HC Deb 09 January 1996 vol 269 cc27-30 3.58 pm
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a United Kingdom Convention for Parliamentary Reform; to require it to take evidence and to make proposals; and for connected purposes. I am delighted to have this opportunity to ask leave of the House to introduce a Bill to establish a United Kingdom convention for parliamentary reform. I say that in spite of the fact that, as I shall describe in a moment, the process of winning the right to put the Bill before the House was in itself an excellent example of the reasons why the Bill is so necessary.

The purpose of the Bill will be to allow reform of our parliamentary system and procedures to be discussed objectively and in a non-party political manner, drawing on the wisdom of experts who are currently engaged in politics, and of those who are not. In that way, my Bill will allow proposals to be made and debated not on the basis of how much benefit they would bring to one political party or another but solely on the basis of their benefit to the citizens of our country, on whose behalf our present parliamentary set-up works so poorly.

My proposals are based on the highly successful work done by the Scottish convention. Although two of the four main parties in Scottish politics declined the opportunity to participate in the convention, the broad measure of agreement achieved over a wide range of political issues by the two parties that did participate was highly significant. It clearly showed that people of good will, when they are forced to put mere party self-interest on one side for a while, can produce a result that meets far better the needs of the electorate than the current political dog-fight ever can.

So why can we safely say that the present parliamentary set-up needs reform? For a start, there has been for some time widespread agreement on the need for change. Within the past few years, we have had the Jopling proposals and more recently the Nolan committee. But neither of them has come anywhere near satisfying the general public. As politicians, we are now just about the most despised of all the professions; only those who inhabit the Press Gallery—in the nether regions above your head, Madam Speaker—are more widely despised by the public than we are. How demeaning that we should be considered only marginally better than journalists. I say that as one whose father was a journalist—which at least proves that I am upwardly mobile.

If we are to gain more respect not just for ourselves—that is comparatively unimportant—but for the processes of government, so that our society can work better, and above all with a more widespread acceptance that our laws are sensible and worthy of being obeyed—with all that that means for the sense of well-being and common purpose in society—we should surely start by demonstrating that we can accept and understand the need for the reform of our own institution.

It was, I believe, Sir Cyril Smith who once memorably called this place the longest-running farce in Whitehall. Let us look at one or two examples of what he meant. In order to be sure of obtaining the chance to bring my proposals before the House today, I had to spend about 15 hours cooped up in a small room off an upstairs corridor somewhere that seemed, judging by the noise throughout the night, to be strategically placed just below Big Ben. There, my four hon. Friends who will be presenting the next four ten-minute Bills to the House joined me as we tried to snatch what sleep we could in a scene all too reminiscent of the doorway of some major London store on the night before the start of the January sales.

No doubt, next time, someone else will be so determined to ensure his place in the queue that he will feel compelled to wait not just for the 15 hours that we endured but for even longer. What an absurd way for Members of Parliament to decide who shall have the opportunity to put legislation before the House. Here we all are, paid more than twice the average wage, yet to do our job we have to indulge in this strange pantomime.

To take another example: every time we come to vote, it can take 20 minutes or more from the moment the vote is called to the moment a result is announced. I shall never forget the occasion, soon after I arrived in the House, when we started voting on a series of amendments to an education Bill at about 9 o'clock in the evening; apart from a short debate in the middle, lasting about 20 minutes, we then did nothing but vote until 1 o'clock in the early hours of the following morning. It is absurd that Members of this House should spend their time going through the Division Lobbies time and again, spending 20 minutes on each Division, three or four times an hour, for four hours on the trot. If we were setting up a new Parliament today, can anyone believe that we would not introduce some form of electronic voting system? [HON. MEMBERS: "No, we would not."] Of course we would.

It is not just the procedures that we use which are desperately in need of modernising if we are not to appear as a ridiculous anachronism to the average voter. If we were setting up a new Parliament today, can anyone imagine that we could do so in a debating Chamber that is large enough to hold only about two thirds of all the Members of Parliament? Of course we would not.

Nor would we dream of building a Chamber in which the main participants face one another a few feet apart, resembling gladiators in a Roman arena. The absurdity of that arrangement becomes clear when we remember that it arose from the simple fact that the Commons first sat in St. Stephen's chapel, where Government and Opposition occupied respective choirstalls. How often since the broadcasting of Parliament began—and particularly since it was televised—must the audience of Prime Minister's Question Time have wished that those occupying the Front Benches behaved less with the ferocity of gladiators and more with the decorum of choirboys?

Does anyone in the House believe that we can win the respect of the electorate as long as we maintain a system of questioning Ministers under which they are thought to have performed well only when they have been successful in hiding any glimmer of what might be called useful information?

As I have pointed out, we are the object of ridicule to many people. Is that any surprise, when we insist on maintaining practices and procedures that waste huge amounts of time and energy for no good reason other than that is the way in which it has always been done in the past?

Let us use the opportunity that the Bill can provide to see ourselves for once as others see us. The longer we hide from ourselves the extent to which the public despise us, the harder it will be to win back their respect. We need to clean up the mess of our politics, and where better to start than the way in which we run our own affairs?

My Bill will give Parliament the chance to hear proposals made by an objective, non-party political body as to how we can reform ourselves, so that we can once more win the respect of the electorate.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Rendel, Miss Emma Nicholson, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Menzies Campbell, Mrs. Diana Maddock, Mr. Matthew Taylor, Ms Liz Lynne, Mr. Paul Tyler, Mr. Don Foster, Mr. Robert Maclennan and Mrs. Ray Michie.