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3 Feb 2011 : Column 379WH—continued

As for amendments and explanations, I am absolutely in favour of the recommendation. We had an experiment, but not everyone did so. A simple way to ensure that
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everybody does it is to say that those who want to table an amendment must offer an explanation or it will not be considered.

Turning to the broader questions, many hon. Members have mentioned balancing competing pressures on time, and we happen to be sitting in one of the solutions. The Adjournment debates that take place in Westminster Hall are hugely important for Back Benchers who want to raise issues and get an answer from Ministers. A number of ideas relating to that have been suggested by the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) and others. The Procedure Committee has recommended that we use this place to question Ministers on written ministerial statements, which is a most sensible suggestion that I hope the House will adopt. The other question is who should control the time, as we seek to expand it to deal with the competing demands.

The second matter is the fundamental one of the balance of power between the legislature and the Executive.

Chris Bryant: By convention, constitutional Bills are dealt with entirely on the Floor of the House. In practice, the process of going through them line by line means that we end up with fewer hours of debate. I wonder whether there is a means of having those debates in Westminster Hall, so as to allow a longer debate, more in the style of a normal sitting on the Committee corridor, but with the votes still being held in the main Chamber.

Hilary Benn: That would be one way of addressing some of the pressures that we have been discussing. I shall return in a moment to how we could take it all forward.

I was a local councillor for 20 years and, picking up on a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), when I was first elected to the House, I was astonished at the lack of scrutiny of expenditure, because councillors went through every year's budget line by line. We have a lot of means by which to hold the Executive to account, if we choose to exercise them, and we can discuss ways to acquire more means. My right hon. Friend has made a number of suggestions on that point.

The third question is how Parliament is seen and covered by the media. I regret the fact that there is more commentary and sketch writing about what is said in Parliament than there is reporting of what parliamentarians say. It is a bit like "Match of the Day" having about five minutes of football and 55 minutes of analysis. We have to get the balance right, but it is up to us.

We should think back to the tuition fees debate, when a wide range of views was expressed. That day, the eyes of the nation were on Parliament. My son told me that he went to the bar at university and saw something that he had never seen before-students watching the Parliament channel on television. On that day, people were looking to us, because we were debating something important. When the bankers appeared before the Treasury Committee-those folk had contributed somewhat to the economic difficulties that we face-people were interested in the process.

The fourth question is how we legislate. I agree with the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and others about the benefit of pre-legislative scrutiny. With
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the benefit of some ministerial experience, I can say that Governments of all colours do not draft perfect legislation. The notion that the Government should unveil legislation in the House and then repel all boarders, wherever they come from, is nonsense. The act of scrutinising legislation, both pre-legislative and in Committee, means that we end up with better legislation, which is what we want. That process tests the legislation, and things that have not been thought of are exposed. I agree with those who say that we should have the chance to vote on proposals, and not see them slip off the edge of the Order Paper. The Government should have the courage of the argument and respect the vote.

Turning to how representative we are, we have not touched on House of Lords reform, because that would have taken all of our time, but I am wholly in favour of the second Chamber being 100% elected. It should be part of the system of checks and balances while recognising that the first elected Chamber should ultimately have its way.

Where do we go now? We need a process to take forward the ferment of ideas that we have heard this afternoon, and we must not lose the moment-for reasons that many Members have mentioned. The Procedure Committee, which is ably chaired by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight)-I am sorry that he is not well and we have sent our best wishes to him-is the furnace from which the ideas should come. The ideas should be presented to us; we can debate them and then have a chance to vote on them. Completely different views have been expressed this afternoon, which is great. In the end, though, we have to have a mechanism for deciding whether or not we are going to do something. Voting is a wonderful way in which we can try to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable.

