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15 Jun 2010 : Column 802

Jo Swinson: I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman, and I think that the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Wellingborough is sensible. As he outlined, it just deals with the fair allocation of the equivalent of 13 days per year-or 26 days over two years. My amendments would also allow the Back-Bench business committee to programme the remaining stages of private Members' Bills, so that once a Bill had received its Second Reading a timetabling motion could be tabled and, thus, the ability of Members to talk out the Bill would be removed at that stage. Although I think that that ability should be gone from the beginning of proceedings on such Bills, and that people who wish to defeat them should do so on the merits of the argument and through a vote of this House, my amendments would be a good step in the right direction. Making a change on the ability to programme private Members' Bills would be helpful.

I was pleased to hear the Chair of the Procedure Committee say that his Committee will examine this issue more widely, because I accept that my amendment and that of the hon. Member for Wellingborough deal only with small parts of the problem and that the issue of private Members' Bills and Friday sittings needs to be examined much more in the round and more generally. I urge that such a report should be conducted quickly and acted on soon, so that we do not lose the momentum for reform. We do not want there to be an excuse to kick these issues into the long grass. I hope that if we do get some good recommendations, the demoralising and soul-destroying experience that many MPs have sat through on frustrating Fridays will be a thing of the past.

I was pleased to hear that motion 13 is not going to be moved this evening, because that motion is one of the best arguments against leaving things to the usual channels that I have come across in a long time. Expanding three Select Committees to 16 members was a very inelegant solution, and the fact that it was cooked up by the Whips without even consulting the Chairs of those Committees beggars belief. The Wright report made it clear that 11 should be the maximum number of members on a Select Committee, but we face a genuine problem in ensuring that the minority parties are represented.

There are different ways of solving that difficulty. In the previous Parliament, when the Liberal Democrats were in opposition, we made sure that some of the places that we were allocated went to the minority parties. I know that that certainly happened from time to time on Committees such as those discussing statutory instruments. One solution might, thus, be for Labour to be similarly generous. Another solution might be to add one minority party representative to these Committees, rather than for them to have an additional four members also. If necessary, in order to maintain the Government-Opposition balance, perhaps we could add a Government Member, but the arguments for adding five extra people to Select Committees do not stand up. I am pleased that the Government have listened on this issue and are going away to find a better solution-it is important that a solution is found.

In conclusion, when we examine the issues in the spirit of the Wright report we also need not to forget that further reform is required; radical and exciting as today's reforms are, this process should not stop here. The "Involving the public" section of the Wright report contained a lot of good ideas, but much further work needed to be done, particularly on petitioning and the
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online engagement of this place. Good ideas come from, and reformers can be found in, all parts of this House, and on issues such as these we have been practising the new politics for a very long time in our cross-party working. With the Leader and the Deputy Leader both being so positively disposed to reform, I, for one, am optimistic that most of the motions on today's Order Paper will constitute an important next step in the vital reform of this House.

7.13 pm

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, as other Members have rightly done. First, I wish to reflect on how pleasing it is that we are discussing not whether the procedures of this House should be reformed, but how that should be done. We have taken the debate forward from the Wright report, and it is pleasing that the House has chosen to do so.

I wish to concentrate particularly on one aspect that has not been mentioned very much, if at all, and about which the Wright Committee had some discussions; feelings were equally divided about September sittings, but clearly the Government have chosen that we should resume the practice of having them, at least for this parliamentary year. We held an experiment about seven or eight years ago, when we came back in two successive Septembers, without having particularly glorious results. On one occasion, we managed two votes in a fortnight, and we encountered certain problems with the hunt supporters getting into the Chamber because of security issues resulting from the amount of construction work being carried out on the site while the House was sitting.

It is often made out that supporters of September sittings are reformers and those who do not support them have their heads in the sand and are looking backwards. In fact, there can be a genuine division of view on how Members would most productively spend their time in September-whether that is in the House or in their constituencies-and on how much time this Parliament sits for compared with other Parliaments around the world. However, I wish to raise a more boring, domestic issue relating to the functioning of this place.

I wish to discuss maintenance and the building's being fit for the purpose of enabling meetings to take place at which the Government are held to account. It is no use passing motions that say that the job of this House is to hold the Government to account-of course, that is its job-if we do not have a building in which that can properly be done. Having lots of construction work going on around us as we carry out that function was not a happy experience when we tried it before.

When we consider Government Bills, Government legislation or private Members' Bills, we try to inform ourselves of all the issues involved. However, this House has a terrible habit when we discuss this sort of domestic issue. Things seem like a good idea, we vote one way or the other-if we are allowed a vote on such matters-and then we pass on without any proper advice and information having been made available to Members.

