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"during the course of the next Parliament",
and when it comes to the vote, I will vote for it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is concerned that there should be an opportunity to vote on something that the Government are not putting forward-that the House business committee should be able to put forward the agenda for the House in relation to Government business as well as non-Government business. As that is not one of the four main items that we are recommending to the House-[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Will hon. Members bear with me? We are trying to make our position clear. As that is not one of the four big ticket items that we want to see taken forward, we are not tabling it as a resolution, but we have seen the amendment and we assume that it will be selected as an amendment and can therefore be voted on. If it is selected, I will vote on it-[Hon. Members: "For it?"] I will vote for it, yes. What did I say? [Hon. Members: "On it."] I will vote for it. I want to reassure the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and other hon. Members that I understand full well that if 130 Members ask for a particular proposal from the Wright Committee report to be voted on, the House needs to be able to vote on it. I will make sure that the House can vote on it one way or another. If Mr. Speaker decides, at his discretion, to select it as an amendment, it will come to the House, and if he does not select it, a substantive motion will be tabled to ensure that it can be voted on. I will vote for it, but that does not mean that it is one of the four big things that the Government are urging the House to do.
All this might appear to some people to be nothing more than procedure and technicalities, but I believe that it is important. The relationship between the Government and the House of Commons is important.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am grateful to hear that the Minister will support the amendment-or words to the same effect-of which I am one of the sponsors, but would it not be sensible and less confusing if she were to table in her name, as a Minister, the wording on which all the sponsors agree? If she did that, we would not have to rely on it being selected as an amendment to something that might otherwise not be on Thursday's Order Paper if it is not objected to tonight. Would not it be clearer if she co-operated with the process, made it clear that she supports the measure and joined others in proposing it?
Ms Harman: I do not think that things need to be unclear. I have said that I will make sure that the issue comes to be voted on by the House-the issue being that there should be a House committee that will decide Government business. When we come to vote on that issue, all hon. Members will be able to decide for themselves, on a free vote, how to vote, and they should not find it confusing because it will be there on the Order Paper. We have not put the wording in a substantive motion because the motions that we have tabled are those that we support and urge the House to support. Other hon. Members have proposed that the House committee should deal with Government business as well as non-Government business, and I, as a Member of the House on a free vote, have said that I will support that amendment. Hon. Members should be reassured that, whether or not the issue comes to the House by way of an amendment to a substantive motion, if it looks as though it might not be selected or that we might not get to vote on it, on 4 March, I will arrange, as Leader of the House, for it to be voted on. I do not know how many times I must say that to make it absolutely clear. I recognise that there is a climate of suspicion. [ Interruption. ] There need not be a climate of suspicion-this is perfectly clear and straightforward-and it would be helpful to the House to realise what the Government are urging on the House and what other colleagues are urging on the House, and we can support their proposals or not, depending on the view that we take.
A lot of people outside the House might think that this is very procedural and technical-I should think that they would be encouraged in that thought by the last discussion that we have just had-but it is important because of the relationship between the Government and the House of Commons, and it is important to the House of Commons and to our democracy. It is important for public trust that a Government can implement the manifesto on which they were elected. There is keen public concern about Governments keeping their election promises. Although few, if any, of us have met someone on the doorstep who raises the matter of House of Commons procedures, people want an effective House of Commons, which scrutinises legislation and properly holds the Government to account.
This is House business, and we should work together on it. I look forward to hearing the shadow Leader of the House, and I hope that we can debate this in the spirit of House business. This is important for Back Benchers and Front Benchers and for hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that, together, we can take through these major reforms.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I respond to that challenge from the Leader of the House by saying that they do not come much more consensual than the shadow Leader of the House of Commons. We are grateful for this opportunity finally to debate these important reforms, although, of course, we will not be able to vote on them today. I agree with her that the report represents a chance for the House to change, and it is chance that we should seize.
We all acknowledge that the past year has been a disastrous one for Parliament, and I believe that there are two ingredients if we are to rebuild public confidence in this institution. Putting right the expenses scandal is one half, which has occupied much of our time. The other half is enabling Parliament to do its job better. A Parliament untainted by sleaze would be a step forward, but it needs to be accompanied by reforms that enable us to hold the Government to account more effectively and, indeed, to represent our constituents more effectively.
These opportunities come relatively infrequently, and we muffed the last one in 2002, when the Cook reforms to Select Committees were voted down. We can show the public today that we can be constructive and collaborative, not just confrontational and relentlessly partisan. In that spirit, I congratulate the cross-party Committee on Reform of the House of Commons on a landmark report that was produced in record time.
