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Perhaps I am being too suspicious-it may be those years in the Whips Office and my brain is still a bit frazzled. We could pass the matter over if there were just one proposal to undermine the committee-the proposal to review the committee after one year. However, there is a second occasion when the committee might be undermined, because its members must be elected after
a year. There is even a third occasion, because the Chair must be elected after a year. With those three proposals we are, as Sherlock Holmes said, starting to develop a pattern. With great respect, I say to Government Front Benchers that there is still a moment when they might ask themselves whether they want to perpetuate that pattern, or whether they could generously reconsider the matter and either allow the amendments to be made, or decide not to promote their proposals.
There is another, rather demeaning aspect, which I was surprised to see included. When the Back-Bench business committee meets, it will have arguments. I intervened, regretfully, on this point in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire, who otherwise made some very good points. If the meetings are wholly in public, decision-making will be driven underground, because sometimes it is dirty and messy. It can be a compromise, with promises made, so that something else is done in six months' time when people will not know that it is the result of a deal already done. I would like as much of that as possible to take place openly in the business committee, but not necessarily in the full glare of publicity. If decision-making is totally open, people will behave differently, and we may end up with worse decisions.
Sir Peter Soulsby: Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a distinction with which we are already familiar in other Select Committees? Evidence is heard in public, but the deliberations take place in private, for the good reason that that enables us to work collaboratively and informally, and we come to better conclusions as a result.
Mr Allen: We are trying to move to a better place, but we cannot do it all in one go. There is not only a Back-Bench business committee now, but other business committees-the usual channels, which get together in a cabal, and, semi-formally, the Committee of Selection. Let us not pretend that we do not already have a business committee. We do, and it is underground and tolerates no dissent. Furthermore, it allows no Back-Bench influence. We need to strike a balance-I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire was trying to do that. She was not laying out one particular view-neither am I-but we need to try to ensure that the Back-Bench business committee works effectively. If it does not, we cannot get to stage 2, which is a fully fledged business committee, with Back Benchers, Whips and others represented.
Natascha Engel: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. In my speech, I was trying to say that our starting point should be that the Back-Bench business committee should be open and transparent to avoid what he-of all the members of the Wright Committee-most disliked, which is the murkiness of the usual channels. If that is our starting point, we can examine the question of meeting in private or public, but we need to establish how Back Benchers will make representations to the committee to have an influence on the business of the House. Those discussions should be held in public. The decisions that are then taken can be taken in private.
Mr Allen: With good will-and the only reason we are here tonight is because there is good will, and the Government have provided time on the Floor of the House tonight for this debate-we can overcome all those problems and ensure that the Back-Bench business committee works. The prize of making the committee responsible and practical is not just topical and sensible debates in the House, but the next stage, which will mean a fully fledged business committee. If new members can help to achieve that, over the next two to three years, it will be an irreversible step in parliamentary history.
I said that this process might be a little demeaning. When a subject for debate is chosen by the Government-as it always is at present-we do not say that someone must come and explain to us why it has been chosen. We do not, although perhaps we should, get the Chief Whip to the Dispatch Box to explain-
Mr Allen: Yes, but the Leader of the House explains the business on a Thursday. He does not have to get up before every debate and give a little reason or excuse for its subject matter. I accept that I am finding fault in a generally excellent set of proposals, but if I do not do so now, we could be stuck with the proposal that a member of the Back-Bench business committee must give an explanation before every topical debate, general debate and Adjournment debate. That is an onerous task. The Wright Committee expressed the view that every member of the Back-Bench business committee should play a part, so would the most junior member have to stand at the Dispatch Box to give a little trailer of what is to come? Would they be cross-examined by Members about why the committee did not pick an important constituency issue or why it neglected another vital issue? How silly! This is a piece of trivia that we should reject tonight. I hope that the Leader of the House, who has got so much right here, will not hang himself on a vote-whether he wins or loses it-on getting Back-Bench business committee members to explain why a particular subject was chosen, other than at business questions, as he does, where the committee chair would be available, as the Church Commissioner and others are during different question times, to chip in and answer questions, make sensible changes, and respond to requests. We would all like to see that.