When I saw the September sittings motion on the Order Paper, I was pleased that it referred to this parliamentary year only. I took the opportunity to go to the chief executive's office, where Philippa Helme is
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always very helpful, and I then spoke to John Borley, who is the Officer in Parliament responsible for all our building and maintenance works, along with Mel Barlex. I meet them regularly because I was a member of the Finance and Services Committee in the previous Parliament and a member of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee too. The meetings were not always terribly exciting, but they were crucial.

John Borley told me that they had rightly anticipated that the House might want to sit in September. With a new Government perhaps coming in they could not guarantee that, but the thought was that it could happen and that at a beginning of a Parliament, because business might not happen quite so early, there would be a need for legislation to come through then. As Officers, they rightly predicted that September sittings might be held and they set their maintenance programmes up accordingly. Therefore, there will not be any dramatic effect this year in terms of altering what was already in train and what was already being planned.

My concern is that on these sorts of issues we do not bother to take account of the people who have to do the detailed professional work in building up maintenance programmes that keep this building functioning, not merely as a place of work, but as one of the most important historic buildings in this country-that is important too. We have seen the work that has been done on the cast-iron roofs, which has been crucial in keeping the fabric of this building going.

I know that in the past there has been an awful lot of criticism of how we have managed the parliamentary estate. We encountered major difficulties with Portcullis House and problems with the visitor reception area, and they created major problems for the budget of Parliament. We have run over budget and over time on the visitor reception area, which was an unhappy experience from which we have had to learn the lessons. With the appointment of these new Officers to manage our parliamentary estate, I have seen a much higher degree of professionalism, and a much greater willingness to plan ahead, to look at the options, difficulties and costs involved, and to see how we can develop a forward programme for budgeting, which is crucial. I have also seen the work of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee and how internal auditors now work with it to try to ensure that we have best practice in procurement.

Officers will say two things to us. First, they will say that they need a degree of stability and of advance warning, because it is not sufficient simply to try to pick, on a whim, when Parliament will sit on a year-by-year basis. We need significant and serious forward planning so that Parliament looks, as quickly as possible, at the longer-term arrangements over a number of years and gives the Officers advice about when it will be sitting and when time will be free to carry out essential maintenance work. The second thing that those people will say is that if, having examined the situation, Parliament is bent on having simply a five-week recess year on year, it will not be possible to keep the building in which we work-and that we treasure and have grow to love over the years-in a proper state of repair.

If hon. Members have any doubts about the situation, they should take a trip down to the underground passages under the House to look at the state of the mechanical, engineering and electrical systems, because they are very bad indeed. We know that a massive work programme will be needed. That will need planning, organising and
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funding, and it must be cost-effective. If we can shut down the building for only five weeks at a time, it will probably not be possible to carry out the programme.

It is not sufficient that I report these concerns to hon. Members second hand, so it is important that proper reports are made to the Commission and the Finance and Services Committee, with the audit Committee having a look, so that there can be a report to the whole House to inform Members' decisions. We should try to plan our sittings for a whole Parliament, which would also help Members to organise their activities outside the House. If we could achieve all that, we could better approach these issues that are crucial to our working, even though they are quite dry and sometimes turgid matters that might not excite people politically. It is also important that we send a message to the public that if we have to make cuts to the services that they receive-we might disagree about where the cuts should fall and how great they should be-we will take proper account of the money that we have for the House and ensure that we spend it cost-effectively. Unless we carry out proper planning, however, that simply will not happen.

It is absolutely right that, if the Government wish, we should come back in September on the basis of the motion. However, if we are looking at future sittings, planning will be required, as will proper advice from the Officers who run the Palace of Westminster for us. All Members should have access to that advice before voting on such sittings in the future.

7.21 pm

Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and congratulate you on your election.

The fact that motion 13 has been pulled makes my life a lot easier, and my main intention now is put down a marker to ensure that we do not get something that is almost as bad next week.

Before I talk about the size of Select Committees, however, I should say that we are fortunate to have such an enlightened Leader of the House-I am glad that he has just returned to the Chamber. If it were not for him, in his role as shadow Leader of the House and now as Leader of the House, we would not have made anything like as much progress on a business committee or the strengthening of Select Committees. A less enlightened Leader of the House would have found a reason to kick much of this into the long grass for the convenience of his ministerial colleagues, not least his blood brother, the Chief Whip-I cannot help wondering whether that is a sort a Jacob-Esau relationship.

