Sir George cross-examines Prime Minister on parliamentary reform
16 Jul 2009
Below is the exchange between Sir George and Gordon Brown at the meeting of the Liaison Committee on July 16th

Q152 Sir George Young: Good morning, Prime Minister. Can we start off with the Wright Commission. In your statement to the House on June 10, you expressed support for the establishment of the Wright Commission on Parliamentary Reform, and that support was very welcome. We then had to wait four weeks until the Government put the necessary resolution on the effective orders of the day. Do you think that delay might have been minimised since the Committee has got to report by November 13?

Mr Brown: Well, I think people knew that this was now part of the discussion. I think the Chairman had already been effectively appointed, the three subjects of the Committee’s work were known and I think the Committee is now in a position to get on with its business. I do not think that they are prevented from doing a report by November by what has happened because it is now very clear what we are expecting of them. One of the problems is, I think, that some people on the Committee may wish to go further, but we have set the clear terms of the remit.

Q153 Sir George Young: But, Prime Minister, the Committee has not yet been established and we need the Government to devote time for a debate before it can actually start. Can you give a commitment that there will be time for that debate before the House rises?

Mr Brown: Well, I do not manage the business of the House personally and I shall look at what you say.

Q154 Sir George Young: But does this not underline the need for a better way of the House managing its business because we are dependent on the Government to set up a committee that looks at how the House manages itself?

Mr Brown: As you know, Sir George, what the Committee is looking at is scheduling non-government business in the House and that is an important aspect of it.

Q155 Sir George Young: I am sorry, but the terms of reference have actually been changed and they now embrace all business, not just non-government business. Are you able to give the sort of commitment about the Wright Commission that you have given about the Kelly Commission, that you would be minded to accept the proposals that it comes up with and the Government is prepared to relinquish its stranglehold on the business of the House and to prise the knuckles of the Whips off the Committee of Selection?

Mr Brown: Well, there is a number of issues that this Committee is looking at and obviously, by opening up the issue of the appointment of members and chairmen of the select committees, that is the Government and others giving their view that they would like this to be a process which, whether by election by all Members of the House of Commons, is one that is acceptable to everybody, so I hope that the Committee will come up with recommendations that we can accept, and I expect them to do so, but I am not going to give a prior commitment without knowing what the Committee comes up with. Equally, enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House, there may be a variety of ways that people are considering doing that and let us wait and see what new ideas the Committee brings to the proceedings and we will look very favourably on the recommendations of the Committee, but I think it would not be the right practice, prior to the Committee, to accept everything.

Q156 Sir George Young: Can we look at the slightly broader picture. When you first became Prime Minister, your first statement to the House on July 3 over two years ago said, “Constitutional change will not be the work of just one bill or one year or one Parliament, but I can today make an immediate start by proposing changes that will transfer power from the Prime Minister and the Executive”. Some of those changes were then included in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill and, at the Government’s request, the House of Commons and the House of Lords rushed their consideration of the draft Bill through in ten weeks and we finished our work a year ago since when nothing has happened, so what happened to your commitment to constitutional change when, for the last 12 months, it has just disappeared from the radar?

Mr Brown: I think a number of the measures I announced are implicitly already the practice of the Government. The Constitutional Renewal Bill is to be published in the next day or two and it is important to recognise that it is the result of widespread consultation, and I think you understand yourself, Sir George, that in the last few weeks what has prevented other bills coming forward is the need to have the Parliamentary Standards Bill which is being debated in some detail in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, but the Constitutional Reform Bill is, I believe, to be published at the beginning of next week.

Q157 Sir George Young: Well, Sir Patrick may want to come on to that. You have now decided to add on to the original Bill some additional measures to do with the House of Lords and we have got one year less than we had a year ago. Are you really confident that you can get the original Bill plus the amendments to it through by May next year?

Mr Brown: Well, I think most parties are supporting the proposals that we are putting forward and most of the work comes from widespread consultation over a period of time, and I think that we have built up a consensus. You can publish legislation without prior warning and then have the debate and controversies for a long time afterwards, or you can have the debate beforehand, which is what we have done, and I think most of the measures that are in this Bill are measures that people know about and have discussed in detail for some time.

Q158 Sir George Young: Do you think the House of Lords will let all the measures concerning them through without too much controversy, the abolition of the hereditaries, for example?

Mr Brown: Well, I hope that the House of Lords will accept that it is a reasonable proposal designed to make progress on this issue where there is no justification in a modern democracy for a hereditary principle.

Q159 Sir George Young: Can we turn on to Prime Minister’s Questions. At the Hansard Society hustings on June 15, Speaker Bercow, as he was shortly to become, made it clear that he wants to clamp down on the weekly exchange, and this is what he said: “The Punch and Judy show is boring, extremely abrasive and is now a contributory factor to the contempt bordering on opprobrium in which we are now held.” Do you go along with that?

Mr Brown: Well, I would like to see the House of Commons distinguish itself by being able to deal with, often in a non-party-political way, some of the big issues of our time. Prime Minister’s Question Time has not ever been, as far as I can see in the time that I have been in, the vehicle for that to happen. I think the sadness about the House of Commons is that there are very big issues our country faces and, whether it is Afghanistan or whether it is issues that go right across to assisted dying that are moral issues that people are worried about, we do not seem to be able to find the vehicles by which these issues can be debated in a way that commends itself to the country.

Q160 Sir George Young: But, given the Speaker’s views, would you be prepared to enter into discussions, as his views seem to coincide with yours, about a fresh approach to Prime Minister’s Questions?

Mr Brown: Well, every time that someone has proposed a fresh approach to Question Time, it has never worked. I myself feel that at least, whether it is Prime Minister’s Questions or other forums in the House of Commons by which we can debate issues, we have got at some point to show the country that we can seriously debate in a sensible and reasoned way all the big issues that affect the country. I think this Committee is a better forum for talking about some of the issues than the Chamber of the House of Commons on many occasions, but I think we can do even better in discussing some of the big issues of our time, how we deal with the problems of security and globalisation of nuclear power, how we deal with some of the great problems of climate change, and the House deserves to do better itself in confronting these issues in a more effective and reasoned way.

Q161 Sir George Young: When you say that the House deserves to do better and you want a serious debate and when you said yesterday that the opposition parties have no policies for jobs, no policies to tackle the recession, no policies for recovery and no policies to help owners, was that the sort of abrasive comment that the Speaker was complaining about or was this a serious contribution to political debate?

Mr Brown: Unfortunately, I had to tell the truth! The issue there was of course that, if you read what, I think it was, the Leader of the Liberal Party was saying, he was saying that we have no policies on this, no policies on that and no policies on anything. Look, on the big issues of our time, there is always going to be banter and knockabout in a place like the House of Commons, but I think the sadness is that we have not been able, despite all the people round this table, I believe, wanting to do this, to show that the House of Commons is the most effective place for debating the big issues that face our country.

Sir George Young: I am going to hand the baton over to Sir Patrick.

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