Sir George backs Parliamentary reform
22 Feb 2010
This is the text of the speech Sir George made in the House:

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I respond to that challenge from the Leader of the House by saying that they do not come much more consensual than the shadow Leader of the House of Commons. We are grateful for this opportunity finally to debate these important reforms, although, of course, we will not be able to vote on them today. I agree with her that the report represents a chance for the House to change, and it is chance that we should seize.
We all acknowledge that the past year has been a disastrous one for Parliament, and I believe that there are two ingredients if we are to rebuild public confidence in this institution. Putting right the expenses scandal is one half, which has occupied much of our time. The other half is enabling Parliament to do its job better. A Parliament untainted by sleaze would be a step forward, but it needs to be accompanied by reforms that enable us to hold the Government to account more effectively and, indeed, to represent our constituents more effectively.
These opportunities come relatively infrequently, and we muffed the last one in 2002, when the Cook reforms to Select Committees were voted down. We can show the public today that we can be constructive and collaborative, not just confrontational and relentlessly partisan. In that spirit, I congratulate the cross-party Committee on Reform of the House of Commons on a landmark report that was produced in record time.
Hilary Armstrong: Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there are some problems with the Committee? It was elected by the different parties in the House, but because there had not been proper discussions beforehand, it ended up being fairly unrepresentative. [ Interruption. ] A Committee of 19, with only two women and no one from Scotland in the House is simply not acceptable any more. If the House is to proceed with the recommendations, there must be ways to ensure that what he says is important-decent representation-is reflected in how we do these things.
Sir George Young: I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree. The best way to get a representative sample on a Committee is to have an election. After all, that is how we all got here.
I was congratulating the cross-party Committee on its report. In June last year, I welcomed the fact that the energies of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) would be applied to this subject; he is an experienced Chairman of Select Committees and that experience underpins much of the report. I had the pleasure to serve, briefly, on his Committee until I was persuaded to go elsewhere; had I remained on it, I am sure that I would have signed the report. I have a background of work on Democracy Task Force that has indicated my interest in and appetite for reform. On behalf of all my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I pay tribute to the Committee.
The Leader of the House is always keen to point out that there has been a continual process of what the Government like to call "modernisation" since 1997. I recognise that there have indeed been some real improvements to the working practices of the House. Westminster Hall has been a success. Public Bill Committees have benefited from formal evidence sessions. Our sitting
hours are less extraordinary and more amenable to family life. No one wants to return to all-night sittings. The Prime Minister's appearance before the Liaison Committee is another welcome innovation.
Parliament may have needed modernising, but it certainly needed strengthening, and some of the measures that modernised it also weakened it, such as the automatic guillotining of Bills. The reduced sitting hours were accompanied by an increase in legislation which we have been unable to digest. One source of the problems that we seek to address today was the creation of the Modernisation Committee, chaired not, as would be appropriate, by a senior Back Bencher, but by a Cabinet Minister-an arrangement that my party is committed to ending.
The Government said that that would allow Parliament to own the process, but it has not. It ensured that the Government dictated the pace of change. When it suited the Government, the reforms happened, and when it did not, they did not. The report says as much in paragraph 4.
The right hon. and learned Lady spoke a great deal about consensus, but where was the consensus on regional Select Committees when she used her casting vote to force the report before the House? Nor was there consensus when it reached the House with 254 in favour and 224 against. When the Government want reform, as they did a fortnight ago when they wanted voting reform, we got a debate, we got amendments and we got votes. But when they are less than keen, as is the case today, we do not get that. We get a "take note" debate, and a single shout of "Object!" obstructs progress.
Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Would the right hon. Gentleman like to see votes today or on 4 March? He objects to the fact that a Member can shout "Object!" and the debate and the votes are thereby deferred until another time, but I get the impression that most hon. Members want the so-called reforms to go through on the nod. I do not understand.
Sir George Young: In all the previous debates in which I have taken part, we have had a debate and then we have voted on a series of propositions, with amendments. That is how, in the past, the House has dealt with reform. It is a perfectly acceptable way of doing that and one that the House is used to. What is being proposed today is unusual. This is an unorthodox way of dealing with reform, and I happen to prefer the way that we have dealt with it so far.
