HC Deb 21 July 1998 vol 316 cc932-77
Madam Speaker

We come to the first Opposition day debate, and I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.36 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I beg to move, That this House, reiterating the importance of a strong parliamentary democracy in Britain, deplores the fact that successive governments have increasingly diluted the role of Parliament by making announcements to the media before making them to this House; by undermining the legitimate revising role of the House of Lords; by giving access to lobbyists at a time when the representations of elected Members are dealt with in an increasingly dilatory fashion; by inhibiting the rights of backbenchers to make criticisms of their own side; by encouraging planted supplementary questions which fail to hold the Executive to account; and by responding to questions and arguments with meaningless soundbites and partisan rhetoric instead of constructive answers. As I am coming up to my 25th anniversary as a Member of this House, this is a good moment to reflect on trends in parliamentary government, but we have not tabled the motion in the belief that there was a golden age from which we have departed. There certainly was not—not in my time, at any rate. When I was first elected, hon. Members wasted incredible amounts of time on voting through the night, which had no effect whatever on the substantive outcome.

Some things have improved in that period—we have a far more extensive and effective Select Committee system, for example—but important boundary lines have been crossed by successive Governments, at heavy cost to the ability of Members of Parliament to represent their constituents. The motion picks out some of them. I say "successive Governments" advisedly, because many of the trends referred to in the motion go back many years. We should never forget the catalogue of misleading of Parliament which was the Scott report. Long though it is, it should still be required reading for anyone who sits in this place, whether as a Member or as a Minister.

After the Scott report, no heads rolled at ministerial or civil service level; indeed, some people on the civil service side went on to high office. There was no lesson for the future and no example made, and a Government with a tiny majority survived censure by one vote. When a Government have a large majority, there is a danger that they will feel immune to risk of censure if they overstep the mark, whether by misleading Parliament, or merely by failing to inform Parliament or failing to take it seriously. Francis Pym pointed that out at the beginning of the Thatcher years, and he was proved right, even in the eyes of many of his colleagues.

The problems and failings set out in our motion are only part of the picture. We have readily co-operated with the Government on reforms that make the House more efficient, and we are pressing for more. We are working with the Government to introduce a series of wider constitutional reforms which we publicly agreed before the election, and which each of our parties put to the people in their manifestos.

We acknowledge that the Leader of the House spends some of her time fighting her corner within the Government on behalf of Parliament, as her role requires. So long as she continues to do that, we shall support her in that effort.

I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement that he will answer fully on Prison Service matters in the House. He is abandoning his predecessor's specious and self-serving attempts to distinguish between policy, for which he accepted some responsibility, and operational matters, for which he accepted no responsibility, despite his habit of getting pretty closely involved in operational matters. In practice, that meant distinguishing between good news and bad news, of which there was plenty. Bad news was always someone else's responsibility, and never the responsibility of the former Home Secretary.

Labour in opposition spent a lot of time denouncing the previous Government's failings in their dealings with Parliament. The Foreign Secretary was notably successful at it, especially in the debates on the Scott report. We would therefore have expected more from the Government. People had not bargained on the extent to which the agenda-setting techniques of opposition and electioneering would be carried into government, often by the same people.

The Government are preoccupied with getting the story they want into the media, if possible to the exclusion of less helpful news. That determines the timetable. They prefer the story to come out in the manner least open to challenge or detailed criticism. To the spin doctor, a leak is far preferable to a statement that is the subject of questions.

Madam Speaker has repeatedly criticised the practice of making announcements outside the House before statements are made and subjected to questioning in the House.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

May I pay tribute to Liberal Democrat spin doctors, who spun a rather anodyne, semi-Euro-sceptic speech by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), in which he moved into mild, anti-European mode? It appeared for three or four days before the speech was made, and the right hon. Gentleman was on radio and television before he gave it. When he made the speech, he got hardly any publicity. I congratulate Liberal Democrats. They are copycatting new Labour media techniques to the very letter.

Mr. Beith

I must disabuse the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend is not a member of the Government, and was not making a Government announcement. We have to work hard, against the massed ranks of the Government and the Labour party, to ensure that we get into the press. I am glad to say that recycled speeches are part of our general policy on recycling, which is to make use of good material as often as possible. I hope that all my right hon. Friend's speeches are repeated at regular intervals.

I was referring to what Madam Speaker has said about statements of Government policy being made in the House rather than outside it, and being subjected to questioning. She commented on this matter in the previous Parliament in response to my right hon. Friend, now Lord Steel, and she has done so repeatedly in this Parliament. A year ago today, she made a clear statement to the House, in which she said: The practice of briefing in advance of a ministerial statement by Whitehall sources or ministerial aides has been current for quite a long time. My impression is that, over the past 20 years, it has progressively developed to the point where the rights of the House are in danger of being overlooked. The House is rightly jealous of its role in holding Ministers to account. If it is to fulfil its function properly, it must be the first to learn of important developments in Government policy. I deprecate most strongly any action taken that tends to undermine this important principle".—[Official Report, 21 July 1997; Vol. 298, c. 703.] She used similar words on 12 February 1998 and on 3 July, when she said: I cannot deprecate strongly enough the leaks and the briefings that go on, perhaps behind our backs, in such matters."—[Official Report, 3 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 632.] She has given the Government a clear indication of the position of the House and their obligation to it, but the practice continues.

Last week, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment made a statement about the spending implications of the comprehensive spending review, yet it was not until the weekend that I read in the newspapers about performance-related pay for teachers. That important aspect had been excluded from the statement, but was announced during the weekend.

On Monday, I read in the newspapers that the Government propose an interesting constitutional innovation. They are apparently proposing a European second chamber—a grand House of Euro-Lords—in which members of national Parliaments would assemble to provide a revising chamber for the European Parliament. It is an interesting idea: I do not condemn it out of hand, because it is worth discussing, but, given the Government's view of the House of Lords, it should not do too much revising. We could debate those matters if a policy statement were made to the House. They are certainly significant enough, by a long way, to merit debate in the House.

The Home Secretary's announcement on Boxing day always delights me. I do not know whether hon. Members were safe from their radios and televisions on Boxing day, but I happened to hear that the Home Secretary had written to every bench of magistrates in the country telling them to get tough on football hooligans. That conjures up a picture of the Home Secretary spending Christmas day, when there is no postal collection, writing letters to magistrates all over the country.

It was another of those announcements timed to catch a story on a weak day for news. I do not rate it very highly on my list of statements, because it was not a significant policy, and it did not have much effect. I do not think that magistrates listen to Home Secretaries who tell them what to do in court. Constitutionally, they should not do so. That example shows the way in which decisions about statements are too often being made.

The second issue referred to in our motion is the Government's extraordinary unwillingness to accept the revising role of the House of Lords, which does not augur well for the reform of the second Chamber. At present, the existence of hereditary peers with votes inhibits the Lords from challenging the elected Government on issues that were in the manifesto on which they were elected, and quite rightly so. Challenges from the other place are usually on more detailed and less politically partisan matters, on which there are widespread anxieties about what the Government are doing.

In the argument about Scottish university fees for English, Welsh and Northern Irish students, we were faced with an irrational intransigence, and an adamant refusal to contemplate the idea that there could be another point of view. When the Secretary of State for Education and Employment was asked to say that he would not try to reverse the Lords amendments, he said: No, I shall not say that… The most important reason is that, when an unelected House attempts again and again to overturn the declared will of an elected Chamber, it is always the democratic elected Chamber that must succeed in putting through its policies…we shall overturn the Lords amendment, and, if the Lords send it back to us again, we will overturn it again. That is why this House must always prevail over the unelected House next door."—[Official Report, 13 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 132.] In the end, the Government agreed to include in the Bill a provision for a review, but getting even that concession out of them was like getting blood out of a stone.

There is increasing frustration in the other place at the unwillingness of Ministers to accept advice from a wide range of often expert opinion on matters that are not central to their political programme and did not feature in their election manifesto. For example, the Government refused to accept Lord Ackner's amendment for an advisory body on the criminal justice system, which had extremely widespread support and was not a partisan matter.

Ministers do not seem to like the idea of anyone else, particularly in the Lords but also in Standing Committees considering Bills in this place, having views that should be accommodated. They still seem worried about losing face, which is extraordinary for a Government with such a large majority. Why are they so insecure? What have they got to lose? What is their problem? I wonder whether counselling would help. They seem to have psychological difficulty in admitting that they are wrong, or that someone else may have a point that should be accommodated.

The question will have to be asked repeatedly during the debate on the reform of the House of Lords: do Ministers accept that there should be a revising Chamber or not? Will it be allowed to revise anything when it is eventually reformed?

Another matter that worries people inside and outside Parliament is that lobbyists may be more influential than elected representatives. The issue of formula one tobacco sponsorship left a long shadow, and dancing in the shadows we find Mr. Draper and others, who have glided effortlessly from a political to a lobbying role. Alastair Campbell's deputy has gone straight from government to the Murdoch empire, as corporate communications head of BSkyB.

There is much to be said for the proposal of the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews)—who sits on the Government side—that ministerial advisers should not be allowed to take employment as lobbyists within five years. That proposal is well worth consideration. The Prime Minister's response was that anyone who broke the rules would be out on their ear, but we have yet to see any bodies in Downing street. In any case, some of those causing anxiety are already out in lucrative jobs, and their high salaries may relate to people's belief in their potential influence.

At the same time as lobbyist influence seems to be on the increase, many hon. Members are finding some Departments dilatory or evasive in dealing with their representations. Ministers and Departments vary considerably in that respect. Some Ministers never forget that they, too, are Members of Parliament, and earn brownie points by the trouble they take in responding to Members—and good for them.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

They may soon be Back Benchers.

Mr. Beith

They may well remember that, come the reshuffle, they will be back on the Back Benches.

Those Ministers who do not fall into that "good" category should go into the black book, along with those Ministers who sail past the Members' Entrance on a wet night in a Government car, ignoring the queue of weary colleagues whose votes put them into the car in the first place. There is a definite difference in practice between Ministers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) asked a question to the Department for Education and Employment about disability legislation. The Department failed to reply for three months, so he tabled a question one Friday, asking when the Department intended to reply. The Department rang him up and asked him to withdraw the question, saying that it would make an announcement the following Monday. As a matter of courtesy, he did so. The Department then released the contents of its reply to the media on that very Friday, but only to Parliament on the Monday. That taught my hon. Friend to be helpful and responsive to Ministers.

I used to find that parliamentary questions were answered within 10 to 14 days. Looking through the questions on my desk recently, I noticed that I tabled one on 1 June which was not answered until 15 July. Perhaps that was because it was about the political composition of appointees to health trusts in the north-east of England, but it took the Department long enough to find out fairly readily available figures. I have never made it my habit to put down a named day for answer to a question unless I have some reason to want it on that day. However, I have discovered that most Members now find that that is the only way to get an answer within a reasonable period.

None of the problems I have described are peculiar to the present Government. They did not begin in May last year, but they should not be continuing if the Government intend to reform the matters.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The right hon. Gentleman did just say that he was used to getting answers fairly quickly, and that it was only recently that he had not.

Mr. Beith

Practice in some Departments has deteriorated recently, and needs to be looked at carefully.

When it comes to securing the compliance of Back Benchers in asking grovelling questions, the previous Government tried as well. They had their grovellers, especially at Prime Minister's questions. I remember the former Member for Welwyn and Hatfield, who used to go on about "that lot over there"; the Labour party is now on the other side, and he is somewhere else now. The difference is that the present Government, so far, are much better at it.

The Tories could not keep it up. They had some doughty rebels, such as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on the Scott report, and the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack)—who is now on the Front Bench—stood out on a few matters of principle in his time, and I commend him for it. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has made a political career out of rebelling. The Tories have had their anti-grovellers as well. Indeed, they had such a fundamental division over Europe that there were a whole run of hostile questions that they could not resist in any case.

Why do a Government with a huge majority—and a Government who claim broad unity within the party in carrying out their election programme—feel so insecure that they must keep everyone on message around the clock? What does that do for effective parliamentary scrutiny? Some of the most useful and constructive criticism of Government policy could come from Members with relevant experience on the Government side.

We all remember the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) asking Madam Speaker whether it was all right to ask an awkward question, even if it might embarrass the Government or the party. We also remember vividly the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) asking: Does the Prime Minister recall that, when we were in opposition, we used to groan at the fawning, obsequious, softball, well-rehearsed and planted questions asked by Conservative Members of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)? He asked the Prime Minister to distinguish his period in office by discouraging such practices and to encourage without fear or favour, and without showing partiality or affection—loyal Labour Back Benchers who wish to seek and provide scrutiny and accountability in this place?"—[Official Report, 3 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 358–359.] That is a legitimate and proper role.