Natascha Engel: I really do not understand. How then is the Back-Bench business committee accountable? How is it open and transparent, and how will other Back-Bench Members know how it has gone about selecting the business for the day?
Mr Allen: The Wright Committee went into this in detail. Essentially, we decided that the chair of the Back-Bench business committee would be seated in the House during business questions. The Leader of the House would give the normal business statement, and if someone had a specific question about Back-Bench business, the chair could answer it.
It is very different from the usual channels, who do not say anything-in fact, are banned from saying anything-on the Floor of the House. So this
would make it more open. However, to insist that that person appears three or four, five or even a dozen times a week to explain why one person's topic, rather than those of 50 other people, was chosen would take it, in this case only, to a level of absurdity. That would fly in the face of all the other very sensible provisions in the Back-Bench business motions before us.
Sir Peter Soulsby: Would it not be even more absurd, because it would not be the same person every time? As I understand the proposals, it would be just a committee member making a brief statement, with no debate, no opportunity for questions and, frankly, no purpose.
Mr Allen: Indeed, but I do not want to labour the point, because it is just one piece of silliness in what is generally an excellent effort by Government Front-Bench Members. So I shall not continue on that.
I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for deciding to provide in Standing Orders for 27 days' debate on the Floor of the House. It is not easy to come to the House and say, "Someone else has got it right, and I will take that on board." That has always been the situation-in fact, he was quoted earlier saying it would always be the situation-but he, to his great credit, has taken that step forward and said that he will put it in the Standing Orders. I am sure that I speak for everyone who signed amendment (a) to motion 4 when I say that I am extremely grateful to him for doing that.
That is not all. On Select Committee membership, the response of the Leader and deputy Leader of the House to the newly elected Select Committee Chairs was excellent politics. I am sure that other colleagues will talk about this. Had they been involved a little earlier and been able to delve, holding their noses, into the usual channels, they could have helped much earlier. Instead, we have today's late decision to pull motion 13, which would have driven a coach and horses through the idea that Select Committees should be nimble and have, as standard, 11 members. As the Wright Committee and the Liaison Committee said, there is an optimum number of members on a Select Committee. Having served on many Select Committees, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know that they start to ramble on, and get frayed at the edges, cliquey and difficult to manage when they get to 13, 14, 15 or 16 members. That is why the Liaison Committee and the Wright Committee said, "Nine is optimum, 11 is maximum," in order to try to put right what was, frankly, a cock-up by the usual channels, which resulted in Committees being bumped up to 16, thereby destroying their credibility and coherence. That is why there was such resistance from the Select Committee Chairs and why almost every newly elected Select Committee Chair signed the amendments requesting that the proposal not go ahead. It is to the great credit of the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House that they listened to those representations, so that we now have a much better situation than we did earlier. Motion 13, which is about membership, will therefore not proceed.
I hope very much that over the next week or so, the difficulty that we were all trying to address-the representation of minority parties on Select Committees-will be addressed sensibly. I hope too that minority parties will have representation on the territorial Committees-the Scottish and Welsh Committees-as they should do and as they are entitled to expect, and
that the numbers are brought back to the Floor of the House. [ Interruption. ] I know that the Leader of the House is listening, even though his colleague the Secretary of State for International Development is talking to him-he is listening with one ear, which is his important ear. He will understand that next week, when we bring the motions relating to Select Committees back to the Floor of the House, and particularly those relating to Scottish and Welsh Committees, there should be minority representation as of right. Of course that might require a small increase in the numbers to get through the current problems, but the other Select Committees should remain at no more than 11, so that they can be effective.
