Previous Section Index Home Page

22 Feb 2010 : Column 36

Points of Order

4.16 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to trouble you yet again, but can you help me please? Recently, Tories visited my constituency improperly for the fifth time without informing me-this time it was the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). They are ignoring your injunctions. They are either incompetent or wilfully and arrogantly holding your authority in contempt, and they are insulting Castle Point people, who expect us in this House to act with decency.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The convention is clear, and I have reiterated it on innumerable occasions. The hon. Gentleman has made his point with his customary force. It is on the record and I dare say that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) will have heard it. I think that I need add nothing more. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If Members do not use up the 12-minute limit that you have imposed on speeches in the main debate or if fewer Members than anticipated speak, will that limit fall?

Mr. Speaker: It is always a slightly tricky business to seek to get ahead of oneself and to deal with a question that, at this stage, is hypothetical. It is not for me to have views, as the hon. Lady knows, but perhaps I can just speculate that in the light of the number of people who have expressed an interest in contributing to the debate, the scenario that she outlines seems unlikely to materialise. I think that we will leave it at that for the time being. We will proceed to the main business.

22 Feb 2010 : Column 37

Report from the House of Commons Reform Committee on Rebuilding the House

[ Relevant documents: The First Report from the Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, Session 2008-09, on Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, and the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Committee on 10 February 2010, HC 372-i.The First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 2009-10, on Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, HC 272.]

Mr. Speaker: As the House will be aware, I have imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. I hope that the House will also understand that that limit will apply after the contribution by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I call the Leader of the House.

4.18 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,

This is going to be an important day in the history of reform of this House. If, as I hope, we take forward the reforms which we are debating today, this will be the most far-reaching package of reforms that has ever been agreed. We will debate the reforms today, and then we will return to these issues next week, on 4 March, to vote.

The House needs reform to give more power to Back Benchers and to give the House more power over the Government. And the House needs reform to help restore its reputation, which has been battered by the expenses revelations.

This is House business; it is not Government business. When we come to vote on Thursday next week, it will be a free vote for Labour Members, not a whipped vote.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House spell out in a little more detail how she envisages our business on next Thursday will be conducted? Will this be our sole business, followed by a vote, or will there be topical debates and other business beforehand? I know that the right hon. and learned Lady will agree that not only must there be a free vote, but as many Members as possible should vote, and it would therefore be extremely helpful if we were to have as much notice about this as possible.

Ms Harman: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I can get on with explaining how I want to take this business forward, and I hope I will be able to answer most questions before they are asked.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave you advance notice of a matter relating to Standing Order No. 24B that causes me a good deal of concern. I tried to table a manuscript amendment because it seems to me that we must be able to ensure that an amendment can be put to this motion in order to guarantee that the Standing Orders are not simply with the Executive, but revert to the Speaker himself. I would be grateful if you would take that point on board, Mr. Speaker, because it lies at the heart of the debate we are about to engage in.

22 Feb 2010 : Column 38

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter, although I am not sure that I am all together grateful to him for raising it when he did, as the debate has already begun and, although the hon. Gentleman is not technically out of order, it is a little discourteous to raise a point of order when the Leader of the House has already started her speech. I hope we will not see a repetition of that, but let me address this matter as I understand it. I understand that the hon. Gentleman did, indeed, seek to table an amendment to the motion on the Order Paper, and what I say to him is that I think he will know from his extensive knowledge of procedure that Standing Order No. 24B provides that when such a motion is tabled

I hope the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his substantive point later in the debate. Meanwhile, however, I call the Leader of the House.

Ms Harman: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

As I was saying, this is House business, not Government business, and when we come to vote on Thursday next week, from our side it will be a free vote, not a whipped vote. However, I want to set out to the House-

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Ms Harman: I think it might be helpful if I get on with delivering my short speech, because, at the end of the day, it is for all hon. Members not to ask me what I think, but to work out for themselves what they think about the motions on the Order Paper. I will therefore press on with my speech, and then the right hon. Gentleman will be able to work out for-

Sir Alan Beith rose-

Ms Harman: I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way to any other Member.

