Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr Cash: By way of tribute to the hon. Gentleman, I note how strongly he feels about matters relating to Africa, for example, as I do. We have shared many arguments and discussions on that subject. The question is whether, in that sphere or any other, a person's cause might be affected via a behind-the-curtain attempt by the Whips to undermine them and thereby get them away. I remember the late Gwyneth Dunwoody, who was removed from the Transport Committee, and Sir Nicholas Winterton, who was removed from the Health Committee. Let us not for a minute imagine that
15 Jun 2010 : Column 814
the machinations of the Whips' magical powers would not get to work if somebody stepped into the arena and started to make use of the Back-Bench business committee.

However, I really do pay tribute to the Leader of the House, the Deputy Leader of the House and, indeed, the coalition Government, because they have stepped into the arena and, with those proposals, allowed Parliament to become an arena where risk is part of Government business. That is a tremendous step in the right direction, but it will be fulfilled only if the ingredients are allowed to develop and evolve. The termination point on the committee's chairmanship, membership and operation puts square brackets around it, as if the Government are saying, "We think it's a good idea and we do want to give power back to Parliament, but we don't want to give them too much, because we want to put them on notice, and when we put them on notice the Whips get to work."

I say that with respect, because I see my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) and Whip sitting on the Front Bench. We get on well together and have got on in the past at a personal level. The issue is nothing to do with personalities; it is to do with the operation of the Whips Office, which is driven by what the Prime Minister and No. 10 want, and by senior Ministers and Secretaries of State. That involves the interplay of personalities and principles, and questions of compromise and how business is to be put through. Do people who really believe in something, even within their own party, have the opportunity to express their views and to carry them through? That is why European business is constantly before the House, but on the basis of "take note", rather than a vote. In other words, one is allowed to discuss such business and one is tolerated but, even having been right over an extended period-for which one must not of course try to make any claims-one is not allowed to vote on it or to obtain other people's support, because that is beyond the pale.

Natascha Engel: Before the hon. Gentleman is diverted too far down the European track, may I bring him back to his point about the Back-Bench business committee and the influence of the Whips? Does he not fear, as I do sometimes, that the committee could itself become a powerful elite of senior Back Benchers? How can we best guard against that?

Mr Cash: We cannot guard against it at all. The Government have all the powers that they need, and Parliament is sovereign and omnipotent-we are told so. Ministers are appointed by the Crown, and they have the patronage, the salaries, the prestige and the opportunities to direct business and make policy. They are chosen-they are appointed. They are certainly elected to the House, and that is where they get their true reason for existence, because they are elected by the people. As I have said so many times, it is not our Parliament, it is the Parliament of the people, so a Minister is no more important in the sense of election, and that is one of the great virtues of our parliamentary system. It is not like the American system, in which there is an elected President and the separation of powers.

Members of Parliament and members of the Government who are Members of Parliament are in this House; there is no distinction between them in respect of their position as Members of Parliament. If Back Benchers are part of the aggregate of those who are
15 Jun 2010 : Column 815
elected, they must be given the opportunity to participate in the making of policy-that is why I mentioned the word "causes"-and in taking decisions relevant to Back Benchers' business. That is why I applaud these proposals so much.

I understand why ministerial business is excluded in this context, because such business is the job of the Government. We are often told that this Parliament is one of parliamentary government. I do not like that phrase; our Parliament is a Parliament made up of people who are elected, some of whom are appointed by the Crown and some of whom are given the opportunity, through the leaderships of their respective parties and the Whip system, to have the right to promote their ideas and policies and turn them into legislation.

I simply say to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that it is wrong to imagine that too much power can be vested in Back Benchers. Back Benchers are no more or less important than Ministers in terms of their parliamentary engagement and involvement. Ministers are, of course, important, because they have the right to make decisions on behalf of the Crown. However, their importance does not extend beyond that in parliamentary terms.

My feeling about all the proposals is that they are a thoroughly good step in the right direction. Given the sense of uncertainty resulting from their being confined to merely one Session, I hope that their tentative nature will not be sustained. I shall be voting for the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), whom I greatly respect. I am delighted that he is now Chair of the Constitutional Reform and Political Committee-or is it the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee? Whichever way round the name is, I am absolutely certain that he will do a very good job. Other than that, I am delighted that the Leader of the House and Deputy Leader of the House have agreed not to press the last of the proposed motions.

