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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 22 March 2006

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Ministerial Accountability

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watson.]

9.30 am

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Before we start, I should point out that there are three clocks in the room, each showing a different time. I intend to operate by the clock straight in front of me and behind me.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir. I have never seen a happier Whip than the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) when the Deputy Leader of the House arrived in the nick of time. It is good to see him in his place and to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on the Opposition Front Bench.

For any colleagues who do not know, it might be helpful to set out what the debate is not about—or at least what I do not intend it to be about. It is not about ministerial accountability as it relates to the ministerial code. The debate is about Ministers being accountable to the House and by so doing making the House of Commons and Parliament more relevant to the general public and perhaps getting better coverage in the media. Before moving on to some suggestions on how to do that that I believe are worth at least considering, it will be helpful to set the scene and lay out the problem as I see it.

We are all aware that in the 2005 general election turnout was a little higher than in 2001, but it was still the second lowest since 1918. Turnout has decreased by more than 15 per cent. since 1992, which should worry all of us who believe in democracy and the importance of Parliament to our political process. The late Robin Cook is quoted in Lord Puttnam's report, "Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye", saying:

That is true. All of us talk to constituents, correspond with them and meet them at surgeries, so we all know that people are passionately interested in the issues. There is a range of subjects that energise our constituents, from local, domestic concerns, right up to the great, global issues of the day. Constituents are engaged in political debate; the problem seems to be that they are just not very interested in Parliament.

The Power report contained some interesting statistics about political engagement. It found that, in a 12-month period, 62 per cent. of the population had donated money to a political or a campaigning organisation, 30 per cent. had helped to raise money for a political or a campaigning organisation, 42 per cent. had signed a petition, 25 per cent. had contacted a public
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official and 13 per cent. had contacted a politician to change laws or policies. That evidence tells us that the citizenry are engaged and intervening in the political process, which makes it even more surprising that turnout in elections is falling. The easiest thing for people to do is to go along, put a cross on the paper and put it in the ballot box or fill out a postal ballot paper.

Campaigning organisations such Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have seen their memberships grow in the same period as electoral turnout has declined. The Countryside Alliance demonstration, the demonstrations about the Iraq war and the Live 8 event were three of the best attended political events in the UK's history, so why, at a time when people seem more politically active, although not in the traditional party political way, do we see less involvement in elections and traditional party activity? Is it a matter of the perception of Parliament and whether it is relevant to those questions, or is it to do with the conventional political approach to addressing the issues?

One factor could be awareness of the important role that Parliament plays. The Power report's work demonstrates that that might be the case. The report states:

Its most important finding was that the view of the majority of people talked to was that basic understanding of our political system and the way in which Parliament worked was very low, leaving people unclear about how to get involved in politics and how to participate in our parliamentary process.

No matter what the public perception is of Parliament, it is—or should be—the place where decisions are made and Government scrutinised. The excellent report published in July 2000 by Lord Norton of Louth and his commission says that one of the core functions of Parliament is:

With Ministers attending Parliament less frequently than I would like them to, it is difficult for Members to scrutinise them on a regular basis. This is, I hope, the only party political point that I shall make, but it needs to be pointed out that the Prime Minister's attendance at Parliament is even worse than other Ministers'. The report of Lord Norton's commission states:

The report continues:

We need say no more on that.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths) : I think that we do need to say more, because that is clearly a partisan and ill-informed comment by someone who is usually better informed. Does the hon. Member accept that the Prime Minister has made more statements
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to the House and on more issues than any recent Prime Minister, thus being very accountable in the House of Commons to all Members, including himself?

Mr. Harper : The Prime Minister certainly has made a number of statements, but he chooses when to make statements and he does so for his own reasons. I have in mind issues over which he has less control. It was noticeable that the very first thing that he did when he was elected to Government was to change the frequency of Prime Minister's questions from twice a week to once a week. Having Prime Minister's questions just once a week, albeit for 30 minutes, makes it much less likely that topical questions will be raised. If questions arise just after Wednesday, by the time we get round to the following Wednesday they have ceased to be topical, as they have been done to death by the 24-hour news media. The Prime Minister thus avoids having to be questioned on those topical issues at a time not of his choosing and in a manner that he does not control. That is not very helpful.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Was it not noticeable that the Deputy Leader of the House did not comment on the Prime Minister's frequency of attendance in the Division Lobbies, for example, where he is accessible to hon. Members, or at least to Labour Members and occasionally to Opposition Members?

Mr. Harper : That was noticeable. We know some good examples of critical votes for the Government for which the Prime Minister was not present. Lord Norton talked about proximity; one of the important things about voting in the Division Lobbies, particularly for Government Members, is that it is really the only opportunity that most Back Benchers get to buttonhole Ministers, especially the Prime Minister, and raise with them issues of the day and their constituents' concerns in a free and frank way. There are few opportunities to do so during the rest of the week, because the Prime Minister of necessity has a busy schedule. We recognise that Prime Ministers have many calls on their time, but previous incumbents of that office, of both parties, made a bigger effort to attend the House and were more accessible to their Back Benchers—sometimes more accessible than they would have wished. That is something that we need to look at again.

There is an increasing feeling that decisions are frequently made in private and announced, dripped out, or leaked to the media, and that Parliament has become increasingly sidelined. In his report, Lord Norton says:

the move to 24-hour news—

The report continues:

but the

It points out:

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Despite the best efforts of Front Benchers and the Speaker, on many occasions policy announcements and suggestions have found their way into the media before being announced to the House. For example, proposals that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may make in his Budget statement have been well trailed in the media in the past few days. None of those should be in the media, and if the speculation turns out to be well informed, we will wonder how the information got there.

The Executive have grown too powerful at the expense of Parliament. There are a couple of quotes in the Power report that bear repeating. The first is from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who said:

The second is a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who said:

It seems as though Parliament only ever features in the media when there is a contentious vote, such as the recent vote on the Education and Inspections Bill, or at Prime Minister's questions. Those of us who regularly attend the House know that neither of those situations is particularly typical of the extensive work that goes on in the main Chamber, this Chamber or in the Committees of the House.

It is not the role of John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman to hold Ministers to account. Although they can and do perform that task effectively, it is a task that belongs to the House of Commons and its Members. There is a vital role for the media in relaying and explaining to the public, but Parliament must have the first bite of the cherry. There are many ways in which that could be done. I am sure that all hon. Members who contribute to the debate will have their own ideas and I do not expect there to be a great deal of agreement with my humble suggestions, but I think that they are worth considering.

