|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I really am a bit surprised by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I want there to be effective scrutiny, but he should include Committee sittings in this House in his calculation of the amount of time spent on scrutinising Bills here. I used to look at this matter regularly-although I have not done so in the past couple of years-and I know that people often include the time on the Floor in the other place and the time on the Floor of this House, but the other place does not look at Bills in Committee. If the hon. Gentleman
were to add that time into his calculations, he would find that frequently the other place spends less time on Bills than this House.
Mr. Heath: That completely ignores a couple of facts. One fact is that Report stage provides the opportunity for every Member of this House to represent the views of their constituents on a matter, and to bring forward proposals for debate. Fact No. 2 is that the Government-in their wisdom-often introduce large chunks of Bills that are never seen by the Committee, as they appear only on Report, and often in a very unfinished state at that.
We fail to do our job, therefore, and I defy anyone to accept the current position, under which, for instance, large parts of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill were not debated in this Chamber. Despite extra time being given, large parts of a constitutional Bill were not debated on the Floor of the House. An education Bill will come before this House tomorrow. In Committee, only about 15 clauses of that 50-clause Bill were considered. Nevertheless, that Bill's remaining stages will be put before us in a single day, and it will then be dispatched to the other place, which will be expected to do the job that we are elected to do. It is indefensible that we conduct our business in that way.
To those who argue that we must allow the House as a whole, rather than the Executive, to determine how we conduct our business, and that all Members of the governing party must have loyalty to the Government whom they support, I say that of course I expect loyalty to the Government from Government Back Benchers. Of course I expect them to support legislation that is in their party's manifesto, and the Government to have the time to introduce their legislation and to ensure that it makes progress. That is not in question. However, I find very difficult the logical somersaults required to support positions that change diametrically, through 180°, from one year to the next, whereby one Bill repeals the work of another that was put before us the previous year, as I am sure do many Government Back Benchers. We owe loyalty to our constituents, as well as to our parties, in considering Bills and deciding what position to take on them, and it is difficult to fulfil that within that constraints of the arrangements as they are.
My prime contention is that this House must have the time to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government to account in an appropriate way, and that is not allowed for in the current arrangements. The reform of the Report stage is key to securing that and we will obtain it only if this House is prepared to adopt a position other than supine acquiescence in whatever the Government of the day want and to say, "We will do our job as Members of Parliament and we insist that we have the time necessary to do it properly."
I am a passionate reformer. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is posing the argument as if put-upon Back Benchers are unable in any way to make a difference to Government policy and a wicked Government-whichever party is in power-prevent scrutiny from taking place. Like me, he has served on Public Bill Committees where hours of debate have been used by Opposition Members in a way that did not focus on key issues and it has almost appeared-I have seen this when I have been an Opposition Member serving on such a Committee-as if the Opposition
wanted to run out of time so that they had something to complain about. Does he agree that it is important for all Members on both sides of the House to use the time we have to maximum effect, rather than just to blame the Government for providing a lack of time for scrutiny?
Mr. Speaker: Order. May I gently say to the House that I understand its enthusiasm for these issues, but some of the interventions are becoming mini-speeches? I am sure that the House will take note of that.
I want a rational use of our time; I do not want to misuse or abuse it. I want the House to have enough time to ensure that on important issues everybody's voice can be heard-that is not the case at the moment. I want us not to spend all day and all night discussing Bills on which there is a consensus and have people drafted in by the Whips to fill time uselessly, while other Bills on which there are key issues of contention that matter to Back Benchers and Front Benchers go undebated. A House business committee would use time rationally-at least I hope it would. There is certainly a greater chance of its doing so than the current arrangements. I support all the recommendations of the Wright Committee-I have no power to induce other Members to support them-in so far as they go. I acknowledge the limits of the remit and I have some doubts about the way in which they have been translated into motions before the House this evening, but I support the proposals. There is one exception, but I shall come to that in a moment.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) made a very important point: even if we have enough time for scrutiny on Report, we cannot have it monopolised in way that is not efficient, whereby speeches fill the amount of time available. The Wright Committee was clear on that. Recommendation 33 proposes as a quid pro quo that time limits on speeches and interventions could apply on Report.
I shall support what the Wright Committee has said when it comes to the two-tier arrangement of a Back-Bench business Committee and a House business Committee, although I would prefer one Committee. I do not see the logic of having two other than as an inducement to others to support the idea. However, if that is the case and if a gradualist approach is necessary in order to avoid startling the horses, then so be it. The logic that most sensible parliamentary democracies adopt of having a single committee on the business of the House is something that we should consider.
