Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): A lot of people have requested to speak and we want to allow as many as possible to do so. I appeal to hon. Members to be as brief as they can, and we will do our best to get everybody in.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): It is a pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and I thank you for your guidance on how matters should proceed. No doubt that was appreciated by all hon. Members in keeping within the spirit of the debate. I am also grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing the opportunity for an initial debate on parliamentary modernisation and reform. I look forward to hearing about the experiences of other new Members, and to learning from those who have been MPs for longer.
This debate is part of a call for more open and efficient politics. If we do not continue visibly to modernise the way in which we work, I worry that the public will-rightly-fail to be convinced that politics has changed for the better. It is more vital than ever for Parliament to ensure that its work is efficient, transparent and accountable. Following my first six months in this place, those are not the first three words that come to mind as I consider the way we conduct ourselves.
Our political process is still struggling to regain its legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the public. Following the expenses scandal, 232 new MPs entered Parliament in 2010. It is now time to shake off the image-and in some cases the reality-of the "old boys club" and move Westminster into the 21st century. I pay tribute to the extensive work that has already been done. In particular, the work of the Wright Committee led to important changes in the management of the business of the House, not least with the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, which has allowed this debate to take place.
There is still a long way to go. Following the expenses scandal, public suspicion about the behaviour of MPs has not gone away, and many people seriously ask what exactly it is that MPs do. How does Parliament work on a day-to-day basis? How can we better scrutinise legislation and serve our constituents with maximum efficacy and efficiency? In years gone by, MPs were accused of being too Westminster focused and of not working enough in their constituencies. Now some suggest that the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and that some MPs spend too much time in their constituencies, and not
enough time properly scrutinising the legislation for which they are responsible. Now is a good time to take stock of that, and discuss what the balance should be between time spent on constituency casework and scrutiny of legislation.
Our constituents want us to have the time to know what we are voting on and to hold the Government to account, but they also want us to deal with constituency work and to know about their concerns. How much time a week should MPs spend in understanding what they are voting on in Parliament, and how much time should they spend in their constituency? We will all hold different views on that. It strikes me that it might be interesting to see an official job description for the role of MP. That is not something I have ever seen, but if it existed it would be interesting, and people would probably have different views about the different clauses in it.
We all have our own views about the way that the procedures in this place could be improved, and I look forward to hearing from others during the debate. I have published some of my own ideas in a report entitled, "The case for parliamentary reform", which I circulated to colleagues last November. Today, I make the same suggestion as in the report: the procedures and processes of the House of Commons are in urgent need of reform. That is hardly a new or novel observation. However, in a time of austerity when the rest of the country is urged to be more efficient with scarce resources, perhaps we should look at our own practices and at how efficient we are being with taxpayers' resources in using our time in Parliament.
Some of the reforms in my report build on previous proposals by the Wright Committee and the now disbanded Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons. A few of the new proposals draw on experiences from other legislatures, while others were-I admit-rejected by previous Parliaments at a different time. However, that is no reason why a new Parliament in new circumstances should not examine those proposals again.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I have read the hon. Lady's paper; it contains some interesting and good proposals. Past reforms covered the hours in which the House sits, which were changed in 2001-02. One of the proposals in her paper is to change sitting hours on a Tuesday, but that is distinctly un-family friendly for people who want to do the school run in London. At times, some of the proposals have the feel of being not so much family as London friendly.
Caroline Lucas: The issue that the hon. Gentleman pinpoints is important. The perspective of family friendliness depends on where someone happens to sit, be that in London, the north or the south-west. However, the issue is broader than that; it is about what kind of symbol and signal we want this place to convey. I hope we want to give a signal that it is right for people to be able to work within set hours on a given day. People, including our staff, should be able to do that.
I will not intervene again after this remark. However, on some occasions, it was extremely difficult for hon. Members to see their staff before Wednesday afternoon, because there was no thinking, preparation or meeting time when a Committee meeting
started before 9 am on a Tuesday. My researcher wanted to work a 2 pm to 10 pm shift, so that she could do her job properly when those hours were introduced. The House changed its mind and went back to the previous hours a year later.
Caroline Lucas: The hon. Gentleman's intervention indicates that changing the sitting hours alone is not enough. We must change what we do within those hours. I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of this Parliament to arrange our sitting hours so that people can do enough preparation for their Committees, and so that officials have time to prepare the speaker for urgent questions, or whatever. Do we want this House to set an example by working relatively family-friendly hours or not? If we do, other things will fall into place.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I praise the hon. Lady for securing this debate, and for her reforming zeal. I agree with her on matters such as voting, and I think we should look at the shape of the Chamber. However, can we stop the myth of family-friendly hours? It is not a family-friendly job. When we talk about family-friendly hours, we are talking about not only MPs from London and the south-east, but those whose constituencies are outside London, but whose families live down here. I want to take my daughter to school, and that should be part of the debate. I want to cram things in as much as possible so that I can get home to my family.
Caroline Lucas: I do not think that family friendliness is a myth. The way this House works ought, where possible, to give some kind of signal about what we hope for and aspire to for those who work in the rest of the country. If we rearrange the way we work, it should be possible to sit on a Tuesday morning, for example, and get much of the work done. We would not then need to sit late into Tuesday night. If hon. Members want to have meetings at that time, that is up to them, but I do not see why that process should hold everybody else hostage.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): There is also the consideration of people's mental and physical health, and their general sense of well-being. Most of us function better during the reasonable hours of the day, such as those proposed by the hon. Lady, than we do very late at night. When I came to this House, 70% of sittings went till midnight or beyond. People died and were ill. We have to get a grip on the issue, and look at what will be best for most people's health. We must also accept that some people will make choices. They will take their children to school, but they could still be here by 10.30 am or 11.30 am.
Caroline Lucas: I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. It points to the fact that one of the things that we are battling is something of a macho culture. Many people have asked, "If you're not ready to sit till midnight and 1 o'clock in the morning, why are you doing the job?" That is not a good response.
Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab):
I apologise to the hon. Lady because I will not be here for the whole debate. As well as an interest in this
issue, I have a long-standing commitment to and interest in affordable credit, which is being debated elsewhere. I have something of a reputation in the north for being macho, but on this occasion I agree almost wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady and want to encourage her, not necessarily to pin down specific hours, but to look to provide certainty and to avoid what my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) described-by-elections every three months, which is what happened 24 years ago, when I came into the House.
If I may, I will encourage the hon. Lady not to get bogged down on hours, because other changes in this place could get us into at least the 20th, if not the 21st century, and allow us, with discretion, to vote more sensibly, provide certainty and, above all, demonstrate that we have understood the changes that have happened because of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and our relationship with the European Parliament, all of which have taken shape since I came-
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that interventions must be kept as terse as possible. An awful lot of Members want to speak this afternoon, and I want to be as fair as I can.
Caroline Lucas: I thank the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) for his intervention, which was incredibly valuable. He rightly reminds me that the Procedure Committee is examining sitting hours. I am very glad about that. I hope that this debate can produce some agreement that at least there should be a mechanism whereby we can consider all these issues again. We may disagree about the details of family-friendly hours or exactly when different debates should happen, but I want to gauge how much interest there is for some types of change and, if there is some interest, how we can make progress.
I want to pick up on the point about the Procedure Committee conducting an inquiry on the sitting hours and the turnout today. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is perhaps an argument for another vehicle for pursuing the cause of parliamentary reform? We do not want it to stall after the Wright Committee, and the Procedure Committee has limited time. In fact, although it is conducting an inquiry on sitting hours, it has not begun that yet, and we do not want the issue to be delayed and put on the back burner. Should the House not find some way to take it forward, given the clear level of interest in doing so?
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): With great respect to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), the Procedure Committee has in fact started its work and we had a very useful opening seminar in Portcullis House last week to take evidence from a variety of sources. The work is under way.
Caroline Lucas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Having been at the seminar, which was very useful, I completely agree with him that that work by the Procedure Committee has started. I want to make it clear that nothing that I say this afternoon is in any way critical of what the Procedure Committee is doing-it does fantastic work. As we know, just this week it published findings of an inquiry into the release of information by Ministers, with a set of recommendations with which I wholly concur. My point is that the amount of work that we are potentially talking about in terms of the reforms that we need cannot be tackled by the Procedure Committee alone, so I completely agree with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) about considering a mechanism complementary to the Procedure Committee-something that would run alongside it but would have more capacity to deal with some of the wider issues that we are talking about.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. May I take this opportunity to apologise for the absence of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight)? As the hon. Lady may know, he had all the symptoms of flu yesterday afternoon. For his sake and for ours, he has wisely gone home, but he asked me to stand in for him. As she will have noted, other members of the Procedure Committee are present, and the right hon. Gentleman asked me to respond at the end of the debate on behalf of the Committee.
Let me say a little about some of the specific proposals that I would like us to consider, not in the expectation that all hon. Members will agree with them, but just to put some ideas out there about how things could be changed. One change could involve electronic voting. I know that there will be a sharp intake of breath as I say those words. I have looked back at previous times when we discussed the issue in the House, so I do not expect an easy ride on it, but this is a time when we could consider it again, not least because it has been estimated that £30,000 of salary could be saved every week because of the amount of time that MPs waste while waiting to cast votes. We are talking about an hour and a half or more extra because of the way we vote. To put it another way, if a vote takes about 15 minutes and if, in the previous Parliament, there were about 1,200 votes, that means that an MP with an 85% voting record would have spent 250 hours just queuing up to vote. Those are hours that taxpayers have paid for, and I argue that they could be better spent studying amendments, scrutinising Bills or helping constituents.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): We also waste a great deal of time-certainly I do-running from the chilly outer reaches of Norman Shaw North and back again. That causes disruption to meetings with colleagues and constituents.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con):
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, but is she really saying that we should press a button to vote? It is
difficult enough at the moment to get people into the Division Lobby with any idea of what they are voting on. They would be pressing a button because the Whips had told them to, and parliamentary democracy would be destroyed.
Caroline Lucas: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman raised that point because I have another proposal, which I will come to in a moment, that against each amendment there should be an explanatory statement that explains what it is about. That would mean that far more hon. Members had a better idea of what they were voting on. In terms of electronic voting devices, I am suggesting not that such voting should be done in the isolation of one's office, but that there should be a particular time when we vote each day. That would deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) about not knowing when to start running over from Norman Shaw North. We would have a particular time when we would vote. It would be done by hon. Members either sitting in the Chamber or, because there is not room for everyone, in the Lobbies. People would still get the chance to lobby Ministers, but there would be a fixed time in the day when we could vote electronically. I will explain why we would have a better idea of what we were voting on shortly. From my experience in the European Parliament, I can tell hon. Members that six votes take a minute and a half with electronic voting. Six votes in this place take at least an hour and a half. I find it hard to justify that.
Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): Parliamentary democracy has not been destroyed in a large number of other parliamentary democracies where electronic voting works very well. The Indian democracy, for example, is one of the most vibrant in the world. In the US, people manage to vote in that way in both Houses very successfully. There is plenty of evidence to show that it can work well.
