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The motion on Select Committee evidence responds to a Liaison Committee proposal to facilitate internet publication of written evidence. By approving the report, we will approve a new practice for certain evidence to be “ordered to be published” rather than “ordered to be printed”. Such evidence will continue to be covered by the privilege granted to documents ordered to be published by Parliament. The power will allow Committees to place evidence safely on the internet at the beginning of an inquiry—that is important—without having to decide that it should also be printed at that point. That is especially beneficial to our constituents and the media.

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) will be pleased to hear that the motion on European Standing Committees would simply allow the present temporary system for the appointment of those Committees to continue. Their appointment on a one-off basis as and when needed, rather than appointing permanent Committees as envisaged under Standing Order No. 119, works well as a temporary measure until any more comprehensive reform of the European scrutiny system is established. The power to appoint committees in that way will expire at the end of the Session and I propose that we roll it over for a further Session.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The Leader of the House started his speech by saying that the public should understand our procedures better. He knows that the European Scrutiny Committee meets in private by Standing Order. Although it resolved in the previous Parliament to sit in public, the Government ignored that. Even hon. Members, let alone the press and the public, are excluded from those deliberations. Why does the comprehensive review of our procedures not tackle that? When will the right hon. Gentleman introduce measures for better scrutiny along those lines?

Mr. Straw: Now is not the moment to debate why the European Scrutiny Committee has a discretion to sit in private. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have given evidence before it in public. The wider issue is complicated and we are still examining the Modernisation Committee’s important recommendations. My right hon. Friends the Chief Whip and the Minister for Europe and I want some changes—it is a matter of pinning down those that would work.

The motion on short speeches makes permanent the temporary power—due to expire at the end of the Session—to limit speeches to as little as three minutes at specified times.

John Bercow: Except for the Leader of the House.

Mr. Straw: Indeed. The power will allow a relatively large number of Members to speak briefly towards the end of a debate. The hon. Member for Buckingham cannot have it both ways. If I give way to hon. Members, I am bound to speak for longer than I anticipated.

The power was proposed in a 2004 Procedure Committee report and is additional to the power to impose a basic speaking limit, which is currently at least eight minutes, under Standing Order No. 47.

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Sir Robert Smith: rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall not give way again.

We are covering important matters today. Taken together, they should make a difference to the workings of the House and the way in which we serve our constituents and the wider public.

1.35 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I aim to cover the subjects in the order in which they are set out in the various motions, as the Leader of the House did so comprehensively in his speech and in his generous responses to requests to intervene.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s last comment, the point of the proposals is to improve the way in which we debate matters and introduce legislation in the House, not only for Members’ convenience and to ensure that the work that they undertake in the House is more effective, but to improve the ability of people outside the House to access our legislative process, participate and understand the processes that we go through.

We have several tasks apart from holding the Government to account, although that is a crucial job for Members of Parliament. We must also pass legislation and raise and debate issues in the House. Given my previous comments, it will not surprise the Leader of the House to hear that one of the issues that I should like to see covered more comprehensively—although the Modernisation Committee cannot tackle it—is the amount of legislation that is introduced. Only the Government can deal with that.

Paragraph 2.5 of the Law Commission’s good recent report on post-legislative scrutiny states:

That should concern hon. Members. Indeed, the Modernisation Committee referred to the matter in its report, stating that, if more time were available for each measure, it would be possible to subject legislation to better and more careful scrutiny. We want to make good law, not simply pass legislation that is rushed through, without opportunity for proper scrutiny or for Members to contribute.

I am grateful for the Modernisation Committee’s proposal for more flexibility in timing and the amount of time that is granted for debate. However, when we talk about moving to a position whereby Second Reading debates on specific measures may last for two days rather than one, that simply constitutes a return to a former tradition of greater flexibility to ensure that all the hon. Members who wished to contribute to Second Reading of significant Bills could do that. That avoided the position in which many hon. Members could not contribute, which is what happens now.

John Bercow: Surely, in the context of programming, which I regard as necessary but requiring flexibility, the issue should be who determines the flexibility. The otherwise innovative and welcome Modernisation Committee report does not tackle the management of programming. Would not it be better if it were
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undertaken under the auspices of a business management committee, independent of the Executive, rather than by the Government of the day?

