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Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab):
We have had an interesting debate on the Third Reading of the Finance Bill, although it has gone over a lot of old ground, with no surprising new positions taken on either side. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury claimed again that the Budget is progressive-a claim that I shall dispute soon. The hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who is not in his place, set up a straw man to knock down and will come to realise that literature reviews do not translate into effective speeches. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) paraded his
conscience around the Chamber again but told us, unsurprisingly, that he would be supporting the Budget after all, even though he admitted that it was regressive. People will note his crocodile tears. In the usual way, the speeches made by the hon. Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and for Stourbridge (Margot James) supported their side of the House.
I commend the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who put before the House the real cost increases for women-especially those with young children-under the Finance Bill. That seemed to prompt much hilarity among Government Members, which I thought revealed more about their attitudes than about her concerns. She also mentioned the housing benefit and disability benefit changes outlined in the Red Book, and many millions of vulnerable people will be worried about those as the spending review approaches.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) made an extremely good speech and put some facts about recent economic history on the record and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) pointed out the fallacy of private sector see-saws suddenly moving in to take over the spaces that the public sector has vacated. Such things are such an important part of the ideology of the Government. The hon. Member for Stourbridge at least did the decent thing by recognising that there had been a global recession, but she said that we were not prepared for it, although she knows that net Government debt before the credit crunch was the second lowest in the G7.
The Finance Bill puts into place a Budget strategy that is a huge gamble with the future prosperity of Britain. The Chancellor began by telling us that it was an emergency-that it was the "unavoidable Budget". He has tried throughout this process to persuade the country of two things: first, that Labour somehow created the deficit all on its own; and secondly, that the only solution is to cut it further and faster than our plan to halve it over the lifetime of this Parliament would have done.
Neither of those assertions is true, and here is why. Extraordinarily, Ministers and Government Members, from the Chancellor on down, have failed to let the words "credit crunch" so much as pass their lips during the entire proceedings on the Bill. The attempt to rewrite recent economic history is one that George Orwell's Big Brother would have recognised and admired. The fact is that the banking crisis, which started in the American sub-prime mortgage market, caused the biggest global contraction that we have experienced in the real economy since the Wall street crash in 1929 turned into the great depression and led directly to the outbreak of the second world war. Since they will never say it, let me reiterate that this crisis was not caused by the irresponsible public spending of Governments but by the greed and criminal recklessness of the banking and financial sector. Any analysis of current conditions that ignores that basic and obvious fact, even if only for the purpose of generating convenient political propaganda, risks a dangerous miscalculation of the appropriate remedy.
We see in this Finance Bill that the Tory-led Government have made precisely that error with their deliberate, ideologically driven choice to go for a much more aggressive and reckless slash-and-burn strategy for public spending than the objective economic conditions, or even the bond markets themselves, required. The decision to opt for a balanced budget in four years is driven not by the objective economic conditions but by an ideologically driven political belief in a small state, a belief which is now apparently shared by the Liberal Democrats. Similarly, the decision to cut the deficit by imposing a 77% to 23% ratio of public spending cuts to tax rises is a choice driven not by the objective economic conditions but by the same belief in a small state apparently shared by the Liberal Democrats. It is a ratio of pain never before achieved in the UK, and it was not shared with the voters before the election. No mandate for this was established in the general election. Ministers have admitted that the cuts will be painful, but they have failed to acknowledge the scale of the pain that they have chosen to inflict. The apparent relish with which they choose to announce huge and ongoing cuts does them no credit whatsoever, and it will be seared into the memories of the millions of victims of their sadistic fiscal policy for years to come.
The propaganda techniques are chilling. Carefully chosen, extreme examples of excess in public expenditure are leaked by the Government to sympathetic tabloids to be highlighted in screaming headlines and make the case for more cuts. Government websites coarsen the debate still further by parading a stream of ignorant vitriol whipped up by sensationalist reporting, so it is suggested that workhouses are to be reopened, benefit claimants sterilised, and immigrants deported. If this is the nice face of the Tory party, then God help us, and shame on the Liberal Democrats for going along with it. The apocalyptic and absurd scares that they have issued about the UK economy resembling that of Greece-we heard it again today-have been not only fundamentally wrong but deeply irresponsible, and they have risked precipitating the very loss of confidence they purport to avoid.
This Finance Bill signals the biggest and most sustained public spending cuts in UK peacetime history, coupled with increases in taxes such as VAT that will directly take demand out of the economy just when recovery is fragile and still needs nurturing. That is why it is such a gamble. Labour Members are not the only ones who are deeply worried about the choices that have been made in the Bill. Following the Chancellor's "austerity Budget", the International Monetary Fund has just cut its growth forecast for the UK for both this year and the next. The OECD has criticised the decision to abolish the future fobs fund and other employment support packages as short-sighted and warned that the scale of job cuts in the public sector will slow down the recovery.
As a direct result of the June Budget and this Finance Bill, the now notoriously named Office for Budget Responsibility has had to revise upwards its estimates of job losses in the public sector. At the same time, it has revised downwards its growth forecasts and hoped that no one would notice that it excluded 550,000 people who work in state-owned enterprises from being in public sector employment, even though the Office for National Statistics classifies them as such: thus public sector job losses are likely to be even higher. The OBR's
prediction that the anticipated "recovery" will generate 2 million extra jobs in the private sector in just five years has caused widespread incredulity, because that target has never been achieved in the modern era. It has certainly never been achieved at a time when huge public spending cuts are likely to dampen employment prospects in the private sector and austerity measures are being imposed simultaneously in almost every developed economy in the world.
The OBR's heroic assumptions about export growth and business investment also strain credibility, but Sir Alan Budd will not be around for much longer to defend his forecasts, whatever happens in the real world. One thing is clear: we cannot all export ourselves out of trouble at the same time. Because world trade has been so badly impacted by the global credit crunch, the UK has experienced a 25% devaluation of its currency without any noticeable upturn in export performance. Prime ministerial trips to China accompanied by huge cuts in Government support for new industrial activity in the UK do not seem to be the right response to this challenge.
The Finance Bill contains no strategy for growth, yet growth is the best way of dealing with any deficit. In place of a growth strategy, we see a pious, dogmatic belief-often restated today-that the private sector will miraculously spring to life and fill every space vacated by the Government. This is in the teeth of massive private sector deleveraging, damaged confidence and an ongoing lack of affordable bank lending. The huge hike in VAT will damage demand at a crucial moment. This is an example of blind economic faith-it is not a serious growth strategy. The Bill contains no hint of an alternative if this blind economic faith turns out to be misplaced. There is no fallback position if the economic gamble that the Chancellor has outlined starts to go wrong. How high will unemployment have to rise before the Chancellor looks again? Why, once more, is unemployment a price worth paying?
Finally, I want to look at who is paying for the measures contained in the Finance Bill. The Chancellor has repeatedly asserted, "We're all in this together", but we have to judge him by his actions rather than fine words, and his assertion of social solidarity turns out to be a cruel joke. The Finance Bill and Budget measures are regressive, not progressive. They hit the poorest hardest. The VAT hike is the regressive centrepiece of a regressive budget. The stealth move from retail prices indexation to consumer prices indexation for all benefits and all pensions takes £6 billion in savings from the poorest and most vulnerable and gives at least £50 billion, and possibly £100 billion, to employer pension schemes, at the risk of employee representatives. The losses mount year on year, for ever into the future.
Analysis has shown that the Budget takes a massive 21.7% of income from the bottom 10% of the income distribution and a mere 3.6% from the top 10%. My right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has shown that of the £8 billion net revenue raised by the measures before us, £6 billion will
be raised from women and children, with only £2 billion being raised from men. Like Flashman in a tight spot, the Chancellor has chosen to put women and children first. He has put them first in the firing line, bearing the brunt of his tax rises and spending cuts.
This Finance Bill takes a huge gamble with our still fragile economic recovery. It gambles that a vicious bout of self-inflicted austerity will not tip us back into a recession or a long period of low growth, and that we will be able to export our way into growth at a time when a globally synchronised austerity signals otherwise. It is regressive, threatens social cohesion and hits the poorest hardest, and we cannot support it.
We have just heard from the shadow Minister that the Opposition are still in denial, and I shall come to that later. Before we conclude what has been a lengthy debate over the past few weeks, I wish to echo the earlier comments of my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary. Hon. Members throughout the House have played an essential role in scrutinising the Bill, and I thank them all for doing so.
Today we heard from the shadow Chief Secretary-the man who admitted that there was no money left-and from my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who successfully demolished the Opposition's case for failing to take any action to sort out the deficit. We heard from a number of Opposition Members, including the hon. Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins). I listened to what they had to say with great interest, and in many cases they violently agreed that we are in a serious situation that needs to be sorted out. What we failed to get from any of them, however, was any kind of alternative. That thread has run through not just today's debate but the debates over the past few weeks.
We heard an important contribution from the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who throughout our debates has talked about his concerns about some aspects of the Bill. However, he has recognised that we have to take serious steps to sort out the fiscal deficit. We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and for Stourbridge (Margot James), who all want a Government who face up to the challenge, as do their constituents.
The Bill provides for many of the key measures in the emergency Budget, which was needed to address the fiscal crisis that we face in our country and get Britain growing. Although it was tough, it needed to be, and was, fair. When we came into government, we had to set up the Office for Budget Responsibility to get, finally, an independent review of the books. That review showed that the books were perhaps even worse than the former Chief Secretary had said.
The OBR said that the deficit was £12 billion larger than had previously been suggested, so our priority was to tackle that deficit. Although reductions in public sector spending will be necessary to ensure that it is at a level affordable to the public, taxes clearly have to play their part as well. As we have heard, even from the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), growth in employment must be led by the private sector. Reducing incentives to employers, as the previous Government would have done by introducing the jobs tax and raising small companies' corporation tax rates, would have reduced incentives and led to our economy languishing for longer and longer, and debt building up.