The people who devised the system whereby Select Committees are bumped up to get round particular difficulties are people who do not care what Select Committees do. They do not mind if they are rambling, if they do not produce coherent reports or if they have lots of members who do not show up. The job of those people is just to set Select Committees up and get them out of the way, so that they can get on with the other business. That is no longer acceptable in a Parliament that elects its Select Committee Chairs and members by secret ballot. Until other people are elected by secret ballot, those people have absolutely no right whatever to destroy the work of one of our key arms of accountability, the Select Committees in this House.
I congratulate those on the Government Front Bench on withdrawing those proposals to change Select Committee memberships without one word of consultation with the Chairs of the Treasury Committee, the Justice Committee or the Defence Committee. That shows a contempt and arrogance on the part of certain people who are not in the Chamber towards the conduct of the House, and I for one hope that we will never see that again. In putting on record what I hope is an important caveat about the role and rights of minorities in this House-rights that must always be defended, which is something that you said in one of your hustings speeches you were determined to do, Mr Deputy Speaker, and something that I know you will stick to-let me say that it is important that we should continue to ensure that balance.
Finally, I would like to add my thanks to those who have gone before us-we are, as the saying goes, standing on the shoulders of previous generations. First and foremost is Tony Wright, but there were also many other members of the Wright Committee, such as our colleagues Chris Mullin-we can refer to them by name, as they are no longer Members-David Howarth, David Drew and Nick Palmer. I am sure that other colleagues can think of those who also worked incredibly hard-Phyllis Starkey is another-over a short period to produce the Wright report. They were aided by people such as Meg Russell from the constitution unit and many others. We took evidence from the Chief Whips and from academic and media experts to produce the Wright report. However, there are many others who worked incredibly hard. Robin Cook has been mentioned, but there are lots of other colleagues, from all parts of the House, Front-Bench and Back, who would have given their right arms to be here today.
I finish where I started. These past couple of weeks have been some of the most exciting weeks in our recent parliamentary history. Incredible changes have been made: changes to elect Select Committee Chairs and
members; changes to elect, for the first time ever, those who serve in your Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, with the first woman ever to be elected to that position. This is a moment when real change is possible-we have a new Government and, for the first time in our present political system, a coalition-but it is a moment that will not last long. It is a moment that needs to be sustained by our new Members, and a moment that we need to continue tonight by supporting the amendments tabled by myself and 32 Back-Bench colleagues. I hope that as many colleagues as possible will join us in the Lobby to maintain the momentum that the reform of our House of Commons needs if we are genuinely to win back the trust of the British people.
I wish to speak in support of amendment (a) to motion 11, tabled by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), on providing more days for the discussion of private Members' Bills. There are all sorts of good democratic reasons for doing that. I had intended to expand on them a little tonight but, given the excellent, comprehensive and wide-ranging speeches that we have already heard, I shall merely say that I endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments, as well as those from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), on why there should be more days for the discussion of private Members' Bills than the Government are currently proposing.
I have not heard any good arguments against the hon. Gentleman's amendment. The Leader of the House of Commons put forward an argument that the hon. Member for Wellingborough described as consisting of "smoke and mirrors". With respect, I am not sure that I would even dignify it with that description. The Leader of the House's argument seemed to be that it was important to have more days between private Members' Bill sittings to allow things to go on outside the main Chamber. I was not sure what was meant by that. I can only assume that it was felt that that arrangement would allow the Committee stages of private Members' Bills to take place between the different Fridays, and that that would be easier to achieve if there were more time between the sittings allocated for private Members' Bills. If that is the case, it reveals a misunderstanding of the way in which the private Members' Bill system operates. If three successive Fridays were allocated for private Members' Bills, with a Second Reading one week, the Committee stage the next, and Third Reading on the third Friday, the next private Member's Bill in line would simply be debated on the subsequent Friday. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough has suggested, it is hard to see how allowing more days for private Members' Bills would jeopardise the Government's position.
