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Business without Debate

Business of the House

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 15),

Question agreed to.

Motion made ,

Hon. Members: Object.

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Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Mr Speaker: It might be for the convenience of the House if I explain that I intend that this motion should be debated together with motions 4, 5 and 6.

10.16 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I beg to move,

(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time; and

(b) to appoint specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee's order of reference.

Mr Speaker: With this we shall discuss the following motions on: Select Committees (Election and Allocation of Chairs)-

'Political and Constitutional Reform

Labour'; and

Pay for Chairs of Select Committees-

Pay for Chairs of Select Committees (No. 2)-

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Mr Heath: This is a fairly straightforward matter, but I know that nothing is totally straightforward at this time in the evening and with a full Chamber, so I shall take a little time to explain what the motions will do.

Motion 3 will establish a Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which reflects the new portfolio of the Deputy Prime Minister. Motion 4 will provide for the Chair of the Committee- [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. This noise is not fair to the Deputy Leader of the House, who is trying to explain these important matters. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber, which I am sure will now cease.

Mr Heath: I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

Motion 4 will provide for the Chair of the Committee to be elected from among the Labour Members of the House in accordance with the distribution of Select Committee Chairs that you indicated at the beginning of the Parliament, Mr Speaker. Motions 5 and 6 will provide for the Chair of the Select Committee to be paid.

The Government have committed to establishing the Committee as quickly as possible and with cross-party support, to ensure that the House is able to scrutinise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister. I stress that that scrutiny will be in addition to the Deputy Prime Minister's regular questions sessions in this house. It is our intention, if the House so agrees, that the election of the Chair of the Committee will take place on Wednesday, alongside the election of all other Chairs of Select Committees, to ensure that the Committee can start work as soon as possible.

I do not wish to anticipate the debate or any individual Member's contribution, but I shall pick up one point in advance. I think that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) suggested that a joint Committee of both Houses might be set up. Perhaps it will be helpful if I say from the outset that the Government do not believe that a joint Committee is the right way forward. First, no other Minister would be scrutinised by a Committee of both Houses. Secondly, the House of Lords Constitution Committee will continue, as its remit states, to

I will be interested to hear Members' comments, to which I shall respond. However, that is sufficient at this stage to introduce the motions.

10.20 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is the dawn of a new age and I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on introducing the debate so ably. When he was on the other side of the Chamber, he was keen on scrutinising the House's actions. The House is not packed by chance tonight with Members wanting to see how the business progresses. I am sure that that will happen on many future occasions. It is a great achievement by the new Government.

For new Members, let me explain that, in the past, the Government would try to get something through on the nod, at the end of a sitting. If no one objected, it would become law. That will not happen under the coalition. The Government will table the issues for debate. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laugh, but let us consider what the Leader of the House said last Thursday.

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The motion was tabled for the best of reasons. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, it was done to speed up the elections so that they could coincide with those for other Select Committee Chairmen on Wednesday. It was therefore introduced for a noble and proper reason. However, there are some questions about the Committee. As soon as an objection was made, the Leader of the House did not sulk, as the previous Leader of the House used to do. In business questions, he made helpful remarks. He explained that the motion had been tabled for speed and for the benefit of the House, but also said:

of not allowing the motion to go through on Thursday

the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope)

In my five years in Parliament, I never heard the Labour Leader of the House say anything so supportive to the House. The new transparency and the idea that we will discuss business after 10 o'clock if necessary are a refreshing change, on which the Leader of the House should be congratulated.

Several little issues have arisen. If we could consider them briefly, that might become the pattern for such little debates, when we have a packed House and people can raise some issues. When I sat on the Opposition Benches, we were never given such opportunities.

Some people have asked me forcefully today, "Why waste the House's time? Why keep it sitting for three or four hours?" The House will not sit for three or four hours if I have my way. However, it is wrong, when setting up a Select Committee on an issue as important as constitutional change, to deny hon. Members the opportunity to raise significant issues. Other hon. Members have said that sitting after 10 o'clock might inconvenience some Members. The fact that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has made people commute makes it difficult for Members to be here late. However, we should not be running the House for the benefit of IPSA, but for that of democracy. It is not the House that should change its hours, but IPSA that should change its rules.

This is not a minor matter: we are talking about a Committee to scrutinise our constitution. I believe that such a Committee is thoroughly right. The Deputy Prime Minister helpfully said that he is proposing the biggest reform of our constitution since the Great Reform Act of 1832, so we certainly need to ensure that we set up the proposed Committee correctly. On 2 June, the Prime Minister announced in a statement that

That includes major items and reforms such as fixed-term Parliaments, holding a referendum on the alternative vote system, the West Lothian question, all-postal primaries and, significantly, a mostly elected second Chamber, so we need to get the scrutinising Committee right.

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My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House anticipated what I was going to say on that. In the previous Parliament, I sat on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments. The former dealt with matters that affected both Houses, but the latter dealt only with matters affecting this House. If, as we have been told, the Deputy Prime Minister is to introduce reforms to the House of Lords, surely the scrutinising Committee should be a Joint Committee. The Deputy Leader of the House alluded to that in his opening remarks, but will he address that specifically in his winding-up speech?

