Previous Section Index Home Page

4 Mar 2010 : Column 1065

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the Leader of the House agree a number of Committees-not just the Public Accounts Committee-ought to be chaired by a Member of the Opposition? I have sat on the European Scrutiny Committee now for 25 years and it has always been the case that the chairmanship of that Committee was in the gift of the Opposition. Does she agree that that should apply, as it does to the Public Accounts Committee and the Committees that consider secondary legislation, because these are scrutiny Committees?

Ms Harman: We have brought forward the proposals that were made by the Wright Committee. If the hon. Gentleman agrees with them, he can support them, and if he does not, he can vote against them. There is an evolving process and no doubt other Committees that are not departmental or similar will have to be considered as we go along.

Motion 5 runs alongside motion 4 and provides a mechanism for Chairs to resign or to be removed by a no-confidence vote in the Select Committee so that a ballot for a new Chair can take place. Without that provision there would be no effective trigger for replacing a Chair once that Chair had been elected.

Motion 6 endorses the Wright Committee's proposal for the election of Select Committee members, with each party being responsible for electing its own members by secret ballot. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and several of his colleagues on the Liaison Committee have tabled amendment (a) to the motion, which would allow the Speaker and the Committee of Selection to propose to the House that a Select Committee member whose attendance was less than 60 per cent over the course of a Session should be discharged. I agree with the Reform Committee's recommendation that there should be "clear consequences" for non-attendance by Select Committee members, but I think we should reflect further before we embark on the Liaison Committee's approach.

The competing claims on Members' time will sometimes mean that individuals' attendance drops below 60 per cent. for perfectly good reasons. In fact, six of the hon. Members who signed the motion attended less than 60 per cent. of Liaison Committee meetings in the last Session and the Liaison Committee's overall attendance was only 50.6 per cent., so I am sure they will accept the point about the demands on hon. Members' time. We can think further about the matter so I ask them not to press for a vote. The principle was right but we need to think about how we take it forward.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): It is because those very factors need to be taken into account that the amendment is phrased in a way that makes it an enabling amendment-it does not say that the Speaker "should" recommend such action, but leaves it to the Speaker's discretion. There is no compulsion about it.

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend's amendment takes a particular track and sets a particular percentage level, and it might be that we can do better than that. However, we might, in the end, find that that is the best way we can do it. I know that the members of that Committee have given it a great deal of thought. Obviously, it is entirely for hon. Members to decide whether to
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1066
press the amendment to a Division and for other hon. Members to decide how to vote. I have simply offered the House my views.

Motion 7 approves the Wright Committee's recommendation for a Back-Bench business committee to schedule Back-Bench business. Amendment (b) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and amendment (c) in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase call for the establishment of a Back-Bench business committee in time for the beginning of the next Parliament. I think it is right that the House should be able to reach a decision tonight on the establishment of a committee.

The effect of the two amendments would be broadly similar, but I personally suggest that colleagues support amendment (b), which provides greater clarity on the number of days the Back-Bench business committee will have at its disposal. It also offers a more flexible approach- [ Interruption. ] There is no need for hon. Members to protest. They have the motion and both the amendments and they can decide for themselves which to vote for. I would say, if I can just get on with giving my humble opinion, that amendment (b) provides greater clarity on the number of days that the Back-Bench business committee will have at its disposal. It also offers a more flexible approach for the new committee whereas amendment (c) includes a number of stipulations that could have the effect of tying the hands of a newly established business committee. I think flexibility will be important in the successful operation of the new system so that the business committee has maximum freedom of operation.

I will also, as I have already said-

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way on that point?

Ms Harman: No.

I will also be supporting amendment (a) to motion 7, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. The amendment endorses the establishment of a House business committee, during the course of the next Parliament, to include Government business. However, I do not agree with amendment (d), which lists a number of the committee's other recommendations to be considered in the next Parliament. I think it is right to leave that decision to the next Parliament, so I shall not support it and shall vote against it for that reason.

Dr. Harris: Will the Leader of the House give way?

Ms Harman: The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), among others, will get to speak. The hon. Gentleman has played a leading part in the debate. I do not have any better answers, and I am sure he will value his own opinion more than mine when it comes to deciding how he will vote. This is House business and we are now at the point of just making decisions.

I have tabled motion 8 to give effect to the Procedure Committee's recommendations on the election of Deputy Speakers by ballot. Although the motion is new, the changes were approved by the House in principle on 6 January. Motion 8 moves the matter forward by
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1067
providing an opportunity for the House to agree the Procedure Committee's detailed proposals for putting the recommendations into action. I again thank the Committee for its work. We will be allowing a free vote on this matter and on all the Reform Committee's proposals.