On the report, it was encouraging that the Prime Minister agreed to the proposition from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and, in doing so, appeared to understand that, as the report says,
"the Modernisation Committee has run out of steam",
but despite the Prime Minister's assurances in his statement that this would be an "urgent" process, it was a full seven weeks later, and just one day before the summer recess, before the Committee was formally set up.
Lethargy also seemed to settle on the Government once the report was published on 24 November. The Committee made it clear in paragraph 15 that it expected a debate
"within the next two months when a House majority can freely determine the outcome."

What it has got today, three months later, is a debate at the end of which, as we have heard, one shout can block a recommendation. Also, only the recommendations of which the Government approve are on the Order Paper.
That contradicts the astonishing claim made by the right hon. and learned Lady in an interview yesterday with the BBC that the Government have been "on the front foot". In fact, the Government have been always one step behind. They tried to restrict the terms of reference to exclude Government business. That is what they did at the beginning, then they backed down. They stalled on having a debate. They originally wanted to avoid bringing back to the House any proposals that were objected to, but that is now going to happen.
Ten days ago, the Government said that they did not think the time was right to have a House business committee, but yesterday, in a welcome but rather blatant about-turn, the right hon. and learned Lady said that she would vote for the amendment that would see a House business committee established in the next Parliament. Far from leading from the front, she has rather been dragging her feet. Like the Duke of Plaza-Toro, she has been leading her regiment from behind.
Mr. Cash: Following his comprehensive indictment of the Government's attitude, does my right hon. Friend agree that serious consideration should be given to whether the Executive should control the Standing Orders? Will he go further and suggest that we should return to the practice when Parliament was really vibrant, as a former Clerk of the House clearly indicated in a recent article, and that the Speaker, not the Executive, should have control over the Standing Orders?
Sir George Young: I shall shelter behind Mr. Speaker's ruling at the beginning of the debate.
The proposals before us give the House much more power than it has, and we should rally behind them and try to get them up and running. I should welcome the chance to embark on the broader debate about where control of Standing Orders should lie, but that is separate from the debate before us. Nevertheless, I am glad that the right hon. and learned Lady now backs the stance that we publicly took before the Wright report was published, namely that the Government should relinquish their grip on the agenda of the House.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will spend some time on that issue, because my right hon. and learned Friend's statement today was the most significant one that we could expect. She did not say whether the Government would vote for the proposition, but she did say that she would. Do not we as a House have to reassure Governments that they have a right to get through mandated business if the electorate are to hold them to account? This House might determine the timetable by which Governments get it through, but for unmandated business, which is not in election manifestos, there will be much more of a struggle between the new business committee and the Government. My right hon. and learned Friend made an important point when she stressed that the issue is not just about how we govern our affairs, but about how Governments are held to account by the electorate.
Sir George Young: I also drew a distinction between the propositions that the Government support, which are the motions before us today, and the proposition that the right hon. and learned Lady will personally back, namely the proposal for a business committee. I deduced from the way in which she gave her commitment that other members of the Government may not share that commitment in the same way that they share the commitment to the other motions before us.
On the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises, I think that any Government should take some comfort from paragraph 29, which states:
"We should recognise that the Government is entitled to a guarantee of having its own business, and in particular Ministerial legislation, considered at a time of its own choosing, and concluded by a set date."
That guarantee on the mandate in the manifesto gives the Government-any Government-the comfort that they need, and once paragraph 29 is set in statute they can afford to be more relaxed about the rest of the business of the House.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I move on.
The right hon. and learned Lady asked me what I thought we should do on 4 March. I think that the Government should table all the resolutions of the Wright Committee and let the House come to a judgment on them, rather than picking, choosing and tabling only those that they prefer. That would be in the spirit of the establishment of the Wright Committee and the respectful way to proceed with the report.
The right hon. and learned Lady referred to the big ticket items, but there are some important little ticket items, which the motions before us do not cover, such as giving the Opposition more flexibility on Opposition days. Will she look at some of the other recommendations and see whether they cannot be progressed?
