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7 Apr 2010 : Column 308WH—continued

10.20 am

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I did not originally intend to make a speech. I was just going to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), but I so much wanted to listen to what he had to say that I never got round to intervening. I shall just say a few words.

My hon. Friend made very important points about what serving in this place means. It is both a privilege and a responsibility, especially for those of us whose commitment to social justice took us into the Labour party and made us stand for election in the first place. It is a privilege to be able to give voice on the national stage to the issues that arise in our constituencies and the issues that our constituents bring to us, whether that be my constituency in Birmingham or my hon. Friend's in Reading. As he said, it has been a privilege to be able to use our votes in this place to bring about some of the improvements in public services that he mentioned.

However, being in this place is also a responsibility. That sometimes means even telling the Government whom we support that we think they are getting things wrong. As my hon. Friend said, we worked together on education matters to do that in 2006, and we had to tell the Government that we thought they were getting it wrong in 2003 on Iraq.

One thing that underlay everything in my hon. Friend's speech-this is the main issue that I want to raise and conclude on-was the way he is and has always been committed to shaking up the way this place works. We need to shake it up in a way that opens up politics rather than closes politics down and that allows Members of this place a little more freedom to strike those balances between the privilege of speaking up and the responsibility of sometimes saying things that are a bit discordant, and a little more freedom to say those things in a way that opens up politics and boosts democracy.

My hon. Friend and I believe that part of the process of opening up politics should be a change to the voting system. We perhaps disagree on the level of proportionality that that should involve. I shall pass over that, but certainly as we approach the election, when all parties are talking about opening up politics, for anyone to say that the voting system itself should be a no-go area for debate is entirely wrong.

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in his time in this place. If hon. Members are in the same party, they refer to one another as hon.
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Friends and we normally are, but I have to say that he is an honourable friend of mine and I am proud to say that. Those of us who are standing again in the election, if we are successful and are re-elected, have an obligation to continue the work that he outlined so successfully in his speech today.

10.24 am

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): First, may I pay tribute to you, Mr. Fraser? I mean that. I know that you are standing down, and many of us deeply regret that, so I should like to get that off my chest to begin with. Secondly, I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). He and I have taken part in these debates on a number of occasions. He, too, is standing down and I pay tribute to him for the effectiveness that he has brought to the House. I also pay tribute-without overdoing it, I hope-to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who has continuously fought for the rights of this place, and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). I welcome very much what he said, because it is exactly what I should like to say. It is simply this: responsibility is the other side of the equation.

We need radical reform in the House, and furthermore we were promised it. When I say "radical reform", I mean radical reform. We must bring the House back to where it belongs-being respected by the people. It must also be in line with what the freedom of choice that lies at the heart of our democracy really means. The question is who governs and how, and the abandonment of the business committee by the Government yesterday is not in any way a reflection of the direction in which we should be going. We also have the matter of the House business committee, which slipped off the agenda about 10 days ago. That is also vital to bring back the conduct of matters in the House to where it belongs, which is not with us because we think that we are important, but with the voter because we are elected by them and it is their freedom of choice that enables us to speak on their behalf.

I deplore the introduction of the proposal for the alternative vote system and the gimmickry that lies behind it, for the same reasons. It will not make the House more effective. It will not bring it back to the people. It will simply act as an artificial mechanism to achieve the results that the Liberal Democrats want. It is no more than a piece of political chicanery as far as the Government are concerned. I have had this out with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) in the past, and he knows that Lloyd George himself switched horses on this subject over and over again.

We dealt with the Equality Bill yesterday, and the issue of Christians wearing crosses came up. There is not only a question of equality, but a necessity for responsibility. I deplore the decision that was taken in the employment tribunal yesterday. The issue hinges ultimately on the question of the application of human rights. I referred yesterday to the remarks of the Lord Chief Justice, who issued severe strictures against the way in which the human rights culture and human rights decisions have been advocated even by judges at the expense of our own common law and in relation to
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the European Court of Justice as well. That is there in the speech that the Lord Chief Justice gave only a few days ago, on 17 March.

I believe that the effects of the Lisbon treaty in relation to the criminal justice law will make the position even worse. Ultimately, the question turns on how we are governed and who governs us, and the bottom line is that it is increasingly the legislation and abstract principles that come from Europe, adjudicated by unelected judges instead of the people themselves. We must tell the British people the truth both on the economy, which is not being done, and on the way in which the European Union is taking away their right to govern themselves through their elected Members of Parliament.

My final point is simply to repeat what Churchill once said. I am paraphrasing, but it is so important: "You should put your country first, your constituency second and your party third."

10.28 am

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser, although this is the last time, as both of us are leaving the House. I thank the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for negotiating his way to this debate. He said a lot of things, many of which I agreed with-it is especially good to greet a fellow commuter. Nevertheless, I can respond to only a couple of the points in the time that I have.