So large is the number of new Labour Members that the Government have brought on to their own side experience in all sorts of walks of life, which can be a reasonable source of constructive and sensible criticism of what they are doing—criticism which they should invite and encourage, and to which they should listen. However, the duty Whip is always there with the book, noting down whether contributions have been helpful or unhelpful. I see that the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) has her pen at the ready. Where is that information taken? The remedy lies in the hands of hon. Members.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I have agreed almost wholly with the right hon. Gentleman so far. However, previous Whips did not need to write things down. They had various vocabularies which they employed outside the Chamber when the relevant moment arose.

Mr. Beith

Indeed. I have overheard many such conversations in my time. As a former Chief Whip, I could never equal them, given my sheltered life.

Labour Members do not need to accept and knuckle under to that level of discipline. Nor is it necessary to sustain their Government and their party in office, given the size of the majority. Their constituents will not thank them for it either, and their ability to suffer bad years—and bad election years—may be significantly affected if they are shown to be able to deliver constructive and sensible criticism from time to time.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

In my right hon. Friend's experience—which is longer than that of any of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Chamber—has there ever been a time when a Government member who dissented immediately became at risk of deselection, or of not being re-selected? Therefore, hon. Members' liberty to speak out—the purpose of being sent here—is qualified in a way that I have not seen in previous Parliaments.

Mr. Beith

With an extraordinary sense of anticipation, my hon. Friend draws my attention to a quote that I have with me from the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). He said: I cannot support my party in the Lobby tonight because I have not heard a convincing argument to satisfy me and enable me to do so. I would, in the more liberal times that prevailed in my party before the election, have joined the Liberal Democrats in the Lobby in support of their amendment, which comes closest to my own views but, as Labour Members know, shortly before the election, the standing orders of the Labour party were changed so that to vote against a Labour Government is now an offence against those standing orders and leads to withdrawal of the Whip and"— this is my hon. Friend's point— debarment from further candidature. I wonder what he had in mind. The hon. Gentleman added: One might think that an overreaction, given that we have the largest majority since 1935".—[Official Report, 19 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 398.] That underlines my point.

The problem of soundbite politics is still with us, although I thought that things might improve following the change in Prime Minister's questions. Personally, I was sympathetic to what the Leader of the House did in at least trying a longer period in which it might be possible to follow questions through with related supplementaries. I did not share the criticisms of those who said that the right hon. Lady was somehow diminishing the rights of Parliament by that action. It may have suited the Prime Minister's convenience—with his singularly low attendance at Divisions in the House—to concentrate all on one day. However, I genuinely believe that it was worth a try, and that it may still be made to work effectively.

The change has not got rid of the time-wasting partisanship, and Prime Minister's questions has become a fairly stilted occasion—just as the previous twice-weekly occasion had become. The change seemed to offer the prospect of a more systematic scrutiny, but has hardly done so. That is not the fault of the half-hour slot; it is the habit of uninstructive partisan exchanges which so characterised the dying days of the last Parliament and have reasserted themselves, quite inappropriately, in this.

Too many ministerial responses are meaningless put-downs which would never be accepted at a normal public meeting. If one went to a public meeting in my constituency—or any other constituency—and tried to use the same put-down expressions, one would get a severe reaction. The cry would be, "Answer the question. We did not come here to be insulted. We came here to ask questions and to get answers to them." That principle ought to hold in this House.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

As a new Member of Parliament, I am conscious of the need for quality debate in this House. Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that a key ingredient of that is the quality of opposition, and that, while we get the drivel and partisanship of an on-message, off-policy Opposition, the quality of debate in the House will not improve?

Mr. Beith

Some of my criticisms are levelled in that direction, but the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues must lead by example. If the Government get daft questions, that does not stop them giving rather more sensible answers which illustrate the paucity of the original question, rather than responding in kind. I can say that with reasonable objectivity because most of the gibes to which I refer were directed at the official Opposition.

The record of our debates shows that certain formulae recur again and again. There is a wonderful one which goes, "We will take no lessons". That is the Government's slogan: it should be written over their beds. The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs said: We will take no lessons from the Opposition about commitments to community pharmacists."—[Official Report, 8 July 1988; Vol. 315, c. 1124.] The Prime Minister said: The Foreign Secretary does not require lessons on how to be the Foreign Secretary. It is the Leader of the Opposition who requires lessons on how to be the Leader of the Opposition."—[Official Report, 13 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 367.] [Interruption.] They love it. When I repeat the phrases, Labour Members cheer. It is meat and drink to them.

The Prime Minister also said the Government did not "need any lessons" from the Conservative Opposition about the protection of the green belt. The hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said: I am very interested in what the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) said, but I do not need to take lessons from the Liberal Party."—[Official Report, 1 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 58.] Where do they get such phraseology? A Government who are never prepared to learn lessons from anybody will one day come a serious cropper. It is at least conceivable that from the official Opposition Front Bench there will come from time to time suggestions to which the Government should listen. I assert that such suggestions also emanate from Liberal Democrat Members and from Labour Back Benchers. The repetition of the formula shows that the thought process has stopped, and the formula has taken over.

When the Conservatives were in power, the line was "the winter of discontent", and hardly anything could be said without reference to that event of 20 years before. It happened before some hon. Members left school, but the phrase was reiterated in question after question. When we mentioned electoral reform issues to the Home Secretary, he said that we were against such reform in 1923. That is not strictly accurate, and it certainly does not apply to any of us in the House today. I expected someone to shout, "Munich," at the Conservative Front Bench, or to say, "Zinoviev," to Labour Members, not having discovered that the Zinoviev letter was a forgery. Such phrases go on and on, long after the expiry of their shelf life.

If Parliament is not visibly influencing events, the descent into partisan rhetoric may in part be a response to frustration. We are in danger of being turned into fans in a stadium, corralled in our team seats, shouting insultingly framed advice to those on the pitch, and organising the equivalent of the Mexican wave to provide the appropriate response to whatever is being said. Politics is a spectator sport, with salaries for the spectators, and, rather like football hooligans, they play to the cameras as well.

Madam Speaker has criticised the habit that grew up, and which seems to have been discarded, of hon. Members cheering when the leaders of their parties entered the Chamber. It was interesting to note that, once a year, that did not happen. That was on the day when television cameras were not here because we assembled in the morning before the state opening. When the Conservative and Labour leaders came in, one could have heard a pin drop. It was an occasion staged for the cameras, and all part of turning us into a kind of spectator sport. There must be a better way to run a Parliament.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

From my experience and practice, I work on the assumption that we should freely express our views in the House, always bearing in mind that we were elected not as independents but as party politicians. I was a Labour candidate, and had I not stood as such, I would not have been elected. Therefore, I have to balance my responsibilities to my party with my view that this is a free House.

Is there not an air of hypocrisy about this matter? How often do Liberal Democrat Members disagree among themselves in the Chamber? Unless they agree on all the important issues, which is unlikely, it is likely that they have disagreements upstairs or in the constituencies and do not express them in the House. Do not let us be too hypocritical, and become holier than holy.

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that what I have said is addressed to the House as a whole. We are challenging hon. Members to change the way that this place operates.

I do not deny for a moment the importance to the hon. Gentleman of being a Labour Member and wishing to express and support his party's views. I appreciate his pleasure at the fact that a Labour Government are in power. However, I know that there are areas in which he disagrees with the Government, and he is one hon. Member from whom I occasionally hear that. There are many others from whom I do not hear even the most guarded, careful and constructive criticism of what the Government are doing, at times when such comments could usefully influence the Government.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

To show that some of us are not holier than holy, may I say that I sometimes disagree with my right hon. Friend? I draw his attention to the fact that the frequent Government rhetoric about not taking any lessons from the Opposition is designed to cover the fact that the Government are taking lessons from the Opposition. An example was the Home Secretary eating his words about getting rid of privatised prisons.

Mr. Beith

I fear that that trend developed in the run-up to the election, when they were all on the same message and used the same language about crime. In some cases, they protest too much, because there is agreement and they wish to emphasise disagreement.

We are challenging the Government and hon. Members in all parts of the House to try to reverse some of those trends. It will not be enough simply to rely on good will and good intentions. Reform and modernisation must build in safeguards to ensure that Parliament can hold the Executive to account, and that laws and regulations are not merely pushed through this place but revised and modified to meet concerns that have been expressed through the democratic process on behalf of the people who will be affected.

Some steps have been taken. They include a resolution of the House on ministerial accountability, which is referred to in the Government's amendment. That amendment is characterised not by matters on which I disagree, but simply by complacency, and I challenge the Government to do rather better.

Other steps include the determination of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs not to be denied information that it needed to carry out its work of scrutiny. I welcome that, but the Committee had to fight hard for it. Another was the first steps towards a logical system of programming the discussion of Bills. There is still a long way to go to make that system work properly, but we have supported the Government in taking the first steps along that road.

Let us have more major reforms that can help to safeguard Parliament's position. More use of Special Standing Committees was shamefully abandoned after being introduced by the previous Government. Those Committees enabled witnesses to be heard before we started the detailed consideration of Bills. There could be more use of pre-legislative examination of Bills. Constitutional Bills could be examined partly in Committee and not wholly on the Floor of the House, where much time is taken up by repetitive argument and not enough is spent ensuring that a Bill's details are right. A price will be paid for that in Scotland and Wales, because there was insufficient scrutiny of some of the detail of the relevant Bills.

Why cannot Parliament sit more evenly through the year, and not disappear for nearly three months at this time of year? I think that the Executive like it that way. They are delighted to get rid of us, and there will be a sense of relief in Departments when we have dispersed, but that is not a good way to ensure that the Executive are held continuously to account.

We could have a system like the Australian main committee system, which extends the scope for Chamber-type activity to give more opportunities for ministerial policy statements to be questioned and for Select Committee reports to be debated. Of course, the biggest parliamentary reform would be to get rid of artificial majorities and give parties no more and no less strength than the voters had accorded them, but on that the British people will decide.

5.7 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'notes that members of the Government are present daily in both Houses, putting forward the case for the Government's legislative and financial proposals and being held to account for its policies and actions; welcomes the all-party support for the establishment of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and the endorsement by the House of key proposals to make Parliament more effective and efficient; notes that more statements have been made by ministers this session than in the equivalent period in 1992–93, and that Cabinet ministers have given oral evidence to select committees on more occasions than the average for the past seven sessions; and believes that the Government has lived up to both its manifesto commitment and the 19 March 1997 resolution on ministerial accountability. I welcome this debate in the way that I always welcome debates on matters pertaining to the House. It is the third debate on parliamentary matters on Opposition days in almost as many weeks. We are pleased to be here, and I can understand why Opposition Members are keeping away from policy issues, especially after our comprehensive spending review announcement last week. I cannot say that the topic for debate has gripped the House's attention. If attendance is an indicator of concern about the way in which the Government relate to the House, it should be noted that about 25 per cent. of Liberal Members are present and that the Opposition Back Benches are empty. I congratulate the Conservative spokesmen, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on being here. With such a poorly attended debate, it cannot be said that the motion gives rise to massive concern.

The Liberal motion and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) both proclaim: A plague o' both your houses", although he has acknowledged that there are some important issues that we should all take on board and talk about.

Perhaps I can start with two points of agreement. First, although some people think that there was a golden age, there has never been one. There has never been a cocooned situation, with Parliament acting in a vacuum and the press and people outside never asking any questions of politicians, other than those that were asked in the House. That is probably a good thing. Secondly, I agree with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed when he implies that the low point in the relationship between Government and Parliament was probably at the time of the Scott report. That is a fair point and I think that everyone, in all parties, has to learn from that.

I should like to take each of the items in the Liberal motion and set the record straight on some of those before going on to other points.

Mr. Maclennan

I think that the right hon. Lady is a very courteous Leader of the House, but may I ask her to set an example by referring to my party by its actual name? She persistently refers to us as the Liberal party and she must know that that is not the party that is represented on these Benches. There is a Liberal party, but it is not in this House.

Mrs. Taylor

I am happy to be corrected. Perhaps I am displaying my age in remembering the fact that, when the right hon. Gentleman was in the Labour party with me, a Liberal party existed on those Benches, but I shall try harder and try to recall the words "Liberal Democrats", even though it is sometimes difficult to use them in certain circumstances.

