HC Deb 06 July 1987 vol 119 cc168-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ryder.]

1.28 am
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

In my speech, I hope to illustrate much that is inadequate in our parliamentary system. I could not have wished for a more appropriate example than this Adjournment debate. This debate on reforming Parliament to make it more effective in holding Ministers to account begins at the ridiculous hour of 1.30 in the morning, with what is now a handful of insomniac Members of Parliament staying on, while at the other end of the day hon. Members wishing to start work before 9 in the morning cannot even get a cup of coffee.

I thank the Minister for being here this evening. I do not necessarily believe that it is the best preparation for a day's work in a busy Government Department to be here at 1.30 am. Nor is it a good thing for any hon. Member—myself included—to discuss matters of this sort with a heavy day coming tomorrow. Key decisions will be made tomorrow, and the public would be perfectly justified in asking whether we are all the better for having been up at this hour discussing this, or any other business.

In addition, several hon. Members will start their work tomorrow, without even the comfort and privilege of an office in the House, almost a month after the election. In my experience, no trade unionist would put up with such conditions; no local authority or councillor would put up with making decisions in such a framework; and certainly no constituency organisation of either party would be prepared to make decisions in such conditions and under such constraints. It is no way to run a business, and no way to run a country or to hold to account those who run it.

I make no apology for trading on my naivety as a parliamentary new boy—or, perhaps, my objectivity as an outsider—and say that, if we have a parliamentary democracy, parliament is not pulling its weight. Ordinary people in my constituency are staggered when I tell them about the way in which Parliament operates. They expect and deserve better. Even as a rubber stamp, Parliament is stamping so lightly as to be almost illegible. If we care for the ideal of Parliamentary democracy, the Government—this one or the next—one must at some point do the unthinkable in politics and repatriate some power and authority to Parliament. The only alternative—an even wilder flight of fancy—is that hon. Members themselves should wrench back the ability effectively to hold Government to account.

If I cannot secure the Government's consent to change tonight, at the very least I hope that my parliamentary party will commit itself to a package of reforms that it will enact before the seduction of Government overpowers its will to rebuild our democracy. Philosophically, that is crucial to my party. Crudely, if we are not revolutionary socialists, we must be parliamentary socialists. Hence the need to ensure that Parliament—our chosen means of social transition—is capable of performing the tasks that we wish to set it. By almost any practical test, the Government escape effective scrutiny by our elected representatives. If that is to be remedied, four key areas must be dramatically reshaped as a priority. They are: hon. Member's facilities; Parliament's procedures; public expenditure accountability; and investigative Committees. I shall touch briefly on—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the question of the services provided by the House for hon. Members is not a matter for the Minister to answer tonight, nor is it the subject of the hon. Gentleman's debate. I suggest that the last two points that he mentioned might be more appropriate to the debate.

Mr. Allen

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall only refer to hon. Members' facilities as they affect their ability to hold Ministers to account. As a new hon. Member, I am staggered by the inadequacy of the facilities and resources that are available to enable them to carry out that task. At the best of times, the scrutiny of Government is a David and Goliath job—yet it is only one of the tasks that we are expected to perform.

In my experience in local government and trade unions, facilities and staffing were never lavish, but they always measured up to the job that the public or members expected to be done. Congressional casts of thousands are not necessary, but hon. Members should feel no embarrassment at continuing to demand adequate facilities and staffing, both in Parliament and in their constituencies, as of right rather than as half-baked gentlemen's allowances. We should turn the shame back on the Government and their machine which, despite holding all the high cards of secrecy and delay, still exposes its lack of confidence by seeking to debilitate the hon. Members who take their job seriously enough to do it full time.

Parliamentary procedures are even more of a self-inflicted wound. The fear that has gripped the majority of the electorate in this decade—we might not have much, but it is all that we have—afflicts hon. Members, too. They prefer to retain individual perks and practices rather than risk a strong Parliament.

Government goes on while the democratically elected Members are safe in the parliamentary playpen, with early-day motions that are never debated, potential laws that are safe from timetabled examination, a daily agenda which is neither discussed by a party caucus nor understandable to the layman, and parliamentary bingo, with questions to Ministers and hon. Member's rights to promote laws as the prizes. Sublime and ridiculous are the hours of work and the holidays which deny the freedom to speak to those whose very duty is to speak up for others.

My hope is that either the hardened cons—if I may use that word — will organise a breakout from the parliamentary pen, or that hon. Members, fed on a diet of frustration and perhaps a new party discipline, will outgrow the current procedural toys. Nowhere is that more necessary than in the control of public expenditure. Parliament's analysis of the £160 billion of Government spending that is carried out in its name is obscure, complicated and ineffective—a watchdog that yelps at its own flea bites as the burglar passes by with, some might say, the family silver. Essentially, the reporting and debating cycle needs to be unified, the points of parliamentary decision and intervention clarified, and the objectives of any given expenditure formulated and subjected to performance review. To do that, with or without the prompting of the National Audit Office, is surely as essential for parties, in framing their priorities, as it is for hon. Members in keeping their self-respect.

