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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 7 April 2010

[Christopher Fraser in the Chair]

House of Commons (Effectiveness)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Steve McCabe.)

9.30 am

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): To misquote one of my contemporary political heroes, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), whom I have come to regard as a friend as well as a colleague, this will be the last speech that I shall ever make as a Member of this House of Commons. It comes at the end of what some have called the Manure Parliament, at a time when the stench of corruption and personal greed has overwhelmed the good that we try to do and the reasons why the vast majority of us come to this place. In my last contribution I want to mount a staunch defence of politics and politicians: not as an apologist for the status quo-because I have always been on what one could call the Hezbollah wing of the reform movement-but because I believe passionately that a precondition for the survival of a healthy democracy is the holding of regular elections, and that for those elections to function there must be candidates. Those candidates who eventually succeed in securing the approval of the electors will, whether they like it or not, grow up to become politicians, just as night follows day.

Yet, if we follow the subtext of much of the media coverage of our politics-and it long predates last spring's expenses scandal-things would be so much better if somehow we could have politics without politicians and clear out the whole political class. All the ills of the world are easily solved, all problems are simple, and politicians-us lot-only make matters worse. Then, by adding a dose of xenophobia and a dollop of snobbery with some implied racism mixed in from time to time, we have the gospel according to Rod Liddle, Melanie Phillips, Jan Moir, Richard Littlejohn and a dozen other commentators of the fourth estate, who know it all. Well, anyone can write about what other people should be doing. I have spent a quarter of a century of my life as a public representative, often listening to other people telling me what I should be doing. I only wish I had spent half as long hearing people ask how they, too, could come forward and serve their communities assiduously, as the best of us here and in councils and assemblies the length and breadth of this land try to do.

I want to quote-more accurately-another of my contemporary heroes, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who gave the 2009 lecture for The Political Quarterly, which I commend to hon. Members. That provided much of the inspiration for this debate. He said of politicians:

Those are wise words and they apply as much to Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama as to Tony Blair or Winston Churchill.

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We should not apologise for coming together to form political parties. It is what the public want us to do. They want us to forge alliances based on common programmes and principles. The notion of a House of Commons filled with 650 Independents, unable to agree on a single thing, has never appealed to the electorate, although it is in their gift to deliver it. At its best this place is the cockpit of our democracy, where the battle of ideas is fought out, and the hopes and aspirations of the people who sent us here receive expression and are sometimes realised. At its worst the Commons can be a craven institution, in thrall to either the Executive or party advantage, and pandering to the baser parts of the media. The day we finally subcontract our law-making to the likes of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch will be the day on which representative democracy dies. Collectively we will have lost the moral authority that we have left.

We have gone far too far down that road already, giving too much power, without accountability, to unelected press barons who draw their political lineage and set their moral compasses from such repulsive headlines as "Hurrah for the Blackshirts" in the Daily Mail of 15 January 1934; I think that it has become more extreme over the years. Who will ever forget the famous headline in The Sun of 9 November 1998: "Are we being run by a gay mafia?" It was particularly demeaning to see the former leader of my party attempting to formulate child protection policy on the basis of a News of the World witch hunt that led to a mob attack on the home of a paediatrician, rather than by listening to the sensible, informed opinions of senior police officials and experts from organisations such as Barnardo's and Save the Children, who know a thing or two about managing paeodphiles released from prison. We have yet to find out what price Mr. Murdoch has extracted from the Leader of the Opposition in return for the political endorsement of The Sun. I worry that we may see the break-up of the BBC and certainly a diminution in the regulatory powers of Ofcom.

This debate almost never happened. My original intention, shared with the Leader of the House, was that the debate should be entitled "In Praise of Politics". The Clerks ruled that out of order. I then compromised with "In Praise of Parliament". That was also the subject of a banning order from the men in wigs. We eventually settled on today's somewhat obtuse title. There we have it: as politicians we cannot hold a debate about politics and as parliamentarians we cannot praise Parliament. There clearly remains much to reform about this place, including the arcane rules that govern our proceedings and the regime that so delights in enforcing them.

