Session 2010-11
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Representations heard in Public

Questions 1 - 21



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taken before the Backbench Business Committee

on Monday 6 December 2010

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Philip Hollobone

Ian Mearns

Mr George Mudie

Examination of Witnesses


Q1 Chair: Welcome back, Adam.

Adam Afriyie: It’s good to be here. I’ll speak for about 45 seconds to do the groundwork, then we’ll see where we are.

A motion was passed unanimously by Parliament last Thursday, which was very clear: it said that if IPSA does not come forward with a new scheme that is acceptable according to the principles in motion, Parliament would act. We instructed the Government to allow time for Parliament to act and not stand in the way of measures. The key point is that the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 might need to be altered. To keep the option open to hit the deadline of 1 April, a Bill must be in Committee in the next two or three weeks. It cannot be achieved in any other way.

To keep that option open-to make sure that it is possible to deliver the motion-a Bill needs to be in Committee. I again proposed a private Member’s Bill last Friday-the Parliamentary Standards (Amendment) Bill-and to my utter astonishment the Government Whip objected to it again, and I think that is recorded in Hansard. What this tells me very clearly is that, while I am sure that the Government will be bound by the motion, and while they are comfortable for the Backbench Business Committee to move the matter forward, they do not appear to be comfortable about doing it in their own time at the moment. As the Leader of the House said a couple of Thursdays ago, the Government would not make time available at that point, but they were comfortable with the Backbench Business Committee moving it forward.

I have proposed Second Reading for the Parliamentary Standards (Amendment) Bill on Thursday 16 December, which is a Backbench Business Committee day. I come here today to say, "Here I am. I have moved Second Reading for that date." Given that this is a specific matter relating only to Parliament and not the external world, I hope that the Committee will consider Second Reading taking place on 16 December.

Q2 John Hemming: I presume that you would not want very much time for that.

Adam Afriyie: Very little time.

Q3 Chair: We are going to have to discuss this. Procedurally, this issue is outside our remit, I think, but we will have to look into it.

On private Members’ Bills, there was a lot of debate about them in the previous Parliament. At the moment, that area is time that Back Benchers own anyway, so for us as a Backbench Business Committee to start meddling with that would probably be a regressive step. We need to look at all the implications.

Adam Afriyie: I would observe, having gone through all the rules and Standing Orders related to this, that it appears that the Backbench Business Committee would be able to take something beyond the introductory stage but not introduce legislation. You could not take a presentation Bill or a motion, but once you got beyond that stage, it looks possible that you could take a Second Reading. That’s clearly something the Backbench Business Committee will need to work out, and I understand it may take a few days to think about.

Finally, I would add that this does not necessarily open the floodgates, which I understand would be a concern-I, too, would be concerned about that-for three reasons. The first reason is that over the past 10 years, in terms of private Members’ business, no business has been the same as the Parliamentary Standards (Amendment) Bill in that it related only to Parliament and not to the external world.

The second point to take into consideration is that, looking at the Bills that have come through on a Friday, if we are all pretty clear about it, about 95% of them are either written by the Government or stand little chance of becoming law, because they are not drafted in such a fashion that they are able to become law. I would argue that if you did a matrix of what does not enable a precedent, this Bill would fit right at the heart of that matrix. That is because, thinking about the Bills that are there at the moment, there are no others that this would open up a channel for. This is purely a parliamentary matter, really to do with Back Benchers. It is a parliamentary matter, not an external-world matter.

Q4 Chair: I think that we will look at it when we sit in private. There are much wider implications than just simply slotting it in for a couple of minutes before business. We will have to look at that and get back to you, if that is all right. Thank you. No doubt we will see you next week.

Adam Afriyie: I am enjoying it.

Q5 Chair: So are we.

