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8.8 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): There cannot be a Member of this House who does not know that Parliament—and this Chamber in particular—needs to recapture its relevance to this day and age and to our politics. There can be few Members who do not also agree that Governments need to understand that they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by helping to build a strong and effective Parliament to help them to do their business. The present relationship of dominance and subservience between the Executive and the legislature serves neither institution well. I make no distinction here between the parties. Whether Conservative, Labour or Liberal, all the parties have been equally at fault over the years, either as abject parliamentarians or overbearing members of Government. All of us share the responsibility, and all of us need to help to find a way forward.

The Executive rule without test or challenge, and the legislature adds little or no value. That is a bargain that cheats not only those players, but the public, who expect better of us and clearer benefits from our democracy. Business as usual will not be good enough, and neither will yearning after some golden age when Parliament
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and Britain ruled the waves. Those days—if ever they existed—are long gone, and we now need to work together to find a way forward to ensure that our Parliament and politics are relevant to people. There needs to be a new settlement, and one that commands support across the whole political spectrum. Under such a settlement, the Government would maximise Parliament’s contribution and Parliament would respect the need of Government to pass their laws after a process that, I hope, would improve them.

We should honestly recognise that the unbalanced relationship between Parliament and Government lies at the core of this debate. If we realise that, we can soberly and in partnership improve the interaction between those two great institutions. If we do not, we will divert into tinkering with minutiae, which has typified our debates on this subject over the years. MPs sometimes pretend that they run the country; Governments sometimes pretend that they lead a healthy democracy. If we can consign those self-delusions to the rubbish bin of history, we will at least have a chance to restore public respect and interest in our democracy and Parliament, to improve government and governance in the United Kingdom, and to recreate the respect not only for Parliament as an institution, but for MPs as important individuals with a central and serious contribution to make.

Our democracy will function much better if we can grow out of the “winner takes all” fixation. Virtually all other western democracies have healthy and lively partnerships between their Executives and legislatures—a real separation of powers that enables debate from independent positions and reconciliation between institutions whose representatives have the interests of their people and nation uppermost in their minds.

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree entirely that we should raise the status of Parliament and redress the balance with the Government. Recently, I was at lunch with a Danish politician, who said, “We have proportional representation in our country; we have a strong Parliament and a weak Government—you are the other way around.” I support the first-past-the-post system, but how does my hon. Friend propose to strengthen Parliament without some arrangement of that kind?

Mr. Allen: I do not think such an arrangement necessary; willpower is the most important thing that we need in this Chamber. As was mentioned earlier, we also need the self-confidence to take the responsibility. I do not propose that the monopoly politics that the Executive have enjoyed should somehow be shifted over so that Parliament has a monopoly position. Gladstone got it right when he said that the role of the House was not to run the country, but to hold to account those who do.

Again, there can barely be a Member who feels that we have held that baton of accountability tightly. We have dropped it and it has often been picked up by the media, particularly the “Today” programme and “Newsnight”—and thank goodness for them on those occasions. However, we in the House should seize back that baton of accountability and work in partnership with the Government to ensure that our Parliament and Government work better for the future of our democracy.

To make that a reality, we could look again in a number of ways at what we do in this place. For example, a Parliament that is willing, as a principle, to
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give Government their laws after serious scrutiny, should expect to control the rest of its business. That could happen if the House elected its own business Committee that reported to the Floor every week. To remove any residual temptation that Governments might feel to influence the outcome of such an election, there would be a secret ballot. Imagine a parliamentary timetable this week in which we agreed and discussed a budget amendment on the recent bail-out of the banks and we scrutinised the impact of energy companies’ policies on the most vulnerable in our constituencies. Imagine if we thought through the concept of “British jobs for British people” and we pondered and were careful and thoughtful about the relationship between the United Kingdom and United States following the advent of a new President. Such a Parliament would be worth listening to, watching and covering—and, for electors, it would be worth influencing. All of a sudden, Parliament would mean something and it would recapture the place that it should have.

Equally, if parliamentarians elected their own Select Committees, the Committees would get a new legitimacy and lease of life, as well as new and onerous duties in respect of interacting responsibly with the Government of the day. The same could be said of Public Bill Committees. If they were run effectively, they could draw on the immense experience of parliamentarians from all parts of the House, who could create and use their own networks to involve their electors and improve the law. That is why we have Public Bill Committees in the first place. Governments and civil servants should not fear the process, but use it to pick the brains of parliamentary representatives and the public alike.

I am one of the House’s strongest proponents of pre-legislative scrutiny, but the truth is that we would not need to invent pre-legislative scrutiny if legislative scrutiny were as effective as it should be. We have heard a lot tonight about the need for people outside to have confidence in us, but we also need to have confidence in ourselves. We could consider many other reforms openly and transparently, debating them in the Chamber and deciding the way forward. There should be the right of the House to reconvene itself, not the right of the Executive to reconvene the Parliament that should be holding them to account. We could debate each week’s most popular early-day motion and make Question Times more topical and conversational. We could use the Chamber’s dead hours much more imaginatively. The House could decide again on electronic voting or reconsider this sterile seating plan that defies debate.

