. It would display our democratic process at its best, rather than leaving people thinking that that is irrelevant and that we are all a bunch of sheep, yah-booing at Prime Minister's Question Time. The perception could change so that people say of us, "These are people who are serious about making the laws that affect me and my family." We would develop the genuine participation of people in our democracy.
This is also a matter of widening access and communication. I mentioned earlier that the media have done little to help Parliament. I think that they enjoy the dance between themselves and the Executive at No. 10 Downing street, the only two serious players in British
Whingeing is pointless, so I shall focus on the BBC, of which I am an ardent supporter. I hope very much that it will help to facilitate licence payers' access to their democracy by hosting and branding online pre-legislative scrutiny of this place on its popular and respected website. No editorial would be necessary or welcome, and costs would be minimal because the technology is pretty much in place throughout the House already, but maximum exposure could be generated through trailers on the corporation's radio and television channels, inviting people to become involved in their democracy. Instead of complaining in an "Any Questions" format, people could get involved in the reality of changing the law the very next day by participating in the democratic process.
The BBC, which has itself been subject to unfair attacks from various quarters in recent years, could then rebut many of its critics and build on its already excellent public service role. It could re-centre itself as an integral element of our democracy, not some marginalised commentator, and make itself fulfil abundantly the public service obligation in its charter by facilitating the public's working closely with their elected representatives to make better laws for everyone. That would be a prize indeed for the BBC, as well as for us in Parliament and for the public.
A massive leap forward for our democracy is now on offer, which would restore a useful function for our Parliament, provide a 21st-century role for the BBC and open the door to participation for all our people. This is the last great extension of the franchise for a mature democracy, and it lies in the Minister's hands to seize that opportunity. I hope that he has the courage to do so. I know him personally, and I know that that is well within his capabilities. During the next year, we will watch him closely. I wish him well in the difficult times that lie ahead, and hope that he draws strength from the fact that to rebuild and strengthen our Parliament as an effective partner of the Executive is not just the right thing to do. I hope that he realises that he will carry the House with him on this matter, regardless of Members' political stances on various issues. Parliament, and Members of all parties in Parliament, will wish him well in making this serious contribution to the next step in our democracy.
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): I am the chair of the all-party e-democracy group, having taken over from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), who did a good job of establishing the group. She was keen on the kind of online discussion that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) talked about, and pioneered a consultation in relation to battered women, which led to a large number of subsequent consultations.
I will start, rather perversely, by pointing out that post-legislative scrutiny is not carried out very well. There is a role for an online forum and a need for all aspects of post-legislative scrutiny in the House to be thoroughly updated. Select Committees tend to be
Mr. Graham Allen : There would be no need for pre-legislative scrutiny if we had proper legislative scrutiny. We have to invent a way around the inadequacies of the House, as we are not honest about those inadequacies.
Brian White : My hon. Friend makes the very point that I was going to make. The House divides scrutiny into pre-legislative and post-legislative stages, but the process is ongoing. Any post-legislative scrutiny should inform future legislation. A couple of years ago, the Public Administration Committee produced a report on innovations in consultation. One of the key things to come out of that was the fact that people wanted to know how their views influenced the system. They were not particularly interested in whether their views were accepted, but they wanted to see how the system responded to external inputs. The consultations in which that process was transparent were successful, but those in which it was opaque were the ones that people found frustrating. There are therefore serious issues relating to the way in which we conduct our scrutiny.
I have served on two pre-legislative scrutiny Committeesa Select Committee and the Joint Committee considering the Communications Bill. My experience of the Joint Committee was better than my experience of the Select Committee. One of the problems with the Select Committee was that, although we were considering the Freedom of Information Bill, the time and effort that went into pre-legislative scrutiny meant that the rest of the Committee's work did not receive proper consideration. I prefer the scrutiny powers of Joint Committees, and I would not want Select Committees to have the ability to produce draft legislation. It is important to get a balance, and so I disagree with my hon. Friend about having an institutionalised way forward.
