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We are leaving behind a decade in which Parliament and the role of Parliament were diminished year by year. Back Benchers' powers were reduced each year, there was more centralisation, and debate in Parliament was either extensively curtailed or, in some cases, non-existent. Parts of some Bills went through without even being debated in this House, and we had to rely on the other place. The media were routinely told in advance about new policy before statements were made in the House, and attempts were made by the Whips to crush the thoughts of independent Back Benchers. Parliament was seen as a rubber stamp for whatever the Prime
Minister wanted. The number of sitting days was reduced, and the amount of time allowed for private Members' Bills was savagely cut. People outside Parliament recognised that that was happening, and they wanted not only to see changes to the expenses system but to have a Government-of whatever political persuasion-who could be subject to serious scrutiny and held to account.
Things are changing, however. We have a new Speaker who is determined to protect the role of Parliament and, particularly, the power of Back-Bench MPs. We have only to look at the speed with which questions are dealt with, the restriction on Front-Bench speakers, and the number of urgent questions that are granted to see that improvements have already been made.
We also have a new coalition Government who-this next bit is very important-have abandoned the automatic programming of Bills. I have to say that I do not support the Government's position on the programming of tonight's business, because I believe that this debate could have gone through the night. I was not prepared to support the Opposition, however, because I felt that their stance represented pure opportunism, given that they had constantly voted for programme motions in the past.
Mr Bone: The hon. Gentleman says that that was put in place by the previous Government, and that is true. Tonight, however, we are taking a huge leap forward with this raft of radical proposals. The establishment of a business committee, the introduction of September sittings and the speedy announcement of private Members' Bill days are all signs that the Government have hit the ground running and are really keen on major reforms. But certain things could be improved, and many of the amendments that have been tabled need to be discussed, because they could improve on what are already important, radical proposals.
In the short time available to me, I want to speak to amendment (a), which stands in my name, relating to the number of days allocated to private Members' Bills. In the Executive's haste to bring this matter to the House, they have failed to appreciate that the number of days allowed for private Members' Bills needs to be increased to compensate for the curtailing of private Members' Bills in the previous Parliamentary Session. The amendment states:
"Line 1, leave out from 'That' to end and add-
'(1) Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business) shall have effect for this Session with the following modification, namely:
In paragraph (4) the word 'eighteen' shall be substituted for the word 'thirteen' in line 42; and
(2) Private Members' Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 10 and 17 September, 15 and 22 October, 12 and 19 November and 3 December 2010 and 21 January, 4 and 11 February, 4 and 18 March, 1 April, 13 May, 10, 17 and 24 June and 1 July 2011.'"
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op):
I am tempted to support the hon. Gentleman's amendment, so I wonder whether he could address this
particular point. The Leader of the House said that having the same number of days for private Members' Bills, but extending them over a longer period, would make it easier for those Bills to go through. I did not understand that; I wonder if the hon. Gentleman could explain it.
Mr Bone: I am grateful for that intervention; I have to say that I thought there was a little bit of smoke and mirrors there. We have already heard the comments that the Leader of the House made during the previous debate on this topic, but some other comments-from both the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House-perhaps express a slightly different view.
Chris Bryant: I wholeheartedly support the amendment that the hon. Gentleman has tabled on private Members' Bills, but I hope he is going to go on to say that the real problem with such Bills is not the number of days we devote to them, but the shenanigans that go on on a Friday morning. Either enough people cannot be got together for a quorum or Bills are talked out, and all the rest of it. Surely what we need is a system that treats Back-Bench Members with respect because they might have very good ideas that they want to get on to the statute book, so we should not be playing these sorts of silly games.
Mr Bone: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but because of the way in which the business has been set out today, I have not touched on that matter, as it might have been ruled out of order. I have sought to amend the motion in the best way I could.
Early attempts to increase the time allotted for private Members' Bills under the previous Labour Administration sadly fell by the wayside. I very much hope that our new leadership will be taking an altogether happier approach towards something that it is at the heart of ensuring a more balanced and free legislative process. How the leadership responds will to a certain extent be a litmus test of the Government's commitment to the new type of politics.
This is not the first time that I have proposed such an amendment. The last time I did so was on 6 January 2010, when I and several other hon. Members challenged the Government on why they were cutting the days available for debate on private Members' Bills from 13, as required by the Standing Orders, to a mere eight. The then Government's answer was that because the parliamentary Session was a particularly short one, there should be fewer days pro rata for private Members' Bills. I pointed out then that nowhere did the Standing Orders mention any exemption for unusually short or long parliamentary Sessions, but the Government won the vote that day.
