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"the importance of its function of holding the Government to account"
"the Government to put to this House specific proposals for sitting periods in September 2010."?
Should the Back-Bench business committee not have been invited to consider whether September sittings are appropriate, and if so, to come forward with proposals for how they should be organised?
Sir George Young: The Back-Bench committee does not yet exist, and the recommendation of the Wright Committee was that the House should have an early opportunity to decide on it. The House can only do that if we give it the opportunity today. So we are implementing the Wright Committee recommendations in full by giving the House the opportunity to decide whether it wants to sit in September.
The House already sits for longer than almost any other comparative legislature in the democratic world, but it is obvious that the public do not easily understand why MPs are effectively unable to scrutinise the Government over the lengthy summer recesses, some of which have stretched out over a fairly long period of 82 days. I have already announced that, subject to the will of the House tonight, the House will sit for two weeks from 6 September. Unlike in previous September sittings that the House has experimented with, I fully expect there to be substantive business for the House to consider during that period. This is not a cosmetic change, but a declaration of intent.
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I just want my right hon. Friend to know that some of us think that this is a huge advance. We want a Parliament that is serious, and able to dictate more of its own agenda and to hold the Government to account. It is remarkable that a Government are keeping their word and offering just that.
Sir George Young: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his robust support for the propositions before the House.
The Government have set out the dates of the 13 Fridays provided for in Standing Orders to allow consideration of private Members' Bills. Amendment (a) to motion 11 would provide extra days for the consideration of such Bills in this Session. Private Members who have been successful in this year's ballot will be advantaged by the fact that the longer Session allows for more time between the Fridays provided for consideration of their Bills on the Floor of the House. That will allow more time for Members to progress their Bills outside the Chamber, in Committee or the other place. I told my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), when we debated this matter in the last Session, that I would not
"commit any future Administration to an increase in the pro rata number"-[ Official Report, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 228.]
of private Members' Fridays in the first Session of this Parliament, and that, I am afraid, is what I will do.
Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has referred to Fridays several times. As one who has been fortunate enough to steer two private Members' Bills through both Houses, in very difficult circumstances and on Fridays, I would like to know whether we are stuck with Fridays? Are private Members not to be given the same rights as Government spokespersons?
Sir George Young:
The Wright report recognised deep dissatisfaction with the current system for private Members' Bills, which was last considered by the Procedure Committee in 2002-03, so I understand the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety. My view is that the House might feel it is time, once again, to give this issue proper
consideration. The Procedure Committee ought to consider it in one of its first inquiries and look at the procedures and scheduling in the round. That, rather than addressing concerns in a piecemeal way-as provided for in some of the amendments-is the right way to do it.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My right hon. Friend referred accurately to our exchange in the last Parliament. During that debate, he was very sympathetic to the argument that, if we have a Session lasting 18 months, there should be more private Members' time than in a Session lasting for only one year. Surely his argument that private Members will be advantaged by the gap between the Fridays is a bit disingenuous because whether a private Member can get legislation through depends on the time available at Report, which is why we need more private Members' Fridays.
Sir George Young: My response to my hon. Friend is the one that I have just given. Rather than just look at the question of how many Fridays a private Member's Bill has, one ought to stand back and look at the whole procedure for private Members' Bills, and ask whether Friday is the right day, whether the pathway through the House is the right one and whether it is too easy to impede progress. That is the right way to approach private Members' Bills: through a proper consideration by the Procedure Committee, rather than a one-off amendment this afternoon.
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): As a member of the Procedure Committee in 2002, I can say that the most fundamental change to have taken place over this period is the reduction in our hours on Wednesday and Thursday. Perhaps the Procedure Committee could look into extending our hours on Wednesday and Thursday nights, so that private Members' Bills could be considered then.
Sir George Young: That is a helpful suggestion that I am sure the Procedure Committee would like to take on board.
Chris Bryant: Will the Leader of the House give way?
Sir George Young: No, I am going to move on, as I am conscious that a large number of Members want to speak.
Motion 12 extends the time allowed for voting on deferred Divisions by one hour, by starting the voting time at 11.30 am instead of 12.30 pm. That means that Members can vote before Prime Minister's questions, which should ease the number of Members trying to vote directly after questions. I hope that Members will support this small but helpful innovation.
