HC Deb 13 July 2000 vol 353 cc1084-179
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I shall have to put a 10-minute limit on speeches by Back-Bench Members.

1.45 pm
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I beg to move, That this House believes that Parliament is the essential and definitive link between citizen and government and should remain the institution at the heart of the nation's democratic system; regrets the accelerated loss of power and influence from Parliament to the Executive since 1997, rendering Parliament less able to hold government to account; and calls for the urgent introduction of the reforms necessary to reassert the authority of the House and to reverse the bypassing and undermining of Parliament in recent years. Today we have called a debate on the decline in the power of Parliament to hold the Executive to account. In doing so, we are raising an issue of great concern, not just to members of our party but to members of all parties in this House.

Every informed commentator, every constitutional expert and every parliamentarian who is being honest with themselves believes that Parliament has been steadily diminished and is no longer able to do its job properly. The reason that this matters to everyone outside this building, as well as everyone inside it—

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)


Mr. Hague

I shall make a little progress, and then I shall certainly give way to the hon. Lady.

The reason it matters is this: only in a country with a strong Parliament is there genuine representative democracy; only with a strong Parliament is there good and accountable government; only with a strong Parliament is law making both robust and sensitive; and only with a strong Parliament do the people of that country have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

It is true that Parliament's power to hold the Executive to account has been declining for over a century under Governments of all political persuasions; but it is also true that the present Government have done more than any other in living memory to create a Parliament that bows and scrapes to Ministers, that nods through complicated and important legislation with only cursory investigation, that lets Departments get away with poorly drafted and ill-thought-through laws, that is sidelined and marginalised from the national political debate, and that absconds from its democratic responsibility of holding the Executive to account.

That is not just a Conservative view. Let us hear from the Labour party's own former Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster): I said that this place must never be the Prime Minister's poodle. Unfortunately, it has become so.—[Official Report, 13 January 1999; Vol. 323. c. 259.] Or let us listen to someone who has spent much of his professional life following our proceedings from the Press Gallery—Robin Oakley. This is what he wrote in The House Magazine: In over 30 years reporting Parliament I can never recall a time when the proceedings have been like this. He continues The executive…cares little for Parliament…unless the government begins to respect the Commons more, will anybody else begin to do so? Anyone who has been in the House for more than a few years knows that fewer Government decisions are made here than ever before; fewer Government decisions are explained here than never before; and fewer Government decisions are influenced by what happens here than ever before.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hague

I promised to give way to the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice).

Ms Bridget Prentice

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way.

If this place is so important for scrutinising the Executive, why has the right hon. Gentleman not called a debate on the economy and on the new deal on employment?

Mr. Hague

The Opposition hold debates about a range of issues on every possible day that is allocated to them in the House of Commons. We ask the Prime Minister about every single issue, but we do not receive an answer on many. That is our duty, and we try to carry it out.

As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said in a recent debate, because this is not a concern of one side of the House alone: All Members of Parliament understand that we got here with the support of party politicians and need to defend particular party political views, but we also have a duty to ordinary men and women who have let this Parliament grow up over 900 years… Parliament is not a rubber stamp for the arrangements of Executives or of Front Benchers… If…those groups succeed in getting what they want, we shall know that Parliament no longer represents the interests of the United Kingdom.—[Official Report, 22 May 2000; Vol. 350, c. 687–8.] The Government's amendment to our motion talks about reforms of the House of Lords.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)


Mr. Hague

I will give way again in a moment. I intend to give way many times and I will give way to the hon. Gentleman after I have finished this point.

The Government's amendment also talks about devolution to Scotland and to Wales. We can debate the merits of all those things, but the House of Commons remains the keystone of democratic accountability in this country. [Interruption.] It is by voting for Members of our House that our fellow citizens believe that they can make a difference to how they are governed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I think that this debate will proceed better with less barracking and less shouting on either side. We want to hear the debate.

Mr. Hague

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will give way again in a moment.

Millions more people vote in the elections for this House than for any other elected institution. For most people in Britain, this House is the one connection between the opinions they hold and the actions of their Government. When this House is diminished, marginalised or sidelined, democracy itself is harmed. A weak or frightened House of Commons saps public confidence in the political process.

Mr. Salmond

Is not the right hon. Gentleman's case that that is surely a function of the Government's large majority based on a minority of the vote? In the Scots Parliament recently, we had an occasion when the Executive parties—Labour and the Liberals—tried to delay a Bill to abolish warrant sales. They were overturned by a parliamentary majority. That was possible because that Parliament has proportional representation and a balanced system. If the right hon. Gentleman wants this Parliament to do the same thing, why does he not support proportional representation?

Mr. Hague

Because this House must be the connection between the votes of the voters and how they are governed. Only in our electoral system is there the connection between how people cast their votes and which Government hold office—a view I know that the Home Secretary holds to dearly. Opposition would sometimes achieve more in the House of Commons if all the members of minority parties were regular in their attendance.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hague

The time has come—[Interruption.] I am glad to have generated so much interest. I will give way again in a moment.

The time has come to arrest the steady diminishment of the House. The time has come to stop the increasing power of the Executive.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)


Mr. Hague

I will give way again in a moment. The time has come to stop the sidelining of Parliament. New reforms are proposed in the name of modernisation which will increase the power of the Executive and diminish and sideline our Parliament yet further. Unless Members of Parliament speak out now, it will be too late to do so.

Ms Ward

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. If he thinks that it is so important to have a presence to hold the Government accountable, why is no Conservative Member of Parliament in the top 200 for attendance at votes in the House?

Mr. Hague

I saw that someone had done a little research on voting records, so I did a little research of my own. In fact, I compared the voting records of the Cabinet with those of the shadow Cabinet. The Chancellor has voted in 18 per cent. of Divisions—[Interruption.] I am coming to the Back Benchers. The hon. Lady asked about Conservative Members, and I think that Labour Members should have the information.

So far this year, the Chancellor has voted in 18 per cent. of Divisions, and the shadow Chancellor in 53 per cent. The Home Secretary voted in 43 per cent. of Divisions, the shadow Home Secretary in 51 per cent. The Foreign Secretary voted in 15 per cent. of Divisions, the shadow Foreign Secretary in 53 per cent. Shall I go on? Would right hon. and hon. Members like more information? [HON. MEMBERS: "More."] The Education Secretary voted in 27 per cent., the shadow Education Secretary in 58 per cent. The Agriculture Minister voted in 43 per cent., the shadow Agriculture Minister in 50 per cent. The Culture Secretary voted in 38 per cent., the shadow Culture Secretary in 51 per cent. The importance of these figures to the hon. Lady is that it is not Ministers who stay here and vote but the mugs on the Back Benches whom they rely on to do it. [Interruption.]

If anyone doubts—

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hague

I want to make a little progress. I will allow an intervention from another stooge or two in due course.

Anyone who has doubts that Government legislation is not being properly scrutinised should look at what has happened recently to Bills that have come before the House. During three years of this Parliament, 36 Bills have been guillotined or programmed—more than the number for the entire period of Baroness Thatcher's Government and more than double the number under the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). Since the second world war, a quarter of all such motions have been moved by this Labour Government.

This week, we dealt with the hugely sensitive Police (Northern Ireland) Bill on Report and Third Reading. Seven of the 10 groups of amendments were never debated, including crucial new amendments on the name of the RUC—a matter of the highest public importance. That issue has been the subject of months of debate through newspaper columns and in Northern Ireland itself, but it was not debated on the Floor of the House of Commons. Only three Members were allowed to speak on Third Reading, with the result that the First Minister of Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), was unable to speak in that debate.

The problem is made worse by the poor quality of so much of the legislation that comes before the House. The Greater London Authority Bill was so badly drafted that the Government tabled 46 new clauses on Report and 820 amendments—500 of which were tabled in the House of Lords at a late stage in the progress of the measure. Consideration of the Bill was guillotined and, as a result, three quarters of all the public-private provisions affecting the London underground passed into law without any parliamentary consideration. A completely new tax invented by the Deputy Prime Minister—the workplace parking levy—was introduced without one minute of debate in either House.

Of the 367 amendments tabled by the Government in the Lords to the Immigration and Asylum Bill, only two were debated in this House. Clauses on the penalties for rail companies caught carrying clandestine immigrants, on the rights of detained people to be released on bail and on the application of the new asylum arrangements in Scotland went undebated and unscrutinised. In future, constituents will come to the surgeries of Members on both sides of the House to ask us why this or that point was not made during the passage of that legislation. We shall have to tell them that Parliament never debated that important legislation and it is not adequate.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Has the right hon. Gentleman read the recent book of his hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie)? It states: the 1980s saw further encroachments of the executive into parliamentary independence. The use of guillotine motions escalated and the increasingly dominant position of the Prime Minister within the Cabinet affected the mood of the House. If that was happening in the 1980s, why did the right hon. Gentleman never speak against it in the House?

Mr. Hague

It would have been hard for me to speak in this House at a time when I was at university. If the hon. Gentleman wants to repeat at greater length points that I have already made, he is welcome to do so. I said that Parliament's powers in relation to the Executive have been declining for a century and that they have done so under Governments of all political persuasions, but that this Labour Government have rapidly accelerated that process.

The Constitution Unit, an independent body that includes a Minister—the Advocate-General for Scotland—noted that the originators of the logjam— in legislation— are the Government… Bills are allowed into the legislative programme that are insufficiently prepared, and then subjected to rafts of Government amendments as they go through Parliament. The unit pointed out that that is the Cabinet's responsibility.

Parliament is being sidelined in the treatment of legislation, but it is also being sidelined in the provision of information from the Government. There is no better example of that than the Budget. The information provided in the Chancellor's Budget statements is no longer adequate for any commentator, economist or family who are concerned about their household budget to make an informed judgment about what he is doing with the nation's finances.

All previous Chancellors—Conservative and Labour—used to present the House with a full account of which taxes were going up and which were going down. They then tried to put the best gloss on it—but not this Chancellor. In his 1998 Budget speech, a new instalment system of payment for larger companies turned out to be £2,000 million tax increase on businesses. In his Budget speech last year, he aligned national insurance arrangements for the self-employed closer to those of employees—[Official Report, 9 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 187.] but it was later discovered to be a £240 million tax increase. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman again, but there is far too much shouting and other voices are being heard. We should be listening to the right hon. Member who currently has the Floor of the House.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hague

I will give way to more hon. Members in a moment but, judging by the quality of the interventions from Labour Members so far, they should be grateful that I have not given way to more.

The new and devastating stealth tax on high-tech contractors is known as IR35 only because it appeared in the fine print of Inland Revenue press release No. 35 and was not mentioned in the Budget at all.

This year, the Chancellor tried a new trick. He used different figures but called them the same name. No pensioner or car owner listening to the Chancellor this year could have possibly known that he was using different inflation figures when he said that he was uprating both the basic pension and petrol duty in line with inflation—but pensions went up 1 per cent. and petrol tax went up 3.5 per cent.

There was a time when a Labour Chancellor resigned because a small part of his Budget appeared in the evening papers as he was speaking. This Chancellor regards his speech simply as the official leak in a long string of leaks of the Budget, all of which are designed to conceal its real contents from the voting public. Yet the central role of Parliament is to supply the Government with money for expenditure in return for a proper and informed debate on the level of taxation. Our predecessors went to war with each other and with the monarchy to establish that principle. Now our Parliament is unable to carry out even this central role.

But, of course, the person who has done more than any other member of the Government to try to ignore, override, sideline and dismiss Parliament is the Prime Minister himself. Let me remind the House of what he said before the election. He said that the lesson of parliamentary change is that it has to be carried out with care and sensitivity… The rights of backbenchers have to be protected. They will…be wary of changes which appear…to make the job of government easier. That is what the Prime Minister told an enthusiastic Charter 88 audience before the election. However, in the very first parliamentary week after the election, he unilaterally cut the number of Prime Minister's Question Times in half. He said: parliamentary change…has to be carried out with care and sensitivity and he then imposed one of the biggest changes of procedure without consulting a single Back-Bench Member of Parliament and without consulting the report by the Select Committee on Procedure, which explicitly ruled out such a move. He said: The rights of Back Benchers have to be protected and he then halved overnight the one opportunity that Back Benchers have to ask questions on behalf of their constituents to the most important Minister in the land.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hague

I shall give to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) and then proceed a little further.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

The right hon. Gentleman has just alleged that there is less opportunity now for Back Benchers. Can he not accept that 15 and 15 equals 30? If—heaven forbid—he were ever Prime Minister, would he consider his Back Benchers to be mugs if they stayed and voted for his Government?

Mr. Hague

Personally, I favour bringing Prime Minister's Question Time back to twice a week and it being for 20 minutes. Back Benchers would then have two opportunities in the week to question the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister claimed yesterday to miss fewer Question Times than his predecessor—which when he has cut in half the number of occasions that it happens is hardly a proud boast. He says that he goes to any lengths to turn up to every Question Time—which is hardly surprising when we know who stands in his place when he does not. He claims to have answered more questions than any of his predecessors, but no one in the country thinks that he has answered a single one. It is true that he stands up, opens his mouth and words come out, but that is not the same as giving an answer.

Cutting Prime Minister's questions in half was an act of prime ministerial arrogance and disregard for the rights of Parliament. It is not the only way that this Prime Minister avoids democratic scrutiny. I have been looking at how many debates this Prime Minister and his predecessors have led on the Floor of the House in the first two years of a Parliament. It is an interesting score sheet: Clement Attlee 29; Harold Macmillan 22; Harold Wilson 24; my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the Father of the House, 25; Baroness Thatcher and Lord Callaghan 13 each; my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon 10; and the Prime Minister 3. Congratulations—he has spoken in less than one third of the number of debates than any post-war Prime Minister before him. He will say that he has delivered his fair share of statements. What he does not say is that the great majority of his statements are on international summits which even he cannot wriggle out of, and the rest are meaningless public relations exercises like the one we have been subjected to today.

Let us look at those occasions when the Prime Minister has a choice whether to come here or not. The voting scoresheets of Prime Ministers are as follows: Harold Wilson, 35 per cent.; my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, 36 per cent.; Lord Callaghan, 38 per cent.; Baroness Thatcher, 45 per cent.; my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, 41 per cent.; and the Prime Minister, 5 per cent. What that means is not just that he is not around the Palace of Westminster at voting time, but that he is not around the Palace of Westminster at any time. That diminishes the role of Parliament and its effectiveness in scrutinising the Executive.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the rights of Back Benchers to scrutinise Parliament. Will he explain why Conservative members of the Education and Employment Committee attended only one third of the meetings they were entitled to attend?

Mr. Hague

What a devastating piece of information. Hon. Members of all parties do their best to attend Select Committees. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I will give the answer, which concerns what really needs doing with Select Committees. I agree with the Liaison Committee report on Select Committees. The Government claim to have given more time for debates on Select Committee reports, but that is no substitute for giving real power and independence to Select Committees and making sure that Parliament can exercise rigorous scrutiny of the Government.

Twenty-one of the 33 members who produced the Liaison Committee report are Labour Members, and they say: There has been a tendency to use the extent or frequency of debates on select committee reports as a criterion of success. But debates must be both timely and effective. There is little value in a debate which does no more than allow members of the Select Committee to re-live their inquiry months after the event.

It is time to reform the House of Commons and improve our procedures, but not with reforms that diminish our power to scrutinise Government legislation and not with Modernisation Committee reports that make it easier for Ministers to avoid being held accountable to Parliament.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

My right hon. Friend may be interested to know that, at a meeting of the Select Committee on International Development two weeks ago, four members out of eleven were present—three Conservatives and one Liberal.

Mr. Hague

We could go on with these records for a long time. The point is that Select Committees need strengthening.

The so-called Modernisation Committee was supposed to come up with reforms that would strengthen Parliament, and it set out its spirited aims last year. Its wishes were to restore the Chamber as a place where the Executive is held properly to account by Members; where Government policy is first announced and tested; and where the terms of trade between Government and House are shifted back to the House. These are aims that I unreservedly support, and reforms to Parliament which promote them should be universally supported across this House.

However, the latest report from the Modernisation Committee has tragically failed its own remit. Its latest report proposes changes to the programming of legislation and the timing of votes that would shift the terms of trade in the opposite direction by greatly reducing the opportunities for the Opposition—and the Government's own Back Benchers—to scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account.

Several hon. Members


Hon. Members

Give way!

Mr. Hague

I have given way several times, and I will give way again later.

The report proposes timetabling all Government Bills and delaying all votes which would otherwise be taken after 10 o'clock until the following Wednesday afternoon. These proposals represent a serious assault on the power of Back Benchers. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Shouting will not help the tempo of the debate and will make no difference to whether or not the right hon. Gentleman takes interventions.

Mr. Hague

These proposals represent a serious assault on the power of Back Benchers. Delaying votes until days after a debate strips away any possibility that a Member of Parliament may be influenced by what has been said in the debate before a Division, and is designed mainly for the convenience of the Government because even the Prime Minister could get a decent voting record, as the votes would coincide with his weekly visits to the House of Commons. The ideas of the Modernisation Committee have not come—

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hague

I shall not give way until I have talked about the Modernisation Committee for a few moments.

The ideas have not come from Back Benchers, but have been driven forward by the Leader of the House, who is the Chairman of the Committee. I have a copy of the first draft of the report, the top of which shows that it was faxed to Parliament from an office in Whitehall. Nothing could symbolise better how the rights and relevance of Parliament are being progressively diminished by the Government themselves than the fact that the reports of our own Committee now originate in Whitehall.

The minority report of the Modernisation Committee notes: The absolute divorce of decision from discussion in the method proposed, for the convenience of government supporters, will heighten cynicism about the relevance of debate and discussion, and undermines the parliamentary process. Programming more legislation and restricting votes may suit the convenience of Ministers, but it does not suit the cause of good government or a strong Parliament. It flies in the face of the fundamental right of Back-Bench Members of Parliament to question Ministers about the actions of Government on behalf of their constituents.

We should look at the history of recent late sittings. The House sat until 3 am on the remaining stages of the Terrorism Bill in March because Labour Back Benchers and Liberal Democrat Members were alarmed at what they felt were the implications for civil liberties. Parliament gave them a platform so that they could have their say.

The House sat until 1 am in early April considering the Freedom of Information Bill because Labour Back Benchers were deeply unhappy with legislation which, they felt, did not match their party's commitments. They wanted to press the Government to improve the Bill.

Opportunities for debate do not just make better Back Benchers—they make better Ministers, too. When I was a junior Minister taking a Bill through the House, there were times when the late Bob Cryer would debate the detail of it exhaustively with me, testing whether I knew what I was talking about. It is a good job for the Prime Minister that Bob Cryer is not here today, as he would not have been afraid of questioning Labour Ministers any more than he was of questioning Conservative Ministers.

Today, people such as my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) do that to Labour Ministers. I am sure that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke for many Members when she said that neither of my right hon. Friends was automatically high on the list of people whom she loved dearly. However, she thought that their actions were legitimate, and said: Parliament cannot be organised into a nice, neat tidy bundle so that the Executive takes decisions, tells Parliament what it has decided and produces Bill that, even if they are wrong, can be presented as a package and pushed through, because no one any longer alters a word of them.—[Official Report, 22 May 2000; Vol. 350, c. 687.] I agree whole-heartedly.

The answer to those who say that staying up late to debate Government legislation is wearing them out is simple: we should have a legislative programme that is not so packed that there is no scope for debate. We should have a legislative programme that is not so bursting at the seams that even its own supporters cannot press amendments. We should have a legislative programme that is not so stuffed with poorly drafted Bills that it requires hundreds of Government amendments that are never even considered. The Modernisation Committee's approach to the weight of the legislative programme should not be to make it even easier for Ministers to force their business through, which further weakens the vital link in this House between the governed and the Government.

The House needs reform. [Interruption.] I shall give way to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) before putting forward my own reforms.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the point of whether he knows what he is talking about, may I ask a question? He does not have a country to run and does not have policies to develop, as that is the job of the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo). All he has to do is sit in his office and dream up punch lines for Prime Minister's questions. In those circumstances, will he explain why he votes in less than a third of Divisions?

Mr. Hague

Attacking me for voting 32 per cent of the time when the Prime Minister votes 5 per cent. of the time strikes me as a spectacular own goal. The Prime Minister has enough time to run around for a photo opportunity every day, so he should have enough time to come to the House of Commons.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

As a member of the Modernisation Committee, can I ask my right hon. Friend how he believes the House should deal with a situation in which the timing of votes means that votes on matters discussed after 10 o'clock on a Wednesday or Thursday, and on which there will be a Division, will not be taken until the following Wednesday? How will the House deal with Members who were not even in the country when the debate took place; and how will it deal with those who took part in the debate but who, for legitimate parliamentary reasons, cannot attend the following Wednesday afternoon?

Mr. Hague

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. That would damage the proceedings of Parliament still further. There are Labour Members who would not know what they were voting on when it came to a Wednesday afternoon. I know some Labour Members who do not know what they are voting on 10 minutes after a debate, let alone five days later.

We need reforms and proposals that will make our Parliament stronger, improve our laws and hold our Government to greater democratic account. A good place to start is the recent report of the Liaison Committee, which is made up of 33 Select Committee Chairmen, 21 of whom are senior Labour Members, and the Chairman of which is the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). The report recommends sensible reforms that build on the success of the Select Committee system in providing, as they say, independent scrutiny of Government, exposing mistaken and short-sighted policies and so on.

The Committee proposes to give the House of Commons more teeth by taking appointments to Select Committees out of the hands of the Whips—a principle that I, too, believe would enhance the independence and reputation of Select Committees. As a party leader, I am happy to accept that principle, and I invite the Prime Minister to accept it when he responds to my speech.

The Government's response to that impressive report, compiled by senior members of their own party, was, as usual, dismissive. They said: The Government are not convinced that a change to the current system is needed. I wonder how many of those on the Government Front Bench have read the Liaison Committee report. It is no wonder the Committee says that too many Government responses to Select Committees are superficial and give the impression that they have been drafted with only a cursory look at the summary recommendations, ignoring the analysis and the argument. That is why we set up the commission for strengthening Parliament, under the chairmanship of Lord Norton of Louth, to make recommendations. That is mainly, but not wholly, the work of Conservatives. The commission took evidence from a former Speaker, a former head of the civil service, academics, journalists, pressure groups and MPs from both sides of the House.

This week the commission published its report. Its proposals deserve careful consideration by MPs on both sides of the House, and there are some that we should be able to accept immediately. First, all parties should accept the principle, set out in the Liaison Committee report and the Norton report, that appointments to Select Committees should now be taken out of the hands of party managers. It must be wrong that the Government, through the Whips Office, choose the people who are supposed to hold the very same Government to account.

Secondly, we should give departmental Select Committees more powers of the kind that the Public Accounts Committee already has, so that parliamentarians at least stand a chance of keeping track of the work of huge Government Departments. We should establish a separate career structure for Select Committee Chairmen so that not everyone feels that they have to become a Minister or shadow Minister. Thirdly, we should make much greater use of two small advances that the Government have made, and publish more legislation in draft so that mistakes can be spotted before a Bill reaches Parliament and make much greater use of Special Standing Committees to scrutinise legislation.

Fourthly, we should look at ways of improving the topicality of Parliament, because unless people feel that their MPs are talking about issues that are relevant to them, they will lose faith in the democratic process. One solution would be to reduce the number of days' notice required for oral questions; another would be to restore Prime Minister's questions to two slots a week.

There are many other proposals in the report which hon. Members on both sides of the House should consider carefully. They include: reforming Question Time and putting the emphasis on depth, not breadth; putting more of the parliamentary timetable in the hands of Committees of the House; making the publication of Bills in draft standard practice; making changes to the way in which Parliament considers delegated legislation and statutory instruments, which is woefully inadequate today; making substantial improvements to the scrutiny given to European legislation; appointing a parliamentary investigations officer to investigate cases where information is withheld from Parliament; amending the civil service code—

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hague

Hon. Members wanted proposals. These are proposals—amending the civil service code so that civil servants are required to provide Members of Parliaments with information; and vastly improving the scrutiny of Government taxation and spending plans. Those are just some of the reforms that could enhance the power and reputation of Parliament, and we should consider them.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)


Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)


Mr. Hague

We say that it is time that we had Ministers who stopped pre-announcing major Government policies on the "Today" programme, and started announcing those policies where they are supposed to be announced—right here, to the elected representatives of the people. It is time that we had Ministers who stopped evading the legitimate questions about the activities of Government, and started giving full and prompt replies to Members of Parliament who have a democratic right to have their inquiries answered.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)


Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)


Mr. Hague

It is time that we had Ministers who stopped stuffing the legislative programme full of ill-considered and badly drafted Bills, and started allowing Parliament proper time to do its job of scrutinising legislation. It is time that we had Ministers who stopped receiving leaked Select Committee reports from toadying Government Members, and started letting the Select Committees do their job of holding to account those who wield Executive power.