When talking about online input, we ought to consider pre-pre-legislative scrutinyin other words, what the civil service does in discussions with Ministers. The Communications Bill is a good example. The team for that Bill was set up and there was consultation with the industry. Parliamentarians were also involved, through the European information society group, which I chair. The process brought parliamentarians and the industry together. The Bill team went out and made use of the consultationironically, the team used online consultation as welland that ensured that when pre-legislative scrutiny took place there was a much better understanding of the issues. The Bill team was more responsive, and, when it participated in the pre-legislative scrutiny, it was prepared to take part in the debate. However, when the team working on the Freedom of Information Bill took part in pre-legislative scrutiny, it took a step back from the Committee process, which raises some interesting issues.
It is often said that, if only we had pre-legislative scrutiny, we could avoid all disagreements. However, that is not a good idea, as it is important that there should be disagreement. Pre-legislative scrutiny can eliminate certain debates if the Bill is simply wrong. It is
Similarly, some issues simply involved a choice of A or B, particularly between BSkyB and the public broadcasters. Either A or B would lose out but, whatever the decision, there was a fight in Committee. Pre-legislative scrutiny should not be used to avoid debate and disagreement.
Mr. Richard Allan : I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman's experience has been similar to mine. The debate on the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999another legislative issue that regularly returns to the Housewas better informed as a result of pre-legislative scrutiny. Such scrutiny does not eliminate debate, but Members who are considering the legislation will have had a much greater exposure to a range of views in a standard format. In such cases, the Special Standing Committee works better than a regular Standing Committee.
Brian White : I agree. Pre-legislative scrutiny enables us to focus on issues that we would not necessarily have considered initially. That was certainly true for the Communications Bill. The debates were not those one might have expected at the start of the process, but they were just as fierce, particularly in the House of Lords. An online forum for pre-legislative scrutiny would therefore not diminish debate but enhance it.
If we are to have online scrutiny, the quality of the language that is used in explanatory notes, briefings about the Bill and regulatory impact assessments must be improved. Such documents are written for usthey are not written in the language used in the street. If we are to have an online forum, it is important that we either provide a separate version of documents online or, preferably, improve the quality of the documents to ensure that there is better pre-legislative scrutiny.
Mr. Graham Allen : Once again, I return to the question of helping the civil service and Ministers, who work incredibly hard when a Bill is introduced. If we asked for 15 different ways of presenting Bills, draft Bills, Green Papers, instructions to counsel and so on, we would burden them even more at a critical time. They should carry responsibilities, but requirements should be clear and straightforward so that they all know what they have to do. If we confuse the issue, many Departments will continue to offer resistance. We must therefore convince Departments and Ministers that the proposal would be good for them and that the debates to which my hon. Friend referred are the ones that should be held, rather than ridiculous debates about adding words such as "a", "it" or "and", which waste our time.
Brian White : My hon. Friend makes my point in a much better way than I could. He raised the issue of
Mr. Heald : If we restrict consultation too much, we could fail to take note of a strongly held view that the public at large wish to express in a forceful way. An example is the recent "Today" poll on which Bills should be introduced. There was huge support for a Bill to deal with an issue arising from the Martin case. It was not introduced in a technical way by expert lawyers but, importantly, it has touched a raw nerve with the public. We would not want not to know what people thought about such issues. Is that the hon. Gentleman's point?
Brian White : That is exactly the point. In this debate, we are in danger of forgetting that we are politicians, we belong to political parties and we have a representative democracy. We have a duty to make judgments, and the online process is not a substitute for such judgment making. In the Martin case, we need to judge the arguments for and against, rather than simply acknowledge the fact that a large body of people have made a point. It is a matter of interpretation, and we need to consider the underlying issues. The online process is an important tool, but it is not a substitute for doing our jobit helps us to do our job. It is helpful to know that there is a strong body of opinion about the issues raised by certain cases. It may be appropriate for a Select Committee to consider such issues, but that is a judgment we need to make in Parliament. The tool of online scrutiny should assist us in making such judgments, rather than substitute for them.
