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When I first got here, time was not a problem. We used to sit around waiting for the votes. By 10 o’clock in the morning, one had dealt with the constituency, the post
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had come in, there were no Select Committees, and one could devote time to the Chamber. Now, time is the most important commodity that we have. All the Select Committees should see whether they can reduce the pressure on Members’ time, including the Administration Committee and perhaps even my own Committee. Why do we have to fill in that travel form every month and try to remember which tickets we used? How much time do we spend trying to get our swipe card to open some of the doors and turnstiles into the building? How much time do we spend chasing Government Departments for replies, or deleting e-mails from other people’s constituents and all-party groups?

That brings me to my final point. All our activity is shoehorned into two and a half days. One of the proposals that I made to the Committee—one of the many that it ignored—would have stretched the parliamentary week and made Thursday a proper day. I think that Prime Minister’s questions should take place on a Thursday. If it took place at 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening, the Chamber would now be filling up; but more importantly, it would make Thursday a proper parliamentary day when Select Committees and all-party groups could meet, instead of squeezing everything into Tuesday and Wednesday.

I like the report as far as it goes, but I would have preferred several recommendations to be taken further. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to revisit the subject during the remainder of this Parliament.

4.8 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I have no objections to the proposals before the House, but I cannot tell whether they will make a contribution to reviving democracy in this Chamber, because that will very much depend on the spirit in which they are implemented by the Government of the day. We have a majority-based system and I think that that is right. I fully accept that when a Government win a sizeable majority, as this Government have, two very important powers or privileges are extended to people who are Ministers. First, Ministers can do anything they like under the law with the moneys raised by the state, and with the Administration at their command, they can instruct officials to do whatever they wish. Secondly, if they do not like the law, they can change it in any way they like. Both of those great powers are great privileges and Ministers exercise them with care if they are sensible. All that they have to do in order to carry on exercising those powers is to ensure that enough of their hon. and right hon. Friends continue to support them at crucial times.

However, there is one other thing that they have to do. Every four or five years, they have to face the question whether the electors think that they have used their powers intelligently and well. We live in a country that has a great sense of fairness. The country feels that a Government are stronger for licensing dissent, debate and disagreement than they are for trying to close it down. We live in a country where people respect a Government who allow minority parties and interests in this House decent opportunity to give voice to their views, which may, on occasion, be the views of the majority in the country, not the views of the minority who voted for the Government.

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The public also like to feel that the Government do not just afford the minority that opportunity in order to give vent to feelings, but are listening and seriously engaging with those different views. An intelligent Government, who wish to stay in power for a long time, have to understand that this is an intrinsically democratic country and that people expect give and take, and expect their Government to learn sometimes from those who oppose them, as well as those who advise and support them in good times and bad.

When I was a Minister, a group of Labour MPs launched a strong, interesting campaign, saying that there were too many quangos, that they had too many powers and that too many supporters of the Government were involved with them. I listened to that campaign and watched it for a while before I realised that it was right. Within the limits of collective responsibility and Government debate, I tried to move what I was doing in the direction of responding to those criticisms—cutting back the powers of the quangos, cutting their budgets and balancing up the appointments—because I thought the campaign was making powerful points.

Ironically, because those MPs were rather good at opposition, they often started opposing my measures to correct the initial problem, but they were right about that problem, and it was my job to fight it. If I had just decided that they were completely wrong and dealt with everything they said with a political put-down or a cheap point, or reminded them about the problems of the Labour Government in 1978, I would not have been doing my job properly. I would not have gained any respect from the people I sought to serve if I treated them as beings who had no right to a view, and assumed automatically that their view was wrong and decided that the way to deal with it was to make cheap political points about dim, distant past history.

The idea that we need topical debates is a very good test of whether the Government are new and more democratic in a way that the outgoing Prime Minister’s Government were not. The Government have a choice. As they will effectively control what the topical debates will be about, they will, in any given week, have a difficult choice to make.

Most weeks there is a crisis in one Department or another. Most weeks, there is an illustration of bureaucratic mess or ministerial mistakes. Some weeks, Ministers are on the rack. The Opposition and many people in the media would like the topical debate to highlight that crisis or that Minister under pressure. That would provide excitement in the Chamber—somebody would be on trial. There could be a real consequence of the Minister doing very well, in which circumstance the Government would be strengthened, or the Minister doing badly, in which circumstance the case for getting rid of them is enhanced. If the Government are brave enough to do that, democracy wins. The Government may have a bad week or a good one depending on how skilful they are. If they duck such issues every time and say, “No, that isn’t what we want by way of a topical debate; the debate will be on some worthy topic that attracts cross-party support because it is something nice to talk about”, the
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proposals will fail to invigorate and improve our democracy in the way we are told they might.

Topical questions are a good idea. It is often frustrating to find that one’s question has not come high up the Order Paper, and that all the questions that have could have been tabled in a county council chamber and relate to specific matters in specific constituencies, leaving no room for open questions that enable a Back Bencher to intervene on a matter of national interest. The report rightly gives instances of topical matters being well without the scope of the limited range of questions on an Order Paper. That means that departmental questions that month are a waste of time. The press and public, to the extent that they are watching, think that it is nonsense because a big issue faced the Department but it did not even come up in departmental questions. The press and public often claim that nobody bothered to ask about it. They do not understand that our procedures prevent Members of Parliament who are desperate to ask about the subject from doing so because nothing on the Order Paper enabled them to go in that direction.