Sir Alan Beith: I am very grateful to the Leader of the House, as what I want to say relates precisely to the point she has just raised. She said this would not be a whipped vote. We have had votes before that were said not to be whipped votes, but at which people bearing a striking resemblance to Government Whips were visible outside the Lobby giving general directions to Government party Members as to where they would like them to go. Will that happen on this occasion?

Ms Harman: This is not going to be a whipped vote; it will be a free vote. If people want to accept advice from dear friends and colleagues of any political party, they can do so, but the serious point here is that this will not be a whipped vote. I should also point out that in some of the votes to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, he will have seen that different members of the Government went into a different Lobby and, indeed, different members of the Whips Office went into a different Lobby, so the fact that there might be lively debate at the entrance to the Lobby does not mean votes are not free votes. I want it to be absolutely clear that, from our side, this will be a free vote, not a whipped vote, and there is nothing mysterious about that.

22 Feb 2010 : Column 39

I want to set out to the House my views, in particular on the four key recommendations of the House of Commons Reform Committee. Before the general election, I want us to have done the following: to have approved and put in place plans to elect Chairs of Select Committees by secret ballot and to elect members of Select Committees by each party in the House by a secret ballot; to have provided for Members' motions, where Members can table a debate on a motion that the House will vote on; and to have established a Committee of the House to decide on Back-Bench business. Those are the four key recommendations of the House of Commons Reform Committee that I would like the House to take through. These measures will mark a major step forward in the process of reform that has been under way over the past years, and which was given new impetus by the Prime Minister in his statement of 3 July 2007, when he said:

This process of reform has-

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): I am sorry to interrupt, because I know that my right hon. and learned Friend wishes to be brief in order to allow hon. Members to contribute. I believe that underlying much of the report without being mentioned-I have said this to the Committee-is the slippery slope to the separation of powers. Will she reaffirm that she and others in the Government do not want to see the Executive removed from this House and do not want to see the future of this House put in the hands of personalities who do not have the loyalty to values that they told their electorate they came in to share?

Ms Harman: I do not think that the proposals from the Committee, which I am supporting, are the slippery slope to the separation of powers; what they are is an opportunity for this House to hold the Government more to account and to help in the work of this House.

Indeed, that process of reform has brought major changes over the past 13 years, including improvements in the process of legislation. Such improvements have included: Bills being published in draft, thus enabling pre-legislative scrutiny; Bill Committees taking evidence in public sessions before they deliberate on a Bill; and the establishment of a new system of post-legislative scrutiny, so that we check on the impact of legislation that the House has passed.

The changes have involved more power for Back Benchers, through their being able to ask a Minister questions without giving notice; through the election of the Speaker by secret ballot; through the Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs questioning the Prime Minister twice a year; and through the strengthening of Select Committees by increasing research resources and by paying Select Committee Chairs.

Progress has been made on getting greater public involvement in and understanding of this House. That has come about through a big improvement in our education and information programmes, and by allowing
22 Feb 2010 : Column 40
the UK Youth Parliament to meet in this Chamber. I hope we can build on that by letting other organisations, for example, the pensioners annual convention, to meet in our Chamber when we are not sitting.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con) rose-

Ms Harman: No, I am not going to give way.

Improvements have been made to the way in which the House works, for example, we now have an earlier start and an earlier finish on two days of the week-we could still make more progress on this, and perhaps we will when the new Members arrive after the next election. We also now have an Order Paper that Members can understand and, thanks in large part to you, Mr. Speaker, we will at long last have a nursery for the children of Members and of House staff.

Mr. Tyrie rose-

Ms Harman: I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He really does not need to ask me any questions, because he can read the Order Paper, he can make his own speech and he can make up his own mind. I am sure that he has the answer to his own question.

So we are not starting from scratch. The proposals that the House will consider today and next week are not the beginning of reform, nor will they be the end of it. However, they are substantial reforms, and I should like warmly to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) for making the suggestion of setting up this Committee and for accepting the Prime Minister's invitation that he should chair it. I should also like to thank the members of the Committee for working hard in a short space of time.

