HC Deb 31 March 1994 vol 240 cc1123-30

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Since I was elected to the House nearly two years ago, one of my great pleasures has been showing the palace to more than 1,000 visitors. When I welcome them here I say that this is a royal palace, but it is also the people's palace. I take my visitors to the Chapel in the Crypt and show them the plaque placed there by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) in memory of the great suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. I also take them through Westminster hall and rehearse for them all the great events that occurred there.

Then we go to St. Stephen's hall, where I invite my visitors to pause, and I explain how Charles I stormed into the House of Commons to arrest five Members of Parliament. I paraphrase the words that Speaker Lenthall uttered on that very spot, and I pull myself up to my full height, as no doubt Speaker Lenthall did when he looked the king straight in the eye and said something like, "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak except with the permission of this House." I tell the schoolchildren who come to visit me that what Speaker Lenthall was really doing, in the polite way that Speakers have, was telling the king to go and take a long running jump off Southend pier.

I then tell my visitors that Speaker Lenthall was also asserting the rights and independence of the House of Commons against the Executive, and I add that in my view those rights and that independence need renewing, or reasserting.

Today the Executive is not in reality Her Majesty the Queen, although things are done in her name. The Executive today consists of the people who sit on the Treasury Bench—the Government. Over recent years—the characteristic is not exclusive to the present Administration—there has been a growth of arrogance and of the arbitrary use, and perhaps misuse, of power by Government. That needs to be curtailed. The rights and the capacity of this place to be independent of the Executive, and to be able to probe them, scrutinise them and call them to account, need to be reasserted.

A kicking-off point for a renewal of the capacity of Members of Parliament to question Ministers and to call them to account would be for the House of Commons to repatriate to itself the control of parliamentary business and of the legislative programme. I am told that it is a relatively recent development that the Leader of the House, as a member of the Government, says what we shall do and what business we shall consider in this place.

It is a long overdue reform that the business of this place should be controlled by a Select Committee of senior Back-Bench Members of Parliament, with whom the Government would negotiate about parliamentary slots for their legislation. Indeed, it would be within the power of those Back Benchers to say that there was not parliamentary time for particular forms of legislation. That would be an extremely healthy step towards reasserting our rights and our capacity to control the Executive and to call Ministers to account.

We have a problem with the volume of legislation. Too much of it goes through the House. No hon. Member can say with hand on heart that legislation is properly scrutinised here. As a consequence it is poor, deficient in many areas and contains errors. That is partly the fault of the 651 of us who form the House, but it is also due to the poor management of the legislative process by individual Ministers. We recently had an example of that when the Railways Act 1993 was found to be deficient. An amending piece of legislation had to be railroaded through the House just over a week ago to deal with British Transport police. That shows that we are not doing our job properly, and that Ministers are not advocating, and framing and piloting legislation through the House properly.

I want the House to exploit the provisions in our Standing Orders to ensure that primary legislation, including politically contentious legislation, is examined in special Standing Committees, as happens in most other legislatures around the world, such as the United States and other Westminster-style Parliaments as well. In those Parliaments, Bills do not simply pass through the traditional Standing Committees. Through the use of a Select Committee element, there is proper probing and examination of the content and intent of the Bills. Our Standing Orders include that provision, but it rarely triggered, except in relatively uncontentious legislation. That is a pity, and we should start to use that provision, particularly in relation to Government legislation.

I wholeheartedly defend our two-Chamber principle. I do not defend the way in which the other place is constituted, but its role and function are extremely important. It reviews legislation that has been badly handled by the House of Commons, and acts as a check and balance against the excessive use of power—what Lord Hailsham referred to as parliamentary dictatorship. If a party wins a general election and the arithmetic is correct, it can form a Government and railroad legislation through the House of Commons regardless of its merits and whether it has been fully examined. The second Chamber helps to prevent that, but I want to see a democratically elected chamber.

It seems nonsense that we cannot examine or scrutinise senior and important Ministers from another place in the Chamber of the House of Commons. I wish that Members of the House of Lords who are Ministers could be questioned in the House of Commons, and vice versa. If the architect of a piece of legislation is a Member of the other House, it would make sense for him to pilot the legislation through this House.

I should also consider it appropriate for Ministers who are Members of the House of Commons to pilot legislation, which they have framed and which bears their fingerprints, through the upper House. That practice would not be a major departure. It exists in other legislatures around the world, and it makes sense. I am not bothered about the rubrics—I would allow Ministers from the House of Lords to come and speak from the Dispatch Box. But, if people want to be fussy, parliamentary carpenters could be asked to erect another Dispatch Box at the Bar of the House. The appropriate Minister should be in the House to be probed by the elected representatives, regardless of whether he or she is a Member of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

Lord Young of Graffham was, for a long time during the Thatcher Administration, a senior Minister holding a number of important portfolios. I was not a Member of Parliament then, but I would have been frustrated at not being able to get at him and subject him to parliamentary scrutiny. Baroness Chalker currently holds an important portfolio as Minister for Overseas Development, but we have no access to her here.

