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Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and to pay tribute to the part that he has played in getting us where we are today.
He played an enormous part in ensuring that the amendment was tabled, and in working so constructively and coherently with the Leader of the House and members of all parties. That is an admirable example of the way in which non-partisan but very principled work can deliver enormously constructive and helpful changes in the House.
However, the Member at the centre of the whole debate, and of all our thinking today, is the Member sitting behind me, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Tributes to him have been implicit in all the speeches that have been made so far. We owe him an enormous amount. The best way in which we can ensure that sufficient tribute is paid to him-although probably only the Government can do this-is to arrange for him no longer to be our hon. Friend but to become our right hon. Friend. If anyone has gained, indeed earned, the honour of being a right hon. Member of this House, surely it is he.
In the excellent speech in which he effectively introduced the motion-I hope the Leader of the House will forgive me for saying that-my hon. Friend said, "We are nearly there." The question is, who are the "we" and where is the "there" that we are near? With one or two very creditable exceptions-it is vital, in any debate, to hear distant voices that make people think-the "we" has been represented by Members in all parts of the House, many of whom have worked for reform for years. At the beginning of the debate, when the Chamber was rather fuller, it was interesting to look around and see, gathered in one room, people representing all the organisations, all the time and all the thinking that has gone into reform over the 27 years during which I have been here and, indeed, before that. I am thinking of the Hansard Society, numerous committees, and all the conferences outside this place.
Being one of little faith, I have to say that five years ago I would not have put any money on our reaching the point that we have reached today. It seemed that battering our heads against the House and its resistance to any sort of reform would see me out. It is an amazing tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, to the Leader of the House and to many Members in the Chamber today that, almost in the last few weeks-certainly in the last few months-we have made such enormous strides. We really are nearly there. We are on the brink of reform, but we are not there yet. This is the start of the process. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) kept anxiously saying, "Surely this is not it; this must be just the start of the process." Of course, anyone who believes in the reform of this House knows that these are tentative first steps, but they are vital. They are the beginning of the process, not the end.
Throughout her speech, my hon. Friend asked why we were not asking more fundamental questions. There cannot be a more fundamental assumption behind our reforms than the need to get the balance between the House and the Executive right. That is what has gone so wrong with Parliament politically over the last few years.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that rather than this being a technical and navel-gazing issue, nothing could do more to raise the esteem in which MPs are held by the public than taking back a little power into the hands of elected Members through these reforms?
Mark Fisher: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but it is more a rebalancing of two distinct roles: that of the Executive-who have a role of their own in proposing legislation, imposing taxation and taking action on behalf of this country-and that of this House. The two are often confused, but the role of this House is to hold the Government to account, scrutinise them, ask them severe questions and test them on behalf of our constituents. Those two distinct roles are at the centre of all the reforms that we wish to make, and we are getting there, gradually.
Parliament has not been working well, and that is only partly to do with the expenses issue of the last year. It has not been working well politically, and we have not been holding the Government to account. It is not just an idealistic point that the role of Back Benchers is to hold the Government to account, because it is in the Government's interest that they are held to account more effectively. Governments who are rigorously scrutinised are bound to be much better Governments. We so often confuse power and strength with effectiveness. Governments have always had difficulty with freedom of information, because they feel that they are giving away control, and therefore power. However, if the Government give away power through freedom of information, they become stronger and their actions are improved. So it is with the reform of this House. A reformed House will lead to a stronger and better Government, and will help to distinguish between power, which Governments have, and strength, which they often do not have because they do not carry things through this House.
Sir Robert Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it will be an important legacy of these reforms if we do not stop here, and if we recognise that the issue is not only about process and rules, but about the attitude to those rules and the approach that Members take when they come into the new Parliament in taking advantage of the system that has been left by this Parliament?
The interesting thing about the report is that it tends to concentrate on structures. They are a necessary and vital first step in achieving reform, but they are not in themselves sufficient. We will also have to change the culture of this place if we are to achieve real reform. For example, we must stop seeing total party loyalty as the be-all and end-all of everything. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire questioned whether parties should have primacy. Of course we need Whips and strong party discipline for the effective running of government, but we also need MPs with an independence of mind if we are to be an effective Parliament.
In the last 10 years, we have the perfect example of failing to be independent of mind, and the country is still paying the price. When the former Prime Minister made that extraordinary speech introducing the Iraq war, many Members of Parliament from all parties had
enormous doubts. Had they been left to their own consciences, they would not have given their support to the Government that night. Many of them have felt let down subsequently and doubted themselves because they were seduced into being loyal to the then Prime Minister, who certainly made a very powerful speech. I suspect that the House did not cast its votes in the way that Members really believed that night, and we have paid an enormous price. If there had been a genuinely free vote, and Members had voted as they felt the arguments led them to do, the result would have been different and we would not have been involved in that disastrous war.
