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25 Oct 2007 : Column 454

The answer to improving topicality cannot be simply to limit the freedom of manoeuvre of the Opposition parties, so the provision that there should be topical debates of an hour and a half is welcome, subject to two caveats. First, it would be unacceptable for the innovation to eat into Opposition time; the Government already dominate the business of the House and Opposition time is limited, as I said. If we are to improve the strength of Parliament, that innovation must not come at the expense of the Opposition, as the Modernisation Committee report said, so I should be grateful if the Leader of the House, or her deputy in the winding-up speech, could give the House a commitment that topical debates will not eat into time given to Opposition parties for their debates.

My second concern relates to my amendment, which the Leader of the House addressed. The Modernisation Committee recommended that subjects for topical debates would be announced by the Leader of the House following consultation with business managers and that the Leader of the House would issue—as we discussed—a fortnightly written ministerial statement showing the list of proposals made by private Members and the debates that had taken place. However, the motion merely states that a Minister of the Crown will take the decision about which proceedings will form part of a topical debate.

The issue is important. In her speech, the Leader of the House referred to the fact that suggestions would come from Back Benchers. It is essential that we make it clear in this debate that topical debates will not simply be in the gift of Ministers, but will be announced by the Leader of the House following propositions from Back-Bench Members. It is crucial that debates can be initiated by Back Benchers and not just Front Benchers.

Mr. Redwood: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if, to avoid embarrassment or difficulty for the Government, Ministers select for topical debate subjects that are not a hot topic in the media or for the Opposition, it will bring the whole idea of topicality into disrepute, which will pose quite a problem for the Government?

Mrs. May: My right hon. Friend is right. An example springs to mind. If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) were to suggest a debate on a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty and the Government refused to accept it, many people would have something to say about the issue.

John Bercow: It is of course important that we know not only the contents of the list of proposed topics for the topical debates but the number of right hon. and hon. Members who have made a request for each. That does not mean that the judgment must be only quantitative; it can be qualitative as well, but we ought to know how many wanted which. Given that the Leader of the House said she was happy to hear from Members by letter, e-mail or in person, does my right hon. Friend agree that there can be no objection to the right hon. and learned Lady’s subsequently letting us know how many people requested which debate? What is there to hide?

Mrs. May: I absolutely agree. The innovation is important for the House so when it is introduced we must take every opportunity to show that it is about
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Back-Bench Members being able to raise topics. In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend about the number of Members who could sign early-day motions and thereby generate debates on them, the Leader of the House referred to the nature of some of the early-day motions that are tabled. I think we all agree that there are some for which it would not be appropriate to take up debating time in the House, but I trust that Back Benchers would be able to judge when a subject was serious enough for topical debate and when it was not suitable.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for talking about Back Benchers, because the report could read as a cosy invitation to the Government to continue to control everything. An amendment proposed in the Select Committee by its Liberal Democrat member would have provided for the use of a ballot, which would be the simplest way of getting out of the craw of the Government or the usual channels. The amendment was voted down, but is not a ballot for all Back-Bench Members—it would exclude Front-Bench Members—the way to assert the vitality of the House?

Mrs. May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He has been promoting the ballot proposal not only in the Select Committee but elsewhere. We need to consider the appropriate means for ensuring that Back Benchers can raise topics in the House. I shall refer later to private Members’ motions, because if we are genuinely interested in the House having greater ability both to decide what happens in this place and to hold the Government to account, such opportunities are important.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Does the right hon. Lady agree that although it is important for Back Benchers to have more say about topical debates, we should go further and allow people outside this place to have a say? Does she regret the fact that there is no recommendation for a petitions Committee, which could, for example, recommend that a petition be the subject of a topical debate?

Mrs. May: The Procedure Committee has examined the question of a petitions Committee very carefully. I know that there is such a structure in the Scottish Parliament and I have talked to MSPs about it. That Committee is not without its downsides—it is not universally positive. The Procedure Committee has reached the right position after due and proper deliberation.

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will use her winding-up speech to put it clearly on the record that the Government intend to allow Back Benchers to have a say on the issues that should be discussed in topical debates. Beyond that, however, there is also a need for more topical questions. Under the existing arrangements, there have been many occasions when it has not been possible to raise hot topics of the day during departmental oral questions, despite hon. Members’ ingenuity, simply because a relevant matter was not on the Order Paper. The Government have reduced the time in advance of departmental questions
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before which questions must be tabled, which is to be welcomed, but a period of time for topical questions is the right way to go.

Prior to today’s business statement, I was worried that there might be a problem with the introduction of topical questions if the existing cycle of questions was retained. Now that the Leader of the House has agreed to move on to a different cycle—I assume that that will be a five-week cycle so that Departments such as the Ministry of Justice will have a full amount of time—topical questions will be practical and an important innovation.

