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"it is gratifying that there were very big majorities in the House last week to resolve this matter and move forward. We have the resolutions of the House. My task now is to make sure that the House is given an opportunity to endorse the Standing Orders that will give effect to them. My mandate is the will of the House as expressed in the resolutions. We need Standing Orders to give effect to them-nothing less."-[ Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]
"need not worry about progress being made on the proposals that we shall be going forward with. We need to complete the process of placing before the House for its approval the Standing Orders
that would give effect to the resolutions of the House, and they will indeed be brought forward"-[ Official Report, 18 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 975.],
"On the Reform of the House of Commons Committee proposals, we have put on the Order Paper the Standing Orders that give effect to the resolutions of the House, and we will bring those forward for approval by the House on Monday."-[ Official Report, 25 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 380.]
The Leader of the House has to accept responsibility. She could have found the time-an hour and a half-between the beginning of March and now to debate the Standing Orders and for the House to reach a conclusion. On an earlier occasion, because one of my independently minded Back-Bench colleagues objected to a private Member's Bill, she tried to pin the responsibility on the official Opposition. By the same analogy, those who have objected to these Standing Orders are all members of her party and, by the same logic, she must accept some collective responsibility for the fact that it is Labour Members of Parliament who have tabled amendments that have obstructed their progress.
In a recent argument in The House Magazine, the right hon. and learned Lady declared, in reference to parliamentary reforms, "Bring it on, Sir George". In the light of what has now happened, I am delighted to confirm to the House that that is exactly what I might have to do in a few weeks' time.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I too am extremely disappointed that the Government have chosen not to allocate time for the completion of the reforms proposed by the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)-or at least those parts of them that the Government committed themselves to bring forward. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has just said, the Leader of the House committed herself to doing that on three separate occasions in three separate weeks. The only thing I would add to his comments is that she repeatedly said that the relevant orders would be brought before the House before the next election.
"I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election."-[ Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 433.]
"I am under a duty and a responsibility to ensure that this happens before the next Parliament so that the Standing Orders are in place."-[ Official Report, 18 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 986.]
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is risible to hold the notion that the dewy-eyed political virgins that will descend on this place, irrespective of the outcome of the general election, will have as their raison d'être a reforming zeal rather than seeking, as all
new Members do, preferment as quickly as possible? Is this not a matter that should be resolved in this Parliament, as promised?
David Howarth: It is important that we do what we can now. Parliaments have nicknames-the Long Parliament, the Short Parliament, the Good Parliament and the Bad Parliament-and I am afraid that the next Parliament will be the Naive Parliament. We need to bear that in mind in what we decide to do today.
The Leader of the House said that there is not time today or tomorrow to fit in these 90 minutes. Can she confirm that if the Government wanted to they could extend the wash-up period into Friday? That would give us an entire day to debate these matters. Will she give an assurance to the House that if we find ourselves, as we often do at Prorogation, with the House adjourned while waiting for the other place to complete its consideration of Bills-I am sure that that will happen-she will reconsider her decision and use that time to pass the Standing Orders? What is different about the Standing Order changes is that they do not require the consent of the other place. We can make them here ourselves without any ping-pong. That is a crucial difference between this proposal and her proposals for the consideration of Bills.
Dr. Evan Harris: Is there not something particularly special about this? In this case, the House spoke and the House voted for something to happen. I believe my hon. Friend has a side interest as an historian of this place and I would like to ask him whether a Government have ever previously defied the will of the House in not doing what they are bound to do by a resolution of the House. They had to act when they lost the motion on the Gurkhas. Have a Government ever before been so arrogant that they have defied the will of the House in this way?
David Howarth: I cannot think of an example of that. I can think of examples of Governments completely losing their ability to do what they have promised to do before they fall, but not in this situation, where the Government still have a majority that they could use to fulfil their commitment.
Briefly, let me come on to what we are going to do tomorrow. The motion says that we will be considering Lords amendments and that there will be an hour for each of the Bills. Presumably that will include the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. I thought I was going to come to this debate to say that an hour would not be enough to consider a Bill of such massive importance, but it seems that minute by minute the Government and those on the Conservative Front Bench are getting together to cross out more and more of it, including the Government's commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform and to remove the absurd by-elections for hereditary peers. I noticed that the Leader of the House was pointing to the shadow Leader of the House, saying that this was all the fault of the wicked Tories. Let me say this to the Government: it is not; it is their fault.
