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There are three possible reasons why the Government have been so weak in introducing reforms, and all three may indeed play a part. First, the Government do not believe that there is a public appetite for reform; they
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believe that somehow these are Hampstead liberal or socialist arguments and that people are not interested in them because they are not the real world. The Government are completely wrong; we cannot achieve what we want to do in putting right what is wrong in this country without democratic structures that support and enable reform. There is a public appetite for cleansing the stables.

Secondly, the Government have friends who disagree—as do all parties. We know that, although I suspect that we have less disagreement at this end of the corridor. I make no secret of the fact that we have disagreement at the other end. All parties have members who disagree—those who wish, for reasons of their own, to stick with a system that they believe to be either in the national interest or their own interest. When somebody has been appointed a peer, it is astonishing how quickly they consider that the system that appointed them must be an exceedingly good one, because it had the perspicacity to put them on to the red leather seats. However, I fundamentally disagree with that view. At some stage we have to confront the issues. We have to put the argument and let those who disagree do so and lose the argument.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Is there not an even more bizarre version of the argument? Peers have to vote for an appointed House to protect the primacy of the elected Chamber. If the primacy of the elected Chamber depends on an unelected Chamber voting to remain unelected, there is something very odd about the argument.

Mr. Heath: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, which brings me to the third reason and the core problem with the Government—timidity. The Government are afraid to put their neck out and do those things. They like to hint and suggest; they like to form all-party Committees to spend a lot of time looking at things—I have sat on two of them—but when it comes to putting legislation before Parliament and pushing it through they are not prepared to act.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is not another problem that the Government are afraid of proper accountability and probing? For example, they spend £37 billion on bank shares, yet none of us can ask them, “Why don’t you do proper due diligence? How much are those banks going to lose? How much will they pay in bonuses?” There is no accountability and what I like about the hon. Gentleman’s motion is that it says we need to scrutinise spending.

Mr. Heath: The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I was about to say. He is absolutely right.

I have been talking about Lords reform. It has been agreed by the House. It has been agreed by the cross-party Committee in broad terms. As far as I know, it has been agreed by the leadership of all three parties. It has even been agreed by thundering editorials in the broadsheets over the past week, so what on earth is the delay? Why do we have to wait for what we all agree is necessary in terms of Lords reform?

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It is not good enough to concentrate only on Lords reform, however. We have to look at Commons reform as well, which is why the point made by the right hon. Gentleman is so important. We have to make this House more effective. Why on earth do we not yet have a business Committee? We waste time on inconsequential measures, but when there are really important matters before the House, such as the Report stage of a big Bill when Members want to say what they need on behalf of their constituents, they are unable to do so because of some ridiculous programme motion that does not take into account the gravity or importance of the measure.

The other point made by the right hon. Gentleman was about scrutinising Government spending. Why are we so poor at scrutinising public expenditure? The nadir for this Parliament was in November—the supplementary estimate that spent £37 billion of taxpayers’ money. What happened? We had a short debate when about only 12 Members were in the Chamber. We could not table amendments or apply proper scrutiny. That is not what people send us to the House to do—allow the Government to spend eye-wateringly large amounts of money on a rubber stamp, on the nod, without proper scrutiny. That is where we need reform in this place.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): My hon. Friend is right to talk about the need for Commons reform, particularly to make sure that Parliament takes power back from the Executive and has the ability to scrutinise. Does he agree that we need to give power back to our constituents to scrutinise what we do, whether through transparency on expenses or giving them the right, if a certain percentage of them sign a petition, to recall their Member of Parliament and hold a by-election?

Mr. Heath: If we make this place properly representative, transparent and accountable, we will be giving power not to ourselves but to the people who send us here. My hon. Friend makes an absolutely crucial point.

When we have dealt with reform of the Lords and reform of the Commons, we will still have to deal with reform of the political parties. There is the issue of political party funding. I sat on that wretched Committee for so long trying to reach agreement between the parties on the issue. We should have had agreement; it was within our grasp to have proper caps on donations and on expenditure, to reduce the ridiculous arms war in election spending and put things on a sensible footing. We should not give undue influence to people who were prepared to dig deep into their pockets but who always had a price for the support that they were prepared to give.

What happened? The Conservatives will argue with this, but it is a fact: they walked out, because they did not think the proposal went far enough in terms of trade union funding and affiliation fees—not donations—although they had earlier agreed on that point. Then, those on the Government Benches were too scared to take the proposal forward without the Conservatives, so it was abandoned. What do we have instead? We have the Political Parties and Elections Bill and we have the constitutional renewal Bill, although goodness knows where that is—it is somewhere in limbo at the moment.
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These are mere mice of Bills; they are horrible little crawling creatures of Bills compared with what is necessary in order to sort out the body politic.

