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15 Dec 2009 : Column 202WH—continued

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that sometimes these things are complex? I say that because Government-sponsored legislation is clearly the Government's business
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to get through and the report is very clear that the Government will be guaranteed the time to get that legislation through, but how that legislation is scrutinised by the House must be a matter for the House and it cannot be right for the Government to decide how much or how little time is available to the House to do that, within reason, what order it does it in and which parts of Bills are scrutinised. The Government should have their way; they can whip and people should vote on party lines. But the House should decide how it scrutinises Government legislation, otherwise it is not doing House business.

Mark Fisher: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; that point goes to the heart of this report. However, I do not think that these things are necessarily great sticking points. One can look at other countries and other legislatures and see that they find a way of negotiating between all parts of their Parliaments and their Governments.

Natascha Engel: This point is not just a small sticking-point for me; it is a really big point for me. Who controls the time is a really big and important issue. I am a massive supporter of having a Back-Bench business committee that would look at how we can organise our House time better and how we can make better use of things such as topical debates and general debates; I have absolutely no problem with that idea. Where I have a problem and where I think that the report is quite dishonest is the idea that how much time we spend on different parts of Government legislation should be a decision that is made by Back Benchers and not the Executive. That is something that I have an issue with, because it is down to the Executive of the day to decide how much time we spend on different parts of Government legislation.

Mark Fisher: I must say that I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is our job to scrutinise Government and therefore the time and the manner in which we scrutinise Government-either the scrutiny of Government Departments by Select Committees, or the scrutiny of Government legislation by Public Bill Committees-is our responsibility. It is not for the Government to tell us, "You may only scrutinise our legislation in such and such a way". It is for the Government to have all the time they need to present that legislation, to defend it and to persuade us that it is admirable legislation that we need to enact, but it is not for the Government to say, "You may not scrutinise us in such a way". I think that my hon. Friend and I will have to disagree on this point, much as I admire her.

It is because scrutiny goes to the heart of our role as parliamentarians that control of scrutiny is absolutely essential, which brings me to the issue of the control of the Select Committees. It is absolute nonsense that the Select Committees of this House, which have been a brilliant invention over the last 35 years, should effectively be determined, either directly or indirectly, by the Government. It is like the Government choosing their own invigilators and scrutineers, and saying, "We will be looked at very closely, but only on the terms and by the people who we approve".

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Select Committees are a matter for this House to determine; they are nothing to do with the Government at all. The Government have their own job to get on with legislation; the Government do not have the job of scrutinising themselves, which is effectively what Select Committees do. To my mind, it is amazing that the Select Committees function as well as they do and that is thanks to some very brave and very independent-minded Chairpeople, such as Gwyneth Dunwoody, the former Member of Parliament for Crewe and Nantwich, who is now deceased. She was such a brilliant Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport that, as a result, our transport policy in recent years has been hugely strengthened and improved by the rigour that she brought to that role. But the idea that she should have been manipulated by the Government-it would not have been in the Government's interest to have done that. It is actually in all our interests that the Select Committees should be chaired independently and that their members should reflect the views of the House and not the opinions or tastes of a Government.

Dr. Murrison: Will the hon. Gentleman add to his list of fine Chairpeople of Select Committees Dr. Ian Gibson, the former Member of Parliament for Norwich, North, who was a very distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, on which I served? Of course, that Committee came to a sticky end, due chiefly, I think, to the efforts of that gentleman in trying to propagate the best interests of science and technology in this country, which was sometimes uncomfortable for the Government.

Mark Fisher: Well, I think that the hon. Gentleman makes his point.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. If I can interrupt the hon. Gentleman just for a minute, I want to say that he has been very generous in taking interventions but we are very time-limited and there are many Members who wish to speak in this debate. I say that because I cannot influence how many interventions he takes, but perhaps he might bear in mind our limited time.

Mark Fisher: I absolutely take your point, Mr. Atkinson, and it is very kind of you to attribute the fact that I am taking rather longer than I had intended to my generosity in taking interventions. I feel that I am probably taking too long to introduce this debate anyway, because I know that in Westminster Hall today we have people who sat on the House of Commons Reform Committee and who have very important contributions to make to this debate. Therefore, I will try to bring my remarks to a close.

If we are to fulfil our responsibilities as a Parliament, we need to get control not only of the business of the House and not only of the membership and chairmanship of the Select Committees, which this report identifies so clearly as an issue, but of the Standing Orders of this House, which the report identifies rather less clearly as an issue. The Standing Orders determine the future of this House and at the moment they can only be amended effectively by grace of the Government. They are our Standing Orders, not the Government's Standing Orders; they are the Standing Orders of this House and we ought to control them.

