I may not have agreed with the conclusions reached by the people whom I have mentioned, but I certainly agreed with much of the analysis of the problem that we had here in Parliament-in the context of scrutiny of the Executive, what we did as Back Benchers, and our
control over our time. When I was on the Wright Committee I produced a minority report, but I consistently supported the establishment of a Back-Bench business Committee. I have always thought that, if established in the right way and for the right reasons, it could not just make debates livelier, but give Members much more control and a greater feeling of ownership of debates. Moreover, if we, as Back Benchers, could decide what issue to debate, by definition they would become more topical.
Many members of the Wright Committee are present today. I believe that our motivation was the same: we wanted to make proceedings in Parliament far more open and transparent. The detail is being discussed today, but the principle of the proposal was transparency. What people really objected to was not having an input, and not being able to see what was decided behind closed doors. The purpose of the Wright Committee was to begin re-establishing trust between not just the House, but us-its Members-and those who have elected us to represent and serve them. If we are to do justice to that intention, we must be much more open and transparent about what we do here. Without openness and transparency, people outside cannot have any say about what we do, far less have any influence on what we do.
In supporting the establishment of a Back-Bench committee, I think that we need to guard against a few things. We need to ask ourselves whether we are making a change for change's sake. In the case of the Back-Bench committee, that is absolutely not the case-it is a necessary, good change. We also need to guard against unforeseen consequences. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) spoke earlier about the membership of Select Committees and said that the proposals on nominating Chairs and members excluded some of the minor parties. Those are all examples of unforeseen consequences. We need to take our time and to be careful to ensure that this is as open, transparent and fair as possible, so that we do not have unforeseen consequences-or even foreseen consequences.
My greatest concern-the thing that we most need to guard against, which I mentioned again and again when I was on the Select Committee and afterwards-is in relation to the transfer of power from one elite to another. The way that the Back-Bench committee is to be formulated and the way that its membership is to be elected means there is a danger of transferring power from the Whips Office, where deals are done behind closed doors and we learn what deal has been done when it is announced here by Front Benchers, to another back room where seven members and the Chair of the Back-Bench committee make the decision. I am not convinced that a member of that committee making an announcement of five minutes or less about its deliberations, or laying a report before the House about those deliberations, is enough. I would much rather see all the proceedings-every meeting-held in public. That is the only way in which we can ensure absolute openness and transparency. Not only that-it will engage people outside in what Back Benchers do in dealing with business here. It will engage them in a way that we have never engaged the public before. That would be a massive leap forward.
All of us would like to see an end to the current system of power and patronage held by the Whips, but we would be naive to think that, just by moving the power away from the Whips and giving it to a small
group of Back Benchers, we will get rid of the patronage. We will not. If meetings of the Back-Bench committee are held behind closed doors, there will just be a direct transfer of patronage from the Whips Office to the Back-Bench committee.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Lady is making a powerful point about the transfer of power from one Westminster elite to another Westminster elite. Does she therefore not see some merit in the amendment that I have tabled to increase the membership of the committee to 16 to ensure that we get a bigger range of people on it? In that way, there will be a minority party member on it, as well Back-Benchers from all sides of the House.
I want to look at the ways in which we can participate better, not just as Members, but by engaging people who have an interest in this matter. Many democracy organisations and members of the public have a deep interest in what we do. The instinct to restrict the size of things is a bad one-I would much rather see it broadened out.
Mr Allen: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's strong, clear and valuable contributions in the Wright Committee. I must, however, perhaps test her on one thing. If we had a business committee that always met in public, would there not be a danger that some of the necessary decisions that have to be taken on a give-and-take, wheeler-dealer basis, where someone does one thing and another person does another and where things are postponed, would go into the undergrowth? We might be no better off. Although I agree that some of the sittings should be in public, other sittings would benefit from being in private.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. May I say to the hon. Lady that the amendment that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is encouraging her to discuss has not been selected? May I also say that I am letting the debate run, but the interventions are getting a little long now, so could we keep them sharply related to the debate?
Natascha Engel: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The amendment was not selected, and that is a great shame. However, it will at least be a marker, and something to campaign on in future. I will discuss that with my hon. Friend later.
On the reason that we seek to establish a Back-Bench business committee, the idea that we should bring things out into the open, and whether those meetings should be in public or in private, the first motion states that the Back-Bench committee
"shall be a select committee".
On the whole, Select Committees-I think that this is mentioned in "Erskine May"-have public meetings. That is part of the point of Select Committees. They are not just bodies of scrutiny; they are also bodies of public engagement. Although deals will be done, our
starting point has to be that we want to be open, transparent and accessible to the public. I take my hon. Friend's point but our starting point has to be openness.
