Publications on the internet
Political and Constitutional Reform - Minutes of EvidenceHC 1062
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
REVISITING REBUILDING THE HOUSE: THE IMPACT OF THE WRIGHT REFORMS
Thursday 21 march 2013
DR TONY WRIGHT and dAVID natzler
Evidence heard in Public Questions 64 - 109
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Thursday 21 March 2013
Mr Graham Allen (Chair)
Mr Christopher Chope
Mrs Eleanor Laing
Mr Andrew Turner
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Dr Tony Wright, Professor of Government and Public Policy, University College London, and David Natzler, Clerk Assistant and Director General, Department of Chamber and Committee Services, gave evidence.
Q64 Chair: Welcome, Tony. Welcome, David. Thank you for your time this morning. You know exactly what we are about. Would you like to kick off with an opening statement, Tony, or would you like to get your breath first?
Dr Wright: Just a very short one.
Chair: Please do.
Dr Wright: You have asked us to come and talk about this, which I have just reread after about three years. It is rather good, not least because of the drafting skills of this man here. I think it is rather good, but what I would say is I do not regard the work we did three or four years ago in particular circumstances as a blueprint, as holy writ. It is a direction of travel and it is for the House to decide whether it wants to travel in that sort of direction. It did do three years ago, I think with some success. The House will now have to decide whether it wants to continue to travel in that direction.
Chair: David, any comments? Chris, over to you.
Q65 Mr Chope: Good morning. Do you know why the Government has not yet brought forward proposals for a House Business Committee?
Dr Wright: Well, I am not here any more.
Mr Chope: I know that.
Dr Wright: You should know the answer to that.
Mr Chope: Perhaps David can help us.
David Natzler: I don’t know, Mr Chope. The Coalition Agreement said that they would set up a House Business Committee when we are in the third year of the Parliament, and in fairness to the Leader of the House, we are not yet through the third year.
Q66 Mr Chope: He has said that he means by that the end of this calendar year, which will be getting on for the end of the fourth year of the Parliament, and we have heard evidence already that there does not seem to be much agreement as to what a House Business Committee might involve. Do you think that one of the reasons why the Government has not yet brought forward proposals is because they do not have a clear idea of what is meant by a House Business Committee?
Dr Wright: As I understand it, the task that you are taking on is to make them clear about all this. I know you are not allowed to be optimistic and things always have to get worse, but it seems to me that we secured the reforms that we got before-the Backbench Business Committee, the Select Committee elections and the commitment to a House Business Committee at some later point-because the circumstances were propitious; in normal times, it would not have happened because the forces that control this place would have prevented it happening. There is nothing improper about that; that is what would have happened.
As I understand it, the commitment to travel further in this direction, which is to slowly change the terms of trade between the Executive and Parliament, is part of the Coalition Agreement. Therefore, in a formal sense the conditions are still propitious. My sense is that if we were to return to majority government shortly, we would go back to the old ways. I think it would be less of an opening, so this is the moment to secure a further instalment of reform.
Q67 Mr Chope: Talking about the old ways, what happened in the House on Monday-I do not know whether or not you are familiar with what happened in the House on Monday-gave credence to your Committee’s report saying that the biggest issue is around what happens at Report stage with Government Bills. What happened on Monday was that, because of sleight of hand and various other manoeuvres that were carried out, issues that were supported by over 100 Back Benchers, including for example Dominic Raab and David Blunkett, were not discussed at all because the Government colluded with the other Front Benchers to squeeze those issues out. To what extent do you think that could have been overcome with a House Business Committee, or do you think that even with a House Business Committee the Government would have been able to manoeuvre things to suit its own purposes?
Dr Wright: My view is that if a Government, or if the people that I used to get into trouble for calling the dark forces, want to prevail, they will be able to prevail. That is core politics; that is how it works. The task is to make it more difficult for them to prevail, I think, and to assert the rights of the House. If I just extend the answer a little bit, I think we were very careful in doing what we did in the Reform Committee to try to understand all that. Had we produced a long list of a traditional kind of 300 demands, naive about the political environment, naive about how the place actually worked, it would have been yet another report that sat there and nothing would have happened. It was the fact that we proceeded in the way that we did, which was to say-taking some research advice on this, looking at what was happening elsewhere-that if you just announced that you wanted a House Business Committee and you wanted a share of the legislative action, you probably would not get it. If you made a coherent case for claiming Back-Bench time in the first instance, it would be very hard to make a case against it. How could a sovereign Parliament be denied access to its own time? I think we were able to secure that.
Then the argument goes on: all right, that is what we have secured. We have now secured Back-Bench time through a mechanism to secure that, but surely a sovereign Parliament would not be content with having no influence over the construction of the legislative agenda that is put in front of it and the general timetable. That seems to me to be a perfectly proper demand for Parliament to make. How it is done, in a way that is politically doable, is something that we had a first go at, but that I presume you are now going to turn your attention to.
Q68 Mr Chope: You do not have any other ideas as to alternative models to the one that is proposed in your report?
Dr Wright: David, you come in.
David Natzler: Can I come in on Monday, without going into details because I appreciate that is difficult? Yes, it does show that one of the squeeze points in the legislative timetable-the principal squeeze point-is Report stage. I think what happened on Monday is that even if you had a House Business Committee, I assume the House would still want to be able to respond to an expressed desire by the leaders of the three parties to organise a rather special day in a very unusual way, with the SO24 and then the knock on effects. It is conceivable and speculative to think that if the atmosphere were a little different in five years’ time because of a House Business Committee atmosphere, then there might have been a little more flexibility on finding time for the main bit or the other bits of the Crime and Courts Bill to be taken, rather than squeezing them against the 11 o’clock wall, although, of course, the House did have a chance to vote on it and, from recollection, it was about 44 in favour of having a third day and something like many hundreds against, and that is what it comes down to. There was a chance for a vote and the House did not vote that way. However, in general terms, if you are asking, "Is Report still the main problem?", I think most people perceive it as being so, and there is some indication in the Reform Committee’s report as to how it might be differently done.
Q69 Mr Chope: You say in five years’ time there might be a different atmosphere, but the first precondition is that there should be a mutual respect between the Executive and the legislature, and it seems from what happened last week and on Monday that that fundamental thing is lacking.
Dr Wright: Whatever design model you have for this thing that we call a House Business Committee, the purpose of it is to enable some Back-Bench input to the construction of the full agenda of the House, having secured already a Back-Bench area. So all I can really say is there would be some kind of structure within which Government, Opposition and Back-Bench representatives would come together in the construction of the House’s agenda. That could make it less likely that things would then happen that the House was not happy with.
David Natzler: Let us be a little more candid in the privacy of this public evidence session. It is not just the Executive, is it? The Opposition also did not wish to extend the debate there, nor incidentally did the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party. I know they are in coalition, but this was a three-party issue. If you look at the Leader of the House’s memo to you, one of the conditions for any system is that it should not prevent the last minute changes that do sometimes happen for big political reasons. I am not sure the House would have been grateful if there had been some system that somehow made it more difficult to come to that deal on the charter and the House was then seen as a block on what was quite a big deal. This was not a casual Report stage. Secondly, it needs an understanding of the Lords timetable. Inevitably, they wish to get the amendments going back to the Lords, who are looking at them, I think, on Monday next week. So there is no point setting up some structure where you just get a few Back-Benchers who can shout at the Government and Opposition and lose again. At the end of the day, the good thing on Monday was there was a vote. Those who want to have a different proposition have to win the vote. That is parliamentary policy.