Margaret and Richard, thank you very much for coming. Basically, the format for this is for you to run us through what it is that you are after and what time slot. At the moment, on 16 December we have three hours in the Chamber, and we have a three-hour slot in Westminster Hall on 13 January, which is when we first get back. The 16 December slot is the only one between now and Christmas that we will have in the Chamber. We also want to hear why you are making representations here, what other avenues you have tried, what you are pitching for and all that kind of thing.

Margaret Hodge: Thank you, Natascha. Let me start by saying that we definitely seek a slot in the Chamber. We do that partly because that is where the Public Accounts Committee has always had its debates, but mainly because of the importance of the issues that we are considering.

To put this in context, we probably do about 50 PAC reports a year-I know, it’s a lot. We range right across the whole of the Government’s £750 billion of expenditure to see whether or not there has been value for money for the taxpayer. In the current climate, when so much emphasis is being put on more for less and trying to eke out best value, it becomes ever more important that all Members of Parliament, particularly Back Benchers, have the opportunity to comment on an issue where they think that proper value for money has not been obtained.

Richard has kindly come with me today, so there is real cross-party support in my Committee for our seeking to maintain the tradition of ensuring that we get a three-hour debate. So, 16 December would do us proud, if you could manage that-a three-hour debate on the Floor of the House on the issues that we raise.

The new Committee wants slightly to change the way in which we enable that debate to take place. I understand that, in the past, the motion that we put to the House listed certain PAC reports. This time, we want to have greater flexibility to enable Members to pick up any of the recent reports that we have published. My thanks to Richard for having drafted the motion, which would be, "The House takes note of the work of the National Audit Office and the Committee of Public Accounts in securing better value for money in public services by scrutinising the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which HM Government spends public money, with particular reference to", and then we would list all the Public Accounts Committee reports to which the Treasury has replied.

I haven’t had time in the two minutes I have been sitting at the back, Natascha, to put these into proper order, but I can tell you that the reports go, for example, from one on pedestrians and cyclists through to infections in hospitals, change in the post office network, the single payment scheme and the Rural Payments Agency, highways maintenance, participation in the historic environment, Train to Gain, international development-a series of reports, one of which was on aid to Malawi-other health issues such as rheumatoid arthritis and young persons’ sexual health, the UK banking system, the Legal Services Commission, the failure of Metronet, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, regenerating the English coalfields, improving dementia services, the decent homes programme and a lot of Ministry of Defence projects.

Chair: You would have all that in the motion?

Margaret Hodge: Yes, that could all be covered. I think there would be a lot of interest from Back Benchers. In those three hours, Members would be able to raise any issue around value for money on that massive range of reports that we have done since the previous debate, which must be a year ago now.

Mr Bacon: Some time before the election.

Q6 John Hemming: Have you got a motion?

Margaret Hodge: That would be the motion-I just read it out.

Q7 Mr Hollobone: I am not sure this Committee is so wedded to tradition. Just because things have been done in the past, I am not sure that we think they should necessarily carry on. For example, we had a very successful fisheries debate in Westminster Hall. All the MPs who wanted to talk about fisheries were able to do so. The debate ran for the full three hours and was a very effective use of parliamentary time, yet we have had all sorts of complaints about its not taking place on the Floor of the House and Parliament downgrading the importance of the issue-absolute rubbish.

Westminster Hall is a very effective Chamber for holding Ministers to account. One of the big differences between Westminster Hall and the main Chamber is that you can have a motion in the Chamber, but in Westminster Hall you cannot. I suggest your "takes note" motion is not perhaps the most effective use of the main Chamber. If you came to us with a motion saying, "We urge HM Government to do this, this and this"-it might be slightly against the grain of present Government thinking, but it might nudge the Government in a direction that they were not otherwise thinking about going-that would be more impressive to this Committee than, "These are all the wonderful reports we’ve written. Parliament takes note of that."

We all know that your Committee does excellent work, but it might be a better use of main Chamber time-if that is really what you are after-if you came to us with a motion urging the Government to do something that they might not otherwise do.

