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4 Mar 2010 : Column 1071

However, most importantly, I hope that amendment (a) is passed. This is the key vote to give control of the timetable of debate in the House back to Members of the House, taking it away from the Executive. If we cannot achieve that, we will have failed as a House in our debates on this matter. I hope that the House is up to the task of agreeing to amendment (a) today. I support amendment (d) because those are the matters the Wright Committee considered, and which the Leader of the House for some reason would not put before the House. They should have been put before the House, they have been now and we can agree to the amendment.

Motion 8 concerns the election of the Deputy Speakers. I know how hard the Procedure Committee worked on this, and it came forward with cogent views on the election. I have just one caveat, which is that if we are successful in the early amendments-I say "we"; those who think like I do that we need a business committee of the House-the Chairman of Ways and Means will have a new and important full-time role in organising the business of the House. That suggests a need for an additional Deputy Speaker. I made that point in evidence to the Wright Committee, but today's change in Standing Orders will not provide for that eventuality, and I regret that.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): The Procedure Committee considered that very point, and we are of the view that the matter should be revisited in the next Parliament.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. If we agree to that new role for the Chairman of Ways and Means subsequent to today's votes, however, we will need to prepare for that, so that in the new Parliament we can deal with it as a first instance.

I need not detain the House any longer. Some have described today as an historic day of reform-I am sorry, but I cannot bring myself to think that way. An Everest of reform is necessary if we are to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed-into the 21st century-and make it fit for purpose. Evolution is a slow process at the moment, and we still do not fit the ecological niche that we need to fit. If we were climbing Everest, we would simply be at base camp, but if the House cannot even get to base camp, we will have failed the people who have elected us and want us to make this House fit for purpose.

2.46 pm

Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) (Lab): I am sorry that I was not able to take part in last week's debate about these issues, but I have read it with care. I rise to speak, briefly, only because I share the universal view of Members that it is important to do everything that we can to increase the public's confidence in the House. However, I must confess to a degree of scepticism about the contribution that all the changes will make to that process, even if they are all carried, and I think that many, if not all, will be. The public's confidence will increase when they believe and have evidence that their top priorities are also ours.

That brings me to my concerns about the variety of proposals before the House. My first concern relates to motion 7 and amendment (a), to which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who has just
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spoken, directed most of his remarks. Reading the Wright Committee report and last week's debate, I was struck forcefully by the degree to which the context and culture of the proposals are, first, rooted in most Members' experience of the House: one in which the Government of the day have a comfortable majority; and-with deep respect to members of the minority parties-one in which there are not so many minority parties and few non-party Members. That might not be the structure of the next House of Commons, and nothing says that it is compelled to be the structure of future Houses, either.

Further to the structure of and voting power in the House, the second point that runs culturally through the proposals is an assumption of understanding and co-operation between all players. That will be absolutely crucial if a business committee is to work, whether it is a Back-Bench business committee or a House business committee. However, having served on a House Committee, as only one or two other participants in our debate have done, I do not share the assumption and confidence of all those who spoke in last week's debate that such understanding and co-operation is a given.

That brings me to my second concern. I have as much experience as anybody-certainly anybody in the Chamber today-of introducing reform to the House in the teeth, sometimes, of vociferous opposition, and I have learned that it is best to proceed by experiment. I have no quarrel with motion 7 or the establishment of a Back-Bench committee at whatever point, but, although I know that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made amendment (a) the touchstone of whether one is for reform, I am concerned about the House carrying it without any experience in a different Parliament of how a Back-Bench committee would work.

I suspect, with deep respect to the motives and content of the observations made in our opening debate on the business motion, that we could see every week of the next Parliament dominated by a wrangle-not necessarily a good-tempered wrangle-about what the business of the House should be. That would not do anything to enhance our standing in the eyes of the public. I cannot reconcile it with my conscience to allow all this to go through with a claim that it is the best thing since sliced bread, particularly-I say this with the greatest possible deference and respect to all hon. Members who have taken part in these debates-when so many of the voices that are heard are those of Members who do not intend to be here in the next Parliament and will not have to pick up the pieces.

Mr. Heath: I am listening to the right hon. Lady with care and respect. She says that this is an untried system that has not been experienced in our Parliament; no, it has not, but it has in many other Parliaments, including the Scottish Parliament, where it works very well. Why on earth are we incapable of adapting to a new system and making it work?