I am, of course, very glad that the Leader of the House has pulled the motion that would have increased the membership of three Committees from 11 to 16, the ostensive reason for which was that we needed to provide better representation on Select Committees for minority parties. I strongly agree that those parties need appropriate representation, but the argument that an increase in the size of Select Committees is required to achieve that is completely bogus.

The minority parties must have adequate representation on the territorial Committees-I am appalled that they do not-and they should have three Chairs on the other Committees. [Hon. Members: "Seats, not Chairs."] I am
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sorry-we would have Chairs sprouting everywhere. Those parties should have at least three members of the other Committees, and those places should come out of the Opposition quota. I know that this might be controversial among Labour Members but, by my reckoning, the Labour quota provides for 4.39 people on each Committee. When that number is rounded down, as it should be, it implies four members, although we will all have noticed that the Labour party is getting five members per Committee. The obvious solution is to provide the three Committees cited in motion 13 with a combined quota for the Opposition parties. There are 23 Members representing "others", so their quota comes out as 0.39. When 4.39 is added to 0.39, the result is a figure of just under five, so that is reasonable justification for adopting such an approach.

Pete Wishart: I thank the new Chair of the Treasury Committee for giving way. I totally agree with his powerful point that the minority parties should get three Chairs. However, does he agree that we should be over-representing minority parties to ensure that their voices are adequately heard? Such parties get more seats than they are entitled to in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, so surely we should follow that example here.

Mr Tyrie: As someone who comes from a large party, I will not rush to argue that the smaller parties should be over-represented, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman and I can make common cause that they should be adequately represented. I advise him not to over-egg things but to take the support that he is getting at the moment to justify increasing their membership-not Chairs-by three across the 24 Committees, albeit without wrecking those Committees by increasing their membership by too much.

The increase in the membership of some Committees to 16 must have been proposed by people who were determined to ensure that those Committees could not operate effectively. Anyone who has worked on a large Select Committee will know that that can be difficult. It is not easy to achieve cross-party consensus on such a Committee, and its members come together less and are less cohesive. I have served on the Treasury Committee twice. The first time was when it was a Committee of 11 and it worked very well. When I returned to the Committee a little under a couple of years ago, however, its membership had increased to 14, which led to several difficulties. Many of its members were unable to participate in the questioning of particular witnesses, and several hearings during which everyone wanted to participate were extremely long. It was impossible to hold a short hearing, and although we got by, it was with difficulty. That was why the Liaison Committee proposed limiting the membership of Select Committees to 11 and why the Wright Committee suggested limiting the membership to nine, although it said that it could live with 11. It was also why the Leader of the House concluded much the same, as we heard from the quotation that was cited earlier.

I note that the coalition agreement of 20 May states:

If that means anything, it must be that a Select Committee's membership will be nine or 11, but not more. I am sure that I speak for all the newly elected Select Committee
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Chairs when I say that we should stick with nine or 11, but not more, and I hope that Front Benchers are listening.

7.28 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Madam Deputy Speaker, you are the last of the new Deputy Speakers whom I am able to congratulate on your election and elevation. It is always good to leave the best till last-if that does not get me called early in debates, I do not know what will.

Is it not unfortunate that we have heard no maiden speeches today? I am really missing the kaleidoscope tours of UK constituencies that we have become used to hearing each day, but perhaps a new Member can run to the Chamber and get in.

Although I am probably alone in this, I cannot share the enthusiasm for the Back-Bench business committee and the great reforming zeal of the Wright proposals. There are serious problems for the minority parties. We have already recognised some of the problems that have inadvertently been created, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House and his deputy for trying to address our concerns and for speedily withdrawing motion 13. I, like all my colleagues, am grateful to both of them for ensuring that the question of whether minority party Members can be considered for Select Committees will be addressed.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) -unfortunately, she is no longer in the Chamber-made a pertinent point about the quota for securing a place on the Back-Bench committee. We just cannot do it. We have only six Members. Plaid Cymru has only three. The Democratic Unionist party is the largest of the minority parties, and the fourth largest party in the House, but it cannot do it. I am glad that there is a genuine attempt to address the matter. Hopefully, we can make sure that we are in the race to get a place if we can increase membership of the Committee to a reasonable size that will allow us the opportunity to participate in the House.

This has not been a good few weeks for the minority parties; things have been really poor. I do not know what is going on. I came back to the House expecting that we would secure more input into the House and better representation, but since coming back we have experienced further entrenched exclusion. Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister got to his feet in the House and announced a new Committee on reform of the House of Lords. There was no consultation with the minority parties-or much consultation with the rest of the parties. We found that there would be no place for minority parties on that Committee. There is now a Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Constitutional reform is what our parties are about; it is our reason for being here, but there is no place on the Committee for the minority parties.

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