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(a) the appointment of members and chairmen of select committees,
(b) the appointment of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means;
(c) scheduling business in the House;
(d) enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House; and
(e) such other matters as appear to the Committee to be closely connected with the matters set out above,
and to report on these matters by 13 November 2009;
(2) That the Committee also consider such other matters as may be referred to it from time to time;
(3) That the Committee consist of eighteen Members;
(4) That Mr Graham Allen, Mr Clive Betts, Mr Graham Brady, Mr David Clelland, Mr David Drew, Natascha Engel, Dr Evan Harris, David Howarth, Mr Michael Jack, Mr Greg Knight, Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Mr Chris Mullin, Dr Nick Palmer, Martin Salter, Dr Phyllis Starkey, Mr Andrew Tyrie, Dr Tony Wright and Sir George Young be members of the Committee;
(5) That Dr Tony Wright be Chairman of the Committee;
(6) That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to adjourn from place to place, to report from time to time and to appoint specialist advisers;
(7) That this Order be a Standing Order of the House until the end of the present Parliament.
On 10 June, the Prime Minister announced in a statement to the House his support for the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, to set up a new Committee to consider reform of the procedures of the House of Commons. The motion before the House today gives effect to that proposal by establishing a Committee to make recommendations on the appointment of members and Chairmen of Select Committees, the scheduling of business in the House, and enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings of the House.
This Committee will be an important step at looking at how the reform of parliamentary procedure can achieve stronger accountability of the Government to Parliament through a larger role for Back-Bench Members and the wider public. There have been earlier versions of this motion which attracted amendments. Because we are keen to proceed on the basis of consensus for this Committee, we withdrew the motion in order to see if we could reach a compromise with the hon. Members who tabled those amendments. Most recently, we accepted the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and this is now part of the motion before the House today, at paragraph (1)(b).
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con):
I am grateful to the Minister for accepting my amendment, which had cross-party support on an important issue. However, the explanatory memorandum has not been
updated to reflect the fact that my amendment has been accepted by the Government. Can the Minister explain that, or put it right?
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): The Minister has been forthright with the House in indicating that she agrees with the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and she has incorporated it in the motion, but can she indicate to the House her attitude and that of the Government to amendment (a)?
As we have reached agreement on a number of issues, I hope that the Committee can report quickly so that the proposed reforms can be considered for implementation early in the next Session. The three areas originally put forward for specific consideration are in the motion under paragraph (1):
"(a) the appointment of members and chairmen of select committees...
(c) scheduling business in the House"
"(d) enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House".
First, we have dropped the reference to timetabling "non-Government" business. I accept that it is likely in practice that any changes to the arrangements for scheduling non-Government business could have an impact on Government business, which is why we felt it sensible to accept that amendment. We remain firmly of the view that the Government of the day should have adequate opportunities to put their business to the House and, subject to the will of the House, to get their business through. I hope the Committee will accept that as an indication of the kind of recommendation that the Government are likely to view favourably.
Secondly, I know that some prospective members of the Committee were concerned about its terms of reference being drawn too narrowly. We have therefore inserted in paragraph (1) new subsection (d), which will allow the Committee to consider other matters that are "closely connected" with the main subjects referred to it-[Hon. Members: "It's paragraph (e)."] Okay. Our intention is that it should be a contingency provision to allow the Committee to consider consequential changes to areas of procedure that flow naturally from its principal recommendations.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The Minister confirms that since another sub-paragraph was included, paragraph (1)(d) has become (1)(e), and I think that is what she is referring to. Does she agree that it would have been slightly more elegant if the Committee had been allowed to elect its own Chairman?
I shall recommend that the House resist the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). First, it involves a substantial issue in its own right and I do not think it would be wise to add further items to the Committee's agenda for the very short period before it reports. More importantly, the proposal for Ministers in another place to appear before this House has implications for the work of both Houses and that is, therefore, not an area in which a Select Committee of one House could come to a set of recommendations that would be acceptable to both Houses.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I am interested in the fact that the Minister says there will be only a short period, because it seems to me that there are four months before the Committee is due to report. We do not believe all that nonsense in the papers about going on holiday for 82 days: the Committee is perfectly able to sit during the summer recess and reach its recommendations. Given that the Committee is due to report by 13 November-a specific date five days before the state opening of Parliament-can the Minister confirm that if it makes specific recommendations the Government will consider them and put proposals before Parliament in the Queen's Speech so that they can be passed in the new Session of Parliament and take effect at the earliest opportunity?
Finally, I have been impressed by the strength of feeling on both sides of the House-as is evident here tonight-in support of the work of the new Committee. I hope that the Committee can conduct a focused inquiry that will bear fruit in terms of reform, and I commend the motion to the House.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Many Members present agree that the business of the House can and should be planned and handled much better than it is at present. Many also agree that we could improve the existing Select Committee system. There is general consensus on the need to do more to re-engage the Commons with the public, particularly given the low esteem in which Parliament is currently held. For our part, Conservative Members have been proposing such changes for quite some time. Our party's democracy taskforce-
Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the shadow Deputy Leader of the House and for interrupting the flow of his eloquence in the process. We will return to him before very long. At this point, the House will understand, the appointed hour of 10 o'clock having been reached, there are two motions with which we need to deal before we can continue the debate. The first is on the subject of deferred divisions, and it may be for the convenience of the House simply to explain
that the motion about to be moved by the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household will be moved in moderately amended form, in recognition of the fact that the motions relating to Defence and to Hallmark in the names of the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills have already been addressed.
