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22 Feb 2010 : Column 67

I conclude on a serious point. I am leaving this place in a few weeks' time, but I want to say that this Parliament, of all Parliaments, has been tainted not by the actions of the majority of Members of Parliament who are, on the whole, diligent, hard-working and tremendously committed to the people who they represent, but has been let down by the actions of a minority. This Parliament of all Parliaments needs to show that it is capable of reform, but reform is not 50 recommendations of the Wright Committee, or resolutions tabled by Robin Cook or by Jopling; it is a continuous process, but it has stalled-and for far too long. We now have an opportunity, despite the procedural wranglings, to get the reform agenda back on track and to reconnect this place with the people who sent us here.

6.6 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I do not think that I have ever said this before, and I never thought that I would say it, but it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). He made a very powerful speech, in which he encapsulated what needs to be done by this place to recover the confidence of the people of this country. I believe that the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons has, under the distinguished leadership of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), made a very good start on the reform of this place. As I come to the end of my parliamentary career, I would love to be able to say that I have helped to restore authority back with the House, over the Executive. I repeat that the hon. Gentleman's Committee has made a very good start.

Let me refer directly to you, Mr. Speaker, if I may. Standing Orders have been mentioned, and those who control Standing Orders control the House. It is time that that control was taken away from the Government and put under the authority of a Committee of this House under your chairmanship. That would ensure that they would represent the best interests of Back Benchers and not just those of the Executive.

I hope that I will be forgiven for mentioning briefly my involvement with the Procedure Committee over two Parliaments, and my time as the longest-serving member of the Modernisation Committee, which I am sad to say has not met for some 18 months. The Procedure Committee is now under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is doing an excellent job. I meant what I said in an intervention: the future driver of change and reform in this place should be the Procedure Committee, which should encapsulate the current responsibilities of the Modernisation Committee and should be under the chairmanship of a senior and experienced Opposition Member. To pick up the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), we should seek to formalise the election or selection of people who sit on that Committee, because it will be even more important to the House in future than it has been in the past.

Hilary Armstrong: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: May I develop my argument a bit further, and then I will certainly give way?

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Let me tell the House that, from the experience that I have had here for nearly 39 years, it is not Parliament that has undermined people's confidence in the House of Commons; the political parties themselves have contributed to that, by seeking to take more and more control over what their members say in the House and, perhaps even before then, to control the type of person whom they are prepared to admit into the House. That is a crying shame. We need more independents. We need more free thinkers-people who are prepared to stand up, put their heads above the parapet and identify what they think and what they believe in-and they should not be frightened that that will jeopardise their careers.

Natascha Engel: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I will give way first to the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong).

Hilary Armstrong: The moment has passed now.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am sorry.

Natascha Engel: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that our affiliation to political parties allows us to stand up for what we think?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I believe that political parties have a philosophy, within which there could be a very broad church. From time to time, people will not necessarily agree with the view expressed by their party or even with a policy that it proposes. With due notice and appropriate discussion, if they need to vote against that policy or the view expressed by their party, not to do so in the House undermines its whole credibility and their role as Members of Parliament.

I pay to tribute to the vision and focus of the late Robin Cook. I had the pleasure to serve on the Modernisation Committee under his chairmanship when he was Leader of the House. He was an exceptional person to work with. He knew where he wanted to go; we might not have agreed with him, but he listened to us, and at the end of the day, we were perhaps persuaded by the force of his argument. Of course, that leads me on to the next issue that I want to raise: the election of the Chairmen and members of departmental Select Committees by party groups.

Robin Cook sought to propose to the House in 2002 a motion that would have led perhaps not quite to what we are debating now and the motions that we will vote on perhaps later. He sought to break the logjam of the dark side of the House-I refer to the Whips Office and perhaps to my experience when I was unseated as the Chairman of the Health Committee because I did what I believed to be right. I believe that the Chairman of a Select Committee is there to guide that Committee to reach conclusions and to make recommendations based on the evidence, both oral and written, that is given to the Committee; he is not there to decide on the prejudice of its individual members. That was not necessarily received very well by my party. However, as one door closed, another opened, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire knows, I was asked to chair the Procedure Committee. If I were a Member and
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there was an election to that Committee in the future, I hope that the House, in its wisdom, would elect me to do that job, which I very much enjoyed.

