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8.54 pm

Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): I think we have had a good and thoughtful debate, although it had a rather rickety start. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who, in an eloquent and comprehensive speech, spelt out how exciting and important this period is in Parliament's history; and, like others, I pay tribute to the Government for the promptness with which they introduced Standing Orders to allow the establishment of a Back-Bench business committee. There is no doubt that that reflects the good will, commitment and supportiveness of the Leader of the House and his deputy, and I thank them for all that they did in preparing the orders.

The debate marks the culmination of a long struggle that stretches back many years to the formation of the cross-party Parliament First group, which has consistently and effectively campaigned for parliamentary democratic reform under the chairmanship of the former Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, my very good friend Mark Fisher. We will, of course, continue to owe a great and continuing debt of gratitude to the Wright Committee, chaired so admirably by my former hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase.

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Having issued those plaudits-with great sincerity-I have to say that I think the Government's initial ardour seems to have cooled just a tad. A number of modifications have crept in, which, in my view, have undermined some of the original commitment. It is because the combined effect of those slippages has clearly been to weaken the position of Back Benchers that, along with many of my hon. Friends, I have tabled a number of amendments designed to ensure that the Government's initial commitment survives.

The most important amendment relates to a question that has been raised a number of times, and because of its importance I make no apology for raising it again. It concerns the term of membership of the Chair. The order proposes that members and the Chair should serve for only one year after election, but we strongly reject that proposal on the ground that no other parliamentary Committee-including Select Committees -is being treated in that way. The elections to Select Committees, which, admirably, are taking place at this time-for the Chairs, who have been chosen, and the members, who are about to be chosen-are for a full Parliament of five years, and there seems to be no valid reason for diverging from that principle.

The Leader of the House was questioned about the issue, and I noted what he said. He spoke of the importance of accountability-of course we all agree with that-and of the need for new blood to refresh the Committee. Of course I understand that too, but it applies to Select Committees as well. I do not think that the Leader of the House took on board adequately the point made behind him about the question of independence. We believe that members, once elected, should be fully independent. We do not think that they should have continually to look over their shoulders, or feel liable to the Whips or Front-Bench pressure in order to secure repeat elections year after year.

Annual elections give too much power to the Whips and the establishment, allowing them to exert influence on the Chair not because he or she is inadequate or incompetent, but precisely because he or she is too effective. Let me suggest to the Leader of the House, in all friendliness, that annual elections will profoundly undercut the impact of reforms that are excellent in so many other ways.

Another issue-I was not going to mention it until my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North did so and I think he was right-is that the Government are proposing that, before any business starts that has been decided on by the Back-Bench business committee, a member of the committee must make a brief statement of up to five minutes to explain why the committee made that decision. Again-it hardly needs repeating-no one else does that in any other part of the House. No Minister is ever required to do that. If for any reason either the chair or any member of the committee wishes, with permission, to make such a statement, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so. However, to require that to happen in every case, when in most circumstances Members will be well aware of the thinking behind the decision, seems unnecessary, a waste of time or even obstructive.

The Leader of the House will know perfectly well that Members will want to get quickly on to the debate. They will not want to be diverted by what they will
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perceive as superfluous formality. I hope that he will consider whether that proposal should just be quietly dropped.

I recognise that, when the Leader of the House was questioned last Thursday, he went as far as he could, leaning in our direction, by offering an allocation of 27 days. He has now gone further still by agreeing to accept our amendment. I thank him warmly for that. However, always wanting to go a bit further, I think that 35 days would be even better, not least because it is only on the Floor of this House that the votes will take place. The Leader of the House pointed out that the implication of that, to which he is probably quite sympathetic, is that the House might have to sit into August. However, I hope that he will reconsider and be prepared to consult about various alternatives that could achieve the objective of 35 days on the Floor of the House without encroaching into August.

One of those options is the use of more Fridays. In previous years-indeed in previous decades-the House has sat on Fridays to a far greater degree than it does today. I am well aware that, whatever one suggests, it will not please everyone, but I hope that the Leader of the House will genuinely consult to find a way forward that is acceptable and desirable to the majority. The important point is that 27 Back-Bench business committee days in this House should be the bottom line, consolidated by the Standing Order and not dependent on discretion. That is why I am grateful-I am sure that we all are-that he has accepted the amendment.

By and large, this is an excellent set of Standing Orders, for which the Government are to be congratulated. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that the amendments that we have had to table are not in any way designed to oppose what he is trying to do; they are designed to improve that. I hope that he and other hon. Members will look upon them in that spirit.

9.3 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): We have had an extremely good debate. We have teased out a lot of the issues that relate to the establishment of the Back-Bench business committee and to the various proposals that we have put forward, which are in line with the Wright Committee proposals. There are some areas where the House will wish to take a view. There are others where there is a clear preponderance of voices, at least in the debate, in favour of what we have proposed.