When I looked at other Parliaments, I was struck by a possible solution. In Australia, to pick a country at random, the parliamentary system is relatively similar to ours. There, it has traditionally been expected that all Ministers who are members of the House of Representatives will be present at Question Time, which takes place every day that the House sits, unless they are ill, overseas or engaged on urgent public business. At one point, they introduced a rota system whereby Ministers had to attend only on certain occasions, but they dropped it after one Session. Therefore, in Australia, all Ministers, including the Prime Minister, are available every day to attend and answer questions.

Compare and contrast the Australian system with ours, in which oral questions, which are the only opportunity that Members get to question Ministers on detailed departmental matters, take place only about once a month for each Department. I suggest that we should move toward the Australian system. I do not propose that we should go all the way—Ministers and potential Ministers would probably be horrified at the
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idea of having to come to the House of Commons every day—but I believe that there is a balance between our system and the Australian system that would enable us to increase ministerial accountability.

Nigel Griffiths : Like me, the hon. Member has looked at the Australian system very carefully. What debate did he find most enlightening in terms of the proposal that he makes?

Mr. Harper : I am sorry; I do not follow the Minister's question.

Nigel Griffiths : What did the hon. Member observe in the Australian Parliament—which specific debate or Question Time—that best illuminated the issue? I must say that I found it difficult to find one.

Mr. Harper : The strength of the Australian system arises from the fact that the Prime Minister and senior Ministers have to attend every day and questions are put without notice. Other methods might be more suitable to the way in which our business is done, but in the Australian system, if there are questions of the day or topical issues, rather than hold them over to be dealt with when the appropriate Question Time arises, the Prime Minister can be questioned on them that day by members of the House of Representatives. In these times of a 24-hour news media, such questions are of no interest to the media when, through a parliamentary process such as ours, the formal opportunity to ask questions comes along. In the Australian system, rather than an issue being discussed purely by the broadcast media and in conversations in TV studios, with Ministers being questioned by journalists, the coverage of that issue in the broadcast media that reach people at home will be of the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives answering questions put by Members of that House. The advantage of that system lies in topicality—Parliament is at the centre of the topical issues of the day.

As I said, there may well be other, more appropriate ways to achieve a similar focus in this House, which take into consideration the way in which we traditionally do things. I simply put that example before Members to provoke discussion. Parliament and Ministers need to be more responsive to the events of the day, and Ministers need to be available to Members to respond to current events.

Lord Norton's commission focused on that issue. Some of the recommendations that he made six years ago have been adopted by the Government, which is welcome to the extent that they have been adopted. The commission commented that

Obviously, this Chamber—Westminster Hall—provides such opportunities, but the commission thought that there was a need for that opportunity to be available in the main Chamber. It also recognised, as other hon. Members and I do, that there is provision

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but that that seldom happens. The commission's recommendation, which is worthy of consideration, was that

and that

That is not to say that that should become the default setting—that we should have such debates every day, but neither should they be hugely infrequent and happen only once every few years. There is a balance in between. If the House were able to discuss topical issues on the Floor of the House at the start of public business—the time of day when there is a chance of influencing and engaging with the media agenda—that would put the House at the centre of public debate, rather than the debate taking place in the 24-hour news studio. That would enable us to set the agenda for the day, rather than follow behind and wait for the process of setting business for the House to allow debate.

My final proposal involves the only mention that I will make of the ministerial code. As I said, an increasing number of policy initiatives seem to be leaked to the media in a stage-managed way. I am sure that the present Government are not the first Government to do that, but the practice has increased. That is damaging because it means that those policy announcements are questioned not by Members of the House, but in broadcasting studios in short interviews, which do not involve 40 minutes or an hour's worth of detailed scrutiny on issues that Members can raise on behalf of their constituents. The final Norton recommendation that I think worthy of note is the recommendation that the ministerial code should place

and making it part of the code to increase the importance of that, and the weight that Ministers should place on Parliament.

If we wrap all those things together, it means considering making Question Time more topical and allowing Members to ask questions without notice of all Ministers; perhaps returning to a system with Prime Minister's questions twice a week for 15 minutes to increase their topicality and so that the Prime Minister would have to respond to issues in the House rather than in some other format; and increasing the frequency with which statements are made to the House. Such moves would increase the significance of Parliament and of Members of Parliament in the public eye, and make us more central to debate. The news media would become more focused on what happens here, not because we want it to be but because we would be at the centre of issues. That would be helpful for Parliament and it would help constituents to engage with issues. We have already been through the numbers of all those who are engaged with political campaigning organisations. They would find voting more relevant, turnout would rise, and this place would be at the centre of national life rather than increasingly marginalised.
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9.51 am

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on his choice of subject and on the thoughtful way in which he presented it. He has clearly done all the required reading, including the Power report and the Norton report. I shall develop one or two of his ideas in my speech.

The subject of our debate is every bit as important as that of our debate this afternoon on the Floor of the House. The health of our democracy is as important as the health of our economy. However, I fear that our debate in Westminster Hall might not get the same coverage.

I give the Government some credit for some of the changes that have been made. This debate takes place, metaphorically if not physically, in Westminster Hall. Ten years ago, we did not have Westminster Hall, so the frontier that Ministers have to patrol is now much longer. There have been many high-quality debates in Westminster Hall and I commend that reform. The Prime Minister appears before the Liaison Committee twice a year for up to three hours, which has been an important development in holding to account the most important Minister in the Government. So that the Government do not hoover up all the talent, we have begun to develop an alternative career structure within the House by paying Select Committee Chairmen and other Chairmen. Select Committees have been given more resources to do the work and to hold Ministers to account. The Minister may have other examples of reforms and I do not want to deprive him of all the raw material in his brief.

However, there have been some backward steps as well. For example, the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is a step backwards as it gives more power to the Executive. We have seen a growth in unaccountable special advisers and the erosion of collective responsibility. We have seen the way in which Cabinet is bypassed highlighted in the Butler report, and much else that I am sure that my hon. Friends will discuss when they make their own speeches.

The first question that I want to pose is: who sets the terms of trade between Ministers and the legislature? In other words, who fixes the parameters that determine where power lies? At the end of the day it is Parliament, but one Committee of the House has enormous influence in setting those terms of trade between Ministers and Parliament, and that is the Modernisation Committee. Some of its reforms have been beneficial, and I touched on them, but some, such as the automatic guillotining of Bills, have most certainly not been.

