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15 Dec 2009 : Column 209WH—continued

11.42 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The confidence that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) has in the Whips and the usual channels is touching. When she has been here for a few more years, perhaps she will catch the embittered cynicism of some of us who have been here for a long time. I will be brief because other hon. Members want to speak.

I challenge hon. Members to consider one point. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) said that there should be a balance between Government time, Back-Bench scrutiny and representing the wishes of the general public. If there is to be effective scrutiny, we often require the Executive to share information with us. If they do not do so, we are incapable of making judgments.

I wonder how many hon. Members who voted for the war on Iraq would have done so if they had known what we all know now. The House was entirely dependent on the information given to it by the Executive. [Interruption.] Well, some of us voted against it. I voted against it as I believed that it was against international law because it did not have UN backing. That was a simple position to take. Many colleagues from all parts of the House felt compelled to support the Government because they genuinely believed that Saddam Hussein
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had weapons of mass destruction that he could deploy within 45 minutes and so forth. Unless we work out ways to ensure that the Executive are honest and straightforward with the House, it will always be difficult to scrutinise them because we will be hobbled.

I will give a simple example. When the issue is whether the nation should go to war, I see no justification for the Attorney-General's advice to the Government not being shared with the House. Either it is legal to go to war or it is not. One of the most shameful aspects of the Iraq saga, which I am sure the Chilcot inquiry will highlight, is the way in which Lord Goldsmith was effectively bludgeoned into producing advice that satisfied the Prime Minister. Independent legal advisers to the Government should be allowed to be independent. It appears that when Lord Goldsmith put in writing an opinion to Government that was hostile and said that the war was not lawful, he was punished by being excluded from Cabinet meetings until he produced an opinion that satisfied the Prime Minister. Almost the day before British troops were deployed, he said that it was lawful. As Sir Jeremy Greenstock, our permanent representative to the UN at the time, was obliged to say to the Chilcot inquiry, this was not a legitimate war, but it was legal. That is not a distinction that lawyers really understand.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): If we had an independent Parliament, it could have reconvened in that long summer. As it happened, some of us created our own parliament, which forced the Government to allow Parliament to be recalled. Secondly, an independent Parliament could have commissioned its own legal advice, which the Clerks have informed me was not possible. We could then have taken a view on whether the proposed war was legal.

Tony Baldry: The hon. Gentleman, who has been persistent on this issue-quite sensibly, he has tabled items on the Order Paper and campaigned elsewhere-makes some extremely good points. The Iraq conflict demonstrated that the House cannot entirely trust the Executive, who often have their own imperatives, desires and objectives. If a Government command a large majority in the House, irrespective of which party they represent, there is always a temptation to use the majority to get their business through.

[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]

I conclude with a quotation from Ken Macdonald, who was the Director of Public Prosecutions for five years from 2003 to 2008. It is a damning indictment not just of Tony Blair, but of Parliament as an institution:

We have to accept that that subterfuge and deceit was perpetrated on Parliament and that we did not have the effective means, tools or mechanisms to discover what was truly happening. We did not even have the basic legal advice that was given to the Government as providing legitimacy for the war.

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From my 26 years in the House, what happened with Iraq causes me the greatest concern, because as an institution we were sucked into something that many of us will regret for the rest of our lives. Any reforms of the institution must ensure that such a thing never happens again.

11.49 am

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I can give him some comfort. I have just done a quick count around the Chamber and a clear majority of Members did not vote for the Iraq war. Let us glory in our purity for a few moments. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. It was a pleasure to serve on that Committee and work with colleagues on it.

I shall respond to some of the issues raised and then make a couple of points. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) that he should beware of giving too much praise either to the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House, because thus far the reaction to and reception of our report has been lukewarm. The Prime Minister is on the record as saying that he fully supports some of the recommendations, and the Leader of the House has yet to give us time for either a debate or a decision-a substantive vote-on the report. So the pressure needs to be put on not just my Front Benchers but Conservative Front Benchers-I say that to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). As someone who has organised many events in this place, I assure him that dark forces are gathering and manoeuvrings are taking place.

Opposition Front Benchers' enthusiasm for reform is wilting as the day of the general election gets closer, because all Governments like to control everything and feel that they have to be control freaks. It is part of our job to challenge that, whoever forms the next Government. I want to challenge the notion that we can somehow do our job better with fewer MPs. I ask hon. Members to reflect on the arguments they have made. What they are saying is that too often we are super-councillors, we are doing too much casework, we should be doing more scrutiny, and we should therefore have bigger constituencies and do less casework. That does not necessarily add up, because there may be some transitional problems. People might want to think their arguments on that through.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for whom I have huge affection, that I utterly reject her minority report. I thought it was a cop-out and that it merely talked about transferring the decision-making process to another Parliament. That report did not address the clear terms of reference that were set up for our Committee to a very tight time scale, which the Committee addressed. We did not have time to dance on the head of a pin concerning what we mean by reform or anything else.

