There is still no resolution on the issue of the Liaison Committee. Fair enough, we do not have a Chair of a Select Committee, but the Liaison Committee is a Select Committee of the House, and arithmetically, we are entitled to a place on it. That was conceded by the former Government, and I hope that it is conceded by those on the Government Front Bench. We need that opportunity to question the Prime Minister on a monthly
basis. That opportunity should not be confined to the three main parties of the House. The minority parties have to get on the Liaison Committee.
Then there is the biggest disappointment of all: the Wright proposals. We are to be excluded for all the "good" reasons. We are excluded in the name of democratic reform and making the House accountable-things that we agree with. There will be no place for us on the Back-Bench business committee. It is just not possible that there will be, given that it has eight members; it is not going to happen. I just wish that the Wrightinistas, as I call them-those pioneers of reform, those champions making sure that this place is much more accountable, out there fighting the good fight against the dark forces of the Government Whips-would concede that, and acknowledge that on a Committee of eight, there is absolutely no way of that happening.
Mr Allen: When the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, he had a great deal of sympathy from all parts of the House, but now that he is flailing around, blaming absolutely everybody, he is in danger of losing his friends as rapidly as he made them on this issue. The Wright Committee proposed that on every Committee of the House there be one reserve place for the Speaker to allocate-a Speaker's pick-so that justice could be done. That place might be for the minority parties or, indeed, those with minority opinions within larger parties. That proposal was not brought forward, but that was the doing of not the Wrightinistas, or whatever pejorative term the hon. Gentleman wishes to make up, but the Government and the Front Benchers of the day.
Pete Wishart: I thought "the Wrightinistas" was quite an endearing term. If the hon. Gentleman takes offence, I am sorry about it, but he is being a tad sensitive. He is possibly right that what was suggested by Wright was probably okay, but there have been inadvertent mistakes, such as the 10-Member quota; that was a result of the Wright Committee, and there is a problem with that. Thank goodness that the Front Benchers have decided that they will address that. The hon. Gentleman cannot in all honesty say that the Wright proposals were bulletproof, soundproof and correct in every instance, because they were proven to be wrong in that instance.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but it seems to us that we are caught in the middle of a fight between the Wrightinistas-I apologise to him-and the Whips. It is a fight between the two big boys in the playground. They are battering lumps out of each other, trying to gain ascendency, and all of a sudden they see the little boy sitting eating his piece in the bike shed. That is us-the minority parties. It is we on whom they have decided to take out all their frustrations, we who are losing places on Committees, and we who are being excluded in this House. It just is not right or fair. We should be on Select Committees, and we should be making sure that we make our contribution.
Where we have served on Select Committees, we have made a constructive, useful contribution, as has been recognised by several Members from across the House tonight. We have played a part on cross-party Committees of the House, trying to ensure positive reforms, particularly with regard to expenses. My hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) served on the Wright Committee, and pointed out some of the inconsistencies and difficulties that emerged. Unfortunately, he was not listened to on those issues.
Mr Cash: I feel strongly that the case that the hon. Gentleman puts is entirely justified. It is incredibly important to remember that according to "Erskine May", the first duty of the Speaker is to protect minorities. That is absolutely fundamental. There is no reason whatever that I can think of why any Member from a minority party, be they an independent, or a member of Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party, or the Democratic Unionist party, should ever be excluded from full participation in the House.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. He is right. As I said to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), minorities should be respected. If anything, we should be over-represented to ensure that differing voices are heard. What is wrong with hearing diverse voices in this House? What are people afraid of? Of course we should be on Select Committees and should be part of them. The Government should be listening to this, because our party is not just a minority party, but the party of government in Scotland. Our party is in a minority Government in Scotland, and the party of my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd is in a coalition Government in Wales. Why do the Government not want to hear those diverse voices in all the workings of this House?
I will tell the House how bad things were. It was not just that we did not have a place on the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee; when we turned up at the House for our customary little chit-chat with the usual channels, we were told that there were no places for us on any Select Committees, because that is what the Wright proposals suggested. Before the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) gets on his high horse, let me say that that was how the usual channels interpreted the Wright proposals-no places for us on Select Committees, and effective exclusion from scrutiny of Government Departments. That is what was offered to us.
Mr Cash: Sometimes, it is from minorities that major parties develop. That has to do with what is called freedom of speech. When people hear the minority view, they have the opportunity to get that view across to the public. To be excluded is a complete derogation from freedom of speech.