I want to take a little time to deal with the issues that have been raised because they will repay further consideration. I will deal first with the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton). I am grateful for her general welcome for what we are doing. She asked some specific questions and she deserves specific answers. She asked whether there would be any impact on Opposition days. The answer is categorically no. The Standing Orders that relate to Opposition days are not to be changed, so there is no change to the present position. She asked me to confirm whether there will be substantive business to address in September and pointed out that we have recently had several general debates-which, in fact, I think the House has welcomed. I think it is equally fair to say to her that we are in the immediate aftermath of the Queen's Speech and it is
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necessary to get legislation right. One of the commitments we have made as a Government is not to present to the House legislation that is not in a fit state to be considered by it, because we felt that that was one of the failings of the previous Government. Very often there were subsequent amendments at later stages in a Bill's progress simply because the preparatory work was not done. I repeat again, however, that it is our intention to bring substantive business before the House in September, if the House agrees to meet in September, which is subject to a decision this evening.

The right hon. Lady was intervened on by her party colleague the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton), who made the valuable point that we need to get the entire parliamentary calendar right. In respect of this evening's motions, we are talking about what we will do in September this year, but I am perfectly well aware that there are Members on both sides of the House who will want not only a degree of certainty about the future calendar of the House, but to express their views and concerns about their family circumstances, such as Scottish school holidays not coinciding with English school holidays. It is right for the House to consider that, and I hope we will be able to consult widely on what ought to be the future shape of the parliamentary calendar and bring back proposals that try as far as possible to accommodate the various different interests of Members of all parties.

The right hon. Lady asked about the costs of bringing the House back in September, and that point was strongly supported by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). He has expertise in this area, and I am grateful to him for his comments because he perfectly sensibly set out possible difficulties with a September sitting. I remember the last time we tried September sittings, and I do not think the arrangements behind the scenes lived up to the expectations of the House. In fact, I would go further and say that there was a suspicion that in some cases the maintenance that took place was planned to cause the maximum disruption to Members during that September sitting, rather than the minimum; that was certainly the way it seemed. I accept, however, that this is a difficult and complex building, and that it has to be maintained properly. We must take careful note of the hon. Gentleman's quite proper warnings that if we are going to meet regularly in September, we have to organise House maintenance and other works around that, and that we need proper forward planning to achieve that and we need to do so on the basis of proper advice. Those are perfectly sensible points.

On the specific point about the maintenance contracts, the right hon. Lady will recall that Mr Speaker wrote to all the parties following the decisions in February and March indicating that the House may wish to sit in September and saying that the possibility of September sittings would be taken into account in the organisation of contracts. I hope that that will be the case and that any disruption to those contracts will be kept to a minimum.

On the costs of a September sitting, I should point out that of course it costs the same for Members to sit regardless of the time of year. The total number of days that we are sitting is the relevant factor, not the dates on which we sit.

Mr Betts: As the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, cost is an important issue, particularly with regard to maintenance and forward planning. When he looks
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further into this for future years, will he ensure that the Officers are allowed to produce their advice independently and that it goes to the appropriate Committees, and also that all Members of the House have access to the advice that is given about the costs and the advisability of postponing maintenance programmes and not carrying them out properly as Officers advise that they should be carried out?

Mr Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am not a member of the House of Commons Commission and I do not wish to tread on its toes, but what he says makes perfect sense to me and I shall ensure that that is communicated to members of the Commission.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Is the Deputy Leader of the House aware that radical and far-reaching repairs need to take place in the basement of this place, where high pressure steam calorifiers are located right next door to very high voltage electrical cables? That is so much the case that I understand that in the previous Parliament the House of Commons Commission even considered whether there would be a need to move out of this building. Has he taken that into consideration in these proposals?

Mr Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I can say only that the House of Commons Commission is considering this. As I say, I am not a member of that body, but I would not be putting forward this proposal today-I should remind hon. Members that it is one of the things that the Wright Committee asked us to put before the House- if we felt that there were impossible hurdles to cross this year. However, this matter may be something that we need to consider in future years.

I wish now to deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)-they were also reflected in the comments made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz)-about the important matter of private Members' Bills. The hon. Member for Wellingborough rightly drew attention to what I had said on a previous occasion when he tabled a similar amendment. He quoted me, so may I quote myself? That is always an invidious thing to do but as he quoted me, I shall quote myself. He said that I had said that "perhaps there should" be a change in Standing Orders. I stand by that comment-perhaps such a change should be made-because I want us to do a much better job of dealing with private Members' Bills.