There are two motions on the Order Paper relating to Select Committees. On Select Committee sizes, let me explain the reason for originally tabling those motions. The previous Parliament agreed in February to a reduction in the standard size of Select Committees, from 14 to 11, which was introduced for most Committees at the start of this Session. The Wright report expressed concern about the number of places to be filled on Select Committees, which had doubled since 1979. As well as reducing the standard membership to 11, the Government have eased the strain by abolishing the Regional Select
Committees, which has reduced the number of places to be filled by 81, and by abolishing the Modernisation Committee.
However, the Wright report recognised that
"Members in individual cases can be added to specific committees to accommodate the legitimate demands of the smaller parties".
The demography of the House has undergone a major change since then. For the first time since 1974, a general election has returned a House with no overall majority. It was the Government's intention to allow representation in the Select Committee system for the minority parties, which have an important role to play in holding the Government to account in this new-look Parliament. Our intention was to make swift progress on setting up Select Committees, in line with the six weeks that Wright recommended. However, having looked at the Order Paper, I recognise that a large number of colleagues, many of whom are distinguished Chairs of Select Committees, have concerns about the course of action that we have proposed. In line with this Government's desire for a more collaborative relationship with the House than a confrontational one, it is not our intention to move that motion at the end of today, but to come back to the House soon, after further consultation with the interested parties.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Let me express my appreciation to my right hon. Friend for taking that matter away. I should be delighted to have the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) on the Justice Committee, but not if he has to be attended by an army of four other extra members. I hope that the Leader of the House can initiate a discussion to find a more satisfactory way of dealing with that matter.
Sir George Young: It is just such consultation that I want to promote. Let me put it on record that it is our intention to ensure that minority parties continue to have representation on Select Committees, just as they did in the previous Parliament, as is proper in a United Kingdom Parliament.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab) rose-
Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con) rose-
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con) rose-
Sir George Young: I will give way once more, but then I really must make progress.
Mr Arbuthnot: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. I hope that in finding a solution to that problem, he will remember that on 22 February he said:
"Having been the Chairman of a Select Committee, I have long thought that the size of membership should be no more than 11 to allow for a more focused discussion and a more manageable meeting."-[ Official Report, 22 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 49.]
I am delighted that he is showing both good sense and consistency.
Sir George Young: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. One of the members of the small Committee that I chaired was from a minority party, so it is possible to have representation, even on a reduced size, from Members from the smaller parties.
Joan Walley: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: Yes, but for the last time.
Joan Walley: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. In view of what he has said about the possibility of there not being a vote on the issue today, let me flag up an issue that I have flagged up previously, about the Environmental Audit Committee. Just for the record, it was originally set up along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee, which has 16 members, on account of there being a Finance Minister and shadow Ministers among its members. However, in practice, it has not been easy on some occasions to achieve a quorum on the Environmental Audit Committee from among its 16 members. I would therefore be most grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could give some consideration to the numbers on the Environmental Audit Committee and come back to the House at an appropriate time.
Sir George Young: I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Lady. I should be happy to engage in that discussion and see whether we can reduce the numbers in line with those in the other Select Committees.
If agreed, motion 14 on the Order Paper would change the name of one of the departmental Select Committees from the Children, Schools and Families Committee to the Education Committee. That will align the Committee to the Department that it scrutinises, the name of which changed following the election. Finally, motion 15 would change the sitting times on Tuesday 22 June, so that the House would sit at 11.30 am, instead of the normal start time of 2.30 pm. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that 22 June is Budget day. I hope that hon. Members will agree that the earlier start time will be for the convenience of the whole House.
This Government believe in a strong Parliament-one that is fearless in holding the Executive to account, effective at scrutinising legislation, responsive to the demands of its constituents and relevant to the national interest. I believe that the decisions that the House will make today will be remembered long into the future, as a defining moment of parliamentary reform. I commend the motion to the House.
Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab): Let me welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, congratulate you on your election and say how much we are looking forward to your chairmanship over the years. I also thank the Leader of the House for setting out the Government's motion on changes to the business of the House.