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): On the little ticket items, does my right hon. Friend not accept that, unfortunately, there is no motion to be voted on relating to the way in which the House deals with amendments on Report and Lords amendments? Those stages are currently programmed, and important issues often cannot be debated at all because time runs out. Is it not inappropriate that programming be used on Report and for the remaining stages of a Bill, when that could be a Member's only opportunity to contribute?
Sir George Young: What a first-class intervention from my hon. Friend! His point is covered in an amendment, which he has signed, that specifically refers to ensuring
"more effective scrutiny of legislation at Report Stage and consideration of Lords Amendments."
More broadly, however, none of that will happen unless there is some self-discipline by any Government over not only the sheer volume of the legislation that they put before the House, but its quality. Unless they get that right, they will simply pre-empt House time and squeeze out many other debates.
Ultimately, the process that we have been through in the past few weeks has made the case even more effectively than the report for the Executive to relinquish their grip on the business of Parliament. I cannot put it better than the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who said with characteristic panache:
"The power of these shadowy forces at work behind the scenes demonstrates more clearly than ever why the Wright Committee recommendations need to be implemented in full, and that the clammy fingers of the whips and Government business managers are prised once and for all off matters that are for Parliament rather than for party".
Hilary Armstrong rose-
Hon. Members: Grubby hands!
Hilary Armstrong: I do not have bloody hands. I have never believed in doing things in any way other than straightforwardly and openly.
Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that his suggestions will not mean that instead of people talking and coming to agreements in this House, the media will have campaigns as to who they want to be Chair of this Committee or that Committee, and that we will get the grandstanders rather than the workhorses? In any democracy, one needs a balance, as he well knows.
Sir George Young: The right hon. Lady devalues the judgments of those who share the Labour Benches with her. The notion that when they vote in a secret ballot for members of a Select Committee they will be unduly influenced by the media is strictly for the birds. They will vote for the people they think will do the best job on that particular Committee-
Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab) rose-
Sir George Young: Such as the hon. Member for Reading, West.
Martin Salter: I thank the shadow Leader of the House for reminding me of one of my better quotes. Let me point out to him that I was talking about shadowy forces on the Opposition Front Bench as well. I congratulate him on winning the battle in his shadow Cabinet to come off the fence on the Wright Committee proposals, because the dark forces are on both sides of this Chamber.
Sir George Young: I reject unequivocally any implication of dissent within the shadow Cabinet. The Chief Whip and I are as brothers on this issue.
Turning briefly to the substance of the Wright reforms, I can tell the House that the report has the broad support of those on the Conservative Front Bench. The votes are, of course, free votes, but as a possible Executive-in-waiting we have had to take a view on the proposal that the Executive should relinquish some of the powers that they have, and we believe that they should.
We are already committed to the election of Select Committee Chairmen and members-a long overdue reform. I served on the Committee of Selection in 2001, when the Government Whips proposed Select Committees that excluded Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody. I called a Division, and it was like something out of a Bateman cartoon-the man who called a Division in the Committee of Selection. Had it not been for the activities of the Government Whips, a system such as the one before us would have been introduced eight years ago under Robin Cook. They now have a second chance to redeem themselves.
We have no problem with the Government's motions, as far as they go. We are grateful for the amendments that the Leader of the House has taken on board during the past week in the light of suggestions that have been made. I welcome the call for the Liaison Committee to review the whole system of Select Committees, particularly to consider the competing demands on Members' time. Having been the Chairman of a Select Committee, I have long thought that the size of membership should be no more than 11 to allow for a more focused discussion and a more manageable meeting. I think that the six-week time scale that is envisaged for establishing Select Committees at the beginning of a Parliament is rather unambitious, and I hope that it might be possible to act faster.
Having strengthened the independence of Select Committees, the next step should be to give them greater access to the Chamber. That is touched on but not fully developed in the report. My party's proposal would be to give the Liaison Committee a quota of 12 statements per year that it could draw on to enable a Select Committee to present its report to the House and answer questions on it. That would challenge the monopoly on statements currently held by Ministers and give Select Committee Chairmen access to the Chamber during prime time. I would have liked that to happen in November, when the hon. Member for Cannock Chase presented his report.