Hilary Armstrong: Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there are some problems with the Committee? It was elected by the different parties in the House, but because there had not been proper discussions beforehand, it ended up being fairly unrepresentative. [ Interruption. ] A Committee of 19, with only two women and no one from Scotland is simply not acceptable any more. If the House is to proceed with the recommendations, there must be ways to ensure that what he says is important-decent representation-is reflected in how we do these things.
I was congratulating the cross-party Committee on its report. In June last year, I welcomed the fact that the energies of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) would be applied to this subject; he is an experienced Chairman of Select Committees and that experience underpins much of the report. I had the pleasure to serve, briefly, on his Committee until I was persuaded to go elsewhere; had I remained on it, I am sure that I would have signed the report. I have a background of work on Democracy Task Force that has indicated my interest in and appetite for reform. On behalf of all my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I pay tribute to the Committee.
The Leader of the House is always keen to point out that there has been a continual process of what the Government like to call "modernisation" since 1997. I recognise that there have indeed been some real improvements to the working practices of the House. Westminster Hall has been a success. Public Bill Committees have benefited from formal evidence sessions. Our sitting
hours are less extraordinary and more amenable to family life. No one wants to return to all-night sittings. The Prime Minister's appearance before the Liaison Committee is another welcome innovation.
Parliament may have needed modernising, but it certainly needed strengthening, and some of the measures that modernised it also weakened it, such as the automatic guillotining of Bills. The reduced sitting hours were accompanied by an increase in legislation which we have been unable to digest. One source of the problems that we seek to address today was the creation of the Modernisation Committee, chaired not, as would be appropriate, by a senior Back Bencher, but by a Cabinet Minister-an arrangement that my party is committed to ending.
The Government said that that would allow Parliament to own the process, but it has not. It ensured that the Government dictated the pace of change. When it suited the Government, the reforms happened, and when it did not, they did not. The report says as much in paragraph 4.
The right hon. and learned Lady spoke a great deal about consensus, but where was the consensus on regional Select Committees when she used her casting vote to force the report before the House? Nor was there consensus when it reached the House with 254 in favour and 224 against. When the Government want reform, as they did a fortnight ago when they wanted voting reform, we got a debate, we got amendments and we got votes. But when they are less than keen, as is the case today, we do not get that. We get a "take note" debate, and a single shout of "Object!" obstructs progress.
Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Would the right hon. Gentleman like to see votes today or on 4 March? He objects to the fact that a Member can shout "Object!" and the debate and the votes are thereby deferred until another time, but I get the impression that most hon. Members want the so-called reforms to go through on the nod. I do not understand.
Sir George Young: In all the previous debates in which I have taken part, we have had a debate and then we have voted on a series of propositions, with amendments. That is how, in the past, the House has dealt with reform. It is a perfectly acceptable way of doing that and one that the House is used to. What is being proposed today is unusual. This is an unorthodox way of dealing with reform, and I happen to prefer the way that we have dealt with it so far.
"the Modernisation Committee has run out of steam",
but despite the Prime Minister's assurances in his statement that this would be an "urgent" process, it was a full seven weeks later, and just one day before the summer recess, before the Committee was formally set up.
"within the next two months when a House majority can freely determine the outcome."
What it has got today, three months later, is a debate at the end of which, as we have heard, one shout can block a recommendation. Also, only the recommendations of which the Government approve are on the Order Paper.
That contradicts the astonishing claim made by the right hon. and learned Lady in an interview yesterday with the BBC that the Government have been "on the front foot". In fact, the Government have been always one step behind. They tried to restrict the terms of reference to exclude Government business. That is what they did at the beginning, then they backed down. They stalled on having a debate. They originally wanted to avoid bringing back to the House any proposals that were objected to, but that is now going to happen.
Ten days ago, the Government said that they did not think the time was right to have a House business committee, but yesterday, in a welcome but rather blatant about-turn, the right hon. and learned Lady said that she would vote for the amendment that would see a House business committee established in the next Parliament. Far from leading from the front, she has rather been dragging her feet. Like the Duke of Plaza-Toro, she has been leading her regiment from behind.
Mr. Cash: Following his comprehensive indictment of the Government's attitude, does my right hon. Friend agree that serious consideration should be given to whether the Executive should control the Standing Orders? Will he go further and suggest that we should return to the practice when Parliament was really vibrant, as a former Clerk of the House clearly indicated in a recent article, and that the Speaker, not the Executive, should have control over the Standing Orders?