I know that many Members are waiting to speak, so I will not speak at great length today. In addition, this is House business, so it is important for all Members from all parts of the House to have their say. Members will have had the chance to see my written ministerial statement of 9 February and some will have had the opportunity to hear the evidence that I gave to the House of Commons Reform Committee on 10 February, and I have had the opportunity on successive Thursdays at business questions to set out my views. The Deputy Leader of the House and I will listen carefully to the debate, but at the end of the day-or at least at the end of 4 March-this is a matter for the House, not the Government, and it is for the House itself to decide. The Government are facilitators here, not deciders. Because we want to see further reform of the House, we have taken this forward by doing the following: bringing the motion to the House to set up the House of Commons Reform Committee- that was a Government initiative-tabling motions on 5 February, again that was a Government initiative; tabling this debate today; and providing for the votes next week.

I want to say a few words about the process that I have set out for making progress. The Committee reported at the end of November last year. We then identified 21 proposals that could be turned into motions and we have accordingly tabled 16 motions to give effect to those 21 proposals. We tabled those motions 17 days before this debate to give plenty of time for hon. Members to consider them and to table and support amendments.

22 Feb 2010 : Column 41

I have told the House that, in particular, we want to see the four "big ticket" items taken forward. There are, therefore, on the Order Paper motions that would, if passed, mandate further work or give effect to those four big ticket items by making the changes to Standing Orders and other changes that are required. I thought that it was important to have those motions on the Order Paper today for three reasons. First, they constitute the Government's response to the Reform of the House of Commons Committee's report. Secondly, they frame the debate today. Thirdly, when we conclude the debate tonight we have the opportunity for at least some of the motions-if everyone agrees to them-to go through on the nod. By leaving the substantive votes to next week, I have spared the House the prospect of starting what might turn into a series of 20 or more votes at 10 o'clock tonight.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What is wrong with that?

Ms Harman: I do not think that it is in the interest of the House for us to be voting until 5 o'clock in the morning on these proposals. The hon. Gentleman should be reassured that any motions that are not agreed to tonight will be tabled as substantive motions for debate and vote on 4 March, and there will be a series of votes on those motions and on the amendments to them. We will have a full day's debate today. Any motions that are not objected to will become resolutions of the House.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): What about the resolutions that the right hon. and learned Lady has not tabled today to implement some of the Committee's recommendations? Will they be tabled on 4 March?

Ms Harman: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to outline in his speech the recommendation that he feels should be the subject of a motion, we can consider it and bring it to the House in a substantive motion. We have plenty of time to do that. If it is suitable, it could be tabled by way of an amendment. We have tabled these motions to say what the Government's position is-I think that it is fair enough that we should be able to set out our position-but there is nothing about this procedure that prevents other hon. Members from bringing issues that arise from the Wright report to the House for a vote. Hon. Members should be reassured about that. They will be able to vote on everything on which they want to vote that arises from the Committee's report not tonight but on Thursday week.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Lady can help us on this point. She will know that the major omission in the motions that she has tabled comes in motion 9, which concerns the Back-Bench business committee. She will know that an amendment has been tabled by myself and a great number of other colleagues from around the House to establish a House business committee. May I be clear about whether she supports that amendment and, if she accepts it, how we can make that happen under the procedure that she has adopted? The only way that we can debate and vote on that amendment is if we object to the first part of the motion, which many of us would not wish to do.

22 Feb 2010 : Column 42

Ms Harman: I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance on that. I was planning to deal with it later, so I shall carry on and, I hope, he and all other hon. Members will be reassured.

Any motions objected to will be tabled as substantive amendable motions for a short debate on 4 March and we will then vote on those motions and any amendments selected by the Speaker. Amendments have already been tabled-in particular an amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and 129 other hon. Members-to enable the House business committee to deal with Government business as well as non-Government business. As I said when I gave evidence to the Reform of the House of Commons Committee on 10 February, I think that the best way forward is to set up a House committee for non-Government business. The next step-a committee to set Government business-should be proceeded with subsequently and in the light of the experience of the non-Government business committee.

The Committee itself recognises, in paragraph 16 of its report, that the proposals

and that some

It also recognises the importance of building on experience of the changes.

The amendment to our motion setting up a House committee for non-Government business would approve the establishment of a House business committee for Government business

Next Section Index Home Page