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In this decade, one in 88 people belong to a political party. Are we saying that people are engaging more, or is it just a small minority who are doing so? We tried to respond to this situation. I have set up supporters clubs in my constituency. The Conservative party has shown the way forward with open primaries. We have community forums, too.
It was right and proper that we produced constituency reports, keeping ourselves in touch with our constituents. I regret the end of the communication allowance. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who is not in his place, has criticised the publication of constituency reports, yet his own council issues an almost daily council newspaper seeking to achieve the same thing. A degree of consistency on this issue would be helpful.
The constituency reports-certainly, the ones that I produce-reflect our constituencies. Some hon. Members represent deprived constituencies where lots of people do not normally come to the Member of Parliament, because they regard the MP, even one who tries to be approachable, as somewhat distant. Putting a report around the constituency and giving a phone number, details and surgery times is an outreach effort that MPs should be commended rather than penalised for, which has now happened since we have been told that we can no longer do this.
Martin Salter: I could not agree more. Of course, we are talking about the very people who do not often go online or read local newspapers. We should be attempting to engage with all our citizens, not just the informed minority.
I remain sceptical of people who argue that parliamentary reform and making the House of Commons more effective can be achieved by some kind of magic bullet and that proportional representation will be the answer. I remain convinced-I was 13 years ago and I am now even more so-of the importance of the constituency link. It is our responsibility to try to drive up turnout. I have done some work for the Wright Committee, looking at Australian models. Compulsory voting will drive up turnout, but my goodness it changes the way that politics is done: in a compulsory voting system there is no longer a need to have to inspire, because people have to turn-out, so politics becomes even more negative and even more about trashing the other side and fear. The level of abuse in the Australian Parliament makes that point. I think I shall bottle it rather than mention a particular instance. [Interruption.] Actually, as it is my last speech I really do not care. Perhaps the worst example of abuse was from Mark Latham, the former Labour leader, who managed to get into Hansard that the Opposition Front Bench was
"a conga line of suckholes".
Radical reform of this place needs radical leadership, which is why I backed Mr. Speaker for election to this place and why, in the previous election for Speaker, I backed the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I will always back the reform
candidate. May I say a little about the nonsense that has come out-the plot that has been hatched-in the Procedure Committee? The suggestion that the current Speaker of the House of Commons was not subject to the secret ballot that he is calling for his deputies is fundamentally wrong. He is the only Speaker who has been elected by a secret ballot. At the start of the new Parliament, we have a procedure to trigger deselection. If Members of Parliament want to deselect the Speaker of the House of Commons, they should not hide behind a secret ballot; they should walk through the Lobby, and put their names on the record. Not so to do is a coward's charter.
I believe that Parliament made the right choice. I really do. Our current Speaker has proved himself to be a reformer. We have already seen a brisker style of dealing with oral questions. More Members are called, which is fantastic, and more urgent questions have been granted. There is a tracking system for written questions, and more pressure on Ministers. The Speaker is considering restoring cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall on subjects covered by two or more Departments. He is a reformer and, goodness me, we need a reformer in the Chair of this place.
"Politicians are a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men. I say this with the greatest freedom because, a politician myself, none can regard it as personal."
The theory that we are all scoundrels has been a constant refrain. Of course that is unfair, but we do not always help ourselves, do we? The rush to American-style triangulation is dangerous. We could triangulate away and focus-group away, but what would happen to principle? We would achieve the lowest common political denominator. A collective, political class would chase after the lowest common political denominator. Sometimes, we must lead. We would not have delivered civil partnerships by referendum or votes on Sky. Sometimes we must stand up for what is right, and lead public opinion.
What I am perhaps most proud of in my constituency is not when I was everyone's sweetheart and followed the herd, but when I stood up to my constituents and called for, supported and campaigned for a new mental hospital in the middle of my constituency in a public park, because the old Victorian practice of consigning the mentally ill to asylums with no bus routes and so on was inhuman. When we lead, the public sometimes respond, and some of the fiercest critics of that hospital eventually sat on the steering committee to make the project successful. We must never, ever allow the campaigning process to triumph over the principles of why we seek people's trust to allow us to govern in the first place.
No valedictory address, even a semi-valedictory one, can be completely depersonalised, so please forgive me, Mr. Fraser, if I take a few moments to describe how I arrived in this place to represent my constituency and
my home town of Reading. I was blessed with politically engaged parents who cared. I was blessed with a grandfather who was prepared to make sacrifices for his political principles. He went to prison as a conscientious objector. After experience in the voluntary sector and the trade union movement, I arrived in Reading in 1980 not to become a councillor or an MP, but to go fishing. I bought my first house on the banks of the River Kennet. I have always been suspicious of people who had their lives mapped out on the back of an envelope and who intended to make their first million in their 20s, marry well in their 30s, enter Parliament in their 40s, and become Prime Minister in their 50s. The former right hon. Member for Henley, much as I like, admire and respect him, may have been in that mould. The present hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) is much more modest.