Margaret Beckett: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that perhaps he was not listening with sufficient care to what I said. I did not say that this is a system that the House cannot make work, but that it is a system into which we are intending to proceed without any kind of experiment or trial to see how we make it work for the best. If I may say so, I think that I probably have as much experience as the hon. Gentleman of studying the experiences of other Parliaments and hearing
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observations from them. I gently say to him, as regards reforms that it is proclaimed that other Parliaments have made, that their parliamentarians and politicians will speak fervently of them in public, but not always quite so fervently in private conversation. [ Interruption. ] No, I am not talking about Governments. I am fully conscious of the likely criticism that my experience has been Front-Bench experience and that I speak as a former Leader of the House. I am not, by the way-before anybody alleges it-speaking on behalf of the Whips Office. I have not consulted anybody about this. I simply have great regard-

Mr. Cash rose-

Margaret Beckett: I am going to finish now.

I have great regard for this House, and I do not wish it to bring itself into any kind of disrepute. If we begin with a Back-Bench business committee, and if it works as brilliantly as everybody in the Chamber tells me that it will, that will be absolutely fine, and we can proceed unhindered in the next Parliament with a House committee. However, I feel that this may not be the time to move at quite the speed that so many Members here wish us to do.

2.52 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Let me say, I hope for the last time today, that I deplore the decision made by the Leader of the House to cherry-pick the Procedure Committee's report. She has let the House down by denying it the opportunity to make its own decisions on some of the recommendations in that report.

I have no difficulty with the motion to make the position that I currently hold an elected one. That is a good idea, which could lead to the office of Chairman of the Procedure Committee having a greater authority, with the Chairman knowing that he is there at the will of the House. Moreover, I hope that any future Leader of the House faced with a unanimous decision of the Procedure Committee would then ensure that there was a debate on all its recommendations.

The arguments on most of the motions have been well aired, so I should like to focus on motion 8-a proposal that is before us for the first time. Soon after your election, Mr. Speaker, you announced in a statement to the House that you were convinced that in a modern democracy that puts Parliament first, the choice of the three Deputy Speakers should be determined not by consultation but by the process of election. The Procedure Committee unanimously agrees with you in that view.

Following the House's approval of our interim report on the principles to be followed in electing our Deputy Speakers, we have devised a detailed procedure for such elections, which I hope finds favour in all parts of the House. It is based on the existing convention that the four occupants of the Chair should be drawn equally from the Government and Opposition sides of the House, regardless of the exact party proportions in the House, and that there should be at least one man and at least one woman on the team.

The Procedure Committee does not see a case at present for an additional Deputy Speaker, a suggestion put forward by the hon. Member for Somerton and
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Frome (Mr. Heath) and his parliamentary colleagues, but we did think that there was an argument to say that this should be reviewed in the next Parliament, along with any changes that may have occurred to the role of the Deputy Speakers.

In our view, the rules for electing the Deputy Speakers should reflect those for electing the Speaker. We believe that there should be a secret ballot, that candidates should be nominated by a minimum number of sponsors and that the names of those sponsors should be published. One point that I wish to highlight is that we did feel that there should be no speeches or hustings on the Floor of the House from Deputy Speaker candidates. That would be inappropriate, as the Deputy Speakers are there to support the Speaker in the Chair, and not to pursue their own agenda.

The Procedure Committee did however feel that it would be helpful to Members if candidates for the position of Deputy Speaker were allowed to submit a brief statement, along with their nomination forms, which should be made available to all Members in advance of the ballot. We concluded that the ballot could take place away from the Chamber and be conducted under the single transferable vote system, with the result being announced in the House by the Speaker and entered in the Journal. The newly elected Deputy Speakers could then take up their duties the following day.

It was our unanimous view that the Deputy Speakers should be elected at the start of a Parliament for the duration of that Parliament. Our report sets out a procedure for by-elections when a vacancy occurs due to the resignation of one of the Deputy Speakers or the promotion of one of them to the office of Speaker. However, in our view, the terms of office of the Deputy Speakers should run independently of that of the Speaker, and a change in the Speaker should not, in itself, necessitate a change in Deputy Speakers. We took the view that any imbalance in party or gender representation on the panel should be rectified at the next general election.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): When a Deputy Speaker, after serving for one Parliament, wishes to stand again, how will they be elected?

Mr. Knight: It is our recommendation that the Deputy Speakers should be elected afresh at the beginning of every Parliament. If the House therefore has an opportunity to accept or reject someone who has served in a previous Parliament as a Deputy Speaker, there would be no need to impose term limits on the holders of that office.

I hope that the House accepts what the Procedure Committee feels are sensible recommendations, so that the Deputy Speaker elections later this year can be as successful as the process applied in your election, Mr. Speaker, in 2009.

