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22 Feb 2010 : Column 73

In the next Parliament, there will be an unprecedented number of new Members. All of them will be disadvantaged when it comes to the election of Chairs of Select Committees and the election of a House business committee.

Dr. Evan Harris: I do not think the hon. Lady is right to describe an elected Back-Bench business committee as an elite. First, it will be elected. Secondly, if new Members want new Members to serve on it, as I believe they should, they will vote for them. Most secret ballots and transparent and democratic electoral systems will ensure that there is a range of membership of the Back-Bench business committee, which will certainly be less elite than having a Whips Office decide who should serve.

Natascha Engel: I completely disagree. Members will vote for people they know, not for people they do not know, and there is a serious risk in that. The proposed process also absolutely favours people who have been Members for a long time-those who tend to be in safer seats. That in turn disadvantages people in marginal seats-a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made when we were on the Committee.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): My hon. Friend is certainly adding something to the debate, and I agree that it is important to move the pendulum of power away from this place towards the public. The reforms before us are not perfect, but they are a step in the right direction, so does she not agree that the issue is about moving the pendulum at least to the 20th century, before we reach the 21st?

Natascha Engel: I absolutely agree. That brings me back to my main point and my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). When we were elected to the Committee, why did we not start with the questions, "What do we think Parliament is for? And, therefore, what is the role of Members of Parliament?"? Those questions were not asked at any point during the Committee's deliberations. Many Members said, "We all know what Members of Parliament are for. They are there to hold the Executive to account and scrutinise legislation," but there are so many other things as well. The MPs' expenses scandal has brought the issue to a head. It has been going on for years, and we have just pottered about, but with the scandal we have the opportunity to do something about it and ask some fundamental questions.

When the Scottish Parliament was set up, people started with a blank sheet of paper, with founding principles and with the four key themes on which they really wanted to base their parliamentary system. Why did we not start with something like that? What are the key principles on which we want to build our Parliament? We never discussed those questions, so whatever reforms were proposed, they would not have had clear aims. Therefore, the reforms before us may be good, or they may not be very good at all. Indeed, they may do some damage.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I agree with the hon. Lady and share her frustration that the reform process has not been ambitious or wide-reaching enough, but I take a different view from her about whether the report's reforms are a step in the right direction. I think
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that they are, so I shall support them; she genuinely does not. Does she agree, however, that all of us who are passionate about the need for further reforms after the next election, if we are still Members, should work together to ensure that this is not the end but the beginning of a process?

Natascha Engel: Absolutely. If this was the beginning and not the end of a process, I might feel differently. These proposals, whether they are the recommendation that the Committee presented at the back of its report or the Government motions before us, do not make much difference to me. They are still finite proposals, stating, "We think there should be a Back-Bench business committee, or a House business committee, or election by the whole House of Chairs, or election by the whole House or just by political parties of members of Select Committees." They are tiny, tinkering reforms. If they were part of a much bigger picture of reform, I might spend some time thinking about them. It is not that they do not go far enough; they go nowhere at all, and the danger of then saying, "We have done reform; that is reform over and done with," is so big that I shall vote against the motions before us, because they stop reform in the first place.

Interestingly, the Committee started its life as a constitutional reform Committee and very quickly changed its remit to that of a parliamentary reform Committee. I should love to see it carry on. Many of its 18 or 19 members were long-serving Members and experts on constitutional and parliamentary reform. Many have books under their belts on parliamentary reform, and it would have been helpful and much better to gather that experience together. Many of the Committee's members are standing down at the next election, and it would have been helpful if we had started looking at the pros and cons of the separation of powers and the role of political parties. Do we want to strengthen or weaken the role of political parties? Do we think that Parliament supersedes the role of political parties or not? We should look at the pros and cons of those issues in order to take them into the next Parliament.

Dr. Harris: As a fellow non-expert member of the Committee, and a fellow innocent, may I ask the hon. Lady what representations she made to her friends in the Whips Office when the Committee's terms of reference were being drafted in order to say that they were far too narrow? What representations did she make-perhaps she did make them-saying that the Whips should have established the Committee much earlier so that we might have had time to do something even more ambitious than we did?

Natascha Engel: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase can help me with it. I understood that the terms of reference were drafted as a result of a letter from my hon. Friend, which included suggested terms of reference. I understood that my hon. Friend proposed a Committee with those terms, including the time limit.