Pete Wishart: I am pleased that I gave way again to the hon. Gentleman, because he is spot on. That is what the issue is about. I hope that the House hears tonight that we have a meaningful contribution to make. My modest little amendment (e) is an attempt to address the issue. It aims to make sure that the minority voice is heard, as the hon. Gentleman says. It is about saying, "Let's see what we can do to get the smaller parties of the House involved and on board."
As I have said, there is no way that we would ever be considered for a place on the Back-Bench business committee; that is just not going to happen, and I hope that that will be conceded. We do not yet know how its members will be determined. I know that it will be
through an election, but there will be some sort of mechanism or procedure to ensure that Labour, Liberal and Conservative Members are on it. That is 100% certain; I bet you any money, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there will be one Member from each of those three parties on the Committee. It is also almost entirely certain-again, I bet you any money-that there will be no Member from the minority parties on it. We have to change that; we have to ensure that that does not come to pass.
My amendment suggests that we increase the number of members of the Back-Bench business committee from eight to 16. Why 16, you ask, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is because that always seems to be the magic number at which we start to come into play.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head; he may want to intervene. Sixteen is always the number at which there is at least a chance that we will be included. That is why I seek in my amendment to increase the number to 16.
It is good to get more Members involved. What is wrong with that? Why restrict the number to eight? I know that the Committee might get more business done that way, but the term "Backbench business committee" suggests that it should be full of Back Benchers. There should be lots of them involved, from Labour, the Liberals, the Conservatives, the DUP and the SNP. What is wrong with having a reasonable-sized Back-Bench business committee? Restricting membership to eight just does not make sense and I cannot see the reason for it. Surely there are loads of Back Benchers who want to be part of what could be a very exciting and promising Committee.
Mark Lazarowicz: The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case, but does he not accept that a smaller Committee is important to allow business to be conducted efficaciously? As he knows, although there were a large number of Green and Scottish Socialist party Members in the previous Scottish Parliament, they were not members of the Business Committee by right. It is difficult to strike a balance, but I accept that the hon. Gentleman has some powerful arguments.
Pete Wishart: I am not so sure about the hon. Gentleman's contribution. There is a good case to be made for the business committee to be larger and more open, to ensure that we hear a different chorus of voices on the Back-Bench agenda. I see nothing wrong with a bigger committee, and I hope the House supports us this evening.
We went along with Wright-as I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd served on the Committee-but we believed it was a good thing to do. As the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) mentioned in her speech, it seemed to be starting from the right premise, taking on the powers of the Whips, making the House more accountable, and making sure that there is a proper Back-Bench voice in the House. We accepted that that was an agenda that needed to be addressed and we went along with it in the hope that we would get some sort of change.
We even accepted in good faith the assurances given by Wright Committee members. I remember intervening, as did several of my hon. Friends, on Tony Wright when these matters were being debated, and he would say, "Don't worry, it will be okay. Don't worry about the fact that it is not specifically mentioned that you will get a place on Select Committees. It will be all right." It was not all right. It has been a disaster. We were given no places at all on Select Committees initially. We have no place on the Back-Bench business committee as it is currently to be constituted. That must be addressed.
We accepted those assurances in good faith, and I ask those who are the fervent champions of the reforms to get out there and make sure that the issue is addressed. They should approach it with the same enthusiasm as those on the Government Front Bench seem to be approaching it, and make sure that it is resolved. We must fix it. It is not good enough that we are excluded. We have to find a mechanism to ensure that minority parties will have a place on the Back-Bench business committee. It is important that the committee is seen to be legitimate, and that it is representative of the House as a whole. As the hon. Lady said, there is no point substituting one Westminster elite for another.
As the committee is currently to be constituted, it will not be representative. The only way that we can change that and make the committee truly representative, to give everybody an opportunity to serve on it, the only way that we will get minority party members on it, is to increase the size. I hope the House supports us this evening in increasing the committee's size. I cannot see any other solution to ensure that we have a place. If any Member has any other suggestions, I may consider not pressing my amendment to a Division, but as far as I can see, I have no alternative but to ask the House to determine the matter on a vote this evening. We need those numbers to ensure that we have a Back-Bench business committee that is representative of the whole House.
I begin with the constitutional background to the role of Members of Parliament in general and Ministers in particular. I have said on several occasions over the past few years that one of the reasons why the importance of the House in the public mind has been so reduced is Members' lack of involvement and attendance in the Chamber, which has not been the case during this debate or since the new Parliament commenced. The use of procedural devices such as the guillotine, and the manner in which the previous Government handled Government business over the past 10 years, have been a disgrace. Indifference on the part of Members of Parliament has increased to an extent that I did not think was possible when I entered the House 26 years ago.