Q70 Chair: Wouldn’t a House Business Committee have added at least a degree of transparency in the events that led up to Monday? You would have had a House Business Committee the previous week. The business would have been put before people, including Back-Benchers, who would have communicated that to their colleagues, and then if a serious change was proposed-I understand a great raft of amendments and new clauses were put in over the weekend-they would be in a House Business Committee that is working on trust and respect. There would have been some mechanism by which the members of that Committee and others would have been involved. They could not have necessarily changed or vetoed anything, but there would have been the courtesy at the very least of, "We have this coming up on Monday, we weren’t aware of it before. It is now panning out as so and so. We thought we should tell you this." Isn’t that the beginning of a better relationship than the one that leaves people feeling manipulated and bruised, and isn’t that a good argument for transparency that comes with the House Business Committee? It is probably transparency alone, not a big shift in power, but nonetheless it is a little more openness. Isn’t it a good start?
Dr Wright: I think it is just being involved in the process in a way that is not the case now. It is rather like the Backbench Business Committee. It could have turned out to be a disaster for all kinds of reasons. The House might not have engaged with it-all kinds of things. It seems now to have established itself as a sort of desirable and permanent part of the furniture. Assuming that it is possible to construct another forum in which you can have some Back-Bench involvement in the construction of the larger agenda, a lot will depend on the spirit that is brought to that by all the parties, and who the key people are at the outset. They will be the real determinants.
Q71 Mr Chope: Going back to the Monday example, if we had a House Business Committee, do you think it might have caused the minds to be concentrated on these issues a bit earlier? Instead of it being rushed through on the basis of one day, on the Monday, people will have had to have thought about the implications earlier and engaged in discussions to that end. What seems to have happened is that the Government, perhaps not even with the knowledge of the Liberal Democrats, fixed the programme for Monday on the basis that remaining Government new clauses would be first on, whereas the convention has often been that Government new clauses should be dealt with first. That was on a previous day. So they did that in the knowledge that they were probably going to be bringing forward a whole mass of additional new clauses. If we had had a House Business Committee, do you think that the Government would have behaved differently-in other words, would have done what they were going to do-after discussions with a House Business Committee further in advance?
Dr Wright: As I say, it is difficult to know in the absence of that sort of thing how it would behave, but it is conceivable, I suppose, that when you have a proposal to reorganise business radically at short notice, it would be quite possible for such a Committee to convene at short notice and discuss the proposition. All things are possible if people want to do it in a different way.
David Natzler: I think on your specific question, putting it in daily terms-is it conceivable that the Leader or the Chief Whips of both sides would expose to a House Business Committee a supplementary programme motion at the earliest opportunity, and possibly before tabling it on future business-the answer must be yes, if they might in private be willing to explain, if there was any doubt, what the intended and actual effect of that reordering was, which in this case was to bring forward, from memory, new clauses 16 and 17 in the second group to do with fines ahead of the one I think you were particularly interested in, to do with extradition. So there would at least be a forum in which there would be no doubt as to what a particular and complex motion was intended to do. They might still do it, but they would have had to at least explain it in the privacy of a House Business Committee to representatives of Back-Benchers, as well as of all the parties.
Dr Wright: If things started to go wrong, it would be open for such representatives of the Back-Benchers on such a Committee, if they felt that they were not being treated with respect, or in fact if things were being done in a rather underhand way, to start protesting about it. So at least there would be consequences to forms of behaviour where there are none at the moment.
Q72 Chair: If a House Business Committee meeting, let’s say on a Thursday, got wind of something significant, and there were 100-plus Members who felt there was a very important issue there-we do not need to take this in the context of the Bill, necessarily-they could say, "How do we deal with this in terms of ventilating this issue on the parliamentary agenda? Is there a good way to do this? Is there a way that will make people satisfied that it is answered?" There may have been a discussion at an earlier stage to put out there some alternative, possibly talking to the Backbench Business Committee, possibly putting some additional time aside and so on. I think people would then feel that their voice had been heard and there had been fair play. At the moment, sometimes people feel things are dealt with very secretively and privately, and people are being stitched up.
Dr Wright: When I was in that place I used to get frustrated by the fact that a lot of us used to adopt the role of heroic losers-perennially frustrated, moaning about how the Executive behaved, always feeling you were being diddled-and I thought, "There is no reason for a sovereign Parliament to behave like that. It could be different. It only requires an act of individual and collective will to do it, so let’s do it." I think that is still the case.
Q73 Sheila Gilmore: Going slightly wider than the particular example of that day-clearly the Executive could have made another day available if they wanted to-the Report stage of Bills that I have been involved in always seem to be unsatisfactory, particularly if it is one that you have a big interest in and you see things fall off the end, and things do not get debated. Would you agree, as a wider issue than what might happen, that on a regular basis a House Business Committee could resolve that problem?
Dr Wright: Yes. Again, if you go back to what we said, it is pretty clear that the driving grievance that informed the Committee’s thinking at that time was the unsatisfactory nature of the Report stage, which is the one moment when every Member potentially has a chance to make input to legislation. It is a big moment in the life of the House. If you feel routinely that that is just not being done properly, that all kinds of issues are not being taken, that time is squeezing it out, then you have to say, "Is there something we could do?" There will never be enough time, but if the feeling is that the balance of activity is wrong, and we need to give a lot more time to that stage, that is what the House should set about making sure that it brings about.
Q74 Paul Flynn: Just to say to a fellow toiler on this, in achieving very little but honourable failures, there has been a major advance, because of the Wright reforms principally, but also because of a reforming Speaker and a reforming Leader of the House, and things have greatly improved in many ways. I want to get the point in that while the Backbench Business Committee has been very effective-they have all kinds of debates before the House that would not have been heard otherwise, such as the right to die debate, the dignity in dying debate, the Afghanistan withdrawal debate-we are about the only place in the whole of the United Kingdom that has been denied the right to talk about the wisdom of the Iraq war; that applies to no pub, no television station. It is not something passive. This was called for by a cross-party group of MPs six weeks ago, it was approved by the Backbench Committee, and it has been denied by the dark forces to try to avoid a debate on a subject that is of paramount importance, because we took that decision and we should be making a judgment on it. I think this is the problem with many of the Wright reforms-
Chair: I feel a question coming on, Paul.
Paul Flynn: Yes, okay. If you were writing the report again, would you give the Backbench Committee the power to decide the timetable without it going through the sieve of the dark forces to manipulate it, which they have done today?
Dr Wright: As I understand it, the Backbench Business Committee chooses subjects that it wants to debate, having taken representations.
Q75 Paul Flynn: They do not choose the timetable, though.
Dr Wright: Absolutely. That is where you need the other bit to come in, to merge it into discussion about the general timetable. It is conceivable that through the House Business Committee you could be having exactly the debate you wanted today, even if neither Government nor Opposition wanted it. You are not having it, but it would be possible to have it. I think that is an example of exactly why you have to get the mechanisms. I am not sure if you were on our Committee, Paul, when we laboured mightily over the issue of not getting an inquiry into the Iraq war-
Paul Flynn: Absolutely, yes.
Dr Wright-and our frustration that Parliament could not set up its own commission of inquiry. We had to bleat all the time about "Why isn’t the Government setting up an inquiry?" For goodness’ sake, this is Parliament. It all comes together to do with how Members see themselves and how they see this place.
Q76 Chair: David, and a little advice on the technical side about putting stuff on the agenda but not being able to timetable it accurately, which is Paul’s point.