Mr. Tyrie: That is an interesting point. I have given some thought to whether, if the Wright Committee proposals had already been in place, we might have had a different outcome. Does he think that if they had been in place we might have had that debate a few days or weeks earlier and that we might have had two days for debate, in which we would have had more time to think about it and listen to the arguments, possibly resulting in a different outcome?
Natascha Engel: Does my hon. Friend agree that the recent study by Phil Cowley from Nottingham university demonstrated that this Parliament and other recent Parliaments have been the most rebellious Parliaments of all time? We are more independent of political parties than we have been in the past, so the issue is not the independence of mind of MPs, but the way in which this place works-or does not work.
Mark Fisher: I am not entirely sure which Parliaments my hon. Friend has been a Member of if she really thinks that this is a Parliament of free and independent minds. She seems to have lived through a different Parliament than the one that I have lived through.
We are on the brink of reform, and we now need to step over the brink. This is just a start, and we must not forget why we are here and how we got to this point. What is sad is that we need to make that step to reform quickly and decisively now, because-as others have said-come the general election we will have a great many new Members and, tragically, some of the most important voices in the reform debate over the last few years will be lost, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase, for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the hon. Members for Cambridge (David Howarth), for Congleton (Ann Winterton), for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Those people are leaving and the new Members will come hot from the election and all the excitement of standing for their party in the general election. They will find it difficult to see themselves as parliamentarians, after their role in the election as proud flag wavers of the party cause. The House will lose the benefit of some of the wisest and most thoughtful people on the reform agenda.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend see the importance of revitalising local parties? We relate better to this place if we can go back to our local parties, which are not the same as the national party, as well as to our constituencies. These changes will help to move us in that direction.
Although throughout this debate we have identified the importance of this House in holding the Government to account, the other thrust, which we have perhaps not discussed enough, is the sense that reform will help us to create and sense our own identity-an identity distinct from that of the Government. It is difficult in this House to hold that paradox in one's head. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has a solution to that: the separation of powers. That is not a solution that appeals to me. We have to hold on to that paradox and get the tension in it to work in our favour. However, in doing so we have to see a distinct identity for this place, and not see it as simply a rubber stamp for the party in government.
That has been the weakness of the Parliaments of the past few years, a weakness that has been compounded by the enormous majorities that the country has sent us here with. I suspect that the next Parliament will not have the same kind of monumental majority, which has been a source of huge weakness, so it might not have the same problem. However, if the next Parliament-albeit without the benefit of many of the people who have spoken in this debate-can find a sense of its own identity, it will be able to carry forward the reform that the committee of inquiry chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase deserves. He has given us the foundation of the reform that we desperately need. If we are to carry it forward in the next Parliament, we have to have that sense of our own identity.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher). I am sure that I speak on behalf of all who know him in saying that I am delighted that he is back in the House after his recent illness and hope that he will soon be completely fit again.
What a pleasure it is to take part in a debate that, effectively, was initiated by another Staffordshire friend, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). If he will forgive my saying so, from the moment that he came into the House he has been an exemplary next-door neighbour, and he has been an exemplary Chairman of his Committee too. The House owes him a great deal. His legacy is the report that we are discussing; the effectiveness of that legacy will depend on how truly people implement it.
I say that because there are two or three weaknesses that one must face up to. First, the hon. Gentleman's Committee was fairly constrained in its terms of reference, a point alluded to by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). Secondly, the Committee was time-constrained. It was set up in a bit of a hurry and-I chose my words carefully-in a little bit of a
panic reaction. It was to the credit of the hon. Gentleman and all who served on the Committee with him that they produced such a sensible and workmanlike document in such a short space of time. However, we must not become euphoric, because there is a danger that the changes advocated in the report could become cosmetic. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central made an important point towards the end of his speech, when he referred to the enormous majorities in recent Parliaments. We all have to recognise that, to a large degree, the power of the House of Commons depends on the size of the Government's majority.
I had the good fortune to be elected to this place in 1970. The Government of Ted Heath had a workable but not an enormous majority. They had to fight for some of their policies and, in the case of the European debate-I mention this merely as a historical event and not to antagonise my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)-they were dependent on votes from the Labour party to get that key element of their policy through the House of Commons. Because of that, that Government had an implicit respect for the House of Commons.