The first accusation in the motion is that the Government are making too many announcements in the media before making them to the House. There is more pressure now. I think that it has built up over the past decade. Broadcasters are trying all the time to put pressure on to get stories in advance. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed acknowledged that. He said that the pressure had built up during the time of the previous Administration. I think that that is true, but I also think that we all have responsibilities to get the balance right in informing the House where appropriate and in giving the wider picture to the press as necessary.

We all have one problem in common—try getting any issue on to the "Today" programme if it is something that happened the day before. That programme and others of that ilk are interested only in speculating about what might or might not happen—I am glad to see hon. Members agreeing. That is one of the difficulties: people are trying to anticipate the parliamentary agenda.

I remind the House what the ministerial code says on that matter: the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament. That is the code that we try to stick by. It does not, of course, stop Ministers talking in advance about the issue, the background and the problems that have led to any change in policy.

Time and again, I have heard Ministers being pressed to go further when they have been interviewed on the "Today" programme, resisting revealing their conclusions, but being willing to set the scene, not least because, if they did not, we would probably hear the view of an Opposition spokesperson or someone from another party and no one would have put the other point of view. Judgments have to be made on that basis every day. It is important that we remember the basic rule and that Ministers, when setting the scene for a statement, do not overstep the mark and give away details that should first be revealed to the House.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The right hon. Lady is right to quote the principle, but may I ask her to reflect, for example, on the past week? It was clear that a series of statements were to be made in the House by Ministers following the comprehensive spending review, and we all knew in advance what the order of ministerial statements would be. Clearly, by that definition, they were important, yet, on almost every occasion, many of the details of the statement that was made here at 3.30 pm were, in precise terms, in the press that morning and so the subject of discussion on radio and television.

Can the right hon. Lady say to us with any clarity that there has not been pre-briefing in the past week on almost every occasion by the Government? Given that it is obvious to the country that there has been, will she give an undertaking that she, on behalf of the Government, will ensure that, when we know that a statement is going to be made, no information will be given to any of the press about its contents until it is announced here? Then we could all be on the "Today" programme the next day, or not at all, but the "Today" programme would have to follow Parliament, not Parliament follow the blessed "Today" programme.

Mrs. Taylor

I should never have thought of the hon. Gentleman as naive, but I have no confidence that his last suggestion would be followed by anyone. It would be wrong for Ministers to give details of important statements on the "Today" programme, but, as I have said, it is appropriate on occasions to give background briefing. Certainly, with regard to the comprehensive spending review, an awful lot of what was being talked about was in the document that was produced at the time and in the departmental press releases in response to parliamentary questions, which were out on Tuesday. However, many people did not look at the detail until the individual Ministers came to the Dispatch Box and made their wider announcements. It is important that we get the balance right, and much effort goes into doing so.

Mr. Beith

I want to make this clear. In concentrating on the "Today" programme, the right hon. Lady is in danger of forgetting where much of this is happening. A lot of it is briefing by advisers—indeed, Madam Speaker has referred to that—to newspapers. If a Minister is on a programme and he goes too far, we all know that he has overstepped the mark and the criticism can be made. The problem arises when the information has come out, usually to the written media, in the days preceding a statement, and probably because of advisers rather than Ministers.

Mrs. Taylor

Exactly the same principles must apply in terms of scene setting and background information, but no inappropriate disclosures should be made outwith the House.

Mr. MacShane

Does my hon. Friend recall an all-night sitting when there was an earnest debate on corporal punishment and we all had to stay until six o'clock in the morning? We all opened, I think, The Independent and read a speech by a Liberal Democrat spokesman, which was printed in the paper because he had sent out a press release. The only problem was that he had not made the speech. Is there any greater contempt of Parliament than hon. Members pre-press releasing their speech and not even turning up to make it?

Mrs. Taylor

I remember that debate and the points of order. The whole text of that speech could have been read to the House from the newspaper before the Liberal Democrat Member had opened his mouth. That was an interesting situation, which fortunately does not happen too often. Perhaps that is because the House does not sit that late so often. Perhaps if we had more late sittings of that sort, we would have more breaches of the convention.

It is true that the Government are making many announcements and that there are many changes in the policy pursued by the previous Government. It is right that we should be making many announcements and changes in policy because, after all, that is what the electorate voted for. In fact, the Government have been making statements to the House more frequently than their predecessors. If we look at the numbers of oral statements per sitting day, at the moment, we are ahead of what other Governments have done. There are occasions when I have to advise colleagues against making a statement on certain days.

Occasionally, usually by agreement, there have been statements on Opposition days; it happened once following a private notice question from the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, on a Conservative Opposition day. Such statements have usually been by agreement and we are grateful if other parties feel it appropriate to give up their time because we try to respect the convention.

It would have been tempting to look at all the cases where the previous Government scuppered Opposition days by having statements. We are not saving up major announcements in order to destroy Opposition debates. Ministers have been very forthcoming. For example, I recall that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister came to the House at 10 o'clock one evening because he thought it right that the House should be informed, at the earliest possible moment, of an important development on the channel tunnel rail link. Such instances show how seriously Ministers take the House.

The second charge in the motion is that we are undermining the legitimate revising role of the House of Lords". It is the most puzzling of the charges because I am not sure what the Liberal Democrats are saying. Is it that the Government must accept every amendment from the House of Lords? It is clearly not, as that would be daft. It is not undermining the revising role of the House of Lords to disagree with some of its amendments.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Since the Government came into power, on how many occasions have they accepted amendments from the House of Lords?

Mrs. Taylor

There have been more than 2,000 amendments to Government legislation, many of which resulted from the Government taking away and redrafting defective amendments, including some from the other place, because we accepted them in principle. A recent example is an amendment relating to parish councillors serving as school governors. Following amendments and representations in the other place, the Government took the matter away and came back with a technically correct amendment.

It is legitimate to assess each defeat in the House of Lords on the basis of the merits of the case and the importance of our original stance, and then determine whether the amendment is an important, constructive revision or one designed not to improve legislation, but to show simple points of disagreement.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the right hon. Lady acknowledge that, had the Government's proposals for the reform of the House of Lords proceeded to phase 1—that is, all hereditary peers were removed—the Government's defeat on Scottish tuition fees would still have happened? Would she still say that the Government could not accept that amendment, even from their reformed House of Lords?

Mrs. Taylor

I was not referring to that particular amendment. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is it that, with a reformed Chamber with no hereditary peers, this House should always give way to it?

Mr. Tyler


Mrs. Taylor

Therefore, the hon. Gentleman has no case. Each amendment must be looked at on its merits and the Government of the day have to make an assessment. I am beginning to wonder whether the Liberals of today are less radical than they were in 1910, when they first talked about reform of the House of Lords. I recall that when we debated the role of the House of Lords in the Joint Committee, before the last general election, there was no doubt in Liberal minds that the House of Commons must always be the primary Chamber. That is an important principle. As a Chamber, we are entitled to insist on having a particular amendment or on not accepting an amendment from the other place. However, there may be consequences such as delay or what we call ping-pong between the two Chambers.

The third point in the motion relates to giving access to lobbyists. Again, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made complaints that I do not believe stand up when we examine the details. It was unwise of him to highlight recent accusations, especially those in The Observer. That newspaper made three accusations, the first being that there had been some Government involvement in the leaking of a Select Committee report. That was a serious allegation and it was important to examine it, and that happened very quickly.

The right hon. Gentleman should know, because it is now clearly in the public domain, that the Select Committee report in question was available on an embargoed basis on Monday 8 June. It was the fifth report on energy policy. A Jonathan McShane, who works for GJW, signed for an embargoed copy of that report. That company allegedly breached the embargo and certain actions have been taken following that. There has been no suggestion of any Government involvement and it is important that that is acknowledged.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does the right hon. Lady agree that it would be far better if no embargoed copies were given to lobbyists?

Mrs. Taylor

I think that the incident in question will cause the House to ask questions about who should get embargoed copies. The security surrounding those copies is not all that great. However, it is our practice that anyone who has given evidence to a Select Committee has access to that Committee's report. In future, we must be careful about how we exercise that practice. Of course, journalists also have access to embargoed copies and, in view of what has happened, the House may want to review its practice.

The House is aware that people need to have proper information, which brings us back to the balancing problem, which was mentioned earlier, of how we give people proper information without them then breaching the embargo.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the early publication of the draft Bill on freedom of information would do more than any other single act to restore and improve the relationships between Government, Parliament and the public? As Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, I can tell her that we were grateful to be given copies today—within the two-months deadline—of the Government's response to the Select Committee's comments on the White Paper, "Your right to know". Will she assure the House that, in line with signs from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the accompanying letter, the Government will be able to publish the draft Bill in late September for further scrutiny?

Mrs. Taylor

It is still our intention to publish that draft Bill, and I shall come to the subject of draft Bills later. I hope that publishing the White Paper was a sign of good faith. We are grateful for the work that my hon. Friend's Select Committee has done on it.

I want briefly to deal with the two other allegations in the motion, as we need to ensure that they are on the record. There was a suggestion that the Mansion House speech had been leaked. The Observer called the information that was supposed to have been leaked "gold dust". If so, it was fool's gold because it was a fantasy leak—those items were not even in the speech. The other information in that article did not stand up either.

In case the Liberals—[HON. MEMBERS: "Liberal Democrats."] Yes. If the Liberal Democrats want to talk further about lobbyists, I must remind them that the famous McNally amendment in the other place was, as we learned recently, written by lobbyists. I was not aware of that until I saw an article in The Independent on 7 July. The legislative officer for the National Federation of Retail Newsagents was quoted as saying: Along with the Telegraph and the Guardian we had been LOBBYING the Government ourselves over the Bill… A firm we use as consultants (Charles Barker) suggested that we speak to the Liberal Democrats and we did that. We were introduced to Lord McNally and he agreed to table an amendment to the Bill. Charles Barker helped us in drafting a possible amendment. I will not say that we will not take lessons from the Liberal Democrats because I have been told not to do that. However, all hon. Members must be extremely careful about what they say. Lobbyists can play both legitimate and illegitimate roles. We have to be careful that we do not throw mud and simply accept what is in The Observer or anywhere else when real issues have to be examined, not only by the House but by others.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I think that the Leader of the House will agree that if lobbying organisations—acting on behalf of, for example, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association—were never allowed to supply amendments to hon. Members, much current legislation would not have been enacted. Lobbying has to happen. However, as she rightly said, we have to ensure that lobbying is regulated and that, in many cases, it does not entail financial implications for the Government or civil servants.

Mrs. Taylor

The point I was making is that people should not he self-righteous about it.

There have been problems with correspondence from Ministers, but the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and other hon. Members will know that I have taken action to try to improve the situation. It is true that, in some Departments, the volume of correspondence has increased significantly—something that, I am told, happens after every general election—but we shall soon be publishing information on the volume of correspondence, targets for responding and the percentage of replies that have been sent within those targets.

As for inhibiting the rights of Back Benchers, I do not think that, with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) sitting alongside me, I have to say any more. I do not think that he feels particularly inhibited. However, we will make no apologies for being a well-disciplined party. Moreover, I think that the electorate will appreciate the fact that Labour Members are happy to support the Government. We all know the difficulties that the previous Administration experienced because they were so riven by indecision. As has been said, a lot of mythology has grown up around inhibiting rights.

I am not sure whether the Liberal Democrats are saying that only hon. Members who disagree with Government policy should ask questions. However, I think that Labour Members are perfectly entitled to welcome Government policy, if that is what they want. I also remind the House that Government Back Benchers are in a particularly difficult position. The fact is that 325 Labour Back Benchers are competing for chances to participate at Question Time. Moreover, in debates, they are competing on an equal basis for a chance to speak with a much smaller number of Opposition Back Benchers. Therefore, if Opposition Members want changes in the House's procedure, perhaps we should consider allowing Government Back Benchers—because of their number—to ask two supplementary questions for every one from Opposition Members.

I had some examples to share of meaningless soundbites and partisan rhetoric, but—as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has given us enough examples of his own—I shall not do so.

I do not want to take too much time for my speech, as other hon. Members want to speak. However, I should say that I regret that the Liberal Democrats have not used their motion today to welcome some of the Modernisation Committee's changes, particularly on programming. A Government with our majority could have imposed guillotines on every single Bill without taking into account the wishes of any other party. However, we have adopted a less confrontational approach, and tried to proceed by agreement. I sometimes think that we have proceeded too much by agreement in dealing with the Liberal Democrats.

The House will recall that the Government were happy to consider on the Floor of the House the main clauses—dealing with the Bill's principle—of the Government of Wales Bill and to consider its remaining clauses in Committee, as happens with the Finance Bill. However, as the official Opposition are so fixated with the idea that Committee stages should be taken on the Floor of the House, we reluctantly agreed, through the usual channels, to consider that Bill in that manner. It was hardly arrogance on our part to agree to do that.