David Natzler: To respond to Paul’s point, although obviously not on the specifics of the Iraq war, you are right: the Government currently says when the Backbench Business Committee will have days, and we have got rather used to the assumption that Thursday is a Back-Bench business day, which is not of course quite in accord with what the Committee recommended, which is that it should be spread through the week and, if in doubt, Wednesday might be the default position. This week is unusual because it is the Budget followed by three days of debate, therefore today is a Government day and the Budget debate. Without wishing to speculate too far out of my depth, I think it is conceivable that in a House Business Committee, with the passage of time, Members might say, "Do we want four days to debate the Budget?" We had 32 Members, or whatever, speaking yesterday; I do not know how many speak today and tomorrow, but maybe in the same way as the Committee said, with respect to you, "Perhaps we don’t want a Welsh day in the Chamber every day-"
Paul Flynn: Every year. We don’t have a Welsh day every day.
David Natzler: However, we don’t have to have some of these set piece debates every year just because we had it last year, so maybe Back-Benchers can say to the Government, "Please, we do not want it." Maybe it is the Front-Benchers who want four days so all of them can make speeches, I don’t know. So that might change, and that might then loosen up more time during such times for Back-Bench business.
On reports, obviously the House Business Committee cannot create time, nor can it create self-discipline, which is how the House of Lords handle their Report and Committee stages, but what it can perhaps do is this: if there were some other small changes it engendered about the need for slightly longer notice of amendments on Report, which would enable the Chair to select and group a little earlier, you could then adjust the programme motion to what people had tabled, as opposed to first the programme motion and then people table. One can imagine it being a little more orderly. If you had internal knives, it would still have to be imposed by a programme motion of some sort, but it could reflect more what Members actually want to debate, and make it slightly easier for the Chair, who does the selection and grouping.
Q77 Paul Flynn: We heard evidence from Natascha Engel, who talked about the decision of what exactly the House Business Committee would be for. She asked, "Does Parliament want to scrutinise better the scheduling decisions taken by the Executive, or does it want involvement in those scheduling decisions?" In your view, would it be more desirable to have a House Business Committee that scrutinises scheduling decisions, or one that was involved in making the scheduling decision itself? To turn it into a debate between myself, this is not anything that is coincidental; this was a positive decision. A debate that was asked for in February has been overtaken by a dozen other subjects of less interest, and it might now take place in May. Would you regard it as taking those decisions and widening the powers?
Dr Wright: My view is that if you had a system that people were committed to, it would enable Back-Bench representatives to have some influence over the construction of the broad House agenda. It would not be a power of decision. That would never happen because, for the reasons we mentioned earlier, if those who control the place want to control it, they will control it, but can you insinuate areas of influence and consultation in that? I believe you can.
Q78 Paul Flynn: It is never sensible to underestimate the ingenuity of the dark forces, and I think my comrade here and I could talk at length about the influence the dark forces have on even elections to Select Committees. While there was great success in the Wright proposals to have a vote on the Chairs of Committees, and many people were chosen who would never have been under the previous system, there are still huge activities in lobbying and arm-twisting. What can we do? A House Business Committee almost certainly would have a majority of members who were in the Government party or a coalition party, whoever they might be. I do not think there is any solution to this problem, but it did turn out during the selection of Chairs that eight of the Chairs of Committees were elected unopposed, which gave us Hobson’s choice. In other cases, a wing of one party-three apostles of the far right of the list-is the only choice.
David Natzler: On the House Business Committee, just to be clear, as suggested in the report, the idea as it emerged was, I think, not for what I would call a voting Committee, so it does not matter who has the majority. As you have suggested, it seems unlikely that those who control the majority in the House will, as a result of your votes-it is not in that sense a sleight of hand-want to set up a Committee that will override their control of the agenda, and of the Government’s legislative agenda in particular. The Wright Committee report was very clear that Governments have a right to have their legislation debated and decided-obviously not passed; that is up to you. How many people are on the Committee would therefore not matter.
If the idea is that it is a consultative Committee and not a decisive Committee, a draft agenda is exposed to them by those who draw up the agenda, is explained, and may occasionally be adjusted in the light of representations. Then it comes back again next week, if it is a weekly meeting, as the actual agenda for the next week comes nearer. In that sense, the majority does not matter. On Natascha Engel’s suggestion that it is scrutinising the agenda, I think, with respect, that slightly goes back a stage. The idea is to help set the agenda because of the basic principle that the Wright Committee enunciated: "It is wrong in principle that, in addition to controlling its own legislative timetable, the Government rather than the House decides what is discussed, when, and for how long." The "for how long" and the "when" are obviously quite important.
It is not a question of saying the Government has made a decision on the way a Select Committee would scrutinise a decision made by the Government. It is wanting to get in a bit earlier, and saying that it is your agenda-the agenda for your organisation-and you want to have some say, not some decision, on what goes into it.
Dr Wright: Yes, absolutely. Can I pick up on the general point you were making about-we should stop calling them the dark forces, because they are just doing their job.
Paul Flynn: We have a founding member of the dark forces chairing our Committee.
Dr Wright: If I had ever had the privilege of being a Whip-unlikely possibility-I would have been a dark force. That is the nature of how it is, so let’s not be pejorative about it.
Implied in what you said was the idea that Members are quite happy to go along with this-that they want to be purloined to vote for particular candidates. If Members want to do that, the place will stay as it is, simple as that. If Members do not want to do it that way, they will be sturdily independent and make their own choices. I think some huge gains have come out of the changes to the Select Committee system-the authority, legitimacy. Yes, it was a new Parliament, and there were vast quantities of new Members. I wish all the posts had been more hotly contested. I reminded Graham the other day that he proposed in the course of our deliberations that it would be a good idea to have mid-term re-elections. I rather dismissed that, because I thought that would have just been a complication too far, and it would give enemies more ammunition. In fact, I think Graham was right. Now that we have fixed-term Parliaments in particular, now that the House knows everybody, we could have some very interesting contests at the moment. If I can go even further and be absolutely indiscreet, I can think of one or two Chairs of Committees whom, were I a Member, I would be inclined to remove, and I would want to bless some others. I think you would find a very different contest for those elections now.
Q79 Chair: I think that was a very good idea before I became a Select Committee Chairman. More seriously, Tony, I would like you to talk about the central concept of the secret ballot. I thought Paul missed one of the key things: yes, people can still try to twist your arm, and yes, they can promise you all sorts of stuff, but the beauty of the secret ballot is that, when it comes down to it, you are alone in your little polling booth and you can do what you feel is appropriate. In the past, many colleagues, because it has been an open process on some elections, have felt pushed in a particular direction, but looking at Select Committees-the election of Chairs and members-it was not even that. You were not even in an open ballot. It was decided for you by the people who work for the Front Bench in each party. I think the concept of the secret ballot is the greatest breakthrough so far.
Dr Wright: Secret ballot allied to how Members see their role. It is something that only they can decide for themselves. I used to love it when we had Shadow Cabinet elections. Do you remember? They have been abolished now, haven’t they? Suddenly people discovered your existence, and everybody was terribly nice to you for weeks on end, and you could promise that you would vote for them, and it was a splendid atmosphere. They all thought you were going to vote for them, and then it all ended and it went back to normal, but it was great while it lasted.
Paul Flynn: There was the fact that in our party the Whips had blank papers for people who were biddable MPs, which the Whips filled out overnight to make sure the right people were elected.
Q80 Chair: Just as a matter of history, my election was contested. There were four of us seeking support, and we got together and added up the number of promises that we had each received and it came to over 2,000. Fascinating, given that there are only 650 Members. So what they tell you is not necessarily what they do if they have that privacy.
Dr Wright: There are key Committees that are being led in a different way now because of the fact of election. You have to remind yourself that it was completely unsatisfactory for those who were being scrutinised to have a role in choosing those who were going to do the scrutinising. That is how it was. After Rhodri Morgan had relinquished the chair of the Public Administration Committee, and I had been on the Committee and I had recently resigned as a PPS, and I thought I wanted to chair it, I was told that the Whips would not have it. That seemed to me to be outrageous, and that was how the system was. I do not think anybody any longer would consider that that was an acceptable way of putting people on to Select Committees.