However-I say this as one who has a certain scepticism about coalitions-I congratulate the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader on the speed with which they tabled the motion. I say that with feeling, because if used properly, it has the capacity to improve greatly the involvement of the House and the quality of debates.
People often imagine that we do next to nothing in the Chamber. That is partly because of the failure of parliamentary reporting of what goes on in the House. For those who do not have the parliamentary channel, for example, and who are reliant on the few minutes that are given to "Today in Parliament", it is difficult to have any concept of what goes on here. That is partly due to the fact that Back Benchers have been largely excluded from the briefing processes now available to the media and the machinery that is available to enable Members to be heard by the public outside.
I say that with feeling as one who, if not a serial rebel, has consistently held strong views, if I may say so-for example, on a debate that took place in Westminster Hall this morning on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament and the European Union. I would be extremely surprised if that makes the "Today" programme, "Yesterday in Parliament" or "Today in Parliament".
The way in which the House is perceived is profoundly affected by the sucking away of the deliberations of the House from the Chamber at a time when the whole of Europe is imploding, the German Government is in a state of implosion, the Greeks are in a state of implosion, unemployment is rampant and the impact of immigration is flowing all over the continent. It is astonishing that, as heard from the outside, matters of such importance cannot get the coverage in Parliament that they deserve.
We heard yet again from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that the Wright Committee proposals will be accepted in full. If I have slightly misunderstood, I am happy to be corrected, but I see that paragraph 177 states:
"On some business there needs to be an explicit partnership between Ministerial and backbench scheduling: this includes the length of debates on the Budget and Queen's Speech, the timing of Estimates Days and the handling of secondary legislation and European documents on the floor."
One of the things that I noted was excluded from the province of the Back-Bench committee is European documents. If the Wright Committee proposals are to be accepted in full, I cannot see why European documents should be excluded.
I say that for good reason. I have been on the European Scrutiny Committee for 26 years. I doubt whether many other Members have served on a Select Committee for anything like that length of time. As I said in the debate this morning in Westminster Hall, not once, at any time in those 26 years, has any vote ever been passed on the Floor of the House or in a European Committee to overturn a decision in the Council of Ministers, bar one that I can recall, and that was immediately overturned on the Floor of the House. In other words, the very fact that we are committed to the European Communities Act 1972 has meant that we are not allowed to pass any legislation inconsistent with it. So I am puzzled as to why that partnership arrangement, which was described in paragraph 177, has not been included, as far I can judge, in the proposals before us.
However, on the extent of the committee's terms, I again have considerable sympathy with those who have tabled amendments to the proposals to restrict the period for which the chairman and committee members can be elected. Indeed, that is why I have put my name to a variety of them. Despite the responses of the Deputy Leader of the House and the Leader of the
House to interventions, I cannot understand the real reason behind restricting the chairman and members to election merely for one year-until, perhaps, we consider the review of the committee's operational arrangements. Despite the sophistry that I heard from the Deputy Leader of the House and, indeed, the Leader of the House regarding the length of time, I am still extremely unhappy about the idea that the chairmanship, the membership and the length of time for which the committee is to be given a full opportunity to be seen to operate should be temporary arrangements. The operational restriction to one Session is a very suspicious business.
I know my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House quite well; I have watched him over many years and I would not normally regard him with suspicion. He is very shrewd and intelligent, and he tells me that he can justify a review after one year, but I am not impressed by the answers that we have received so far. The measure just does not stand up, and I know that many other hon. Members feel the same way. It has-to use another expression-a bit of a pong about it.
Some people might use the Back-Bench business committee to advance causes, and that, after all, is what Back Benchers are supposed to do. Members do not just react to Government business; they might want to promote ideas. I do not agree with all the arguments that the minority parties have presented on, for example, aspects of devolution, and there are many arguments on the Barnett formula and all sorts of things where we might have serious differences, but they and Back Benchers generally have a right to be heard.
As I have said on previous occasions, what we need more than anything else in this House is Back Benchers with backbone. During my 26 years in the House, I have been involved in quite a few controversies and I have seen some serious ones develop. Ultimately some Members have seen them through and some have not. I hope that the Back-Bench business committee will not just represent a vague opportunity for people to have their say but that they will actually do something, and that the committee will therefore be used effectively in relation to causes as well as Government business.
Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): I would never suggest that the hon. Gentleman lacked backbone, and I doubt whether any Member would. Some might accuse him of being a little rigid, but lacking backbone-never. I agree very strongly that if someone were elected for one Session only, they might be put under pressure by all manner of people, and that would deny the committee an independently minded chairman who would fight for the rights of Back Benchers. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point.