I hope that we shall be able to deal with other legislation in other ways. However, not only the Government but Opposition Members have to be accommodating on those matters. We can proceed by agreement only if other parties will meet us halfway.

I wish that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed had mentioned Euro-scrutiny, and the very good report from the Modernisation Committee—with the backing of the Select Committee on European Legislation—that improves the House's scrutiny of what is happening in Europe. The report is a big step forward and should be acknowledged.

We have in some cases extended the remit of Select Committees, and, when requested, given them Sub-Committees. More Cabinet Ministers are appearing before more Select Committees than ever before. We have established the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege and have taken other, similar action.

Governments, and Ministers, occasionally make mistakes. If a mistake is made, it is right that we should offer an apology—which the House is usually very willing to accept. However, I do not accept that there are significant and real problems. As I said at the beginning of my speech, there has been no golden age. If each hon. Member is to try to improve Parliament's position and role, we shall all have to work together and be willing to consider how the House operates. The House cannot merely make more demands of Government.

We can be proud of the Government's record in responding to the House's needs. We are trying to lead the way in modernisation, to consolidate that relationship. Although there will always be a healthy tension between Government and Parliament, we have to maintain a proper working relationship, and that is what Ministers are trying to achieve.

5.36 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Both the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) talked about there being no golden age. I suppose that it would be truer to say that each one of us has his or her own golden age, when things were really splendid. However, I think that we all agree that it would be very difficult to come across a shared golden age.

When the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made his speech—very felicitously, as he always does—my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) whispered to me, "I wonder if he would have made that speech when he was Chief Whip of the Liberal party?" As the Leader of the House made her speech, I could not help but wonder whether she would have made that speech had she still been on the Opposition Front Bench and Conservative Members had still been on the Treasury Bench. The answers to the questions are, of course, "No, he wouldn't," and "No, she wouldn't."

We have had in this debate some interesting observations and information from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. The fact that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) is not a member of the Government came somewhat as a surprise to Conservative Members.

I must also confess that I was slightly disappointed when I was told about the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—whom I always think of as a friend—and his Boxing day television. If one has to watch politics on television on Boxing day, one really has been driven to some form of extreme.

There is a serious subtext to this debate. I should refer the House to an interview that was reported, in March 1998, in The Sunday Times, in which the Minister without Portfolio was quoted. He said: It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is coming to an end. He went on to discuss the role that plebiscites, focus groups, lobbies, citizens movements and the internet will have on replacing Westminster democracy". It was a chilling message.

I suspect that feelings that have been enunciated many times in recent months about such messages perhaps prompted the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and other Liberal Democrat Members, very wisely, to choose the subject for today's debate. It was certainly because we were concerned on that front that we chose this general subject, focusing on Select Committees, for a Supply day debate a couple of weeks ago. I should like to go through the motion, as both the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and the Leader of the House have, and to make a few observations.

The motion refers to the making of announcements. The Leader of the House tried to gloss over that, but should not have done so. Within a week of the beginning of this Parliament in May last year, at least three announcements fulfilled the criteria about which she has just told the House: significant changes in policy should be announced on the Floor of the House. If the announcement on the Bank of England was not a significant change of policy, I do not know what is.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

The House was not sitting at the time.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The Chancellor needed to have waited only two days—and could have done so. The fact that he did not showed a trend.

It was a pity—I put it no higher than that—that the Leader of the House did not announce on the Floor of the House the change to Prime Minister's Question Time, which has not helped the parliamentary process. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady's parliamentary private secretary, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), is very good at making sedentary interventions. I understand his frustration because, once upon a time, I was a PPS. He is deeply frustrated because he feels passionately about matters and wants to have a go—God bless him—but is not supposed to say anything. It is a pity that the change to Prime Minister's Question Time was not debated in the House. I remind the right hon. Lady of the Modernisation Committee's undertaking to consider and assess the matter. I very much hope that, in assessing it, she will take the feeling of the House, as she has properly on other issues. The change has not been a good one; I suspect that many colleagues in all parties share that view.

Let us consider the announcement, to great fanfares—literally—of the change to an ethical foreign policy. Of course, I would not subscribe to the view that we had an unethical foreign policy in the past, but for the Government, the change was great and should have been announced on the Floor of the House.

The motion refers to undermining the legitimate revising role of the House of Lords". The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made some pertinent points about that, but the Leader of the House, who is a fair-minded person and enjoys wide respect in the House, did not really meet them. I saw in one of the daily newspapers recently that a Downing street aide was reported as having said: Peers are sent to do a job and that job is to represent the party not snub the Prime Minister. We'll be more careful who we appoint in future. That is pretty sinister. We are told that we are to do away at a stroke with hereditary peers, yet no proper coherent plan for a second Chamber has been put before the House. The Government have embarked on a major constitutional change without telling us of the destination, which some of us would quite like to know. It is very bad for democracy if newly appointed life peers are being sent to the House of Lords with such a remit. The House of Lords has a legitimate revising role, and it is important that it should be able to say, "Think again."

When I sat on the Government Benches, I was one of those who were strongly opposed to the War Crimes Bill. I was delighted when the House of Lords took action. It was entirely constitutionally proper for the Government and the Prime Minister, now Baroness Thatcher, to override the House of Lords, but it was equally proper for the House of Lords to tell us to think again. It was very unwise of the then Prime Minister to ignore that warning.

Mrs. Taylor

I do not want to take issue with the hon. Gentleman on the constitutional position, but he must agree that, although it is right that this Chamber should consider what the House of Lords says, we have the right to say whether we accept its advice. Nothing should be automatic. By rejecting any Lords amendment, we are not undermining the principle of a revising Chamber.

Sir Patrick Cormack

No, but there should not be automatic repudiation of the House of Lords actions. I am afraid that that is what has happened. The majority in this House should not be used as a steamroller to crush sensible amendments, such as that to the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, concerning Scottish universities, which was recently sent back to the House of Lords a couple of times. Although there is nothing between the right hon. Lady and me on our understanding of constitutional doctrine, the application of that doctrine and the high-handed way in which the House of Lords has been regarded over the past year is deeply disturbing. This country would not be well served either by a unicameral system or by a second Chamber of placemen and appointees. It is terribly important that an independent element has the opportunity to say to us, with its wisdom and experience, "Think again." [Interruption.] The PPS, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, is at it again.

We should bear it in mind that their lordships do not have our constituency responsibilities; they have more time to think and reflect than we do. There is therefore an opportunity for them to say to us, "Look, you haven't got it quite right." I think that that was behind the part of the Liberal Democrat motion concerning the House of Lords. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was entirely right to make the point, and the Leader of the House should think a little more carefully about her response.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman and I may not agree on every iota of policy on a second Chamber, but I share his implied frustration. One of the reasons often given for criticising a Lords amendment is that it comes from the House of Lords—referring implicitly, and often explicitly, to the make-up of the second Chamber. Its configuration is such because Governments of both main parties since the war have allowed that to be so. The Government are going to change that. The amendment on tuition fees would have been agreed without the votes of hereditary peers. We are all willing to listen to an alternative view; we should not rubbish those who put it. Until the House of Lords is changed, their lordships have as much right to put their point of view without being rubbished as we have to put ours.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The amendment would have been agreed without the support of not only hereditary peers but Conservative peers. There was a majority of non-Conservative peers on that issue.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed talked about lobbyists, and the Leader of the House sought to reply, making some reasonable points. We should all be very concerned about the growing power and influence of lobbyists. We in this Chamber should be the lobbyists. We are sent here by our constituents, who have the legitimate right to expect us to lobby and put forward points of view on their behalf—even if we must dissociate ourselves from such points—in order to ensure that they are appropriately and adequately considered in Government circles.

The accretion of power to lobbyists and the deluge of their paper into our offices every day performs a disservice to the democratic process that we must address. The Leader of the House was gracious enough to acknowledge that when she spoke of embargoed reports. We must look at the code of conduct governing lobbyists. I hope that we shall have an opportunity in the reasonably near future specifically to debate that subject.

The motion refers to inhibiting the rights of backbenchers". Let me draw the attention of the House—hon. Members in the Labour party will, of course, have received this missive—to a letter sent out by the Chief Whip and quoted in the press on 18 August 1997. He wrote: Dear colleague, I am circulating to every member of the Parliamentary Labour Party the extract from the Labour Party rule book which deals with membership conditions and the national disciplinary rules. In particular, can I draw your attention to rule 2a, 8, which states that no member shall engage in a sustained course of conduct prejudicial, or detrimental, to the party? That is fair enough up to a point, but no party machine should seek to snuff out the independence of Members of Parliament. I am delighted to see in the Chamber the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is a loyal member of his party. He is not afraid to express dissent when he feels that his party is going wrong on particular issues.

Mr. Mackinlay

Do me a favour. Call me a dirty swine.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I used to have praise heaped on me when I spoke against the poll tax, so it is rather fun to get my own back. The hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and several others are those whom new Members should take as exemplars.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed talked about the planting of supplementaries. That is not new, or unique to the Government, but my attention has been drawn to the activities of the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs who was caught drafting questions for Labour Members. He wrote to the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Ms Lawrence), urging her to table a question on carbon monoxide poisoning, and suggesting precise wording. He added: I can assure you of a helpful response which your local paper may be interested in when I respond to you on the floor of the House on April 2. Perhaps it should have been 1 April. It is a pity that planting of questions has reached such a pass. I used to be hostile when some of our Ministers circulated hymn sheets of suggested supplementary questions. I did not believe that it did any service to the parliamentary process, and I objected strongly.

Dr. Lynda Clark (Edinburgh, Pentlands)

Can the hon. Gentleman assure me that the Conservatives have abandoned the idea of planting questions? I was unfortunate enough to have them try to plant one on me some months ago, and I declined to ask it. I agree with the general thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says. Planted questions are unhelpful, and I should be delighted to hear that the Conservatives had given up the practice.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. and learned Lady's charm and distinction are such that she was mistaken for a Conservative Member. We are learning.

Planting questions is not a good idea. Those who are elected to the House should have the nous to ask their own questions, and to think up their own supplementaries. I can truthfully say that I have never accepted a plant. I hope that no self-respecting Member of Parliament ever would.

The motion mentions meaningless soundbites and partisan rhetoric". My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has analysed the Prime Minister's responses to questions over the past year, and found that the Prime Minister sidestepped the question or refused to answer no fewer than 88 times—once in eight answers. That is the prerogative of Ministers at the Dispatch Box, and everyone does it from time to time. However, it has become an art form for the Prime Minister, who should look over his old answers. He was asked a straight question the other week, about when he last met Mr. Rupert Murdoch. He answered that he regularly meets newspaper proprietors. That is no answer. He was asked a specific question, and he should have given a specific answer. We have a right to know when the Prime Minister meets the most important media mogul in the world. If we are not told, we shall continue to ask.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

My hon. Friend has referred to a question that I asked the Prime Minister, and I am glad that he felt that it was pertinent. I discovered subsequently that the Prime Minister had seen Mr. Rupert Murdoch at Chequers only three weeks earlier.

Sir Patrick Cormack

My hon. Friend crept in, leaving me unaware that he was here. I was not at Chequers, but I am most grateful for that information, which is on the record now for all to read.

The amendment tabled by the Leader of the House is a shade complacent. She asks us to note that members of the Government are present daily in both Houses". Big deal. Where else would they be expected to be? The right hon. Lady really cannot get away with that. Those Ministers are, she says, putting forward the case for the Government's legislative and financial proposals". What else are they supposed to do? They are also, she says: being held to account for its"— the Government's— policies and actions", but I do not believe that that is done as effectively as it should be.

The motion mentions all-party support for the establishment of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons". The Leader of the House will readily acknowledge, as she has before many times, the constructive roles played by my right hon. Friends the Members for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and for North-West Hampshire—and, for a time, by me—on the Modernisation Committee. The thrust of that Committee should be to make the House a more effective forum, and to make our other Committees more effective instruments for scrutiny. Every proposal from the Modernisation Committee should have those aims in view. If we believe that they do, we shall support them. If not, we could not support them.

The Leader of the House said that Ministers have made more statements in this Session than in the equivalent period of 1992–93. That is understandable. A Government flushed with victory and with all sorts of things to place before us should introduce more statements than a Government in the last year of a Parliament.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that 1992–93 was the first year of a Parliament?