We give the House chances to divide at every opportunity; let us also give it chances to unite at every opportunity. As everyone in the Chamber knows, the truth is that Parliament, as a forum for the nation and for holding the Government to account, is not fit for purpose. The public’s view of MPs is at an all-time low and power is sclerotically over-centralised in Whitehall. The moment is approaching when the Government and Parliament must change and reinvent themselves as the leading parts of a revived and modern UK democracy. That chance comes along very rarely, but the House should seize it for the good of our democracy.
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8.18 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I recall listening to an interview with David Steel in the 1970s—it might have been on “Desert Island Discs”. He said that being a politician should be like going into the Church; it should be one of the highest callings. That was against a background of local government corruption and of a popular belief that MPs were in it only for themselves and that they would say anything to win an election. That view was reflected in a play that I think was called “Vote, vote, vote for Joey Barton”—[Hon. Members: “Nigel Barton!”] Of course, it was Nigel Barton. Some 30 years before that, Howard Spring wrote “Fame is the Spur”.

It has been said that Members of Parliament are held in high esteem in their constituencies, but that Parliament and politicians in general are held in low esteem. Since David Steel’s comments, there have been problems and scandals on both sides of the House and at both ends of the building. Cheap comments from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman do not aid the debate. Sounding like a budgerigar does not take us forward.

Some of the problems in the House of Lords have been experienced in the House of Commons. We had full-time Members of Parliament and Members of Parliament who were employed in part-time work elsewhere. The latter had a night job and a day job. Members of the House of Lords still have to do that. Their lordships are given a small allowance and most have other employment to supplement it. Some work as lobbyists.

Kelvin Hopkins: I understand that one of our colleagues in the House of Lords accumulates some £60,000 a year by maximising his time in the House and ensuring that he is paid properly. That is roughly what we get.

Richard Younger-Ross: That sum includes accommodation and other matters. We get money for such items in addition to our salary, so the hon. Gentleman does not compare like with like.

If we are to reform the other end of the building, we should consider making their Lordships full time. If they are to be full time, they need to be salaried. If they are to be salaried, they need to be elected on the same basis as us.

At our end of the building, it is often said that the media hold us in low esteem. They correctly pick up on corruption and instances when hon. Members have not done right. They pick especially on cases of people who appear to get away with blue murder. A former Member of Parliament—I know who it was but I shall not name him because my point is not party political—was brought before the Standards and Privileges Committee on a charge of being offered shares for influence. That Member was found not guilty because the business that offered him shares had gone bankrupt, so he had not committed an offence. The public do not understand that.

If the public are to esteem us, we must reform the way in which we pay ourselves and deal with our expenses, but not in a hair-shirt manner, as some hon. Members would have us do sometimes for cheap political purposes. That is not just. We should also refuse to listen to those who say that they want to keep things as they are. Although, by and large, most Members of Parliament do nothing wrong in what they claim, the public do not believe it. As has often been said, justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.

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We must therefore consider a system whereby what we claim is not only clear and transparent but beyond reproach. The public do not understand Members of Parliament making profits from buying flats. In 1992, several Conservative Members, who were elected in 1987, lost money because of the condition of the housing market at the time. No one in the media said, “Oh dear! These MPs need to be recompensed for their loss.” It will also not be understood if Members who were elected in 1997 and 2001 make tens of thousands of pounds on the appreciation of properties that they have bought. We should move to a system that gets away from that. It would be best if we did not pay ourselves allowances for some items. For example, the House of Commons could rent accommodation and allocate it to us in the same way as our offices are allocated. If flats were furnished, we would not need to be paid an allowance to do that. That would be clear, transparent and non-corrupt.

8.24 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I want to concentrate on the “constitutional renewal programme” aspect of the lengthy motion because I am disappointed that, after 12 years of a Government whom I support, there has been little to show in the way of genuine constitutional reform. Indeed, our manifesto in 1997 made it clear that we were intent on reforming the House of Lords and said that we would introduce proposals to do that. It does not matter how much Ministers try to get round that; we have not fulfilled the manifesto commitment. That is only one example.

Earlier, I said that the Labour Government’s hallmark in respect of constitutional reform is deeply conservative. Let me share something that grates on me. I left school at 16, and many contemporaries of mine have turned up on the Labour Front Bench over the past 12 years. They did not go out to work at the same time as me, but went to university, and they peddled some of the most God almighty rubbish in the late 1960s. They were radical and all that, but when they came here, they became deeply conservative. Some of us have political anchorage and we believed from the beginning in tackling the House of Lords and making Parliament more responsive. However, those former radicals have shifted to an establishment position. Even at this late stage, matters can be corrected. It is not sufficient for the Prime Minister to say that he has a programme for constitutional reform. The test is whether he implements it with dispatch. The jury is still out.

Let me illustrate the conservatism I mentioned. When we came to office, I asked the Government whether they would amend the anomaly in the law that prevented someone who had been ordained as a Roman Catholic priest but had given up the priesthood from standing for Parliament. The Labour Minister responsible said no. Then the Labour party selected a candidate who had been a Roman Catholic priest and wanted to stand for Parliament, and we introduced a law to allow him to stand. We did the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that shows how deeply conservative we are.

