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I turn to the question of topicality: urgent procedures, topical questions and topical debates. The Government are accepting a range of proposals to maximise the opportunities for the House to consider the pressing issues of the moment, including two key
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proposals: having so-called “topical questions” and weekly topical debates. Topical questions will mean that most of the major Departments will have a period of their Question Time similar to Prime Minister’s Questions, in which open questions will be allowed. The period will be 15 minutes of topical questions for Departments answering for a full hour and 10 minutes for those answering for 40 minutes. The precise rules, and the calling of Members after the initial open question, will operate as with other questions under the Speaker’s direction, and will allow topical matters to be raised.

Topical debates will be weekly 90-minute debates on a topic of the day that is of international, national or regional importance. The selection of topic will, as proposed by the Modernisation Committee, be announced by the Leader of the House, following representations received and contacts through the usual channels. Some flexibility must be preserved as to exactly when the debate should take place each week. When the House does not sit for a full week, there would generally be no such debate. I would envisage announcing the slot for the topical debate during Thursday’s business questions—I would be able to hear from hon. Members from all parties at that point—and if the slot were for the coming Monday or Tuesday, I would envisage announcing the subject at that time too. To ensure proper topicality, if the slot was to be for the following Wednesday or Thursday, I plan to give notice of the subject not before the Monday afternoon.

I would be happy to receive representations on the subject for topical debates from Members through any route they choose, including business questions. This innovation may be the most significant of all the measures proposed today. It will enable the House to hold the Government to account more effectively and to air issues of topical concern.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) tabled an amendment drawing attention to parts of the Modernisation Committee report that were not in the bold recommendations and were not fully reflected in our response. She asks for the subject for the topical debate to be announced by the Leader of the House following consultation with business managers. As I have stated, that is indeed what we envisage happening, and that would include consultations through the usual channels.

The right hon. Lady also proposes a fortnightly written ministerial statement listing the subjects proposed by hon. Members. I am, of course, willing to see how best the system can operate in terms of representations and how the process can be as open as possible, but the precise mechanism proposed may not be the best one. We do not know how the process will work in practice. Dozens, or even hundreds, of suggestions or requests might be made, given in all sorts of different ways, so it might not be straightforward to compress all such representations into a written statement. Indeed, we would not want to encourage a situation in which Members sought opportunities to manipulate the process by setting up campaigns. It may well be that in practice most representations come through Thursday morning business questions anyway, in which case everyone will be able to hear them at first hand. The whole arrangement is, of course, experimental and we will be able to review it in a year’s time.

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Mrs. May: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for her generosity in giving way. The Modernisation Committee report proposed the fortnightly written statement as a way to ensure that hon. Members can see the subjects that have been proposed and make judgments about the decisions made by the Leader of the House as to which are chosen for topical debates. I accept that there may be questions of practicality, but the process must be open. The Leader of the House, in consultation with the usual channels, must not be left to choose subjects, with hon. Members having no idea whether they genuinely reflect the views of the House.

Ms Harman: I agree that we want a process that is both open and practical. We will have to consider in some detail how to achieve both objectives.

The Committee has also proposed that there should be substantive debates in Westminster Hall on motions on Select Committee reports and on balloted private Members’ motions. I think that we have to look at these proposals in the light of how individual Members now prioritise their work. Let us be clear: substantive motions, with the potential for amendments to them, will inevitably bring with them increased whipping into what is at the moment unwhipped business. That would change the character of that business, and would also require the attendance of hon. Members at many more Divisions. I wonder whether hon. Members would consider that a good use of their time.

However, the Government have agreed with the proposals in the Procedure Committee report that relevant EDMs and petitions, rather than being the subject of any direct debate, should be capable of having a “tag” on the Order Paper if they are the subject of a debate selected by an hon. Member.

The Modernisation Committee has also proposed a regular half-hour Select Committee slot in Westminster Hall, in addition to the existing regular Thursday afternoon debating slots, to discuss recently published reports, perhaps in a very short debate or in the form of a statement. The Government have considered this proposal, but as I said earlier, in our response we have indicated that we do not think it particularly helpful for the House to hold formal exchanges of this kind on reports before the Government have had a chance to consider their response to those reports. Opportunities are already in place to raise such matters in other ways—whether outside the House or inside, for example at Question Time—but questions about the kinds of business to be taken in Westminster Hall, and how it can be handled, may be appropriate for further review in the Modernisation Committee.