The proposals before us give the House much more power than it has, and we should rally behind them and try to get them up and running. I should welcome the chance to embark on the broader debate about where control of Standing Orders should lie, but that is separate from the debate before us. Nevertheless, I am glad that the right hon. and learned Lady now backs the stance that we publicly took before the Wright report was published, namely that the Government should relinquish their grip on the agenda of the House.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will spend some time on that issue, because my right hon. and learned Friend's statement today was the most significant one that we could expect. She did not say whether the Government would vote for the proposition, but she did say that she would. Do not we as a House have to reassure Governments that they have a right to get through mandated business if the electorate are to hold them to account? This House might determine the timetable by which Governments get it through, but for unmandated business, which is not in election manifestos, there will be much more of a struggle between the new business committee and the Government. My right hon. and learned Friend made an important point when she stressed that the issue is not just about how we govern our affairs, but about how Governments are held to account by the electorate.
Sir George Young: I also drew a distinction between the propositions that the Government support, which are the motions before us today, and the proposition that the right hon. and learned Lady will personally back, namely the proposal for a business committee. I deduced from the way in which she gave her commitment that other members of the Government may not share that commitment in the same way that they share the commitment to the other motions before us.
"We should recognise that the Government is entitled to a guarantee of having its own business, and in particular Ministerial legislation, considered at a time of its own choosing, and concluded by a set date."
That guarantee on the mandate in the manifesto gives the Government-any Government-the comfort that they need, and once paragraph 29 is set in statute they can afford to be more relaxed about the rest of the business of the House.
The right hon. and learned Lady asked me what I thought we should do on 4 March. I think that the Government should table all the resolutions of the Wright Committee and let the House come to a judgment on them, rather than picking, choosing and tabling only those that they prefer. That would be in the spirit of the establishment of the Wright Committee and the respectful way to proceed with the report.
The right hon. and learned Lady referred to the big ticket items, but there are some important little ticket items, which the motions before us do not cover, such as giving the Opposition more flexibility on Opposition days. Will she look at some of the other recommendations and see whether they cannot be progressed?
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): On the little ticket items, does my right hon. Friend not accept that, unfortunately, there is no motion to be voted on relating to the way in which the House deals with amendments on Report and Lords amendments? Those stages are currently programmed, and important issues often cannot be debated at all because time runs out. Is it not inappropriate that programming be used on Report and for the remaining stages of a Bill, when that could be a Member's only opportunity to contribute?
"more effective scrutiny of legislation at Report Stage and consideration of Lords Amendments."
More broadly, however, none of that will happen unless there is some self-discipline by any Government over not only the sheer volume of the legislation that they put before the House, but its quality. Unless they get that right, they will simply pre-empt House time and squeeze out many other debates.
Ultimately, the process that we have been through in the past few weeks has made the case even more effectively than the report for the Executive to relinquish their grip on the business of Parliament. I cannot put it better than the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who said with characteristic panache:
"The power of these shadowy forces at work behind the scenes demonstrates more clearly than ever why the Wright Committee recommendations need to be implemented in full, and that the clammy fingers of the whips and Government business managers are prised once and for all off matters that are for Parliament rather than for party".
Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that his suggestions will not mean that instead of people talking and coming to agreements in this House, the media will have campaigns as to who they want to be Chair of this Committee or that Committee, and that we will get the grandstanders rather than the workhorses? In any democracy, one needs a balance, as he well knows.
Sir George Young: The right hon. Lady devalues the judgments of those who share the Labour Benches with her. The notion that when they vote in a secret ballot for members of a Select Committee they will be unduly influenced by the media is strictly for the birds. They will vote for the people they think will do the best job on that particular Committee-
Martin Salter: I thank the shadow Leader of the House for reminding me of one of my better quotes. Let me point out to him that I was talking about shadowy forces on the Opposition Front Bench as well. I congratulate him on winning the battle in his shadow Cabinet to come off the fence on the Wright Committee proposals, because the dark forces are on both sides of this Chamber.
Turning briefly to the substance of the Wright reforms, I can tell the House that the report has the broad support of those on the Conservative Front Bench. The votes are, of course, free votes, but as a possible Executive-in-waiting we have had to take a view on the proposal that the Executive should relinquish some of the powers that they have, and we believe that they should.
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