Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Written Evidence

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 in consequence.

  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.

December 2006

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