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It is absolutely right that the size of Select Committees needs to be brought down again. It went up only temporarily a few years ago, I think as a way of finding the boys and girls something to do. A Committee of 14 is far too large, and we rapidly found ourselves in a situation in which both sides were having to put Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Front-Bench spokesmen on Select Committees, which defeated the object of the exercise. I believe that there is general agreement that we need to go back to a more manageable size, so that that is not necessary. I hope that we will
never again see PPSs and people from the Government payroll on Select Committees. I also agree entirely with those who say that there must be consequences for Committee members who do not attend.
The single greatest omission is a motion to set up a business committee that would cover the entire business of the House. I am glad that the Leader of the House has said that that omission will be rectified. Incidentally, I am grateful to her also for reading out at the beginning of her remarks a list of the reforms that have occurred in the past 20 or 30 years that have made this place work better. I hear people outside here, and sometimes inside, say, "You're all useless and nothing has changed", but the list that my right hon. and learned Friend read out shows that some of the reforms that have taken place have been rather bigger than some of those that are being suggested today. We have gone backwards in some respects, but in other respects those reforms have had the effect of making the business of the House work more effectively.
I should like the Intelligence and Security Committee to come within the ambit of the House and become a Committee of it, rather than one appointed by and accountable to the Prime Minister. I have pressed for that for many years. When I was Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee there were two inquiries on precisely that point. I make no comment on the recent difficulties over whether the security services have been mixed up in torture overseas, but it is in their interests that they are seen to be scrutinised independently on such issues. I hope that the Government will eventually concede on that.
Mr. Tyrie: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we did a double act of trying to get the reform of the ISC into the Wright Committee report. He knows that the proposal that has been put forward is not to make it a Select Committee of Parliament but merely that Parliament should elect its chairman, with a veto still in the hands of the Prime Minister. Does he support that as an interim measure, and how does he believe we can best ensure that we have an opportunity to vote on it when it comes to the votes early in March?
Mr. Mullin: I support that as an interim measure, but I should like us to get to a position at which it becomes a Committee of the House. There are obviously some special considerations to be taken into account, and perhaps the Prime Minister does have to be consulted, but in general I support that idea. I am not a procedural expert, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I shall not attempt on my feet to devise a way in which the matter can be voted upon.
I wish to refer to an issue on which the House of Commons Reform Committee was split down the middle. I suspect that I am in a minority in the House on it, although I believe myself to be in a comfortable majority outside the House. It is the 80-day recess that we award ourselves and the 80-day holiday from scrutiny that we award the Government.
Mr. Mullin: I agree with my right hon. Friend-I used the term "holiday from scrutiny", I did not suggest that we are all on holiday during the recess. I know that he is not, and I know that I am not, but I know the public think we are. That is the problem.
Natascha Engel: It is important to say that part of the reason why the Committee was split down the middle on September sittings was that a lot of people thought that they would not in themselves be the solution to rebuilding trust outside, and that we should examine the whole parliamentary timetable and consider why we have overblown public school sitting times, rather than just consider sitting again for two weeks in September.
Mr. Mullin: We have to start somewhere, and I get more and more puzzled about what my hon. Friend actually wants. She said that many of the proposals that we are discussing this evening were arcane and too complex for the outside world to understand, but this is one that the outside world has grasped readily. It is about time we grasped it, too. We are not asking for anything revolutionary, just for probably eight days sometime in September. That would still allow time for the conferences and all the other things that have to happen. Members often forget that we actually voted for that six years ago as a part of a package put to the House by the late Robin Cook. The words he used when he introduced that measure-I remember them well-were, "The deal is". The deal was that in return for making the House's sitting times family friendly by giving us half-terms and so forth, we would sit for a week or two in September. That was the deal, and we reneged on it. The first excuse was that a security screen had to be set up, and when that ran out, the excuse was that there would not be enough business. I do not buy that and nor do the public, and it is time we addressed it.
Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we should base our working year on our constituents' working year, and that there is absolutely no reason why we should have such incredibly long holidays?
Mr. Mullin: I do not accept the word "holidays"-they are parliamentary recesses-but I agree that there is no reason why they should be so long. We are going to make progress slowly and I do not want to trouble the House with anything too revolutionary, but eight days in September is not too much to ask.
The Committee's conclusions, some of which were compromises because the Committee did not agreed on everything, are a reasonable beginning to what we know needs to be done to make this place function more efficiently. The two core proposals-the big-ticket items, if I may use my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House's phrase-are for a business committee that covers all House business and to take election to Select Committees out of the hands of the Executive. I hope I live long enough to see them implemented.