Finally, why does this all matter? My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) expressed it on behalf of us all when she said that people look to this Parliament to be the forum for national debate. They want to see that their voices are heard. They want to see us solving their problems and they want their hopes and aspirations realised by what we do. In the words of the prayer, we seek

I would change that to humankind-and it is good to reflect on that when we start the day. The truth is that our democracy is our best and only hope of doing those things; it is our Parliament, so let us make it work for the people whom we have the privilege of representing.

5.20 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): It has been a great pleasure to listen to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing it.

I am pleased that so many new Members have come along and contributed. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) hit the nail on the end when she said that there is a brief moment before we become institutionalised by this place where we actually see things as others see them. It is important that we have that perspective and make use of it.

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I also say that this is a triumph for the Backbench Business Committee, and I am so pleased that the Leader of the House has been able to sit through the debate. I hope that he is here not to ensure that I do not say something completely out of order but because he, like me, shares a zeal for reform. The best thing that we have done so far in this House is create the Backbench Business Committee, which we argued for in opposition, which the Wright Committee proposed and which we now have doing its job. Without the Backbench Business Committee, we would not have had the two well-subscribed, relevant debates in the main Chamber today and this debate happening here. We can contrast that with the lacklustre, so-called topical debates that we had in the previous Parliament, which were chosen by the Leader of the House. Those debates were neither topical nor debates, because Members were not really interested in them, so we have made a huge stride in the way in which we work. Of course, there are many other things that have happened, such as the election of Committees and their Chairs, which is directly relevant to what the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) has said. She is able to be a member of the Health Committee because she has the confidence of her colleagues rather than the patronage of the Whips, which is an important distinction.

Two themes underlie our debate. One is how we make this House more efficient in the way in which it does its job, so that Members of Parliament can do their jobs better. The other-this picks up the point that was very well made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart)-relates to making this House fit for purpose, which is both relevant and a matter of good governance. I agree that we reached a nadir of parliamentary performance a couple of years ago. It coincided, as it happened, with the expenses scandal, and amplified it because the general public were saying, "These people are abusing the system, and what use are they anyway, because Parliament is not doing the job for which we elected it-holding the Executive to account?"

Making the House more efficient and improving good governance are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the situation is the reverse, because they are complementary. The key word-it has been used many times-is balance. There are countervailing balances all the way through the proceedings. For individuals, it is how they use their time-in their constituencies, in the Chamber and with their families, which we often forget as part of the equation. There are competing pressures on their time when they are actually in Parliament. There are Select Committees, Public Bill Committees, the main Chamber and this place. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) had to leave this debate to be in another debate in which she has a keen interest, which demonstrates how we have to balance those pressures.

There is the further balance between legislation and scrutiny, which are both important. The key is time. Very often people make mutually impossible demands on the programme of the House. They say, "We want more time to scrutinise Bills." At the same time, they say, "We want more statements before the House." Then they say, "We want more opportunities to see Ministers in the Chamber, but we do not want the hours to be any longer, and we do not want the recesses to be any shorter. We want all these things to happen within the same short period that we have available as
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parliamentarians." Sometimes, we have to strike a balance. Part of that balance is ensuring that legislation, which is a key part of this House's work, is scrutinised effectively and that there is time for that to happen and for the Government to put forward legislation in a proper way.

Mr Bone: We are very lucky today to have the presence of three outstanding parliamentarians-the Leader of the House, the Deputy Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House. When we were in opposition, we were united in our opposition to programme motions and the reduction in time. I still hold that view, although I am not entirely sure whether the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House still do. Perhaps the answer to my problem is the introduction of a business of the House committee. What does the Deputy Leader of the House say to that?

Mr Heath: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are committed to bringing forward a full business of the House committee. We will not do so until we have seen the way in which the Backbench Business Committee has operated, so that we can learn from experience. Certainly, the early experiences have been good. We should be able to move towards a sensible use of time in this Chamber even without such a Committee, but that needs a degree of co-operation and a bit of grown-up politics, so that when we provide more time for Bills it is used sensibly and not used exclusively by Opposition Front Benchers to the exclusion of Back Benchers. Such issues are important for the whole House. We should ensure that the issues that parliamentarians wish to address have sufficient time to be addressed properly. When we come to a sensible agreement, we should keep to it, because it benefits everybody. My plea is that we discuss these matters, both informally and formally, stick to agreements and try to find the right time for everybody to have their say.

