§ 3.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
I beg to move,That this House notes with concern that the degree of Parliamentary control over the Executive has diminished and is diminishing; believes the opportunities for regular supervision of the actions of the Executive by Parliament are inadequate in the modern context; is concerned with the implications for the Constitution and ultimately for the efficient operation of the democratic process in the United Kingdom; and is of the opinion that Parliament's powers of supervision and control now need to be strengthened and improved.I express my gratitude to the Leader of the House for his courtesy in being here to discuss a subject which is of obvious interest to us all. I also express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude). I expect that both my hon. Friend and the Leader of the House will agree with much of what I shall say.
To be a Member of this House is a marvellous and, indeed, in the old English sense of the word, an aweful experience. It is difficult to be here without loving this place and achieving a respect for the institution of Parliament which might border on veneration. Yet time and again I find myself asking questions about our methods of working, never more often than when I am boasting about them to the parties of young people whom we are privileged to take round the House of Commons.
I do not hold the opinion that Parliament is in decline. I do not hold the opinion that it is ineffective. But I do not hold the opinion that it is perfect. I do not believe that it is, in public esteem at any rate, as vigorous as once it was during my time here. There is nothing so good that it cannot be improved.
This is an ancient place. Not one of us who is here is not deeply sensible of its traditions and the way in which we have evolved our systems—many of which are ancient—over a period of time in the light of practical experience. The genius and success of this device for government by discussion—for that is what Parliament is—which has enabled our disparate society to live in peace and harmony over the centuries, sans revolution, sans serious discord, is a priceless possession.
31 In that belief and with humility I should like to offer some modest observations on our affairs and to pose some questions for general consideration. It is my intention to stimulate discussion.
This institution has kept our nation safe from excesses because it has provided authority and yet shown flexibility in its approach to government. In practice this provides an immediate dilemma: reconciliation of effective authority with its control is never easy. I believe it to be particularly difficult at this moment.
There are no perfect solutions to the organisation of this place. On the other hand, it is my purpose to argue that there are improvements which could and should be made. They very much need to be made. As a question by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) indicated a few moments ago, with support from pro- and anti-Marketeers, it is time to take stock of this institution. Whether we like it or not, this is a moment of great constitutional change.
There is no doubt that membership of the European Economic Community will force changes upon us. Next year, a twelve-month from now, we shall be electing the Members of the European Assembly and this House will become in essence a form of pure national, that is local, authority. It might be that from that there will derive new party alignments. There are signs of that already.
As the hon. Member for Newham, South correctly implied in his question, if the Westminster Parliament is to have any control over Ministers or economic policies in that great new Assembly, that great new institution, as it should, we must come to discuss European matters more often than the present timetable allows.
Another constitutional change is devolution. Whether one is for it or not, it is likely to be a fact and it has great implications.
There are also other changes which are not perhaps so obvious and which are not the result of consicious and specific decisions by the House. They are more gradual but none the less profound in their effects and they are relevant to my point and theme.
There has been an enormous growth in the volume of legislation. Some 50 years 32 ago we passed into law about 400 pages of legislation each year. This is an exceptional year, but the average is now over 3,000 pages. That works out at a Bill a day. The Leader of the House and the Chief Whip know that. We also deal with 10,000 pages of Statutory Instruments, plus all the paraphernalia of the EEC legislation. No right hon. or hon. Member would pretend for one moment that we give this legislation adequate scrutiny.
There is enormous growth in the Parliament. Important negotiations and discussions with the CBI and the TUC, for example, too often take place far away from this Chamber and its influence.
There is the growth in party discipline which is too obvious and too certain to need more description than the plain statement.
Then there is the growth of the vested interest of the placemen, the Ministers and their acolytes. We now have a new term of art to describe that situation—the ministerial vote, as it is called. [HON. MEMBERS: "The payroll vote."] Payroll vote—if right hon. and hon. Members prefer that term. The numbers grow continuously.
There is also the growth in the power of the Prime Minister and his office.
These are all matters of fact. They are matters with which we in this House must come to terms.
Above all, never in our history, except in war time, have Governments possessed such power as they have today. Never have they employed so many people, directly or indirectly. Never have they exerted such patronage, whether we speak of personal appointments or of aid to commerce and industry.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I would agree with the right hon. Gentleman on some of the issues that he has raised, and I hope to catch Mr. Speaker's eye later in order to try to amplify them. However, on the question of bypassing Parliament and the associated matter to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, may I ask what are his views upon the setting up of the lifeboat scheme, which used taxpayers' money, some of which went to Keyser Ullmann, in which he played a leading part, and which Parliament never had a chance to debate? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that in 1973 that 33 matter should have come before the scrutiny of Parliament, the House of Commons, so that we could have decided on that issue?
§ Mr. du Cann
The hon. Gentleman, with the persistence for which he is notorious, never loses an opportunity to drag that particular matter out into the open.
§ Mr. du Cann
It is not inappropriate that I should say concerning the particular matter to which the hon. Gentleman has referred that I have remarked before in the House that every penny of that money has been repaid and that interest was paid at the proper rate upon it while it was borrowed. However, regarding the hon. Gentleman's main point whether a matter of that sort—and we are talking about aid for the whole British banking system at a particular time of difficulty—should have been discussed and decided on by Parliament, in general I think that that would have been appropriate. If the hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of listening to me for a little while, instead of making a point which he believed would be personally embarrassing, perhaps he will find that there is more sympathy between us than he, with his prejudiced mind, might suspect.
The growth of Government authority goes further than I have so far had the chance to describe. An increased number of our basic industries are now Stateowned—that is to say, Government-controlled. But beyond that, the extent of control and regulation by Government of unowned commerce is vast. So is their budget, their taxation and their spending. Never in our history have Government operated in so many spheres.
My point is simply this: it is the balance that is wrong. As the power and influence of the Executive, of the Government, has increased, so our opportunities for scrutiny, control and examination seem to me to have diminished. The extension of the power of the Government and of the Executive is without doubt the largest domestic change of all.
The basic political theory of the constitution is that Parliament controls the Executive. That control is our final guarantee against unconstitutional Government.
34 It is true that Government cannot avoid criticism of their administrative policy Each year, for example, they must come to Parliament for money. It is open to the Opposition then to raise the broadest issues of policy or the smallest matter, a personal grievance, let us say, before supply is granted. But what is debated now in this House? What does it generally consist of? You know, Mr. Speaker, as we all know, that rarely today is it an open-minded discussion. It is rarely reason, an argument or, for all the pleasure we have from time to time of hearing the Leader of the House, oratory which influences or dominates the vote. So strong and so real are the modern party disciplines that the outcome of each vote is usually entirely predictable and the debates, in consequence, again as you, Mr. Speaker, know, are attended more by the speakers than they are by the listeners. So, what with the Whips and the party line, as Lord Hailsham says in that remarkable new book of his,Debate is more and more a ritual dance, interspersed with cat calls.
§ Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)
On reflection, does the right hon. Gentleman not consider that since Lord Hailsham wrote that book, recent developments have made the outcome of the votes less and less predictable, to the embarrassment of the Front Bench, and that the power of the Whips, as I should have thought, was far from being stronger than it ever was and is perhaps not as strong as they would wish?
§ Mr. du Cann
The fact that some Labour Members went home early on one occasion does not invalidate my general view.
The moment that we abandon reason, that is to say, discussion, as an arbiter of events and an arbiter of policy, by substituting, for example, a machine-made majority, we are indeed on a slippery slope away from democracy.
Take Question Time, to which we have just listened. For all its uses and for all its virtues, the reality, as we all know, again, is that it is certainly not an effective method of interrogation of Ministers. It has become almost a ritual exchange of non-information. Is there not very often a better cross-examination of Ministers, not least the Prime Minister, by outsiders on the television or in the Lobby than there is by Members of Parliament?
35 Perhaps this House may think also that we should re-examine the way that we spend so much of our time. Do we spend too much time, for example, on the Floor of the House talking about the detail of legislation and not enough time discussing the conduct of administration? Considering how little time we give to discussing the reports of Select Committees of this House, one would think that that was certainly true. What is the point of having detailed examinations of Ministers, officials, outsiders and others upstairs if we never discuss these matters on the Floor of the House?
Undoubtedly Parliament must be ever conscious of its duty to sustain effective government, yet so strong and so real are the modern party disciplines, in spite of what the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) said a moment ago, that to a degree the control of the Executive is becoming more an honourable obligation upon the supporters of the Government of the day than upon their declared opponents. Of course, it is true that the defeat of the Government of the day on an issue of confidence in the House of Commons would entail their resignation and usually a General Election. But that is the extreme position.
Let me come back to the day-to-day. Just how well, how closely, how effectively, do we supervise, on a day-to-day basis, the activities of Ministers and their Departments, the State-owned corporations and the bodies in receipt of public funds? Judged by ordinary commercial practice, the best commercial practice, I would say hardly at all.
We need such devices as pre-legislative committees. It is not surprising that there is now in the House a great feeling in favour of greater use of Select Committees. As chairman of the 1922 Committee, I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for his sympathy and helpfulness when we have been discussing, together with the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and his colleagues, matters which affect the present position of Members. It is becoming urgent that there should be vastly better facilities for research for individual Members. It cannot be right that some of us are obliged to pay hard-working—indeed, overworked—secretaries more money than the current parliamentary allowance gives.
36 Policy is rarely now determined on the Floor of the House. The practice is for decisions to be taken in Cabinet, in Cabinet Committees, and subsequently announced here. We rarely debate policy alternatives or compare outturn with forecasts as a deliberate matter of a running contemporary survey. Other than an occasional Select Committee survey, there is virtually no supervision of the nationalised industries.
We have established now, with the will of this House two new complex entrepreneurial organisations—the British National Oil Corporation and the National Enterprise Board—spending huge amounts of taxpayers' money. Yet we set up no machinery at all for questioning either their policy or their management.
Perhaps the Select Committee on Procedure will have useful recommendations to make in due time. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I have a suggestion of my own. There is one aspect of our parliamentary machine which is in urgent need of modernisation. It was during the period of struggle with the Crown that Parliament evolved what was then an efficient and complex procedure for the control of finance by the House of Commons. That procedure is simply no longer effective. Yet the obvious and easiest way of controlling the Executive is by controlling the purse strings. That is exactly what Parliament does not do and no longer even attempts to do. For example, we vote the spending of millions of pounds—on occasion tens and even hundreds of millions of pounds—
§ Mr. du Cann
Billions, if my right hon. Friend prefers. We vote the expenditure of these huge amounts of money on the nod—that is to say, without proper discussion of any kind.
The occasions when we might as a House debate money matters are attended by specialists only or used for a series of Adjournment debates or end—to use the expression again—as catcalling sessions on strictly party lines. We never budget in the orthodox financial sense, measuring revenue against expenditure and vice versa. In spite of the recommendations of Lord Plowden's committee of some years ago, we have never discussed 37 or decided as a House the proportions of the gross national product to be allocated respectively to the public and the private sectors. I am not arguing what the levels should be in that case. The opinions of party men across the Floor of the House will inevitably differ. I just argue and complain, as a House of Commons man, that Parliament no more controls Government expenditure than Canute controlled the tide.
I do not know how many right hon. and hon. Members are familiar with an excellent little book published by a distinguished Principal Clerk of this House, Dr. Taylor. There are two quotations that I would give from that excellent and clear work. First, Dr. Taylor himself writes:Control of expenditure in a direct sense hardly belongs to the House of Commons any more.On the next page he quotes Professor Ramsay Muir, who gave a paper to the Select Committee on Public Business some little time ago. He said:The power of the purse is supposed to be the main source of authority of the House of Commons. It has become wholly unreal. There is no parliamentary country in which Parliament has less power over finance than in Britain.Put into plain English, those quotations mean simply that we are not carrying out the function with which our fellow citizens have entrusted us, and democracy is the poorer as a result.
The need for action now is urgent. Public concern in my time in this House has never been greater than it is today about the way in which taxpayers' money is spent—I believe, with good reason.
If we are effective, we shall enjoy more public confidence and respect than this Parliament currently enjoys. It is not that Members of Parliament do not work hard. That is not the reason for complaint. The point is that we do not necessarily work at the right things.
I have a modest proposal in this respect. The Public Accounts Committee has been examining, in collaboration with the Treasury, ways in which cash limits, which now cover 65 per cent. of Supply expenditure, might be assimilated with the Estimates. If my colleagues who are members of that Committee are kind enough to support the report which has now been drafted as they have been good enough to do in the past, I believe that 38 it will be possible to assimilate the Estimates with cash limits and to put recommendations before this Chamber to that effect. Thereby, we might have the chance to restore some control—a control which we have almost completely lost.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the disreputable device known as the Civil Contingencies Fund, which enables even the theoretic control which the House possesses to be completely bypassed?
§ Mr. du Cann
I know that my hon. Friend has a particular view on that matter, and I largely sympathise with what he says.
To come back to the general: as the constitutionalists say, Parliament is supreme. In theory there is nothing that Parliament cannot do. As Dicey wrote:It can make or unmake laws.It can and does confiscate property. It can take away liberty and even life itself, and it has. It can take this nation to war or make peace.
Over the years, Parliament has come to mean virtually the House of Commons alone, so ineffective, let us not forget, now is the House of Lords. The House of Commons has come to mean the majority party, and that in turn has come to mean the Cabinet, supported by its disciplined Members of Parliament.
This nation is almost unique in that we have no written constitution. The The chief sanction upon the good behaviour—that is to say, the constitutional obedience—of Government is convention, not the law. It is the general good sense of the Members of Parliament of the governing party. Because I believe in the modern context that it is essential now to set some obvious declared limit to the hitherto unlimited powers of the legislature and because I do not think that we can for ever count upon the loyalty of future majority parties to our constitutional traditions and practice, I have argued in the past for a Bill of Rights to restrict the opportunity for Parliament to affect the rights of individuals. Put at its best, it is an invariable temptation for expediency to father carelessness, and there are increasing examples of that. Put at its very worst, and suppose that extremists were to capture control of either of the 39 main parties, indeed our constitutional rights would be at risk.
If we were to have a Bill of Rights it would be a first step towards a written constitution, written and defined by law. I believe that now to be essential because the absence of legal limitations on Parliament is unacceptable, particularly now that there is no effective Second Chamber.
Finally, it is important to be clear-minded about the duty of Back Benchers on both sides. It should never be our primary commitment to assist Government to get their legislation. Our first duty is to subject legislation, administration and policy to an effective running scrutiny. It is not our proper role to be, as we are so often today, mere critics after events. Rather we should be involved from the outset in policy and administration. The more we are, the more we shall have the opportunity to associate the public with what is done, and the more we shall have the opportunity perhaps of restoring interest in this place and its doings.
I avow my faith in democracy and in its handmaiden, the British Parliament. Both are, as they should be in a free society, ever on trial. Is there not an especial need today that in the context of the advance of the forces of darkness in Africa, Asia and South America, and now in the context of our membership of the EEC, as so many who argued in favour of that demanded, we should give a special example of how democracy is practised and needs to be practised?