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend has moved on to the subject of programming, which I was about to address. He has raised it in reference to the possibility of a business management committee, an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has long supported—

John Bercow: He should chair it.

Mrs. May: That suggestion has not been received with complete approval in all parts of the House, although my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield does have a fine record as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel. I shall be entirely honest with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow): I am not completely convinced of the need for a business management committee.

I am disappointed that the Government have been unwilling to accept the Modernisation Committee’s simple and practical proposal on programming. At the moment, programme motions are put immediately after Second Reading, having been determined in advance in order to be taken at that stage. That means that they have been tabled before the House has had the opportunity to air its views on Second Reading, and before the issues that are likely to be controversial have been identified. It is therefore impossible to programme properly if the motion is taken immediately after Second Reading. We should allow more time, and any programme motion that is taken immediately after Second Reading should be limited in its content, with a further motion following it a couple of days later, after it has been possible to have discussions on the information that came to light during the Second Reading debate. By that point, hon. Members’ views on the subjects under discussion will have become clear. I am sorry that the Government have not picked up that point in the Modernisation Committee’s report.

The Modernisation Committee has raised a number of issues that relate to tidying up the way in which the House operates, including ways of making it easier for Members to manage their business and to find out what is happening. The Liberal Democrats made a point earlier about amendments having to be tabled one day earlier than at present. From my experience, I believe that it is not only the Government who would benefit from such a change. It would also make it easier for members of the Committee considering the amendments to take a view on them, which would improve the quality of the debate. It is crucial, however, that the Chairman of the Committee should retain the ability to accept amendments tabled at a later date, albeit in special circumstances.

The motions leave out two crucial matters that the House needs to consider in relation to improving the legislative process. One is the need for post-legislative scrutiny—I mentioned the Law Commission’s report earlier—which is a matter that we need to look at. Any business would find it very strange that we pass laws
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that people have to abide by, but have no regular process to determine whether they have worked or achieved what they set out to achieve. I accept that Select Committees sometimes consider certain pieces of legislation, but there is no regular, agreed way of ensuring that key legislation always receives such scrutiny.

In order to provide such post-legislative scrutiny, we need greater clarity from the Government on the whole purpose of the Bill in question. That matter was raised earlier by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). Such clarity of purpose is important but, sadly, has been reduced. This is particularly the case now that more and more business is passed down to be dealt with as secondary rather than primary legislation. Large amounts of legislation are now being passed through secondary legislation, most of which receives no debate at all. Those proposals that are debated are normally debated for only an hour and a half in Committee. The recent exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and the Deputy Leader of the House on the delegated legislation to establish the new strategic health authorities provided a good example of this. That legislation was introduced in June and came into force on 1 July. The strategic health authorities came into being on 1 October. However, the order was debated in the House in the middle of October, after all that had happened. We need to consider not only the volume of secondary legislation but the process by which we handle it, to ensure that we are subjecting it to an appropriate level of scrutiny.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I strongly agree with the right hon. Lady’s last point. The world outside thinks that it is nonsense that we debate legislation after it has come into effect. Does she agree that both Houses ought to be able to amend secondary legislation, rather than just being presented with it on a take-it-or-leave-it basis?

Mrs. May: Yes, having some ability to amend such legislation would be appropriate. If we were to consider the matter of secondary legislation, we could incorporate that suggestion into our debate.

The proposed changes to Standing Committees are entirely sensible. They will clarify the Committees’ role, and enable us to provide much better legislative scrutiny. The ability to take evidence also represents a significant step forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham raised the issue of who should chair the Public Bill Committees, as they will be known, assuming that the motion is passed today. I shall now perhaps put my head on the block by saying that, in my view, they will be more akin to the present Standing Committees than to Select Committees, and that it would therefore be appropriate for them to be chaired by a member of the Chairmen’s Panel. There could, of course, be issues involved in taking a piece of legislation from its pre-legislative scrutiny through its scrutiny in the House, in relation to the amount of time that a Member would need to spend on the Committee. However, they will essentially be Standing Committees considering legislation, rather than Select Committees, and their chairmanship should be determined on that basis.