"I agree with an interesting point that the hon. Member for Wellingborough made... Perhaps there should be a provision in Standing Orders relating the number of days devoted to private Members' business to the length of the Session. That would be perfectly logical and is probably a view shared by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. There is logic in saying that there should be more days for a long Session and fewer for a short Session, and I do not think that any of us would disagree with that."-[ Official Report, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 230.]
Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I fully recognise that the hon. Gentleman wants to move the issue of private Members' Bills forward, but I am sure that he heard the words of my very good and hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) about using the spare time that exists on a Wednesday evening, for example, so that private Members' business could be dealt with at that stage. Does the hon. Gentleman believe he is in a position to convince his Whips that they should take that issue on board?
Mr Bone: I am grateful for that intervention, which deals with a very important point that I will briefly touch on. There is a problem with the way Fridays are run, but because of how the motions were laid before the House by the Executive, as I said before, I am rather limited in what I can say on that particular point.
Mr Allen: I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am sorry that he has had to delve into the internecine conflict between the Conservatives and Liberals who now occupy the Front Bench, so I will try to help him back to the core of the issue. Does he accept that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, this is not about quantity, but about quality? If we had fewer private Members' Bills, perhaps even only six, but they were brought to a conclusion, that would be much to the credit of this House. On this more than any other issue, people outside this House look to us. Interest groups, charities and others invest immense amounts of time in the process, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), who incredibly managed to get two such Bills through. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could do better by focusing on that area?
Mr Bone: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who shows great interest in these matters. I am aware that I am in danger of getting somewhat out of order here, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I would say that the hon. Gentleman is both right and wrong. Yes, we want quality, but we also want the same number of days, so I do not accept that it is an either/or choice. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to speak of an alleged dispute between the two parties on the Front Bench. I have an interesting quote from the Leader of the House, who was most helpful in the January debate. He was quite right to say he could give no commitment, but let us look at what he did say on 6 January 2010:
"It is important that the House jealously protects private Members' time... Of course, I sympathise with my hon. Friend's desire to maximise the number of days for private Members' Bills."
"more compelling points was that in a shorter Session, the number of days decreases, but in a longer Session, the number does not increase. The House may want to revert to that in the context of the Wright debate and allocating the future business of the House."-[ Official Report, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 227.]
Of course, that is exactly what tonight's debate is about. I do not think that there is a division among the Front Benchers on that. Furthermore, when the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House were in opposition, they were supportive, and I am sure that nothing has changed just because they are now sitting on the Government side and have red boxes. I genuinely mean that.
I would like to explain to new Members that the issue here is about parliamentary Sessions, most of which run from the beginning of November to the next November. Because of the election in May, however, this Session will run from May until November 2011, which makes it particularly long. All my amendment would do is restore the five days for private Members' Bills that were lost in the last Session to this unusually long Session.
Any member of the public reading this debate in Hansard might wonder why we should spend parliamentary time on such a seemingly arcane matter. However, private Members' Bills are vital for democracy, and every individual in the country should have been worried about the growing power of the Executive over the last 10 years. Private Members' Bills are important because they provide one of the few chances for Members of Parliament who are not part of the Executive to initiate, debate and ultimately create legislation, thus giving power and influence to Parliament and Back-Bench Members-outside the direct control of the Government.
There are many issues that Governments fail to recognise as important, but individual Members might see them as a priority. For example, in my view there should be an Act of Parliament requiring children to wear cycle helmets when they are riding on the public highway, but the Government will not necessarily want to bring such legislation forward. Equally, and perhaps more worryingly, because Government and Opposition Front Benchers take the same view on some important issues, they might not get aired in Parliament or be made subject to a substantive motion in the House. An example might be a referendum on our membership of the European Union. That is clearly an important issue, but the two Front-Bench teams can collude so that it never gets debated, whereas a Back-Bench Member could introduce such a Bill. Indeed, some issues might have no hope of ever getting passed into law, but they are so important that they should be discussed and drawn to the public's attention.
There has been a great deal of upheaval in politics over the past year. We have a coalition Government and Liberal Ministers. Just a few weeks ago such a situation would have been unthinkable, but I have to say that the addition of Liberal Ministers to the Government has been remarkably successful so far as they have seemed to turn themselves into neo-Conservatives.
