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We are already committed to the election of Select Committee Chairmen and members-a long overdue reform. I served on the Committee of Selection in 2001, when the Government Whips proposed Select Committees that excluded Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody. I called a Division, and it was like something out of a
Bateman cartoon-the man who called a Division in the Committee of Selection. Had it not been for the activities of the Government Whips, a system such as the one before us would have been introduced eight years ago under Robin Cook. They now have a second chance to redeem themselves.
We have no problem with the Government's motions, as far as they go. We are grateful for the amendments that the Leader of the House has taken on board during the past week in the light of suggestions that have been made. I welcome the call for the Liaison Committee to review the whole system of Select Committees, particularly to consider the competing demands on Members' time. Having been the Chairman of a Select Committee, I have long thought that the size of membership should be no more than 11 to allow for a more focused discussion and a more manageable meeting. I think that the six-week time scale that is envisaged for establishing Select Committees at the beginning of a Parliament is rather unambitious, and I hope that it might be possible to act faster.
Having strengthened the independence of Select Committees, the next step should be to give them greater access to the Chamber. That is touched on but not fully developed in the report. My party's proposal would be to give the Liaison Committee a quota of 12 statements per year that it could draw on to enable a Select Committee to present its report to the House and answer questions on it. That would challenge the monopoly on statements currently held by Ministers and give Select Committee Chairmen access to the Chamber during prime time. I would have liked that to happen in November, when the hon. Member for Cannock Chase presented his report.
We think that there should be a Back-Bench business committee. I hope that it might be up and running at the beginning of the next Parliament, as suggested in the motion; it would be a disappointment if that did not happen. I personally would like it to set the subject for the first topical debate in the next Parliament. We should then progressively give the committee more influence, with the Government handing over to it the 15 days currently allocated for set-piece debates such as those on defence and Public Accounts Committee reports, referred to in paragraph 145 of the report. If it wanted, it could have a different configuration of debates from the one that we have at the moment. It could then be given the days for general debates mentioned in paragraph 146, totalling about 12 days, which might lead to its being given a day or half a day a week for Back Benchers' business. Once that system is up and running, we should move in the lifetime of the next Parliament towards a more collaborative and transparent system of dealing with House business as a whole, as I have made clear by signing the amendment on the Order Paper.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): May I take the right hon. Gentleman back slightly to his point about reports and statements from Select Committees? I agree about the need for statements and proper debate on reports on the Floor of the House, but when a Select Committee comes up with an innovative proposal for legislation or for a change that requires Government support, the Government can simply acknowledge the report but do nothing about it. Does he recognise that there is a need for Select Committees persistently to be able to follow their own agenda and make proposals on the Floor of the House?
Sir George Young: There is a specific proposal, which I support, that Select Committee debates should take place on a substantive motion, but that would be separate from what I was just talking about, which was Select Committee Chairmen being able to present a report in prime time on the day it comes out.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Where do the Opposition stand on allowing the House, subject to the Prime Minister's approval, to elect the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee?
Both I and the Leader of the Opposition have given public commitments that the Government should relinquish their grip on the timetable of the House. When the Leader of the House gave evidence a fortnight ago, she accused me of not being in favour of a House business committee. That was particularly unfair as we had not had an opportunity to put our views in the public domain, and I hope that she now accepts that that is not the case.
Natascha Engel: There has been a lot of talk, including by the right hon. Gentleman, about how the House business committee will open up business and make it more transparent. How exactly will it do that? Will it not just add seven or nine Back Benchers to the general backroom dealings?
Sir George Young: The Committee's proposition was that the business committee should meet and then put a proposition before the House, which the House could agree to or amend if it did not like it. That would be a more transparent and collaborative process than the one that we have at the moment, in which the business is announced on a Thursday and we have to take it or leave it. There is no opportunity to amend it or come up with a different version.
"inevitably need implementation in stages."
I agree with that. No Government should be expected to put the whole jigsaw puzzle together on day one. Indeed, the Committee has not asked for that. However, I hope that what I have set out today will reassure the House that we are genuinely in favour of a more collaborative and transparent arrangement of business than has existed until now.
