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9.21 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Although I am very much in favour of the proposals put forward in the report, I regret to say that it does not go anything like far enough. In saying that, I understand the point about the terms of reference, but the bottom line is that we need really radical reform in this House.

What we have witnessed over the past few months is an indication of the disrespect in which Parliament is held. I would maintain that that has more to do with the way Parliament conducts itself, in relation to the business in the House, the consideration of Bills and the problems
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of timetabling, and with what generally happens in this place, as in the debate only two weeks ago on the economic crisis, when there was not a single person on the Government Benches-not one-except for the Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, and there were two or perhaps three people on the Opposition side of the House. When Members have absolutely no interest in dealing with something as fundamental as the British economy in the context of the European Union, is it surprising that people should disrespect Parliament? In those circumstances, I am not surprised.

I have said many times that this is not our Parliament; it is their Parliament. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) for the work that he has done, but he knows that a lot of the ideas have their genesis in Parliament First-I would prefer us to be called "People and Parliament First"-and the Hansard Society, which gave some trenchant evidence, much of which is reflected in the outcome of the report, which also comes from the Modernisation Committee.

When the Modernisation Committee was dealing with the role of the Back Bencher, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who is not in his place, repeatedly put down amendments saying that much more emphasis should be given to the real role of the Back Bencher, and not merely to the establishment thinking that was pouring out in the evidence that was given, and he was right. He repeatedly forced Divisions on his own. He was there on his own, but he was right, just as many of us have been when we have fought-sometimes unsuccessfully, regrettably-for the national interest as we have seen it. We have fought as a matter of conscience, conviction and principle for what we believed was in the interest of the British people. An example was the Maastricht treaty. I do not doubt that we were very unpopular at that time, but who would say now that we were wrong? Not many people. We also fought over monetary union and the exchange rate mechanism.

The independence of the Back Bencher is absolutely fundamental to the working of the House. That is why I appreciate, and will vote for, the proposals in the report. In my evidence to the Committee, I described the working of Parliament as a sham. A great deal of it is a sham, because so much of its work is driven by decisions that are taken outside Parliament-in the European Union, for example-without being properly debated. Even if they are debated, we cannot vote on them.

Everything ultimately comes back to one central issue, the Standing Orders of the House. That is why I proposed a manuscript amendment urging that the House give consideration to the procedures that should be applied so that we could have a proper debate on these matters and go further and deeper into these issues, but-irony of ironies-I have not even been allowed to table it. I was refused permission because of Standing Order No. 24B. If a motion is a take-note motion, it is unamendable, so my amendment could not even be debated. That demonstrates the failure not only of the Standing Orders but of the Whips.

About 150 years ago, there were only about four Standing Orders; in fact, they were not Standing Orders but Speaker's rules. There are now between 160 and 170 Standing Orders, which have been imposed by the Executive through what is effectively an elective dictatorship. The powers and freedoms of Back Benchers are being restricted
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by the imposition of more and more Standing Orders. Every time there is a problem, the Executive introduce another Standing Order to frustrate Back Benchers and prevent them from speaking. If Back Benchers are right in their fight against their own Government, that proves the point in itself.

Parliament is not reported properly outside this place. Much of the reporting results from the Government giving out handouts. The BBC does not give the proper degree of reporting that is required. I also believe strongly that there has been a diminution in the amount of reporting in the national newspapers, as Messrs Riddell, White and Robinson illustrated in their evidence to the Modernisation Committee. Why should the people have respect for this place, if they do not even know what is going on or what we do? That is the problem. This is a matter of reporting, a matter of the Standing Orders and a matter of political will.

I shall conclude by repeating what I said earlier. This is not simply a question of using the term "Back Benchers"; we need some backbone in this place. That will involve people standing up to the Government and taking action in the national interest. In his famous speech of 1774, Edmund Burke gave an indication of what he believed a Member of Parliament was. He said:

That is the point. We have a national role to perform, and that is what our representative democracy is based on. It has now been degraded by the Whips system. Some kind of Whips system is required, but not the excessive use of it that we now have.

I congratulate the Committee on the report, so far as it goes, but we shall need radical reform to return the rights of the British people to them, through their representatives. They vote in general elections and express freely their choice of the kind of politics that they want. Given the disgraceful programming for which the Leader of the House and this Government have been responsible over the past decade, and the reduction and degradation of Parliament that they have brought about, it is no wonder that we are held in such disrespect. That can change, however, and this is the beginning. We must do something about it.

