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Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab):
Does the Prime Minister agree that the authority and power of Parliament have been diminishing for decades under successive Governments and that in factprogramme motions have been mentioned in this contextwe have reached a situation where, far from the Government being accountable to the House of Commons, the House
of Commons is now accountable to the Government? The programme is determined outside the legislature, and, if we are to look at the renewal of the constitution, perhaps we should be even more sweeping. Perhaps we should even considerI did not believe in this at one timea separation of powers between Parliament and the Executive.
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is proposing the American constitution for Britain. He knows the deadlock that often happens with the American constitution when Congress, the Senate and the President cannot agree on what needs to be done. If he looks back to what has happened over the past few months, he will see that we were able to persuade Parliament to put our banking reforms through and were able to finance our banks so that we could rescue them, whereas it took the Americans weeks and months to get those provisions through their legislature as a result of the issues that arise from the separation of powers. However, that is a debate for the future.
On the subject of the future of Parliaments role in dealing with legislation and issues, I remember the debate that John P. Mackintosh, who was a Member of this House in the 1960s, started about the role of Select Committees and how they could play a big role in the management of this House. There are two reasons that Select Committees have not had the effect that I know that my hon. Friend would want them to have. First, the reforms that we are talking about, which could have been made, have not been made. Secondly, Members have not seen them as important enough in themselves for them to put forward proposals to the House following the reports of Select Committees that would then lead to legislation. We need to have this discussion in the talks led by the Member who has great expertise in this matter to see what can be done. I am open to these discussions, as most Members are, but we must recognise the background. We have been trying to reform the Select Committee system and to make it more relevant for 40 years.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I welcome the Prime Ministers commitment to reforming the Select Committee system, but would it not make sense to give Select Committees real powers, such as, for example, providing that whenever a new Secretary of State is appointed to the Cabinet he or she must be subject to confirmation by the appropriate departmental Select Committee? Would that not be particularly appropriate when the Prime Minister is appointing Secretaries of State from the House of Lords and when he is considering the major constitutional step of appointing a new First Secretary of State?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a point about pre-confirmation hearings, and I think that I am right in saying that as a result of the announcements that we made two years ago, 62 positions are now subject to Select Committee hearings, which work very well. As far as Ministers are concerned, Ministers are responsible to this House. At the moment, if people want to bring forward motions on the suitability or unsuitability of Ministers, they can do so. Obviously, these matters can be discussed by the committee that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) is looking at.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): One democratic reform that I feel that the British public would like to see is a referendum on the principle of whether we remain in the European Union. No one under the age of 50 has had a chance to vote on the question of Europe and I think that, as a matter of course, we should have a referendum once every 15 to 20 years.
The Prime Minister: This issue was not put to the people by the Conservative Government who put us into the European Union. It was not put to the people when we went into the European Common Market, but it was put by a Labour Government in 1975. The conclusion was pretty cleartwo thirds of the people wanted to be part of the Union. I do not think that that opinion has fundamentally changed.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): Many in the House, on both sides, agree that it is now time for radical change to the way in which this place does its business. In the discussions that I have had, many Back Benchers have agreed that one of the biggest problems is that the Executive have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Is not the point today that the Prime Minister has come forward with a statement in which the Executive tell the rest of us what we shall now reform? Should not the rest of us be telling the Executive what they should or should not do?
The Prime Minister: First, I am talking about powers that the Executive are surrendering to Parliament or powers that Parliament should have. I put forward proposals two years ago for a whole range of areas, such as pre-confirmation hearings, where the Executive should surrender some of their powers to Parliament. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to perpetuate the myth that somehow the problems of the past few weeks are not the problems of Parliament and are not problems that people consider to have been caused by mistakes made by Members of Parliament and this House, I do not think that he will get an echo in the country for what he is saying.
This House has to face up to the fact that it let the country down. We have to make the changes that are necessary. Many MPs who work hard, who do their duty and who have made no mistakes are being penalised because of the mistakes made by others, but we have a collective duty to clean up this House in the interests of democracy and everybody who saw last week the votes that were given to parties that are not represented in this House knows what our duty is. To say that the problem is not Parliament and that Parliament does not have to deal with its problems is, in my view, a mistake and a misreading of the situation. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman, who usually brings his wisdom on these matters to the House, will reconsider his view.