Caroline Lucas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the French Assembly and the US Congress all vote using elements of electronic voting, and I see no reason why we should not as well.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the good practices in the Welsh Assembly is having a block voting period at the end of the day? Rather than the constant disruption of meetings and all the rest of it, we could designate a part of the day specifically for voting.
Caroline Lucas: I absolutely agree. It would allow us to organise our business and our timetables much more effectively. I do not know what happened in days gone by. Perhaps MPs did not have so many meetings with outside bodies but I know that it is embarrassing, in the middle of a meeting with quite important people, suddenly to have to say, "I'm really sorry, I'm going to have to go. I have no idea how long I will be. I hope to get back to you some time soon." That is not a good way to do business.
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab):
The hon. Lady asked what happened in days gone by. Perhaps I can try to answer that. One of the proposals of the Select Committee on Modernisation was to introduce programme motions.
Those were introduced following a recommendation of that Committee. The idea of such motions was to give more certainty to MPs about when votes would take place, so that they could better organise their day.
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Lady continues, may I point out that she is about 18 minutes into her speech, but that so far there have been at least 10 interventions. It is entirely a matter for the Chamber, but I suggest that to enable the hon. Lady to make her points we minimise interventions.
Caroline Lucas: It is probably out of order for me to reflect upon that, Mr Benton, but I would argue that one way to improve our debates would be to have more interventions and fewer set pieces. I hope that I am not being disrespectful.
I want to make one last point about electronic voting. If we make the process of casting votes less time-consuming, MPs could vote on more aspects of Bills. As a result, the public would have a clearer record on which to hold us to account. A system that inherently discourages voting on the specifics of Bills because it takes too long to vote is a problem. It also requires less thought from those charged with passing legislation through the House. Speeding up voting would enable us to be better legislators by giving better scrutiny.
Greg Mulholland: I share the hon. Lady's desire to speed up voting; I was using electronic voting when a member of Leeds city council. To make it work in the House, do we not need to consider the reality of the Chamber? In most Parliaments that have electronic voting, Members have an assigned desk with a voting button, and many Parliaments use laptops, but we could not possibly do those things in the present Chamber.
Caroline Lucas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I passingly considered how radical it might be to propose that we do not sit in the Chamber, but decided that I should probably wait for a few more years before making such a proposal.
I discussed the matter with a company that specialises in the manufacture of electronic voting devices. It said that we could make them operable in the Chamber and in the Lobbies on either side-there is not enough space for all Members to be in the Chamber, as has been pointed out-but they could be made to work only within that area, so there would be no danger of people going to the pub with one in their pocket, with all the disrepute that would involve. There are ways of getting around the problem. I would be the first to admit that it would be much easier if each of us had our own place in the Chamber, but I believe that it is still possible to get around the problem.
One reason is that it would make electronic voting an awful lot easier. Another is that it would make the Chamber more orderly than the sort of crush that we have when everybody rushes in. I know
that it looks good on TV screens, but if Members have to stand they may not be able to follow the debate as closely; they certainly find it harder to take part in the debate if they are crushed at the back of the Chamber, far from the Speaker's Chair. However, that is rather theoretical, because we cannot get away from the Chamber that we have.
I am aware that there was a consultation paper on voting methods back in 1998. I admit that at the time, 64% of MPs preferred to stay with the present system, but one reason given for that was that they did not want to lose the opportunity to speak informally with Ministers in the Lobbies. My proposal for a set time for Members to go to the Lobbies to use their electronic voting devices would still enable them to lobby Ministers.
Joseph Johnson: That advantage belongs only to Members of the governing party; it is not shared by MPs from Opposition parties. That argument cannot be used to justify a continuation of the Lobby voting system.
Caroline Lucas: The Government are by definition the majority. It struck me that, when trying to get measures passed, I could perhaps be kinder to the majority in addressing their concerns. I agree with the hon. Gentleman; I have not nobbled many Ministers during my time here.
"Members seem interested in the possibility of holding divisions over, so that all votes could be taken after one another at a convenient time, instead of holding divisions immediately at the end of each debate."
That was back in 1998, but despite the fact that a majority were interested, little has changed. Although 2004 saw the introduction of the so-called deferred Divisions, when some votes that would otherwise have taken place at the end of the day's sitting would be conducted in writing on Wednesday morning and early afternoon, the option is seldom used.
I acknowledge that there will be occasions-the votes on tuition fees for example, or the vote on the Iraq war-when it will appropriate to vote straight away, because of the significance of the vote and the public's interest in it. However, the fact that there are certain exceptions to such proposals does not undermine the direction of the proposals themselves. I still believe that they are worth considering.
I shall talk briefly about abstentions. I got myself into trouble when talking about abstentions in the past, with people telling me, "Well, if you can't make up your mind you shouldn't be in Parliament." Abstention does not mean that that we cannot make up our minds. It does not mean that we do not know. Abstentions are often the result of being presented with two opposing ideas, but being asked to vote on them as one amendment. One may agree with one part of an amendment but not the other, yet there is no way in this Parliament of taking amendments in parts. I note in passing that in the European Parliament, which uses 20 languages, it is possible to take an amendment in parts, but we cannot do that here. We might then think to ourselves, "What shall I do? I know, I'll abstain."
It is difficult to abstain in this place. In 1998, a majority of MPs indicated strong or general support for an option to record abstentions, but 12 years later nothing has happened. Richard Taylor, the former Independent MP for Wyre Forest and the late David Taylor, the independent-minded former Labour MP for North West Leicestershire, were both known for voting yes and no. Of course, the media made much fun of them, making it seem that they were not able to make up their minds.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): A point of order was raised in the Chamber today about that precise point. Members were reminded that the Speaker has ruled that it is unparliamentary to vote both yes and no.
Caroline Lucas: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. What she says reiterates the fact that we need a formal way of registering an abstention instead of not voting; if we do not vote, those helpful websites that record how often we are in the Chamber will make it seem that we were not there.
Mr Mark Williams: I plead guilty; I was one of the four who did precisely that-to go through both Lobbies. We were unable to support a Labour motion referring to the record of the previous Labour Government and we were concerned about the Government's policy, but there was no third way. Sitting on our hands could have been construed as our being absent from the House. The case needed to be made that we were there, but that we were concerned about both the Opposition's line and the Government's. For a third party that has sometimes not been in government, that is most important.
Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): Although the hours that MPs might keep are important, and although the technical means by which they may vote is certainly important, does the hon. Lady not agree that when it comes to restoring purpose to Parliament, to getting this House off its knees and ensuring that the legislature can once more hold the Executive to account, there are bigger and more profound matters than those that she has mentioned so far?
Caroline Lucas: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there more fundamental matters to do with the power of the Executive. I am starting modestly, but shall come to those in due course. There are bigger issues, but after six months here, and with a degree of humility, I was trying to see whether there are ways in which the efficiency of this place could be improved. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there are bigger issues, and I know that another hon. Member will talk about those shortly.
I return to some of the smaller points. Because they are smaller, it ought to mean that they are not resisted so much. We ought to be able to speed things up and get some of this stuff done. We would then have the time and space to get our teeth into the bigger, more fundamental issues. One of the small things that we could do is to include an explanation of the design or purpose of an amendment. It is particularly difficult for people outside Parliament, and sometimes for Members themselves, if
they are not following the legislation in minute detail, to understand the implications of an amendment that states "clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1)". It takes a lot of time to unpack what it really means; we need the Bill and the amendment, and we need to know some of the background. A simple explanation of two or three sentences would substantially increase transparency. MPs themselves would also have a better idea of what they are voting on, which might not please the Whips very much, but it would increase democracy and accountability.
It is a modest proposal and one that has been made before, but providing explanatory notes would, none the less, make a significant difference. It would give more power to Back Benchers and take a little more from the Whips, and enable constituents to follow better the proceedings of the House.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I echo what the hon. Lady says about explanatory notes. More often than not, Members have no idea what they are voting on. If the first 20 MPs leaving the Lobby later on today were asked what they had just voted on, I suspect that 19 of them at best would have no idea at all. Nevertheless, the big issue is not lack of knowledge about what we are voting on, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) has pointed out, the fact that Parliament itself absolutely fails to hold the Government to account. I hope that we will cover that issue later on in the debate.
Caroline Lucas: I completely agree, and I look forward to having another debate on exactly that subject. Let me raise a few more issues before other Members speak. Obviously, this is a well-subscribed debate.
I want to say a few words about the talking out of private Members' Bills. The Bills, which are introduced by MPs who are not Ministers, are relegated to Fridays, the day when attendance at Westminster drops as most of us go back to our constituencies. Why not move private Members' Bills to a mid-week slot so that they are better attended? We could then consider the implications of making Fridays a formal constituency day. I do not accept that it is beyond our wits to find adequate time for private Members' Bills earlier in the week without displacing other legislation. Hon. Members will be well aware that our current system allows Back Benchers deliberately to waste the time allotted for debate on a private Member's Bill in order to delay it. The vote takes place when there are likely to be far fewer Members present to support it as people leave to get to far-flung parts of the country.
The talking out of private Members' Bill is an insult to other Members who want seriously to debate the Bill, to the Speaker and, most important, to the electorate who do not want to pay to run a debating chamber that is being mocked by its participants. There should be explicit rules that prevent the practice of talking out a Bill. The Wright Committee stated that "merely procedural devices" should not be able to obstruct private Members' Bills, but again, we have not seen much change in that respect. That Committee also referred to the popular proposition that a maximum of three hours should be given for the Second Reading debate on any private Member's Bill, which should be in cumulative and successive sittings, after which the question would be put to the
Chamber on whether the Bill should receive Second Reading. In a sense, that would render pointless the act of filibustering. I shall take the fact that there was no intervention on that point as agreement, and I shall proceed with great speed.
Joan Ruddock: I support the hon. Lady. One of the easy things that we could do is make the Tuesday sitting compare with the Wednesday sitting, so that we start the day three hours earlier. We could then accommodate private Members' Bills in the evening, which would give Members the choice on whether to stay. All House facilities would be kept open. That would be an ideal way. If Ministers, and I have been one, need to defeat a Bill, they must defeat it on the issues and its merits and not by procedural means.
Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I support the hon. Lady. Such a reform would also help with the House's family friendly policies. I make no complaint about that. I have not seen my seven-year-old son since Sunday night, and I will not see him until I get back at 9 o'clock tonight. I do not always want to stay on Fridays, not only because of constituency duties but because it is the only day of the week when I can take my son to school. My constituency is 225 miles away. The opportunity for a deferred vote on a private Member's Bill on a mid-week day or consideration on another day would be ideal for both purposes.