9.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): The partnership of independent Members has a great respect for this place and a great love for it but, in common with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), we feel that it is very much time to do politics differently. Although our debate is restricted by the terms of reference, we have to accept, sadly, that in some ways these are very modest changes indeed when it comes to reforming Parliament and that we will have to wait for a new Parliament to undertake significant reform.

When the Leader of the House suggests that we are dealing with a new British constitutional settlement, it is, unfortunately, an overblown statement. People outside this place are at the end of their tether, partly because of the expenses scandal, as they see Members making themselves millionaires on the back of the public housing subsidy, and it is certain that changes to the election arrangements for Select Committees will not touch on the concerns of those people.

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Many have referred in this debate to the issue that cannot be spoken of: the relationship between party and MPs. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) was happy to refer to it, which was most welcome. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) also emphasised the key influence of the Whips perhaps even over the daily lives of MPs. For example, if a Whip has power over whether or not someone will be allocated a room with a window, it might well have an impact on whether they vote one way or another. Most importantly, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) emphasised the real sense in which this place has become an electoral college in which Members of Parliament are given things to do to keep themselves occupied once the presidential election has taken place.

Parties were an important process and an invention of the 19th century, but in the age of Facebook, the internet and Twitter, the democratic process can be liberated from the control of political parties. As was said, when the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) challenged the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), it is in the power of MPs to take power back to themselves; it is merely their trepidation in the face of the Whips that is holding them back.

Unfortunately, when Back Benchers are part of political parties, they feel a little bit reticent about speaking for fear of accidentally embarrassing their Front-Bench colleagues. It is the responsibility of all of us, as Members of Parliament, to represent the people first, not a political party. All too often, the Gilbert and Sullivan approach of not having to think for oneself at all has become one of not daring to speak in this Chamber for fear of such embarrassment.

This has much to do with the history of Tony Blair's determination to ensure good discipline within the Labour party and to prevent the media from exploiting Labour by talking about divisions. The media are too quick to sit on MPs when they express slightly different views, suggesting that it amounts to a political division. That is why huge discipline was added on to the party Whip system, which ensures that this place does not act as a true Parliament or a place of speaking. Unfortunately, that has continued as discipline has been applied to Her Majesty's Opposition as a result of the Leader of the Opposition's determination to cleanse the party brand by stopping division from breaking out.

Also unfortunately, there is far too much partisanship in this place. Too much questioning goes along the lines of "Bearing in mind what rubbish you are, what do you think about this or that?" and the response is typically, "Well, you were rubbish 10 years ago". That does not sell well with the voters. Disagreements over the issue of care for the elderly over recent weeks provide a good example, as they have not played well for this place.

Many Members of Parliament come to this place having spent their whole careers working only for their political party or bodies close to it. In those circumstances, they are in no position to speak out against their political party to protect the interests of their constituents. As many Members have said, there is often a real stress on people expressing their outside interests, but we should not discourage those who have experience outside politics from representing constituents in this place.

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In many ways, it is important that we have a far more radical agenda, perhaps following the Chartist approach, with Parliament being much closer to the people and having elections yearly, with a fifth of Members retiring at each election. This place cannot speak for the country when its system allows one party to have a huge majority on the basis that it received 4 per cent. more of the vote than the main Opposition party. That is not a way of empowering this place to speak. Such a process means that the Government inevitably take this place for granted.

Much has been said about the separation of powers. In many ways, such a separation would be an evolution, not a revolution. We have heard about people such as Harold Wilson having a presidential style of premiership and about Lord Hailsham talking about an elected dictatorship. We should recognise that that has been very much at the heart of our politics for many decades. Many of us have been fans of the programme "The Thick of It". When Nicola Murray said, "I can't achieve anything. I'm only a Cabinet Minister," that jest unfortunately had far too much truth to it. The reality is that power is not even in the Cabinet. We should recognise that the system is such that the Executive are in many ways already very separate from the rest of Parliament and we should recognise that that should be the case.

We should introduce 48-week Parliaments. As well as declaring the hours that we work outside this place and declaring our outside interests, we should perhaps also declare the number of hours that we work in this job. It would do colleagues great credit if they could actually tell people how many hours we work in our job.

We might even consider moving out of this place. In some ways, the history of this place can put a burden on our culture and on the way in which we do our business. There would be no harm in our moving down to ExCeL-there is plenty of space there. We might even have open-plan offices so that we could organise the resourcing of our staff in a much more economical way and achieve economies of scale, with Members of Parliament specialising in migration or benefits. That would be a much modern approach for Parliament.