There is to my mind a fatal flaw in the working of the Modernisation Committee, which sets the parameters for today's debate. That is that the Committee is chaired by a member of the Government, and not just any member of the Government, but the Leader of the House—the person appointed by the Prime Minister to drive the legislative programme through the House of Commons. It cannot be right that the Minister tasked by the Prime Minister with the task of getting the manifesto on to the statute book should also be the Chairman of the House of Commons Committee that decides how those Bills should be scrutinised by the House. It is a short circuit of the highest voltage possible in constitutional terms. There is a clear conflict of interest.
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The House of Commons needs to regain control of its agenda and provide its own Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, which should probably be merged with the Procedure Committee, with which it has much in common. It should be chaired by a Back Bencher, like every other Select Committee. Until we get that right and until the House seizes control of the Committee that can give power to the Executive or take it away, there will be a serious imbalance in the terms of trade between Parliament and the Executive.

In the time available, I want to touch on one or two ways in which ministerial accountability might be enhanced and to build on some of the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean. One of the ways in which the Opposition hold Ministers to account is through Opposition days, when either a whole day or half a day is devoted to a subject chosen by the Opposition. When I was first elected, that was a useful way of holding Government to account. The debates were well attended and well reported, and quite often the Prime Minister came into the Chamber to listen to the winding-up speeches. Nowadays, one would be lucky to find any Ministers other than the one who is to respond to the debate on the Front Bench while a debate is taking place.

We need to answer the question that my hon. Friend posed. Is there a better way in which the Opposition can use their time to hold Ministers to account in the slightly different and faster-moving environment in which we work today? I think that there is. Building on what my hon. Friend said, we should swap part of the time allocated to Opposition days for the right to ask a topical question and have up to an hour of questioning Ministers on some topic of the day. As my hon. Friend said, urgent questions can be asked, but they have to clear a fairly high hurdle to get past the Speaker. There are often occasions when the Government face criticism on a matter of public interest and do not volunteer a statement, but the Speaker's threshold for urgent questions is not met. On such occasions, the Opposition should have the right to demand that a Minister come to the Dispatch Box and answer questions from Members of Parliament.

Such occasions might arise when the Government try to get away with a written statement on an issue, but the Opposition feel that more rigorous cross-examination is needed. The Government might make a policy-related announcement outside the House, and we might not get an opportunity to grill the Minister. In such cases, an opportunity for questions would be good for accountability and for the Chamber, as we get more Members in the House for a statement than we do for a debate. There would be more coverage of the proceedings of Parliament if we became slightly more topical in such a way.

Secondly, would the world come to an end if Lords Ministers answered debates in Westminster Hall? We have Ministers in the House of Lords who have departmental responsibilities. A Lords Minister has often been in charge of defence procurement, for example, and Baroness Hollis was in charge of the Child Support Agency for quite a long time. If we want to hold Ministers to account and they have a ministerial
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responsibility within a Department, why should they not answer debates in Westminster Hall? There are no votes in Westminster Hall.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There is a reciprocal view, which might ask why we have Ministers in the House of Lords who are subject to double patronage in their appointment as both Members and as Ministers, and why can Ministers from the elected House not go to the House of Lords to introduce legislation?

Sir George Young : That is the other side of the coin. The hon. Gentleman might want to develop that point, but I would hesitate before poaching on the House of Lords and who their lordships believe should appear before their House. I feel slightly more comfortable suggesting who I would be prepared to see in Westminster Hall. Perhaps I am unduly sensitive, but I think that it would follow from what I have said that Ministers from the Commons should be able to go down the other end of the corridor.

My next point is that if the House is to hold Ministers to account we need enough MPs to do that task. There are now fewer Back-Bench MPs to hold Ministers to account and more Ministers: one third of the parliamentary Labour party are now on the payroll in one way or another. When I first became a Minister in 1979, there were 29 Parliamentary Private Secretaries; there are now 50 and they are out of play when it comes to holding the Government seriously to account. We need fewer Ministers and fewer PPSs to have a more balanced contest.

We also need—I am sorry that the Government Whip is no longer here—to prise the Whips' steely fingers from Select Committee nominations. One of the most regrettable incidents in the previous Parliament was when the late Robin Cook was betrayed by his party and the Modernisation Committee's recommendations on a different way of appointing Select Committees were voted down. We need a rerun of that vote because we cannot have Ministers choosing their inquisitors on Select Committees through the Committee of Selection, which is dominated by the Whips.

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean mentioned Prime Minister's questions, which I would reform. They are the highest-profile occasions on which Ministers are held to account, but possibly least productive. In one way, they are Parliament at its best, but they are also Parliament at its worst. For many people, Prime Minister's Question Time is the only impression they get of the House of Commons, but at times that impression is of a cross between a playgroup and a farmyard—no wonder that some people get switched off by politics. Things have got better since Parliament has been televised, because fewer MPs want to be seen to be misbehaving. Things have also got slightly better now that we have more women in Parliament—

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Hear, hear!

Sir George Young : With the exception of the Government Chief Whip, women MPs are slightly better behaved and act as a calming influence on the rest
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of us. After half an hour of Prime Minister's questions, however, one leaves the Chamber wondering whether one has learned anything. I simply wonder whether there is a better way of using half an hour with the Prime Minister than posing a random sequence of questions that vary from the over-aggressive to the over-submissive.

Mrs. May : I suggest that the problem with Prime Minister's questions is not the structure, but the fact that the present Prime Minister does not answer any of the questions that he is asked.

Sir George Young : I think that I am right in saying that in the 1997–2001 Parliament, our hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) analysed the Prime Minister's answers and juxtaposed those answers with the reality—I put it no more harshly than that. He produced a very good publication, which he might like to bring up to date. However, my right hon. Friend is right that our frustration is in part due to the fact that the Prime Minister is often reluctant to give a straight answer.

Of the two issues I want to touch on before I sit down, the first is the royal prerogative. The biggest Executive decision that any Government can make is to take the country to war. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) has proposed bringing the matter more within Parliament's remit. We need to explore that at some point.