Margaret Hodge: We could do that. Richard might want to come in on this. The reason we considered a rather more open motion was that it allows us to encompass literally every report that we have done, and we thought that was an opportunity that Back Benchers might welcome. That is up for negotiation. Even in my few months on the Committee, and Richard’s nine years, there have been three or four key things that are probably not very partisan, but are firmly directed at Government and the civil service. If they were to improve, you would not find the poor value for money that we always come across. We could talk about project management, the failure to collect sufficient data, the absurdity of the way that IT systems are brought into place, and the use of consultants across Government and the waste on those consultants. There are a lot of Government-wide issues that could give it that extra emphasis, if you like, but it might then not enable people to have the breadth of debate that all our reports enable them to do. It is a balance between those two objectives.

Q8 Mr Hollobone: We could talk about all these things very successfully in Westminster Hall.

Margaret Hodge: I think it is an issue of status and importance. I’ve done more debates in Westminster Hall than I can remember, and they’re very engaging. The informality of Westminster Hall enables you to have a much more intimate debate across the Chamber and with Ministers. I accept that entirely. In this case, given the importance of value for money, particularly under this Government-perhaps more so under this Government than any Government before, because of the constraints on public expenditure-we as parliamentarians need to take the issue seriously by having the debate on the Floor of the House. In this Parliament, the work we’re doing is probably more important than it has ever been before, and if you want to reflect that importance, it’s where you have the debate that is hugely significant.

Mr Bacon: May I add one thing? I’m not that wedded to tradition, either. For nine years, I’ve been attending the Public Accounts Committee debates on issues that I think are of enormous importance, and I’ve seen, as the words "Public Accounts" appear on the annunciator, everyone apart from the members of the Committee running for the hills. Frankly, that is useless, but that is how it has been. One of the things that the Committee very much wants to do is change that so that other Members of Parliament who are not necessarily on the Committee, but have an interest in various issues, have a chance to participate.

There are a number of reasons why I think the debate should be on the Floor of the House. One has to do with ease of access and one is to highlight the importance of what’s being discussed. What’s being discussed is essentially the value for money of the Government’s entire expenditure programme. It is as big as that. In terms of ease of access and the range of interests of different Back Benchers, whether you’re talking about very specific and narrow issues of defence procurement to do with one helicopter programme or weapons system, hospital-acquired infections, steps to improve dementia treatment, the transport infrastructure and, within that specifically, measures to increase rail capacity, things to do with the welfare programme and how getting people back into work is working in practice with contractors, as opposed to in theory, or the report that the Committee will publish tomorrow on student loans and the Student Loans Company, which could hardly be more topical, those issues all come under that rubric. Therefore it’s a tremendous opportunity for all Members of Parliament, whatever their interest, to step up to the plate and talk about issues that are of concern to them. I’m very interested in seeing the "traditional" debate that we’ve done being given a bit of a supercharge or a twist to make it more accessible and more interesting to a range of Back Benchers than hitherto it has seemed.

Q9 Jane Ellison: You’ve partly answered what my question was going to be. Because I’m a new Member, I was going to ask you what previous debates were like, who participated in them and how wide ranging they were. You’ve hinted that you think that they could be wider ranging and more engaging. May I push you on the model that you’ve just described? I’ve witnessed one end-of-term Adjournment debate, and because it was so wide ranging, it just got a very generalised ministerial mop-up at the end and nothing was explored in any great detail or got a very detailed response. Is there a slight danger with taking the scattergun approach, rather than narrowing the focus?

Mr Bacon: The focus was very specific in, to use Mr Hollobone’s words, the traditional or old-style debate. The motion referred to those Committee of Public Accounts reports to which the Treasury had issued a minute in reply. That was very narrow and specific and it had the very significant disadvantage that very topical issues, like, for example, the report that we are issuing tomorrow on student loans, would be outside the terms of a debate in two weeks’ time because, I can assure you, the Treasury wouldn’t have issued a minute by then.

