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One of the points that I made was that we failed to get to the bottom of everything, even afterwards. We have just had a succession of inquiries from outsiders, who have made far better progress than Committees of this House, which is tragic. That is a reflection of the powerlessness of Parliament, rather than just the decision itself-I made both points. Parliament became Mr. Blair's poodle, at least until Iraq-things began to change after that-and our job now is to try to make sure that after the next election it does not become the poodle of my
right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) or the current Prime Minister. We must link that with the idea that our starting point must be to work out what Parliament is for, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said.
We need Parliament, in order to legitimise Government, to hold the Executive to account and, most importantly, to force the Executive to explain their actions. That is a requirement of any healthy democracy, and in order for Parliament to do that, some independence of mind must be shown on the Back Benches, along with some sense of responsibility when exercising their powers.
Parliamentary democracy also requires there to be strong political parties, and there has been some discussion of parties today, but a Parliament that is worthy of the name can operate only if political debate is not entirely within, and controlled by, the parties, even if much of that discourse takes place behind closed doors. So we need both parties and independent-minded Back Benchers.
As has been pointed out, it is certainly the case that there have been a fair number of Back-Bench rebellions since Iraq. It is therefore not true that this has been a complete patsy Parliament, but the trouble for Parliament as an institution is that, on at least three counts, our task is getting more difficult all the time.
The first of those three counts is the growth of presidentialism, the second is the growth in the power of interest groups, and the third is the understandable enthusiasm in the modern media for encouraging those other two counts. The Committee's proposals will do something, if only a little, to act as a counterweight to all three of them, but before discussing how much the proposals will do this, I want to talk about those challenges in a little more detail.
On presidentialism, we have just heard an interesting speech suggesting a separation of powers. I do not think that this is practical politics, even if it is good theory. All the pressures on a Prime Minister will be for him to appeal beyond party and Parliament, and instead to appeal directly to the public. That will not change. In fact, I think that it will grow, and that eventually the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) alluded will resurface.
The public choice theorists were right about the tyranny of interest group politics. They said that policy could be disproportionately influenced by a relatively small number of voters, often, but not always, in the centre ground, and often influenced by vocal interest groups. That leads to a tyranny not of the majority, but of the minority. It is no coincidence that at present the agendas of all three major parties are very similar. That does not necessarily make them right, of course.
This kind of politics gave us the middle way of the early post-war years, the monetary policy that collapsed in the face of inflation, and a growth policy that folded in the face of excessive regulation and interest group power led by the unions, which culminated in the ungovernability of Britain.
There was a period in the '80s when we appeared to be able to roll back interest group power, but interest groups have returned and their influence is now considerable. Understandably, as we approach the election, parties are rushing to influence the swing voter in the political centre. We need only look at the speed with which all the parties now produce policies to satisfy the lobbies on health, aid and green issues, to name but three.
The fact is, however, that we have a massive economic crisis, and if fiscal policy is to be stabilised the toxic link between interest groups and Government spending decisions must be countered and counterbalanced. I think that independent-minded Back Benchers can help in this regard, but only if the parliamentary tools to do the job are available.
The third area I mentioned is the change in the balance of power from Parliament to the media. We live in a media age, and the power of the media to set the political agenda is greater than ever. We need only think of issues such as immigration, law and order, and prisons and sentencing policy. Very few people who have thought about prisons policy think we have got it right at present, but it is very difficult to get any change. A Justice Select Committee report set out what is wrong, but no party wants to be on the wrong side of a newspaper campaign on prison reform policy; it is just too risky, particularly in the run-up to an election.
In the face of this headwind of presidentialism, interest groups and the media, what can the Wright Committee's proposals accomplish in acting as a counterweight? We can apply three tests to see if they will be of some use. First, will Parliament shape the political discourse a little more than at present? To what extent can we wrench setting the agenda back from the media? Secondly, will these reforms temper the growing power of patronage in the hands of the Executive, and particularly of the leadership, in an age of increased professionalism in politics? We should be under no illusion that the more we turn working in this place into a full-time salaried job, the greater will be the efforts of our parties at the centre to control how we get selected. Thirdly, it is also inevitable that in a fully professional, salaried House, a higher proportion of those selected will want Front-Bench jobs, and the result of that will be greater dependence on party leaderships and Whips. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) made that point, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex referred to it.
