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
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
Mr Straw: No, it is not a counsel
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
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 thisand it is quite paradoxicalin 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.