Perhaps the biggest example of the anomalous and undemocratic nature of the system, and the fact that elected Members of the House of Commons cannot directly probe all Ministers, is that of the office of the Lord Chancellor, and it is time for that office to go. It is a contradiction of the concept of the separation of powers. The Lord Chancellor is a member of the Government and the Cabinet—he is a politician. He is head of the judiciary—he is a judge. He is also the presiding officer of a Chamber of Parliament. That is nonsense. It is a schizophrenic role which needs to go because it is bad in principle and it frustrates parliamentary democracy and accountability.

I was concerned to read on the front page of the Observer on 6 March a report headed, "Judges outraged by Mackay". I have no intention of using this debate to go into the principle of that matter other than to say that I have tabled parliamentary questions to the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department who sits in this place. I was unable to get at the Lord Chancellor. There is a need for the matter to be scrutinised because there are allegations that the Lord Chancellor has abused his power as head of the judiciary by mixing it with his role as a member of the Government—as a politician. We need an opportunity to call that Minister to account and I regret that that cannot be done face to face.

My comments about schizophrenic roles are also true of the role of Attorney-General. The present incumbent has clearly, on a number of occasions over the past two years, been substantially embarrassed and confused—I am being courteous and probably generous to him—by his mixed role as a politician and somebody who, as in other jurisdictions, should act independently of the Executive. It is time that the Attorney-General was not a Minister and fulfilled a role separate from the Executive so that he or she could be seen and understood to be acting impartially. That is not the situation at present—certainly not with the present incumbent.

One vehicle for scrutiny in the House, which I exploit in all its capacity, is the tabling of parliamentary questions to Ministers for written answer; long may that be so. However, it is a limited form of scrutiny which troubles me a great deal. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) has tried to table many questions relating to Matrix-Churchill and to issues that are the subject of the Scott inquiry. Under the rules of this House, those questions are blocked. There is a rule that if a Minister—in this case, the Prime Minister—says early on in a parliamentary reply that he will answer no further questions, no more questions on the issue can be accepted by the Table Office. I have no complaints about the Table Office or about Madam Speaker. I am saying that we need to review that rule because it is not conducive to parliamentary democracy or to a capacity to probe and scrutinise. I can understand my hon. Friend's frustration. Such a rule is wholly unacceptable in a modern parliamentary democracy.

One must ask about what happens during a parliamentary recess. Before some in this place go on about—

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, Fast)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mackinlay

As the hon. Gentleman is an Essex man and as we are last in to bat today, I give way to him.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if, for example, one tries to table a question asking about the size of food mountains, one does not get a reply because the Government have blocked it? That is despite £250 million being spent every week on dumping and destroying food surpluses.

Mr. Mackinlay

I totally accept what the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) has said. Although he and I may differ on the principle of European membership, he is right to be jealous of his duty to scrutinise the matter. I am wholly with him.

The hon. Gentleman and I are frustrated in not being able to table questions during the long parliamentary recesses. It has to be said, of course, that this Parliament sits more than any other modern legislature; it sits more than the House of Representatives in the United States and more than the National Assembly in France. However, it is crazy that we do not have parliamentary Sessions more evenly distributed throughout the year. In the summer, the hon. Member for Southend, East and I are unable to table questions that we would table if the House were sitting. Some important issues can come up during the recess. Governments have rumbled the idea that the summer recess is the time to take action. Parliamentary journalists are away on their holidays and the House is not sitting. We must watch that. I want a more evenly distributed parliamentary programme and the capacity to table parliamentary questions for written answer during any recess.

Select Committee investigations do not take place during recesses either, and I think that that needs to be changed. Reforming the parliamentary timetable would help. I admire Lord St John of Fawsley, who, as a Conservative Minister, introduced the first significant parliamentary innovation promoting scrutiny of Ministers in the House for many a decade.

I am proud of this place, but Parliament is geared to probing the role of 19th-century Governments, who were not charged with taking us into the European Community, maintaining employment levels, promoting a health service and providing education, other than elementary education. I could go on. We have not amended our processes to meet the big expansion in the role of Government—apart from establishing Select Committees, the development of which still has a long way to go.