Mr. Redwood: Will the Leader of the House give way?

John Bercow: Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way?

Ms Harman: I think that I shall press on, if I may. I have answered a great many questions, and there are Back Benchers who have speeches to make. I do not want to run out of time. We had two statements today even before we got to this business, and I must protect the rights of Back Benchers who want to make speeches.

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I turn now to the question of petitions, and to the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and others. However, before I move on to the Procedure Committee report on petitions and EDMs, perhaps I could just mention the Modernisation Committee’s recommendation that the absolute bar on the use of hand-held devices for keeping up with emails should be lifted—provided, as the Modernisation Committee noted, that that causes no disturbance. The hon. Member for Congleton and others have tabled an amendment proposing that this change should be rejected.

That is obviously a matter for the House, but my own view is that it is a sensible proposal. The Modernisation Committee, following representations from a number of hon. Members, took the view that it was a sensible measure to accommodate hon. Members’ practical needs if they were to be expected to spend considerable time waiting in the Chamber to speak and listening to the debate. I think that the proposal is realistic and would be genuinely helpful. Hon. Members will note that if the House agrees to the terms of the Government response by agreeing to the motion tabled, and as explained in the explanatory memorandum, the change would come into force only when Mr. Speaker has approved the necessary arrangements.

As we will all recognise, petitions have come increasingly under the spotlight as interest has grown in different forms of direct engagement with the public. Our own petitions procedures have gradually been brought up to date over the years. For example, the top copy no longer has to be handwritten, the rules for eligibility of petitions have been simplified, and the Clerks in the Journal Office can always assist Members in ensuring that petitions are in order. The time is now right to develop the procedures further, to make more apparent the opportunities that people have to address this place directly.

The latest report from the Procedure Committee has been a balanced study of what further steps might be taken. It proposes the retention of the Member link to an incoming petition, but makes a number of proposals to make petitions more visible in the House’s procedures. They include proposals that petitions be published in Hansard, that the Government respond to petitions and that Select Committees specifically include on their agendas the petitions that have been forwarded to them. Another possibility is that there should be a dedicated debate slot for petitions in Westminster Hall.

The Government have accepted most of those recommendations, as outlined in our response document. In respect of Westminster Hall debates, we think it better that existing processes for Back Benchers to procure debates should be used, but that it should be possible to “tag” any relevant petition on the Order Paper for the debate.

When it comes to responding to petitions, it is important to note that the Government have now given an undertaking that

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The Committee has also indicated that it will be looking further at whether some form of e-petitioning—in particular for gathering signatures—can be incorporated into the petitions process, on the basis that the Member link to a petition should be retained. The Government look forward to this second report in due course. The Government have agreed with all the specific recommendations addressed to them concerning EDMs, which continue to perform a valuable role in allowing Members to raise a variety of local or national issues in a measured way.

I turn now to European Standing Committees. The motion relating to European Standing Committees is designed solely to allow the present temporary system for the appointment of European Standing Committees to continue. The appointment of the Committees on a one-off basis as and when there is a need, rather than appointing three permanent Committees as envisaged under Standing Order No. 119, has existed as a temporary measure until any more comprehensive reform of the European scrutiny system is put in place.

I am well aware that neither the system envisaged by the Standing Orders, nor the temporary system currently in place, is satisfactory. The 2005 Modernisation Committee report on European scrutiny identified failings, and I think that many hon. Members here would agree, but we have yet to identify the precise solutions.

The Modernisation Committee report contained several recommendations relating to the European Standing Committee process. My predecessors as Leader of the House and I have all been looking at the matter closely. I agree that we need to identify improvements to the European Standing Committee process. We are actively looking at ways in which this might be done.

I come now to the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and other members of the European Scrutiny Committee. In the meantime, the power to appoint Committees in the way set out under the temporary arrangement—which is what allows the system to work effectively at all at present—will expire at the end of this Session unless we renew it. My hon. Friend and the other members of the European Scrutiny Committee have tabled an amendment to provide that the extension would be for three months only into the next Session.

While I cannot guarantee that we will be able to bring forward alternative proposals within that time, I will be working hard with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to bring forward proposals that command the support of the whole House, including the European Scrutiny Committee. I am therefore content to accept the amendment.