Once, financial accountability was an unfashionable subject, certainly in my party, but we have learnt that without an understanding of where the money comes from and where it goes our political objectives disconnect from implementation and become mere slogans. The priorities of parliamentary Socialism will be met only by a Parliament and Government that examine, free and redirect finance. In real terms, that means more hospitals or teachers, more homes and carers. I was fortunate as a local government officer to be involved in pioneering the execution of that principle at the Greater London council and, in a more limited sense, within the trade union movement.

Improved financial scrutiny would be an aid to Parliament and, just as significantly, to the elected part of government— the hon. Members who form the Government but who often lack a working grip on the spending programmes of their Departments. Ninety per cent. of those Department's programmes roll on untouched by, and unknown to, Ministers. The more motivated radical and experienced the Government, the higher is the degree of real financial control exercised, but even this Government, who have lessons to teach my party on all three counts, still rate only as a minority shareholder in the control of departmental expenditure. By de-blinkering MPs and enabling them to examine spending, Ministers would be next for liberation. Parliamentary scrutiny would rightly extend to the unaccountable and the unelected, the ultimate quarry being the senior civil servants who really run the spending machines. That target is a long way down the road, but only at that point will real political control over spending be achieved.

The final key weakness that I wish to highlight relates to the investigatory Committees of the House. The Select Committees could be the engines for change in the struggle for accountable government. Cynics might say that that is why the Committees are unlikely to be allowed to meet for another three or four months. To be effective, they must be free of Government and shadow Government influence and interference. They need to have a life of their own, an independence that can he guaranteed only by their direct election by hon. Members. They need to be empowered to order the attendance of Ministers and civil servants and to have a review or cooling-off period during which Government Bills could be examined for perhaps one month before they went to a Committee of the whole House.

Clearly, many other areas could be mentioned and, while I and my party remain committed to the abolition of the House of Lords, it needs to be made clear that our key priority for review must be the effective working of the Commons. A reconstructed and effective Commons would render irrelevant the question of the abolition of the Lords. I have had to skate quickly over some of the issues of Government accountability to Parliament. However, I hope that more considered representations from new Members, Back Benchers and the Procedure Committee will be treated in such a way that the tenure of the Leader of the House will be seen as a period of reform rather than containment.

The electorate currently regard parliamentary democracy with such apathy that 25 percent. do not register or do not vote. Most of the rest view Parliament with a large degree of cynicism, reinforced by the low-fibre diet of Prime Minister's Question Time. Disillusioned individuals ineffectually represented in a Parliament inadequate to challenge Government, will lead to people pursuing their challenge and finding their voice elsewhere. There is much of which to be proud in our representative democracy, but its continued ossification at parliamentary level may exact a terrible price. With care, we could build a bridge between parliamentary practice and constitutional theory that could reinvigorate our democracy, make for a stronger Parliament and better Government and, in my view and, I hope, in the view of my hon. Friends, lay the foundations for a democratic Socialist society.

1.43 am
The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on his success in securing an Adjournment debate so early in his parliamentary career. I suppose I ought to congratulate him too on holding the debate so late at night. I am not sure whether this constitutes a record, but it is certainly an impressive and bold achievement on the part of the hon. Gentleman. He has expressed some very clear views even though he has been in the House only two or three weeks. That does not mean that they should not be treated seriously. However, I should be interested to meet the hon. Gentleman again in a year. I shall not invite him to have another Adjournment debate in the middle of the night, but perhaps we could meet and compare notes and see whether he still retains the strong views that he has expressed.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the choice of subject. No one can deny that ministerial accountability to the House is a singularly important issue and that it is healthy that it should be debated regularly. I should tell the House that in the dying months of the last Parliament much parliamentary time was given to this issue. I welcome that. The hon. Gentleman identified a number of facets of this topic and they formed the main thrust of his contribution. I shall reply to some of his points, but if he feels that I have not done justice to all of them I shall write him a letter, with a more extensive reply. He will appreciate that some of the points cover the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and I can give brief answers on his behalf.

The principle that Ministers are accountable to Parliament is fundamental to our system of parliamentary democracy and I am happy to have this opportunity to restate, in the early weeks of the new Parliament, the Government's unambiguous commitment to upholding this principle.