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There are things in the report that one could imagine, in an ideal world, being slightly stronger and places where it could go wider, as hon. Members have already mentioned, but the fact of the matter is that I think that the report is a superb beginning and a superb indicator of where we ought to be going. What we now need to do is to take this debate on to the Floor of the House and have it on a substantive motion, which many Members in Westminster Hall today have been pressing the Government for. There is an indication that we may get that substantive debate by the end of January. I hope that we will get it by that time. It would be very foolish of the Government, having done the difficult job of setting up this Committee, appointing the right people to sit on it and to report on this issue and getting, to their own credit, an excellent report, if we were not allowed to debate the report and take the issue forward as quickly as possible. To leave such a debate to the next Parliament would be a terrible mistake. Furthermore, if we are right in thinking that a third, or perhaps even more, of the Members of the next Parliament will be new MPs, those new MPs will not know how this place works as well as some of us perhaps do, having experienced the virtues and vices of the present system. We need to move fairly fast in the next few months and I hope that we will do so.

It is up to us to bestir ourselves and to identify what is peculiar about Parliament and our identity that is different from that of Government. If we do that, we will be laying a foundation for what this report calls itself, which is "Rebuilding the House".

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) to speak, I want to say that there quite a few Members-I think that there are five or six-who are trying to catch my eye and that the wind-ups should start shortly after 12 o'clock. So, if hon. Members can do a bit of quick mental arithmetic, we will get everybody in.

11.27 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I welcome the fact that we are having this debate today and I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) for introducing it. Regrettably, I must say that I do not entirely agree with the thrust of what he said. I am afraid that the report to which he has referred was far too timid; it needed to be a good deal more robust. I accept that there was an element of compromise about it and one certainly hopes that at least what has been proposed in the report will go through as a starting-point to what I think will be a radical reform.

I say that because I think that there is little doubt that the allowances scandal, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, will cause what I suspect will be the largest shake-up in parliamentary practice since the Great Reform Act of 1832, and not before time. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the momentous upheaval in 1832 came as a result of a crisis of confidence in many other institutions. At that time, it was the established Church of England and the monarchy-after the scandals that had surrounded George IV and George III before him-that were in crisis. Of course, today's crisis in
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confidence in Parliament arrives hot on the heels of an unprecedented economic firestorm in the past two years, whereby the catastrophe that has befallen financial institutions has shaken public confidence in the capitalist system, and with the inquiry that is currently being conducted into our going to war in Iraq there is again a sense that the Executive have been allowed to get away with blue murder.

However, I feel that the reforming steps that we have taken so far will not necessarily be sufficient. In the next Parliament, I suspect that we will see a huge turnover of MPs, even without the turnover that my own party hopes will happen as far as the general election result is concerned. However, there is a concern that we will be filling this House with a lot of inexperienced men and women who will regard themselves as being little more than cheerleaders for their party leaders. The worst possible outcome, in my view, would be the reinforcement of a parliamentary class made up of people with little or no experience outside the political sphere.

It is also possible that expenses woes will encourage many of Edmund Burke's "good men", and women, simply to give up on the idea of democracy. I do not lament the scandal's unveiling, but I mourn the hopeless way that politicians dealt with a time bomb that had been waiting to go off for years, as many of us recognised. It did not have to be that way. We must grasp the rare opportunity in the aftermath of the scandal to implement overdue but lasting reforms.

I reiterate some of what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said. First, we must pare back the control exercised by the Executive. In my view, successive Governments and Opposition leaderships deserve much of the blame for the parliamentary expenses fiasco that has blown up so spectacularly over the past six months. We have witnessed repeated grandstanding by party leaders who refused to implement independent salary reviews but turned a blind eye to the cynical-and, at its extreme, fraudulent-manipulation of the second home allowance, whose annual uplift was never reduced, reversed or even capped, and which became a salary substitute. The 24/7 media world in which politics operates militates in favour of any close-knit team around party leadership being on message, but Executive patronage must now be curtailed.

I agree with much of what was said about Select Committees. They need to exercise real power. In my view, the appointment of all Select Committee members, not just Chairmen, should be by a secret ballot of all MPs. As was rightly pointed out, chairmanships have too often been handed out by the Executive to former Ministers or senior Back Benchers on the basis of their compliance and willingness not to rock the boat. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred to the late Gwyneth Dunwoody and to Ian Gibson. Unfortunately, they are the exceptions that prove the rule about our Select Committee system. One of the biggest oxymorons in British politics is a phrase that one often hears in the media: "the influential Select Committee".

Select Committees should be much smaller. I am grateful that the report goes in that direction. The number mooted was 11, but in my view, Select Committees should number between five and eight members, who should all be fully committed to acquiring or developing genuine expertise in the field. The current situation
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involves a ludicrous charade in which ill-prepared MPs, on the rare occasions when they attend, parrot planted questions cobbled together by a Committee Clerk rather than even pretending to hold witnesses or Ministers genuinely to account.

We should also have a much smaller House of Commons, although I risk talking myself out of a constituency. Curiously, the only Members who tend to propose reductions in the size of the Commons are those on the cusp of retirement. I see a few such individuals here. [Interruption.] I hasten to add that in their case it is voluntary retirement rather than involuntary. The size of Parliament should be reduced substantially. My party's policy is a 10 per cent. reduction, but I think that that should be a first step. Ideally, a fixed-size Parliament of 450 to 500 Members should be our medium-term goal. The primary priority of all MPs, therefore, should be holding the Executive to account rather than acting as local ombudsmen on constituency issues more appropriately dealt with by local authorities, law centres and citizens advice bureaux, to name but three publicly funded bodies properly designed to deal with parochial concerns.