I want to ask a few specific questions about the way in which the Back-Bench committee will work. I have written them down. I will read them out and pass them over behind the Speaker's Chair so that the Minister does not have to take copious notes. Given that the Back-Bench business committee is going to be a Select Committee, does that mean that members of the public will not be excluded from the meetings? It is not mentioned either way in the motions. Does it mean that members of the public can attend those meetings, or are they excluded from the meetings of the committee?
The same goes for MPs who are not members of the Back-Bench committee. Will they be allowed to attend even the private meetings of the committee? Will they be there during its deliberations? What will the committee's party political make-up be? Has there been an arrangement that we do not know about yet on the allocation of the different memberships? If so, what will they be? How many of the seats will be allocated to the smaller parties and to Independents?
Can a chair of another Select Committee stand to be elected either as the chair of the Back-Bench committee or as one of its members? Whatever the answer to that is, I would love to know who made the decision, because the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) was not selected. I will pass those questions over via the back of the Chair. I thank hon. Members for their attention.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): As this is the first time I have spoken while you have been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, I take the opportunity to congratulate you on your new position. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who made a powerful and convincing case in favour of transparency in relation to the Back-Bench business committee, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I endorse also what she said about three former Members: Tony Wright, Evan Harris and Mark Fisher, who did so much to campaign for the committee and to bring it to fruition.
I am somewhat disappointed that we are discussing this today. The reason for my disappointment is that, in the previous Parliament, on 4 March, the House passed a motion saying that it looked forward to the House being offered the opportunity
"to establish, in time for the start of the next Parliament, a backbench business committee".
We are several weeks into the new Parliament. Unfortunately, that was not done in time for the start of this Parliament. That was despite assurances from the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who said:
"I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election."-[ Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]
"I am under a duty and a responsibility to ensure that this happens before the next Parliament".-[ Official Report, 18 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 986.]
Unfortunately, that did not happen, which is a great tragedy, but perhaps it should also serve as a salutary lesson for those of us in this House who are keen to see reforms progress in general-I suspect that that is most of the Members present in the Chamber-that there is not always an easy path to reform. It is therefore important that those of us who are reform-minded make sure we continue to campaign, rather than assume that everything will be fine just because the House has agreed to a motion on something or other.
I am, however, absolutely delighted that the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House have introduced these motions so speedily in the new Parliament, and I think that goes some way towards making amends for the House's inability to get things done before Dissolution. I am especially pleased to see my hon. Friend in his new post; he was made for it, as he has always been a staunch defender of Parliament, and, indeed, of Back Benchers. I know that all of us who are eager for reform to happen take great comfort from knowing that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House are also very much reform-minded.
In terms of control of the business of the House, the proposals are indeed an historic transfer of power from the Government to Back Benchers. The new Government are passionate about decentralisation, and perhaps that decentralisation is starting at home. My comments will be highly supportive of the Leader and Deputy Leader's efforts to make progress with reform, but I also want to tease out some issues that could be improved upon still further.
It is clearly excellent that the Back-Bench business committee will now be set up as a result of the motions laid before the House today, but there is still a slight concern about the number of days allocated, as I raised in business questions last week. The Wright report suggested 35 days for Back-Bench business. I understand that the Leader and Deputy Leader's motivation for splitting the 35 days between this House and Westminster Hall is to enable proper scrutiny of legislation by allocating additional days to the Report stages of Bills. It has been a valid criticism of how Bills have progressed that they have not received proper scrutiny on Report and entire swathes of Bills have been left undiscussed on the Floor of the House. I understand the motivation, therefore, but I very much hope that at least amendment (a) to motion 4, which would insert a reference to 27 days into Standing Order No. 14, will be accepted. That would certainly go some way towards giving reassurance. [Interruption.] I am very pleased that that is the case.
There is another issue I wish to raise, and which I hope my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader will be able to address in his winding-up speech. I appreciate that these measures are about moving towards Wright rather than about the Wright reforms being implemented all in one go, so in respect of this agreement that there will be 27 days of Back-Bench business in the Chamber, will there also be a move towards increasing the number of days from 27 in the future? I hope my hon. Friend will be able to say something positive about that, as that would be very helpful.
Obviously, we are at the very beginning of a new Parliament with a new Government so the legislative programme is heavy, but perhaps as the Parliament continues there might be additional time on the Floor
of the House for Back-Bench business. It is also worth looking at the innovative use of time to create room for Back-Bench business. For instance, Tuesday mornings and Wednesday evenings have already been mentioned in reference to private Member business.