Caroline Lucas: I shall proceed while I am on a roll. Another issue, albeit small, is the adoption of more accessible language, which would increase the transparency of this place and give some indication that we want people to understand what we are doing. All too often it looks as though we are deliberately mystifying what we do here to create the illusion that it is even more special than it is. There is a strong case for a systematic overhaul of the language to make it more self-explanatory. If the language of the Commons was made easier to understand, more people, especially younger people, would be more attracted to politics. MPs should be able to use each other's names. We should drop phrases that, to the public, look at best like arcane jargon but at worst make Parliament seem inaccessible, distant and remote. Why should MPs not refer to each other in debate as Mrs Smith or John Jones? That would make proceedings more intelligible without reducing the necessary formality and without changing the practice of speaking through the Chair. A methodical overhaul of the language of the procedures and offices of the House based on the principle that it should be self-explanatory and easily understandable for the public should not be beyond something on which we can all agree.
In conclusion, we will all have many ideas about how we can improve the way in which this House works. The early-day motion to which this debate has been tagged is suggesting not specific changes but the idea that there should be some mechanism whereby a range of different ideas can be discussed and taken forward. I recognise
that the Procedure Committee is doing excellent work, but it is already stressed in terms of its capacity to take on some of the very big issues that it is dealing with, such as sitting hours.
I hope that I have demonstrated not just my own wish list but also that other Members have ideas that need to be considered. I am passionate about the subject; Parliament has to become more effective so that it can better serve the nation. It cannot continue to be seen to waste taxpayers' money and MPs' time on antique processes that are not fit for purpose. Even where there is disagreement on the details, I hope that hon. Members will accept that my underlying concern is that much more can be done so that MPs are more efficient and more easily understood. Given that, we have a duty to be more effective about the way in which we work.
During the past couple of years, the public have heard a lot of warm words about a new politics. In the wake of the expenses scandal, hon. Members will recall the words of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) before he became Prime Minister. He said that
"this political crisis shows that big change is required. We do need a new politics in this country. We do need sweeping reform."
"Every Member of this House was elected knowing that this Parliament must be unlike any other-that we have a unique duty to restore the trust in our political system that has been tested to its limits in recent times."-[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 23.]
"Out of a set of terrible issues, this is a moment for big reform and government must take advantage of it. We need a more pluralistic political system where power is shared in different ways."
"The current public mood of anger and disquiet... demands a response. We need to overhaul the engine, not just clean the upholstery."
I hope that my points this afternoon are not simply seen as "cleaning the upholstery." The upholstery needs cleaning; we can make the way in which we work more efficient, but there are other more fundamental issues about how we hold the power of the Executive to account. I know that several other hon. Members will raise those issues as well, and I look forward to the debate.
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for sparking this debate, which is obviously of great interest to colleagues judging by the attendance.
"60% believe that Parliament is a worthwhile institution and 75% that a strong Parliament is good for democracy."
What the public do not like are MPs who fiddle their expenses, and half the public at any one time dislike the decisions taken by Parliament, which may be for political and personal reasons. We will not easily get over those difficulties, and I do not think that the prescription being offered by the hon. Lady necessarily meets the real needs of Parliament today, if we are to improve ourselves as a legislature controlling the Executive.
To contribute to a debate on reform and not endorse every single point made by the initiator of the debate risks being branded a reactionary. I realise that if I allude for one moment to the experience that I have had in this House, I shall equally be condemned as an old fogey. I am taking a risk by even speaking in this debate.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I do not think that anyone thinks that, bearing in mind that the right hon. Gentleman has accepted that we should trial iPads in Committee. I understand that he is an enthusiast on that front, which is absolutely marvellous.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: My hon. Friend is in danger of stealing my thunder, because I was about to say that I regard myself as a reformer. If hon. Members look at the evidence that I have given to the Modernisation Committee over a period of years, they will appreciate that I have fizzed with ideas as to how we might change our procedures and practices. However, I remain a conservative with a small "c" as far as our institutions are concerned. Change should not be rushed-if it is, we tend to recant very quickly, as in the case of the Tuesday sitting hours, when we went one way before going back the other. We have introduced topical debates, but we do not think that they are a particularly great idea, and we have gone for topical questions, which we think are a good idea. We should think things through before we rush into them. The stability of our Parliament, in contrast to many others, is testament to the way in which we have gone about things.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that our absolute purpose, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has said, is to hold the Executive to account and to debate matters fully and properly, but that the way in which business is scheduled in the House militates against that? In that respect, I apologise for not being able to stay for the end of the debate, because two other debates, in which I am also keen to participate, are happening simultaneously. We have to look at allocating time, so that we can debate issues properly, because that does not happen now.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: I am going to be slightly meaner in my disposition towards interventions, otherwise, I shall never get through my argument. The hon. Lady's point is absolutely relevant to something that I will say later in response to the proposals by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion.
The House has renewed itself, and the fact that we are in this Chamber is one symbol of that. The fact that we are here at the behest of a Backbench Business Committee is further testament to the fact that we are capable of doing things differently. At first, this Chamber was greeted with suspicion, but it is now readily embraced and is ripe for further exploitation-a point that is also
made in the Hansard Society paper. Why not use this Chamber for uncontentious Second Reading debates? Why not repeat the experiment with cross-cutting question sessions, which was cast aside too lightly? Why not table questions to the person representing the House of Commons Commission or the Church Commissioners in this Chamber, rather than in the main Chamber? We might also bring into the sequence the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee or the Chair of the Administration Committee-I mention the last of those modestly. The fact is that such things should be open to more questioning by hon. Members.
A lot of change has taken place in my time. Radio and TV have come in, and broadcasters have progressively achieved more flexible access. All-night sittings have almost been expunged, and sittings beyond 10 pm are now rare. The programming of legislation is now the norm. Departmental Select Committees were only set up in 1981. Notice for questions is now shorter, and topical questions have been introduced. Deferred Divisions have been set up. New technology is being cautiously embraced. Time limits have been introduced on speeches, and we could go further with that in Committee, on Report and during discussion of private Members' Bills. The Backbench Business Committee has been established. Elections are now rife, giving more power to Back Benchers. The Standing Orders are continually being changed-the ink is hardly dry on the paper, such has been the pace of reform.
The Hansard Society paper has a great many good ideas in it, particularly regarding the legislative process. I do not want to go into that in detail, but I commend the paper as a subject for further discussion. Let me be upfront, however, about where I caution against change. This Parliament is a debating chamber-that is what distinguishes it from many others Parliaments-and our performance is of high quality. We should keep away from the idea of written speeches, which kill debate.
I would keep the indirect form of address. Having watched the Parliament and, worse, the state Parliaments in action in Australia, I have seen abuse to which the direct form of address gives rise, which is shocking. Our system acts as a filter, ensuring that debates are conducted in a civilised manner. The fact is that we also forget the names of colleagues across the Floor half the time, so referring to them as "the hon. Member" is a good cover.
The House should not press for the list of speakers in a debate to be published. Having spent 13 years handling such situations, I know that hon. Members are not entirely reliable in their relationships with the Chair. The Chair tries to make up for that by being considerate and juggling lists to enable hon. Members to go off and do things that suddenly arise. Under the list proposal, however, the hon. Member who did not turn up- unfortunately that happens quite a lot-would then find that the local press were on to them to ask why they had not been present for a debate. The proposal is not, therefore, quite the obvious solution it might be thought to be. Furthermore, someone who thinks that they
know when they will speak in a debate might absent themselves for rather more of the time, so I am not sure that the proposal is entirely forward looking.
I am very suspicious about electronic voting at a single time of day. There is the question of amendments being contingent one on another. If we want a process that increasingly divorces debate from decision, that is the way to go, but there are times when we have to dispose of one amendment before we can logically go on to the next, and that has not been sufficiently thought through.
Caroline Lucas: We have discussed that extensively with the Clerks, who have pointed out that it is perfectly possible to have a mechanism whereby the Chair could indicate which votes are contingent on other amendments. It is not beyond our wit to work out a system whereby we can vote electronically and in sequence, with the votes the way they have been put down.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: I take that point, but the hon. Lady possibly overestimates the skills of Members when they are suddenly asked to look at complicated things. For all the explanations that might be available, it is sometimes difficult for us to get our ideas straight, particularly when we have to vote instantly, rather than having a couple of minutes to think carefully about an issue.
I am not against private Members' Bills staying on Fridays. The fact that a proposal is a private Member's Bill does not immediately invest it with merit, and some pretty ordinary ones come up. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has suggested a mid-week slot, when the rest of her argument about the timing of sittings goes against spending time on such things in the evenings after a full day's debate, which seems inconsistent. I would keep private Members' Bills on Fridays. One argument is that if hon. Members cannot get 100 colleagues into the House to support them, their proposal may not be worth supporting, but I will not go down that line. I will go halfway towards what the hon. Lady has said by suggesting that private Members' Bills should be on Fridays, but that there should be a specific three-hour slot for debate, with a deferred Division, at another time in the week. That would be a useful way of looking at the issue.
On the sitting pattern, it is important that we get the balance right between our duties in our constituencies and our duties in Westminster. The balance has moved too far, to the point that we are overly obsessed with what happens in our constituencies while we are away in Westminster.
We also have to decide whether we want predictability or an element of spontaneity as our guideline. If this place is to keep up with topical issues, we may need to adjust the Order Paper to take account of that. At the moment, the only person, beyond the Executive, who has the power to do that is the Speaker. Our Parliament treats the Speaker with greater puritanism than any other Parliament in the world. We say that someone becomes independent from the moment they become the Speaker and that they never go back to party political association. That being the case, we are telling every Member, even if they are the only Member
representing a party or independent minority group, that they can trust the Speaker to give them a fair deal, because the Speaker has no axe to grind. If we accept that, do we want the Speaker to grant urgent questions or even Standing Order No. 24 emergency debates, which will simply shatter the business for the following day? Alternatively, are we content, as has happened in my experience, to have two Government statements and an urgent question take an absolutely huge chunk out of the time, when an important debate would otherwise have been scheduled for that day? We must think about that and get the compromise right.
I declare an interest as Chair of the Administration Committee, because in a sense that shows me another side of the practice of the House, which is keeping the turnstiles turning and the cash registers ringing. I have also been a distant Member of the House as well, having represented, for a period of years, the north Manchester seat of Middleton and Prestwich, so when I discuss family-friendly arrangements, I understand them from two different angles. We should not only discuss arrangements that are family-friendly for hon. Members who live in London, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has mentioned in an intervention. If we think only from that point of view, what we decide will be self-fulfilling, and we shall put more pressure on hon. Members to live in London and visit their constituencies, and I am not sure whether the Selection Committee would be entirely enamoured by our doing that.
A Member who finishes at 6pm will not get to Manchester in time to tuck up the children in bed, and they will have to get up jolly early to be here by 9 am the following morning-or 8 am to put in a prayer slip to reserve a seat for that day. Mention has been of a parent in London wanting to take the children to school, who might have difficulty getting here by that early hour. We should also think of our staff. Members should not forget the amount of preparatory work that must be done from the lowliest level up to the Clerks, to ensure that our business can start at the hour when it does. We may be forcing staff to get up terribly early-4 am or 4.30 am-to get here to do the jobs they must do for us to function. We should take their welfare into account, too.