Some 13 years ago I made my maiden speech on the case for reform of the House of Commons, calling for nothing less than a new politics for a new century, and a political system that would connect with the public and their aspirations. In the intervening period I have done my level best to put as much of the reform agenda as I could into practice, but collectively we have fallen disappointingly short of those worthy objectives, which seemed so achievable in those far-off days of hope in the summer of 1997.

Anyone who served with good intent on the Modernisation Committee or, more recently, on the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, knows through long and bitter experience how intensely conservative this institution is-how resistance to change
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has been elevated to an art form and how achieving radical reform is as difficult as nailing blancmange to a wall. Just look at the inordinate length of time it took to allow the citizens of tomorrow, in the shape of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, to hold their annual meeting in the House of Commons. It took five years from the publication in 2004 of the modernisation report, which I helped to draft, for us belatedly to follow in the footsteps of that great reforming body, the House of Lords, and allow the unelected bottoms of the UKYP to sit on those green Benches and participate in what proved to be a lively and articulate debate, which showcased the best of our young people, and hopefully launched a political career or two. I suppose that it was better late than never; but why such fuss and delay?

Of course, there is a powerful case for further reforms-for permanent, if not incremental, revolution. I have argued before for ending moonlighting and paying MPs properly. It is a full-time job and we should work full-time hours. I would provide proper resources to meet the increasing demands of our constituents. They are not the same from constituency from constituency. Constituencies such as mine or those of my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) have, in their nature, vastly more casework. I talk to Members of Parliament for other constituencies who have given up holding advice surgeries, because no one comes. That is fine, too, but let us ensure that the resources meet the demand.

I want genuine public engagement. I want to end the farce of early-day motions, and conning the people that they mean something. I argued for that in my maiden speech and in the Wright Committee. If sufficient Members across the party political divide put their name to a limited number of motions it should drive House business, and there should be a debate in the House. That would properly engage the public.

I have looked at examples from Australia where Members can use interesting devices such as three-minute constituency statements, in which a matter of import-particularly local import-can be raised without a convoluted attempt to tack it onto a question about something else. I am bitterly disappointed that 13 years on we shall still not see reform of the House of Lords completed. I remain a defender of the principle of a second Chamber. All too often, perhaps because of the ineffectiveness of the House of Commons, the second Chamber does a better job of scrutinising legislation, which should be a matter of shame for us all.

We really must end time-wasting as a political weapon. It is monstrously unfair that we do not have time to put through much-needed legislation and reform and yet waste hour upon hour marching organisations up to the top of the hill for private Members' Bills and other motions that simply go nowhere because of the ability to filibuster. In this place the most disempowered group are the critical friends of whoever are in Government. In Public Bill Committees Government Members are encouraged to keep quiet-often I do not follow that advice. Why do we not co-opt outside expertise onto those Committees? The notion that a Bill, once published, must travel through Parliament for a form of mock
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scrutiny, during which not a semicolon, paragraph or phrase can be amended, is ridiculous. We are all paid a reasonable salary to do a little better than that and to apply our judgment and that of our advisers and constituents.

Perhaps we should go further and set a maximum age limit for Members. I am leaving this place because I vowed not to be rattling around the House in my 60s. That is not to say that people here in their 60s do not do a fantastic job, but I became a councillor 25 years ago when I was 29 years old and there are other things that I want to do with my life.

I will raise a point about our staff that has been overlooked. It is difficult for any Member facing re-election to criticise the report and recommendations of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, but we should take a closer look at what it is seeking it to do to our staff. The 10 per cent. staff pension allowance that was formerly paid centrally now comes out of the starting budget, yet with no corresponding increase. If Members pay their staff up to the maximum, and those representing places like Reading have to pay the maximum to get good staff-we are only as good as the people working for us-they will effectively have to implement a 7 per cent. wage cut. That is monstrous. For all I have read about the expenses scandal, which applied to only a minority of Members from across the House, I have never come across a staffer or researcher who spent money on a duck house or a moat or who claimed for a false mortgage, but once again it is the poor bloody infantry who are carrying the can, not the officer class.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Martin Salter: Briefly, as I am warming to my theme.

