Sir George speaks on Holding Ministers to Account
22 Mar 2006
This is the text of Sir George's speech in Hansard on the above subject

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on his choice of subject and on the thoughtful way in which he presented it. He has clearly done all the required reading, including the Power report and the Norton report. I shall develop one or two of his ideas in my speech.

The subject of our debate is every bit as important as that of our debate this afternoon on the Floor of the House. The health of our democracy is as important as the health of our economy. However, I fear that our debate in Westminster Hall might not get the same coverage.

I give the Government some credit for some of the changes that have been made. This debate takes place, metaphorically if not physically, in Westminster Hall. Ten years ago, we did not have Westminster Hall, so the frontier that Ministers have to patrol is now much longer. There have been many high-quality debates in Westminster Hall and I commend that reform. The Prime Minister appears before the Liaison Committee twice a year for up to three hours, which has been an important development in holding to account the most important Minister in the Government. So that the Government do not hoover up all the talent, we have begun to develop an alternative career structure within the House by paying Select Committee Chairmen and other Chairmen. Select Committees have been given more resources to do the work and to hold Ministers to account. The Minister may have other examples of reforms and I do not want to deprive him of all the raw material in his brief.

However, there have been some backward steps as well. For example, the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is a step backwards as it gives more power to the Executive. We have seen a growth in unaccountable special advisers and the erosion of collective responsibility. We have seen the way in which Cabinet is bypassed highlighted in the Butler report, and much else that I am sure that my hon. Friends will discuss when they make their own speeches.

The first question that I want to pose is: who sets the terms of trade between Ministers and the legislature? In other words, who fixes the parameters that determine where power lies? At the end of the day it is Parliament, but one Committee of the House has enormous influence in setting those terms of trade between Ministers and Parliament, and that is the Modernisation Committee. Some of its reforms have been beneficial, and I touched on them, but some, such as the automatic guillotining of Bills, have most certainly not been.

There is to my mind a fatal flaw in the working of the Modernisation Committee, which sets the parameters for today's debate. That is that the Committee is chaired by a member of the Government, and not just any member of the Government, but the Leader of the House—the person appointed by the Prime Minister to drive the legislative programme through the House of Commons. It cannot be right that the Minister tasked by the Prime Minister with the task of getting the manifesto on to the statute book should also be the Chairman of the House of Commons Committee that decides how those Bills should be scrutinised by the House. It is a short circuit of the highest voltage possible in constitutional terms. There is a clear conflict of interest.

The House of Commons needs to regain control of its agenda and provide its own Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, which should probably be merged with the Procedure Committee, with which it has much in common. It should be chaired by a Back Bencher, like every other Select Committee. Until we get that right and until the House seizes control of the Committee that can give power to the Executive or take it away, there will be a serious imbalance in the terms of trade between Parliament and the Executive.

In the time available, I want to touch on one or two ways in which ministerial accountability might be enhanced and to build on some of the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean. One of the ways in which the Opposition hold Ministers to account is through Opposition days, when either a whole day or half a day is devoted to a subject chosen by the Opposition. When I was first elected, that was a useful way of holding Government to account. The debates were well attended and well reported, and quite often the Prime Minister came into the Chamber to listen to the winding-up speeches. Nowadays, one would be lucky to find any Ministers other than the one who is to respond to the debate on the Front Bench while a debate is taking place.

We need to answer the question that my hon. Friend posed. Is there a better way in which the Opposition can use their time to hold Ministers to account in the slightly different and faster-moving environment in which we work today? I think that there is. Building on what my hon. Friend said, we should swap part of the time allocated to Opposition days for the right to ask a topical question and have up to an hour of questioning Ministers on some topic of the day. As my hon. Friend said, there are urgent questions can be asked, but they have to clear a fairly high hurdle to get past the Speaker. There are often occasions when the Government face criticism on a matter of public interest and do not volunteer a statement, but the Speaker's threshold for urgent questions is not met. On such occasions, the Opposition should have the right to demand that a Minister come to the Dispatch Box and answer questions from Members of Parliament.

Such occasions might arise when the Government try to get away with a written statement on an issue, but the Opposition feel that more rigorous cross-examination is needed. The Government might make a policy-related announcement outside the House, and we might not get an opportunity to grill the Minister. In such cases, an opportunity for questions would be good for accountability and for the Chamber, as we get more Members in the House for a statement than we do for a debate. There would be more coverage of the proceedings of Parliament if we became slightly more topical in such a way.

