Sir George urges more power for backbenchers
25 Oct 2007
This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House:

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who chairs the Procedure Committee with such distinction, and it is a tribute to his chairmanship that the recommendations from his Committee have been so consensual and robust that they have not so far generated a lot of controversy in this debate. I agree with what he said at the beginning of his speech, when he gently disassociated himself from our hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) on what is called multi-tasking. I think that that is a somewhat misleading title. All that is recommended is that
“the use of handheld devices to keep up to date with e-mails should be permitted in the Chamber provided that it causes no disturbance.”
It seems to me that that simply validates what has been the practice for some time, and I do not find it enormously controversial—
Mr. Binley rose—
Sir George Young: Although my hon. Friend clearly does.
Mr. Binley: No; my concern is not that the issue is controversial. My concern is whether my right hon. Friend recognises that hand-held devices go way beyond the simple act of e-mailing, and how he would control their uses so they are not used in a manner that he might not wish to see happen?
Sir George Young: I understand that, but it is not the proposition that is before the House. The proposition is that we should keep up to date with e-mails, and just e-mails. There is no proposition that we should take photos of each other during a debate or participate in any other mischief that might be done with the devices with which the Whips have very kindly provided us.
John Bercow: Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Sir George Young: I want to move on.
If I may say so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is particularly appropriate that you are in the Chair, as the evidence that you gave to the Modernisation Committee clearly helped to inform its conclusions. Several hon. Members have referred to regional Select Committees. I think that that proposal would aggravate the problem that is before the Chamber this afternoon rather than alleviate it. It would be yet a further demand on the time of the hard-pressed Back Bencher and cut across the work of existing Select Committees. It would not provide proper accountability, as the regional Minister is not the budget holder for the money that is being spent in a region. As I indicated in business questions, I very much hope that the Government will not go down the regional Select Committee route, as I think that it would simply aggravate the sort of issues that we have been discussing this afternoon.
As is usual when we debate the work of a Select Committee, in one hand we have the report and in the other we have the Government’s response. What is unusual today with regard to the Modernisation Committee is that both the report and the reply were drafted by the Leader of the House. It is like something out of “The Mikado”, in which Pooh-Bah was lord high everything, and consulted himself in his various capacities. I do not think that W. S. Gilbert had Pooh-Bah as the Minister for Women and the chairman of the Japanese Labour party, but there is a certain incongruity and circularity in the process that has been gone through in putting the report before us this afternoon.
It is simply wrong that a report whose title refers to “the role of the back bench Member” should be drafted by a member of the Cabinet. Indeed, because of the abundance of talent from the Leader of the House and her predecessor, neither of them has ever spent much time as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament. That brings me to the first point that I want to make. Such reports should be produced by a Select Committee of Back-Bench Members of Parliament chaired by a Back Bencher. That is what happens in every other Select Committee, and there is no reason why it should not happen in the Modernisation Committee. I have made that point unrepentantly for several years, regardless of who was Leader of the House, and I am happy to say that I now have third-party endorsement.
Last week saw the publication of “The House Rules?”—a Constitution Unit report by Meg Russell and Akash Paun. It provides a worthy route map for the Modernisation Committee and I hope that Members will find time to read it. That report says of the process that we are witnessing today:
“However, to sign up to the committee’s”—
that is, the Modernisation Committee’s—
“conclusions, the Leader of the House must ensure they are acceptable to the government. This can easily be seen as in conflict with the principle that the House controls its own procedures”.
Indeed. That process of securing approval from the Government in advance, before publishing the report, is an unacceptable constraint on a Select Committee. The Constitution Unit report goes on to say that if the reforms are adopted,
“we see no need for the continuation of the Modernisation Committee. This should be merged with the Procedure Committee, under a strong backbench chair.”
I can think of no better candidate for that post than my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. It is simply wrong that the Cabinet Minister whose job it is to deliver the Government’s legislative programme should also be the Chairman of the Committee that decides the process that that programme should follow in the House. That is a constitutional short-circuit that should set alarm bells ringing and red lights flashing.
That leads me to my second point, which is about the title of the report: “Revitalising the Chamber—the role of the back bench Member”. The report should be about empowering Back Benchers—strengthening them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said. It is all very well to raise the Back Bencher’s profile, to give him more speaking opportunities and make better use of his time, but does the report actually increase his authority? I am not convinced; it does not change the terms of trade between Parliament and the Executive.
Let me give a couple of examples of where I think the report should have gone further. I welcome the recommendations on Select Committees as far as they go, but the Chairman of a Select Committee should be able to present his report to the House on the day of its publication. He should be allowed to make a statement; I see no reason why Ministers should have a monopoly on statements to the House. Many Select Committee reports have been far more important than some of the statements that we get from Ministers—for example, the Rural Payments Agency report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and some of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Public Administration Committee reports.
At the moment Select Committee reports get time for debates, but debate time is worth less than statement time. Statements come early in the day and get much more media coverage. More Members will come in for a statement because they have a greater opportunity to take part than during a debate and can intervene without tying up half a day. Furthermore, statements on the day of publication are topical, whereas debates weeks after the Government have responded are not. If the issue were left to me, the Minister would have the opportunity to put a question to the Select Committee Chairman after his statement, just as we put questions to Ministers after their statements.
To continue with the same theme, the debates on Select Committee reports at the moment are Adjournment debates; they are often thinly attended and consist only of Committee members talking to each other. We should be able to vote on Select Committee reports and I am sorry that the Government cannot bring themselves to contemplate that. Voting on reports would give them a higher profile, concentrate the Government’s attention on what was being said and engage the attention of a broader range of Members of Parliament. I accept that if the Committee members knew that their report was likely to be voted on, it might be more difficult to secure a consensus, but I think that a price worth paying.

