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I am keen that, other than party manifesto commitments on which we stand for election, all the small print of secondary details of legislation and the many other things that the Government often introduce half way through a Bill should not be whipped. We should be able to form an independent view on them. If Members from all parties thought that we were free to take our own view and argue itother than on matters on which we clearly stood for electionthere would be much more interest and people would vote. I see the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) nodding. I am clear on this matter; people often think that they are voting for
ciphers, who are sent here to do the will of their party leadership. That is not acceptable.
The other principle that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) hinted at, and I want to underscore, is that we are moving from Government deciding the business of the House of Commons to the House deciding its own business. I realise that the Government will be reluctant to let go, but we should decide our business, and we can then negotiate how the Government get their business into a timetable.
Simon Hughes: That is my point exactly. The change is not here yet. The amendments to Standing Orders are welcome as far as they go, but there are many others that I would wish to see. The matter should be decided by a business Committee of the House, rather than a timetable determining when we take particular parts of business. The Government would have to negotiate, based on how many Bills they needed, how long they would take, and so on. Such a change would also, I hope, address the issue of the calendar. I am clear about that: it is nonsense. It is another small point, in reply to the intervention of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, that makes us less heeded and people less interested.
People live their lives according to cycles. A family with children knows that the schools year begins in September and ends in July in England or a bit earlier in Scotland. Business people work to a tax year and others work to a chronological year. We work to a ridiculous timetable, whereby we startpossiblyin November; we have holidays that do not fit family life in all parts of the UK equally, in that if they fit English school holidays they do not fit Scottish school holidays; we used to come back in September but now we do not; we attend party conferences, after which we return for an uncertain period, and then we have a weeks recess between Sessions. That is nonsense.
We must be able to organise our timetable not only for us and the benefit of those who work here, but for all those who want to inform us and participate, so that we work when they work. They can thus plan their lives and there is a legislative sequence to events. It would therefore be logical to have fixed-term Parliaments. I am not theological about that, but, on balance, I believe that they are a good idea, not only for us but for the certainty of the public, local government, people whom Parliament funds through its votes, the civil service, people involved in political parties and those who are interested in voluntary sector organisations. Having certainty in such matters would help induce peoples participation in the process and perhaps make them more willing to stand for election because they would know what they were letting themselves in for.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but may I politely put it to him that the proposal for establishing a business Committee to run the affairs of the House, with which I concur, needs to be made intelligible to people outwith the House who will be interested in our proceedings? Will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to underline the fact that, at the
moment, the content of the agenda for the House and the allocation of time for it are almost exclusively in the Governments gift? It is unsatisfactory and an independent-minded business committee could effectively change that.
Simon Hughes: I agree. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made the point in similar terms. It would be well understood if we put our case clearly that there would be a transfer so that decisions about the business would be made by an independent group of people, representative of all the parties. Of course, there would be party interest in one sense, but Parliament, not the Executive, would make the decisions.
If Parliament took control of the selection of its Select Committees, people would start to perceive it as earning its keep. As the Leader of the House and her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), said today, the better the scrutiny, the stronger the legislature and the better the decisions.
The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill had its Second Reading the other day and is subject to carry-over. That is nonsense because the measure has been introduced in one Session and the Government will amend it significantly in the next. We have suffered terribly from far too much legislationquantity rather than quality. Of course, I appreciate that there is always pressure on the Government to introduce new legislation. However, the Home Office agenda shows that it has often legislated, repented of and had to undo its legislation. A few years ago, I discussed that matter in Finland, a unicameral Parliament, where the Government introduce draft legislation. That is considered and, if colleagues in the Parliament believe that it is not appropriate or that it has been covered already, there is often much movement. The Government often decide not to introduce part of the measure because they realise that they introduced similar provisions five years ago and that they need time to bed down.
If we are to do our job properly here, we must be able to persuade the Government to legislate less and do it more rationally and more for the long-term. Again, fixed-term Parliaments will help with that because the Government know how long they have and can plan their programme accordingly.
