Previous Section Index Home Page

I am very concerned, however, about the need to change the name. If you look in the "Oxford English Dictionary", as I am sure you regularly do, Mr. Speaker,
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1077
you will see that one of the definitions of "chairman" is a person who takes the chair at a meeting. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase said in the report that the title "Chairman of Ways and Means" should be maintained. There is a degree of inconsistency in saying that we will have a Chairman of Ways and Means, regardless of the sex or gender of that person, but not a Chairman of any other Committee. It is a time-honoured custom to refer to "Madam Chairman". Indeed, some of the women whom I have most respected, in this House and outside, have looked on such suggestions as rather silly cosmetics. The former Member, the late, lamented Gwyneth Dunwoody would have given short shrift to the proposal, as would the former Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, who has strong views on matters of this nature, and has voiced them on an number of occasions-not in the context of the Wright report, but elsewhere.

There really is no need to make the proposed change. I submit to the House that it is rather silly and demeaning to bother with it when we are moving on other matters that are so grave and important. After all, the Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has never thought to change her name, even though she has had every opportunity to do so. She could call herself "Har" or "Harperson", or even think up a name, such as- [ Interruption ]-absolutely, such as "Dromey". However, she has not chosen to do that. Frankly, the proposed change is not necessary. As one who both passionately wants sensible reform and loves the traditions of this place, I think that there is just no need for it.

I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to get in briefly, so all I would say to the House is this. Let us applaud the Wright Committee and approve of the reforms that are substantive, voting for those amendments that we think will best give them effect, but do not let us depart from the nomenclature that has defined this House through the years. Also, do not let us debase and demean the English language by moving in the direction of calling our Members furniture. I urge colleagues to vote against resolution 3, but to vote in favour of all the others.

3.9 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I will be very brief. If we looked at constitutional definitions of the purpose of being an MP, we would probably find three things: first, to hold the Government to account-that is what we are focusing on in these discussions-secondly, to deliberate on legislation, and thirdly, to represent, in the Burkean sense, a constituency. My grandfather, who was a Member of this House in the 1930s, would probably have recognised that role pretty well, but I would ask those Members present to say, in all honesty, whether that is a recognisable description of the activities of most MPs now.

Most MPs, particularly those occupying marginal seats, spend most of their time fulfilling the function of a super-councillor, representing and pursuing individual concerns as vigorously as possible, knowing perfectly well the premium that is attached to that function by their voters. If we are honest, however, the matters that we are discussing now are not the matters that attract a premium from our voters. I have not been approached
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1078
by my constituents urging me to support these reforms. I will do so, because I think that that they are the best things that we can do, but we would be under an illusion if we thought that they offered a solution to our difficulties in engaging with the public.

The first task that we must undertake-I recognise that the Committee did not have the opportunity or the brief to do this-is properly to debate with our citizens what the function of an MP actually is in the modern world. It has changed utterly since my grandfather was here-in fact, probably in the past 40 years, which is rather less time than that. It has changed utterly, and without any proper engagement with the public as to what they want from MPs, what balance they think should be struck between our functions and what resources should be allocated to those tasks.

The proposals before us today do not attempt to address that issue. They will alter, in a beneficial way, the way in which we make decisions about the processes of the House and about how we allocate its time, but they do not address the issue of resources. They do not deal with the time resources of MPs, or with the resources that MPs need to conduct high-quality work in their Select Committees. There was an oblique reference earlier to the attendance problem in relation to MPs serving on Select Committees and other Committees of the House. I have to say that that observation was profoundly accurate. As a pretty assiduous attender myself, I have sat on Committees that have been sparsely attended all too often. I am leaving the House at the next election, but I would ask Members of the new Parliament to conduct a basic review of their own function. They must ask what we are for, and how we resource the work that we do.

These reforms are of some value. They might alter the balance between the Executive and the ordinary Member. I say "might" because patronage is an insidious process, and I strongly suspect that, however one constructs the mechanism of choice, those with an interest in producing an outcome that favours the Executive or the Front Bench will find ways of doing so. I would be surprised if that were not true, and I certainly recognise from the operations of my own party that the networking processes and regional groupings that we form have a significant influence on Members' voting patterns for posts in the party. I would be very surprised if that were not replicated in these elections, too.

The measures would alter the elites who make judgments, but elites will remain. There will be a large number of new Members of the House after the coming election, and they will feel lost in this space. I suspect that they will find themselves with very little leverage to achieve the outcomes that they want in the Select Committee processes. It might be the case that they would have done better under the old, discredited models-

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): No!

Mr. Todd: My hon. Friend says no loudly behind me, and I can see why she might say that. It is certainly true, however, that a new Member, feeling lost and without any networks in place, could well find themselves with very little say in which Select Committee they got on to, if any, and without the votes to achieve the outcomes that they wanted. So let us not over-egg what we are doing today. I will vote for the reforms because I think
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1079
that they will be beneficial, but, honestly, they are only a small part-and, in terms of our engagement with the public at large, a pretty minimal part-of what needs to be done.