What is friendly in terms of making this Parliament operate more effectively? The Chamber is the heart of our system and at the moment other activities partly overlap with the sittings of the Chamber. If we go to a 9 am to 6 pm arrangement, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has proposed, there will be a complete overlap for every other activity in the House, including Select Committees, Public Bill Committees and all-party groups. If hon. Members cast an eye over the "All Party Whip" they will see the wide range of all-party groups-scarcely a condition of the human body is not covered by one. Those are legitimate activities, and there are deep interests at stake for small groups of Members, who must be accommodated. There are also lobby events, where hon. Members want to hear from particular groups. Ad hoc meetings crop up, outside visits must be undertaken and there must be contact time with Departments of State, councils and other bodies to which Members are making representations on behalf of their constituents. How will all that fit in satisfactorily in human and logistical terms? Will all the rooms be
available at the right time? It is difficult enough now to get attendance at Select Committees, but, if they are to be effective and their reports are to be valid, attendance must be constant.
The competition for hon. Members' time is intense, and fitting everything into a shorter period of time will, I suggest, be very difficult. It would create a risk that the Chamber would become even more sparsely attended than it sometimes is today. Alternatively Members will multi-task in the Chamber. That is part of the justification for having BlackBerrys and other devices in the Chamber. Members of the public are beginning to dislike that as much as the absence of Members from the Chamber, and Mr Speaker gets letters on the subject. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who left his place earlier, has also received representations from his constituents about that.
Mr Carswell: Is my right hon. Friend suggesting that many of the people who follow me on Twitter and who follow blogs written in the Chamber take exception to what I am doing? Is not the practice a good thing, which allows me to connect with people who do not sit and watch TV?
Sir Alan Haselhurst: I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but the public are beginning to notice and believe that Members should not have their heads down looking at those devices while they are meant to be listening to a debate. That is their opinion-it may be wrong but it is their opinion and they do not like it. [Hon. Members: "He's twittering."] My hon. Friend may find that there is a ruling yet from the Chair dealing with Twitter as distinct from other things. [Interruption.] It is difficult to silence the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
A point that has not been discussed so far is the fact that we make this place available for members of the public to tour in the mornings. Many hon. Members like the opportunity for their constituents to be here-schools in particular-and Parliament is conducting a big outreach programme. That would become much more difficult under the regime that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has put forward.
Jo Swinson: On tourists, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is difficult for most members of the public to visit Parliament on weekdays? It would be helpful if Parliament were open at weekends for people to come and have a look round.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: I am very interested in the question of access, but do not want to go too far into it now. I am happy to receive representations in my capacity as Chair of the Administration Committee. The House is, of course, open on a Saturday, but I am not sure whether it is entirely suitable for school parties to come then. I just mentioned that point as another thing to be factored into the equation.
We have changed over the years. The pace may not be fast enough for some, but we can speed up the process of examining all the new ideas. I do not, however, believe that we need another Committee. We have had the experience of the Modernisation Committee and frankly, to have it running side by side with the Procedure Committee was unsatisfactory. The Procedure Committee
should be invested with the relevant responsibilities and, if necessary, it should be geed up to work faster, if the House believes that the issues are important ones and need to be examined. Perhaps the right expression-which would be appreciated by the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), as a motoring man-is that we need to change gear and move a little faster. That would help to satisfy those who feel that some things have been ignored for too long.
The real challenge is how we are to make the House more effective. I think that the content of the Hansard Society paper that has been circulated is perhaps more relevant than what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has said, because concentrating on the cutting or rearrangement of hours is not the main priority or the best route towards a more effective Parliament.
Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I am not going to read out a speech; I have just scribbled some notes and cannot read what I have written. I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for bringing us this debate. The number of hon. Members here is testament to how important it is. She is keeping the fires of reform burning. I do not think that she needs to worry that we are at the end of reform; this is the beginning of a continuing process.
It is nice to see so many new Members in this Chamber today, because it is important to get the views and ideas of people who have come from outside, and who are much more normal than those of us who have been here a while. We must not forget that being here for even one Parliament has already made some of us accept as normal things that clearly are not, to the outside world.
As the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee I want to say that its very existence has made a real difference in terms of reforming Parliament and the difference between then and now. Two debates are being held in the Chamber that are massively oversubscribed. All the debates that we have timetabled so far in the Chamber have had speech limits. Today the limit is five minutes per speaker. I shall try to speak for 10 minutes or less; as has been said, what cannot be said in 10 minutes is not worth saying. It is worth noting that when Back Benchers take responsibility for their own time they use it wisely and well, and take an interest in what is being debated. That is something for the Government to consider. They should recognise that, through the Backbench Business Committee and Select Committees, Back Benchers are doing what we were sent here for-to hold the Executive to account better.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has single-handedly contributed to raising the status and profile of Westminster Hall. It is such a shame that we have this Chamber and underuse it, as the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) said. Along with the Procedure Committee, the Backbench Business Committee will be considering the use of Westminster Hall, and providing another forum for debate that is more interesting than just having an Adjournment debate with one Member and a Minister responding. This debate really shows what we can do with Westminster Hall.
Chris Bryant: I wonder whether my hon. Friend would consider an idea that was suggested earlier, which is having Second Reading debates of private Members' Bills in Westminster Hall with the vote subsequently, at a fixed time, as a deferred Division in the main Chamber.
Natascha Engel: Absolutely. To widen that point, I want to see Westminster Hall being used as a more experimental Chamber. As the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden said, some of the experiments that were conducted in the past worked and some did not. That is what experiments are all about, to see whether or not they work, and unless we actually have a go at them we will not find out. Westminster Hall seems to be exactly the type of forum where we can conduct those experiments. I would have ministerial statements and any number of things taking place in Westminster Hall that currently we may or may not do in the main Chamber.
I want to make a very broad point before I make my one suggestion for parliamentary reform. That broad point is about being very clear what we as parliamentarians do and to make that our starting point for reform. I was with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion when we were giving evidence to the Procedure Committee on reforming sitting hours, in a pre-inquiry seminar, and one of the points that emerged is that every MP is different. There are different parties, but MPs are also different as individuals. They have different lives, different backgrounds and different experiences that they bring to Parliament. No one way of doing things will suit everybody, but we have come quite far from there being a clear idea of what we do in Parliament. The increasing focus that we have given our constituency work, which is something that has been happening over a long period, not only undermines the work that used to be done by local councillors and local authorities-work that they should be doing-but there has been a direct correlation between the amount of time that we spend doing very local constituency casework and the amount of time that we do not spend scrutinising legislation in Parliament and holding the Executive to account. I wonder whether the Hansard Society would like to carry out some proper research into that issue. It is a very important case that we need to make.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The hon. Lady is making an extremely good point. Does she agree that there is a direct correlation between the increasing power of the Executive, which we have seen over the last 20 years, and the increasing quantity of time spent by Back Benchers doing stuff that should be done by somebody else in their constituencies? What we want is people here in Parliament, working hard, holding the Government to account and getting a grip of the Executive.
One thing that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) did not speak about-unsurprisingly, because she is a one-Member party in this place-was the way that the Whips operate. One of the things that I found when I first entered Parliament was that the infantilising impact of Whips on Members of Parliament was quite damaging and it
shows in some of the issues that my hon. Friend is raising. Every Member of Parliament is different. Every Member of Parliament brings different experience and represents a different type of constituency. We need to find mechanisms whereby those differences, within the context of party agreement, can effectively be aired so that we get the best legislation that we are capable of making.
Natascha Engel: I agree. Sometimes, however, we are in slight danger of overplaying the idea that Whips infantilise Members and sometimes we should just be big enough to stand up to them, if we have an issue.
Mr Bone: I congratulate the hon. Lady on making a very powerful speech. I want to bring to the attention of the House my private Member's Bill abolishing the Whips Office. I have tabled it for a Wednesday night-7 September 2011. All things come if we wait.
Natascha Engel: I look forward to taking part in that debate. In fact, that brings me to the end of my general points. There is one thing that I consider would be a really good piece of parliamentary reform and it relates to Select Committees. Select Committees are the thing that we as a Parliament do really well. They are possibly the only forum where Members of Parliament, after they are elected, learn, gain in expertise and develop. It is an absolute privilege for MPs to be members of Select Committees. Being a member of a Select Committee is not open to everyone. In fact, it is only open to a minority of MPs. We have taken away the ability of Whips alone to appoint people to Select Committees and we now have elections across the House, and that has worked really well.
I do not see why the Select Committee principle cannot go much wider. Initially, I thought that every MP should be allowed to be a member of a Sub-Committee of a Select Committee that looks in greater detail at individual issues that may be cross-departmental, and that we should also have departmental co-ordinating Committees. However, I think that we should go even further and invite Members of the House of Lords to take part in that process.
We massively neglect the House of Lords. Regardless of whether we believe that Members of the Lords should be elected, or even if we do not believe that they should be there at all, there are people in the Lords who are specifically there for their expertise; indeed, it is their only reason for being in the Lords. Sometimes, we have people who are very expert in the House of Commons, but in the House of Lords there is a group of people who are expert in a certain subject. I would love to see Select Committee membership widened to include absolutely everybody.
For example, instead of a Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, or on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we should have a Select Committee that examines the issue of waste management and incineration. In almost every single constituency, the issue of where an incinerator is placed is a massive one. It involves planning laws, waste management and the local authority; all these different aspects of the issue need resolving.
Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Is that not the role of the all-party groups? Although I respect their lordships in the other place and there are a couple of Joint Committees, having the House of Commons shadowing Departments is the right way forward.
Natascha Engel: I disagree and I will develop my point very briefly, because I have already spoken for my 10 minutes. I would like to see smaller Select Committees going out into the country and taking evidence from people rather than just sitting in this place.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as I know that she wants to speed up and finish her speech. Does she agree that there is much to be learned from the example of the Scottish Parliament, particularly from its Public Petitions Committee, which can refer particular items that have been brought by members of the public to other Committees of the Parliament for them to examine in more detail? Perhaps that is something that could be looked at.
Natascha Engel: Absolutely. I would throw all these ideas into the pot. I simply repeat that Select Committees are the thing that works best in this place and I would love to see their role expanded, not only because they work so well and because they develop the expertise of individual MPs but because they could become a forum for us to be, as the Speaker always says, "ambassadors for Parliament", by going out and engaging with people on individual issues that are not party political, just as Select Committees are not party political. We could go out there and really engage with individuals.
Natascha Engel: Absolutely. The Backbench Business Committee is a perfect case in point. We receive oral evidence from Members every week. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that suggestion. In that context, I would also love to see the work of the Procedure Committee develop now that it has taken on so much extra work, especially after the Modernisation Committee was effectively merged with it. What the Procedure Committee does, in terms of parliamentary reform, is interesting to most people, not only to those in this room but across the rest of the House. I would love to see that kind of work much more widely debated and extended, and for people to be given the opportunity to participate, especially the people we represent in this place. That is my one little suggestion: looking at widening the role of Select Committees within parliamentary reform.