Q81 Fabian Hamilton: I agree entirely that it is much better now that those doing the scrutiny are elected, and not appointed by those they are scrutinising. I agree wholeheartedly. The secret ballot, as Graham says, is the most important innovation here. Just one small note of dissent on this that I wonder whether you, or perhaps David, would like to comment on: when you have an electorate of 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000, you are looking at what the people you are electing or voting for can offer, what they can give, what their record is, what their experience is. When you have an electorate of 200, it is more who you had dinner with last night, who is your mate, who you go drinking with. Do you think there is not a danger that it becomes just one clique voting for another clique, rather than genuine democracy? If you do not know the individuals involved, you will not go on the basis of their experience and what they have to offer, but on whether you know them and whether you like them, or whether they support you, in fact.
Dr Wright: You could say that. I would put it rather differently. I think the House of Commons is a very particular kind of electoral college, and it is unlike those other kinds of elections that you describe. This is why I make the distinction between the beginning of this Parliament and now.
Fabian Hamilton: Exactly my point, yes.
Dr Wright: I came to think that the House makes pretty shrewd judgments about people. It gets to know people, and you can see this when some Members get into trouble for a variety of reasons. You can see the different attitudes that are taken towards people’s understanding of who these people are. I think it is a rather sophisticated, intimate electorate, so I think you have the ability to make good judgments.
Q82 Fabian Hamilton: The crucial thing you said was, "Once you get to know people". I would agree with what you say, but at the beginning of a Parliament with a huge turnover in the number of Members, how can any of those new Members make a judgment about existing Members, or indeed their new colleagues?
Dr Wright: This time was exceptional. It was only the third time since the war that we are talking about this kind of change. It was one of those exceptional turnover-
Q83 Fabian Hamilton: However, it coincided with the new system.
Dr Wright: Yes, it did, and perhaps we should have given more thought to the fact that it did. That is the point about perhaps rerunning them halfway through the Parliament. It depends what happens in the election, but I suspect next time you will have a far more informed electorate, and I suspect you will have far more contested elections. I think people genuinely now see, which was never the case before, that people can make a career through the Select Committee system. The attention that the House gets comes far more now from the Select Committee system than from anywhere else. That is affecting perceptions, behaviour, incentive structures. It is making a big change.
Q84 Chair: The point David made-once you have created something, that is the beginning, and then there is a process of evolution-is very evident in the Backbench Business Committee, which I think started very well and got better and better. I hope it is the case with Select Committee members and Chairs. We are all feeling our strength and testing the boundaries a little bit after 30-odd years of stagnation, in a sense. People are saying, "What can the Liaison Committee now do? We are all elected by colleagues. We all feel a little bit more that we represent Parliament as a whole, rather than just happening to be put there by a Whip." I do not want to put words in your mouth, but it may well be the case that should the House Business Committee be established on a very modest basis, people would feel their way to something that was ever more satisfactory for all.
Dr Wright: I keep coming back to this, but we say "the House". I am not sure what we mean when we say "the House", because the House is composed of Members who sit in parties. It depends on how Members see their role. What do they want to do in this place? As I say, I was irked by the fact that people were happy to express dissatisfaction and a feeling of not being valued and all the rest of it without doing anything about it. This is something that only Members know about. There will never be hordes of people at St Stephen’s entrance demanding, "House Business Committee now! When do we want it? Now", but it is something that Members understand. If they want to change the terms of trade between the Executive and Parliament, only they understand the problem, and only they can engineer the solution. It is up to them.
David Natzler: If you set up a Select Committee, as Tony says, with fairly modest terms of reference, without trying to make it majoritarian-in other words a voting, decisive, invasive Committee, you have set up some sort of Select Committee, you don’t know what will happen. The Committee of Selection is one example. Some of us have to explain the workings of this place to those from other Parliaments, intelligent critics. I have had one person who came here who had done a lot of preparatory work and discovered that the most important Committee in the House of Commons was the Committee of Selection. That is because you can read the Standing Orders and get that impression. I do not think it is perhaps the most important Committee, although obviously it is influential and significant. It is how they operate and not what their terms of reference are that matters.
Q85 Paul Flynn: How often does the Committee of Selection take a vote, or even a decision?
Dr Wright: I wanted to mention this as we went along, and I hoped someone would ask, because I would direct your attention to paragraph 60 of the report that we made. It refers to this and it says that we were not asked, under our terms of reference, to look at legislative Committees, Public Bill Committees, or how we do legislation, but it is notable that the arrangements for appointment of Members to Public Bill Committees are markedly less transparent and democratic than those for Select Committees. We concluded "that a review would be desirable of the means of selection of public bill committee members, so that it was subject to a similar level of accountability to that long applied to select committee membership." I think this is absolutely fundamental, because we all know what happens and what does not happen. Sarah Wollaston, Member for Totnes, who I do not know but know of, wrote a very nice piece in The Guardian soon after she arrived in this place-a former GP, knowing and caring about the health service-saying she wanted to serve on the Health Bill. She got in touch with the Whips and said that she would very much like to serve on the Health Bill, and she had some very interesting amendments she wanted to put down. Of course, this was the kiss of death. You never get anywhere near the Health Bill if you say things like that. This is absurd.
In a way, we have begun to make the Select Committee system, through reform, function better. There have been improvements with the Public Bill Committees and so on. Robin Cook tried and failed because of these forces that stopped him. Frankly, we all know-I say "we all know"; I think we all know-that the way this House does legislation is not satisfactory, and part of that story is who sits on the Committees, how they operate, their culture, and their spirit. Why could they not do things that happen elsewhere, such as in Germany and Scotland, where the drafters of legislation are sitting down with the Committee members and you are working through it? You are trying to make this legislation better. I am not sure if I should say this, but when we took evidence-
David Natzler: Not evidence, it was a private discussion.
Dr Wright: Am I allowed to mention it?
David Natzler: Not by name. I think it was with a senior former Opposition Chief Whip.
Dr Wright: Okay, one of those memorable occasions. A senior former Opposition Chief Whip said to us, absolutely with heart, that when he had been Chief Whip, he had never been able to decide whether it was his job to make legislation better or worse. No wonder we finish up with poor legislation, because we do it in a poor way, and we could do it in a quite different way.
Q86 Mrs Laing: I was just going to ask, on exactly that subject, whether you had considered at all the workings of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, a Joint Committee between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. I think it had 27 members, and it produced a report that was not allowed to be called a majority report; it could only be called the report of the Committee, but the number of people who voted for it had a majority of one on that Committee. A separate report was produced, but under House of Lords’ rules. It was not allowed to be produced as a minority report by the Committee-it was not allowed to have any say at all-and therefore what was effectively a minority report was produced as an alternative report by members of the Committee, but it was 49% of the Committee. It was not even allowed to be called a minority report. Of course, the members of that Joint Committee were hand-picked by the Whips Office to make sure that it brought about a report that would be in favour of the Government’s plans.
Dr Wright: David will know the answer to this, but I presume that the names of these people went down on the Order Paper in the way that they used to under the old Select Committee system.
David Natzler: As Mr Chope is about to remind you, some of the names of Commons Members for a Joint Committee about to be set up to look into prisoners’ voting rights were put forward to the House fairly directly. There is now an amendment on the Order Paper, signed by, I think, a dozen Members, suggesting that the names should come forth in the normal way from election in party groups through the Committee of Selection. I imagine it would have been open to some Member to put something similar down then. That is not a criticism; I am just saying it is interesting that we are now going through this again.