I want to start by reiterating the important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) made, which is that it would have been genuinely helpful if there had been more consultation on the motions before they were placed on the Order Paper. If there are further proposals in future, I hope that we will be able to have such consultation.
The creation of the Back-Bench business committee is another important step in the implementation of the recommendations of the cross-party Committee on Reform
of the House of Commons, which was chaired by Tony Wright, as the Leader of the House said. It is also thanks to the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), that we are now having this debate, as it was he who agreed to the setting up of that Committee. We have already elected our Select Committee Chairs by secret ballot, which was another step forward, and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who were successful in that election.
Chris Bryant: Perhaps we should add Robin Cook to the list of people who should be thanked for the election of Select Committee Chairs, because it was he who brought the idea to the House. Unfortunately the Whips at the time conspired to ensure that it did not happen, but now we have finally got it. However, the one Committee that we have not yet elected a Chair for is the European Scrutiny Committee. Does my right hon. Friend hope that that Committee will be set up soon? Europe is moving on apace, but at the moment we have no means of scrutinising it at all.
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right on both counts. It is important that we pay tribute to Robin Cook for everything that he did to make many of the reforms happen. He is also right that we should set up the European Scrutiny Committee, which performs an extremely important task.
There is no doubt that we need the proposed reforms to give more power to Back Benchers. I am sure that there will be a lively debate on the proposals today-indeed, it has already started. I will be brief, as I know that many Back Benchers want to contribute, but I want to raise a few issues. Obviously it is important that the Back-Bench committee timetables as much non-governmental business as possible. However, I seek an assurance from the Deputy Leader of the House when he replies to this debate that the operation of the Back-Bench business committee will not impact on either the number or the timetabling of Opposition days.
I was pleased that the Leader of the House was able to assure us that there would indeed be Government business to debate during the September sittings.
Mr David Hamilton: Would my right hon. Friend also consider allowing the House to rise in June? The children of Scottish Members are on holiday in July, and that is already causing great difficulty for us.
Ms Winterton: Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to raise that point during the debate tonight.
At the moment, the new Government legislation is not ready to be debated in September, but I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to assure us that we shall not have a repeat of the situation that we have at the moment, in which about three out of every four days are allocated for general debates. The public rightly expect value for money from Parliament, and it is important that we should be able to debate as much Government business as possible, in the form of Second Readings, at that time.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): With regard to value for money, I am really glad that there is to be a programme of work in September. Does my right hon. Friend think that it would be helpful, however, if the austerity Government could tell us the cost of the cancellation of the contracts for the work that normally takes place on this estate during the summer recess, as well as the cost of any penalty clauses that might be invoked in relation to work that cannot be completed because of the September recall? In that way, we could evaluate the costs and benefits of meeting in Birmingham in September, rather than meeting on a building site.
Ms Winterton: I know that my hon. Friend is keen for the House to consider seriously his suggestion of meeting in Birmingham. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to tell us what estimates have been made of the additional cost to the taxpayer of meeting in September, perhaps taking into account my hon. Friend's point about possible breaks in contracts.
I recall that the last time we debated and voted on September sittings-I think it was in 2006-the current Leader of the House voted against them, but the Deputy Leader of the House voted for them. I hope, therefore, that we shall not have just half a Government sitting here in September, and that we shall get the full double act-the full Monty, if I can put it that way. Will the Deputy Leader of the House give us that assurance when he winds up the debate? The proposal for extra time for voting on deferred Divisions is also a sensible one, and I am sure that it will be welcomed by all Members.
It is important that Back Benchers have as much time as possible to debate these proposals, so I shall leave it at that, but I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to answer some of these points later.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is surprising and novel for me to be called to speak so early in a debate. My speaking note says: "I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for X, who made a powerful and thoughtful speech." Well, the shadow Leader of the House did just that.
This is an historic moment. These are radical reforms of Parliament and we are lucky to have two outstanding parliamentarians in the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House, both of whom believe in the House. If any of my remarks are critical, it is only because I want to improve matters. Some of my concerns revolve around the fact that there is to be a review in a year's time, and we are not assured that the same Leader of the House and Deputy Leader of the House will still be sitting at the Dispatch Box then.
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