I really hope that this is not the end, but rather just the beginning of developing ideas on how we can reform this place to make it work better, and on how we, as individual Members, can much better represent the people out there who send us here.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con):
I join the many speakers who have congratulated the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)
on securing this debate. Having read her paper, I thought that I would come here struggling to agree with any of it, but I stand here convinced by much of what has been said, and that has shaped what I am about to say.
I want to home in on two distinctions. There is a developing theme here about what we do as opposed to how we do it, and that is reflected in the other distinction, which is between public attitude to what we do and public interest in how we do it. Those two things can get confused, and sometimes the political and public reaction to circumstances further blurs the issue.
I shall dwell, to begin with, on what we do. What lies at the heart of this is something that other speakers have mentioned: credibility-our credibility, Parliament's credibility and Members' credibility in the eyes of the wider public, which goes back a lot further, I suggest, than The Daily Telegraph expenses scandal last year. Looking back-some would argue over generations-there has been a gradual decay in the wider public's confidence and trust in the parliamentary system and, indeed, in parliamentarians. However, that cannot necessarily be pinned-as some people have suggested-on the style in which we do things in this House. I suggest that it is more often than not all about what we do, and about whether what we do is relevant to voters-rather than to MPs-and relevant in the 21st century rather than in any other context. Perhaps the political reaction, by all parties, to one or two of the dramas of the past few months-namely, expenses-simply serves to illustrate that.
As a mere candidate, I read about how the parties reacted to the expenses scandal and was depressed by the fact that we seem to get obsessed with the cost of politics rather than its value, with thinking that the cure to all this is simply to introduce a new system, to start talking about Lords reform or about new voting mechanisms. I am not absolutely sure whether that was a mistake, or simply an attempt to distract people from what was going on, but with such measures, for example voting reform-enthusiastically supported by some but not by others-AV referendums or, as in my case, the referendum on further powers for the Welsh Assembly, the public reaction is pretty lukewarm at best, whichever side of the fence people sit on. They are shaking their heads and thinking, "This is not what we were concerned about. We were concerned about something much more fundamental-relevance, rather than self-indulgent activity by politicians."
If there was a refrain on the part of voters during the election campaign, I would suggest-although I might be alone in this-that it was far oftener about good government than cheap government, and that lies at the heart of this distinction. Good government is relevant government-relevant to voters rather than to MPs. We have been, and continue to be, punished for what is occasionally portrayed as self-indulgent activity. We are punished in two ways: either by a really angry reaction, which is manifest in several ways on a day-to-day basis; or, worse still, by people saying, "A plague on all your houses. We are simply turning our backs on the parliamentary system and on politicians, because we don't think you represent our interests anymore." That reduced confidence in our systems is a much more serious problem perhaps, than some of the issues about the way in which we do things.
I argue, therefore, that how we do things is less important than what we do, but that does not mean that that is not important at all. When I stood up, I mentioned to the hon. Lady-may I call you Caroline, perhaps, after today?-that I sympathise with the suggestion of amendment explanations. It is a great idea. When we put forward amendments from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, they came with a paragraph that explained to people on that very Committee what we were seeking to achieve. That was a great move.
The point about pre-legislative scrutiny is crucial. We had an argument with the Executive at the beginning of this Session because we had not had sufficient time to afford pre-legislative scrutiny to one or two of the constitutional reform Bills, and the Government's response was, "We can't give the 12-week minimum pre-legislative scrutiny all the time because we'd never get anything done." I do not buy that-nor, I suspect, do many other people-because all that happens is that we do nothing for 12 weeks, and we have seen with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that what the Government gained in the first 12 weeks by not affording pre-legislative scrutiny has caught up with them now in the form of the blockage in the House of Lords. I therefore accept, although I did not think that I would, the points being made. Committee stage, which the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) mentioned in an e-mail earlier today, provides a bit of certainty and additional scrutiny, and we should recommend it.
I have two further points, which, one might argue, are even less important than the ones I have made so far: language and tradition. In my distant outpost in west Wales, of all the complaints that I might have received about parliamentarians and Parliament in general, tradition and language have not been mentioned often, if at all. In fact, I think that we have to tread carefully when it comes to destroying, or dismantling, some of the theatre of this building and the system that we use. I disagree with the notion that standing in a Lobby for 15 minutes every so often is time entirely wasted or that tradition is always to be interpreted as a dirty word, and I urge a bit of caution. Of course modernisation is the direction of travel that we should be going in, but let us take it at a steady pace, because it does not lie at the heart of the problems that we seriously need to address.
I say all that after an informative visit to the Scottish Parliament with our Select Committee only last week. I also have a little experience-I would not put it any stronger than that-of how business is conducted in the Welsh Assembly. I attended, with other hon. Members, First Minister's questions in the Scottish Parliament and, with no disrespect to our hosts, it was arguably a rather soulless affair. There was lots of button pressing and lots of individual desks and laptops with people situated behind them. There was no interaction, theatre or energy. Even though the contributions were powerful and relevant, there was not the degree of theatre that I think, up until this Wednesday at least, we enjoy here.
On the basis that the First Minister was sitting at the front and everybody was behind him, I suppose that there was a connection with that word.
However, I felt that this week's Prime Minister's questions was a bit like going to the Oval to watch the cricket, only to find that it had been rained off and having to sit under an umbrella waiting for something to happen.
Simon Hart: All that activity for the Division probably reinforces the argument that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion was making earlier. I was coming to a conclusion and waiting with great excitement for an intervention by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); I hope he will come back to make it before too long.
I was about to praise one aspect of the devolved Parliaments. I suspect that I came across as a little unconvinced by the vibrancy of their proceedings, but if there is something with which to credit the Welsh Assembly in particular, it is the fact that increased accessibility for members of the Welsh public-constituents who are served by both an Assembly Member and a Westminster Member-has led to increased confidence, which we might reflect on. Many of their procedural matters may mirror what we do, but the feeling that someone can get to a Minister more quickly and discuss their problems at greater length has led people to believe, often reluctantly-they would have taken a very different view a few years ago-that it is a good thing and a lesson that we could work on here.
The word "balance" has been mentioned by many Members this afternoon. It is not just the balance of our work and family life, although that is absolutely vital. I am one of the Members who will leave here at 7 or 8 o'clock tonight and will be lucky to get back to west Wales before midnight, and I shall probably not see my children until tomorrow afternoon. This is not a sob story, because I knew that was the lifestyle I was entering when I came here-my eyes were wide open; but I accept that we can improve some areas. Although it may just be a rumour, it is a pretty depressing statistic that 40% of the married Members of Parliament who entered the House in 2005 have separated from their partners. That is 10% higher than the national average, so we need to reflect on that as we develop-slowly and sensibly, I hope-the proposals that have been made this afternoon.
I came to the debate expecting not to be convinced, but I have been semi-convinced by some of the arguments made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. She makes some sensible proposals that do not compromise systems that have been honed over generations and that serve the nation well. Nor do they compromise some of important theatre, drama, energy and passion of this place, which I have not seen reflected at the same level in our devolved Parliaments. One or two frivolous suggestions have been made, and although we should take them seriously, I do not think we should advance them with any great enthusiasm.
In conclusion, let us not lose sight of the fact that the relevance of what we do-its relevance to 21st century Britain, our constituents and all corners of the earth-is of far greater significance than the means by which we so often do it in this building.
Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am pleased to speak under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this important debate.
There are two aspects to the debate: how Parliament is perceived, and the procedures of Parliament. Parliament is, frankly, often its own worst enemy in terms of how it is perceived. I draw hon. Members' attention to the fiasco over the resignation of Gerry Adams from the House. Leaving aside the undoubted entertainment value of the UK Government and an Irish republican arguing over an ancient Crown title so that he can resign from a Parliament in which he has never taken his seat, does it not illustrate the fact it is absolute nonsense that the only way a Member can resign is to be appointed to a non-existent title? Incidentally, it was reported that the Chancellor conferred the title on Mr Adams without him applying for it or agreeing to accept it. Is it really the constitutional case that the Chancellor can appoint someone to an office that disqualifies them from sitting in the House without them specifically applying for it? If that is the case, perhaps some potential Tory rebels should consider their position.
However, there are much more important issues to consider in terms of how we carry out our day-to-day procedures. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has produced a paper, which I read with great interest, and I agree with a great deal of it. However, there are one or two things I do not agree with. The whole business of family friendly hours is a red herring. I come from north-east Scotland, and either I am here or I am there. I cannot be here and go home at night. I would like to see how the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority dealt with the travel expenses that would arise if I tried to do so. That simply cannot happen. As the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) rightly put it, when we were elected to the House, we accepted that we would spend much of our lives here. It does not matter to people from the north of Scotland whether we finish at 6 or 10; we are not going home. From my point of view, if we could squeeze the parliamentary week into two or three days and spend more time in the constituency, it would be perfect.
That brings me to the point that there are two visions of Parliament. I suspect that some Members see Parliament as being about dealing with the big issues and holding Government to account, as has been noted. However, another, competing, issue is that many of our constituents want us to deal with problems on their behalf. We all talk about how we must be more accessible and make Parliament more accessible. That is not done by being unavailable to our constituents because we are here discussing the big issues of the day. We have to deal with the issues that affect everyday life. It is true that many of the people who come to our constituency offices come to us with problems that are not strictly to do with Parliament. However, many of us are then faced with the question of what to do. We can try to say, "You need
to go and see somebody else," but that often only results in the person going away dissatisfied and saying, "Well, they wouldn't do anything for me." We all make such decisions daily.
I have put my pen through great screeds of this speech to try not to take up too much time. A lot has been said about electronic voting. There is a huge case for electronic voting for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, the greatest of which is being able to abstain. As a member of a smaller party, I often look at motions tabled by the Government and the official Opposition and say, "A plague on both your houses." I would love to be able to abstain and be recorded as abstaining, but often we simply do not vote. That is an issue and a lot of hon. Members will feel that way.
I would go further than the hon. Lady. She made the case-possibly to try to engender support-that we should have electronic voting in the Chamber or the Lobby. I disagree. There is no reason why, in the 21st century, when we are wirelessly connected-or not connected, in many cases-to smart phones, iPads and everything else we cannot design a system that is secure enough to allow, although perhaps not on every occasion, people to vote remotely if it is appropriate. I say that because towards the end of last year when we had the dreadful snow, I could not get to London for two whole weeks. I was a member of the Postal Services Bill Committee at the time and missed several sittings-to my great frustration because I had several amendments tabled for debate. I also missed votes in the House. In those circumstances, I do not understand why remote voting cannot be allowed.