First, the question that the hon. Gentleman raises itself raises a further question: what is Parliament's job? We cannot tell how effective a body is until we know what its job is in the first place, so I shall make some remarks about that. Secondly, he raised the question about what kind of people are coming into Parliament and into politics. That is a very important question and I shall say something about that as well.

On the first point, the key issue is what Parliament's job really is. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have found a great contrast between this place and local government-between what a Member of Parliament is supposed to do and what a member of a local authority is supposed to do. A member of a local authority is there to make decisions about things that happen, whereas the job here seems to be just rhetorical. The hon. Gentleman has made that rhetoric effective on a number of occasions, but it is a very different thing.

It comes back to two problems. One is the idea that the job of Parliament is not to govern the country but only to hold to account those who do. That was said originally by Gladstone, and the time has come to question it. If our job is not to set at least the outlines of policy, why are we here? What kind of people are attracted to a job that is not to effect policy, except when they are promoted to be Ministers along the route of patronage? That is a real problem.

The second problem is that this country seems to operate according to a theory of a single source of authority, which used to be the Crown, under the hereditary principle, but is now the leader of the winning party in the election, who holds power as a single source of authority under current assumptions. Therefore, from the point of view of the media, when Parliament does the job mentioned by the hon. Member for Reading, West-changing proposals for laws as they go through
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the House-it seems to be rebelling and defying that authority. The theory is wrong. We need a different idea of Parliament's job, whereby it is perfectly legitimate for Members of Parliament to do their job and not be accused of defying the single source of authority. Otherwise, we shall end up in a situation in which the only supposedly legitimate job of a Member of Parliament is to act as a member of an electoral college in the first week of a new Parliament, but after that to be a kind of drone or cheerleader.

I have supported nearly all the proposals for reform. I am a great supporter of changing the electoral system, and believe that a different configuration of parties, and majority rule not being so common, would change the single source of authority theory. I am in favour of the business committee and will have more to say about that this afternoon-we need to get rid of the idea of Standing Order No. 14, under which the Government, just by being the Government, control the agenda of the House. I am also in favour of an elected Lords and all that. However, such proposals all come down to this: do we have a political system that has moved from having an hereditary monarch to having an elected, presidential monarch? I do not think that we should have such a system.

The second question is about who comes here. In part, the answer depends on what the job is. I think I am observing a serious change in who comes here, because of what the job is seen to be. Often, members of the public think that Parliament is dominated by lawyers. I am a sort of lawyer, but an academic one, not a real one, so I notice how many lawyers there are and it is only about 11 per cent. of the House, not the 60 or 70 per cent. that people think. In fact, the percentage of lawyers in the House is going down. I suppose we can get up to 14 per cent. if we include people such as me, who are academics, and those who have law degrees but did not practise. Instead, the type of person coming into this place has a background as a professional in politics or in the media, in marketing, public relations or journalism. In the current House, nearly 40 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party have some such background as political professionals, and across the House as a whole about 20 per cent. have a background as media professionals.

In case people think such a situation will change if lots of Conservatives are elected, of the incoming Conservatives in their held and target seats, exactly the same percentage have been political professionals and even more-nearly a third-have been in the media professions. The life of such people involves not making real-life decisions, but manipulating symbols and getting themselves ahead by their ability to manipulate symbols.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Has the hon. Gentleman done any research on the number of Members of Parliament who have a business background? Both Houses seem to be lacking people with business experience and, consequently, we are getting too much legislation that is not business-friendly. After all, businesses in this country are the bedrock and the wealth creators.

David Howarth: One of the problems with such research is defining "business" as including all sorts of businesses. I would be interested in finding out the sorts of business that people were engaged in and the kinds of position they held.

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Should we despair of the present situation in politics and of the changes, in personnel in particular? Can anything be done about it? The hon. Member for Reading, West is right that there never was a golden age-politics has always been difficult, even if we go back to the classics of political sociology. I want to read out what Max Weber said in 1919 at the end of his great essay, "Politics as a Vocation", because it is still true:

Those of us who have lost our vocations should at least say that we have not lost our faith. Politics is still the most important thing for anyone to do-it is about everything. Even those of us who are liberals and believe that the most important thing to do in politics is to draw a dividing line between what politics should be active in and what it should not be active in-between the public and the private-recognise that that question itself is a political one, which must be defended and argued out in places such as this.

Politics is about defending political views-it is about all the other things that the hon. Member for Reading, West mentioned, but in the end that is what it is about. Even though a lot of us say that politics is something that we should do less, we should all end by saying that it is something that a lot more people should do more of.

My final message echoes something said by the hon. Gentleman. Politics is only safe when it is done by more people and when more people participate and have the experience of responsibility. The reason that he is right about the media and their effect on our politics, is that it infantilises our population. We need to do the opposite and to make sure that we have ways of encouraging more people to take more responsibility. Only in that way can we maintain our democracy.