Christopher Fraser (in the Chair): Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman great latitude in the issues that he is discussing because this is his valedictory, but he is trespassing slightly on my generosity, and other people want to contribute to the debate. May I ask him to remember the title of the debate in his final comments?
Martin Salter: I accept your strictures, Mr. Fraser. I want to put on the record my thanks to Reading district Labour party for sending me here to help to make the House of Commons more effective, not just in 2010 but in 1997 and during the intervening years. I thank it for making me its candidate in seven elections, in six of which I was fortunate in being successful. My deepest appreciation goes to my constituents who have been most kind and generous in their thanks, words and wishes. I want particularly to thank my loyal staff, who have played their part in helping me to try to make the House of Commons more effective in 2010. They include Moira Dickenson, Viki Lloyd, Ann Morgan, Alex Crampton, Will Sherlock and my current workers, for whom I will buy a drink tonight.
I could not have represented a better constituency or worked with a more pleasant bunch of people. There is no doubt that, as a result of what has gone through the House of Commons when it has been at its most effective, my constituency has benefited from 13 years of this Labour Government. We have had new planning protection for Kennet meadows, and we have two new hospitals. I referred to one earlier, and the other is the Royal Berkshire. We have seen massive investment in our schools with improving results, and the £26 million John Madejski academy, of which I am proud to be a governor, has raised educational standards in a challenging part of my constituency. We have a record number of police officers and community support officers. My constituents are healthier, safer and better educated than ever before.
Perhaps it is fitting, as a former shop steward, to end by speaking up for the trade of politics. I implore those who follow on in this place to promote nothing less than a cultural revolution in our political life. The vicious, build-them-up, knock-them-down culture is a self-defeating road to nowhere except personality-driven politics. This House of Commons must remain central to our national political life. It must never be treated merely as a vehicle for policy announcements and party press releases. To brush it aside is to brush aside the one powerful tool that our democracy bestows on its citizens.
We should remember that power vacuums never remain in place for long. Our politics may not be perfect, but when politics fails, people with guns invariably take over.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. This is the first-and probably the last-time I have done so. As your parents are my constituents, it is right to put on the record my appreciation of your role as a trusted and loyal colleague since 1997.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on his speech, and on introducing this topic, which fortunately is very wide. It includes the effectiveness of the House of Commons in 2010, and I shall refer briefly to matters on today's Order Paper concerning the Back-Bench business committee. It is perhaps a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not spend more time on that.
Cynicism about politics and politicians is at an all-time high, and the Prime Minister tried to counter that by saying, "Don't worry. I will give more power back to Back Benchers." He then set up the Wright Committee, which argued against the Executive and the shadow Executive by making a strong case for a Back-Bench business committee. There was a debate last month, and it was significant that there was strong support for that committee from Back Benchers throughout the House. When it came to the vote, the Executive and the shadow Executive voted against it. Is it surprising that the Standing Order amendments, which are necessary to implement this wish of the House, are still below the line.
The only excuse provided yesterday by the Leader of the House was that amendments had been tabled. However, that did not prevent her from putting other things above the line in priority. For example, I have tabled a large number of amendments-about 15-to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, which is a private Member's Bill. If the motion before the House today goes through, the Leader of the House will have effectively torn up the Standing Orders by saying that although that Bill was due to be considered further on 23 April, she wants to amend the arrangement. The fact that I have tabled amendments is not a reason to block the Bill; that is a specious argument in the extreme. I hope that we will be able to exercise power on the Back Benches to ensure that we get the Back-Bench business committee, which we have repeatedly been promised.
I want to speak briefly about the effectiveness of the House in another respect, and I shall begin by quoting what the Speaker said in the 31st report of the House of Commons Commission, printed on 21 July last year:
"If the House is to regain public confidence, it needs among other things to demonstrate that it is an effective and modern Parliament, not only forceful in holding the executive to account and scrutinising its activities but also run in a professional and accountable manner."
That brings me to an issue about which I have tabled many questions: I am concerned about the financial implications of the proposal for the establishment of a day nursery. As you will know, Mr. Fraser, that project was originally designed to provide short-term child care for a six-month trial period, which was the decision taken by the House of Commons Commission at its meeting on 19 October last year. In November, it was decided that a detailed proposal, including fully costed options for a child care facility, should be produced in December. At the December meeting, the Commission decided that a nursery facility should be set up at 1 Parliament street, and that it would begin operating in September 2010. That was done on the basis
"of seeking to recover the full running costs from users."