Dr. Tony Wright: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's invitation to help. It is true that I suggested this was a good opportunity to take stock of Parliament and how we might change it. There then followed a process of deliberation and consultation on the terms of reference-

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am sorry, but time is up. The hon. Gentleman will not have time to finish his intervention, nor will the hon. Lady have time to respond.

6.36 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I shall focus on just one section of the Committee's report-the section that is far and away the most important if we are to achieve rebuilding. It is about restoring the legislative authority of this House, which has been emasculated in three ways during the lifetime of this Government. The Committee's report partially addresses one way, but on the other two it is, sadly, totally silent. I shall address the three ways in turn.

First, prior to 1997, successive Governments of all political persuasions followed a critical, unwritten convention on changing the procedures of this House. The convention was that those changes were made only with all-party agreement. If anybody has any doubt about that, or about the fact that the convention continued late into the life of the previous Conservative Government, the Jopling reforms are a case in point. Those reforms, which included, as the House will remember, ending Thursday sittings earlier than 10 pm, were introduced only once all-party support was achieved. Until it was, they were held back.

That was a critical convention for the House. Sadly and reprehensibly, it was torn up by the current Government, who, unlike any previous Government of any political complexion, have chosen to use their majority to set up their own Select Committee and use their majority on that Committee and on the Floor of the House to make fundamentally retrograde changes to our procedures and Standing Orders as far as legislative scrutiny is concerned.

I acknowledge that the House of Commons Reform Committee, in just one single, forlorn line-the first sentence of paragraph 16-says:

However, that recommendation relates only to the Committee's proposals. It does not address at any point the crucial need to safeguard the future legislative authority of this House against any Government being returned at a general election and abusing the House, as the current Government have, using their majority, not obtaining all-party consent and changing the procedures and Standing Orders to their advantage. The absence of any such proposals is a serious deficiency.

That brings me to my second issue: the guillotining of Bills. I always use, and will try to use in my remarks, the word "guillotining", and I do so very deliberately. I do not accept saccharine euphemisms such as "timetabling" or "programming"-guillotining is what it is. It is a mechanism to cut off the time allowed for this House to debate legislation. Guillotining has been transformed, for the worse, from what it was prior to 1997. We now have a frankly deplorable parliamentary and democratic situation in which every single Bill is guillotined after Second Reading without debate. That is an utterly shameful situation ever to have been created in the House of Commons.

Natascha Engel rose-

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Sir John Stanley: If the hon. Lady will allow me, I am going to make a little more progress.

I am fundamentally opposed to and in disagreement with one of the principles listed in the Committee's report-principle 1(d), on page 83, which states:

That principle applies to each and every piece of legislation, and I do not accept it. For me, the principle that is absolutely fundamental and all-important-sadly, it does not feature in the Committee's list-is the principle that this House is entitled to a guarantee of adequate time to consider each and every Bill that comes before it: to debate that Bill, to be able to amend it, and to vote on it.

The position prior to 1997 was based on a subtle and, I believe, very successful balance. It did not prevent the Government of the day from getting their legislation through; if any Member in this House is in any doubt about that, the figures and statistics available in the Library make it absolutely plain. The overwhelming majority of Government Bills, under Governments of all political persuasions, went through without a guillotine. That is because of the balance that was struck by having a guillotine available but not using it except as a weapon of last resort.

The balance worked like this: the Opposition parties knew perfectly well that if they filibustered, they would walk themselves into a guillotine motion; equally, on the Government side, the Minister responsible for the Bill knew that he or she would have to go to the Dispatch Box to handle a debate to try to persuade the House that the guillotine motion was justified, and if he or she could not do it, they would, rightly, get a really rough ride from the House. That is how the balance worked, and it worked successfully; and that is why the overwhelming majority of Bills went through without a guillotine. I am not going to support what the Committee has proposed in this respect. I believe that the House would be well advised to go back to the pre-1997 situation.

I come now to my third issue, which is of crucial importance but, sadly, is not referred to at any point by the Committee and has not been mentioned so far in this debate: the boundary between primary and secondary legislation. Secondary legislation, again as a result of an unwritten but vitally important convention of this House, should be confined only to issues of detail that are broadly non-controversial. I had an interesting reminder of that very early on when I was responsible for drafting the "right to buy" Bill in the very first Session of the previous Conservative Government. I requested an order-making power, and a crisp minute came back from the first parliamentary counsel, who had made himself responsible for drafting the Bill because it was the Government's flagship Bill, saying, "Minister, you've drafted this order-making power far too wide. You must either narrow the power you are seeking or put it on to the face of the Bill so that it can be scrutinised as primary legislation." The reason why secondary legislation should be narrowly drawn, as the House is well aware, is simply that the House has very marginal control over it. The great majority of secondary legislation is not debated or voted on, and none of it, whether under the affirmative or the negative resolution, can be amended.

