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8.56 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Like everyone else who has spoken, one has to bow to the tenacity and insight of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who has steered these proposals thus far. We can see consummation so close that we can almost touch it, and we can only hope that next week things will go as we all wish.

Several hon. Members have spoken about the expenses scandal as if that is the origin of the decline in the esteem in which the House is held. In fact, the decline in esteem for Members of Parliament is a fairly long-term thing. I am very pro-European; none the less, the decline has come about because of power flowing to European institutions. It has come about because of power flowing to quangos. I came to this House in 1987, and questions that one would once have asked of a Minister one now has to write to a quango about. It has come about because of the decline in deference. Above all, perhaps, it has come about because of the spiralling power of patronage, which has undermined the will of the House to stand up for itself and undermined the role of the Back-Bench MP. The power of patronage has increased and is increasing.

I do not agree with colleagues who have said that these proposals are sterile, meaningless and technical; I think they are probably among the most important things we will have the opportunity to vote for during this Parliament. I say that for a number of reasons. First, it is easy for hon. Members-beaten and battered by the media, dealing with a deluge of letters from constituents, knocking on doors in the run-up to what is going to be, on the basis of what we have seen so far, quite a bitter and unpleasant election-to forget that the public are in fact very interested in politics. I occasionally appear on the broadcast media, and I want to assure hon. Members that in my experience the public-not just party members and young people, but people of all ages and all colours-are interested in and want to talk about politics; they have views on issues such as Europe, what we should do about the banks, and so on. However, they are not so interested in Parliament. Our task is to make Parliament relevant to the public's concerns, because they do not see it as such. In particular, they do not feel that politicians say what they think.

I want to say to hon. Members who may not have been here pre-1997 and in the '80s, as I was, that Select Committees are wonderful, and all their Chairs and members, without exception, are wonderful, but the role of Select Committees and the seriousness with which they are taken is not what it was.

I came into Parliament in an era when we took seriously the notion of Select Committees being Committees of the House. That is not to say that parties did not seek
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to interfere. I served on the Treasury Committee throughout most of the '90s, with some reasonable success, in the teeth of the opposition of the party leader of the time. The Whips Office, which in those days saw its role as balancing the factions of the party, saw it as a triumph to put on an important Committee someone who in its view represented a particular current in the party. Now, lip service is no longer given to Select Committees being Committees of the House.

In that era, it was accepted that Select Committees could elect their own Chairmen. I served on a Committee in the 1990s for which the Whips were suggesting one Chairman, but we all voted for another. We have gone from that position, in which it was accepted that Select Committees had to have that right, and it was accepted at least on paper that they were Committees of the House, to a position that I believe is outrageous, although no one else in my party seems to think so. Chief Whips appear before the parliamentary Labour party and read out who is going to chair Committees. That seems extraordinary and an abuse of the technical position of what Select Committees are about.

Wonderful though Select Committees are, we have never fully explored their powers and their possibility to rejuvenate politics and make it relevant. Too much turns on their Chairmen, and, as was said earlier, Whips have weakened them by not looking for the most experienced, able or knowledgeable people but filling them with people they believe will cause no trouble. I speak to Select Committee Chairman after Select Committee Chairman who talks about the difficulty of simply getting a quorum, when there are many people on the Back Benches who would serve with distinction. Select Committees have been weakened, and the proposals before us would strengthen them and strengthen the House.

I am giving away my age, but I started as an MP in an era when timetabling was the exception, not the rule, and Front Benchers had to apologise if they were going to timetable a Bill. Now nearly everything is timetabled. Hon. Members will say, "We have to timetable or we wouldn't get through the business." I entirely accept that we have to have Whips, order and procedure, but am I the only one who has noticed in recent months how important legislation is savagely timetabled because Front Benchers do not want discussion on it, and then we end up spending days on matters of no importance whatever? That is timetabling taken beyond what is rational. It is one thing to timetable to get business through, but when timetabling has reached the point at which we cannot debate important things and rely on the House of Lords to pick up on poor legislation, yet we come here day after day to debate matters that do not need to be debated, it has gone out of control. The proposals that I hope we will vote for in a very few days will enable timetabling to go forward on a rational basis.

Everyone accepts that the Government must get their business and that Back Benchers must vote for matters that were in the manifesto, but the power to timetable at will has gone completely to the head of the usual channels. We are getting an arrangement of business of the House that makes no sense. Worse, legislation keeps going through that the Lords are not able to clean up,
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and we have to come back to the same subject again and again rather than put through sound legislation in the first place.

Hon. Friends have talked in most baleful terms about the dangers of allowing Back-Bench MPs to vote for Chairs and members of Select Committees. "What will come," they ask histrionically, "of allowing Back Benchers to vote without the Whips telling them what to do?" I will tell them what will come of allowing Back Benchers to use their judgment without being whipped. Members may disagree about the choice of issues that I will refer to, but some of the most important moments in this House, such as the abolition of the death penalty and introducing the right to an abortion for women, were brought about by Members voting unwhipped, using their judgment. If any Member of this House has no confidence in Members of Parliament being allowed to vote and use their judgment, what they are doing as MPs? We are elected, but if we are not respected enough, even by our colleagues, to use our judgment on matters such as the composition of Select Committees, why would we become MPs?