Q87 Mrs Laing: Would you consider that it might be the case-I am trying to frame a question, Mr Chairman-that as these things come up at the end of business, most Members don’t even know, though Mr Chope does, that such amendments can be put down or challenges made, and that they are likely to be told, "Oh, we don’t do that, it just happens"?
Dr Wright: That was always the case, really. It was rare. It is personally embarrassing often, because you had to replace one name with another one.
David Natzler: In this case, it was objected to when it was attempted to be put through on the nod after 7 o’clock, and subsequently amendments were put down. With respect, it is not difficult, but it may require a little-
Mrs Laing: Political courage?
David Natzler: Thank you.
Mrs Laing: Perhaps.
Dr Wright: The Labour party made moves in this direction before we had the present reform, to get some involvement of its membership in the selection of people for Committees. It would be possible for the Conservative party, for example, to say that it wanted to elect people who sat on such Committees. That is for the parties to decide.
Q88 Mr Turner: It seems to me there is only one problem, and that is Members’ poverty of ambition, or rather their ambition is in a different direction from mine, so they must be wrong. At the beginning of this Parliament, there were people who wanted to stand for the business committee on our side who were good and honourable, and they were the people who I support. It took two years for people to discover that these were said to be right-wing, and therefore they were naughty people and you mustn’t. The Whips, of course, knew it long ago, but we happened to have got the right people on. There are very few groups-or maybe there are not; maybe it is just that I am not aware of these groups. It seems to me all over the place there are things that people want to do but are not prepared to do it. It is our fault. We should be encouraging them to work harder to persuade their friends that they want to do it. If you do not think that is true, could you tell me is there something that I have missed, because I suspect I have just been fairly idle?
Dr Wright: It sounds as though, Andrew, you are saying in your own way what I tried to say right at the beginning. It does ultimately turn on what Members want to do with themselves. If some are content simply to have the letters MP after their name, and that is the summit of their ambition-and that is a very honourable ambition, and I enjoyed it-as opposed to what you do with it, then that is their decision. I am told, and the evidence seems to support it, that many Members now want to be far more interested in local constituency matters. This big change has taken place. They do not want to be here very much. I am told that Thursday has now become a dead day, and the week is shrivelling. Certainly when I arrived at Westminster tube station yesterday afternoon, there were hordes of Members heading off. I know it was Budget day, and therefore there were going to be no whipped votes thereafter. People make these decisions. Some people clearly work very hard and keep the show on the road; others, I think, probably see their life rather differently, and there are 650 people and they are all doing different jobs. I always felt that until people wanted to explore the possibilities of having MP after their names, you can design all the reform proposals that you wanted, and I spent far too much of my life engaged in such activities.
One of the horrors of the expenses business, if I am allowed to mention it, was that it sometimes takes something like that to just sharpen people up. I think people felt-I certainly felt-that in some ways, here was an institution in near terminal decline. People were just so dispirited about their role in the scheme of things. It was possibly the result of having Governments with large majorities for a long time, a different approach to politics, and this shift to locality and so on, but something was taking the spirit and vitality out of this place. This was widely expressed. What was heartening-Graham was part of this-was that suddenly the opportunity presented itself to start reclaiming some territory, and there seemed to be an appetite for it. I would like that appetite to continue and to develop, but it does come back to what you say, which is how people see the role that they are doing.
David Natzler: Very quickly, on the origins of the report, which is what you are looking at, as Tony said, this came about because he wrote to the then Prime Minister, making a proposition when the House was at about the lowest ebb that anyone-those of us who have been here for almost 40 years-can remember. There was a deep depression and a dispiritment. So that is how it came about.
Secondly, the original proposition was that the Committee would only look at scheduling non-Government business in the House, and it took a very major effort by Back-Benchers from all sides to remove the words "non-Government" from the terms of reference. I think that is what the Committee felt it was under some obligation to reflect, in suggesting a House Business Committee, because it reflected the then majority will of the House against the serious doubts of the then Government, that the Committee should look at scheduling business in the House as a whole. It would have been a bit of a betrayal of trust if the Committee had said, "Never mind about Government business, let’s just concentrate on Meg Russell’s proposition in her paper for a Backbench Business Committee".
Thirdly, it was written in 2009, and-no apologies-the Committee did not obviously anticipate a situation of coalition Government. I am sure you are realistic enough to know that does slightly change some of the dynamics, particularly the prospect of a votable agenda; the Government would be exposing itself on a regular basis to fissures of some sort within the coalition, to be candid. That is not reflected in the report. There is the perhaps unspoken assumption in the report that the Government could rely at the end of the day on the majority of its Members winning. A little sensitivity may have to be shown in implementing its suggestion for a House Business Committee in what is now the political situation.
Dr Wright: Yes, I would emphasise that. I am not sure if I said this earlier, but we were much influenced by the evidence that said if you go around the world and look at these things called house business committees, they may be called house business committees but effectively they are run by the Whips. They are just run by the machine. Just having something and calling it a House Business Committee does not do it. That was the point about coming at it from a different angle and saying, "Can we claim Back-Bench business to start with and, having done that, then think about exercising some influence over it?" You really do have to be politically astute. Also-it has been said by other people-not only were we operating in a particular environment, but we were very specific about the limited nature of what we wanted to deliver. What I mean by that is that instead of a list of assorted demands, we wanted to get the House to accept certain mechanisms, from which much would flow potentially, and I think that has proved to be successful. That is the model that I would urge on any future instalments of reform.
Q89 Mr Turner: Your view is that limited reform is better than no reform, and it will be pretty limited, but at least it will be a further bit?
Dr Wright: It is a process, and you have to carry people with you. It is silly proposing things that you know in your heart you are not going to get. You may feel better for having done it, but I think it is much better to think, "What can we really have some chance of securing here?" If I may say so, I thought we were pretty astute in the way that we secured the argument for election to Select Committees and for protecting an area of Back-Bench business, and having secured that, it having turned out to be successful, to think, "What else can you do, and in what form can you do it?" You have not asked us, but I think it is David’s view and it is mine-I know you have asked other witnesses this-that there is an assumption in our report that this thing that we are calling a House Business Committee would be a coming together of the Backbench Business Committee that has been established with the usual channels. I think my view now is: let us leave the Backbench Business Committee where it is, and let us take that as a secure gain. I think there would be dangers if we started trying to mix that up. The danger is that you would lose what you have gained, so I think I would secure that gain and then think of a different way in which you could construct the Back-Bench representation on a House Business Committee. Is that your view, David?
David Natzler: For what it is worth, yes.
Dr Wright: It is worth quite a lot.
David Natzler: I do hope that nothing that comes out of this damages the Backbench Business Committee by mistake, and I am sure you hope that, too. Can I mention one other thing that we do not often mention-not just Back-Benchers and the Government? I think the official Opposition play quite an important role in this as well. Not only, as expressed in the report, must they not lose anything that they have now, but hopefully they may pick something up. You have had a memorandum from the Opposition Chief Whip, which I think does say that the usual channels are not all bad. They are the two forces that represent the two largest parts of the House, so I do urge you to think of the official Opposition and what they might gain or lose.
Chair: It is obviously very encouraging that those who opposed any change on these matters for the best part of a year when in government are now urging us to defend the gains that were made when these proposals were implemented. It is very encouraging that they are now with us.
Q90 Mrs Laing: Following on from what David has just said about the potential harm to the Backbench Business Committee if there were a House Business Committee-I think we are all agreed, and you just expressed it, that the Backbench Business Committee has been a very great asset to bringing democracy to the House of Commons-I hardly need ask you if you think there is a risk that the establishment of the House Business Committee could undermine the authority of the Backbench Business Committee, because I think you just said that there is such a risk. Given the risk, how could it be minimised?