I would like the process of separating the legislature from the Executive to begin. That final element of my wish list is probably a step too far even for my more reform-minded colleagues, for now at least. If Parliament is to have any future relevance beyond making up the numerical armies required by Governments to pass their legislation, we should regard law-making as an end in itself rather than an essential stepping stone towards holding ministerial office. My preference-it will not happen at this election, but perhaps at some future election-is to have two votes on election day, so people can vote for the Prime Minister and for their local Member of Parliament. It might well result in a split slate, but I do not think that that would be an unhealthy state of affairs.

There is one important caveat, which I mentioned in my intervention, that must be addressed before we begin a headlong rush to empower individual parliamentarians. Many MPs-perhaps even most of us-do not regard any of the foregoing, and still less the constitutional duty of holding the Executive to account, as their main role. Increasingly, the House of Commons consists of a cadre of super-councillors who keep much of their attention and their burgeoning work load in a constituency-focused comfort zone. We are all proud of the work that we do in our constituencies, and it is important to have a finger on the pulse, but if we are to ensure reform and put power back into the hands of Parliament, this generation of MPs and the next must be properly equipped to play their key role in the transformative Parliament that democratic renewal in this country so desperately needs.

11.35 am

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) on securing this debate. It takes place not just as a result of the report "Rebuilding the House", by the Select Committee on which I served, but against the backdrop of the MPs' expenses scandal, which is not going away. Part of the reason is that there
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is a much wider democratic deficit. I had hoped that the report would address it, but it has failed absolutely to do so, which is why I submitted a minority report. I am grateful for this opportunity to explain briefly why I did so.

One main reason why I thought that the report missed the mark slightly is that we never defined at any point what we meant by reform. Unless we have a clear idea of what it is we mean by reform or modernisation-there is lots of talk about modernisation as well-it is perfectly possible that I could be discussing something completely different from any other Member of the House. Also, we must define our purpose. What do we want our Parliament to do, and therefore, what do we see our role to be as Members of this House?

None of those questions was really addressed. Although the report is important-it considers Select Committees, the question of who scrutinises business and how best to do so-those are details. Unless the context is much wider and we consider exactly what we do and why we do it, we could end up making things worse rather than better. One key element of the report that many Members have spoken about today-it has also been discussed in the Committee and elsewhere-is wresting control away from the Executive. We may all agree that the Executive has too much control, but how we wrest it away from them and who we give it to is a key issue not addressed in the report.

The proposal for a House business Committee-not a Back-Bench business Committee, which I support-to determine who controls Government time in the House would give such decisions to a group of seven sensible Back Benchers elected by secret ballot of the whole House, but it could make the situation worse. We did not go into detail about how we would do so and exactly what the outcomes would be, but they could be dangerous.

I will be brief, because I intervened on my hon. Friend many times. I think that we all agree that Select Committees are good. They are the one thing that enhances the reputation of the House. Again, I urge caution. What are we proposing, and why are we proposing it? What are we trying to improve? Gwyneth Dunwoody and Lord Anderson, formerly MP for Swansea, East- I was not a Member of the House at the time, but I remember watching from outside-became members and Chairs of their Select Committees, so even though the system was imperfect, it worked.

I am worried that by saying, "We don't think it works well enough; let's do something completely different, like having an election by secret ballot of the whole House," we might make things worse. We have not thought through the consequences. The only time when we hold a secret ballot of the whole House is to elect the new Speaker, and many Opposition Members felt that, like it or not, somebody whom they found unpalatable was foisted on them by a Government majority. Given that this is a party political institution and that we tend to revert to type, what guarantee is there that we would not do so when electing Select Committee Chairmen?

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I partly agree with my hon. Friend. However, it is not fair that certain Members, who have been democratically elected, are blocked from ever joining a Select Committee because they are independently minded.

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Natascha Engel: I do not know the details of individuals who have been blocked. I was elected in 2005, which was quite late in the 12 years of Labour Government.

The current issue with Select Committees is filling the spaces because there is no mad clamour to serve on them. There are four or five big, sexy Select Committees that everyone wants to be on, including the Home Affairs Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Treasury Committee. Members will not put their names down for any number of other Select Committees, and cannot be persuaded to do so for love nor money.

If Select Committee members are elected by the House by secret ballot, how can we ensure that there is an adequate gender balance, the right amount of age and experience, and a regional mix? The Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons considered that in detail and it is not possible. Through the gain of making Select Committees more democratic, something else would be taken away. We must caution against making the situation, which we all agree is not perfect, an awful lot worse because we might not be able to go back to the system that we think works okay. Nothing is perfect.

Finally, I will make a point that I made time and again on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. It is six months before a general election. As other hon. Members have said, there will be an unprecedented number of new MPs and they will have fresh ideas on what to do. They will have fought an election against the backdrop of the MPs' expenses scandal and will have to have an idea of how Parliament can be reformed. If we go too far down the line of House business committees deciding who controls what bits of time, we risk tying the hands of the future generation, which is not fair. I would welcome the opportunity to debate this in greater detail on the Floor of the House, but I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few brief points today.

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