We do not make good use of all-party groups. The use of all-party groups in online consultation is important, as is support and training for Membersan issue which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North did not touch on. I should like to see the introduction of online questions for Ministers. The opportunity for Ministers to respond regularly online, as they do in Parliament, would be a useful innovation. They would not necessarily answer questions online as frequently as they do in Parliament, but there is a role for such questioning.
Such scrutiny is not just a tool for the Government. Many local councils are way ahead of us in their use of online consultation and scrutiny. We are considering draft Bills and the introduction of legislation, but we should remember that it is not just the Government who
There are also lessons to be learned from other countries, and I refer Members to early-day motion 322. Recently, in Canada, a decision was made to open up the way in which parliamentarians interact with the Government, for example in free votes and online forums. In this country, we are starting to deal with those issues, which were pioneered in Canada. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider its experience to see whether anything from its Westminster-type Parliament is relevant to our democracy. I welcome our debate, and several useful things have come out of it. It is important that we consider the online scrutiny as part of an ongoing process rather than as a substitute for the reason why we are here, which is to represent our constituents.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I am extremely pleased that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has secured this debate early in the new year because, although it is a subject of importance to many Members, it has been underrepresented in Parliament. There was a flurry of excitement a couple of years ago when the Government published a consultation paper on ways in which we could use the tools of the internet for conducting our democratic business, but in official terms it has gone very quiet since then.
Like the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White), I am associated with the all-party e-democracy group, and serve as its secretary. Many of us who are interested in e-democracya wonderful phrase, but one should be suspicious of anything beginning with an eare in fact far more interested in democracy than in the "e". I have an interest in the technology but it is democracy that drives us; the technology is a means to a better democratic end.
I will focus on some of the democratic problems and the way in which the online consultation that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North discussed could help to resolve them. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East helpfully reminded us that there is a legislative cycle and that pre-legislative scrutiny is part of a larger whole. That reminds me of the way in which IT systems are designed according to a life cycle. One designs, builds, tests and implements them, then reviews them before redesigning, rebuilding and retesting them. One never stops, and legislation should be dealt with in the same way. We should consider online consultation at the design phase, but that does not mean that we do not want further interaction when the legislation is implemented.
A lot of work is taking place into the reasons why people are disconnected from politics, some of which is funded by the Government and bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council. The reality of that disconnection is there for all to seewe often discuss it, and today we are focussing on a tool that may remove it. Stephen Coleman, Professor of e-Democracy at the Oxford Internet Institute, has done some
Brian White : Which one is the hon. Gentleman?
Mr. Allan : We can all pick a collection of those adjectives. All were the result of thoughtful research among a large panel of people who defined those characteristics. Some of the features of the alien representative are particularly relevant to our debate, and I shall give some quotations that show how people feel about us:
"He is too remote and not on the same wavelength as the people generally."
The fact that, for many of those people, we have no idea about normal life means that we are not in the same places as them. The internet is one place that they increasingly visitit is where they chat and conduct business. If we want to become less alien, it is important that we catch up with and address the modern age. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North referred to television debates. If we had not decided to televise Parliament, how alien we would seem to a culture in which watching television is a prime leisure activity. We should be aware that things are happening on the internetwe cannot ignore it or expect it to go away.
Great developments have taken place without Parliament's permissionthat may be why they have been so successful. Only three Members refuse to accept faxes from faxyourmp.com, a website that was set up when people said, "We want to e-mail our MPs and will find a way of doing it. We will not ask permission; we will just get on and do it." It has been hugely successful. Publicwhip.org.uk is another relevant website. It has nothing to do with sadomasochism, but is entirely political and wholesome. Members do not need to type "whip" into a search engine. They should go straight to publicwhip.org.uk, where someone has examined MPs' voting records and compared the way in which we voted on various issues. The site has some wonderful maps and was set up, without our permission, to make MPs publicly accountable. The BBC is also in on the act with the interesting iCan project, which includes a wonderful section giving helpful advice on organising a demonstration. It suggests that AGMs are good places at which to raise political matters, and says that people should get together and use the internet to make their point.
