HC Deb 27 July 1999 vol 336 cc226-34

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

10.2 pm

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

It is a privilege—if I may use that word—to have the last hurrah of the summer. I see that Opposition Members have stayed behind for this Adjournment and I do not know whether I should disappoint them now or later, but my speech contains no mention of sex, drugs, rock and roll or Michael Ashcroft. I have no wish to keep hon. Members from the beach or the Minister from exercising his right to roam. However, I wish to make some serious points about the way in which we conduct our business in the House.

Although our traditions are important, they too frequently oppress originality of thought, expression and debate and limit our ability to serve—and remember that we serve—our constituents as effectively as we should.

I have contemplated initiating this debate almost from the day that I entered the House and for the past two years I have effectively bitten my tongue and suppressed my growing indignation. Had I spoken before, my views might have been uncharacteristically ill-considered and intemperate, but now, as all will recognise, I have matured with experience on the Back Benches and am widely recognised as a man of sound judgment who commands respect from all sides of the House as a consensus politician. I believe, therefore, that the time is right to state my views.

Some of my early frustrations in the House have certainly dissipated. For example, I am not sure that I would support the introduction of electronic voting in the House. Although voting in the Lobby does not guarantee that right hon. and hon. Members know what has been debated or what they are deciding, it gives them access to Ministers and that is an essentially democratic experience for them and for us. It provides the opportunity—which I have taken on many occasions—to raise important issues on behalf of constituents.

Other reforms are long overdue, however, and I find the pace of change painfully slow. I ask myself frequently what the Modernisation Committee has achieved. Thursday morning sittings are not much of a breakthrough and certainly offer no solutions to the late night sittings and the early morning Committees that mean that exhausted Members of Parliament are increasingly detached from family life and are often too shattered and too drained to do the work that they need to do on behalf of their constituents.

I grant that there have been advances and I particularly welcome the break with the 500-year-old tradition, dating back to the days of Henry VII, of printing Acts of Parliament on vellum made from animal hide. I believe that that break with tradition represents a great leap to freedom for the goat, but not much of a step forward for mankind.

This is a radical and reforming Government. Yet it is accountable to a Parliament which is top-heavy with tradition, cloaked in almost a masonic ritual and bound by labyrinthine procedures so complex, convoluted and arcane that only men in wigs are masters of them.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

Leave the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) alone.

Mr. Bradley

With some honourable, and less honourable, exceptions.

There are procedures in this House that are so deliberately mysterious and obtuse as to be impenetrable to the majority of hon. Members—and, more importantly and more damagingly, to the public whom we serve. That is a serious point. Turn-outs in local and European elections are down because people, for whatever reason, have become disengaged from the democratic process. They love the pageantry and tradition of Parliament, but do they understand it? Does it speak to them, or for them? Do they own it, and own this institution?

It is a disgrace that the public are so unwelcome in this place. When they visit, they must queue outside in the wind and rain, and when they enter, there are precious few catering facilities open to them and few toilets for them to use. This is their Parliament—this is where they send us to make their laws. This is not our place. None of us was born to rule. We are sent here on licence and for a purpose—to serve our constituents, to interpret their aspirations, to meet their needs and to speak for them.

But even the language used in this place is a private language. In this Chamber, no one has a name, and we must all refer to each other as hon. or right hon. Members when the large majority of us do not believe that of ourselves, far less of each other. I have worked out that the longest form of address in this House would be for a Privy Councillor who was a commissioned officer, a Queen's counsel and the son of a duke, marquis or earl. He would be the right hon. gallant and learned noble Lord, the Member for Folderol.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

He could be a reverend as well.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful for that intervention. I would submit that what I have described is not a form of address, but a filibuster. A former right hon. Member of this place, not content with having a title and a double-barrelled name—Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, who adorned this place from 1950 to 1962—had to be referred to as the right hon. learned and gallant Gentleman, the Member for Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough—or presumably just as the Soke of Peterborough for short. [Interruption.] Conservative Members knew him better than I do.

I spoke of a private language. This is a place where we may abolish the House of Lords, but not mention it in our proceedings; where we pass laws expressed in a language of statute which few of us can penetrate and which would be meaningless to our constituents for whom those laws are framed. I would submit that that is nonsense—but it does not have to be that way.

