Constitutional Reform and Renewal - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)


14 JULY 2009

  Q20  Chairman: That is not what the Prime Minister said.

  Mr Straw: No, I know it is not, and it is not what, if I may say so, other party leaders indicated. I thought there would be general welcome in the House of Lords for the Authority to be extended to the House of Lords because they may face similar issues in the future. Anyway, currently, they have resisted the idea and I think you will find that the Leader of the Lords is accepting amendments to this Bill which are, words to the effect, that "it will relate only to the Commons". Now, down the track, if the Lords decide they want a similar arrangement that is a matter for them but it is not a part of Government policy. I think the extent of concern by the Lords that this could apply to the Lords has taken the Commons by surprise; it certainly took me by surprise given the indications we had had earlier but there we are. This is part of the process of discussion and the purpose of this is to deal with parliamentary standards, the standards of Members of Parliament, particularly in relation to their allowances and other related matters.

  Q21  Mr Tyrie: How did the Prime Minister get it so wrong?

  Mr Straw: I reject the basis of your question, Mr Tyrie, if you do not mind me saying so.

  Q22  Mr Tyrie: He said it would apply to the Lords.

  Mr Straw: Nobody got it so wrong.

  Q23  Mr Tyrie: You are saying it will not apply to the Lords, it does sound to me like one or other of you has got it wrong.

  Mr Straw: I have already explained why there was a change in approach to this, in the light of concerns expressed in the House of Lords which were not expressed there before. I just bat it back to you to say what is it you want? Do you want a situation where we do not listen to sentiments in the other place, and sometimes sentiment changes in any case?

  Q24  Mr Tyrie: Do you think it is realistic that we find ourselves, as we will shortly, in a position where we have a statutory regime here while the Lords is fast constructing what amounts to pretty much the system that we have just left in the Commons?

  Mr Straw: The House of Lords, like the House of Commons, as far as its own internal processes are concerned, is genuinely self-governing. We have no locus in respect of their allowances, nor they in respect of our allowances, that is just true. They have to make decisions themselves. The circumstances are inherently different, given the fact that they are not elected to constituencies and although I know some of them have main homes outside London, those issues are easier to deal with, it seems to me, than the issues of Members of the Commons who have, aside from those whose constituencies are London, to live and to work in two different places.

  Q25  Mr Tyrie: Do you think this Bill is having much traction in helping restore public confidence?

  Mr Straw: I think it will is the answer. What is palpable is that the situation we have arrived at, with the setting of our allowances and the administration of our allowances, not only wholly lacked public confidence but actually, as it turned out, actively undermined public confidence in Members of Parliament. As I have already set out, there was a collective failure by the House, by Members of Parliament on all sides, to establish an effective system of allowances which commanded public confidence and to ensure that its administration also commanded public confidence. My belief is having an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which is genuinely independent of Parliament, which sets the allowances without coming back to us so it is independent, and then administers those and has initial authority over complaints is a very sensible thing for us to do. We want to help restore public confidence. It is not the only thing, other things will: transparency will make a very big difference, but it is one of the things.

  Q26  Mr Tyrie: All three party leaders have said that they will look very favourably towards the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly. If he makes recommendations which require some amendment to this Bill, will you be prepared to try and find a way of opening up discussions to secure that amendment?

  Mr Straw: If he were to but, as I say, that is very conditional. Of course, one would not ignore what he said but since what Sir Christopher and his Committee are doing is considering the scheme of allowances of Members of Parliament, and this body has the power to set the allowances, I find it hard to believe that Sir Christopher's proposals will not simply slot into the scheme set by this Authority. The other thing it is worth saying, Mr Tyrie, is about the timescale. One of the reasons why it is important, if we conceivably can, to get Royal Assent for this Bill by next week is to start the process of appointing people to the Authority. This takes time, people think it can be done just like that but we have got the summer, so you can forget about August, it will take probably to the end of October to get the people appointed to the Authority and to get the interim chief executive and start making arrangements for the staff to transfer and so on. I do not think it will be much before the 1 January before this body can be operational. Sir Christopher has promised his Committee's recommendations in October. All three party leaders, as you indicate, have suggested that they will give a fair wind and more to their recommendations. Then they have to be endorsed by the House of Common and, with a little bit of luck, we can have a situation where the starting point for this Authority will be the scheme of allowances as proposed by Sir Christopher Kelly and endorsed by the Commons, so the two things then come together on 1 January next year.

  Chairman: I think we must move on at that point. Maybe I should have declared an interest in earlier questioning because I am married to a member of the House of Lords.

  Q27  Mrs Riordan: Minister, the decision to establish a Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons by 13 November this year, do you consider that a sufficient timeframe to establish—

  Mr Straw: —the Tony Wright Committee?

  Q28  Mrs Riordan: Yes?

  Mr Straw: I do as a matter of fact, Mrs Riordan, and for this reason, that there is no great intellectual challenge in working out what you could do to improve the way the House of Commons deals with legislation. The ideas are there. For example, if one is interested, as I am certainly, in the proposals for having a business committee of the House, then Tony Wright's Committee will have the benefit, amongst many other things, of the University College London Constitution Unit Report prepared by Dr Meg Russell and her colleagues. That is a very good analysis of how other parliaments operate with business committees and also, let me say, provides some warnings about what you get right and what you get wrong and suggests that what you need to concentrate on is the so-called non-governmental time on the floor of the House because then there is a much greater chance of the Committee not being dominated in practice by the Whips, whereas if it is to take over the Whips in practice it will end up like the Committee of Selection which has never looked to me very different from the Whips, I am sure it is.