Dr Wright: I would protect the Backbench Business Committee. I think it is developing very well. The way to mitigate the risk is not to seek to make it a channel to represent people on what we are calling a House Business Committee. I think that is the way to avoid the risk.
Q91 Mrs Laing: Sorry, I did not quite get that.
Dr Wright: I said before that there are many different routes by which you might do it. I think I would urge the Committee to think quite freshly about which models of Back-Bench representation on such a House Committee might work. You will not find, I think, a developed answer from our deliberations on that. The context now is quite different. The experience of the Backbench Business Committee is there. If I can put it to you now, your task is to construct a model of doing this that protects the Backbench Business Committee, but that you think will be deliverable and workable.
David Natzler: In terms of membership, I think there may be a slight danger if, for example, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee were automatically assumed to be part of the House Business Committee. As for the sort of discussion-in Mr Flynn’s absence-in which Members said, "Why can’t we have a debate on x and y?" it would seem that the House Business Committee was putting pressure in some way on the Backbench Business Committee to pull some of its chestnuts out of the fire. The Backbench Business Committee should not be contaminated by picking up the things the House Business Committee cannot solve-let us say, desires for a debate on press regulation. They all gang up and say to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, who is sitting there, "Well, why don’t you? You have next Thursday. Give us that day," whereas her Committee has already maybe decided on something quite different. That is the sort of model that would cause anxiety and contaminate it.
Q92 Mrs Laing: Would that contamination be lessened or increased if the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee was a member of the House Business Committee?
Dr Wright: There are issues about whether he or she should attend, perhaps with the Clerk, to be part of the machinery, but I would not think being there in a formal representative role was a sensible idea.
David Natzler: Just think about it: we are not suggesting that the Chair of the Liaison Committee should be there, and they command, I think, 20 days in Westminster Hall. We are not suggesting that Mr Cash should be there as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, and they bring on debates in European Standing Committees 35 times a year. So just because you are part of the jigsaw, does not mean you have to be in this bit of the jigsaw, and it may be best to keep individual decision-makers in their own sanitised area.
Q93 Mrs Laing: You anticipate my next question, which was about the Chair of the Liaison Committee being on the House Business Committee, and I understand your logic. Taking it further forward, and thinking about the usual channels, we all know what and who the usual channels are, and how things work in practice. Would the setting up of a House Business Committee take away the power of the usual channels?
Dr Wright: I was interested to read Meg Russell’s account of her experience of being involved in them, and you, I think, also were able to say something similar. I would like to think that we just flush it out a bit and we make people do, in a rather more formal and open way, things that they now do in a rather dark and informal and closed way. That would be a huge gain.
David Natzler: It sounds very formal, but I refer you to paragraph 204 of the Wright report, which I am sure is at your fingertips, where the Committee said, "It may be that the Government and Opposition nominees on the House Business Committee will want to meet separately in advance of a meeting to settle so far as possible the scheduling of the business for which they each have responsibility. We regard that as a matter for them". So it would be unrealistic to imagine that the Chief Whip or the Leader is going to turn up without having consulted his very expert scheduling staff, or indeed the Opposition, before bringing it forward. They are perfectly entitled to do that. Their power, which only relates to their ability in the end to decide the business, and secondly only as delegated to them by the Government Chief Whip, is the same, as is their ability to respond to the very complex nature of scheduling.
Q94 Mrs Laing: That is helpful. I wonder, Mr Chairman, whether we dare take evidence from Sir Murdo Maclean on this matter. I put that as a possible suggestion. Talking of which, and following on from what you have just said, should the staff of a House Business Committee be the Clerks from the Department of Chamber and Committee Services, or should they be the civil servants who currently serve the usual channels?
David Natzler: The answer has to be that if it is a Select Committee, it is clerked by someone from the Department of Chamber and Committee Services, but don’t let’s get hung up on that. I cannot conceive personally of such a Committee without the attendance and very active participation of the secretary to the Government Chief Whip and his deputy. They are hugely knowledgeable; they know the ins and outs that nobody else possibly could; they are attuned to the House of Lords timetables. This is not some sort of cabal to exclude the experts. That would not work, because decisions are not being come to, but suggestions might be accepted by the Chief Whip or the Leader that they were ill advised on. I think the answer is that it is technically the Clerk’s function would be possibly largely decorative, unlike on your Committee.
Q95 Mr Chope: Can I ask about the role of the Leader of the House in all this? Is it not arguable that a Leader of the House could or should be behaving like a single-person House Business Committee, because he should be balancing the interests of the Government and the Government business managers on the one hand, and the interests of the House itself and the Back-Benchers on the other? In the time I have been in this place, you have had contrasting styles in the Leader of the House. You have had people like John Biffen or Cook, who were seen to be much more accommodating of the needs and interests of Back-Benchers, and then you have had others on the other side of that divide. Is there a danger that, if you set up a House Business Committee, it will push the Leader of the House further into the hands of his Government role, rather than trying to encourage him to be more forthright and active on behalf of the interests of Back-Benchers?
Dr Wright: I think what I would say is it matters hugely who the Leader of the House is. A lot of this will come down to the people involved and how they approach the task. We have been fortunate in some of this process in having some of the right people, but there is a sort of brokerage role that a Leader of the House should play between what Government Front-Bench Whips might want and a sense of what the House might want. Sometimes a Leader of the House and a Chief Whip will be at odds. This was the case with Robin Cook, who was hung out to dry eventually because of this. However, I think a Leader of the House of the kind that you describe would have an absolutely indispensable role in brokering this relationship and making sure that it did do the kind of things that we say it could do.
Q96 Mr Chope: In a sense, do you think the pressure for a House Business Committee has come because of the failure of successive Leaders of the House to fulfil the balancing role that, for example, both Biffen and Robin Cook fulfilled, and which caused each of them to fall out with their respective Prime Ministers?
Dr Wright: The House generally does less work when it has a Leader of the House who does not understand the role that you are describing, and who is there because they just had to find a role for somebody, or you wanted to shuffle someone around and you can park them as Leader of the House. I think when you have a Leader who understands, in the way that Robin Cook did-and George Young, I think-exactly the sensitivities that are involved in this role, and someone who the House believes is performing that brokerage role in a genuinely sensitive and committed way-
David Natzler: You asked whether the pressure for the House Business Committee came from a perception that Leaders of the House were not performing in that role. I think the report makes it plain that the Reform Committee said it was a matter of principle. I did not feel that anyone was saying, "The House agenda is badly managed." Indeed, in paragraph 160, it explicitly says it is in some ways incredibly technically well managed, and I personally know that. Masses of stuff happens-lots and lots of general debates, things on Tuesday mornings-it is very well managed. So I do not think anyone is suggesting there is dissatisfaction with the system. There are other Parliaments in other bits of Europe, if I can put it that way, where things are very much less well managed and it is just chaotic. There is no chaos, but it is a matter of principle that Parliament, or the House of Commons, should have some control of its own agenda. I understand that is what lies behind it. It is not a criticism, so much, of all of the outcome.
