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The benefits of a Special Standing Committee include informing Members better about a Bill;
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providing an evidential basis for a Bill; and providing for a more consensual approach. If a consensus cannot be achieved, the process will highlight the areas of division, which is an important part of the political dynamic. Some of the worst legislation that I have seen has been the subject of consensus—the Child Support Agency is one example. The process would also engage outside contributors more directly, through written and oral evidence.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the Leader of the House recognise—I suspect that he will understand where I am coming from—that there are proposals that could come before one of these Committees in evidence that would suggest that legislation passed in Westminster should override legislation from the European Communities Act 1972, which goes to the heart of the supremacy of this House? Can he give me an assurance, if not a guarantee, that any such evidence could be taken before those Committees? Furthermore, does he agree that the supremacy of this House should override that Act, as and when the House so decides?

Mr. Straw: It is good to see the hon. Gentleman. No speech of mine is complete without an intervention by him. He follows me round like a shadow—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Jacqui Smith): Like a stalker.

Mr. Straw: Indeed. Having left home affairs and foreign affairs I thought that I had escaped the hon. Gentleman, but the answer to his point about the supremacy of this House is contained in the contradiction in his question. He asks me whether I will assert the supremacy of this House over the European Communities Act 1972. That Act is an Act of this House and it is open to the House at any stage to amend or repeal it. If and when we do so, it can be done by Act of this House and we would not necessarily need a referendum. We would have one, but the hon. Gentleman obviously would not. Then we would be outside the treaty of Rome and released—from his point of view—from the bondage to which he feels so subject. However, the decision would be for this House. It is not the treaty of Rome that requires that bondage, but an Act of this House, passed in 1972.

We have to recognise, as the Modernisation Committee has said, that sending the occasional Bill to a Special Standing Committee is different from adopting it as the norm for the Government’s whole legislative programme, which is what is proposed here, so several points need to be made. First, it would not be appropriate for all Government Bills. It would not be applied to Bills that are not programmed at all. It would thus not apply to the Finance Bill. Under these Standing Orders, all other Bills—except in so far as committed to the Floor of the House or, in rare cases, to a Select Committee—would go to a Committee with the power to take evidence. The Committee itself, via its programming Sub-Committee, would decide how many evidence sessions were necessary. The programming Sub-Committee would be free to propose that there should be no evidence sittings, and that is what we would envisage for Bills that have already been through the Lords—the Modernisation Committee itself envisaged different treatment for such
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Bills, which will already have had substantial debate. Such a process will often not be necessary for Bills that have received parliamentary pre-legislative scrutiny: one evidence session—or, in some cases, none—would normally be appropriate.

We are also mindful of the long lead-in process for Departments in preparing for a Bill and the fact that the new processes are being introduced—in parliamentary terms—with some speed, only a couple of months after the Modernisation Committee’s report. As a transitional measure, we envisage that evidence-taking would only become the norm for Government Bills introduced a little later in the Session, after this Christmas. All parliamentary Sessions are front-loaded in terms of Bills, so for the forthcoming Session, 2006-07, many fewer Bills will be subject to the process than will be the norm thereafter.

I was in the House when the system of Special Standing Committees was introduced. It was a good idea, but it was not properly bedded down. Proper training was not given to the Clerks, Departments or Chairmen and the system fell into disrepute. It is far better—I know that this is your view, Mr. Speaker—for us to take our time to get the new structure properly established.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman seems to have travelled a long way since he was in the Foreign Office.

Mr. Straw: I do not understand at all what the hon. Gentleman could mean. I obviously need further and better particulars.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Are there any circumstances in which the Leader of the House can envisage it being of benefit for a Committee on Delegated Legislation to have the opportunity to take evidence before coming to a decision? Are there any circumstances in which similar evidential scrutiny might be appropriate for matters taken under royal prerogative, such as treaties?