The Modernisation Committee and other Committees of this House have done us a favour in bringing forward some very sensible suggestions about how we could do our business better. I hope that all hon. Members will support the measures, as they will provide greater topicality for our debates, enhance and strengthen the role of Back Benchers, and improve our scrutiny of Government.

Several hon. Members rose

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I advise hon. Members that motions 1 to 5 on the Order Paper—on Modernisation of the House of Commons; Modernisation of the House of Commons (Changes to Standing Orders); Procedure; Procedure (Changes to Standing Orders); and European Standing Committees (Temporary Nomination)—will be discussed together. Mr. Speaker has selected amendments (a) and (b) to motion 1, on Modernisation of the House of Commons, and amendment (a) to motion 5, on European Standing Committees (Temporary Nomination).

1.58 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): As a member of the Modernisation Committee, may I begin by thanking all those involved in the preparation of this report? During our inquiry, we heard not only from hon. Members but from representatives of the media and from academics, officials and the Clerk of the House. We received the usual high standard of support from the Clerks Department and other staff, and I should like to thank them too for their work, and to commend them on it.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: I have barely started my speech and am not sure what the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene about. However, I will give way to him.

Martin Horwood: I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady, but I want to ask about her reference to the hard work done by staff. Does she agree that, given the theme of modernisation, it is absurd for proposals to be made that Members of Parliament should take precedence in tea and photocopier queues? Another proposal has been that what amount to executive washrooms be retained in this place. Are those not precisely the sort of proposals that bring this House into disrepute, and are they not an insult to the very hard-working staff to whom she has referred?

Mrs. May: As it happens, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that Members should not take precedence in tea and canteen queues in this House.

To return to the motion, the sovereignty of Parliament in our constitution is known, or should be known, by all, but to ensure that our constitution remains healthy, and that the way we govern ourselves continues to work properly, we have to ensure that Parliament stays strong. We need to do that in a variety of ways—by preventing its domination by the Executive, by protecting and extending its democratic legitimacy and by making sure that what goes on in this and the other place is relevant to what goes on outside this building, in the real world, in the lives of the people who put us here.

The Prime Minister and his Government talk much about making Parliament stronger and more relevant. Indeed, the Prime Minister has said that he wants to make Parliament the “crucible” of our political life. If only his actions matched his words people might actually believe that that was not just another piece of spin. We have had supposedly spin-free statements
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spun to the press beforehand, troop withdrawals double-counted and announced at a photo-shoot first rather than to Parliament and a pre-Budget report whose detail bore little resemblance to the statement made to the House by the Chancellor.

Sir Winston Churchill said of the duties of a Member of Parliament:

Given the way the Prime Minister treated Parliament when he was Chancellor and the way he is treating it now, and the way he treated the country by considering a snap election as long as it suited the Labour party, I fear that he has Churchill’s three loyalties in the wrong order.

Mr. Sheerman: I thought the right hon. Lady would treat the debate seriously and talk about the motion in a bipartisan manner. I wish she would come back on track. Does she think that the Modernisation Committee proposals have countered one of the great frustrations in this place? Typically, when we have debates on a topical issue or any other issue, there are long speeches from Front Benchers and even longer ones from Liberal Democrat Front Benchers—they all outbid one another in terms of length. We will be doing something about that, but Back Benchers still do not know when we will be called to speak. Grown-up adults wait on the Back Benches wondering whether we will be called to speak. Why cannot we know—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions should be brief, too.

Mrs. May: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was about to suggest that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) took his own counsel in that regard.

If the Prime Minister is serious about making Parliament the crucible of our political life, he should begin by treating people with respect and Parliament with propriety. If he wants to achieve his supposed goal, he needs to transfer power from the Executive to Parliament, which is part of what the Modernisation Committee proposals are about.

The most positive changes in the motion concern the topicality of what goes on in the House. If the public, the media and, indeed, Members are to pay more attention to Parliament we need to make sure that we debate topical issues and that we debate them quickly enough for them to remain topical. Of course, we can make use of urgent questions, Standing Order No. 24 debates and Opposition day debates, but none is perfect in ensuring topicality. Urgent questions can be turned down and in any case give rise only to questions rather than a proper debate. At present, Standing Order No. 24 debates come at the expense of other business, and Opposition day debates have no regular slot; their timing is up to the Government and they tend to be bunched towards the end of a Session. Moreover, Opposition time is limited.

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