I am a great believer in direct democracy and I have a website of which I am very proud. Perhaps my constituency differs from others, but with direct democracy, one must be careful that one does not empower a small group of technologically literate people at the expense of people who are, for example, not educated, too old or simply uninterested. I am all for direct democracy, but not if it produces an imbalance in the forces in a constituency.

I am very glad that the Government are coming forward on this matter and that they will help us to make these reforms-I will not go so far as to say that they have seen the light. Mystifying as it may be to Members of Parliament who know only the current regime, and annoying as allowing Back Benchers to vote and use their judgment may be to Front Benchers-and as traumatic as it is for the Whips Office-this House is at its best when Members of Parliament feel free to say what they wish and when they can use their judgment. Only if the public are allowed to see more of the House of Commons at its best and what MPs can be if they are not trammelled by the Executive will we restore confidence in this House of Commons, this Parliament and the politics of this country.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are no more than 33 minutes remaining and four hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves. If each takes no more than eight minutes, all will get in. I hope that that happens.

9.7 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The one thing that is bothering me about this debate is this: where are the opponents? I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) for his marvellous chairmanship of the Committee and to its staff for getting us through the process of the report, but as a member of the Committee, I know that there are large numbers in the House who are against our proposals, yet they have not spoken tonight.

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Given that I have only eight minutes, I want to talk about one aspect of the report-the reform of Standing Order No. 14 and the House business committee-and to try to reassure people who are not here tonight but who might be listening to those voices of reaction that the proposal is not that radical. In fact, I am amazed by its moderation.

It is said by opponents of our proposals that Standing Order No. 14, which gives the Government complete control over the House's timetable, is necessary to get the Government's programme through, but that is plainly untrue, given what happens in other countries. Standing Order No. 14 is completely over the top given how other European legislatures work. The only legislature that is subject to anywhere near the same degree of Executive control as ours is the Dáil, presumably because of the historical connection. However, in the Dáil, private Members' Bills cannot be talked out because they can be carried over to the next slot, and Opposition parties can introduce legislation on which they can require the House to vote. If the Government do not like it, they must vote it down.

It is important to realise that the Committee is suggesting not the radical Dutch system, in which the House decides almost from minute to minute what it is going to talk about, but a very moderate system. We are suggesting that a Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, acts as a mediator between the Government, the parties and the Back-Bench committee. The Deputy Speaker then brings to the House the motion concerning what it will discuss in the following week.

That would give the Government two enormous safeguards. First, it would be possible for a Standing Order to require the Deputy Speaker to ensure that the Government had time to get their Bills through the House, and had an out date. We can build that into the system.

Secondly, the Deputy Speaker would put to the House a motion that would be amendable. If the Government-with their majority-did not like what was proposed, they could, in the final resort, propose an amendment in order to get their way, but they would have to do it openly and transparently, and that would itself constitute the main change. The Government would no longer fill the week with pointless debates with no vote in order to avoid a proper debate on the Report stage of a Bill, because if they did so they would have to do it openly, on the Floor of the House. For the same reason, they would be less likely even to want to try to restrict the number of days for debate on Report or in Committee of the whole House. The House would therefore be more likely to end up talking about, and voting on, matters of public concern-and that is what would make us more relevant.

I suppose that, in the end, it is a matter of principle. Ultimately, the House should decide its own agenda. The present system provides for the Government as the Government, not as the majority, to decide our agenda, and that is different from the majority deciding it.

I feel that those who think we are moving away from our present system of a fusion of powers towards a separation of powers-and I know that some Members would like us to move in that direction-do not understand what we are proposing. What we are proposing would give the majority more power. The hon. Member for
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North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) is worried about the transfer of power that our proposal involves, but what, in fact, is that transfer of power? It is not even a transfer of power between the Executive and the legislature, but a transfer of power between the Government Front Bench and the Government Back Bench. The single group of people who will be most empowered by what we are proposing are Government Back Benchers. It seems to me, from where I sit, that they are the most disempowered group of all in this Parliament, but they are the people who would benefit most from our proposal, and they would be able to do their job better.

There are opponents who claim that we are somehow interfering with the "manifesto mandate" theory. I am not a great fan of that theory, because I do not see how a mandate can result from a manifesto that very few people read, on 35 per cent. of the vote. However, even those who do believe in it must ask themselves the big question: who will be given the opportunity to interpret that mandate? Will it be simply the Front Bench of the governing party, or will it be the whole of the parliamentary section of the party that won the election?

That is the question that we are posing in our proposals for reform, but at this point we are proposing a different answer. Our answer is that we are transferring power, but we are transferring it from the Government Front Bench to the Government Back Bench.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Howarth: I will give way briefly. I have not much time.

Lynne Jones: The Government may have a manifesto mandate, but surely the whole point of legislative scrutiny should be to establish whether the legislation that they propose will be effective in fulfilling that mandate.