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Is the Minister aware, though, that the Financial Times published research last month showing that 1.2 million jobs in the private sector rely on the public spending that she is going to cut?
Justine Greening: That is typical of the contributions that we have had from Opposition Members all the way through our debates. The hon. Gentleman's party went into the election having passed its Fiscal Responsibility Act 2010, which set out 20% cuts. That means one of three things. Either Labour Members had no intention of ever reducing or tackling the deficit, in which case the Act was gross duplicity; or they went into the election standing on a platform of cuts with no idea whatever of how to deliver them, in which case it was gross incompetence; or they knew what they wanted to do but still, in spite of all the hours of debate, fail to admit to any of the measures that they were planning to take, in which case it is gross concealment. We need take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman.
What we need to do is to ensure that companies in this country and across the world know that Britain is open for business. That is why the centrepiece of the Budget was providing a springboard for a private sector-led recovery to take place by reducing the rate of corporation tax year on year over the next four years; reducing the small profits rate of corporation tax, benefiting 850,000 companies; and of course taking difficult decisions on capital gains tax changes that will mean increases for higher rate tax payers while protecting entrepreneurship. The Budget was welcomed by business across the board, and it is important to bear that in mind when Opposition Members say that they do not believe that it will ultimately boost jobs.
Although we wanted to help business succeed, we also recognised the importance of protecting those most in need, and the Budget did just that. From April 2011, we are increasing the personal allowance, removing almost 1 million people from income tax. On pensions, we are taking the power to repeal the pensions tax regime introduced in the Finance Act 2010, which will allow us to bring in a fairer arrangement that will not allow the very rich to benefit from basic rate tax relief. We are re-establishing the earnings link for the state pension with a triple guarantee, making changes to the
benefit system that will protect the most vulnerable people in our society, increasing child tax credits and introducing a set of measures that, despite a tough Budget, will leave child poverty unchanged.
We know that we need to take that action, because the Labour party has absolutely no alternative. We have debated the Budget long enough now for Labour Members to have brought forward an alternative if they had one, but they clearly do not. We have been honest and open about the problems that our country faces.
Clive Efford: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, but will she accept this one point? Throughout the debate her party has argued that the state is too big. Everyone accepts that the Budget will cut the size of the state so that in six years, it will be smaller as a proportion of GDP than it was in 1997. Does that not suggest that it is an ideological move, and on that basis does she not accept that if the Tories had been elected in 1997, they would have come in cutting?
Justine Greening: What is too big is the deficit. That is what we need to sort out. As I have said, the hon. Gentleman's party itself recognised the need to cut public expenditure, which has to be at an affordable level.
While we have sought to engage the public in the debate about how we can recover from the economic crisis, rebalance our economy and rehabilitate ourselves from debt-driven policies, all that we have heard from the Opposition is what they do not like, and nothing about what they would do instead. They have said no to everything and yes to nothing, and they have kept quiet when asked how they would solve the problems that they have caused. It was one party that got us into this mess, and now two parties will have to get us out of it.
We have heard a lot of analogies today, but to my mind the Opposition are in denial: they are like a debt junkie. Like most junkies and addicts, they always want to solve the problem tomorrow. They want a reduction in the deficit tomorrow, growth in the private sector tomorrow, and fairness for those most in need tomorrow. We were never going to see any action from the Labour party, and over the course of this Budget debate we have heard shrill voices of despair from the Opposition Benches.
We have taken decisions that are right for this country-tackling our debt, kick-starting the private sector and taking action to take those on the lowest incomes out of income tax. Those choices are the right ones to start our country back on a credible path to sustainable recovery. We are encouraging enterprise and protecting those most in need, yet tackling the colossal debt left to us and to this country. This coalition Government are making decisions where Opposition Members did not have the courage, and I commend the Bill to the House.
That the Fishing Boats (Electronic Transmission of Fishing Activities Data) (England) (Scheme) 2010 (S.I., 2010, No. 1600), dated 14 June 2010, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16 June, be approved. -(Bill Wiggin.)
That the draft International Monetary Fund (Limit on Lending) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 23 June, be approved. -(Bill Wiggin.)
That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment No. 2) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 12 July, be approved. -(Bill Wiggin.)
That this House commends the Speaker on the action he has taken over the past year to reassert the principle that Ministers ought to make statements to the House before they are made elsewhere; notes that paragraph 9.1 of the Ministerial Code says that when Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament; believes that compliance with this principle is essential for backbenchers to be able to represent the interests of their constituents and hold the Government to account; and invites the Procedure Committee to consider how the rules of the House could be better used or, if necessary, changed to ensure compliance with this principle and to develop a protocol for the release of information.
It is a rare privilege and honour for me to open this, the first of the Backbench Business Committee debates on the Floor of the House. We are honoured by your presence in the Chair this evening, Mr. Speaker. In this motion we do some important things. First, we commend you for the action that you have taken in ensuring that the Government get the message that important policy announcements should be made to Members of this House first and not to the wider media. In the motion, we draw attention to paragraph 9.1 of the ministerial code, which says exactly that. It says that:
"when Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament".
It also says that we believe that compliance with this principle is essential for Back Benchers to be able to best represent the interests of our constituents and hold the Government of the day to account. Constructively, we suggest that the Procedure Committee-I see the Chairman in his place-be invited to consider how the rules of the House could be better used, and if necessary changed, to ensure compliance with this principle and to develop a protocol for the release of information.
The Chamber of the House of Commons should be the centre of political public life in our country. It should not be an inconvenience for Ministers to come here and tell the country about important policy: it should be an honour and privilege to keep the information to themselves until they have told Members of this House. It should be a matter of professional pride, so to speak, that information is not put out into the wider ether until the representatives of the people are told first, in this Chamber. This is not a criticism only of the present Government, but a criticism of all Governments, Labour, Conservative and coalition, going back for some time.
The purpose of the motion is not only to make the point that this Chamber should be considered first and foremost in the minds of Ministers, but to be helpful to the Government so that the coalition sets a precedent by putting in place a set of procedures that will avoid the confusion that has obtained down the ages and,
worryingly, has already been seen in the present Session. We need to get the system right to help all of us to represent the concerns of our constituents better.
Mr Hollobone: I am most grateful for the helpful intervention from my right hon. Friend, the distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee. There are many benefits of 24-hour news coverage, although accuracy is not necessarily one of them-nor is undue pressure on Ministers to release information before the House is told. But that is no excuse for Ministers to fail to resist the temptation to get their message out before telling the House. I agree that it is an additional pressure, but it should not be an excuse.
The early release of information is not confined to the broadcast media age. In fact, we can go back to the infamous incident on 13 November 1947, when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, resigned a few hours after what he described as "a grave indiscretion" on his part. Some Members might not be familiar with this infamous case, so perhaps I can indulge the House for a moment by reminding them. There was the following exchange on the Floor of the Chamber: Mr Raikes raised a private notice question, which was the procedure in those days, and
"asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he has considered the accurate forecast of the Budget proposals in a newspaper on sale at 3.45 p.m. yesterday, a copy of which has been sent to him, and if he will institute an inquiry into the source of the information."
"I very much regret to tell the House that the publication to which the hon. Member refers arose out of an incident which occurred as I was entering the Chamber to make my speech yesterday. In reply to questions put to me by the Lobby correspondent of the "Star" newspaper, I indicated to him the subject matter contained in the publication in question. I appreciate that this was a grave indiscretion on my part, for which I offer my deep apologies to the House."-[ Official Report, 13 November 1947; Vol. 444, c. 551.]
"In view of the incident which was raised to-day in the House, I think my duty to offer you my resignation".
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): That is a very interesting historical episode, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for telling us about it, but on that basis, has he worked out how many current Ministers would have had to resign?
Mr Hollobone: That is an extremely good point, and the answer is: all of them-and most of the previous Government as well. The basic point of my speech is that standards have been going downhill since 13 November 1947. Mr Dalton was clearly in the wrong, and he paid the ultimate political price, but what has been happening since is that Ministers of the Crown, under Conservative, Labour and coalition Governments, have been getting away with it. The purpose of today's motion, in praising the Speaker for the steps he has taken, is to give the House the opportunity to say, "Enough is enough. We are going to do things differently in the future."
Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman think that members of the Government who have leaked or given such information before the House has been informed were weak, or does he think that there has been a Government strategy to bring it about?
Mr Hollobone: It is probably both, to be fair. I am not moving this motion in a politically partisan way; I am moving it on behalf of my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee and all Back-Bench Members, whatever parties they represent, in order to hold the people on the Front Bench to account for their behaviour. As a Back-Bench Member, I do not particularly care whether they are Conservative, coalition or Labour Ministers. Their first duty should be to report their new policy announcements on the Floor of the Chamber.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman says he is speaking on behalf of all of us, so why is the motion pussyfooting around so much by referring the matter to another Committee? Why not propose that such Ministers be suspended? When the ceiling can take it, let us have these people suspended.
Mr Hollobone: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. I would say in answer to his question that it is a sensible way forward for the Procedure Committee to take evidence from hon. Members, and I suspect that he will be the first in the queue. The Chair of the Procedure Committee is here tonight to hear contributions from hon. Members. We can develop a sensible protocol that everyone can understand, including Ministers of Crown, and we can find a better way forward. I also say to the hon. Gentleman that the motion has been sitting on the Order Paper for some time, and if he had wanted to table an amendment, he would have been quite within his rights to do so.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case, and I welcome how he is standing above party politics in order to do it. He mentioned the advent of 24-hour news. Does he similarly deprecate the fact that for once the news Galleries in this place are empty? There seems to be no appetite in the media for what the Chamber is trying to do in asserting the power of Parliament back over an overweening Executive.