In the Scottish Parliament—born of centuries of history but unburdened by them—they meet in the morning and they finish their business in the afternoon. It has agendas that even I can understand, and it allows Members to call each other by name without necessarily ensuring that they are two sword-lengths apart—and the world north of the border simply has not ended.

Why can we not speak the language of our constituents when we claim to speak on their behalf? We wander corridors in the Palace of Westminster and sit in Committee Rooms hung with second-rate portraits of forgotten grandees who frown down upon our deliberations. Why do we not tear them down and replace them, for example, with views of our constituencies and of our constituents—views of life in contemporary Britain? That would inspire us more purposefully than the eminent Victorians who currently hang there in suspended animation.

Our detachment from the outside world is both insidious and dangerous. There are men in this place who have never been properly exposed to the harsh realities through which their constituents too often have to live—sometimes because of what we do here.

I call it the oak-panelled syndrome. Men born into oak-panelled manor houses, who attend oak-panelled prep schools and oak-panelled public schools, graduate to oak-panelled Oxbridge colleges or to Sandhurst, then go to oak-panelled inns of court and clubs in St. James's and make their progress from the Commons to the Lords, until they are interred in an oak casket.

Too many conceive of this place as a club, defined as much by those who are excluded as by those who are admitted. That exclusivity is pernicious and often nasty. I remember with shock and shame when the Lawrences were sitting beneath the Gallery and Opposition Members were making mischief about the writ for the Newark by-election; when my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) sought to intervene with the Chair to move to the statement on the Lawrence inquiry, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I mean no offence to you—said: I say to the hon. Gentleman that there is no one in the Chamber apart from right hon. and hon. Members."—[Official Report, 29 March 1999: Vol. 328, c. 753.] That was not only insensitive but demonstrably untrue. It is an Alice in Wonderland sense of reality so distorted that we see only ourselves here. That is to our shame.

Exclusivity is not limited by background or political persuasion. Just as it corrupts our relations with the outside world, a seductive but unhealthy exclusivity exists between hon. Members. So arcane are the rules and procedures of the House that one needs to have been here for at least 30 years to have mastered them. Those who have—Members and Officers alike—constitute a club within the club; an institution within the institution; an establishment within the establishment.

That establishment transcends political differences. No matter how radical or opposed to privilege hon. Members may profess to be, they use their knowledge of the procedures to their own advantage and too frequently to the disadvantage of others. Why should those who, simply because of their longevity or long service here, have spoken many times before, be allowed to speak many times again, before a younger and newer Member of Parliament is allowed to contribute ideas, energy or enthusiasm to the debate?

I was fortunate enough to be called to speak on the first day of Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill, but I lost count of the number of my hon. Friends who had spent time considering what they wanted to say and researching and preparing their speeches, and then spent two days in the Chamber without being called. That is a waste of time and energy. They could far more usefully have spent that time serving their constituents. There is a need for more equity in the arrangement of our debates. There is simple common sense in at least letting hon. Members know whether they are likely to be called. That would refresh and improve the standard of debate.

Life in the House is improbable, but I have discovered that death is impossible. Black Rod may batter at our doors, but the grim reaper does not have an official pass. When, sadly, a Minister in the previous Government died at the Dispatch Box, Hansard records that he ceased in mid-sentence, and marks his demise as "Sitting suspended." If the four horsemen of the apocalypse were to gallop headlong into the Chamber, breathing fire and brimstone, I have no doubt that a Conservative Member would have the presence of mind to seize a collapsible top hat and cry "I spy strangers." Those words would no doubt be inscribed on vellum and published in Hansard shortly before the world ended.

Reform is overdue. One reform was suggested to me this afternoon. I know that Conservative Members, in particular, like conspiracy theories involving politicians and journalists, but I believe that we should allow journalists access to the Terrace. That would mean that, when we plotted and conspired with them, at least they would be able to buy a round.

I am a great respecter of tradition, but we are weighed down with it in the House and that is not good for us. It does not help us to serve. It prevents the House from working as effectively, efficiently and equitably as it should.

The Government have a radical, modernising constitutional agenda, which has all but bypassed Parliament, and that is wrong. The Modernisation Committee must be bolder and try harder; otherwise, as we lurch into the 21st century, it is in danger of dragging us kicking and screaming into the 19th. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can be more radical when he replies.