3.14 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I rise to speak to amendment (c) to the motion on the Back-Bench business committee and to put some questions to the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), about his amendment (b). The right hon. Gentleman was a worthy member of the Wright Committee-initially, until he found his new home on the Conservative Front Bench. We all congratulated him on that at the time. Two weeks ago, I thought he played a statesmanlike role in our proceedings, but I would be grateful if he could answer a number of questions about his amendment in order to keep that title untainted, if I can put it that way.

There are several problems with the right hon. Gentleman's amendment. First, this House elected the Wright Committee to represent its views, consider the relevant matters and bring recommendations. It is not binding; no Select Committee report is binding. It gives rise to pause for thought when an elected Committee comes along with very strong recommendations, yet an amendment is tabled in the name of one party to ride roughshod over those recommendations.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman must recognise that amendment (c), with which his amendment (b) is competing, endorses and flexibly implements the recommendations of the Wright Committee. His amendment does not do that. Thirdly, his amendment says that this can happen only

As already noted-I intend no slight on the people serving on that Committee who I am sure do a very good job and have done so on the report about Deputy Speakers-the Procedure Committee is not an elected Committee; it is still appointed by the Whips. The right hon. Gentleman is asking for the Back-Bench business committee's terms of reference and relevant Standing Order to be determined by a Committee that is presently appointed by the Whips. Furthermore, how does he envisage that being done in the two weeks we have before Parliament is dissolved? His amendment says that it will be established

that is good-

I would be grateful if he would address that concern about the timing.

Sir George Young: Someone will have to change the Standing Orders. Someone will have to draft the provision-I do not mind who does it, but I suggested that the Procedure Committee was the best body to do so and report back before the end of this Parliament so that we can get things up and running at the beginning of the next one.

Dr. Harris: I trust the right hon. Gentleman would have no objection to an elected Committee of the House doing that. I am glad that he indicates assent
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1080
from a sedentary position. The Wright Committee may be well placed to do that work, as I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it has given considerable thought to the changes to the Standing Orders that will be required, so it will not be making a standing start.

Mr. Cash: The right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) talked about wrangling over this extremely important House business committee. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, just as we are having a free vote on implementing the proposals before us, the result of any such wrangling must also be subject to a free vote? Otherwise, the Executive will prevail on all occasions when the House business committee takes its own view in negotiations with the official Committee.

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman asks an important question about the House business committee, which is covered by amendment (a) to motion 7 and various recommendations in the report. I was not dealing with that, but the hon. Gentleman makes some important points, which the Wright Committee debated at length, about how one ensures a consensual approach to agreeing the agenda; otherwise, regardless of what he says about free votes, the Government of the day will be able to get their way, which would wreck the whole process. I urge him to read what the report has to say about the need to have the House business committee working consensually when it is set up. As long as everyone has time to do their stuff, these should not be matters of dispute. Proper consideration on Report and of Lords amendments should be agreed, and the Government can then use their majority to get their business through. Amendment (a) provides guarantees that the Government have time to do that.

I ask the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire to address what I view as the fundamental problem with his amendment (a) to the motion on the Back-Bench business committee. Amendment (c) specifies support for recommendation 18 of the Wright Committee report-probably the most important of the subsidiary recommendations, as it talks about a Back-Bench business committee being elected. The right hon. Gentleman's amendment leaves out any recognition of that recommendation and makes no reference to a Back-Bench business committee being elected. As the shadow Leader of the House knows, unless we specify in the Standing Order, and unless whatever Committee is involved has the time, the default will be that it would not be elected, which would wreck the whole proposal. If a Back-Bench business committee is not elected by the House, I cannot see why he should accept that any other Committee should be.

As long as the concerns about time are met, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, and the Leader of the House, will accept that the amendment concerned will do the trick. His amendment refers to "15 days allotted"-I presume he means currently allotted-to set-piece debates. That is less than half a day a week. The Wright Committee, however, was clear that if we tot up those 15 days, and the 12 days in the last Session-this might be a variable feast-subsequently allotted for general debates, which he says will subsequently come our way, plus the topical time, which should be for the House, plus other House business that must be moved in Government time, it amounts to a day a week. Amendment (c) refers to
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1081
non-ministerial business. If the system is introduced, it cannot be right for crucial House business still to be moved in Government time, because we will still have problems when we debate setting up important Select Committees and changing Standing Order. Although it could be argued that the proposal is in the spirit of the Wright Committee, amendment (b) is flawed. The Leader of the House's support should have given the shadow Leader of the House pause for thought, since she is not supporting other elements of the Wright Committee.

The right hon. Member for Derby, South was concerned that we might be moving too fast towards a House business committee. However, the terms of amendment (a) are clear: only after the establishment of a Back-Bench business committee, which we think will be at the beginning of the next Parliament if amendment (c) is passed, will the House move towards the establishment of a House business committee. That gives plenty of time to see how the Back-Bench business committee is working and how Government and Opposition Whips-business managers, we should say-should work with that Back-Bench business committee to reach agreement to solve the serious problems of Report stage.