I turn finally to the section of the report on public engagement, which is perhaps the least engaging part of it. I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that we must start to reflect on the wider of question of how to open up better lines of communication between us and our constituents. My party has made proposals to introduce debates in Parliament
on public petitions and other citizens' initiatives. We welcome the Government's commitment to make progress on a number of the recommendations on outreach, and I welcome the House's views on that.
Sir George Young: Today we have a chance to move our agenda on from the expenses scandal to making the House work more effectively. We must make an early start on cutting the democratic deficit and restoring confidence in our political system. A credible package of reforms must be in place by the time of a general election. Many of the reforms before us are long overdue, but they are steps in the right direction. They will make the House more responsive to topical events, more relevant to national debate and better equipped to scrutinise Executive decisions and hold the Government to account. My message to the House is simple: let's get on with it.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Before I say something about the product of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee's labours, I want to talk about the process. Much of the commentary on it has been negative, and we have heard some of the same today. Many have pointed to the long delay in getting the Committee established after its urgency was announced by the Prime Minister, the even longer delay in finding a way to enable the House to express a view on the Committee's recommendations and to other delays and difficulties as an illustration of some of the issues identified in the Committee's report. However, I want to say something positive about the process.
The fact that members of the Committee were elected by their party colleagues, with the embarrassing exception of myself, gave its work an energy and authority, and indicated future possibilities. The fact that we were working to a very tight timetable-
Hilary Armstrong: As my hon. Friend knows, I want reform but I do not agree with some of his proposals. Does he agree that there was a problem with those elections, certainly in the Labour party, because no one was given details of what people were proposing? We went into the ballot booth blind, and did not know how many people who supported the separation of powers were going to end up on the Committee.
I am genuinely puzzled by what my right hon. Friend is saying, not least because she did not put herself forward for election. There was no requirement
to be a reformer of the House-anybody could have put themselves forward for membership of the Committee. I had no idea what kind of Committee we were going to get. That is what the electoral process does.
As I said, the Committee worked to a tight timetable, but the fact of election indicated future possibilities. We were not finally established until the day before the summer recess and were committed to report by the end of the Session, which gave an urgency and intensity to our work.
Bob Spink: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his report, which I warmly welcome. Does he acknowledge that the proposed modernisations are a modest step, and that they should form a platform for much more ambitious change in future Parliaments? Does he accept that?
We recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the modern Select Committee system. The Procedure Committee that recommended that sat for more than two years, but we produced a report in less than two months. That would not have been possible without the commitment of members of the Committee, which made it particularly invigorating to chair-we had vigorous argument, but managed to achieve considerable agreement -nor without those who assisted us, and above all our formidable Clerk, David Natzler, without whom so much could not have been achieved in such a short time. The House has many deficiencies, but in my experience the quality and dedication of its Clerks and Officers are not among them.
I need not remind the House of the circumstances in which the Committee was established. It used to be said that political reform was a matter for constitutional anoraks, which overlooks the fact that anoraks are precisely what are needed in a storm. Parliament has been battered by the most ferocious and damaging storm in its modern history. There is a massive enterprise of restoration and reconstruction to undertake. Let no one think that once we have attended to the expenses issue, or had a general election, all will be well. As you said yourself, Mr. Speaker, in a speech in Oxford just a couple of weeks ago:
"The challenge that faces the House of Commons is not simply about rescuing its reputation but is about restoring its relevance."
Parliament's reputation will be restored only if its relevance is re-established. A window on our world has been opened by what has happened, and it will not be closed again. Fundamental questions are now being asked about what the House does and what its Members do. If anyone doubts that, they need only look at the consultation document on MPs' expenses issued by the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority:
"The time is right",
"for a discussion on the proper role of Member of Parliament, with a view to establishing a shared national understanding."
Why, then, did our Committee not start with that proposition? Our Committee started with the election of Chairs of Select Committees and
the establishment of a House business committee. It never asked what was the point of Parliament, and what was the point of Members of Parliament.
