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2.49 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): This is a welcome debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and his Committee, which has done a particularly good job. It is an all-party Committee that consistently and regularly brings before us appropriate matters to consider. This report is an entirely good and appropriate thing to discuss. It is timely in the context of the wider debate about these matters, which has been precipitated by the recent allegations that were the core subject of yesterday’s debate on party funding. These things are all part of the understanding of how the political process works.

I want to start with the formalities of the Committee’s recommendations and the Government’s response, because it is important to get on the record my view and that of my colleagues on these matters. I can summarise my view by saying that I agree with all the proposals in the report. It is welcome that the Government have accepted the large bulk of the recommendations in their response, which came out on 15 November. They have accepted that

They have agreed that

They have accepted the recommendation that

Committee on Standards in Public Life—

They also accepted the following recommendation:

It is an indication of the Government’s good will that the Minister intervened on the hon. Member for Cannock Chase to announce not just that the Government have
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agreed the appointment of the new chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but that he has been appointed for a fixed-term non-renewable period of five years. That is welcome. The Minister will expect me to say that it was not so welcome that the Government were not keen for the previous chairman to continue in office. Alistair Graham did an excellent job. We have to have a system in which the Government are not able to get angry or into a huff about such an important committee set up precisely to be a voice apart. The chairman should not find himself suddenly rubbished—I may be using slightly excessive language—by sources in Government, so that he is not able to continue in office.

I pay tribute to Alistair Graham and his team. I appeared before them and have given evidence to them. Nothing that I have seen or know suggests that they did not do their job entirely competently, professionally and with the best interests of the country at heart. I thank him and them for the work that went on under his chairmanship. I am only pleased that the interregnum has at last come to an end and we have a new chairman, and I wish him all the best in his five-year term. This is an important appointment, an important job and an important committee.

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying about Sir Alistair Graham. I, too, admire him and thought that he did a good job. He was precisely the kind of robust independent mind that the report recommended. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that the Government have accepted the Select Committee’s recommendation about a robust independent chairman reflects the change in Prime Minister? It was the previous Prime Minister and his Government who found Sir Alistair Graham rather irritating and did not like him getting under their skin. Will the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that the Government have now said that they want a robust and independent chairman? That marks a welcome change.

Simon Hughes: I accept that it was not the current Prime Minister who took the view about Alistair Graham. The current Prime Minister has indicated nothing to suggest that he is not willing to have people who are independent, robust and effective doing the job. I hope that that marks a sea change. In general terms, I welcome all the comments that the Prime Minister has made on such issues since he took office. Comments made in “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper, which was published just before the summer, and elsewhere suggest that he is determined to try to make sure not just that we, as a body politic and a set of public institutions, clean up our act where necessary, but that we are seen to do that. I do not doubt his integrity in that regard.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried away with his praise for the Prime Minister, will he recognise that the Prime Minister has not conceded to the ministerial adviser the right to initiate inquiries on his own account? The ministerial adviser has to wait for the Prime Minister to invite him to do so.

Simon Hughes: Absolutely—what I am saying is not unqualified. That is one of the specific things that has not been conceded, and one of the things in the
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Government’s response that is wrong. There are other things that go much further that I hope the Prime Minister will do. Let me end my comments on the report’s recommendations and the Government’s response, and then I will pick up on one or two of the sorts of points that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised.

The next of the Committee’s recommendations that I want to mention is:

The Government made it clear that they accepted that recommendation without qualification.

Those were the good things—the positive steps forward—but there are still substantial areas where the Government have not yet come to a view. I hope that this debate will help them to come to the view that the Select Committee proposes. There are several significant areas. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase mentioned the recommendation that we need a new system to give all the ethical regulators independence from the cradle to the grave. We need to ensure that they are funded from Parliament, not Government, that they are appointed by Parliament, not Government, and that they are staffed by people appointed by the organisation itself, not civil servants—although people might be seconded from the civil service. There should be a collegiate structure for the bodies to make things clearer for the public, rather than confusing them. That is the right way in which these things should happen.

There should be accountability from Parliament and to Parliament, irrespective of the difficulty. I heard the intervention from north of the border that reminded us that that is what happens with the Scottish Parliament. There may be some difficulties, but I am not persuaded on the basis of anything I know that they are overwhelming. That must be the right principle. The response stated:

I hope that that proceeds relatively quickly.

My next criticism of the Government is that we have had reform of the civil service and a civil service Act on the agenda since 1997, with repeated commitments that they were coming soon, but they still have not arrived. Unless the independent constitutional position of the civil service is upheld in statute, the confidence of the public will not be commanded in the way that it should be. Almost without exception, we have excellent civil servants, but their constitutional position needs to be safeguarded.

Another significant criticism that comes out of the recommendations was brought up by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) in his intervention. The recommendation in question is:

Sadly, the Government have not bought that proposal yet. Their response simply says:

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If we are to have a system that is seen to be completely above party politics, there cannot be a block by the Prime Minister of the day. Where there has been such a block, it has brought discredit on the system, irrespective of the motive and the explanation for it. I am clear that the Committee’s recommendations are right.

For completeness, let me add that I noticed that the Government ducked the issue on this recommendation:

a recommendation that I again support. The Government gave a response, but did not say what they thought of the proposal. I urge them to reconsider the matter and to come to the conclusion that the Committee reached.

My party, like all others, has regularly thought about the matters that we are discussing. We did so again this year formally through our internal processes. We considered reform of government and governance. We debated the issue at our conference in the early autumn and came up with various proposals. I want to say what they are, by way of a summary of where we are coming from, and then I will end with a couple of comments on the major issues of the day.