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am sorry. However, we were already into our fourth term, and we were merely building on the achievements of previous periods in office. The past year was the first in which the Labour party had been in power in 18 years, and we expected a lot of statements. However, many of those statements were leaked.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was right to say that we need to consider the media's position, particularly that of "Today". I know that Ministers are tempted to accept invitations on to that programme, but it is wrong of them to trail statements in detail before they make them in the House. I trust that the Leader of the House will remain in her position after the forthcoming reshuffle, because she is a good Leader of the House.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

That's got me worried.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am sure that she has no need to worry. I hope that the right hon. Lady will use the recess to write to her ministerial colleagues to draw their attention to the code, telling them precisely what they should and should not do and say on "Today" or elsewhere.

The motion states: ministers have given oral evidence to select committees". If a Select Committee asks a Minister to come, the Minister comes to give evidence. It is quality of evidence and lack of evasion that are important. There have been some sorry performances before Select Committees in the past year, one of which has occupied the attention of the House more than once. The Leader of the House cannot rest on her laurels.

The motion says that the Government have lived up to their manifesto commitment. The Leader of the House will know what is satisfying in that regard, but, from this vantage point, I do not feel that the Government have served the House as they should have over the past year.

An item in today's Financial Times says that the freedom of information Bill is at risk. Even if only by way of an intervention, I hope that the Leader of the House or the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, who is scribbling furiously, will nail that lie. I take it that we will get the draft freedom of information Bill that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster promised in the Queen's Speech. It would make a mockery of the defence that the Leader of the House has put up this afternoon if we will not.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made an interesting speech to introduce the motion. The House is grateful to him. I hope that his colleagues will support him. Although there are many differences between us and the Liberal Democrats—to give them their full and exalted title, although the hon. Gentleman who complained about that seems to have left—I hope that we are united in wanting a Parliament in which Government can be held fully and properly to account and where legislation can be fully and thoroughly scrutinised. I hope that the Government will take no further step to frustrate either of those objectives.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is particularly pertinent to this debate and to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). Today, the Government issued a White Paper entitled "Promoting Disabled People's Rights for the 21st Century" on the creation of a disability rights commission—a manifesto commitment by the Government and a matter of major concern to disabled people. I understand that the Minister responsible for disabled people talked about the forthcoming White Paper on the Radio 4 "Today" programme this morning and that there was a press conference launching it this morning, yet there has been no statement about it to the House. Is this not another example of the Government bypassing Parliament? I should be grateful for your guidance on whether it is normal practice for the Government to issue a White Paper through statements rather than the "Today" programme.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am a member of the Select Committee on Social Security, which is having a busy round of meetings. The Government have made much of trying to involve the Committee in pre-legislative inquiries. We are conducting one on pension splitting on divorce. Just as the Government did not see fit to bring the White Paper to the House, they did not see fit to bring it to the Select Committee. What is the point of having a Select Committee if it is kept in the dark, like the rest of Parliament?

Mr. MacShane

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Had we had a statement on the White Paper, we would not have had a debate. As the official Opposition never allow statements on their Opposition days, is this point of order not typical of the frivolous hypocrisy that we have come to expect of—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. It is not automatic practice that a statement of Government policy is always made to the House. Over the years, practice has varied according to the matter concerned. It is not a point of order on which the Chair can rule, so much as a matter for a debate. We happen to be having that debate now.

6.3 pm

Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South)

I am sure that disabled people will be more interested in the fact that, after 18 years without progress on disability rights, we have a Government who are about to do something about them.

I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have given us the opportunity of debating the relationship of Government to Parliament, for two reasons. First, it gives us the opportunity to nail the myth perpetuated by the Opposition parties that the Government have little regard for the House or Back Benchers. Secondly, I am fed up with the derogatory and damaging portrayal of new Members as having no interest in fulfilling their scrutiny role. Particularly offensive are the gratuitous attacks on new female Labour Members, which are as sexist as they are unjustifiable. To be fair, they have emanated from the Conservatives rather than from the Liberal Democrats.

The majority of new Members do not want the great traditions and history of the House eradicated or its role downgraded, but, to use a concept defined by a distinguished Member of the House, we seek to apply traditional values in a modern way. At the heart of this debate are the accusations that the Government have centralised power in the hands of a few Ministers and trusted advisers, and that scrutiny and debate have been abandoned in favour of spin doctoring and sycophancy. It is time that the facts spoke for themselves.

The Prime Minister set in motion a system for electing Members of the European Parliament that will inevitably lead to reduced Labour representation in Brussels and an increase in the representation of Opposition parties. The Government have devolved power to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The Tories have been practically wiped off the political map in Wales and Scotland, but will almost certainly secure more representation than they have now.

The Government are committed to a referendum of the British people on the Jenkins commission recommendations on a new voting system. The option ultimately presented to the British people could conceivably not be favoured by the Prime Minister or by the majority of Labour Members. So much for centralist tendencies. I suspect that many Labour Members would welcome a more centralist approach on those matters.

Several accusations often appear on the charge sheet levelled against the Government on its relationship with Parliament. First, it is said that Back Benchers do not rigorously scrutinise the Executive. Let us be frank. The main Opposition party is the most ineffective Opposition for a generation. The shadow Cabinet is led by a man whose main virtue is that he is not the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Many of its members are recycled former Ministers who continue to labour under the misapprehension that they were born to rule and that 1 May 1997 was an illusion, an aberration or both.

There is also the often-repeated accusation that Labour Members are sycophants, ruthlessly controlled by a combination of pagers and my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). Perhaps we should ask the Foreign Secretary whether he feels that Labour members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs neatly fit into that category. We could ask the same of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in respect of his departmental Select Committee or of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose approach to the single currency was questioned publicly by the Treasury Select Committee. They are compelling, authentic examples of the Executive being held to account by hon. Members, but they are rarely used in evidence because they contradict the conventional wisdom of what has become a good story.

I do not deny, or apologise for, the fact that the instinct of the vast majority of Labour Members is to be loyal to the Government. There are three predominant reasons for that.

First, disunity made a massive contribution to the 18 years that we spent in opposition and ultimately rendered the Conservative party unfit to govern. Disunited parties not only do themselves a disservice, but become paralysed and unable to pursue the public interest.

Secondly, unlike their predecessor, this Government have put in place policies that allow them to achieve the commitments made in their manifesto. I want to hold the Government to account on the commitments that I made to the people of Bury, South before the general election. It is difficult to fault the Government on that, as the Opposition are rapidly realising. We can tell that because when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the results of the comprehensive spending review last week, the Liberal Democrats did not say that we should spend more, but suddenly suggested that they would watch more closely our ability to deliver.

Thirdly, there are many other ways in which Members can fight for their constituents' interests, including conversations in the Lobby; meetings with and letters to Ministers; ministerial visits; campaigns that attract the support of colleagues and the interest of the media; Adjournment debates; and Select Committees. I do not accept that loyalty contradicts independence and/or integrity or is somehow a threat to the purity of parliamentary democracy.

I turn to the other issues that have been raised in the debate. Of course, leaks of imminent Government announcements before ministerial statements in the House are regrettable. However, I sometimes wonder how Opposition Members maintain a straight face while protesting so self-righteously. Are such leaks a new Labour invention—no doubt the consequence of the inordinate amount of power given to the Prime Minister's spokesperson and other so-called spin doctors? It must be a figment of my imagination that similar leaks were common during 18 years of Tory rule and that a certain Mr. Bernard Ingham existed.

We have heard in the debate how Liberal Democrat spokespersons are capable of warning the press about speeches that they never deliver in the House.

There is also the bogus—I use that word deliberately—issue of the Prime Minister's attendance in the House. Of course it is right that he attends Prime Minister's Question Time and makes statements about international summits and other issues in his domain. He has done that, surpassing the attendance of the previous Prime Minister during his final 12 months in office. I cannot recall—perhaps my colleagues will assist me—many sightings of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) in the past 14 months. If his support for his colleagues was demonstrated by his 30-second appearance in the Chamber earlier, that is a sad reflection on his feelings about the importance of attendance in the House.

I believe that the Prime Minister owes no one on either side of the House an excuse or an apology for not attending more often. The British people want him to exercise his talents and energies tackling problems such as Northern Ireland, strengthening Britain's role in Europe and the world, and modernising our country economically and socially. It is only the egos and pettiness of some parliamentarians that would have him sitting in the Chamber waiting to vote late at night or touring the bars and the tea room.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Prime Minister has voted in about 5 per cent. of Divisions in the past year? Is he aware also that all the Prime Minister's predecessors since the war have voted considerably more often than that?

Mr. Lewis

I am aware that no Prime Minister in the history of this country is as popular as the present Prime Minister or has been able to begin to resolve the Northern Ireland situation. I am aware of many things regarding the Prime Minister's contribution since Labour was elected 14 months ago.

Of course it is essential that the Prime Minister remains in touch with the views and concerns of hon. Members, but meaningful structures must be created to facilitate that and lead to genuine, rather than superficial, dialogue. We have heard others mocking the fact that Labour Members ask helpful questions during Prime Minister's Question Time. Is it not time that we came clean with the British people and viewers around the world about the primary purpose of Prime Minister's Question Time? It exists to provide an opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition and Opposition Members to embarrass and undermine the Prime Minister and the Government in the full glare of the nation. It is disingenuous to suggest that it is anything but knockabout, superficial party politics. In that context, it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of Labour Members seek to assist the Prime Minister in rebutting Opposition attacks and promoting the Government's record in a positive manner.

I turn now to the much-maligned constituency weeks, which are parodied by the media as holidays and by the Opposition parties as another attempt to negate the importance of Parliament. Those views demonstrate clearly a flawed and out-of-date definition of the role of Members of Parliament. It is no wonder that, in the past, Members of Parliament were out of touch with the lives of ordinary citizens. Let us be honest with each other while no one else is watching: this place is a theatre, a village and an institution, but it is the furthest thing possible from the real world.

Of course, Members' roles in Parliament are crucial. However, of equal value are the roles that we fulfil in our constituencies. Case work, community leadership, and supporting local businesses, voluntary groups and schools are important activities and ensure that our actions in the House are informed by the life experiences of real people. I believe that the attitude adopted by new Members of Parliament to those responsibilities is, on the whole, different from the attitude of those whom they have replaced.

I remain perplexed by those hon. Members who manage to have paid jobs in addition to their role in this place—I can assume only that they are neglecting many of their duties. We all know that it is nearly impossible to do justice to the needs of our constituents and our families by confining our constituency activities to weekends. The concept of constituency weeks deserves praise, not cynical criticism from those who enjoy the game of politics but who often forget its purpose.

Parliament must continue to act as a credible check on the activities of Government. However, it must change if it is to retain the support and confidence of the people. Hereditary peers have no right to frustrate the will of democratically elected Governments. Outdated procedures and hours of sitting must be modernised if Members of Parliament are to make effective contributions. The Leader of the House deserves particular credit and support for her work in that area.

Irrespective of party, we should be better at explaining that much of what is best about the House and its scrutiny of Government occurs in the building but outside the Chamber. We should not seek to deny the impact of modern global telecommunications on people's views of politicians and politics. While there will be occasions when events in the House influence the political climate immediately or over time, we know that elections and popularity are increasingly determined by politicians' performances on the television and on radio and in newspaper reports and editorials.

Perhaps we should reflect on the fact that, when we fight for Parliament to hear important news first, we are saying that 659 people have more right to know than hundreds of thousands of citizens who tune into television and radio and read newspapers. However important elected representation is, are we correct in making that claim?

I believe that the charges levelled against the Government reflect the Opposition's frustration at the popularity of the Prime Minister and Government policies among the British people. Opposition Members hope that, by labelling the Government arrogant and unaccountable and their new Members of Parliament as sycophants, they will sow seeds of doubt that will eventually assist their political fortunes. In reality, the Opposition have no credible policies or alternative answers to the challenges facing Britain as we approach the 21st century. I am sure that the Government look forward to the day when they are faced with an effective Opposition. That is the real crisis of scrutiny in Britain today.

6.16 pm
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

The motion, which I very much support, is about the tension between Parliament and Government, but it is apparently also about the tension between different elements of the Labour party. That has become evident this afternoon, and I shall explain it to the Minister.

We welcome the areas of agreement and co-operation to which the Leader of the House referred, but there is an element in the Labour party that is keen to centralise information and keep it secret and to deny Members of Parliament their proper role. Both of those elements in the Labour party are represented in the House today, and they are progressing parallel to each other during this Parliament.

I am keen to debate the motion partly to tease out the battle between the two sides. The result will be determined partly by the freedom of information legislation, to which hon. Members have referred—notably the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who has done a splendid job progressing that issue—and partly by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who popped into the Chamber a moment ago. He is the subject of much criticism and undermining.

