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That this House welcomes the First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member (House of Commons Paper No. 337) and approves the proposals for changes in the procedures and practices of the House set out in the Governments response to the report (Cm. 7231), including the proposals for topical questions.
This is my first opportunity to respond to a Modernisation Committee report. I pay tribute to previous Chairs of that Committee: the late Robin Cook, my right hon. Friends the Members for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), for Neath (Mr. Hain), for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), and for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who chaired it more recently. I also pay tribute to the many Members who have served on that Committee and continue to do so, including the current Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), and the Modernisation Committees most senior and longest-serving member, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). This House is more effective as a result of their work.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. and learned Friend has left one name off that list. He was not a Minister at the time, but Bob Sheldon, now Lord Sheldon, when he published the second part of Shifting the Balance, did a lot for the modernisation of the Select Committee system and for what happens in the House. There was an interview with the then Prime Minister. Lord Sheldon did most important work. I hope that she recognises that.
Ms Harman: I absolutely agree with that point. The Modernisation Committee has done important work. The work that was done by Lord Sheldon and by many others has contributed to taking forward the way in which the House operates and is able to hold the Government to account through the Select Committee and other systems.
Today there are five motions before us, covering the recent report from the Modernisation Committee Revitalising the Chamber: The Role of the Back-Bench Member, and the recent report from the Procedure Committee on public petitions and early-day motions, and there is a motion relating to European Standing Committees. I would like to say a few words about the context of those measures.
I think that we would all agree that we need to be prepared to re-examine many aspects of how the country is governed, in order to reinvigorate our democracy and how our Government are held to account. We all know now the statistics of election turnout and the underlying evidence of voter disengagement. That needs to be addressed in many different ways. In his statement to the House in July, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister proposed to the Speaker that a Speaker's Conference be established to look further at some of those issues.
The Modernisation Committee agreed earlier this week that it would take forward short inquiries on the publication of the draft legislative programme,
departmental annual debates, regional accountability, and recall and dissolution. I hope that all hon. Members will contribute to the Committees inquiries. As I said, they will be short inquiries, and they will come forward with proposals.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the things that was welcomed in the north-east region was the proposal to create regional Select Committees? It is disappointing that they have not come into being yet.
Ms Harman: It is important that we have regional accountability for the north and other regions. I pay tribute to the first Minister for the North East of England, who is carrying out his important duties. We intend to press ahead with regional accountability, but we must get the processes right. We must ensure that the Committees are practical and work properly and effectively, that the House supports them and that in the regions concerned they are recognised as making a legitimate and important contribution to strengthening accountability.
Mr. Jones: I do not draw much encouragement from what my right hon. and learned Friend has just said. If there is a retreat from having a Select Committee for the north-east, not only will there be a lot of disappointment within the region but there will be a lot of unhappy Labour Back Benchers.
Ms Harman: I reassure my hon. Friend that there is no intention to retreat on anything and that we intend to discuss fully with colleagues on both sides of the House how we go forward in that respect. I know that he would agree that we need a practical solution that enables Members in the region to hold public agencies such as the regional development agency to account effectively. We will work together to ensure that we deliver that. We want to go forward with it as promptly as possible and the Modernisation Committee inquiry will be the first opportunity to look at that.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the concern that has been expressed about the resource implications of creating regional Select Committees should not lead to a retreat from that commitment, and that the answer to that concern is to make those resources available?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right. One of the issues that we need to look at is how the resources of the House are allocated between the different functions of the House. That is one of the things that we need to discuss. I can tell from the response already that there will be a lively, open and transparent debate on those issues. There is no suggestion that the matter should be left in the long grass.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab):
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend because I believe that she is looking favourably at the amendment that I and other members of the European Scrutiny Committee have tabled to item 5 on todays agenda. However, on topical debates, it is always a concern to Select Committees that not enough time is given on the Floor of the House for debates on topics
that are of importance to those Committees. Can we have an assurance that topical debates will not force out debates that have been requested by a Select Committee after serious scrutiny? They are obviously seen as matters of such concern that the request is made that they be debated here in the Chamber.
Ms Harman: The Modernisation Committee will look at departmental debate days. Topical debates are intended to give Back-Bench Members an opportunity to ask questions without having to table them in advance. The intention is to make the work of the House more topical and to have more topical debates. I hope that they will be welcomed. I think that we all agree that we should improve scrutiny of European matters. My hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, has made strong representations about how the system needs to be improved, and I intend to accept his amendment. We will seek to sort this matter out within three months of today, rather than 12 months. The Modernisation Committee reported on this issue in March 2005, so an additional 12 months would be unsatisfactory. Three months should be long enough for us to find a solution that he and others will agree to. I thank him for tabling the amendment.