That, at this day's sitting, Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply to the Motion in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons.- (Helen Jones.)
That, at this day's sitting, (1) consideration of any Lords Messages that may be received and (2) the Motion in the name of Ms Harriet Harman relating to the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.- (Helen Jones.)
Conservative Members have been talking about the issue for quite some time. Our party's democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), has made several suggestions to re-energise proceedings in the House. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has specifically called for more powers to be returned to Parliament and, in particular, for Committee Chairmen to be selected by Back Benchers and for Committee proceedings on Bills to be free from the influence of the Whips. That is where much of the detailed work is done, and it is felt that Back Benchers should have freedom to operate on their own merits, rather than be pressured by Whips. I welcome the fact that all those matters fall under the remit of the proposed Committee. I know that Members serving on the Committee-certainly Conservative Members-will be pressing for such constructive reforms to help rebuild our parliamentary system.
It is also right that the new Select Committee should be time-limited. That will ensure that it does not supplant the role of the Procedure Committee, and will concentrate minds on the limited time available in which to draw conclusions and report back.
I am pleased that the Government accepted the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). Given the delays and lack of proper consultation in the run-up to the tabling of the motion, it was perhaps the least that the Government could do in the circumstances.
The amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), raises a very valid point. The recent growth in the number of Cabinet Ministers,
and junior Ministers too, in the other place, and the ever-expanding titles of the First Secretary of State make the subject extremely topical. There is justifiable concern in all parts of the House about how we can ensure that the Government are properly and effectively held to account. No doubt Members will have their own views on the amendment itself, and it will perhaps be for the Chairman of the Committee to suggest that the question of making Members of the other House accountable should be looked at in another way. I suspect that given the time constraint-although I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said earlier-and the fact that the Committee has no members from the other House, the issue may need further consideration.
It is also worth pointing out that the way in which the motion has been handled beggars belief. It is a simple motion that is supposed to improve the efficiency of the House, yet the manner in which it has been handled has been slipshod, to put it mildly. The Prime Minister said in his statement in June that the Government would
"work with a special parliamentary commission".-[ Official Report, 10 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 797.]
Given the number of existing Select Committees well qualified to deal with the issue, such as the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee, it is regrettable that yet another Committee has had to be set up. The problem was compounded by the fact that the Prime Minister did not consult anybody in advance on a matter that is basically House business. All that seemed to be of concern to him was his press release.
Then there was the indecisiveness. Less than 24 hours after being tabled, the motion was withdrawn. On 26 June, the Deputy Leader of the House told us, as is recorded in column 967 of Hansard, that that was done so that there could be consultation and the motion could proceed on a "consensual" basis. Given that two weeks had passed since the Prime Minister's statement, there had already been plenty of time for consultation. Clearly the Government preferred not to be consensual at that point.
Only now are we finally getting the chance to debate the establishment of a Select Committee on the reform of the House, some seven weeks after the Prime Minister's announcement, in which he spoke of proceeding with these matters as an "urgent imperative". We are now faced with having to debate this important matter after 10 o'clock on the day before the summer recess. I very much hope that the new Committee will take that as an example of how proceedings in this House should not operate in future.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
I very much welcome the fact that we are finally debating the motion, albeit in an amended form. However, the revolutionary zeal with which the original proposal was made has rather evaporated in the mean time. I hoped that we would have a genuinely root-and-branch reform of the way this House works, because many things need to be addressed if we are to make it more effective and more relevant, and work better for the interests of our constituents. I thought that the proposal for the new Committee might be a vehicle for some genuinely radical reforms of procedures. It may still be that, but the way
in which the Government have gone about it has been extraordinarily disappointing and, in the end, rather enervating.
Not to consult about the original motion in advance indicates everything that we need to know about how the Government do their business. The motion was quintessentially a House matter, where we needed support from all parts of the House, yet there it was, appearing on the Order Paper at 24 hours' notice, as much as to say: "Like it or lump it-this is the way it is going to be done." When some of us tabled amendments immediately on reading the motion, because we realised that it would not do the job that was expected of it, it was withdrawn, so we were left without the very Committee that we were all so keen should be set up.
Barbara Keeley: As I have already said, the motion was withdrawn to allow for consultation. It is rather churlish of Opposition Members to deny that consultation. We withdrew the motion so that we could incorporate ideas and amendments into it.
Mr. Heath: The motion was withdrawn because it was incompetent, because it did not have the support of Members in all parts of the House and because, had my amendment been put to the vote, it would have been supported by Members in all parts of the House and the Government would have been defeated. That is why the Government withdraw the motion in the first instance. All that could have been avoided if they had simply picked up the phone to a few people from all parts of the House and said, "What do you think of this motion? Do you think it would do what you hope it would?" However, I am afraid that organising that proved to be beyond the abilities of the business managers of the Government party.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration; indeed, I signed his amendment. It would have been refreshing, in a way, if the Government had allowed his amendment to be debated and then accepted it or been defeated. My only problem with his approach is that there is a tendency on the part of Front Benchers to feel that if they make a few phone calls, there has been consultation. There are 646 Members of this House who often feel left out of such consultations, and I regard the to-ing and fro-ing on the Order Paper as a rather refreshing change. I would not dismiss the generosity of the Government in the way that they eventually handled this.
Mr. Heath: "Eventually" is the operative word. I was at pains not to say "two phone calls" because that would indeed have been the usual channels deciding between themselves what was right for Back Benchers. Instead a lot of people who had expressed an interest in the matter could have been involved at an early stage in what was proposed, and we could have had a consensual motion before the House.
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