Should we not set and maintain our own example of its efficient working? Like love, democracy will survive all attacks except neglect, indifference and carelessness. There is a need now for a further improvement in our methods and systems. Mindful, then, of our heritage in this place and of our habit of evolution, and remembering that there is no single panacea, let us agree today, if right hon. and hon. Members will go with me, that progress be made.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I remind the House that the debate will finish at 7 o'clock. A very large number of hon. Members have indicated their wish to 40 speak, and I hope that that will be borne in mind by those who are fortunate enough to catch my eye.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)
I shall take at once the broad and kindly hint that you have just dropped, Mr. Speaker, and confine myself to only a few minutes. I am aware, as you have pointed out, Mr. Speaker, that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak
I begin by extending to the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) my deeply held, sincere and warm thanks for putting this motion on the Order Paper. I do so for three reasons. First, he has used the Private Members' time available to him to raise a subject of major importance that we ought to have discussed long ere now. He has given us an opportunity to discuss it. Secondly, I agree with every word in his motion—although not in his speech, although I agreed with nearly all of that, too. Thirdly, his motion is an example of the proper and best use of Private Members' motion time which I am sorry to say is not followed very often. All too often hon. Members who succeed in getting this time use it to push some narrow local point or, even worse, to push a point in the day-to-day party battle across the Floor of the House. They therefore use Private Members' time merely as an adjunct to Government time, if it is from the Government side of the House, or to Opposition time, if it is from the other side. That is throwing away Private Members' time.
I believe that we should do two things through Private Members' motions. First, we should use them to discuss long-ranging policies—for example, consideration of questions of energy supply, of world food supply between now and the end of the century, of environmental considerations, of the battle between material standards on the one hand and environmental decency on the other, of what to do about the manifestly constantly decreasing demand for labour and therefore the constantly increasing amount of leisure time available to people, and other such broad subjects which do not form part of our day-to-day rumpuses. Further, we should discuss the sort of thing that the right hon. Member for Taunton has put before us today—the opportunity to take a cold, hard look at ourselves from time to time.
41 I said that I support every word of the right hon. Gentleman's motion. So much do I do so that I sent a copy of it to the Table Office with my signature appended in order to show by my name on the Order Paper the extent of my support. Great was my surprise when I received a chit from the Table Office telling me that I was not allowed to do so. An hon. Member is not allowed to indicate his support for the Private Member's motion of another hon. Member which is put down in the manner of the motion before us. Can you think of anything more daft, Mr. Speaker?
If the right hon. Gentleman had tabled his motion for an early day—a motion for a date not fixed—200 of us could have added our names to it. In other words, a Back Bencher has the right to indicate on the Order Paper his support for another hon. Member's motion as long as it is never likely to be discussed. But where a motion is put forward which is to be discussed, one is not allowed to indicate support for it. Moreover, if the right hon. Gentleman had put down his motion for a fixed date and as an amendment to a Government or Opposition motion on a Supply Day, I would have had the right to indicate my support for it even though it was so dated.
In other words, a private Member's right to indicate support exists only in respect of another private Member's motion which he has thown away in order to use it on Government or Opposition business, or in respect of one that is never likely to be discussed. That sort of behaviour is one of many examples of cases that defy all common sense and logic. If we set up a Select Committee consisting of the first dozen "bods" we found on the top of a Clapham omnibus and asked it to investigate our procedures, it would say "It is daft that you can support things that are not going to be discussed but cannot support things that are". That is not the only example.
The right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the growing imbalance between the power of the Front Benches and the power of the Back Benches. I refer principally to the power of the Government Front Bench, although in recent times we have put a bit more resources—quite properly, and I do not object—at the disposal of the Opposition 42 Front Bench, too. The only people who have had no significant further resources put at their disposal are the Back Benchers. As the right hon. Member for Taunton said, one of the reasons for this growing imbalance of power is the increasing volume of legislation which makes it difficult for Back Benchers to cope.
Let me add a second. There is a qualitative as well as quantitative factor. There is not only the increasing volume of legislation but the fact that the legislation constantly becomes more and more complex. It therefore demands a good deal more expertise than in the past properly to examine or criticise it. The evidence of that is in the expert advice that is available to Ministers. The number of civil servants and specialisations in the public service has increased out of all proportion to the position 10 years ago. No such growth has occurred in the expert advice, and therefore the cultivation of expertise, to and on behalf of Back Bench Members.
I believe, and many other right hon. and hon. Members believe, that, although there is no complete solution to this problem, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, one possible corrective would be a series of Select Committees with much wider powers and much more adequate staffing than our present Select Committees but set up in such a way that there was a Select Committee corresponding with each of the major Departments of State, rather as happens in the United States of America.
Although some of us, I think justifiably, have criticisms of some aspects of the congressional system and the presidential system in the United States, nobody in the world can deny that it is a much more open society than ours, that it has a much more open Parliament than we have, and that it has a much better equipped Parliament than we have. The imbalance between the Executive and the legislature is much narrower in the United States than it is here and, not least important, that system is run in such a way that the ordinary citizen gets far more information about what is going on than does the ordinary citizen in this country.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a 43 very real danger in the American system is that the staffers are frequently on the committees for longer than the actual members and in many cases they are doing the questioning rather than the committee members themselves?
§ Mr. Mikardo
That is right. That was one of the things I had in mind when I said that there were some aspects about the system in America that we might justifiably criticise. I cannot imagine most hon. Members, at any rate not those with sufficient experience as to be likely to be appointed Chairman of Select Committees of the type I am talking about, allowing themselves to be run by members of the staff. There is no shortage of pretty independent and pretty sturdy customers on both sides of the House of Commons.
If we had a Select Committee corresponding to each of the major Departments of State, we should build up a group of Members with expertise in that field acquired over a period, especially if those Members could call on specialist advisers to a greater extent than is possible at present.
The great problem that the Back Bencher has—I say this as one who has been a Back Bencher for a very long time and who is likely to be a Back Bencher for the last few years he spends in the House—is that all too often the Departments blind Back-Bench Members with science or with jargon. I can quote an experience of mine on which I think the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) will bear me out. I spent four years as Chairman of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. We had a pretty stable team during that period; there were very few changes. After three or four years we were just not looking at the superficialities but were digging down to the roots. We had a group of people there—we had a lot of very good advice, different types of expertise in different spheres according to the different inquiries that we undertake—who could not be kidded by the Departments.
I shall give an obvious example. When we started to look at a matter over which the Treasury has always fooled the House of Commons—the techniques of the financial control of the nationalised industries 44 —the Treasury started chucking at us abstruse talk about investment criteria by discounted cash flow techniques and pricing policies based on long-run marginal costing and it thought that we would go goggle eyed. However, after two or three years we knew more about those matters than anybody in the Treasury and we could stand up to the Treasury.
It would be useful to have a group of Members who had made themselves expert in agriculture and fisheries, in education and science, in the affairs of the Home Office, and so on. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House does not agree about this. For many years he and I have agreed to differ on this matter. I hope that no one will say that the reason that my right hon. Friend is against this is that he is a Minister and, therefore, an interested party, because the fact is that he took the same view for many years before he became a Minister, when he never expected to become a Minister. It is out of conviction that my right hon. Friend holds this view. I think that he is wrong.
My right hon. Friend thinks that we could exercise all the control that we want in the Chamber. I believe that he is right and that we could, if the House were to sit for 100 weeks a year and for 20 days a week and for 50 hours a day. But the volume of work is now too great. My right hon. Friend is thinking back to the parliamentary periods on which he is a very great authority. We are not now dealing with the mild controversies of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We now have this very great volume of stuff about which the right hon. Member for Taunton told us.
We therefore need a very great degree of specialisation. We need to spread the expertise. That is what every other major organisation does. The companies and public corporations which are most effective are those which have learned how to spread expertise over the widest possible area. They are those which have learned how to use economies of scale by getting groups of people together who raise their expertise one of another. That is what we must do.
I agree very much with the right hon. Member for Taunton that it is no good having such Committees as I have recommended if their reports are to be discussed as little and as seldom as reports of 45 present Select Committees are discussed. Another matter I object to is—who decides which reports are discussed now? It is the Government Front Bench. Why should it have the right to make such a decision? The Government pick the reports that cause them the least embarrassment and not those that are the most important from the point of view of the protection of the citizen.
Just as at the beginning of each Session there is a determination that X days will be Supply Days for the Opposition and Y days will be Private Members' days, there should be an allocation of Z days for the discussion of the reports of the departmental Select Committees, and the choice of which reports are to be discussed on those days should be made by a committee of chairmen of those Select Committees because they know best which studies have produced the best and most valuable information.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
Would not the hon. Gentleman go a little further and recognise that at present, when we get time to discuss one of these reports, very frequently the only people who turn up to take part in the debate are those Members who have been fortunate enough to be on the Select Committee and that the rest of the House, there being no vote at the end of the day, absents itself? Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that only by tying the debate into the vote of money for the purposes of the Department concerned shall we ever get any bite into the issue at all?
§ Mr. Mikardo
I agree. It is precisely the point that I am making. It is only because there is not now a direct confrontational relationship between a Select Committee and a Secretary of State and those in his Department that there is such indifference and because, in any case, the reports which the Government choose for debate are those which are the least interesting and not those which are of most importance.
§ Mr. David Price (Eastleigh)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the further proposition that as long as a substantial number of Back Benchers are aspiring to office either in the current Government or in the next Government, the number of hon. Members who are prepared to press the views they express in Select Committee the whole way against 46 their Front Bench is, unfortunately, not as great as the merits of many a Select Committee report warrant?
§ Mr. Mikardo
I do not share that view. There are such people. There are those who, from the moment when they enter this place, think of themselves as in transition from the Back Bench to the Front Bench, but I think that they are small in number. In any case, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman, the point is irrelevant to our subject because that could be true whatever system we had.
I have something else to say about Select Committees. I know that some of my hon. Friends—I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is one—are a bit worried about Select Committees because they think that Select Committees are a move in the direction of consensus politics.
§ Mr. Mikardo
My hon. Friend says that that is right, but I must tell him that it depends on the quality and persistence of the Members involved. I have been a Member of a Select Committee—
§ Mr. Mikardo
My hon. Friend was on for one day, and I chaired one for four years, so, with respect to him, I shall not let him tell me anything about Select Committees. I know more about them than he does.
I have already mentioned the time when I chaired the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury was a member of it, a regular attender and one who participated fully in its work. I do not believe that one could imagine that a Committee which contained that hon. Gentleman and myself, not to mention a few other almost equally forthright, plain-speaking and committed characters, would be likely to go for long without moments of controversy. Indeed, we did not go long without moments of controversy. There were things that we had to fight out, and it was right that that should be so.
So I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover that those who have a disposition towards consensus will exercise that disposition in any medium and 47 do not need a Select Committee to do so.
§ Mr. Mikardo
No, I shall not give way. I promised not to take long. I wish to touch on one last subject, which is why I do not want to give way to my hon. Friend—not out of any discourtesy.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I believe than an important part of Back-Benchers' rights is the right which we are using today, namely, the allocation of Private Members' time. But in order to make it a useful part of our rights we must use that time sensibly. I have already referred to the fact that some Members waste their Private Members' motions by putting down subjects which could equally well be discussed in other ways and through other media. There is nothing that we can do procedurally about that, but I am concerned about some of our procedures on Private Members' Bills, with which, in one way or another, I have been a bit involved in recent weeks, and not merely in recent weeks, because I took a strong interest in procedure on Private Members' Bills as long as 20 years ago.
In my view, we must examine our procedures in this respect. Over the past four or five Sessions, we have reached a point at which it is nearly universally true, though not quite, that the Bills which are seriously discussed never get passed and the only Bills which ever get passed are those on which there has been no serious discussion.
Would it make sense to our Select Committee of 12 Members off the top of the Clapham omnibus that we can get a Bill through the House only if we do not examine it? We got one through the other day because there was great public pressure for it, but it is a bad Bill, loosely drawn, which will not fulfil its functions and which the House of Lords is now having to amend in very large measure. The only way we could get it through was by undertaking not to look at it. Members all cheerfully voted for it, but 90 per cent. of them had not read the Bill and had no idea how bad it was.
§ Mr. Mikardo
Thus, we discuss Bills which do not get passed or we pass them without discussion.
I regard as absolutely daft that one Member should be able to do what I did once or twice recently, that is, stop the progress of a Bill after 4 o'clock. It is right that there should be machinery for stopping a Bill, but not at the hands of one Member. Our present procedure is nonsensical. There ought to be a requirement for a reasonable number of Members standing in their places to do it. The present system puts far too much destructive power in the hands of one Member.
I have been saying this for 20 years, and now that a very popular Bill has been affected by our present procedure, someone may start to listen and perhaps get the Select Committee on Procedure to look at it.
Why do we have to take all Private Members' Bills only on Fridays, or almost exclusively on Fridays? What is the logical reason for that? No one has ever been able to tell me. Because we take them on Fridays, Private Members' Bills are very much at the mercy of the requirement that we have to have 100 Members for a closure. In my view, the prescription that we cannot have a closure without 100 Members voting is one of the daftest pieces of our procedure.
We can carry a major piece of legislation by a vote of 50 to 40. We can carry a wrecking amendment to a major piece of legislation by a vote of 50 to 40. We can carry a motion to reduce the salary of a Secretary of State—which is a vote of censure on him—and get him sacked by a vote of 50 to 40. The only thing which we cannot get passed by a vote of 50 to 40 is a motion that we stop talking and shut up. Does that make sense? What sort of sense is there in it?
I go along with the right hon. Member for Taunton in saying that we ought to ask our Procedure Committee to look at some of the issues which he raised and which I have ventured to raise, especially with the thought in mind that something must be done to narrow the ever-widening gap between the power and influence of the Government and the power and influence of the Back Bencher.
§ Mr. Speaker
May I make one more appeal? I know that the hon. Member 49 for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) did his best to help me, but he took 24 minutes to do it. If other hon. Members do the same, some who wish to speak will be very unlucky.
§ 4.27 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I hope to abide by your injunction, Mr. Speaker.
I wish to refer briefly to some aspects of this matter which I believe should be considered. Any observer not familiar with the important question which the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) has put before us would, I think, be surprised that it should be asked at all. Any observer who had simply read a textbook version of the supposed relationship between Parliament and the Executive and who did not read our parliamentary history would wonder why Parliament had in some way to seek to increase its power over the Executive, for the Executive owes all its authority to Parliament and can do nothing without securing and using that authority.
Parliament is sovereign, and all authority depends on parliamentary consent. The Executive itself is drawn from Parliament and depends on obtaining a majority there. How, therefore, can it be that Parliament has to ask itself for ways of increasing its hold over the Executive and lament some apparent decline in its hold over the Executive?
The reason, of course, lies in the way our party system has developed and the way it has become accepted that the first duty of the group of Members on the Government side is to sustain the Executive and the first duty of those on the Opposition Benches is in some way to get rid of the Executive or speed its demise.
We should remember, however, that that state of affairs has been changed, perhaps more than the right hon. Member for Taunton acknowledged, over the past few years. One of the agencies of that change has been the precise parliamentary arithmetic in this Parliament. But over an earlier period one of the agencies in strengthening the Government's hands has undoubtedly been our electoral system itself, because it has allowed Executives which are minorities to enjoy the power of majorities. Executives which have been returned with only minority 50 support of the electorate—38 per cent. of those voting in the case of the present Government were—are in this House put in a majority position, able to get legislation through and withstand parliamentary attack.