It is time that we had a Prime Minister who understood that he is accountable to Parliament; a Prime Minister who spent time at the Palace of Westminster, instead of seeking the first opportunity to escape back up Whitehall; a Prime Minister who listened to elected Members of Parliament and was accountable to the people, instead of listening only to unelected advisers and spin doctors accountable to no one; a Prime Minister who bothered to vote on the very laws that he seeks to impose on the country, instead of staying away and ordering his Back Benchers through the Lobby; a Prime Minister who came to the Dispatch Box twice a week and answered questions, like every other Prime Minister in living memory.

The truth is that, like a fish, the Government have rotted from the head. Their contemptuous treatment of Parliament begins with the contemptuous attitude, obvious to everyone, of the Prime Minister to the House. He has created a Government of secret briefings, leaks, gimmicks and gossip, in which power rests with unelected advisers, spin doctors and cronies.

That is what is meant by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) when he speaks of the vacuum at the heart of New Labour; or by the former Minister, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), when he says that the Government is centralised and arrogant. It's all glitz; or by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), when he speaks of "hollowness and spinnery" and "the obsession with presentation"; or by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) when he says that people see "New Labour as alien" and find the new elite's choice of friends strange; or by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) today, when he calls his fellow Ministers "automatons"; or by the Deputy Prime Minister when he pleads in public: I wish somebody could stop the spin doctors. Despite one of the largest majorities in history, the Government's behaviour in the House is characterised by weakness and cowardice. They are a weak and cowardly Government who announce policy in press releases, rather than on the Floor of the House. They are a weak and cowardly Government who put all the power in the hands of spin doctors, rather than Ministers of the Crown. They are a weak and cowardly Government who leak through secret briefings, rather than make statements at the Dispatch Box.

The Government's style is best summed up by one of those notorious unelected advisers, Labour's former director of policy, who speaks of a culture in which the approval of advisers in Number 10 or Number 11 is more important than the opinion of the Ministers they serve. The true attitude of the Government leadership is best summed up by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), the crown prince of new Labour, who says that the era of representative democracy is slowly coming to an end. I say that representative democracy must not come to an end. I say that parliamentarians of all parties must ensure that it does not come to an end. Members of all parties who care about democracy and acknowledge the central role of the House of Commons must join together in making sure that it has not come to an end.

2.24 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'congratulates the Government on carrying out in three years the biggest programme of constitutional reform for a century, including devolution to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, bringing government closer to the people; and welcomes the fundamental reform of the House of Lords and the establishment of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons which has doubled the number of backbench debates and quadrupled the opportunities to debate Select Committee reports as part of the 48 recommendations implemented so far.'. [Interruption.] To be frank, if I were a Conservative Member, I would have left some time ago.

There are serious issues to do with this subject, but that was not a serious speech. After all, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and his party were in government for 18 years, but they did none of the things that they now say are absolutely vital. With the greatest respect to them, what they really object to is the fact that we are the Government; that is their real problem.

Instead of making that eccentric speech on the first occasion of his calling a debate as the Leader of the Opposition, he could have discussed jobs, the economy, schools, hospitals or even crime. I do not know whether people in his pubs and clubs are talking about pre-legislative scrutiny, but they are not in mine. I heard it said the other day that, as a 16-year-old. the right hon. Gentleman used to read Hansard underneath the bedclothes. That was the speech of such a person. There are serious issues, and I will come to them; it is an important topic, but I must say that that speech did not match its importance.

I have read the report of the Norton committee; it is a worthy document, so far as it goes, and we shall of course consider it. It talks about the fact that Prime Ministers have become unaccountable to Parliament and says that perhaps they are perceived as having too much power, but I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that its footnote refers to a book that was published, I am afraid, in 1993. It said of the Thatcher Government: Far more than previous premiers she relied on a whole squad of advisers, speech writers, her political office, and assorted media fixers and spin merchants. By 1983 she had completely abandoned conventional electioneering in which she might encounter ordinary voters. Somehow he missed that bit out of his speech.

Let me give the facts. Of course the right hon. Gentleman may have a point on the votes because we have a large majority, although I refer him to the excellent document issued by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) on the voting records of some Conservative Members and, particularly, their attendance on Select Committees. If he considers what is obviously my job—which is, as Prime Minister, to answer questions in the House of Commons—he will see that I do, in fact, miss fewer sittings. On any comparison, I have spent as many, if not more, hours in the House answering questions. [Interruption.] I am afraid that that is true.

Let me give the details on ministerial statements. During this Parliament, Ministers have made 238 statements—on average, one every two sitting days. I have made 31, including the one that I have just made. That compares with 157 ministerial statements during the first years of the previous Administration. I turn next to the sittings of the House. [Interruption.] I am sorry if the facts bore Opposition Ministers, but it is important simply to give them. In the first Session after the 1992 general election, the total number of sitting days was 240, and the House sat for 1,933 hours and 34 minutes. In the first Session after May 1997, the total number of sitting days was 241, and the House sat for 2,117 hours and 36 minutes.

If we look at the second Session under the previous Government, Madam Speaker, the total number of sitting days was 154, and the House sat for 1,258 hours. It is correct that the total number of sitting days was 149— five days less—under our Administration, but the House sat for 1,378 hours. It simply is not correct to say that we have not considered matters and put them before the House properly.

On guillotines, I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has added together guillotines and programme motions. If those two things are separated out, of course the figures look far less good from his point of view. Madam Speaker, on the specific points that he made—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the Prime Minister does not mind, I should perhaps point out to him that Madam Speaker has changed places with me.

The Prime Minister

My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Ms Ward

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Leader of the Opposition—when thinking creatively about the constitution, which he does not seem to do often—explained in a speech last year that the Opposition believed that they could automatically timetable all Bills and abolish the practice whereby all Bills that had not completed their passage by the end of a Session failed? Is not that another example of hypocrisy?

The Prime Minister

That is absolutely right.

Turning to the substance of the Norton commission report, the reputation of Parliament does not lie in having 20 Cabinet Ministers rather than 22 and no one will be better governed through fine-tuning the ministerial code. Those are good issues for academics and constitutional experts, but they are not the big issues that Parliament should debate when we consider our role in modern society and our relationship with the Executive today. We live in a time of great change. The public are changing. Their expectations of Parliament and politics are rising. Our institutions are the best for this country, but it is entirely right, as the Modernisation Committee suggests, that we move with the times and modernise our practices in the House.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

In a moment.

I disagree with the Leader of the Opposition; Parliament and the Executive are structures of power. They owe their legitimacy not to themselves, but to the people—the electors. Our task is to try—in so far as is possible and consistent with representative democracy—to do the people's will. The trouble with his vision of democracy and with going into each procedural aspect of the House of Commons is that that vision stops about two metres in front of his nose. We need to debate other and bigger issues if we are to explore the true relationship between the Executive and Parliament.

Mr. Swayne

On the question of democracy and the ability to debate, the Prime Minister complains that we have added together the programme motions and the guillotines. Will he admit that, for the Back Bencher, their effect is the same? No Member could have been more wrong-footed by the programming from start to finish of the Scotland Act 1998 than the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who was silenced continually as clause after clause was agreed to without debate.

The Prime Minister

I cannot say that I have ever noticed my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) being silenced. The point is that a programme motion is agreed between the sides. As the hon. Gentleman heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward), his party proposed that. Of course modernising the proceedings of Parliament must be part of the objective. We are trying to do that.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

In a moment.

We have taken major steps to modernise the other place and to improve the ways in which the House can work. I emphasise that the procedures of the House are not matters for the Government or the official Opposition. I want to make one thing clear: they are matters for individual Members of Parliament who exercise their own judgment on a free vote. They are truly matters for the House. If I may say so, following Madam Speaker's announcement yesterday, we shall elect her successor by a free vote, independently exercised, of the Members of the House.

Mr. Morgan

On modernisation, and given the success of proportional representation in Wales, whose First Minister was dismissed, and in Scotland, where the Government are being overturned on the matter of warrant sales, what is the Prime Minister's opinion of the introduction of PR for Westminster?

The Prime Minister

As I have often said, the arguments are different in relation to Westminster. In respect of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, I believe that there were particular reasons for introducing that system, not least the existence of a different set of political parties—the hon. Gentleman's party, for example—that operate with substantial support in the political system. However, that does not mean that that system is right for the House of Commons.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

The Liaison Committee report has huge support across the House: 211 Members, the vast majority of them Labour, signed my early-day motion. If the Liaison Committee report is a parliamentary issue rather than a matter for the Government, may we have a free vote on it?

The Prime Minister

There we are. That is the legitimate voice of Back Benchers speaking. [Interruption.] This is a matter for the House, and of course we shall have a position on it.

Mr. Hague

I do not think that the Prime Minister has given a full answer to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). The hon. Gentleman asked whether, in view of what the Prime Minister had just said about the importance of free votes on House of Commons matters, members of his party could have a free vote on the Liaison Committee report. Opposition Members will have a free vote. Will the Prime Minister do the same as me, and—as a party leader—undertake to vote in favour of Select Committees no longer being appointed by the Whips, as is suggested in the report?

The Prime Minister

Yes, there will be a free vote, as I have just indicated. No, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman's proposition with regard to Select Committees.

I cannot help pointing out that there were 18 years during which, as it was in office, the right hon. Gentleman's party could have acted. Just as a matter of interest, as he seems to want to pop up at the Dispatch Box, can he tell us whether, when he was a Cabinet Minister, he banged his fist on the table at Cabinet meetings and said "I think these Select Committees should be handled differently"?

The Prime Minister

Let me deal with issues relating to modernisation. We have established a Modernisation Committee, and as a result there have been great improvements in the way in which the House can hold Government to account. Some are hardly mentioned in the Norton report, but others are referred to.

The House's control over European business has been extended to cover all aspects of the Maastricht treaty, through the scrutiny reserve. By instituting a parallel Chamber in Westminster Hall, we have secured four more Back-Bench Adjournment debates a day and one more debate of substance every week. We have debates that can be used to devote more attention to Select Committee reports. There has been a constant cry for that since the initiation of Select Committees. We have taken the steps recommended by the Modernisation Committee to improve the House's ability to scrutinise legislation.

We have taken further the process of publishing draft Bills before they are introduced. Seven Bills have been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, and we have undertaken to continue that process. We have taken practical steps to help Parliament to scrutinise legislation—for instance, by publishing far better explanatory notes with Bills. That is not dramatic, but it is important. We would be willing to experiment with different approaches to draft legislation. We would be far more willing than the Opposition were to experiment with the very programme motions that they want to introduce. There may well be other ways in which we can improve the House's ability to conduct its business, and when it makes sense, they should be considered.

The debate called by the Leader of the Opposition, and the points that he made—I find it extraordinary that they were the biggest points he had to make on the issue—do not address the big constitutional questions relating to the fundamental relationship between Parliament and the Executive. That is what I will now do.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Will the Prime Minister explain something about the scrutiny of European legislation? When a duly constituted Committee—the European Scrutiny Committee—recommended by a proper majority that the environmental liability directive should be debated on the Floor of the House, why did the Leader of the House, and hence the Government, ride roughshod over the Committee, and merely refer the matter to a Standing Committee?

Will the Prime Minister also explain why, for the first time since 1972, the chairmanship of the European Scrutiny Committee now resides with the Government rather than the Opposition, as a result of his Government's decision?

The Prime Minister

I was pretty sure we would get around to Europe.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point, I am told that procedures were agreed by the House. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will say more about that when she winds up the debate. I must also tell the hon. Gentleman that we could have debated Europe today. The Leader of the Opposition could have chosen Europe as the subject of the debate, but he did not.

I was saying that the Leader of the Opposition's statement did not address the big constitutional issues of our time. Surely the real issue is to bring power closer to people and to hold the Government to account. That is the fundamental question as between Parliament and the Executive. When we came to power, the United Kingdom was the most centralised country in the world. [Interruption.] We still had the utter democratic absurdity of—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Prime Minister. I want to be able to hear the Prime Minister every bit as well as I heard the Leader of the Opposition.

The Prime Minister

We still had the utter democratic absurdity of the majority of one House of Parliament dominating legislation solely on the basis of hereditary right; we could sue in the European Court on the European convention on human rights, but not in our own courts; and we had no effective rules on the financing of political parties. We have made changes in each of those areas that have fundamental consequences for the relationship between the Executive and Parliament, and we have done so to bring power closer to the people and to hold Government to account.

Madam Speaker—I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, forgive me. People want a much greater say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the decisions that affect their lives. They want more control, and a better balance between the central powers of the state and the rights of the citizen. They also want much more direct, immediate communication with the people who govern them. I shall give the House an example.

Five years ago, the Prime Minister's office received annually an estimated 25,000 items of correspondence from the public. Over the past years, that figure has risen to more than 500,000, which is a twentyfold increase. The public increasingly want to use and are using new technology, electronic mail and the internet for their communications with central, regional and local government. We are moving into a different world, where the procedures and traditions of the House will be viewed in a more unkind light unless we make changes to the way in which it does its business.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

The right hon. Gentleman referred to prime ministerial correspondence. He has said on television three times that the House of Lords defeated the fox hunting Bill. I have written to the Prime Minister three times to try to get a straight answer to a straight question. Is that true or false? As he cannot answer his correspondence, perhaps he would answer that question now.

The Prime Minister

The House of Lords prevented the fox hunting Bill from proceeding. [Interruption.] It was perfectly clear that the House of Lords was not prepared to agree to it, but it will happen now, and people will be able to vote on it.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Is it not the case that that Bill never reached the House of Lords? It stopped here.

The Prime Minister

It could not have got through the House of Lords. We know that, which is precisely why the Bill will be reintroduced. [Interruption.] That is absolutely right.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I want to take my right hon. Friend back to when the interruptions began and he was rightly describing the increased volume of communications by electronic mail. Will he bear in mind the fact that Opposition Front-Benchers have had their resources increased by Short money, and Government Front-Benchers have demonstrably had their resources increased, given the number of special advisers, whereas ordinary Bank Benchers, who play an important constitutional role, have not had their resources increased? It is now time that each and every one of us demanded a substantial increase in our resources, so that we can check Government and meet the demands of our case loads, which have increased owing to a greater use of electronic mail.

The Prime Minister

I have no doubt that those issues are important, and the House will continue to debate them. However, the issue of the relationship between the powers of the Executive and of Parliament goes wider than the procedures of the House. As a result of our desire to bring power closer to people, we introduced devolution for Scotland and Wales. The Conservatives were opposed to devolution for Scotland and Wales. Are they now in favour of it or not? We simply do not know, but they are no longer pledged to reverse it.

We have introduced the European convention on human rights to our law, so that our citizens can sue on the rights that they have in our own courts. If Conservative Front Benchers oppose that, let them say how they can want the Government held better to account at the same time as opposing people being able to sue in our courts on legislation by which this country should abide.

We are getting rid of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. What better example could there be of making our system more democratic?

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Several times in his speech, my right hon. Friend has commented on his surprise at the Opposition's choice of issue for the Opposition day debate. I have two suggestions for him. First, even despite the mass exodus we saw earlier, they have the most Members present ever for an Opposition debate. On issues such as crime and housing, there are usually about three people in the Chamber. Secondly, the Opposition are trying to find a defence to explain to their voters why they have been so ineffective in the House.

The Prime Minister

Of course, it is right that the real issue between the Executive and Parliament is how we bring power closer to people. That is why we have made the constitutional changes. That is why we are allowing greater local democracy. That is why we have reintroduced democracy to London.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

My right hon. Friend mentioned devolution of power to Wales and Scotland. He should also mention the welcome devolution of power to the people of London and the election, for the very first time, of the people's choice as the new mayor of London.

The Prime Minister

He was indeed the choice of the people, though not my choice. However, the point that my hon. Friend makes is surely right. It was the Conservative party that abolished the Greater London council and took away the rights of Londoners—[Interruption.] Is not that more important than all the piddling points raised by the Leader of the Opposition? When it comes to the real issues, it is not about who appoints the Select Committee Chairmen or whether we turn up for two slots of 20 minutes or one of half an hour. It is about restoring democracy to this country and getting power back to people.

In Scotland, for a hundred years people have wanted a devolved Scottish Parliament. This party, in government, has delivered it. For a hundred years people have wanted a devolved Executive in Northern Ireland that is genuinely representative of all communities. We have delivered it. We gave people the choice in a referendum to make their decision and they decided for devolution, so that is what we did. Freedom of information has been introduced for the first time by this Government.

Madam Speaker, when we look—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is Mr. Deputy Speaker."] Well, at least I am consistent, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In truth, the issue of Parliament and the Executive is a serious one. However, when we boil down the recommendations that the Leader of the Opposition is prepared to accept from his committee, there is the one on Select Committees and the proposal for two Prime Minister's Questions, not one. That is the sum total. We have been brought here today for this extraordinary exhibition of eccentricity on the part of the Leader of the Opposition just for those two things. Why has he done that? Because every time we come to a serious issue of policy, he falls flat on his face.

In the past few days, the Leader of the Opposition's entire economic policy has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. His national health service policy collapsed 10 days before. His education policy would be a disaster for this country if it were ever introduced. The truth of the matter is that on not a single, serious policy question has he a serious thing to say. He is incapable once we get to the big policy questions. Madam Speaker, what is—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is Mr. Deputy Speaker."] I will get it right eventually.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, what is the real problem that we have in holding the Government to account? In order to hold the Government to account, we need a Government—well, we have got one—and we need a serious Opposition. We do not have one of those. The Opposition's real complaint about holding us to account is that they are so useless, weak and feeble that in three years they have not been able to impress themselves on anybody. It could have been a serious debate but it was not, because the right hon. Gentleman has nothing serious to say.

2.50 pm
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry for having been the source of such difficulty.

Mr. Kennedy

I am sure that the entire House welcomes the fact that we have made such consensual progress over the past hour to reform and improve our parliamentary systems and the role of the Executive and its relationship to Parliament as a whole. This morning, when I was leaving home and thinking about the debate, I wondered whether any practical good would come of it. I am surprised only that I even asked myself that question.

Mr. Mackinlay

We have the promise of a free vote on the Liaison Committee's report. That is now locked in.

Mr. Kennedy

Somebody is happy. That may be because the hon. Gentleman is used to being in a minority from time to time.

The difficulty is the motion. There are many good, worthy and interesting things that we need to talk and think about. The problem is that the previous Conservative Government latterly were a lousy Executive. Subsequently, the Conservatives have been a lousy Opposition. On both counts, it is difficult to take seriously any prescriptions or prognoses that they put forward relating to how we might want to improve or develop our proceedings in a more meaningful way, and they had better be more meaningful for us all.

The Prime Minister is correct when he talks about a bigger picture. There is a much more profound picture for each and every political party in this place. It is that fewer people are joining political parties and fewer are becoming involved in the business of politics. Each year, 2 million people voluntarily take out or renew membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and that is a greater number than the entire membership of every British political party put together and multiplied by some.

When we look in the mirror as a Parliament, we should consider our working practices and procedures in terms of their relevance to the outside world. Having listened to the exchanges so far, I feel that most people, if they had not already switched channels having tuned in to the debate, would be unable to comprehend what Parliament was talking about. That is the perspective from which we should be approaching these important issues, which have been dealt with so superficially by the Conservative party.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about lousy opposition, will he confirm that his view of good opposition is a party that strives at every opportunity to agree with the Government in the hope of obtaining favours from them in future?

Mr. Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman might care to consider the wholehearted support that the Liberal Democrats gave to the Labour party in Cardiff a few months ago, which led to the ousting of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), and many other things too. He might like to reflect upon the fact that week on week, if we look for questions to the Prime Minister as opposed to assertions—the right hon. Gentleman should be properly held to account on the public policy of the day—I think that he gets a damned sight more from Liberal Democrat Members than from Conservative Members.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)


Mr. Kennedy

I will finish my point. I am sure that the hon. Lady would not want me prematurely to curtail my kind comments about the Conservative party.

It is difficult to take Conservative Members seriously when they are still prepared to subscribe to an element of the hereditary principle in another place. I do not understand how they can have credibility on parliamentary reform if they are willing to subscribe to that. They were in office for 18 years, during which the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government—a worthy society that commands all-party endorsement—made recommendations about the reform of the House. Many of us in all parties called for a debate, and strangely the Conservative Government could not find time for one. The Opposition contribution today has to be put in that historical context.

Dr. Starkey

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. May I take him back to his remarks about the representative nature of this Parliament and turning a mirror on ourselves? I invite him to turn round and look at hon. Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches to see how representative they are of the population when their gender is uniformly male. Is he considering doing something about that?

Mr. Kennedy

I think that at least four of my colleagues might profoundly disagree with that assessment, but the hon. Lady is correct and I am happy to repeat here what I have repeated ad infinitum on party platforms throughout the country: if any political party or Parliament is to be representative of the country, far more women have to be elected. That is a problem for the Liberal Democrats and I am endeavouring to deal with it. Any help that the hon. Lady could give would be most welcome. If she wants to swell the number of women in the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, we have space on these Benches and would be happy for her to cross the Floor of the House.

Obviously, the Labour party has embarked on significant and historic constitutional reform in the past three years. We openly and enthusiastically subscribe to much of that reform. We have had our differences. For example, the system of proportional representation adopted for the European elections was not one that we would have chosen, we would have given the Welsh Assembly more legislative power, and we would have given more fiscal autonomy to the Scottish Parliament. However, at least compared with what went on before, we are on a rolling programme of reform, which has to be welcome.

This debate offers a welcome opportunity, because there is so much more to do—real reform of the House of Commons and the completion of the reform of the House of Lords. With such a big majority—and with so much power and patronage at the disposal of any modern day Prime Minister—the Government must themselves check that Parliament is not being undermined and that the House is not being taken for granted.

The Liberal Democrats recommend that we move to a fixed-term system of four-year Parliaments. Surely that would rid us of the most ludicrous tradition of the lot: the fact that the person who will lead the team when the race for a general election starts is also the person who holds the starting pistol and decides when to pull the trigger. Short of a Government losing the confidence of a majority in the House, a partisan party leader should not decide when the country goes to the polls. A four-year, fixed term would be best.

Secondly, far too many people are on the payroll in the House. The Government are too big. There are too many parliamentary private secretaries and too many people are beholden to the Executive interests of the day. Not enough Members feel free to express independent interests from a Back-Bench point of view. It is telling that there is a genuinely held respect and affection in this place for individuals in all parties, some of whom are described by the press as "maverick", some of whom are called "independently minded" and some "troublemakers". The truth is that we all know that most Members do not have either the guts or the opportunity to be like that because those who sit on the Treasury Bench and who control the Executive have far more power than is healthy for the House.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Before the right hon. Gentleman became the leader of his party, we shared many a happy moment on the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. He mentioned the payroll vote. I am deeply concerned about the inadequacy of the Opposition. Does he agree that one reason for it is that they are out lining their own pockets doing other jobs? Seventy-five per cent. of Conservative Members have outside interests compared with about 15 per cent. of Members from other parties. The reason that the Opposition are so bad is that they are never here and they are interested only in lining their own pockets.

Mr. Kennedy

The hon. Lady makes her point well. I do not mean any disrespect to the impeccably impartial, fair-minded Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges when I say that, in my view, there were not quite as many happy moments as she seems to remember, given the detailed nature of some of the inquiries that we had to make of present and previous Members. Fixed terms would be better and so would a reduction in the size of the payroll vote.

What about the way in which we go about business as a Parliament? Today is a good example. Today, at short notice and in response to the problem of football hooliganism—after all, it is not an issue that suddenly arrived out of the sky with Euro 2000; the problem has bedevilled English football for a number of years—we will have a rushed Second Reading of proposed legislation. Concern will be expressed in all parties, certainly from our ranks, about the draconian powers and civil libertarian implications of aspects of the Bill. If the Government get their way and are not prepared at least to meet the House of Commons halfway on aspects of it, we will complete the remaining stages with indelicate haste next week and the Bill will then go to the House of Lords for further consideration.

No hon. Member of sense, of any party, could fail to disagree that the public want something to be done about football hooliganism, and so do the rest of us. The issue is: is the detail of the Bill the correct, considered response to what is undoubtedly a problem? There will be those who argue with considerable force and persuasion that it is not.

The problem is those idiots when they go abroad. They are nothing to do with football supporters. They are just idiots and thugs, but the issue is a prime example of where pre-legislative scrutiny should be carried out by a Select Committee involving all parties, rather than the Executive of the day rushing through ill-considered measures that may not do much to solve the problem and may, as a downside, have profound civil libertarian implications, which none of us in any party would be happy with in time to come. That is where Parliament does not succeed—when it allows such a thing to happen. It is scheduled to happen later today.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, to work, this place requires members on the Government side to have a creative tension in scrutinising Government legislation? We will see tonight whether Labour Members who advocate civil liberties are prepared to demonstrate that creative tension. Without it, this place simply does not work.

Mr. Kennedy

I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. If he will forgive me for being a little partisan, because he made a fair-minded point, probably the best experts in creative tension in the House these days are members of the Conservative parliamentary party. There is no doubt about that.

The Government should surely be more accountable in relation to public expenditure. By coincidence, today the Prime Minister has come to the Dispatch Box of the House of Commons and produced his annual account of the activities of the Government.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

The glossy figures.