With due respect, I say to my hon. Friend that she should beware of being sucked into the arguments that were given to us in the evidence from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), the former Chief Whip. She gave us a
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staggering thesis that basically went along the lines of, "It's all in the manifesto and it's the Government's job to get that through, so what are you doing here?" I am not entirely sure that we are paid £64,000 a year merely to nod through what is in a manifesto without any element of parliamentary scrutiny. We need to be careful about going down that road.

On the comments of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who is sadly not in this Chamber now, I absolutely support getting rid of MPs' second jobs and moonlighting-in fact, I proposed a private Member's Bill on that issue back in 2007. If we contrast the top 50 outside earners in this place with their voting records, it is clear that the public lose out in that regard.

On the recommendations of the reform Committee itself, we considered three issues. We passed over the matter of the election of the Deputy Speaker, but I very much support the principle of that, particularly the election of the Chairman of Ways and Means, who may have a key role to play in a future business Committee. That matter has been passed to the Select Committee on Procedure and, again, its recommendations need to be implemented sooner rather than later.

We also considered the election of Select Committee Chairs. In 2001, a fiasco occurred within the parliamentary Labour party because of the Executive's attempts to determine who their scrutineers were and to decide that Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody were too good at their jobs and would therefore be excluded from the list of people put forward for the Select Committee. The parliamentary Labour party for once was not a poodle, and it rose up. As a result, we brought our internal democracy into that process, and the elected Back-Bench Members in the PLP had a say in the names put forward. We are relatively content with our internal system and I commend it to other parties.

We grappled with the notion of electing every single place on a Select Committee, which would be very difficult to do. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire: in the context of a new Parliament, how are we going to weigh up the credentials of one newly elected MP against another? I am not sure that I would want to say who the 11th member of a Select Committee should be from a particular party. That is a matter for the parties themselves.

If we agree the balance-the public decide that as a result of the number of MPs from different parties who are sent here-it is for the parties themselves to come forward with a sensible, coherent and transparent system. However, it is for the House to decide who the Chairs of those Select Committees should be. Let us be honest: the Select Committee Chairs are not going to be newly elected Members of the House; they will be people with some experience who have a contribution to make. It is healthy for us to have that internal debate, but there is no doubt that the type of people who will triumph in those elections will be those who have shown independence of spirit and who really are formidable scrutineers. It is those people whom we need to chair our Select Committees.

The case for the House to have control over its own business is overwhelming, particularly regarding non-governmental time. I would like us to go further. The farce of private Members' Bills is currently an exercise in using up time. We march the non-governmental organisations and lobby groups up to the top of the hill, and an inordinate amount of time, paper and rain forest
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is wasted in debating matters that will never get through, because a Government Whip can stand up on a Friday morning and shout, "Object." For goodness' sake, we have to be better than that. We have to have something better than a system of institutionalised filibustering, which is effectively how a lot of our time and energy is wasted. I would like us to go further in terms of the House controlling its own business.

A small part of the report that I had some influence on concerns how the public can be better engaged in what goes on in this place. Currently, early-day motions are no more than political graffiti. We sign too many of them, there are too many of them and they are on too many subjects. I would like early-day motions to be limited and a system introduced-we allude to this in the report-whereby if an EDM gathers support from across the House in sufficient numbers, a debate can take place on the Floor of the House.

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Martin Salter: No, I will not. The public could then genuinely engage and drive some of the discussions that we have in this place.

During the summer it was my privilege to visit Australia, where they have some interesting mechanisms. Select Committee reports are debated on the day of publication, and there are three-minute constituency statements through which Members of Parliament can make a statement on a matter of import. Topical debates are decided not by the Government but by the House as a whole. I see this process as just the start. I want the report to be implemented now and a process set up, so that reform can continue on into the next Parliament and into the Parliament after that.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I hope to call Front Benchers to give the winding-up speeches around 12 noon. With that in mind, I call Michael Meacher.

11.57 am

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): In the brief time available, I want strongly to support the recommendations from the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. My objection is that the Committee was not allowed to go far enough, so I shall build on those foundations.