This is a matter on which our policy is plain. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) explained to the House during a debate on 29 October last year, two basic principles govern the relationship between the Executive and Parliament: The first of these is that each Minister is responsible to Parliament for the conduct of his Department and for the actions carried out by his Department in pursuit of Government policies or in the discharge of responsibilities laid upon him as a Minister. He has the duty to explain in Parliament the extent of his powers and duties and to give an account to Parliament of what is done by him in his capacity as a Minister … The second principle is that civil servants, in turn, are responsible to their Ministers for their actions and conduct."—[Official Report, 29 October 1986; Vol. 103, c. 410–11.] As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know, these key principles of the relationship between Ministers and Parliament and the duties and responsibilities of civil servants to Ministers then became the subject of several Select Committee inquiries. These culminated in the reports by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee and the Liaison Committee in December last year. The Government's response to these reports was published in February this year. This dialogue centred on the accountability and answerability of Ministers and civil servants in relation to Select Committees, but in the process of considering this relationship it was necessary to clarify the basic principles of accountability which underpin our Select Committee system.

The Government's reply, Cm. 78 to which I have just referred, opened by saying: the Government recognises and welcomes the common ground which exists between it and the Committees on the basic principles underlying accountability…With these basic principles agreed, the Government is confident that understandings can be established which will enable the work of Select Committees to be carried on in a way which conforms with those principles and meets the needs both of Parliament and of Government". This has been the subject of considerable exchanges between the Government and Parliament over the past few months, and the opening of the new Parliament is a good opportunity to restate that position.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about public expenditure, which is a singularly important aspect of accountability. This is a matter primarily for my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury, but I am sure hon. Members will agree that there have been several developments in this sector in recent years which have helped improve Parliament's ability to scrutinise and examine public expenditure more effectively. For example, the preamble to the National Audit Act 1983 makes it clear that the purpose of establishing the National Audit Office and changing the status of the Comptroller and Auditor General to make him an Officer of the House was expressly to strengthen parliamentary control and supervision of expenditure of public money. The work of those bodies in support of the Public Accounts Committee has certainly enabled the House to perform this function more effectively.

Other changes which I believe have strengthened parliamentary accountability in this sector include the improvements to the public expenditure White Paper and the Supply Estimates. These have improved the read-across from the plans set out in the White Paper to the detailed request for supply in the Estimates. Public expenditure is now presented in terms of who plans it, what it is spent on, and by whom.

We should not forget, too, that Select Committees are able to examine departmental expenditure and many take advantage of this opportunity to a greater or lesser extent. It is, of course, for the Liaison Committee to recommend any specific Estimates to the House for debate following the deliberations of the Departmental Select Committees, and three days are set aside in each Session for this purpose. In addition, Government Departments make much more financial information available now, both to Select Committees, and more generally. All of this enables the House to examine Government expenditure much more rigorously than in the past.

Mr. Allen

As a newcomer to the House, it appears to me that the Government are not exactly drawn kicking and screaming to change, but they express reluctance and must be heavily pressed on the Procedure Committee or through some other organ of the House. Would it not be helpful for the Government to take the initiative, particularly on the public expenditure reviews and the various documents that come before the House, so that the process could he clarified before the House begins to scream, rather than after?

Mr. Luce

That is a matter for continuous dialogue between the Government and the Parliament of the day. The hon. Member may recall that after the general election in 1979 the Government were very responsive to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Procedure about the establishment of full blown Departmental Select Committees—if I may describe them as "full blown". I was a member of the Select Committee on Procedure then and I held very strong views about the role of Select Committees. I shall come to that point and respond to his other points about Select Committees.

This system has now been in operation for eight years and we must now, I think, cease to call it the "new" Select Committee system. I recall what an earlier Leader of the House, Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas, said in the 1979 debate on the motion to set up our current Select Committee system: It has been increasingly felt that the twentieth century Parliament is not effectively supervising the Executive, and that while the power and effectiveness of Whitehall has grown, that of Westminster has diminished. The proposals that the Government are placing before the House are intended to redress the balance of power to enable the House of Commons to do more effectively the job it has been elected to do."—[Official Report, 25 June 1979; Vol. 967, c. 36.] I believe that that has indeed been the case. That is a clear sign of the Government's willingness to make changes where that is the clear desire of the House and where that has been clearly and constructively expressed. The quotation from the former Leader of the House is the best possible example of that and shows that the Government have a very open mind on the issue and that we attach great importance to it.

Both civil servants and Ministers now see appearance before a Select Committee as a basic part of their duties. Select Committees in their turn have proved effective in discharging the role that Parliament has assigned to them of inquiry into the expenditure by the Administration and the policies of Government Departments. Of course, as I have already said, there are opportunities from time to time to debate the Select Committee reports.

I have tried to answer at least the main points raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North in his important speech. I share his concern that we should ensure that the House of Commons is able to fulfil its role as effectively as possible. I am sure that the House will continue to listen with interest to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he will change his mind on some of these issues as time passes. If I have not replied fully to all his points, I shall answer more fully by letter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Two o'clock.