I am a great supporter of the idea that we should have debates on general issues. I have long argued that the House needs to be able to debate cross-cutting issues, so I hope that the general debates will address that shortcoming. However, the Leader of the House suggested that if we increased the number of general debates and private Members’ motions, there would be more whipping. I am on the record as saying that the House should have more general debates that are subject to free votes, although that view is not always shared by my colleagues in the Whips Office. Parliament should have more opportunities to give a view on issues of the day. It should be able to give such a view on issues that are aside from the Government’s proposed legislation, such as by debating the causes of antisocial behaviour and reaching a view. Such opportunities would be important.

The House always tends to address issues according to the way in which Whitehall Departments are divided into silos. However, people do not think of things in such a way. Businesses and organisations in every other walk of life are moving away from traditional models towards matrix models of management. The House needs to find ways of adapting to such models of management. If we asked modern management consultants to design Government Departments, I am sure that they would not produce the structure of Whitehall today. While I realise that that is not a subject for this debate, Parliament needs to move forward in a way that restricts the reliance on debating issues in silos and thus enables general debates to take place.

John Bercow: My right hon. Friend was showing very welcome signs of a commitment to what I call √1/4ber-modernisation through what she said about the way in which Government Departments should be organised and the House should conduct itself in turn. May I gently put it to her that if we are to apply that principle, of which I am a vociferous supporter, there is a good case for doing so in relation to Westminster Hall as well? Most members of the public in full-time work would ordinarily work on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—and possibly beyond that. Is there any good reason why we continue to deny ourselves the possibility of debates in Westminster Hall, either on a substantive motion or a motion for the Adjournment, on Mondays? Why cannot we have such debates?

Mrs. May: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. I could probably be described—if I dare to try my German—as a fr√1/4he-moderniser rather than the term that he used. We need to look at what happens in
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Westminster Hall and how it is used. I will be entirely open with hon. Members. I was reluctant to accept the introduction of Westminster Hall in the early days, but I believe that it has been a good move by the House. We need to move on to the next stage of Westminster Hall to determine how we can make better use of it.

Some Members might say that we do not have enough time for all the changes that are being brought forward, such as the proposals for general debates. I say to the Government that the answer to that is very simple. If there was not so much legislation going through the House, Parliament would have time to do its job properly in terms of scrutinising legislation, questioning Ministers and debating important issues of the day.

It is important that as many Members as possible are able to speak in such debates. I support the provision for greater flexibility on Members’ contributions to debates. It is sensible to improve Members’ ability to participate by limiting Front Benchers’ contributions—I am wary of the time that I am taking.

Mr. Shepherd: We are talking about 90-minute debates. Under the proposed Standing Order, a third of that time will go to Front Benchers. This is just the old game, is it not? The report was meant to be called “Strengthening the role of the backbencher”—that was what we wanted to do. However, we are handing things over to the usual channels and the Government—the Crown in Parliament—who are not responsible and control the totality of the business that comes before the House.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the need for Front Benchers to be extremely careful about the amount of time that they take up in hour-and-a-half debates. It is not necessary for Front Benchers to take up all the time allowed by the proposals. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) about the increasing length of time for which Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen seem to speak. During one of our Opposition day debates, the Liberal Democrat spokesman spoke for longer than both the Government and Conservative spokesmen.

Let me refer to two recommendations that were rejected. It was proposed that Select Committee reports should be debated in Westminster Hall—this relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) about the use of Westminster Hall. At a time when many of us believe that the imbalance between Parliament and the Executive is too great, Select Committees have been a great success story. Their work deserves a higher profile and debating it more regularly in the House would contribute to that. There are probably other ways in which Select Committees could be further strengthened, and I hope to come forward with proposals in the near future. That perfectly reasonable recommendation would have strengthened Select Committees and Parliament, but the Government ignored it. That was a pity because they have missed an opportunity.

The Leader of the House also refused to entertain the recommendation that the House should experiment with a ballot for opportunities to debate private
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Members’ motions, to which I referred in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). That would have made a powerful change to the balance between Parliament and the Executive. The Leader of the House has said that there would be practical difficulties, but one cannot help but suspect that, as is the case for debates on Select Committee reports, the truth is that the proposal would relax the Government’s ability to control the business of the House rather too much for the Executive. While today’s proposals are to be welcomed, they fall short in those two key respects.

Although the changes are welcome and will go some way towards making the House more relevant to the public, the relevance test was just one of the three challenges for reform. The other two—the prevention of the domination of Parliament by the Executive and the need to protect and extend Parliament’s democratic legitimacy—will need further inventive and perhaps controversial measures.

As I said earlier, we have heard a lot from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House on how the Government supposedly want to strengthen Parliament, yet the Prime Minister will use his majority to force through the ratification of the renamed European constitution. However, without a referendum, he has no manifesto mandate to do so. He has failed to address the most obvious flaw in the post-devolution constitutional settlement, namely the West Lothian question. I am grateful for the fact that the Leader of the House has said that within three months there will be proposals on the scrutiny of European legislation, but I hope that she is prepared to go far enough to ensure genuinely better scrutiny of European legislation. That is in no way to decry the hard work done by members of the European Scrutiny Committee. However, the current system means that we are poor at scrutinising European legislation. Today’s changes are welcome, but even within the context of the Modernisation Committee, they could have gone further.