Our terms of reference were deliberately more modest, although, I believe, not unconnected with this larger task. We were not invited to reform Parliament in a more general sense, or to pronounce on the role of a Member of Parliament. I am the first to recognise that there are important matters with which we have not been able to deal, even given a generous interpretation of the "closely connected matters" in our terms of reference.
Reform, however, is a process, not an event, and we claim only to have made a start. The three matters that we were directed to examine-appointments to Select Committees, the scheduling of business, and public initiation of proceedings-had long been recognised as requiring attention, but they also raised fundamental issues about the role of Parliament to which we sought to apply consistent principles.
For example, in relation to Select Committees, we concluded that it could not be right for the House's scrutiny Committees to continue to be chosen, directly or indirectly, by those whom they were charged with scrutinising, hence our recommendation for election of Chairs by the whole House and members by their parties. That would not only remove some of the problems that have caused difficulty in the past, but would-more significantly, in my view-give a positive boost to the profile and authority of the Committees themselves. In case anyone is worried that our proposal is too radical, we remind the House in our report that in the 18th century members were elected to Select Committees by secret ballot, with Members placing their preferred names in large glasses on the table.
In relation to the business of the House, we concluded that it could not be right for a sovereign Parliament to have its business controlled so completely by the Executive, as enshrined in those stark words of Standing Order No. 14. As we say in our report, that both demonises Governments and infantilises Members, hence our recommendation for a Back-Bench business committee to take responsibility for non-ministerial business, and for a House business committee to construct an agreed programme of business, ministerial and non-ministerial, to be put to the House for its approval.
A Back-Bench business committee would not only reclaim for the House what had been lost and rightly belonged to it, but provide a mechanism enabling the House to introduce imaginative innovations to the way in which it organised non-ministerial business. Similarly, a House business committee would want to ensure that all legislation received proper scrutiny, which, as we all know, is not the case at present.
Thirdly, in relation to the public initiation of proceedings, we concluded that representative democracy could be strengthened if the public had a more active role in our proceedings, hence our recommendation for an improved petition system and for further work on public initiatives. We also suggest a mechanism whereby Members can give their support to propositions which, if sufficiently endorsed, can trigger motions for debate and decision.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I welcome the recognition of petitions. The Procedure Committee did a lot of work bringing forward the e-petition system, which was never debated by this House and, in a sense, that justifies the need for a business committee that could get things debated. What would be the position of the Procedure Committee? As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman's Committee did not think the Procedure Committee needed to be elected, because it is not a departmental Select Committee. Should not the Procedure Committee also be linked to the House in that way?
Dr. Wright: In the time that we had available, we did not turn our mind to the composition of the Procedure Committee, although perhaps we should have done. On e-petitions, the fundamental argument-although there are arguments on both sides, not least that of cost-is that the House should have an opportunity to express a view. That is something that underpins our whole report.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): In my submission to the Committee, I made the point about the need for more time on the Floor of the House and in Committee for private Members' Bills. My hon. Friend's proposal to create a House business committee would presumably provide a mechanism for addressing that issue. Is that the case?
Dr. Wright: My hon. Friend raises a fundamental aspect of our recommendations. The problem in the past was that many interesting proposals were made about how we could do our business better, but the House lacked an instrument or mechanism to bring any of those into play, so we spend all our time asking Governments to do things that the House should have a capacity to do itself. It is clear that in relation to private Members' Bills and other types of business, if we acquire the mechanism, we will then gain the benefits of using it in these imaginative ways.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: To return to the point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), would it not be appropriate for the Procedure Committee, which will absorb the Modernisation Committee, to be the voice of the House, as it is chaired by an Opposition Member and could drive forward future revolutionary and even radical proposals for progress in how the House deals with the public and its own business?
Dr. Wright: I agree, and one of the misfortunes of what has happened is that the Procedure Committee has lost its centrality in the working of the House. I want that to be restored, and I want the Committee to have guaranteed access to the House to bring forward its propositions.
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