The other point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean touched on, is the code of conduct. Ministers are rightly accountable to the House of Commons, but they are also accountable to the Prime Minister through the code of conduct. There are two outstanding recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life in that respect: one has been accepted but not implemented, while the other has been neither accepted nor implemented. Ministers would be more accountable if the ministerial code had some teeth and it was not left entirely to the Prime Minister to decide whether a Minister had transgressed. I remember making a complaint about a Foreign Office Minister who had, in my view, acted outside the code of conduct. I wrote to the Prime Minister, who sent my letter to Robin Cook, who was the Foreign Secretary. Surprise, surprise—he decided that the Minister had not breached the code of conduct. There was a circularity about that, which did not enhance ministerial accountability.

It might be in the public domain, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)—the leader of my great party—has set up a democracy taskforce chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I am sure that that taskforce will want to reflect on the ideas produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean and other Members as we develop policy on an important matter that is driving itself fast up the political agenda.

10.4 am

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this important debate. My right hon. Friend the
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Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made a number of points that are taken as read in my book, so I shall touch on other issues.

For a new Member of Parliament, coming into the Palace of Westminster is a thrill every day, and I cannot imagine that it will not still be a thrill if I survive a few more years here. This place is the mother of democracy, where the great issues of the day are debated and decided, and it is a real thrill to be here. I am sure that all new Members agree that the kindness that other Members have shown us is very encouraging. We have been welcomed, and our mistakes have been gently admonished. I should also mention the kindness of the Speaker, who has been very helpful to new Members, and I wish him well on his recovery from illness.

However, four problems have occurred to me that are within Ministers' power to put right if they so wish—there need be no change in the law. The first problem relates to media reports. I am getting a little fed up with phone calls at 8.30 am from some local radio station saying, "Mr. Bone, can we have your comments on the failure of the Child Support Agency and what the Minister has said?" I say, "Actually, the Minister is not making a statement until 3.30 pm." The local radio reporter then tells me—selectively—what the Minister is going to say. A press release might have been issued and embargoed to the media until after 3.30 pm, but if they have had it in advance and are therefore trustworthy enough to consider the matter, why do Members of Parliament not get the same press release, with the same embargo on it, so that we are as fully informed as the media? How am I supposed to comment to the media on something that they have seen, but I have not seen? That would seem to be a discourtesy to Parliament. It might be happening because the news media operate 24 hours a day and have to work that way, but if they can be trusted, why can Members of Parliament not be?

The second problem relates to parliamentary questions, and the Deputy Leader of the House will know the answer to what I am about to say. I assume that when a Minister is appointed, he is played tapes of "Yes Minister", particularly the episode in which Jim Hacker explains to Bernard how to answer questions. He tells Bernard, "If you get a question you don't like, don't answer it. Better still, totally ignore the question and make any statement you want on any matter." That seems to happen rather a lot at the Dispatch Box. Perhaps I am being a little unfair—not all Ministers do that.

Nigel Griffiths : The director general of the CBI told me some time ago, when I was a departmental Minister, that "Yes Minister" was not a comedy programme, but a training video.

Mr. Bone : I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for confirming what I thought. I do not want to make a general accusation that all Ministers behave the same way, but certain Ministers tend to avoid the question that is put to them. Other Ministers, who try to tackle the question however difficult it is, have a high regard in this place and serve Parliament better. I remember asking the Leader of the House a question about a problem with waiting times—a lady had been
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waiting for treatment for more than a year. The Leader of the House referred to 1,500 extra nurses, 500 extra consultants and investment in my constituency, which did not address the question. I was also a little confused because I do not have a hospital in my constituency where those people might work. That is the sort of thing that frustrates Members in Parliament.

I am just a junior Back Bencher, and I thought that it is simply what happens. Last night, however, I happened to be listening to a debate in which there was an exchange between the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), which illustrated my point rather well. Hansard recorded it as follows. The Minister said:

My right hon. Friend then said:

Mr. Deputy Speaker replied:

Mr. Deputy Speaker's ruling is obviously correct, but it would improve our democracy if we had a little more courtesy and more of an attempt to answer questions.

The third issue, and the one that has concerned me most recently, is accuracy. Before coming to the House of Commons, I always thought that whatever was said at the Dispatch Box was 100 per cent. accurate. However, I have been engaged in a little battle on hospital waiting times. The Prime Minister said in November that no one was waiting more than six months for an NHS operation. He repeated that two weeks ago, yet in November, December and January all the latest figures showed that there are people waiting more than six months for an NHS operation.

I have raised the issue in points of order and parliamentary questions. I have written to the relevant Minister and to the Prime Minister. I thought that that would be enough to end what I can only say has been the less than 100 per cent. accuracy on the issue, but only the day before yesterday the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), repeated the statement. I raised a point of order and this is how Hansard records it:

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That may not be the most important issue in the world, but if Ministers are not absolutely in tune with the facts, the impression given to the outside world is that our democracy is not as good as it should be. My plea to the shadow Leader of the House—

Mr. Harper : Deputy Leader of the House.

Mr. Bone : Sorry, my plea to the Deputy Leader of the House, and probably to the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), as well, is for accuracy in comments and answers. That has been a problem with parliamentary questions. On the same issue as I mentioned, I received two answers to parliamentary questions from different Health Ministers saying completely contradictory things. I am pleading for more accuracy.

My fourth and final point is about meeting Ministers. That really is within their power. As hon. Members may have gathered, there is a real concern about health in my constituency and in the neighbouring constituency of Kettering. I have requested meetings with Ministers on only two occasions. On one occasion, we had a meeting almost straight away. The problem with the Secretary of State for Health was, first, that we could not get a meeting. Then Mr. Speaker said in the Chamber that Ministers really ought to meet Back-Bench MPs, and I was allocated a meeting at the beginning of December—several months after I first requested it. The meeting was cancelled two days before it was due to take place and rearranged for March. A few days before that date, it was cancelled and it has now been rearranged for the second half of April.

That is not good enough. Surely a Back-Bench MP should have the power to go to a Minister and say, "We have a real problem here. Let's address it; let's have a meeting." If we request meetings with Ministers only now and again, we are not abusing the system and we should be allowed to have the meetings. That is within the control of Ministers and needs to be examined.

I shall give another example to show that what I have described has happened to others. I understand that an hon. Member requested a meeting with a Minister who said, "Sorry—too busy. Can't see you." However, that hon. Member found that the same Minister was visiting his constituency only a couple of weeks later, so the Minister was too busy to see him, but not too busy to visit his constituency.

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House accepts that none of my comments is in any way intended to be party political. I simply think that there has perhaps been a drift away from the highest levels of democracy and that the suggestions that I have made could improve the situation. The Deputy Leader of the House is very highly regarded. If he could address the points that I    have raised, that would improve ministerial accountability to the House of Commons.