If we are to have a stronger Parliament and do our job better, there is a logic to having a smaller Executive. It is nonsensical that, because of the way in which the constitution has grown, the Executive and Parliament are not completely separated. They are partly separated, but partly together. Whenever a vote takes place, the approximately 100 Ministers and the perhaps 50 Parliamentary Private Secretariesthey are ballpark figureswho are on the payroll are spoken for. The reality is that the chance of Parliament being able to make a decision separate from the Executive is tiny. Of course I am not arguing that the Government should be entirely separate from the systema bit like the French Parliament, where as soon as Members become Ministers they give up their seatsbut we need to think about the issue. After devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Irelandand, I hope, further
devolutionwe do not need a bigger Executive; we need a smaller Executive, which will be more effective, too.
Just three last points [ Interruption. ] They are very short, and I hope that I am coming in well short of the time that the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House took. I am not against the proposed Regional Select Committees, but they are no answer to the English question. I am clear that we have not addressed the English question in Parliament, and it will not go away, nor should it. We need to work out how we can have proper accountability and scrutiny of England-only business, just as there is now better scrutiny in other places of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland business.
Penultimately, there is a set of proposals, albeit not really on the agenda, from the Power report about the right of other people to initiate legislation and petitions. I welcome what is proposed on legislation and petitions as far as it goes, but we still do not give Back Benchers enough opportunity to initiate legislation. The opportunity for non-Government legislation to get through Parliament is extremely limited. That is partly because the Whips object, because it might take up time. However, if Parliament is going to be credible out there and, to answer the question that the right hon. Member for Wokingham asked, if people are going to think that it is worth voting, they have to know that he, his right hon. Friend, the shadow Leader of the House, I or other hon. Members can introduce legislation that has a chance of getting through.
A small postscript: I notice that Mr. Speaker has selected an amendment about whether we should use hand-held electronic devices in here to multitask, as the relevant section in the report puts it. Were the amendment put to the vote, I would vote for it. If we manage our affairs and are in this place for a shorter time, we cannot do what people increasingly do, which is to try to pretend that they are in one meeting when they are actually having one somewhere else. I am not a luddite or anti-technologyof course we all see the advantages of being able to receive messagesbut we should not have a Parliament in which people are spending all their time doing their correspondence and sending e-mails. Hon. Members either come here to participate, debate, engage and listen, or they do not. I do not know whether anyone will move that amendmentsome of its signatories are herebut if they do, they will have my support. Whether they do or not, I hope that Mr. Speaker will be rigorous in ensuring that we do not end up with a system where half the Members here might as well be in their offices, because all they are doing is playing with their electronic devices.
The world is plagued with more and more people with whom one cannot have a conversation, because they spend all their time looking at some blessed machine in their hand. There is time for machines, and there is time for conversation and debate. This should be a place for debate and better scrutiny, in a stronger Parliament. I hope that the measures before us are only the beginning of a radical programme of reform. If the Leader of the House can lead it, she will be supported on these Benches.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): The one thing missing from todays measures is a proposal to put time limits on speeches and contributions by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). We had to sit through his huge contributions on the Legal Services Bill Committee and were relieved when he was replaced by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who made good points but in much less time.
The name Modernisation Committee always makes me smile, because if we were anywhere else, we would get done under the Trade Descriptions Act. Quite clearly, we are just playing around at the edges of reform, while many people out in the country do not understand some of the archaic ways in which we still operate.
I welcome the proposals for more topical debates. I had to chuckle, however, when I read that the main thrust behind the proposals was strengthening the role of Back Benchers. Naturally, I am greatly in favour of that, but if we are going to have more topical debates, we also need a system whereby Back Benchers can determine what those debates should be about. I agree with earlier comments that if we leave it to the Government to pick and choose through the usual channels, Back Benchers are unlikely to get the topical debates that they want.
Mr. Jones: I am very concerned. The hon. Gentleman, whom I love dearly, usually follows debates very carefully, but I am now starting to think that he may be in need of some kind of hearing device. I was making precisely the point that he raised. I was arguing that Back Benchers should determine the content of debates, so that we can have more topical debates that are more relevant to our constituents, while also holding the Executive to account.
I agree with some of the more general arguments made about debates and I thought that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made a very good point in saying that we looked at legislation too readily in departmental silos. Many current issues cut across several Departments. Looking at this place from outside, many would not understand that approach.