There is a different way forward which the Government have chosen not to take. They could have tabled a business motion in the Lords that would guarantee the passage through the Lords of the parts of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill that they are now agreeing
with the Conservatives to get rid of. There are precedents for this because in 1997, when the Conservatives were last in charge, there was a business motion in the House of Lords in the wash-up period- [ Interruption. ] As the shadow Leader of the House says, the Conservative party at that point had a majority in the Lords. The question for the Government is why they have not tabled such a business motion and challenged the other parties in the Lords-the Liberal Democrats and the Cross Benchers-to support them on that motion. If they did that, I am sure they would get widespread support.
What I suspect is going on is a combination of two things. On the one hand, the Government are split over whether they want these reforms at all. This has always been the case with electoral reform and the Labour party. I remember as an elector receiving a letter from a Labour candidate in 1997 promising electoral reform then. Strangely, 13 years later it has not happened. This is the normal pattern, and there are reactionary forces in the Labour party that are opposed to all political reform. I am sure that is one factor. The other factor is the attempt to raise an election issue by pretending that the Labour party is in favour of reform and the Conservatives are not, when the reality is that with the right advice and the right negotiations across parties those reforms could be put through now. That strikes me as an entirely fake manoeuvre.
Those two issues-the completion of the reform of the House that was proposed by the Wright Committee, and the Government's pusillanimous treatment of political reform-mean that although the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire was able to say that he would follow a constructive approach, both in this House and in the other place, I presume, through the wash-up, I cannot make the same commitment because my party has been excluded from the negotiations. So I am not in a position either in this House or, more importantly, in the other place to say that we will co-operate with the Government in getting their business through. Indeed, we will start that approach this afternoon by dividing the House on this motion.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The problem that has been presented by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) has been alluded to already in this morning's Westminster Hall debate secured by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). In the limited time available in that debate, we considered some of these questions.
This issue is the effectiveness of government and who runs the House of Commons-and in turn the country. It is also about the imbalance that has been created as a result of the persistent degradation and diminution of this House's role in relation to the Government. There is a way of describing that in relation to the mechanics of this House-it is called "the usual channels" or the Whips. Of course there has to be a Whip system, otherwise there would be chaos. People join political parties, and when they vote for those parties, using their freedom of choice at the ballot box, they have the right to expect that there will be a proper and proportionate degree of support for the causes and political objectives that they supported in the general election. But-and this is a very big but-that does not mean that there is
an unconditional requirement to do whatever the Whips, and therefore the Government, want. We talk about the Whips as though this is all because of them, but it is not-it is because of the orders that are given by the Government. This is about the patronage that the Government exert and the determination and the political will of having what they want. The Prime Minister says, "I will insist upon this; I will do what I want," and he issues the directions down through the system. That is how the Whips operate.
Sometimes, criticising the manner in which the Whip system operates-I am one who does that-does not sufficiently explain the mechanics of the use of power that is exercised, but not on behalf of the people: once a person has been elected as the Prime Minister, the question is whether he is bound by manifesto commitments. The short answer, in relation to the European constitution, for example, is quite clearly no. Obviously, when it comes to having a referendum on the European issue, the answer is also no. The real issue before us, then, is this: we have to rebalance and recalibrate the manner in which the Whip system operates in practice, and the mechanism for that is the Standing Orders. It is impossible to imagine that somehow or other there will, by the waving of a magic wand, be a change in the way the Government and legislation operate in practice, so the Standing Orders themselves will have to be addressed. As I have said a number of times in the past few months, it is essential to return power to the House of Commons and take it away from the Executive.
I have not the faintest idea whether you agree with this, Mr. Speaker, and it is not for me to suggest that you should agree to it, or whether you have any right to agree to it, as we are talking about the House of Commons and not about the Speaker. I believe that the Speaker's role, in historical terms, is, as was said on a famous occasion, to be a servant of the House. The Speaker might therefore want to give guidance and might have his own views, but when it comes to the application of the rules, the Executive in the 1880s were given the power to determine Standing Orders. I believe that many others would agree with me if they were aware of what was going on, and would want the running of the Standing Orders to be vested in the impartial role of the Speaker himself. That would be one way of ensuring that we did not have an omnipotent Government who were driven by political will, irrespective of the freedom of choice that was exercised at the ballot box, and through the party Whip system.
Mr. Speaker: Order. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that his historical ruminations are endlessly fascinating and his bid for greater powers for the Speaker is obviously enticing, but I feel sure that he will now focus his remarks on the business of House motion.