As time has passed and as experience has provided us with evidence, the Liberal Democrats have become absolutely clear on one point, and have argued it: the system of governance is much less corrupt than it was, and we have a very high standard, but many people in the press have more opportunity to have a go at the public service, the Administration or the establishment, and enjoy doing so. That makes good copy, but it undermines the whole system every time they do it. None the less, we clearly have further to go if we are to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the British people. I am not saying that the press is not right to seek to expose what goes wrong; of course it is right to do that. However, I fear that it has over-succeeded, giving the impression that there is very much wrong in the governance of Britain, whereas compared to those of other countries, whether or not those countries are like ours, our standards are still very high.

We Liberal Democrat Members absolutely believe that a written constitution would be helpful as part of a new constitutional settlement.

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): Hear, hear.

Simon Hughes: I may not get as much of a “Hear, hear” for my next proposition, but we will see how we go. We believe that until we have a representative Parliament, there will not be confidence in the political process. I am not arguing for a prescriptive form; I am saying that Parliament has to be representative of views expressed locally, regionally and nationally across the UK. We have to complete reform of the House of Lords, so that we have a modern second Chamber that is elected, or nearly wholly elected, by the people on whose behalf it does its job.

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I will not go into the point at length, but as was said yesterday, we need further work on the funding of political parties, so that the many, not the few—ordinary people, who are the bulk of the electorate—are put in charge of the political process. I am talking about the low-paid and the unpaid, as opposed to the very well-paid or the very rich. In our book, that means capping the amount that a person can give over the political cycle of a Parliament, and the amount that they give in any particular year. As the Power report proposed, the electorate should be able to indicate that they wish some money to go to local parties—and not necessarily the party for which they vote. That way, if there is to be more public funding, it will be at the behest of the electors. They will be able to see where it is used, and to see that it is not lost in a system that spends a lot of money on adverts before a general election.

I am clear that the collective talks that have partly stalled must get back on the rails, with the Conservative party on board. We should finish negotiating on the trade union issues, although I understand that they are quite tricky. We will do the public no service if we continue to allow the arms race of expenditure on campaigning, particularly nationally, to increase. We need to have that public standard in our sights. The Americans deal with the issue badly; the result is dreadful, and it is almost normal for the advertising to be negative. It is rarely positive. We need to reverse that and go in the other direction, so a cap on the total that can be spent would be valid, too.

I want to pick up the challenge that the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee gave us, and respond positively in two ways. First—this view is not subscribed to by every member of my party; I am not speaking from a party brief—I have long thought that national advertising by political parties ought to be subject to the Advertising Standards Authority rules—that is, it ought to be decent, honest and truthful—and that there should be a penalty for any breaches, decided by an independent arbiter. I refer to national advertising only because the issue becomes too complicated at a local level. If we start on a national level, at least we will get somewhere. It seems to me that if we are telling everybody else that they have to tell the truth in what they advertise, we need to make sure that we do the same.

Secondly, in political party campaigning, there is frustrating inconsistency between what is said nationally and what is said locally. I am up for robust campaigning; in my constituency, we took on the Labour party and beat it. We have managed to see it off, by and large. It is a much smaller player than it was 20 or 25 years ago. The same is true of the Tories—well, they have not been much of a player for the past 50 years, but we have managed to keep them in that position. It is bizarre; the Government say in Parliament, often rightly, that crime has gone down, and they show all the indicators. They say the same thing in every Labour-held seat in the country, or in every seat where the local authority is Labour. However, where there is a Conservative, Liberal Democrat or independent council, or a joint administration that is not Labour, they frighten the hell out of people by making them think that crime is going through the roof, because they think that that is what should be done to win votes. Ministers try to wind up the local press and to get them to say that that is the case. We really must have an end to that double standard.

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Stewart Hosie: I wish the world was as the hon. Gentleman describes it. Perhaps he could explain why I got a Liberal leaflet through the letterbox of my London flat entitled “Menzies Campbell’s crime survey”, about how crime had gone up when the Liberal Democrats were not in charge of the council. Does not every party do such things, or is it only some parties?

Simon Hughes: I am sure that we all do it. I do not remember that survey, but I am not pretending that anybody is immune from taking such actions. I am making the point that when people are in government, they have a chance to do something, and they tell us how wonderful things are, but they do not appear to reflect that locally. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase made the same point: we need to make sure that the messages given out in Parliament are relayed elsewhere, and that we do not spend our time being negative, but try to be positive.

Another issue on my agenda is the size of government and the relative amount of elected, as opposed to appointed, governance. The point came up yesterday, but as I feared, it did not get much attention, because of other matters. I have been given some figures, but I do not know whether they are completely accurate. Simon Jenkins recently said that at the turn of the previous century, in 1900, there were 1,200 elected representatives helping to run public services through councils and boards in London. Recently, the number was 2,000. On the other hand, there are 10,000 people in quangos. There has been a growth in the number of people appointed to do salaried jobs who are not elected by anybody.

Ultimately, public confidence is best ensured by people knowing that they can kick out those in charge. That is often one of the frustrations about hospitals. A hospital trust might do terrible things, but nothing can be done about it. That is important if we are to change the culture of standards in public life.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman was hinting that he favours proportional representation or something like it to get a more representative Parliament. Is not one of the problems that people cannot make those choices? There might be a significant shift of opinion, and they could end up with the same pattern of parties forming a slightly different Government afterwards, but they cannot get rid of that Government. With our system, they can kick the Government out and put another in their place.

Simon Hughes: That is a real debate. I shall deal with the matter briefly, or you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will bring me up for going down a byway of the debate.

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