We may all kid ourselves that every hon. Member sits and listens to the debate and makes a decision on how to vote, but we all know it is not true. We choose which way to vote for various reasons. Remote voting should be allowed on some occasions, although not in every instance. We have moved a long way from the days when seriously ill people were carried through the Lobby in the middle of the night, but we still queue up for 15 minutes to vote. There is much to be gained from electronic voting. I agree with the point that the design of our Chamber makes it difficult to have voting within the Chamber. It is much easier in, for example, the Scottish Parliament, which is a much smaller Parliament of 129. For a Parliament of 650, the same lay-out is impossible. As I said, in the age of wireless connection, I see no reason why we cannot find a way in which electronic voting can be done. Let us move towards the 20th century, if not the 21st.
The second point I want to consider relates to petitions and making Parliament more relevant to our constituents and giving them a bigger say in what we are doing. Again, the issue has been considered by the House in previous modernisations. Originally, the system was that a Member had his or her 30 seconds in the sun presenting a petition in the Chamber, and they then placed the petition in the bag behind the Speaker's Chair. Sometime later, they would get a brief response from the Department and that was that. As part of the previous modernisation, petitions are now reported to a Select Committee. However, the process never seems to go any further than that and the petition is simply noted by the Select Committee.
If we want to make Parliament more accessible to constituents, we need to consider a much greater forum to allow genuine concerns to be more fully canvassed by Parliament. For example, in my constituency, there is a threat to close driving test centres. I have raised that matter and debated it in this Chamber with the relevant Minister. However, in my constituency, the campaign has gathered a huge number of signatures on a paper petition and there has been a Facebook petition. It will reach the point when people ask, "What can we do with the petition?" The answer is that they can send it to the Driving Standards Agency to be filed there, they can send it to the Minister, probably to be filed in the Department, or they can give it to me to present to Parliament and it will presumably be reported to the Select Committee on Transport. However, again, no action is likely. We desperately need to look at ways that such petitions can be considered in more detail.
In closing down the No. 10 petition website, the Government announced that they will be introducing a new system whereby, if I understand it correctly, the most popular petitions will be converted into private Members' Bills-although that opens up the difficulty of how those Bills are dealt with. That is an interesting idea but, if it has been reported correctly, the numbers needed mean that only the most controversial matters or the most organised national campaigns will ever get to that stage. I suggest that we consider a petition system that is more akin to the one that operates in the Scottish Parliament. In Scotland, anyone can present a petition to the Scottish Parliament. It only requires one signature and it can be submitted in any language. The petition must, of course, relate to a devolved issue and be relevant on a national level. It is important to note that it does not preclude a local issue where there may be a national angle. To take the example of the driving test centres in my constituency, the issue could relate to how the DSA is dealing with driving tests in rural areas.
In Scotland, a local health issue has been raised on the basis it has been alleged that health boards are not following national guidelines. The Scottish Parliament has set up a Public Petitions Committee that consists of nine MSPs to consider every admissible petition lodged-obviously not all petitions are admissible. That Committee writes to the bodies affected, whether it be the Scottish Government, health boards, police forces, local authorities or whatever, with questions to seek information on the matters raised. It asks the petitioner to comment on them.
Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): If I am called to speak, I will make reference to my experience in the Scottish Parliament. May I draw to the attention of the House the effectiveness of the Public Petitions Committee in the Scottish Parliament, and not just in the processing and engagement that it represents? It has led to significant changes in law, most recently on the health service and access to blood. People had been prohibited from getting blood through the NHS and significant laws were changed. That was initiated by the experience of a constituent, through the Public Petitions Committee, so it is effective in changing the law.
Mr Weir: I was just coming to that point. The hon. Lady is correct. The whole point about the petitions procedure in the Scottish Parliament is that by raising a petition, the public can instigate action in the Parliament. The petition is not just something that is filed away as of interest to somebody; the Committee considers how it should proceed. It may hold a hearing at which the petitioners can put their points in person, or through representatives, and it may call, and has often called, Ministers to give evidence on the issue. The Committee does not have the power to impose a solution, but as the hon. Lady said, it can recommend to other Committees and to the Government that action be taken.
Constituents and members of the public who have a valid point have an engagement with the Parliament to get their point across directly. They can be assisted by their MSPs, but their MSPs cannot deliver the petition; it has to done by members of the public. It is a way of making sure that there is engagement with the citizen. That could also be a way for this Parliament to have that engagement. That need not be an exact example; this Parliament deals with a much larger population, and there is a much larger number of MPs and constituencies, but it is not beyond our wit to look at ways to have that engagement with the public. Everything does not need to be channelled through a Member of Parliament. The public will respect this Parliament much more if they can have direct access, and there are ways to do that.
A point was raised about explaining the meaning of an amendment. It is already possible to do that in a Committee, so MPs need to look at their own actions sometimes, but I ask Members who have sat on Public Bill Committees, how often is it actually done? It is rare now, in my experience. It was introduced in the previous Parliament as a trial, at the same time as laptops, if I remember correctly. MPs do not seem to be using the procedure, so we have to look at that. If we are serious about modernisation, and if these issues are raised, let us use them and show that we are interested in pushing forward with modernisation, otherwise debates such as this are utterly pointless.
Parliament has, in recent years, through the expenses scandal and other things, lost a lot of its reputation. It may seem strange for me to make such points, as someone who wishes to get out of this Parliament, but while we are here it is important that we engage with the public and find ways to enable them to see us as relevant to their lives. If we fail to do that, it will increase the democratic deficit and will prove a grave danger to our future.
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, may I point out that the proceedings will now finish at 5.45 pm? I propose to start the wind-ups at 5.05 pm and there are still a lot of Members indicating that they wish to speak so I again appeal for brevity.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Thank you, Mr Benton. I will take careful note of what you have said and restrict my comments by not repeating many of the points that other Members have raised. However, it would be remiss of me not to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate.
I repeat the fact that I am a member of the Procedure Committee, and I have listened carefully all afternoon to the points everyone has made, and will continue to do so for the rest of the debate. I do so with an open mind. It is important that matters of parliamentary reform be considered from the basis of how we can best do our job most effectively. What is the best way that we can conduct our affairs for the benefit of our constituents?
One major problem is not so much the quantity of legislation that Parliament produces, but its quality. I am obliged to the Hansard Society for drawing my attention to the increasing volume of legislation that has been passed by Parliament over the years:
"In 1950 Parliament passed 3,690 pages of legislation. By 1970 this had grown to 5,990 pages and by 1990 to 8,940. But just over 15 years later the number of pages had almost doubled to 16,031."
"All criminal offences passed between 1351 & 1988"-
"are contained in one volume of Halsbury's Statutes of Criminal Law encompassing 1,382 pages of law. The offences for the 19 years between 1989 and 2008 are contained in three volumes encompassing 3,746 pages!"
There is plenty of evidence that whatever else Parliament may be criticised for, it certainly cannot be criticised for lack of productivity. Whether we are producing legislation of high quality is another matter. One idea, if I could throw my six penn'orth into the reform idea pot, is for more pre-legislative scrutiny and the improvement of the legislative process. That would have a virtuous effect. The biggest problem, which I think sums up the whole debate, is how best to use our time. To solve the problem of defective legislation would in itself be an enormous boon, because we would then spend less time sorting out the problems created by poor, inadequate and inefficient legislation. I hope that is one area we will be able to look at in the course of proceedings.
Finally, I caution Members that before we go down any road of reform we look at the procedures that are already available to us and ensure that we are already using them to full capacity. For example, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who I congratulate on her tremendous work as the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, made mention of the work of Committees. I entirely agree that Committees are a useful tool for the House, but I wonder whether we are using them as effectively as we could. As evidence, I would cite the one power that all Committees have, except a very few dealing with private Bills, which is the power, almost never used, to take evidence on oath under the Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871. It is a rare power, but it already exists and may be something that we could use.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is right. In fact, I would make it standard for all Committees to take evidence on oath. It is extraordinary that often Committees want somebody to give evidence but never go through the process of forcing them to attend, which is still technically possible. For example, Rupert Murdoch is one of the most significant players in British media and in British society, yet he has never appeared before a Select Committee of this House, nor has any member of the Murdoch family. That is extraordinary.
Mr Nuttall: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As my vicar reminds us every Sunday morning, Parliament is the "high court" of Parliament. Perhaps through our Select Committees we could take such matters more seriously and ensure that witnesses do attend when they are asked to appear to give evidence before Committees. At this point, I thank the first three speakers in this debate, all of whom appeared before the Procedure Committee last week to help in our deliberations on the reform of sitting hours.
I am conscious of the fact that many have spoken but that many still wish to speak, so I conclude with a final comment from the Hansard Society's report, which is worth our bearing in mind. It said that new measures may destabilise existing procedures and create inconsistencies and unintended consequences that undermine the coherence and rationality of the process as a whole. I caution all Members that we must be wary of the unintended consequences of any reform that we propose and upon which we embark.
Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this important debate on parliamentary reform. The subject cries out for discussion and debate. She focused largely on the admittedly archaic procedures of this place, but I want to concentrate on power and accountability. I shall try to be brief.
At the nadir of the expenses scandal, it was finally agreed by all three political parties that the rock-bottom reputation of Parliament could best be salvaged by a new, forceful, democratic role for Parliament and an effective scrutinising and decision-making Chamber for the nation's business. The Wright Committee-the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons-was set up. It was given little time but it reached its conclusions in rapid order and produced an excellent, well-argued report which ushered in two important changes, as we all know.
The first was the Backbench Business Committee, which has been successful under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). It wrested some limited control of the parliamentary agenda from the Executive, which had monopolised it for decades, although-I say this in the presence of the Leader of the House, whom we are glad to see here-we look to the conclusion of that process by the setting up of a House business committee at an early stage. The other important change was to secure the election, as opposed to the selection by Whips, of the Chairs of Select Committees who, as we all know, are by far the most effective mechanism for holding Ministers to account. Both innovations have worked extremely well.
However, valuable as those reforms are, they scarcely begin to redress the balance of power that has subordinated Parliament over the past several decades. Its power has drained away through the increasing concentration of power in No. 10. It continually seeps away to Brussels as the European Union mandate spreads ever wider, and the judiciary increasingly encroaches on the parliamentary prerogative, presumably prompted by the judges' view that if Parliament cannot hold the Executive account, they will.
A parliamentary revival needs to be tackled at several levels. At one level, we drastically have to overhaul our existing procedures. I want to give a few examples. Bills in Committee-the stage at which they should be seriously scrutinised-can often emerge after dozens if not hundreds of hours of scrutiny with minimal changes. I have even known them to emerge with no change. Why? Because a Whip-chosen majority of the governing party can simply block amendments. We should look at the Scottish system in which Bills no longer go to a Standing Committee but to the appropriate Select Committee, which has a track record of expertise. Of course, that would require considerable strengthening of Select Committees in terms of resources, the number of sub-committees and also time, but it would be a serious and much better alternative.
Report is the one stage at which Members of this House can make important changes to Bills through votes of the whole House. One abuse is that the Government can all too easily prevent later amendments. Of course, amendments are often not wanted by Governments-that is hardly surprising-and they can ensure that they are not even reached by talking out earlier amendments. One recent example of that, of course, is the European Union Bill, but there are many others.