The proposition that this gives the people of this country strong government seems to me to be very much challenged by the mistakes which such Executives tend to make under the illusion that anything which they think of and which their Members will support is a mark of strength. They proceed to carry into legislation things which the next Government reverse. The sorry history of legislation on the steel industry and industrial relations reveals many examples of the tendency to move from the supposed strong measures of one Government to the antithesis of those measures then brought forward by another.
But the situation in this Parliament, even under the present electoral system, has been an agency for change. The Government have been deprived of a majority, and as a result have been forced to modify proposals or have those proposals modified for them on the Floor of the House. Minority Government has undoubtedly brought about a situation in which the Executive must look to Parliament—and very carefully—to see whether it can carry through its proposals.
One must, therefore, qualify any criticisms one makes of the extent to which Parliament can control the Executive by the clear admission that in the present situation the Executive is more than usually subject to parliamentary limitations. But even in cases where a Government have a clear majority within the House of Commons, why should Members of Parliament let the Government have all their own way? After all, that majority is itself made up of Members of Parliament who surely do not wish the Executive to win in all situations.
I venture to suggest that some of the most powerful opponents of reform to strengthen the Executive are those whose first call, when a Government are defeated, is "Resign, resign". We have heard that cry often on the lips of hon. Members in recent weeks, but let us think for a moment of its implications. The people whose first instinct, when a Government are defeated, is to say "Resign" are the exponents of the "Take it or 51 leave it" school of government. The Government, they argue, must be in a position to put before Parliament proposals which will go through, perhaps challenged but never defeated or substantially modified. The "Take it or leave it" view is that if a Government cannot get their way, they ought not to be a Government at all.
I can think of no more powerful enemy of reforms intended to strengthen the hands of Parliament against the Executive than the supposition that the Government should always get their unmodified way, except in those circumstances where behind the scenes they are prepared to concede to some group of people that some change may be necessary.
I have heard the shout "Resign" not merely in recent situations but ever since I came here. It is the first cry when a Government are defeated on any vote at all. Those who shout "Resign" reject implicitly the idea that a Government should ever have their policies changed. Many of those for whom that is the first reaction would rather see a Government have their errors writ large than have their policies changed. It is part of the view that the Government should make as many mistakes as possible, and then make way for a Government of whom such people hope themselves to be members. It is a view which is permanently destructive of any change in the relationship between the Executive and Parliament.
Moreover, those very calls and cries play upon the willingness of Members of the majority party to bring about the change or defeat of their own Government on any issue which is not an issue of confidence. What is supposed to be the effect or result of calling upon a Government to resign when they have been defeated on some matter? What can be the consequence but to make the Government's own supporters think "Perhaps I should not have voted in that way", or "Perhaps I should not in any way challenge my Government, because the end result will be that the Government will have to resign, and the broader principles which I support will be sacrificed because of my disagreement with them on this issue."
The "Resign, resign" brigade have their most potent allies on the Government 52 side among the "Don't rock the boat" persuasion, upon whom this argument bears particularly strongly. They turn angrily upon their colleagues, who on a Select Committee or in some other way have argued against the current policy of Ministers, and say "You are challenging our Ministers, the people we have put there, and whom it is our duty to sustain".
There were very angry reactions on the Labour Benches to the stand taken by members of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in discussion of the steel industry. These were Members whose loyalty to their Government was in no way in dispute but who took strong views both about the information to which that Committee should have access and about which conclusions should be drawn from it. Those who turn upon them and argue that it is in some way disloyal for them to press their case are in the same camp—some of them acknowledgedly so, and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) would be no exception—as those who do not want to change the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, and who wish Governments to present to Parliament things which they will get through.
§ Mr. Skinner
As to the report of the Select Committee on the steel industry, and the report of the Select Committee dealing with race relations, the same argument applies. It is not so much that there are certain people who come up with a certain report. That has nothing to do with it. It is the fact that I do not agree with the contents of their report. I go further and argue that in a situation where they are in the belly of consensus, they are bound to come out with a report which is all things to all people. That is my gripe about Select Committees. There are ways of changing this, of course, and I shall deal with them later if I catch Mr. Speaker's eye.
On the other question that the hon. Gentleman has just raised, perhaps the answer to the so-called "Don't rock the boat" brigade and those who shout "Resign" is a four-year term of office.
§ Mr. Beith
The hon. Gentleman has done a rare thing in putting forward a proposal with which I wholly agree and which is enshrined in the policies of my party. But he distinguishes himself, I 53 am glad to note, from those who think it disloyal in principle to use a Select Committee to voice criticisms of their Government by simply saying, as he has every right to do, that he disagreed with the conclusions of the Committee. In some respects I am entirely with him. I disagree with some of the conclusions of the two Committees to which he has referred.
The "Don't rock the boat" argument is a clear, potential inhibition on Select Committees using their existing powers. Unless hon. Members in all parties recognise that government is an engine that has to be steered as well as simply pushed—and an engine to the direction of which attention must be devoted, as well as to its movement—parliamentary control can never be effective.
I have concentrated on the political background to parliamentary scrutiny because I believe it is the most important question to face. The machinery needs changes, and the Procedure Committee, of which I am a Member, is at present charged with the task of putting forward proposals about that machinery. We must await its conclusions.
I declare my own support for some of the things that have been mentioned today, such as the development of the Select Committee system, linked to the financial appropriations of Departments, changes in the way in which we Handle finance and taxation in this House, and the ability of parties other than the Government to put down amendments to increase taxation. There is also the problem of dealing with European business and the extent to which time in the House—and, indeed, appointments to the Committees of the House—are effectively in the hands of the Front Benches on each side. All these are areas in which change is necessary.
I want to confine myself today to saying that whatever valuable things we do in those directions, in altering or improving the machinery for parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive, will count for little if the preponderance of Members prefer the "take it or leave it" approach, the "Let them make as big a mess of it as they can because we shall be in sooner" approach. If that approach is preferred by Members, no changes in the machinery will ever be of any lasting value, and whenever the Procedure Committee 54 brings forward its proposals it is in the light of our attitudes to that fundamental question that we must assess them.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
I welcome the opportunity to debate this important subject, and I express my agreement with the basic proposition of the motion that parliamentary control over the Executive must be more strongly asserted.
I believe that parliamentary control will not be improved until the focus and emphasis of this House are switched from the debating Chamber to the Committee. A legislature which centred on debate and oral questions may have been sufficient to control a nineteenth century Government machine, but it is quite incapable of calling to account Ministers and officials who manage today's huge Executive, with its Department of State, its public corporations and its quasi-autonomous Government organisations.
The only way to establish accountability, to analyse objectives and results, discern priorities, and get to the root of policy decisions is to construct an effective system of investigatory committees of Parliament. I dispute the fears of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends that such a development will necessarily lead to consensus politics and will blunt the edge of party politics. I believe that a powerful Committee system can enable the party conflict to be conducted in a more informed and intelligent way than it is now.
The construction of new machinery in the form of Committees, each shadowing Departments, is an important first step, but it is only a first step. A new Committee structure is a means and not an end. The end is increased public accountability, and to achieve that we need not only a new Committee structure but a much enlarged parliamentary staff, a massive improvement in the quality and quantity of information provided to Parliament by the Executive, and membership of this House to be recognised as a fulltime job.
Dealing first with the new structure of Committees, it seems to me that a good place to start is the Public Accounts Committee, the Chairman of which introduced the debate. In the four years 55 that I have been in this House, I have tried to show that our system of State audit—the Public Accounts Committee, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Exchequer and Audit Department, which should be the strongest arm of the Executive in calling officials to account—is quite remarkably underdeveloped as an arrangement for enforcing public accountability. I shall not repeat the arguments here, except to remind the House that ours uniquely is a system of constitutional audit which is exceptionally narrow in scope and coverage—covering only half of public expenditure—of insufficient expertise and alarmingly dominated by the Executive or, more specifically, the Treasury. I first discovered this 10 years ago when I read the penetrating study of accountability and audit of Governments by Dr. E. L. Normanton. I know that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has acknowledged the work done by Dr. Normanton in this regard. I am glad to see that Dr. Normanton's ideas are now becoming increasingly accepted.
The Eleventh Report of the Expenditure Committee on the Civil Service called for a thorough reform of the Public Accounts Committee—Exchequer and Audit system—and the Green Paper published last month by the national executive committee of the Labour Party on the reform of the House of Commons singled out the PAC for comment. It recommended specifically that
This Green Paper by the national executive committee of the Labour Party makes other recommendations with 56 regard to investigatory committees and a new form of legislative committee which would enable MPs considering legislation to cross-examine witnesses. I hope that this report will be adopted by the party conference this autumn. I only hope that there is as much interest inside the Conservative Party in reform of the House of Commons and its procedures.
- "(i) The expenditure to be audited should be redefined to cover all public expenditure, including the spending of state funds by private organisations.
- (ii) The House of Commons, advised by the Public Accounts Committee should appoint the Comptroller and Auditor General.
- (iii) The House of Commons, advised by the Public Accounts Committee should decide on the numbers, grading and qualifications of the audit staff.
- (iv) The House of Commons, advised by the Public Accounts Committee should decide on the information required in the accounts which are submitted.
- (v) The audit process should be extended to give the Public Accounts Committee the power to examine the management, the efficiency and the effectiveness of all spenders of State funds."
In the Government's reply to the Expenditure Committee's report, the Government made a point of declaring the "statutory independence" of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I find that very alarming and I should like the Leader of the House to make particular reference to it. The Government reply said:The Government consider it of cardinal importance that the Comptroller and Auditor General should not be subject to directions from any quarter in the exercise of the duties laid upon him to undertake an effective audit and scrutiny of the expenditure of the Executive.It is worth noticing that at the time when the Government were saying that the Comptroller was independent they were replying on his behalf. So much for his independence. I regard this as an unconstitutional convention that the Comptroller and his staff are the servants of Parliament. The Exchequer and Audit Departments Act 1866, in setting up the office, said that the Comptroller should examine the accountson behalf of the House of Commons.The 1921 Act repeated that phrase, and in the Second Reading debate on 5th August 1921 the Chancellor referred to the Comptroller as an Officer of the House "signalised by statute". Leading academic texts on the subject refer to the Comptroller as theacting hand of the Public Accounts Committee.and "a parliamentary Officer". I can only suspect that the Government are trying surreptitiously to reject 100 years of parliamentary convention and to weaken the powers of this House in respect of audit. I hope that the Lord President will satisfy the House on this point.
Although I am in favour of vastly strengthening the Public Accounts Committee immediately, it is to my mind an anachronism and should be combined with the Expenditure Committee—I know 57 that the Chairman of the PAC agrees with this point of view—into about a dozen separate committees, each shadowing a Department or group of Departments and each supported by about 20 or 30 specialist staff. There would be no overall increase in staff as a result of this change, because the PAC can at present call on the 620 staff of the Exchequer and Audit Department.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the question of the Comptroller and Auditor General, may I ask him whether he thinks that it is a healthy practice for someone to go from being second permanent secretary at the Treasury and, therefore, accounting officer, to the office of invigilating the very function which he was himself performing?
§ Mr. Garrett
I think it is a very bad practice that the Comptroller and Auditor General—the State auditor—is, so far as I can see, always appointed by the Civil Service from the higher ranks of the Civil Service. That seems to be quite wrong.
In addition to investigatory committees having substantial staffs of their own, Committee members should be entitled to personal research assistance. This would provide support on party lines to Committee members. Without increased Committee staffs and member staffs, no Committee can have a sufficient impact on today's giant bureaucracy. In addition, Committees and their staffs will not be effective until there is a massive improvement in the information provided by Government. Certainly secrecy must be reduced and the Official Secrets Act replaced by an Act which embodies the right to know rather than the present right to conceal.
It is also time that a body was set up totally to review the regular financial information provided by Departments. At present we have one-year estimates, appropriation accounts and cash limits which do not tally with the five-year public expenditure survey, and we have wholly inadequate information on the objectives, results and impact of public spending programmes. All attempts to get a more informative accounting system have been stalled by successive Governments. Public accountability implies the right of Parliament to call the Executive to account for its actions. It is too weak 58 in this Legislature, and too few Members care about it.
I cannot see how parliamentary control can be strengthened until we have a House of Commons whose Members are willing to make a full-time job of it. It seems to me hypocritical to argue that Parliament is straining to exert more control over the Executive and at the same time to argue that MPs ought to combine the job with outside employment. Our approach to Parliament is still fundamentally amateurish. Our hours and sittings are organised as if we were all grouse-shooting lawyers. We would be in a better position to call the Executive to account if we sat in the mornings, worked normal hours, voted ourselves proper administrative and research support and faced up to the need to implement an independent valuation of Members salaries. Reform of parliamentary control should start here. It is certainly overdue.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
If the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) thinks that the House ought to sit in the mornings, he ought to read the Crossman diaries. The late Richard Crossman thought that the House ought to sit in the mornings, but he was soon driven to conclude that it was a ludicrous experiment and had to admit that it was a failure. Many of the other contributions which the hon. Gentleman included do not stand any closer examination than that.
The truth is that our chances of bringing the Executive to account do not depend upon this House working social hours. They depend upon this House having power. The great difference, to which other hon. Members have rightly drawn attention, between what happens here and what happens in America is a great irony, because the American constitution is based on an analysis by a Frenchman of the way in which the Government of this country would have worked, if it worked at all, in the reign of George III. Being a Frenchman, and logical, he got it right, whereas we, being English and illogical, have successively got it more wrong as time has passed.
One can look through the history of this country and see power given away. Each successive step which has been taken 59 to make life easier for us as Members of this House has resulted in making life easier for the Government. I regret greatly the passing of the time-honoured rule whereby anyone who was made a member of the Cabinet had to stand for reelection at a by-election. I should like to see that come back. I am not merely concerned with some of the more recent gross dispersals of power, in which again Mr. Richard Crossman was involved. There was the abolition of the rule that a count could be called after 10 o'clock at night and the abolition of the time-honoured practice that debate on certain orders could go on until everyone had said his piece.
But so long as we are confined by the desire of some hon. Members to have life as easy in this House as they did outside, so long we shall continue to fall into the trap of supposing that our function here is to work as we would if we were not Members of Parliament, whereas our function here is to make life difficult for Government. We are sent here to do that and, in so far as we fail to do it, our constituents rightly ask what we are doing here.
Government supporters such as the how Member for Norwich, South feel that if they are busy, they must be doing a useful job. I am afraid that I could not disagree more with that proposition. Our task here is not to be busy. Our task here is to bring power to bear.
It is a very difficult task. No Government are more adept than this one at wriggling out of attempts to bring power to bear upon them. The Leader of the House probably will understand that I am about to return to a King Charles's head of my own when I say that there is no case which illustrates this better than that of John Stonehouse.