In respect of all three of those issues, the Wright Committee proposals can do something to help. There is much inexorable logic to the growth of presidentialism and of the power of the media and interest groups. So they will not do a lot, but they will do something. We have to be realistic. The Executive will not lie down like a lamb in response to a request from our Committee for more scrutiny powers. With the media being more powerful, the Prime Minister will see it as a prerequisite for hanging on to power to get reported by them and he will use his presidential tools to ensure that. Also, the
Whips will, if possible, suppress any signs of independence; in the eyes of a Whip, "scrutiny" means "making trouble", and that will remain the case.
Reform will be difficult, therefore, and fundamental reform will be impossible; it would be blocked entirely. That is why these proposals score; they score because they are incremental-and one of them is both incremental and potentially extremely effective.
The election of Select Committee Chairmen by secret ballot of the whole House has the potential to alter the terms of trade between the Executive and the legislature, just as the '79 reforms have over the past 30 years led to Select Committees becoming serious institutions in this place. Through the election of Chairmen, the legislature will have spokesmen who are accountable to Parliament and who have been put here to do that job by us. The Select Committee corridor will gain, and the Committee of Chairmen, the Liaison Committee, will also be empowered, such as, perhaps, through demanding more frequent appearances by the Prime Minister-I certainly think they should do that. Over time, that could develop into there being more effective scrutiny of a presidential Prime Minister than we currently have.
All these changes in respect of Select Committees will, of course, come at the expense of the Chamber, but I think that that should be the case. We are one of the last Parliaments in the world which still tries to conduct so much scrutiny of a modern Executive in plenary session. The idea that in the late 20th or early 21st century an Executive can be held to account in this way is a fanciful illusion. In debates there is rarely much light to match the heat generated. Of course there are exceptions-I mentioned the debate on Iraq, and the debate on embryo research was another. However, it is important to remember that the first of those was made possible by the weakness of party discipline and the second by a free vote, such as we are having tonight-I began by saying that somehow we had been let out.
The business committee proposals can and should be judged not so much on whether they can revive the day-to-day scrutiny of the Executive in the Chamber, but on whether, on the really big issues, a reformed machinery can force the Executive to provide sufficient time for major set-piece debates on substantive issues. I began by discussing the Blair and Iraq example, where scrutiny could have been better and that might have led to a different result-that applies in respect of post-event scrutiny too.
I wonder whether the time has now arrived for us to have a set-piece debate on a substantive motion on Afghanistan-if these proposals were already in place, we might have got one. When a Select Committee Chairman is alert, he or she can do as much as anybody to ensure that this place is empowered again, and that is what these proposals would do. They are only a small step in the right direction, but it is one that we should take, and soon.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I, too, wish to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and all the members of his Committee, who put so much work into these proposals. However, I share the disappointment expressed by many Members about the way in which this process has been dealt with since the publication of the Committee's report.
The report made it clear that the Committee would like the proposals to be voted on by the House within two months. It is now more than three months since the Committee's proposals were published and it would be a fair characterisation-it would perhaps even be charitable-to say that the Government have dragged their heels on this issue. They announced the date for this debate only after being questioned week in, week out in business questions. In fact, it has taken them longer to bring forward these proposals for debate than it took the Committee to form, call for evidence, consider the evidence, meet, debate and come up with all the proposals.
The Government's lack of urgency has shown that this important subject of reform has not been given the level of priority within government that I would have liked. There seems almost to have been confusion about the different parts of the motions to be put forward and how that could be done, given that page 94 of the report contained a sample motion that was drafted and ready to be put before the House. That would have allowed us to discuss it, rather than to have the Government decide, after asking the Committee to investigate an issue and bring forward recommendations, which ones to cherry-pick and put to the House.
The proposals in the report are somewhat timid. I agree with those who say that they are a step in the right direction, but I would describe them as a baby-step. Given the difficulty that we have had even in getting to this stage of the debate, it has been like trying to take a baby-step through treacle. I appreciate that the Committee was constrained in its terms of reference. We heard an interesting exchange earlier, when a lot of interest was expressed by Members in different parts of the House for taking forward some of the ideas that were not able to be developed in full within the confines of the Committee. Too much was left to later decision or future review, whereas we needed to have strong and robust recommendations, be they on the issue of September sittings, Public Bill Committees or public engagement, to which I shall return.
It is worth asking ourselves why reform is so necessary and vital. We need to remember that this is happening in the context of the reputation of Parliament and, indeed, of our democracy having been dragged through the mire in recent months. Cleaning up our discredited expenses system is a vital part of the solution, but it is only part of the solution.