Mr. Sheerman: On resources, I support the principle of regional Select Committees and regional Ministers; the ministerial team is already proving its effectiveness. However, we must address the pressure that is put on MPs in this House. As Chairman of a Select Committee, I am finding that there is a small group of MPs who are free to accept membership of a Select Committee. We have a growing number of Ministers, paid and unpaid, and growing shadow ministerial teams who discount themselves from Select Committee work. We also have a proliferation of Parliamentary Private Secretaries who have, up to now, been prevented from being members of Select Committees. It is becoming difficult to attract Members on to Select Committees.
Ms Harman: Whatever change we make to ensure proper regional accountability, we must make absolutely sure that we do not undermine the very important work of the Select Committees. Those involved, particularly the Select Committee Chairmen and the Liaison Committee, will need to be involved in the discussions of how we take forward regional accountability.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): On European scrutiny, it is nonsense to have Select Committees doing serious work and producing reports that are not debated more widely before the Government come to a final view. A couple of days ago several Public Accounts Committee reports were debated. In the same way, there ought to be periodic opportunities to debate Select Committee reports by Department before the Government have come to a final view. That would make the work worth while, not just for parliamentarians but for all those who give evidence, orally or in other forms. It would show that we took that work seriously if we had a chance to debate it.
Ms Harman: Our view is that it is a good idea for the House to be able to debate Select Committee reports once the House has had the opportunity to see the Governments response. Otherwise, the House would have an opportunity to debate the Select Committee report proposals, but not to debate the Governments response unless further time was set aside for debate.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): The Leader of the House has been most generous with her time. I am grateful to her for indicating that she intends to bring forward proposals to improve the scrutiny of European legislation, on which the Government, sadly, have been dragging their feet for some time. May I commend my proposals, which include making the scrutiny reserve statutory so that Ministers could not go to Brussels without the House giving its view on their proposed position, and to enable, say, 150 Members to require an issue that is going before the European Scrutiny Committee to be subject to a full debate in this Chamber?
Ms Harman: I warmly welcome proposals from the right hon. Lady, who is a member of the Modernisation Committee and shadow Leader of the House, and we will consider them in the short period before we come back to the House with proposals on European scrutiny.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I favour the Leader of the Houses proposals for more topical debates and questions. But before we get muddled up about regional accountabilitywith which some of us do not agreecould we have some national accountability? One of the frustrations that many of my electors have about this place is that when MPs ask perfectly sensible, intelligent but tough questions of Ministers, there are no answers. We then have Groundhog Day with the recital of idiotic banalities of a political kind, instead of Ministers actually trying to answer the question. If they answer the question the first time, we will have rather more accountability.
Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman will have to come and see me to explain further what he is talking about, as I do not recognise his description. I try to ensure that I give as clear and full answers as possible.
The reform measures before the House today reflect work that began before I became Leader of the House and will contribute to this House remaining at the centre of the nations affairs; not just being at the centre, but being seen to be at the centre so that the important role of the House is clearly understood by the public.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con):
The Leader of the House has mentioned the public, who are very important. It is three and a half years since the Modernisation Committee made recommendations about European scrutiny and the Government have done nothing to implement them. She has now said that she will bring forward some proposals. Does she agree that the European Scrutiny Committee should meet in public in the meantime? That would help the public to understand what we are doing on their behalf. It is monstrous that that Committee meets in secret; I know, because I am a member of it. It is not surprising
that the gap between us and the public on European issues has widened in recent years. Will she look favourably on an early change to Standing Orders to permit that Committee to meet in public?