I believe that by now this House should have had a full, satisfactory and sufficient inquiry by an impartial body into whether Storehouse was a Czech spy. It is totally impossible to get it from this Government. Of course, it is a matter which goes back over time. The first statement on the subject was made back in December 1974 when the then Prime Minister startled the House by saying in terms that there was no evidence to show that Stonehouse was a Czech spy. Actually there was no evidence at the 60 time to show that Stonehouse existed any more. However, we know that he was at that time on his way back from Denmark to Australia as part of his elaborate plan of deception to conceal his very existence, and we have come to know since that Stonehouse's word is not a word to be relied upon. Several people have actually expressed that opinion in quite convincing terms.
One takes one's choice, having paid one's money. The person who takes one choice reads Stonehouse's book and the chapter entitled "The Czech Spy Story" and, if that person is an idiot, he thinks that there is nothing more to it than appears in that chapter. However, a person with any perception of human experience and human psychology can see that it is a load of rubbish, carefully concocted, as so much else of Stonehouse's written works were, in order to present an alibi to the world.
To suggest that there is no evidence that Stonehouse was a Czech spy is to disregard the evidence of Stonehouse himself and to disregard the evidence of a Czech defector, Mr. Frolik, whose name will be well enough known to the Leader of the House, who said in terms that Stonehouse was working for the Czechs and who took grave offence when the former Prime Minister said in this House that there was no evidence to show this.
All efforts since then to try to get these matters looked into by such an impartial body as a Security Commission have failed. All our efforts to try to persuade the Prime Minister to have a proper and systematic inquiry have ended in obfuscation. The latest letter which I have received from the Prime Minister is dismissive in the extreme.
There have been times in other cases where the suggestion that an hon. Member of this House was in contact with a foreign intelligence service has been taken more seriously. There have been times when we have been more fortunate in getting an inquiry into these matters. This, alas, is not one of them.
I cite the case of Stonehouse to show not that Government supporters do not wish to take the matter seriously, because that does not need to be proved, but that this House needs to assert the power which ought to lie within its hands 61 to get full satisfaction when it cares sufficiently about a matter to go on pressing it. I care sufficiently to go on pressing this. If I do not get an answer today, there will be another occasion.
But as a general matter of principle, I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) that we are the people who have to be satisfied because we owe this debt of satisfaction to our constituents. We are here to defend them against the abuses of Government, the inactions of Government, and the excuses and the vague and self-indulgent evasions of Government. We are the only people who can do this and, whether it is on the defence of the national security, on the defence of the national interest or on the expenditure of the taxpayers' money, we are the people who must stand here always and ask for more.
I ask that this motion be seen as a cry for this House to be given back the power which rightly belongs to it.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Mike Thomas (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
Until the speech of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), this debate had been civilised and it had been to the point. The hon. Member did us a disservice by seeking to exploit this motion both for a party political purpose which he can never resist and also for the purpose of pursuing a particular vendetta which is his own. I do not propose to take up any of the matters which he raised, and I hope that he will understand why.
Reading The Times this morning, I saw in a profile of Mr. Peter Parker, the chairman of British Rail, what I regarded as a chilling statement. He repeated his idea that this country should in some way be at least in part governed by a council of industry—a bringing together of managers, trade unionists and others concerned in industry to form a sort of senatorial second House with what Mr. Parker described in the article, which was a profile of him with extensive quotations, "prior rights" over legislation and a number of other not legal powers but more constitutional powers which effectively would give such a council a very central position in the running of the country.
62 It must be said that Mr. Parker is a man for whom I have the greatest admiration, and I find that I agree with him on almost every issue except this one. I was chilled to read the article, because I believe that today's debate ought to concern itself with two matters. It ought first to be about the role of the corporate State and the way in which our society is now run and is now managed. If I may say so to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who I know takes a different view from me about this and about all sorts of other aspects of parliamentary reform, if he wants to look for the dangerous consensus in our society, the dangerous consensus behind closed doors of managers, trade unionists and the Minister involved which is then presented as a fait accompli to this House is the most dangerous that we face today. This also relates to the question of open government, because it is there that the closed government is. It is in this place that we could get back to government more in the open, with people able to state their positions publicly.
The second matter with which we should concern ourselves—and again I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover will take issue with me—is the idea that we could govern this country better and more effectively if we introduced party politics further and further into every nook and cranny of consideration of every administrative and legislative proposal. I disagree profoundly with my hon. Friend about that, and perhaps I might say to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) that it is the only aspect in which I disagree with the analysis by the Labour Party in its Green Paper which otherwise is an excellent and constructive document to which I shall return in a moment.
The nature of the problem is well known.
§ Mr. Thomas
My hon. Friend has plenty of time and, indeed, he does not need anyone to give way to him.
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
That is not good enough. On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As we are debating the customs of and the aim to improve 63 the procedures of the House, would it not be better to stick to the time-honoured tradition that if an hon. Member mentions another hon. Member and identifies him directly by reference to his constituency, he should give that hon. Member the chance to intervene?
§ Mr. Thomas
I was simply replying to statements which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover had made in the past and with which I have never had an opportunity to deal. But if my hon. Friend wishes to intervene, I give way to him gladly.
§ Mr. Skinner
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas) should understand that my views on open government are just as strong as his own. On the question of Select Committees, it may be that he is unaware that the machinery of government group, of which I am a member, has put forward a proposal with which I generally agree that in order to keep the conflict in Select Committees, one way in which it could be achieved is by having separately staffed secretariats for all the political sides so that, instead of having to rely on some impartial body in the middle, the conflict would remain and, of course, it would have to be in front of the television cameras as well.
§ Mr. Thomas
I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that I do not differ with him on motives or objectives. But he will have to allow me to differ with him in his analysis and his prescriptions. In my view, some of them are right and some of them are wrong. Certainly I have disagreed profoundly with some of the views that he has voiced in the past.
As I was saying, the nature of the problem is well known. So necessary, apparently, has it become for the Government to consult and to bargain with pressure groups on both major planks of policy and the most extensive range of detailed matters that Parliament is faced constantly with fails accomplis. In matters of legislation and executive decision, the political majority is wheeled out to rubber-stamp the compromises to the corporate State. Parliament is often even kept in ignorance of the alternative courses of action considered in the horse-trading of interest groups with each other and the 64 Executive. This will usually have been conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy which is preserved within the Government by the doctrine of collective responsibility and in the interest groups by enjoinders not to encourage Parliament to upset the carefully stitched together compromise package eventually presented to it for fear that one change will undo a carefully sewn-up garment.
Worse still, on all but the most important issues, the sometimes terrifying lack of understanding of the work of Parliament and the political system by both sides of industry—and their marked preference for dealing with Ministers and civil servants out of the public eye—can sometimes lead to their acceptance in silence of a proposal which meets only their barest requirements—a lowest common denominator proposal. Its major elements and most intimate details are dictated by a Minister or, more likely, his civil servants, and wished upon the interest groups by vague talk of "difficulties" in getting any other set of proposals through Parliament.
The same Minister will then appear in Standing Committee defending such a measure against all amendment, while privately implying to Back Bench colleagues in his own party and sometimes publicly sayine to those on the Standing Committee that he would love to accept their proposals for changes and improvement but that to do so would upset the interest groups that he has consulted and undo firm promises that he has made to them.
Needless to say, that is not the attitude to Parliament of all or even a majority of Ministers. Nor is the temptation to behave in this fashion limited to one party or Government. However, it is a familiar description of the British political process at its present regular worst, and it will be familiar to many hon. Members, trade unionists, industrialists and lobbyists.
We cannot in this House do other than accept a large measure of responsibility for this state of affairs. Governments, in the nature of things, are usually elected with only the most generalised of manifestos. Within their parliamentary majority, there will be some general sense on major issues of the policies that should be given high priority and the decisions 65 up with which their parliamentary colleagues will not put. Between these two boundaries lies vast territory over which the Government may range. Internal democracy within the parliamentary parties is of a fairly rudimentary kind. That is a comment which can be applied to all the parliamentary parties except perhaps the very smallest.
In practice, Back Benchers are faced constantly with the problems of lack of resources, information and sheer time and are often driven at the end of the day to decide issues not on their merits but on grounds of whether it is a serious enough matter to be worth the opprobrium of upsetting the party Whips or joining the "rock the boat" school. When that happens, even when the party political content of the decision is imperceptible even with a microscope and the most determined observer, when Parliament is constantly predisposed by the system, by its procedure and by the inclinations of the Front Benches to operate like this, it is not surprising that the Government of the day effectively propose and dispose on all but the most important or the most trivial matters.
It is not wrong in principle that loyalty to Front-Bench colleagues and party should be in Members' minds. Quite the reverse, However, it is not right or good for parliamentary democracy that these considerations should be made to figure so prominently on almost every issue and that our parliamentary procedures should be so overwhelmingly designed to revolve around the party political axis, often at the expense of proper scrutiny of the Executive, of legislation and of political patronage.
In the midst of this has grown up the Select Committee in its post-war form. It was everyone's white hope for change, but on the whole it has not fulfilled its promise. I wonder why. First, I think that it is because on the whole Select Committees have accepted a post-hoc scrutinising role, thus rarely horning in on current policy-making. Secondly, it is because Select Committees have always had an air of ad hocery about them. Until very recently they were disbanded annually. Even now they survive only the length of a Parliament, and after an election it can sometimes be several months before they are reconstituted.
66 Thirdly, this uncertainty of existence has reflected itself in the failure to establish proper expert staffs rather than borrowed advisers. This point relates also to the fourth problem, namely a miserly lack of resources. Add to this the failure mentioned by other hon. Members on both sides of the House to establish, committees to shadow each Government Department, and the generally low political priority attached to the committees—most Back Benchers preferring to be the most junior Minister or menial Opposition spokesman to chairing a Select Committee—and we have some measure of the failure of Select Committees to live up to their expectations.
While we in the House must accept a large measure of responsibility for this, the comparison with the powerful committees of the United States Congress invites the making and helps to explain some of the problems. Our failure to separate the Executive and the legislature, as the Americans do, is the critical factor. I sometimes wonder whether it is not a fatal inhibitor to the attempts that are currently being made and have been made over the years to develop machinery whereby Parliament can really scrutinise the actions of the Executive and proposed legislation.
It is certainly the case that the growth of the disciplined party system and the confusion of the role of the Back-Bench Government party Member between sustainer and scrutiniser of the Executive is a major determinant of the Parliament's current weakness in the political power game. It is a weakness which to date has been extensively exploited by the Front Benches of both major parties. Parliament, in theory—Back Benchers are always in a considerable minority in the House—could take these matters in hand. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) said earlier, in practice it is extraordinarily difficult. The Government, in conjunction with the Opposition Front Bench, dominate the organisation of the House and its business. Only they can table motions in the sure knowledge that they will be considered and decided. They effectively even decide which Select Committees there will he, or, as Members of the Select Committee on Agriculture found when they became troublesome in 67 the late 1960s, which Select Committees there will not be.
The Government and the Opposition Front Bench also have a large part to play in the powers given to the Select Committees and the personnel who serve on them. I have never got to the bottom of the matter, and no doubt I shall be corrected later in the debate if necessary—the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) knows about this much more than I do, I suspect—but, the Treasury appears, in practice, to decide which financial and staff resources are made available.
In the post of my right hon. Friend the Lord President, there is the ultimate incarnation of the reality. As Leader of this House, he is charged with two wholly incompatible tasks. On the one hand, he is charged with getting the Government legislation through and, on the other hand, with protecting the rights of Back Benchers. I submit that those two roles are not compatible if they are to be pursued properly.
Despite all this, there are some encouraging signs that Back Benchers are genuinely determined to take back some of the power that has sapped away and that a significant number of Front Benchers of both major parties are sufficiently convinced that the present situation, while congenial and convenient, has so many drawbacks for the good of the parliamentary system as a whole that it cannot be allowed to continue unchanged.
Those who hold the view that Parliament is about translating the party or ministerial will unaltered into law or executive decision, or opposing it root and branch, depending on where one is sitting at the time, accompanied only by the sound of clashing ideologies displayed in grand debate, steadily diminish in numbers, although there are enough of them around to make the fight for change a real "knock' em down and drag' em out" affair.
But the fight is coming and the will for change is there. It should centre around four main issues. First, we must establish a real and detailed scrutiny of the Executive through departmental Select Committees. This is recommended in the Labour Party study group report, may 68 well be recommended by the Procedure Committee and is desperately needed. It will pose all sorts of problems. I mention them just to show those who will no doubt raise them to oppose such a proposal that those who are in favour of the proposal are aware of them.
Will the Committees include Front Benchers as well as Back Benchers? What powers of information will they need? Will they hamper ministerial capacity to make policies and progress affairs? What level of staffing should be provided? Will it amount to a shadow Civil Service? Will the Committees tend to operate on party lines? Will this reduce their effectiveness, as Ministers play the party card? These are fascinating questions, to which I suspect the answers will emerge only slowly as we put the idea into practice.
I am firmly convinced that departmental Select Committees developing their own expertise, able to subpoena papers and question Ministers, civil servants and interested groups systematically for hours at a time would return substantial effective scrutiny powers to Parliament which at present with the exception of some of the work of the Expenditure Committee are, in my view, hardly available. I believe that that would directly improve the quality of government in this country.
The second objective to be fought for is a dramatic improvement in parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. The largely ritual quadrilles of many of our current Standing Committee proceedings—incorporating for the Back-Bench participant an almost insupportable level of sheer tedium—are a grotesquely inadequate method of scrutinising legislation.
The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, of which I am a member, is currently giving a series of pre-legislative hearings to those concerned with the draft Bill to reorganise the electricity industry, held up because of Liberal opposition and now published as a White Paper. It has already become clear in the course of these hearings that taking evidence on a Bill from interested parties in public has some very great advantages for Parliament. It is immediately clear who thinks what about the Bill and its provisions. The process of horse-trading in Whitehall whereby, whatever compromises are arrived at, everyone concerned 69 has a vested interest in defending them, is broken down.
Those affected by the Bill can put their case directly and all members of the Committee considering the Bill—assuming that pre-legislative hearings in Select Committee format were to become a regular precursor of Standing Committee proceedings—could hear its virtues and vices discussed openly before considering the Bill line by line.
Obviously, the process could not be allowed to delay legislation for ever. But in the case of legislation affecting a large number of groups or legislation of a highly contentious nature it would surely be justifiable for Parliament to take somewhat longer to consider a Bill than it would take for a matter of less importance.
Thirdly, I believe that Parliament must turn its attention to the appointments made by Ministers, which now total several thousand. I believe that these should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and to direct affirmation by Parliament in the case of major appointments—the heads of nationalised industries, for example. For the most important appointments it should be possible for the Minister's nominee to be examined by a Select Committee and for the Committee to report to the House before an appointment is confirmed. Similarly, for major jobs, a ministerial appointee whom a Minister wished to dismiss before the end of an agreed term of office should have the right of appeal to Parliament.
Lastly, I believe that Back Benchers need to assert that the management and functioning and resources of Parliament ought not to be left to the Front Benches. The present arrangements for the organisation of business, the effective relegation of Private Members' time to matters of little consequence by making it impossible for matters of any controversy to be pursued to a successful—or even unsuccessful—conclusion without Government assistance—pace the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow and others of my hon. Friends—the effective organisation of the rules of procedure to disallow decisions on any matters other than those the Front Benches want decided—the death-knell of many a Tribune Group amendment—the 70 provision that forbids even the official Opposition to move to increase taxes or public expenditure, the unsatisfactory arrangements—and I put it no higher than that—for the selection of members of Committees—the effective denial of real resources to Select Committees—these practices and procedures which Parliament has accumulated over the years are increasingly unacceptable to substantial numbers of Back Benchers of all parties.
