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22 Feb 2010 : Column 55

We make many other recommendations, from the size of Committees to the operation of Opposition days, from sitting times to the Intelligence and Security Committee, but the three areas that I have mentioned are the main focus of our attention. Some hon. Members, as we have heard, may wish to dissent from some of our particular recommendations, but it would be disappointing -and troubling in terms of how Parliament is viewed-if there were to be dissent from the principles that underpin these recommendations.

Another principle appears in bold throughout our report-and I am looking at my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) as I say this-and it is that an elected Government should have the means to implement the programme on which they have been elected. Nobody reading our report could doubt that that was one of our fundamental principles. It is fundamental to democratic politics that that should happen, and nothing in our report cuts across that, contrary to what some may believe. It is why ministerial business is protected, but it does not follow that effective scrutiny is therefore unnecessary or that the House should not control its own business. As Robin Cook never used to tire of saying, good scrutiny makes for good government. The best batsmen really do need the best bowlers. That is a particular challenge in a system of unseparated powers, which I support, whereby the Executive control the legislature and the party battle dominates everything.

However, that makes it even more necessary to meet the challenge. That is what our report tries to do, in attempting to get the balance right between the Executive and the legislature, between governing and scrutinising, between party and Parliament, and between democratic politics as the exercise of power and democratic politics as the control of the exercise of power. There has been an imbalance in those respects in the past, as is now widely acknowledged. Any reforms have to get the balance right now.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On the issue of balance, the Committee also concluded that it was important to have voices from all parties in the House fairly represented on Committees of the House. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that parties from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are currently not represented on a great many Committees of the House. How does he believe that places for the smaller political parties in the House can be guaranteed in the proposals that he has made and in those that will come forward, when Committees are being reduced in size?

Dr. Wright: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises this, but if he reads our report, he will see that we say over and over that one reason why we are not being too rigid is precisely to give the flexibility that enables those good traditions of the House, as well as the under-representation of minority parties, to be recognised. If he looks at the report, he will see that, in a sense, his argument is ours.

Several hon. Members rose -

Dr. Wright: I would like to make a little more progress.

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind) rose-

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Dr. Wright: Oh go on, I cannot resist.

Dr. Taylor: I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. May I draw his and other hon. Members' attention to recommendation 9, which covers exactly that point about allowing members of the smaller parties a chance to get on Select Committees? There is also another crucial paragraph, which says:

If hon. Members are on a Select Committee, should that not be almost their first priority and take precedence over other events?

Dr. Wright: I am delighted that I decided to give way to the hon. Gentleman and genuinely pleased to have an endorsement from that source.

The issue of balance arises on every occasion that parliamentary reform is contemplated or discussed. I have been reading my way through the two-day debate in the House in February 1979 on the Procedure Committee report that proposed the Select Committees. The report was introduced by the Conservative Member Sir David Renton, who commended it to the House with these words:

I could use identical words today in presenting our report. In that debate, almost the only voice of resistance to the Procedure Committee's recommendations came from the then Leader of the House, Michael Foot, who feared for the vitality of the Chamber. Now we fear for the vitality of the whole House.

Mr. Frank Field: Might my hon. Friend also underscore the movement that we have seen this afternoon from the current Leader of the House? Previously, all debates were stalled by the traditionalists, who said that if we had the power to control our own business, we would wreck Government business. Today we have seen-not only from my hon. Friend but, importantly, from the Leader of the House-that a Government can envisage that the House should control the order of business, but concede that, for those parts of a manifesto that are brought to the House, the Government have a right to get that mandated business through. There seems to be some opposition to that idea, but if we cannot do that, it is impossible to hold the Government to account.

Dr. Wright: I would go a little further and say that my right hon. Friend is seeking to achieve what the late, great Robin Cook failed to achieve. For that to happen, however, the House will need to be in an altered state from the one it was in in 2002.

I was talking about the debate on Select Committee formation that took place in 1979. I want to say a further word about it. The most interesting contribution came from Enoch Powell. I offer it-I am not sure why I
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am looking at my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham again at this point-as reassurance to those who think that we are seeking to redress the balance too far. Enoch Powell reminded hon. Members:

He went on to say:

There seems to be much political wisdom in those words, and I call them in aid of our proposals if that will enable some to support them on such a lower plane of expectation.