Mr. Kennedy

The glossy ones, as my hon. Friend rightly says. Let us look at more graphic ones, which have coincided with the publication of the Government's annual report. The poverty figures—published today, but not, of course, published in the Government's account—show that, under Labour, the number of pensioners living in poverty has risen by 400,000. Funnily enough, those figures were sneaked out on the same day as the glossy, glitzy annual report. The fact that that was not mentioned in dispatches by the Prime Minister or by any Minister during the advance warning in interviews and in the newspapers this morning shows how hollow is the exercise that we have observed today compared with real accountability, where the Government are questioned properly.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Is it not a fact that many pensioners who are in poverty are entitled to the guaranteed minimum income, and that each one of us as a Member of Parliament should perhaps be doing more in our own constituency to ensure that everyone who is entitled to what the Government are making available receives it?

Mr. Kennedy

I agree that, as individual Members of Parliament, we should be doing everything possible in our constituencies to ensure that our constituents receive their due entitlements. However, in the context of today's debate, we should also be acknowledging what we are not doing sufficiently, on the Floor of the House and in Parliament generally, in calling the Executive of the day to account for the shortcomings that are revealed by such figures.

We welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has said that, on Select Committees, he will take an indulgent view of the House and allow hon. Members—heaven forbid—to make up their own minds. That is good.

Something that we could learn from the progress of devolution—more in the Scottish than in the Welsh context, because the Scottish Parliament enjoys more legislative capacity than does the National Assembly for Wales—is that the pre-legislative scrutiny process is working well. All parties in Scotland, as well as journalists and other observers and commentators, point to such scrutiny as being one of the strengths of the new system. We should learn from that system and do more to emulate it in this place.

Mr. MacShane

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy

Yes, but this is the last time.

Mr. MacShane

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is making a serious and considered speech. He dealt with the selection of hon. Members to serve on Select Committees. The fact is that party management is needed in every legislature, whether it is the Congress or the French or German legislatures. If we did not have party management, would I as a Back Bencher receive 250 CVs saying, "Put me on the Foreign Affairs Committee"? Realistically, how would such a system be managed? Party management is part of the democratic process.

Mr. Kennedy

Obviously there has to be a degree of management or we would not reach any decision on our procedures in this place. However, I think that we all know what we are talking about: over-management and intrusive party political manipulation to suit the specific interests of the Executive of the day, of whatever political shade that Executive may be. That is the point that we are making.

Ms Abbott

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy

I am sorry; I really have to conclude my remarks.

Liberal Democrat Members want an effective Parliament. An effective Parliament should be neither excessively obstructive nor excessively subservient. The opportunities available to the Opposition and to Back Benchers rest largely with obstruction. The opportunities available to those who are subservient to the interests of the Government of the day rest largely with having to toady and to follow the party and the Executive line.

There is a genuine debate to be had here. I pay tribute to the report from the Conservative party and from Philip Norton, who is one of the most distinguished academics in the land. I have known and worked with him over a number of years, and I respect him very much indeed. He has made an intelligent and a thoughtful contribution that, with the work of the Modernisation Committee, should provide the basis for a rational, all-party discussion. However, the Conservative leadership does not seem to be making its contribution in the House in accordance with that report from the Conservative party. Frankly, the Conservatives are promoting only superficial self-interest, rather than the substantial, serious discussion that we all recognise that we need.

3.4 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I believe that the Prime Minister was quite right when he said that not everyone in the pubs and clubs in our constituencies are talking about the issues that we are debating. However, I fear that he was quite wrong when he said that it is more important to debate the important, bread-and-butter issues of jobs, health and education than to debate the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. That issue is, and has always been, fundamental to this place and to our role as a Parliament.

In so many debates in recent years, in this place and elsewhere, we have lacked historical perspective, but one does not have to be a great historian to see that the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament, whether that Executive is the monarchy or the elected Government of the day, has been central to every political debate for the past 800 years. The particulars may change, as may the balance and the issues, but the general truth is always the same: the tension between the Executive and the democratic will of the country, whether it is expressed formally through Parliament or through the people, has always been, and will remain, the big political issue.

I congratulate the Opposition on choosing the subject of today's debate. It is an extremely important topic that we do not debate enough.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, for the reasons that he has just given, the issue is fundamental to the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, schools and hospitals that the Prime Minister said that we should be debating? Does not the Prime Minister's view on those matters betray his complete lack of understanding that the only way in which we can safeguard jobs, schools and hospitals is to make the Government accountable to the House of Commons?

Mr. Fisher

I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would disagree with the second part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention. We all recognise that Parliament and the Government have to be scrutinised, held to account and rigorously questioned and challenged on everything in order to get the best out of any Government as much as to represent our constituents.

Mr. Hope

My hon. Friend makes a point about opportunities for Back Benchers vigorously to question Ministers. How does he square that with the Conservative record of attendance on Select Committees? Only 34 per cent. of Conservative Back-Bench Members bothered to attend the Select Committee on Education and Employment; only 43 per cent. bothered to attend the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and fewer than 50 per cent. bothered to attend the Select Committee on Agriculture. Is it not a case of Back Benchers who want to hold the Government to account simply not bothering to turn up to those parliamentary institutions?

Mr. Fisher

Of course in order to participate in any democratic debate it is first necessary to be there, so I agree with my hon. Friend about that. However, because today's debate is so central, we do not serve it well by making it a trivial party political occasion. As the Liaison Committee report that is at the centre of this debate illustrates, because it is all-party and extremely moderately and intelligently worded it ought to be an issue that goes way beyond parties because of what we have in common as parliamentarians in our attitude to ourselves, to our constituents and to the Executive. I know from right hon. and hon. Members representing all parties that that is the case.

Although I have a great deal of respect for the Leader of the Opposition in his sharp questioning and his ready wit, I feel that he slightly misjudged his speech today. His aggressive tone alienated the House when much of what he had to say in praise of the Liaison Committee report was understood and agreed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who is not in his place, said, there is general consensus on many of the points that the Leader of the Opposition made. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman slightly minimised his support for the Liaison Committee report and that was a pity because it is such a good report that we ought to take it seriously. We need a measured, steady and calm debate on that report, and I hope that we will have such a debate later this year.

One of the most interesting and optimistic moments this afternoon was when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that we will have a free vote on the report. It will therefore not require courage for Labour Members to support what is an excellent report; it will simply require good sense.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Did the hon. Gentleman notice that the Prime Minister described the proposals in the Liaison Committee report as piddling? Does he not think that that is an insult to the 30-odd Select Committee Chairmen who wrote that report?

Mr. Fisher

I did not hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say that, and I do not think that he said it. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has quietly pointed out to me that it is the convention of the House that there is a free vote on all House of Commons matters, so perhaps what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about a free vote was less sensational than I thought.

However, I was happy to be reassured that there was to be a free vote, and I hope that all hon. Members will by then have read and considered the Liaison Committee report. What is sad is that the members of the media, who are so important in holding the Government to account and relating hon. Members to our constituents, have almost totally failed to report, comment on or grasp the significance of the report. The issue is a fundamental one, and it is one of the most important reports to emerge during this Parliament.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are free votes, and free votes? Is not what we want an assurance from the Leader of the House that the vote later tonight will be a true free vote, in which all hon. Members will be able to vote freely, regardless of whether they are members of the Administration?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)


Mr. Fisher

I am sure that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) will have heard the enormously expressive monosyllable emitted by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It made what she means by a free vote very clear.

Mrs. Beckett

Uncharacteristically, my hon. Friend has misunderstood me. I made the noise that I made because it has been crystal clear over recent weeks that many Conservative Members are adamantly and fundamentally opposed to what my hon. Friend has rightly described as the profound recommendations in the Liaison Committee report, and to their implications. The noise that I made was meant to indicate scepticism as to whether they will enjoy a free vote.

Mr. Fisher

It is refreshing and unusual to debate the nuances of ejaculations and exclamations. My right hon. Friend made an initial noise that was every bit as eloquent as her explanation, and both were extremely useful.

I do not want to delay the House, and I hope that many hon. Members will want to contribute to this important debate. As I said, I consider the Liaison Committee's report to be truly excellent. It is conspicuous for its restraint and modesty. Some people might call it rather cautious and conservative, but that is often necessary in order to maximise all-party support for a Select Committee report.

Moreover, I understand that there will be an opportunity later this session to debate the report in full. I agree with almost every word of it, and believe that it will strengthen Select Committee procedures. Its recommendations on selection, remits and responses from Government are wise and sane. They have been needed since the changes of the 1970s to the departmental nature of Select Committees.

I welcome the report. I hope that it will be debated, and that it will get the full approval of the House and the Government.

Ms Abbott

My hon. Friend is making an important and brave speech. Does he agree that the differences in opinion about the report stem from whether hon. Members see themselves solely as ambassadors for party and constituency, or whether they take seriously their role in holding the Government to account in this Chamber?

Mr. Fisher

That question goes to the heart of the role of Members of Parliament. Most of us have been party members for 20, 30 or 40 years. We love our parties, which are rooted in our lives. Sometimes, the tension between the desire to be loyal to party and constituents and what we believe to be politically and ethically correct can be awkward and unhappy.

Those are permanent dilemmas, but they are not often very difficult to resolve. No one need be sorry that we have to grapple with such prickly and uncomfortable matters. They are part of our lives, and it is healthy for hon. Members to be both party and constituency politicians, and people with independent minds. We have to balance such things, even though we do not always do so very happily or to our credit.

I want to mention two other areas. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly said that the key elements of this debate were the degree of centralised power that any Government have and the degree of accountability. A third, related, matter is the checks and balances that exist structurally inside Parliament and in our detailed work.

My right hon. Friend said that, when we came into Government, this was a centralised country. It had increasingly become so. We are all reasonable enough to see that there are good reasons why Governments over the past 50 years have sought to take more power to themselves. As government becomes more complicated in a complicated world, it is tempting for a Government to imagine that they will best address its problems with more central power.

The last Government were the same. There was a movement towards greater control by the Executive. Nobody could have exemplified that better than the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. Sometimes she used it well, and sometimes she used it badly, but there was a drawing in to the centre and I am sure that she believed that she was behaving honourably.

I think that there has been a drawing in to the centre under the present Government, probably for exactly the same reasons. Whatever we try to do on non-governmental organisations, there is a tendency for them to increase. There is an understandable but undesirable movement—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I should have reminded him earlier that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. With interventions, the hon. Gentleman has had considerably more time.

3.21 pm
Mr. John Major (Huntingdon)

This was beginning to turn into a rather partisan debate. It is fortunate that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) moved away from that, because the debate affects all of us. It is essentially about the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. Many hon. Members, not only sitting on the Conservative Benches, believe that over a long period—I do not mean simply in this Parliament—the Executive have been getting stronger and the Commons has been getting weaker. That trend has now reached a stage where it should be reversed, and that is what the debate essentially is about.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Prime Minister took time out of the debate at the beginning of the afternoon for a statement that could just as easily have been made at the beginning of next week to permit more hon. Members to express their views on the procedures of the Commons. It was a foolish thing to do.

I am leaving the House at the general election, so I have no further ambitions here. There is nothing that the Prime Minister, or for that matter my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, can offer me that I wish to have. That puts me in an excellent position to express some home truths, and I intend to do so for the good of the House and for no other purpose.

The House of Commons has been a very large part of my life. I always wished to come here, and I have loved every moment—or, to be strictly honest, nearly every moment. As I prepare to leave the House I wish to see it thrive, because, for all its shortcomings, it remains the best and least corrupt system of government that I have ever seen.

Yet today this House and those of us who are privileged to be sent here to serve in it are held in less regard by our electors than I can ever recall. That is not true of Members of Parliament individually. There is still a great deal of affection for them in their constituencies. But it is true of Members of Parliament as a body and of the House as a whole. We are not popular out there, and that long-term trend has been worsening.

That must be changed. I do not believe that it will be changed if the House is perceived by the electorate to be as putty in the hands of any Government with a secure majority and a good whipping system. It is in the interests of the institution of Parliament itself that we should have reforms to begin to reverse that perception and that reality.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)


Mr. Major

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way. I have 10 minutes, and there is a great deal that I wish to say.

The main reform that we need is to change the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, which has become unbalanced over the past 20 or 25 years.

I believe that we must begin to change the perception that any Government with a large majority and an efficient Whips Office means a five-year elected dictatorship. To do so, the House must have more power, Back Benchers must have more power and the Government must have less power. I am aware that I might well have done more about that, and I am prepared to accept the blame, but we must now look at the future of the House.

Mr. Miller

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Major

I have told the hon. Gentleman why I will not give way to him. I doubt whether he has anything constructive to offer, and I intend to proceed.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but could you, for the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, clarify that interventions are to be added on to the 10 minutes, thus enabling right hon. and hon. Members to take interventions?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is correct that injury time is added on when interventions are taken, but in a time-limited debate, of course, interventions are part of the total time. It still remains the prerogative of the hon. Member who has the Floor as to whether or not he takes any or all interventions.

Mr. Major

If the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) wishes, I will take his intervention, but then I will take no more for this reason, and this reason only—I have a great deal that I wish to say and I believe that many other right hon. and hon. Members have too.

Mr. Miller

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I appreciate the context of his opening remarks. He said that we needed to reverse the process. Will he give us an indication of what period in history he would want it reversed to, so that we have an idea of when he believes the balance was correct?

Mr. Major

I said a moment ago that this has been a long-term process. I think that it has happened over the past 30 or 40 years, and I am not making a case against this particular Government.

Many years ago, under a different Government, Lord Pym warned of the dangers of too large a majority. I think that we have seen that vividly demonstrated in this Parliament. Too much legislation is pushed through, too much of it poorly considered. We have had twice as many timetable motions of one sort or another in this Parliament as between 1990 and 1997.

Parliament is often ignored—it is bypassed. As Cabinet Government declines, special advisers proliferate. Statements in the House too often follow public announcements of policy rather than preceding them. Even the Prime Minister—who courteously told me that he has to be elsewhere now—went to Germany to announce his policy on hooligans and cashpoints rather than doing so in this House or in this country.

The Government press machine has been almost wholly politicised. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who is not in his seat at the moment, for tabling questions that reveal the scale and extent of that. No. 10 is being strengthened as the House is effectively being weakened.

I think that some of the proposals on modernisation are welcome, and I congratulate the Leader of the House on those—others I think are potty. However, the overall balance of those proposals threatens to turn the Commons into an irrelevance, with even the weapon of delay now to be stolen from the Opposition. That is a wretched situation. It may suit the Government, but Labour Back Benchers will not always be on the Government Benches.

It was a bad start to this Parliament when the Prime Minister decided that Prime Minister's Question Time should take place once a week, not twice. There was no consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. I know—I was the Leader of the Opposition. There was no consultation with the leader of the Liberal Democrats or the other parties. The Prime Minister rang me up and told me what he had unilaterally decided about how and when he would present himself to this House for accountability. He should have consulted on such a change and the House should have voted on it, but it was imposed on the House. Taking questions once a week for 30 minutes is far less taxing, believe me, than taking them twice a week for 15 minutes, when contemporary events can be raised.

That has had a secondary malign effect. More often than not, once Prime Minister's Question Time is over on a Wednesday, the House is nearly deserted, The Marie Celeste was crowded compared with this House on many Thursdays and Fridays when there is no special business, as there is today.

Lord Norton says that Prime Minister's Question Time should be twice a week for 30 minutes. Good for Lord Norton—I am just glad that I will not be doing it. Two sessions a week of 15 minutes is enough. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition says that he will in due course do two sessions of 20 minutes. Well, good for him. As it might have been said in "Yes, Prime Minister", that is a very courageous decision by my right hon. Friend.

The outcome of this debate should not just be that the Government outvote the Opposition. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the House should listen; they should set up consultations with Opposition parties and Back Benchers to consider changes.

In the circumstances that have developed over the years, more powerful Select Committees have become desirable. I would favour paying their Chairmen and allowing the House to elect their Chairmen and membership. If we can provide an alternative parliamentary career to parliamentarians, then Parliament will be strengthened instead of the Executive. That is the right direction.

I favour the announcement of the parliamentary programme for several years; the proposals should face pre-legislative scrutiny, with evidence taken in public. Many of the deficiencies in proposed legislation could thus be dealt with at an early stage. To persuade the Government to accept that suggestion, I offer the example of the poll tax. Under such a system, it would never have emerged in the form it took—nor would much other legislation.

We need such reforms. I would establish a Standing Committee of both Houses to consider constitutional reform. Before a Government just decide on such a matter, let that Committee examine it and take evidence. I would favour the Prime Minister breaking with past tradition and attending Select Committees to answer questions in a more clement atmosphere than that of Prime Minister's Question Time in the House.

The problems did not all arise during this Parliament—that is not my case—but the style of the Labour Government and the scale of their majority have brought them into sharp relief and worsened them. When the Government were elected, they had unprecedented good will, a huge majority, a growing economy, low inflation and falling unemployment; and the fiscal position was returning to balance—although the Chancellor does not like to admit it. The Government had a golden opportunity. However, compared with the achievements of Parliament between 1945 and 1950, under the Attlee Government, or even between 1983 and 1987, under the Government of my right hon. and noble Friend Lady Thatcher, that opportunity has been squandered.

The Prime Minister can still retrieve the situation. Let him consult all the Opposition parties and his Back Benchers on reforms to strengthen the House. Let him sack the spin doctors, who so mislead, and the political press officers who are a stain on Parliament's traditional procedures. Let him get rid of the advisers who have often become more influential than his Ministers. Let him instruct his Ministers that Parliament—this House—must be the first to be told of his policy developments. Let him begin to restore to the House of Commons the power that it has lost. For if he will not do so, it will be done for him—either in this or in another Parliament. If he will not do it, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition will do it for him, but whoever does it, the sooner it is done, the better.

3.32 pm
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The opening speech of this debate represented the strangest dichotomy that I have ever heard in Parliament. The Opposition called the debate in order to talk about reforming Parliament and us as parliamentarians. However, the speech was presented in a wholly adversarial manner.

There was no mention of the Jopling reforms which took place during the previous Parliament. There was no mention of the excellent efforts made by hon. Members on both sides of the House—not least by the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard)—to try to achieve consensus on what a modern Parliament might look like. The approach to what should have been a useful debate was wholly adversarial. But that is only one element of our work.

As parliamentarians, we learn quickly that our job is multi-faceted. It is not one job, but at least four. First, we are advocates for our constituents, who want us to solve their problems. That constituency link and the process whereby we are elected goes deep into our democracy. From the day we are elected, we sink part of the party rosette we wear, because we have become representatives of all our constituents. We start to play a consensual and scrutinising role that is not always dominated by party.

Secondly, we are legislators, because we legislate and we scrutinise legislation. In that role, we act as members of the Government, members of the Opposition or members of a Select Committee. Thirdly, we use our experience to develop policy within our parties and in Parliament. Finally—whether we like or not—we are public figures, and we talk about the issues in the media.

I suspect that like every other Member of the House, I have been besieged in the past few weeks by a plethora of reports and questionnaires asking us to list exactly what we do as Members of Parliament, how long we spend doing it and what we think is important. We are asked to list in order of priorities—but I will not do that, because every element of the job informs the other elements: they interrelate with each other, so adversarial politics interrelates with the consensual politics that we are trying to move towards in a modern Parliament.

In the previous Parliament, when majorities were tight and the election was approaching, important Select Committee visits often gave way to crucial votes. Our party whip is sent to us on Friday telling us when we must be here the following week to carry out our party role.

I now want to say something unusual that I hope will not be misinterpreted. Whips are not supposed to make speeches, but I want to portray a nightmare scenario in which more than 600 Members all think they know best about everything and are able to say exactly what they like about every national or local issue. That would result in chaos, and it is down to our party managers to win consensus for the ideas on which we are legislating, to accept and deal with opposition when it occurs both within a party and between parties, and to win votes for a party's policy in the House.

That job is performed by people who can never speak in the House but, on the whole, I think they do it very well. The job means that they must know a great deal about our personal lives and the difficulties that we may face. They are—and this is a serious point—the right people to decide who should serve on Select Committees and other Committees. They should keep that role and carry it out in a correct and sensible fashion. I do not agree with the proposals that have been made by Philip Norton and in the Liaison Committee report.

I am interested in the relationship between consensual and adversarial politics. In the previous Parliament, I was chairman of the all-party water group, but I made very party political speeches on that subject in the House. However, because I was interested in that relationship, I am pleased to have been a member of the Modernisation Committee for the past three years. Although we may not get a chance to debate the Committee's work before the end of July, we should be able to debate it before the end of the Session.

The Committee's work was going along fine. It had built on the Jopling report and talked seriously about how we should behave in a modern Parliament. It had recognised that people want certainty about their hours and their time and it had recognised the frustrations felt, in particular, by many younger and newer Members at having to sit through the night for no apparent reason and without debating the issues properly.

Legislation can be badly drafted, and we can spend hours allowing the Government to get their act together by tabling the right amendments to Bills. Government members of the Committee have brought to it our experience of many years in opposition. That experience of the need for certainty of timing and better organisation of legislation can play into the hands of the Opposition more than the Government, who will have constraints placed upon them. The Government must get their legislation right, propose draft legislation and put it before scrutiny Committees. At that point, we must accept that we need to programme and timetable legislation and deal with it sensibly.

When we put forward the reforms, I was disappointed that the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), was constrained and told that the Opposition would have to make it an adversarial debate; so here we are, debating in the stupid way demonstrated in the opening speech of the Leader of the Opposition issues on which all of us should agree.

3.41 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, which is clearly central to our democratic process and therefore of interest to every hon. Member. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), with whom I served on the Modernisation Committee. The House has had the benefit of the experience of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who certainly told it like it was.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for addressing the issue as he did today. He caused some hackles to rise, but these are important issues. However, he also proposed a series of practical policy measures that could go some way to restoring the balance between Parliament and the Executive.

There is always a tension between Parliament and the Executive. However, there is something different about this Government's attitude. At the heart of their attitude to Parliament seems to be a view—quoted by my right hon. Friend—encapsulated by the words of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), early in the life of this Parliament and reported in The Guardian in March 1998. He said: It may be that the age of pure representative democracy is…coming to an end. He went on to express his belief that as people today want to become more involved, there were other means of representation that could take the place of representative democracy. He cited plebiscites, focus groups, lobbies, citizens' movements, the Internet. We had a reference to the internet as a means of democratic change from the Prime Minister today.

If we take it that the view of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—it was confirmed by the Prime Minister today—informs the Government's thinking on the use and function of Parliament, it becomes clear that they regard Parliament as another means of communication. They see Parliament as slow moving, outdated and even recalcitrant at times, but to be put alongside the growing mountains of glossy literature from every Department of State, the use of the "Today" programme for Government announcements—not "Newsnight", though, as that can be recalcitrant too—stage-managed press conferences and people's panels, and the faux consultations and fudged figures that have become, sadly, the hallmarks of a Government who, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon said, had a golden opportunity at the beginning of this Parliament. Sadly, their most lasting legacy may turn out to be that they taught the British people the meaning of the term "spin doctor".

That is the problem. There is an essential difference between Parliament and the internet, people's panels and the other examples cited by the Prime Minister, who gave no sign of understanding Parliament's meaning and purpose, nor of the fundamental fact that only Parliament, through the ballot box, can give legitimacy to a Government's actions, as well as scrutinise what they do, and that only through Parliament can the Government be held to account.

I recommend to the House the document on Parliament's scrutiny role produced by a Hansard Society commission last December, which says: Parliament performs a number of roles in British democracy. Parliament makes the law and decides on how much the government can raise through taxation. Crucially, it also creates and sustains the government. Parliament provides the vital link between the electorate and government. Governments are accountable to the people through general elections… This form of accountability is generally termed Parliament's scrutiny role. Parliament performs this role by obtaining and publicising information about the government's performance and future plans. On the basis of that information, Parliament and others form a judgement as to whether the government is discharging its mandate effectively. The commission goes on to define the role of government in relation to Parliament, and says: Effective scrutiny relies not only on the role of Parliament and MPs, but also on the role of government. The government has a duty to account for its policies, decisions and actions. None of that means that Parliament cannot be reformed, nor that it should not be changed to ensure that it performs its role more effectively. The Government came to power promising that they would make the proceedings of the House of Commons more open and comprehensible to the public, and promised their new Members that they would make the workings of the House more women and family friendly. On the second score, some Labour Back Benchers have accused the Government of selling them a pup.

The Modernisation Committee has made sensible reforms that build on the solid work of the previous Government and include the revised, clearer Order Paper, clear explanatory notes to Bills, greater flexibility for the Speaker in the conduct of debates, and important moves on the scrutiny of European Union legislation. Those positive steps will improve the functioning of the legislative machine. The introduction of debates in Westminster Hall, criticised by some as sidelining the issues raised there, means that issues that are not directly concerned with the legislative programme can be examined in a slightly different atmosphere which, personally, I welcome.