In May, I asked hundreds of my constituents who are signed up to an online consultation what they thought was necessary to restore faith in politics. I received dozens of answers. Alongside people saying that we needed transparency, an end to personal profit through the expenses system, proper sanctions when people did things that were wrong and a new expenses system, much wider issues were raised in the consultation. Even when the expenses scandal was at its height, my constituents were raising issues such as electoral reform and how to ensure that people's votes count no matter where their constituency, rather than having them count only in some marginal constituencies. Even reform of the House of Commons was a theme that emerged in that consultation exercise; it was common for people to say to me that they thought that the power of the Whips should be reduced compared with the power and influence of individual, independent-minded MPs.
Some of the reforms, such as the election of Select Committees, will help to rebalance that power, because they will reduce the power of patronage of the Whips Offices. Scheduling business through a committee that is representative of Parliament, rather than just Government, will enable individual MPs to hold the Government to account better. My name stands alongside those of 120 other hon. Members in support of amendment (a) to motion 9, which is in favour of the proposal for a House business committee, even though that cannot be voted on tonight. It is important to remember that this is how Parliaments across the world work, and that includes the Scottish Parliament; the sky does not fall in if a committee of people drawn from across the parties decides what Parliament will discuss. This is, thus, a very important reform.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): I am looking at an article by Dr. Meg Russell which says that we should not be too romantic about those notions because those cross-party business committees tend to be dominated by Whips. I believe that that is the case in Scotland, as in many other places. As we take this issue forward we must be careful about making comparisons with other places.
Jo Swinson: I agree that what has been proposed is not a perfect solution, but the Minister will know that the report recommended that Back Benchers should also be represented on the committee-that is a very important part of representation. The issue of whether newer MPs would be represented has been raised. If a business committee is properly elected and if there is a large proportion of new Members in the House after the next election, it is highly likely and desirable that new Members would also be elected to it. This is about who sets the agenda. I can understand why it is very convenient for the Government if they do so, but there is no good argument for why they should do so, particularly in our system where Governments are elected without receiving a majority of the popular vote. Parliament, not the Government, needs to control what we debate. The proviso is that we understand that a Government who are elected on a manifesto should have the time to put their business to the House.
One of the problematic things is that, because of the way in which scheduling works, controversial parts of Bills are often not discussed properly in this House. If Parliament, rather than the Government, were to set the agenda, the issues and the parts of Bills that Parliament was most concerned about would be given the most time. As MPs, we need to be able to influence the agenda in order to represent our constituents. I think that this report should be just a stepping stone in the right direction, because I want the public to be able to influence the agenda of this House as well as MPs.
On the issue of business and scheduling, it has been a source of huge frustration to me that there is so little advance notice of business, when we all know that the Government decide and plan in advance on which date the Second Reading of one Bill will be and on which date another Bill will be discussed on Report. It is used as a tool of control and the information is not shared with the rest of the House. That is a ridiculous way to do business. I represent a constituency that is a five or six-hour commute from the House and the business on
a particular Monday makes a big difference to me. If I want to be here for its start at half-past three, that affects whether I can hold a surgery on a Monday morning. For this matter to be held out as a case of, "We can't tell people, because it is not decided," when it has been decided is ridiculous. Businesses would not operate in that way, with nothing planned more than 10 days in advance, and nor would other professions. We should certainly operate in a much more organised way.
Natascha Engel: In what way will a House business committee stop that happening? My understanding is that we will not have business scheduled months in advance. It might be that things are far worse and that business is planned less far ahead.
Jo Swinson: If we remove the power from Government alone, we will open the door to that debate. I agree that such changes will not necessarily follow, but I was raising the point as I think that it is ridiculous how we plan business. I hope and have more confidence that, if I have colleagues on a House business committee, they might be more likely to listen to my views-I will certainly argue for those views. It will also be in everyone's interest if not only one party knows what business will be discussed on a particular day.
Let me turn to public involvement and engagement, which is what I particularly want to mention. The report is good on warm words, but light on specific actions. At least it opens the door to greater public engagement in future and suggests that it should be reviewed and reconsidered in the new Parliament. I think that this was a missed opportunity, and so I have sympathy with the comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) about the fact that the Committee did not consider in full all the issues that it could have.
On public engagement, there is much that needs to be done, because this place is so alien to most people who turn on BBC Parliament-if they do-and watch what we are doing in this Chamber as well as the way in which we do it. There are many opportunities, particularly with new technology, to reach out and to engage the public better, yet this House seems to be good at missing those opportunities. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) mentioned the Procedure Committee's report on improving the petitions system. The Committee produced an excellent report, and what happened to it? Nothing. We have had the report, which said how we could do it, but we are still saying, "Oh, we should consider this at a future date." It is not rocket science-we could just get on and do it.
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