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Hugh Bayley: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir John Stanley: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to finish making this point.

The House has very limited control over secondary legislation. Sadly, and very seriously, the convention to which I referred has been completely torn to shreds by this present Government. If the House wants an example, I give it section 2 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2010, which has very recently gone on to the statute book. Under the heading, "Further duties for securing sound public finances", subsection (1) states:

So here we have an order-making power putting on to the Treasury statutory obligations that vitally affect macro-economic policy, jobs, employment, and so on-legal powers that the Treasury will be obliged to adhere to, all whistling through this House on the basis of a 90-minute non-amendable debate. That, in my book, is a gross abuse of the legislative power of this House.

It is for those reasons that, while I recognise that these reforms are a very small step in the right direction, I take the view that they are wholly inadequate to restore the legislative authority of the House of Commons.

6.47 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). I agree with him that the timetabling process has been abused in recent years, although I am not against timetabling in principle because there were also many abuses of the old system. However, I think that our proposal for a business committee that dealt with all the business of the House would help to address some of the problems that he rightly highlights, and I would direct his attention to that.

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) with great interest. I always have respect for someone who goes against the tide, because I have done that myself from time to time, but I was hoping to hear from her at some stage, either during the Committee's proceedings or tonight, some clue as to what reforms she wants. She did not give us that tonight, and she did not do so in the Committee, so I remain curious on that point. I will leave it at that.

I add to the tributes of others my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who, like me, is sadly leaving this place in a few weeks' time. He has led a most distinguished career here during which his contribution to the way in which the House has functioned is a model for those who come afterwards as Back-Bench Members. It has been a great honour to serve on the same Committee as him.

I regard the issues that we are debating today as a test of how seriously we take ourselves. If we do not take ourselves seriously, we cannot expect people outside this place to do so. In the 23 years I have been in the House, one thing that has disappointed me has been how some of our number are prepared to fight with great passion to remain impotent. I remember that when I was Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, one of the Clerks remarked, "Members
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have considerable power, it is just that they choose not to use it." The time has come for us to start using some of the power that we have. The proposed reforms are not a revolution-the process is evolutionary-but most of the them are no-brainers. It surely has to be right that the House decides how it will go about scrutinising the activities of the Executive. That is the core of what we are here for.

I well remember that when I first came here, it was made clear to me in no uncertain terms that I could expect no preferment whatever. I put my name down for membership of the Home Affairs Committee for three or four years running, because I had a certain interest in how the criminal justice system was functioning at that time. Nothing happened, of course, and after three or four years I went to see the Chief Whip, my noble Friend Derek Foster, a good friend of mine. He said to me, "Talk to Roy." Roy was the shadow Home Secretary, Roy Hattersley. It did not seem right to me that the shadow Home Secretary should decide who was on the Home Affairs Committee, because he might one day become the Home Secretary.

Anyway, I went to see Roy, who stood with his hands in his pockets, looked at the floor and said ambiguously, "I'll see what can be done." I know exactly what was done, because my friend Derek Foster told me afterwards. A message came from the Leader of the Opposition's office to the Chief Whip saying that the Leader understood that there was a vacancy on the Home Affairs Committee, and that he had one or two names in mind for who should fill it. When the Chief Whip got to there, he discovered that in fact he had no names in mind for who should fill the vacancy but one name for who should not. It seems quite wrong that that is how Select Committee members are selected.

After a while I became very respectable, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There came a moment when Law Lords, cardinals and Tory Home Secretaries were happy to be seen in my company, and I could no longer be denied a coveted place on the Home Affairs Committee. In due course I became Chairman of it, and I remarked to the Chief Whip of the day that I would like to be consulted when vacancies arose. I said that I would just like to be shown the names of the applicants and allowed to express my view-I was not asking to decide. She-I should make it clear that it was not my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong)-showed me a book one evening in the Division Lobby in which the names were written down, and it closed so quickly that I could not see any of the names on the page. I think the situation has improved since then, but in those days that was consultation. The imperfect system that we have all put up with for far too long needs to be challenged, and this is the moment to challenge it. As I said, it seems to me a no-brainer.

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