The next issue I want to raise in respect of the Back-Bench business committee is to do with permanence. It has been suggested that its members should be re-elected every year, and that there should be a review of its progress and how well it is working in a year's time. In some ways, that sounds very good. As a democrat, I like elections; and as somebody who likes to learn how we can do things better, a review might sound like a good idea. Taken together, however, these proposals cause a certain amount of concern, and there is a genuine danger that such a review might be used to try to get rid of the Back-Bench business committee, and that if the committee were seen as being too effective, annual elections might be used as an opportunity for the Whips to remove a particularly effective Chair.
One issue of pertinence in that regard is who will vote for the committee members. If the Government in effect have a block vote of more than 100 MPs, it will become very difficult for any candidate who is not supported by the Government to become the Chair of the committee. We recently elected the Chairs of Select Committees and the convention as originally recommended by the Procedure Committee was that Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries of the relevant Department would not vote in the election of the departmental Select Committee Chair. Although this was not made explicit in the Wright report, I wonder whether it may be possible for the Government to take the same self-denying ordinance in voting for members of the Back-Bench business committee and its Chair. It does not seem unreasonable for the Back-Bench business committee, which represents Back Benchers, to be elected by Back Benchers. If that can be done, it might assuage some of the concerns about annual elections.
I also want to press my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader about the same issue on which I intervened on the Leader of the House: motion 3(1)(c). That is not only about the Chair of the Back-Bench business committee; it is about any candidate to become a member of the Committee. It clearly states that of the candidate's nominations,
"no fewer than ten shall be members of the candidate's party".
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend as she has, I think, spotted a defect in the proposals, but I have to say that it is not a defect in the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and myself; it is, rather, a defect in the proposals from the Wright Committee, which, unfortunately, was not spotted in the motion drafted by the Committee. I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says about the unfortunate effects of that, and I think we may want to look at it again. I hope, however, that she will accept our defence, which is that here we have religiously stuck to the recommendation and, indeed, the draft motion of the Wright Committee.
Jo Swinson: I greatly appreciate that intervention from my hon. Friend, and that reassurance. I am sure that this can be solved. The Speaker certainly seems to be given a lot of power in these elections as almost a de facto returning officer, so I suspect a solution can be found.
I shall now turn to the issue of private Members' Bills and the two amendments in my name: amendment (d) to motion 2 and amendment (b) to motion 4. I want to share with the House why I think this is an important issue, although I also appreciate that some new Members are present and I do not wish to scare them or put them off. I just want to describe my experience of the horror of Friday sittings.
One of the first Friday sittings I attended dealt with a private Member's Bill sponsored by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). His Bill was on climate change and I was keen to support it, and many of my constituents were also keen for me to do so. The second Bill on the Order Paper was about the management of energy in buildings, and we thought that because there would be five hours of business in the Chamber, we might be able to get one Second Reading finished and have another one well under way. We had not counted, however, on a two-hour speech from one Member, and then another Member standing up to try to make a speech of a similar length.
In order to get a private Member's Bill passed, there need to be 100 MPs for the closure vote, so there were dozens of MPs in the Chamber who had come along to support this private Member's Bill. Indeed, some of them wanted to make some comments on the record, perhaps through an intervention, but had we all done that, the Bill would have been talked out, and all because one or two Members were being, frankly, quite rude about using up time to talk it out.
I remember sitting in the Chamber and thinking that if I wanted the Bill to go through, I would just have to be quiet and say nothing-and not even say that I supported the Bill. I accepted that but, along with many other new Members at the time, I left the Chamber appalled and furious that this was the way we did our business, and I thought that it absolutely had to change.
I also remember that when I spoke to Members who had been in the House for longer than me, it was clear that they had got used to things as they said, "Well, that's the way it is." I thought to myself that I never wanted to accept that such a ridiculous way of working is the way it had to be. I suspect that current new MPs would be equally appalled if that happened, but I am sure that there will be an opportunity to make a change, because there needs to be one.
Mark Lazarowicz I well remember the progress of that particular private Member's Bill, and I am grateful for the hon. Lady's support on that occasion. She will also recall that that Bill came back not only on one Friday, but that it had to come back a total of three Fridays precisely because some Members chose to use their right to speak at length. Does she agree that that underlines that until such time as there is a more fundamental reform of procedure for private Member's Bills, we do not want to lose any days for private Member's Bill discussion on Friday, which is why we support the amendment of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)?