In response to the charge that the report smiles on the separation of powers, I must say that it does not. It does, however, smile on the proposition that good government needs good accountability. It seeks to refute the proposition that is often put that, without a system of separated powers-as in our case-we will necessarily have a weak Parliament. I do not believe that that is the case, and I do not think that we should sign up to that proposition.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I hope that this will be a helpful intervention. There has been a lot of discussion about manifesto government, but is that not, in this new century, a rather weaker argument? This is not like the 1970s; Governments no longer come with a detailed manifesto in the same way they used to.

Dr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes a fascinating point which would, if we let it, lead to a much longer argument. I do not want it to do that, however. I have great admiration for certain individual Members of the House who do not sit for party, but it is a fact of political life that political parties are the instruments for organising political choice for the electorate. They are indispensible to the system, and nothing that our report proposes seeks to depart from that proposition.

I am sorry to have detained the House with a reminder of a similar moment in the past, but I hope that it will be helpful to us in the present. I note in passing, by the way, that a decade earlier still-in 1965-a large number of reform-minded Labour MPs who had been newly elected in that reform Parliament of 1964, including the present Father of the House, tabled a Commons motion calling for comprehensive modernisation of the House of Commons. Among their demands was one for hostel accommodation for Members. It has taken half a century and an expenses scandal to revive that one.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): Whatever 45 years may say about my consistency, they are hardly complimentary about my effectiveness.

Dr. Wright: It has been a great joy to work with my right hon. Friend over the years; he knows full well how effective he is.

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It has not been entirely straightforward to reach this point with our report, but I believe that we are now nearly there. It has been cheering to see the enthusiastic support for our proposals, from both within and outside the House. It is clear that people have not given up on their Parliament, even if they have recently despaired of some of its Members. Even in this pre-election period when party disagreement is seemingly obligatory, it is significant that all the party leaders have given their support to this reform initiative. I pay particular tribute to the role of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and, indeed, to the shadow Leader of the House and to the constructive tension between them in a good cause.

I say that we are "nearly there" for two reasons. The first is that it is essential that the House has an opportunity to vote on all the proposals in our report, not just those that meet the approval of Front Benchers. That is why I would have liked the House to be given an opportunity to vote on the draft resolution proposed by the Committee, which could have been done on an amendable motion. This is not, however, a moment to be churlish. We still have to nail down one or two matters, and we shall do so in looking at the motions that will be before the House next time, but we are nearly there.

Secondly, and crucially, we are nearly there because this package of reforms is not for the Front Benchers to accept or reject; it is for Members to decide on. They have to decide what kind of House they want and what they believe their own role in it is. When Robin Cook asked that question in 2002, Members opted-narrowly but depressingly-for the status quo. After what has happened recently, I hope that enough Members will conclude that the status quo is no longer an option.

Dr. Evan Harris: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's chairmanship and to his contribution today. I cast no aspersions on present or future members of what will be a Whip-appointed Back-Bench business committee, but given that motion 9 on the Order Paper, which delegates definitions to that procedure committee, would it not be wise to provide it with a little more guidance in requiring that the Back-Bench business committee should be elected and that private Members' Bills, for example, be defined as parts of our business that will be covered by it? That would be a wise thing to do, would it not?

Dr. Wright: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's contribution to our work, which was, as ever, energetic and important. On the particular point he makes, I would say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House is at this moment being extraordinarily amenable to suggestions about how to improve the motions, so I will continue in that spirit.

Let me conclude. There was no parliamentary golden age. When there was supposed to be one, in the middle of the 19th century, Gladstone was already writing about the "declining efficiency of Parliament". Neither was there a golden age in which politicians were loved. It was in the 1960s that Henry Fairlie wrote:

Members of Parliament work harder now; they are more professional and we are much better supported in our work.