Another problem, which has been mentioned, is not the fault of either the Whips or the Government but of Members. How many Members vote at the suggestion of their Whips as they approach the lobby without actually knowing what they are voting on? It is a serious abuse, and one of the reasons it is problematic is that most people cannot understand what the amendment is actually about. I have had that experience many times when looking at the amendment paper. A proposal, which I believe has the support of the Government, is that there should be a short explanation-two or three lines, for example-of the purpose and nature of every amendment on Report so that people can more easily make a judgment.
Chris Bryant: When a knife or a guillotine come in, the Government Whips are happy for amendments to be talked out because they know that the rules of the House specify that the Government amendment will still be taken. If we were to abolish that rule, some of their power over time would disappear.
Mr Meacher: That is a fair point, and I entirely agree. I do not have time to suggest ways of dealing with all the problems, which are extensive. This House is meant to be a serious, scrutinising body, but it simply is not so at present.
The third issue that I wish to raise briefly is about the public, who are involved in this-their lives are controlled by the Bills that we put through. There should be a pre-legislative stage for Bills at which outside experts can be brought in to give detailed evidence, and where members of the public and, indeed-I agree with my
hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey)-Members of Parliament have an opportunity to make representations.
That is all about existing procedures. I want to say something very quickly about a further range of reforms whereby Parliament could and should assert its authority as the elected voice of the people. On matters of overriding national importance-the obvious example of the past decade was the Iraq war; it took 15 months before this House even had a debate on it-Parliament should have the right to set up its own commissions of inquiry and not simply depend on the Executive or No. 10 to do so, because, of course, it is usually their actions that are the subject of the investigation. That is not a particularly novel suggestion or innovative proposal-it is exactly what our Victorian predecessors did quite regularly.
Secondly, when committees of inquiry are set up by the Prime Minister, which will probably remain the normal practice, the House should be empowered to scrutinise the terms of reference and approve the appointment of the chair and members of those bodies, because the choice of personnel and the terms of reference can significantly skew the final report in a particular direction. Many of us know that all too well.
Thirdly, on patronage, Select Committees should routinely carry out confirmation hearings. Again, there is nothing original about that-that is exactly what happens and has happened for years in the United States Congress. That should be done, obviously, for persons who are appointed to leading quango posts but also, perhaps, for some ministerial appointments. People from outside who have never been elected to Parliament are brought in by Prime Ministers and suddenly appointed to important posts. Parliament has a right to call them for examination, and to vote to approve their appointment at the end.
I will make three further quick points. One is the control of expenditure, since the annual Government expenditure of £650 billion is a key exercise of power. Parliament should establish a framework for the contemporaneous monitoring and cross-examination of major expenditure programmes; not just the ex post facto examination by the Public Accounts Committee, though that is valuable and I would want to keep it. It should be aided by a cadre of expert external advisers. Whether that is done through Select Committees-which might be the best way-or through a new specialist estimates Committee, is for discussion. The allocation of huge quantities of public money and the whole question of value for money are of legitimate interest to Parliament, at the time that the decisions are still in the making.
Secondly, professional lobbyists are a very serious issue. They have now hugely increased their influence over the political process. Parliament should require that a public register is kept, including the scope of their activities, their source of funding and their meeting with Ministers. If there is to be the transparency that democracy demands, that murky area needs to be cleaned up.
Thirdly, several hon. Members mentioned petitions. I agree that where a very high-and the bar should be high-threshold number of electors have signed a petition,
there is a case for saying that it should be debated and voted on in the House. We need a new constitutional settlement if we are to get off our knees and be an effective check on Executive power. Many of those proposals, as well as others, need to be looked at seriously.
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. I offer no special insight, merely the random thoughts of a relative newcomer to the House.
We must be mindful of the balance between effective scrutiny of Government and allowing Government to achieve their business. I was elected not because the people of Cleethorpes were sure that I would be a good and effective scrutineer of what the Government are doing. They voted for a Conservative Government-or perhaps against a Labour Government. There has to be an effective balance.
After the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion had first circulated her thoughts on this matter, I recall saying to her when we were corralled on a tube train that I never thought that I would be a moderniser. In fact, my first few months have edged me towards the obvious need to act. Before being here, I served for 15 years as a constituency agent, and I am mindful of how the confidence of the public in this place was dented by the revelations of the expenses scandal. Some, of course, have done things they ought not to have done. However, the public perceived us all as guilty. We have moved some way to recreate the required confidence.
The question has been put about how to use our time more effectively. I know that I am treading on dangerous ground, but I rather support the hon. Lady and those who have spoken in favour of electronic voting. The argument goes that voting is one of the few opportunities to rub shoulders with Ministers and bend their ear about one subject or another. I draw a parallel with our constituents who come up to us in the supermarket and say, "I am glad I have seen you. Can I draw your attention to the street light that has gone out?" One hopes desperately that once home one remembers and does something about it. When Cabinet Ministers are harangued by half a dozen people in the space of 10 minutes through the Lobby, I am sure that they are extremely conscientious and do their best, but I suspect that they do not always remember what has happened.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) spoke about people not knowing what they are voting for on every occasion. I am sure that "on every occasion" we would all plead guilty to some extent. He mentioned the Whips, but I think electronic voting would weaken the role of the Whips. If one was not being pushed and edged into a particular Lobby-if one was voting by merely pushing a button-one might feel a little freer from their pressures.
When I came to the debate, I thought I would insist that an hon. Member should be physically present to vote. However, the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), who was stranded for a couple of weeks, made a valid point. If he has followed debates word for word-as I am sure he would on the Parliament channel-and has read his briefings and knows the subject, there is an argument for saying that he should vote. He would actually be helping the representation of his constituents
if he did so. Again, I thought I would say that new Members would be slightly more objective in their thoughts, as people can become a little institutionalised in this place. However, having heard the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), who have been here for many years, it is clear that serious thought has been given and change has been made over time. A balance with the thoughts of newcomers-even aged ones such as myself-will perhaps help.
Regarding the debate about private Members' Bills, we waste an awful amount of time-let us be honest-on progressing those Bills which, we all know from the outset, are going nowhere. A system of debate and pre-legislative discussion of those measures would be helpful.
Despite the fact that I have followed politics and parliamentary procedure closely for many years, I thought that Third Reading debates were more serious than they are. Serious is the wrong word: they are somewhat brief. The point has been made that when a Bill comes back with considerable amendment that perhaps the Third Reading debate should be longer and more detailed, to give more Members an opportunity to take part.
I am a great supporter of the moves suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who was here earlier, such as increasing the use of referendums and so on. Perhaps there could be a way for the public to trigger referendums, by having a debate in this place and allowing them to take part, before the trigger was pulled and a referendum seriously considered.
Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. I was not sure about her constituency name, and I will refer to my lack of recall in such matters.
I hesitated before taking part in the debate, because we, as politicians, must always be wary of talking about ourselves, our experience and our institutions, when we do not perhaps connect them properly with our representative role. The hon. Lady has put the matter in a proper context, because this is about effective governance. As has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), there have been many shifts in the governance of Britain over the past 10 to 15 years, such as devolution. It is therefore appropriate that we consider how effectively we operate.
Many hon. Members have mentioned how pertinent the expenses scandal is, and how parliamentarians must rise to the challenge. If we look at what is happening in the middle east, and at how far people are prepared to go to fight for democracy, how we operate our democracy becomes significant.
I hope that my contribution this afternoon will reflect my experience in the Scottish Parliament, where I continue-just about-to be a sitting Member. I have been in that Parliament since its inception 12 years ago.
When I go back, I will return the fraternal greetings of the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who I am sure will be welcomed back for more vibrant and lively debate. The Scottish Parliament has not been without its controversies, and I do not give it an unequivocally positive response. In my experience, there have been strengths and weaknesses along the way, and it is important to draw that to the attention of the House.
In a sense, the Scottish Parliament was created to address the democratic deficit that was felt strongly in Scotland, because of the United Kingdom's governance structures. When it was established, we did not want the Scottish Parliament to be a repeat of the Westminster model-we wanted it to be different. Three fundamental strands were embedded in that Parliament. One was accountability, which I shall return to, because the point about Executive power and how it is held to account is important. The other two strands were transparency and accessibility.
Since I came to the House of Commons, I have had some interesting experiences and drawn some comparisons. I cannot imagine what would happen in Scotland if an institution was created where Members were given priority in the queues or had special lifts assigned to them. There would be violent uprisings if that were the case and we considered ourselves so grand that we had to go ahead of others in the queue.
Margaret Curran: I look forward to that, and I hope that things improve. I wish to make some more substantial points about issues that have been raised in the debate. Obviously, as a Scottish Member, the hours are of great significance to me. I am torn on the issue of family-friendly hours, but I am not sure it is a sound enough argument to say that since hours cannot be family-friendly for all, they should be family-friendly for no one. We should perhaps look at ways in which we can make the hours more family-friendly. I am also disturbed by the argument that states, "I came into this Parliament with my eyes wide open. I knew the hours and I knew I would have difficulties getting back to my family." That inhibits some people from standing for Parliament in the first place, and the way we work excludes a lot of people, particularly women, which seems counter-intuitive to rational planning.
In my first week or fortnight in the House, there was a debate on rape anonymity, a subject in which I have a great interest and have worked on in Scotland. The debate was held at about half-past midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning. That was utterly absurd, and anyone with any degree of common sense would agree. That is not a proper and rational way to hold that kind of debate.
Having said that, it is important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is a lot that my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament can look to Westminster for and learn from, and some traditional ways of doing things are important. This Parliament has an authority
and reach that other Parliaments could learn from. There is no doubt that the British people look to this Parliament as a platform for a national debate and a vehicle for certain views. It does not necessarily always have to reflect their views, but it should be a place where views can be tested and rehearsed, hopefully with great vibrancy or some degree of controversy. I do not say that everything in Westminster is wrong, or that because something happens in a devolved context it is, by definition, more modern or advanced.
My final point is about the accountability of Government. That is a critical matter, and it is an area in which the Scottish Parliament has been disappointing, and there are things that need to be thought through. For example, the current Scottish Government regularly lose votes in the Parliament and are reprimanded by Parliament for their actions. However, that is consistently ignored. There are all sorts of explanations and debates about that, but it is significant in and of itself when the Executive-the Government-do not pay attention to the voice of Parliament. We should think about that in Westminster. Urgent questions and topical questions are more advanced in this Parliament, and I respectfully say to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, who has made an enormous contribution, that the next stage of this debate should be about how we use Parliament to hold the power of Government to account. We have heard some interesting remarks on that.