Let me end on this point. We cannot make our politics work unless people have trust in the political system, and hints at reform are no longer enough. The fact that the Prime Minister asserted when he was first appointed that he was interested in constitutional renewal will not cut any ice with anybody until we start to see delivery. The Bills before the House at the moment are not delivery. Britain needs and deserves better than this—and not just on reforming Parliament. I could go on and talk about empowering local government or about reforming the European Union to make it more democratic and transparent. Those are all important issues, but unless we start the process, our democracy will not be fit for purpose. It is demonstrably not fit for purpose at the moment and there is no better time for us to make a start. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House, for it is he who will respond, will be able to persuade us that the Government take this matter seriously.

7.12 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

First, I think I speak on behalf of the whole House when I offer an enormous thank you to all members of staff who travelled through the snow to make sure that this building operated properly today. I am glad to be able to tell the House that, starting from 9.45 pm, taxis will be arranged to enable all members of staff to get home safely this evening. We are very grateful to our staff.

The public want, and have every right to expect, the whole of our legislative process to be clean and above reproach and Ministers to be held to account by Parliament. That is why we should always be vigilant and take the necessary action to prevent any abuse of the system and reassure the public. This Government understand people’s concerns, which is why we have taken action to clean up the system and why we are determined to take further
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action. We should also seek to come together, I believe, across all the political parties on these issues, because no party wins if Parliament is undermined.

It is vital that we tackle any kind of wrongdoing, but we should, I think, take care not to overestimate the problem, lest we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, although some may believe that all politicians are only out for themselves, many none the less hold their own Member of Parliament in very high regard. Although we MPs may be rated only marginally higher for honesty than estate agents, we still beat tabloid journalists by a good 10 percentage points.

I believe that an element of scepticism about politicians is a very good thing. We are a naturally sceptical country. We distrust absolute power; we value freedom of speech; and we love scabrous satire. If anything, British scepticism helps keep us honest.

Mr. Redwood: Does the Minister think that the Government would be more trusted if, after offering a referendum, they had actually granted one?

Chris Bryant: I think the right hon. Gentleman is returning to the issue of the Lisbon treaty and Europe. Tempting though it is, I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order if I referred to a subject that was not on the Order Paper.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): There is little doubt that fundamental reform of the expenses system is required, as discussed recently, and that it has to incorporate audit, transparency and accountability. On the Minister’s theme of not knocking everything, however, does he agree that robust reform of that system needs to be accompanied by a robust defence of the legitimacy of a decent allowances system, with proper tribute paid to the late Robin Cook for improving it in such a way that we can effectively cater to the needs of our constituents?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am very conscious that the first Member of Parliament for the Rhondda was a man called William Abraham—or Mabon, as he was known. I have a letter from him thanking the local trade union for paying his expenses while he was in Parliament; otherwise he would have had no means of being able to represent the people of the Rhondda, because he was not a wealthy man. It is vital that what I prefer to call our expenditure is properly met so that we can do the full and proper job that today’s constituents expect of us. The days when an MP could visit the constituency irregularly and not bother to reply to letters are long gone—and quite rightly so.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend about the value of reform, but I invite him not to take too much comfort from and not to be complacent about the spirit of the intervention that he just answered. As far as many of our constituents are concerned, the integrity of Parliament would be accorded much greater respect if the whole question of pay and allowances were taken totally out of the hands of MPs so that we were unable to vote on what we should receive.

Chris Bryant: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about our pay and our salary. As he will
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know, last year, with cross-party support, we agreed that that decision should no longer be made by us—that it should not be for us to determine our own pay. In future, it will be done in conjunction with the reports of the Senior Salaries Review Body. It is important that there is that degree of independence.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): A little while ago, my hon. Friend said that the British people do not like politicians having too much power. I agree with him. Is it not the case that our Prime Minister has more power than almost any other comparable Prime Minister in Europe and that one way of reducing it and making it more acceptable would be to get rid of his powers of patronage now? If our Prime Minister said that, from now on, he was not going to use his powers of patronage and that the system would be reformed, would it not be a great gesture that the British people would appreciate?

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend will know that when my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister, one of the first things he did was to publish “The Governance of Britain”, which made it very clear that there were large areas where the Crown traditionally held power, which could be dealt with more appropriately by Parliament. That is part of what we will want to achieve when we introduce the constitutional renewal Bill. I think it is difficult to remove every single element of power and patronage from the Government because part of exercising power is trying to ensure that it works in the interests of the whole community.

The demise of the age of deference has not, of course, affected only Parliament; other British institutions have suffered, including the Church, the trade unions, very notably the BBC, the police and even the armed forces.

There are also elements of our political system in which we can take genuine pride. This Chamber, for instance, is one of the most critical arenas of any political assembly in the world in which to advance an argument. At times, we may be too rumbustious and the public are perplexed by why we have to confront each other so aggressively, but the truth is that no British Prime Minister can avoid having to put his or her arguments to the test. Nor, for that matter, can a Minister saunter along the corridors of power unquestioned.