Mr. Allen: I am loth to interrupt my hon. Friend in mid flow, but I will add that although the amount of money allocated to Members for staffing purposes sounds very large, after taking out national insurance and pensions, it is not only quite a small sum-only enough for three and a half people covering the constituency and Westminster-but smaller than it was last year. We will be trying to do more on less over the coming year.

Martin Salter: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I will say later in my speech, the public want us to do more.

There is a concern, to which I hope Members will turn their minds, about complaints to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I have been the subject of a vexatious complaint and ended up having to take legal action-I made history by being the first person to sue a sitting Member. It is awful for a Member to have an unresolved complaint having over them. Where possible, I hope that the Commissioner will resolve complaints or publish interim findings so that Members who are the subject of vexatious or politically motivated complaints do not have them hanging over them as they face the electorate, because we all know how easy it is to imply ill of people purely on the basis of an unproven accusation. Furthermore, on the other side of that concern, there are three or four complaints against Members still outstanding because they have failed to co-operate fully
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with the Committee and the Commissioner in the hope that judgment can be deferred until after the election. That is also wrong, as those matters should be resolved.

We have had our successes, of course. The Select Committees are often still regarded as a 30-year experiment, and I think that we could conclude that it has been successful. In fact, I understand that recently seven consecutive lead stories on the "Today" programme featured either a report or the work of a Select Committee. For many of us, particularly those who will never be given an opportunity to ply our trade in Government, Select Committee work is perhaps the most rewarding we will get to do. The Select Committees must remain the focus of the process of scrutiny in this place.

I am pleased that we introduced topical questions, but it is ridiculous that the Government choose what is topical. We can do better than that, which is why we need our new Back-Bench business committee. We have seen more pre-legislative scrutiny. I would hold up the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 as an excellent example of legislation on which we worked together with the other place. The Bill was published in draft and then amended and improved so that we put forward a superb measure.. It was heavily criticised by the Government Whips Office at the time as a dreadful example of legislation because it had been amended so often. That is what we are here to do and what we pick up the salary for.

The election of Select Committee Chairs was something I called for in my maiden speech. We are on the verge of achieving it, but it has taken 13 years for something so patently obvious. There is the proposal for a Back-Bench business committee, although I read last night that the Government's business motion does not find time for a 90-minute debate to put through the key recommendation of the Wright Committee. I give notice to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House that if the Government want my votes in the wash-up, and the votes of those Members who participated on the Wright Committee and backed those reforms, she should state when she responds that the Government will make time for a Standing Order to be put in place and not rely on the device of a single Member standing up to torpedo months and months of important, hard work.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has signed the amendment to that business motion, which is on today's Order Paper, as have I and other Members present. If the Government will not give ground and accept the amendment, does he not think that we should have a last exercise of Back-Bench power in this Parliament and force it through?

Martin Salter: I have drafted an e-mail to send to the many people who are prepared to stand up for Parliament and for representative democracy, and unless I receive a satisfactory answer, the button will be pushed.

I want to talk a little about the unsung work that takes place here by Members across the political divide. I single out the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who is leaving under a cloud because of expenses and some unwise comments, but whose contribution on the vital matter of human trafficking often goes unreported and unsung. The work of the all-party group on Gurkha rights, on which I have worked with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and the right hon. Member
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for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), was instrumental in getting that issue right to the heart of Government and forcing a sufficient number of Members on our side either to vote against the proposals or to hold back and enable the Government to come to their senses and give justice to those who are prepared to shed blood for our country.

Everyone who makes it to this place, however inarticulate some may seem, has something about them. Thousands of people try at every election to get into Parliament and very few succeed. To come through that process they have to have some attributes, which, sadly, this place can overwhelm from time to time. Every day Members of Parliament are on their feet, pressing issues and concerns close to the hearts of their constituents. The best advice I ever received was from a Member who has since left my party, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). She told me, "Remember, the House of Commons is the best megaphone in the world. Use it wisely and sparingly and for the issues that matter to you and your constituents and you won't go far wrong." I offer that advice to the phalanx of new Members who will join this place.