One subject has not been mentioned because the Conservatives are asleep, perhaps the Liberals are, too, and the Labour party does not want to raise it, so I shall do it now. It is the West Lothian question, about which we must not speak. My colleagues present arguments
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about needing votes from Scotland and so on. I understand those arguments, but I say to Front Benchers that they are in denial. If they do not begin to address the West Lothian question, somebody else will, on different terms. It will not go away. One can argue for a time that there was a settlement for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but simply to stop there is madness. The question must be tackled—the sooner, the better. The very Union, which we are all committed to maintaining, will be imperilled by not addressing the West Lothian question.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman has much support, often much less vocal than it should be. There may be differing views from the Liberal Democrat Benches, but we are clear that the issue needs to be addressed within a UK context, and urgently, because our constitutional renewal has stopped short of England, whereas the other countries have seen much progress.

Andrew Mackinlay: Absolutely. If I may return to the historical point, some hon. Members may remember the late John P. Mackintosh, the Member of Parliament for Berwick and East Lothian. I am a disciple of John P. Mackintosh, who produced a programme for the devolution of Britain to make all the parts of the United Kingdom much more coherent, and to allow greater scrutiny at local level where decisions are taken at local level.

The big states—the big players around the world—are federal. The Bundestag, the Parliaments in Ottawa and in Canberra, and the United States Congress deal with defence, foreign affairs and broad macro-economic social policy, but the rest is left to the states, the provinces or the Länder. Here we try and do too much, and we do it badly. That needs to be addressed with some dispatch.

We are constrained tonight, for obvious reasons. If Parliament were in charge of our timetable, the subject matter that we are discussing tonight would be debated at much greater length. Clearly, there is a demand among hon. Members to talk more fully about constitutional reform.

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has been saying. Does he agree that too frequently we have too little time for debates, and that Back Benchers are often squeezed out? In the previous debate, which I tried to get into, I counted the minutes. Front-Bench speakers had 113 minutes and Back Benchers 17 minutes. Seven eighths of the time was taken up by Front-Benchers and I did not manage to get in. That is not right and something should be done about it.

Andrew Mackinlay: I totally agree. Also, what we always get from the Front Benches is the sterile party political line, rather than Back Benchers of all persuasions being allowed to make a contribution to the debate.

Much of the focus of tonight’s debate has been on the reform, or lack of reform, of the House of Lords. I shall make one or two observations. I am for a democratically elected House, but if that cannot be achieved, I think there is nevertheless a consensus for some immediate changes, which should be implemented. We are honoured and privileged to go round the world sometimes to talk to countries about parliamentary democracy. I have asked people, “Have you ever thought about this? We go round and speak in countries where democracy is very fragile and new, but half our Parliament
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is not elected.” Can’t we see the perversity of that? We show unbelievable arrogance when we tell other people about parliamentary democracy and half our Parliament is not elected.

It is absurd that when Prime Ministers need someone in Parliament to be a Minister, that person serves one year but is in Parliament in perpetuity. If Prime Ministers have the power to make people Ministers, those Ministers should be answerable to Parliament, they should appear and be answerable in both Houses, and if they are the architect of legislation, they should pilot it through both Houses, rather than somebody acting as a parrot, which is in nobody’s interest. Such Ministers should be temporary. They were put into Parliament only as Ministers, and when they cease to be Ministers, their membership should cease. They should not remain in Parliament in perpetuity.

I want to say more about perpetuity. This is a very sensitive point. Many people are appointed to the House of Lords and give good service left, right and centre over a long period, but they go on and they go on and they go on. I say this in all seriousness, although people sometimes treat the subject with frivolity. I remember some time ago that I was in my room right at the top, above the House. There was a peer, a very distinguished peer who had given long public service, but he had lost his faculties. He was senile and incontinent. A member of the public tackled me and asked, “Can’t you do something about this?” I said, “Madam, I will do what I can, but I have to say to you that he is a legislator.”

This is not unique. It is a highly sensitive subject and is not written about. People do not like touching on it. If peers go on and on and on and if there is no capacity for them to resign their seat, that will happen. It diminishes our Parliament as well as being deeply hurtful to individuals, who do not know how or when to give up. There should be a cut-off point, as happens in the Canadian Senate, and for judges and so on. That should be addressed.

I am deeply concerned that senior civil servants almost automatically become peers. It is offensive and it is a reward for those who know where the political bodies are buried. Lord Jay, who incidentally is presiding over the appointment of people’s peers, was head of the Foreign Office. He is the man who stopped Jeremy Greenstock publishing his memoirs and tried to stop the former United Kingdom ambassador to Washington publishing his memoirs, but he was prepared to take a peerage and what is more, was elevated to decide who is appropriate to be appointed under—I think it is called the House of Lords Commission, but I call it people’s peers. That is the kind of cosy thing that goes on. There was a man who presided over a disaster in the national health service. He was immediately dismissed, but he also got to sit in the House of Lords. The bigger the mess up, the greater the rewards in this country, and that has to stop.

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