The Government keep telling us that they are interested in making the Chamber more topical, but on Tuesday we debated the Members’ fund when we should have debated the pre-Budget report and the comprehensive spending review. Vital Government statements of financial and political priority that set the parameters for the next three years are not being debated at all—and that from a Government who want to make the Chamber more topical.
I agree that we need less time on the Queen’s Speech; many of the Bills in the next Session will have been carried over and will have had pre-legislative scrutiny. The Queen’s Speech was announced in July; indeed, it was debated in July. The spontaneity of the Queen’s Speech is not what it was, and we should recognise that it needs less time for formal debate after the Loyal Address.
The report includes a section about advice. If I can put on my “Standards and Privileges” hat for a moment and encourage Members to get advice, the Tea Room is very good for gossip but not always good for advice. The report recommends that Members should get proper advice from the right channels if they need it.
There is a big chunk about induction, which has not been touched on in the debate. I went to one of the induction meetings at the beginning of this Parliament. It was enormously valuable; I learned far more from that session with new Members than they learned from me. It is right that we make recommendations to improve the induction process.
Sir Peter Soulsby: In fact, induction was discussed earlier; several Members referred to it. The point was made that induction should not just be a one-off event when new Members are overwhelmed having just arrived—there should be an ongoing process of enabling Members to understand the business of the House and make best use of its procedures.
Sir George Young: I entirely agree. One can be invited to accumulate too much information in a short space of time—it needs to be over a longer period and regularly refreshed.
On length of speeches, I do not think that I have ever said to a neighbour, “That speech was too short”, but I have had occasion to say—I may have said it earlier today—“That speech was too long.” I endorse the recommendations on length of speeches. The report was kind enough to attribute to me the view that four eight-minute speeches are likely to be of higher value than two 16-minute speeches. I like the idea of moving time limits. It could be like the variable speed limits on the M25. As there is congestion, so the speed limit is reduced; as the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker sees that the debate is congested, so he could reduce the time available.
In a sense, time is what this debate is about. The Government’s response says:
“The report reflects...a careful examination of how backbenchers want to use their time to best effect and of the obstacles standing in the way of contributing directly to the work of the Chamber”.
When I first got here, time was not a problem. We used to sit around waiting for the votes. By 10 o’clock in the morning, one had dealt with the constituency, the post had come in, there were no Select Committees, and one could devote time to the Chamber. Now, time is the most important commodity that we have. All the Select Committees should see whether they can reduce the pressure on Members’ time, including the Administration Committee and perhaps even my own Committee. Why do we have to fill in that travel form every month and try to remember which tickets we used? How much time do we spend trying to get our swipe card to open some of the doors and turnstiles into the building? How much time do we spend chasing Government Departments for replies, or deleting e-mails from other people’s constituents and all-party groups?
That brings me to my final point. All our activity is shoehorned into two and a half days. One of the proposals that I made to the Committee—one of the many that it ignored—would have stretched the parliamentary week and made Thursday a proper day. I think that Prime Minister’s questions should take place on a Thursday. If it took place at 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening, the Chamber would now be filling up; but more importantly, it would make Thursday a proper parliamentary day when Select Committees and all-party groups could meet, instead of squeezing everything into Tuesday and Wednesday.
I like the report as far as it goes, but I would have preferred several recommendations to be taken further. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to revisit the subject during the remainder of this Parliament.

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