Finally, I turn to Westminster Hall. I have heard from the Leader of the House about the number of days allocated to the Floor of the House as compared with Westminster Hall; it is a mathematical thing, I suppose. If only seven days are to be involved, perhaps the issue will not matter quite as much. However, I am concerned about one aspect. There are no votes in Westminster Hall, but there are on the Floor of the House. I leave the House with this thought. I would not want days on which there should be votes on big issues to end up, by some means that I cannot envisage at the moment, being Westminster Hall days on which there is no vote. Westminster Hall is a good innovation, but some matters need votes on the Floor of the House and we do not want Westminster Hall to be used as some kind of cul de sac into which matters arising from Back-Bench business could be driven when a vote would be inconvenient.

8.4 pm

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on being the first woman elected to the senior position of the deputy speakership. It is symptomatic of what is a really exciting time. I envy the new Members, whether they are from Beckenham, Sherwood or Brighton, Pavilion. They are entering the House of Commons at a fantastically exciting time. There has, of course, been a change of Government and there is a sense of new politics, if only
15 Jun 2010 : Column 816
because of the need for a coalition. Furthermore, we are seeing a number of very significant and serious changes in Parliament. The election of our Deputy Speakers has been one.

Last week, for the first time ever, there was an election by secret ballot of all the Chairs of Select Committees. This week, individual parties will be selecting the Members whom they wish to put on to those Select Committees. In 1832 and subsequently, our forebears kicked off with the liberating effect of the ballot box. The ability of Members to make decisions as their consciences see fit is having remarkable impacts on the House of Commons.

I hope that this burst of activity will not be confined to the first week or so; I hope that we sustain it. In particular, I hope that the new Members take it for granted that the House is their base. I do not mean that they should think that we have done well in the first week and that we can relax-instead, they should say, "No, we've got to go further." Whichever party they come from, I hope that they will seize this opportunity to move things forward. The past week or so has been exciting for Members, and I use the word advisedly.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent election to the chairmanship of his important Select Committee. Does he agree that the momentum for change, of which we are clearly a part this evening, must be maintained and that an important part of maintaining it is the setting of a clear timetable, to go on from what we are doing this evening towards the establishment of a House business committee? That would ensure not only that the Government had the opportunity to get their business on to the statute book, but that we as a House had an opportunity properly to scrutinise it as it went through our processes.

Mr Allen: Left to their own devices, Governments and Front Benchers never become more radical. They start with ideas and radicalism, and it is the role of Back Benchers not only to hold them to account but to stimulate them into maintaining their reforming and radical instincts. I do not want this to develop into too much of a love-in, but if we-certainly those on the Opposition Benches-had been able to select a Leader of the House from the Conservative party, it would have been the current Leader of the House. Similarly, had we been able to select someone from the Liberal Democrats to be the Deputy Leader of the House, it would have been the current incumbent.

We have a conjunction of remarkable, coincidental fortune that means that we can take the issue on now-and we should. Now is not the time to be timid. We have free votes on the motions from 9.30 onwards. I hope that Members-above all, new Members-will seize that opportunity. Obviously, I want them to vote with me in my Lobby tonight, but if they do not, they must please vote according to what they feel is important rather than because they are trying to figure out the main chance of getting on to the slippery slope and getting that red box one day. They will be respected more if they use this unique opportunity to take our Parliament further than if they merely look around to see which Whip-unofficially, of course-is twitching in the leftwards or rightwards direction.

There is a fundamental balance-imbalance, perhaps-between Parliament and the Executive. It has been evident throughout my political life, but newcomers
15 Jun 2010 : Column 817
particularly may be able to taste a rebalancing through which, for once, the parliamentary midget is growing and taking on the 800-pound gorilla of the Executive. I hope that the midget has been working out over the past couple of weeks and building muscles, although it should not challenge or frighten the Executive. Governments should welcome a strong Parliament. A strong Parliament is not a threat; it helps to produce better law and better value for money. It makes life better for our citizens. It complements and is a partner to Government, occasionally drawing attention to their defects. Are not we stronger when our defects are remedied? Perhaps I am too optimistic, but in my political lifetime, the moment has come when there is a sense that we can push on and have a Parliament worthy of the name.

