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7.43 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I have just overheard one of my colleagues describing the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) as a magnificent parliamentary specimen. I am sure that he was absolutely right. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman. I clearly recall an occasion a few months ago when I had to speak after him. I think that it was during one of the Hansard Society debates during the speakership campaign. We were both asked to talk about our experience. He said that he had served the House since 1970-that is nearly 40 years-and I had to confess that I was not even born until a year after he began to serve the House.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and with most of the other speakers in this debate. I should like to join the consensus supporting the excellent work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and his Committee. I also think that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) made some good points, however, and I want to pick up the gauntlet that was thrown down by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) when he suggested that we could go further.

The Committee's report will drag the House forward towards the 20th century from the 18th. After the election, however, we shall probably need the equivalent of a Wright II to drag it into the Facebook and Twitter age. I believe, having talked to colleagues here and outside the House, that there could be a real danger in the months and years to come of a divide between the 30-something parliamentarians and the others in the House. I shall explain why. Some of the newer group of Members will not have had their children yet and might be planning to do so in the future; others might have young children. Others will be more savvy than I am about new forms of communication and about how to contact and be involved with their electors. They will have different ideas about how we should engage with the public than the House has traditionally had in the past.

My hon. Friend's excellent report will move powers distinctly from the Executive to the Back Benches and to Parliament. In the eyes of the public, will that give the country new confidence in us? No, I do not think that it will. It will give confidence to us as Members of Parliament, and to those in the Westminster village. It will support and help those with a trained Westminster eye. It will make a difference here, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire and others are saying, if we are to make Parliament stronger,
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we need to shift the pendulum of power away from this place and into local communities. I have talked about this before, and I believe that it is relevant. We shall have to come back to the issue of the settlement between the citizen and our Parliament and debate it again in the future.

I want to outline three key areas in which we can make a difference. They were not in the remit of my hon. Friend's review, but he had a limited period in which to complete it, and he has come an awfully long way. He has proposed great recommendations for change, and we should all support them. They are changes that we need to make, but we will need to make further changes down the line. One relates to representation. If Parliament is really to be in touch with society, we need to look, act, sound and be more like it. I see one or two heads shaking on the Conservative Benches, but I do not think that that sentiment is necessarily shared by all of those on the Conservative Front Bench.

We are seeing an emerging consensus on this matter. We saw that after the Speaker's Conference. Indeed, several Members who were involved in that are here today. We have come some way, but it is important that we now look at and listen to the recommendations of that Conference. I hope that they will be discussed on the Floor of the House, and ideally not in a debate tucked away on a Thursday. Let us debate these matters on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, when the House is busy, because the report produced by the Speaker's Conference is important. It is not just about getting more people from an ethnic minority background or more women into Parliament; it is also, in this modern world, about being fair and understanding towards people with mental health issues, and about getting more people with disabilities into the House.

I understand that that was not part of the remit of the review carried out by my hon. Friend's Committee, but those and other measures are still relevant. We need to consider how we can better relate to younger people and encourage them to come into the House and become Members of Parliament. Again, some small steps in the right direction have been taken and Mr. Speaker has done the right thing in moving towards providing crèche facilities in this place, but as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire has already pointed out- [Interruption.] One or two Members may smirk, but I suspect that in the months and years to come, recognition of the importance of such facilities will become part of the political consensus. At least I hope it will, in the same way that measures to move power from the Executive to the Back Benchers have become part of a consensus. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, as Parliaments change-we may well soon get a big churn in the membership of this place-some of these issues may get forgotten, so it is very important that that does not happen and important to ensure that these changes are driven forwards in the next Parliament, whoever is here after the election.

Mr. Greg Knight: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that reform is always an ongoing process and that there should never be a time when we say that it is over?

Mr. Dhanda: The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. I was making the point that, as we have heard in today's debate, the hunger for change is greater among some
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than among others. Some Members want it faster and swifter, while others are more pragmatic about it. I am outlining some of the key proposals that I believe are relevant to us now and in the future.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab) rose-

Mr. Dhanda: I will give way, but then I want to come on to what I think is the key change that we need to make in the future.

Ms Abbott: On the question of representation, my hon. Friend is right, but was not one of the things discovered at the Speaker's Conference that much of the responsibility will fall to the parties? Even if, through the action of the parties, we have a much more racially diverse House of Commons, is it not the case that if the Executive retain their death-grip on Parliament, the colour of its skin might be different, but it will not do anything to win back the public's confidence in it being independent and in us thinking for ourselves?

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend has much more experience than me as she has campaigned for many years on these issues. Her voice was heard loud and clear through the Speaker's Conference, and I think she makes her point incredibly powerfully.