We do not do a good job on these Bills at the moment and the process contains procedural hurdles that are absurd, and are seen as such by our constituents. Far too often, excellent measures that are introduced by individual Members do not make it to the statute book, despite substantial support in the House, simply because of the way the system works. I am therefore delighted that the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), has volunteered that his Committee will examine this as an early matter of priority. It is essential that the Committee does so and I hope that it will make proposals. I also hope that the issue of how many Fridays are made available will become redundant because we will have so improved the way we manage private Members' legislation that Fridays are not the crucial factor in deciding whether we make progress.

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Mr Bone: Given the comments that the Deputy Leader of the House has just made and those made by Opposition Members, I accept that this is not about the number of Fridays, but about the quality of debate on private Members' Bills and how we put them through this House. Given what the Deputy Leader of the House said, and given this happy frame of mind that we are in tonight, I shall not press my amendment to the vote.

Mr Heath: I am delighted to have satisfied the hon. Gentleman in his quest; we are making progress.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for her comments. She has made it perfectly clear throughout that she was a member of the Wright Committee who did not agree with all its proposals. She has taken a proper position. She had a minority view, she has expressed it and she has been consistent in her position. She amplified that a little by raising specific issues in tonight's debate, so I shall deal with them. She asked whether members of the public will be excluded from the meetings of the Back-Bench business committee and indeed whether Members of Parliament who are not members of that committee will be allowed into the meetings to hear the deliberations. The rules that will apply will be the same as those for any Select Committee. I genuinely think that it is not for a Minister of the Crown to tell the Back-Bench business committee how it should undertake its role. However, I hope that it will consider, carefully and early on, how it will manage its business, and in what circumstances it will have open meetings and in what circumstances it will not, in the same way as Select Committees across the House do. She has raised an important issue, and it is a matter that the Back-Bench business committee-if we constitute it-will need to consider.

The hon. Lady asked about the party political make-up of the committee and whether seats would be allocated in the same way as for normal Select Committees or whether the system would be entirely open. As she knows, a formula reflecting the composition of the House is generally used, and it is intended that that formula will be used to determine the make-up of this committee. However, there is an issue of how we accommodate the minority parties in the Select Committee process, and I shall come later to the points made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).

The hon. Lady also asked whether a Chair of another Select Committee could stand for election as chair of the Back-Bench business committee or one of its members. Nothing in the proposed Standing Orders would preclude that, but she raises an important point. It would be extraordinarily bad practice if a Chair of another Select Committee stood for election to the Back-Bench committee because their membership would inevitably raise the suspicion that that Member's Select Committee had enhanced access to the business of the House. I would hope that that would not happen, so I strenuously urge those hon. Members who were lucky enough to be elected as Select Committee Chairs not to put themselves forward for the Back-Bench business committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) made an excellent contribution to the debate. She emphasised the frustration that we did not get the committee up and running before the general
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election. The previous Government failed to give us the opportunity to make the necessary changes to the Standing Orders, so I am proud of the fact that, in the first week following the conclusion of the Queen's Speech debate, the House is determining the matter-that represents excellent progress.

My hon. Friend emphasised the need for a minimum of 27 days' Back-Bench business in the Chamber and, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, we are happy to accept amendment (a) to motion 4 because that was always our intention. She also asked whether further progress could be made, including on the innovative use of time. I hope that we can find innovative ways of using time more effectively, and of course we firmly intend to move to a House business committee within three years. That will mean that we have a totally different way of managing the House's business, which will be a good thing.

I think I have already dealt with my hon. Friend's point about private Members' Bills. She also said that the Wright Committee had further ideas that she would like to see progressed, such as some about public engagement. I agree that the Committee made further excellent suggestions. We have not lost sight of them and hope to come back to them in the future.

Jo Swinson: Given the assurances about private Members' Bills that we have heard from my hon. Friend and from the Chair of the Procedure Committee, I will not press amendment (b) to motion 4 to a Division. However, my hon. Friend has not answered my question about whether Ministers will vote on the membership of the Back-Bench business committee, or whether they will follow the self-denying ordinance that applies to elections for Select Committee Chairs.

Mr Heath: My hon. Friend is right that I did not respond to that question. I will take her points back to my colleagues in government because there is clearly an argument that, as she says, it should not be for the Government to elect those who serve on the Back-Bench committee. That issue is not specifically addressed in the motions, but we ought to listen carefully to her point.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) on his election as Chair of the Treasury Committee. He was absolutely right to say that we are lucky to have such an enlightened Leader of the House. He likened the relationship between the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip to that between Esau and Jacob, although I am not quite sure who is in possession of the mess of pottage. He is right to say that the Government's attitude is to bring forward proposals for modernisation and then to take them forward. It is about not just paying lip service to an idea, but actually making it happen, which is what we are doing this evening.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the representation of minority parties, and of course that was the main thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. Wright has something to say on the subject. The Wright Committee report says:

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