I want briefly to deal with some of the issues that have been raised in debate. For many of them, I will simply say, "It is not a matter for Government." I will be right, because it is a matter for the House. The House, in both my mind and the mind of the Leader of the House, has a key role to play. We have the Procedure Committee considering sitting hours. There are very strong views on either side of the argument. It is not a question of right and a wrong, but a question of what is least bad for many Members. I am looking forward to the options that the Procedure Committee will produce for the House to consider.

As for electronic voting, when I was first elected back in 1997, we discussed whether the current voting system is sensible. The Modernisation Committee cogitated for six months before coming up with its conclusion, which was to do away with the two Clerks on high stools solemnly ticking us all off as we filed past and dramatically replace it with three Clerks on high stools ticking us all off, which was the extent of modernisation in this House. That was the decision of the House. The House wanted to keep to its system, because it was argued that that was the way in which Members could rub shoulders with Ministers. As an Opposition Member, I could never quite see when I would get to rub shoulders with a Minister. It is an issue that is perfectly proper for us to consider. I am struggling at the moment to persuade the Clerks of the House that they need to take a few people
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off the G to M section during a vote. [Interruption.] There are 20% more in our column than in the other two columns, so I have a partisan view on that.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: I refresh the Deputy Leader of the House's mind that there was one occasion when the England football team were involved in a critical World cup match. A Division occurred in the middle of the match and it was accomplished in nine minutes. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Mr Heath: Yes, sometimes. Congestion is a problem-perhaps we should have a congestion charge in the Lobbies.

There are obvious arguments in favour of occasional deferred voting. However, there are also problems with sequential amendments, which were outlined by the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). We need to look at how that problem might be managed if occasional deferred voting is to proceed, but that is another matter for the House to consider.

Regarding abstentions, it has always struck me as odd that we have no way of differentiating between an abstention and an absenteeism. There is no way of knowing that a right hon. Member or hon. Member is here in Parliament but has chosen not to vote for the options before the House. Of course, the results of votes are now recorded electronically and are sent around the country. Constituents believe that their MP simply was not there rather than that they were there, had listened to the arguments made in the debate and were not persuaded by either of the positions that were taken.

I hope that we will make progress on private Members' Bills. As has already been said, the Procedure Committee is looking at that issue.

Regarding explanations for amendments, we had the experiment in Committee and I am certainly happy, as far as the Government are concerned, for that experiment to proceed. Perhaps we ought to look at having such explanations on Report, too. I have argued that occasionally there is room for rubric on motions, including the type of business motion that appears late at night before the House that is completely inexplicable to most Members of the House but is actually entirely benign. I think that we can speed up our progress, but I have been told by the Clerks that we cannot possibly put a bit of rubric on the Order Paper to explain why we are doing it. I do not know why that is the case.

Parliamentary language is an issue that we could debate all evening and I will not enter into it other than to say that we have heard the arguments on both sides.

The additional use of Westminster Hall is an important issue. The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden was one of the pioneers of its additional use. He is not an old fogey. He pioneered real innovation in this House in helping to create this Chamber, and if we can use it more effectively we should do so. We ought to look at that issue.

Regarding the legislative process, pre-legislative scrutiny is important, and this Government are committed to it. By the end of this Session, we will have subjected far more Bills to a process of pre-legislative scrutiny than the previous Government did in the final Session of the
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previous Parliament. It has not happened yet simply because we are a new Government, and inevitably with new legislation one has to start somewhere, otherwise the whole system grinds to a halt. However, we are certainly committed to that process, as we are to the process of post-legislative scrutiny. Indeed, some of the levers for that are already there in the hands of the Select Committees, if they choose to use them.

