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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you, with your beady eye, noticed--as I did--that during much of Question Time today, including its start, our faithful friend, the clock, has been running one minute ahead of the time on the Annunciator screen? The effect of that was to lead me and several of my hon. Friends, quite wrongly, to believe that we were starting Question Time a minute late. I am glad that I was corrected by my faithful and hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Can the matter be speedily rectified?

Madam Speaker: I shall look into the matter; my beady eye had not noticed it.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Some of my constituents took a great deal of time and trouble to put a petition to the House on the banning of hunting with hounds. I am sure that you realise, Madam Speaker, that I am not in favour of that petition, but, like any representative Member, I submitted it on behalf of my constituents. Some weeks later, I was somewhat surprised to receive a note from the Clerk who deals with petitions, stating that the Home Office had been notified of the petition, but had decided not to make any comment. Surely it is strange, when our constituents submit a petition on an issue that concerns them and that is the responsibility of the Government, for the Minister and the Department responsible to say that they have no comment. It is an abuse of our system if we cannot have answers from the Executive on matters of concern to our constituents.

Madam Speaker: The correct procedure has been followed; not all petitions are responded to. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the procedure has been carried out. If he does not approve of it, he has an opportunity to try to change it through the Procedure Committee. The procedure that he has reported to me is absolutely correct.

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Parliamentary Control of the Executive

3.33 pm

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I beg to move,

In 1977, the Procedure Committee concluded that:

    "The balance of advantage between Parliament and Government is so weighted in favour of Government that it is inimical to the proper working of our parliamentary democracy."

About 20 years later, an NOP survey of Members of Parliament, showed that three quarters of them believed that that was still the case; a number of Members thought that it had become worse. It is a truth that has become sharper in every passing decade since the 1930s.

In the 1940s, the massive increase in the size of the Government as a result of the second world war dramatically shifted the balance of power between Whitehall and Westminster to the huge advantage of Whitehall. Over the years, that imbalance in Whitehall's favour has got worse. Even action taken with good intentions--such as improving public services through the creation of Government agencies--has had the perverse effect of making much of the Government less accountable to Parliament and reducing Parliament's access and power.

In the ensuing decades, many changes worsened that imbalance. The starkest was the effect of the growing power of the European Union. More and more of Britain's legislation is negotiated in Brussels, often out of sight, in technical Committees or at the meeting of ambassadors known as COREPER, at which the details of important legislation are negotiated without the presence of a single elected representative. The final result--which is often unamendable--is presented for Parliament's rubber stamp.

Similarly, in Britain today, one of the most important levers of economic policy--the decision on interest rates--is made out of sight and largely out of reach of Parliament by members of the Monetary Policy Committee. Those are just a few examples of areas where Parliament has lost control of policy matters that are enormously important to our citizens.

There are three primary aspects of government where parliamentary scrutiny and control are either absent or inadequate. They are: first, the exercise of unfettered Executive power, largely under Crown prerogative; secondly, the control of information that should often be available to the public, and which should certainly be available to Select Committees of the House; and, finally, the prioritisation and control of expenditure within Departments.

I shall deal first with the powers largely exercised under Crown prerogative. I am agnostic about the virtues of European central bank independence and even about some of the mechanisms of European Union decision making. However, it strikes me as extraordinary that Parliament has no say not only in the decisions, but in who makes them. Of course, the appointment of people such as the European Commissioners, ambassadors to international organisations and members of powerful bodies such as the Monetary Policy Committee is a part of the patronage that any Executive guard jealously. That is wrong. The fact that such people are appointed solely by Government

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without any parliamentary oversight is bad for democracy. Power corrupts, but patronage corrodes--corrodes democracy, public trust and confidence, and the mechanism of government itself. That is one of the things that the Bill sets out to correct.

Executive decisions by the Government should be subject to the scrutiny and approval of Parliament in many other areas. Much of them arise under Crown prerogative--which, in truth, in modern Britain is a euphemism for the prerogative of the Prime Minister. The Bill sets out to curb that and to make it subject to parliamentary approval, giving Parliament the right of approval over all Executive powers not conferred by statute--from the ratification of treaties to the approval of Orders in Council, and from the appointment of European Commissioners, some ambassadors, members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee and other senior public posts to the dissolution of Parliament. There is no serious reason why the Executive should have the monopoly of control of these issues--they do not have that power in most other modern democracies.

However, that proposal is not enough. The exercise of unchecked governmental power is not the only serious problem with our democracy--even with a Government with a huge majority. Parliament must concern itself with two other elements: the control of information and the control of money. Governments protect their monopoly over those two areas almost as fiercely as they defend their monopoly on Executive power.

The Government's proposed Freedom of Information Bill will improve only slightly the position regarding Parliament's access to information. My Bill creates the post of parliamentary investigating officer who, like Parliament's Comptroller and Auditor General, would be cleared to have access to all levels of Government information, whether secret or not. Such an officer would serve the House and its Select Committees. When we next have an inquiry such as the Sierra Leone inquiry, it could be conducted by Parliament's own official and Parliament would not have to swallow the Government's protestations about the "independence" of an inquiry run by a civil servant.

Like the Comptroller and Auditor General, the investigating officer would be able to test on behalf of Parliament the Government's claims within the veil of

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Whitehall secrecy, and would also be able to make an independent judgment about whether that secrecy was necessary. By this simple mechanism, Parliament would penetrate the veil of secrecy without jeopardising the real concerns of national security, commercial confidentiality or personal privacy.

Finally, the control of money--or supply--was the original function of the House. Unfortunately, in the second half of this century, the so-called estimates procedure has become a disgraceful charade. The documents are opaque, the procedure is arcane and the outcome is irrelevant.

My Bill will require the approval of the relevant departmental Select Committee before a departmental estimate is approved. It will specifically allow the Select Committee to lay an amendment before the House altering the allocation of money within a Department, but not increasing the total for the Department. That will allow Parliament to challenge and debate spending priorities, without undermining the ability of the Government to manage the economy.

That apparently small change will transform the relationship between Parliament and the Government--and, incidentally, will transform the relationship between Ministers and civil servants on matters of financial priority--and it will, for the first time, introduce real accountability into the financial priorities of modern politics.

If enacted, this small Bill will irrevocably alter the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, and in doing so, will at least check the trend from representative democracy to presidential oligarchy, which is so sadly undermining this great institution.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Davis, Mr. Robert Maclennan, Mr. David Maclean, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Derek Foster, Mr. Douglas Hogg and Mr. Eric Forth.

Parliamentary Control of the Executive

Mr. David Davis accordingly presented a Bill to make the exercise of certain powers of Ministers of the Crown subject to control by the House of Commons: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 July, and to be printed[Bill 123].

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