Mr Hollobone: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention, although actually it was my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who made the point about 24-hour news media. However, the point made by the hon. Gentleman was spot on. The thrust of this motion, and the reason the Backbench Business Committee put it forward tonight, is that all too often the Press Gallery is empty. Why is it empty? It is because the media have generally heard about it all before we get to hear about it on the Floor of the House.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP):
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way-he is being generous with his time. He says that he is representing all Back-Bench Members, but he will know that we in the minority parties have famously been disqualified from standing for the Backbench Business Committee. I know that he and his colleagues have looked at this
sympathetically, and the charming exercise by the Committee Chair, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), has persuaded us to come along this evening and participate in the debate. However, what does he have to say to me and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who is sitting next to me, that would encourage us to take a part in the Committee?
Mr Hollobone: First, I agree that we have a charming Committee Chair, and she has gone out of her way to ensure that the minority parties are invited to the Committee to give their point of view. Indeed, we received a representation at a recent meeting to that effect. Certainly on behalf of the Chair I can say that the hon. Gentleman would be most welcome to attend at 7 o'clock on the first Monday of the September sitting, upstairs in Committee Room 16. We would be delighted to hear a representation from him about what business he would like to include in a future Back-Bench business debate.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not also need to recognise that the temptation that Ministers fall prey to is not merely the desire to get on the news, but the desire to present a more limited and selective account of the statement they are subsequently going to make at a point when it cannot be questioned by Members who might know quite a lot about the subject. That statement might be taken at face value by sometimes gullible journalists.
Mr Hollobone: My right hon. Friend is spot on. It is called spin. We in the House of Commons should be trying to un-spin things and ensuring that when statements are made to the House and new policy initiatives announced, we have the opportunity to fire in those questions. Actually, however, many of our constituents are beginning to say, "What is the point of having Members of Parliament, if you can read all about it in tomorrow's newspapers?" The journalists are getting better access to Ministers about lots of policy announcements than we are in the House.
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): I would like to make some observations as a new Back-Bench Member on the 24-hour media cycle. One of the things that strikes me is that, because the House does not sit on some days until 2.30 pm, the news media have ample opportunity to coax information out of Ministers that might be better given to the House. I, for one, would like to put it on the record that I would be very willing to come in and go home much earlier for sittings and have a much more family-friendly set of hours.
Mr Hollobone: That is a most helpful and excellent suggestion from my hon. Friend, and I am delighted that she has had the opportunity to make it. It would appear to most people outside this place that the hours we sit are in many ways absurd and certainly not family friendly. Furthermore, in many ways they are not the best hours for us to do good business in the House, and anything that would stop journalists getting information before hon. Members would need to be welcomed.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asked what comfort our Committee could offer minority parties. The invitation is open to the
minority parties and every other Back Bencher: whatever party they might represent-this goes for independent Members too-they should come and tell the Committee what they would like to be discussed on the Floor of the House.
John Mann: It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to invite us all to the meetings, but we elect people to represent us. If the Procedure Committee comes back with some wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed excuse of an answer to the question that has been put, how will the Backbench Business Committee represent us all properly and ensure that the issue that it has rightly raised is properly voted on by the House?
Mr Hollobone: The hon. Gentleman is talking about a hypothetical case. Knowing the Chairman of the Procedure Committee as I do-my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire-I think that wishy-washy is the last thing that any recommendation will be. I am also sure that you, Mr Speaker, will be taking a close interest in the work of the Procedure Committee and any motion that may come back to the House in due course, so I do not want the hon. Gentleman to be unduly worried about the process.
John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but the question of process is rather important. This is the first opportunity for the Backbench Business Committee to try to have some influence, yet the issue is being referred to another Committee of the House. We have seen this kind of thing before. If the Procedure Committee fails to come back with something sufficiently substantive, how will the Backbench Business Committee take the issue forward?
Mr Hollobone: I anticipate a substantive motion on the Floor of the House in due course to endorse the principle that we have to hold the Government to account by having a proper procedure for statements.
Mr Knight: On the point that has just been raised, it is entirely hypothetical at this stage, but I would expect that if this evening's motion goes ahead and the Procedure Committee makes recommendations, those recommendations would come before the whole House. It would then be for the whole House to decide what to do, including the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).
Mr Hollobone: I am sure that any motion that comes before the House will benefit from the contribution of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), because he has a lot to say on the issue, and quite rightly so. However, what I would say to him now is that the motion on the Order Paper this evening is not wishy-washy. We commend the Speaker on the brave steps that he has taken, we reassert the principle that Ministers ought to make statements to the House, and we note paragraph 9.1 of the ministerial code. We can vote on the motion this evening or we can accept it without going through the Division Lobbies. We will be in a far better place if the motion succeeds this evening than we were yesterday.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con):
My hon. Friend has been extremely generous in giving way. Does he agree that we will need to see a major shift in
how the media do their business? It is not just the 24-hour news cycle; it seems that the local and national media expect to be given everything in advance. They ring us before we make a speech to ask us what will be in it. Does he agree that that has to change?
Mr Hollobone: That is a most helpful intervention, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making it. I have huge respect for those who work in news organisations. They have a difficult job to do and, by and large, they do it very well, whether in our local newspapers or as representatives of the national media. What I would say to my hon. Friend is that news is not really news anymore. In the olden days, news used to be about things that had happened; nowadays, news is about things that are anticipated will happen. Often, by the time the event actually takes place the news has moved on to something else. The broadcasters in particular, with the appetite for 24-hour coverage, are distorting the news picture and confusing a lot of our constituents.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making a powerful and historic speech that will go down in the annals of this great Parliament. The reason the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is unhappy is that there were no amendments to the motion from hon. Members, which is a shame. However, if he was minded to divide the House this evening because the motion did not go far enough, he would be giving all those Ministers who leak the opportunity to vote against it.
Barry Gardiner: I rise simply to correct the assertion I made earlier that the Press Gallery was bereft. I have since noticed the not inconsiderable frame of one of the members of the press-I believe from the Jewish Chronicle-who-
Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman entered the House with me in 1997, and he is aware of the normal custom that one does not refer to people outside the Chamber. I allowed a modest latitude for the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), because what he was saying was central to the thrust of the argument that he wished to develop, but to get into the business of identifying individual journalists is not good for the House, and it is probably not good for the egos of the journalists concerned either.
Mr Hollobone: I am grateful for your ruling, Mr Speaker. Should there be any members of the Press Gallery up there this evening, they should be commended on turning up, although as you know, the reputations of lots of members of the Press Gallery precedes them, whether they are here or not.
If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, I got stuck in 1947, with the resignation of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, to move on from that, the Library has produced some valuable intelligence on the issue of ministerial statements not being made correctly. I understand that in the 27 years since 1983, there have been 44 incidents on the Floor of the House when the Speaker or a Deputy Speaker has had to make a ruling
about the pre-release of information. Indeed, I fully expect the total figure to be somewhat higher. We are therefore talking about a regular occurrence, and it is clearly difficult for any Government, of whatever colour, to get things right. That is why we now have an opportunity, with this new politics, to try to ensure that we have a protocol in place that everyone can understand and which it is far more difficult to fall foul of.
Even though the Backbench Business Committee is a new innovation, the issue of ministerial statements going wrong has been discussed on the Floor of the House and by Select Committees before. In February 2001, the Public Administration Committee conducted an inquiry into the ministerial code. Its findings make for interesting reading, so perhaps I could indulge the House for a moment by reading them:
"There is one respect in which the accountability requirements of Ministers in relation to Parliament have been weakened over the lifetime of the Ministerial Code. This concerns policy announcements to Parliament. The 1949 version of the Code provided that: 'When Parliament is in session, important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament.' However, in...1997...the formulation has become: 'When Parliament is in session, Ministers will want to bear in mind the desire of Parliament that the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, to Parliament.' This represents a reduction in parliamentary accountability. We recommend that when the Ministerial Code is next revised the spirit of the original wording should be restored in respect of announcements of important Government policy."
Basically, the Government of the day, having been ticked off, accepted that recommendation. However, my contention-and that of the Backbench Business Committee-is that despite being corrected by the Public Administration Committee in 2001, the procedure is still not clear enough to the Government of the day.
I have to say that I am extremely disappointed that the new coalition Government have got off to a bad start on the release of policy information to this House-I should also say that I would have said that whichever Government were now in power. The coalition Government got off to a bad start with the Queen's Speech, which is an extremely poor place to get off to a bad start. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) raised the matter in the House on a point of order on 25 May, when he said to you, Mr Speaker:
"You rightly used to excoriate Labour Ministers if ever we made announcements before making them to this House, so will you make sure that that lot over there do not announce things to the press-as they have done, day in, day out over the past 10 days-without first bringing them before this House?"
"This gives me the opportunity to say at the start of this new Parliament that I shall continue to expect, as I said two days after first being elected Speaker last June, that 'Ministers ought to make key statements to the House before they are made elsewhere'... If they do otherwise, I-and, I am sure, the House-will expect to hear explanations and apologies as necessary."-[ Official Report, 25 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 53.]
You have been as good as your word, Mr Speaker. The Backbench Business Committee-and, I hope, the whole House tonight-will praise you for that, because you insisted that Ministers who have not complied come to the Chamber to apologise to the House. [Interruption.] Yes, and rightly so. Why? Because we are, rightly or wrongly, elected by our constituents to be their representatives in this national Parliament; and if
a Minister is deliberately or inadvertently releasing information before telling the people's representatives, they should be called to this House to apologise. To the credit of the Ministers involved, even though they made a mistake with the pre-release of information, they have had the good grace to come here and apologise-and I now make a partisan point-unlike Ministers in the last Government, who never did so.
It is wholly appropriate for the Opposition of the day to hold Ministers to account for the release of information. That is part of the job of Opposition. However, that is also the job of all Back Benchers, whatever party we represent, and it is no use Government Members not being prepared to criticise Government Ministers because we are supposed to be on the same side. We have to think wider than that if we are to fulfil our proper roles as Back Benchers. We must have the guts to stand up and say to Ministers on our own side, if necessary, that this is not right and not the way to treat the House of Commons of the UK. We should encourage Ministers to take a professional pride in releasing information only to this House in the first instance.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a very sensible speech, and I look forward to his promotion to the Conservative Front Bench in the very near future. Is not the problem the fact that there is not really any sanction? The worst possible sanction is that Mr Speaker says, "You have got to come and make an apology", at the end of which not much happens. Would it not be better if we had a proper system of sanctions so that Ministers could, if they broke this code, be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges?