The Labour Party study group made some useful suggestions on these points, not least on pre-legislative committees, with Select Committee-style powers to consider Bills, and specifically the recommendation for departmental scrutiny committees. I believe the study group to be right to do so. These are practical and constructive suggestions. However, there are three things that should not be overdone.
First, we should not confuse the present difficulties of the Government over their legislative programme with any problems of parliamentary procedure. The Government's problems are fundamentally to do with the lack of majority. They are not essentially to do with parliamentary procedure. We should have that clear in our minds because it will lead to muddled thinking if, in some way, we think that parliamentary procedure is responsible for the Government losing the occasional vote.
§ Mr. Thomas
I agree. That is true. But the fact is that if the Government are in a minority of 13 or 15 or whatever, in the nature of things that is different from when the Government have an absolute majority in this House of their own party. Neither the Government nor my hon. Friends nor Members of the Opposition can take the blame or the credit, depending on where they are sitting, for the fact that on occasions, in these circumstances, the Government lose a vote. It is not parliamentary procedure which causes that. It is the position of the parties within the House.
71 Secondly, we have to be absolutely clear that—here I quote from the Labour Party document—to help the executive push its policies through against opposition in Parliament, against outside and vested interests and maybe against the opposition of the Civil Servicemay not be an objective to which the Parliamentary Labour Party attaches as great an importance to in opposition—if it is in opposition—as it does when Labour is in Government. We have to be quite clear that there are the rights of minorities—that the Government have rights and that the Opposition have rights. We have to be able to perceive ourselves as sitting occasionally in the opposite seats.
Thirly, we should not assume that the reform of Parliament must necessarily involve the strengthening within Parliament of the party political process. Indeed, if I may return to my opening theme, I would take second place to no one in arguing that the importance of party politics, of ideology and the discussion of political principles is vital to this House. It is a vital consideration when we are deciding major issues. However, I believe that it is the constant elevation of every trivial matter to the rhetorical heights of party politics that is a prime cause of Parliament's current weakness and a prime cause of the low esteem in which Parliament is held in the public eye.
I also believe that it is a profound mistake, which we shall live to regret, to broadcast live only the most ritual and partisan of all parliamentary proceedings, namely, Prime Minister's Question Time. I do not believe that the public's response to this has necessarily been favourable, and I refer not to the Conservatives, not to the Leader of the Opposition, not to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but to Parliament as an institution and to Members of Parliament when I say that.
It is interesting to note that certainly until three months ago the opinion polls showed that, whereas "politicians" were of low esteem in the public mind, "Members of Parliament" were not. Members of Parliament tended to be held in high esteem, particularly individual Members of Parliament. "My Member of Parliament" is something with which many 72 people feel a positive identification. I believe that this selective broadcasting—and I make it clear that I am in favour of broadcasting and televising our proceedings—might diminish the Member of Parliament as an individual and as part of our society in the view of the public. It is the constant elevation of trivial matters to rhetorical heights of party politics that is the prime cause of Parliament's current weakness.
We must be clear that it is the application of party political loyalties and rhetoric to every issue which is the instrument of Back-Bench emasculation in this House. While I share with my colleagues in the Labour Party the desire to reform and change this House and its institutions, I say that we must be careful how we do this. Let us not introduce party politics into every administrative consideration, into every legislative proposal. Let us try to be discriminating. Above all, let us get on with it. If we fail to move, if the momentum were to develop for a council of industry, for a senate, for a quasi-legislative, quasi-governmental body which institutionalised the embryo of the corporate State as it stands in this country at the moment, it would be the death knell of Parliament. It would be the end of us all in here, and I believe that it would be the end of many of the institutions we care for so dearly.
§ 5.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) is to be congratulated on bringing forward this motion today because it is one of the most important to have been debated in this Chamber for some time. I regret, as I am sure do many other hon. Members, the lack of time that we have to debate the subject and the fact that some speeches have been rather lengthy. I shall endavour to be as brief as possible.
Recently there was an important lecture given by Lord Croham of Croydon who is better known as Sir Douglas Allen, the distinguished former head of the Civil Service, in which he said that he thought that Parliament was beginning to exert its power over the Executive. I was fortunate enough to take part in the recent all-party discussion with the noble Lord via the British Institute of Management. I am glad to say that hon. Members from both 73 sides of the House were much against the view put forward by Lord Croham. It was felt that the power of the Executive was growing day by day.
Lord Croham instanced the departing powers of this legislature to the EEC. He talked about Select Committees. I take the view that the Civil Service is becoming more deeply entrenched, and that that gives a strong stiffening to the Government of the day. I believe that the noble Lord is wrong in his analysis.
It may be that we have seen an advance with the establishment of Select Committees, but as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas) said. Select Committees still leave a great deal to be desired. They still remain properly to be fulfilled. On the other hand, the advance of Select Committees can be equated by a more powerful Executive that is bent on achieving its will, come hell or high water.
Successive Governments of recent times have over-legislated, and this Government most of all. As a result, much of the legislation that comes before the House is not even discussed. The whole exercise becomes a steamroller operation and the only tactic open to the Opposition, whichever Government are in power, is that of delay.
The Standing Committee procedure is a farce, apart from the present exceptional circumstances—the fashionable term is a hung Parliament—in which we have narrow voting in Committee. However, in a normal Parliament the party lines are drawn up from the start and even the most modest amendments are summarily rejected by the Government of the day. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members of various Governments who have been in charge of Bills in Committee will remember reasonable amendments being put forward by Opposition Members an behalf of their party, or as individual Back Benchers, only to be advised strongly by the Civil Service and their Departments that they should not be accepted because they might cause an imbalance in the Bill.
The Back Bencher today is relatively powerless. His Questions are brushed aside. Anyone who has the slightest degree of competence may operate successfully from the Government Dispatch Box at Question Time. It is the easiest 74 thing in the world to dodge a difficult Question, given the back-up that Ministers enjoy. Back Benchers' speeches, however brilliant they may be in argument, will not be accepted by the Government of the day. In the House it is almost impossible to get an argument accepted by persuasive methods in a debate.
The Back Bencher is left at the end of the day with the opportunity of taking his case, especially if it is a constituency matter, to the Ombudsman, who is becoming something of a universal aunt for Members of Parliament. The latest development is that the Ombudsman is submitting that he should have the opportunity of taking complaints direct from the public. That raises difficult questions.
§ Mr. Anthony Buck (Colchester)rose—
§ Mr. Smith
No, I shall not give way. I promised to be brief. I want to give other hon. Members a chance to participate.
We are seeing a weakening of the power of individual Members, which should be watched most carefully. A Member's main hope is to persuade enough of his fellows, if he is on the Government Benches, to rebel on an issue if he is to succeed in bringing about a change. He is likely to be successful only if he can get a sufficient number to agree with him. It has to be a matter of major principle or of political necessity. Even in Opposition it is extremely hard to get the motivation of one's colleagues unless it is an issue of outstanding political importance.
Either deliberately or unwittingly—sometimes it is a mixture of both—the Executive has drawn a good deal of sting out of the Back Bencher by giving him more and more to do. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), who spoke about the need for full-time Members of Parliament. Contrary to the public's concept, the majority of Members in this place—many of them are part-time—work extremely hard and have multitudinous duties. There is a handful who do not, but such persons will be found in any society. The more that Members have to do—our duties grow year by year—the less chance they have of attending debates in the Chamber, participating and 75 making their mark on Government legislation.
One of the reasons for the decline in the power of Parliament as against the Executive is that the focus of Westminster has moved away from the Chamber, despite the fact that broadcasting has been introduced. Apart from Question Time, which is now vested with artificial importance because of broadcasting, debates are badly attended. Attendance is poorer than at any time I can remember in the years that I have been a Member. Surely that must be a bad thing.
There is never sufficient time for debates to be properly conducted. There is not the opportunity to give way to opponents or colleagues. One shirks from following the previous speaker for fear of taking too long. Consequently, we do not have debates in the accepted sense of the word outside. They are set pieces in which hon. Members from both sides of the House get across their point of view. There is no even flow throughout our debates, except on rare occasions. Those occasions are usually when constitutional crises have arisen.
Given all these circumstances, it behoves us seriously to consider the procedures of the House if we are to hope in the months and years ahead, whichever party happens to be in power, to have some check on the growth of the Executive. We have seen the power of hon. Members slipping away with the extension of nationalised industries and bodies outside Parliament. They have day-to-day accountability of their own and hon. Members cannot challenge them, except indirectly.
In many ways, Parliament is rather like a county council that I remember some 15 years ago. It spent an hour and a half debating whether the district nurse should have a new bicycle, but passed on the nod a resolution for a new building that even in those days was to cost a quarter of a million pounds.
The ordinary elector's feeling of impotence as regards democratic representation will grow until the Executive is seen to be less in total command and until his Member of Parliament can be seen to be more successful in even occasionally having an influence on events. That is why debates of this sort are 76 extremely important, and that is why we should have more of them.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I, too, welcome the debate. I do not want to re-cover some of the ground that has already been covered, except to take up a few remarks that have been made, principally by my colleagues, on Select Committees.
It is hardly likely that Select Committees will go away. They have been with us for a considerable number of years. Of course, we may be upset from time to time about some of the reports that they produce, but we need to ensure that they are fashioned so that they represent conflict as opposed to consensus. I and others have said that Select Committees should be separately staffed along political lines. If that were done in the full public gaze, the result would be separate reports instead of the mealy-mouthed reports that come from cosy Select Committees as they are now constituted.
The motion is not merely about Select Committees but about the control of the Executive. We must consider where the power is currently being assembled to a greater degree. In my view the power of the Prime Minister and that of the Cabinet have grown considerably as the years have passed. Recently there has been a great deal more legislation. There is no doubt about that. Parliament sits more often.
If I had more time, I could tell the House an amusing anecdote about a Tory MP who bumped into me on the train one day. The hon. Member concerned said that in 1959—not that long ago—he and his pair agreed to get away for the whole of the summer, and it was then only Whitsuntide. They did not turn up here again until October. He said that there was nothing wrong with that, but that now we had a lot of new people—I think that he was looking at me—and they were bound by a tremendous amount of legislation. I do not think that we can argue about legislation. It is the way in which we deal with it that is important and the way in which we look at it from the standpoint of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
Therefore, at the very beginning I want to reduce the patronage of the Prime 77 Minister, the Cabinet and other Ministers. The first thing is to ensure that the Prime Ministers of the day—I can talk only in terms of the Labour side; I do not know much about the Tory Opposition—is subject to a greater degree of accountability.
At present, no one can argue but that the Prime Minister is almost impregnable. It is true that we are in the run-up to a General Election. Therefore, many Members are not saying what they would say in other situations. In fact, I get pulled over the coals for continuing to do it. I have got it in my bloodstream. Several others of my hon. Friends do the same as I.
The point that I am trying to establish is that the Prime Minister has tremendous power. One way to curb that power is to have a fixed term of Parliament—a four-year term—so that we know precisely how long Parliament will go on, as I pointed out to the Liberal, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). All the Liberals are missing. Every time I stand up to speak in the House of Commons, the Liberals have gone. I do not think that it has any thing to do with me. The fact is that they are never here. They make speeches and off they go. I should be rebuked by Mr. Speaker if I did that.
The point that I want to make is that, in order to get this reduction of power in the patronage of the Prime Minister, we must have a fixed term of Parliament. We should not then have the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of MPs who did not know whether to rebel—not rebel, but to vote or not to vote for something constructive because of the party Whips and so on—because of possibly bringing down the Government. That would not apply in a fixed term of Parliament.
We must reduce patronage. In this regard, I think that we must have an elected Cabinet. When in Opposition—I am talking about the Parliamentary Labour Party—we go through the democratic process of electing a Shadow Cabinet. It is true that we elect only 12, but due account is taken of runners-up and so on. But when we get into power, we tend to discard that democratic process and to hand over to the Prime Minister the chance of deciding the 78 hundred-odd Members of Parliament and a few from the House of Lords who are to form the Government.
In my view, while it might be a long-drawn-out ballot to elect those hundred-odd Members, we could have a system similar to the Australian system or the system which we operate for our Shadow Cabinet elections so that the Cabinet is decided by election. I do not suggest that it would result in Left wingers being elected to the Cabinet: of course not. We should probably finish up with much the same position as we have now.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who will answer the debate, always figured prominently in the Shadow Cabinet elections, despite the fact that at that time, almost without exception, the whole of the Right wing detested all that he stood for. I am not sure about that now. He has tended to mellow a bit as a result of the passage of time and of having had responsibility thrown upon him in the past few years.
The Cabinet must be elected. It is not a laughing matter. The idea of having an elected Cabinet is to ensure that the Prime Minister does not have the power to hire and fire in the manner that he does now. In a Committee of about 21 Members, usually eight will do what the gaffer says, whatever happens, for fear of the sack. They can be shifted around like dominoes in a pack because they will do almost anything to keep their jobs.
Under a system of accountability, there would be a different operation. The balance of power would be shifted from the Prime Minister to this caucus, which would be the Parliamentary Labour Party. We must consider, and have already considered, the question of ensuring that the Prime Minister is accountable not to the PLP but to the party as a whole. That, again, would tend to shift power from the Prime Minister. I think that the Liberals have to some extent looked at and dealt with this matter in a fashion. However, it is a matter that Members from all parties should consider. We must ensure that the Prime Minister of the day does not have the power that he wields at present.
§ Mr. John Mendelson
Generally, I have a fair amount of sympathy with the points being expressed by my hon. Friend. But does he agree that recent events 79 make it doubtful whether this doctrine is always correct? When we consider the reports of the Select Committees on the steel industry and on immigration and see the reactionary policies to which some of our colleagues committed themselves in unity with some Tory Members, I say thank God for the Cabinet and the Prime Minister who rescued us from our own colleagues.
§ Mr. Skinner
I do not think that my hon. Friend is disagreeing with my main argument. He has made a point which he has made on several occasions. I am trying to explain that we should still have a Cabinet to override Select Committee decisions or to put them in their places. I want to shift the power away from the Prime Minister. I suggest that there should be a democratic test, which would have to take place among those who are elected to Parliament. We do it in Opposition, but for some strange reason we forget all about it when we are in power.
I understand that the Prime Minister and his departmental Ministers have about 4,000 jobs that they are able to cast around.
§ Mr. Skinner
My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), who follows these matters generally, suggests that there are more than 4,000. I accept that there are more, but I have seen a figure of about 4,000 top jobs. My hon. Friend may be including some lower down the list. I am saying that those jobs should also be subject to some form of democratic test and taken away from the Prime Minister.
I think that the same argument must apply to the Honours List. If we are to reduce the power of patronage, that must go as well. It is not a question of having another system in its place. Frankly, I do not see the purpose of it. Therefore, that should be shifted away from the patronage of the Prime Minister. The whole movement away from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet would, in my view, give more power to elected Members as a whole.
Those are two of the matters which I think are important as regards taking control away from the Executive.