Let me come on to the issue of power and where it lies, which is the key to engagement with the electorate. That is what they really want to see-to make a real difference to rebuilding Parliament. To change people's attitude towards this place, we have to look at our structures and think about how we shift the pendulum of power away from here towards local communities. I know that there is a great deal of uncertainty and fear among Members about that proposal, but I do not think that there should be because, ultimately, it will make us stronger. As has already been said, this is similar to the Executive becoming stronger by being subject to greater scrutiny by Back Benchers.

As I have said before, I would like to see far more opportunities for parliamentary processes and practices to reach out to town halls and communities in the country at large. Our Adjournment debates provide one good example of that, because holding such debates outside this place in the regions would make a huge difference and attract much local interest, involving local communities and the local media as well.

On that subject, we need a long hard think about how we should use new media. I would like to see us showing enough trust in our public to allow them to participate in more direct democracy so that they could help to shape and decide what we debate when we have discussions about topical issues. Yes, Back Benchers and business committees should be able to shortlist what the key issues are, but why do we not allow our constituents out there in our communities, through online voting, to decide what issues should be debated? We need to revisit all these issues as early as possible in the next Parliament if we are to get up steam and put this institution behind reform and change.

Mr. Drew: I thank my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour for giving way. I would love the new media to be interested in this place, but it would also be helpful if
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the old media took an occasional bit of interest. One deleterious effect of recent developments is that this place has become greatly weakened as the media have taken less and less interest; as it has become weakened, the media have then taken even less interest. Is it not about time that the media took some interest in this place?

Mr. Dhanda: I disagree with my hon. Friend, as I think the media take quite a lot of interest in this place. They do not, however, always take an interest in the positive elements of what goes on here. As Members, we have all had to deal with that problem, particularly in recent months.

In conclusion, I truly believe that these reforms are positive and I hope that the whole House will get behind them. I congratulate all Members who served on this important Committee, but if the public are to view this not just as deck chairs being moved around a floating parliamentary Titanic from the Treasury Benches to the Back Benches, we must be honest and see this as only the first stage of making even greater reforms that will reach out to the electorate.

7.55 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I very much welcome many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), although what he said amplifies how this debate can become a Christmas tree on which everybody hangs their particular enthusiasms for what they might call parliamentary reform. I think that our debate must concentrate on the report before us and on what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has presented to us this afternoon, which provides a great opportunity to take a modest but extremely significant step.

All parties, including the Committee itself, have described our response to the expenses scandal as being necessary but not sufficient to wider reform; it will be sufficient only if we reform Parliament itself. Even you, Mr. Speaker, made the reform of the House of Commons part of the platform for your election. The fact that all party leaders have essentially embraced the re-empowerment of Parliament as an essential part of that reform enjoins us to give a hearty welcome to the Committee's report.

By far the most important issue before the House is control of the timetable of business. As any A-level politics student will know, the degree to which the Government control the Commons timetable is the degree to which they control the House itself. I was extremely taken by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who reminded us that what used to be one of the key weapons of opposition in the House-available not just to the Opposition, but to Government Members as well-was the opportunity to delay by extending the time of scrutiny for a measure. That is why I was so taken by the point that this categorical assurance about the time-in and the time-out is perhaps given too lightly. That is where we are at the moment, however, so we should still welcome the proposals.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I disagree with my hon. Friend, as I do not think that the key to increasing the power of the Parliament is increasing our power to control the timetable. Rather, I believe that the
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key is our power to control the supply of money. Does he agree that although these reforms are a wonderful first step, the next big step is to go down the route that the American Congress has long since taken, so that our Select Committees have much greater control as the Government increase their spending?

Mr. Jenkin: I agree. I am not going to address the role of Select Committees, because the subject is too large, but the fundamental point about them is far more significant than the fact that they should be elected; it is that they should be given resources. Our Select Committees are very modest in comparison with their congressional counterparts, and they have very limited ability to get ahead of the political agenda and to start to set it in the way congressional committees do. We are going to need to look at that further.

The key point is the importance of having control over the timetable from which the House currently suffers. The present arrangements are damaging in two particular respects. First, far too much legislation passes through this House without proper scrutiny-indeed, not just without proper scrutiny, but with barely any scrutiny at all, as has been pointed out. Let us remind ourselves of what Lord Butler, the former Cabinet Secretary, said this month: "Successive Governments have come to take Parliament for granted so they rush through very bad legislation." As has been pointed out, we now rely almost wholly on the other place to do the job of scrutiny that we are elected to carry out.

That leads to the second danger: our powerlessness in the House damages the whole credibility of our democracy. If the hon. Member for Gloucester reflects on the other points that he raised, he will see that this is the key point. We are elected to the House for three principal purposes: to prevent the abuse of power, to ensure the passing of good laws, and to raise money for the Government, while guaranteeing that it is spent wisely, as was said earlier. Who today honestly believes that the House begins to carry out those functions effectively?