10.15 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

To debate reform of procedure at this late hour and with the school holidays well under way may seem ironic. After what has been said about the conventions of the House, it is with caution that I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) on securing this debate. Presumably he applied for it about a fortnight ago. In the meantime—last Wednesday—he demonstrated some of the merits of the House's conventions on freedom of speech. His actions were not without controversy, even though he admits to increasing maturity.

Before I address what has been said about our procedures and practices, let me remind the House that some changes have been made in the last two years. Despite what has been said, there is no longer any risk of this debate being interrupted by the apocalypse, or by hon. Members spying strangers or raising points of order while wearing an opera hat. Neither need we be concerned that the military background of any hon. Members who seek to intervene in this debate will lead to them being referred to by the term "gallant"—the Modernisation Committee put that tradition away in the cupboard. At the same time, the precedence of Privy Councillors in debate has been dispensed with.

I understand what has been said about the conventions of addressing the Chair, referring to other Members as honourable and referring to their constituencies rather than surnames. Personally, I do not get enough opportunity to use the word "Bradley" in this House. My colleagues in the Ministry of Defence can say the word "Bradley" when they talk about military tactics and vehicles. Ministers at the Department for Education and Employment, when answering the frequent debates on devolved theories of the metaphysical basis of absolute idealism, may invoke the memory of the philosopher Francis Herbert Bradley. Even my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport may talk about Bill Bradley, who played basketball for the New York Knickerbockers before becoming Democratic Senator for New Jersey.

It is strange that we can now call Sebastian Coe by his real name since he ceased to be the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. However, that other Olympic runner must remain the right hon. and learned Member for North—East Fife (Mr. Campbell).

As hon. Members will know, others have tried before to reform some stranger aspects of this place. Richard Crossman tried to abolish the Clerks' wigs. His diary records that I even got the Cabinet to grant the wish of the Clerks at the Table to have their wigs abolished—despite the Prime Minister's proposal that they should wear them during Question Time and take them off at 3.30 pm. In the event, the motion to abolish the wigs fell because the Opposition did not support the change.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin—as I call him more in affection than by tradition—has fallen foul of these conventions from time to time. His political career nearly came to an untimely end on 1 February this year when he said: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. The point is that in your election guide in 1997, your party made great play of the fact— At that point, the Deputy Speaker called him to order and said: The hon. Gentleman should use the correct form of address. He is addressing me at the moment. To which my hon. Friend replied: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The conventions of this House require attention, like the conventions of the other House."—[Official Report, 1 February 1996; Vol. 324, c. 674.]

My hon. Friend recovered later when he described the Opposition spokesman on constitutional matters—the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—as the Scarlet Pimpernel: They seek him here, they seek him there, but they cannot find him anywhere".—[Official Report, 1 February 1999; Vol. 324, c 666.] That remark was in the highest traditions of invective in the House—it amused all present and left the victim uncertain whether to feel flattered or insulted.

The convention that remarks are addressed to the Chair is not unique to this House and its advantages are well known. Apart from avoiding overly personal remarks, it avoids ambiguity about who is being addressed. In a packed House such as tonight's, confusion would easily arise if my remarks were not addressed to the Chair.

To many new Members, it seemed old-fashioned that Members were referred to not by name, but by constituency. Apart from anything else, it involved learning not just the names and faces of fellow Members but also constituency names—not all of which are as distinctive as The Wrekin or Sherwood. I recently heard the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) refer to the Member for "Easter Island"—what a treat it would be to represent such an exotic place.

A senior Member put all this into context for me when he said: I wish to make one point about our practice of calling hon. Members by their constituencies rather than by their names. I have always been proud to be the Member of Parliament for Ashton-Under-Lyne. It is my constituency and I am not here because I am myself, but because I represent the people of my constituency. It would be a retrograde step if we were to abandon that practice."—[Official Report, 13 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 1072.]

The third strand of our conventions is wording—is another Member hon. or right hon. or a Member or a Friend? I do not recall any hon. Member being called to order for omitting the "hon.". We have all tripped over whether a particular Member is "right" as well as "hon." or whether to say "Friend" or "Member". I am told that in the House of Lords, peers refer to extended relatives who are also peers as "my noble kinsman". It would give us all a great deal of pleasure if my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) described my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) as his "right hon. kinsman". Perhaps we should not encourage such familiarity, given the record number of Members with a spouse in the House. Who knows where such intimacy might lead?