This Government have strengthened many of our parliamentary traditions. Tony Blair made Prime Minister’s questions a weekly half-hour occasion rather than a twice weekly 15-minute session, and volunteered to appear before the Liaison Committee. Few Heads of Government around the world have to submit themselves to such a rigorous grilling, having to face questions on literally any subject unannounced every week.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Given that the Minister is making a very compelling case for Ministers appearing before Parliament, will he include in the constitutional renewal Bill proposals to ensure that Secretaries of State sitting in the other place are allowed to present their proposals here and be questioned by us?

Chris Bryant: I am not sure a Bill is the precise way of advancing such a suggestion. It might be possible—indeed, it might make more sense, because one would be changing the traditions of the House—if such a proposal were
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advanced by the whole House. I am not saying that I entirely oppose the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. Indeed, if he looks back at questions that I once asked when sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), he might see something that would interest him.

Ordinary oral questions to Ministers and our tradition of allowing interventions in speeches, which I have not noticed in any other Parliament, mean that those in power are held robustly to account. Only last year, we made that regime even tougher by introducing topical questions, thereby allowing Members to ask Ministers completely open questions on any subject. I think that all hon. Members would agree that that has been a significant innovation.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Will the Minister reflect on the House’s legislative powers? He knows of the widespread concern about hon. Members’ inability to seek to amend and debate major Bills’ new clauses and amendments on Report. We shall consider two criminal justice Bills that contain nearly 10 parts on average. We will never get through 10 groups of amendments in a day. As a measure of his and the Government’s commitment to parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive, will he ensure that there is enough time to debate all those groups of amendments?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman has asked me that question before, and, doubtless, he will ask me it again. I will try to give the same answer as I gave last time. The truth is that the most important thing that the Government can do is not to introduce Bills until they are thoroughly prepared, to ensure that they do not suddenly choose to introduce additional elements to Bills halfway through their progress—in particular, to Bills that look somewhat like Christmas-tree Bills—and to make sure that the amendments that they table are genuinely concessionary and meet the concerns that Opposition or, indeed, Government Members raised in Committee. It is also true that we sometimes need additional time to fulfil the duty of scrutiny for Bills on Report. That is why, for instance, the next major Bill that is coming up for consideration on Report is the Political Parties and Elections Bill, for which we have allowed two days on Report.

Mr. Cash: There must be a degree of consensus in the House that reform of the House, let alone of Parliament as a whole, is necessary. Does the Minister agree that we should tackle the Whips’ system? Although the system may be necessary, it is overused. In particular, on questions that relate to consideration on Report or in Committee, more free votes would enable, if enforced by Standing Orders, Members of Parliament to express their opinions. Ultimately, the final debates on a Bill could be whipped in accordance with the manifesto.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I have often heard. Clearly, there are occasions when, by tradition, all the political parties have offered free votes, particularly on matters of conscience. However, I have a majority of 16,000, not because I am such a wonderful person that the people of the Rhondda suddenly decided that they would vote for me. The truth is that the vast majority of them vote Labour because they have done so historically and they want a Labour
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Government, given that they know what a Tory Government would do to them. Consequently, it is incumbent on me often to support my party, because that is what my voters want me to do. Those who argue that every vote should be a free one or who want to weaken the Whips’ system do not understand that countries with a very weak system often have the worst pork barrel system of politicking.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he has been generous in doing so. I agree that, so far, the introduction of topical questions has been of benefit to the House, but they should not be distorted or polluted by the continued interference of Opposition Front Benchers in the process. In my view, topical questions should be principally, if not exclusively, for the benefit of Back Benchers to challenge the Government.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that was made in the original Committee report that suggested topical debates and topical questions; they were intended to enable Back Benchers to have more time and more opportunity to question and scrutinise the Government. As some Opposition Front Benchers have not wanted to give notice of what their questions will be about, they have chosen only to ask topical questions, thereby sometimes crowding out Back Benchers. However, Mr. Speaker is very keen to ensure that Back Benchers have their fair crack of the whip.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): One of the issues that comes up in the House from time to time and at Question Time when the Minister or the Leader of the House is answering is the time that it takes for written questions to receive a reply. Some Departments manage to answer 80 per cent. of questions on the named day; other Departments—for instance, the Ministry of Defence—manage to answer only 20 per cent. on the named day. Respect for the House will help to generate respect outside the House, and the hon. Gentleman could deal with that matter himself.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I want to tackle, and I am very keen to ensure that, where pinch points exist in individual Departments, hon. Members receive swift and full answers and that every Department lives up to the highest standards that we all expect and, indeed, that the ministerial code of conduct lays down. I should point out that my Department has a 98 per cent. record.

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