Sir George backs reform
4 Mar 2010
Below is the text of the speech Sir George made in the debate on the Wright Committee proposals to strengthen Parliament:

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): There are 69 minutes left for this debate, so I propose to follow the right hon. and learned Lady's example and keep my remarks to a basic minimum.
I set out my views on most of these issues last Monday when I urged the House to seize this opportunity for reform and to make faster progress than was envisaged in the Government's initial resolutions. I note in passing that it is sad that we have roughly eight sitting days left before the likely date of Dissolution in which to make the changes to our Standing Orders that are needed to bring in some of the motions before us at the beginning of the next Parliament. I shall not repeat the contrast that has been made between the speed and urgency of the Wright Committee's work and the foot-dragging of the Government.
In addition to the reforms of the Wright Committee and all the proposed amendments, some of which raise new issues, we are addressing the Procedure Committee's report on the election of Deputy Speakers. That sits a little uneasily with the comment made by the right hon. and learned Lady last week in business questions that, as far as she was concerned,
"we have debated the Wright Committee report enough".-[ Official Report, 25 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 452.]
Two hours might have been enough to debate the Wright Committee, but we now have an extra report to debate in the time allotted for one. As has been said several times today, given that the principle behind the reports is the empowerment of Back Benchers, it is ironic that the Government have programmed the debate to restrict Back-Bench contributions. If, as I hope, we support these reforms in the Division Lobbies later, the House may never again be forced to plead for more time from the Government to debate its own business. The past few months have demonstrated more effectively even than the report why the Government need to relinquish their control of Parliament's agenda.
I believe that the resolutions represent our best opportunity for decades to start rebalancing the terms of trade away from the Executive and to start strengthening Parliament and making it more effective, more accountable and more relevant to the people outside it. That is why I intend to support the Government's motions on the election of Select Committee Chairmen and members, as well as the amendments that would establish a House business committee during the next Parliament and give further consideration in the next Parliament to all the remaining recommendations that the Government have left on the cutting room floor. I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will demonstrate a similar commitment to reform when she is in the Lobbies.
As for the amendment on the election of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, that is not one of the changes advocated by the Wright Committee, which merely proposed electing the Chairmen of departmental Select Committees. I just make the point that it seems slightly illogical not to extend such elections to other Committees in addition to the Procedure Committee.
On the Back-Bench Business Committee, I intend to vote for amendment (b), which I should like to move at the appropriate move.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): All the advice that I have taken from the Clerks suggests that, because the Procedure Committee itself will be elected, it is something of a lacuna in the report that its Chairman will not be. I hope that my Front Benchers will support that amendment.
Sir George Young: As I said, it is a free vote, but I make the point that this was not an original recommendation of the Wright Committee.
On the Back-Bench committee, I intend to vote for amendment (b). I do not agree with the Government's resolution, as it fails to get the committee up and running by the beginning of the next Parliament, which is my preferred time scale. As I have said before, I want the Back-Bench committee to be given progressively more influence-first over the set-piece debates, in whatever configuration it prefers, and then over the general debates. That would then lead to its being given a day or half a day a week for Back-Bench business.
The Wright Committee report is absolutely clear, stating that these proposals would
"inevitably need implementation in stages."
It recognises that the pieces of the jigsaw should not be put together all at once on day one, and that brings me to the difficulties that I see with amendment (c). That amendment risks making worse one of the central problems that the Wright Committee has sought to address-the lack of time for the Report stage of Bills.
The assumption in paragraphs 31 and 32 of the report is that, whatever approach we adopt, the totality of sitting days and hours should remain roughly the same. Given the finite amount of available time, the more time that is spent on general debates, the less time, by definition, will be available for Government business.
My amendment (b) would allocate 27 days in total to the Back-Bench committee-the 15 set-piece days, and the 12 general debates. Amendment (c), by virtue of its endorsement of recommendation 30, would allocate the committee one day a week, which by the Wright Committee's reckoning amounts to 35 days. The difference between the two amendments is that mine could allow seven extra days for the Report stage of Bills, whereas that would be lost if we opt for amendment (c). I urge the House to think carefully about that before making its decision later.
Dr. Evan Harris: As a member of the Wright Committee, I would like to explain our approach to the right hon. Gentleman. I agree with much of what he has said about the 27 days, but topical debates ought to be a matter for the Back-Bench business committee. When added up, they amount to another seven days. The other three days for his 35 could be used for debates on Members' pay and allowances, for example, or for matters such as those relating to the hon. Member whose offices were raided by the police. Such matters should rightly be for the House and not in the purview of the Government, whichever party is in office.
Sir George Young: I agree that the Back-Bench committee should allocate the subjects for topical debates. I conceded that on Monday, and that should happen. I also think the committee should allocate the 15 set-piece days and the 12 days devoted to general debates. The Wright Committee wants an extra seven days, and my fear is that that would mean less time on Report.
Paragraph 109 of the Wright report states that the lack of time on Report is the
"single greatest cause of dissatisfaction"
with the current scheduling of legislative business. That is why I personally prefer the configuration in my amendment (b) to that in amendment (c).
I am not standing in the way of progress. An initial amendment proposed kicking the Back-Bench committee into touch-that is, into the next Parliament-whereas I think it should be established much earlier. That now appears to command widespread support.
On the House business committee, we have seen three victories: first, in ensuring that its consideration was within the original terms of reference; secondly, in ensuring that it can be voted on today; and thirdly-and I am grateful for this-in securing the support of the Leader of the House for the committee, soon after she had initially ruled it out.
We have made real progress, but I think we should go further. We should end the automatic guillotine at Committee stage, and abolish the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee. I also think we should enable Select Committee Chairmen to launch their reports on the Floor of the House-as the Chairman of the Defence Committee could have done today, with his report on procurement. In addition, we should allow the Opposition to trade Opposition days for topical statements, and introduce broader measures to re-engage the public, reduce the size of Parliament and cut the costs of politics.
Finally, on the election of the Deputy Speakers, I welcome the report from the Procedure Committee, which is well-reasoned and eminently sensible. I look forward to hearing the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), explain the proposals in greater detail. As someone who has had passing experience of the system of election for Speaker, using both a secret and an open ballot, I was pleased to have the opportunity to pass
on my views to the Committee in an informal session, and I am glad that two of my suggestions have been incorporated into the report.
I agree with the Procedure Committee that, unlike with the election of the Speaker, there is no need for Deputy Speakers to issue manifestos, because it is an entirely different kind of role. I should make it clear that, in supporting the Committee's report, I do not want to suggest in any way that the current system of selection of Deputy Speakers does not deliver excellent candidates to the Speaker's team, which it does.
I hope, Mr. Speaker, that when you blow the final whistle at 3.41, the reformers will be able to take away from the pitch some of the trophies.

 
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