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When all that is properly said, however, we know that the House stands at a critical moment in its history. Something has gone wrong-beyond the expenses issue-and we have an obligation to put it right. Our constituencies are cultivated as never before, but the vitality of the House is diminished as never before. More is expected of us than just cheering or jeering. Members of this House have a number of roles, but the fundamental task of Parliament is to hold power to account. Our proposals are designed to strengthen Parliament in that fundamental role. We call our report "Rebuilding the House" because that is what is required and because this is the moment to do it.

5.34 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I thank him for the work that he did in chairing his Committee and I thank the other members of the Committee.

When the hon. Gentleman started his comments, I rather thought that he wanted to give the impression that the history of his Committee until this point was not an example of exactly the ills that he described, but he proceeded to give us myriad examples of precisely why Executive control over the procedure of the House holds up the proper scrutiny and proper initiation of business.

If we wanted a more up-to-date example, however, we had only to listen to the comments of the Leader of the House. I do not think that it was deliberate provocation, but she boasted that only the Government had tabled the motions to allow the debate to happen, apparently oblivious of the fact that only the Government can table them, because that is what Standing Orders say. If we want an illustration of what is wrong with Parliament, it is the fact that only one Member of Parliament is in the position to table a motion for reform of the procedures of the House. If she chooses not to table a motion, as she did for a while, there is absolutely nothing that any other Member of the House can do about it.

The Leader of the House went on to say that this is an historic day. I suppose that it is historic in that we have a new carpet in the Chamber, which I admire, but I am less convinced that it is historic in terms of the reforms before us. I see these reforms as necessary, but as a very small step in the right direction. Reform ought to be a tide coming in. At this point, we have perhaps reached high water in terms of Executive power, but it will be high water only if Members of the House are prepared to accept their responsibilities and actually do something in the Lobby over the next week or so.

Reform of the House is necessary and urgent, but the Government's view is that that urgency has yet to be demonstrated. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase was very polite about the numerous procedural barriers that appear to have been put in the way. Let us remember that the Prime Minister himself initiated this process. Soon after he became Prime Minister, he said that wanted reform of the House. What happened? Nothing. Eventually, we had the proposal to set up the Wright Committee. What happened? Nothing. Eventually, at the last possible moment before the summer recess, the
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Committee was set up and it did wonderfully expeditious work in bringing forward its proposals and reporting to the House. What happened? Nothing.

After we had asked week after week when we would have the opportunity to debate the matter, we eventually got the extraordinary procedure before us. In another illustration of what is wrong with this process, we are not allowed to debate the Committee's recommendations in their totality; we are allowed to debate only what are described by the Leader of the House as big tickets. Issues with small tickets are apparently destined to oblivion; those with big tickets, as defined by the Leader of the House, can be debated.

When I questioned the Prime Minister on the subject a few weeks ago, I suggested that the Government's sense of urgency was such that they exhibited all the dispatch of a particularly arthritic slug on the way to its own funeral. I might have added, "In a snowstorm." A number of pedants came up to me afterwards and said, "You can't have an arthritic slug, because a slug is an invertebrate," but I have to say that, given the progress of these proposals, the metaphor is all the more accurate.

As has already been said, this issue ought not to be determined by those on the Front Benches. It should not be for the Leader of the House-or the shadow Leader of the House, or me-to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business. It should be for each and every Member of the House to take a view as to whether they believe that we conduct our business in an acceptable way-whether they believe that we fulfil the expectations of those who send us here to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government to account. If Members think that they do fulfil those expectations, they will vote for the status quo. I have to say that I believe that the vast majority of people outside this House think that at present we do our job extraordinarily badly. Part of the reason for the opprobrium that has been heaped upon the House in recent weeks is that people do not understand why we allow this situation to continue, and why we allow this House to be so ineffective in doing its work.

It has been suggested by some that the proposals constitute an argument in favour of the separation of powers, but in fact we currently have a separation of powers: we have a separation between this weak, ineffective, useless House and the House at the other end of the corridor, which is unelected and has no mandate, but which has the time to scrutinise our legislation properly and to amend it and make appropriate suggestions. What sort of political arrangement is it that allows this House no power while allowing an unelected and unaccountable House all the power in the world to hold the Government to account? That cannot be right.

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