Q97 Chair: You have talked about the composition of the House Business Committee and how, in a sense, it has moved on from the deliberations that occurred in the Wright Committee phase, because of new circumstances, excellent reforms already being implemented, and a Coalition Government. It is a new environment, and none of us at the time knew that we would be here in this environment. However, as a result of that, or partly as a result of that, you have suggested that perhaps the Chair of the Liaison Committee would not be an appropriate person to be on the House Business Committee, that perhaps the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee would not be an appropriate person. We have the Permanent Secretary to the Whips Office-Roy Stone, that figure-on there, presumably we have a Government majority on there, and presumably we have representatives of the Opposition Whips on there. That just leaves us with the Back-Bench contingent on the House Business Committee. Are you therefore, by this process of elimination, saying a given number-three, four, Back-Bench colleagues-should be on that Committee? Is that your preferred option, your preferred number, and would you suggest that these people were selected or elected?
Dr Wright: We said nothing about numbers.
Chair: I mean now, Tony.
Dr Wright: I would need to think through that, but I think the spirit of what we said was that numbers is not the issue, because it is not going to be a voting Committee. If you think it is going to be that, then you are going to get nowhere. It is a question of who is properly represented here. You have to think of a number, but I do not think the number is the key thing, and nor do I have a settled view on the route by which such people would be there. It may be that you could just choose election through the parties in the way that we have done with the Select Committees, or you could ask who at the moment represents Back-Benchers. I do not mean the Backbench Business Committee now; I mean through the parties, whether there are role-holders there. I do not know. I do not have a settled view on this, but it is one that I think you can usefully explore.
David Natzler: I do not think it is for me. It is obviously a political decision. I just think you have not quite composed the Committee yet because you do not yet have a Chair, and I do not know if you are coming to that.
Q98 Chair: Next point. Who do you think the Chair should be? Who would make a good Chair?
Dr Wright: We proposed the Deputy Speaker, didn’t we, the Chairman of Ways and Means? I wouldn’t insist that that is the person, but at the time, we were looking for a figure who could, in a way, make sure that this was done properly, and that people did behave in the right way, and that it was not just a sort of stitch-up. I think that proposal still sits on the table, but if you can think of a better one-
David Natzler: There seems no reason for the Committee to have changed its mind. For that reason, if it is a Select Committee, it would be more obviously chaired by a very, very senior Member, and there is a very, very senior Member. If it is in private, which I think it is the understanding that it would be, they would not be exposed to political awkwardness, but they would be holding the ring. I think some people have suggested the Leader of the House might be the obvious person to sit there. That is another proposition, but if they are one of the players, it might be more difficult to do both jobs, but that is obviously for others to decide.
Q99 Chair: If it is the Chairman of Ways and Means or the Deputy Speaker, then when colleagues come to elect those office-holders, they would know that coming with that person would be some responsibility in respect of the House Business Committee. David, does that now help you a little more on the membership? You have your Chair.
David Natzler: No, sorry; I have nothing to add.
Q100 Chair: These are obviously very important matters technically, because if we agree in Committee-and we have yet to have that debate-that a House Business Committee is the way to go, I think it is incumbent on us to be relatively clear and let Government respond to a recommendation about who the Back-Bench members should be, and we do need to have a proposition before us. It seems to me, by default, we are looking at a system that has proved effective on Select Committees, which is to have a secret ballot for a given number of Back-Bench colleagues, perhaps by division, by party or the whole House, as indeed Select Committee Chairs are now elected. Would you favour either or both of those as options?
Dr Wright: I think that would be a leading contender for a model, but it is not the only one, and I am sorry to say that you have to do the work. We can explore the options with you, but I think you, knowing the options, then need to do a bit of designing in a way that looks plausible.
David Natzler: If I may add, in the presence of a current member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, that it may be worth looking at some of the European models. Although we do not think much of the European bureau model by and large, because it does seem to be a bit of a rubber stamp for whatever, the way that they represent the parties at their bureaus, which are present in their assembly, tends to be through the existing elected party systems. I guess this would be the parliamentary Labour party or the 1922 Committee, who are already elected, I believe, to represent the parliamentary party. That must be one model, if you looked at other models of similar organisations, that you might come up with, but that may have disadvantages.
Q101 Chair: Tony, I am very conscious that you have to fly in nine minutes’ time. To be really clear about the question of a votable agenda, we used to talk in the Wright Committee about the idea that, having agreed the programme for the following week, there would be a business statement, and that could be voted on in extremis. It was my view at that point that if you consistently did that, your House Business Committee would last probably two more weeks, and then we would be back to just straightforwardly being told what to do, although we are now in different circumstances: as David pointed out earlier, there is the coalition. This could be an excuse to have a battle about absolutely anything on the agenda for the following week. I think I know the answer to this, but do you feel that is something that perhaps is of lesser importance at this point in the creation of a House Business Committee-having a votable agenda on the Thursday afternoon or whenever it might be, Thursday morning in this case?
Dr Wright: I think the way you describe it is exactly right. Business questions at the moment is a bit of a playground, but Members who take part like it because you can ask for anything loosely connected with the agenda. My sense is that at least a chunk of Members like it, and it is not really a discussion of the agenda, but it is a reasonable time to do all kinds of things. If you were to have routinely the possibility of votes on it, it would have the advantage of keeping people in on a Thursday and therefore stiffening the parliamentary week, but I do not think it would be a good idea, because what would happen? Routinely the Opposition would put down motions to dissent from the agenda and replace this item with that item; groups of Members would start saying they want this or that. It would become a ritual-meaningless. However, having said all that, it might be that you want to keep in your locker-I think you said in extremis-the possibility on rare occasions of the ability to take a vote on something that was particularly contentious. If the Speaker had the ability to take that, then you might just have it in your armoury, but if it was to become part of the routine stuff, it would kill it off.
David Natzler: You are right. In the report there are about five or six paragraphs saying that this is, after all, a straightforward way of deciding something in the House of Commons. You have a motion, and if necessary you have amendments, and then you vote. However, anything recommended here has to be fitted into the political realism of what is likely to be acceptable, with your experience of political behaviour; that is nothing to dissent from what Tony said.
Dr Wright: One would hope that if you had a well-functioning House Business Committee, what would come in front of the House would come with rather more authority and legitimacy than it has. If the spirit is right, it would not stop people saying they would rather talk about this and that, but at least the process would have been gone through that would bring that agenda to the House in a rather different shape, perhaps.
Q102 Chair: The only time that the Backbench Business Committee has got into anything that has been life-threatening for itself has been where items have been put on the agenda that have become votable and, compounding that, Government felt that it had to mobilise a vote on a three-line Whip to try to stop a particular vote from being successful. Perhaps that is a lesson that we need to consider, certainly in the current circumstances of coalition and the interest that there is at the moment. We ought to consider that when we come to think about the House Business Committee, and whether, should a motion be put down and be voted on, it could possibly lead to similar difficulties with Government. I do not know how many times the phrase was mentioned in the Wright Committee report, but Government should always get its business.
Dr Wright: We did say that, and that was wrongly phrased. That is the only sentence in the report that I would dissent from now, because we do say that as a principle the Government should get its business, but that is not right. The Government should have the opportunity to get its business.
Chair: Can I ask Sheila to ask something about petitions while Tony is here, and then I am going to come back to Eleanor?
Mrs Laing: No, that was my last question-the phrasing. I think it is terribly important that the Government should have the opportunity to get its business. That was it.
Dr Wright: I am afraid there was an error in the sentence there. I think it was Graham’s, actually.
Q103 Sheila Gilmore: We heard some evidence last week from an academic, Catherine Bochel, to say that perhaps we could have a different range of options to deal with e-petitions. She gave some examples from other petitions committees, such as in Scotland and Wales, and she talked about having different numbers thresholds maybe having different responses; you could perhaps tag a petition to a Private Member’s Bill. Would a petitions committee with power to permit a range of different responses be more effective than the current system? The backdrop to that is obviously that only 17 petitions of 20,000 have ever been debated.