It is now or never. There is no point in saying that we should leave this to another Parliament consisting of a lot of new people with no experience. It will take them, as it took me, at least 10 years to work out what is wrong, which is a recipe for doing nothing. It is now or never, and I say it should be now.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It was a pleasure to serve on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I learned a lot from members of the Committee, both older and younger, because everyone brought their experience to it, including the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and his fellow conspirator on the Intelligence and Security Committee, the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).
If the House of Commons Reform Committee was in any doubt about the issues when it started its work, the situation was made clear by the way in which the Committee was set up and how the House, by which I mean the Government, handled it. It took so long for the Government to put the motion to set up the Committee in a place on the Order Paper that meant that it could be debated and pressed to a Division, which was reasonable for the House to expect, that there was originally no proper consultation on the terms of reference. It would have been sensible for the Government to consult the House, given that the motion was on reform of the House. It also took a long time for the Government to respond-I would not have minded had they swiftly tabled motions as a response-and for us to be in a position in which we could decide what reforms we wanted, even before the bizarre process that we now face.
All of that should tell us that the House, especially on House matters, should be able to put motions on the Order Paper in an orderly way, promptly, and in a way that Members of the House, and preferably the public, can understand. That is why it was bizarre to hear the Leader of the House claim credit for the fact that we have reached this point. Only the Government could set up the Committee, so they are claiming credit for something when they have no competition- [ Interruption. ] The right hon. and learned Lady is saying something from a sedentary position and I would be happy for her to intervene. My point is that the House should be grateful to the Government for what they are doing and for reaching the point that they have reached today, and recognise the commitment to reform that the Prime Minister originally gave in 2007, but given what I said about what has brought us to this point, I do not think they did things better than anyone else could have done, because no one else could do anything, and the way they have gone about things has been unsatisfactory.
However, the process has shown us that there is an appetite for reform. The Government have seen that, because they rightly conceded, as they had to, a variation to the terms of reference. They also had to concede amendments to some of the motions on today's Order Paper. Amendment (a), which I helped to draft, to motion 9 has now been signed by 128 Members, and it would have been signed by more if we had had more than a day to collect signatures. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), and to the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) for the urgency and energy that they put into collecting those names. That shows that there is huge appetite for reform.
We were warned-I was certainly told this-that we would not get anywhere with the concept of a House business committee and that we ought to concentrate
on getting support for other measures. However, once the Government support those other measures, the only game in town is getting the measures that the Government are not minded to support. The fact that the Leader of the House is going to support amendment (a) to motion 9 -I hope that others in the Government will follow her into the Lobby-shows that there is very wide support for it.
That the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), was able to support the amendment enthusiastically at a relatively early stage, and that he has been such a strong supporter for a Back-Bench business committee, is very telling. He regards himself as the Leader of the House in waiting-although I pay tribute to him and cannot think of a better person, I hope that that does not happen-and he must recognise that the Government of whom he hopes to be a part would not be able to manipulate business in the way that previous Governments have if the amendment to which he has now signed up is made. That is statesmanship and very worth while. It is wrong to criticise people for changing their minds, and I therefore make no criticism of the Leader of the House for now saying-I will not use the word "U-turn"-that she supports the amendment. That should be welcomed unconditionally.
However, on the Back-Bench business committee motion, and as I mentioned in an intervention, the Procedure Committee, to which we are entrusting the matter, is not initially down to be an elected Committee, although there will be review after two years. Therefore, by definition, the Procedure Committee will remain Whip-appointed. I do not cast any aspersions on the intentions of those who have served, do serve and would serve on that Committee, but motion 9 needs to be a little more detailed. If we are going to ask a Whip-appointed Committee to set out what the Back-Bench business committee does, it should specify that it should be elected by secret ballot and that all House business except primary and secondary legislation and associated orders and motions, ministerial statements, Opposition business and motions for an address, is Back-Bench business, which means estimates days, Liaison Committee matters and, critically, private Members' Bills.
That would mean that Back Benchers could determine whether private Members' Bills-or at least the top seven-live or die on the basis of the support of the House, and that such Bills would not be quorumed out, talked out or procedured out. It is ridiculous for hon. Members and the public to spend much time dealing with those Bills only for them to be lost on procedure. If that means that the Government must whip because they find a private Member's Bill unacceptable, so be it. Not everything that comes out of the Whips Office is bad. It is legitimate for Government Whips to whip to carry their majority-that is their right-but it is not appropriate or acceptable for the Whips Office to manipulate business so that we do not properly scrutinise it.