Hilary Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman allows me to return to the issue of the Procedure Committee and the House Committees. I notice that hon. Members are not recommending that House Committees should be elected, precisely because it is extremely difficult get full membership of them. The reality is that there had to be all sorts of cajolements to encourage people to become members of many of those Committees.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Because they were worthless.

Hilary Armstrong: My hon. Friend may think that, but had he been party to some of the conversations, he would not have taken that view of how we were trying to get people to serve on those Committees. It is very difficult to get Members to serve on those House Committees, and we must take that into account. Perhaps they also want to have the chance to serve on Select Committees, and I suspect that the two will not happen.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: The right hon. Lady has made her point yet again and what she says has some substance, but as someone who is committed to the House, to being a Back Bencher and to trying to restore the authority and integrity of Back Benchers, I personally believe that there will always be sufficient people, so long as we attract the right people into Parliament, to play their proper role as members of all the House Committees.

Mr. Allen: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if Committees are worth while, Members are queuing up, knocking on the door to try to get on them? It is only when Committees, very often at the Government's request, are not effective, are neutralised and have people put on them who will not hold the Government to account-as, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) and I used to do in the Whips Office-that they are often not worth Members' time in attending.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I can do nothing but agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes a sensible point. I believe that many hon. Members would like to serve on all the departmental Select Committees and certainly a majority of the House Committees as well, and I speak as someone who found tremendous challenge and great enjoyment in chairing the Procedure Committee.

On electing Committee Chairmen, my experience is that the first time that the unpleasant arm of the dark side of the House was clearly brought to bear was way back in 1992. I saw letters from the Whips Office to members of the Cabinet and other Ministers urging them to attend a debate that should have been decided by Back Benchers. In fact, there was an unofficial Whip and a particular execution of a Member took place on that occasion, but I do not think that what my party carried out did it any good. By the time that the current Government sought to unseat Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody, the House was aware of what was likely to happen and reacted, and their attack on two very distinguished Members was unsuccessful.

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Let me now move on to what the right hon. Member for North-West Durham just talked about: the Back-Bench business committee and the House business committee. I should like both of those committees to be established and the Back-Bench business committee included in the House business committee, so that there is a Back-Bench input at all stages into how the House spends its time. I very much support the case made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase. I repeat that I believe that he has done the House a great service in the constructive and robust way in which he has described the proposal of his Committee, which undertook its work in a very short time but produced an excellent report none the less.

Let me perhaps finally move on to an intervention that I made about the programming of the remaining or Report stages of legislation in the House and the way in which the House deals with Lords amendments. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said in very clear terms, tranches of amendments and new clauses are tabled-sometimes by the Government, and often by the Opposition in seeking properly to scrutinise Government legislation and to improve it-for the remaining stages and pass to the House of Lords undebated in this House.

I am an avowed supporter of the other House in its current form. I believe that it does a uniquely good job in doing part of what we should be doing in this House- scrutinising Government legislation-but this House very often leaves much of that scrutiny to the unelected, appointed House. Whether it has a democratic mandate I do not care one way or the other-we always have the final say in this House-but because of its expertise, it can do a wonderful job.

I believe that it is wrong to programme the debates on amendments and new clauses in a Bill's remaining stages because they have not been debated in the Public Bill Committee upstairs, as has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, the remaining stages of a Bill-Report and even Lords amendments-are the one occasion when a Member of Parliament who was not on the Public Bill Committee and was not called on Second Reading has an opportunity, on behalf of his constituents, to raise matters that may be very important to them and to a particular constituency. I am surprised that although the issue was considered by the House of Commons Reform Committee, there is no specific proposal to limit programming at the remaining stages of a Bill and at consideration of Lords amendments.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House made the point, as have other speakers in the debate, that too much legislation comes before the House. We get constipated with the amount of legislation before us. I can only say to the Leader of the House and to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who led the Committee so well, that his proposals have my full support. As long as they go through, I will feel that in my almost 39 years in this place, I have made a contribution to the improvement of Parliament and to increasing the confidence that people have in it to do the job that they send us here to do.