We think that there should be a Back-Bench business committee. I hope that it might be up and running at the beginning of the next Parliament, as suggested in the motion; it would be a disappointment if that did not happen. I personally would like it to set the subject for the first topical debate in the next Parliament. We should then progressively give the committee more influence, with the Government handing over to it the 15 days currently allocated for set-piece debates such as those on defence and Public Accounts Committee reports, referred to in paragraph 145 of the report. If it wanted, it could have a different configuration of debates from the one that we have at the moment. It could then be given the days for general debates mentioned in paragraph 146, totalling about 12 days, which might lead to its being given a day or half a day a week for Back Benchers' business. Once that system is up and running, we should move in the lifetime of the next Parliament towards a more collaborative and transparent system of dealing with House business as a whole, as I have made clear by signing the amendment on the Order Paper.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): May I take the right hon. Gentleman back slightly to his point about reports and statements from Select Committees? I agree about the need for statements and proper debate on reports on the Floor of the House, but when a Select Committee comes up with an innovative proposal for legislation or for a change that requires Government support, the Government can simply acknowledge the report but do nothing about it. Does he recognise that there is a need for Select Committees persistently to be able to follow their own agenda and make proposals on the Floor of the House?


Sir George Young: There is a specific proposal, which I support, that Select Committee debates should take place on a substantive motion, but that would be separate from what I was just talking about, which was Select Committee Chairmen being able to present a report in prime time on the day it comes out.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Where do the Opposition stand on allowing the House, subject to the Prime Minister's approval, to elect the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee?
Sir George Young: I have no difficulty with the recommendation of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons on that subject.
Both I and the Leader of the Opposition have given public commitments that the Government should relinquish their grip on the timetable of the House. When the Leader of the House gave evidence a fortnight ago, she accused me of not being in favour of a House business committee. That was particularly unfair as we had not had an opportunity to put our views in the public domain, and I hope that she now accepts that that is not the case.
Natascha Engel: There has been a lot of talk, including by the right hon. Gentleman, about how the House business committee will open up business and make it more transparent. How exactly will it do that? Will it not just add seven or nine Back Benchers to the general backroom dealings?
Sir George Young: The Committee's proposition was that the business committee should meet and then put a proposition before the House, which the House could agree to or amend if it did not like it. That would be a more transparent and collaborative process than the one that we have at the moment, in which the business is announced on a Thursday and we have to take it or leave it. There is no opportunity to amend it or come up with a different version.
The Committee has talked of putting together the pieces of the jigsaw, and as its report states, the reforms will
"inevitably need implementation in stages."
I agree with that. No Government should be expected to put the whole jigsaw puzzle together on day one. Indeed, the Committee has not asked for that. However, I hope that what I have set out today will reassure the House that we are genuinely in favour of a more collaborative and transparent arrangement of business than has existed until now.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: I will make progress, if the hon. Lady does not mind, because a lot of people want to speak.
I turn finally to the section of the report on public engagement, which is perhaps the least engaging part of it. I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that we must start to reflect on the wider of question of how to open up better lines of communication between us and our constituents. My party has made proposals to introduce debates in Parliament
on public petitions and other citizens' initiatives. We welcome the Government's commitment to make progress on a number of the recommendations on outreach, and I welcome the House's views on that.
Bob Spink: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
Sir George Young: No, I am in mid-peroration. [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I think the shadow Leader of the House has made it clear that he is not giving way.
Sir George Young: Today we have a chance to move our agenda on from the expenses scandal to making the House work more effectively. We must make an early start on cutting the democratic deficit and restoring confidence in our political system. A credible package of reforms must be in place by the time of a general election. Many of the reforms before us are long overdue, but they are steps in the right direction. They will make the House more responsive to topical events, more relevant to national debate and better equipped to scrutinise Executive decisions and hold the Government to account. My message to the House is simple: let's get on with it.

 
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