  Q29  Chairman: Sounds like a counsel of despair.

  Mr Straw: No, it is not a counsel of despair.

  Q30  Chairman: Are you against setting something up which can influence how we deal with business because the Government will dominate it?

  Mr Straw: No, it is not a counsel of despair at all, Chairman, it is a recognition of the realities and dynamics of governance.

  Q31  Chairman: Would you like to change the realities?

  Mr Straw: We are. I just tell you this, if you get the business committee and it does, so-called, non-governmental business, and no-one is suggesting, not even the smaller parties, that the Government should cease to be entitled to get its business, but if you get a business committee established as Meg Russell and her colleagues recommended, then I think we will see the beginnings of a process which will lead to much greater interest by Members in what happens in the Commons. As I was saying in the House yesterday, if you look at comparisons in terms of days and hours spent, funnily enough I looked at it recently, it is not that different from what it used to be, notwithstanding the fact that those of us with longer memories tend to think there was some sort of age when we first came into the House when things were a bit different but it is not that different, we tend to forget about the times when business collapsed and all the rest of it. What is different is what the time is spent on, less time is spent on consideration of bills at the report stages because they are not open-ended. There are not the same opportunities, thanks initially to the so-called Jopling reforms which I greatly regret myself, for backbenchers to have substantive motions on the floor of the House. In addition, although this has not been changed by this Government, there remains this problem of dealing with private Members legislation where the irony is precisely because it is not timetabled, and cannot be timetabled, it is too easy for it to be allowed to drift off, and without the Commons being given a chance to come to a decision one way or another.

  Q32  Mrs Riordan: It is also about the public being able to initiate debates.

  Mr Straw: Yes.

  Q33  Mrs Riordan: How should the public engage in that process?

  Mr Straw: I think one of the ways of doing that is through the petition process. There is bound to be some kind of intermediation between what the public are saying and having matters debated. I hope that we will get round to having a system where in place of petitions or to supplement petitions to Number 10 Downing Street you get petitions to the House of Commons and, if you get more than a certain number, then there is a good chance of those being debated on substantive motions. Over the years, this is a successive government point, we have been too timid about having debates on substantive motions.

  Q34  Mrs Riordan: Petitions and things like that have been looked at by the Procedure Committee, so how do you see the relationship between this Committee and that of the Modernisation and Procedure Committee?

  Mr Straw: It is a way of bringing things to a conclusion as quickly as possible. It is a one-off committee. To use a not altogether appropriate metaphor, there is a better market for these proposals, which have been around for a long time and some of us have wanted to see happen for a long time, but because of the catastrophe for Members of Parliament of the allowances scandal and the need to try and restore public confidence, the market has changed. All one can hope for in a situation like this is that good comes from what has been a very difficult period. I hope that one of the things which happens is that the Commons is able to become more active than it has been. Can I just make this point, if I may, Chairman. I have been thinking about this a lot based on my experience going back slightly less time than yours in the House. What I think is this, it is not true that the Commons has lost in authority or activity compared with 50 years ago when you had an entirely supine House of Commons as brought out by evidence from one of the clerks of committees two or three years ago, pointing out that there were no rebellions in the 1951 to 1955 Parliament at all. If you look at Hansard for those periods you often saw that Parliamentary Questions ran out of questioners, it was very laid back. What I think has happened is this—and it is quite paradoxical—in terms of scrutiny, the House of Commons is immensely more active and more powerful than it was 20 years ago, still more 40 years ago, not least because of the establishment of select committees. If you think about the way in which quite often select committee hearings dominate the news. Here I am before a select committee but also think about what is happening currently in respect of the allegations about the News of the World before one select committee or think of the role of the Treasury Select Committee.

  Q35  Chairman: We are in danger of spending a little too long on this point.

  Mr Straw: So you have a great increase in scrutiny but that has not been paralleled by an improvement in respect of power over legislation where timetabling of bills, which was introduced not least for the convenience of backbench Members of Parliament, let me say, has led to less scrutiny of legislation than it should, in my view.

  Q36  Chairman: None of this is going to happen and the Committee will not be set up unless the Government gives it some time in the next few days because the motion has been blocked and it will continue to be blocked unless debating time is found for it. Will it be?

  Mr Straw: I hope so is the answer. I am not briefed on that and I am not a business manager.

  Q37  Chairman: But have you not got a pretty big interest?

  Mr Straw: I have a big interest but so has Harriet Harman and she is pursuing it. I am sorry I cannot give you a precise answer.

  Q38  Alun Michael: Can we turn to the freedom of information issue

  Mr Straw: Which issue?

  Q39  Alun Michael: We have had the recommendations of the Dacre review and we have had the Ministry's consultation and we have also got issues of safeguards on the agenda. In the first place can you tell us the timetable, when will we have the Government's response to the recommendations of the Dacre review?

  Mr Straw: I am due to publish the response before we rise for the summer.

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