6.21 pm

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I welcome interventions from any hon. Member, and as many as possible, to make up for the fact that I tried to
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intervene so many times. Part of the reason I tried to intervene so many times is that although I am not alone in the way that I feel, I know I am a minority in the House. I believe in reform, but I feel passionately that the proposals before us are not reform.

One of the big problems for me has been the narrow focus of the Committee, looking chiefly at the role of Select Committees and the so-called democratisation of them. Introducing a Back-Bench business committee and a House business committee are both technocratic changes that might be a move in the right direction, but I think they are a step in the wrong direction. The danger is that we will thereby say to ourselves and to people outside that we have done reform-that we have responded to people outside who said they wanted Parliament to change, and that having done that, we will move on.

Mr. Mullin: My hon. Friend circulated to members of the Committee her objections to what is proposed, and I respect those, but I have not yet heard her set out the reforms in which she is interested. Can she give us a clue?

Natascha Engel: I will deal briefly with those reforms, but unfortunately we have a 12-minute time limit, and I want to set out my objections to the proposed reforms in order to explain my actions which may or may not take place later.

I have not heard today any reasons for saying that the proposals are proper reforms which will change fundamentally the way that we do things. What I have heard is what we collectively do not like. In the Committee I heard that we do not like the Executive having so much power. Everybody agrees with that, but what we have not discussed is where we want to put the power that we are taking away from the Executive. That is what worries me.

The other issue for me has been Select Committee Chairs. I was elected only in 2005 and I served briefly on a Select Committee. I think Select Committees are the one thing in the House that we do really well. Select Committees enhance the House's reputation outside, and they are one of the very few opportunities for the outside world properly to engage with what we do in the House. When we talk about changing the way in which Select Committees work, we must be careful not to change it for the worse.

When we say that any change is better than none, which many Members said in response to the e-mail that I sent out, and that this is our only opportunity for some kind of change, which we call reform, I worry that there is a chance that that reform will be worse than what we currently have.

Martin Salter: Will my hon. Friend explain to me and to the House why electing the Chairs of Select Committees, which she says are one of the best things that we do here, would damage that process?

Natascha Engel: I am saying that it could damage that process.

Martin Salter: How?

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Natascha Engel: The reason why I think it could damage the process is that the only time we have had an election by secret ballot of the whole House was recently, when we elected the Speaker of the House. That is the first and only time that we have done that. Rightly or wrongly, many Members felt that we on the Government Benches, as the ruling party with a Government majority, imposed on the other side of the House, the minority, somebody who was unpalatable to them. That, rightly or wrongly, is what many on the Opposition Benches felt.

Mr. Allen: Was it true?

Natascha Engel: I do not know. If we duplicated that process in the election of Select Committee Chairs, we could have a situation in which the party in government imposes on the party of opposition somebody who is unpalatable to them.

Martin Salter: If my hon. Friend refreshes her memory of the report, she will see that we built into the recommendations provision for nominees to have a sufficient proportion of support from both sides of the House. The problem that she identifies has been dealt with in the recommendations of the Committee of which she was a member.

Natascha Engel: I absolutely disagree with that. Simply because somebody has support does not make them an effective Chair.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a level of naiveté in this debate if we believe that a Government in power will not use every bit of influence they have to ensure that, for example, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, taken from the Opposition Benches, is the weakest and most useless of the candidates available, rather than the strongest, precisely to defend the Executive?

Natascha Engel: One of the other issues tangentially raised by that point is the fact that whipped or unwhipped -the vote by secret ballot of the whole House cannot be whipped-Members will vote on party political lines. That is because we were sent here to represent not only our constituents but our political parties. The vast majority of us were elected only because we stood for those parties. That is something that the report fundamentally moves away from and undermines. That is my biggest worry.

The next biggest worry that I have about the report is the shift of power. I referred earlier to taking power away from the Executive, which in the report we call wresting control away from Ministers. I worry about where we put that power and that control. The same applies to the Chairs of Select Committees. As I wrote in my e-mail, my concern is that we are shifting power away from one elite-in this case, the Executive-and handing it to another-a group of senior Back Benchers. The election both of Chairs of Select Committees and of members of the business committee will favour longer-serving Members. That does not make them worse; it just makes them longer serving, and it puts at a disadvantage those Members who are newly elected.

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