David Howarth: Obviously that is what Government Back Benchers should be doing, but they also have the right to judge whether their interpretation of the mandate is being put into effect.

Some opponents have given the impression that the present system is one of vast antiquity, and that our arrangements would fall apart without it. That is simply not the case. The present system came into being in 1963, without debate, following a report by a Select Committee on Procedure which simply said vaguely that the old system was obsolete.

What happened, historically, is quite interesting. The arrangement allowing the Government to take all the time of the House was not introduced until 1915 under Asquith, who promised that he would not use it to enact any party or partisan legislation. Churchill repeated that promise in the 1940s, when it was used again. Only after the war-in some very bad-tempered debates under the 1945 Government-was the arrangement extended to peacetime. But even then it was only Session by Session. It became a Standing Order in 1963 because people had forgotten how to oppose. In an era of consensus and bipolar politics, with very low rates of Back-Bench rebellion, Parliament forgot its job. But now, in a different era with multi-party politics and the end of consensus politics, it is still the basis of our politics. In a situation of fragmentation, the idea that
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the Government should dominate the agenda of the House entirely is an idea whose time has gone. If we are to revive our politics, this is where we must start.

9.15 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): I shall not take more than five minutes, as my hon. Friend the independent Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) wants to speak, as does the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).

Several quotations from newspapers and other sources have been put to the House tonight, but the two quotations that I would like to use are from a constituent of mine. He said to me some weeks ago, "If politics was a business, you'd close it down." Given the comments tonight about the inefficiencies of the product of politics, that is probably true. He also said to me, when I explained to him what we do in the House and outside in the community, "Yeah, but you're not digging coal, are you?" That is probably true too. In years gone by, digging coal and other occupations were real jobs, and ours is not seen as a real job-although the hours that we put in are not recognised, especially by the press.

I came to this place in 2006 in a by-election-I think that I am the most junior Member in the Chamber this evening. From that day to this, I must have given evidence dozens of times before the Modernisation Committee, the House of Commons Commission, the Senior Salaries Review Body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others. I do not know how we keep up with them all. But if someone asked me what we had actually achieved, I would find it difficult to put into words how great the change has been in those four years.

I also submitted written evidence to the Wright Committee, as it has become known. It has done a fantastic job and a tremendous amount of work. However, I take the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that we are rebuilding the House from the top down, not from the bottom up. We should have started at the foundations, but we are now chasing our tails in a knee-jerk reaction.

What worried me most about the evidence in the report was the fact that Committees have not had a quorum. Other Members who, like me, may not be aligned to a party, would have taken part in those Committees and brought their experience and knowledge to them. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) is on the Health Committee and gives great service to it. Others are yet to have that opportunity because Committees have been a closed shop, decided by the party structure. The opportunity will be provided with the new Parliament and the likelihood of some 200 new Members, and we need to get this right. If they are to play their part, they must be allowed to do so, without barriers being put in their way.

The other aspect of the evidence that worried me was that in times gone by Select Committees have not been allowed to put their reports before the House. In my evidence to the Wright Committee, I suggested that Members should be allowed to participate in Select Committees not as members, but through giving evidence. We should encourage participation by all. The proposal
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is to reduce the Select Committees to 11 members, so the opportunity to sit on them will be tight to say the least. But Members could give written or oral evidence both to Select Committees and Public Bill Committees. It is very important that everyone has an opportunity to play their part.

We have heard about consultation with the public-I encourage as much of that as I can in my constituency-but the worst thing that we can do is consult and ignore. If we are going to encourage the public to take part in debate, we must listen to them, and then we wonder why we come here. We come here because our constituents tell us their concerns. We come here to express those concerns and, with a petition, all that adds weight to what we say. I am sure that no Member comes here without consulting their constituents, whether in the surgery or, in the modern era, through e-mails, of which we get hundreds. We are the voice of the community-that is why we come here-and it is extremely important that we express those views and that we are allowed to do so.

The expenses crisis was just the end result of the many things that built up to it, but there is one thing in the political structure that worries me. We have heard tonight about parties and party Whips-I can talk about this because I stand outside, although I was a member of a political party for some 25 years-but the party structure has changed so much that it has moved completely away from the grass roots. What are conferences now, other than rallying calls? Policy was made by the grass roots and passed up to the top. We are now talking top-down politics. We are driving people out of the political process, instead of encouraging them in.

We have national elections-the elections to the Welsh Assembly Government are one example-in which less than 50 per cent. of people vote. Is that even a mandate to govern? There are some council elections in which the turnout is under 20 per cent., yet we claim that people are interested in politics. I think that they are, but we are not showing them the need to be involved. We are driving them away, and that cannot be right.

The most important thing is that we work together. There are differences-there always will be differences-but if we allow those differences to pull us apart, we will destroy this country's democracy. When we come together we are stronger. We heard the points about Back Benchers standing together, but this debate is about this place standing together. The Committee's report has given us the opportunity to kick that off. I agree that we should have acted a long time ago. The structure of this place, the way we hold our debates-everything has to be in that melting pot. However, if we do not take the opportunity now, it could be destroyed for ever.

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