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25 Oct 2007 : Column 481

A further suggestion was a ballot of early-day motions, but that would lead to the tabling of multiple early-day motions on the same subject in the hope that they would be chosen for debate. Unless early-day motions were regularly weeded to exclude those that were no longer topical or had been overtaken by events, there would be a risk that the early-day motions chosen would no longer be suitable for debate.

We were then asked why, if there was to be a ballot, there should not be a ballot of Members rather than early-day motions. If that were the case, there would be no need to link the ballot to early-day motions at all, because Members should be free to select the subject of their choice. As many hon. Members will know, we used to have a ballot to select debates on private Members’ motions before they were abolished in 1994. My Committee recognises the strength of the argument that the abolition in 1994 was a mistake.

It is a weakness of Parliament that a Back-Bench Member has no opportunity to initiate a debate on a substantive motion. We are one of the few Parliaments in the western world in which such a facility is not available. The Committee’s report thus urged the Modernisation Committee to give serious consideration to recommending the reintroduction of an opportunity for Members to ballot for a motion of their choice. Indeed, it was largely at my behest that the Modernisation Committee went on to recommend that there should be an experiment, with such motions chosen by ballot being considered in Westminster Hall. However, for the moment at least, the Government have rejected that recommendation. I hope that the Leader of the House will be willing to keep her decision on the matter under review because Back-Bench Members of Parliament should be given the right to seek a debate on a substantive motion of their choice.

Moving on to petitions, the Procedure Committee inquiry was limited to public petitions, so we did not consider the procedures for petitions in respect of private or hybrid Bills, such as the Crossrail Bill, which of course are very different. We decided to look at the current position. A number of Members of the House told us at the outset that they find the current procedures for public petitions totally unsatisfactory. Some argued that once a petition was presented, it seemed to fall into a black hole. Nothing more was heard of it, and there was no feedback to the petitioners.

We looked at the evidence and found that although the Government do respond to most petitions, there is no obligation for them to do so. We discovered that well over 20 per cent. of petitions presented to the House do not receive a response from a Department. Of those that do, some of the responses were cursory and unhelpful. They often simply restated the Government’s known position, adding nothing new. Many of them did not even answer the specific point that the petitioners were making.

Of course, any response is provided to the Member who presented the petition. It is up to him or her to pass it on to the petitioners. Petitions and Government responses to them are published once a week in a supplement to Votes and Proceedings—and those supplements must be strong contenders for the title of
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the House’s most obscure publication. They are hard to find on the parliamentary website, and there is no effective way of searching for specific petitions, or Government responses to them. My Committee unanimously took the view that that is not good enough. Since 2005, following a recommendation of the Procedure Committee in the previous Parliament, all petitions have been forwarded to the relevant departmental Select Committee, but as we note in our report, informal surveys that we carried out showed that most Select Committees have rarely taken any action as a result of receiving a petition.

On the other hand, the system does have its strengths. All our witnesses—and, ultimately, all members of the Committee—agreed that having a Member of Parliament formally present the petition was an indispensable part of the system, which should not be lost. Members often advise the public on how to prepare their petition. Indeed, they may on some occasions steer a constituent away from the petition route if they feel that there are better ways for the person to pursue their objective. We felt that the requirement to find a Member to present a petition was useful and should be kept. Members can also act as a filter for trivial or inappropriate petitions.

As for our proposals, we took the view that it is far better to build on the strength of the current system than to recommend a totally new system. In our report, we suggested how to remove some of the weaknesses of our procedures. Our proposals are as follows. We propose that the Government be required to respond formally to all petitions within two months of their presentation. It was the view of the Procedure Committee that every petitioner should ultimately get an answer to their petition. The text of petitions and Government responses should be published in Hansard, and on a Friday, the time of the formal presentation of a petition should be moved to just before the end of the day—just before the Adjournment debate; that is when they are presented on other days. Access to petitions through the parliamentary website should be made easier, and there should be opportunities for petitions to be debated in Westminster Hall.

The Government have accepted all those recommendations except, regrettably, the last. I am grateful for the Leader of the House’s support for the Procedure Committee’s report, but I am disappointed that she was not prepared to add her weight to the proposal to add just one half-hour debate slot to Thursday’s Westminster Hall sitting. That would provide a dedicated petitions slot, in which the presenting Member could discuss the petition and the reply.

Such a slot would have demonstrated that the House was now committed to taking petitions seriously, and it would also have served to concentrate Ministers’ minds not only on their responsibility to reply, but on the content of the reply.

Although petitions are addressed to the House of Commons, the remedies that they seek can often be secured only through Government action, so proper Government responses to petitions are an essential part of any effective system. I am pleased that the Government have given an undertaking to respond to petitions. However, I am slightly concerned that the
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wording used by the Leader of the House is that normally, only substantive petitions should receive a response. Despite that wording, I hope she will issue guidance to Ministers that except in very exceptional circumstances, all petitions should receive a response, even if the response is to the effect that the issue raised is one for local government, rather than for national Government. That is none the less a response.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who is no longer in her place, and one or two other Members have said that the Procedure Committee should have been more radical in its proposals for petitions, and that we should have suggested the setting up of a petitions Committee and an e-petitions system. To them I say, “Watch this space”. We expressed support in our report for e-petitions, and we have said that we are going on to examine the practical and procedural implications, with a view to bringing a worked-up system back to the House.

