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15 Dec 2009 : Column 215WH—continued

Access to the agenda of the House is a key area, and not just for the public. I absolutely agree with hon. Members who have said that the public should have a way of influencing what we discuss, but Back Benchers, Opposition parties and Members who have a genuine interest in bringing a matter forward, must have better access to the agenda. It is in that regard that the proposed business Committee becomes so important, but it is the one area on which I have doubts about the Select Committee's recommendations, because I would prefer a single business Committee. There should be a business Committee-I have no doubt whatever about
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that-because that is transparently what works in other legislatures, yet we leave it to the Executive to decide what we debate, which I find extraordinary.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned public participation. Is he at all attracted by Simon Cowell's idea for an "X Factor" approach, not on whether we should have Gordy from Cowdenbeath, Dave from the home counties or Nicky from south Yorkshire as our leader, but on particular and specific issues? Would that not go some way towards engaging the public in the important things we discuss here?

Mr. Heath: I think that there might be more sophisticated ways of achieving the same result, and I am not desperately attracted to "The X Factor", but I think that the principle must be right.

Natascha Engel: The hon. Gentleman said he supports the proposal for a business Committee. Is that a business Committee for Back-Bench business or for House business?

Mr. Heath: My personal view is that it would be a Committee for all business of the House. I believe that we scrutinise expenditure extraordinarily badly. On the days on which we are supposed to deal with estimates, the one thing we do not discuss is the estimates. It is extraordinary that we devote a minimal amount of time, with minute participation, to eye-wateringly large amounts of taxpayers' money. That is what we are there to scrutinise on those days, but we do such a poor job of it. That problem is not fully addressed in the Committee's report. It does deal with control of Select Committees, which is an important issue, but, in the great scheme of things, not the most important issue. However, it is certainly something on which we should make progress.

Private Members' business is important, as it is about re-establishing respect for the role of the individual Member in the House and for the idea that we are here as legislators and we have things to say on behalf of our constituents. It is for Parliament to determine whether what we have to say is relevant in the wider statute book, rather than for a single member of the Government-a Whip-to shout "Object" and ruin many months of detailed work.

The report has produced a draft resolution for the consideration of the House, so the question is this: why on earth are the Government not simply putting that draft resolution before the House? They said that that was a matter of urgency, but they have dillied and dallied for weeks. They have written to me and to the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), the shadow Leader of the House, whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber, and asked what we think about the matter. It is not for me alone to think about those issues, but for the House to think about them. I believe that that resolution should be put before the House and that we should have a debate on it, because there is still detailed work to be done on making changes to Standing Orders if the House agrees to the draft resolution, as I hope it will. The most important issue before the House is how we make Parliament work effectively. It is a matter of urgency, of massive import and cannot be delayed.

There was a Roman senator-I believe it was Cato the Censor-who used to finish every debate with "Carthago delenda est": Carthage must be destroyed. If
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I had the same discipline, I would end every speech with "Standing Order No. 14 delenda est". We must remove that Standing Order to give back control of this House to its Members, not the people who serve as Ministers, who should not have that responsibility.

12.9 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) on securing this debate and on his contribution. I would like to put on the record the valuable work that he has done prior to this debate. He was the founder of, and then an assiduous contributor to the cross-party efforts of, Parliament First, which for some time has been advocating reform of how we do our business. Among its publications was a report in April 2003, "Parliament's Last Chance". While the title may have seemed a little apocalyptic at the time, perhaps with hindsight the sentiments were not so wrong.

May I also congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and all the other members of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee on their efforts in producing their report, especially given the relatively short time they had to do it?

In the wake of revelations concerning Members' allowances and expenses, Parliament's reputation has reached a low ebb. Therefore, any proposals for reform must be considered in the light of enhancing public confidence in Parliament and its Members. The revelations shattered many people's faith in our political system, but it is fair to say that the cracks in our institution had been growing for many years.

Before touching on the report's specific recommendations, it is worth highlighting the Government's record to date. I am happy to give credit where it is due. On the constitutional front, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have received widespread support, and there is some expectation that the Northern Ireland Assembly will help to deliver a lasting peace settlement. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has helped to make Parliament and the Executive more open and accountable, while some of the working practices of the Commons have been brought up to 21st-century standards, certainly in terms of being in tune with modern family life. Those changes are welcome, and if we were in government we would keep them.