10.15 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on initiating a most timely and well informed debate. I welcomed his thoughtful comments, those of the right
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hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), as I always do, and those of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). I hope that the latter always keeps that buzz on entering the Chamber and being able to do his job as a Member of Parliament, because it is a very precious thing and a huge privilege to be able to speak for our constituents.

I acknowledge that the Government have made advances during their term of office. However, they have gone backwards in some respects. The advances include the Westminster Hall debates, mentioned by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, which have provided a good opportunity for Back Benchers to stimulate the sort of debate in which we are engaged today. I also acknowledge, and it is important to place it on the record, that the way in which Ministers conduct themselves in relation to the House and to individual hon. Members varies enormously. Some exhibit extremely good practice; others do not. We should strive to bring all Ministers up to the standards of the best in their relations with other Members of the House.

What areas should we consider? Hon. Members have already said that a key responsibility for Ministers is to keep the House informed of what is happening. That happens in a number of ways, some of which work well and others less well. I shall inevitably concentrate on the areas in which the practice is not as good as it should be. Let me start with the written statement.

The written statement is an innovation and it has its place but, to be frank, it is being abused. It is being used for controversial statements when Ministers do not want proper scrutiny of the decisions that they have taken. We need a mechanism to convert a written statement to an oral statement to the House, because a written statement, although it can inform, does not give hon. Members an opportunity to ask questions and to scrutinise properly what is being put forward. It is not an appropriate way in which to deal with matters that can be of huge importance to individual constituencies throughout the country. Nor is it right that, regular as clockwork, on the last day before a recess or Prorogation, an enormous number of ministerial statements are issued in the certainty that neither the House nor the media will be able to consider them properly. I think that I am right in saying that more than 30 statements were issued on the last day before the Christmas recess. That is an abuse that the ministerial code says should not happen, but that seems to be ignored.

The hon. Members for Forest of Dean and for Wellingborough mentioned briefing of the media. It is not good enough that time after time we hear about important announcements from the Government on the morning news programmes—announcements are made   through the media, rather than in the House. Mr. Speaker has deprecated that practice on a number of occasions, but still it happens regularly. I do not know how we are going to break the habit of always having the news before the news breaks, but it puts Members of Parliament at a huge disadvantage that prevents us from doing our job properly and it is a discourtesy to the House.

Another way of keeping the House informed that has been lost over the years is the non-legislative debate. Inevitably, an enormous amount of debating time is devoted to the legislative programme, which is always
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too big and always takes up too much time, but as a result we have lost the opportunity occasionally to scrutinise the work of Departments through non-legislative debates. There are huge omissions, which regularly get brought up at business questions as the Deputy Leader of the House well knows. It is extraordinary that we have not had a genuine debate on Iraq in the lifetime of this Parliament. There have been very regular statements from the Ministry of Defence—I do not fault Defence Ministers on that—but we have not had a debate on the foreign policy implications of our occupation of another country and a theatre of war, and I find that a truly extraordinary omission. Another issue that affects the hon. Member for Forest of Dean as well as me is agriculture. When did we last have a debate on agriculture in Government time and have the opportunity to talk about the plurality of rural affairs in the context of bringing Ministers to account for what has happened? Given recent events to do with single farm payments, a debate of that kind would be extremely opportune. We need more opportunities for non-legislative debates. Westminster Hall fills the gap only to a very limited extent. In addition, Select Committees often produce important reports on which they have done a tremendous amount of work and which the House ought to have the opportunity to debate, but there are very limited opportunities so to do.

One innovation made by the present Government, cross-cutting questions, has disappeared. Why? I have asked that question of the Leader of the House, but I have not had a reply. New Members may not have had any experience of cross-cutting questions, so let me describe them. There are areas of policy that cut across several Departments. In cross-cutting questions, the range of Ministers involved in a particular area would be available to answer questions from Members on that wider topic. One of the problems was that cross-cutting questions were not desperately well attended, but that was because they were held in Westminster Hall while the Chamber was sitting, so Members inevitably faced a dilemma: should they attend the debate in the Chamber or be at cross-cutting questions? My answer to that dilemma is simple: if cross-cutting questions are important enough to be asked, they should be taken in the Chamber and extra time should be found for them. They were a good innovation, but they have been lost.

I have already said how important Select Committees reports are. It should not be for Ministers to determine that they will not give evidence to a particular Select Committee on a particular point. I encountered an example of that when I was a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. We were debating the scientific aspects of the war on terrorism, a very important issue, but we were told by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), that he was not prepared to give any evidence, or to allow any officials in his Department or officials of other Departments—the Department for Transport in that case—to give evidence to our Committee, because he did not feel that ours was the right Committee to investigate the subject. That is not a matter for Ministers; it is a matter for the House and the Committee, and Ministers need to be told that clearly.
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A second aspect of ministerial responsibility is keeping individual Members informed. Some Ministers and Departments are very good at that. Let me give an example of good practice: when something is planned that will affect a defence establishment in a constituency, the Ministry of Defence will always write in advance to the relevant Member to tell them about it. It does that assiduously, and I welcome it. The Department for Transport is often very good at telling Members about road issues in their area. Other Departments, however, are very bad.

Oral questions are an effective form of scrutiny, but we get frustrated when Ministers do not answer questions properly. To be fair, sometimes we get frustrated simply because they do not give us the answer that we want, but at other times there is a deliberate attempt not to answer the question. Last week, I asked the Prime Minister a question about long-term care for the elderly; he gave me a reply about pensions. I did not feel that that was an adequate response to a question about long-term care for the elderly. The Prime Minister is more guilty than most in that respect. We must have the opportunity not only to ask questions but to get appropriate replies.

A real problem is developing with written questions. Sir Humphrey has always got in the way of written questions—let us not kid ourselves that it is a problem that arose with the present Government. Some Departments seem to treat obfuscation as their main objective, rather than answering questions. One example is the Treasury: when does the Treasury ever give a direct answer? If there is any way for it to avoid giving an answer, it will do that. It is some sort of game between the Member of Parliament asking the question and the officials in the Treasury preparing the response. That is not the right way to treat Parliament.