The Government—I applaud them for this—have placed it on record that they are in favour of an e-petitions system for the House of Commons, and have encouraged us to complete our work on that as soon as possible. I can tell the Leader of the House that we have already made a good start. E-petitions to the House of Commons have the potential to make a significant contribution to the House’s aim of improving how it connects with the public, but if e-petitions are to fulfil that potential, the system must be robust and properly resourced, and the House must be willing to listen to what the public are saying, which means that there may have to be some sort of system whereby certain petitions are then eligible for debate.

The petitioning procedure has for a long time been an obscure one and relatively little used. The proposals that the House is being asked to approve this afternoon will bring the petitioning system some way out into the light to make it more accessible to our constituents. But make no mistake—the introduction of e-petitioning will take us much further. If anyone doubts the potential impact of e-petitions, they should look at the No. 10 website.

John Bercow: My right hon. Friend is almost overflowing, like Vesuvius, with enthusiasm for the idea. Does he conceive of such petitions as an automatic trigger for debate? For if that is in his mind, I dare to bid caution that we do not end up creating, deliberately or inadvertently, a charter for professional activists, when we have not even got round to assuring, underpinning and extending the rights of Members of Parliament to trigger debates if they happen to occupy the Back Benches. That seems to me a more important and immediate priority.

Mr. Knight: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Enthusiasm is not, of itself, a decision, and I would not wish to prejudge what the Procedure Committee may or may not decide in due course. May I underline to him that even in the realm of e-petitions, my Committee is strongly of the view that the link with the constituency Member should not be broken, because one can well see a scenario where, if e-petitions were allowed without a Member facilitating the petition going on line, candidates for all other parties in
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marginal seats might start bombarding the House with e-petitions to give the illusion that they are somehow responsible for some parliamentary activity. We are very conscious of the fact that the link with the sitting Member is important. Our initial thinking—we have not yet taken it to a formal decision—is indeed that if we are to recommend e-petitioning to the House, we would want to keep the link with the sitting constituency Member.

Partly for the reasons that I have just given, it will take the Procedure Committee a little more time to reach a conclusion on e-petitions, and I am sure the House will understand why we are determined as a Committee to ensure that any further proposals we make are robust and well thought through, and will prove to be effective and useful to all Members of this House in due course. Subject to the caveats I have mentioned, I commend the Procedure Committee motion to the House.

3.56 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who chairs the Procedure Committee with such distinction, and it is a tribute to his chairmanship that the recommendations from his Committee have been so consensual and robust that they have not so far generated a lot of controversy in this debate. I agree with what he said at the beginning of his speech, when he gently disassociated himself from our hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) on what is called multi-tasking. I think that that is a somewhat misleading title. All that is recommended is that

It seems to me that that simply validates what has been the practice for some time, and I do not find it enormously controversial—

Mr. Binley rose—

Sir George Young: Although my hon. Friend clearly does.

Mr. Binley: No; my concern is not that the issue is controversial. My concern is whether my right hon. Friend recognises that hand-held devices go way beyond the simple act of e-mailing, and how he would control their uses so they are not used in a manner that he might not wish to see.

Sir George Young: I understand that, but it is not the proposition that is before the House. The proposition is that we should keep up to date with e-mails, and just e-mails. There is no proposition that we should take photos of each other during a debate or participate in any other mischief that might be done with the devices with which the Whips have very kindly provided us.

John Bercow: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir George Young: I want to move on.

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If I may say so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is particularly appropriate that you are in the Chair, as the evidence that you gave to the Modernisation Committee clearly helped to inform its conclusions. Several hon. Members have referred to regional Select Committees. I think that that proposal would aggravate the problem that is before the Chamber this afternoon rather than alleviate it. It would be yet a further demand on the time of the hard-pressed Back Bencher and cut across the work of existing Select Committees. It would not provide proper accountability, as the regional Minister is not the budget holder for the money that is being spent in a region. As I indicated in business questions, I very much hope that the Government will not go down the regional Select Committee route, as I think that it would simply aggravate the sort of issues that we have been discussing this afternoon.

As is usual when we debate the work of a Select Committee, in one hand we have the report and in the other we have the Government’s response. What is unusual today with regard to the Modernisation Committee is that both the report and the reply were drafted by the Leader of the House. It is like something out of “The Mikado”, in which Pooh-Bah was lord high everything, and consulted himself in his various capacities. I do not think that W. S. Gilbert had Pooh-Bah as the Minister for Women and the chairman of the Japanese Labour party, but there is a certain incongruity and circularity in the process that has been gone through in putting the report before us this afternoon.