The Government are set on dividing England into separate regions. They wrongly believe that that will prevent the English problem from growing. It is no answer to people who wish England to have some balanced treatment of its affairs to reflect the devolution in Scotland and Wales to say that it will have some regional treatment in the Palace of Westminster. That is a red rag to a bull and not a way to tackle the tension. I hope that the Leader of the House understands that it will incense people who are worried about the plight of England; it will not reassure them. She should also understand that it poses grave questions about whether the Government have any belief in devolution.

I am a Member of Parliament from the south-east, as the Government see it. Many of us in the south-east do not recognise it as a region. It is drawn so clumsily that it means that London is not part of it, yet people in my region look to London for shopping, leisure and employment. We have much conversation and many dealings with London. We have almost no links with places such as Kent and Sussex, which are in my region. There is no regional feeling—the region is an artificial construct.

Furthermore, the south-east happens to be the region in England that always elects a Conservative majority. My hon. Friends and I strongly object to wasting money on regional government. We do not want the regional assembly, the development agency, the regional planning system or the housing quangos. We want them to be swept away. When the Leader of the House suggests that we need a body to provide accountability for the unaccountable quangos, she faces a genuine dilemma. Those who represent the so-called region do not want the quangos. We do not want to make them accountable; we want to get rid of them. If any sort of public intervention or expenditure of public moneys is needed—we would prefer less of both—that should be done through elected local government, which is democratically accountable and has some sense of locality and belonging. We have no sense of that in the south-east region as a whole.

I look forward to seeing how the proposals bed down. They could be an important step in the right
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direction. If we had the right topical debates, the Chamber would fill up more, the press would be more interested and the public would realise that we were responding to more of the daily issues that worry them. If the question system worked better, that would reinforce the idea of topicality. If we want the Select Committee system to work well, I support the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that creating more Select Committees for bogus regions will detract from concentrating good people on the existing Select Committees and letting them do a better job. If the Government wish to strengthen Select Committees, they should not have more of them but give the existing ones more power.

John Bercow: On topical debates, may I underline the fact that I am persuaded neither by the arguments of the Leader of the House nor by those of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) against the notion of early-day-motion-triggered debates, or debates triggered by a secret ballot, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) advanced. What is my right hon. Friend’s position on that?

Mr. Redwood: I tend to see early-day motions as parliamentary graffiti. I always point out to my constituents when they want me to sign them that they are meaningless, that they never get debated and that the Government do not take them seriously. Those things are all clearly true. I understand that some colleagues think that it could be possible to make early-day motions more significant. If someone came up with a working model for that, I would be prepared to consider it. I tend to sign the jokey early-day motions. If I notice an early-day motion congratulating a sports team that I support, I am happy to put my name to it, because it can do no harm and is obviously meant nicely.

Occasionally I sign serious early-day motions if there is no other way of making the point. I do not do so because I think that that is the best way to make the point—I know that it is the worst—but because it is sometimes a sign of frustration at the fact that an early-day motion is the only way left to make Ministers consider an issue on which we cannot get a debate or question. The big problem with early-day motions is that Ministers do not have to consider them, whereas if there is a debate in this place, a Minister has to come and answer it. If an hon. Member writes a letter to a Minister, the Minister—unfortunately, it is often someone on the Minister’s behalf these days—has to write back. There is no such trigger with an early-day motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) might be right that it could be possible to devise a scheme for triggering debates if enough hon. Members signed an early-day motion. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, there would then have to be a way of distinguishing those early-day motions that congratulate a soccer team on winning a game—I trust that most colleagues would not wish to spend an hour and a half debating such a motion in the House, pleased though they may be with their team’s
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result—from one about a serious question that warranted debate. There has to be a filter, and ultimately that filter is the Government, because they have the majority and they will decide what will be debated.

The Government should see this debate in the context of the fact that a large number of people are disengaged from party politics of the kind that the three main parties offer and from how this place does or does not conduct its business, for the various reasons that others have already mentioned. If the House could have more topical debates, with more power, passion and real exchange, that would be good. However, that will work only if the Government wish it to work and if they come to Parliament with a certain democratic humility. If they want to live in a world where minority opinions can be forcefully expressed and will occasionally make an impact on the Government, our democracy will start to flourish. If they wish to continue with a system in which all minority opinion is briefed against and dealt with in a brutal and politically crude way that does not answer the question or point that that minority opinion is making, our democracy will not flourish and the House will be largely wasting its time.

4.22 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): It will come as no surprise to friends and colleagues in the House that I have reservations about the process by which we have arrived at this point. Anyone who has had sufficient time even to glance at the Modernisation Committee’s report will see that it is now called “Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member”. The report started life earlier in the year as two inquiries. The one that interested me was the one into revitalising the Chamber, because I have been around and I have come to a conclusion. The revitalisation of the Chamber depends on the initiatives for debate and on the business of the House being controlled much more by the Members of the House, rather than through the partisan allotment of time by the Crown in Parliament—the Leader of the House, who, in the generosity of the new Government, combines several posts. I am glad to see her in her role as the Leader of the House.