Democracy is happening on the internetthe question is whether we want to engage with it proactively or have it bite us on the backside. The Information Committee produced a report in 2001 that tried to help Parliament engage positively with that
It said that it is particularly important to include people
Turning to social classes and age groups, the younger age groups are interested in engaging in politics because most of our decisions will affect them more than anyone else. The penetration rate among social classes A, B and C1 is 100 per cent. The fact that 100 per cent. define themselves as internet users may appear to be a Saddam Hussein-type referendum or election result but, although it is an exceptional figure, it is probably true. Among those in social group DE, there is 80 per cent. penetration. That is not brilliant, but compares favourably with the functional access of that group to library and other information services, which is poor.
The fact that many people are using the internet shows that the digital divide in society is largely resolving itself, which gives us interesting opportunities to engage people who traditionally have had no access to politics. Many people who use the internet would not have gone to their local library to reserve a copy of Hansard, which would arrive at a later date. Even if they had a copy, they would not be able to work out what was going on. It is pretty unintelligible to me, never mind anyone else. I still cannot understand Order Papers, which completely confuse me.
Mr. Graham Allen : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we need to find a way to break that cycle? It is incumbent on the House to change its culture and allow people e-mail access. If we do so, people will take politics seriously and participate more. Does he also accept the importance of introducing a schedule? If we included evidence taking in such a schedule, and if members of a particular community such as a group of war widows or claimants for disability living allowance knew that that opportunity existed, even if they did not have a PC, they would be aware that information relevant to them could be viewed at a known time. We would therefore reinforce their confidence, and their
Mr. Allan : That was very helpful. The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. If we manage the process correctly, the possibilities are enormous. In Adjournment debates at the end of the day, there are often only two men and a dog in the Chamberthat is, if the Home Secretary is responding. Otherwise, there are only two people in the Chamber talking to each other. We should think about the number of people who access that debate at 11 pm, or at 7.30 pm or 8 pm under the new hours, then consider the possibilities that technology offers us. Adjournment debates are often about subjects that are of significant interest to small communities. We could involve all those people in a debate via the internet, and 50 or 60 people could sit round a computer, watch the debate, discuss it and provide feedback. That demonstrates the potential of the internet and its relevance to the scrutiny of legislation. Adjournment debates are an example of debates that are not well covered by the media at the moment. If legislative scrutiny is included in the timetable, and if people think of the internet as something that they use not only on their own but in groups, the possibilities that it affords become very exciting.
Mr. Graham Allen : Legislation applies a discipline to the e-mailer. Rather than expressing a general view about what was said in an Adjournment debate and succumbing to the verbal diarrhoea that we all receive in e-mails, legislation limits the e-mailer to a particular line, clause or idea, and they must express their views in a practical way. For example, they might say, "We think that you have a good idea, but doing it like this would help you to achieve what you are trying to achieve in law." That disciplined framework is the difference between examining legislation and holding the sort of general debate that we can all have in chat rooms if we do not have better things to do with our lives.
Mr. Allan : That is helpful, and brings me back to whether using the internet in such consultations merely becomes a game of mass spamming. The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct about the need for a framework.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about whether we should have a set model for consultation. I should like more experimentation, but he is right that there should be a call-off contract that is easily available and can be pulled off the shelf. People would have no excuses about not proceeding because they do not know what to do as the process is too difficult. That should not, however, prevent people from continuing to experiment. I am a fan of the excellent Joint Committee model. A Joint Committee's call-off contract asking for online consultation is entirely straightforward. The Clerk says, "Let's have it," and the consultation proceeds.
Many different consultations have been held. We have had consultations on the Data Protection (Amendment) Bill, domestic violence, family tax credits, stem cell research, floods, the parliamentary information strategy, long-term care of the elderly, and the draft Communications Bill. The Public
Deliberation is also important, and is an important difference between online consultation and online polling, which is insufficient for our needs. Online polling helps us to know what people are talking about, but once we have identified that, we need to start exploring the consequence of any change in the law. The Tony Martin case is a good example. We know that people are interested in it, but what is helpful is deliberation on its implications. We must ask ourselves under what circumstances it is all right to shoot someone who has entered one's house. Is it all right to shoot someone if we simply see them in our back garden? We then start to explore the issues in greater detail, which we do not do in online polling. Deliberation is therefore a key part of a good online consultation. Whenever someone posts a message saying that we should shoot anyone who walks anywhere near our property, someone will respond by asking if it would be all right to shoot someone who accidentally walked through another person's front door because they thought it was their house. People will deliberate in an effective consultation.