In its document, the Hansard Society commission points out, pertinently, that other aspects of Government policy are affecting the role of the Parliament, but that the Government give no indication that they have taken an overall view of the impact of their policies on the democratic role of the House. The commission says: The structure of Government, and the context within which it operates, has changed enormously… The increased use of executive agencies by central government, devolution and the growing influence of the courts, the extension of EU involvement have all had an impact on the influence of Westminster. The Modernisation Committee said of Scottish and Welsh devolution: We hope that the Government will not be overtaken by events and that when the pace of reform slackens, it will be found that all the separately constructed pieces of the jigsaw will fit together. From today's showing and from what the Prime Minister said, I am not certain that that message has got home to the Government, and I hope that the right hon. Lady will address that particular point in her winding-up speech. Like me, she will have read an article by Peter Riddell in The Times on March 3, which stated: What ministers really fail to address is the dynamic nature of their programme. They treat each individual Bill like an item to be ticked off on a check list. But there are loose ends: not just issues which have yet to be resolved, like electoral reform, but also the consequences of measures already enacted. There is still time for the Government to correct that impression, but the implication seems to be that Ministers are not concerned about the role of Parliament, the fact that only Parliament can legitimise their actions and that through it they are held accountable. If they were concerned, they would be prepared to take an overall look at the cumulative effect of all of their policies on devolution, the House of Lords and regional arrangements, and to assess the effects on parliamentary accountability.

For the benefit of the House, the Government should also compute the effect of their dispersal of power to unelected, unaccountable bodies. Since they came to power, they have created 300 unelected, unaccountable taskforces. There has been a proliferation of quangos—the Government have created 500—and there has been an unprecedented number of party political appointments to public bodies.

I conclude with a warning to the Government. They, like the rest of society, will have noted that people have less and less time to take an interest in the political process. People have less time to read leader articles in newspapers and other comment on the political process. However, the solution is not to dumb down the process, and it is certainly not to ignore it.

The Government might like to heed the message of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is not in his place, and who said in an interview in The House Magazine in April: I do think we are now in a political society where we're managed, where democracy really is about being represented. There's all the difference in the world between being a representative of your constituency, and your convictions, and being a sub-agent of the Millbank Tower Corporation… We should all agree with that.

One of the many characteristics that differentiates British life from many other societies is the thread of voluntary democratic involvement that runs right through it. People in this country—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The right hon. Lady has run out of time.

3.52 pm
Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

This is a very serious topic, but I am afraid that its consideration was not helped by the tone or content of the opening speech. I listened with disbelief to the Leader of the Opposition as he forgot everything that the Conservative Government had done during 18 years in power. As we all know, they were the most centralising Government in British history, who denied a Parliament to the Scottish people and concentrated power in the Executive in an unprecedented way.

When the right hon. Gentleman was a member of that Government, he was not interested in any of the reforms that he put forward today. We know that the prospect of a long period in opposition concentrates people's minds, but, as we learned in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward), it appears that the right hon. Gentleman has changed his mind on these matters even since last year. The Conservatives' opportunism was transparent for all to see today.

As the Prime Minister said, holding the Government to account is central to democracy, but that task requires a serious Opposition. The killer question came from my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope), who asked why Conservative Members do not attend Select Committees. If they were seriously interested in holding the Government to account, that is the main forum that they would use to perform that task. The Leader of the Opposition was unable to answer that question.

The Liaison Committee report demands serious consideration, and I was pleased by the Prime Minister's commitment to give a free vote on that. I am certainly minded to support the Committee's approach, and I think that its analysis of many of the problems is correct, although I am not sure that it has hit on the correct solution for selecting members of Select Committees. There are problems with the Whips doing that, but equally there are problems with the suggested alternative of giving the task to three of the great and the good in the House.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

The hon. Gentleman asked why some of us do not attend Select Committees as frequently as we should. One reason is that we have other duties in the House, owing to the disproportionate representation on that side of the House compared with this side. For example, I had to choose whether, next week, I would attend a Select Committee or chair the meeting of another Committee of the House. Many of us have responsibilities on the Chairmen's Panel, and I am a trustee of the pension fund. I have to choose which meetings to attend.

Mr. Chisholm

Clearly, each individual may have a good reason for not attending on a particular occasion, but that does not explain the horrific attendance figures read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) probably does explain the attendance figures. My record of attendance at the Select Committee of which I am a member has been raised by several hon. Members. The vast majority of the occasions on which I could not attend occurred because I was simultaneously expected to attend the Standing Committee considering the Financial Services and Markets Bill.

Mr. Chisholm

I am told that the hon. Gentleman attended seven of the 36 sittings of the Select Committee. Perhaps the Standing Committee explains part of that, but I find it difficult to believe that one Standing Committee explains the figures entirely.

Select Committees show the House working at its best. I am also a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and the Committee system that we have there shows that Parliament working at its best, too. One recommendation in the Liaison Committee report—namely, the emphasis on the early scrutiny of legislation by a Committee that can call witnesses—is extremely important. That has just begun for certain Bills in the Westminster Parliament; it is done routinely with all Bills in the Scottish Parliament. That is one feature of the Liaison Committee report that will lead to more effective legislation.

At the heart of the speech by the Leader of the Opposition was an attack on the report of the Modernisation Committee. That is a serious matter, which will require a vote in the near future. Once again, it showed the Conservative Opposition missing the important aspects of genuine scrutiny and opposition, and instead defending an unacceptable and outdated practice in the House—the holding of debates at a ridiculous hour in the middle of the night.

The Leader of the Opposition omitted to mention that one of the recommendations in the Modernisation Committee report is that there should be a reduction in the number of late Government amendments.

We were told that the right hon. Gentleman supported the programming of Bills a year ago. The recommendations of the Modernisation Committee for programming will enable Back Benchers to determine which parts of Bills they want to spend the most time on. Sensible programming is far better than trying to scrutinise a Bill in the middle of the night.

I am now more used to the practice of the Scottish Parliament. When I come down to Westminster, hear hon. Members making speeches of an hour or more at 2 o'clock in the morning, and try to listen to the content of such speeches, I cannot justify that to my constituents as a feature of modern parliamentary democracy.

In general, I support the limitation of speeches to 10 minutes in most cases. If an hon. Member cannot make the main points of his argument in 10 minutes, it is likely that he has very little to say. I certainly support programming and time-limited speeches. The proposals from the Modernisation Committee are a modest attempt to introduce this Parliament to a more modern way of conducting parliamentary procedure.

I would go further. I would prefer the parliamentary day to start earlier and end earlier, but that is not what is proposed. I do not see how any Opposition Member can seriously object to a proposal that would allow debate after 10 pm, but that would ensure that hon. Members are not kept at the House unnecessarily in order to vote at that time.

The Scottish Parliament's hours, which try to follow more normal working hours, have been a great success. I am committed to driving forward the agenda of family friendly employment, and I do not see why that should not apply to politicians as well. We have managed to attract to the Scottish Parliament a much wider spectrum of the public, and a particular achievement is the fact that women constitute 50 per cent. of the Labour party's representation. That may not have happened if we had not had those hours.

Given the necessary reform of this place, we heard a very conservative speech from the Leader of the Opposition. Let us do more to strengthen Select Committees, but let us not defend the indefensible, in the form of debates in the middle of the night.

4 pm

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

It is a privilege to speak in this debate. Several good speeches have been made already, particularly those of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and my right hon. Friends. However, I regret the Prime Minister's comment—I think that he used the word "piddling"—on this subject, not because economics, crime, education, health are unimportant, but because what we do here and the relationship between the Executive and the House of Commons dictates the effectiveness with which the Government deliver their policies to our citizens. That is one of the reasons why, under all parties, this country has had some of the best Governments in the world for the past century. His comment showed a misunderstanding of the issue.

The marginalisation of Parliament is not new, and no one should pretend that it is confined to this Government. I suspect that it goes back five decades, but it has accelerated recently. Again, some of that is not directly related to the matters for which the Government are being attacked. For example, devolution is bound to have an effect and, to some extent, to take powers away from this Parliament. It was not necessary to remove all those powers.

Each year, we approve £14 billion, or thereabouts, of expenditure for the Scottish Parliament, but we do not know, and are unable to ask, what it is spent on or how effectively it is spent. The Treasury was given the right to ask, under a specific section of the Scotland Act 1998, at the same time as the right was taken away from the House of Commons. Some of those measures were necessary, some were not, and they were the direct result of centralising effect of the Executive.

Similarly, the European Union inevitably takes powers away from Parliament. Membership of the EU effectively implies that, but there is also a cascade of legislation with which Parliament, as it is now constituted, is simply not capable of dealing. We must deal with that matter.

There are real political differences between the two sides of the House, especially about the centralisation of the Executive in No. 10. The balance has changed on matters of party discipline and because of the sheer size of the Government's majority. All of that is convenient to the Government of the day; it is convenient to any Government of any day. I suspect that similar trends occurred when Margaret Thatcher had a majority of more than 140.

The guillotines and timetable motions are a symptom and should not be discounted. I speak as a Back Bencher, not a Front Bencher, and I do not agree with such things. There have been as many guillotines and timetable motions in the past three years as in the previous 10 years when I was a Member of Parliament. They are serious symptoms of a serious malaise.

Such problems are reinforced by the managerialism of modern politics and, in many ways, by the attempt to escape ideology and the clashes that occur across the Floor of the House. Those interested in modernisation, some of whose proposals are very sensible, have a tendency to view the clashes in the Chamber as undignified and perhaps not grown up. [Interruption.] Indeed, to an extent, that reflects what television and radio lead the public to believe. As a result, many debates are deflected to the more consensual forums of Westminster Hall and the Select Committees. Of course they fulfil a useful function, but we should not forget the vital function of the Chamber.

Speaker—now Lord—Weatherill was fond of saying that debates in the Chamber were the passionate but peaceful British alternative to civil war. He understood the importance of such confrontations. He meant that the Chamber is where we express passionate views on vital issues. After all, the Prime Minister rightly referred to health. There are 10,000 more deaths in this country than there should be, so we should be passionate about people's health. It is vital that we argue about it and test each other. Such confrontation is the most effective test of ideas invented by man. The Chamber is more effective as a test of those ideas than all the consensual, semi-circular Chambers towards which we are often encouraged to veer. If hon. Members want an example, they should look back to legislation passed by bipartisan consensus. The most obvious is the Child Support Act 1991, which was not properly scrutinised as it was treated as a bipartisan measure in its first stages. We all know the result.

The Chamber is also important to the high level of honesty in British politics to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), the previous Prime Minister, referred. The Public Accounts Committee and other bodies in the House contribute to that and have done so for the past 130 years, but the challenge of the Chamber is the best test of character for those who represent the people.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davis

Briefly, as I have only 10 minutes.

Mr. Rendel

The right hon. Gentleman refers to the PAC. I hope that he will come to the point that the powers of the PAC and of the National Audit Office have been reduced over the past few years. I also hope that he agrees that the speeches of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were disappointing because neither guaranteed that all public expenditure will come under the remit of the NAO and the PAC.

Mr. Davis

I shall do more, and tell the hon. Gentleman that we have just scored a victory in the other place that will give the NAO access to all money spent by the Government wherever the Government have oversight. That victory marks the route.

Quintessentially, the Chamber represents defence of liberty, which is why it should not submit to measures that dissolve its powers. We can go back to the American war of independence to find Members of the Houses of Parliament who defended the rights of people rebelling against the Crown. As we shall see this evening when we hold a Second Reading debate in which the defence of liberty will be an important consideration, the Chamber is in every sense a valuable institution.

Norton and the Hansard Society have their views on these matters, and Norton suggests that we improve Question Time to reinforce the Chamber. Reinforcing the Chamber is a good idea—a priority—and we could stop some of the problems of yah-boo politics by allowing the Member who asks a question the last supplementary or by making questions more closed, but longer. That would assist the Chamber, as would giving more time to Prime Minister's questions. The Government started well on the reform represented by draft legislation, and I hope that there will be more of it, but I also hope that they will take more notice of the pre-legislative phase. The Freedom of Information Bill is not a wonderful outcome because not enough notice was taken of pre-legislative discussions.

An aspect on which we should focus to improve the effectiveness of the Chamber is the right to control our own business. We often fail to recognise that the Executive dominates business and decides how much time a debate will receive, which is unusual in the western world. Norton makes proposals, but there are others. We should have an arrangement that allows the House to decide on a partisan basis how to deliver its business.

Perhaps we should have rules that protect the House from Government meddling. In the past decade, I have changed my mind about the importance of this country depending on convention, as it is apparent that the House and our democratic system become vulnerable when a Government are willing to break conventions. An overmighty Executive is dangerous when faced only by the barrier of convention. As a result, I would veer towards much more structured defences of the House.

A second priority is the reinforcement of Back Benchers. Norton recommends that money should go to the parliamentary Labour party, the 1922 Committee and the Liberal equivalent, whatever it is, to provide more resources for Back Benchers. I disagree. No organisation—be it the 1922 Committee, the PLP or whatever—can reflect the views of Back Benchers. I am sure that battles will be going on in the PLP over this issue right now. That proposal is not the right way forward. We should give more resources to our Back Benchers. Look elsewhere in the world: Congress and other legislatures dedicate serious resources to supporting Back Benchers.

I shall not have time to discuss issues relating to the Public Accounts Committee and estimates procedures, but I will say this: given that the first function of the House is control of supply for the Government, our estimates procedure is a disgrace. We should reform it radically and soon. We should also have a parliamentary investigating officer, so that next time the Foreign Affairs Committee—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must now call the next speaker.

4.10 pm
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), I was very disappointed by the tone of what the Leader of the Opposition said. The Conservatives current line on parliamentary reform strikes me as unnecessarily partisan and deeply hypocritical, and I think that it misses the point.

The Conservative approach seems to confuse the quantity of debate with the quality. Moreover, a significant number of Conservative Members consistently rubbish proposals that would actually make Members of Parliament, and thus Parliament, more effective. They tend to support a pretence of scrutiny that approximates to the behaviour that occurs in the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, rather than what is appropriate to a grown-up Parliament. I think I can say that, as a life member of the Oxford Union.

Mr. St. Aubyn

If the hon. Lady is to take the power of delay away from Opposition Members, what power will she give them in its place?

Dr. Starkey

I am afraid that it is not in my power to give the Opposition the weapon that they require. What they require are effective arguments, well prosecuted, which genuinely challenge the Government's view. Delay does not do that.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Dr. Starkey

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. He must restrain his impatience.

We have heard an attack on Prime Minister's Question Time. As one of my colleagues pointed out, twice 15 minutes is 30 minutes. I think that if the Opposition were any good at all, they would hold the Prime Minister to account much more effectively in a 30-minute session than in two 15-minute sessions, in which it would be much easier for a Prime Minister to avoid scrutiny.

Mr. Peter Bradley

My hon. Friend may not have read an article in yesterday's Daily Express in which the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said that depriving the Opposition of two weekly sessions meant that they could not dictate the newspaper headlines on two days a week. That is the quality of the Opposition's argument in favour of two slots.

Dr. Starkey


Like other Members, I believe that time limits on speeches and effective programming of debates lead to hugely better discussion. Such measures force speakers for both the Opposition and the Government to concentrate on the essence of their arguments, and to present those arguments clearly and succinctly.

I can illustrate what happens when we engage in debate for the sake of debate by referring to Hansard reports of debates that we had a week or two ago about a number of Bills, including the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill. During our debate on that Bill, astonishing reams of irrelevant rubbish were produced about, for example, the basics of e-mail. There were extensive quotations from earlier debates that had not made much sense on the first occasion, and were certainly not improved by repetition.

There was, however, an interesting intervention about the sexuality of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I will save his blushes by adding that it was said that he was heterosexual, but a parliamentary virgin. There was another interesting debate, too, about intimate body searches. Several Opposition Members made speeches that digressed into the history of Parliament, and there was an absorbing discussion of the knights of Shropshire. Apparently, in the 1240s they scrutinised legislation line by line. I must say that, given the level of illiteracy among the aristocracy in the 1240s, I very much doubt that they scrutinised legislation line by line, although they may have been able to subject it to a broad scrutiny.

Such debates bring Parliament into disrepute. Fortunately, most members of the public have better things to do than to scrutinise Hansard and realise what points Members of Parliament make. That was not scrutiny: it was a ludicrous parliamentary game.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Lady is making a risible fist of her speech. What does she have to say about the constitution unit's recent bulletin, which complains of legislative logjam and highlights the fact that in this Session we have so far had 2,537 pages of legislation? Instead of talking always about circumscribing debate, why does not the hon. Lady advise her right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench to curb their insatiable appetite for more badly drafted, ill-considered legislation?

Dr. Starkey

The hon. Gentleman will know that the place to debate legislation in detail is in Committee. He will also know that most of the Members who spoke in the wasteful debates on those four Bills on the Floor of the House had made no attempt to use the proper mechanism of Committee to table amendments. Instead, they introduced amendments at the end of the process, not, I suspect, because they had any real wish to amend the legislation, but because they were playing parliamentary games.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr. Starkey

No, I have already given way to an inordinate number of Conservative Members, and I note that the Leader of the Opposition gave way to hardly anyone, even though he had much longer than I have to speak.

The Leader of the Opposition mentioned the Norton report, which contains plenty of interesting suggestions. Many of them have been wholly or partially implemented through the Modernisation Committee. They include timetabling, the publication of draft Bills, the use of Select Committees to consider draft legislation and the use of Joint Committees. Many other ideas in the Norton report are well worth considering, such as the greater use of electronic technology—I recommend that notion to Opposition Members who voted against it—and better resources for Back-Bench MPs though an increase in the office costs allowance. It is extremely difficult for Back-Bench MPs to do their multiple jobs properly when the administrative arrangements of this place get in the way. I mention the fact that it is only possible for two Members at once to get into the Parliamentary Data and Video Network in the House of Commons Library even though there are some 650 of us. It is important that practical measures are taken so that we can do our job more effectively.

It is important that Select Committees have more resources. I emphasise the fact that other proposals of the Modernisation Committee have been put into effect, so Select Committee reports are now debated in the House properly and in more detail. There has been a fourfold increase in debate on Select Committee reports. That is a valuable addition to the House's scrutiny of legislation.

The sudden conversion of Members on the Conservative Front Bench to the modernisation of Parliament, now that they have the Norton report, is extremely surprising. The Leader of the Opposition's contention that the latest Modernisation Committee report was Government inspired is extraordinary. That report was in response to determined pressure from Labour Back Benchers, and perhaps from some Conservative and Liberal Democrat Back Benchers. Although I welcome the report, as a Back Bencher I do not think that it has gone far enough, and I for one will continue to keep up the pressure on the Modernisation Committee to modernise with rather more will and effectiveness than it has shown already.

Even that report is opposed by the Conservatives. They are opposed to the recommendation that there should be no votes after 10 o'clock at night. I do not know whether Conservatives Members have read what those postponed votes would be on, but the Leader of the Opposition gives the impression that they would be on huge, substantive matters. In fact, they would be on statutory instruments, debatable motions on the membership of Select Committees, which I agree are important—some of us would welcome the opportunity to oppose, with much greater ease, the membership of a Select Committee of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) if he were to try for it again—prayers against statutory instruments, and money and ways and means resolutions.

The other night, again as a parliamentary device, MPs were kept walking round the Lobby for more than an hour voting on a number of statutory instruments, some of which I suspect the Conservatives had no particular reason for opposing, but they did so because they decided to express their displeasure about the Football (Disorder) Bill by keeping us all here for an extra hour. Again, that sort of thing brings Parliament into disrepute.

The Opposition are out of touch when it comes to the reform of Parliament. In particular, I think of their attacks on so-called family friendly measures. I make no apology for saying that if the House of Commons is to attract high calibre people of both sexes—in particular, those who are still young enough to have young children—it needs to introduce family friendly practices. That would bring this Parliament up to date with all but the most reactionary employers out in the real world. We should not apologise for that.

The Norton report states: An effective Opposition is essential to a healthy political process. I agree. The problem is that the Conservatives at present are not an effective Opposition and no amount of parliamentary reform, desirable though it is in itself, can overcome that fact. They are not a credible Opposition. They need some credible policies and then they might start to oppose effectively.

4.21 pm
Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

In the 17 years I have been a Member of Parliament, I have seen a progressive reduction in the power of Back Benchers to influence what happens here, not just in the Chamber but throughout the House. I include the way in which the House is run, our procedures and the way that Government power has progressively increased. That disturbs me.

I sympathise with many of the objectives of the Modernisation Committee. I entered the House when my children were at primary school and, to a large extent, being here stopped me seeing much of their growing up into young adults. I have seen the pressure that my being a Member of Parliament put on my family and on my wife in particular. If we can do something to improve that situation, it should be done. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, that will encourage a wider section of the population to view coming here as a realistic possibility.

The problem with some of the Modernisation Committee's proposals is that the Committee does not realise the impact that they would have on the Opposition or the way in which they would limit the Opposition's power to call the Executive to account. I agree that voting at 3 o'clock in the morning is not very desirable. It does not happen much nowadays, but it used to happen far more often a few years ago. To the extent that it does happen, it does not improve the quality of debate or of decision making. It is true that the power of the Opposition to delay and even frustrate Members on the Government Benches is a powerful weapon and can be used to wring concessions from a reluctant Government. If it is to be removed—there are good arguments for timetabling—it must be replaced with something more effective than what the Modernisation Committee has suggested.

I also have grave reservations about the idea of holding votes that have not taken place after 10 o'clock in the evening on the following Wednesday. I know that it is done in the Dutch Parliament, but important issues should be the subject of proper debate and should be voted on by people who have taken part in the debate. As one of my hon. Friends pointed out earlier, we could have a situation in which some of those voting had no experience of what happened in the debate and some of those who took part in the debate were unable to vote because of other commitments. That is unsatisfactory, and I hope that the Committee will reconsider that proposal.

There are severe problems in that Back Benchers do not control this place and that the House does not control its own affairs. Significant improvements need to be made for the benefit of all who serve here. Many of the suggestions that have come forward are good ones, including many from the Modernisation Committee. The Liaison Committee's recommendations about the selection of members of Select Committees and increasing the powers of those Committees are important, but I do not think that they go far enough.

One of the problems is that only one Member in any particular office is elected, and that is the Speaker. Madam Speaker has been an inspiration to us all, but more holders of the great offices of the House should be truly democratically elected if we are to take control of our own affairs once again.

There will always be the need for political parties to have influence in the way in which the House is run. However, it is not a good idea to have all members of a Select Committee effectively appointed through their respective Whips' Offices. Membership of the Chairmen's Panel, on which I have the honour to serve, and your own position, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is gained effectively through the nomination process. That is not a good idea. We should have a Committee of Selection that genuinely selects Members on the basis of their expertise, their talent and the contribution that they can bring to bear in the positions in which they are placed. Therefore, we need a new form of Committee of Selection.

Mr. MacShane

I shall make a brief intervention because I hope to speak later in the debate. A Committee of Selection will have a majority and a minority. Presumably, the majority will be composed of Government Members. The hon. Gentleman will not get away from that problem. Is he aware that Select Committees, which are supposed to be stuffed with Government placemen, bring fear and terror to the hearts of many Departments? When their reports come out, most Ministers seem to have been kissed by a cobra. If Select Committees are stuffed with placemen, how do they cause so much trouble?

Mr. Butterfill

I am not suggesting that they are stuffed with placemen. I know from my own experience that many members of Select Committees behave extremely well and are active in calling Ministers to account. I am saying that we have lost control of the levers of power in this place. We need to rebalance the power between the Executive and the House.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Butterfill

No. I ask the hon. Gentleman to forgive me. There is a limited time for debate.

We need to regain the balance. It is wrong that the Government control what is legislated upon, the timing of it and the procedure. The House should be deciding on procedure. In an appropriate Committee, the House should be deciding what is a reasonable amount of time to allocate. The House must take control of its own proceedings.

It is intolerable that either the Government or the usual channels have such great power in this place. It is vital, therefore, that we consider again the way in which we are run. It is important that we take on board the recommendations of the Liaison Committee and the Norton report. Ideally, it is important that the Government initiate a debate and a programme of change that will give back to hon. Members power over the proceedings of Parliament.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman talks about giving back powers to the House. He has proposed that the Government should not control the legislative programme, should not appoint Members to Select Committees and, if I understood him correctly, should not be the final arbiter on any of the matters that the Government now control in the House. He talks about going back to a certain time. Will he tell me of a time when any Government of whatever party have not had such powers?

Mr. Butterfill

The right hon. Lady makes a powerful point, but she will know that that is the situation in other legislatures. Perhaps I was wrong to talk about giving back. Perhaps giving to the House would be a better phrase.

4.29 pm
Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

I have never heard such a load of claptrap from the Opposition as I have heard today. The thought that the Conservative party has suddenly become the upholder of democracy and is to improve it, given the Conservatives 18 years in power, is unbelievable. The performance of the Leader of the Opposition was somewhat lacking, and that is being as kind as I can.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Twigg

I have only just started and will carry on for a while.

It was difficult to spot the substance of the Leader of the Opposition's speech. Interestingly, an article in The Daily Telegraph earlier this week stated that the right hon. Gentleman said that in principle, he agreed with the analysis in Norton's report. We await with bated breath to find out which line the Tories take on the recommendations.