We’ve had situations in which the National Audit Office might have published an extremely germane report-making generic points about common causes of project failure that you would see in lots of different places-which would be technically outside the terms of the debate. I want to widen it, so that it would be possible to talk about these broader, generic issues of failure that we see occurring again and again-whether it’s the failure to test properly, to make sure there’s someone in charge, to make sure there are objectives, to make sure there’s a proper budget or to make sure there’s a senior responsible owner who stays on a project all the way through-while still keeping a reasonable amount of focus, and the focus is economy, effectiveness and efficiency. It’s the value for money of Government expenditure.

Margaret Hodge: May I add to that? I’ve been surprised, in the six months I’ve been in the post of Chair, by the number of Back Benchers who come up to me and talk about a particular thing that’s getting their goat-some bit of inefficiency here, there or elsewhere where they think there’s been no value for money. This gives them an opportunity, which they haven’t had before, to voice that in the Chamber. It’s topical and interesting, and will have huge public interest outside the Chamber.

Q10 John Hemming: The Committee has had a tendency to distinguish between the Chamber and Westminster Hall, on the basis that a motion in the Chamber can have some effect, whereas your motion, if you don’t mind my saying so, is much more like an Adjournment debate; it doesn’t necessarily have a massive effect. We have already been asked for something that might not take that long, on that particular day in the Chamber. Would you accept not the full three hours but between two and two and a half hours in the Chamber, or would you prefer to wait for three hours on a later occasion?

Margaret Hodge: You’re very limited. Perhaps it’s not the end of the world if there’s another half hour of debate, but three hours is already a half-day-a truncated time slot.

Q11 Chair: It’s also something that may be out of our hands, because we have already scheduled a three-hour debate early on. If there’s a statement and that sort of thing, that will bite into the time.

Margaret Hodge: I can certainly consider with the Committee this point of "should we say specifically", because there are real lessons across Government that you could pick up in many of the reports that we do. If we homed in on those, that might be a really helpful nudge to Government-in this nudging age.

Chair: I think we’ve got the idea. What you’ve asked for is three hours in the Chamber.

Mr Bacon: I have seen debates on a Thursday when there has been a statement beforehand, and there has been, in effect, a three-hour debate, and it’s been fine. We can tweak the motion, but there is a whole series of conclusions and recommendations, usually eight or nine in each report, which are extremely narrow and specific and which can be the subject of debate-urging the Government to respond, and to respond quickly.

Q12 Chair: Thank you very much for that, and for coming along.

Caroline Lucas has sent a case for parliamentary reform, and we’ve discussed it at a preliminary meeting because it’s quite different from any other application that we’ve had. Do you want to just take us through what it is that you’re after?

Caroline Lucas: I should like to make a bid for a slot in the Chamber in the new year on the subject of parliamentary reform. I have circulated copies of a report that was sent by e-mail a couple of weeks ago to all MPs including, of course, party leaders, and to the Speaker. I’m due to discuss the report with the principal Clerk, Robert Rogers, later this week and the Speaker has also indicated that he’d be happy to meet to discuss some of the proposals enclosed.

I would like a debate on the issues raised in that report, and the reason for doing it now is that I think that six months into a new Parliament is a good time for Members to take stock, and particularly for new Members to give some feedback as to how they see the House operating. In a sense, it’s a moment of reflection about what gets done and how perhaps we could do things better. We all have a huge work load, but I feel strongly that continuing to improve how we work, and how we are seen by the public to operate, must be a shared aim for us all. I am aware that this Committee is a major and important innovation, and I hope that we can have a debate so that we can build on the work that was done following the Wright Committee.

In terms of the actual proposals in my report, I am aware that some people will think, "Who’s this new Member coming up with all these new ideas?" Some of them are very old ideas that I have merely resurrected and put back on the table, but it is an important time to look at some of those ideas again. Even if people don’t agree with a single one of them, I get the sense that many people would welcome a debate; maybe they would put forward different proposals. Now is the time to have that kind of debate, and in my report you’ll see proposals from electronic voting in the Chamber through to an overhaul of parliamentary language, to make it a bit more accessible.