Mr Hollobone: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent contribution, and I hope the Procedure Committee will take it into account. I am sure he would want to put the point that he just raised to that Committee.
Mr Bone: My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. Should we not take very seriously the point raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) because, after all, he is a poacher who has now become a gamekeeper?
Mr Hollobone: That is right: the hon. Member for Rhondda has seen things from both sides of the fence. I am sure he was very careful about the release of information when he was a Minister, and I am also sure that he appreciates how difficult it is-I understand this-for Ministers of the Crown to control the release of information when, over the years, this culture of news management has developed. In Government Departments and in political parties, there are spin doctors and advisers whose job it is to manage the news, but the message should go out to these people that they are getting in the way of our democracy. They are not the most important people in our democracy; the people's representatives are the most important. All of us here can, in theory, bring Governments down if we have the guts to do so, and we should hold the Government of the day to account for their behaviour.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Would it not be a good idea to have statements delivered at the beginning of the day, so that there would be less chance of their falling into the news cycle? If they happened at the start of the day, they would set the agenda.
Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, which is not unrelated to the earlier intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin). If the parliamentary day were shifted forward, it would clearly help regarding the danger of leaking information.
What we need is some iron resolve in Ministers of the Crown that when they make important decisions, they announce them to the people's representatives first. They face all sorts of difficulties with that, but the message should go out from us tonight that we really want them to face up to them.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is leading us gently to the place where I think he wants to take us, but on the question of meeting earlier and earlier-apart from the inevitable logic of having the House sitting just after midnight-what on earth would he do about the Sunday papers? Saturday sittings have not occurred since the 17th century, I believe, although I am sure that the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) will remind me.
Mr Hollobone: I do not detect a huge appetite for Saturday sittings, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to make that representation, he is perfectly entitled to do so. I recognise that there is a problem with the weekend media. Are we really saying that the media are so voracious in their desire for news and so powerful that Her Majesty's Government are unable to resist them? If so, we are saying that our democracy is pretty hopeless.
Mr Hollobone: I do not think that would be enough, which is what is behind tonight's motion. It is not for the Prime Minister alone to say these things; it is up to us in this House to assert our authority over the Prime Minister and other Ministers of the Crown. It is up to us collectively to say, "We are the House of Commons, rightly or wrongly, and all of us were elected by our constituents to hold the Government of the day to account." It is not up to us, on matters like this, to take diktats from the Prime Minister. It is for us to say to Ministers, "If you have an announcement affecting the nation, we want to be told first"-not only because we were elected by the people to represent them, but because we can then question Ministers about the statements they make. If we get this right, it will raise the level and quality of statements because Ministers will know, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said, that they cannot just spin things out to the media, as they have to come here and face our wrath first.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con):
Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem at the heart of the issue is the precise interpretation of the ministerial code, which states that "the most important
announcements" have to be made "in the first instance" to Parliament? It is particularly the interpretation of "the most important announcements", as opposed to announcements that affect the whole nation, as my hon. Friend said, that is critical. If it were to say "all announcements", for example, there would be no doubt about it, and it would effect a change in Government policy. If that were to happen, it might go a long way towards resolving this problem.
Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and I hope that he, too, makes a representation to the Procedure Committee. The difficulty that we all face is that if the Government were to make all announcements on the Floor of the House, there would not be much time left for other business-Government or otherwise. The difficulty is striking the right balance between the most important policy announcements and the others.
We saw a very good example of that today on the occasion of the urgent question about the Office for Tax Simplification. I am perfectly prepared to accept that the Exchequer Secretary had very good intentions in releasing a written ministerial statement, but as a humble Back Bencher I must express my personal view that on a day when we were discussing Treasury matters, it would have made sense for him to come to the House to make an oral statement.
The difficulty faced by my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary lay in the need to achieve the right balance between what is a really important statement and what is not. Today Mr Speaker rightly accepted an urgent question because he felt that it concerned a matter that he felt needed to be discussed on the Floor of the House. However, I think that if we can clarify the protocol, with the guidance of the Procedure Committee and input from hon. Members, the Exchequer Secretary, if faced with a similar situation in the future, will be crystal clear about what should be announced on the Floor of the House and what should be released in the form of a written ministerial statement. That is an illustration of the fact that the present system is not working properly.
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I am put in mind of, I think, Pericles in Athens. He said that while only a few might originate a policy, anyone could judge it. Would my hon. Friend care to reflect on where we are more broadly in our country in terms of the internet? Nowadays, when a policy is announced anyone can indeed judge it, and can immediately start to communicate about it. Could my hon. Friend perhaps put that in the context of the House of Commons?
Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend is clearly better educated than I, especially in the classics, and I commend him for that. He has also made a very good point. As well as 24-hour news media, we now have the internet and all its ramifications.
I do not particularly mind how people comment on Government policy announcements. I do not mind whether they do so by means of a written note, internet traffic or any other means, as long as the House hears about the policy first. I want the Press Gallery to be full. When an important announcement is made by, say, a Minister from the Department for Transport, the Press
Gallery is full because members of the press want to hear the news on the Floor of the House first. When it is pre-released to the media, the Gallery is empty.
I want to end my speech not by being teacher's pet, but by genuinely saying to you, Mr Speaker, that many of us who are in the Chamber and many Members who are not present genuinely admire what you have done with regard to statements. I want to reprise what you said two days after your election as Speaker, because I consider it to be important and a good base on which to proceed. On 24 June last year, Sir, you said:
"Just before we move on to the main business, I want to make a brief statement of just three points. First, as I said on Monday, when Ministers have key policy statements to make, the House must be the first to hear them, and they should not be released beforehand. Secondly, in statements, I ask the Front Benchers to stick to their allotted times. I also ask that the Back-Bench Members taking part each confine themselves to one, brief supplementary question. In the same vein, I hope that Ministers' replies will be kept to a reasonable length. Finally, I always expect that those speaking in this Chamber will be heard, so that an atmosphere of calm, reasoned debate is maintained."-[ Official Report, 24 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 797.]
It is possible that not all those boxes have been ticked-and if so, it is probably largely the fault of us Back Benchers-but your central point, Sir, about the need to ensure that policy announcements are made to the people's representatives first on the Floor of the House, was absolutely spot on. It is the job of this motion, and of subsequent action, to ensure that we bring that about.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who is and always has been a very assiduous Back Bencher. I am sure he can confirm to the House that he did not pre-brief the press on his speech.
We are debating an issue that is of real importance to the way in which the House, and thence our parliamentary democracy, functions. It is imperative for the debate not to be seen through the petty prism of party politics. This is not a partisan issue, and while attempts to portray it as such are understandable enough, given the general atmosphere in this place and the anger that can be generated among both MPs and our constituents when the ministerial code is broken, it would be wrong to do so.
Let me take up the theme initiated by the hon. Gentleman. A hallmark of your tenure thus far, Mr Speaker, is that you have acted to strengthen the role of the Back Bencher and have sought to reinforce the principles of the ministerial code, one of which is that important statements should be made here before they are made to the media. All too often, however, that convention is still flouted, and it is only through the granting of urgent questions that Members are able to represent their constituents' interests in the face of an Executive who continue the age-old tradition of occasionally treating the House, and the Speaker, with discourtesy.
This is not a new problem, and I do not wish the debate to descend into a tit-for-tat event during which each side decries the other for having "started it first".
The issue has plagued the House under Governments of all colours-although I am pleased that the Liberals, who of course have not been in government until very recently, for once cannot play the "whiter than white" card. I am afraid that we are all implicated.
Announcements on the "Today" programme, to GMTV or to the newspapers are nothing new. Quite apart from the leaking of this year's Budget, the Queen's Speech and a raft of subsequent policies, our parliamentary history is littered with examples. In 1936-well before the 1947 leak-the Budget was leaked by Jimmy Thomas to another Conservative Member. He subsequently resigned not only his seat in the Cabinet, but his seat in the House.
Mr Bone: The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. However, in that instance the Budget may not have been leaked. It is possible that there was an inadvertent interpretation of something that had been said. Even the suggestion that there had been a leak was enough for the Minister concerned to resign.
As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Kettering, the 1947 Budget was famously leaked to the Star by the then Labour Chancellor, and the 1996 Budget somehow ended up in the hands of the Daily Mirror. As I have said, it is not a new problem; but it is a problem whose resolution is long overdue. We must take it upon ourselves, in this new Parliament, to ensure that the House is returned to the heart of substantive political life in this country.
I am not interested in the question of who has the worst track record, although it is useful to be able to draw on historical examples. I am interested in how we can bring the practice to an end. This was supposed to be the "clean slate" Parliament. A new Parliament with a large influx of new Members should have been able to start afresh. We have made many advances in the way in which we do things-I am thinking not least of the advent of a Committee devoted to Back-Bench business-but the continuation of the old way of doing things must be nipped in the bud.
The fact that Governments, Labour, Liberal and Tory, have leaked and pre-announced policy to the media in the past-advertently or inadvertently-does not give licence to the current incumbents to carry on in the same way. We are in the process of changing the balance of Parliament, so that it ceases to be a Parliament in which Back Benchers are here simply to cheer on their respective Front Benchers, and becomes one in which ministerial promotion is not seen as the sole career path, and in which Back Benchers can bring their experience to bear and ensure that their constituents' interests are fully represented. We cannot do that if the House is not treated as the right and proper place for ministerial announcements and statements.
We all know that Ministers have a hard job to do. Working on red boxes at 2 am, as Ministers do in some of the busier Departments, is not fun, and mistakes do occur. Working in haste also leads to mistakes and poor scrutiny by Ministers of vital papers, as has happened in the last week or two. We must not mention the word "lists" too often. However, it is within the power of
Ministers to prevent some of those mistakes from happening, and it is a shame-a real shame-that the Education Department's Ministers did not check the detail of those lists more carefully. As has been pointed out, however, the Secretary of State had the good grace to apologise in person.