When the House resumes in October we will have a debate on the procedural consequences of devolution, and will be able to compare procedures in the devolved legislatures with those operated here. Some of us may envy the opportunities that the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales have had to start with a clean sheet. How different things might be if we could start again from scratch. We will be able to watch how the new procedures in Edinburgh and Cardiff work in practice, and there will be lessons to learn and new methods to copy. We should not be afraid of trying to identify good and improved practice elsewhere or of considering its introduction here.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Minister is replying engagingly to an engaging speech by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley). Will he address one point? The hon. Gentleman was critical of the Select Committee on Modernisation, but was guilty of a misunderstanding. The Committee has made serious proposals that deserve the attention of the House, but it has run into extreme difficulty among the dinosaurs, particularly those who are part of the usual channels. The House must decide on the modernisation of our procedures rather than allowing the Opposition or the Government to do it.

Mr. Tipping

The autumn will bring experimental sittings in Westminster Hall, allowing four more Back Benchers' debates a week. It will also enable three dozen more Select Committee reports to be debated each year. Refinements will be needed as we learn how those sittings work. It will be interesting to see whether the semi-circular layout of the Grand Committee Room encourages a different atmosphere and more informal style of debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I wish the hon. Gentleman a good recess but does he agree that the only modernisation or experiments that count are those that bring more life back into this Chamber?

Mr. Tipping

The hon. Gentleman sheds light with all that he says. I read his columns with much interest. The task before us is to encourage the Westminster Hall experiment but ensure that the prime focus remains in this Chamber.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Tipping

I am not going to give way any more.

Mr. Mackinlay

I am a kinsman.

Mr. Tipping

As my hon. Friend is a kinsman, I give way.

Mr. Mackinlay

The real radical changes that are required involve not the cosmetics of wigs and silk stockings but whether we can make the Chamber able to scrutinise the Executive and make them accountable to this place. That is what has been eroded over many years, not just by this Government, and it should be repatriated by a radical Government to this place.

Mr. Tipping

As my hon. Friend knows, I am keen to give Back Benchers an opportunity to raise and pursue issues, as he just did so vigorously. The Westminster Hall experiment will give us an opportunity to do that but we can do far more.

I am delighted that the end of this year will see stage 1 of the reformed House of Lords, if all goes to plan. We can only speculate on the effect that the departure of 90 per cent. of hereditary peers will have on that place. The removal of the hereditary element will be the most dramatic form of modernisation of our Parliament, a truly radical reform of our procedures of which we can all be proud.

We must recognise that over the past two years several improvements have been made in our procedures. The work of Select Committees in pre-legislative scrutiny has been widely welcomed. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin played an important part in examining the draft Freedom of Information Bill as a member of the Public Administration Committee. When that and other draft Bills come to the House in their final form, we will all benefit from greater scrutiny. The quality of the eventual Acts of Parliament will be all the better.

As part of the process of improving the quality of legislation, we have also published new explanatory notes setting out the purpose and implications of each Government Bill, giving a detailed commentary on each clause. What is more, they are written in a language that we can all understand.

I talked earlier about getting rid of the term "gallant", and the Modernisation Committee has done that. It has done other things. The report on conduct in the Chamber published in March last year talked about greater flexibility in time limits on speeches. Tonight, we had a 15-minute rule on speeches. We relaxed the rules on quotations from other proceedings. The farce of opera hats and spying strangers has gone. The scrutiny of European documents has been extended as promised in our manifesto.

One reform that was examined but not proceeded with was electronic voting. The Modernisation Committee—I think that this was the point of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)—consulted all Members but none of the options commanded the support of more than 13 per cent. of those who responded. Despite what was said tonight, I think that we will eventually return to that.

Only last week, the Modernisation Committee reported on how the new arrangements for Thursday sittings have worked and concluded that on the evidence that it had received, the balance between work in Westminster and in our constituencies had been maintained. Its report conclusively showed that the topics for discussion, the substance and the extra time available constituted a useful and radical step forward.

In closing my remarks, I turn to an annual procedure and tradition—the summer recess. It will be a time not only for rest but to address the concerns of all our constituents, who live in the real world. More importantly, it gives us time to reflect and formulate proposals for change. Our procedures have changed, and I anticipate that they will continue to do so. The rate of change is in our hands. With that, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the House and its staff and all my colleagues an enjoyable break.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I am sure that I reciprocate the Minister's final remarks.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.