I tabled a question to inquire about what would be included in those running costs. On 29 March, I received a reply from the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who answered on behalf of the Commission, and stated:
"This has yet to be finally determined."-[Official Report, 29 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 625W.]
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Neither I nor my hon. Friend are opposed to the day nursery in principle, but we are opposed to the principle and method by which the decision was made in the House. It was never formally referred to the Finance and Services Committee, which has been set up in the House to consider important financial matters. My hon. Friend makes the case that no proper business case has been put in place. Does he not think that the Clerk of the House needs to consider the matter carefully before the project proceeds?
Mr. Chope: I am sure that that is right, and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does as a member of the Finance and Services Committee. I understand his frustration that on this issue, and on that of the Speaker's adviser, his Committee has been bypassed.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I would like to put on the record that this is one of several occasions when important financial matters have bypassed the Finance and Services Committee. If we are to have such a committee, it ought to consider all financial matters before they come before the House.
Mr. Chope: Exactly. That is what the Speaker must have meant when he spoke about the need for us to scrutinise activities and run the House in a professional and accountable manner. As my hon. Friend will know, the minutes from the Commission's meeting of 29 March stated that
"the Accounting Officer will examine the business case, including cost and value for money aspects."
We now know that the cost has gone up to £511,000 plus VAT-that is £600,000. In addition, there are costs associated with the need for extra evacuation in the event of fire. The costs keep rising, but the matter has not been referred back to the Commission in accordance with issues of accountability.
In the real world, issues of affordability are significant. Families up and down the country are saying, "This is desirable, but we can't afford it." I hope that an incoming Government will put at the forefront of the mission statement for every incoming Minister the need to separate what is desirable from what is affordable during the worst financial crisis in our lifetime. We in this House will not set a good example if we do not apply those principles to the way in which we conduct matters. I have already shown that this project has developed into a full-blown day nursery. Now the costs are running away, and we do not even know that there will be a demand for such a nursery.
A lot of cold water has been poured on this way of dealing with child care by a gentleman who is the largest child care provider in central London. He says that it is best for child care for children under the age of 5 to be in a home setting, or as close to the home as possible, rather than in a central London location. He has produced a paper showing how better value for money could be obtained through a different way of expending money on this service. I am not against child care facilities, but we should think this project through carefully and ensure that we get value for money.
Christopher Fraser (in the Chair): I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are talking about the effectiveness of the House of Commons, not its efficiency. Perhaps he will bear that in mind as he continues his speech.
Mr. Chope: I am grateful to you, Mr. Fraser, for saying that we are talking about the effectiveness of the House. When judging that effectiveness, one of the top criteria is whether people outside the House think that we are applying the same standards in the House that they apply in their own lives. Ultimately, the money that we spend in the House-whether in subsidising food or whatever else-is provided by the taxpayer. That is important.
Another issue is that of petitions, and the reforms aimed at giving them more prominence. The people who use the facilities in 1 Parliament street submitted a petition-I declare an interest, as the lead signature on it is that of my researcher. The petition gathered a large number of signatures over a couple of days, and only now have we have received a response. However, I am not sure that the response does much for the reputation of the House and its effectiveness. It does not respond at all to the suggestion for providing alternative facilities in Derby Gate. All it does is express regret on behalf of the Commission for the fact that many staff will have an important facility taken away from them, and that there will be a loss of income to the refreshment department of £80,000 a year.
As you can tell, Mr. Fraser, I feel strongly about this matter because in the end the effectiveness of an organisation is judged not on its generality but on specific examples. I do not want to be a Member of a House that gets a reputation for spending money without proper accountability. The House would be more effective if there were a lot more accountability for the way in which we spend money, and if we gave more power and authority to the Finance and Services Committee.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is the Chairman of something called the Administration Estimate Audit
Committee. I wrote to him in that capacity on 11 March and I have no record of having received a substantive reply; I have certainly had an acknowledgement. I said in my letter:
"As your Committee's terms of reference require it, inter alia, to encourage best financial practice, use of resources and governance in the House administration I hope you will intervene quickly to ensure that the proposed works"-
"do not proceed without endorsement from the Finance and Services Committee."
It is not too late for that to be done. In any event, I should have thought it prudent now to defer any final decisions until the beginning of the new Parliament, when we shall know what the demand for those facilities is likely to be. Then we can have another look at the costs and the effectiveness on that issue.
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