First, it is essential not only that the Chair and members of Select Committees are kept free of the influence of the party managers, but-even more importantly-that the main recommendations of major reports by Select Committees in the course of a year are debated and voted on on the Floor of the House. I would like the Liaison Committee to be given the power to select some of those reports, so that there can be a vote on the Floor of the House on a substantive motion that reflects its recommendations.

Secondly, I support the call made for Members to elect their own business Committee. There is no question but that, over time, the Executive have encroached increasingly on the rights of Members of the House, until they can do little more than rubber stamp what the Executive want without any prior consultation with the
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legislature. Thirdly, it has traditionally been the practice for members of the public to petition Parliament. That has largely fallen into desuetude, because there is certainly no guarantee that such petitions receive proper consideration or, indeed, any consideration at all. I therefore support the idea of a public petitions Committee, which would hand every petition either to a Select Committee for consideration, to the relevant Minister for action, or to the proposed business Committee for consideration for debate on the Floor of the House. To improve the public's sense of engagement, it would be a good idea if a petitions Committee rotated its meetings around the country, as, indeed, is already the case with the Public Petitions Committee in the Scottish Parliament.

Again, as happens in some other countries, there is a strong case for allowing petitions that have attracted the signatures of a significant proportion of the electorate- 5 per cent. or whatever threshold we choose-automatically to have the right to be debated on the Floor of the House and be voted on. That does not, of course, preclude the tabling of amendments or the House reaching whatever decision it may make.

I would have liked the Committee to have been given the right to go further. In particular, I think that Parliament should have the right to adopt its own commissions of inquiry when it considers that to be appropriate and necessary and, indeed, that it should have the right, when a Prime Minister proposes a committee of inquiry, to ratify that decision before the committee begins work. Similarly, I believe that Cabinet Ministers should be subject to ratification by the appropriate Select Committee of the House. That might seem a revolutionary proposal, but it is exactly what happens in congressional confirmation hearings in the United States.

Finally, as other Members have pointedly asked, when do the Government propose a debate and vote on the Committee's proposals? Will the terms of that debate encapsulate the draft resolution proposed by the Committee, incorporating all its proposals, and will there be a vote signifying the House's decision to go ahead with the reforms straight away before the election? It would be helpful if the Minister could give clear and definite answers to those questions.

12.1 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) on securing the debate and on his comments, and other Members on their comments as well.

The report, "Rebuilding the House", opens with a quote from Sir Robert Worcester:

You can say that again. There has been no such disquiet in recent times about the state of our politics and our Parliament. Although the expenses scandals are part of that, let us not confuse what is symptomatic with what is causative. The problem is that people do not know what Members of Parliament are for, and if they do know what they are for, they know that we are not doing the job in the way they would want it done. That means that we must reform our political processes to make them more effective and relevant. It is instructive that those newspapers that were most vocal on the inadequacies of Parliament were unable to devote a single column inch to the Committee's report when it
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was published. They do not want to see Parliament made more effective, but I am happy that some Members do.

I believe that there is a much wider agenda on democratic renewal, which other Members have touched on today. It would not be appropriate in this debate to discuss all the things I believe we should be looking at, but they include fixed-term Parliaments, the way in which we are elected to the House, the funding of political parties, which I spent six months discussing with colleagues and which has resulted in very little, and reform of the House of Lords, which I spent another six months discussing with other parties and which also resulted in very little. That agenda would include proper devolution and subsidiarity so that we move power to local government in this country and from the European level to the national level.

Today, however, we are concentrating on Executive control of our legislature. We ought to recognise-those who do not should look at other Parliaments around the world-that this country is almost unique in having a Parliament dominated by the Executive. It is within our power to address that issue, if only colleagues from all parties in the House recognised the need to do so. It is within our power to address it, but we only have the opportunity to do so if the Executive allow it. That is the conundrum at the heart of the matter: we can change the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature only if the Executive let us do so, and we need to look at that.

I do not believe that the Committee's report answers all the questions. It is a good report, but the Committee was constrained by its terms of reference and the time frame within which it was required to report, so there are issues with which its report does not deal. However, it does deal with much of what is going wrong. For instance, it questions what happens to Bills on Report. It is a catastrophe for the House that large and important Bills, often dealing with matters literally of life and death, pass unscrutinised to another place so that it can do the job that we in the elected House should be doing. That is an outrage.

Even when Bills are brought before us that we are told will set a paradigm for the way in which such matters will be treated in future, that is not the case. When the Equality Bill was recently introduced in Parliament, the Leader of the House told us that it would be an example of the way to do it. Well, it was an example of the way we do do it, because half of it was not scrutinised on Report and was passed to the other House for it to do the job we should be doing.

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