Although the subject of business is the Back-Bench business committee, the occasion is far more important than the particular internal committee that we will set up. It is important because, in the past two or three years, not one Member who is not new has not felt pressure and shame about the way in which we have been portrayed-occasionally deservedly so. Now we have a chance to show that Members of Parliament are not as they are described day after day in The Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail, but that they bring genuine value to our political life, that they are an asset to our politics and can make a real contribution through Select Committees, on the Floor of the House, through questioning or in Westminster Hall. We need to have the passion returned to our Chamber so that we can do such work. If we can do that openly and honestly, we will win people over. They will say that we are once again worthy of being the British people's forum-not a nice little ancient backdrop to Government statements or simply leather Benches and ornate wood work, but fundamental to what people want to discuss in our democracy.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Hearing him speak makes me think that he is well chosen. He is giving voice to incredibly welcome ideas. As he says, it is an exciting time to be elected to this Parliament-there is a wind of change, and a real step forward in, for example, the election of Chairs and members of Select Committees. I welcome the amendments that would increase the House's transparency and democracy-that is incredibly important-but hope that we can go further. I take comfort from his comments that we are the beginning, not the end of a process. I would like us to learn from other legislatures, too. That might be a radical suggestion, but there are many legislatures that do an interesting job from which we could learn. I therefore warmly commend that the hon. Gentleman consider other things, too.

Mr Allen: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and welcome her to the House. I am sure that she will contribute not only to environmental politics but to a broader sphere, particularly in the ideas that she has expressed about our democracy. We should have humility and learn from not only other nations but from the operation of the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where-dare I say it?-one can sometimes find a more real Parliament than we
15 Jun 2010 : Column 818
have here. Sometimes, one can find genuine debate and exchange, which has been so rare here. However, we can recapture it if we work at it.

The Back-Bench business committee will help us create such a Parliament here. It will help us revert to being the people's forum. Rather than the debates in which we are all interested happening on the "Today" programme or "Newsnight", those interactions and key conversations could take place here. When I woke up the other morning, I listened to "Today", which was considering three main issues: a possible increase in student fees; a report about a possible 3 million unemployed; and a report about abused children and whether there is a way in which to sort out the problem much earlier in their lives. Those are three genuinely important issues, which we all want to discuss. I came to the House of Commons and the whole day went by without a single one of those items, which had been headline news that morning, being debated or discussed. It should be the other way round. If we recreate our Parliament, we will raise the issues and the media will follow behind us. We should all aspire to that sort of House of Commons. The Back-Bench business committee is a small flame that can move outwards and ensure that we do that job particularly well.

Like so many hon. Members, I must say that the Government have done a remarkable thing in introducing the proposals today. Within weeks of a general election, they have moved on the subject. I must be blunt-I do not wish to offend any Labour colleagues, but we dragged our feet. The Wright Committee made every possible effort to conclude the matter. We tried to engage with the most senior people in our party to show that we cared about that and if only for purely political and electoral reasons, demonstrate that we cared about the future of our political system. The new coalition Government deserve credit for, and should be congratulated on, tabling the proposals. That needs to be put on record.

Some 95% of the proposals are what the Wright Committee suggested, but there is a bit of slippage with some. That has happened because, when one gets into government, certain practicalities get in the way. There is a desire to ensure that other priorities are fulfilled, as well as the dead-weight, often of senior civil service bureaucracy, and sometimes of our colleagues in the various Whips Offices, who feel that things must stay exactly as they are because that is how they control things. It reflects the old joke, "How many MPs does it take to change a light bulb?" "Change? Change?!" Sometimes we get a sense from our colleagues of better safe than sorry. If there is a little risk-taking in the Chamber, I hope that Labour Members will make allowance for it and grant it leeway, particularly if people fall flat on their face when it happens. We need to advance our system so that our democracy can prosper.

In the past week or so, we have witnessed the beginning of a sensible conversation. In trying to create a Back-Bench business committee, the interaction between all the different people who are involved-certainly the minority parties, which have been sorely tested by the failure of the usual channels to give them a fair crack of the whip-has been important. Back Benchers have been involved, and Select Committee Chairs, within days of being elected, have shown their muscle and their desire to protect the rights of the House. Front Benchers have also played a positive role-I include my new Front-Bench
15 Jun 2010 : Column 819
colleague as well as other Front Benchers in that. I hope that, rather than proposals having to be withdrawn on the Floor of the House-for which I am grateful; I will deal with that later-the dialogue can take place a little more formally and a little earlier in future. If we can make progress with the conversation, perhaps we can address such matters by consensus rather than by withdrawing stuff on the Floor of the House. It is a difficult task, especially so for two new incumbents, but I wish them well in trying to get the conversation under way.