It has been suggested that, if we were to adopt a private Members' Bill system that worked more effectively, fewer days could be allocated for the purpose of dealing with them if a positive outcome could be achieved in the time allowed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said earlier, however, we all
know that what matters on private Members' Bill Fridays is not the quality of the measure, or even the number of Members present to support the Bill, but whether the proposer and those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches can find their way round the arcane procedures that are used on such Fridays-procedures that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda described as "shenanigans". I have had the experience of taking three private Members' Bills through the House over the past six years, so I certainly know how the system works. I know some of the ways of getting round it, but I also know that it is a very unsatisfactory procedure for all concerned.
Addressing the way in which private Members' Bills are taken through Parliament will require a number of procedural changes, and I welcome the commitment from the new Chair of the Procedure Committee that his Committee will look at that at an early stage. One way of allowing private Members' Bills proper time for debate would be to move them from Fridays to Wednesdays or to Tuesday evenings, which would give Members the opportunity to attend the debates in much greater numbers than they are able to do on Fridays.
I take issue with the hon. Member for Wellingborough-I otherwise agreed with much of what he said about private Members' Bills-as it is not satisfactory to say that Members can decide whether or not to turn up on Fridays to consider those Bills. We all have to make such a decision at the moment, but because of our constituency commitments, it is difficult for us, with one or two exceptions, regularly to attend on Fridays-and the further away from London our constituencies are, the less easy it is for us to do so.
I would often like to participate in private Members' Bills debates on Fridays, and they often relate to issues that are important to many of my constituents who understandably expect me to debate them. They are likely to find out, however, not only that I and many other Members are unlikely to be there, but that what they thought was going to be debated on a particular day-and hoped had a chance to get through-is likely to be talked out because of the use of some parliamentary procedure and never reach any further stages. Not surprisingly, members of the public get angry at Members of Parliament and at the political system that allows that to happen.
I believe that Fridays should be recognised and named as a constituency day, on which Members can allocate their time to their constituencies. It should be named as a constituency day so that those out there who want to condemn any absence from Westminster as equivalent to some form of extended holiday can, if they wish, carry out a study to ensure that we are indeed in our constituencies as opposed to sunning ourselves on a beach. Let us make it a regular commitment, with Fridays acknowledged as a constituency day. I hope that the Back-Bench business committee will discuss this proposal at an early stage of its considerations. It could look into the constituency issues more widely, and demonstrate that MPs spending some of their time in their constituencies is essential to our democracy. We cannot represent the views of our constituents in Parliament if we are not regularly in touch with them.
That brings me to the issue of September sittings. On the one hand, I support the proposal to come back in September, as I believe that Robin Cook's initiative when he was Leader of the House was totally justified.
It is hard-indeed, impossible-to justify to the public why we need this long 13 or 14-week gap in the summer, in which we are unable to hold the Government to account unless the House is brought back for a special Sitting. On the other, we have to recognise that we cannot keep adding days and days, weeks and weeks to the parliamentary Session without it having knock-on effects somewhere else in the system.
We have to recognise that Members need to be in their constituencies and we also need to recognise, bluntly, that Members have family commitments. I have an interest here in that I have four children in either primary or secondary schools in Scotland; my children are likely to be on holiday from the end of June and will be back at school in mid-August. I would like to have the same opportunity that colleagues in England have to be at home for a fair part of my children's school holidays, but I will not have that opportunity. Anything that makes it harder for people to combine their role as Members of Parliament with a normal family life is not exactly going to encourage this place to be open and more representative of the public in the way that we all want. I hope that, in addition to considering the procedures for private Members' Bills, the Leader of the House will look at ways to recognise our constituency commitments as an important aspect of all MPs' work and reflect them in the sitting days of the House.
I invite the Deputy Leader of the House to clarify in his closing remarks the Government attitude towards an early proposal to move away from Friday sittings for private Members' Bills and replace them with Wednesday sittings. I certainly gained the impression that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House were sympathetic to the idea of moving to Wednesdays for private Members' Bills. There was quite strong support for this across the House, so I hope that the Government will be able to give that proposal at least a favourable and general welcome today. I believe that such a proposal would be welcomed not just by individual Members, but by all those who want to see private Members' business getting the status it deserves.
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