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab):
Although I warmly applaud the broad thrust of these proposals, does my right hon. Friend accept that the Houses power to hold the Executive effectively to account is an essential part of any parliamentary democratic reform? If so, does he accept that this House should have the right to elect its own business committee and to share control of the agenda with Government, the right
to elect both Chairs and members of Select Committees by secret ballot and the right to set up, where appropriate, its own parliamentary commissions of inquiry?
The Prime Minister: I know that my right hon. Friend, with whom I have talked about these matters, has taken a huge interest in this issue. He has been very vigorous in pursuing the case for reform over many years. I think that I have read work that he did 30 years ago, as well as 20 years and 10 years ago, so he is absolutely right to raise these questions. These are the very issues that can be examined by the group that is being set up. The role of Select Committees, the election of their membership, the business management of the House, how non-Government business should be dealt with, the role of public petitions and what we do about themthese are all issues that I feel that the public have the right to know that Parliament is investigating, as they all affect our accountability to the general public.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the Prime Minister recall that he was recently in Normandy? People fought and died in the last war because they wanted to maintain a free democratic system in this country, based on a direct link between Member of Parliament, Government and constituents. They died for a democratic vote. Does he also accept that they did not die for judicial supremacy over and above the parliamentary supremacy that they fought for, regardless of whether decisions are made in our courts or in European courts?
The Prime Minister: I was able and had the honour to pay tribute to those who died during the D-day landings and their aftermath, as we moved from France to the fall of Berlin, the end of the Third Reich and the freedom of Europe. Those men and women who died in the service of their country deserve the gratitude of everyone in this House, and they will never be forgotten. I wanted to represent the British people, as did the Prince of Wales, and say that the result of the sacrifices that were made is that a Europe that was once divided is today free of conflict. People who once thought that wars would happen between their countries now know that there is peace and unity in Europe. I agree also that people fought for freedom, and freedom means that we have a British constitution that we can be proud of.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): May I put it to my right hon. Friend that, if we wish to enhance the standing of Parliament in the eyes of our constituents, there is one simple measure that we can take immediately and that requires no legislationthat is, to resume sittings in September? That is something that we voted for several years ago, but then reneged on. How can it be right in a democracy for Parliament to give the Executive an 80-day holiday from scrutiny? How can we expect to be taken seriously in the 21st century when we are still awarding ourselves Gladstonian-length recesses?
The Prime Minister:
The tabling and answering of questions is of course possible in September, but I remind my hon. Friend that it was the House that voted not to have the September sitting, not the Government.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Prime Minister will know that I have asked him on two occasionsand the Leader of the House on nineabout what he can do to end the scandal and embarrassment caused by having huge chunks of Government legislation and Government amendments going through the House at Report stage without adequate scrutiny. Of course the Government must get their business through, if the House supports it, but does he accept that, if the scandal that I have described is not ended, the process that he has set out will have been a failure? This House must make sure that everything that it needs to debate and divide on is reached at Report stage. Unless that happens, we will not be able to take seriously what I hope is his serious commitment to moving from being a reform conservative to being a reform radical.
The Prime Minister: The House, of course, has developed pre-legislative scrutiny that allows some of the problems that have arisen in the past to be dealt with. However, the specific issue of amendments tabled during the course of a Bill is something that can be looked at in the review.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I am sure that the public will welcome very much the measures being taken to speed up the process of sorting out the terrible expenses scandal, but is there not something missing from the statement? It does not deal with the fact that, although we are trying to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament, roughly 75 per cent. of our laws are still made in Europe, where we have no real democratic involvement. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), is it not time for us to have a serious discussion of our position in the EU? Should we not look again at having a referendum on the EU constitution?
The Prime Minister: By the red lines that we drew for the Lisbon treaty, we have done everything in our power to protect the position of British citizens in areas where we want this Parliament and this country to make their own decisions. However, while we are thinking about Europe, I must remind my hon. Friend that 3 million jobs depend on our membership of the EU, that 700,000 British companies trade with the EU, and that 60 per cent. of our exports go to the EU. We have a purposeful relationship with the EU that is in the interests of our economy, environment and security, and the idea that we should not have that relationship at this point in the 21st century seems to me to be wrong.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): The Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister a very pertinent question about the devolution dividend that would be gained from bringing parity to the size of constituencies. The Prime Minister failed to address that, but is not reducing the number of Members of Parliament something that we could do almost immediately?