Dr Wright: I am not sure that we helped greatly here, and several people pointed out that we had not helped greatly here. I think that reflected the difficulties of the subject. All I would say is everyone would accept that the House has never turned its attention to what it wanted to do about petitions in an electronic age, and we have this confusion now between what the Government has said, the offer on the Government website, and then the transference into the House, illegitimately, in a way. Are people petitioning Parliament? Are they petitioning the Government? If they are petitioning the Government, why does it then get sent to the Back Benchers? It is a confusion. The House will have to decide at some point just whether it wants a new machinery to deal with petitions. To try to be helpful, we suggested that for a period you might give the Procedure Committee the role of processing petitions and then deciding what to do with them, where to send them and so on, or-as you are suggesting, and I think was suggested to you by the witness-maybe like other Parliaments, like Scotland, the time has come to set up a separate petitions committee. All I would say is, when you have a petition, you are making an offer to people. You are saying, "If you petition us, something will happen. It does not mean to say that you will get what you want, but there will be a process under way." Unless the House has developed the offer and can do it, it should tread with some care. There is a history to the issue, and I think the House at some point has to decide, in the context of electronic petitioning, what it wants to do.
Q104 Sheila Gilmore: Are people going to be more disillusioned if we do not sort this out, though? The Government has made the offer, and there is an expectation out there now. If we do not put something in place that makes it more effective are people going to-
Dr Wright: I did sign a petition about the West Coast Main Line and it was wonderfully successful.
Q105 Chair: Tony, I am very conscious of your time, and we would normally wish to detain you longer, but since I understand you are going to a meeting of the IPSA Board, we would like you to get there as fast as possible. However, before you go, is there any sort of summarising, concluding remarks that you would like to leave us with?
Dr Wright: No, only to say that I think all of us involved in the process before had an ambition to make the House matter a bit more, and I think that is an enduring ambition. The structural form that it takes is various; it depends on the motivation of Members, but those of us who are rather keen on Parliament want it to matter more, and want to explore ways of doing it. I hope now that this Committee, and perhaps others, will continue that task and carry the House with them.
Q106 Chair: Tony, thank you on behalf of the Committee for coming along today. I would also thank you, if I may, on behalf of Members of the House as a whole for the energy and passion and sense that you brought to bear on creating the recommendations, and the astute way in which they were framed, so that when the right Government came along to implement them, they were able to do so without serious discomfort. I hope that is a good precedent for finishing the unfinished business, too. Thank you very much on behalf of Back-Benchers everywhere. David, can we keep you for a moment?
David Natzler: Yes. I wonder if I could respond on petitions to Sheila. The terms of reference of the Wright Committee asked it to look at something, and I am quoting, that would "enable the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House". We were not asked to look at petitions; we were asked to look at something slightly wider that I think made some Members quite uncomfortable. I am not quite sure where that proposition came from about enabling the public to initiate debates. If you were going to initiate a debate, you would not necessarily start with a petition, which is a request for action, quite often, rather than a debate. Turning to the example of the West Coast Main Line, my impression is that what people wanted was either an inquiry or a change in the proposal to alter the contractor who was doing it. They did not necessarily want a debate; they wanted an outcome. The Government responded in the summer of 2011 with this website, which is extremely technically good but which, as you say, has caused a lot of confusion about the 100,000 threshold, but obviously you do not need to have passed the threshold. Any Member can take a subject to the Backbench Business Committee and say, "200 people have signed a petition", or indeed none have, or one has. It is just as valid coming from a particular Member making an application. So there is a bit of a muddle in the public mind, and I think in the parliamentary mind. Some of it relates to the word "petition", which is a very ancient word that I do not think quite means what it says. If somebody can sort it out before the next Parliament, that would be a very good thing. You might think this is rather a large task for yourselves to do, but for someone to do it would be helpful.
Q107 Sheila Gilmore: That is very helpful, because at the moment we run the risk of creating something about which people do think there is no point, and that is worse.
David Natzler: Yes, I think Catherine’s particular insight, which I will refer to in a minute, is that she has talked to quite a lot of the people who have got up petitions, in other words have led a petition, to see how happy they are. Her research has shown-I understand that this is the most interesting thing-that members of the public, like myself or anyone who does that, do not expect things to change, but they love getting a letter back or getting something to show that their shout has been heard and something may or may not happen. I think her research suggests that people are quite realistic that it may well be that nothing happens, but they feel that they have been listened to and put into the machinery, and that is what we are failing at now. Just turning over to our existing petitions system, you are no doubt aware of this, but lots of people are not: a single person who sends in a petition that is then presented gets an answer from the Government, whereas if you go on to the electronic website, I think you have to pass 10,000 signatures to get a rather less good answer, sometimes, than for many years Ministers have been providing on the so-called traditional or paper petition. That is another thing that bears out what you are saying-that there is a mismatch and misunderstandings going on.
Q108 Sheila Gilmore: If you had a petitions committee, you would have to have, surely, some thought about how many it could potentially deal with.
David Natzler: Can I interrupt you? I do not know if you are going to discuss petitions, but I think you are starting at the wrong end of the trumpet, with respect, and I think some other people are. There is no point having a committee and then saying it is going to deal with them. What do you want to happen? What do you think is right for this particular route of public access? There are many routes: through individual Members, through NGOs. There are many other ways that the public can influence proceedings. Then you decide whether you want to have a committee to do it, whether it is going to look into the merits of the petition, as in Holyrood, where they have the petitioners in, sometimes, and harass the Executive as to why nothing is happening. Or are you proposing to make them a sort of alternative to the Backbench Business Committee, which would be slightly worrying, trying to give time for their further consideration, or what? Do you see what I mean? First of all, you want to design what you expect to get out of it, then you design it and say what sort of committee it is, and say whether a committee is the obvious answer, or maybe not.
Q109 Mr Chope: David, I can’t remember whether you gave evidence or not to the Procedure Committee that looked into this in great detail in the last Parliament, including by visiting the Scottish Parliament. What the Procedure Committee was concerned about was that people should understand the difference between the Government, the Executive and Parliament. What seems to have happened now is that the Government, the Prime Minister, by sleight of hand has people in a position where they think that the way to petition Parliament is through a Government website. What do you think we can do to reinforce the fact that Parliament should be supremo?
David Natzler: There is no technical difficulty, in agreement with the Cabinet Office, in taking over and setting up our own web-based petition system, and I think it is fair to say the Government would be quite happy. You say a sleight of hand. They already had a petition website, to be fair, and indeed the Procedure Committee laboured long and hard but came up with a scheme that was seen by some as being a little top-heavy-not only expensive but also seen by cynics, I am sure, as being a way of garnering people’s e-mail addresses who were interested in a particular topic. So for various reasons it did not get universal support, even around the House, but they did a huge amount of work on what might happen. Then, again to be fair to the Government, they came in with this unexpected coalition proposition that 100,000 should give you a chance for a debate, so they then had to provide the platform to justify their own undertaking. It was not as if that overrode some website that Parliament had. There was not a Commons petition website. I think "sleight of hand" is maybe a little uncharacteristically harsh.
Mr Chope: I stand corrected.
Chair: I think the misapprehension that Parliament and Government were seen as the same by members of the public unfortunately is one that Government also labours under when it believes that its ambitions are precisely the same as Parliament’s. However, rather than say "discuss", I think that may be a useful point at which we leave that in the air. David, thank you very much for your attendance this morning. Thank you also very much for your consistently good advice inside and outside the Wright Committee. You exemplify all that is best in the Clerks Department-which includes a Clerk who is leaving us today, Lorna, with great sadness-helping members ultimately, we hope, arrive at the truth. We hope to do that on this report, as we do on all our other ones. David, thank you so much.