2.58 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): Following the main debate on House of Commons reform 10 days ago, which was widely regarded as a very good debate, the main purpose of today's debate is simply to pave the way for the votes that will shortly follow. For that reason, I shall keep my remarks brief,
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but I do wish to emphasise strongly how critical it is that the House, on a cross-party basis and preferably with a substantial majority, endorses the two main recommendations of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, which was, as everyone knows, chaired so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright).

In politics it is almost never the case that something is "now or never", but it is certainly true that we have at this time a unique conjunction of events in favour of these reforms that is unlikely to return for a long time. No one can doubt the damage that has been done to the House's reputation by the expenses scandal. The opportunity that has now opened up to retrieve our standing, by making Parliament a more democratic, responsive and effective institution, is a priceless opportunity which we should grasp eagerly and enthusiastically. Indeed, I have often thought that, terrible though the expenses fiasco was, it was less of an indictment of this place than a reflection of the insidious and systematic erosion, over recent decades, of Parliament's fundamental rationale, which is to hold the Executive effectively to account. Especially over the past three decades, there has been a steady and growing centralisation of power in the hands of the Executive in general and of No. 10 in particular, and that relationship badly needs rebalancing. Today is an historic opportunity to begin to do that.

The two main proposals before us-giving the House ownership of its Select Committees via the process of election, and reclaiming for the House control of its own business-are certainly not revolutionary. Actually, they are quite modest. However, they are also extremely important. Unquestionably, the Select Committees are the most effective means by which the House holds Ministers to account, and it is crucial that membership should be determined by the House and not by those who might have an interest in making that scrutiny rather more amenable to the powers that be, which defeats the object of the exercise.

For the House to regain control of its own business is a sine qua non of any effective, functioning Chamber. In a previous debate, hon. Members objected that the Government might be prevented from having time to get their business through and thus their accountability to the electorate would be undermined, but the reform Committee's proposals make it clear that that is not the case, that the Government would still be guaranteed the time to get their own business through, and that the object of the reform is that Members of the House should have the right and the opportunity to determine the agenda for the rest of the time in respect of non-Government business.

Mr. Cash: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher: There are so many others wishing to speak. I would gladly give way normally, but there simply is not time.

There are, however, two caveats reflected in two amendments before the House that I hope will be strongly supported. One is that a Back-Bench business committee dealing with non-ministerial business be secured before the election to be ready in time for the next Parliament. That must be right if the current momentum is not to be irretrievably lost. The second caveat is that a House business committee be set up in the next Parliament
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so that the Back-Bench business committee can negotiate and agree with party managers on the weekly business motion. That would give the House a say in the business, while ensuring that the Government had sufficient time for their own business. I believe that both those aims are essential, and I hope that they will be passed with large majorities.

Sadly, however-this is the one point of contention, and it has already been mentioned-I think that amendment (b), in which it is proposed that a Back-Bench business committee be established now, but with only half a day a week for Back-Bench business, should be rejected, because that is even less time than we have now. What we are debating and voting on today is not the end of parliamentary reform.

Sir George Young: If the right hon. Gentleman does the arithmetic, he will find that it is not less than today. I said that it was based on what happens at the moment.

Mr. Meacher: The manner in which the amendment is drafted leads one to suspect that it would result in less time. However, the House will shortly take a view on whether that is the case. We are not prepared to accept anything less than the current position.

Several other important issues will have to be pursued in the future, and I shall mention three briefly: the improved scheduling of business to ensure more effective scrutiny of legislation on Report-the current situation is a scandal-and in Lords amendments debates; the right of the Liaison Committee to select a given quota of Select Committee reports each year for debate and a vote-I stress vote-on the Floor of the House; and greater access for the electorate to the proceedings of this place through the establishment of a public petitions committee to ensure that petitions are sent to the appropriate Select Committee for consideration, or to the relevant Minister for action or to the proposed business committee for consideration on the Floor of the House.

However, those issues are for the future. The two crucial proposals from the reform Committee that we are debating today-on elected Select Committees and on a Back-Bench and House business committee-together with the two key amendments, are essential. I cannot stress too strongly that we should all use this opportunity to pass them with acclamation.

3.5 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I shall be very brief. I gladly assented to all the resolutions that the House passed last week without Division, and I shall vote for all the substantive motions this afternoon. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and his Committee on their hard work on behalf of us all.

The right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) was right to issue a warning and to tell those of us leaving the House just to be careful. I accept that gentle stricture in the spirit in which it was given, because I have a great regard for her. She was, in my opinion, one of the best Leaders of the House that we have had in my time here.

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