Delay in replying to written questions has become a problem. Nowadays, named day questions often get the reply, "I will answer the hon. Member in due course." That is not the answer to a named day question and Departments must be told that in no uncertain terms. Late transfer of questions, whereby the day before an oral question is due to be asked it suddenly appears as a written question to another Department, is also a problem. I understand that Departments have different responsibilities, but as a matter of courtesy the Member concerned should be advised in the first instance that the Department feels that the question should be transferred. That way, hon. Members have the opportunity to ask an alternative question. Simply to transfer the question at a late stage is a discourtesy. Finally, responses to correspondence are sometimes delayed.

We need timely scrutiny of matters of the day. So often, Members have to resort to artificial devices such as entirely bogus points of order, which does the House no credit at all. People stand up and say, "On a point of order, Mr. Speaker," and then ask a question about a matter of great importance to them, to which the only possible reply from the occupant of the Chair is that the matter is nothing to do with them. To whom does that do any good in reality? Surely we should have an opportunity to get timely responses to questions. Also, if early-day motions are supported by a large number of hon. Members, surely they should be a matter for debate. There must be a mechanism through which that can happen.
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Prayers of annulment are becoming a farce. We table a prayer and, months later, if we are lucky, we get a Statutory Instrument Committee in which to debate the matter; meanwhile, the order has actually been in force—has been law—for three or four months. Very often, prayers of annulment have no effect whatever. They are simply never debated, and that is an abuse. That is one reason why many of us are so deeply suspicious of part 1 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned and which drives a coach and horses through parliamentary scrutiny. It simply cannot stand in its present form.

My final point on ministerial responsibilities is that Ministers are often able to palm off responsibility when there are arm's length agencies involved. They do not answer questions even though, in my view, they still have responsibility for the function.

I cannot end my speech without mentioning probity and regularity. The worst possible news for the Labour party in this week of extremely bad news is that the fictional Alan B'Stard has crossed the Floor and joined the Labour party from the Conservative party. That says everything that we need to know about the reputation of the Government in the country. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire says, we need a proper way of policing the ministerial code; we do not have that at the moment. We gather that the Prime Minister is now at least partly, but apparently not completely, converted to the suggestions of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

In light of the revelations of the past week, one more amendment is clearly needed—an amendment to the ministerial code so that no one can be a Minister of the Crown if they are a major creditor of the party of Government. It is simply unacceptable in constitutional terms that someone can lend the Government party a very large amount of money and then be appointed to ministerial office, however creditably they perform their functions as Minister. What happens when the Prime Minister turns around to say, "Oh, by the way, I am dispensing of your services," and that person says, "Well, in that case, I'll take my several million pounds back, thank you very much"? It is not an acceptable constitutional position.

My last point is that there is need for a rebalancing of the powers of the Executive against the powers of the legislature. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean mentioned the Power commission, which has proposed not a written constitution—something for which some of us have argued for a long time, but which we understand is a difficult concept to achieve—but for at least a partial move in that direction through a series of concordats. Concordats are not alien to the present Government: a concordat was arrived at between the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the judiciary about the latter's powers and independence. A similar concordat is needed to preserve and protect the rights of Parliament and to order Ministers' responsibilities to Parliament. It is time that we had that, time that it was made explicit, and time that Ministers adhered to the codes that are already in place.

10.30 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Mr. Weir, may I say what a pleasure it is to speak in a debate under your chairmanship for the first time? I thank my hon.
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Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) for initiating a fascinating debate on ministerial accountability and wider matters, including the public perception of Parliament and public involvement in the political process and democracy.

It is only fair to the Deputy Leader of the House to remark on the fact that, whatever else we hear this morning, it is clearly true that, given the fact that he is sitting in splendid isolation on the Government Benches, this debate is an example of ministerial accountability, because he has nobody else to stand and support him in this debate. It is sad that no Government Member has been willing to enter into a debate that is not party political, but is a genuine one about the procedures and processes of the House and how we can ensure that Ministers are held more to account.

I agree that a number of the issues that my hon. Friend mentioned in his opening speech need to be addressed, including public engagement, the problem of falling turnout at elections, and the need to make Ministers more accountable to hon. Members in the House and, hence, to enhance Parliament's ability to fulfil its crucial role of holding the Government to account. A number of bodies have been considering those issues in recent months. My hon. Friend referred to the work of the Power commission and its report, the report by Lord Norton of Louth and work by Lord Puttnam. The Modernisation Committee is also considering how we can connect Parliament to the people and external involvement in the legislative process.

As a number of hon. Members have mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) to chair a democracy taskforce, which will look at such matters as strengthening Parliament, the role of Members of Parliament and Select Committees, the volume of legislation and regulation and scrutiny of national finances, ensuring the integrity and independence of the civil service, improving the workings of government, and addressing apathy with and alienation from the political process. That is quite a task and I can think of no better person to lead that taskforce than my right hon. and learned Friend.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), I want to comment on some of the good things that have happened. It is right to say that the Government have made some good innovations. Take the very existence of Westminster Hall debates: I will be honest and say that I was sceptical when they were first proposed, but I acknowledge that they have been a good development that gives hon. Members the opportunity to debate a wider range of issues than can be accommodated in the Chamber. Crucially, many debates that take place in Westminster Hall enable hon. Members to discuss topics not in such a party political way, but more generally, looking at the issues without trying to score party political points. I will deal with that later, in relation to further proposals. There have been other innovations, such as the Prime Minister appearing before the Liaison Committee. The Committee has, over time, been finding its feet in relation to its questioning of him—it was a little tentative in the first couple of outings—and the innovation has proved to be useful.
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Alongside those innovations, however, Parliament has all too often been sidelined by Ministers and by the present Government. A number of examples of that have been mentioned by hon. Members. The lack of statements is crucial. No only do Ministers announce things to the media before they are announced to the House, but sometimes they announce them to the media and do not announce them in the House—or they use a written ministerial statement, which means that hon. Members cannot question them. There are a number of examples of that, the most recent one that I have encountered being raised in business questions last week. Last Thursday morning, the replacement—we assume that that means the sacking—of the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency was announced in a written statement after months in which the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had been saying that everything was fine and rosy and going really well with the Rural Payments Agency. However, there has been no oral statement to the House, so hon. Members have not had an opportunity to question what led to that decision in relation to the chief executive of the agency and to question the Secretary of State on what farmers can expect from the agency and how it will operate in future. That is the most recent and obvious example of an oral statement being needed, but not being given so that Ministers cannot be questioned by Members of Parliament. Ministers may not like it, but part of their role is to be questioned by hon. Members. Ministers are accountable to the elected representatives through hon. Members and should be willing to come here and explain themselves.