However, welcome though those changes are, and leaving devolution aside, the changes introduced since 1997 have not substantially changed the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. In fact, they have tilted it in favour of the Executive. For example, we have the use of the automatic guillotine, control by the Whips of nominations to Select Committees, unacceptable delays in obtaining timely and proper replies from Ministers when Members ask oral and written questions, and regular briefings to the media on statements before a word has been uttered in the House-for example, today's announcement by the Defence Secretary.

Martin Salter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vara: I am afraid I will not. As I have very limited time, I must press on.

The Defence Secretary briefed the "Today" programme prior to a statement. The Freedom of Information Act
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has helped, but there is still much more that needs to be done before we can truly say that we are connecting with the public.

A week after the Prime Minister's coronation in July 2007, he spoke of entrusting

He also spoke of reducing the power of the Executive and of increasing their accountability. Those fine words were of course welcomed by all, but as has happened so often, the Government simply failed to follow through. Even the reforms we are discussing today are not from a Government initiative. Instead, they stem from a letter written by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase to the Prime Minister in which he suggested setting up the Reform of the House of Commons Committee.

The absence of any genuine desire for reform is also illustrated by the shambles that is the Modernisation Committee, which has not met for 18 months. As well as being chaired by a Minister, one of its last actions was to force through proposals for Regional Select Committees. That was done despite the objections of the Opposition parties; they were forced through on the casting vote of the Leader of the House.

In contrast with the Government's dithering and procrastination, my party has shown real leadership. We have been calling for reform of the Commons for some time. In February 2006, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, established the Conservative party's democracy taskforce under the chairmanship of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Also serving on that committee were my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). The taskforce's report called for radical changes to how Parliament operates, and I am pleased that many of its proposals have been adopted by the Wright Committee.

For example, in May my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made a speech in which he stressed the need for Select Committee Members and Chairmen to be elected. Select Committees are an important part of parliamentary scrutiny, but the undue influence of party Whips on membership is a matter of concern. The last time reform in this area was seriously pressed was in 2003 by the late Robin Cook, who was then Leader of the House. He was outmanoeuvred by his own party Whips and voted down in the House on a recommendation of the Modernisation Committee, of which he was Chairman.

Put simply, Select Committee chairmanships should not be offered as rewards for party loyalty. The situation encountered in 2001, when Government Whips attempted to remove two Select Committee Chairmen who were seen as "difficult" to their own party, should not be allowed to happen again. We should have Select Committee Chairmen and members who enjoy the support and confidence of the House. They should be the best people for the job. At times, that may be inconvenient for the Opposition and the Government, but it is the way forward.

We agree that Deputy Speakers should be elected, and we look forward to considering the Procedure Committee's recommendations in the not too distant future.

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The proposals regarding petitions are especially welcome and long overdue. Again, they follow proposals previously made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Other more radical comments regarding the triggering of debate or legislation after a certain number of signatures have been received are also welcome. The Committee is right to caution against the effect that such changes may have on the operation of the House, but, if implemented correctly, they would help in the process of reconnecting the Commons with the public.

However, we would go further. We have specifically said that we would introduce citizens' initiatives: if a petition to Parliament secures 100,000 signatures, there should be a formal debate, and if members of the public are backed by a petition of 1 million electors, they should be able to table a Bill to be presented and voted on in Parliament.

We have also called for the House to have more control over its own business. Of course, the Government have the right to pursue their legislative agenda according to what has been set out in their manifesto, but that does not mean they should control the whole timetable. It is important to allow MPs proper time to debate. One of the Government's most retrograde parliamentary innovations has been the use of programme motions for every Bill. They have stifled debate and resulted in numerous instances where new clauses and amendments tabled to Bills have simply not been debated; for example, that happened with the recent Equality Bill.

The way in which proposals will be implemented is almost as important as the changes themselves. It is clear that some can be introduced immediately, such as changes to how petitions are presented. However, as the report says, any changes would have to be implemented in stages. That is sensible, and we need to ensure that the implementation of any new Standing Orders does not inhibit the ability of a new Parliament to hit the ground running.

But we should go much further. The Wright Committee was constrained by its terms of reference. Members will of course be aware that much time was wasted at the outset, not least because of changes to the original motion, but that should not stop the process of ensuring that Parliament is reformed further to serve the public better. For example, we would like to see the abolition of wasteful Regional Select Committees, a reduction in the size of the Commons and equalisation of constituency sizes, a vast improvement in the scrutiny of European Union legislation, a cut in the overall cost of politics and a determined effort to resolve the West Lothian question so that only English MPs can vote on wholly English matters. Those and other measures are necessary if we are really to reform Parliament and make its processes and procedures fit for the 21st century.