The issue of commissions of inquiry was raised by the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher). He might remember that, before I was in my present not-very-exalted position, I introduced a Bill to allow commissions of inquiry. There is a strong argument for them, and I am engaging with Ministers to see whether there will be a legislative opportunity for doing exactly as he wishes.

Regarding scrutiny of expenditure, we have already had the clear line of sight programme from the Treasury, which is important and which has allowed a degree of co-ordination in scrutinising expenditure, but we can go further in allowing the House to scrutinise Government expenditure more effectively. Again, however, the Select Committees have an important scrutiny role, which they have not fully exploited. As for lobbyists, we intend to introduce legislation shortly to deal with their registration. I agree that that is an important issue, too.

I will start to wind up now, Mr Benton, because the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who will speak for the Procedure Committee-I am so sorry that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), the Chairman of the Committee, is indisposed today and is unable to be here-wishes to speak.

The problem that we had with the previous Government was their attempt to lead the House's modernisation agenda themselves, by using the Modernisation Committee, chairing it and then effectively abandoning it in the final months and years of the previous Parliament. We are making real progress on a wide front in reforming Parliament, and where there is a need for legislation we will introduce it. The procedure and processes of the House are a matter for the House itself, and we are keen that the House takes the lead on those issues. We might have clear views, and we will express them, but as a Government we should not impose processes on the House.

Ann Coffey: Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?

Mr Heath: Very quickly.

Ann Coffey: Part of the issue is that it is only business managers who can put motions before the House. Is the Minister saying that when the Procedure Committee comes up with recommendations, those recommendations will go to the House to be voted on?

Mr Heath: We have a new procedure that involves the Backbench Business Committee, which is why we are having this debate today and which is the really significant advance. However, I accept that there are different foci for reform in Parliament at the moment. There are the business managers, the Leader of the House and myself, the Backbench Business Committee, the Procedure
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Committee and the Liaison Committee. There are a number of people who have an interest in this issue, and there is a legitimate discussion to be had about whether the House has the right vehicle to take the debate about the issue forward. However, I am absolutely convinced that the debate needs to be taken forward and we, as a Government, will certainly make every attempt to support that view.

5.35 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Benton. It is a pleasure to reply to this debate on behalf of the Procedure Committee. As the Minister has reminded Members, I do so because of the illness of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), who is the Chair of our Select Committee but who had all the symptoms of flu last night. For his sake and for ours, it was felt best that he retired to his bed.

It is very evident, from the number of Members who have been in Westminster Hall for this debate today and the passion with which they have spoken, that a series of issues have been discussed that we undoubtedly need to take account of. The members of the Procedure Committee were here, along with a number of other Members, and I am sure that the other members of the Committee will correct me if I do anything other than express the views of the Committee. As I say, these are matters that we need to take account of and we will take account of them. We are very grateful to have had the opportunity to hear the debate.

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this timely debate. Any person who listened to the debate but was not actually in the room with us would be heartened by the fact that it was virtually impossible to tell which party Members were from as they contributed to the debate. It has been clear that we are united in our passion not only to restore the reputation of the House but to enhance its effectiveness in representing our constituents, in holding the Government to account and in scrutinising legislation.

I pay tribute, very briefly, to some of those who have paved the way in the past for this debate. The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) spoke very passionately. It is worth reflecting on the fact that he currently chairs an important cross-party group, Parliament First, which paved the way for much of the agenda that we have talked about today. Back in 2003, the group published a short but very influential paper called "Parliament's Last Chance", which is still available in the House of Commons Library. In that paper, the group set out an agenda for improving scrutiny and accountability, for direct engagement with the public and, most important of all and fundamental to what we have discussed today, about how Parliament-particularly those of us in the Commons-can regain control over our own affairs and thereby enable ourselves to do our job properly.