I am sorry to say that regional Select Committees are not featured in these proposals. There are outstanding problems in the scrutiny of a whole host of agenciesthis certainly applies in my north-east regionsuch as regional development agencies, the Environment Agency and the Highways Agency, to name but a few. No one is actually looking into what they are doing. Before the north-east regional assembly was thrown out, we faced for a while the ludicrous position of having an unelected regional assembly. Its scrutiny of those agencies was frankly farcical, yet it cost the taxpayer £2 million a year. I actually welcomed the abolition, but it has now left a gap. If I were a regional civil servant on one of these quangos, I would be breathing a great sigh of relief that no one was looking into what I was doing.
When the idea of regional Select Committees was first announced, it was welcomed in all sectors. I know from talking to colleagues in different parts of the north-east that they saw it as an opportunity to scrutinise some of the bodies that exert a huge impact on the daily lives of our constituents but on which we Back Benchers or elected MPs can exert little impact. One good example is the regional spatial strategy.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what type of regional Committee he supports? Does he support a Grand Committee-type arrangement in which every Member from a region is entitled to attend, or does he feel that only some Members from a region should be entitled to do so, or does he support a gerrymandered system whereby every regional Select Committee has a Government majority?
The regional spatial strategy, as I was saying, is a good example. I have on previous occasions referred to a soviet-style planning system, which has blighted many constituencies, including my own, in respect of housing numbers, yet there has been no mechanism for me to engage with the problem as a Back-Bench MP. If regional groups of civil servants and others are coming together to take decisions affecting thousands of our constituents lives, there must be a mechanism for us to get involved on behalf of those constituents. At present, there is no such mechanism.
I do not support the idea of a Grand Committee. I think that the civil servants and regional quangocrats would love it, because it would be no more than a talking shop, but I would like a Select Committee for each region that could hold the regional Ministers to account and ask for independent reports on the various agencies, as well as preparing its own reports.
The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) claimed that the new Committees would be gerrymandered. I would like a continuation of the present system, which allows Opposition Members to chair Select Committees. Obviously, in some areas the new Committees would not have Labour Chairmen, but the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, works perfectly well under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who is a Conservative.
Mr. Jones: Yes, I would. If there is to be genuine accountability, elected Members of Parliament must be given a key role, and if the system works properly, it will not only ensure that the unelected and unaccountable people who currently make huge decisions are brought to book but will give a role to MPs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) mentioned funding. I have heard the argument before that the Committees would cost money, and that that should be a reason for us not to establish them. I am sorry, but I do not agree. If it is a question of funds, we should make them available to support the new Committees.
It has been said that the Select Committee idea has been kicked into the long grass. I hope that that is not true. I shall be supporting it vigorously, and I know that Labour Members from my region would be very annoyed if all that we had was a sort of Grand Committee talking shop that did not do the effective job that wealong with many members of the public sector, the business community and others in the north-eastwant it to do.
Mr. Redwood: The south-east has a Conservative majority. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we decided that we did not want one of these thingsif we wanted to get rid of a number of regional quangos, and give the power to local government where necessarywe should be able to do that?
I have been a member of the Defence Committee for six years, and I agree that we need a system whereby reports are discussed not just in Westminster Hall but on the Floor of the House. It was said earlier that the reports would require Government responses so that there could be full debates on them. I am happy with that idea, but I believe that much good work is being done in Select Committees. The Defence Committee, for example, recently produced an excellent report on accommodation for the armed forcesa topical issue, some would say. In the last couple of weeks we have had two defence debates, on defence in the world and on procurement, but it would have been better for us to have a debate about that one report.
The Defence Committee produces yearly reports on both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those, too, are good reports, which the House should debate rather than holding generic debates that do not really go anywhere. The Committee also produces an annual procurement report. The way in which all Governments deal with procurement has always been a great scandal. If our annual report were discussed in the Chamber, not only would Members be helped to understand the process but civil servants and others who make decisions would know that those decisions would be exposed to debate on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I was delighted to hear of his support. I hope that his party might follow him if there is a Division on the matter. That would be helpful.
I am pleased to support the amendment that is in the name of my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), for Congleton (Ann Winterton), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)
and for Shipley (Philip Davies). They apologise for not being able to be in the House. They are on other parliamentary business.
Mr. Binley: I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing that out. I am sure that he will be used more effectively talking on the wider issues, rather than on the amendment. I am delighted to be able to help him to do that.
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