80 Mention has already been made of pre-legislative committees. I agree with that suggestion. There is nothing better than to be able to examine a Bill thoroughly in some pre-legislative form before it comes to Parliament. I think that point was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Taunton. That would improve the situation.
No one has mentioned the Civil Service. Civil servants have tremendous power. When talking about control of the Executive, we cannot take them out of the picture. They are there all the time, whatever party is in power. We should not adopt the maxim of most Members—that we should not say anything about civil servants because they are following their masters and putting forward their views. I do not accept that at all. I tend towards the view that anyone working in that kind of environment is bound to come to some positive conclusions about what he wants to see. Civil servants by and large are drawn from a very narrow stratum of society—right at the top. They work in an environment and have financial terms which are better than those of the average man on the Clapham omnibus. Therefore, my guess is that they are shaped in such a way that they will not reflect the views of the man on the Clapham omnibus. Therefore, there must be a change in the Civil Service.
Although few would agree with me, I should like to see a greater degree of politicising in the Civil Service based on the party that comes to power. A few slight moves have been made in that direction recently by taking in political advisers. With due respect to all of them, by and large, compared with the perennial run-of-the-mill civil servants, they are small beer. I want to see a change in that direction so that the civil servants do not have the same kind of power.
Mention has also been made of the State boards and the QUANGO jobs that are handed round the various top trade union leaders. I do not think that one can talk about the control of the Executive or Government without taking into account that trade union leaders, as distinct from trade union members, are now wielding tremendous power. Contrary to the popular view that they are wielding power in order to improve the members standards and conditions, in recent times trade union leaders have been working 81 with the Goverenment in order to reduce and repress the living standards of the members.
When the right hon. Member for Sid-cup (Mr. Heath) was in power the trade union leaders were encouraged to go to No. 10 Downing Street, or Chequers, to try to carve up the so-called national cake. We cannot talk about the role of the Executive here without taking into account the way in which trade unions wield tremendous power in the State machine.
We all know—and it is no use hiding this—that many trade union leaders finish up in the Lords as a result of decisions taken at certain conferences during the year. If they do not get a job over there, they are put on the NEB or given other posts that the Prime Minister can hand out. That, too, must be changed. It is not just a question of dealing with Parliament in isolation. If we are to control the Executive it must be across a wider range.
It has been suggested that we should have full-time MPs. Of course we should. I have not said anything about the right hon. Member for Taunton, who introduced the debate, but he has quite a number of jobs. They are all in the Register. Many other hon. Members have other jobs. If we are to be inundated with legislation in the way described by almost every speaker in the debate, we need Members who can concentrate, night and day and all the time, on these issues. Some people argue that we want Members from all walks of life so that they know a little about the issues. It is said that we need people who practise in the law and know about business. I came from the pits. I cannot work in a pit in London and do this job. That applies to train drivers. It applies to many Members especially on this side of the House. It also applies to some Opposition Members. If we are to control the Executive we must have full-time MPs.
I have changed the Whipping system. The Chief Whip has helped to get me in this debate.
§ Mr. Skinner
I was just checking that out because my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip was nodding and winking. I 82 thought that I had better clear the air. I think that I managed to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye on the basis of principle.
When a Member of Parliament comes here one of the first things that he is told is how to get away from the place. That applies to both sides. I do not know what lectures the Liberals have. Tory and Labour Members are always asked "Have you got a pair?" and they hang around looking for one another. If we are to have full-time Members of Parliament we do not want a pairing system which is based on the ability to get away.
Why do Whips want to get people away? It is so that they can say on occasions when the Government are in trouble "I helped you out twice last week. Let us have you in the Lobby tonight because I know that you want to get away early for your holidays." I refuse to take part in that system. I know that is clipping my wings. I want to see that changed. The control of the Executive would be strengthened if more Members of Parliament said to the Whips "You are doing a good job. Your job is to get people here as distinct from allowing them favours and to get away."
The same is true of parliamentary trips. Too many hon. Members indulge in trips abroad. Select Committees are set up for all kinds of reasons. On nearly every occasion the members of those Committees find a reason for a trip. For example, they might examine a nationalised industry. Before one can say "Jack Robinson" they have gone to Japan or America to have a look there. There should be a curb on activities in that direction.
Many improvements can be made but one thing is ultra-important: if 635 Members, minus members of the Government, turned in here day after day, without pairing, without bothering with trips, to watch the Executive, to keep their eyes on the Lord President and Chief Whip and the rest of them—as I try to do every day—these people would not get away with a great deal. That is not to say that we do not want changes. Of course we do. Some of them have already been illustrated.
I finish on the issue of the Common Market. I think that the right hon. 83 Member for Taunton has a check. I say that without malevolence, of which I am always accused. He and other hon. Members have got a cheek to talk about the way in which we are being burdened by Britain's entry into the Common Market. They voted for it. Some hon. Members say that they abstained on the main issue. But if all those who abstained on the main issue and the rest of us had joined together on Second Reading and the Liberals had not played their game on the fateful night, we should not have gone into the Common Market and the control of the Executive would have been strengthened even more.
My appeal to hon. Members is that if they want to control the Executive, they should do many of the things that have been discussed today. But if they really want control, they should come down here and earn their corn. Let us have clocking on and clocking off for a change. What about that? We cannot grumble. We do not have to go for injury benefit or sickness benefit. We do not have to see the doctor to get a club note. Most of my constituents do. We do not have those problems.
If hon. Members really want to cut down the burden and ensure that Parliament is not inundated with all the regulations and directives from the Common Market—some in foreign languages, some that are late, some that are early, some that have not been discussed, some that will never be discussed, some that are trivial—let us get out of the Common Market. That is the best step that we can take.
§ 5.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said. Having listened to him, it strikes me that we are living in a world of fantasy. He and many other hon. Members in the debate have brought to the Floor of the House a degree of reality which neither the hon. Member for Bolsover nor I have seen in the eight years that we have enjoyed service in the House. It is good that we should have this kind of debate. I am very grateful, as I am sure are many other hon. Members, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for his initiative in bringing forward this subject.
84 Over the years here, we have seen the power of the State grow and grow. I think that it is only recently that we have had our minds and eyes focused on the way in which, as that power has grown, the distance of the Executive from this Parliament has multiplied. It has become more and more difficult for us to find out what is being done in the name of this House or in the names of the citizens whom we represent. I believe that Parliament must accept this entirely as its own responsibility and not blame anyone else.
This House has 635 Members. With the exception of some of them, I think that one would not say at any time that we have too few. In fact, we have far too many. One of the problems of this place is that we have far too many people able to take part in debates and we are not able, because of that, to deploy our arguments as we should like. Not all of us have the gift of the gab, as has the hon. Member for Bolsover. Therefore, it takes us longer to deploy our own views and arguments. We need more opportunity, which cannot come. Because it cannot come, we cannot hope properly to control the Executive.
Indeed, I am worried that we might have lost control of the Executive. One must ask what exactly the Executive consists of. It consists not only of the Government Front Bench but, as has been briefly mentioned by certain hon. Members present this afternoon, of the tens of thousands in the army of civil servants up and down the land who, although they are supposed to be faceless, certainly act in secrecy in our names.
Without doubt, one of our problems is the long hours that we work. I would join the hon. Member for Bolsover in clocking on for overtime, double time, or treble time, as the case may be. However, the fact is that those long hours and the will of the Whips on both sides have bred in this House a fatigue factor which destroys its competence. It not only does that. It reduces the efficiency of Ministers. I do not find the Government or this House any the better, whichever Government are in power, for the long hours that Members have to put in, both here and in their constituencies, if they are to do their job reasonably and to the best of their ability.
85 I know of no other legislature in Western Europe that works these long hours. Nor do I find that any of the performances of Governments over the last 10 or 20 years have justified these long hours in terms of the way in which the economic success of this country could be measured. I know that Ministers will argue that they cannot accept such a heresy, but I hope that they will accept that there is a major problem here which has repeatedly confounded the heroic efforts of successive British Governments.
Rather than just complaining about this, I should like to propose one or two remedies, on top of the many which have been put forward here this afternoon and, think, accepted by most of the House.
I have referred to the too many Members of Parliament. We are badly paid and badly staffed, and the country gets the kind of Members of Parliament that it deserves from that.
Secondly, I believe that there must be a system of management control, which can be exemplified by the pioneering work of Committees such as the Public Accounts Committee. There must be a visible method of management control from the Parliament of the Executive. This is not a matter just of the Government running their own machines. It is a question of assurance that proper, effective and relevant management control of the Executive can take place on the Floor of the House.
At present we have very little idea of the efficiency of the work of the Civil Service. Among its number there are many thousands of dedicated, hard-working men and women. I hope and believe that they would appreciate that it is in their own direct interests for them to be visibly accountable to Parliament. The whole of their work is virtually shrouded in secrecy. Parliament makes the probes that have been referred to this afternoon in terms of Select Committees, but none of these is really a substitute for open management and open government.
The next need is to cast off the ridiculous cloak of secrecy that surrounds so much of the general workings of the British Government. With the reservations that the House does not expect to know the innermost secrets of the State, those relating, for instance, to the plans for the 86 defence of the nation, and nor would Parliament want to probe at the privacy of the individual, the vast span of the apparatus of the State should be open to our inquiries and those of the ordinary citizen.
I welcome the recent attempt by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) to find out the current state of play of the existing matters about which Ministers refuse to answer in the House. In 1971–72, when the list was last published, it stood at a total of 95 separate items, including such mighty secrets of the State as the workings of the British Sugar Corporation, the machinations of the White Fish Authority, questions about ferry services in Scotland, reasons for appointing members of hospital boards and rents paid by the Sports Council. If these are all matters which, if disclosed, would grant success to a Russian invasion, we might as well wrap up the Ministry of Defence.
It is from information supplied by that unfortunate Ministry that I should like to demonstrate the stupidity of the Government's secrecy. On 6th April this year I asked the Secretary of State for Defence about the progress of the memorandum of understanding, the two-way street, on defence sales, about which strong views are held by many hon. Members but on which depend tens of thousands of jobs and the expenditure of tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. I was given the usual brush off that it was not in the public interest to give such information.
However, if I go to the United States of America and ask there, with the right that I have as a foreigner, even in the United States, for this information about the memorandum of understanding to be given to me, the United States Government are obliged to give it to me under their Freedom of Information Act. Yet at the very moment that I get that information, the pantomime escalates, because at the precise moment that I receive it I can then be charged in this country under the Official Secrets Act for having secret information.
I hope that the Lord. President will turn his attention not only to the question of the rather limited reform of the Official Secrets Act about which he has talked but to the need, about which I should like 87 to deploy arguments on another occasion, that the people of this country and certainly this House have for a proper freedom of information Act.
Finally, I think that all of us as politicians have encouraged for far too long a belief in Britain that the art and science of politics can save us from the realities of our world. Society is in trouble because Parliament has substituted the State for the individual as the centre of its life. Although I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Bolsover of the machinations that go on inside the Labour Party, it is completely contrary to the centripetal action and wishes of Socialism to deploy the arguments that he had there for a more open election system of the Cabinet. But it is in this House that Parliament finds itself weighing down society in that there is now such a mass of legislation and statutes that the citizen has no idea of what his rights are or in which direction he can turn for help. At the close of play on 9th May 1978 there were 3,453 valid Acts of Parliament and 12,479 valid statutes. That is ridiculous. It is a nonsense.
In summation, this means that we in this House have permitted the transfer of the right of privacy of the individual to the rights of the State. Our lives as individuals, as citizens, are open. The State has become a secret. Politicians have repeatedly encouraged citizens to believe that the man in Whitehall must know best—because there are so many of them. To this end, we have legislated so far and so fast that, as the Prime Minister himself said only last week, every third citizen in this country is now working for the State. If parity is reached, everyone in commerce and industry will have a shadow brother in the coils of the State.
From the citizen we have extracted freedom. From the citizen we have taken his privacy. To the State we have given security. I believe that if we do not watch this erosion of freedom and privacy, Parliament will have failed in its duty to the citizen and to democracy.
We need a bonfire of legislation. We must stop pretending that the next Act of Parliament will open the gates to the promised land. There is much to do to 88 help the citizen and to improve society. Above all, I believe that we must remove the apparatus of the Executive from the position that it has seized from the citizen as the centre of British society.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)
We may have underestimated the extent to which this House, when it really wishes, can impose its will on the Government. I am not speaking merely of Parliaments like the present one, where the Government have barely a majority, if a majority at all. I can remember instances where one party or another had a clear working majority but where, over such matters as the government of London, the organisation of National Service immediately after the war, the organisation of some of the nationalised industries or housing and rent legislation—
§ Mr. Stewart
I am obliged to the hon. Member—the House, in the event, obliged the Government to change their minds.
How was that done? First, it was done because there was a group of Members—my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) drew attention to the importance of this—with specialised knowledge of the subject, who hammered away at it. Secondly, it happened because of party spirit, because they were able to rally their comrades in their own party to their support. Thirdly, it was because they were able to get a response from the public outside—that is to say, by informed propaganda.
So it can be done. Admittedly, it is exceptional, but, after all, a Parliament in which it was exceptional for the Government to get their own way would not on any analysis be a very effective form of Government. Therefore, we may be in danger of underestimating the power of hon. Members when they really have the will.
Another example is the Ombudsman himself, who is the creation of Parliament and who has had a profound influence, not on major matters of policy, of course, but on administration. Some of the things that hon. Members say are hidden by the machinations of the Civil Service are opened up when the Ombudsman inquires. Some of the abuses which have grown up just through lack of 89 attention to problems are cured. That is the kind of thing that the House itself has done through the official that it appoints or who is responsible to it.
So let us keep a sense of proportion. I am not prepared fully to accept the picture of a power-hungry Executive gradually grinding down the House—or the citizen, as the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) suggested. Much of the legislation which we pass does not take rights away from the citizens but confers rights on him.
One subject on which we continually have to legislate is the way in which the Welfare State works, because, with experience, we learn that there are misfortunes, disabilities and so on which we had not allowed for and that we must introduce legislation to improve the working of the Welfare State. That is not a taking of liberty from, but a conferring of rights on, people.
In comparison with my arguments about the danger of overestimating the limitations of the power of this House, I look with alarm on some of the remedies which have been proposed. It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), to whom we are greatly indebted, speaks in his motion about the importance of increasing the influence of Parliament, yet his major proposal was for a written constitution which would take sovereignty from this House once and for all. His reason was his fear that we might one day see in power an extremist Government from one party or another.
"Extremist" means someone who goes further than we should like him to go: we all understand that. So the right hon. Gentleman is saying "I am afraid that one day there will be a Government who will do things that I do not like. That could happen under our present constitution, so we must alter our constitution." I am not prepared to accept that.
In addition to a written constitution, it is suggested, we would have a fixed-term Parliament, leaving the Prime Minister sometimes in the miserable situation of having to go on governing whether he wanted to or not. I do not believe that good government would be the result of that.
90 My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas) wanted to separate the legislature from the Executive.
§ Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)
I do not quite understand the right hon. Gentleman's argument about fixed-term Parliaments. Surely a Prime Minister could resign if he wanted to within the term.