All this is House business, and the House today has an opportunity to approve the remainder of the Committee's recommendations. Let me conclude by saying that today is an important milestone in the history of the reform of this House. I hope we will seize the opportunity to agree this package of reforms which, if passed today, will, when added to what we agreed last Monday, be the most far-reaching package of reforms ever agreed. It will take forward the Prime Minister's commitment, which he set out in "The Governance of Britain", to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament and to reinvigorate our democracy. We will be ensuring that there is more power for Back Benchers and we will be strengthening the House's ability to hold the Government to account. I commend the motions to the House.

2.32 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): There are 69 minutes left for this debate, so I propose to follow the right hon. and learned Lady's example and keep my remarks to a basic minimum.

I set out my views on most of these issues last Monday when I urged the House to seize this opportunity for reform and to make faster progress than was envisaged in the Government's initial resolutions. I note in passing that it is sad that we have roughly eight sitting days left before the likely date of Dissolution in which to make the changes to our Standing Orders that are needed to bring in some of the motions before us at the beginning of the next Parliament. I shall not repeat the contrast that has been made between the speed and urgency of the Wright Committee's work and the foot-dragging of the Government.

In addition to the reforms of the Wright Committee and all the proposed amendments, some of which raise new issues, we are addressing the Procedure Committee's report on the election of Deputy Speakers. That sits a little uneasily with the comment made by the right hon. and learned Lady last week in business questions that, as far as she was concerned,

Two hours might have been enough to debate the Wright Committee, but we now have an extra report to debate in the time allotted for one. As has been said several times today, given that the principle behind the reports is the empowerment of Back Benchers, it is ironic that the Government have programmed the debate to restrict Back-Bench contributions. If, as I hope, we support these reforms in the Division Lobbies later, the House may never again be forced to plead for more time from the Government to debate its own business. The past few months have demonstrated more effectively even than the report why the Government need to relinquish their control of Parliament's agenda.

I believe that the resolutions represent our best opportunity for decades to start rebalancing the terms of trade away from the Executive and to start strengthening
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1068
Parliament and making it more effective, more accountable and more relevant to the people outside it. That is why I intend to support the Government's motions on the election of Select Committee Chairmen and members, as well as the amendments that would establish a House business committee during the next Parliament and give further consideration in the next Parliament to all the remaining recommendations that the Government have left on the cutting room floor. I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will demonstrate a similar commitment to reform when she is in the Lobbies.

As for the amendment on the election of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, that is not one of the changes advocated by the Wright Committee, which merely proposed electing the Chairmen of departmental Select Committees. I just make the point that it seems slightly illogical not to extend such elections to other Committees in addition to the Procedure Committee.

On the Back-Bench business committee, I intend to vote for amendment (b), which I should like to move at the appropriate move.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): All the advice that I have taken from the Clerks suggests that, because the Procedure Committee itself will be elected, it is something of a lacuna in the report that its Chairman will not be. I hope that my Front Benchers will support that amendment.

Sir George Young: As I said, it is a free vote, but I make the point that this was not an original recommendation of the Wright Committee.

On the Back-Bench committee, I intend to vote for amendment (b). I do not agree with the Government's resolution, as it fails to get the committee up and running by the beginning of the next Parliament, which is my preferred time scale. As I have said before, I want the Back-Bench committee to be given progressively more influence-first over the set-piece debates, in whatever configuration it prefers, and then over the general debates. That would then lead to its being given a day or half a day a week for Back-Bench business.

The Wright Committee report is absolutely clear, stating that these proposals would

It recognises that the pieces of the jigsaw should not be put together all at once on day one, and that brings me to the difficulties that I see with amendment (c). That amendment risks making worse one of the central problems that the Wright Committee has sought to address-the lack of time for the Report stage of Bills.

The assumption in paragraphs 31 and 32 of the report is that, whatever approach we adopt, the totality of sitting days and hours should remain roughly the same. Given the finite amount of available time, the more time that is spent on general debates, the less time, by definition, will be available for Government business.

My amendment (b) would allocate 27 days in total to the Back-Bench committee-the 15 set-piece days, and the 12 general debates. Amendment (c), by virtue of its endorsement of recommendation 30, would allocate the committee one day a week, which by the Wright Committee's reckoning amounts to 35 days. The difference between the two amendments is that mine could allow seven extra days for the Report stage of Bills, whereas
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1069
that would be lost if we opt for amendment (c). I urge the House to think carefully about that before making its decision later.

