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I reminded the Deputy Leader of the House that Robin Cook said, from that Dispatch Box, that he would tackle the question of peers who had gone to prison. If a Member of Parliament had gone to prison in comparable circumstances, they would have lost their seat. He said that he would tackle that issue, and then there was a change of ministerial portfolios and the chance was lost. That is why I return to the charge that
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the Government are so conservative on these matters. If anyone saw my hon. Friend’s body language earlier, they would have seen that he felt awkward. I think that he agrees with me but cannot articulate it from the Dispatch Box. He reminds me of the man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among sinners—[Hon. Members: “Thieves”] I shall stick to “sinners”. The test is whether he can, in his unpaid position, influence the Government and persuade the Prime Minister that we need immediate action.

We need swift legislation to put a cap on the age of Members of the House of Lords, to allow people there to resign and to allow for the dismissal of those who have been disgraced or have committed crimes that result in imprisonment. That would be a big start, and it would be a signal that the Government are listening to the House of Commons’ will. We should introduce legislation to make a fixed House that I hope will be elected, but if it is not, it should be one with a definite membership, and its membership should not be determined by the patronage of the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal party or the Prime Minister. Human nature being what it is, they will always appoint people in their own image and likeness. That is the inevitable consequence—we will be swapping the hereditary principle for a house of clones. It is time that Parliament addressed this matter. I believe that that is the will of Parliament, and the test is whether the Government are prepared to listen.

8.36 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who would top the poll in any secret ballot for Leader of the House. He made a typically defiant, courageous speech, and I agree with what he says about the Government’s constitutional programme. The previous Lord Chancellor said that we have not a constitutional renewal Bill, but a constitutional retreat Bill. On Lords reform, I remember being told that the first elections to the upper House would take place at the same time as the 2001 general election. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman is quite right about allowing peers to retire so that their party can refresh their troops in the upper House, allowing younger people to play their part.

One of the paradoxes of life is that people like their local Member of Parliament, but refuse to believe he or she is typical. Wherever I go, I am told, “We’re frightfully lucky here, but the rest of you are up to no good.” The reputation of the House would be much higher if people had confidence in their own judgment, based on their experience of their own MP instead of what they read in the press.

Much has been achieved in this House in recent years, and with the imminent end of dual reporting for MPs, a new guide to the rules—it was published today, coincidentally—a new allowance regime and Select Committee, and greater transparency on receipts, we have the opportunity to build on past strengths and to do even better. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life said about the Commons:

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I see many of my opposite numbers from other countries who come to look at the regime here, and by any international standards, our political system is pretty clean. We deal with the inevitable lapses well, but we must never become complacent.

One of the consequences of introducing a tougher regime in this House is that it has led to pressure being applied to other parts of the body politic, and it is helpful to put our disciplinary regime in the broader context of that for Members of the European Parliament, Ministers and members of the other place. Anyone can make a complaint about an MP to the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If the complaint raises matters of significance, he will produce a report for my Committee, which we will publish unamended, saying whether or not that complaint is upheld, and we can then propose appropriate punishments, some of which are career-ending. None of the other regimes—neither the ministerial code nor the current code for Members of the upper House—has our features of open access, independent scrutiny, publication of findings and harsh reprisal. The code for MEPs has the most generous of all allowance regimes, with the most relaxed audit trail.

The ministerial code is policed by the Prime Minister, who can decide whether to refer a matter to his independent adviser and whether to publish any report. Neither procedure has ever been invoked. I once complained that a Foreign Secretary had broken the ministerial code. My complaint was passed by the Prime Minister to the then Foreign Secretary, who replied to me, saying that he had not broken the code, showing a circularity of process. In the upper House, the complaints procedure has no independent element and limited sanctions. There would be greater confidence in the two other codes if they adopted those features of ours.

One of the recommendations that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made is to extend the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to cover the upper House. That recognises the regulatory strength of our regime. However, the proposal to extend the remit of the commissioner raises questions about the capacity of his office to take on additional work, while at the same time carrying out with due rigour his inquiries into complaints made against Members of this House. The present commissioner is contracted to work four days a week, although I know that he works more than that. If we are going to extend his remit to the House of Lords, which has more Members than our House, there will be questions to do with resources and whether he will be able to deal with all complaints personally. We therefore need to think that proposal through.

Some have suggested that by electing the upper House, we reduce the risk of abuse. I am a firm believer in a predominantly elected second Chamber, but I doubt whether changing the mode of entry would of itself drive up standards.