Let me draw my comments to a close. We have these proposals before us this evening. It is open to a single Member to shout "Object" and the motions will then be debated at a future time. If there is no objection, they will go through. That prompts the question of what will happen to the other recommendations that are not before us, which have been arbitrarily removed from consideration on the basis that they are not big tickets. I do not know the answer to that-the Leader of the House might illuminate the House on that issue at a later stage.
Another question is how we can engineer the vote that many of us want on the amendment on the House business committee in the name of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), which is signed by many other colleagues, including myself. Of course, it would not come into play if the motion on the Back-Bench committee were agreed to tonight, unless the Leader of the House is prepared to table it as a new and separate motion. I understand that she has said that she will do that, which is great. If the Leader of the House supports that proposal-although the rest of the Government do not appear to do so-that is good news and I welcome it. We have been told that there are four big tickets, and I think that that is the fifth.
Ms Harman: If Members are minded not to object to a House business committee for Back-Bench business but their only reason for objecting might be that they want the subject to be carried forward to 4 March so that an amendment to it can be tabled and to secure a vote, I would tell them not to worry about that. My assurance is that I will not jump round afterwards and say, "See, it's not there. There's nothing to attach an amendment to, so you don't get to vote." I hope that that position is absolutely clear.
An important point has been raised about the fact that the proposals allow only the election of departmental Select Committees and not House Select Committees-in particular, the Procedure Committee, which will be key to all the rest. Such appointees could stymie the rest if they choose to do so. I hope that whoever is appointed will not do that, but it would be far more logical for the Procedure Committee to be elected like all the rest.
The Members from the nationalist parties have all gone home, which seems a shame as they had rather an important point to make about the size of Committees and their representation on them. However, if they are not here I shall not bother to make their point for them.
I close on this point: an awful lot of this debate comes down to one single instrument, and that is Standing Order 14. Standing Order 14 is the obstacle to this House behaving like a responsible, sensible, modern House of Commons. Like Cato the Censor of old, who said, "Carthago delenda est," we need to say, "Standing Order 14 delenda est." It has got to go. Until it goes, we will not be able to make the progress that I think the House wants. We shall test that tonight and on 4 March, but I hope that the House realises that it has the opportunity to make that first step to returning ownership of the House to the House. I hope that Members will not be deluded into thinking that they are acting at the behest of the present or future Executive if they turn down that opportunity. I think that their constituents will find it very difficult to understand.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con):
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. To clarify, lest the House might be proceeding in some ignorance about the procedure in
front of us, am I correct to say that the motions to which amendments have been tabled have effectively already been objected to and that those motions are no longer available to us and can be moved only on Thursday 4 March and not tonight?
Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is correct in his interpretation of the situation. I do not think that there should be any basis for ambiguity or confusion. If there is, other hon. Members will no doubt either raise points of order or sidle up to the Chair in the conventional manner. I hope that the position is very clear and fully understood.
Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): It was a great pleasure to serve as a member of what is now known as the Wright Committee under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I thought that he made a superb speech tonight and set out a powerful case for the modest package of reforms that the Committee put together in the short space of time that was given to it.
I put particular emphasis on the elected nature of the Wright Committee's membership. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) that when she did not vote for me as one of Labour's representatives on the-
Martin Salter: When anyone on the Labour Benches did not vote for me or for any other candidate, I hope that they did so on the basis of careful consideration of the reform credentials of all the candidates who put themselves forward for election. Once and for all, we need to nail this nonsense that somehow the election of the Wright Committee was fundamentally flawed. You cannot comb your hair in this House-you cannot utter a single word without it appearing on the internet, in a speech, in Hansard, on a blog or somewhere else. There is no excuse for anybody who voted for any member of the Wright Committee not knowing exactly where those candidates stood on the issue of parliamentary reform. I am delighted that the balance of force and opinion on that Committee was in favour of reformers. The recommendations of the Wright Committee are testament to that.
The Prime Minister himself clearly supports the Wright report. I worried at times about that as there appeared to be some ambiguity in some of the announcements and pronouncements that were made, particularly on procedure, which I shall come to in a moment. However, the Prime Minister said of our recommendations in his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on 2 February:
"These reforms will increase the ability and the legitimacy of Parliament to hold the Government to account-as I believe that the proper role of Parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive, it should be given all the necessary powers and tools to do so."