Rather than picking just one of the proposals in my report, such as electronic voting, and requesting a debate on that, I’d be keen for a debate on a motion to call for the setting-up of something like a sessional special Select Committee, like the Wright Committee, to cover the question of modernisation. That would allow input from new Members of the current Parliament, alongside Members who were here for the Wright Committee. I want to make it clear that any proposal would be to supplement the work of the Procedure Committee, which is already making excellent inquiries on the issues of sitting hours-including private Members’ Bills procedures-and ministerial statements. I am in the process of submitting evidence to both those inquiries.

My feeling is that with such a large new intake of MPs, we have an opportunity to make even more progress on improving the way that we work, as was done by the Modernisation Committee in 1998. The Procedure Committee still existed, but the formation of the Modernisation Committee gave it a push on a range of issues. Some 40 Members-many of them new-from all parties have indicated to me that they would be interested and would welcome a debate on these issues. It would be valuable for the House and the public to hear their views on how this place is run.

A debate on these matters has the potential to change people’s minds and to at least move us towards establishing a committee to supplement the capacity of the Procedure Committee. Given the responses to my report from Members, both positive and negative, I feel confident that were the Backbench Business Committee to allocate three hours, those three hours would certainly be filled. A debate in the Chamber on the need for a new Modernisation Committee would be an effective way for Members to contribute on this issue, and for the public to see that we are not the inward-looking, old-fashioned people that they sometimes see us portrayed as in the wake of the expenses scandal, but that we are always looking for new ways to make the House more efficient.

In terms of the wording of the resolution, I propose to try to finalise some wording, after having spoken with Robert Rogers-the principal Clerk-and with the Speaker. In essence, the heart of the resolution would be to propose a process and a procedure and, perhaps, a new Modernisation Committee, through which we can examine these issues and hopefully come forward with proposals that would garner broad support across the House.

Chair: Thank you very much. John is on the Procedure Committee, so he will probably ask you some really technical questions.

Q13 John Hemming: I declare an interest, because I was on the Modernisation Committee, until it stopped meeting because the House at that point was modern. It was 18 months ago that it had its last meeting. There are two separate points here: one is the merit of having a generalised debate about parliamentary reform, which could happen in Westminster Hall, and the second is whether there is an argument to recreate a Modernisation Committee. Do you see any merit in having a Westminster Hall debate about parliamentary procedures? Or are you wedded to the need to recreate a Modernisation Committee and have a discussion on that?

Caroline Lucas: It is precisely because there are so many potential issues that need to be looked at, that we need another instrument or another procedure. If that is a Modernisation Committee, I would like something that could set that up.

Q14 John Hemming: I can tell you that the real difference between this and the previous Parliament is the existence of this Committee. In the previous Parliament, if the Procedure Committee came up with a procedural change, it had to get the Government’s agreement to put it on the agenda. Now, if someone has a procedural change they want to implement, they can put it to the Procedure Committee, which is looking at all these things. The Procedure Committee can then come to this Committee and ask for time to make a change to Standing Orders. The fact that the Government no longer control the Standing Orders is the key thing. The Modernisation Committee was chaired by the then Leader of the House, as a way for the Government to drive changes to the procedures of the House. There is a big difference now. You are saying that you want a Modernisation Committee set up, because the Procedure Committee cannot change everything fast enough. Yes?

Caroline Lucas: It doesn’t have the capacity to do that.

Q15 John Hemming: Yes, it can’t change everything fast enough. It doesn’t have the capacity to go through the number of changes, which would make for an interesting debate. There are two points. You are saying that you are not really interested in having a debate in Westminster Hall on ideas of parliamentary reform, where everyone can raise their views. You particularly want a motion to set up a Modernisation Committee.