Back Benchers really should not have to sit by their radios every morning listening with bated breath to the "Today" programme while simultaneously channel-hopping across the various breakfast television media, simply to make certain that they know what is going on. Back Benchers ought to know that this House, and this House alone, is where statements are made, where policy will first be debated, and where their views will be heard before the media circus kicks off. The comments of the hon. Member for Kettering about the empty Press Gallery reinforce that point. If Ministers had to come to this House, those in the Press Gallery would be able to see the reaction of Back-Bench MPs and hear our constituents' concerns being voiced directly. An empty Press Gallery is not a good sign.
John Mann: Does my hon. Friend agree that if this motion is passed tonight and a Minister transgresses in the near future, that would be a far greater offence than in recent years, and it would therefore require far stronger action from the House?
Alison Seabeck: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and, if the motion is agreed to, it will be interesting to see how the Procedure Committee takes matters forward. I shall have some suggestions later in my comments as to exactly what some of the penalties might be.
Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) talked about sanctions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) mentioned the case of J. H. Thomas. If I remember rightly, he was playing golf on the morning in question and made a joke about "Tee up", which was interpreted to mean that there was going to be an additional duty on tea, which was correct. He was sued by the Thomas Lipton company because of the consequences for its shares. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View agree that this is all about Ministers trying to control situations, and it is the control rather than the inadvertence that is the key to the issue? Does she also have sympathy for the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda that this issue should, in fact, be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee?
I agree that the precise nature of the sanction is an issue-and I have a proposal that may be thought of as somewhat flippant. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda is something of an expert, however, and I therefore think we should listen very carefully to what he has to say and to his proposals.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South) (Lab):
On the need to take this issue forward speedily and robustly, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a matter of considerable regret that the Procedure Committee has not yet been appointed, and will she join me in encouraging Members,
particularly on the Opposition Benches, to make up the numbers so as to ensure that this can be dealt with properly? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) might join us as a member of that Committee in order to ensure that it does, indeed, produce an early and robust response.
Alison Seabeck: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I am sure colleagues on both sides of the House will have heard what he had to say. It is to be hoped that a volunteer or two will come forward. The Committee should be set up as soon as possible, and he is right to say that it will be very difficult to proceed otherwise.
Back Benchers and the whole House ought to be the first to hear ministerial statements and policy announcements, and they should know that the only place for that will be either this place or the other place. That is a matter not only of constitutional convention and courtesy but of practicality. Members of this House should not have to be faced with phone calls from the media telling them what is going on in the outside world and asking for their views on events about which they have no knowledge. We have all experienced that and, apart from anything else, having to say, "I haven't heard about that" is very embarrassing-nor does it give people confidence in our ability to do our job properly. That is certainly not a way to run a democracy, and I look to the Leader of the House to ensure that, in so far as his remit stretches, our democracy runs as well as it possibly can. I therefore hope he will commit to redoubling his efforts to bring Ministers to the Dispatch Box before they reach for the radio mike.
An excuse that has often been given is that the majority of the White Paper or statement was in fact revealed to the House and that only one or two of the main items have been released to the public-that is of relevance to a point made earlier about the precise wording of paragraph 9.1 of the ministerial code. That excuse is not good enough, because often the juicy bits of the White Paper or statement are leaked to the press and the House is left with the odds and sods-if I am allowed to use that term. [Interruption.] Yes, the bare bones might be a better phrase. My point is, however, that all of the contents should be saved for the Floor of the House.
Mr Bone: The hon. Lady has got to the crux of the issue. The Minister wants to leak the juicy bits to the media because it will get a favourable press. If he does not do that, the media might write about the bits he does not want to be discussed.
Alison Seabeck: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I concur with that view. I do not imagine that any member of the Treasury-Bench team will be willing to defend the practice of pre-announcing policies or leaks to the media. If any of them are, however, then I am ready to give way and hear the rationale, but if they cannot defend the practice then they should not practise it.
Under a Labour Government, we had the release of difficult news under cover of a smokescreen of even worse news-"A good day to bury bad news" was a term used. However, that term was used by a special adviser, and although what she did was not technically out of order, she at least left her job as a consequence. Ministers need to learn some lessons from that.
John Mann: My hon. Friend has brought up a critical change that has taken place with complicity on both sides of the House, which is that the majority of special advisers appear, in fact, to be media advisers and press officers who advise on nothing special other than how to manage news. Is this not a problem that has now become deeply embedded in our politics, and which we could look at addressing?
Alison Seabeck: Yes, it is a problem, and strangely enough it is at its worst at the beginning of a new Government. When our party was elected to government in 1997, we had a lot of very good advisers who had been extraordinarily good in opposition at spinning stories out and making sure that shadow Ministers got their stories in the press. However, working with the civil service and Parliament in government involves a completely different mindset. We have to treat the two phases quite differently. A special adviser just chatting away to a media person and trying to get the nub of a story out-or spinning it out-from a Government position can have the sort of effect that we have seen, and which we are all here in the Chamber now objecting about, when a story appears in the press in advance of being announced in the House.
John Mann: Taking the Department for Transport, or whatever it might be called these days, as an example, is not the point that the concept of a special adviser suggests someone who is highly specialist and gives advice on transport, not somebody who is highly specialist and gives advice on news management? Even if Ministers are held to greater account by the House, it is that feature of special advisers that is so embedded in our system, as is the concept of their spinning to the media. After all, that is precisely what these people are paid to do.
Alison Seabeck: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. To be fair to special advisers and to Ministers who employ them, they are not all of that ilk; there are within government, as there certainly were within our Government, very specialist people in the particular spheres in which they work.
Unfortunately, despite the risk of being chastised by you, Mr Speaker, and your predecessors, it has been difficult to bring both the current Government and the previous one to heel on some of these issues. Although apologies have been made, sanctions should be considered. I hope that the Chairman of the Procedure Committee is listening to these comments, which I am sure will be reinforced later in the debate. What is an appropriate punishment for Ministers? Perhaps we should make them deliver the apology on their knees at the Bar of the House.
I shall stop being frivolous, because this is a serious issue and one on which the Government were elected. All parties stood for cleaning up Parliament, modernising this House and listening to Back-Bench MPs, and the Government were elected on that. It might therefore be appropriate for the Procedure Committee to consider insisting that the Prime Minister come to the House to apologise in person every time one of his Ministers pre-announces something. The thought of a Prime Minister having to come to the Dispatch Box on a regular basis to apologise for the actions of members of his team would help to focus minds. Such an approach
would make him force his Front Benchers to behave, because that would not be good for his business or for his image.
Barry Gardiner: Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the extent of leaks from both parties when they have been in government, the fact that the leaks have continued signals either that the Prime Minister does not have authority over his Cabinet or that he refuses to implement that authority?
The motion states that we need a "protocol" that Ministers will abide by and, as Back Benchers, we should expect that to happen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) says, it has to have teeth. There will be an expectation that the Procedure Committee will take this forward and we will expect serious proposals to be made. If they are not, we should revisit this issue because it is incredibly serious. We have heard all the talk about new politics, but I think we should have some action. Let us see Ministers acknowledge the respect with which this House ought to be treated and see an end to policy announcements in the breakfast media.
Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I welcome the fact that we are debating this motion tonight and that we now have a Backbench Business Committee in place. This reform has been a long time coming-the idea that the House of Commons should control its own timetable was first set out in the 1590s by someone called Robert Parsons. So it has taken more than 400 years since the idea was first mooted for it to become a reality. That is hardly speedy progress, even by parliamentary standards.
The call by Robert Parsons for the Commons to take control of its own agenda and assert its historic role as the fount of all public law fell on deaf ears at the time. But the call in 2009 by the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, to which I was pleased to have been elected a member, has been more successful. I am delighted that we now have a Backbench Business Committee in place at long last.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on his speech and the Chair and members of the Backbench Business Committee on bringing forward this motion tonight. We have heard a number of quotes about what you have said since you took the Chair, Mr Speaker, but you have been consistent. Before you took the Chair, you said, when expressing your own views on this subject, that
"once and for all, Ministers must be obliged to make key policy statements here."-[ Official Report, 22 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 624.]
As with so many of your pronouncements, Mr Speaker, who could disagree with that? I certainly do not. So I support the motion and, if the House agrees, I would be very pleased to see that it is properly considered by the Procedure Committee, which I chair.
I know from his interventions that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) does not want to see a wishy-washy report. The basis on which I support this motion and will be inviting the Procedure Committee to investigate the matter is my belief that this problem
should be addressed and we need ways to deal with it. We have heard mention of the ministerial code, but one of the problems with it is that it is not policed by the House but by the Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) touched on what has been the problem in the past-Prime Ministers have perhaps not been as attentive to the ministerial code as they should have been. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned sanctions. If the House approves the motion tonight, I anticipate that sanctions will be considered as part of the inquiry that the Procedure Committee would wish to pursue.
I intend to be brief this evening, because I believe that it would be inappropriate for me to take a position on what our conclusions ought to be. If the House agrees to the motion, the Committee that I chair will deliberate, assess and then judge the appropriate way forward and will then, very likely, make a number of recommendations to the House. I have long believed that it is extremely important that one should not be an advocate if one is also to be a judge.
Mr Hollobone: It is a shame, if I may say so, that my right hon. Friend intends to make a short speech, because he is off to a good start. Would it be his intention, when his Committee meets, for this to be the first item of business to be discussed? Does he anticipate bringing back his findings to the House according to a speedy timetable?
Mr Knight: I certainly intend to suggest to the Committee that this should be the first item to be pursued and, if it takes my advice, I hope that it will agree to deal with the matter with all due speed. It is not appropriate for me to pontificate this evening on the detail of the line of that investigation. Instead, I would prefer to remain present throughout the debate to listen to and reflect on the views expressed by the House.