I worry about this place, particularly under the new rules. The travel arrangements say that my constituency of Reading, West can be commuted to in an hour. I have done that commute for 13 years-I have never had a London flat-and I have never, ever done it in an hour. When we sit late, there are times where I am dragging myself back here again in the morning. I do not regret it for a moment. I certainly did not regret it when The Daily Telegraph published its files. It has enabled me to be a more effective MP. But the idea that a Minister can deliver that job and the ministerial requirements as well as be an effective constituency MP while commuting during all those crazy hours, as I have had to, is for the birds. If we, in our politics, undervalue, underpay and under-resource ourselves, we undervalue our democracy and our political system.

My own parliamentary record is one of modest endeavour, but with the occasional achievement. I am particularly proud of the change in the law to make it illegal to download violent internet pornography. That followed the appalling death of the daughter of a wonderful lady, Liz Longhurst, from Reading. Her daughter, Jane, was horribly murdered by someone addicted to such pornography who had, in the past, sought help in respect of some of the depraved snuff movies and other imagery that is available out there in the wonderful world of the worldwide web. The Evening Post, communities in Reading, Amnesty International, women's groups and cross-party coalitions all worked together on persuading the Government to treat that imagery in the way we treat child pornography. It is not just its publication that is now an offence-how can we go after a website based in Guatemala or Mexico?-but downloading it becomes an offence, too.

I was pleased to work with my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North and for Birmingham, Northfield and many others, including some other hon. Members, in making a bit of parliamentary history. We published the first alternative education White Paper. We did not like the Government's White Paper in 2006, because we were bringing the marketplace into the schools, much like the Conservative manifesto now. It was clear that local authorities were being removed
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from the ring and that those wealthy enough and powerful enough would be able to set up their own schools, and the rest could go hang. Instead of promoting a parliamentary rebellion in the conventional sense-waiting until the last moment, with the various troops marched up to the top of the hill-we rewrote the White Paper. Former Secretaries of State for Education were involved. Once 100 Labour MPs had put their names to an excellent document, the then Prime Minister decided that it was time to talk. It is always good to talk.

I will always remember with huge affection leading a delegation from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to Belfast in 1998. We campaigned for the agreement in the Falls road in the morning and in the Shankill road with the loyalists in the afternoon. It really was politics in the raw. Whatever our differences may be on the Belfast agreement, it is a huge achievement of our politics and our political process that politics restored itself to Northern Ireland and that 300 years of killing and hatred started to become a distant memory. Huge credit goes to the politicians of Northern Ireland for being prepared to embrace change.

I have tried to use what organisational skills I have to get us to work collectively on issues, often across the political divide. It was pleasing last year to be working with hon. Members in the Thames valley to defeat the crazy plans of the Environment Agency to sell off all the lock-keepers' cottages. We did that. Those crucial workers can now carry out their responsibilities without fear of eviction. The campaign for the Speaker of the House, which I will touch on shortly, was another exercise in organisation.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) who, as Sports Minister, made me my party's spokesman for angling-the great passion of my life-which was a role that I particularly enjoyed. That position gave me the opportunity to give a voice to Britain's 3 million recreational anglers. It was my pleasure to be able to publish Labour's charter for angling and to see that we do what we can to promote Britain's most popular participant sport.

The job has changed over the years. The number of letters and e-mails, and the contact that we have with the public, have grown hugely. Figures from the House of Commons post office show that in the 1950s the average Member of Parliament received some 15 to 20 letters a week. If only! We can reach that number in an hour now. As we know, figures are now in the 400 to 800 mark, and growing.

We live in a culture of instant gratification. We have website polling and we want instant answers. There are those ridiculous bespoke websites, including TheyWorkForYou.com. Tragically, I know hon. Members of the 2005 intake who have tailored their work programmes to get a high score on the TheyWorkForYou website. As we know, an intervention used to count the same as a speech and parliamentary questions were asked to drive up a score, rather than for a purpose.

In the 1950s, one in 11 people belonged to a political party. [Interruption.] I am sorry to say, Mr. Fraser, that a crown has decided to fall out during my final speech. I will hiss for the remaining few moments. [Laughter.] I think that I will turn away from the cameras.

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