Today, we have heard so much hypocrisy from the Tories, but less than half of the parliamentary party was here when the debate started. If it is such a crucial issue for them, why were they not all here? Why did they all disappear as soon as William Hague went home? It is such an important issue for democracy—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must remember to call other hon. Members by their correct titles.

Mr. Twigg

The Leader of the Opposition went and Conservative Members disappeared. If the matter is so important, why did they do that? Really, this is about playing politics; it is not a serious debate.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Twigg

In a minute.

At Trade and Industry questions this morning, no more than 10 Conservative Back Benchers were present. I am not even sure that most of them tried to ask a question. If that is parliamentary scrutiny, it backs up my argument that the Tories are not interested—it is all about making political points.

I will be happy to give way to the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) now.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Would the hon. Gentleman remind the House which party was in power when the Select Committee system was introduced? Does he support the principle of that system of Select Committees scrutinising the role of the Executive?

Mr. Twigg

I want to talk about Select Committees for a minute. Would the hon. Gentleman have supported the decision to get rid of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Health? Clearly, that was done by the previous Government's Whips. If that is the way in which the Conservative party wants to do it, that is fine, but I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would have supported that move had he been here. I did not hear many Conservatives say what a terrible thing it was at the time. If that is the way that the Conservative party operates, it brings me back to my main point that this is not a serious debate about democracy; it is about political point scoring.

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Twigg

Given the hon. Gentleman's position, I will give way once more.

Sir Patrick Cormack

As one who objected to that action against my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and who has been in the House for a long time, I must point out that we are recognising that things have not been perfect in the past. That is why we give such strong support to the report of the Liaison Committee.

Mr. Twigg

I love the way in which the Conservative party goes back to year zero, as though nothing happened before. Suddenly, the Conservatives are enlightened—they are in opposition now. What it comes down to is that they do not like the fact that the Labour party is in government with a massive majority. It also comes down to the fact that they are an ineffectual Opposition. They cannot make any headway in the way that they oppose us. In fact, some of the Opposition are not even worthy of discussion. Their failure to oppose the Government is what this is about—their frustrations and trying to score political points.

Let us deal with the Leader of the Opposition. I asked the Library to look up how many Opposition day debates the right hon. Gentleman had attended—I was interested to find out how important those days were to the Conservatives and to their leader. For some reason, the right hon. Gentleman did not manage to get to more than 50 per cent. of the Divisions on those days. The Conservative party and its leader say that they are serious about democracy and making an impact, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot get to a majority of the votes on Opposition days, which shows that they are not serious about opposition—really, it is about political point scoring. The idea of having more democracy is lost on the Conservative party.

I welcome the inroads that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has made with her Modernisation Committee—a number of hon. Members have also made important contributions—into making more democratic the way in which the House works. They have made great strides. They have certainly done better than the Conservatives when they were in power and much credit for that should go to my right hon. Friend. In just three years in government, they have made great strides.

The Conservative party, unfortunately, seems to have missed that point—perhaps it is fortunate, depending on which way one looks at it—and they do not seem to want to talk too much about their record. We all remember what they did when they were in government.

I mention the point that was made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) about the support for Back Benchers, which has been pretty derisory. When I came here in 1997, I could not believe that we were left looking around for weeks for offices, for support for staff and for information technology support. Again, some improvements have been made, but if we are talking about accountability and giving Back Benchers real power to do things and to scrutinise, we must have proper resources. It is not good enough at the moment.

Again, I have not seen too many Conservative Members jumping up and saying, "We must have more resources." They did not do so when they were in power. We have seen some improvements, but I want more. Back-Bench Members should have better support on both staff and resources generally, so that they can do their job better, particularly in research. That is important.

We must come back to the main issue: which party in the House is serious about making reforms and improving things? It is clear from the record that I have talked about that it is the Labour party, the Government party, that is trying to do that. The Opposition have an abject history of failure on the matter. They are not interested because they are a derisory Opposition. They cannot oppose the Government. The debate is about one simple thing: the Opposition's frustration that they can make no inroads into the Government. They are a poor Opposition and should be condemned for it.

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

The trouble with the Opposition's motion is that it seems to be based on a premise that history began in 1997. For Francis Fukuyama, history has ended, but few of us with any memory of the past 18 years of the Conservative Government could restrain a hoarse laugh when we listened to the Leader of the Opposition. The importance of the debate and the subject matter of it are undeniable. Therefore, I welcome the fact that it has come forward. I greatly welcome the evidence of thinking belatedly beginning to bubble up inside the Conservative party.

I remember—I say it to the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)—as a member of the Hansard Society committee on the reform of the legislative process, under the chairmanship of Geoffrey Ripon, bringing forward repeatedly to him in this place the request that its proposals be debated and discussed in the House, and they were not. There was a clear and deliberate decision by the Government of the day to stifle any serious discussion of constitutional reform. Time after time, Bills were brought forward to introduce a Bill of Rights in this place. Time after time, Conservative Ministers stood in the way.

It must be said that the problem did not even begin when the Thatcher Government came to office. It goes back even further. Some of us will remember how, when the House voted to establish a Parliament in Scotland in 1978, it was opposed by the Conservatives on the ground not that they were utterly opposed to devolution for Scotland, but that they did not like those particular proposals for a Scottish Parliament. We were led to believe that they would bring forward their own proposals.

It is plain in the memory of everyone that no such proposals were brought forward when the opportunity to legislate was given. Even the undertakings of the late Sir Alec Douglas-Home on the matter were totally ignored. It is not only in particulars; it is in the wider understanding of the Conservative party. Its failure to act when it has an opportunity calls into question the validity, if not the good faith, of what Conservative Members utter when in opposition.

Lord Hailsham did not make his oft-quoted criticism of our system of government as an elective dictatorship as Lord Chancellor; he made many speeches about the virtues of our constitution when he was Lord Chancellor. He did that before he became Lord Chancellor. The minute that he became Lord Chancellor in a Conservative Government, his enthusiasm for reform evaporated. Therefore, although I like some of the ideas being canvassed by Conservative Members, I have absolutely no confidence that they would be implemented if there were a Conservative Administration.

My experience is that this Labour Government have done a great deal to change the way in which we do things and make decisions. They are in the middle of major constitutional reform. That reform has been well begun, although it is far from complete. However, it was wrong to couch this debate in the strident, adversarial terms with which it was opened.

I think that this Parliament of ours, set against the Executive, has remarkably little authority. However, that is not new. The situation has been created because Parliament does not choose to use its powers to hold the Executive effectively to account and to cause the Government of the day, of whatever complexion, to change their mind. That is not universally true, and of course it is much less true when majorities are small.

The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon, referred to Lord Pym's famous remark—for which he lost his political head—about majorities that are too large. During debates on the Maastricht legislation, the right hon. Member certainly had to listen to Back Benchers. He certainly had also to listen to hon. Members from minority parties, including my own, on that legislation. The reality is that, if there are smaller majorities in the House, there will be more-listening Governments.

Mr. Hope

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, on this occasion, because of time, I would prefer not to.

I tell Conservative Members that they have never really dealt with how to address the issue of over-large majorities. On the whole, it is desirable that Governments should have majorities. However, over-large majorities clearly are not desirable. If Conservative Members were to examine the whole issue of electoral reform with greater seriousness, they would recognise the virtues of proportional representation and the fact that it would not only greatly diminish the risk of over-large majorities, but enormously strengthen both the position of Opposition parties and the power of this Chamber.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The right hon. Gentleman's thesis is predicated on a situation in which the governing party's Back Benchers do not think that a part of their responsibility is to hold the Executive to account. A large majority gives the Executive unbridled power only if their own Back Benchers do not do their job properly.

Mr. Maclennan

I was going to deal with that point, because I do not take that view. In fact, I take precisely the converse view—that Government Back Benchers have a dual role. They certainly have to support their Government in some measure, as that is what they have been elected broadly to do, but they have also to exercise their own independent judgment. That has not been done with the frequency that I should have wished. However, that is not an entirely new phenomenon—[Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), whom I have never noticed in the Chamber before, speaks from not very long experience, and certainly not from experience that goes back to the days when I was a member of the Labour party. In those days, the Labour party was known to have a greater amount of independence than it seems to have now. There was one very important occasion, which at least history records, when 69 Labour Members voted against a three-line Whip on the issue of the European Union. Had it not been for that, I question whether we would have joined the European Union until many years later.

There were a number of other occasions when Labour Members thought it right to dissent. For example, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) was one of a number of Labour Members who supported the Government most of the time, but voted against their proposals for the reform of the upper House. That resulted in the defeat of those Government proposals. May I say to the hon. Member for Harrow, East, the Government Whip who is sitting below the Gangway, that, in those days, that was admirable independence. This is a short debate and a short speech, but the problems that I am addressing will not be resolved by mechanistic means.

The hours at which the Prime Minister chooses to come before us are as nothing compared with the powers of those sitting behind him to hold him to account if they choose to stand up to him. We have had metaphysics and mechanics from the Government—metaphysics about Parliament being the heart of the nation's debate, when in reality the public feels very divorced from it. I believe that the solution lies in ourselves.

4.46 pm
Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South)

First, let me say that I genuinely believe that certain Opposition Members have strong and independent views on the subject of this afternoon's debate, but I am touched by the number of ex-Ministers—particularly among the Opposition, but one or two on the Government side—who suddenly develop affection for the independence of Back Benchers once they cease to be Ministers, or indeed Prime Ministers.

There is no question but that since day one of this Parliament the official Opposition have presented the issue in an intensely party political way. They have been distorting the truth, perpetuating a myth and creating their own virtual reality in relation to the Government's attitude towards Parliament. At the root of the problem is their arrogant belief that they were born to rule and that somehow on 1 May 1997 the British people did not quite know what they were doing and made a ghastly mistake, waking up on 2 May to find, much to their surprise, that there was a Labour Government with a significant majority. However, the British people gave the Labour party its majority in the House and the mandate to govern.

From day one, the Opposition's strategy has been deliberate. In the absence of credible policies, they have sought to fuel cynicism about politicians and the political process. They have sought to neutralise the British people's perception that sleaze and arrogance belong to the Conservative party, by implying that all politicians are the same. In a political environment in which all democrats should feel an obligation to enhance the electorate's confidence in their elected representatives, they have cynically embarked on a scorched earth approach.

The Conservatives are so wedded to the sanctity of democratic accountability that they fought to save hereditary peers—the most undemocratic example of people having a say in legislation. They have used every parliamentary rule available to deny the will of the House and the majority of the British people in relation to the banning of hunting with dogs.

The Conservatives are so committed to their role as scrutineers and defenders of the public interest that 73 per cent. of their number register outside interests that are likely to undermine their capacity to do a full-time job as a Member of Parliament. Is it any wonder that they have no desire to reform the office costs allowance, for example? They do not need the resources to do a proper job on behalf of their constituents because they are making so much money through other means.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on the view of Lord Nolan, which has subsequently been backed up by Lord Neill, that outside interests are an essential part of parliamentary life and enrich parliamentarians' contributions to this place, and that without outside interests Parliament would be much the poorer?

Mr. Lewis

I made a commitment to my constituents when I was elected that I would have one job, and one only—to represent the people of Bury, South. That takes up every single minute of every hour of every day that I have available.

Despite the Conservative party's appalling record, I do not want to attack Tory Members in the abstract: I want instead to deal with some of the issues that they have raised. First, there is the matter of the Prime Minister and his relationship with the House. It has been noted that Prime Minister's Question Time used to take up two 15-minute sessions a week, and that there is now one session of 30 minutes. The Leader of the Opposition uses a significant portion of that 30 minutes. If he was really concerned about Back-Bench Members, he would leave more time for them to contribute.

Mr. Hope

Is my hon. Friend aware that, at the last eight Prime Minister's Question Times, the Leader of the Opposition has failed to raise the matter of education once? Is that a surprise or, given the £24 billion-worth of cuts that would hit education if the Conservatives ever returned to power, is it because the Opposition do not want to talk about education on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Lewis

I agree with my hon. Friend. It has been said that Prime Minister's Question Time is about scrutiny, but it is time for hon. Members to stop conning people. Prime Minister's Question Time has more to do with pantomime than with scrutiny. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) addressed the House earlier, but he omitted to mention that he suggested to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that it would be a good idea to introduce the current system for Prime Minister's Question Time.

We have heard about a lack of statements from the Prime Minister, but he has made at least as many as his predecessors. As for my right hon. Friend's voting record, do Conservative Members really believe that our constituents want their Prime Minister to be tied down night after night to votes in the House, instead of making the critical decisions about policy—international, social and economic—that will determine and shape the future of the country? If Conservative Members believe that, they are not in the real world.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman referred to international policy, and he will recall that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), the former Prime Minister, sat through the debates on the Maastricht treaty. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House of a single occasion during the Committee proceedings on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, which ratified the treaty of Amsterdam, when the Prime Minister attended?

Mr. Lewis

No, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman!

Mrs. Beckett

I hope that my hon. Friend will try and find out how often Lady Thatcher sat through debates—on the Single European Act, for example. I think that he will also find that the presence of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) during the Maastricht debates had more to do with the fact that he was fighting his own party than with any other factor.

Mr. Lewis

I agree with my right hon. Friend. As far as I recall, Baroness Thatcher was not known, as Prime Minister, for her commitment to scrutiny, democracy or accountability.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) said, Select Committees criticise aspects of Government policy on a regular basis. Ministers fear their reports and the Select Committees frequently demonstrate their independence, so why is there a need for change? The House should remember that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) dared to tell the British people what his party was doing to the national health service. The response from the then Conservative Government was to remove him from the chairmanship of the Select Committee on Health.

If Conservative Members are genuinely worried about the role of Select Committees, why have they not been honest with the British people and welcomed the establishment of more Select Committees, such as the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, and ad hoc Committees on draft legislation? At the risk of prompting a massive reaction from certain Conservative Members, may I ask why the Opposition have not welcomed the enhanced scrutiny that takes place of all European Union business. Why have the Opposition not told the people about what Westminster Hall has done to quadruple the chance to debate Select Committee reports? Why have they not welcomed the Westminster Hall experiment, which has given Back-Bench Members so many more opportunities, on subjects of their choosing, to hold Ministers to account?

As for modernisation of the House, it is right that we seek consensus, but the Conservative party always refuses to reach consensus on modernisation issues, because it wants to portray the Government as arrogant and controlling. That is why it will not play ball on reorganisation and modernisation. Once again, it is a question of being cut off from the real world.

The people in our constituencies do not want us to sit through the night debating meaningless issues. That is not their definition of scrutiny and holding people to account, of running the country in a businesslike fashion. Once the front-line speakers on both sides have finished, are there more than half a dozen hon. Members anywhere in the House when the so-called democratic scrutiny takes place? It is a charade and an illusion.

Another important point is that all our constituents value the role that constituency Members play in their constituencies as community leaders and case workers every bit as much as they value the role that Members play in the House. The new generation of Members, largely on the Labour Benches House, have adopted the role of community leaders in a way never previously seen.

With regard to devolution, my party has given the people of Scotland, of Wales, of London and of Northern Ireland the opportunity to have power returned closer to their communities so that they genuinely have a role in the making of decisions about their affairs. That is really extending democracy, scrutiny and accountability.

Its choice of subject for this Opposition day typifies the modern Conservative party—a dodgy party, selling dodgy goods with worthless guarantees. It seeks the lowest common denominator in politics, because it has no answers on the big issues that affect the everyday lives of the British people: jobs, the health service, schools, crime, transport and Britain's role in the world. I look forward to its pledge card at the next election: "Save the pound for one Parliament", "Privatise the National Health Service", "Ban spin". I can hardly wait for the campaign to begin.

4.57 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I hope that the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) will be rewarded by the Whips, even if after receiving that reward his capacity to act as a 24-hour-a-day social worker in his constituency is diminished, because a speech of such egregious loyalty deserves its reward.

Mr. Ivan Lewis

By speaking in such a patronising and arrogant way about Members' role in their constituencies being that of 24-hour-a-day social workers, the hon. Gentleman has demonstrated why Conservative Members are sitting where they are and we are sitting on the Government Benches.

Mr. Rowe

If the hon. Gentleman knew my record well, he would know that I devote a great deal of my time in my constituency to exactly such causes. I would not, however, claim that every minute of every hour of every day was dedicated to that function.

I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) two characteristics. First, I am sorry that the debate got off to such a partisan start. The issues in it are much more important than partisan politics. The other thing that I share with my right hon. Friend is that I, too, am retiring at the next election. There the comparison ends—my career cannot really be said to compare with his in any meaningful way.

I think that we do ourselves no good by continuing with a rhetoric that is entirely meaningless and can confuse the public. For example, right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred this afternoon to how many people are in the Chamber at any given time. Considering the enormous variety of occupations that Members of Parliament have—working in their constituencies, serving on Select Committees or serving on Standing Committees—we all know that the number of Members present in the Chamber for long periods is meaningless, and I am sorry that we bandy this insult about.

Mr. MacShane

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rowe

No, I think not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

The sadness is that there is a kind of Gresham's law of politics: bad politics drives out good. Whatever a Government's bad behaviour, the Opposition will elaborate on it when they get into power. That is one reason why we are in such a mess.

Mr. David Taylor

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rowe

I will give way once more, and then I will not give way again.

Mr. Taylor

Notwithstanding the fact that it is widely accepted by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House that presence in the Chamber is not a particularly good measure of activity or quality, is it not astonishing that on an Opposition day of this kind, only 8 per cent. of the 165 Conservative Members of Parliament can be bothered to be present at this point?

Mr. Rowe

I do not think that that is any more relevant than the many occasions on which one might expect members of the governing party to be present and they are not.

Being a Member of Parliament is an extraordinary job. It is, I think, the only job left in the United Kingdom for which no qualifications of any description are required. There is a huge and diverse variety of activities open to a Member of Parliament on first coming here, and many people become engulfed. They may take up the chairmanship of outside groups—for sustainable waste management, for example—or may be the spokesman for various charities, which they do out of the best motives.

Back Benchers do not organise themselves, either in their own parties or across the House, when it comes to calling the Government to account. Governments take advantage of that, of course, and as they organise the business of the House, they load people whom they believe may be difficult with the kind of occupations that make it harder for them to be difficult. In that way, we do ourselves no good.

I share the sentiment that we have more power to call the Government to account than we make use of. I am a fine one to talk, because in my career here I have had far too many outside activities—not, I have to say, registrable activities—and have not played as great a role as I should have done in calling Governments to account.

We also have a media-driven obsession with immediacy of reaction. Most of the issues on which Governments need to be called to account are slow burning, such as whether they are delivering the programme they promised; spending the money they were voted; or administering effectively and properly the organisations for which they are responsible. However, we have become obsessed with the idea that if something is said on "Today" and announced to the House later in the day, it gets the press coverage for that day and there is no point in following it up further. The Select Committees, on the other hand, choose a small number of subjects each year and go into them in detail. I believe that Back Benchers should get together in small groups to follow through various elements of Government expenditure and administration and pursue them in depth.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point; we do not use the powers that we have. Does he share my reservations about the proposal in the Liaison Committee report, and echoed by Norton, that there should be a half-hour debate soon after a Select Committee report is published? There is perhaps less worth in an off-the-cuff reaction—especially to a serious report—than there would be in a more measured response.

Mr. Rowe

I take the right hon. Lady's point. However, there is something to be said for allowing Select Committees to present their reports on the Floor of the House where there could be 10 minutes or so of interchange, rather than issuing them at a press conference. That would be a better way to proceed. If Select Committees have to present their reports to the media instead of on the Floor of the House, we subscribe to our own annoyance when we complain that announcements are made in that way.

We need to consider the working of our party organisations. They make it harder for individual Back Benchers to stand out against their party. An excessive belief has grown up that any form of disagreement is disloyalty. That is wholly wrong. The use of such processes as reselection procedures in constituencies has an enervating effect. I should be sorry if that went any further.

Governments have not helped. Earlier, there was some discussion of whether this is a grown-up Parliament. In many cases, Governments are not grown-up either. They carry to extreme their obsession with not giving way on even one amendment in a raft of legislation that is often complex—whether important or trivial. Members of Standing Committees are constantly made to feel less effective because of the Government's resolute determination not to pay attention to an amendment. That is not grown-up. The public does not think that it is grown-up either. They know perfectly well that we deal with complex and difficult issues; if we disagreed with our party over those issues, people would not shriek, "Ooh, there you are—they're all disloyal."

There has been much talk about using the internet and IT to collect information, opinions and so on. I hope that when the UK Youth Parliament is established, we shall make great use of those technologies. However, the difference between us and everyone else is that, at some point, our decision must be recorded. The man in the pub can change his mind three times in an evening and put his views on the internet. Our decisions are recorded. That means that, despite the internet, this place will remain important.

5.8 pm

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

The quality of our democracy can only be as good as the effectiveness of the Opposition. The Opposition's interesting choice to use five hours of valuable parliamentary time for a debate on this subject is emphasising their shortcomings in effectively holding the Government to account.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made a key observation about the content of the parliamentary day with which I agree. He said that the House should apply itself to matters that concern people in their everyday life. I agree that the relationship between Parliament and the Executive must enable that to happen. However, we have to get real. We need to examine how the current arrangements and facilities are used by the Opposition; they already have a number of parliamentary means at their disposal.

Like several of my colleagues, I have looked into the use of Opposition days and how the realities of life outside the House are reflected in their consideration in this place. As we have already heard, there has not been a Tory Opposition day debate on the economy, the new deal or employment. There has not been a Tory Opposition day debate on the economy since November 1998. I wonder why that is.

The official unemployment figures that were published yesterday show that, since the election, unemployment in Lincoln is down by nearly a half and long-term unemployment is down by nearly three quarters. On these issues—the economy, employment and the new deal—there are strong feelings on both sides, and there is clear water between us.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Lady is simply factually incorrect. Is she unaware of the Opposition day debate on the new deal that was held under the auspices of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green)? That is on the record, so she ought to know about it.

Gillian Merron

The hon. Gentleman must take account of the priority that Opposition Members attach to Opposition day subjects and the way in which they use the debates. For example, there have not been any Opposition day debates on subjects, such as child poverty, that are a great priority in my constituent's lives. Today, I received confirmation from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that more than £2 million pounds of Government money will go to a sure start programme in Birchwood in Lincoln. It will enable the under-fours to get the best start in life. That is one of the priorities of my constituents.

There has not been an Opposition day debate on third-world debt. I am sure that many hon. Members share this experience, but the number of representations that I have received from my constituents on their concerns about third-world debt and their interest in the Government's record has been exceeded only by representations about fox hunting. We should devote the right amount of time to quality debates on the issues that impact on people's lives.

Reference has been made to voting records. Voting is an important means of expressing opinion, and I draw the House's attention to the fact that the top Conservative Member in this regard is the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) who is ranked 208th on the list.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I am not trying to score party political points, but it is important that Members realise that when members of the Chairmen's Panel chair a Standing Committee, they take no part in the progress of that Bill on Report and Third Reading. That can deprive them of the opportunity to vote on many occasions. The record to which the hon. Lady rightly refers does not always accurately reflect Members' work and their commitment to the House of Commons.

Gillian Merron

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. However, I refer to the speech of the Leader of the Opposition who clearly referred to the Prime Minister's voting record. The right hon. Gentleman even compared the voting records of those on the Government Front Bench, to whom the hon. Gentleman's arguments apply, with those of Opposition Front Benchers. We must be cautious in drawing conclusions, but I stick to the point—I shall not labour it any further—that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, at 208 on the list, is the Conservative Member who has voted most often. That point will be of interest to the public.

Mr. Peter Bradley

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Gillian Merron

I will not because I would like to move on to consider the issue of modernisation and change. I am pleased that the Opposition are embracing discussion of those issues. For that, I say, "Welcome to the 21st century."

I am an advocate of modernisation, but the guiding light in that regard should be an effort to achieve more efficient government better to serve the country. That point must run through all our considerations. I know that my constituents would strongly support moves in that direction. I have no doubt that no business would survive if it were run in the way that the House is run. There is no meeting of any value that would allow the time of the meeting to continue without limit. No sensible gathering would allow those in attendance to dominate others for an extraordinary amount of time. I feel that it befits the House to look at how it conducts business on behalf of the public.

Let us look at some of the progress made by the Government. We have heard about the removal of the inherited privileges from the House of Lords. This has come about almost 100 years after the first attempt and shows the true commitment of Labour Members to ensuring that the Houses of Parliament are more accountable to the people. There has also been the introduction of parallel sittings in Westminster Hall, which has doubled the opportunities for scrutiny—especially for Back Benchers—and has allowed constructive opportunities to debate Select Committee reports. I hope we would all welcome that. There has been improved scrutiny of European business, which has increased coverage of all European business matters.

The words "European" and "dome" create a ripple of excitement among Opposition Members. I wish to draw the House's attention to the menu in the Dining Room, where we can see on offer a Mediterranean vegetable dome. I am concerned that this may cause heartburn to Opposition Members.