Mr. Straw: On delegated legislation, we did not take evidence on that point, as far as I recall—

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con) indicated assent.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. We can look at that issue, but it is a different matter. As for treaties, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Ponsonby rules, which require all draft treaties to be laid before the House before ratification, and for there to be some effective scrutiny, where required. When I was Foreign Secretary—I say that in case the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) thinks that this is a late conversion to the principle—I said that I thought that parliamentary scrutiny of treaties could be improved and enhanced. That may be a subject for future consideration.

As I was saying, it is our policy that, subject to the exceptions that I have set out, for every programmed Government Bill starting in the Commons, we will propose to the Bill Committee that it should, other than in exceptional cases, exercise its powers to take
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evidence. The Modernisation Committee recommends that Committees should hold at least one evidence session with Ministers and officials. We hope that Committees will follow that recommendation.

As well as impacting on Ministers and Departments, the new process will affect House services. Committee Office and Public Bill Office staff, including the scrutiny unit, have been considering how to provide additional support, as have Hansard and other House services. The House’s Board of Management has helpfully, and as requested by the Modernisation Committee, placed in the Vote Office an explanatory memorandum on the costs involved.

The Government are accepting or facilitating a range of reforms proposed by the Committee to promote processes—in Standing Committee and at other stages—that are clearer both for hon. Members and for people outside Parliament. The notice period for amendments at Committee stage is being shortened, and we also propose that the Committees’ nomenclature should be updated. The name “Standing” Committee is often confusing and irrelevant. They are not standing committees—far from it—so we propose that in future they should be called Public Bill Committees, according to the title of the Bill being considered. For example, we would therefore have an Education Bill Committee, or a Local Government Bill Committee.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Will the Leader of the House clarify the point about notice for amendments? He said that the notice time would be shortened, but I understood that the proposal was to lengthen it. That is a problem for Opposition Members, The Government can give more notice of their amendments, but requiring the same of members of Opposition parties could make it difficult for them to perform their scrutiny role effectively.

Mr. Straw: We thought about that in Committee, but the view was taken that there has to be one rule for amendments, whether they are tabled by the Government or the Opposition. I have experience of both sides of the House, and I know that Governments often bring forward amendments at a late stage. The evidence was that it would be for the convenience and benefit of Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House if notice of an amendment were given a day earlier than has been the norm. That will require some alteration in Government behaviour, but it is an important change.

Moreover, I used to spend many happy hours in opposition writing amendments to one Bill after another. My experience is that the longer the notice period, the better the amendment.

Sir Robert Smith: What does that mean?

Mr. Straw: That was the general rule.

The report also makes a number of observations about other stages in the legislative process. I agree with its call for a

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For example, a Bill might not need a full day’s Second Reading debate, but occasionally one might need more than one day. The Government will work through the usual channels to see whether that result could be achieved. However, we do not agree with the report’s recommendation that programme motions moved on Second Reading should not contain the Bill’s so-called “out date” from Committee. We think that the House has enough information to make its decision at the time of Second Reading, and in any case there are appropriate mechanisms if the decision needs to be reviewed at a later date.

Last Wednesday, the Law Commission reported on post-legislative scrutiny, and we will be considering our response in the coming months. I am very grateful to the commission, and envisage that the report would be an appropriate topic for the Modernisation Committee.

The next motion before us refers to the proposed communications allowance, which is designed to assist with the important task of improving the engagement of the House with the public.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Before he moves on to the next motion, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Modernisation Committee’s recommendations about communicating information to the public, internet use and so on will also be put into effect if we agree the motions before us today?

Mr. Straw: The answer is yes. The requirements of brevity mean that I cannot cover every recommendation. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye and deal with some of those topics in his contribution to the debate.

One of the seminal changes in this place in the last quarter of a century has been the extraordinary increase in constituency demands and expectations. It is worth recounting a story told by Roy Hattersley, who served in this House for a long time. It concerns a man called A. V. Alexander, a long-standing MP for Sheffield. Hattersley says that he

I know of a Labour colleague who entered Parliament exactly when I did, who recalls attending a constituency association general management committee meeting in 1977 or early 1978. The sitting MP expressed outrage when it was suggested that he might appear in the constituency more often. The MP showed the meeting his diary and said, “There! I was here nine months ago—what more do you expect?”