It is interesting that, despite all the leaks that have been mentioned, there has been no reference to the leak that has appeared in the newspapers almost weekly for the past six months, which tells us that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will lose his job. I am interested to learn where that leak is coming from—it is certainly not coming from the Chancellor of the Duchy. I wonder whether his view of the future, which is based on openness, accountability and freedom of information, is shared by those who are leaking against him and suggesting that he would be better out of his job. They imply that the job should go to someone else, and the name of the Minister without Portfolio has been mentioned in that regard.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a Government who dispensed with the services of a right hon. Gentleman as fundamentally honest and decent as the Chancellor of the Duchy would diminish themselves?

Mr. Baker

I agree entirely. The Chancellor of the Duchy is an honourable Minister and I hope that he retains—or, indeed, advances—his role in the Government.

Manipulation of the media is one area where the secretive and controlling tendency within the Labour party is exercised. The Leader of the House admits that there are background briefings to the "Today" programme. There is a fine line between a background briefing and providing information on documents that are about to be released.

I, for one, knew most of the contents of the White Paper on transport without having to come to the House to hear the Deputy Prime Minister's statement. On the radio that morning, he said that he was not responsible for that information having come out; I believe him because he is an honourable man, but somebody was responsible. All the information, on workplace parking charges, and everything else, was read out by the presenters on the "Today" programme as if it was fact, not speculation. It was stated, "Today's White Paper will pronounce on these particular matters." Someone had given the "Today" programme a clear steer which it had bought on that particular occasion.

The reason why manipulation of the media is so important is that it gives the Government an edge over Parliament, over the Opposition and, indeed, over their own Back Benchers, because the Government get their spin in first. Opposition Members and some Labour Members are fed up with living in spin and they want to see the Government proceed in a different manner.

In my Adjournment debate on 24 April, I set out the links with Mr. Rupert Murdoch and his colleagues—the incestuous relationships between close friends or members of the Labour party and Mr. Murdoch and News International. Recently, Tim Allan, who was for six years at the side of the Prime Minister, has taken the Murdoch shilling. We have watched the various links emerge between lobbyists and members of the Government—lobbyists who are members of the Labour party, or close friends of Ministers, or who have other such connections.

Lobbyists will always be with us of course, but it is important that they should be accountable, that we know what they are doing, that they perform according to set rules and that they are open to scrutiny. That is not the case at present. In a television interview earlier this year, Madam Speaker said: There are far too many of what I would term apparatchiks who have been accustomed, when a party was in opposition, to want to get the maximum publicity. Now in government they have to be harnessed a little more. That is exactly right.

The key question is whether the Government will allow one element—the central control freak element—to achieve its objective of pulling every lever available to it as the majority party as far as it will go, or whether they will exercise a bit of self-restraint in the interests of democracy and of Parliament and say, "No, we shouldn't pull that lever because it would tip the democratic balance too far in one particular direction." I would argue that some members of the Government are pulling every lever as far as it will go. There are many others who are not doing so, but some are.

Mr. Ivan Lewis

All of us on both sides of the House are concerned about lobbyists, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are a number of lobbyists who spend an awful lot of time around politicians in the House, who are members of the Liberal Democrats and who are actively seeking posts in that party—perhaps they want to be Liberal Democrat candidates at the next election? Is it not disingenuous to describe lobbyists as being solely the problem of the Labour party?

Mr. Baker

I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, even though he did not give way during his speech, but I do not think that he has been listening to my speech. The fact is that, because lobbyists will continue to exist, whether they are lobbying us, the Conservatives, the Labour party, or anyone else, it is important that they are regulated, that we see what they are doing and that they are publicly accountable for what they are doing.

Let me conclude by asking, what the role of Parliament is and how it is performing. We have a two-Chamber Parliament, but the upper Chamber is largely disregarded by the Government, who, when they do not like what comes out of the House of Lords, say, "That is an unelected body. It is full of hereditary peers and we shouldn't listen to them." The House of Lords is dismissed on that basis and is therefore ruled out of the equation in respect of amending legislation. In the Conservatives, we have an official Opposition who, bless their hearts, were not very good in government and are even worse in opposition, so they are not currently holding the Government to account to any great extent.

We have Labour Back Benchers, some of whom are very courageous and who, while being perfectly loyal to their party, speak their minds—I had better not say which Labour Members I have in mind, lest I damn them further, but there are those who speak their minds while remaining loyal. Equally, there are Labour Members who stand up at Prime Minister's Question Time and ask the Prime Minister whether he agrees that he is the best thing since sliced bread. That sort of question does not help the House. If they do not want to ask a difficult question, why do they not ask a constituency question and bat for their constituency, which is perfectly loyal and enables them to do something useful?

In summary, we have Labour Back Benchers who are constrained on pain of losing their seat, a Conservative Opposition who are frankly not very good, and the House of Lords which is ignored. In those circumstances, it behoves the Government to recognise that they have a massive majority and unlimited power. Although they do not use that power on every occasion, as the Leader of the House said, they have a responsible position and they must exercise their power responsibly. Labour Back Benchers must recognise that if that power is not exercised responsibly, it is not only the country that will be the loser. In time, the Labour party will be the loser as well.

6.24 pm
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I shall try to keep my remarks brief because I am conscious that the three Front-Bench speakers have taken up nearly 60 per cent. of the debate, so that, allowing the normal time for replies, only about 20 per cent. is left for Back Benchers. A little more timetabling would be no bad thing.

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has the whole-hearted support of our hon. Friends for her modernisation agenda. She can go harder, faster and further forward in making Parliament more effective, even notwithstanding a veto by the Conservatives.

I have been distressed to hear in the debate the view that the only truly honourable Member is one who disagrees with the manifesto on which he was elected. I find that utterly offensive. We are hearing the sour grapes of hon. Members who do not like the verdict of the British people. The British people decided last May on Prime Minister's questions and on several other issues, but, when the measures are put into operation, we are told that the people's views should be ignored because some obscure Liberal—or Liberal Democrat or whatever they call themselves—has to be heard.

We can scotch the myth that Parliament is somehow being downgraded. During the mid-19th century—the golden age of Parliament—the House of Commons met for barely six months and shut up shop for half the year. Churchill made his speeches warning Britain about Nazism to a completely empty Chamber. Over the past 10 years, from the high drama of Lady Thatcher's overthrow to the disappearance of the previous Government's majority, we have been fed on parliamentary royal jelly and it has been very exciting.

I remember that, when going into the Division Lobby three or four years ago, my pager went off; it was a message from my constituency party saying, "Defeat the Government." When we did so, a message came through saying, "Well done. Keep it up." I suppose I was on message even then, before the Whips got hold of my number—I have not given them my private number and they are not going to get it, either.

Now, we as a nation are in rather calmer water. We have a Government with a clear majority and an agenda for 10 or 20 years of modernisation and reform, as everyone in the country unites around new Labour and the third way; but, of course, the Government have to be accountable to Parliament. I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for providing figures on the extent to which the Labour Government are accountable.

So far, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made 12 full statements to the House and taken all the questions that followed, compared with only nine statements made by Mrs. Thatcher in 1983–84, when she also had a dominant majority. My right hon. Friend has already answered more than 800 questions in this Session. The fact is that, unlike every other Head of Government in Europe or anywhere else in the world, the Prime Minister comes to the House, week after week, to be held accountable by Members of Parliament.

So far in this Session, we have had 42,355 written questions, compared with only 35,000 questions in 1984–85, or 32,500 questions in 1991–92. The answers may not be satisfactory, but Ministers are responding. My goodness, I asked several oral questions of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) when he was Prime Minister and never once did I get a straight answer. It is absolute nonsense to suggest that Conservative Ministers at any stage answered questions directly or honestly.

One way in which the Speaker and Parliament can call Ministers to account is private notice questions. In 1992–93, the first full year of the previous Government, there were 26 private notice questions granted; so far in this Session, there have also been 26, so no change there. In addition, there have been many ministerial statements.

It is interesting to note that the number of Select Committee hearings has risen from 827 in 1983–84 to 1,081 in 1992–93; and by the time Parliament rises at the end of next week, that figure will have risen to 1,338. Select Committees are increasingly holding Ministers and experts to account.

It is nonsense to suggest that Members of Parliament are not putting the Executive under pressure. Perhaps they are not doing so in the House, because Front Benchers take up all the time with their lengthy speeches, but Back Benchers are having a tremendous impact in Committees. Many arguments have been presented and many opinions have been expressed, but the concrete facts that I have given show that this Government are as much under scrutiny—if not more—as any other recent Government.

Let me now turn to the fourth estate sitting in the Press Gallery. It would be helpful if the media provided some proper parliamentary reporting. The BBC has undoubtedly let us down by "cleansing" parliamentary reporting from the "Today" programme. However, we also need hon. Members to turn up. Where are they? They all trooped in for that stupid publicity stunt at 6 pm, but they then whizzed out as fast as they could to read out their statements. Admittedly, one Conservative Member is present—and a very distinguished parliamentarian he is, too.

We have had two important debates on the two most recent Fridays, one on NATO enlargement and one on the Landmines Bill. Last Friday's debate on NATO enlargement was opened by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary; his shadow did not turn up. The Opposition defence spokesman made the speech, gave apologies and left the Chamber. As for the debate on the previous Friday—the subject being landmines, an issue which was very important to the country—the shadow Foreign Secretary was present, but the shadow Defence Secretary did not grace the House with his presence.

That is the problem: we do not have an official Opposition who are taking the House seriously. Perhaps that is because there are 19 Conservative Front Benchers with extensive outside earnings. As long as this part-time approach to Parliament continues, with hon. Members' earning more from two consultancies—or other outside earnings—than from a salary for holding the Executive to account, this place will suffer. The Leader of the Opposition has cleaned out his sinuses. As a sufferer from sinusitis, I have some sympathy with him, but I think that, having done that, he needs to clean up his Front Bench.

In my opinion, this Government are accountable to Parliament. As a parliamentary private secretary to a Minister in the Foreign Office, I sense that Ministers are concerned about appearances on the Floor of the House and before Select Committees. That is right, but there is not much more that the Government can do until—occasionally—there is someone on the Opposition Benches. Until then, Parliament's good name will suffer.

6.32 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I do not think that any of us can take pride in the attendance at today's debate. Although this may be acutely embarrassing to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) in particular, I think that Parliament is diminished by the lack of interest that is being shown in such an important subject.

Reference has been made to a question that I asked the Prime Minister on 3 June. Let me place it on record that I have had no problems in that regard from the Chief Whip or from any of his subordinates. An awful lot of mythology is sometimes created about such things. Indeed, I have received considerable endorsement from some very senior members of the Government—although I will not embarrass them by saying who they are. The point is that, in my opinion, the message that I tried to convey on 3 June commands the support of many hon. Members across the political spectrum. I said that there should be less choreography and more spontaneity in the House. I also think that the growing habit of reading speeches should be deprecated.

Following what I said, there were many good-humoured comments, but there was also a suggestion that I had become a Trotskyite. When that charge did not stick, it was suggested that I was going to join the Liberals. Then I was asked whether I had been given Matthew Parris's planted question.

As for my being a Trot, I have been a member of the Labour party for a long time—like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—and I have supported and sustained Labour Governments and Labour Oppositions in good times and bad; but there are some who, as members of other parties in the late 1960s, the 1970s and the early 1980s, peddled the most godalmighty rubbish on occasion, and are now members of Her Majesty's Government. If anyone really pressed me on the issue, I would want to draw attention to that.

As for my joining the Liberals, if you cut me in half, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would see that I have "Labour" written all the way through me like a stick of rock. As regards Matthew Parris, I have never had a conversation with him in my life—although I would love to, because I am sure that he is a delightful journalist.

Another point was put to me, quite seriously. People said to me, "Your game plan, Mackinlay, is to be as difficult as you can, so that you will be promoted." That brings me to a serious issue. One of the problems in our political system is the assumption by friend and foe alike, by journalists and others, that promotion in politics means becoming a Minister. I reject that view. I want to make this abundantly clear: I want to paint it on people's eyelids. I do not want to be a Minister, and, during my time in the House, I have done everything possible to show it. I think that such a development would be retrograde. Above all else, we want people in the House of Commons who are prepared to scrutinise the Executive without fear or favour, and regardless of party.

Having said that, I must add that I have been guilty of many sins in my time, one of which is participation in adversarial politics. That is in the nature of our system, and I hope that I will do the same often in futures, but I feel that, far too often, we lob points across the Floor of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) referred to "knockabout superficial politics". I think that Oppositions should occasionally congratulate Governments, and Governments should accept sensible suggestions from Opposition parties. That, I think, is wholly consistent with the basic principle that British politics is adversarial. I hope that all parties will reflect on the need for greater maturity in approaching the ideas and propositions of the various partes.