Caroline Lucas: I suppose what I want is the beginning of a process that has a vision as to where it is going. My concern about the proposal for a general debate in Westminster Hall is that, as we have heard, you do not get a resolution to do anything very much. You air your views, but I am not sure how concrete-

Q16 John Hemming: But the views can then go through the Procedure Committee route, it is just that it may take a bit longer. That is all.

Caroline Lucas: I get the sense that there are a lot of new Members feeling quite a degree of frustration, and it would be a healthy opportunity to be able to express that more broadly, in a constructive way, rather than feeling-with all credit for everything that the Procedure Committee is doing-constrained by procedures that are inevitably fairly slow.

Q17 Mr Hollobone: If you had a motion on the Floor of the House, "that this House establish a Modernisation Committee chaired by a Back-Bench Member", that would be a very interesting debate. You could have all these points raised, and there would then be a vote. That, I would have thought, would be a very effective use of parliamentary time. I think that’s what John is saying. If you get the right motion you could actually force a change that wouldn’t otherwise happen.

Caroline Lucas: I’m sorry; it’s probably because my head’s befuddled with my cold, but I don’t quite see. You are talking about having a debate in the Chamber?

Q18 Mr Hollobone: If you had a debate in the Chamber and you had an appropriate motion, requiring the House to do something, like establishing a modernisation Select Committee, chaired by a Back-Bench Member, and if the House passed that resolution-

Caroline Lucas: Yes, exactly. Box ticked.

Q19 John Hemming: That’s what you’re trying to do. I’m trying to clarify if that is particularly what you’re trying to do, or whether it’s just the opportunity to have a generalised debate.

Caroline Lucas: No, it is the former. Thank you for the clarification.

Q20 Ian Mearns: I have the benefit of sometimes sitting just in front of Caroline in the main Chamber, with all the chitchat that goes on when things are happening in the House. I am just wondering, Caroline: how have you determined the level of support for such a range of measures? I know that there’s general chitchat, particularly among newer Members, about the time Divisions take, for instance-"Isn’t this impinging on the role of the House in terms of lengthening the debate and allowing opportunity for Members to speak?" There are all those things, but what have you actually come up with that is tangible for us to gauge in terms of cross-party, particularly Back-Bench, support for the idea?

Caroline Lucas: When I sent the report out to all Members about 10 days ago, in the covering e-mail I asked people if they would be willing to get back to me to say whether they broadly supported the idea of a debate-not that they agreed with all my proposals, but that they thought this was worth debating further. I’ve had about 30 responses, some of which are quite considered-not just one-sentence responses, but putting forward their own thoughts and ideas. I would say I’ve had probably 30 in writing, and around 10 people, just as I have seen them around the corridors, saying that they think it is time for a debate of this kind. It is certainly cross-party and primarily Back-Bench.

Q21 Chair: I think certainly we’ve discussed in the past in this Committee having debates that are a little bit more themed; and one of the things that I think we’re quite interested in is actually giving an opportunity to new Members-because it was a very large intake as well, and quite a varied intake-to have a debate that is led specifically by Members who were elected this year. So from that point of view it would be quite interesting to have people who have a more normal perspective on how things work, and a more recent experience of life outside here, looking at how this place is working or not working, and making proposals. I think it is really interesting.

You are asking for a debate in the new year anyway, and providing us with a report is really helpful, so if you’re okay with it we can discuss it in our private session, and get you to come back again, either next week or early in the new year, after you’ve had your discussions. That would, I think, be really helpful. Then we can start looking more specifically at motions, or whether to start with a debate in Westminster Hall. I think most of us are broadly very supportive of having a debate that’s specifically about parliamentary procedure. It’s something that definitely needs looking at.

Caroline Lucas: Lovely. It will probably be the new year, because I’d like to have a chance to speak with Mr Speaker, too, but perhaps, as you say, I could come back early in the new year with the particular wording for a motion.

Chair: That would be brilliant. Thank you.