Finally, as the hon. Gentleman said, this development is in the same tradition as widening the franchise. The franchise was progressively widened over time, but we have not significantly widened access to policy making. Policy making is still largely confined to interest groups that are sufficiently powerful and geographically close to London to be represented in Parliament. Those who have access to Select Committees and can influence policy making comprise a very small number of people in our democracy in 2003. That position has not changed dramatically over the years. We can now use the key features of the internet, which is non-geographical and has a low cost of entry, to allow access to policy making to millions of people who live in areas geographically remote from London and who traditionally have been excluded from expensive methods of accessing policy making. That will change the nature of our role and impose additional burdens on us, but it is worth adopting those burdens to demonstrate that our democracy has developed.
Politics is essentially a communications business. It is important that we recognise that and respond to public demand. I will close with a quotation from the psychologist, J. C. R. Licklider, who was influential in the formation of the internet, which was established not just by techies but by people with a wider vision. In the 1960s he wrote about the future, and said:
I would include a good representative in those requirements. If the Government can grasp that, build on their good intentions and put the same weight behind the process that they have put behind the introduction of pre-legislative scrutiny, we could have a much healthier democracy in this country.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): It was notable that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), whom I congratulate on introducing this important debate, started by saying that we are struggling as a Parliament to reignite the interest of the public in what we do. He said that we were old-fashioned and out of touch. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), who has just spoken, made the similar point that we appear out of touch to the public. The Modernisation Committee, on which I serve at the moment, is undertaking an inquiry into connecting with the publicsomething that you, Sir Nicholas, are aware of, as a senior and long-standing member of that Committee. One thing coming out of the evidence is that individual constituents value their Member of Parliament at a local level. They think that their MP is useful, sensible and working in their interests. They value us highly locally. The problem arises with the national perception of what happens in this place.
In looking at the sort of research that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam mentioned, in which experts refer to arrogant, out-of-touch representatives, it is worth bearing in mind that that is not what people think about their own MP. Our challenge is to recreate the opinion that people have of us as individuals for the institution of Parliament as a whole. That was part of the thinking that informed the report of the Hansard Society commission in 1993, which was chaired by Lord Rippon. The commission talked about moving away from party political confrontation, and said that we needed
In the experience that the House has had, pre-legislative scrutiny has worked well, but the Joint Committees have been a particular success. Between the two Houses we were able to draw on marvellous expertise for the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. We had people with experience of banking and the
Mr. Graham Allen : As Whip on the Financial Services and Markets Bill, I found that one great thing was that much dead wood was cleared away by the expertise and the pre-legislative scrutiny. Owing to the co-operation of the parties, we were able to focus at length in Committee on the real issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) pointed out, it is a tremendous help if we can remove non-contentious and detailed issues and focus on genuine differences. That is what the Committee stage should be about.
Mr. Heald : I completely agree, and we strongly support pre-legislative scrutiny. As the hon. Members for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) and for Nottingham, North mentioned, the Communications Bill featured another Joint Committee. People felt it did an extremely good job; it pulled in people from both Houses with expertise, and the online forum appears to have been very successful.
Nick Toon from ITV reviewed the Communications Bill and its pre-legislative scrutiny, and spoke to members of the Committee, who concluded that
Parliament should consider that and say, "Here is an example of something that has worked well. Can we build on it for the future?"
I am slightly concerned about how to frame the online forum. On the one hand, it will be good if the public feel able to express a strong view about a particular provision in a Bill. We know that there can be campaigns to scrap certain provisions or to include new clause x, and there is nothing wrong with that. We should perhaps take such a volume of representations into account. However, one can see that it might interfere with receiving the sort of detailed policy proposals and information about provisions that other hon. Members have described.
