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Two years ago, I started campaigning to allow clips from the filming of Parliament to be shown on YouTube so that people could share them with their friends or so that members of a pressure group that might be interested in a particular exchange could see them. It is getting there, but progress is so slow. Now we are allowed to put clips on YouTube, but there are ridiculous restrictions-we cannot share them, for example, and comments need to be moderated-that are wholly inappropriate when it comes to understanding how the internet works and how people engage with it. There has been an excellent
campaign called "Free our Bills", which seeks to ensure that legislation online is tagged to make it easy for the public to follow different stages and to comment on what is happening, but the cogs move so slowly in this place when we try to get change.
I have sympathy with many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), which he also raised in his speech during the hustings for the speakership, about allowing our constituents to vote directly to express the things that they would like us to discuss-whether they do so through online or telephone polls or through encouraging people to sign early-day motions that, once they have received a certain number of signatures, will require a debate to be held. There is no reason why we cannot consider engaging the public in such ways. It is a real shame that we do not yet have those proposals on the table to vote for today, or for next Thursday when the many votes might happen.
I wholeheartedly hope that this report is not a conclusion to the process of reform but the beginning of it. We need radically to increase public engagement in this place. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) talked about the process of reform. Let me say to hon. Members that people outside this place look in and wonder what planet we are on with our archaic rules, procedural wrangling and bizarre traditions. The measures outlined in this report represent modest progress, but progress none the less.
It is frustrating how even these mild reforms require such energetic campaigning to get votes on the relevant measures and to get 130 signatures so that we can have a debate on a particular motion, but I am glad that we are doing that. I truly believe that this House will be able to regain credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the public only when it wholeheartedly embraces reform, but that does not seem to be the case currently. Today, we have heard impassioned voices from both sides of the House in favour of reform. We need to back this report as the first step to that reform, and to work together in the coming months and years to continue the process of creating a House of Commons that is fit for the 21st century.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I had not intended to speak in this debate, just as I had not intended to be a member of the Wright Committee, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the Minister for Borders and Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), persuaded me that the Committee needed my thought processes.
I will admit that I did not take a leading part in proceedings, but I would like to think that I have wholeheartedly backed my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) as he has taken the Committee through some quite treacherous waters. What I have done, however, as my hon. Friend knows, is to try to engage with my constituents in parallel with all this. It was pleasing to hear what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said in that regard, but I went one step further. I contacted every household in my constituency, which involved sending out something like 46,000 survey forms. I must say that I used the communications allowance for that, but that is absolutely what it should be used for. [ Interruption. ] We just asked
them to say what they thought about a range of issues such as electoral reform, reform of the House of Lords, recall of parliamentarians and spending limits. We had 7,000 replies, which is pleasing, especially considering that they were in stamped, addressed envelopes and that people had to make the effort to respond.
We accompanied the survey with a series of meetings. I am eternally grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase because he came along with Peter Hennessy, who is a professor at Queen Mary college, and Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy to our final meeting at which there were about 150 people who wanted to discuss all manner of issues to do with constitutional reform. I do not go along with the view that it is entirely the chattering classes who are interested in such issues. I accept that the economy and housing, health and education will always be more important when it comes to people's voting preferences and opinions, but constitutional issues matter to many people. They matter not a little when people see this place not representing them and when they see the mess that we have got ourselves into. I feel wiser from having taken part in those proceedings, and I certainly feel more engaged with my constituents as a result of how we were able to proceed on some of the relevant issues, and I intend to continue doing that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase knows, I was also elected to the Back-Bench committee of the parliamentary Labour party, although I did not manage to survive on that for as long as I survived on the Wright Committee. Perhaps people sussed out that my stance on renationalising the railways, keeping the Post Office public and withdrawing from Afghanistan was not quite what the rest of the Labour party, in a parliamentary sense, was prepared to go for. However, I am pleased that I was part of the majority opinion on the Wright Committee that wanted reform and that we did things consensually. Of course, we had our disagreements-there was a minority report, which was from a minority-but we have made progress.
Given my nature, I take quite a narrow approach to what I want to do; I have always found that it is better to know what we want to do and to focus on it. I have a very simple request: I have believed ever since becoming a Member that it is absolutely wrong for the Whips to decide who serves on Select Committees and, more particularly, who does not serve on them. It is part of the important role of parliamentarians that, if they want to take part in a Select Committee, provided that there are enough places, they should have the right to do so. First, preventing them from doing so does not allow them to be parliamentarians in the true sense of the word, because they cannot engage in that aspect of scrutinising the Executive. Secondly, I have never understood where the Whips were coming from because that is perverse psychology. If those are the most awkward people in Parliament, the best place to put them is on a Select Committee, which uses their time and expertise far better than having them run around the House, tabling all sorts of motions that cause embarrassment to the Government. I therefore tried to persuade the Whips on numerous occasions that those are just the sort of people whom they want to serve on Select Committees.