I strongly support what has been said about changing the language of Parliament. I am more likely to remember someone's name than their constituency. Terms such as "honourable", "Friends" and "Members" are a barrier to common sense and communication, and I hope that the hon. Lady and the Procedure Committee will look at that matter.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) made some significant and substantial points about how we hold Government-and the power of Government-to account, which is a vital debate. We must link the debate to the experience of our constituents and make it about their lives. Somehow along the way, we are beginning to get there.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)-who is, of course, much better known as Caroline Lucas-on her excellent debate. I do not wish to repeat the many points that she has made, and instead I will refer to a few things such as creeping patronage, new politics and the role of the payroll vote. I agree with the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher). What is a Back Bencher for? We exist not only to represent our constituents, but to hold the Executive to account. It is disturbing that about 235 hon. Members out of 364 coalition MPs are on the payroll vote, and there are a floating number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries-around 45 because the number varies.
I want to share my experience. I was elected by an unusual process because I came to this job through an open primary. I have no doubt that I was selected because I have no track record in politics. I have 24 years' experience in the health service, and I have experience in education and as a police surgeon treating female victims
of domestic and sexual violence. That is why I am an MP, and I promised that I would come to Westminster to stand up for the NHS.
Shortly after I arrived-I am probably not allowed to say this-I was approached and asked whether I would like to become a PPS. I went to the Library and asked for a briefing on the job description, because there are no job descriptions in this place. I was told that I would have to leave the Health Committee, never speak on health matters and always vote with the Government.
How could I justify that to my constituents in Totnes? How could I look them in the eye if I chose my own professional advancement? It is a Faustian pact. I would have welcomed the opportunity to spend more time quietly behind the scenes, perhaps with Ministers, influencing policy, but in reality that does not happen. I had to make a decision, which is wrong. I have no objection to the principle of a PPS, because one can see how a Minister might lose touch with what is happening on the Back Benches. However, I profoundly object to the fact that people have to make a choice and always vote with the Government. I believe-I hope that hon. Members agree with this-that there is something profoundly toxic in that.
Now that I have committed career suicide, I may as well go in for a penny as in for a pound. One of the more bizarre experiences I had when I arrived as a new MP was the call from the Delegated Legislation Committee. I had a call about an exciting Committee that was discussing double taxation in Oman. I know nothing much about single taxation, let alone double taxation-my constituents can rest assured that I shall not be applying for the Treasury Committee or called to the Treasury. I sat through that Committee, and I sent a worried note to the Whip in charge, wondering whether I had been put on the right Committee. I received a note to say that my only duties were to turn up on time, say nothing and vote with the Government.
Hon. Members can be confident that nobody died as a result of my knowing nothing about double taxation in Oman. However, could the same be said for the Health and Social Care Bill? I would have liked to have been on the Health and Social Care Bill Committee, because I genuinely feel that one of the reasons why I was elected to the House was to apply my experience in medicine and medical education to the scrutiny of that Bill. The thing that I have found most enjoyable and most useful in this place, apart from representing my constituents, has been serving on the Select Committee on Health, which provides an opportunity for a real cross-party, close examination of the issues, and I would like to think that that would be the same for Public Bill Committees.
When I suggested to the Whips that one reason why I wanted to be on the Health and Social Care Bill Committee was so that I could table a few amendments, I effectively-[Laughter.] I examined the list for the Bill Committee and saw that my name was missing. Many members of the Committee have a genuine interest in health matters, which I welcome, but I regret to say that several members have no experience in, and have never expressed any interest in, health or social care. The country should be concerned about that. I put it to the Procedure Committee that we not only examine the role of Parliamentary Private Secretaries and remove them from the payroll vote while retaining their only
important role, but examine Public Bill Committees. Our legislation would be much stronger if the people examining Bills-
Mr Carswell: Does my hon. Friend agree that the solution to the problem is to ensure that all sitting Members of Parliament, particularly those in the Whips Office, are subject to open primaries, if they want to be the party candidate at the next election?
Dr Wollaston: What a marvellous idea! Obviously, I say that open primaries are a good idea, and they have an important role in establishing a bit more credibility for the House. Yes, the process is expensive, and my selection was criticised, but I see no reason why we cannot combine open primaries, perhaps for several candidates and parties at the same time, and why that cannot be done through secure electronic voting or a series of public meetings. The process does not have to be vastly expensive, and it would certainly improve our accountability. Of course, I have to play the role that I set out on the tin. I stood as a Conservative, and that means that on the vast majority of occasions I will vote along Conservative lines, but with the important proviso that I have to represent a broader constituency. I have to take into much greater account the feelings of those of my constituents from across the board. What has been suggested would be a very valuable way forward. That is a little vote from me for open primaries, but, as I have said, I must declare an interest.
Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): Thank you, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. My speech will be very short, and I will not dwell on any points that have been made before.
There is one proposal that has the potential, if adopted, not only to save time but to improve the image that we project, both internally and externally. It is rather controversial, but we could save three or four minutes every day by not having Prayers in the main Chamber. If we want to have Prayers, let us shift them into the secondary Chamber-Westminster Hall. There are various reasons why we should make that move. First, it is important that Parliament reflects the country as it is today. It is increasingly not a monotheistic country -we are not an overwhelmingly Christian country any more.
Joseph Johnson: That is as may be, but institutionalised prayer and congregational worship have fallen out of practice in this country over the past century, as people may notice from the attendance at their local church. I am not against going to church, which is something that people should feel free to do, but it is something that MPs should be encouraged to do in their own time. There are plenty of places of worship in the Palace of Westminster for them to go to if they want to be put in a God-fearing state of mind at the start of play. I can recommend the chapel of St Mary Undercroft. It has some fine-
Joseph Johnson: It has some fine depictions of the fates of those who are not sufficiently respectful of others in their daily activities. There are plenty of ways for MPs to put themselves in the right frame of mind-a selfless frame of mind-at the start of play. Institutionalised worship in the main Chamber is not a good use of everyone's time.
Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing for us this debate, with the support of the Backbench Business Committee. The turnout shows how many hon. Members want to discuss the subject. For me, what ran like a thread through all the speeches this afternoon was a passion for this place because of what it can do for the people whom we represent. That is why this issue matters.
Like others, I pay tribute to those who have worked to bring about reform, including, certainly in the past year or so, the Wright Committee. I pay tribute to the former Leader of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and to the current Leader of the House for the work that they have done to improve the way in which Parliament operates.
The other thing that has been striking about today's debate is the number of hon. Members who have come along and said, "My mind has been moved by my experience in the House." It is very encouraging to see so many newly elected Members here. People's minds have also been moved by the quality of the argument and the force of the case that has been put. We owe a lot to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion for the cogent and forceful way in which she has argued the case.
The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) referred to recent events surrounding the resignation of the hon. Member for Belfast West. The Leader of the House has been so good as to come and listen to the debate, although he is not winding up. When I suggested a change in the system, because I believe that if a Member wants to resign, they ought to be able to write to the Speaker and say, "I hereby resign from the House of Commons," the Leader of the House chided me slightly by saying that our procedure for the Chiltern hundreds had stood us in good stead for, as I recall, some 260 years and the Government were not inclined to change it. His reputation as a reformer goes before him. I trust that that is not an argument that we
will hear deployed too often when we come to debate some of the other changes that have been discussed this afternoon, because the response to any proposal put forward by hon. Members should be that it will be considered on its merits. We certainly should not argue, "Well, we've always done it this way." We should argue the case, listen to the different views-we have heard a very wide range of views this afternoon-and make a decision.
The work of the Wright Committee and others has meant that real change has happened. The election of Select Committee Chairs and membership has been a very important step in taking those positions away from the power of Governments and Whips and putting them in the hands of hon. Members. Select Committees are a very powerful force in the House. The change has been an important assertion of the principle of independent scrutiny of what the Executive do.
More urgent questions have been granted. I pay tribute, if one can without breaching parliamentary order, to Mr Speaker, because he has certainly increased the number that are granted. The fact that more Back Benchers are now called to ask questions-business questions and others-has helped to re-energise the Chamber.
For me, however, the most significant change of the lot has been the creation of the Backbench Business Committee. In fairness, a reading of history would probably suggest that the Executive really grabbed control of time at some point in the 17th century. The creation of the Backbench Business Committee has wrested back for Back Benchers the opportunity to determine what we debate, how we debate it and whether it is put to a vote. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for the skill with which she has chaired the Committee and for the really open way in which she and the other members of the Committee meet every week and say to hon. Members, "Come and tell us what you want to discuss."
The salon, so christened by the Leader of the House, is an open and transparent way for Members to have the chance to say, "This is what we would like to discuss." It is a profound change, and we are still getting to grips with it, but one occasion crystallises the force of the change in my mind. That was the first of the Backbench Business Committee's debates, on contaminated blood, which included a vote. I have never encountered such a thing in my time in the House. We have seen that same force in this afternoon's debates, and there will be another example next week with the debate on voting rights for prisoners.
Mr Bone: The right hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point. On transparency-he was discussing votes-does he share my desire that, in order for people to see what is really going on in Parliament, if voting is organised by the business manager, in other words it is whipped, it should be displayed in public and recorded in Hansard? If the party is whipping people to vote in a particular way, those outside should be able to see it.
I am not convinced that that is the most urgent of the reforms that is needed. The truth is that there is a tension here. On the one hand, we are members of parties; some are on their own and others have more around them, but that is part of the reason why we are elected to this place. We may or may not have great qualities as individuals, but we are elected because of what we represent, but that bringing together enables Parliament to do business. The other part of the tension is how that impinges on Members exercising their independent judgment, a point that I shall return to in a moment.
I welcome the Procedure Committee's report on ministerial statements, and its inquiry into sitting hours. I sense that we have a moment for further reform. Today's debate demonstrates that, not least because there are long-standing Members here today who have expressed an interest and shared their views with us, and there are many new Members here-a large number of new Members. That is why the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has done us such a great service. One thing that struck me today, which is not always the case in all debates, was that as the hon. Lady spoke-indeed, as all hon. Members spoke-every one of us was listening intently to what was being said, which is how it should be. That is a characteristic of Westminster Hall, and sometimes-and sometimes not-it is a characteristic of the main Chamber, which tells us something about the importance of our discussion.
Turning to the specific proposals, I agree that we should consider ways to provide greater certainty about when votes are taking place, and I am all for considering ways to speed up the process. However, the chance for Members to come together collectively is important, and it is the reason for the proposed change. On sitting hours, I am in favour of returning to 11.30 am to 7 pm on Tuesdays, and I am in favour of moving private Members' Bills to Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. It is wrong that Members should have to make a choice on a Friday between their constituency responsibilities-many choose to exercise them, myself included-and considering legislation. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), I agree that Bills should be disposed of by a vote and not by trying to talk them out.
Joan Ruddock: I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that when we sat three hours earlier on Tuesdays, it was possible for all Parliament's business to function perfectly well, including the Speaker, the Committees, the staff and everyone else. Those hours have huge value, because they provide the scope for private Members' Bills and the certainty of Friday being a constituency day.
Hilary Benn: I agree completely. The neatness to the solution of having private Members' Bills on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings is this. One of the arguments against the old hours was that, "Well, the place is dead in the evenings," but there would be plenty to discuss for those who wish to stay and take part. That would acknowledge the fact that we have responsibilities to our constituencies, which we all understand, and would not put us in a bind.
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