Let me make a more serious point. We have a remarkably large intake of new Members of Parliament in all parties, who have shown themselves to be very impressive and independent-minded. I have sat here and been amazed at the style and substance of maiden speeches. Surely that proves to everyone that the public are hungry for change, and if we are to deliver that change-which means more than just setting up reviews on transparency, or creating an unworkable expenses system-we must ensure that Back Benchers can hold this Government to account, and that the House is truly a place for debate. As the Speaker said recently, MPs must become citizens of the Chamber, and as I look around the Chamber tonight, I see a very good example of that. I think that there are more Members in the Chamber now than we saw at almost any time in the last Parliament.
Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con):
Although a number of issues that have been raised tonight are outwith my hon. Friend's amendment, which relates to
private Members' Bills, I can assure him-as Chairman of the Procedure Committee-that we will examine the points that have been made.
Mr Bone: I think that Members throughout the House will consider that to be good news. There are problems with private Members' Bills, and it would be most welcome if the Procedure Committee could examine them.
Mr Cash: In the light of what has just been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight)-the Chairman of the Procedure Committee-and in the light of the important points made by my hon. Friend, does my hon. Friend accept that any restriction on the number of days will exert pressure on private Members' Bills? For example, a Bill may need more time, particularly on Report. In my 26 years in the House, I have so often seen Bills fall at that point because they needed Government time to reach their final stages and that was not possible. My hon. Friend is entirely right to insist that the maximum possible number of days should be available.
I suggested five additional days to balance the Sessions, but I have not moved the trigger forward. That means that after the eighth private Members' Friday progress can be made on Bills, which will make it easier for Members taking part in the ballot to ensure that their Bills are heard and passed into law. I thought that there was a bit of smoke and mirrors in the statement by the Leader of the House.
I have not much more to say, but I want to tell the House where I think the five extra days should go. I was going to say something about Wednesdays, but that point has already been dealt with. I propose-this touches on a point made earlier about September sittings-that two of the extra days should be in September, so that the September weeks become even more important. I was not here on the last occasion when the House sat in September, but I understand that there was a feeling that the House was almost "going through the motions". If two of those Fridays were devoted to private Members' Bills, the sittings would become even more important. I have also proposed adding one day in October this year, one day in June, and one day in July next year. Sittings on those days would inconvenience no one, and would add dramatically to parliamentary democracy.
Another of the last Government's objections to more sitting Fridays was that they would somehow prevent Members from carrying out constituency business. As my staff members have reminded me today, constituency business continues throughout the week, and is certainly not restricted to Fridays. Moreover-new Members may not know this-Members do not come to the House on days when private Members' Bills are debated unless they are interested in those Bills. Normally there is no Whip to ensure that Members attend, so there would be no requirement for a full House.
In proposing the five additional days, I am merely suggesting that the number should be returned to what would be expected in a normal two-year cycle. In a two-year period, we would expect 26 Fridays for private Members' Bills. Given that there were only eight in the
last Session, an additional 18 in the current Session would produce the 26 that would normally have occurred. I am not proposing to increase the number of days for private Members' Bills; I am proposing to keep it in line with the spirit of Standing Orders and the House.
The public are still clamouring for change in the way in which politics is conducted, and for a check on the power of the Executive. Parliament must be allowed to fulfil its role, and Members of Parliament must be allowed freedom to express their opinions and those of their constituents. How the Government respond to this issue will be an important public indication of their commitment to real openness. I am pleased to have received a pledge from them that this will be a free vote, and that there will be no guidance from the Whips. This is a genuine House matter, and it could lead to a huge leap forward. Tonight, Members will have a chance to express their opinions about private Members' Bills without any influence.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. Can he confirm, in his peroration, that there is no reason why any Back Bencher should vote against his amendment? If a Back Bencher were so to do, they would be voting against the interests of other Back Benchers, and the only people who can possibly lose out if his amendment is carried are members of the Government.
Mr Bone: I agree and disagree with my hon. Friend. I agree with his remark about Back Benchers, but I also believe that it is very much in the interests of the Government and Front Benchers to support my amendment, because that would show that the Executive are open to scrutiny and new ideas.
We are experiencing the dawn of a new age. We have a coalition Government who are charging forward with reform. If I have an opportunity to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall press my amendment to a vote.
Natascha Engel: They were indeed happy days, and very interesting. I am sorry that Tony Wright is not here to take part in the debate. I also want, especially, to say a big thank you to Mark Fisher, who did so much work with Parliament First, and to Evan Harris. He, too, is no longer with us. The Chamber misses him greatly, and I hate to think how he feels about not being in the Chamber any more; indeed, it does not bear thinking about.
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