Sir George winds up Commons debate on Parliament
13 Jul 2000
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 a 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 non- partisan, 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 Government is too big and too powerful and that there are not enough independently minded people here. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) 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 was 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 Government increasingly control Parliament?

Sir George Young: There was a recent report, the Fritchie report, on health service appointments, which I hope that 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 to 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 (Mr. Fisher) 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 have debated today.

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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015