I have another example of a slightly different kind. For several weeks in business questions, I asked the Leader of the House to tell us the date of the Budget. The Treasury Committee advised that it would be good practice to give the date of the Budget two months in advance. I asked for about a month for a date to be given, until we were well within two months of the likely time, but sadly the date was not given. I first heard of it on Sky News. That is yet another example of how the media, rather than the House, are all too often the main channel for ministerial announcements.

There are other ways in which the power of the House to hold the Government to account has been reduced. First, there is the increasing use of statutory instruments and secondary legislation. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke about the problem with statutory instruments, which is that all too often the prayer for annulment is not debated until after the date when the statutory instrument comes into force, which makes the debate farcical, because there can be no real expectation that the Government will allow it to be overturned. However, I am most concerned by the fact that so much of the detail of primary legislation is left to statutory instruments—to regulations made by the Secretary of State—and does not appear on the face of the Bill. That means that so many issues do not have proper time for debate as a Bill goes through the House, but are left to one-and-a-half-hour Statutory Instrument Committee debates, which, as we have said, come all too often after the regulations have come into force. That is another way in which the Government
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avoid being held to account. Hon. Members have also mentioned the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which gives unbelievable and deeply worrying legislative powers to Secretaries of State. I sincerely hope that the Government will listen to the arguments being put forward on that Bill and will be willing to amend it in due course.

We need to address several issues when we are seeking solutions to the various problems. First, we need to talk about the public perception and understanding of the role of Parliament and what happens in the House. Secondly, we need to enhance Parliament's role in holding the Government to account. When considering those processes, we have a duty to ensure that good government can take place. It is not Parliament's job to provide good government, but we should make changes to procedures in Parliament that, in some sense, make it less likely that good government can take place.

A number of ideas have emerged from hon. Members' contributions to the debate and, in the spirit of open discussion, let me say that I agree with some, but not with others. However, the value of the debate is that it has raised a wide variety of suggestions that can be considered by the bodies looking at this matter. Despite my intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, I support his view that, particularly given that PMQs is the main form in which most people see Parliament operating, it is important that they see not just gladiatorial combat, but serious questions being put to and answered by the Prime Minister.

I do not agree with the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean that every Minister should be here every day to answer questions, as that would probably get in the way of good government. However, I agree entirely that Ministers need to be here more often, particularly to make statements. We need Ministers to be more willing to      make their policy announcements and their announcements of changes here in this House, and to do so in oral statements rather than hide behind written statements. Now, when Ministers say that a statement has been made, it has often been made only in writing and there has been no opportunity to question them about it.

We need to do other things as well. One area not mentioned by any other speaker today is the scrutiny of European legislation and ministerial accountability for it. In Europe, Ministers can take positions inside the Council of Ministers on potential legislation that has not been debated in this House. The timing of debates in this House, and how we manage such legislation, has to be considered.

The topicality of questions has improved thanks to suggestions made by the Modernisation Committee. We are able to table oral questions closer to the date on which they will be answered. However, there is still a need to find a mechanism to ensure that, when issues come up between the time of tabling and the date of oral questions, it is possible for hon. Members to raise those issues, rather than have to find ingenious ways of getting such topical issues into the subject of the question on the Order Paper.

It has been suggested that the Government want to curtail Members' opportunity to put written questions to Ministers. I am concerned about that. There are
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many issues around written questions. When I first came to the House, one of the things that surprised me was my sudden discovery that I could not table any written question that I wanted to a Minister; there were blocks on certain questions and certain things could not be put into them. I have always said that one of the greatest arts in this House is learning how to get a written question past the Table Office. I shall always remember one of my great successes during my very early days in Parliament: I tabled a question about spam, but at that stage the Table Office did not know what spam was—I should say for the benefit of Members that I was not referring to tinned meat. Somebody drew up a question, came back and said that an anorak somewhere who knew about IT had said that "spam" was a perfectly okay word to use in a written question.

We need to ensure that Members have the opportunity to table written questions and that it is not curtailed in any way by the Government. Ministers should not take so long to answer written questions. There are too many examples of hon. Members having to wait a considerable time for answers on information that should be readily available to Ministers and their Departments.

We need to find another way of holding Ministers to account for inaccurate, inadvertently misleading, or misleading statements made to the House. I shall give one example, which I have raised in business questions. In a written statement last December, the Secretary of State for Transport stated that the award of the Greater Western franchise to First Great Western would lead to improved services. In fact, it has led to significantly reduced services for my constituents, and, I say to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—I shall not describe Somerset as "elsewhere" as I did previously—it has caused significant problems for stations beyond Berkshire. However, there is no mechanism for making the Secretary of State for Transport come to the House to change or explain that written statement, so that we can question him and point out that what he had said was—perhaps inadvertently—misleading to many people and to this House.

We need more debates on what I call general issues or themes and not to spend all our time simply debating legislation. There is far too much legislation in this country and this House spends too much time passing it. It seems to be a badge of honour for Ministers constantly to bring Bills to the House. We should debate issues. We have had criminal justice Bill after criminal justice Bill and measure after measure to deal with antisocial behaviour, but when have we ever had a debate on the causes of antisocial behaviour? People would see rather better that we were doing our jobs if they saw us debating the issues that affect them every day, rather than always debating legislation. We should also have fewer whipped votes. We should have an opportunity to have those sorts of debates, probably on a substantive motion, but without a whipped vote so that the genuine feeling of Members can be discovered.

We need an independent body to oversee the ministerial code, which a number of Members have mentioned. People regard with extreme scepticism the fact that Ministers are judged by the Prime Minister who appointed them in the first place.
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The real issue for public confidence in this House and public willingness to engage in the democratic process is how we present ourselves as politicians. People need to be confident that we make a difference to their lives and are worth voting for. To show them that politicians are worth voting for, Ministers need to show that they are willing to be accountable to the very Members who have been elected by the public.

10.46 am

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths) : I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir; it is a pleasure to serve under you. I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on raising the topic. After some early and perfectly legitimate partisan points, the debate was of high quality and I thank all Members who have taken part.

The hon. Member began by lamenting the lower turnout at general elections, and I entirely endorse his sentiments. I am sure that he sets a lot of store by ensuring that he gets the maximum turnout in his constituency, as I do in mine. Turnout in my constituency, at more than 70 per cent., is well above the national average, so we speak as kindred spirits on that issue. He made a number of useful suggestions. Not many had not been considered before, but that does not mean that they lack merit. I shall discuss one or two of the points that he made. Under our type of constitution, such issues will always be the subject of debate and can be amended from time to time. Nothing is fixed in stone.