Reference has been made to the number of statements that have been issued, the number of questions tabled to the Prime Minister, and whether statements should have been made to the House. There is a problem for any Government in that regard. If a Government are prepared to issue White Papers and so forth, they may clog up the parliamentary day and the parliamentary week with statements.

We saw that this evening. We are engaged in an important debate, but there was a statement earlier that ate into our time, and there have been points of order about the fact that there was not a statement about something else. We need a system allowing statements to be made that do not take up core parliamentary time, so that the House has an opportunity to examine other issues.

That brings me to the maturing role of Select Committees. Perhaps the task of taking questions on the Floor of the House should be more absorbed by Select Committees, if we want this place to remain the fulcrum of democratic debate in our country and to maintain its current richness and spontaneity, with less and less choreography. I must also accept, reluctantly, that we are moving to a presidential system. That is not anyone's fault; the fact is that telegenics is important, as are the instant news media. That exists, and cannot be undone or wished away. Meanwhile, the role of Government is so large.

I hope that, during the lifetime of the present Government, we will find ways of providing the necessary checks and balances of a presidential system, because that is what is missing. We need a system enabling us to scrutinise actions by Government—by the Executive. This basically Victoriana-style Parliament—I do not mean that disparagingly—has not so far been able to build such scrutiny into its machinery.

As for the House of Lords, I must say to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that it would be tremendously helpful to the United Kingdom if the Conservatives argued for a democratic House. Presumably my right hon. Friends would say, "We will take it." The fact is that, as sure as night follows day, there will eventually be a democratically elected upper House, and after a while everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about.

There is no excuse for not having a democratically elected Chamber—a Chamber subordinate to the House of Commons, which will always be supreme, but a second Chamber that has the opportunity to scrutinise and, indeed, to frustrate. I think that frustration is an important element in democracy. It should be there regardless of the fact that a Government may have a mandate at the general election—the mandate should not be a blank cheque enabling Governments to railroad through any measure without reflection.

I should like to see a democratically elected House of Lords. If we are to have an interregnum of an appointed House, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will consider these two suggestions: first, he could set up elections within the Labour party to decide who should be Labour peers, and no doubt other parties could follow suit; secondly, instead of having mere nominees from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of the other principal Opposition parties, why could not Madam Speaker nominate a few people, so that the loose cannon, the maverick, the eccentric and the jolly difficult could get into the House of Lords? That is, until such time as it becomes a democratically elected Chamber.

I have no desire to be a Member of that Chamber, because my lifelong ambition was to be Labour Member supporting a Labour Government. I have said already that my ambition was not to become a Minister. Instead, I wish to stay in Parliament in the Labour cause, staying in the House of Commons.

We need to consider the control and management of the House. I think that we should have repatriated to the House, from the Government, decision making on how and when the House sits and what train paths there are for legislation. Those matters should be in the hands of a Select Committee of distinguished parliamentarians, so that Government would have to negotiate the time that should be made available for Bills. Parliament would decide when the House should sit.

There should be ring fencing of private Members' legislation instead of the charade of having a Second Reading debate and no more. If there is a majority in Parliament—certainly in a democratic House—for a measure to go through, the Government, so long as they control the timetable, should ensure that it goes through the legislative process and is not held up by any humbug. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) graciously nodding in agreement. Believe it or not, I am grateful for that.

The Labour party in opposition, in general election after general election, at least implied to the electorate that, if it were elected, the abolition of fox hunting would be given the opportunity to reach the statute book. I do not lie awake at night worrying too much about such legislation, but I am certain that it was implied to the electorate that, if it commanded a majority in the House, such a Bill would be able to reach the statute book. That was implied, but it has not happened.

I welcome this debate. I wish that we had had more time to explore these matters. I conclude by reiterating the remark of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), that loyalty does not contradict the concept of independence in this place. I am proud to be a member of the Labour party. I was a Labour parliamentary candidate on, I think, six occasions when some others were members of other parties, trying to undermine Labour Governments and Labour leaders.

Sometimes the best friends that a Government can have are those who give them counsel and caution. Mrs. Thatcher eventually had no one left at the Cabinet Table to say, "Prime Minister, I think that the poll tax is a daft idea." There is always danger for a Government if there is suppression of the enthusiasm and loyalty of Back Benchers who see it as their job to counsel their own Government as well as criticising the Opposition.

6.42 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I would love to follow every intricacy of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), but I shall not do so, for two reasons. First, in the interests of brevity, we want to try to complete the debate reasonably soon. Secondly, it might embarrass the hon. Gentleman to know that I agree with almost everything he said, and that most of his arguments are Liberal Democrat policies.

I hope that the Leader of the House will have had time—if not, I hope that she will make time—to think carefully about the comments of a number of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber this evening, and to read an extremely interesting article in today's Independent by Donald Macintyre entitled, "Is there any life left in the House of Commons?" Many of the criticisms that have been made on the Floor of the House today are repeated in that article. These are not merely House of Commons matters, of concern only to Members. Many important and interested commentators outside the House share the views that have been expressed from those occupying the Liberal Democrat Benches and the Conservative Benches, and by the hon. Member for Thurrock in the past few minutes.

It was not necessary to be a supporter of the Labour party to witness and perhaps experience a feeling of some relief, hope and expectation on 2 May 1997. Many people, even Conservatives, felt that it was time for a change. One reason was that many people were fed up with the bitter memories of the arms-to-Iraq scandal, as exposed by the Scott report, when Ministers, despite the faults that were obvious then, and despite their demeanour in deliberately deceiving the House, refused to resign.

There were bitter memories, too, of a tide of sleaze—the lies and deceptions of some Members. Perhaps that involved only a handful of Tory Members, but some Members were involved, and there were still no resignations. There were bitter memories of a Government who dug themselves deeper and deeper into a hole—into a bunker, perhaps—and were afraid to face reality, especially over some of the crises that occurred towards the end of that Administration, such as the BSE crisis.

Against that background, the Labour Government came to office with a great deal of hope and expectation from people who were not necessarily their supporters, including many Liberal Democrats. One of the first actions of the new Government was to compress Prime Minister's questions in the parliamentary timetable from two slots on Tuesday and Thursday into one slot on Wednesday. That happened without adequate consultation, and without an opportunity for the House to debate the issue.

As it happens, I do not think that the new Prime Minister's questions format is that much worse than the old, but it was, to my mind, symbolic of the new Government and their arrogance on taking office that they did not think it necessary to give the House the opportunity to discuss that important change.

The hon Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) said that the change was referred to in the Labour party's manifesto. That is bunkum. The following statement appeared in that manifesto: Prime Minister's Questions will be made more effective. If anyone thinks that what we have experienced over the past 12 months is more effective than what we had previously, he should think again.

The only changes that have been effective are the ones that the Modernisation Committee has introduced into Prime Minister's questions. I am glad to hear that the Leader of the House has accepted my proposal that there should now be a proper review of the experience of the past 12 months, with all parties involved, so that we can fulfil the objective of the Labour party manifesto. Prime Minister's Question Time has certainly not been made more effective so far.

Another statement in the Labour party's manifesto was perhaps commendably brief, but I think that people would say that it was rather general: Ministerial accountability will be reviewed so as to remove recent abuses. That came under the heading "An effective House of Commons". Anyone who thinks that that has happened over the past 12 months has another think coming. That review may be coming, and I hope that it will, but it has certainly not taken place so far.

I hope that the Modernisation Committee, on which I am pleased to sit, under the chairmanship of the Leader of the House, will be given a role in the review. The Government amendment acknowledges that there has been no change since March 1997 on this issue. There is a reference to it, but there has been no change.

Substantial evidence has been put before the House tonight about ministerial statements. There was the recent curious episode when the occupancy of the Conservative Benches increased by about 400 per cent. when some Conservative Members dashed into the Chamber to tell us how important they think the House is—that happened for two or three minutes—and to draw attention to a White Paper published this afternoon promoting disabled people's rights.

When my party was consulted about the timing of statements—we acknowledge that that is a perfectly proper and welcome activity for the usual channels, and I shall not betray any confidences—we indicated that we would be very interested in a statement on disabled people's rights. However, we were not consulted about it being slipped in by the back door without a proper statement in the House. It is extraordinary that, if it was found necessary last week to make a statement on the subject—it was suggested that this was a proper day on which the statement should take place, although that would take time out of our debate—it should now be found necessary to make a statement, but not to the House, simply to the media at a press conference.

Those criticisms came originally not from Members but from the Speaker's Chair. It is Madam Speaker who has drawn attention to this habit of Government. Madam Speaker properly said—our motion endorses this—that the habit has not suddenly grown since 3 May 1997. I remember many occasions on which I complained to the previous Leader of the House in the previous Parliament about government by press release. That has increased, is increasing, and should diminish. That is surely an issue that the Leader of the House, who represents us all in government, should take up seriously with her colleagues in Cabinet.

I was surprised by the right hon. Lady's reaction to the criticisms from various parts of the House of the Government's attitude to the House of Lords. She cannot have been in her place when her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, in an extraordinary and uncharacteristic rant, gave the House the impression that anything that came from the other place should automatically be knocked down. That is effectively what he said. At the end of his speech that night on tuition fees at Scottish universities, he said that he did not care what was said in the House of Lords, it would be knocked down by the House of Commons, and we had a right to do so.

That is an extraordinary attitude to adopt a few months before we see the Government's proposals for the reform of the House of Lords, especially as that amendment, as has been pointed out, was defeated by the life peers, not by the hereditary peers, and by the non-Conservative peers. If that attitude is adopted, as the hon. Member for Thurrock said, the House of Lords will not be able, under the reform that the Government have in mind, to prevent a blank cheque from being issued to any Government—and it could be a Conservative Government in future.

The right hon. Lady and her colleagues should contemplate the occasions on which the House of Lords had the independence of mind, under those 18 years of Conservative rule, to knock down a Conservative proposition. Were the Lords all right then, and are they suddenly all wrong now?

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), in his inimitable style, presented some additional evidence to arm our case. I am grateful for his contribution to the debate; I just wish that he had had more support from his Back Benchers. Apart from the extraordinary episode I mentioned, they have been totally absent. I am glad that a couple of them have now turned up.

In the recent Friday debates to which the hon. Member for Rotherham referred, on landmines and on NATO, there were more hon. Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches than on the Conservative Benches. That comes hard from hon. Members who have spent considerable time in recent months complaining about contempt of Parliament. Where are they this evening? I expect that they have gone off to entertain themselves elsewhere.

The Labour Back Benchers who contributed to the debate have been notable for two reasons. First, we heard two speeches from Labour Members which, to judge from their tedious repetition, were evidently drafted by the Minister without Portfolio. Secondly, we had the interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Thurrock. I shall not embarrass him any more by referring to that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) identified precisely the purpose of Back Benchers, whichever party they represent. We are in the House to hold the Government to account. That is our purpose, collective and individual. I hope that we will see more of it in future.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred to the interesting contribution to a debate on 19 November 1997 by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), in which he spoke of the parliamentary Labour party's standing orders. In my view, they are a potential contempt of the House. In 1974, when I was a member of the National Union of Journalists, I was held to account by my union—by the Glasgow chapel of the NUJ—because I dared not only to speak my mind in the House, but to vote on a particular issue. I was summoned to a meeting of the Glasgow NUJ. I took the matter to the then Speaker, and it was found to be a clear contempt of the House.

The Labour party should look closely at its standing orders. If there is a real threat, as described by the hon. Member for Brent, East, that he could lose his livelihood because of the way that he spoke and voted in the House—for the sake of time, I shall not quote again what he said, but that is the clear implication—that was a contempt of Parliament.

I understand that the Prime Minister is to make one of his fairly rare visits to the House tomorrow to speak to the parliamentary Labour party. If he believes the words in the amendment to which he has put his name, he should seek to change those standing orders. I know that he cannot control these matters—presumably not even the Minister without Portfolio controls the parliamentary Labour party to that extent—but the Prime Minister should put his name to a change in the standing orders, to make sure that the "more than my job's worth" attitude of some Labour Back Benchers goes for good. That would be a useful issue for discussion at tomorrow's meeting of the parliamentary Labour party.

I shall refer to one other episode of recent weeks. On 1 July, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), the Prime Minister said: The hon. Gentleman will know that medical students are exempt from the new provisions on student finance."—[Official Report, I July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 355.] That was said with no qualifications—a firm statement. I must be careful not to use unparliamentary language, but it is simply untrue.