One of the Opposition's priorities is that Prime Minister's Question Time should be held twice a week, for 20 minutes each time. In terms of Prime Minister's Question Time, I think we must look at matters of substance, rather than spin. We should listen to the words of a young visitor who said recently that he did not know why it was called Prime Minister's Question Time—Prime Minister's argument time might be better. We must move beyond that. It is up to the Opposition to decide whether they want Prime Minister's Question Time to be the most colourful show on the London stage or whether they want it to be a true opportunity to hold the Prime Minister to account. That is entirely in their gift.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does the hon. Lady recognise that the main problem we have is that the Prime Minister never answers our questions?

Gillian Merron

As with any relationship, it is a two-way process. Opposition Members should look at how they conduct their questioning of the Prime Minister.

If Parliament is about people's lives, we should be debating the political differences between the parties. I would like to hear more, as would my constituents, about the Opposition's plans to charge for hip replacements; to drive families back into poverty by abolishing the working families tax credit; and to punish the poorest pensioners by taking away winter fuel allowances, just as they scrapped free eye tests and slapped VAT on fuel.

It is the job of the Opposition to challenge and question the Government, and the mechanism must surely allow that. However, in the same way, the mechanism must allow the Government to govern effectively in the interests of the people of this country. This House should strive for efficiency and not make excuses.

5.18 pm
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I promise to be brief, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron).

Given the relatively trivial agenda of some Government Back Benchers today, I declare immediately a series of registered outside interests, one of which is remunerated and which the Government are shortly to nationalise. The Government have indicated that they will continue to remunerate it in future in its revised form.

I should declare an interest also as a member of the Norton commission, which welcomed a number of the reforms carried out in this Parliament, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) was good enough to say. Also, I am a member of the Liaison Committee. I am not a member of the Modernisation Committee.

The Norton commission was appointed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and therefore its report will not be the subject of a separate debate in this House, beyond the extent to which it has formed part of the agenda for today's debate.

I have understood from the Leader of the House at recent business questions that we shall debate both the Liaison Committee report and the latest Modernisation Committee report on separate occasions, so there will be separate opportunities to catch the eye of whoever is in the Chair on those reports in due course. Any references to them today, therefore, will be glancing.

As the Norton commission's report will not be the subject of a separate debate, I shall take the liberty of contributing to our debate the first three paragraphs with which my noble Friend Lord Norton, an admirable and industrious chairman of the commission, opened the speech that launched the report in the Jubilee Room last Monday. He said: Parliament is at the heart of our political system. It is the essential and definitive link between the individual and government. Weaken Parliament and, in the long run, you undermine the health of the whole political system. In the report, we identify the functions of Parliament and the purpose of parliamentary reform. Too often, reforms are proposed for different purposes. Some are designed to expedite the business of Government, some are for the convenience of Members of Parliament, some are designed to remove archaic practices. Others are designed to strengthen Parliament in calling government to account. The focus of this report is precise and consistent. We are concerned solely with strengthening Parliament in calling government to account. Parliament fulfils many of its functions well but we believe that it could, and should, be far more effective in forcing government to explain itself, to justify its measures, to answer for mistakes and to heed the concerns of citizens. There is a clear imbalance in the relationship between Parliament and the executive. In the report, we identify the reasons for the imbalance and we put forward proposals to correct it. I shall not dwell further on the report, save to say that we sought to fulfil the objectives in the report with muscular prose, which one commentator commended as significantly impartial, considering the report's authors.

Mr. Hope

When the right hon. Gentleman was on the commission and proposed strengthening the Select Committee system, did he take into account Conservative Members' appalling record of attendance in Select Committees? The whole debate has rested on the assumption that the Select Committee system works. Clearly, Opposition Members failed to turn up and failed to make the existing system operate well.

Mr. Brooke

I have noticed—indeed, the House cannot have failed to notice—the hon. Gentleman's obsession with people's attendance in Select Committee and their participation in reports, and shall come to that matter before I conclude my remarks.

I hope that the criteria set by the commission will be reverted to in judging the functional virtues of other reform proposals and, as a member of the Liaison Committee, whose chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) is still sitting loyally in the Chamber, I shall be happy for our report to be subject to those tests. I am not in a position to criticise the Prime Minister for his inability to recognise the Deputy Speaker, as I did the same thing at business questions last week, although I did it only once. The Prime Minister, however, seemed to have difficulty in recognising the Deputy Speaker even once, although today may be the first time that the Prime Minister has been in the Chamber in this Parliament with someone other than the Speaker in the Chair.

I was more troubled when the Prime Minister said that Northern Ireland had been asking for devolution for 100 years, as it has already had it for 50 of the last 100. I know that the Prime Minister has an idiosyncratic definition of conservatism, but reform is best based on a broad understanding of where one has come from as well as where one wishes to go. My membership of the Liaison Committee derives from chairing the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) rather leads with his chin with his obsession with attendance at Select Committee meetings. I am content for him to read out my attendance record, but he should not disguise the fact that five minutes' attendance out of, say, 105 minutes, which is the standard duration of our meetings, is enough to secure a Select Committee member a 100 per cent. record of attendance, provided he or she turns up to every meeting.

Mr. Hope

I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman. Some Conservative Members have the habit of turning up for five minutes to register their attendance and then leaving, which, in my opinion, is turning up without turning up. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could have a word with his colleagues about that further abuse of parliamentary procedure.

Mr. Brooke

Forgive me, but, except for 45 minutes, I have sat through every sitting of the Committee that I have chaired. In fact, I have observed the behaviour of members of all parties, not simply of my own.

Angela Smith

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brooke

No, we have a 10-minute rule.

I confess that I once missed 45 minutes of an evidence-taking session in Belfast because planes could not take off from Heathrow. The incidental consequence was that for our Committee's sittings in Northern Ireland yesterday, to mark the marches of the 12th, I had for safety's sake to fly out on Tuesday night, and thus missed the entire substantial business of the remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which, as the Select Committee Chairman, greatly and personally embarrassed me. The relationship between a Select Committee's work out of London and departmental business relating to that Committee in the Chamber is itself worth quiet scrutiny in the margins.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) referred to the Jopling report, to which I do not think the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) did. Nor did I catch his references to the Select Committee reforms introduced by the Conservative Government in 1979. The hon. Lady linked the Jopling report to the Modernisation Committee report. Although I acknowledge that the commencement order for the introduction of the Jopling reforms was delayed by the then Opposition Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), until, as he said a year or two ago, he was confident that Labour would win the election—significant words in themselves—the final report was unanimous, to the credit of the Chairman, my noble Friend Lord Jopling, and other members of the Committee.

I listened to the hon. Members for Hillsborough and for Milton Keynes, South-West, and I sensed that they found my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the shadow Leader of the House, wanting for not having been prepared to allow the latest Modernisation Committee report to be adopted unanimously. I will simply say that they should judge my right hon. Friend's views, which are in the report, by the criteria set out in the Norton commission's own parameters. Ultimately, to strengthen Parliament's scrutiny of the Executive, reforms need to concentrate on that central objective rather than on the convenience of the Government or individual Members of Parliament.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

As a member of the Norton commission and a long-standing Member of the House, is the right hon. Gentleman at all concerned that the hijacking of the commission's recommendations means that the only one that has appeared in the press is the proposed change to Prime Minister's Question Time?

Mr. Brooke

When he launched the report, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said: However, I am conscious that previous Oppositions have launched policy commissions with great fanfares, and then conveniently left their reports on the shelf gathering dust when they return to Government. To make sure that that does not happen with the Norton Report, I can today make three specific commitments that will form part of our manifesto for the next general election. However, my right hon. Friend had also said: It would be an insult to the work of the Commission to announce within minutes of the Report's publication which recommendations my party accepts, and which we reject. The Leader of the House did an admirable job of exegesis when she explained to me what her deputy, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), had meant by his crystalline adage in the debate on House of Lords reform: Being democratic does not necessarily mean having elections.—[Official Report, 19 June 2000: Vol. 352, c. 124.] I look forward, in a separate debate on the Modernisation Committee report, to the Lord President's exegesis as to why that report is intended primarily to strengthen Parliament's scrutiny of the Government. It was to her deputy, during one of the Leader's very rare absences, that I remarked that the Government's initial reaction to the Liaison Committee report had seemed to exemplify what the Prime Minister would describe as the evils of conservatism.

I hope that the debate on parliamentary reform will go on. I speak as the Member for a constituency whose franchise before 1832 was so generous that after the great Reform Act the electorate fell. We owe it to future Parliaments to ensure that we are intellectually honest during the debate that we are having.

5.29 pm
Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

There have been many thoughtful contributions to the debate, and I do not intend to add to them because that is not the purpose of the debate. The tone was well and truly set by the Leader of the Opposition. This was an extraordinary topic to choose for a six-hour Opposition day debate. As I heard him galloping on at the Dispatch Box, he reminded me of the charge of the Light Brigade, but without the magnificence because he was leading his troops into the gunfire.

As the right hon. Gentleman progressed, I thought more of the eccentric Peruvian goalkeeper, El Loco. Those who remember his performance in past world cups will know that he used to take the ball out of his penalty area, dribble it up field, lose possession and then have to trudge back to his goal to pick the ball out of the net. Such was the inspiration that characterised the right hon. Gentleman's speech.

Conservative Members have been trying to make a fist of conducting a serious and principled debate, but they were all waving their Order Papers in the air when the Leader of the Opposition sat down. As other right hon. and hon. Members have point out, Opposition Members are not very good at opposition. They do not like it. [Interruption.] I hope that they will get used to it and get better at it. Currently, they regard it as an unwelcome and irritating interval between periods of uninterrupted, unfettered power. They simply do not have time for opposition. That is the problem.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) said, Opposition Members are interested only in power—the power that they wield in this place. They come to this place without a vision, and too infrequently with a sense of duty. They come to exercise power and, often, to benefit from it. Today's debate is another little tantrum on the part of a party that has had its favourite toy taken away from it.

Mr. Hayes

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it does the debate no favours, and himself no favours, to suggest that hon. Members come to this place without a vision? Most come to the House with a vision, regardless of political party, and most come with a desire to do some good. They do not come principally because they are interested in power. They come because they are interested chiefly in the power to do some good.

Mr. Bradley

That is the second U-turn that I have heard from the Conservative party this week.

The Conservatives want to hold the Government to account. They want tougher scrutiny of Ministers, Departments of State and policy. In launching the Norton report earlier this week, the Leader of the Opposition said; The people of Britain deserve a stronger Parliament, better government and a revived and refreshed democracy, and I believe it is our duty to provide it. In those circumstances, it is not unreasonable to ask, as other hon. Members have done today, about the Conservatives' record in the past three years. If the Opposition do not hold the Executive to account, who will? Of course it is the function of Back-Bench Members of the Government party to ask questions and scrutinise the Government. If that is their duty, it is all the more the duty of the Opposition to do so.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bradley

I would prefer to make a little more progress, but I shall be delighted to give way if the hon. Gentleman will be patient.

Mr. St. Aubyn

On that point—

Mr. Bradley

No. The hon. Gentleman will recall that I almost lost my voice trying to intervene on his party leader. I only preserved enough of it to make this speech. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman made more appearances in the Division Lobbies—I hear from my hon. Friends from a sedentary position that he is 400th out of 650—perhaps I would recognise him better when he sought to intervene on me.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bradley

No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman can huff and he can puff, but I am on my feet.

The House of Commons Library has just published a digest of Members' participation in Commons Divisions. This is not my interpretation—not my spin. These are the figures from the House of Commons Library. The average attendance at votes by Labour Members of Parliament is 67 per cent. It could be argued that that is not high enough—I am sure that the Whips would agree. The Liberal Democrat participation in votes is a pretty woeful 57 per cent. That is woeful, but it is as nothing compared with the average participation of Conservative Members of Parliament in Divisions, at 54 per cent.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bradley

No. I may give way later, but I want to make progress. I have more to say.

I have also studied the returns from November to April. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) said, the top Conservative came in at 208, and there were only five Liberal Democrats in the top 200.

The Leader of the Opposition made much of the voting records of Cabinet Ministers. I can tell the House that the Home Secretary outscores the shadow Home Secretary. Perhaps the right hon. Lady is too busy promoting her books. The Secretary of State for Social Security outvotes his opposite number. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury votes in 80 per cent. of the votes, compared to 52 per cent. for his opposite number. I could go on. Is that why hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench are called shadow Ministers? If turning up and voting is a test of what the Leader of the Opposition called a stronger Parliament, better government and revived and refreshed democracy", the Conservatives have flunked that test.

On Monday, in launching the Norton committee report, the Leader of the Opposition referred to his experience as a former member of the Select Committees, as a former Minister who has been cross-examined by them. He said: I agree that we need to make them stronger and we need to start with the membership. He could not have made a stronger point. The sessional returns of Select Committees for 1998–99 show that Labour Members attended 71 per cent. of meetings, Liberal Democrats attended 67 per cent., and Conservatives attended a pretty poor 61 per cent.

Angela Smith

Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to examine the Standing Committee figures? He may be doing the Opposition a great disservice; there was a tremendous attendance from Opposition Members on two of the Standing Committees on which I have served. They turned up in force for every sitting of the Committee that considered the Minimum Wage Act 1998, to try to stop the minimum wage, and they did so on the Committee that considered the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, so as to protect fox hunting.

Mr. Bradley

My hon. Friend must not rush me; I have not finished with the Select Committees. On some of the most important and controversial policies, the Conservative performance is the worst. On the Education and Employment Committee, their turn-out rate is 34 per cent.; on the Trade and Industry Committee, it is 43 per cent.; on the Health Committee, 52 per cent. They say that they are the pensioner's friend on the Social Security Committee—

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way, as I am a member of a Select Committee?

Mr. Bradley


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

Order. All the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) has to do is ask the hon. Gentleman to give way. There is no need to offer credentials when asking to intervene.

Mr. St. Aubyn

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the custom of the House to give hon. Members the opportunity to respond to any attack that is made specifically on them?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are having a debate; there was no attack as such.

Mr. Bradley

There is a convention to allow injury time in such debates, for which I am grateful. If time allows, I will certainly allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), Conservative members are no better at attending Standing and Delegated Legislation Committees. Their attendance on the Committee that considered the Care Standards Bill, of which they made so much last night, was as low as 69 per cent., compared with Labour's 89 per cent. On the Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, from 2 December to 7 June, it was 73 per cent. compared with Labour's 95 per cent. If they are not doing their job—I suggest that they are not—where are they?

Mr. David Taylor

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Bradley

No, no; I must be impartial in not giving way.

I shall tell the House where Conservative Members may be. As other hon. Members have suggested, the Register of Members' Interests shows that, while 14 per cent. of Labour Members have outside interests that may take them from the House, the figure for Conservative Members is 73 per cent.; and that 40 of the 64 Front-Bench spokespersons have outside interests. No wonder they have no time to hold the Government to account, to scrutinise or to do the job of the Opposition.

Mr. Taylor

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Bradley

No. I want to conclude my remarks before my time is up.

If the Conservative voting record is poor in office hours, it is even worse in the evenings—at 52 per cent. However, my analysis does not show how many Conservative Members turn up to vote in their dinner jackets.

I do not want to be complacent about the need for change. Change is needed, but that was not the purpose of today's debate. We do not need to take lessons from Conservative Members. They are failing in their duties. They are so incompetent that most of the damage that the Government have sustained in recent years has been self-inflicted. They are so ineffectual that the media and the press think that they have to do their job for them. They should be judged not on their rhetoric, but on their record. Their record clearly shows that they are no more than part-time parliamentarians, less interested in Parliament than in their pay cheques. That is the reason why they are no better in opposition than they were in government.

5.39 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

First, may I apologise to hon. Members for being absent for part of the debate after the opening speeches? I had to leave the Chamber to chair the Select Committee on Procedure, and I returned as soon as it had finished taking evidence from a Minister.

The debate is about the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, and I follow the closing remarks of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) by saying that I hope that I am accepted for my record in this place and for no other reason. I have limited outside interests. I am a full-time politician and I take my work in the House extremely seriously. It may be appropriate if I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), refer to the Committees to which I belong. I am a member of the Modernisation and Liaison Committees, I am a member and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, and I also sit on the Select Committee on Standing Orders. In addition, I am the senior member of Madam Speaker's Chairmen's Panel and one of four members of the panel appointed to chair sittings in Westminster Hall. I hope that that shows that I take my job in the House very seriously.

I say to the hon. Member for The Wrekin that I have been a Back Bencher for all the 29 years that I have had the honour to serve the people of the county constituency of Macclesfield in the House of Commons. I have relished that job, and in answer to people who ask, "Nicholas, why have you never got anywhere in politics?", I explain, "God gave me a mouth and I have used it." That has not always endeared me to the establishment, whether that establishment be my own party or the Labour party in government.

I take the role of Back-Bench Member of Parliament very seriously, whether it be scrutinising legislation in the House or looking after the interests of my constituents in Macclesfield or my constituency as a whole. I also take seriously a constitutional role of the Opposition, which is to oppose. For that reason, I am deeply concerned about some proposals in the latest Modernisation Committee report, which is yet to be debated in the House. However, as those Members who take an active interest in these matters know, it will be debated in the roll-over period. I shall hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or that of another Deputy Speaker. I was about to refer to Madam Speaker, but who knows what the position will be after 23 October?

Ms Bridget Prentice

I enjoy listening to the hon. Gentleman as much as I enjoy listening to the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). Both make elegant speeches in the House, but as the hon. Gentleman has referred to the Committees of which he is a member, I wonder whether that self-justification is the opening salvo of a campaign to become Speaker.

Mr. Winterton

It is not an opening salvo—but all right, I am happy to declare to the House that I intend to put my name forward. I do not think that I have said something that I should not, because I have been challenged. I had not intended to raise the matter in my brief speech, but the hon. Lady, for whom I have the greatest respect, has been kind to me and I feel that I must respond honestly. In this place, I have sought to match my vote to my voice. Perhaps for that reason, I have remained an evergreen Back Bencher, although I believe that Back Benchers have a vital role to play.

Referring briefly to the Modernisation Committee report, one thing worries me about programming legislation, although I shall not comment at this time on the timing of votes. As those on the Treasury Bench and many other Members of the House well know, traditionally, Back Benchers have been guaranteed the chance to take part in a debate on an important Bill only on Report. In many instances there has been no guillotine, and debates have continued until the number of Members wishing to speak has run out.

I am deeply worried about the position of those who are not called to speak on Second Reading, and those who are not appointed as members of Standing Committees. I accept that certain clauses of Finance Bills are debated on the Floor of the House, but in general such Members will be able to table amendments, or speak about a part of a Bill that concerns them, their constituents or their constituencies, only on Report. I fear that the programming of legislation will seriously restrict Back Benchers' ability to express themselves.

Mr. Hope

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Winterton

I will, but for the last time because time is short.

Mr. Hope

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and also for announcing his candidature. We are all paying particular attention to what he is saying about parliamentary procedure. Would he care to offer an opinion on the failure of Back-Bench members of his party to attend Select Committees, and to take part in a key element of the parliamentary process—scrutiny of the Executive?

Mr. Winterton

I was going to raise that, on the basis of my experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure. Our Committee does not have a full complement of members, because the House decided that there should not be a full complement at this stage. Let me add, however, that four Labour Members are currently conspicuous by their absence. Unfortunately, one of my colleagues is also an infrequent attender, but I have received an accurate report that one Member—although still on the Committee—has not attended for more than a year. I understand that the Government Whips have told him that he need not turn up. As yet, however, the usual channels—those representing the establishment in the House—have not replaced him, or others. For instance, the absence of the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who has had responsibilities outside the House in relation to football, is very noticeable.

I do not make the accusation that all Labour Committee members who have not turned up have done so because they are not working. One distinguished new Member cannot turn up because he sits on another Select Committee which he considers more important than the Procedure Committee. It is, in fact, the Public Accounts Committee, whose importance I must acknowledge.

If we are not to make the position of Back Benchers totally irrelevant except in the context of voting, we must keep their opportunities in mind. I am delighted to see that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) is present. As a member of the Liaison Committee, I fully backed its report entitled "Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive". It is important to establish an alternative career structure for those who are prepared to devote a great deal of time, energy and commitment to Select Committees—and, in particular, to Chairmen of Select Committees, who undertake an immense amount of work without any additional staff or remuneration. It is clear that, if that is to happen, the usual channels must not dictate the membership of Select Committees, or have such a powerful influence on the appointment of Chairmen.

I have personal experience in this regard. I believe that my party behaved disgracefully back in 1992. The Liaison Committee, which is concerned with who chairs Select Committees, has sought to redress the balance, and to ensure that Back Benchers have a meaningful purpose and a meaningful job in the future.

5.49 pm
Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who presented his job application, but I want to make a few remarks from the other end of the spectrum.

I am a recently elected Member of the House, but I am nevertheless conscious of what a privilege it is to be here and of the duty that the House has to carry out proper scrutiny and to hold the Government to account. Those rights were hard fought for and dearly won. I am particularly conscious that our ancestors, especially those of Labour Members, had to put up with a great deal and had to make many sacrifices for us to be represented in Parliament. We should bear that in mind, and the fact that the right to representation was fought every step of the way by the ancestors of Conservative Members. It is because I take the rights and privileges of this place very seriously that I believe the Chamber should address issues of real concern to our constituents.

Mr. Cash


Mr. St. Aubyn


Helen Jones

If the hon. Gentlemen will forgive me, I shall give way later.

The Chamber should be a cockpit of democracy. Sadly, that has not been the case today. We have not addressed the issues of real concern to people in the country. The official Opposition have missed the opportunity to do so. The Leader of the Opposition proved once again that he is still stuck in the sixth form. He wants to be the leading light of the school debating society rather than a serious politician. [Interruption.]

What does the debate tell us about the priorities of the Conservative party? Is it concerned about the future of agriculture? Clearly not, because it wiped that subject off the agenda. [Interruption.] Will we have a chance to debate its latest education policy? [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady is doing all right. She does not need any other voices.

Helen Jones

I always appreciate the support of my hon. Friends, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Will we have a chance to debate the Opposition's new education policy? Clearly not, but perhaps that is wise bearing in mind what the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) let slip about primary schools selecting their intake. What about manufacturing industry?

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Jones

No, the hon. Gentleman has had several goes. I want to proceed if I may.

Do the official Opposition want to debate manufacturing industry or the national health service? No. Instead, we have had from them a bout of navel gazing brought on by a tantrum because they objected to the statement on the Government's annual report. They decided to stamp their collective feet. Last year they threw a hissy fit because there was not a statement on the Government's annual report. That says a lot about them.

Perhaps we can move on from the tantrums and, in a spirit of cross-party co-operation, consider how the Opposition have managed to hold the Government to account by having a look at their record. Opposition Members have quoted the Norton report and have rightly referred to the need for an effective Opposition and proper debate in the House. Is that what Opposition Members did when in government? Of course not. They guillotined Bill after Bill. They functioned so well in what their motion calls the essential…link between citizen and government that they introduced the poll tax. They guillotined that Bill. That was the biggest example ever of a Government not being in tune with their own people.

There is always a possibility that the sinners have repented and have now accepted the need for parliamentary scrutiny, and are beavering away in Parliament.

Mr. Rowe

Do I get the impression that the hon. Lady thinks that guillotines are a bad idea if we are to call a Government to account? If so, how does she explain the present Government's record in that respect?

Helen Jones

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition, who said in a recent speech that it is worth considering the programming and timetabling of Bills. This is an Opposition debate, and they are talking about calling Government to account, so it is only right that we consider their record.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Jones

No. As I said, the hon. Gentleman has had several goes.

Do Opposition Members turn up and vote so as to hold the Government to account? Many of them do not. As has been said, of the top 114 places, all but one are occupied by Labour Members. Conservative Members tell us that they are off pursuing their outside interests because that contributes to the debate. I will believe that when I see them stacking shelves in supermarkets, working in factories or in call centres. Then I would believe that they were doing that to gain experience of the real world, but not until then.

If Conservative Members are not in the Division Lobby, perhaps they are on Select Committees. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) rightly quoted the Leader of the Opposition on the need to make Select Committees stronger. The only thing I can say is that perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should communicate that view to his Back Benchers. He could start with the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who wrote a pamphlet on this subject, in which he said that too much of the Select Committee system is worthy but also ignored. He should know, because he spent most of the 1998–99 Session ignoring it. As we have heard, he managed to attend only seven out of 36 meetings of the Select Committee on Public Administration. His hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) did even better. He managed to grace us with his presence on only one occasion.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

As the hon. Lady seems not to have notified my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) that she intended to raise his name in the debate, she should be aware that he was sitting on the Finance Bill Standing Committee, which was a great commitment of time. If she had been present often enough, she would know that he has already explained that to the House.

Helen Jones

The hon. Member for Chichester was present, but attaches so much importance to this debate that he is no longer here. I understand that he did not always attend the Standing Committee either. I do not believe that his membership of that Committee accounts for all his absences.

As the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) refers to other Committees, let us consider them. We have already heard about the Opposition's record on the Care Standards Bill, even though they chose to keep us voting in the House. I want to be charitable to them, so perhaps we should consider their record on delegated legislation. Conservative Members frequently tell us that there is not enough opportunity for the House to scrutinise delegated legislation. To prove that, on Tuesday night they decided to call votes on all the motions dealing with delegated legislation. That is their perfect right, and I do not contest that.