This is a good motion, but the subject at issue is one that, as the motion itself accepts, needs the full and rigorous examination of a Select Committee inquiry. I hope that the House will allow that inquiry to take place.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate tonight and to give the perspective of a new Member of the House who has spent the past 11 weeks trying to make sense of what has been going on. I am tremendously grateful-I know that I speak for other new Members-for the welcome that we have had from right hon. and hon. Members and from the staff of the House. However, I regret to say that that welcome is not sufficient to enable us as new Members to feel that we can do the job effectively, as our constituents expect us to from day one. As someone who knew a bit about the House before I was elected to represent the constituency that I now have the privilege to represent, I have found it difficult to navigate Parliament geographically and procedurally. I welcome this debate, not just in its own narrow terms but as the means to open up a discussion about a modern and well-informed Parliament.
All this matters so much not because of some abstract debate about the importance of the Commons, notions of procedure or ideas of self-importance-to which
many of us are prone, I guess-but because this Government, in common with preceding Governments, are proposing to make massive changes to our welfare state that will have a significant impact on the lives of my constituents. Such changes to our system of social support must be fully debated with the benefit of the best information and understanding.
Already, in only a few weeks, the introduction of new legislation such as the Academies Bill and the launch of the White Paper on the national health service have revealed the scale of the changes that I have described, as will the future proposals on welfare reform and pensions reform. They are not theoretical or empty political gestures of change but fundamental changes to the quality of my constituents' lives.
I hope that the motion will open up a debate about how we can do government better and more effectively. For me, that means that the new politics require a modern Parliament. Many of the issues that hon. Members have touched on would help us to become that more modern Parliament. Many of the parliamentary instruments and devices that we are encouraged to use are, from the point of view of the newcomer at least, opaque and unwieldy at best. My concern is that we should be well informed, that matters should be well scrutinised and that we should have time to consider properly the absolutely vital issues that we are rightly debating and addressing in the House. That means that when statements are made and legislation is brought before the House, they must be in a form that enables hon. Members to consider them properly, fully and appropriately in terms of the time available and the extent of the information that is laid before us.
That point was made repeatedly and from both sides of the House in yesterday's debate on the Academies Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) has said, measures that are brought forward in haste and without adequate scrutiny turn out to be poor when we have to live with them. Given the scale of the changes and the ambitions of the coalition Government, it is important that we should have time to reflect on the proposed changes. We are being asked to respond and to legislate before the detail is properly filled in. There is a lack of opportunity both inside and beyond the House for informed debate. Welcome steps have been taken to improve that-I particularly welcome knowing the date of the spending review in advance as well as the first steps that have been taken in the Budget Red Book to try to open up some of the impact assessments-but there is still a long way to go.
Robert Halfon: You mentioned that because of all the big legislation coming through, it is important that Parliament has the right powers, and of course I agree with you, but do you agree that under the last Government there were also very big legislative measures and that Parliament was then neutered by programme motions and having only one question time a week instead of two? Do you agree-
Mr Speaker: Order. The intervention is a little on the long side. May I very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that I did not mention anything and that I am not agreeing with anyone? I call Kate Green.
Kate Green: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. In common with all the hon. Members who have spoken this evening, I am anxious that this should not be a partisan debate. I was not in the House during Labour's terms of government, but I was certainly aware of many of the proposals and debates that were brought forward and we often lamented how they came at us out of nowhere, without proper time for input and consideration. I certainly hope that we will start to see some changes coming from all the political parties. I know that would be warmly welcomed by informed opinion outside the House.
Robert Halfon: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. What I wanted to ask is whether she agreed that there has already been some progress in that we are having this debate at all, in that there is now a Backbench Committee with an elected Chairman and in that we now have elected members and Chairmen of Select Committees? In some ways, the Government are giving powers back to Parliament.
Kate Green: It is right that the House has begun to take on more powers that improve the democratisation of processes, but I do not think that is a consequence of one particular Government, as there has been pressure from Back Benchers as a whole. Also, the steps taken so far have been relatively limited. To sit back now and be complacent about what has been achieved under the first few weeks of this Government would be a very serious limitation on where I suggest we ought to go as a House.
In conclusion, I support the thrust of the motion, but I hope that it is only the beginning of the debate. I believe that I have been elected to do the best I can for my constituents, and the provision of timely, comprehensive information is key to enabling me to do that.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who made a thoughtful speech about the need for a modern and well-informed House. On her remarks, it is indeed our ambition to have a legislative programme that is well prepared when the Bills are introduced and that is of a size that the House can easily digest, and it is our intention that the House should have an opportunity, which it did not always have in the last Parliament, to consider the legislation seriously and without undue pressure.
It is a pleasure to intervene briefly in the first debate initiated by the new Backbench Business Committee. This is the first time that the House has had an opportunity to debate a substantive motion on a subject tabled by a Back Bencher since the old system of private Members' motions was abolished in 1995. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) went a little further back in history to the Jesuit, Robert Parsons, to identify the source of the Backbench Business Committee. I do not want to prejudice the consensual nature of the debate by complaining too loudly of the last Government's failure to set up that Committee. It would be uncharitable to blame even the last Leader of the House for making slow progress on an idea that appears to have been some four centuries in the making.
I pay tribute to the energetic way that the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel)
has set up the Committee and hit the ground running. I said in the last Parliament that I wanted the Backbench Business Committee to set the first topical debate of this Parliament. In fact, it has done better than that and chosen a subject for a full three-hour debate, and I am delighted that progress is being made. Restoring public confidence in Parliament is one of the ambitions of the coalition. Enabling Parliament to do its job effectively is a key part of that process, and giving the Backbench Business Committee its agenda-setting powers is a major milestone in doing that.
Turning to the motion, allegations that the Government make announcements to the media before making them to the House are not new. This is my 10th Parliament, and I can remember occasions in every preceding one when one of the six Speakers who have sat in the Chair, beginning with Selwyn Lloyd, have rebuked Ministers for continuing that practice. As we have heard, Mr Speaker, you made it clear in your very first statement that
"when Ministers have key policy statements to make, the House must be the first to hear them, and they should not be released beforehand."-[ Official Report, 24 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 797.]
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on a first-class speech in moving the motion. If I may say so, he was a little bit tough on those who sit on the Treasury Bench in implying that every Minister in the coalition Government should resign because they had all leaked information to the press, but otherwise, he made his case forcefully and convincingly. There is little doubt that, over perhaps the last 13 years, we have seen a more cavalier approach to the way in which announcements are made than previously. In 1998, the then Speaker felt strongly enough about the Labour Government's consistent and deliberate leaks that she gave a BBC interview outlining her frustration that, although successive Governments had briefed the press before Parliament, it was being done
"far more subtly and professionally"
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and, indeed, other hon. Members have said, Parliament pays a price for that process. We devalue ourselves if the news is being made elsewhere. We therefore risk losing our position as the centre of British national debate. That is surely why the principle that we are debating today is important. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston touched on that principle. Again, it was well put by Speaker Boothroyd who said in her farewell address:
"This is the chief forum of the nation-today, tomorrow and, I hope, for ever."-[ Official Report, 26 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 1114.]
We are elected here to scrutinise the Executive and to hold Ministers to account on behalf of our constituents. It is therefore crucial that Ministers explain and justify their policies in the Chamber in the first instance.
John Mann: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for generously giving way. Does he agree that, if the motion is passed tonight, the scale of the offence of any Minister who transgresses is significantly higher than it would have been in the past?
"When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament."
Since the start of this Parliament, the Government have made 20 oral statements and 189 written statements, which is an average since the Queen's Speech of nearly three oral statements per sitting week and nearly seven written statements per sitting day. On top of that, we have answered five urgent questions. In this Parliament, there have already been a total of 214 announcements to the House over 30 sitting days, so I hope that the House accepts that as evidence that the Government take the code seriously.
Even with the best endeavours, as we have heard, leaks to the media can occur before announcements are made to the House and without the connivance of Ministers. For example, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) said, the whole of the 1996 Budget found its way to the Daily Mirror. The then Chancellor decided that there was nothing much that he could do about it and took his whole team to an Indian restaurant-a characteristic response from my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said, when things have gone wrong in this Parliament, Ministers have come to apologise.
The code says that the "most important announcements" should be made first to Parliament, but as we heard earlier, that gives rise to the question of what the most important announcements are-perhaps the Procedure Committee would like to address that point. However, it is worth pointing out that the code should not prevent Ministers from making observations or comments about policies that have already been announced, and nor should it mean that we cannot make speeches or give interviews outside the House. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was criticised last week for comments that he made about the graduate tax in a television interview, but as I told the House last Thursday, there was no policy change because the question of a graduate tax had already been referred to Lord Browne's review by the previous Government. In my view, my right hon. Friend was taking part in the entirely legitimate debate that is developing outside the House.
Stephen Pound: Not for the first time, the right hon. Gentleman is shining the light of clarity on the particular problem before us. He talked about the seven or eight written statements that are released each day and the many oral statements, but how on earth can we come to a situation in which somebody somewhere is tasked with deciding what is "the most important"? A written ministerial statement was made today on the 2013 review of the Rural Payments Agency, but I would say that that is probably not the most important- [ Interruption. ] I am sorry; I mean in the scale of things to be reported to the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider introducing a system such as colour coding under which we could have different gradations of statement, meaning that some could be laid before the House while others would have to be presented from the Dispatch Box?
Sir George Young: I accept the argument that we need a gradation. In a sense, we have that already because we have oral statements and then written ministerial statements, and then I suppose we have press releases put out by Departments. However, it would be helpful if the Procedure Committee could shed some light on the key question of what should trigger the obligation for a Minister to make an oral statement to the House about a major announcement of policy because Ministers, more than anyone else, are anxious to stay within the rules.