I also pay tribute to another Member who is not able to be with us today, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). He wrote a very useful pamphlet that has helped to set the agenda, called "The Last Prime Minister". It was somewhat apocalyptic in its title but none the less influential in the agenda that it set out.

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Of course I pay tribute, as other Members have done, to Tony Wright, the former Member for Cannock Chase. While many of the rest of us were despairing of what was happening around us during the expenses scandal, he saw the opportunity of that crisis to set out an agenda for reform, including proposing the establishment of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, a number of whose members are here today. He also pressed an agenda on that Committee for a menu of items for reform that have enabled us-both the last Government and the present Government-to do much of what has been achieved of late.

We have seen the establishment of the election of our Speaker and of our Deputy Speakers, and even more significantly than those two changes we have seen the establishment of the election of Select Committee Chairs and a proper, transparent system for appointing membership, which has taken those appointments beyond the reach of the patronage of party and Whip. That has undoubtedly continued to enhance the reputation of the work of the Select Committees, and enabled them truly to speak on behalf of Members across the parties, in holding the Government and others to account.

The Procedure Committee is very aware that it needs to take forward the changes that have already been made. In her introduction, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion talked about us having a long way to go. We have achieved a lot, but she is entirely right. The Modernisation Committee is well aware that we have a long way to go, and knows that it picks up the responsibility of the Wright Committee to drive forward change and reform.

We already have on our agenda a number of matters that have come from the Wright report, and we have already looked at some of the issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members during this debate, for example the proposed explanatory statements on amendments. We have looked at the use of hand-held devices, and at issues raised by the Wright Committee that were not picked up by the Government of the time, such as the recommendation to have lay members on the Standards and Privileges Committee. Important as those issues are, a much more significant issue on our agenda is one that many Members have mentioned: the hours we sit, the days when we sit, and what we do when we are here.

A number of Members have touched on the difficulty of drawing up a job description for a Member of Parliament, and undoubtedly there is much to be discussed about the balance between what we do in our constituencies and what we do here at Westminster. However, all of us on the Procedure Committee are aware that there is a range of important issues that we need to discuss, concerning the options for the days when we meet, the
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times we meet, the places where we meet-whether the main Chamber or here in Westminster Hall-and, most important of all, the business that we conduct.

In taking forward our agenda-this was very much pressed on us by the House-the Committee issued just yesterday a timely report on ministerial statements. The report looks at how the House can ensure that it is the first to hear the detail of important Government statements, instead of them being released by the press, with us following far behind trying to pick up the pieces, and responding to the debate rather than setting it. Fundamental to that, and to the work of the Procedure Committee, is the principle that Parliament should be at the centre of the national debate.

I was pleased that the Deputy Leader of the House spoke again of the reforming zeal possessed by him and his colleague, the Leader of the House, whom I have been delighted to see with us throughout this debate, and I press on him once more the vital importance of the recommendation in the Wright Committee's report, which we as the Procedure Committee will pick up, to take forward the House business committee. I think that we are all enormously impressed by the work that is being done by the Backbench Business Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), and by the difference that it has made to our ability to be effective in our jobs as parliamentarians and Members of the House of Commons. However, I think that we are all aware that although the Government have a right to get their business through the House, the House has a responsibility to ensure that that business is properly scrutinised. At the heart of guaranteeing that is the way in which time is allocated and the way in which we as Members of Parliament have the opportunity to ensure that business is properly scrutinised, whether it is in its early pre-legislative scrutiny stages or is passing formally through the various stages in the House. Part of that, and beyond the establishment of a House business committee, are questions about how Public Bill Committees are able to scrutinise legislation.

On behalf of the Select Committee, I want to give a reassurance that we are aware that the issue of how we restore the ability of the House to do its job properly is vital. I also reassure those present that the members of the Procedure Committee have been listening to this debate, even those who are not physically present, and that we recognise our responsibility to respond effectively to the concerns that have been raised and the suggestions that have been made, and to do so in a timely fashion.

Question put and agreed to.

5.44 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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