We agonised over what to call the second and very important inquiry, because the then Leader of the House, who is now the Secretary of State for Justice, was conscious that we had to do something as a House about its standing. We came up with “Strengthening the role of the backbencher”. We laboured long in this vineyard. The Constitution Society and the Hansard Society were mentioned earlier. I strongly recommend that people read the evidence given to the Committee. It is very good, reasonable and intelligent—everything that one would expect—and from it sprang certain interesting ideas. Unfortunately, many of them are a “back to the future” approach to life, inasmuch as it is difficult to reinvent the wheel.

One crucial issue relates to the all-encompassing Standing Order that effectively says that Government business takes precedence over all other business in this House—save for the days allotted to the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats and the time given to Back-Bench Members on Fridays for private Members’
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Bills. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) will recall as I do when we had something called private Members’ motions. Any Member could enter a ballot for the ability to move a substantive motion and, if necessary, secure a vote on it.

That is the star role in the House. No Government want to surrender it, and certainly no Opposition posturing to be a Government want to surrender it. Not even the sub-Opposition hoping to be a Government want to surrender it. We are suppressed because, in some of the magic moments after Jopling had reported, successive Leaders of the House—they were Conservative—somehow did away with substantive motions proposed by Back Benchers on a ballot. They just went. They were bought off when the Opposition were offered yet more guaranteed days for these wretched three-hour debates in which it is virtually impossible for a Back Bencher to participate. It is all in the hands of those who hope to form the Government.

The Prime Minister, who made a statement on Monday, reassured us that all was well in the Scottish elections and that in any event we were all to blame. Would a Government table a substantive motion to discuss the actions of the present Secretary of State for International Development, the former Secretary of State for Scotland? Would the Opposition propose such a debate in a partisan spirit? There must be many Scottish Members—I am thinking of members of the Scottish National party, whose Benches are empty, and independent Members—who want to know why no Minister has been held to account, but where is the substantive motion? The Government are unlikely to choose to table one.

I think of how this House has handled the war in Iraq; I think of the vitality of the United States Congress in discussing such matters; and I compare it with the leaden way in which debate has proceeded here. In five years, we have had—I think—three debates on the war. Who could be responsible for that? Standing Order No. 41 gives the Government absolute pre-eminence in the selection of debates.

Let me quote what the Clerk of the House had to say about these matters. Page 51—to help those who ever read Hansard—of this sad report states:


Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recall that in the days when we could move private Members’ motions, we could even move them in respect of the business of the House? We could even move that the House sit beyond its normal finishing time on a Friday, for example, in order to consider something, and if the majority of the House so voted, that is what we would do. Was that not real power?

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Mr. Shepherd: It is the very essence of what Parliament, or the House of Commons, should be about. The total blanket imposed by those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches who carve up what we shall do and how we shall consider things has brought us to our present parlous state in the public perception. “What is the point of Members of Parliament? They never talk about what is happening in the real world,” people say ill-advisedly. It is two tin armies banging against each other, while the rest of us wander off somewhere else.

How will the report be interpreted by those who read it? I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) about the suggestion by the Leader of the House that we should now be able to multi-task. The Leader of the House must have invented that expression in this context, because I do not think we used it in the report. It must be in the Government’s response. Anyway, it is an extraordinary concept.

It may be that I am so underprivileged that I had a Neanderthal education, but the very essence of life, and of success in life, is concentration: concentrating on the issue at hand. The issue at hand in this Parliament, this House of Commons, is the making of laws. We go round in circles saying these things. We make laws that can have criminal intent. Can there be anything more serious than the thought that we will send someone to prison, that we will incarcerate someone? Ours is serious business—but we understand the boredom and tedium for the Front Benches. I see that the Leader of the House has already vacated her position. Presumably she is performing her role as Minister for Women and Equality, or perhaps she is planning another election campaign.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Shepherd: Gladly.

Helen Goodman: May I just point out that the Leader of the House has been in the Chamber for some six hours, and needed something to eat so that she did not get a headache?

Mr. Shepherd: I am very glad to hear about her domestic arrangements; one is interested in that. The substance of what we are about, however, is her subject. I have been in the House when Home Secretaries have sat not just for six hours, as the Deputy Leader of the House has indignantly said, but for a whole debate. I saw Willie Whitelaw, when he was Home Secretary, sit through the whole of a debate on immigration policy, which is a very sensitive subject. He left only once for about a minute and a half, and I cannot imagine what that was for.

This is the banality into which the House has descended, and that we put up with it as Back Benchers is absurd. Here we had an opportunity—a real and genuine opportunity, if a small one. My amendment, which was defeated so narrowly by seven to one, was a modest proposal. I would read it out, but it is available to be read by those who are interested. It proposed just four a year, and the debates would not have been held on Fridays but during the week. [Hon. Members: “Four what?] Four motions, and which Members were to move them would be determined by ballot.

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