The good thing is not just that we will elect Chairmen through the process of Parliament, but that we will, through our party groups, have an open process of
electing people on to Select Committees. Of course, not everyone can necessarily get on to the Committee that they want. If they do not curry favour with their colleagues, they will not necessarily get on to a Select Committee. However, they at least have the right to put themselves forward, and it is up to their party as a whole, rather than a small group of individuals, to decide whether they will serve on a Select Committee.
Ms Abbott: Given that Select Committees were set up as, and technically remain, Committees of the House, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a complete abuse that party Whips should decide who serves on them and who does not?
Mr. Drew: I agree with that; unfortunately, my friends in the Whips Office did not seem to do so. That is why I did not make much progress in my time on parliamentary Labour party Back-Bench committee. Nevertheless, we have moved on, and I hope that we can now see the benefit of doing so.
I shall move on quickly, as a number of other hon. Members want to speak. I welcome the business committee. I am not quite sure how it will cohabit with the way in which the usual channels will, I suppose, continue to operate; but, if nothing else, we can be much more transparent in how we plan our business and in how we know what is coming up and why. I will point the finger at the Opposition as well as the Government. There is nothing more galling when a debate is coming up next week than preparing a wonderful speech-just as I have not on this occasion-and finding at a moment's notice that that debate has been pulled and something else put in its place. There ought to be fairness, and Back Benchers ought to have some security in the knowledge that the debates that they are expecting will take place. It is not beyond the realm of personkind to have topicality, without wrecking one's ability to programme one's life and willingness to engage in the House.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire commented on how petitions need to be organised much more meaningfully. We have made a small amount of progress. We need to ensure that petitions are properly recognised in the House and to allow hon. Members to debate the issues properly, so that our constituents can feel that they have some traction on us.
I want to finish by referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is not in his place, but I will embarrass him by saying that the art of the possible is to keep on raising the same issue so many times that people eventually get so sick of hearing it that they give in and take notice. He is absolutely right about September days. It is right that the House should sit then. In the good old way that we referred to Baker days when I was teaching in the 1980s and we got formal in-service days for the first time, we should call them Mullin days, so that we can recall his dogged persistence. However, I would go even further: I would make those days in September parliamentary days, with no Government business, other than when the Government are being called to account. We could
have a series of debates based on topical issues that perhaps were not the ones that we were able to discuss before the recess.
More particularly, given the way in which our timetable works, I should like some opportunity for private Members' Bills to be carried through, rather than their being culled because we do not have enough time. That would be an important standpoint for Parliament. The Government would have to respond to Parliament, rather than Parliament responding to the Government. That is an important reason why that couple of weeks should be used and should be different from the usual business. They come round only once a year, but that would be an important way in which Parliament would assert itself, or-dare I say?-reassert itself.
I hope that those are the sort of things that we can take forward. As everyone has said, this is not the end of the process. Indeed, we hope that it is the start of the process, and we could move forward with many other things if only parliamentarians had the independence of mind, the will power and the sheer gall to ensure that, from time to time, the Executive respond to us, rather than our always having to respond to the Executive.
Mr. Speaker: Order. On my reckoning, six hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye, and the Front-Bench winding-up speeches will begin at or very close to 9.40 pm. Hon. Members are capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves, but if a self-denying ordinance can be observed and each speech is kept to 10 minutes or preferably less, it should be possible to accommodate everybody.
May I say, as a member of the Public Administration Committee, what a marvellous Chairman we have in the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)? He has brought his brilliance on the Public Administration Committee to bear on the Wright Committee report. Yes, it is a small step, but it is a fundamentally important step, and a very brave step that he has taken.
During this debate we have asked ourselves what is the role of a Member of Parliament. Of course, a Member of Parliament must be here to scrutinise legislation. We have a duty and obligation to ensure that our constituents are governed by good legislation, not just by any legislation. We have failed at times to ensure that. We must also hold the Government to account, regardless of whether or not they are drawn from our own party. Beyond that, we must be courageous and true to ourselves. We must be representatives of the people who elect us, not delegates.
It is interesting that over the past 30 years, the more we have done for our constituents and the more visible we are in our constituencies, the more people despise us. Gone are the days, 50 years ago, when a Member of Parliament would make a twice-yearly regal visit to the constituency to meet the mayor or go to a fête. We are now mostly based in our constituency for more than half of our time, and many of us make our primary
home in our constituency. I am very concerned when I hear hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber talking about direct democracy. Have we lost faith in our own ability to be the effective representatives of those who elected us?