It is against that background, because it is important that we get the landscape right, historically, politically and practically, that I move to the issue of the Wright Committee report and, of course, Parliament First. Like other Members present I have been a member of Parliament First, and I have said in the past that I would prefer it to be called People and Parliament First because it is about the people. This is not our Parliament;
it is the people's Parliament, but we are their representatives-another practical requirement. When it comes to the business of the House and what the Leader of the House appears to have done-I mentioned this to the Deputy Leader of the House this morning in Westminster Hall, and we still do not have an answer; she told us she was not in a position at this stage to make a declaration as to exactly what was going to happen on this business of the House motion-
Mr. Cash: Yes, well, it comes to much the same thing. Let us not split hairs. The important question is about the proposals of the Wright Committee, Parliament First and others who have fought this battle for radical reform. We know that Select Committee Chairmen are going to be chosen by secret ballot and that, through the party groups, members of relevant Select Committees will be chosen. I think that all the Select Committees should be included, but that is a separate issue, although I note that the European Scrutiny Committee and the Public Accounts Committee do not seem to be included. Irrespective of all that, the real issue about the business committee being proposed is that the Government are not prepared to put their money where their mouth was. They said that they were going to do it, and the House agreed to do it, but they have used their control over the House-I go back to my earlier comments about their control by political will over this House through the Whips and their control of the Standing Orders-and they are bypassing decisions that have, to all intents and purposes, already been taken by the House, on behalf of the people of this country, to return the running of the business of the House back to where it belongs. This is a disgraceful betrayal of the role of the Leader of the House.
The Leader of the House made her speeches and we heard them. I took part in all those debates, as did other Members who are present today. However, her actions seem to be to do with the political will of the Government and No. 10-and, no doubt, on instructions. I have an idea that she might be more on our side than she is prepared to admit. I believe she has been told by the Whips and No. 10 to do what she is doing, which is betraying this House and the people of this country. The bottom line is that she is taking away the House's right to have a Back-Bench business committee that would enable real power to be taken back from the Executive and given to Parliament on behalf of the people who vote in general elections.
This is about freedom of choice. It is not a philosophical question, but a practical one. People sometimes think that matters of constitutional law and practice are pure abstract theory, but they are not: they are about the exercise of power, and this is an extremely good example of a deliberate misuse of power that is a betrayal of the British people just as we are about to embark on a general election.
Moreover, the House business committee that was being discussed has simply dropped off the agenda. Unless we hear something to the contrary from the Leader of the House, this business motion is in effect a
clear betrayal of decisions that were made, and of arguments advanced, in the interests of the people who use their free choice to vote in general elections. They need people like us to represent their interests in the constituencies, and that is why I take the gravest exception to what I am observing today.
I do not think I am going to hear anything to counter my fears. I am convinced that the talk about referendums on parliamentary reform, proportional representation and alternative votes is just another smokescreen that is being used to take away the British people's right to make their own decisions. The proposed changes to the electoral system would cause votes to be reshuffled by a mechanism that would dilute freedom of choice at the ballot box.
Lloyd George was on to this. I will not repeat what I have said in previous debates, but I have had some banter on this topic with the hon. Member for Cambridge. I like him very much: he is a distinguished lawyer who knows his onions, but I think the Liberal Democrat party has slightly forgotten its origins in the Speaker's Conference of 1911 and the 1931 election.
I set out all these matters in more detail the other day, and I shall not repeat them now, but Lloyd George was completely in favour of proportional representation when it suited him and completely against it when it did not. This is all about the practicality of power, as I have described already.
The phrase "constitutional law" is almost irrelevant when one looks at what goes on in this House, because we are really talking about the use of power. A Government can exercise power when they have gained control over the system, and it is the way they do that that is dressed up as the constitutional process.
The bottom line is that the business motion is being used to programme Bills so that we cannot discuss them. An example of that is the Government's disgraceful behaviour with regard to the Digital Economy Bill. There may not be anything intrinsically wrong with many of its objectives, but it is wrong-in principle and in fact-for us to use truncated legislative procedures. They do not give the people of this country the sort of legislation they deserve because nothing is discussed properly.
Of course, the use of such procedures also takes away from Members of Parliamentary their incentive to be in the House at all. They know perfectly well that the vote will go according to decisions taken by No. 10, the Leader of the House, the Whips and the Executive. All the proposals on alternative voting and the attempt to introduce a greater degree of fairness-
Mr. Speaker: Order. If I were a student at a tutorial being conducted by the hon. Gentleman, I would no doubt find it very satisfying, but I am seeking to chair an orderly debate. He must resist the temptation to dilate on matters that are well wide of the motion. I feel fairly confident-at least hopeful-that he might be drawing his remarks to a close, because I know that he will be sensitive to the wish of other people to speak in the debate.
I am extremely glad that you have made that point, Mr. Speaker, because I was just beginning my peroration. The point that I was making may not be Periclean, but it is certainly relevant to what is really
wrong with this House-the way that it has been betrayed by those who use their political will to prevent people from changing the system or expressing their views. The same will happen again if this motion goes in the direction that it appears to be going. It is an attack on freedom of speech in this House-that is the level of the betrayal.
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