I believe that evidence should be given to Select Committees under oath. To lie to a House of Commons Select Committee should be to commit an act of perjury, and Select Committee procedures should be beefed up accordingly. I used to get up in the middle of the night to watch the Watergate hearings on television: I was very disappointed when the series ended. It was exciting to see Senator Sam Ervin and his colleagues probing the United States Executive. He did a very good job. That function—the function currently performed by Lord Justice Scott—should be performed by a Select Committee in the House along the same lines as those of the congressional Watergate hearings.

In that way, we could have avoided the unacceptable behaviour of some who have given evidence to Lord Justice Scott—most recently Lord Trefgarne, a former Minister, who implied that the matter was of no great consequence. He said that it was "neither necessary nor desirable" to advise Parliament about changes in policy. If such matters were dealt with by a reformed parliamentary legislature, the Executive's deficiencies and abuses would be exposed; indeed, some of them might not have come about with the beefed-up parliamentary scrutiny to which I have alluded.

Ministers have enormous power in appointing the heads of quangos and agencies. I do not wish to trespass into political differences over numbers and so forth, but enormous patronage is available to Ministers. A House of Commons Select Committee needs to be able to scrutinise the nominations of agency heads, and to probe those nominations before they are confirmed by the House of Commons. It is perfectly correct for such people to be nominated by a Minister, but for them to be confirmed by Parliament would be a useful departure, which would enable us to scrutinise the role and decisions of Ministers in that important regard.

I promised the Minister that I would give him adequate time to respond, but I want to mention another matter, which I am sure will interest the hon. Member for Southend, East. I refer to the royal prerogative. I know that it will concern the hon. Gentleman that under our jurisdiction important treaties—including the Maastricht treaty—are approved by royal prerogative. The lengthy legislation that we had to examine last year on Maastricht was merely consequential, arising from the treaty approved under the royal prerogative.

Many other matters dealt with by royal prerogative would, in other countries, be subject to Acts of Parliament and scrutiny by the legislature, including the banning of trade unions at GCHQ and questions such as jury vetting and telephone tapping. The issue of the royal prerogative urgently needs examination by people who are proud to defend the concept of democracy, and wish to promote it in this land.

Sir Teddy Taylor

God save the Queen.

Mr. Mackinlay

The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, refers to the monarch. Let me make it clear that I do not blame the monarch in any way. I am reminded of the words of Walter Bagehot, who described our constitution as having two parts. If I remember correctly, he said that the sovereign was the dignified part—indeed, the present sovereign and head of state is a most dignified lady, who commands universal respect—and the efficient part was the Administration, the law makers. That is where my views depart from those of Walter Bagehot. I note that he is dead, however, so perhaps he should be expunged from all the textbooks on British government and constitution as his views are now irrelevant and out of date. The Government and the Executive are inefficient and arrogant with power, but we cannot adequately bring them to account because of the arcane practices and rubrics of this place. It is time that those practices changed.

It will not have escaped your notice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am working towards the election of a Labour Government at the next general election. Although I think that my party will win, I want more. I want it to deserve to win and its emergence to be welcomed by the people of this country. I hope that, between now and the general election, my party will see that the issues that I have canvassed this afternoon are highly attractive to a vast group of people who may have no natural affinity with or support for the Opposition but who want change and the promotion of democracy in our land.

Those who wish to take this country into the next millennium must consider how things are run and how the Executive is scrutinised. They must draw up a programme that will be attractive to people concerned with those issues. I hope that my speech will herald some consideration both by my party and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I hesitate to intervene on the hon. Gentleman as I have already done so in a previous debate today, but the benefit of these debates is that the Minister is given an opportunity to reply to the points that are made. The Minister now has only nine minutes in which to reply, so the hon. Gentleman should finish his speech.

Mr. Mackinlay

I have finished my speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In fact, I took the precaution of discussing the timing of the debate with the Minister and his office and we agreed that I could trespass until 2.50 pm.

2.51 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. David Davis)

Thank you for your tolerance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) warned my office about the length of his speech.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock on obtaining this Adjournment debate—irrespective of his timing—and choosing the subject of ministerial accountability to Parliament. The questions that have been raised are both important and wide ranging and it is right that the House should have an opportunity to debate them.

May I say a little about ministerial accountability itself? The concept of ministerial accountability to Parliament is, of course, fundamental to our unwritten constitution, but the hon. Gentleman has suggested that this and other Governments have somehow eroded that concept. That is definitely not the case.

Accountability is a word that must be used carefully. The word "accountable" is now used interchangeably with "responsible" and "answerable". While the words often overlap in ordinary language, the key importance of accountability is that it implies a two-way relationship. Ministers are accountable to the House for the policies, action and resources of their Departments. In our system of parliamentary democracy, the Government are formed by the party that has a majority in the House, and remain in office while they retain the confidence of the House.