However, what did they do when those orders were in Committee and how much time did they spend scrutinising them? They spent 58 minutes on the draft Education (School Government) (Terms of Reference) (England) Regulations 2000, 38 minutes on the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 63) on the Invest to Save Grant, and a grand total of 23 minutes on the two orders taken together dealing with the transfer of functions to Wales. If the Opposition were really serious about holding the Government to account, they would have done so in the correct place when those orders were debated in Standing Committee, but we know very well that they are not serious.

We have seen the same pattern repeated in the Chamber time and again. On Opposition days, there are vast acres of green space on the Conservative Benches. At Education and Employment questions last week, there were so few Opposition Members that even those on their Front Bench looked embarrassed. They are not serious about holding the Government to account, and they never have been.

We need to debate issues such as how to improve the performance of the House and the Select Committee system. I believe that the Select Committee system needs to be strengthened, but the Opposition are not interested in those issues. They are only interested in making cheap, political debating points. If they want us to take seriously their views about improving the scrutiny role of Parliament, they must first use the means that are open to them, but they are not doing that.

6 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

I looked up some references to the questions that arise in relation to this debate and I came across the following quotations. In the reign of Henry III, it was said: The parliament moderateth the king's prerogative, and nothing grows to abuse, but this house has power to treat it. In the 18th century, Dunning's version read: The influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. The real issue at the heart of this debate is not merely questions about the procedures of the House, but the craven attitude of Members of Parliament and how they give way to the power and influence of the Executive instead of relying on their own opinions as elected representatives. They neglect the influence that they could exert if they were prepared to do so. It is incumbent on all of us to remember that as individuals—whether the Prime Minister, Cabinet Minister or ordinary Member of Parliament—the ultimate test is whether we are prepared to take our own decisions and not be pushed around by other people, often in the pursuit of preferment or patronage.

Regrettably, on several occasions, people who could have changed the course of events have, for one reason or another, declined to do so. One example occurred in the Maastricht debates. Nottingham university produced a confidential survey of opinion of Back Benchers and others in the aftermath of those debates. The survey was not organised by Eurosceptics but was partially Government-funded, independent research. It transpired that 60 per cent. of those who had voted with the Government did not want to vote for the Maastricht treaty. That debate and subsequent debates of similar importance, which go to the heart of how we govern ourselves, give some indication of the necessity for all of us to consider the extent to which we simply follow what the Whips decree.

It is not only a question of the Whips. Should not Ministers who have a profound disagreement with their Government resign? I pay tribute to those members of this Government who have resigned—there have been several—and to others in past Conservative Governments who have done so. However, such resignations are not as frequent as I would like.

We should also think hard about the way in which the organisation of the House affects Committees. We have heard about the recommendations of the Liaison Committee on Select Committees, which I thoroughly endorse and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition will take a strong view on those recommendations. We might also usefully improve the value of the opinions and judgments of individual Members of Parliament in Standing Committees. It is right that if a Government have made an express manifesto commitment to a Bill, they should expect it to get a Second Reading. However, when the Standing Committee addresses the nuts and bolts of how a Bill will work, it is a different matter.

I have sat on many Standing Committees, some of which—such as that considering the Broadcasting Act 1990—went on for six months or so. So few amendments are ever accepted against the wishes of the Government Whips that it is worth asking whether we should have a freer and more flexible arrangement in Committee, with the re-imposition of the Whip on Report, after the Government has had an opportunity to reflect on the opinions formed in the free judgment of the members of the Committee. Under such a system, Members of Parliament would feel more confident about their role and, at the same time, the legislation would more truly reflect not only the exhortations of the Whips—or the desire of the Prime Minister or Cabinet Minister responsible for the Bill—but the genuine opinions of Members of Parliament. That is why we are elected to this House.

The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) mentioned our ancestors. One of mine was John Bright and I am sure that nobody would suggest that anyone who came from a family of his independence of mind would willingly accept the criticism that we are Lobby fodder and merely represent the interests of the landed gentry. If one considers the great issues of the past 200 years, such as the Reform Act 1867, tariff reform, home rule, the India Acts of the 1930s or appeasement—

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

Or Maastricht.

Mr. Cash

Yes, and I would include the treaty of Amsterdam and what is to come on the treaty of Nice. On all those great issues, which were the defining moments of our political development in the past 200 years, the one characteristic which stood out, and which represented the reality of the strength of Parliament vis-a-vis the Executive—whether or not the parties were divided, which they often were—was that it was those people who stood out from the crowd and spoke their minds who created the circumstances for change on those issues. In that way, we moved forward to a more democratic system of government over the past 200 years.

The Whips have an important role to play, which may be necessary because of the need to organise business. However, at the heart of the debate lies the quotation from "Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare: The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings. When we consider the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, it is important for all of us to remember that the question of whether we truly represent our constituents, and the country as a whole in the national interest, depends on whether we are prepared to stand up to the attacks made on us by others and the power and influence that is brought to bear by an Executive that wants its own way, but which should not be allowed to get away with it so easily.

Mr. MacShane

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think I know what is coming.

Mr. MacShane

This has been a rich and rewarding debate, which we have all enjoyed. However, not many hon. Members have been present. I wonder whether more hon. Members might have attended if a list of speakers had been published. Now that the secrets of Fatima have been revealed, cannot the Speaker's list be made public before debates take place?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I do not know anything about a list.

6.10 pm
Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. It seems that at times our discussion has suffered from the same difficulties that the Opposition face, which is a confusion between the distinct functions of scrutiny and opposition. The media often portray these functions as though they are the same. For example, they suggest that only Labour Members who defy the Whip are truly carrying out their scrutiny function.

I am not embarrassed to say—indeed, I am proud to say—that the people of Wythenshawe and Sale, East did not elect me to oppose the Government. Instead, they elected me to support the Government. They voted for me because they wanted young people who had been thrown on the scrap heap to have the opportunity to work, because they believe in a free national health service and because they want to see higher standards of numeracy and literacy. Of course, they expect me to do my best to ensure that legislation stands up, as it were, and works in practice.

I take great exception to the comments of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who questioned whether it was possible—in fact, he said that it was impossible—for a loyal Member of the Government party effectively to operate his scrutiny role.

There is a large international airport in my constituency, and I sought reassurances on air safety during the passage of the recent Transport Bill. As a member at the time of the Select Committee on Social Security, following a controversial inquiry I joined my Committee colleagues in strongly recommending to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that when the working families tax credit was introduced it should still be possible for non-working partners to be able to claim that tax credit, as they had previously done with family credit.

As a member of the Select Committee, I was proud to be involved in the innovative inquiry into the draft Bill relating to pension sharing on divorce. The Committee made 32 recommendations and suggested 107 amendments. I think that we played our part in ensuring that when the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill was considered a year later, it was a more robust piece of legislation. That was because of the Committee's pre-legislative scrutiny.

Mr. Hope

Does my hon. Friend agree that the debate is an admission of failure? The Tories have been incapable of providing an effective Opposition. Like a bad workman who blames his tools, the Opposition are suggesting scrutiny mechanisms that would not be effective.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That was far too long an intervention.

Mr. Goggins

It may have been too long, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend moved directly to the next part of my speech.

The Tories find great difficulty in opposition and they are hopeless in that role. Of course, the Government do not have the devaluation crisis that faced the Wilson Government. We do not have the trade union disquiet of the 1970s or the urban riots of the 1980s. For three years in office, we can claim credit for 1 million extra jobs, higher achievements in schools, higher incomes for the poorest pensioners and billions of extra pounds that are being used to help reduce the problems of children who previously had been consigned to poverty.

The problem for the Opposition is that they are unable to mount any credible opposition to our policies. They keep trying but that does not wash with the electorate. They were against the minimum wage and they had to back off. They had a tax guarantee and again they had to back off. I am sure that when they have finished whingeing about the new deal, they will similarly have to back off.

Having abandoned the role of constructive opposition, the Tories seek to claim the high moral ground of scrutiny. However, if we scratch the surface, we find that there is little substance. For example, there were the schoolboy antics on Tuesday night. Between midnight and I am the House divided five times. As I have already made clear, I am happy to stay in the House and vote for orders that will help the Government to deliver their programme. I accept that the Opposition have every right to oppose. However, we were dividing on measures that had previously been debated in Standing Committee.

It is worth considering the quality of the scrutiny that took place in Committee. On the two matters relating to Wales, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) said, three of the five Tory Members were absent, including their Front-Bench spokesperson, who, according to the Whip, was carrying out other duties. Presumably, they were more important duties than scrutinising legislation in his area of responsibility.

On the measure relating to local government finance, four Tory Members attended the Committee. They did not dissent from an order that relates to the £45 million invest-to-save initiative and important grants to improve health and social care. I am happy for the record to show that the Opposition were against making such grants, but let us not dress that up as democracy or scrutiny. At best, that sort of nonsense means that we lose a little sleep. At worst, it makes Parliament a laughing stock.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) in urging the Opposition to pay close attention to paragraph (3) on page 6 of the Norton report, which refers to the core functions of Parliament. The third core function outlined by Lord Norton is the provision of "credible opposition". The report recommends that Select Committees should offer an alternative career path to ministerial office and that appointments to Select Committees should be taken out of the hands of the Whips.

In my book, it is not what we say that counts but what we do. Perhaps it was thoughtful of the Opposition to bring forward this debate on 13 July. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) will know that this is the eighth anniversary of the day when the Conservative party threw him off the Select Committee on Health. Those who were Members of this place then will remember better than I do the trumped up charges that he faced, having been a member of the Committee for three consecutive terms. It seems that relevant experience did not count for very much.

During the debate that took place on departmental Select Committees on that day—my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) will be interested in this—the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) asked Sir Marcus Fox, the Chairman of the Selection Committee, why Sir Nicholas Fairbairn was a member of two Select Committees. Sir Marcus replied: The answer is quite simple:…he happens to be a friend of mine.—[Official Report, 13 July 1992; Vol. 211, c. 915.] How can anyone take seriously proposals from the Conservative party that there should be an alternative career structure on Select Committees when events and comments illustrate the involvement of the Opposition Whips? During that week in July 1992, The Times stated: The extent to which committees are manipulated by the Tory Whips casts a cloud over the independence of the select committees system. Without credible policies, the Tories seek in vain the high moral ground of scrutiny. Of course the relationship between Parliament and the Executive is an important one. However, if the best that my Tory opponent can offer at the next election is an extra 10 minutes for Prime Minister's questions, I shall be more than happy to take him or her on with the continuing commitment from Labour to create jobs and modernise public services.

6.19 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

First, before the substantive part of my speech, I shall deal with what the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) said about me. I said in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) that if Government Back Benchers were doing their job properly, we would have less to fear from a Government with a large majority because they would be contributing to the accountability that is so important to the health of our democracy. That is what I said, as the record will show.

The constitution is important and Parliament is important. To say that would once have been regarded as self-evident, but no longer. A significant number of people who are involved in politics do not believe in their heart that Parliament is at the heart of our democracy or our nation, or at the heart of our political system, as Lord Norton rightly said in his recent report.

Mr. Hope

The hon. Gentleman talks of the primacy that he places on Parliament in scrutinising the Executive. The record of Members' participation in Divisions shows that he is in 538th position.

Mr. Hayes

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has done so much research on me. I am flattered that he thinks that I am so important. I am delighted also that he has had the opportunity to intervene in the debate, because the Library figures reveal that, since he was elected in 1997, he has spoken in the Chamber on only 42 occasions. I have spoken 162 times. In fact, I barely recognised the hon. Gentleman when he came into the Chamber.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes

No, I must make some progress.

The fact that Parliament is pivotal to our democracy is a matter that all Members of this House should hold dear. It is a great irony that some hon. Members—I speak in particular of Labour Members, although it is also true of some Members of the other opposition parties—do not regard Parliament in that way. Their view is summed up by the comments of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who made it clear that he no longer believes that representative democracy has an important part to play in our political future. He believes that it is invidious to have adversarial debate in this place and he said so during a brief period as a Back Bencher.

While this is clearly part of a process—indeed, the Leader of the Opposition made that clear in his opening remarks—that has continued for a considerable number of years, it is true to say that this Government have exacerbated and accelerated the decline of the importance of Parliament. That is partly because so-called big-tent politics are injurious to the genuine exchange, development and scrutiny not merely of policies but of ideas themselves. Politicians of all parties should regard such a threat with the greatest suspicion.

When elected to this House, every Member's solemn duty is to pursue and promote the public good and to defend the national interest. Surely that is something that we can all share. I heard Labour Members claiming this afternoon that they are the only Members who come to this House with vision or with good intentions and commitment, but I know that they must realise that that is not so. Every hon. Member has that duty and most take it very seriously, regardless of the party of which he or she is a member.

Edmund Burke summed up the matter best when he said that a Member is in Parliament to support his opinion of the public good, and does not form his opinion in order to get into Parliament or to continue in it. Breached in practice more often than not, that definition was at least preserved in theory until Tony Blair became Prime Minister. Soon after he did—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows the conventions of the House.

Mr. Hayes

When the Prime Minister came to power, that convention was put in real jeopardy. There is no doubt that the Government have preferred to use the media to launch their policies and argue their case than to use Parliament.

Mr. Rammell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes

In a moment.

Most typical of the decline that I described is the Prime Minister's personal performance in this House. I am speaking in particular of Prime Minister's questions. My research reveals that on countless occasions the right hon. Gentleman has—I can only assume through ignorance because it would be unparliamentary to suggest that it was anything else—given inaccurate information [Interruption.] I repeat that he must have done so in ignorance, of course. On even more occasions, he has failed to answer questions. Indeed, he has failed to answer more than half the questions put to him in Question Time since he began to lead the country. That is an abuse of Parliament.

That rare occasion when hon. Members can question the Prime Minister in the House is itself pivotal to good and healthy democracy and should be respected by Prime Ministers, as it was by previous Prime Ministers. [Interruption.] I am not saying that they did not use Prime Minister's questions to advocate their case and put their arguments, but they also took seriously the need at least to attempt to give a straight answer to a straight question. That is not the case with the present Prime Minister.

Parliament is—[Interruption.] That was a pause for effect. Parliament is desperately important to the people. When the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) talks of Parliament having to reflect the everyday needs of the people of her constituency, does she not understand that we, the elected representatives, speak for those very people?

It is not good enough for the Prime Minister to say that he wants to speak more frequently directly to the people—perhaps, through referendums, certainly through the media and today he told us through letters that are sent to Downing street—because the people can speak directly to the Government, hold them to account and make their judgment on them only once in every five years at an election.

In practical terms, holding the Government to account is the job of elected representatives. It is representative democracy that is at stake in this debate and in this Parliament.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does my hon. Friend agree that a part of that holding to account must be done by Select Committees? What are his feelings about the fact that Labour members of the Education and Employment Committee have tried to gag Opposition Members, such as me, to prevent us scrutinising witnesses on the effect of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's attack on our leading universities and the fact that this is denying students the opportunity to go there?

Mr. Hayes

I note from a debate that took place in 1981, which reviewed the work of Select Committees, that when they were established it was made clear that their role was to take evidence based on judgments that were unfettered by the considerations of the Executive or the concerns of Government and to produce guidance and issue opinion that reflect not what the Government want for the nation, but what the Select Committee believes is right for the nation.

When the Prime Minister would not give evidence to the Select Committee on Public Administration, he quoted precedent. In fact, the previous Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), gave evidence to a Select Committee. There is therefore a precedent for Prime Ministers giving evidence to Select Committees and my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) is right to say that they have an important role to play. The Norton committee advocated strengthening that role.

Mr. Leslie

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes

No, I will not, because time is pressing.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is not in his place and I think that we are all disappointed that we have not had a contribution from him. Perhaps better than most Members of the House, the right hon. Gentleman understands the role of Parliament in holding the Executive to account. He said in an early-day motion that Members have a duty to pursue their convictions and a responsibility for maintaining the role of this House as a democratic legitimate body holding all governments to account, having been elected by the people for that purpose. He went on to say: I believe that that is the right responsibility for all of us,—[Official Report, 9 November 1999; Vol. 337, c. 1042.] regardless of which party we serve. Tonight, we have an opportunity, in considering this matter, to put aside our party interests and look at this institution as a guarantor of the rights and freedoms of the people—something of which we should all be justly proud.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Time is up. I call the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young).

6.28 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I do not always agree with the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), but a moment ago he said that this had been a "rich and rewarding" debate. He said so on a bogus point of order, which I think prevented him from taking part, but it has been a good debate, with the temperature rising and falling. Most contributions have focused on the key issue—the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. Some of the contributions have not quite hit the target, but on the whole the House has responded to the challenge of confronting an issue that concerns all of us as Members of Parliament.

I regret the fact that more hon. Members could not speak in the debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) said, the Government broke with convention and took up Opposition time with a statement that did not have to be made today. The fact that they chose to do so underlined one of the arguments that we have been trying to make through this debate: that, when it is convenient for them, the Government disregard the conventions of the House and erode the rights of the Opposition and Back Benchers.

Many of those who contributed spoke warmly about the Norton report. Anyone who is concerned about the issue will be grateful to the Norton committee for a nonpartisan, objective analysis—[Laughter.] Oh yes, hon. Members should read the report. It is a non-partisan, objective analysis of the transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive. It comes up with some concrete proposals to reverse that process. The following sentences from the report get the message over Undermine the authority of Parliament and ultimately you undermine the authority of Government. The more Government seeks to achieve autonomy in making public policy, the harder it has to work to maintain its capacity to achieve desired outcomes. The more it distances itself from Parliament, the more it undermines popular consent for the system of government. That sums up the message from Norton.

Mr. Love

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young

May I make a bit of progress?

What I found worrying about the Prime Minister's speech was that it became clear that he does not accept that there is a problem. It was a pity that he could not stay to listen to the contribution by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who said that the issues raised by the debate go to the heart of the democratic process. Indeed, our ability to represent our constituents on all the issues that have been raised—on jobs, health, education and law and order—and our ability to hold the Government to account on those key issues is undermined if power has transferred from Parliament to the Executive and the Government are less accountable. I fear that, in his speech, the Prime Minister failed to see the wood for the trees.

The Prime Minister referred, as does the Government amendment, to constitutional reform. I felt that he was perhaps misguided to refer to some of the proposals to tilt the terms of trade back as piddling points. Those were serious propositions to arrest a problem that has gone on for some time. He spoke about modernising Parliament—his favourite word. My view is that Parliament does not need so much modernising as strengthening.

The Prime Minister and the Government amendment seek refuge behind constitutional reform. It refers to some of the things that the Government have done. I am not sure that that provides a convincing alibi. A fortnight ago, we had a much-delayed debate on Lords reform, in which the Government were criticised by hon. Members on both sides of the House for shooting first and asking questions later, and for having no clear timetable or plan for the key second stage of reform. On devolution, we have criticised the Government for the instability and inequity of the settlement for England, and we have come up with proposals, endorsed by the Norton commission and by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), for changing the procedures of the House for English and Welsh Bills.

Mr. Chisholm

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young

May I make a bit more progress? Then I shall probably give way to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love)

We have debated the Government's approach to the voting system, where there is the small matter of a broken manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on an alternative to first past the post. We learned that the pledge was not to be kept not because the House was told so, but because the Prime Minister chose to tell viewers of the Frost programme. We learned from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of the prospect of an alternative voting system, which to our surprise is even less proportionate than any other system and has as its consequence—indeed, as its objective—the removal of as many remaining Conservative Members of Parliament as possible, so the Government's approach to constitutional reform is not a happy one.

Mr. Chisholm

Is not the significance of the constitutional reform that the Labour Executive gave up a vast amount of power through devolution, whereas the Conservative Executive between 1979 and 1997 concentrated more power in itself than any other Government in British history?

Sir George Young

The language was the language of devolution. The reality was the retention of central control. We saw that when it came to choosing the First Secretary in Wales. We have seen it all over the place. The language is devolution, but No. 10 wants to keep a close grip on what happens.

I was grateful to the leader of the Liberal Democrats for agreeing with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that the Government are too big and too powerful and that there are not enough independently minded people here. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon captured the mood of the House in a way that the Prime Minister did not. He referred to the decline in popularity of all Members of Parliament and the decline in the status of the House. He said that the House must not be putty in the hands of the Executive and emphasised the need for reform. He said that the House and Back Benchers had lost power and that they should seek to repatriate power to the House and away from the Executive.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm) was one of a growing number of Labour Back Benchers who voiced their support during the debate for the Liaison Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) reminded us that we have a good system, but that the abuse of the House has accelerated over recent years. He focused on the Chamber, and on restructuring the time in the Chamber to make more effective use of our time and to make the Chamber again the focal point of the nation's interest in politics—proposals to make the Chamber more topical and more relevant. He was rightly cautious about consensus and rightly criticised the current procedures for dealing with estimates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) confirmed that, in his view, after 17 years in the House, the powers of the Executive had increased and that there had been a decline in the authority of the House. He was concerned about the proposals of the Modernisation Committee that would limit the power of the Opposition. He advocated the proposal for more senior people in the House to be elected.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) made the point that a number of hon. Members have made: Parliament does not use its powers to the full and it is up to Members of Parliament to repatriate, if they so wish, some of the powers that have gone to the Executive. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) favoured a bridge-building approach to the strengthening of Parliament and rightly made the point that attendance in the Chamber is not a good proxy for activity in Parliament. He also said that Back Benchers can be badly organised and therefore constitute less of a threat to Government.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who is a co-author of the Norton report, for his balanced and sensible speech, and his determination not to be distracted by some of the obsessive interventions from Labour Members. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) made a rather unworthy contribution and has developed a new constitutional theory that the Government should hold the Opposition to account. I suspect that, if he looked at the voting record in the previous Parliament, he would find that Government Members voted more often than Opposition Members. There are all sorts of reasons for that. Any Government need to protect their majority. Often, the Government will vote against the Opposition amendment and the Liberal Democrat amendment, whereas the Opposition parties will vote on their preferred one. There are many reasons for Government Members voting more often than Opposition Members.

The democratic process is not something that happens once every four or five years at a general election. It is also about holding Government to account between elections. There are signs that the Government have forgotten about that, relying on their majority at the last election to keep them out of trouble and focusing all their efforts on trying to get in again next time.

The concerns expressed at the beginning of the debate by the Leader of the Opposition have been shared throughout the debate by a number of Labour Members. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said recently: The more I look at this place, the more I fear that the House of Commons has surrendered its responsibility for representing people and has become a queue for office or for people hoping to get on the "Today" programme.—[Official Report, 1 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 627.] In response, his fertile mind drafted the "Modernisation of the Premiership" Bill, which somehow never reached the statute book.

Between elections, the Government are accountable to the House. If policy changes are announced outside the House, they are not subjected to the critical examination by Members that they should be. Those announcements should be tested where it matters, not launched from a comfortable sofa with some tame questioner at a location of the Government's choice, with the questioner selected not by Madam Speaker, but by Alastair Campbell.

Mr. Rowe

Before my right hon. Friend finishes his excellent speech, would he care to say a little more about the enormous extension of direct patronage—one of the instruments with which the Government increasingly control Parliament?

Sir George Young

There was a recent report, the Fritchie report, on health service appointments, which I hope we can debate in the near future.

On the issue of presentation, it was interesting to read what Peter Riddell said a few days ago in The Times, that many of the Government's problems are precisely because of their focus on presentation and their determination always to dominate the media battle and headlines every day.

May I ask the Leader of the House about the Liaison Committee's report? Her responsibilities extend to both sides of the House. I wonder whether, on reflection, she accepts that she was wrong to dismiss the Liaison Committee's recommendation on Select Committees. Paragraph 7 of the Government's response states: The Government are not convinced that a change to the current system is needed. The Liaison Committee, with a majority of Labour Members, believed that a change was needed. Opposition Members are inclined to agree.

The Leader of the House said that the House can have a free vote on the issue. May I ask that, when we have a debate, we have a debate on a substantive motion, so that the House is enabled to express itself clearly on this issue and take a decision? If the Government want to counter some of the criticisms that we have made today, the Leader of the House could do no better than to admit that the Government were wrong and say that she will think again.

Substantial criticisms have been made against the Government in this debate, and perhaps I can summarise the charge sheet. The ability of Parliament to monitor legislation and to control the Executive has been reduced. Select Committees have been prejudiced by their reports being leaked in advance to the Government. Our tradition of Ministers being served by an independent and professional civil service has been injured. The convention that taxpayers' money should not be used for party advantage has been damaged. The dissemination of information about Government—the oxygen of democracy—is no longer freely available to Parliament, but is being distributed to favoured channels. Parliament is being confronted with too many badly drafted Bills, which are being driven through with inadequate scrutiny. Cabinet Government has been weakened, and special advisers have too much power.

The Opposition do not say that all those problems began in 1997, although I believe that they have got a lot worse since then. I think that it would have been optimistic of us to have expected the Government to plead guilty as charged. However, what has been worrying is that the Government apparently do not accept that there is a problem. Unlike almost every other commentator, they either deny that the process of power transfer has occurred, or assert that it does not matter.