Martin Horwood: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: I am just coming to the end of my remarks, so the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not giving way.

In truth, if we want a Parliament that can stand up to the Government, we need to go much further than the Committee’s recommendations. The Leader of the House is not just the Government’s representative in the House; she is the House’s representative in the Government. She has responsibility for reform, and if she wants to follow in the line of the reforming Leaders of the House to whom she referred, she needs to take that responsibility. She needs to be bolder, and she needs to ensure that the House can truly redress the balance between itself and the Executive.

2.21 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): First, I once again formally thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for accepting the amendment tabled by the European Scrutiny Committee members who attended our meeting yesterday. We were concerned that another year would be too long to wait; it would seem to signal
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to the public—and to lobby groups and business organisations that have spoken to us about the lack of progress on European scrutiny, apart from in discussion by our Committee—that we were not giving the subject its proper priority. Europe produces a large burden of regulations, framework decisions and directives that impact on people’s lives and the nation’s business and social community. I think that it was a former chief executive of the CBI who made the accusation that the House seems to be asleep when it comes to the issue of European scrutiny.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I support my hon. Friend strongly in congratulating the Leader of the House on accepting the amendment in the name of the Committee that my hon. Friend chairs, and of which I am a member. Does he not agree that a permanent member of a Standing Committee would take their responsibility more seriously than one who is added ad hoc at the last minute?

Michael Connarty: I certainly agree with that summation of the problem, and on the positive nature of being a permanent member of a Standing Committee. I came to the European Scrutiny Committee after acceding to a request from a Whip, a former good friend of mine who has sadly passed away, Gordon McMaster. He said that being a member of a Committee would be a way of gaining knowledge that was useful to a Member of Parliament. I do not think that he said that just because he was a Whip seeking members for Committees; it was also because he was a friend. We had known each other when we were in local government, when he was a leader in Renfrew, and I was a leader in Stirling. We understood that knowing the detail of business was the key to being a successful councillor and a successful Member of Parliament.

In the three years between 1994 and 1997, I served on the European Standing Committee that dealt with agriculture, health and safety, and the environment. That broadened my knowledge of those subjects. I also found that practically every topic that we discussed was relevant to my constituents, because it would eventually have an impact on them. For example, the duties on riparian owners to clean up canals and waterways eventually led to a campaign, which we supported, to have the canals opened. That was a millennium project. The pollution of the Union canal caused by the Nobel munitions works was cleaned up under directives from Europe, so it is amazing how people could make Standing Committee work relevant to their local area. I agree entirely with that point.

I commend the Deputy Leader of the House, who was asked by the Leader of the House to be involved in the process, and who has spoken with the Chief Whip, with me and with others to try to ensure progress on the major issue, which is what we can do to bring the Modernisation Committee’s report to a final conclusion that will advance what we do.

Martin Horwood: I apologise for the fact that after I have asked the hon. Gentleman a question I will probably have to withdraw to attend a Westminster Hall debate. One of the most important issues addressed by the Modernisation Committee was that of the induction and welcome of new Members. Does
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he support addressing, through the channel that he described, two key issues? The first is the chaotic diversity of material with which new Members are presented, and the second is the chronic lack of offices; we had to suffer the lack of an office for many months in 2005. The situation was probably not even as bad as it had been previously. Would he support measures to tackle those archaic problems?

Michael Connarty: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. In 1992, when I came to the House, I and four other Members were asked to go to the induction week for the new members of Congress in the United States of America. We spent a week at the John F. Kennedy school of government with those members, where they were trained in the relevance of their legislation to the budgetary headings on which they would eventually have to vote. We came back and made a recommendation. One of my hon. Friends was very keen on the idea that we should have a proper induction. There is no doubt that induction would and should take place on European issues.

As a member of the European Scrutiny Committee—and even before I became its Chair—I have spent a lot of time visiting Departments that have requested that either I or a clerk explain how we do our business, how they can help us in our business, and how they can help their Minister better. I have done that for the Industry and Parliament Trust, and I am meeting representatives from the Belgian chamber of commerce next week to talk about European scrutiny and how we perform, and to try to make them understand how systems work in different areas. People realise that understanding the process of scrutiny makes scrutiny better. That echoes a point made strongly by my late good friend, Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, who said that good scrutiny makes for good legislation, and bad scrutiny makes for bad legislation.

Mr. Shepherd: That is an important point. In fact, it was considered by the Modernisation Committee under the leadership of its former chair, who is now Secretary of State for Justice. We were extremely sympathetic to it, and indeed the John F. Kennedy school of government programme for new members of Congress was referred to constantly. That point was transmitted, but it could not be put in any Standing Orders. We decided, in an abstract way, that it was a matter for the House authorities, or for the parties. Parties do not want to lose their control over such matters. However, the point is valid: we could provide real induction on business, so that new Members of Parliament understood the dimensions of the job, and were not funnelled into a particular course by either House authorities or parties, which feel that new Members should be mere soldiers on the green Back Benches.


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