The debate gives us the opportunity to stand back and think radically about statements and their role in our agenda. Going back a few decades, the Government made statements to the House because that was the prime means of distributing information to the nation. Life today could not be more different. There are more platforms than ever for the Government and others to communicate with individuals or communities, so the terms of trade have completely changed. It is right for the Procedure Committee to have a fresh look at the rules, which is why I will support the motion.
If the motion is agreed, I propose to submit a memorandum of evidence to the Procedure Committee on behalf of the Government, and at this point I would like to make a point that has not been raised before. In the past three Parliaments, such an inquiry would probably have been carried out by the Modernisation Committee. That Committee was chaired by the Leader of the House, and if that had been the route by which a recommendation had been agreed, the Leader of the House would have submitted a report to the House of Commons. One only has to think about that for 30 seconds to realise that that is entirely the wrong way to set about the issue. That is why it was absolutely right at the beginning of this Parliament not to re-establish the Modernisation Committee, chaired by the Leader of the House, but to ask the Procedure Committee to take on board agendas that the Modernisation Committee would previously have taken.
Let me briefly touch on a few ideas that the Procedure Committee might look at. The Wright Committee said that statements could be taken at a different point in the parliamentary day, and one has to ask whether 12.30 pm or 3.30 pm are the only times for statements. Is there a way of insulating time taken for statements from the time allocated to the business of the House? For example, Governments are sometimes reluctant to make statements on Opposition days because that eats into the time to which the Opposition are entitled. Could statements be shortened by having a yet tighter limit on the time that Ministers' take, or by releasing the text and relevant papers in advance so that the House might proceed to question the Secretary of State, rather than have the statement read out?
It would also be helpful if the Procedure Committee were to consider whether the earliest opportunity for issuing written statements might be brought forward. Not everyone is on the estate by 9.30 am, but I am sure that a good number are in their offices even earlier than that, and if the timing of written statements is brought forward, it should be accompanied by a system of making those statements available to Members either electronically, by e-mail, or by posting them on the parliamentary intranet. To put that into context, Select Committees release many of their reports at one minute past midnight.
Finally, I have already given a commitment to consider new procedures for the launching of Select Committee reports on the Floor of the House. There is no reason why Ministers should have a monopoly on making statements to the House; Select Committee Chairs should also have that privilege. I had intended to write to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), inviting the Procedure Committee to consider how that recommendation could be implemented. However, as the proposal has something of the nature of a ministerial statement, perhaps the Procedure Committee will be able to include it in the scope of the inquiry that is before the House this evening.
Mr Bone: The Leader of the House is making a very important speech, but why does the practice, which the previous Government introduced, of announcing statements in advance on the Order Paper seem not to happen now?
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I think that we have done that once during this Parliament, but I agree that it would be helpful if, so far as is possible, the House were given advance notice that a Minister proposed to make an oral statement.
I hope to be able on Thursday to make further announcements about time for Back Benchers' debates. Those debates are part of a process of moving towards a fully established House Committee, which we are committed to establishing in three years' time. Together with other reforms that either have been recently introduced or are under consideration, they will make this Parliament one where the terms of trade tilt back towards Parliament and away from the Executive, and oblige the Government to raise their game. This Government welcome that challenge.
Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab): This is an historic debate, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for chairing the Backbench Business Committee, and thus helping to bring forward the subject of this debate. It is an excellent subject, because it goes straight to the heart of the relationship between Parliament and the Executive-and inevitably, as hon. Members have already pointed out, the relationship between Parliament, the Executive and what are nowadays the 24-hour media.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hollobone- [ Laughter. ] Sorry, not Hollobone. It is Mr Hollobone, the Member for- [ Interruption. ] Kettering. Mr Kettering, the Member for Hollobone-brilliant. He made a very good opening speech, and, as the current Deputy Leader of the House said before the election, Ministers should remember that
"their first responsibility in terms of information is to the House and nowhere else".-[ Official Report, 3 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 657.]
"short circuit of the system".-[ Official Report, 12 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 28.]
It is also true that Members have claimed that all Governments have been guilty of bypassing Parliament. I am being entirely helpful and non-partisan when I say that the Government have managed to pack some spectacular examples into their 10 short weeks of power. As the hon. Member for Kettering said, that is not a
good start, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) said, we need to remind ourselves of such issues.
I merely want to help hon. Members-particularly the hon. Member for Kettering, as he puts together his resignation list. The Home Secretary was forced to come to the House to apologise for giving the media a statement on the immigration cap that was meant for the House. The Secretary of State for Education briefed his plans for schools to the media, then, as we know, was forced to apologise for inaccuracies; I think there were five revised lists in the end. The Secretary of State for Health briefed the media on the NHS operating framework and on NHS reorganisation. Downing street seems to have briefed the entire Queen's Speech to the media. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Justice briefed on prison reform and the Chancellor of the Exchequer briefed on spending cuts, financial reform and specific figures in the Budget. Today, an urgent question meant that a Treasury Minister had to come to the House to explain the structure and approach of the Office of Tax Simplification.
Ms Winterton: I do not have an exact number, but I do not think that the previous Government gave a statement meant for the House-an actual, written statement-to the media in advance. Furthermore, the leaks of the specific Budget figures and the entire Queen's Speech were pretty spectacular.
All that shows that there is much work to do. That is why I welcome the motion, and the fact that the Leader of the House has indicated his support. The motion rightly refers to the action that you, Mr Speaker, have taken to make it clear to Ministers that they should make statements to the House before they are made elsewhere. Right hon. and hon. Members' welcome for that has already been reflected in the debate.
The motion also refers to the ministerial code and the rules of the House. I am sure that the Procedure Committee will want to look at whether the code and the relevant House rules reflect the reality of the pressure of the 24-hour media. That issue has already been touched on. How can we ensure that Ministers are not tempted to try to fit in with the media timetable rather than the parliamentary timetable? Some interesting suggestions have been made about meeting earlier, but unless we can get Ministers out of the "Today" studios, we will have to start meeting at about 5 in the morning. We need to consider that issue closely, but I certainly welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) has said that the Procedure Committee will get full scale on to the matter.
We should also face the fact that there are those in the media who think that they are perfectly capable of cross-examining Ministers, so what is all the fuss about Parliament? However, as the motion says, it is essential for our democracy that Back Benchers-and, I would add, Opposition Front Benchers-should be able to hold the Government to account and quiz Ministers on what Government policy will mean for their constituents.
I am not thinking of how journalists might quiz Ministers; Members have knowledge of how policies will translate at constituency level.
The fiasco over Building Schools for the Future was properly exposed only because Members of Parliament-on both sides of the House-looked closely at the numerous lists that were produced, and in many cases spotted the mistakes. That was an important part of the role of Members of Parliament in coming forward to Ministers and asking and probing them about things. I predict that exactly the same will happen in relation to some of the changes proposed in the NHS when they are examined closely in practice at constituency level. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said, these are huge policy changes that will hugely affect our constituents, and Members rightly want the opportunity to quiz Ministers as soon as they are announced.
With the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government, it is even more important for us to hear announcements here, because we have a coalition agreement that is pulling together policies from two manifestos, sometimes with a bit more put in, sometimes with a bit left out, so it is often unclear whether a policy was one that people voted for or one that was part of the coalition agreement. That adds a new dimension to what we are discussing.
We welcome the idea that the Procedure Committee should look into whether the rules of the House could be better used or changed to ensure that Ministers make statements here. Following the speech by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, I have great faith that he is going to look into that thoroughly, perhaps even with the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).
I hope that the Committee can also consider the issue of Ministers making statements in the House, but then retracting them outside without necessarily coming back to the House to do so. Earlier today, we heard my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills raise a point of order about an example of this. In the House, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister accused the directors of Sheffield Forgemasters of being unwilling to dilute their shareholding and said that that was one of the reasons why the Government cancelled the £80 million loan. However, the Deputy Prime Minister has since written to the chief executive of Forgemasters acknowledging that he knew that the chief executive had offered to dilute his shareholding. It seems that we have no ability to ensure that either the Deputy Prime Minister or the Prime Minister must come to the House to withdraw their previous comments. Perhaps the Committee could provide guidance on that.
I welcome the support that the Leader of the House has given to the motion. I hope that in the meantime, before the Procedure Committee makes any recommendations, he will impress on Ministers the need to come to the House before announcements are made elsewhere. I hope that this excellent debate will emphasise to Ministers that Back Benchers-and, for that matter, Opposition Front Benchers-regard this as a crucial issue for Parliament. It is not just about keeping MPs happy; it is about a vital way for us to represent our constituents. In that spirit, we should all thank the Backbench Business Committee for making this the subject of its first debate, and thank the hon. Member for Kettering for the motion before us.
Mr Speaker: Order. It might be helpful to the House if I remind Members that this debate has to conclude no later than 10.34 pm, so we have 85 minutes left. The debate will, very properly, be wound up by the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. I have had indications from seven further Members that they wish to contribute; right hon. and hon. Members are quite capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves.
What is interesting about the current situation is that if the Procedure Committee comes up with proposals for change, it will not have to beg the Government for time to have them debated but can simply pass them to the Backbench Business Committee so that it can table a substantive resolution to change the rules of Parliament. That system, which most representative bodies have, is a key change.
The Leader of the House was entirely right not to recreate the Modernisation Committee, not least because it was the wrong process: Parliament, not the Government, should run Parliament. I was on the Modernisation Committee. I like these procedural matters, and I happen to be on both the Backbench Business Committee and the Procedure Committee, not because I am a glutton for punishment so much as because procedure is the key way of enabling us to do things.
My memory may not be entirely right, but I believe that the last time the Modernisation Committee met was some time in late 2008. The Opposition's view was that at that point Parliament was modern, so there was no reason for the Committee to continue meeting, and it ceased some time before the general election. However, we are now in a situation in which Parliament can assert itself to take power on behalf of the electorate. That is the key change. We are the voice of the people, and it is our job to do that.
