Letter from Rt Hon John Gummer MP (M14)
I have seen a considerable decline in the ability
of the backbencher to influence policy, to hold the Executive
to account and to promote change in legislation since I first
entered Parliament in 1970. In recent years that has partly been
because of the incidence of large majorities on either side. However,
it is in my view largely the result of recent changes in the way
we conduct our business. Chief amongst these is the introduction
of the automatic guillotine and the destruction of the system
of Committee work on Bills. There was a time in which, line by
line and clause by clause, Bills could be properly scrutinised.
This usually meant significant changes, often driven by the input
of backbenchers. As a Minister during these periods, I certainly
changed my mind on significant issues and in important ways as
a result of the debates we had. Civil Servants took the proceedings
with considerable concern and recognised that the Committee Stage
of a Bill might be a very testing time. As a result of the guillotine
procedure, much of this has become mere formality.
It is, in my view, necessary for us to return
to the system in which the Government had control of the legislative
programme, but with Parliament as a whole having a great deal
of control over the timetable. Guillotines drawn up by Government
Whips and forced through have made the situation impossible for
backbenchers. The shift towards the Executive has been palpable
and the quality of the legislation which we produce has diminished
There may well be all sorts of innovative ways
of increasing the role of the backbencher. Nothing would be better
than enabling him or her to use the procedures of the House to
insist upon being heard, as was once part of our Constitution.
It is an irony that the Modernisation Committee has largely changed
the procedures in such a way as to benefit Ministers and Civil
Servants and to reduce significantly the role of Members of Parliament.