We have representative democracy in this country, and by and large it has served us well for 350 years. If we get it right, it will serve us well for the next 350 years, but radical changes need to be made. The current constitutional settlement is not working. We know and the public know that it is not working. If any good has come out of the expenses scandal, crisis, nightmare of the past nine months, it is that at last we will have a healthy distance between us as Back-Bench Members of Parliament and the Executive.
Our interests are not the interests of the Executive of this country. We have been led up a dead-end road over the past 30 years. We willingly followed and we should not be forgiven for that, but the Executive were prime movers in getting us into the position that we found ourselves in. We should not forget that.
We have a presidential style of government in this country. Do we have government by Cabinet any more? Of course not. We know that. Secretaries of State in the current Government would go to No. 10 to talk to the Prime Minister about policy, and he would turn to them and say, "Funnily enough, my special adviser disagrees with you on that. We're going to do something different." So we do not have government by Cabinet. We do not have a Prime Minister, a first Minister of the Cabinet: we have presidential government, and it is driven by 24-hour media.
We in this place know that only three people in any political party matter. They are the ones who make the weather. In the Government, it is the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and Lord Mandelson. In my party there are many people better qualified than I who will make that judgment, but I am convinced that only three people in each party make the weather.
Mr. Walker: The hon. Gentleman is being ungenerous. There are only three parliamentarians who make the weather in our party, but that is the nature of 24-hour media, which is driving a presidential style of government. I am afraid the truth is that on most occasions we are just backdrop to the big issues of the day.
I have some time for the Prime Minister. I do not think that he is a bad man; he is mistaken in most things, but he is an honourable fellow. However, he came to the House and, with great pride, said, "We bailed out the banks without taking it to the Floor of this House." The decision on the greatest expenditure of public money in living history, or in history, was made without one minute of scrutiny in this place. That really is disgraceful, and it must not be allowed to continue. Our constituents are furious that we allowed it to happen.
Ms Abbott: Does not the complete absence of debate about the issue in this House reflect poorly on the British system and contrast with the extensive debate-whether or not we agree with what people have said-about the very same issue in the United States?
Mr. Walker: The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. We in this place sometimes forget why we are sent here-to represent those who elect us. Sometimes we forget that and spend too much time propping up the Executive of the day or making excuses for them. Let us be in no doubt that the expenses scandal of the past nine months has perversely played into the hands of the Executive, because they like nothing more than a weak and humiliated Parliament, and my word are we not weak and humiliated, bereft of any self-confidence?
I shall conclude with these thoughts, because I have had seven minutes. The public do not want their Members of Parliament to be their best friends or to act like minor celebrities, gurning at the camera week in, week out. We have tried that model for 20 years, and it does not work. What our constituents want more than anything is legislators whom they respect and trust-legislators whom they send to this place, and who they know will stand up for their interests. What is so sad about this place, however, is that so many good people come here with the best of intentions and then the poison of patronage takes over, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said. More than one in two Members hold Front-Bench positions, and when the press say, "We have so many Members of Parliament-646. Why do we need them?", they forget that we draw the Executive from Parliament.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), for whom I have a huge amount of time, I really am in favour of the separation of powers. I have had enough. I did not come here to make up the numbers, and I am afraid that I did not come here to be the lackey of the Whips. I came here to represent the people of Broxbourne. I am and always will be a Conservative, but the idea that one has to agree with every policy from one's Front Benchers, or with every policy in the manifesto, is total and utter nonsense.
Martin Salter: The hon. Gentleman is clearly not seeking preferment under a future Government. Does he not agree that, far from bellyaching and whining about the Whips, we parliamentarians must collectively get off our knees and use the powers that we already have? We can call Ministers and even shadow spokespeople to account if we act collectively and have the courage to organise in the Lobbies.
Mr. Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes a great point. We give the Whips their powers. If we chose to ignore them on occasions, they would have no power. If we chose to put a parliamentary career ahead of a ministerial career, they would have less power.
"Back Bencher" is now used as a term of derision by the public, by the press, and at times, shamefully, by our own Front Benchers. I am proud to be a Member of Parliament. Funnily enough, the leaders of the political parties are simply Members of Parliament. They should, on occasion, remember and recognise that, because I feel that the time is fast coming when we shall remind them of it.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: My hon. Friend is a wonderful Member of Parliament and an example to new Members coming into this House. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) that Back Benchers united can always defeat the Executive, and that that is what we should do?
We are told by the press that the public want strong leadership and that that is what they deserve. In 1974, turnout in the general election was more than 80 per cent.; in 2005, it was just over 60 per cent. That is the answer that the public give to strong government. It has got to end, and it has got to end soon.
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