Select Committees cost about £500,000 a year to run, so if we are going to set up a Committee, we must be sure that another Committee cannot do that work. I do not argue, as I used to hear when I sat on the Opposition Benches, that we will not do this or that because it will cost too much money-democracy cannot cost too much-but we must have an answer on that from the Deputy Leader of the House. Could the powers of scrutiny have been undertaken by the Select Committee on Justice? We are trying to cut the cost of government, so could that existing Committee have reviewed the activities of the Deputy Prime Minister, at no extra cost?

Given that there will be overlap between the Justice Committee, the Select Committee on Public Administration and the proposed Committee-if it is established-how do the Government see those conflicting interests working? We could have the absurd situation in which three Select Committees look at the same item and produce three reports. What does the Deputy Leader of the House have in mind and how will that tension be resolved?

On a more minor matter, paragraph (4) of the proposed Standing Order states:

That is fine in itself, but it suggests that the Whips will nominate the members of the Committee, whereas other Select Committees will be elected by party groups. I do not know whether that is just a matter of wording, but will the Deputy Leader of the House clarify that matter?

On the election of the proposed Committee's Chairman, motion 4 states that he must be a Labour Member, but that is wrong, because it should state that a member of Her Majesty's official Opposition will chair the Committee. During this fixed-term Parliament, there could be a vote of no confidence in the coalition-of course, that is extremely unlikely-and a change of government, but the Chairman of the Committee would still be a Labour Member. That is not the case, of course, with the Public Accounts Committee, which has to be chaired by a member of Her Majesty's official Opposition. I wonder whether we could look at this further, because I do not think it was the Government's intention to bring that situation into being. A committee looking at constitutional reform should surely be chaired by someone who is not part of the governing party.

Finally- [Interruption.] Finally, in concluding my opening remarks, I would like to deal with Standing Orders, which exist to protect this House and the power of the Back Benchers. We should always change Standing Orders with great reluctance and with a lot of thought. This motion changes paragraph (7) of Standing Order
7 Jun 2010 : Column 140
No. 122B, under which 14 days' notice is required for nominations to be given for Select Committee Chairmen, once the Committee has been set up. It is instead proposed that we set up the Committee tonight, that the nominations close tomorrow and that the election takes place the following day.

I have certain concerns about elections suddenly being announced, nominations being opened and elections being held the following day. Unless there is a really good reason for that to happen, it should not. In this particular case, there is a problem, because if Labour Members have nominated themselves to be Chairmen of an existing Select Committee, they are ruled out of putting themselves forward to be Chairman of the proposed Committee, which they did not know would be established when they put their names forward. Again, I would like to hear the views of the Government and the Deputy Leader of the House on that.

With that, I finish, having raised the issues that I wanted to raise in the debate. If we can have debates like this in future-with a packed House in which Members can raise issues about House business, rather than one in which things go through on the nod-we will be putting Parliament first. That would be a change in our democracy; this coalition has got off to a very good start.

10.32 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I welcome the formation of this Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I rise to speak because, in common with other Members, I was disconcerted by the Deputy Prime Minister's speech today, in which he announced the formation of another constitutional Committee, which is not being created as a Committee of this House and is not going through this careful and laborious process. When the Deputy Prime Minister announced the membership thereof, he excluded all the Members of the smaller Opposition parties. I thought that that was, frankly, a disgrace. That initiative to prepare legislation for reform of the second Chamber was really disappointing.

The present proposal, which provides an opportunity for the House properly to scrutinise the other constitutional reforms offered by the current Government, risks, I think, a combination of cynicism from the Conservatives and over-optimism from the Liberal Democrats who have coalesced with them. It is important that constitutional change wins the trust not just of the whole House, but of the citizens whom we have the privilege to represent. It is very important that this Committee gets the same level of respect and power as all the other Select Committees of the House so that it can look at House of Lords reform as much as at the other issues with which it is concerned. I hope to hear from the Deputy Leader of the House that that will be the case and that the bounced-forward Committee that was announced earlier today will not in any way take powers away from the Select Committee that we are debating tonight.

10.35 pm

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I do not think that there is a time in recent history when there was a greater need for a Committee of the kind that we are discussing this evening. I also believe that the issues that we are concerned with in 2010 largely turn on the question of
7 Jun 2010 : Column 141
who governs Britain and how. Those are matters that the Committee should and must look at very carefully indeed.

One point that I would like to put to the Leader of the House-or the Deputy Leader of the House, if he is replying to the debate-is this: are we sure that there will be an opportunity for the momentous issues put forward in the coalition agreement to be considered by the Committee before the decisions are taken and put through? I am thinking, for example, of the question of the alternative vote and the referendum on it.

I am also thinking of whether other referendums-of the kind that relate to the European Union-would be considered by the Committee and given full weight, in the light of the fact that, for so much of the legislation that goes through this House, it is in fact incumbent on us to pass it, because of section 2 of European Communities Act 1972. That raises the question of sovereignty, which is another matter that has to be considered in the Committee before decisions are taken, because the fact is that the sovereignty of this House is not just the sovereignty of this House; it is the sovereignty of the people who elect us to this House. This is their Parliament, not ours. For that reason, sovereignty is another matter that needs to be given the most careful consideration.

Then there is the issue of fixed-term Parliaments, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) mentioned, and the 55% rule that is being brought forward. Is that not something that the Committee should look at? If we are serious about the importance of a Select Committee to look into such matters, with powers, as the motion says,

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