§ Mr. Stewart
I accept that, but since the majority in Parliament would be the same, some other member of his party would have to go on. The party would have to go on carrying the responsibility of government at a time when Parliament apparently was denying it the power to do the things which it believed were necessary for government. That is the drawback of fixed-term Parliaments.
Consider how it works in the United States. We see there what my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East wanted—the separation of the legislature from the executive power. The United States has that for certain historical reasons. But I cannot see why any country which does not have that system should deliberately embrace it, because it has a number of drawbacks.
There have been grave instances in history when the great power of the United States could have been exercised in the world for good and was not so exercised because of the division of power and weakness at a vital moment. If it had not been for that separation of powers, the United States would probably have become a member of the League of Nations after the First World War, with incalculably beneficial results for the future development of mankind. That is not an isolated instance.
I admit that arguments can be piled up on the other side. I am simply urging a little caution before we take a device of a written constitution from one country and a device of separation of powers from another and start tacking them on to our constitution without considering how the resulting hybrid will work.
The American President, for these reasons, works in situations of great difficulty, but at least he can choose his own Cabinet. If my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) had his way, the British Prime Minister would not he 91 able to do that. He would have to work with people whom he had never chosen to work as a team. Every time one of them resigned or for any other reason left the Government, presumably there would have to be an election within the governing party to choose his successor. All that would be very well if one did not in the end want the Prime Minister and the Government actually to get something done in Parliament.
What I am afraid of, with all the remedies proposed, is that everyone would be so absorbed with the way in which the constitution was working that it would not produce many results. I understand that is what a number of Conservative Members want. They do not want legislation because on the whole they feel that the present distribution of wealth, power and opportunity in the country suits them nicely. They say "We would prefer to have things as they were 30 years ago, but failing that we do not want the system altered any more." That is why they want all these safeguards on the constitution—to make it difficult for the Government to govern at all.
I can understand why the Liberals would want this change, because if I follow Liberal philosophy—
§ Mr. Stewart
—if I do—it seems to be that it does not matter so much what one decides so long as the process of decision is protracted as far as possible and as many people as possible take part in the discussion.
I can understand a Communist or a Fascist wanting these elaborations of the constitution, because anything which makes the working of democracy more elaborate and cumbrous and helps to discredit it is grist to his mill.
What I find it difficult to understand is why a Democratic Socialist who wants, by the methods of British democracy, to introduce substantial changes into the economic and social order should want to make the business of government so cumbrous as it would be if many of the suggestions made today were adopted.
I hope that I am not so obscurantist as to object to all changes. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow 92 made some admirable and useful suggestions which I hope will be pursued, but I was a little worried when he talked of the "confrontation" between the Secretary of State and the Select Committee.
If we manage to ensure that members of a Select Committee are chiefly interested in themselves as facing the Government, they will begin to feel that they have more in common with their fellow members of the Committee of another party than thy have with the Minister, who may of their own party. If that happens, it will be difficult for the Government to be sure from week to week what their majority is.
The American Administration has to fact this problem, but at least it does so in the certainty that its Parliament cannot turn it out of office. A British Government, who could be sacked by a vote of Parliament, and who constantly saw the loyalties of some of their supporters being eroded by the working of Select Committees would be in a position of great weakness. I do not want Governments to be weak.
I accept a number of the detailed criticisms by the hon. Member for Hastings which were of great value. I followed with great interest some of his comments about unnecessary secrecy. These matters can be studied. But the case has not been made for major constitutional changes. If we made such changes we should leave ourselves with an emasculated Government. I believe that some of the best Governments in this country have been those who have had a clear conviction of what they believed was right, a parliamentary majority, and loyal support from it to enable them to carry the broad elements of their policies.
In many ways we are very fortunate in our form of government. No one person can claim to have thought it out. But I still take the view that the English people—and I say that with respect to the Scots and the Welsh, because this has been mainly an English contribution—have shown a considerable talent for creating the machinery of civilised government.
I am aware that criticisms may be made of us and that because of our present economic difficulties some people assume that everything must be wrong with this country. I do not believe that to 93 be true. I believe that we have a form of government that enables us to make party conflict civilised and to make progress socially and economically. That is worth preserving. I earnestly hope that if we examine, as it is right that we should, some of the matters of detail which have been raised in the debate, we shall keep our eye on the main essential of our Government with the nexus between the Executive and the Legislature, the position of the Cabinet in Parliament, and the capacity that gives for strong and effective government.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
I find it difficult to take up the points made by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) in what appeared to me to be a complacent look at the current situation.
I should like to add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) on moving this motion. It concerns one of the most important subjects we have had to debate in this house for some time. Just as Watergate brought to the attention of the American people their constitutional difficulties resulting from an overblown power of the Executive, so in our own cumbersome and slow way we are beginning to do the same thing in this country.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend when he says that Back Benchers can do anything if they want to, and the cry, echoing what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, should be "Back Benchers of this House unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains". But, having been involved in the usual channels for three years, I am only too well aware of what those chains are.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
Will my hon. Friend tell us how Back Benchers can vote against a negative resolution Statutory Instrument if the Government will not allocate time for it within the 28 days specified?
§ Mr. Benyon
I accept what my hon. Friend said. That is one of the technicalities which I hope to deal with.
We have heard about the ambitious nature of Members of Parliament, but we have heard nothing about the proper and fundamental human characteristic of loyalty. It is difficult to go against 94 one's friends and party, and Governments undoubtedly play on that characteristic. I make the contention that the situation will not radically change until we alter the system of election. I expect to see that in my lifetime, but probably not in my political lifetime. We therefore have to operate within the present system.
I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton said on the subject of Select Committees. The important aspect is how to relate what the Select Committees report to the proceedings of this House. I contend that the Chair should be under a Standing Order to accept a motion for a debate and a vote on a report of a Select Committee before a certain period has elapsed. I also believe that the Select Committees should be better staffed. They should shadow each Department of State, and the relevant Select Committee should be the Standing Committee when a Bill sponsored by its Department reaches Committee stage. Ministers would not be members of that Committee and the present situation would be avoided whereby Ministers are present and backed up with their expert advisers. I would prefer the Government to apear as witnesses to be questioned and to make their statements accordingly.
The crucial issue is what happens in this Chamber. Judging from my eight years' experience in this House, I believe that the power to delay, which is supposed to be the great power of the Opposition, is greatly exaggerated. I say that having sat through some of the longest Committee stages since the war. If the Government are determined to push through their legislation, they can do so. There is nothing that the Opposition can do to stop them.
Nevertheless, delay is the only power that the Opposition—and anyone else opposing the Executive—can use. However, it is a blunderbuss. It is inefficient and inaccurate. If that weapon is to be given up, there must a quid pro quo on the other side. There must be a balanced curtailment of the Government's power to push legislation through. I do not talk in this respect of the second Chamber.
My solution is that there should be—this has been discussed fully by the Procedure Committee—a timetable for each Bill. That would normally be decided by consultation through the 95 usual channels. If it were impossible to get agreement in that way, the matter would be put before a Committee selected on a "federal" basis. In other words, there would be one member on it for each party in the House with more than 10 members. The Committee would be chaired by a senior Member of the House. I would be prepared to involve the Chair in such an arrangement, but I am told that it is not a function that the Chair would readily undertake. I understand that, and therefore such a Committee is the only alternative.
On the other side, in order to produce a balance, the dates of the Session—I would go so far as to say the dates of the Parliament—and the daily hours should be entrenched in a Standing Order which could not be overturned without a vote of, say two-thirds of those voting The advantage of such an entrenchment would be that a Government such as the 1945 Labour Government, which had an immense majority, would be able to act just as it could with the existing system. But the arrangement would cater for the times when there was a Parliament such as we now have in which the parties were evenly balanced. The entrenchment of the 10 o'clock rule, the dates of the Session and the dates of the recess on the one side, and the entrenchment of decisions of the Committee would would determine the timetable on the other would provide a balance. Unless we have a major change such as that we stand no chance of securing our objective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) mentioned a technical point. That is not the main issue. The main issue is the pressure which those who wish to oppose the Government can exert in this Chamber.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)
It is a tribute to the usefulness of this debate that it has provoked a number of interesting and useful suggestions from a wide range of hon. Members.
I agree with a good deal of the speech of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benvon). I shall confine myself to taking up one issue that he raised. It arises out of the question of timetables and the guillotine procedure. No end of cant is 96 talked in this House about the guillotine. Every Government have introduced it. Every time it is introduced it provokes a great deal of indignation, much of it synthetic, and all of it almost invariably exaggerated. I must bear part of the blame in that respect because I have voted for most of the guillotines introduced in this Parliament, but until the Government lost their majority there was a tendency for too many guillotines to be introduced.
I do not know how much longer this Parliament will last, but I have made a vow of self-denial that I do not propose to vote for any guillotines which may be forthcoming in the rest of this Parliament. Though everyone may be talking in terms of an October General Election, this Parliament could continue until October next year. Bearing in mind that the House of Lords is in the process of savaging the Scotland Bill—for which I feel less than wild enthusiasm and to which I have not felt so passionately opposed as other matters such as the European Assembly Elections Bill—it may be that my pledge will be of some significance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) referred in caustic terms to the closure procedure and the fact that substantive amendments can be passed and legislation drastically amended but a discussion cannot be brought to an end unless 100 Members are present.
I propose that a corresponding situation should prevail, namely, that a Government should not be able to impose a guillotine unless so many days have already passed or, say, a two-thirds majority of the House have voted in favour of it. My figure is obviously arbitrary and a smaller figure might suffice. But we must try to restrain Governments from introducing measures of a major constitutional character. We have had four such measures this Parliament—that curious omnibus Scotland and Wales Bill, which was abandoned because of the situation of the parties in the House, the Scotland Bill, the Wales Bill, and the European Assembly Elections Bill. Each of them has been the subject of an attempted guillotine. The first measure fell by the wayside because the Government were not successful in securing the guillotine. The other measures have been guillotined.
97 I said to my right hon. Friend that arising from the European Assembly Elections Bill—on which I could not possibly claim to be in any way objective, I admit—the Government would rue the day when they resorted to a guillotine on a measure of such magnitude and constitutional significance, because by so doing they gave carte blanche to a future Government to behave in precisely the same way if and when a similar measure, on which my right hon. and hon. Friends feel very differently, is brought forward by a future Government of a different political complexion. It may not happen next time, but I suppose that there will come a time when, by some misfortune or by the will of the electorate, the Labour Party will be in opposition. The precedent of the European Assembly Elections Bill will then be quoted back at the Labour Party and we shall not be left with any moral capital in reserve on which to energise our indignation.
§ Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)
As the official Opposition took the most extraordinary step of voting for the guillotine on the European Assembly Elections Bill, does the hon. Gentleman think that they, too, when they are in Government, will rue the day?
§ Mr. Lee
The hon. Member and I feel very strongly about, and are wholly ad idem about, that piece of legislation. It was a very discreditable episode for Parliament. As we know, it was done because both major parties were determined to railroad the measure through.
I quote a former Member of this House—Tom Iremonger—who has never been very popular with Labour Members and who is certainly no longer very popular with Tory Members. He said, as a result of recent events in Ilford, North, that it is the duty of Members of Parliament to get in the way of the Government.
Without in any sense accepting the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren), who would reduce the amount of legislation for reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) advanced, there is more than a grain of truth in what Tom Iremonger said. The more that the Government are able to circumscribe this passion for their convenience, the more that power is eroded. There must always be an element of 98 balance—I concede that. But the guillotine procedure needs to be revised. It has fallen into discredit and it would be a major step forward if we could have a little objectivity from both sides, with an eye to the future.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)
Every hon. Member who has spoken has congratulated by right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) and thanked him for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. Most of us feel that it is the greatest pity that it could not have gone on for longer and thus attracted not only more speakers but perhaps a fuller House to listen to it. In comparison with some of the subjects we are compelled to discuss, this is a subject which deserves much more attention than it has received. Even so, in the course of a very short debate a great deal of very interesting ground has been covered and obviously I cannot cover all of it in a quarter of an hour.
I felt a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren), who said that there was always a tendency for us to bewail our institutions when the state of the country did not seem all it might be and to believe that a reform of the institutions would instantly remedy it. Over the years I have sat for many sessions on the Select Committee on Procedure and I have listened to recipes from efficient young men for streamlining—so they call it—or improving the procedures of the House of Commons. One found on analysing those recipes that every one of them would have resulted either in reducing the rights of Back Benchers still further or of strengthening the powers of the Government to get their business through quickly.
I am not sure whether even the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) recognised the extent to which some of the proposals that he made would strengthen the powers of the Executive. I cannot imagine anything more likely to increase the powers of patronage and the powers of the party machine than full-time Members of Parliament.
An elected Cabinet was one of the things of which the hon. Member was in favour. The right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) dealt with this at 99 some length. I suggest also to the hon. Member for Bolsover that no Prime Minister is or has ever been completely free to choose the Cabinet that he wants irrespective of his party and a number of other factors as well. He has to get a regional balance. He has to get a balance between various factions in his party. He is very considerably circumscribed as to whom he can choose and with whom he can replace a resigned or retired member.
A number of the other proposals which have been made today seem to me to be somewhat beside the point. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), who was followed in the debate by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee), talked about the guillotine procedure and timetable motions. I agree very much with most of what the hon. Member for Handsworth said, but my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham proposed that there should be a timetable motion for every item of legislation. I can see an argument for this. It is an interesting proposal and I hope that the Select Committee on Procedure, when it reports, will deal with the arguments for and against at some length, because I should like to study them.
I am pretty certain that the other proposals that my hon. Friend made, such as entrenched hours of debate and entrenched dates of recesses, would make no impression on our problem. We are talking not about procedures for streamlining the business of the House of Commons but about how Parliament can control the Executive.
Once upon a time Parliament controlled the Executive by getting rid of it for a short time. The Executive was the Crown. Parliament got rid of it but had in the end to restore it. What Parliament did in its relations with the Crown was for the most part not to try to destroy the Crown but to evolve a system of checks and balances which would cause the Crown to operate within certain reasonable limits which guaranteed the freedoms of ordinary people. The trouble is that we have not found a satisfactory alternative procedure and adequate checks and balances.
There have been two changes which have made the situation wholly different 100 from what it was in the last century. The first is the enormous increase in legislation, because the State has taken an interest in and control over a much wider range of the activities of industries of individuals and so on. One can have a philosophical argument about that, but the fact is that it has happened. To some extent, no doubt, it could be reversed, but we have to find a method of dealing with it.
Secondly, our situation is in a sense dependent on the other kind of parliamentary control over the Executive, namely, the control of finance, and it is this with which we have to deal and with which, I think, my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton was most concerned. This was a comparatively easy matter in the days when all the Government did was to convince the House of Commons that they needed to spend a certain amount of money on defence, on police, on drainage or whatever it might be and then, no doubt after some argument in the House, fix the amount of revenue which they needed to raise in taxes to meet those requirements.
The enormous change which has come about is that since the Second World War the Budget has become a tool of macroeconomic policy on which the level of employment, the money supply and everything depend, and the House has not evolved a system even for understanding the implications of that, let alone for controlling it, and out of that, of course, arises quite a deal of the volume of legislation which all Governments undertake.