Let me turn to a case that has given rise to some comment, both inside and outside the House. Last week, my Committee published its report on the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). We required the hon. Member to apologise to the House through the Committee Chairman and to repay nearly £4,000, which in our judgment he had overpaid to his son. Some hon. Members felt that those sanctions
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did not go far enough and said as much, possibly before having had time to read the report in full. Those who have read the Committee’s report will have seen that the breach was less serious than the case on which the Committee had previously reported and that it predated that case, so it can hardly be said to have compounded it. My Committee claims no monopoly of wisdom, but we had a thorough process of inquiry, with a 55-page report and annexes. We considered the case in detail in two meetings and came to a unanimous conclusion.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that I repeat, without qualification, the apology that I have already given him in writing and that I accept, without any reservation, the Committee’s conclusion that I breached a rule of the House? I would also like to withdraw the statement that I made to the media last Thursday.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention, which means that I can discard the next three pages of my speech.

There will be an opportunity to debate the revised guide to the rules next Monday. The rules are lengthy and even intimidating, but perhaps I can condense them into two short and easily remembered rules. Rule 1 is: if in doubt, ask. Rule 2 is: if in trouble, tell the truth. If all colleagues observed those two rules, the commissioner and my Committee would be a good deal less busy than they are at the moment, and the reputation of Parliament would stand higher than it does now.

8.43 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): There has been an extensive discussion of what is wrong, with which I broadly agree, and in the short time available, I just want to make four proposals for reform.

The first proposal is that membership of Select Committees, which are the most important channel of accountability, should not be chosen by the Whips, but should be chosen via a secret ballot of Members of the whole House. Indeed, I would go further than that. As many Select Committee reports are extremely good and deserve the attention and decision of the House, there should be a right in a limited number of cases—perhaps four or five a year, subject to prioritisation by the Liaison Committee—for a Select Committee to propose a motion for debate on the Floor of the House, with a vote at the end. That would give the House real influence in laying the foundations for future legislation and reform.

Secondly, I very much agree with the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen); we should have a business Committee, which would act as co-partner with the Government in determining the agenda of this House. Of course the Government, as the elected party, must have the right to take through their full legislative programme, but there are many other areas of business on which the Government have no direct electoral mandate, and they should be agreed and decided on by this House. I am thinking particularly about choosing subjects for debate in light of the occurrence of major national and international issues. It is, to say the very least, striking that the two most important issues in the past five years have not been the subject of debate with a vote at the end—I refer to the lessons of the Iraq war and the current
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economic meltdown—despite the fact that the latter is arguably the most traumatic international episode since the last war 65 years ago.

I come to my third proposal. Just as there are congressional hearings in the United States, there should be confirmation hearings, held by the relevant Select Committee, for all Cabinet appointments nominated by the Prime Minister—and, I would add, for the most important public sector appointments made outside the House. The Prime Minister would, of course, propose the Cabinet appointments, but it would be for Parliament to ratify them—and indeed to recall the appointee if the Select Committee thought it appropriate. There would then be dual accountability—accountability, of course, to the Prime Minister, but also to Parliament.

The fourth proposal, which I have to say is not mine but that of the Public Administration Committee and its excellent Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), is that in cases where the Government, for whatever reason, decline to set up a commission of inquiry, this House should set up its own commission of inquiry, if it sees fit to do so. It could then investigate matters of great public concern. That is not a very radical proposal—it was actually the regular procedure of our forebears in the Victorian Parliament—but it certainly is important.

There are other proposals that I would like to make, but in deference to the wishes of the House and to your good self, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will leave it at that. There are major issues for reform, and I very much support the Liberal Democrat party in introducing this debate, which is long overdue.

8.47 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): This debate is really about a crisis of confidence in politics. If we do nothing about that crisis, it could turn into a crisis of confidence about democracy itself. We face a conjunction of crises. The crisis in the political system is happening at the same time as a crisis in the financial and economic system that threatens people’s jobs and their confidence in the future. We should take very seriously what the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said: this is a dangerous situation. Just as with the financial and economic crisis, if we do nothing about the political crisis, or just simply try to get away with the minimum, it could be disastrous. In the case of the political crisis, it could be disastrous for our democracy.