Brian White : Is that any different from the number of postcards that we receive on those same campaigns?
Mr. Heald : Of course it is not. However, if Parliament does the online survey that informs the work of the Committee, there is the danger that, if tens of thousands use the electronic postcard approach, the process of mediation could become difficult. It might be hard to tease the good points from the bad. I wonder whether we
Mr. Graham Allen : It is important to remember that the House and the Committee would retain total control of the process at all points. Therefore, if they wished to experiment with online polling, they could do so, although I would not be particularly supportive of that. If they wanted to create a chat room where individuals with strong views could interact, that could happen, as I think happened with the Communications Bill. However, the key issue is specificitylooking at particular ideas or even clauses, and having concrete proposals come forward. That to me is the main reason to have an e-mail channel from an elector, which is no different from a letter or a personal conversation with a Member of Parliament.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) replies to that intervention, I remind him that although I do not wish in any way to interrupt the flow and spontaneity of the debate, we want the Minister to have adequate time to reply.
Mr. Heald : I am sure that I can allow that to happen in just a moment, Sir Nicholas.
I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North: the point that has been made is perfectly fair. In Committee, one often finds it necessary to have a debate about the principle of a clause, perhaps in a debate on an amendment that is the first in a group relating to that clause. When one is undertaking such a debate, the issue is not detailed scrutiny or the wording of the clause, but the principle of the clause. It may be necessary to find some way of teasing out an overall public opinion about the principle of a clause from the more detailed points about it, variations to it, and so on. However that is only a point of detail. We should continue online scrutiny side by side with the other methods of pre-legislative scrutiny, such as taking oral evidence and the like.
The number of draft Bills under the Government has been 32 so far, excluding this Session, in which I believe that there will possibly be 12 and certainly 10. It is good that we have built up the number from about two or three a year to about 10 or 12 a year. I hope that that can continue, though not if the Select Committees are overloaded, but rather on the basis that we can have enough Joint Committees, ad hoc Committees and so on to draw together the expertise of both Houses. However, we should still allow Select Committees to continue their important work of scrutinising the whole breadth of work that a Department does, not just that on one Bill. I warmly welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North on bringing it forward.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas) : May I start by reciprocating your best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year, Sir Nicholas, to you, your support staff and all hon. Members?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) both on securing this Adjournment debate and on his wider campaign to
Turning to specifics, there is the question of what we mean by online scrutiny. Subject to negotiations, there will be up to 12 draft Billsnine are currently out for scrutiny, and they are available on the parliamentary website. All Committees have published e-mail addresses, so in one sense they are already open to online pre-legislative scrutiny. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North is referring to more than that. He is referring to the online forums, such as that conducted by the Joint Committee on the draft Communications Bill in 200102, which many Members have also referred to.
The Government's policy towards the modernisation of the House of Commons and its procedures has two objectives. The first is to improve the efficiency of procedures for all involved. The second, which is much more important, is, in the words of yesterday's leader column in The Times, which commented on sitting hours,
Our policy of improving and expanding e-scrutiny of legislation is set within that context.
Perhaps it would be helpful if I briefly set out the background to our policy. The Government are keen to explore how new communications media can enrich the relationship between Parliament, the public and us, and we welcome Parliament's work in that area. A number of Bills have already been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, although that does not necessarily imply online scrutiny. Nine draft Bills were examined by Committees during the last Session to attempt to identify possible problems if they were introduced as legislation.
The passage of the Communications Bill was assisted by publication in draft, and the process included an online scrutiny exercise. The background is that a Joint Committee was set up in May 2002. The process involved webcasting the evidence sessions and the use of an online discussion forum to gather further information, views and evidence. In this debate, Members have told us the benefits of that process to both the legislation and the members of the Committee. Other examples of parliamentary action include the inquiry by the Information Committee into how Members can use technology to enhance working practices and their communications with their constituents. It produced a report, "Digital Technology: Working for Parliament and the Public", which made
Most comprehensively, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has produced a number of reports concerning IT, including reports on Government IT projects in July 2003, a report on broadband internet access in July 2002 and a report on electronic privacy. While keeping both Houses informed on public dialogue activities in science and technology, POST has pioneered the use of online discussions to help Parliament consider a broad spectrum of views on current issues. In January 2002, POST commissioned an online discussion document, floodforum.net, examining the causes, consequences and communication of flooding. The aim of the forum was to bring together people affected by flooding.