I did not understand how the Leader of the House could say that she opposed amendment (d) because it should be left "to the next Parliament". Amendment (d) would add the words

How can she oppose a motion in its own terms, by its own terms? It does not make sense. I hope that she will reconsider that, as she has reconsidered her position on a number of such matters, which we have welcomed.

By supporting amendment (c) to motion 7, and amendment (a), we have an opportunity to show the electorate that we recognise that now is the time to make such decisions. We will never again have the coincidence of all the forces that have led us to recognise that reform is necessary. If we are ever to crack the problem of the House having control of its agenda, and of making sure that it can debate and vote on all the legislation that the Government put before it, we must support amendments (c) and (a) to motion 7.

3.23 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I will be extremely brief, as I spoke at some length last Monday. Let me say to my friend-he is my friend-and parliamentary neighbour the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) that I have enjoyed over the years hearing him denounce furniturism. But I also have to tell him that if we can safely and sensibly move from a term that is intrinsically gender-laden to one that is gender-neutral, we should do it. We should do it not because of political correctness but as a matter of common sense and common courtesy. In 2010, I think we can take that step in some kind of safety.

Everyone, from the Prime Minister downwards and sideways, has said that strengthening Parliament is the mission before us. We all make the speeches, but this is the moment we get a chance to do it. It is appropriate that most of us are reflecting today on the life of Michael Foot. I do not claim for a second that Michael
4 Mar 2010 : Column 1082
would be in the Lobby with me today. If I did, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) would tell me I was wrong. I know, however, that we could not reflect on Michael Foot in a better way than by showing determination to strengthen the institution that he loved.

Plenty of accolades have been given out during this debate. Let me now give my own accolade to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), who, incidentally, has just returned from the surgeon's knife. Many years ago he set up an organisation called Parliament First, and he has toiled year in year out to enable us to reach the point that we have reached today. He has just told me that this represents the culmination of his parliamentary life. He deserves huge credit for what he has done.

Our proposals are not ad hoc, isolated proposals; they have a theme. The theme is that the time has come for the House to reclaim responsibility for itself and its own business. That is what unifies our proposals on Select Committees. As we now say endlessly, it cannot be right for the Executive or the party managers to control the membership of Select Committees, either directly or indirectly. The only way to alter that system, as we discovered in our deliberations, is to move to a system of election.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not, because I am going to end my speech very soon.

We have reached a point at which it can no longer be acceptable for the Executive to control business that should properly belong to the House. That is the unifying theme of our proposals. However, I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South that with control comes responsibility. It is easy to set up new structures, which I hope is what we will do today, but someone must make them work, and that means making them work in a responsible fashion. In a way it is easy when we can blame the Government for everything, but from now on we shall have to attend to ourselves and take responsibility for ourselves. If we do not do that, this is not going to work; it will be sunk. We should not imagine that this is the moment at which we have done it, because we have not. We are at the beginning of a process which I hope will change the nature of this institution, but it will do that only if the people who come after us make sure that it does.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): I approve of the idea of electing the Chairs of Select Committees, but how can we assert responsibility, representative government and accountability if we are so craven that we need a secret ballot to do so? That is no reflection on the product of the only secret ballot that we have had-Mr. Speaker, who is doing an excellent job-but surely we ought to be able to display honestly to our constituents which Members we wanted to chair these important Committees, rather than being too craven to put it on the record.

Dr. Wright: I have never considered the argument for a secret ballot to be a craven argument; I have always considered it a rather traditional democratic argument.

4 Mar 2010 : Column 1083

The real contention now surrounds the amendments on the Back-Bench business committee. The one thing that has been agreed by everyone during this process-even those who were not persuaded by what we said about the House business committee-is that non-ministerial business should be controlled by a Back-Bench business committee. Given the universal agreement on that, why do we not nail it down in the most decisive form possible by saying that we want to do now what needs to be done to ensure that the Committee is in place at the beginning of the next Parliament?

I have great regard for the shadow Leader of the House, as he knows, but the problem with his amendment is that it looks like crumbs from the Executive table. All that our amendment is proposing is that we do what is recommended in our report, which is to take, for example, all that crucial, procedural stuff not covered by the right hon. Gentleman's amendment but which enables us to get to the House issues that affect how it is run, and put it into a category of non-ministerial business. We want to give that to a Back-Bench business committee. We want a Standing Order to nail that down and we want to do it in this Parliament. That is the difference between the two amendments.

We have taken some steps in this Parliament that unfortunately have had the effect of weakening the institution. We all now know that the task is to strengthen it. These measures by themselves will not do that; all they do is provide a set of tools that people in the next Parliament, our successors, can use, if they want to, to make this place a more vital institution. That is our job today; it is their job tomorrow.

Next Section Index Home Page