"We need our MPs to be not only honest but also effective in raising our concerns and scrutinising the Government. The former has obviously got the most attention with the expenses row. But the latter is crucial if confidence in Parliament is to be revived. That is why this morning's report, 'Rebuilding the House' from a special Commons reform committee, chaired by Tony Wright, matters."
"Dr Wright's committee focuses on three subjects that may seem like Westminster arcana but which, separately and together, go to the heart of much that exasperates and angers the public about the workings of parliament...A debate is promised, which is good, but there is no guarantee of a vote, which is...bad. Ministers must get off the fence. They must give unambiguous support to the Wright committee report"-
and said that they must "Do it now." We appear to have unambiguous support for the recommendations as a result of the helpful statement from the Leader of the House, who has agreed to facilitate a debate on all the matters contained in the 50 recommendations made by the Committee.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has told the House that the reform proposals have the support of the Prime Minister, but that might not be enough. Can he tell us whether they have the support of the Labour Chief Whip?
Martin Salter: It is unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman came late into the debate, because we had an exchange earlier about the ambivalence shown by the Whips on both sides of the House, but it would be churlish to dwell on that. We are moving forward in a consensual bubble and we should seek to capture the mood.
I strongly welcome the endorsement of the recommendations from the Hansard Society and from the six major organisations that have been involved with constitutional and parliamentary reform issues. The letter and the communications that they have put out to Members of Parliament have been helpful and will be useful in focusing people's minds.
Fiona Mactaggart: As a Member who stood unsuccessfully for election to the Wright Committee, I welcome the work of my hon. Friend and his colleagues. He spoke about the consensual bubble that has existed during this debate, but I am concerned that, with very few dissenting voices, the people who are attending the debate this evening are enthusiasts for the Wright Committee report-
Fiona Mactaggart: I accept that not all are, but generally those who have spoken or intervened have been enthusiasts. I am anxious that the consensual atmosphere will not sustain itself on Thursday 4 March, and that we might see the same thing that we saw with the Cook reforms, when those who had been most involved in the debate got overridden by organised votes at the end. My hon. Friend has a great tradition of organising for progressive courses, so can he offer some words of comfort to the House on that matter?
Martin Salter: I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that this was not scripted, but you will certainly be aware of the need for organisation in the House, and I assure you and the House that a level of organisation will be put in place to provide clarity and guidance to those who wish to ensure that when they face the electorate on polling day, they will not be in danger of being cast as roadblocks to reform. I hope that that will give some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).
In many ways, this debate could have been entitled the "Robin Cook Memorial Debate". For me, it was a huge pleasure to work with Robin Cook on parliamentary reform. He was, in my view, the greatest leader that the Labour party never had. That work went back to the disgraceful decision to try to exclude Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from their chairmanships of Select Committees by procedural wranglings, through to the internal processes that we adopted within the parliamentary Labour party that stopped the Executive from handing out Select Committee Chairs as booby prizes to sacked Ministers. We had a ridiculous situation-it happened on both sides of the House-in which someone would be removed from Government and, as a consolation prize, given a Select Committee Chair and they would then scrutinise the decisions that they had made some months previously. If there is one simple principle to which we should all adhere, it is that we cannot have those who would be scrutinised selecting their own scrutineers, and we certainly cannot have Government Ministers or former Government Ministers scrutinising their own decisions in that way. I am glad that we have moved on from that. In many ways, the changes that we have introduced within the parliamentary Labour party, through our internal elections, are reflected in the Wright Committee's recommendations, and I am delighted that other parties are moving on.
It is worth giving more air time to a couple of other issues. I think that the game is up for us, as Members of Parliament, in terms of the validity of many of our procedures. It is time for us to be honest with the public and to say that early-day motions have become a con trick. They are political graffiti, and we sign too many of them. I am guilty of this; indeed, we all are. I sign too many of them; in many circumstances, I sign them to make people who write to me happy. I should be limited on the number of early-day motions that I may sign-we all should. Frankly, if we were allowed to sign only four or five a month, and if a debate on the Floor of the House were automatically triggered if 50, 60 or 70 per cent. of the House signed up to an early-day motion on a suitable cross-party basis, that would be a way in which the public could meaningfully drive the agenda of this place. Of course, we have to do better with petitions. In many ways, the Scottish Parliament is showing the way forward on that issue. What an absurd treatment of a petition and of the thousands of people who sign it to put it in a bag and forget about it. I cannot quite believe that we are having this debate in the 21st century. These reforms should have been introduced 200 years ago-but better late than never.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|