Therefore, the key question that I ask myself at the end of this debate is whether it has identified any common loyalty to the institution that we all belong to that transcends the party loyalty that secured our entry. I also ask myself whether, if there is that common loyalty, there is a will to exercise the powers more effectively.

On the first question, there have been many speeches, from both sides of the House, indicating that there is now concern about the issue that we have raised today. The hon. Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) all conceded that there is a matter of concern here. I believe that there is now a recognition that Parliament needs to get its act together.

I was interested in the proposition from my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon that Parliament should now address the issue in a more structured way. I personally doubt whether much is going to happen in the remainder of this Parliament. I think that it will fall to the next Administration to follow through this debate.

Opposition Members are pledged to get the balance right, to give authority back to the place from which we all derive our legitimacy. That is why we have chosen this debate. Nothing would give us greater pleasure than if the Leader of the House responded positively to the case that has been made today. If she does not, people will conclude that my party is the party that can best respond to the challenge that we haw debated today.

6.44 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

This debate has been not only interesting, but—more than that—unexpectedly revealing. Conservative Members have claimed that Parliament's ability to scrutinise the Executive has in some unprecedented way been diminished since the election of this Government, and that, consequently, not just Parliament but democracy itself is endangered. That is what they claim justifies the truly unprecedented proposals that they are now putting to set tests for us—to put pressure on us as a Government—which have never been set for any Government in this party's history, and which they certainly could never have passed.

Conservative Members pray in aid the Norton commission report as justification for their case. However, there are at least two fundamental flaws in that argument. The first is that it comes from a party which—as my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm) and for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) and the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said—after 18 years in government left us a Parliament in which hon. Members still wore a top hat to raise a point of order in this place, and in which the other place was in the permanent control of the Conservative party—not least because 750 people were entitled to sit in it on the basis of heredity. The Conservative party's credentials as a reforming party are therefore not just shallow but non-existent.

The second fundamental flaw in Conservative Members' argument is that it begs the question whether they leapt into this debate before they had read the Norton report. A little surprisingly, Professor Lord Norton and his colleagues themselves seem to have overlooked the fact that many of the worthwhile changes that they recommend have already been made—made by this Government, and not infrequently opposed by Conservative Members.

Conservative Members call for an improvement in scrutiny of European legislation. Although I acknowledge that Conservative Members acknowledge that the Government have substantially extended the House's opportunity to scrutinise that important part of our work, they do not point out that, under the rules and Standing Orders that we inherited from them, large parts of European Union business were outwith the scrutiny of this House.

Professor Norton suggests that at least some debates should terminate earlier in the day—perhaps at 8 or 9 o'clock. I hope that it will not have escaped the House's attention that, when we made just such proposals a week ago, Conservative Members attacked them as a denial of democracy—as they have repeatedly done today.

Professor Norton recommends more effective provision of resources for hon. Members. We have been trying for months to get Conservative Members to agree to consider those issues. Norton calls, too, for greater support for research, both for the Opposition and for Select Committees. As I have already said to the House, support for Select Committees is a matter for the House of Commons Commission. However, on the whole, although I am only one member of that body, I am not unsympathetic to that proposal.

As for the notion that the Opposition should receive still further funding, it is an interesting proposal. It comes oddly, though, from hon. Members who—while complaining that the Government have increased the number of special advisers whom we employ—never acknowledge, not even for a second, that we have almost trebled the money that the Opposition receive for staff to work alongside and back up their Front Benchers.

The proposal comes particularly oddly from Conservative Members when we look at their record in government. In the previous Parliament, the Short money settlement had not been updated for five years—a period in which inflation had continually been in double figures. Nevertheless, that devotee of democracy, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the current shadow Chancellor—I do not see him in the Chamber—resisted our claim that funding for the Opposition should at the very least be inflation-proofed, and tried to impose a below inflation settlement.

Mr. MacShane

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Leader of the Opposition receives a higher salary than the Prime Minister? Does she know of any other country in the world where the Government give more money to the Leader of the Opposition than to the Head of Government? With all the money that they have from Lord Sleaze of Belize and, now, from Mr. Paul Sykes, why are we so generous with them?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not certain whether the Leader of the Opposition receives more money than the Prime Minister, but I am certainly well aware that he receives more than I do. It is also certainly true that the Leader of the Opposition draws the full salary awarded, whereas members of the Cabinet do not.

Before I leave the point about the inflation proofing of Short money, let me pay tribute, quite sincerely, to my predecessor, Lord Newton, for accepting and fighting for our case that inflation proofing at least was a democratic due. There was certainly no three times increase for us under the Tories.

Lord Norton further recommends that we debate more Select Committee reports. That is precisely what the opportunities for scrutiny in Westminster Hall have offered—200 extra opportunities for debate in all, and four times as many opportunities to debate Select Committee reports. Although I hear noises off from the Opposition Front Bench, let me tell the House that as soon as those opportunities became available, twice as many right hon. and hon. Members applied for Adjournment debates, because they knew that they stood a much better chance of getting them. Indeed, under this Government, 64 Select Committee reports have already been debated, whereas in the whole of the last five-year Parliament we debated only 50.

Dr. Starkey

Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that when the reports of the Select Committee on Science and Technology and the Select Committee on Environmental Audit were discussed in Westminster Hall, the only Members present representing the official Opposition were the Chairmen of those Select Committees? All the Back Benchers who participated in those debates were Labour or Liberal Democrat Members. That scarcely demonstrates a real concern about scrutiny through Select Committees.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, to which there is clearly no answer from the Opposition.

Lord Norton's committee recommends the creation of an independent statistical office—the Government have done that. It suggests better access for the media in this place. That is precisely what the Modernisation Committee which we set up recommended to the House authorities and it has been done—sweeping away petty and grave restrictions that have lasted for many years.

Lord Norton recommends that the House should be prepared to carry over Bills from one Session to another. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that he believes that this should be the norm, not the exception. The Modernisation Committee has recommended that, but the Conservative party has been most reluctant to accept the idea and has done so only once. Lord Norton makes a number of other proposals for extra salaries for Select Committee Chairmen and other measures designed to make attendance at Select Committees more attractive to Members.

Who are the Members who fail to take part in this important work of scrutiny? The House owes a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), who commissioned a study of attendance at Select Committees. Of the 17 departmental Select Committees generally recognised as monitoring the principal Departments of State in the 1998–99 Session, on average Tory Members attended only some 61 per cent. of those sessions, compared with 67 per cent. attendance by the Liberal Democrats and 71 per cent. by Labour Members. Although I recognise the point made in the debate by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), membership of Select Committees is proportionate, so the same burden falls on Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not have much time. I shall give way later if there is time.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady is not giving way.

Mrs. Beckett

Lord Norton draws on the proposals of the Liaison Committee, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke)—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I cannot tolerate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) shouting during the right hon. Lady's speech.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

He has only just come in.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have not just come in and I know how long the hon. Gentleman has been sitting there.

Mrs. Beckett

The proposals made by the Liaison Committee are indeed far-reaching and profound—so far-reaching and profound that they raise questions as to whether they would create a two-tier membership in the House.

Although I understood the debate to be about the Norton committee report and not the Liaison Committee report, which will be the subject of a separate debate, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the shadow Leader of the House, asked for the Government's view. He asked whether there would be a free vote on the Liaison Committee report. Indeed, there will. He and other Opposition spokesmen have said that the Opposition will have a free vote too. That is an interesting proposal as I am well aware that many Opposition Members have even stronger reservations about that report than I do. However, we do not know whether that is a promise, a pledge or a guarantee.

Much has been said by Opposition Members about their wish to abjure the influence of the Whips. That comes from the party which in 1996, under the premiership of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who spoke with such feeling about the need to strengthen the power of Parliament against the Executive—he is surely a sinner come to repentance—made a Government Whip a member of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. That was unprecedented.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon spoke about our proposals for what he described as removing the weapon of delay. However, he will remember as clearly as I do that he was a Minister at the Department of Social Security when the then Tory Government first guillotined all discussion on their legislation and then put in an entire new section on widows benefits, the consequences of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has been trying to deal with in recent days.

Lord Norton stresses the importance of delegated legislation. The Government share his view, but again Labour Members are the highest attenders at those debates. When we argue—as we do in the most recent Modernisation Committee report—for more effective use of parliamentary time and fewer sittings that are unnecessarily prolonged into the small hours, we get the jibe that Labour Members do not want to be here late; yet more Labour Members take part in votes after 7 o'clock.

The hon Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) showed a more measured understanding and even acceptance of some of the proposals, which were more strongly supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey).

The debate was also marked by serious contributions from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats—the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron).

Sadly, that cannot be said of the contribution of the Leader of the Opposition, in which the right hon. Gentleman showed, as he often does, that neither facts nor figures are his strong point. He complained about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's attendance in the House, yet the record shows that my right hon. Friend has attended all but five of 101 sessions of Prime Minister's Question Time, whereas his predecessor—perfectly properly, on Government business—missed some 47 out of 173. That was a consequence of having Prime Minister's Question Time twice a week instead of once a week.

The right hon. Gentleman repeated—as did other Opposition Members—that the Government's programme was unprecedentedly large. It contains some 39 Bills, but sadly for the right hon. Gentleman, in 11 out of the 18 years of Tory rule there were more Bills than that. The maximum number was 71 Bills, closely followed by 60, which compares very unfavourably with our record.

The right hon. Gentleman claimed that there had been an unprecedented number of guillotines, and that is not true either. He claimed numbers that can only include programme motions, although as recently as last week the Conservative party claimed to support the use of programme motions—as did the right hon. Gentleman himself in a speech two years ago, as was pointed out by hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward).

We have had a strange debate this afternoon. The Leader of the Opposition made a phoney speech based on the totally phoney premise that under this Government we have seen unprecedentedly bad treatment of the House. The only thing that is unprecedented about this Parliament is the length of time since his party was in opposition—clearly much too long. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin pointed out, they resent it, and that is what today's debate is all about. It has been a mixture of the pent-up resentment of Conservative Members at seeing a Labour Government in office and their desperate desire to obscure the Government's record. Theirs was a case without honesty and substance. They argued that we could not change Britain for the better, and now they are desperate to pretend that we are not doing so—but we are. Hospitals, jobs, the health service and education have all seen changes for the better.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

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

The House divided: Ayes 165, Noes 304.

Division No. 266] [7 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Duncan Smith, Iain
Amess, David Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Evans, Nigel
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Fabricant, Michael
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Fallon, Michael
Baldry, Tony Fearn, Ronnie
Beggs, Roy Flight, Howard
Beith, Rt Hon A J Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Foster, Don (Bath)
Bercow, John Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Beresford, Sir Paul Fox, Dr Liam
Blunt, Crispin Fraser, Christopher
Body, Sir Richard Gale, Roger
Boswell, Tim Garnier, Edward
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Gibb, Nick
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Gill, Christopher
Brand, Dr Peter Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Brazier, Julian Gorrie, Donald
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Gray, James
Browning, Mrs Angela Green, Damian
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Greenway, John
Burnett, John Grieve, Dominic
Burns, Simon Gummer, Rt Hon John
Butterfill, John Hague, Rt Hon William
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Hammond, Philip
Cash, William Harris, Dr Evan
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Harvey, Nick
Hawkins, Nick
Chidgey, David Hayes, John
Chope, Christopher Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Clappison, James Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Horam, John
Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Collins, Tim Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Cormack, Sir Patrick Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Cotter, Brian Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Cran, James Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Curry, Rt Hon David
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Day, Stephen Key, Robert
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Kirkwood, Archy Shepherd, Richard
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Lansley, Andrew Soames, Nicholas
Leigh, Edward Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Letwin, Oliver Spicer, Sir Michael
Lidington, David Spring, Richard
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Luff, Peter Steen, Anthony
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Streeter, Gary
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Stunell, Andrew
McIntosh, Miss Anne Swayne, Desmond
Maclean, Rt Hon David Syms, Robert
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Tapsell, Sir Peter
McLoughlin, Patrick Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Madel, Sir David Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Major, Rt Hon John Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Malins, Humfrey Taylor, Sir Teddy
Maples, John Tonge, Dr Jenny
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Townend, John
May, Mrs Theresa Tredinnick, David
Moore, Michael Trend, Michael
Moss, Malcolm Tyler, Paul
Nicholls, Patrick Tyrie, Andrew
Norman, Archie Viggers, Peter
O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury) Walter, Robert
Öpik, Lembit Waterson, Nigel
Ottaway, Richard Wells, Bowen
Paice, James Whitney, Sir Raymond
Paterson, Owen Whittingdale, John
Pickles, Eric Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Wilkinson, John
Prior, David Willetts, David
Redwood, Rt Hon John Willis, Phil
Rendel, David Wilshire, David
Robathan, Andrew Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Robertson, Laurence Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Yeo, Tim
Rowe, Andrew (Faversham) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Ruffley, David
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Tellers for the Ayes:
St Aubyn, Nick Mr. John Randall and
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.
Abbott, Ms Diane Bradshaw, Ben
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Ainger, Nick Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Browne, Desmond
Allen, Graham Buck, Ms Karen
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Burden, Richard
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Burgon, Colin
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Butler, Mrs Christine
Ashton, Joe Byers, Rt Hon Stephen
Atkins, Charlotte Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Austin, John Cann, Jamie
Banks, Tony Caplin, Ivor
Barnes, Harry Casale, Roger
Barron, Kevin Caton, Martin
Bayley, Hugh Cawsey, Ian
Beard, Nigel Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Chaytor, David
Begg, Miss Anne Chisholm, Malcolm
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Clapham, Michael
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Benton, Joe Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Bermingham, Gerald
Berry, Roger Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Best, Harold Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Betts, Clive Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Clelland, David
Blears, Ms Hazel Coaker, Vernon
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Coffey, Ms Ann
Borrow, David Cohen, Harry
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Coleman, Iain
Bradley Peter (The Wrekin) Colman Tony
Connarty, Michael Jamieson, David
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Jenkins, Brian
Cooper, Yvette Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Corbett, Robin Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cousins, Jim Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Cox, Tom Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Cranston, Ross
Crausby, David Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Darvill, Keith Keeble, Ms Sally
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Davidson, Ian Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Kelly, Ms Ruth
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Kemp, Fraser
Dean, Mrs Janet Khabra, Piara S
Denham, John Kidney, David
Dobbin, Jim Kilfoyle, Peter
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Donohoe, Brian H Kumar, Dr Ashok
Doran, Frank Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Dowd, Jim Lammy, David
Drew, David Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Drown, Ms Julia Laxton, Bob
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Lepper, David
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Leslie, Christopher
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Edwards, Huw Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Efford, Clive Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Etherington, Bill Linton, Martin
Field, Rt Hon Frank Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Fisher, Mark Lock, David
Fitzpatrick, Jim Love, Andrew
Flynn, Paul McAvoy, Thomas
Follett, Barbara McCabe, Steve
Foster, Rt Hon Derek McCafferty, Ms Chris
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) McDonagh, Siobhain
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Macdonald, Calum
Foulkes, George McDonnell, John
Fyfe, Maria McFall, John
Galloway, George McGuire, Mrs Anne
Gardiner, Barry McIsaac, Shona
George, Bruce (Walsall S) McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Gerrard, Neil Mackinlay, Andrew
Godsiff, Roger McNamara, Kevin
Goggins, Paul McNulty, Tony
Golding, Mrs Llin MacShane, Denis
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Mactaggart, Fiona
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McWalter, Tony
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McWilliam, John
Grocott, Bruce Mahon, Mrs Alice
Grogan, John Mallaber, Judy
Hain, Peter Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Heal Mrs Sylvia Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Healey, John Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Martlew, Eric
Hepburn, Stephen Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hesford, Stephen Meale, Alan
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Merron, Gillian
Hinchliffe, David Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Hodge, Ms Margaret Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hood, Jimmy Miller, Andrew
Hope, Phil Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hopkins, Kelvin Moran, Ms Margaret
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Morley, Elliot
Hoyle, Lindsay Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hurst, Alan Morris, Rt Hon Sir John (Aberavon)
Hutton, John
Illsley, Eric Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Mullin, Chris
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Snape, Peter
Naysmith, Dr Doug Southworth, Ms Helen
Norris, Dan Starkey, Phyllis
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Steinberg, Gerry
O'Hara, Eddie Stoate, Dr Howard
Olner, Bill Straw, Rt Hon Jack
O'Neill, Martin Stringer, Graham
Organ, Mrs Diana Stuart, Ms Gisela
Osborne, Ms Sandra Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Palmer, Dr Nick
Pearson, Ian Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pickthall, Colin Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Pike, Peter L Temple-Morris, Peter
Plaskitt, James Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Pollard, Kerry Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Pond, Chris Timms, Stephen
Pope, Greg Tipping, Paddy
Pound, Stephen Todd, Mark
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Touhig, Don
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Trickett, Jon
Prescott, Rt Hon John Truswell, Paul
Prosser, Gwyn Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Purchase Ken Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Quinn, Lawrie Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Radice Rt Hon Giles Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Rammell, Bill Tynan, Bill
Rapson, Syd Vaz, Keith
Roche, Mrs Barbara Vis, Dr Rudi
Rogers, Allan Ward, Ms Claire
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Wareing, Robert N
Rooney, Terry Watts, David
Rowlands, Ted White, Brian
Roy, Frank Wicks, Malcolm
Ruddock, Joan Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Ryan, Ms Joan Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Salter, Martin Wilson, Brian
Sawford, Phil Winnick, David
Sedgemore, Brian Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Shaw, Jonathan Woodward, Shaun
Sheerman, Barry Woolas, Phil
Shipley, Ms Debra Worthington, Tony
Short, Rt Hon Clare Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Skinner, Dennis Wyatt, Derek
Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Tellers for the Noes:
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Mr. Mike Hall and
Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

The House divided: Ayes 323, Noes 137.

Division No. 267] [7.13 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Barron Kevin
Adams Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Bayley, Hugh
Ainger, Nick Beard, Nigel
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret
Allen, Graham Begg, Miss Anne
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Beith, Rt Hon A J
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)
Ashton, Joe Benton, Joe
Atkins, Charlotte Bermingham, Gerald
Austin, John Berry, Roger
Banks, Tony Best, Harold
Barnes, Harry Betts, Clive
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Flynn, Paul
Blears, Ms Hazel Follett, Barbara
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Borrow, David Foster, Don (Bath)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Bradshaw, Ben Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Brand, Dr Peter Foulkes, George
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Fyfe, Maria
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Galloway, George
Browne, Desmond Gardiner, Barry
Buck, Ms Karen George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Burden, Richard Gerrard, Neil
Burgon, Colin Godsiff, Roger
Burnett, John Goggins, Paul
Butler, Mrs Christine Golding, Mrs Llin
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Grocott, Bruce
Cann, Jamie Grogan, John
Caplin, Ivor Hain, Peter
Casale, Roger Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Caton, Martin Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Cawsey, Ian Harris, Dr Evan
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Harvey, Nick
Chaytor, David Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Chidgey, David Healey, John
Chisholm, Malcolm Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Clapham, Michael Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hepburn, Stephen
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Hinchliffe, David
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hodge, Ms Margaret
Clelland, David Hood, Jimmy
Coaker, Vernon Hope, Phil
Coffey, Ms Ann Hopkins, Kelvin
Cohen, Harry Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Coleman, Iain Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Colman, Tony Hoyle, Lindsay
Connarty, Michael Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Cooper, Yvette Hurst, Alan
Corbett, Robin Hutton, John
Corbyn, Jeremy Illsley, Eric
Cotter, Brian Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Cousins, Jim Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Cox, Tom Jamieson, David
Cranston, Ross Jenkins, Brian
Crausby, David Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Darvill, Keith Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Davidson, Ian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dean, Mrs Janet Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Denham, John Keeble, Ms Sally
Dobbin, Jim Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Donohoe, Brian H Kelly, Ms Ruth
Doran, Frank Kemp, Fraser
Dowd, Jim Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Drew, David
Drown, Ms Julia Khabra, Piara S
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Kidney, David
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kilfoyle, Peter
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Edwards, Huw Kirkwood, Archy
Efford, Clive Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Etherington, Bill Lammy, David
Fearn, Ronnie Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Field, Rt Hon Frank Laxton, Bob
Fisher, Mark Lepper, David
Fitzpatrick, Jim Leslie, Christopher
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Quinn, Lawrie
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Rammell, Bill
Linton, Martin Rapson, Syd
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Rendel, David
Lock, David Roche, Mrs Barbara
Love, Andrew Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff
McAvoy, Thomas Rooney, Terry
McCabe, Steve Rowlands, Ted
McCafferty, Ms Chris Roy, Frank
McDonagh, Siobhain Ruddock, Joan
Macdonald, Calum Russell, Bob (Colchester)
McDonnell, John Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McFall, John Ryan, Ms Joan
McGuire, Mrs Anne Salter, Martin
McIsaac, Shona Sawford, Phil
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Sedgemore, Brian
Mackinlay, Andrew Shaw, Jonathan
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Sheerman, Barry
McNamara, Kevin Shipley, Ms Debra
McNulty, Tony Short, Rt Hon Clare
MacShane, Denis Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mactaggart, Fiona Skinner, Dennis
McWalter, Tony Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McWilliam, John Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Southworth, Ms Helen
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Steinberg, Gerry
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Stoate, Dr Howard
Martlew, Eric Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Stringer, Graham
Meale Alan Stuart, Ms Gisela
Merron, Gillian Stunell, Andrew
Michael, Rt Hon Alun Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Miller, Andrew Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Moonie, Dr Lewis Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Moore, Michael Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Moran, Ms Margaret Temple-Morris, Peter
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Morley, Elliot Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Timms, Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Morris, Rt Hon Sir John (Aberavon) Todd, Mark
Tonge, Dr Jenny
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie Touhig, Don
Mullin, Chris Trickett, Jon
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Truswell, Paul
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Naysmith, Dr Doug Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Norris, Dan Turner, Neil (Wigan)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
O'Hara, Eddie Tyler, Paul
Olner, Bill Tynan, Bill
O'Neill, Martin Vaz, Keith
Öpik, Lembit Vis, Dr Rudi
Organ, Mrs Diana Ward, Ms Claire
Osborne, Ms Sandra Wareing, Robert N
Palmer, Dr Nick Watts, David
Pearson, Ian White, Brian
Pickthall, Colin Wicks, Malcolm
Pike, Peter L Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Plaskitt, James
Pollard, Kerry Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Pond, Chris Willis, Phil
Pope, Greg Wilson, Brian
Pound, Stephen Winnick, David
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Woodward, Shaun
Prescott, Rt Hon John Woolas, Phil
Prosser, Gwyn Worthington, Tony
Purchase, Ken
Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth) Tellers for the Ayes:
Wright, Tony (Cannock) Mr. Mike Hall and
Wyatt, Derek Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Amess, David
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Key, Robert
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Baldry, Tony Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Beggs, Roy Lansley, Andrew
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Leigh, Edward
Bercow, John Letwin, Oliver
Beresford, Sir Paul Lidington, David
Blunt, Crispin Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Boswell, Tim Luff, Peter
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Brazier, Julian McIntosh, Miss Anne
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Maclean, Rt Hon David
Browning, Mrs Angela McLoughlin, Patrick
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Madel, Sir David
Burns, Simon Major, Rt Hon John
Butterfill, John Malins, Humfrey
Cash, William Maples, John
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Maude, Rt Hon Francis
May, Mrs Theresa
Chope, Christopher Moss, Malcolm
Clappison, James Nicholls, Patrick
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Norman, Archie
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Ottaway, Richard
Collins, Tim Paice, James
Cormack, Sir Patrick Paterson, Owen
Cran, James Pickles, Eric
Curry, Rt Hon David Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Prior, David
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Redwood, Rt Hon John
Day, Stephen Robathan, Andrew
Dorrell Rt Hon Stephen Robertson, Laurence
Duncan Smith, Iain Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Evans, Nigel Ruffley, David
Fabricant, Michael St Aubyn, Nick
Fallon, Michael Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Flight, Howard Shepherd, Richard
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Fox, Dr Liam Spicer, Sir Michael
Fraser, Christopher Spring, Richard
Gale, Roger Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Garnier, Edward Steen, Anthony
Gibb, Nick Streeter, Gary
Gill, Christopher Swayne, Desmond
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Syms, Robert
Gray, James Tapsell, Sir Peter
Green, Damian Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Greenway, John Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Grieve, Dominic Taylor, Sir Teddy
Gummer, Rt Hon John Townend, John
Hague, Rt Hon William Tredinnick, David
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Trend, Michael
Hammond, Philip Tyrie, Andrew
Hawkins, Nick Viggers, Peter
Hayes, John Walter, Robert
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Waterson, Nigel
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Wells, Bowen
Horam, John Whitney, Sir Raymond
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Whittingdale, John
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Wilkinson, John
Willetts, David
Wilshire, David
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield) Tellers for the Noes:
Yeo, Tim Mr. John Randall and
Young, Rt Hon Sir George Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.

Question accordingly agreed to.

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

Resolved, That this House congratulates the Government on carrying out in three years the biggest programme of constitutional reform for a century, including devolution to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, bringing government closer to the people; and welcomes the fundamental reform of the House of Lords and the establishment of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons which has doubled the number of backbench debates and quadrupled the opportunities to debate Select Committee reports as part of the 48 recommendations implemented so far.