Other changes will come through. One matter that the Procedure Committee considered in the previous Parliament was what we do when the Government fail to answer a written parliamentary question. Under the previous system we could either ask it again, which did not generally work very well, or put in a freedom of information request. That was an absurd situation, and the Procedure Committee decided to establish a process whereby hon. Members could go to that Committee and say, "This question has been inadequately answered." I hope that we will consider that matter as the second item on the agenda, because I agree with the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) that Parliament has to reassert itself.
I would go a bit further than that. We need to recognise that according to article 13 of the basic constitutional law of the UK, the Bill of Rights, Parliament is here to redress all grievances. That means that we are here to speak on behalf of our citizens wherever problems exist, whether they be in this country or around the world, in the judicial system or in the Executive. Over time we might move more towards the separation of powers, or we might simply stay as we are, but it is crucial for Parliament to assert itself as the voice of the people, and in doing so, bring Parliament closer to the people.
That requires relatively nuisance-like people such as me to do things that are perhaps not exactly what our party would like us to do-especially with mine in a coalition Government-and to raise embarrassing matters. That actually strengthens the whole process of government, because when we ask difficult questions it may mean that civil servants are empowered to say to the Government, "Well, actually, this isn't necessarily something that you should do. Perhaps if you do it slightly differently, that will be a better way of running the country."
I have often described the way in which we run this country as like driving a car and trying to avoid a car crash by looking in the rear view mirror at the car crash that happened two years ago. Many times when things go wrong in this country there is complete quiet. Then, after a year, a lot of people make a bit of noise but nothing happens. After a bit longer even more people make a noise and there is an inquiry, which finds that there was a real disaster some years before. Parliament needs to get more upstream in that process, so that problems are raised in Parliament as they arise and the Government answer, giving the truth about what is happening.
One thing that shocked me when I came to the House from Birmingham city council was how out of date the information to which parliamentarians had access was. Even as an opposition member of the city council I was used to knowing-
Mr Speaker: Order. It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Gentleman, but I must ask him to focus on the terms of the motion, specifically the question of information on Government statements and ministerial accountability to the House for statements made.
This is about questions and information. The reality is that we are now moving towards improving how the House holds the Government to account. Like the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, I should avoid going into too many details on the possibilities, because I still hope to be on the Procedure Committee-if it is ever set up. If the Opposition are interested in matters of procedure and if they cannot find Labour Members to sit on that Committee, why cannot the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is a musician, replace another musician and former Labour Member who was defeated at the election? We need to constitute the Procedure Committee.
Sir Peter Soulsby: I had the pleasure of serving with the hon. Gentleman on both the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee, and I share his frustration that the latter has not yet been established. Given the importance of the matter before us, does he agree that it is vital that that Committee be established, and up and running, before the summer recess?
John Hemming: That is crucial. If the Labour party cannot find someone in its midst to sit on that Committee, it should approach the minority parties. I am sure that a minority party Member would like to do so. The minority parties often complain that they are unable to sit on Select Committees.
John Hemming: That is excellent news. If the House is to refer something to the Procedure Committee, it would help if that Committee existed. That brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), which is that this matter requires detailed consideration-we cannot simply pass a resolution and sort everything out.
We need to identify the details and a protocol, and Ministers need guidance on what is sufficiently important to warrant this or that process. We need guidance on when information should be released and made available to the outside world and hon. Members via e-mail or the Vote Office. I do not know exactly how long it takes for information that is placed in the Library to be put on the website. Many important issues need to be considered, as we saw in connection with the Building Schools for the Future announcement, when questions were asked about when information ought to have been released. Such questions must be dealt with in great detail.
If Ministers do not wish to follow the guidance, we must think about sanctions. Obviously, we have the power under our inherent jurisdiction over contempt of Parliament to refer Ministers to the Standards and Privileges Committee. Many strange sentences have been passed for such contempt in the past, such as sitting on a horse backwards or getting locked up in Big Ben. We need not necessarily go that far, but we need some form of sanction. We need to look at all the processes that ensure that the House can operate as the voice of the people.
I have come roughly to the end of my 10 minutes. As a member of the Backbench Business Committee and a former member of the Procedure Committee, I am very pleased to see this first substantive motion. It has been driven by Back Benchers to ensure that Parliament asserts itself without having to say, "Pretty please" to the Government.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): As a minority party Member, I am of course disqualified from membership of the Backbench Business Committee, but happily, I am not disqualified from participating in the debate, which so far has involved many of the Members who have worked very hard on that Committee.
The Leader of the House helped us by canvassing suggestions as to where we might go from here. It is important to use the motion not just as a "wailing wall" exercise to talk about every past transgression on statements, or to compare how many press briefings this Government give compared with the previous Government. There is guilt all around, so we need to consider how we go forward. If the motion is passed tonight, it will go to the Procedure Committee, but what will it do?
One basic problem touched on by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) is that the ministerial code as such is deemed to be in the charge of the Prime Minister as opposed to the House. One of the things that I would want to see the Procedure Committee do is to draw up a House code of accountability that would apply to Ministers and to Select Committee Chairs if making statements or bringing serious matters-
that they have investigated or have made recommendations on-to the attention of the House. A clear House code of accountability would get past the circular argument that takes place whenever hon. Members make a point of order about the lack of a statement-or the alleged inaccuracy of a statement-and then you say that it is not a matter for you, Mr Speaker. In the end, Ministers are meant to be accountable to Parliament, but there is no accountability when these things go wrong. A clear House code of accountability would help us to achieve that.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that if there were to be such a House code, it should look at mechanisms to deal with the situation in which, however inadvertently, Ministers mislead the House-as a Minister did when he claimed that my local authority had only 2% cuts-or do not answer questions when asked? We do not have a proper remedy in such circumstances, which are all too common at present.
Mark Durkan: I accept what my hon. Friend says. However, I doubt that a new House code of accountability would be able to cover all these issues. It would have to be more like a highway code than an exhaustive and comprehensive law that was specific in all cases. On the basis of case law and application, it could improve, and then Ministers would not be able to claim that they were in any doubt about what it required.
We must also be careful, as Back Benchers who want to ensure that announcements are made in this House rather than being pre-spun to the press and elsewhere, that we do not end up complaining that too many statements are being made and we do not have enough time to spend on substantive legislative business. For another couple of months, I will carry on serving in another Chamber, and that is a common complaint there. We have too many set-piece statements that do not amount to very much and people find it hard to see anything key, important or new in them. Those three words have all been used at various times to describe the test for whether statements should be made in this House.
I sat on the Benches opposite during the last Parliament and heard many statements that did not contain much new. It might have been that the Prime Minister wanted to identify himself with a policy, but the policy itself was not new, and at times we wondered why statements were being made. While we want to press the point that statements should be made in this House rather than being presented through the media or at other set-piece events, we do not want to end up in a ridiculous situation.
The Leader of the House made some useful suggestions. We should not always have oral statements with up to an hour of questions. Often the questions become repetitive and, just as Minister's statements are accused of spin, so too the questions and the replies can be accused of counter-spin. It cuts both ways. Are there intermediate arrangements that we could have between a written statement, which involves no questions or time for questions, and an oral statement accompanied by a lengthy opportunity for questions? My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) referred earlier to a possible gradation of statements. As the Leader of the House suggested, if a statement were
available in writing, it could then be the subject of questions without the statement being rehearsed in the House.
Stephen Pound: When I made that intervention, I may have unwittingly caused offence to certain Members representing rural constituencies. The point I was trying to make was that a review such as the 2013 review of the Rural Payments Agency surely is not in the same scale of immediacy as some of the other statements, such as on the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010. Does my hon. Friend accept that we could have a code of prioritisation on this, perhaps even a hierarchy of needs?
Mark Durkan: I fully agree with my hon. Friend, although as always the question will be: who makes the judgment, who makes the call? However, so long as people think that an honest judgment has been made and a fair call attempted, the House would be broadly satisfied. It should always be the case that, if a written statement is made without the chance for questions, there should perhaps be a business slot early in the following week in which people can, if they want to, ask questions about a statement. Perhaps there should be an opportunity for questions to be asked about all the written statements made in the previous week.
I do not understand why the House does not sit until half-past 2 on a Tuesday. I understand the argument on the Monday-that Members are travelling from constituencies and want to spend the weekend with their families in their constituencies-but I do not understand why we wait until half-past 2 on a Tuesday. There should be more early-day business, perhaps on Tuesday, and in fact one window for early-day business could be specifically for ministerial statements. That might be an opportunity for people to have a round-up of free-ranging questions about matters that were the subject of written ministerial statements the previous week, and Ministers would have to be available on that basis.
As I understand it, in the Scottish Parliament, Ministers have to be available to answer questions on a fairly free-ranging basis. We could have a special question time slot-it could be done Westminster Hall-style-in the Chamber almost as a special committee of the House, if we do not want to transgress on to other things. There are ways and means to ensure that, even if a statement is tabled in the first instance as a written statement, we can ask questions about it and hold people to account, so that the procedure of the written statement is not abused. That applies to some of the issues raised by other Members about the hours of the House and the times at which we sit.
It is important to have better advance notice of statements. Again, the Leader of the House was helpful when he said that perhaps more work could be done to ensure that there is advance notice of oral statements. I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) who spoke as a new Member on this point. It is bizarre that we can find in our papers all written ministerial statements, which we cannot question, for that day, but nothing about oral statements, unless we have been listening to the radio and have guessed what topics are likely to be the subject of oral statements. If we could have more advance notice, it would help us in our preparation of questions.
We need to ensure, however, that we have a good balance in what we ask of the Government, because we do not want the business of the House to become dominated by set-piece statements and questions. We also want live debates and good interaction in those debates. I appreciate why the Backbench Business Committee has singled out this issue for the first debate under its lead-it is correct in the light of recent experience and also experiences in the previous Parliament. However, with everybody making accusations, we should bear in mind one of the wisest adages I have ever heard about politics: irony in politics is just hypocrisy with panache. Hearing many of the complaints that each side of the House is making against the other about what different Governments have done reminds me of that. We need to remember that Back-Bench Members are not free from sin either.
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