On the frequency of Prime Minister's Question Time, I understand that the Prime Minister took advice from his immediate predecessors, who told him that he should not cut the amount of time, but maintain it and have Prime Minister's questions on Wednesdays so that affairs of state could be better conducted. In my view, that move has brought about certain improvements. In opposition, I worked tirelessly prepping people for Prime Minister's questions, and it was often felt that 15 minutes was just too short for that killer question. I am sure that that was a delusion on the part of the Back Benchers and others whom I was advising, but none the less there was a feeling of frustration. It is not surprising that the hon. Member feels that under the present set-up, the gap between Prime Minister's Question Times is too long to get into topical issues. However, I am not sure that any future Prime Minister, having consulted their predecessors, would want to change that process.

There is an issue of topicality in relation to statutory instruments. Under the Conservative Administration, there were more than 50,000 of them. To be fair, I should say that the single biggest number was for road closures; if we could get them off the list, we could get to grips with the statutory instruments and regulations that we can agree to dispatch from the statute book.

I am sorry that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill has not met with favour. The Government have listened to some of the criticisms and accepted amendments in the light of what has been said.
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Mr. Heath : No, they have not.

Mr. Harper : They have certainly not.

Nigel Griffiths : I think that they have. I am sure that at the end of the parliamentary process, the Bill will be much better than when it started out. However, I think we all agreed with the aims of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is right to be annoyed at hearing something on his local radio station before it has been announced to the House. I want to be as clear on this issue as the Leader of the House has been. We expect Ministers to observe the courtesy to Parliament of making their announcements to Parliament first. I think that the Treasury statement on the timing of the Budget statement was made at Treasury questions. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) might have seen it on Sky, but I think it took the details from there; I do not believe that I saw her at the Question Time when the Chancellor made the announcement.

On the more substantial aspects of the issue, the media now operate 24/7 and drive the pace. Parliament must ensure that it is not behind the media, although it is hard to see how it could be ahead in such times. Parliamentary reporting has been evolving to reflect that and to engage the public through websites and a good outreach scheme for citizenship in schools. That is also important.

The suggestion made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean about presenting questions without notice has been considered by the House in the past. It is one of the reasons why, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, the number of days of notice of questions has been cut from eight working days to three. However, I caution him about raising things on the day. I am a former departmental Minister, and a distinguished former Cabinet Minister, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), is present at this debate. I hope that the right hon. Member shares my view that it is good that where one has information from the Member, one has as many facts as possible. I fear that the criticism made of Prime Minister's questions, that it is hard to get an answer—I am not saying that I accept that criticism but I am sure that hon. Members feel it is valid—would only be replicated if, for instance, a Health Minister was given a question on an area about which he or she had no previous knowledge and was not able to use those three days to obtain information.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough is right, and the Prime Minister has made it clear—he does so on appointing Ministers—that requests to meet Members should be honoured as expeditiously as possible. I know that the hon. Member encountered a slight problem, but I think that it was compounded by an Opposition debate on health, which caused a further delay. I hope that he is now close to securing the meeting. It is only a matter of courtesy that a Secretary of State or other Minister should meet Members to hear their concerns.

There is no need for me to crow, because Opposition Members have been generous about the changes that we have seen. The Liaison Committee's twice-yearly meetings, which last for up to three hours, have been mentioned, but I think that it was the Prime Minister
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who suggested to the Chair that he might come along and might be willing to give evidence. I understand that those are useful meetings.

The chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee is an important matter. I was party to representations from Members from a number of parties about whether the Leader of the House should chair that Committee. I do not think that there is a political division on the matter. Some Members feel that it is important that the Committee is chaired by the Leader of the House in order to progress its agenda—my late friend Robin Cook certainly felt that way—but others feel that there is then an issue of impartiality. I think that the Leader of the House probably sees the sittings of that Committee as among the least party politicised meetings for which he is responsible in his role. Of course, if the House were to decide, as it could, that it wished to change the Committee structure or bring the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee together, it has adequate opportunity to do just that.

The question of public petitions has been explored by other, now devolved, Parliaments and Assemblies. That seems to have brought about effective working relationships. Our Committees of the House of Commons may want to learn lessons from that once those arrangements have bedded down a bit more, and examine whether there are recommendations on how to handle things in this place.

I know that Members and Committees have made proposals to restrict in some way the number of questions. I do not support that. When I first became a Member of Parliament there were restrictions on the number of oral questions that could be tabled by a Member at any one time. That restriction has been lifted and it would be wrong to go back. The number of written questions reflects the various concerns of Members of Parliament, many of which are extremely serious; others would not be judged to be so serious, but it is up to the Member to justify to his or her electorate why they have tabled certain questions. I am happy to leave that to the good sense of electors, as I am sure all hon. Members are.

I do not think that any of the suggestions that are being made—not by Government but by the Committees of the House—to restrict the activities of Members in terms of tabling questions or the role of early-day motions will be allowed to pass without considerable debate in the House. For what it is worth, my opinion is that there is not a mood among the Back Benchers from all parties to whom I have spoken to make the sort of changes that I have heard floated in the Tea Room and elsewhere.

This debate has been good in terms of raising many of the issues. I do not think that the debate would have been different had it been held in a previous Parliament. I am sure that Members who are now on the Government Benches would have made several criticisms had they been sitting on the Opposition Benches. I treasure one exchange that took place before my time as an historic parliamentary moment. Under the Government led by the noble Baroness Thatcher, the Whips were accused of passing round set questions. The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) rose during Prime Minister's questions and said that he had not been given one of those questions
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circulated by the Whip and asked whether the Prime Minister would pander to his eccentricity. I think we have been pandering to his independence ever since.

The fact that today we have heard an updated version of the criticisms does not negate them. We want Parliament to operate effectively. The quality of the contributions to this debate shows that Members of the House are ever vigilant about the need to ensure that Ministers are held to account. I see it as my role as Deputy Leader of the House to reinforce that message. I do not give my colleagues a bad score—I think that they are doing well, but as with everything else, there are grounds for improvement. I thank the hon. Member for Forest of Dean for allowing me to respond to his excellent debate.

10.58 am

Sitting suspended.

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