It seems to me that we ought to be turning our attention to that. How can we bring Parliament back into the business of controlling the immense amount of public expenditure and of understanding the secondary effects of the public expenditure which is made?
I do not pretend to know the answers—many far better brains than mine have grappled with the problem—but I think that we should at least be making a start if we could devise a system of checking over past expenditure and seeing that mistakes made in the past were not made in the future.
In the Eleventh Report of the Expenditure Committee, and in Mr. Leslie Chapman's book, "Your Disobedient 101 Servant", there are a number of proposals for ways by which the Exchequer and Audit Department and the Public Accounts Committee could be improved, be made more effective and be given greater powers and greater information. I believe that all are worthy of serious consideration, and I hope that the Procedure Committee will consider these matters as well.
However, I do not think that that will deal with all the questions which trouble us. I do not believe that the setting up of a Select Committee for every Department will really be a satisfactory answer. Indeed, I have quite serious reservations about going as far as that, and also about the whole question of pre-legislation Committees.
It seemed to me that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo), for example, who based his argument largely on the United States system, overlooked, first, the obvious fact that American Ministers are not Members of either the House of Congress, and secondly, the fact that the Congressional system of Committees gives the only opportunity which Members of either the Senate or the House have to question Ministers about their policies and about their actions.
Those are the only ways open to Members in America, but the same does not apply here. Not only do we have Question Time, but if a Minister wishes to make a statement of policy or a statement on certain actions which he intends to take, he will make that statement in the House and then be questioned at some length—generally for half an hour or 40 minutes—on the details of his statement.
It is true that Members of Parliament are not either adequately informed beforehand of the contents of the statement or adequately briefed in order to question him in depth as, for various reasons, the members of the House Committees and Senate Committees in America are.
§ Mr. Mike Thomasrose—
§ Mr. Mike Thomas
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, and I intervene with apologies to my right hon. Friend. In 102 the Congressional Committee system and the Select Committee system, is it not the procedure whereby a series of questions can come from one Member pursuing the argument, never letting the Minister off the hook, which is important, as opposed to the gladiatorial one-off questioning which we have in the Chamber?
§ Mr. Maude
I am not sure, and equally I am not sure that some hon. Members have taken account of the fact which the right hon. Member for Fulham pointed out, namely, the extent to which policy is changed by Members of the House outside the Chamber and, indeed, outside Committees altogether. The right hon. Gentleman was perfectly right to say that there have been occasions when Governments have been made to change their mind. Indeed, there have been occasions when Governments have been made to change their mind before they even got Bills published by pressure within their own parties in Committee Rooms upstairs. I have myself had something to do with one or two operations of that kind.
There is, I think, a tendency to believe that the role of the Back-Bench Member of Parliament in controlling the Executive is much less than in fact it is. Many of the proposed solutions to the problem are for this reason, I think, beside the point.
For example, there is the question of EEC regulations and legislation which my right hon. Friend and others have raised. I have never taken the view that in the last resort the House has surrendered any substantial measure of sovereignty to the EEC or to any part of it. I am well aware that a certain amount of Commission secondary legislation is inadequately discussed here, and that is a problem which we must solve, and solve before long. But I do not consider that, so long as the power of veto remains in the Council of Ministers, any Minister of any Government in this country will in the last resort be able to exercise or not exercise a veto on an important matter unless he is pretty confident of having the support of a majority in the House behind him before he does it and after he has done it. In that respect, I believe that the House of Commons has control over the Government's actions, whether here or in Brussels.
103 I do not wish to take too long, and I find it difficult to cover all the points which was made in the debate, but I wish briefly to deal with one or two. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne. East (Mr. Thomas) said something which I thought rather over-pessimistic. He said that the Leader of the House—in this case the Lord President of the Council—has two roles which are completely incompatible, being supposed to get the Government's business through and at the same time being supposed to preserve and protect the rights of Back Benchers.
In fact, those roles are not wholly incompatible, because one of the roles of the Leader of the House—if the Lord President disagrees with this he will, I am sure, say so—is to ration his colleagues' share of legislative time. It is certainly his job to try to get as much legislation through as possible, but one of his jobs is to tell his colleagues that they cannot have legislation this Session.
§ Mr. Maude
That is the job of the Leader of the House, and I shall be very surprised if every Minister has got all the legislation he wanted in this Session or will get it in the next. But the roles are not incompatible if the job is properly done. It is the job of the Leader of the House to balance Private Members' time with Government time and private Members' rights with Government time.
It is no good the House of Commons bewailing the fact that there is too much legislation and too few Back Bench rights against the Executive if it is not prepared to do anything about it. Hon. Members on both sides have the remedy in their own hands. If Parliament were determined on having less legislation, there would be less legislation. Unless the Government are prepared at some stage to take a self-denying ordinance that there shall be less legislation, or are forced into it by their Back Benchers, every available moment of time will be filled with legislation. The more contentious the legislation that one Government force through, the more certain it is that the next Government will want an equal amount of time to undo some of it.
104 If Back Benchers want legislation to be more carefully scrutinised, and to have less legislation, they will have to insist upon this sooner or later, and some Government will have to give way and set a precedent. We shall certainly not get proper legislation in a context in which the Scotland Bill, for example, is sent to another place with only 16 out of about 80 clauses having been scrutinised in detail by this House.
It may very well be that it is impossible, as has been said, to get complex constitutional measures through this House at all, if they are contentious, unless we insert in them the kind of saving clause about the 40 per cent. vote in the referendum which enabled certain hon. Members to square their consciences with letting the Scotland Bill go through. I do not believe that we could, by agreement in this House, get through a measure for the reform of another place.
I want to refer to something that the right hon. Member for Fulham said, because I believe it to be crucial. He said that Members of this House have far more opportunities to control the action of the Executive, if they want to, than they appear to be giving themselves credit for in the debate. The hon. Member for Bolsover has talked about the immense powers of the Prime Minister, the amount of patronage there is, and the power of the Whips and of the party machine. Some hon. Members seem to be saying "Everybody else is subject to the power of patronage, the threat of the Whips and the power of the party machine, but I am Simon Pure and I only wish that the powers could be removed."
If hon. Members felt strongly enough about the need to control and scrutinise the actions and the finances of the Executive, of course they could do something about it. Are we really so pathetic that we are at the mercy of the patronage machine, the party machine and the power of the Whips? We know perfectly well that individual Members of this House and groups of Members have done precisely what they thought was right in certain circumstances and got away with it.
By all means let us set up the machinery, for which my right hon. Friend is asking, for the proper scrutiny 105 of the finance and expenditure of Government, but do not let us believe that any institutions or machinery will control the power of the Executive unless private Members of this House are determined to do it in concert themselves.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)
I am sure that there can be no doubt whatsoever about the value and interest of the debate initiated by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). That has been proved by every speech that has been made and, indeed, by the attendance of many other hon. Members who doubtless would have wished to participate in the debate. I am sure that we are all very grateful both for the substance of the debate on the motion and the manner in which the right hon. Gentleman introduced it.
We are also grateful, I am sure, for the terms of the motion, because they have enabled almost the whole House to agree that the motion should be passed. I do not say that I agree with every part of it. Hon. Members have been able to choose the parts of the motion that they prefer, and that is another tribute to the right hon. Gentleman's skill. Indeed, he has presented to the House the most appetising curate's egg that I have ever seen laid before us, and it is in that sense that I welcome the motion.
The right hon. Gentleman quoted from the most excellent book by Dr. Eric Taylor. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the book and about some aspects of the matter that he was quoting. He referred to a quotation from Professor Ramsay Muir, who had criticised the myth about the power of the purse and of Parliament and of the House of Commons. But, as far as I recall, those remarks by Professor Ramsay Muir must have been written in the 1930s. The book does not indicate when they were written, but I am sure that it must have been in the 1930s, because Professor Ramsay Muir had died by the 1940s. Therefore, the condemnation of the decline of the power and control of Parliament over our financial affairs has not arisen in the last few weeks, months or even years; it has been developing, if Professor Ramsay Muir is to be believed, for over 30 years.
106 Within that time—and particularly in the last few years—there has been a considerable strengthening in some respects of the control of some of the Committees over what the Government do. Therefore, the balance is not all in one direction. I am not denying for a moment that there are many areas in which expenditure is agreed in a form and manner which are not satisfactory. That is why I agree with parts of the motion. But the House of Commons itself has taken note of the feeling of hon. Members, and of the views of academics who have looked at these matters years ago, and sought to devise some remedies. I do not say that they are perfect, but we have moved in that direction.
I shall come shortly to the main point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo), because it ties up with the general theme of the debate, but I must say something especially on what he said about private Members' time and Private Members' Bills. Although hon. Members do not always appreciate it, a considerable amount of Parliament's time is allocated to private Members, and one question to consider is whether that time is used in the best way possible in the interests of private Members themselves.
There has sometimes been argument about the time allocated for Private Members' motions and Private Members' Bills. On the whole, I have taken the view that the more time that is given to Private Members' Bills as against motions the better. It is perhaps rather churlish to say that at the very moment when we are taking the opportunity provided by the motion to debate the whole subject, but I believe that, especially when time is so precious, it is desirable that as much time as possible should be allocated to private Members, so that their Bills may have a chance of getting through. But I cannot contest the statement that controversial measures brought up by private Members have very little chance of getting through, and that, if they are to get through, there will have to be some alteration in the general conventions which have prevailed in the House in regard to the best use of our time.
I fully agree that these matters should be considered by the Select Committee which is examining the whole of our 107 affairs. It has its own terms of reference and can decide what matters it will deal with. But if that Select Committee does not make recommendations on the subject which the House is prepared to accept, I give my hon. Friend the undertaking that we shall consider how we must approach the matter afresh. I certainly agree that the present use of Private Members' time is not satisfactory from the point of view of the House as a whole and from the point of view of making the best use of our time generally.
I turn to the more general question raised by the right hon. Member for Taunton and by hon. Members in the debate. Although I said that I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman said, I do not agree with the general doctrine that the power of the Prime Minister, the power of the Cabinet and the power of the Executive have been enormously increasing, at an almost constant pace, and that the power of Back Benchers and of the House of Commons has been diminishing throughout. Nor do I agree—certainly compared with the time when I was first elected to this House in 1945—that the power of party machines has grown stronger, more fierce and more effective.
I can remember way back in the 1950s when the liberal use of the rights of Back Benchers would have been considered extraordinary by the powers who used to run those Parliaments. My right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is a pale shadow of a figure compared with those who used to occupy that place in days gone by. They had me out in three months on a night after I had voted against the Tories. That was my great sin at the time. The machines worked very much more swiftly in those days.
The right hon. Member for Taunton knows very well how his own party works. Perhaps it is still operating its death rays as effectively as it used to in the past and the Opposition Benches are littered with the victims. No one can deny that altogether the power of Back Benchers against the party machines has increased, is increasing and, in my opinion, should be increased still further.
I have a fundamental difference of opinion with my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow with regard to the desirability of establishing 108 Select Committees to monitor and operate every Government Department as a remedy for the disease. I believe that that would have a whole series of evil results. First, I think that it would make the whole process of administration far more cumbrous. Far from curtailing bureaucracy. I think that it would ensure that bureaucracy was multiplied. Moreover, it would interfere with what I believe to be the central principle.
I am not in favour of maintaining the power of this Chamber just because it can occasionally present great gladiatorial contests, even though occasionally they may be desirable and essential. I am in favour of this Chamber retaining its position as the focus of the House of Commons itself, and the democratic focus of the whole country, because of the right of the individual Member to have access to this place.
It is because of the individual Member's power to have access to this place on every conceivable occasion when he is determined enough to do so that this Parliament has far greater powers over the Executive, far greater powers to protect the individual in the country and far greater powers to protect the right of the heretic Member than is the case in pretty well any other assembly in the world. Once we injure that position by saying that some Members are specialist on this subject and must not be interfered with by people who are not specialists, once we slice up the House of Commons into a lot of so-called experts on particular themes, I believe that we shall destroy, or at any rate injure, the central importance of each Member of Parliament in his own obstreperous, eccentric and awkward way of having access to this place. That is the essential part of the House of Commons which I do not wish to see injured.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow that another reason why I am opposed to Select Committees in the manner and form which he suggested—this accords very much with what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart)—is that I do not believe that the United States is better governed than this country. I do not believe that their constitution is better than ours. I can understand some people thinking that it is, namely, 109 those who wish to see extensive, radical legislation delayed.
Every great radical, reforming President of the United States has had to have a battle with Congress. He has had to have a battle precisely with those Congress committees which have been established, not for the purpose of speeding great legislation through the procedures of Congress but rather largely to check and prevent that kind of operation.
Therefore, I believe that any idea that we can solve our problems by grafting on the procedures of the United States Senate—I do not say this in any chauvinistic spirit—would not be the right course for parties that wish to sustain the power of Parliament to act. It is precisely because the power of Parliament to act is just as important as the power of Parliament to debate that I believe in the maintenance of party institutions. I do not believe it is possible to have democracy without the maintenance of party organisations, party operations and party arguments. We should not apologise for them in any sense whatever.
In that regard I agree with what was said by Disraeli:Above all, maintain the line of demarcation between parties, for it is only by maintaining the independence of parties that you can maintain the integrity of public men and the power and influence of Parliament itself.That is just as true now as when he said it 100 or more years ago. I believe that the intervening history of our country has proved it to be correct.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow would, on consideration, agree with that. The best moments that we have seen in the British Parliament during our time here were in 1945 when great legislative measures transforming the economy and social services of this country were passed. There have been other occasions when Parliament has exerted itself to prevent crimes and follies of the scale of Suez. There have been other occasions when Parliament itself has come together, with Back Benchers very often leading the Front Benchers. It has always been due to the fact that the party organisations have been sustained.
There can be no democracy without a strengthening and an enhancement of the 110 party organisations themselves, because they express the clash of ideas without which no democracy will function successfully. I believe that despite its deficiencies—I acknowledge that they are many—this Parliament still manages to embrace the clash of ideas in the country. I do not say that we always do it perfectly. I think that we can do it better. I believe that we can illustrate it better and encourage it better.
This country faces problems similar to those which exist in other countries. We face them as well as they do and, in some cases, better. We face them better in the interests of the individual citizen. I believe that we can face them better in the interests of the community at large. The depreciation of Parliament in the way in which we tackle these immensely difficult problems is an unwise course for Parliament to take.
I speak about the House of Commons. I do not set much store by the other place. A major reform which we must carry through is to lop it off altogether. That will assist in the process, because our major task in that sense is to restore the position of Parliament in the affections, I dare say the love, of the people of this country. We are very far from that at the moment, but I believe it can be done and I believe that this debate can help us move in that direction.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
While many people have put forward many ideas for reforming the House of Commons, none of them can be carried through until the House of Commons again becomes representative of the people of this country. That will not be achieved without electoral reform.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes with concern that the degree of Parliamentary control over the Executive has diminished and is diminishing; believes the opportunities for regular supervision of the actions of the Executive by Parliament are inadequate in the modern context; is concerned with the implications for the Constitution and ultimately for the efficient operation of the democratic process in the United Kingdom; and is of the opinion that Parliament's powers of supervision and control now need to be strengthened and improved.