10.38 am

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I start by paying a personal tribute to you, Mr. Fraser, for your personal friendship to me over the years? You will be very much missed in the House-on both sides of the House, I believe I am correct in saying. You have been a trusted friend and we shall certainly miss you.

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing today's debate on the effectiveness of the House of Commons, a subject on which he has spoken consistently and with irrepressible force since entering Parliament. As far back as 1997, in his maiden speech, the hon. Gentleman called for restraints on the powers of the Whips, which caused great excitement on the Government Front Bench, holing his parliamentary career below the waterline even before he had made it out of port. There is perhaps no more fitting way to round off his time here than by drawing the battle lines for the next generation of Members before he sets sail into the sunset.

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In recent days, many Members have made valedictory speeches in the Chamber. As a self-proclaimed moderniser, it is only fitting that the hon. Gentleman should make his valedictory speech in Westminster Hall. I also pay tribute to his work as a member of the Wright Committee, a subject to which I shall return. Incidentally, may I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)? He, too, has made his last speech in the House, and I wish him well.

Few would deny that Parliament has been subject to a gradual and relentless attack on its powers and prerogatives, something to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred. Although it has been happening over many years, it has been particularly acute in the years since 1997. On his last day as Prime Minister, Tony Blair said to a packed Chamber that he was not

That was an understatement of considerable proportion. Parliament suffered greatly under his premiership. For example, statements were regularly issued to the media before being made in Parliament, and Parliament suffered from the growing payroll vote.

Many of those traits continued under the current Prime Minister. We have seen the routine use of the guillotine; the quantity of legislation has become more important than its quality, and whole groups of new clauses or amendments are often pushed through without debate-for example, in what became the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 and the Planning Act 2008. Most recently, many groups of amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill were not debated. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the other place has often improved our legislative drafting, which was needed because of the lack of debate in the Commons.

However, the attacks on Parliament's prestige and standing have not all been caused by the Executive. As we have heard, Parliament collectively has done itself huge damage. The expenses fiasco and, latterly, lobbygate, have meant that this Parliament will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. In dealing with these issues, there has been a distinct lack of effective leadership from the Government, who have regularly been seen to be reactive rather than proactive. The resulting damage to Parliament and to politics generally has been considerable, and the public's dismay is completely understandable.

Of course, there have been some changes over the past 13 years. Indeed, the hon. Member for Reading, West has been at the forefront of many of them. They include an end to all-night sittings; the Prime Minister giving evidence to the Liaison Committee; the introduction of debates in Westminster Hall, along with a more family-friendly general approach. Most of those improvements were about making life easier for MPs, but too often they also made life easier for the Government. A good example of that is the routine use of the programme motion.

The Opposition believe that, after more than a decade of power ebbing from the Commons to the Executive, we need to make life harder for the Government. If the Government have a harder time of it, ultimately the citizen will benefit.

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Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I join him in paying tribute to those who have made valedictory speeches. I think particularly of you, Mr. Fraser; we have had a long and good relationship.

The hon. Gentleman speaks of things being made harder or easier for the Government. Is it not the case that all who hope to return here after the election should want Parliament to be more relevant to voters rather than easier or harder for the Government?

Mr. Vara: The hon. Gentleman is correct that Parliament should be made more relevant. I maintain that we should make Parliament an institution that makes it harder for the Executive, effectively making the Executive more accountable. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. In the 21st century, we clearly have different modes of communication-for example, the internet-and we need to adapt to them. I shall speak about that in connection with petitions. We certainly need to become more relevant. That may also increase the number that can be bothered to vote.

More radical changes are needed. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) for his contribution. I disagree with his concept of proportional representation. Those who propose PR often say that it brings about an equality of votes, but they conveniently overlook the fact that PR systems give a disproportionate amount of influence and power to minority parties in hung Parliaments. They also overlook the fact that minority parties would more or less be in permanent power, as they would be prepared to do deals with whichever party had the higher number of votes. Many people would agree that it is only fair that one party should not hold on for ever and a day.

Richard Burden: The hon. Gentleman and I may disagree over proportional voting systems, but if Labour wins the election it is likely that we will have not the proportional system but the alternative vote. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should not be we politicians but the people who decide these matters through a referendum? Does he agree that the people should be given a choice about what voting system we have?

Christopher Fraser (in the Chair): Order. I remind the House that the debate is not about voting systems but the effectiveness of the House of Commons.

Mr. Vara: With that in mind, Mr. Fraser, I say simply that although I agree with having a referendum, it is important that all arguments are put to the public.

David Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in the current wash-up, the Government and the Conservative party are doing the negotiating, and excluding all other parties? How can he explain his remark about minority parties having disproportionate power when, for example, the Government have no majority in the House of Lords?

Mr. Vara: The hon. Gentleman makes specific reference to the next 48 hours. With proportional representation we are talking about Parliaments, which last up to five years. That is a huge difference, and the arguments are quite different.

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