I want to make another point on the scrutiny of legislation. The Leader of the House knows-I have raised this on one, two or perhaps 14 times with her at business questions-about my concerns that we cannot debate on Report what we wish to debate or press what we wish to press to a Division. Scrutiny on Report is critical, because the Public Bill Committee does not deliver. A Report stage provides the only opportunity for Back Benchers who are not on a Public Bill Committee
to debate and vote, the only opportunity for Back-Bench amendments to be promoted, the only opportunity for Select Committees and their Chairs to join in detailed debate, and the only opportunity for Members to debate Government amendments tabled after the Committee stage or tabled at short notice in Committee.
Timetabling in Committee may mean that some clauses receive little scrutiny there. Votes are often postponed until Report, and if we do not reach those clauses on Report, it will not be possible for votes to take place. That applies particularly to free votes. Free votes in Public Bill Committees are meaningless, because, by definition, they cannot be represented in the selection for those Committees. The Report stage provides the only chance for rebels to rebel, and that puts pressure on the Government to justify, to compromise or, I suppose, to persuade.
The Library has identified a number of instances in which proper Report stage scrutiny has not taken place. The list is too long for me to give all the details, but I think I should give four random examples. On the Bill that became the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, nine groups of amendments were selected by the Speaker, and 20 Government amendments or new clauses and 47 Opposition amendments or new clauses were not reached. On the Bill that became the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, 14 groups of amendments were selected by the Speaker, and 18 Government amendments and new clauses and 48 Opposition amendments and new clauses were not reached. In the Coroners and Justice Bill we reformed the murder law in this country, but we were not given a chance to debate it on the Floor of the House. The law of murder was reformed in that Bill, but only the unelected House was able to debate it.
What the House business committee would deliver-along with a guarantee that the Government would have enough time to get their business through, would have first choice of dates and would have a set end date, as they have at present-is determination, by consensus, that everything that the House needed to debate would be debated, and everything on which the House felt that it needed to vote would be voted on. That might mean more work for the Whips Office to ensure that the Government, given their majority in the House of Commons, could exercise that "mandate" at the appropriate time, but it would at least mean that those of us who wished to express concerns or make suggestions could have their day in court, or rather their day in Parliament.
Absolutely. The House business committee would, I think, be better able to identify, as the Library and the Clerks Department have done-without increasing the number of times that we sit, and there are no proposals in the report to increase them-all the days on which business finishes early. Second Readings of simple Bills to which there is little opposition do not require a whole day of debate. Some of that time could be banked to ensure that, more often, two days were allotted for Report stages, and-crucially-that the knives
that are currently inserted to protect the business that follows were inserted before, rather than after, the business that we most want and need to discuss.
Clearly, if there were more time for debate on Report, Members' speeches might expand to fill that extra time. In its holistic report, the Committee made the legitimate point that restrictions on the length of speeches on Report might well be appropriate and could be identified in advance to ensure that we completed our business on Report.
Scrutiny of legislation is critical. The real question is, whose business is it to scrutinise Government-sponsored legislation? Is it the Government's business, or is it the business of the House? It is clearly the business of the House, and therefore, at the very least, it should be within the purview of the House business committee. Front Benchers must clearly be represented, because they must identify their priorities. Both the report and our amendment guarantee that they would be given the time that they require to get their business through, which may be why the Leader of the House felt able to support the amendment. However, it has also been pointed out that it is important for us to improve scrutiny, and to recognise that what happens at present is often the opposite of scrutiny.
Select Committee scrutiny is also critical. As we heard from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, it is simply wrong for the Government to appoint members of Committees that scrutinise them. The same applies to the Opposition: as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South, the shadow Minister will soon be the Minister. More than that is required, however: we need to ensure that Select Committee reports do not just sit on a shelf. The Government must be bound to respond to those reports, because sometimes they do not even do that. I serve on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and we have written time and again to request even a response to some of our reports. Sometimes, when the Government do respond, they do not address the issues.
If we could ensure that, in due course, some Select Committee recommendations were subjected to a decision on the Floor of the House, the Government would be forced to respond properly and to justify their rejection of recommendations. They would have to whip the House to oppose them, as they have a right to do, but those who serve on Select Committees would see that there was an end point at which the House itself considered and, indeed, voted on selected amendments. If Select Committee members felt that that would happen, they would be more engaged, they would turn up, and we would have stronger scrutiny.
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