It is simply wrong that a report whose title refers to “the role of the back bench Member” should be drafted by a member of the Cabinet. Indeed, because of the abundance of talent from the Leader of the House and her predecessor, neither of them has ever spent much time as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament. That brings me to the first point that I want to make. Such reports should be produced by a Select Committee of Back-Bench Members of Parliament chaired by a Back Bencher. That is what happens in every other Select Committee, and there is no reason why it should not happen in the Modernisation Committee. I have made that point unrepentantly for several years, regardless of who was Leader of the House, and I am happy to say that I now have third-party endorsement.

Last week saw the publication of “The House Rules?”—a Constitution Unit report by Meg Russell and Akash Paun. It provides a worthy route map for the Modernisation Committee and I hope that Members will find time to read it. That report says of the process that we are witnessing today:

that is, the Modernisation Committee’s—

Indeed. That process of securing approval from the Government in advance, before publishing the report, is an unacceptable constraint on a Select Committee. The Constitution Unit report goes on to say that if the reforms are adopted,

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I can think of no better candidate for that post than my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. It is simply wrong that the Cabinet Minister whose job it is to deliver the Government’s legislative programme should also be the Chairman of the Committee that decides the process that that programme should follow in the House. That is a constitutional short-circuit that should set alarm bells ringing and red lights flashing.

That leads me to my second point, which is about the title of the report: “Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member”. The report should be about empowering Back Benchers—strengthening them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said. It is all very well to raise the Back Bencher’s profile, to give him more speaking opportunities and make better use of his time, but does the report actually increase his authority? I am not convinced; it does not change the terms of trade between Parliament and the Executive.

Let me give a couple of examples of where I think the report should have gone further. I welcome the recommendations on Select Committees as far as they go, but the Chairman of a Select Committee should be able to present his report to the House on the day of its publication. He should be allowed to make a statement; I see no reason why Ministers should have a monopoly on statements to the House. Many Select Committee reports have been far more important than some of the statements that we get from Ministers—for example, the Rural Payments Agency report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and some of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Public Administration Committee reports.

At the moment Select Committee reports get time for debates, but debate time is worth less than statement time. Statements come early in the day and get much more media coverage. More Members will come in for a statement because they have a greater opportunity to take part than during a debate and can intervene without tying up half a day. Furthermore, statements on the day of publication are topical, whereas debates weeks after the Government have responded are not. If the issue were left to me, the Minister would have the opportunity to put a question to the Select Committee Chairman after his statement, just as we put questions to Ministers after their statements.

To continue with the same theme, the debates on Select Committee reports at the moment are Adjournment debates; they are often thinly attended and consist only of Committee members talking to each other. We should be able to vote on Select Committee reports and I am sorry that the Government cannot bring themselves to contemplate that. Voting on reports would give them a higher profile, concentrate the Government’s attention on what was being said and engage the attention of a broader range of Members of Parliament. I accept that if the Committee members knew that their report was likely to be voted on, it might be more difficult to secure a consensus, but I think that a price worth paying.

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The Government keep telling us that they are interested in making the Chamber more topical, but on Tuesday we debated the Members’ fund when we should have debated the pre-Budget report and the comprehensive spending review. Vital Government statements of financial and political priority that set the parameters for the next three years are not being debated at all—and that from a Government who want to make the Chamber more topical.

I agree that we need less time on the Queen’s Speech; many of the Bills in the next Session will have been carried over and will have had pre-legislative scrutiny. The Queen’s Speech was announced in July; indeed, it was debated in July. The spontaneity of the Queen’s Speech is not what it was, and we should recognise that it needs less time for formal debate after the Loyal Address.

The report includes a section about advice. If I can put on my “Standards and Privileges” hat for a moment and encourage Members to get advice, the Tea Room is very good for gossip but not always good for advice. The report recommends that Members should get proper advice from the right channels if they need it.

There is a big chunk about induction, which has not been touched on in the debate. I went to one of the induction meetings at the beginning of this Parliament. It was enormously valuable; I learned far more from that session with new Members than they learned from me. It is right that we make recommendations to improve the induction process.

Sir Peter Soulsby: In fact, induction was discussed earlier; several Members referred to it. The point was made that induction should not just be a one-off event when new Members are overwhelmed having just arrived—there should be an ongoing process of enabling Members to understand the business of the House and make best use of its procedures.

Sir George Young: I entirely agree. One can be invited to accumulate too much information in a short space of time—it needs to be over a longer period and regularly refreshed.

On length of speeches, I do not think that I have ever said to a neighbour, “That speech was too short”, but I have had occasion to say—I may have said it earlier today—“That speech was too long.” I endorse the recommendations on length of speeches. The report was kind enough to attribute to me the view that four eight-minute speeches are likely to be of higher value than two 16-minute speeches. I like the idea of moving time limits. It could be like the variable speed limits on the M25. As there is congestion, so the speed limit is reduced; as the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker sees that the debate is congested, so he could reduce the time available.

In a sense, time is what this debate is about. The Government’s response says:

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