The parliamentary all-party domestic violence group conducted an online consultation called Womenspeak. Again, the Hansard Society conducted the consultation, which provided electronic channels for survivors of domestic violence to provide information and personal testimony. That is an example of the way in which groups in the community can take up the opportunity for online consultation, which was a point made by my hon. Friend.
On the Government side, we published a report in July 2002 entitled "In the service of democracy". The report set out our thinking on e-democracy and invited comments, and the consultation ended in October 2002. It includes a section on parliamentary scrutiny, which states that parliamentary and Assembly websites enable the public to follow debates and to find out how their representative voted. The Parliament website also includes explanatory information on the history of Parliament, the legislative process and Bills before Parliament. In January 2003, a technical summary of the consultation exercise and copies of the responses were published online. The Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are taking the e-voting agenda forward through a programme of local council pilots. The Government have also set up an interdepartmental group on e-participation to develop and share good practice and to embed the principles of e-participation across Government. I could give many other examples. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has conducted an online discussion on the new European constitution. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ran an online debate on genetically modified foods. The Department for Work and Pensions held an online consultation on the very important issue of pensions, and there are other examples outside Government Departments.
It is important to note the difference between consultation on draft or actual legislation and consultation on the policies that they represent. My hon. Friend made an interesting point about the debate on tuition fees. As he knows, the proposals were published in White Paper form in January last year, but the debate took off only when legislation was proposed. I suggest that that level of interest would be replicated in online consultation and e-representation. That is the
I should perhaps point out for the benefit of the House that selected Committee meetings have been webcast for some time. From this month, all public Select and Standing Committees will be webcast, although there will be a slight delay in real time in transmission for a trial period. I understand that, initially, some will be broadcast in audio only. The two Houses are paying the costs of the exercise. Each Select Committee webcast will have a link to an information page about each hearing prepared by Committee staff. It will include the Committee's electronic inbox address. There has been progress in this area.
Mr. Graham Allen : It is very interesting to hear the record so far, but, as one of the people who are to blame for not allowing the Minister enough time to reply fully, may I ask him to turn his attention to the future? What is the Government's aspiration? Is it to give all Bills, or at least more Bills, online pre-legislative scrutiny?
Mr. Woolas : My hon. Friend's intervention is very timely as I turn to that part of my speech.
It is the Government's intention and policy to increase the amount of legislation that is subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. There has been steady progress on that, and I am grateful for the recognition that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire gave it. The Government's policy is to increase the amount of pre-legislative scrutiny done online in the forums or the ways
Of course, as hon. Members would expect, there are some caveats. Sir Nicholas, you will follow with great interest the major caveat, which is that the process of scrutiny is the property of the Committees of the House, not the Government. The Government can encourage and are encouraging it, and I heed what was said about my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I being in a position to influence it. Hon. Members will be interested to learn that my right hon. Friend recently wrote to the Chairmen of Select Committees through the Liaison Committee about the pre-legislative scrutiny process in this Session. Of course, without my giving the debates away, we are beginning work on the fourth session of Parliament, which will begin next October or November.
For their own part, the Government are using online consultation on legislative and policy proposals. The office of the e-envoy is ready to assist Parliament in the use of new communications media, and much work has already been done. As I said, draft Bills are available on the parliamentary website, and all Committees have published their e-mail addresses. It is not just or even primarily legislative scrutiny that can benefit from e-consultation. The Government are willing to consider how they can facilitate Committees wishing to carry out more pre-legislative scrutiny online.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North for raising this important subject and for his energetic and persistent efforts to encourage online consultation. It is for Parliament and its Committees to decide whether and how best to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny online, and the Government will do all they can to help.