That brings me to the separation of powers. When Montesquieu studied the British constitution in action in his "The Spirit of Laws" of 1748, he observed, albeit partly mistakenly, the separation of powers between the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The separation of powers has become a founding principle of democratic constitutions around the world; it is not something that we should fear, but something that we should seek to promote. It is particularly exemplified in the constitution of the United States.

In fact, there never can be a complete separation of powers. The US President, for example, can veto new laws-a legislative function. He also personally appoints new Supreme Court justices. However, the founding fathers of the US constitution would have shuddered at the idea that the White House could determine the weekly business in the House of Representatives. Yet that is what our Government can do in our Parliament. That is not Montesquieu's separation of powers, but a fusion of powers.

Mr. Cash: I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but, somewhat rarely, I could not disagree with him more. Going down the route of the separation of powers
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presupposes-if he is going to use the analogy of the American system-that the President himself would have to be elected.

Mr. Jenkin: I will come to that point, my hon. Friend need not fear.

The truth is that our Parliament is no longer composed mainly of part-time citizen parliamentarians, but of professional politicians, most of whom wish, or have wished, to become Ministers, or who are Ministers. When an MP becomes a Minister, he virtually ceases to function as an MP. Ministers continue to do their best for their constituents, but they cannot hold the Executive effectively to account, because they are the Executive. That is ironic given that the House has become obsessed by conflicts of interest, and one need think only of the Register of Members' Financial Interests, outside interests, Members of Parliament owning investments, retiring Ministers taking jobs in private sector businesses that they regulated and the role of lobbyists.

A Minister's loyalty is to the Executive, but as an MP, his loyalty should be to Parliament. Inevitably, that presents a fundamental conflict of interest on occasion. One is reminded of Christ's words in Matthew 6:24:

Christ was, of course, referring to God and Mammon, but he might as easily have been talking about the House of Commons and the Prime Minister offering a ministerial salary to one of his Back Benchers.

It is worth considering that before the second world war perhaps 50 Members of the House of Commons were on the Government payroll; today, 141 MPs are on the payroll. In a parliamentary system, there must be a recognition of that conflict of interest. As the parliamentary ombudsman recently told the Public Administration Committee-this is quoted in the report-there is

That is something that we must address.

We have also seen the increasing power and centralisation of political parties in recent times. As has been said, political parties are indispensable, but Members of Parliament are no longer elected and then apply to take the Whip of this or that party. Parties are now defined and regulated by statute. The Burkean principle of MP as representative has been progressively eroded and replaced by the notion of MP as party delegate. Party leaders can now get rid of MPs they do not like, as we saw in the Conservative party before the last election. They can also block candidates of whom they disapprove. For the modern political party, the House of Commons has become more of an electoral college for the office of Prime Minister than a deliberative assembly. That must change.

Parliamentary government arose precisely because Parliament wanted to limit the power of the Crown. That is why the Commons insisted in 1713 that no demand for money would be met unless proposed in the House by a Minister of the Crown. Today's Standing Order No. 48 derives from that time, when it was one of the very few Standing Orders of the House-quite why it is No. 48 is perhaps a reflection of the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of this place.

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The House has two options. First, we can embrace the modest proposal from the Wright Committee for a House business committee. That will not challenge the ultimate authority of the majority to get its way, but it will increase transparency, allow some discourse and create more of a requirement for some explanation. A tactful and rational Government have no need to fear such a reform. If that fails, we will need to discuss something far more radical and start a process of visibly removing the Executive from Parliament altogether, although I have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who is now addressing the Clerk, that I am still far from persuaded that that would be desirable or achievable. It is far preferable, before we turn to the radical option, that we consider the chance for moderate reform offered by the report. The proposed House business committee can begin to redress the imbalance of power in the House, which so corrodes good government and accountability. There can only be strong government if it rests on a strong and more independent Parliament.

8.7 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I strongly support almost all of what I have just heard; it was a very interesting speech. Today is one of those rare occasions when I feel that we have all been let out. We are hearing some very unusual and thoughtful remarks. I particularly enjoyed the brilliant speech by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I am a bit nervous of his taking too much notice of my judgment, because I agree with absolutely every word, and agreeing with a speech so fully tends to cloud one's judgment. However, it really was an outstanding speech.

I am not going to go into great procedural detail in supporting the proposals. Instead, I will try to make a few general remarks about why we have reached the pass that we have and about the extent to which the reforms will make any significant contribution.

We are here less because of expenses than because of Iraq and Blair. Tony Blair's disdain for Parliament, and Parliament's failure to expose-even after the event-the full extent to which the country was misled when we went to war, have been decisive in confirming in the public mind the weakness and powerlessness of this institution. That weakness is deep-seated.

Mr. Jenkin: I did not comment on this particular issue, because I wanted to keep my remarks short, but it would be dreadful if we thought that we could insulate Members of Parliament from the pressures involved in such decisions. Two opponents of the Iraq war have made the same point, but I doubt whether the decision would have been different, given that even public opinion was in favour of going to war by the time the vote took place.

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