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The proposals on the legislative process are good; they will help us to help Members become more effective in the management of business, in the scrutiny of legislation and in ensuring that we have better legislation at the end of the day. However, the House still needs to address the key areas of post-legislative scrutiny and of secondary legislation, and I am disappointed that the proposals on programme motions have not been taken up by the Government.

Overall, we need to consider the volume of legislation that goes through the House, and to enable hon. Members to have more opportunity to debate the issues that lie behind the legislation. All too often, debates on the issues can be constrained only in a debate on a Bill that the Government introduce. I apologise to the Leader of the House for citing an example that he has heard before, namely that, although we have considered a number of criminal justice Bills that have dealt with antisocial behaviour, we have not had a proper debate in the House on the causes of antisocial behaviour. It would be of benefit to the House and to our holding the Government to account to debate those issues. It would also be of benefit to our constituents if they could see us debating the issues that are crucial to them.

The communications allowance has already excited considerable interest across the parties in the Chamber today. The present situation needs to be changed. We have seen from the recent publication of the details of Members’ allowances that a small number of Members spend a significant amount of taxpayers’ money on their postage and stationery. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—who is in his place today—came top of the list, but my quick calculation tells me that seven Members spent more than £20,000 on stationery and postage.

The present rules on stationery and postage allowances are, in some senses, confusing. We are told, for example, that


although, if they do so, they must not use post-paid envelopes. The present rules are therefore sending out confusing messages, and we need to look at this issue.

We also need to look at a situation that reflects the job of a Member of Parliament today. During the Leader of the House’s speech, hon. Members swapped amusing anecdotes across the Floor of the House about the approach of past Members to post received from their constituents. When I first became a Member, I was told that Enoch Powell used to sit in the Library and write responses to all the letters that he received by hand. That action would be inconceivable today due to the volume of correspondence that we receive.

David Taylor: The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) described the communications allowance as a save-our-seats allowance for Labour Members, although it would be available to all Members and would improve communications for those of all parties. How does the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) contrast an allowance that
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would lead to a clear, transparent, on-the-record statement of the sums expended with the activities of the midlands industrial council, for example, which is a shadowy, murky organisation that makes covert payments in the run-up to general elections, but not during the period of a general election, in seats held by Labour MPs—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think that our own affairs give us enough with which to concern ourselves.

Mrs. May: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will return to the rather different matter of the business of the House.

Martin Salter: I welcome the comments of the shadow Leader of the House about the confusion over circular letters. Does she agree that it is completely ridiculous for the definition of a circular to be so narrow that if we receive 20 letters on the same subject, as we often do, we have to produce 20 different replies to fulfil the rules? The right hon. Lady talked about the Members at the top of the postage league, but there is a bigger issue that the media often miss: what is a Member of Parliament doing by drawing £59,000 in salary, but not sending a single letter during the course of a year?

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one individual who has not sent a single letter is a Member who has chosen not to take their seat.

Mr. Straw: What about Galloway?

Mrs. May: The Leader of the House indicates that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) might have been thinking about not a Sinn Fein Member, but a Member who used to sit on the Labour Benches, who perhaps felt that communicating through “Big Brother” was rather more appropriate than communicating with his constituents through correspondence.

Let me return to the question of whether we should have a communications allowance and the job of being a Member of Parliament today. Communication with our constituents has changed. They expect to get more information from us and for us to keep them more aware of what we are doing as their Members of Parliament. The ruling on unsolicited mail is confusing and does not reflect the job of a Member of Parliament.

The Leader of the House cited the example of a planning matter. I was also going to use that example, although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who is no longer in the Chamber, would have intervened on me if I had gone down that route. Let me cite a different example: it would have been entirely reasonable for Members of Parliament to have wished to write to all the head teachers in their constituency to get their views on the Education and Inspections Bill. However, such letters technically would have been unsolicited pieces of mail, so they would not have fallen under the categories of mail that we are able to send.

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