Secondly, would the world come to an end if Lords Ministers answered debates in Westminster Hall? We have Ministers in the House of Lords who have departmental responsibilities. A Lords Minister has often been in charge of defence procurement, for example, and Baroness Hollis was in charge of the Child Support Agency for quite a long time. If we want to hold Ministers to account and they have a ministerial responsibility within a Department, why should they not answer debates in Westminster Hall? There are no votes in Westminster Hall.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There is a reciprocal view, which might ask why we have Ministers in the House of Lords who are subject to double patronage in their appointment as both Members and as Ministers, and why can Ministers from the elected House not go to the House of Lords to introduce legislation?

Sir George Young : That is the other side of the coin. The hon. Gentleman might want to develop that point, but I would hesitate before poaching on the House of Lords and who their lordships believe should appear before their House. I feel slightly more comfortable suggesting who I would be prepared to see in Westminster Hall. Perhaps I am unduly sensitive, but I think that it would follow from what I have said that Ministers from the Commons should be able to go down the other end of the corridor.

My next point is that if the House is to hold Ministers to account we need enough MPs to do that task. There are now fewer Back-Bench MPs to hold Ministers to account and more Ministers: one third of the parliamentary Labour party are now on the payroll in one way or another. When I first became a Minister in 1979, there were 29 Parliamentary Private Secretaries; there are now 50 and they are out of play when it comes to holding the Government seriously to account. We need fewer Ministers and fewer PPSs to have a more balanced contest.

We also need—I am sorry that the Government Whip is no longer here—to prise the Whips' steely fingers from Select Committee nominations. One of the most regrettable incidents in the previous Parliament was when the late Robin Cook was betrayed by his party and the Modernisation Committee's recommendations on a different way of appointing Select Committees were voted down. We need a rerun of that vote because we cannot have Ministers choosing their inquisitors on Select Committees through the Committee of Selection, which is dominated by the Whips.

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean mentioned Prime Minister's questions, which I would reform. They are the highest-profile occasions on which Ministers are held to account, but possibly least productive. In one way, they are Parliament at its best, but they are also Parliament at its worst. For many people, Prime Minister's Question Time is the only impression they get of the House of Commons, but at times that impression is of a cross between a playgroup and a farmyard—no wonder that some people get switched off by politics. Things have got better since Parliament has been televised, because fewer MPs want to be seen to be misbehaving. Things have also got slightly better now that we have more women in Parliament—

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Hear, hear!

Sir George Young : With the exception of the Government Chief Whip, women MPs are slightly better behaved and act as a calming influence on the rest
of us. After half an hour of Prime Minister's questions, however, one leaves the Chamber wondering whether one has learned anything. I simply wonder whether there is a better way of using half an hour with the Prime Minister than posing a random sequence of questions that vary from the over-aggressive to the over-submissive.

Mrs. May : I suggest that the problem with Prime Minister's questions is not the structure, but the fact that the present Prime Minister does not answer any of the questions that he is asked.

Sir George Young : I think that I am right in saying that in the 1997–2001 Parliament, our hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) analysed the Prime Minister's answers and juxtaposed those answers with the reality—I put it no more harshly than that. He produced a very good publication, which he might like to bring up to date. However, my right hon. Friend is right that our frustration is in part due to the fact that the Prime Minister is often reluctant to give a straight answer.

Of the two issues I want to touch on before I sit down, the first is the royal prerogative. The biggest Executive decision that any Government can make is to take the country to war. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) has proposed bringing the matter more within Parliament's remit. We need to explore that at some point.

The other point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean touched on, is the code of conduct. Ministers are rightly accountable to the House of Commons, but they are also accountable to the Prime Minister through the code of conduct. There are two outstanding recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life in that respect: one has been accepted but not implemented, while the other has been neither accepted nor implemented. Ministers would be more accountable if the ministerial code had some teeth and it was not left entirely to the Prime Minister to decide whether a Minister had transgressed. I remember making a complaint about a Foreign Office Minister who had, in my view, acted outside the code of conduct. I wrote to the Prime Minister, who sent my letter to Robin Cook, who was the Foreign Secretary. Surprise, surprise—he decided that the Minister had not breached the code of conduct. There was a circularity about that, which did not enhance ministerial accountability.

It might be in the public domain, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)—the leader of my great party—has set up a democracy taskforce chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I am sure that that taskforce will want to reflect on the ideas produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean and other Members as we develop policy on an important matter that is driving itself fast up the political agenda.


 
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