Ms Harman: Madam Deputy Speaker, I feel that I must press on with my speech. One of my proposals is that Front-Bench speeches should be restricted to 20 minutes. I feel that I am running out of that 20 minutes and I am only on the third page of my speech. I dare not tell the House how many more pages I have.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Although I welcome the Governments willingness to provide for more topical debates and public interest debates, I am concerned that the character of the process is rather top-down. It appears that the intention is that these matters should be determined principally by the Government Whips, probably with a bit of consultation with my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, but not much more. Given that the Select Committee inquiry was into the role of the Back Bencher, may I exhort the Leader of the House to consider the merits of the evidence given by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who, supported by the Hansard Society, argued that there should be a Back-Bench trigger in the form of a number of signatories of an early-day motion automatically resulting in a debate taking place, whether the Government and Opposition Front Benches liked it or not?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Leader of the House, quite unintentionally, has misled the House by asserting that it is up to Standing Committees whether they meet in public or not. In the last Parliament, the European Scrutiny Committee voted for its weekly deliberative
sessions to be in public, but the Leader of the House did nothing to change the Standing Orders. What she said was incorrect and I invite her to correct the record.
Michael Connarty: We must clarify the record, because it was not under my chairmanship but under a previous chairmanship, when a motion was moved and carried that the Committee should meet in public. The Chairman was, unfortunately, ill at the time, but when he returned, he raised the matter again. It was thoroughly debated and the reasons for the feeling that the proposal was inappropriate were explained. That was felt particularly by our advisers, who give confidential advice to the Committee in their deliberative sessions, and it was explained why the proposal would compromise their position. The Chairman took a fresh vote and the decision was overturned. As it stands, the Committees position is that it does not wish to meet in public.
Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. I shall press on with my speech clarifying why we have brought these motions before the House. If the trigger were simply a number of Members signing an early-day motion, we might find that this House would debate the football results. Someone such as myself would need to provide a filter so that that did not happen.
The Government accept most of the recommendations in the two Modernisation Committee reports before the House. They are particularly valuable in placing reform firmly in the context of how Members, in particular Back Benchers, manage the different aspects of their work. Any changes must reflect the priorities of individual Members and their need to devote time both to this House and to their constituents. Those demands have been ever increasing, and particularly marked for many hon. Members has been the growth in constituency work. That has been followed by a necessary increasealmost a doubling, in real termsin the financial support provided to Members for this work since 1997 in the form of staffing and allowances. In my view, that is a good thing. The Government will publish the Senior Salaries Review Body report on pay and allowances for the House to consider shortly.
Mr. Sheerman: No one denies that extra resources have been provided, but the level of work in a major Select Committee is onerous in terms of the amount of research, reading and so on, and a small extra contribution towards the research budget for Members who choose to join one would make a big difference. Sometimes it would make the difference between someone choosing to serve on a Select Committee or choosing to become a Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Hon. Members have an important role in their constituencies, but they also have vital work in this Chamber and in Select and Public Bill Committees. It is a timeless characteristic of our system that Members arrive at the general from the particular. The different roles that make up a Member of Parliaments work are not separate and competing, but interconnected and interdependent. That is why it is important, as the Modernisation Committee report highlighted, for Members to be able to organise their time as effectively as possible. Thus Chamber debates have to be organised in a way that allows hon. Members to know that they can contribute.
I shall deal first with the Modernisation Committee report on promoting interest in the Chamber. Its central theme is to promote the work of the Chamber by providing greater opportunities for Members to bring issues swiftly into the Chamber while they are still topical and maximising the opportunities for Back Benchers to participate in the Chamber. The Government have accepted most of the recommendations. Some of themfor example, those relating to new topical procedures and speaking timesare quite far-reaching, so it is proposed that in the first instance, they should run for a trial period during the next Session.
The Modernisation Committee proposes that business managers and the usual channels should seek to promote greater topicality in the first instance through trying to find opportunities to bring more topical issues to the House in two ways: by rebalancing the regular slots currently recognised by the House for such matters as the Queens Speech, defence debates, the Budget debate and so onI would welcome a debate in the House with contributions from all parties on the overall shape of those annual debatesand by being readier to hold half-day debates rather than full-day debates. That is not in the gift of the Government, and if we are to secure those changes, we will need the co-operation of the official Opposition and the whole House.
The Modernisation Committee proposes that debates should be seen to be more significant, both to Members and to the outside world. That could be done by holding more such debates on substantive motionson a form of words enabling the House to express a specific viewand in other cases, through ending the practice of holding debates on the historic motion, That this House do now adjourn, when in fact the House intends to proceed to a full debate. The Government have accepted the Committees recommendation on that latter point. Accordingly, where the House does not seek to express a specific view on a subject, it should use a standard motion of the form, That this House has considered the matter of.... The specified subject matter for such motions, as with Adjournment motions, would be expressed in neutral terms and would not be amendable, but what is going on in this House would be much clearer to colleagues and to the outside world.
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