Some of the things that will have to be done about the economic situation will be unpalatable, and what is done will amount to choosing among options all of which are bad. Similarly, some of the measures that are necessary for dealing with the political crisis will be uncomfortable for many Members of the House. Old certainties will have to be discarded. Politics as normal will not be enough. Many will have to let go of ideas from the past—and jibes from the past; I look particularly at the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) when I say that—if we are to avoid being swallowed by the future.

The essence of the political crisis is that millions of our fellow citizens do not feel like citizens any more. They no longer feel that they play any role in the government of the state in which they live. They think
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that the only people who have access to political power are people with very large sums of money—either their own money, or that of large corporations. They feel politically excluded. It is a feeling that one comes across everywhere, including on the picket lines of places such as the Lindsey oil refinery. Decent people should not have to resort to such measures. Whether or not we agree with what they are calling for, they should be heard here. That feeling of exclusion existed well before the recent revelations about what was going on in the House of Lords. What has happened there simply confirms, in the most dramatic way, what people already believe: that power lies with money and that the only part that ordinary people play in politics is as spectators—of either a tragedy or a farce.

The Government have simply taken on the role of holding the ring between the real players—the lobbyists, the media and big money. That is why the first imperative is to get big money out of politics. There should be a strict cap on how much money one person can donate to a political party. There should be strict limits on what parties can spend at both the national and local level. No one should be able to buy an election or be seen to be buying an election. Legislators who have been bought or who do not care whether they are seen to have been bought should just be thrown out.

Tackling political exclusion goes beyond dealing with the power of lobbyists. We have to look at ourselves and what we achieve in this place. The very idea of an appointed, non-elected second Chamber—a House of patronage and of networking—is an affront to the mass of people who will never have the connections to get there. That is why we should move now, not later—not in due course—to an elected second Chamber, regardless of what that means for the status and self-regard of Members of this House.

This place needs radical reform too, not least in the form of election and how we get here—the hon. Member for Luton, North mentioned that. A form of election that means that a tiny number of electors in a tiny number of seats decides the entire general election is part of the problem of political exclusion. The political system ignores the vast majority of voters nearly all the time. We have lost everything that we had in this place that made us a Parliament—a place to which people would look for their voices to be heard.

The most important aspect is the point raised by at least three Members—the hon. Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), and the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher): we do not have the power even to set our own agenda. What we discuss here is what is served up to us every day, under Standing Order No. 14, by the Government. That must go. We must take the power back; we must talk about what the people in the country want us to talk about, and not what the Government want to talk about.

Mr. Cash: Is the hon. Gentleman going to address the question of guillotines and programming? Exactly what he has said about the question whether there is a connection is demonstrated by the fact that we are simply not debating things properly, and therefore Bills that affect people go through without being discussed in this House.

David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point.

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What we have also lost is our power over money—over Government expenditure. In the opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the £37 billion that was passed in 90 minutes in a debate before Christmas. An example of something worse is the £50 billion that the Government have devoted to the second bank bail-out, which went through using a procedure that completely bypasses this House; the Treasury simply authorises the issue of Treasury bills, the Bank of England creates an account and that is it. We have entirely lost the historical power over expenditure.

We need to become a Parliament again. We are not a legislation machine to be turned on and off at the whim of the Government. We should represent the whole nation—in some sense, we are the nation. If we do not do that, and if we fail again to take these powers back, we will become contemptible—we, ourselves, will become a threat to democracy. One of my predecessors as MP for Cambridge once told this House that it was a

who would—

He said:

We have not got to that state yet, but we must take care that the nation does not come to view us in the same way that Cromwell came to view the Rump Parliament. If we do not change, and change fast, its fate might well await us too, although perhaps in a different way. I appeal to the House to refuse, at this time of all times, to vote yet again for its own enslavement, and to vote instead for the motion that we propose.

8.55 pm

Chris Bryant: I say to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that hyperbole hardly ever helps in these debates. The debate has been well attended by Members of all parties, and throughout it we have heard shared concern about the issues that face Parliament. There is real determination in all parts of the House to put right things that need to be mended and ensure that we have a Parliament that is respected by the whole nation.

I have already spoken at considerable length, but I wish to respond to some specific points that have been made. The Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee referred to the Committee’s report on dual reporting, which has been published today. The whole House will be grateful to the Committee for the work that it always does in trying to ensure that our reputation is maintained. We will have an opportunity next week to examine the specific recommendations of the hon. Gentleman’s Committee.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Right honourable.

Chris Bryant: The Lord Chancellor reminds me of the right honourable nature of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young).

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