After that there was what I will always consider the unnecessary election of February 1974-I spoke against it at the time-when the Prime Minister asked who governed the country. It was he who should have done so; he did not need to go to the country. He went to the country and he lost his majority. Paradoxically, he got a majority of the popular vote, but he lost his majority. From February 1974 until March 1979, this place truly had power and influence, because there was never a vote that the Government could absolutely accurately predict that they would win.
Then we moved to Mrs. Thatcher's first Government, for whom the arithmetic was not very different from that for Edward Heath's Government. Again, the Government had to argue. I well remember when there was a majority of 42 going with 21 signatures with my now noble Friend Lord Higgins to see a Cabinet Minister and saying that we could not wear a particular policy, which was subsequently significantly amended. All that went in 1983, after the longest suicide note in history, when we had the next Thatcher Government. Since the brief period between 1992 and 1997, when John Major had a dwindling and at the end non-existent majority, we have had Governments with majorities that have been so large that the House of Commons has not really been able to do anything about it.
I have often thought that the famous motion that Dunning moved, I think in 1782-that the power of the Crown had increased, was increasing and ought to be diminished-has been the subtext for those of us who have been unhappy about the overweening power of the Executive. The power of the Executive has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. Whether the reforms before us this evening will have that effect I know not. We stand on the brink of a general election, and although I love this place with a passion, I will not be in the next House of Commons, whatever the electorate does. I just wonder what will happen, because of the power of the Whips, with perhaps 300 new Members in the new Parliament, although I do not say that in any vicious sense. There has to be a whipping system, as others have said. Party is essential for civilised democracy in this country-it is part of the system-particularly if
we are not to abandon, as I do not wish us to abandon our concept of the separation of powers. However, influence is not just overt; it is also covert.
When we look at the proposals-we will vote on them next week-we have to remember that there are more ways of influencing a Member than the crudest and the simplest, just as we have to remember that any system devised for the examination and scrutiny of legislation is open to abuse, whether the abuse of the filibuster, if we have unlimited time, or, as we have seen in recent years, the abuse of the timetable, which has created the absurd situations referred to so graphically by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). Time is terribly important in this House. If we are to constrain our time so much, for whatever reasons-and there were some good reasons for changing the hours in 1997-we must recognise that there has to be a self-denying ordinance on the part of the Government in relation to the amount of legislation that they place before the House.
I shall conclude by making one or two specific remarks about the proposals. In my memo to the Committee, I suggested that there should be a properly appointed Committee of Selection, chaired by either the Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means, that would, to a degree, be the fount of appointments. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire made some important points in that regard. Elections are not the only answer to having more independent Select Committees. Whether we have elections for their Chairmen and members or not, however, we want a Committee of Selection that will be the creature of the House and not the creature of the Executive. We also want a business Committee, and again I would favour one that was the creature of the House and not of the Executive. It would be entirely logical for the Chairman of Ways and Means to preside over the Committee of Selection, and for the Speaker to preside over the business Committee. There are other countries in which something like that happens.
It is also terribly important that, as we move forward towards sensible reform, we do not abandon some of the things that mark the traditions of this place. I think it was the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) who made a jocular reference to the new carpet earlier. The new carpet is not a Cyril Lord concoction with a gaudy pattern on it, and none of us would have wanted it to be. It bears the two red stripes, which are symbolic in our parliamentary life. It is therefore part of our traditional Chamber.
I make no apology for being a traditionalist, which is why I have tabled amendments to get rid of the silly notion of calling everyone who is in charge of a Committee a piece of furniture. That is a nonsense up with which we do not need to put. Certainly the great women in recent parliamentary history, such as the late Gwyneth Dunwoody and the very much alive Baroness Boothroyd, would have scoffed at such a suggestion. Indeed, I have heard Baroness Boothroyd do so-not in this particular context, but in others.
The proposals would bring about an utterly unnecessary cosmetic change. One of the reasons that I oppose them is that, if I love anything as much as I love the House of Commons, I love the English language. Next year, we shall celebrate one of the seminal works in the English language, the King James Bible. It would be a pretty poor parliamentary recognition of the importance of
the greatest worldwide language since Latin if we started in this place to call people pieces of furniture. I hope that my minor amendments will be accepted, even perhaps by the Chairman of the Committee that produced this report. For the rest, I will vote for the motions to implement his report. I think that I shall vote for every proposal, although I might just reflect on one or two things. The report contains a small series of imperfect but necessary steps, and I hope that they will serve well the new House of Commons and those who sit here, and help to redress the balance that we all want to see redressed.
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