Dr. Evan Harris: As a member of the Wright Committee, I would like to explain our approach to the right hon. Gentleman. I agree with much of what he has said about the 27 days, but topical debates ought to be a matter for the Back-Bench business committee. When added up, they amount to another seven days. The other three days for his 35 could be used for debates on Members' pay and allowances, for example, or for matters such as those relating to the hon. Member whose offices were raided by the police. Such matters should rightly be for the House and not in the purview of the Government, whichever party is in office.

Sir George Young: I agree that the Back-Bench committee should allocate the subjects for topical debates. I conceded that on Monday, and that should happen. I also think the committee should allocate the 15 set-piece days and the 12 days devoted to general debates. The Wright Committee wants an extra seven days, and my fear is that that would mean less time on Report.

Paragraph 109 of the Wright report states that the lack of time on Report is the

with the current scheduling of legislative business. That is why I prefer the configuration in my amendment (b) to that in amendment (c).

I am not standing in the way of progress. An initial amendment proposed kicking the Back-Bench committee into touch-that is, into the next Parliament-whereas I think it should be established much earlier. That now appears to command widespread support.

On the House business committee, we have seen three victories: first, in ensuring that its consideration was within the original terms of reference; secondly, in ensuring that it can be voted on today; and thirdly-and I am grateful for this-in securing the support of the Leader of the House for the committee, soon after she had initially ruled it out.

We have made real progress, but I think we should go further. We should end the automatic guillotine at Committee stage, and abolish the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee. I also think we should enable Select Committee Chairmen to launch their reports on the Floor of the House-as the Chairman of the Defence Committee could have done today, with his report on procurement. In addition, we should allow the Opposition to trade Opposition days for topical statements, and introduce broader measures to re-engage the public, reduce the size of Parliament and cut the costs of politics.

Finally, on the election of the Deputy Speakers, I welcome the report from the Procedure Committee, which is well-reasoned and eminently sensible. I look forward to hearing the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), explain the proposals in greater detail. As someone who has had passing experience of the system for the election of Speaker, using both a secret and an open ballot, I was pleased to have the opportunity to
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1070
pass on my views to the Committee in an informal session, and I am glad that two of my suggestions have been incorporated into the report.

I agree with the Procedure Committee that, unlike with the election of the Speaker, there is no need for Deputy Speakers to issue manifestos, because it is an entirely different kind of role. I should make it clear that, in supporting the Committee's report, I do not want to suggest in any way that the current system of selection of Deputy Speakers does not deliver excellent candidates to the Speaker's team, which it does.

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that when you blow the final whistle at 3.41, the reformers will be able to take away from the pitch some of the trophies.

2.40 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I listened to what the Leader of the House had to say about her own tactic in providing time for others, which was to speak allegretto. I will maintain a more stately andante, but I hope to be brief. I repeat the point that today's debate is not about what we say from Front-Bench positions; it is about what right hon. and hon. Members have to say on the recommendations. We have already had the debate on many of these issues.

I will briefly give an opinion on the points before us today. I find it difficult to get really worked up about motion 3, but it is better to refer to the position as "Chair" rather than "Chairman". I note in passing that those who are most adamant that they will never accept the word "Chair" are quite happy to refer to "the Crown" on the ground that a hat is somehow more appropriate than a piece of furniture for describing a position. I am not sure that I understand that distinction.

I hope that we will be able to support motion 4 and all the amendments. The position of the Chair of the Procedure Committee is important and I am glad that that amendment has been tabled. The Public Accounts Committee should be chaired by a Chairman from the official Opposition. That is a sensible provision within our Standing Orders.

I agree with motion 5. I also agree with motion 6. The Chairman of the Liaison Committee brings forward an important point about non-attendance at Committees. Whether this is the right way to deal with it I do not know, but it has been notable that some major departmental Committees have struggled to reach a quorum on too many occasions. If this is not the answer, we must find another. I would support this because it is a permissive power, not a requirement, and I hope we might consider that today.

The most important matter is motion 7 and the amendments to it. I heard what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said in supporting his amendment (b). I am not persuaded that it does not provide for a more restrictive solution than amendment (c). The two are in direct opposition. If (b) is passed, (c) cannot be put. Therefore, I invite hon. Members to oppose amendment (b) and support amendment (c), which is a more satisfactory solution. If proof of that is needed, Members need only look at the collusion between Members of the two Front Benches here to see where the Executive would like us to vote. I invite the House to vote for amendment (c).

Next Section Index Home Page