To conclude, my party has been leading on this matter for some time. We welcome the majority of the proposals in the report, but we must ensure that changes and their implementation are made in an appropriate and achievable way. This is not the end of the line but only a station stop along the track of necessary reform and modernisation. In last week's business questions, several Members spoke of having a full day's debate on the report. I very much hope that this short debate will
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not constitute a whole day's debate or, indeed, a contribution to it. Moreover, will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that every effort will be made to ensure that no ministerial statements and the like interfere on the day? Will she also clarify a particular point from last week's business questions, when the Leader of the House spoke of responding to the debate? Will she confirm that there will be a statement, either written or oral, followed by a proper debate?

The Government have asked the Opposition parties for their views on the report. Will the Deputy Leader of the House take my contribution today as our response to the Wright report? We look forward to hearing from the Minister about what the Government's view is on the report.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood, and that of Mr. Atkinson earlier in the debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) on securing this debate and on opening it so well. It is an important issue for the House to discuss: we can see that from the number of contributions. I counted about 17 hon. Members at certain points in the debate, although slightly fewer are present now.

As this debate has developed in the House, I have been grateful for the chance to listen to the views of all hon. Members who have contributed to it, including today the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)-always difficult to pronounce-and for Castle Point (Bob Spink), my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry), my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Reading, West (Martin Salter), my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), and the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen, the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara).

As many hon. and right hon. Members have said, reform of the House is a broad, important subject, but it is not new: it is a continual process and we should regard it as such. There should be change as procedures become outdated or new systems develop. I support a number of the reforms that have been advanced by both the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee since 1997. Indeed, it was recently 10 years since Westminster Hall started to be used as the parallel Chamber, and it is useful, as we have seen today, in allowing debates that are open to all hon. Members. The Modernisation Committee recommended establishing this room as a second debating Chamber. That change was not met with support throughout the whole House. It is interesting to note that our current Speaker was a key opponent of that reform. But I think that we can agree, particularly today, that this change has been a successful innovation.

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Other reforms brought about by the Modernisation Committee have been important too, including changes to the sitting hours of the House and deferred Divisions. We do not always want to find ourselves-particularly those hon. Members with children-voting at 11.20 pm or 11.40 pm, as we did last night: that is not family-friendly. Another reform is the introduction of core tasks for Select Committees. More recently we have had topical questions and topical debates, which hon. Members have mentioned. As with the use of Westminster Hall for wider debates, topical questions and debates will be reviewed in terms of how they are working. I think most hon. Members would agree that the topical questions innovation is working.

Recently, we debated the House of Commons annual report, although that debate was not as well attended as this one, and discussed the importance of public engagement and involvement. There were not many contributions on that matter today, but it is a vital part of what we need to develop in our reform agenda.

Another change stemming from the Modernisation Committee was the report that set up the Regional Select and Regional Grand Committees. I defend the Regional Select Committees and particularly the Regional Grand Committees that met throughout the summer. I read the reports of those Committees, in which some useful debates were held, particularly on factors such as the economic downturn.

Martin Salter: Does my hon. Friend not realise that there is a distinct danger of those hon. Members who served on the Reform Committee beginning to self-harm if we have to listen to any more canters through the wonders of the Conservative party democracy taskforce or the history of the Modernisation Committee? Does she not agree that we want to hear whether both Opposition and Government Front Benchers are signed up to the Wright Committee recommendations? We had a non-response from the Conservatives; will we get a proper response from her?

Barbara Keeley: I will come to that. [Hon. Members: "When?"] I will touch on further changes-[Interruption.]

Mr. Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I ask hon. Members to calm down and let the Minister finish her speech.

Barbara Keeley: There have been some important changes and reforms. It is important, as we look forward, not to lose sight of the fact that there have been some good reforms that have helped matters.

The systems of pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny give a more systematic approach to scrutinising Bills. I understand that there are issues regarding the scheduling of Report stage and so on, which hon. Members have raised, but we have got better at our task of scrutiny: the current Bribery Bill is one example of that. Post-legislative scrutiny memorandums have also helped.

The Equality Bill, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, was complicated legislation that replaced eight former pieces of discrimination legislation. Although perhaps not all the processes helped, some of them, including interleaving the easy-read guide, helped hon. Members and the public to work on the Bill. Those things are important.

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