John Bercow: Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene, on that point?

Mr. Straw: Of course.

John Bercow: I had the pleasure of going to the west bank and Gaza with Baroness Williams of Crosby, and
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she said that when she first entered the House in the early 1960s, she shared an office with a Labour Member from a mining constituency. One day, she saw him depositing in the dustbin a large number of unopened letters from constituents. She reproved him, telling him that the people needed his help. To that, she got the reply, “Nay, lass. If it’s important, they’ll send a telegram.”

Mr. Straw: I believe that. I once saw a Labour Member emptying his locker, with mail in it, into the bin. I said that it was the best place for it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): That was Lloyd George!

Mr. Straw: I have not been here as long as my hon. Friend, who may just remember Lloyd George—and I shall not make any jokes about his father.

In the past, a drawer or locker full of letters represented many weeks of mail. A few years ago the House of Commons Post Office told me that in the 1950s and 1960s, hon. Members received on average 12 to 15 letters a week. Today the average is more than 300, on top of which, of course, there are e-mails, faxes and telephone calls.

The Puttnam commission in 2005 was right to assert that Parliament had not done enough to meet its communication responsibilities in this rapidly changing world. As it starkly concluded, in the 21st century institutions that do not communicate, fail. In that respect, therefore, Parliament is failing.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right to say that our constituents’ expectations have risen, and the demands that they make of us have increased. However, unless I am mistaken, there is no demand from them to receive glossy brochures through the post that contain 10, 16 or 20 photographs of their MP behaving like a fairy godmother. That is vanity publishing, and it should not be funded out of the public purse.

Mr. Straw: That is not the view taken by the various groups that have looked pretty independently at these matters. My hon. Friend has the advantage of representing a seat that for a very long time has drawn its MPs from one party. People may be used to the fact that he is there, but we must keep up with the times. I have represented my constituency for nearly 28 years, but even there people want an annual report. They want not a glossy thing full of photographs of me—heaven forfend!—but something that describes in some detail what I have been doing. With the best will in the world, even the Lancashire Telegraph—the world’s most important newspaper—or the excellent BBC Radio Lancashire do not communicate those details.

The report entitled “Power to the People” was published last year by the all-party, Rowntree-funded Power inquiry. It said that MPs

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Of course, the precise method used by Members varies. We are given a good deal of discretion, so we should be accountable for our exercise of it. In my constituency, I have not until now resorted to annual reports, but in concert with the chief executive of the council, the chief constable, the leader of the council and other public officials, I have held a rolling series of residents’ meetings, which involve a lot of resources, too. It is relatively easy to do that in my constituency, although it may not be appropriate in somebody else’s.

In addition, I point out to my hon. Friend that when the Committee on Standards and Privileges looked into that matter in respect of the conduct of a Member, it said that it was important that the guidance in the Serjeant at Arms leaflet on the use of stationery should be revised

I am not saying that that recommendation was the provenance of the proposal, but if the motion is passed it will be an opportunity to ensure that there are better ground rules both for what would amount to a communications allowance, and also for the use of prepaid stationery and envelopes.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): How can the right hon. Gentleman justify a proposal for an additional allowance? Our existing allowance already gives Members a lot of scope to communicate with their constituents. I agree that communication is important, but the proposed allowance could be an additional £6 million of taxpayers’ money, and it is being driven not by the inability of current Members to communicate but by failure to enforce the existing postage rules to combat some of the extravagant claims made by a small minority of Members.

Mr. Straw: I do not believe for a second that the net cost will be as the hon. Lady describes. As colleagues know, limited funds are already available for some communications work through the incidental expenses provision and the House’s stationery and envelope regimes; but extensive use of the IEP for those purposes means squeezing other resources, and the House’s prepaid envelope regime was not designed with wide proactive constituency mailings in mind.

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