Let me deal with the amendments. Many are in my name and the names of 32 other Back-Bench colleagues. It could have been 232, and I claim no credit for the amendments, but my name appears first, so I am happy to speak about them. But first, I should like to give a little more perspective on what can be very dry, dusty stuff-the Back-Bench business committee, what is a quorum and how we elect the Chair-and say what the proposed committee is really about. The committee is about taking the chunk of business that all of us accept is the province, property and interest of Back-Benchers, pulling it together and taking a Back-Bench view on how best to use it. Rather than the Leader of the House deciding that we should have a general debate next week on something or other, there would be a process by which all of us, collectively, could decide what that debate should be about. We could decide that tomorrow's debate will be about something that happened overnight or a Government announcement on widows' pensions. The debate could be on the terrible murders in the north-west, how we respond to the BP crisis or whatever, but it should be on a cause that we feel, collectively, should be debated, and that our constituents would like us to debate. They might even want to turn the television on to see us talking about that subject live, rather than see a digest later with John Humphrys, Jeremy Paxman or somebody else.

However, we need to be clear that when we talk about a Back-Bench business committee-the Wright Committee made this absolutely plain-it is not a case of, "Tomorrow, the world!" Some distinguished colleagues on that Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who spoke about this tonight, made it very clear that the Government have a right to discuss their business. It is part of the House's role to examine seriously legislation that the Government introduce, but at the end of the day, providing they have a majority, they should carry their business. We are talking about that bit of business that is non-legislative but which involves the keen interest of Members of Parliament.

Too often, we see Members of Parliament rattling through lists of things that they regard as important. If I may say, Mr Deputy Speaker, you are one of the greatest exponents of the early-day motion. With the proposed committee, we are almost turning the early-day motion into a motion that we can genuinely discuss at an early day. If there is so much interest in debating a particular topic, it could be on the agenda the next day or the day after that, even if we would need a further mechanism for that. The Government need not fear that their agenda will be taken over, but Parliament could for the first time say, "Our agenda, at least in part, is our possession," and it will be able to decide, on a small number of days, what we will discuss. That is very important-it is one of the key things that the committee will do.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 820

There is a group of amendments on the Order Paper that addresses a questionable aspect of the Government's proposals; namely, the one-year termination. The Government proposal is that members of the Back-Bench business committee will be members for only one year, which is unlike tenures for other parliamentary offices and institutions, which last five years. Chairs and members of Select Committees-there can barely be a Member in the Chamber tonight who is not standing for membership of a Select Committee-will be in office for five years if they are successful, which gives a sense of continuity, and members and Chairs have the ability to learn a subject, and to grow as a Committee with their colleagues.

Let us imagine if we were on Select Committees for only one year. We would already be counting down the time, thinking, "There might be something else on the way. I might want to swap over. Somebody doesn't like me and I don't get on with so-and-so, and the chair is a bit of a pain." The Chair, of course, would be saying, "I've only got a year, but I really want to do something long term with this Select Committee, so let's pick up whatever is in the papers."

There is a more insidious problem. If Members are really good as Back Benchers, they might just cross Front Benchers-the wrong people. They might be so good-they might expose something, or scrutinise and call their those on their Front Bench to account-that instead of being lauded and given plaudits, they go on a list. I have been in the Whips office, and I have had my lists. The vow of silence forbids me from going further on that, but I can tell the House that we were not lining up to give accolades to the Gwyneth Dunwoodys-precisely the opposite. Let us imagine the whispering campaigns that would take place if Select Committee members or Chairs had a one-year tenure, and the undermining that could go on. People would say, "You can get rid of that Chairman and have a go yourself," or, "You're not on a Select Committee. So-and-so is not very good. She or he always creates a problem, so why don't you think about putting your name forward."

I know that colleagues on the Government Bench-the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House-do not intend that. However, much as I wish them longevity, they might not be here this time next year, and some less benign people might be. The latter might propose a review not to strengthen the Back-Bench business committee, but to undermine it. If someone took that chance, we would all greatly regret it, because we have a historic opportunity. This is the one and only time in my long political lifetime in this place that such an opportunity has come to pass. The right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have been incredibly flexible today, so I ask them, before the winding-up speeches, whether they wish to continue to oppose the amendments in my name and those of my colleagues by which we seek to provide the same sort of lifespan and stability that we expect as members or Chairs of Select Committees, so that this new bud can be protected should there be some stormy weather a year out that we cannot predict now.

Next Section Index Home Page