Government Ministers are, therefore, accountable to Parliament and, ultimately, to the electorate for their policies and the actions of their Departments. Giving an account of what is done by their Departments is part of that concept of accountability. Civil servants can assist Ministers in giving an account to Parliament but, unlike Ministers, they are not directly accountable to Parliament. Parliament cannot give them directions or dismiss or discipline them. Ministers are accountable to Parliament; civil servants are accountable to Ministers.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Thurrock suggest that Parliament should have greater powers to check and scrutinise the Executive. He will not be surprised to hear me say that the view from my position is slightly different. It is clear to me that Parliament has the powers to call the Executive to account and I welcome that. It is right that it should be the case.

The hon. Gentleman was particularly concerned about the powers of Select Committees and their role in scrutinising the work of Ministers and Departments. The Government are always ready to consider seriously proposals for change, but I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the working of the Select Committee system was looked at in great detail by the Procedure Committee in 1990. It recommended some minor changes to the way in which the system operates—most of which the Government were happy to support and which have since been implemented.

The main conclusion of the Procedure Committee's report, which I commend to the House, was that the system of departmental Select Committees—as established, as the hon. Gentleman said, by Lord St. John of Fawsley—was working well and had achieved considerable success in working across a wide range of issues". The Procedure Committee studied the powers of Select Committees as they are set out under Standing Order No.130 and concluded: It will be clear from the tenor of our remarks that we do not detect any signs that the freedom of action of departmentally related Select Committees has been in any material way hampered or constrained by the wording of their existing remits. Secondly, on their powers, the Procedure Committee said: There is little or no demand from Select Committees for any increase in their powers to send for persons, papers and records … We do not therefore consider that new or additional powers are necessary. While we are always ready to consider suggestions, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has caused me to come to a different conclusion from that of the Procedure Committee.

One role for Select Committees that the hon. Gentleman suggested was that of involvement in public appointments and in the process of appointing chief executives of next steps agencies and other senior officers in Whitehall. I can understand the motives of those who make such a proposal, but I am not convinced that it would be right to adopt such an approach, since it would cut across ministerial accountability to Parliament.

Although public appointments are the responsibility of Ministers, they can be challenged at any time in the House, through parliamentary questions, Adjournment debates such as this, or even motions of confidence. For example, the hon. Gentleman may recall that a public appointment made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales was raised in points of order not long ago.

I would also be concerned that parliamentary scrutiny before public appointments were made would risk politicisation of the appointments procedure and might discourage people from putting their names forward for consideration—certainly those people who are outside the normal political circuit, who are very important to the efficient running of Government.

A direct interest on the part of Parliament in the appointment of chief executives might be taken to imply that those civil servants would have a direct link to Parliament. That would be a constitutional innovation of great magnitude and I am not sure that it could be accommodated in isolation. I would, therefore, find it difficult to agree with the implications of his proposals.

En passant, the hon. Gentleman mentioned a fixed-term Parliament. That idea has been raised before, but there are some practical problems. It is rare indeed for a Parliament to have no possibility of either extension or early dissolution. I have studied other Parliaments in the European Union and I understand that virtually all of them can be either dissolved early or extended if necessary.

If we had a fixed-term Parliament and a Government lost a vote of confidence, presumably the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we would extend the life of that Parliament in spite of the vote. I do not imagine that he would support such a state of affairs. On the other side of the coin, the notion of a Government sitting for a full, fixed-term Parliament does not sit well with the continual calls from the Opposition for the Government to go to the country. I am pleased that, whenever we have given in to those calls in the past decade and a half, it has invariably been an unpleasant surprise for his party.

The hon. Member for Thurrock suggested that the recess disadvantaged the Opposition and scrutiny of the Executive. He was concerned that he should be able to table questions and use other parliamentary tools during the recess. I cannot see a regiment of supporters for the hon. Gentleman's case. Indeed, he is exercising an interesting example of ministerial accountability by having me here at 3 o'clock on Maundy Thursday. Those matters are for the House itself. The Opposition have a role in them and I am sure that his arguments will be noted. However, I can assure him that it is not my impression that scrutiny of ministerial actions disappears during the recess. Certainly Ministers—perhaps sadly—do not disappear.

Finally, as I am in my last minute, I shall deal with the royal prerogative and with its most obvious and—in some senses—its most controversial use, that of treaties, a matter on which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) supported him. The House was much occupied with that question last year and I do not want to spend any of my last few seconds by going over old ground but, as last year's events made crystal clear, the House has an important role in relation to the exercise of the royal prerogative on treaties.

The treaty of Maastricht was considered in vast detail by the House—in more detail than by any other legislature in Europe. That demonstrates perfectly well that the scrutiny of—

The motion having been made at half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three o'clock till Tuesday 12 April, pursuant to the Resolution [17 March].