Reform of our approach is vital. If I can be a little more light-hearted, however, we must also recognise that this is a place of entertainment for the people. Prime Minister's Question Time has an important role in that process, so let us not have it at midday for the purposes of news management. Why not have it on Thursday at 9 pm, in the run-up to all the political programmes that are on the BBC that evening? Obviously, we should have it after "Coronation Street", but it would also be a natural climax at the end of the parliamentary week, and Members of Parliament could perhaps stay until Thursday.

Finally, I want to make a more important and serious point. This House failed to prevent an illegal war. We failed to hold in check a Government who are so authoritarian that they talk about introducing ID cards, who are responsible for a tremendous amount of intervention in people's lives and who may well have been complicit in torture. The House is not holding the Government to account. With reference to earlier guidance from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), may I suggest that if we were to return to a situation where Parliament has the power to vote moneys to Government-perhaps in combination with Parliament having our own budget office and our own power, as a
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separate body from Government, to set down our own legislation-we might be a much more powerful place and be able to hold Government to account properly?

9.40 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I thank all Members on both sides of the House who have taken part in this very important debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and all the other members of his Committee, especially for producing such an excellent report in double-quick time. However, it is regrettable that the Government did not rise to the challenge before them. The Committee called for a debate on its proposals within two months of publication, yet it has taken the Government more than three months to hold today's debate, and even then it is only a take-note debate on selected proposals from the report. Put simply, the way the Government have handled this entire affair provides a clear example of why change is needed.

Few would disagree that there is a need for reform to redress the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament. Moreover, there is an appetite for urgent change outside the House, from a public whose faith in politics and Parliament had been slowly eroding for some time. The remnants of that faith were shattered by the expenses revelations of the past year. While today's reforms are no panacea, they are certainly a step in the right direction. Let me be clear: the Conservatives support the recommendations before us today. Indeed, many of the reforms are similar to those put forward by my party's democracy taskforce, which was chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase explained the Committee's perspective in what was regarded by all present as a truly outstanding speech. He spoke of a window having been opened on our House and the fact that it will not be closed again, and he also said that the status quo is no longer an option. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) highlighted the inadequacies of the way we work and endorsed the Committee's report. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) spoke of the reform that has been stalled so far, and I would like to know what his constituents might have to say about his candid comments on early-day motions and the reasons why he signed them in the past; it would be particularly interesting to know whether he told his constituents his true views before he announced that he was stepping down from Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) reminded us that he is the longest serving member of the Modernisation Committee, and he rightly paid tribute to the late Robin Cook and spoke of the need to have less legislation. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) wanted a wider focus on the issues, starting with the role of the MP. She spoke with courage in favour of her minority view.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) reminded the House that it was Labour who broke the convention that procedural reform went through only with Opposition support, and he rightly raised concern about the Government's
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use of the guillotine, which should be used only as a last resort. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) raised the subject of September sittings in order for us to be rid of the public perception of Members being on holiday then, even though they may not be so.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who served on the Wright Committee, praised the shadow Leader of the House, and I am sure my right hon. Friend will take comfort from those words. The hon. Gentleman also expressed his concern about Report stage scrutiny, as well as Select Committee scrutiny. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) made a very learned contribution, and may I take this opportunity to commend him on all his contributions over the years with Parliament First? He said this report represented the vital first steps on the way to reform, and he rightly spoke of the need to have a culture change, not only a process change. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who gave a speech that reflected his considerable experience in the House, discussed a business committee that could be presided over by the Speaker.

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) spoke of issues beyond the remit of the debate and at one point was critical of Conservative Members and of my party-in particular of how it is reflective of the mainstream community. May I simply take the opportunity to say to him that we very much hope that after the general election we will have made huge strides in that respect by having more ethnic minority and women MPs? If he doubts my words, I suggest that he looks at yesterday's edition of The Mail on Sunday, particularly pages 2, 24 and 25.

Mr. Dhanda rose-

Mr. Vara: I am sorry but I will not give way, because I have a limited amount of time available to me and I am keen that the Government have their fair share too.

We heard an excellent intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who spoke of the reform process needing to be an ongoing one. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who is a key signatory to the amendment to motion 9, spoke of the need to restore the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament, concluding with the powerful point that a strong Government can come with a strong Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) gave a thoughtful speech, in which he enumerated the reasons for the existing balance of power being against Parliament and provided a possible way forward. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) accepted the proposed reforms, but struck a critical tone in her speech and also spoke of reforms beyond the report, such as the need for us to have more clips on YouTube. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was candid in saying that he had not intended to take part in this debate at the outset-given the subject at hand, it was hardly surprising to hear cries of "Whips' influence".

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