Everybody knows that that statement is untrue. Within a few minutes we knew that it was untrue, yet, under consistent pressure from my colleagues and me, neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the House has been prepared to accept that that is simply an inaccurate statement. It was probably a slip of the tongue, but is it not extraordinary that the foremost Minister in the country is not prepared to admit to a small mistake?

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Not big enough.

Mr. Tyler

Not big enough. Surely the Prime Minister and his colleagues should be prepared to accept that mistakes are made in the House. The least they can do, out of respect for parliamentary democracy, is admit to those mistakes.

In a parliamentary democracy, Ministers, and even the Prime Minister, must be big enough to be open and honest with Parliament. They must be big enough to admit a mistake, however big or small, when they are clearly in the wrong. One reason why the previous Government went down to such a humiliating defeat was that they became arrogant about their own power, arrogant in the conviction that they were always right and did not need to listen to anyone else, and arrogant in the belief that they did not even need to listen to the House of Lords.

For the sake of the future of parliamentary democracy and the confidence that people have in this institution, I should be sorry if the high hopes of May 1997 dwindled into dust. A Government who fail to take responsibility and to admit to their mistakes demean themselves, demean Parliament and demean the ethos of our democracy.

6.56 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)

I am proud to stand and defend the record of a Government who pride themselves on their openness, their modernising tendencies and their willingness to meet the needs and demands of the House.

Some of the comments made in the debate suggest that the House can be over-confrontational. That is true, but there are times when it is necessary to be confrontational. We must confront injustice, dishonesty, poverty in our communities, and so on. However, there are also times to be emollient and to accept criticism. Unfortunately, I have not heard a great deal today to make me feel emollient towards the Opposition on either side of the Gangway.

I shall deal first with the comments of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) about my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. By his own admission, he is the patron saint of lost causes. I know that his benediction on her prospects has caused her some concern. He will be aware, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) pointed out, that during the debate there was a sudden influx of Conservative Members, who quickly left when they had made their rather spurious point.

It is worth putting on the record what really happened. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) came in and suggested that, once again, the Government had, in her view, acted improperly—over the White Paper on disability. Let me give the timetable of events.

The White Paper on disability was announced in a written question at 11 o'clock; the White Paper was available from the Vote Office at 11 o'clock; and a press conference was held at 11 o'clock. Moreover, only last Monday, the Minister of State, Department of Social Security was refused permission, through the usual channels, to make the statement that was being demanded on benefit fraud—a subject which is supposed to be close to the heart of the official Opposition—because it was an Opposition day. It was established by your colleague, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there was no precedent for banning statements or ruling on how and when they should be made, particularly on an Opposition day.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made a number of charges against the Government, the first of which was on the presentation of Government policy. As we have said many times from the Dispatch Box, we have never shrunk from establishing in public that presentation is a key element of Government strategy. We do not simply believe that we have a right; there is a legitimate expectation that we present the Government's case in the most effective way possible. Presentation is extremely important if we are to have effective governance. People must know what we intend to do and how we intend to achieve it. We do not shrink from taking any measures required to ensure that that is done.

Despite the attempts of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to enlighten him, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed failed to differentiate between briefing and leaking. There is a big difference between the responsibility of Ministers and officials to ensure that the background and context of papers and policy announcements are put into the public domain, and the leaking of a policy change or White Paper.

What I found most extraordinary about the right hon. Gentleman was his defence of the Lords. Perhaps he expects that, in the not-too-distant future, he will join friends of his in another place. This House and the Government have not just a right but a responsibility to do what we believe is right with amendments to legislation that come back from the other place. Merely to quote a list of amendments which this House chose to change in accordance with the manifesto of the elected Government was extraordinary.

Mr. Beith

Does the Minister not remember occasions, when he was in opposition, when he challenged the Government of the day to accept sensible amendments tabled by another place against the wishes of that Government? Will he recognise that that must sometimes happen under his Government?

Mr. Kilfoyle

I recognise that there were occasions when we argued that the Government of the day should accept sensible amendments. Indeed, I recall one such occasion when the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) fully supported us, and we eventually defeated the Government. However, the key word is "sensible", rather than wrecking amendments, or amendments designed simply to defeat the will of this House.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The Minister is entitled to say that he does not agree with the amendment on students at Scottish universities, but is he seriously telling the House that it was not sensible?

Mr. Kilfoyle

This is a straightforward issue of a policy clash. The policy of the elected Government of the day, who have a record 180 majority, will prevail if there is a policy clash. I must make an important point: we take each of those amendments on their merit. We do not generalise.

Mr. Tyler

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Kilfoyle

No, I shall not give way. My time is very limited, and nobody else gave way.

The charge was risible—[Interruption.]

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Kilfoyle

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I know the Labour manifesto, and we intend to put it into effect. If hon. Members check it, they will find that we made 161 manifesto commitments. A large proportion of those have already been achieved by Her Majesty's Government in the past 15 months.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made the charge that Tim Allan had gone away to become a lobbyist. He has not. In accordance with Nolan, there has been a gap between the time he left the employ of No. 10 and took up his new post with BSkyB. It is only fair to the individual concerned that we put that on the record.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) is no longer here, because he became very exercised about the suggestion that his party was the Liberal party rather than the Liberal Democrat party. I could suggest an even better name: the party of Janus, because Liberal Democrats have the unique ability to face both ways at once. They are doing so tonight, and have done so consistently in their charges on lobbying and on leaks—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is an awful lot of background noise in the Chamber. We should be able to hear the Minister.

Mr. Kilfoyle

I am conscious of the time that has already been taken up by Front-Bench Members on both sides, so I shall make just one or two points in the remaining few minutes.

It was significant to me that only one Liberal Democrat Back Bencher put himself forward to speak in this debate, so seriously do his colleagues take this subject. Indeed, the number of Liberal Democrats that one sees in the Chamber now does not reflect the number that showed an interest in the debate. I am a little dismayed that they should have chosen this subject for the third time, rather than a subject that could have aroused more interest among their Members.

The Liberal Democrats made great play of singing the praises of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). I am a fan of his, too, as are many Labour Members. However, we do not share the political paranoia that the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) obviously has for the Minister without Portfolio. Even in making public their praise for my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock through an early-day motion, fewer than half their Members found themselves capable of supporting that.

The Government are fully cognisant of the needs and demands of the House, and long may that remain the case. We shall continue to observe the conventions of the House, but we shall also continue to govern effectively according to the mandate given to us on 1 May 1997.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 42, Noes 310.

Division No. 341] [7.7 pm
Allan. Richard Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Baker, Norman Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Keetch, Paul
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Brake, Tom Kirkwood, Archy
Brand, Dr Peter Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Breed, Colin Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Moore, Michael
Burnett, John Oaten, Mark
Burstow, Paul Rendel, David
Cable, Dr Vincent Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Sanders, Adrian
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Cotter, Brian Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Tonge, Dr Jenny
Fearn, Ronnie Tyler, Paul
Foster, Don (Bath) Wallace, James
George, Andrew (St Ives) Webb, Steve
Hancock, Mike Willis, Phil
Harris, Dr Evan
Harvey, Nick Tellers for the Ayes:
Mr. Andrew Stunell and
Mr. Donald Gorrie.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Dawson, Hilton
Ainger, Nick Denham, John
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Dobbin, Jim
Allen, Graham Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Doran, Frank
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Dowd, Jim
Ashton, Joe Drew, David
Atherton, Ms Candy Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Atkins, Charlotte Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Austin, John Eagle, Maria (L pool Garston)
Banks, Tony Edwards, Huw
Barron, Kevin Efford, Clive
Battle, John Ellman, Mrs Louise
Bayley, Hugh Ennis, Jeff
Beard, Nigel Fatchett, Derek
Begg, Miss Anne Field, Rt Hon Frank
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Fisher, Mark
Bennett, Andrew F Fitzpatrick, Jim
Benton, Joe Fitzsimons, Lorna
Bermingham, Gerald Flint, Caroline
Berry, Roger Follett, Barbara
Betts, Clive Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Blackman, Liz Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Foulkes, George
Blears, Ms Hazel Fyfe, Maria
Blizzard, Bob Gapes, Mike
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Gardiner, Barry
Boateng, Paul George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Gerrard, Neil
Bradshaw, Ben Gibson, Dr Ian
Brinton, Mrs Helen Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Godman, Dr Norman A
Browne, Desmond Godsiff, Roger
Buck, Ms Karen Goggins, Paul
Butler, Mrs Christine Golding, Mrs Llin
Byers, Stephen Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Caborn, Richard Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Grocott, Bruce
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gunnell, John
Cann, Jamie Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Caplin, Ivor Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Caton, Martin Hanson, David
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Healey, John
Church, Ms Judith Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clapham, Michael Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hepburn, Stephen
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hill, Keith
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hinchliffe, David
Coaker, Vernon Hodge, Ms Margaret
Coffey, Ms Ann Hoey, Kate
Cohen, Harry Home Robertson, John
Colman, Tony Hood, Jimmy
Connarty, Michael Hoon, Geoffrey
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hope, Phil
Cooper, Yvette Hopkins, Kelvin
Corbett, Robin Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Corbyn, Jeremy Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Corston, Ms Jean Howells, Dr Kim
Cox, Tom Hoyle, Lindsay
Cranston, Ross Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cummings, John Hurst, Alan
Cunliffe, Lawrence Hutton, John
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John (Copeland) Iddon, Dr Brian
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Dalyell, Tam Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Jamieson, David
Darvill, Keith Jenkins, Brian
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Davidson, Ian Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly) Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pendry, Tom
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Perham, Ms Linda
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Pickthall, Colin
Jowell, Ms Tessa Pike, Peter L
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Plaskitt, James
Keeble, Ms Sally Pound, Stephen
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Powell, Sir Raymond
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kemp, Fraser Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Purchase, Ken
Khabra, Piara S Quin, Ms Joyce
Kidney, David Quinn, Lawrie
Kilfoyle, Peter Radice, Giles
Kingham, Ms Tess Rammell, Bill
Kumar, Dr Ashok Rapson, Syd
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Raynsford, Nick
Laxton, Bob Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)
Lepper, David Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Roche, Mrs Barbara
Liddell, Mrs Helen Rogers, Allan
Livingstone, Ken Rooker, Jeff
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Rooney, Terry
Lock, David Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Love, Andrew Rowlands, Ted
McAvoy, Thomas Roy, Frank
McCabe, Steve Ruane, Chris
McCafferty, Ms Chris Ruddock, Ms Joan
McDonagh, Siobhain Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Macdonald, Calum Ryan, Ms Joan
McDonnell, John Savidge, Malcolm
McFall, John Sawford, Phil
McGuire, Mrs Anne Sedgemore, Brian
McIsaac, Shona Shaw, Jonathan
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Mackinlay, Andrew Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McNamara, Kevin Singh, Marsha
McNulty, Tony Skinner, Dennis
MacShane, Denis Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Marek, Dr John Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Snape, Peter
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Soley, Clive
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Southworth, Ms Helen
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Spellar, John
Martlew, Eric Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Maxton, John Steinberg, Gerry
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Stevenson, George
Meale, Alan Stinchcombe, Paul
Merron, Gillian Stoate, Dr Howard
Michael, Alun Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Stringer, Graham
Milburn, Alan Stuart, Ms Gisela
Miller, Andrew Sutcliffe, Gerry
Mitchell, Austin Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Moran, Ms Margaret Temple-Morris, Peter
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Morley, Elliot Tipping, Paddy
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Todd, Mark
Mudie, George Touhig, Don
Mullin, Chris Trickett, Jon
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Murphy, Paul (Torfaen) Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Naysmith, Dr Doug Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Norris, Dan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Vaz, Keith
O'Hara, Eddie Vis, Dr Rudi
O'Neill, Martin Ward, Ms Claire
Organ, Mrs Diana Wareing, Robert N
Osborne, Ms Sandra Watts, David
Palmer, Dr Nick White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr Alan Wood, Mike
Wicks, Malcolm Woolas, Phil
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W) Wray, James
Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Wilson, Brian
Winnick, David Tellers for the Noes:
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C) Mr. Greg Pope and
Wise, Audrey Mr. David Clelland.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House notes that members of the Government are present daily in both Houses, putting forward the case for the Government's legislative and financial proposals and being held to account for its policies and actions; welcomes the all-party support for the establishment of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and the endorsement by the House of key proposals to make Parliament more effective and efficient; notes that more statements have been made by ministers this session than in the equivalent period in 1992–93, and that Cabinet ministers have given oral evidence to select committees on more occasions than the average for the past seven sessions; and believes that the Government has lived up to both its manifesto commitment and the 19 March 1997 resolution on ministerial accountability.