The Prime Minister:
There are probably 3 million people who are not on, or who are not counted on, the electoral register. That means that our constituencies do not reflect the total number of people available or eligible to vote. I think that the first thing that we should do is get the register in a position where everybody is on it. After that, we might want to discuss the fact
that the number of seats in this House is far lower than the number of seats in the House of Lords. We might start by reducing the size of the House of Lords.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): May I welcome the wide-ranging statement that my right hon. Friend has made today? I should like to say a word or two about electoral systems. Does he agree that the statement addresses unfinished business from our 1997 manifesto? We have different options if we want to ensure effective Government, voter choice and a link between MP and constituency, and if we want to ensure that votes cast broadly result in a Parliament that reflects the balance of support for parties. The essential thing is that those choices are not for politicians, whether in government or opposition: instead, they should be made by the British people themselves. Does he agree that they should have the right to make those choices?
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): In his statement, the Prime Minister referred to the messages sent by the electorate at the recent elections. However, the messages that he referred to were not the ones that I heard. The first message that people expressedmore in anger than in sorrow, on many occasions, and sometimes the other way aroundwas that the Prime Minister must go. The second message was that the people wanted to pass judgment on Members of this House, and to do so now and in an election.
The third message was that we should have the promised referendum on the European constitution and the Lisbon treaty. The Prime Minister has ruled out the first two requests but, given his statement today about involving people, why can he not grant the third?
The Prime Minister: I have to say that any MP coming back from these elections knows that many people in the country were giving their verdict, not just on the Government but on how we had conducted ourselves over our expenses. If we ignore that, and do not take the action that is essential [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman is proposing an election and no action on expenses, whereas I am proposing action on expenses now. I am proposing that we clean up the system now. If I may say so, it is the Government who are proposing the Parliamentary Standards Authority and the code of conduct. I am glad that the Opposition parties and I can agree on that, and we should get those proposals through, but I think that there is an unwillingness on the part of the Conservatives to admit the seriousness with which the public have taken the expenses crisis. I hope that they can face up to that.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Prime Ministers reference to Select Committees, but would he support making available to them a vastly increased amount of resources so that they can be even more effective in challenging the Executive? Does he agree that they should be able to call for any papers that they require?
The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend is Chairman of the Transport Committee and that she does a very great job. It is hardly surprising that she is asking for greater resources, but these are matters for decision by the House, not the Government.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Is the Prime Minister aware that what really matters to our constituents at the moment and what fuels their anger over parliamentary allowances is the state of the economy and their fear for their jobs and livelihoods? They see the attempt to divert the agenda to consideration of a rag-bag of constitutional reforms as simply a form of displacement activity by the Prime Minister. Is he aware of the definition of displacement activity? It is defined as follows:
A pattern of behaviour believed to be a means
tension resulting from two contradicting instincts.
often involves actions such as scratching, excessive grooming or chasing ones own tail.
Does the Prime Minister agree that we should focus on the economy? If he wants a constitutional reform, he should support my ten-minute Bill, which will deal with a problem raised by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) about Bills leaving this House unconsidered and will suspend the right of the Government to guillotine debate so long as they are forcing this House to sit fewer days than it used to in the past.
The Prime Minister: I cannot really understand the statements that are now coming from Conservative Back Benchers. We must face up to the expenses issue; the right hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that we do not need to face up to that issue, but we do. That is not displacement activity; it is essential activity in order to restore the reputation of politics. I happen to agree with him about the economy, but the action that we have taken is to move the economy as quickly as possible through the downturn. The Leader of the Opposition fails to ask any questions about the economy at any time we meet.
Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I welcome the Prime Ministers statement on constitutional renewal and urge him to ignore some of the protestations of Conservative Members. Can we end, once and for all, the anachronism of constitutional convention, which is all too often used as shorthand for doing nothing or for resisting necessary change? Secondly, can he go a little further and end the scandal of MPs moonlighting to line their own pockets? We are paid a full-time salary for a full-time job and we should honour that.
The Prime Minister: I believe that on 1 July all second incomes will have to be published, in the greatest of detail demanded by the House, by all Members who have second jobs and second incomes. I am glad that the House agreed, and that everybody was satisfied, that that was the right thing to do. The public will then be able to judge for themselves what is happening in that area. As for convention, there are some conventions, but the whole debate about a written constitution is about whether things that are seen as conventional should be made into statutes so that people are absolutely clear about their rights and responsibilities.
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