I would like to speak briefly on three subjects which I hope are relevant to your inquiry into accountability. The views I express are my own, and meant to assist you in your task rather than get me into trouble!
The first is the Chamber. The Chamber is the heart of the House, and if you can get it to beat more strongly, it will pump energy round the rest of the system. For the public and much of the media, the Chamber is the House. An inert and ineffective Chamber means an inert and ineffective House of Commons. How can we re-ignite it?
The second is the institution of Parliament. We are getting joined-up Government; but we haven’t got a joined up Parliament. How do we re-align the institutions of Parliament, which have not fundamentally changed for some time, so they can more effectively mark the institutions of Government. To use a cricketing analogy, do we need to move the fielders around because the batsmen have changed?
Finally, a few thoughts on personnel issues – how do we make better use of MP’s time.
I believe serious reform should start with the Chamber. Instead of asking why it is empty, I find it easier to start with the opposite question, why is it full? Having analysed why it is full, you then see if you can reconstruct, re-engineer the Chamber so it is more relevant and more effective and fuller more often.
It is full when someone is going to say something interesting, new, relevant and topical.
It is full when an individual MP has a good chance of being called.
It is full when there is a subject which is controversial.
It is full when there is media interest.
(It was full to-day for the statement on Harold Shipman)
It tends to be full for statements, for questions, for the opening speeches on controversial bills; quite full for business statements.
The opposite question - why is it empty – then answers itself. The statement has been trailed and leaked; the issue has gone off the boil. There is a boring debate in which I will not even get called and, if I do, I won’t get reported. I can just as well watch it in my room, dictating and signing my letters. (Terence Higgins had an ingenious idea, to which modern technology could surely respond; that if an MP was watching the proceedings in his room, a hologram of him should appear in his usual place in the Chamber!)
The basic proposition that I am interested in is looking at the Agenda of the Chamber, in a fairly radical way, and seeing if you can restructure it into a format that makes it more relevant. You can now use the Westminster Hall Committee – which I believe is here to stay - to decant from the Chamber the debates that are best debated elsewhere, and don’t need to be in a large Chamber designed for adversarial politics. And then you can experiment and innovate. (I think it is here to stay because in effect from Parliament’s point of view, it represents another patrol along the frontier. It can’t be used for legislation; its only purpose is to hold the Government to account, and if there is a growing consensus that the terms of trade need to be shifted back to Parliament away from the executive, then it would be folly for Parliament to abandon it. It is not accountable for the decline in attendance in the Chamber, not least because most of its sittings do not clash with sessions in the Chamber.)
I would start by making Question Time more relevant. Two weeks ago, we had Home Office Questions for 55 minutes. The previous week, the Home Secretary had announced he was minded to send Senator Pinochet home; and had overruled IND to let in Mike Tyson. Those were the two dominant political issues the following Monday. Neither could be nor was raised at Home Office questions.
Tabling was before Christmas, when no one anticipated either decision. And so an opportunity was missed because of our rules. If the PM can field open questions about the whole of his Government for half an hour, four or five Ministers can field open questions about their Departments for a similar length of time. I think this would achieve the objectives I mentioned at the beginning, of making the Chamber more relevant and topical, and better able to hold the Government to account.
I am interested in trading in opposition days for opposition time. Opposition days are difficult to capitalise on. The vote is a foregone conclusion, and however good the speeches, they get little coverage. I am interested in giving up the right to say one third of our Opposition Days – we get about 15 a year. That amount to 30 hours ( 5 times six hours). Instead you could have the right to demand 60 statements from the Government after question time. At the moment, if the Government wants to make a statement, they do. If they don’t want to, they don’t. You can put in for a PNQ, but they are constrained. They don’t succeed very often, and the Speaker understandably has to protect the business of the House. But a right for the Opposition to play that card would I think be a better use of Opposition time, and would again meet the objectives. And it is feature of both questions and statement that more MP’s get called than in debates, which drives up attendance.
You could also give the House the right to challenge specific items of expenditure, either when they have just occurred or, more controversially, before they occur – rather like the old debates on the Consolidated Fund, though hopefully at a more civilised hour. We could have had a debate on the £60 million the Government decided to allocate to the Dome a few days ago. Relevant, and just what Parliament should be about.
Related to this, the Select Committee on Procedure published last year a report on procedures for debate on the Government’s expenditure plans. The report includes recommendations to widen the remit of estimates day debates so that the House is able to hold substantive debates and put down substantive motions on the Government’s expenditure plans. The report also recommends the automatic referral of the Main estimates to the appropriate Select Committee, together with Departmental Plans and Reports. The Committee believes that this would encourage Select Committees to scrutinise expenditure and would give the House something more meaningful to debate on Estimate Days.
I believe that the reforms suggested by the Procedure Committee are worthy of consideration.
We could also raise the profile of the Select Committees by giving the Chairman an opportunity to present his or her report by statement in the House. You could not do this for all reports, but the Liaison Committee could decide how best to use a quota – rather like their quota for debating time for reports.
If you are going to embark on this agenda, it can only be done if Government backbenchers want to do it, and genuinely believe that it is right for Parliament to do it. This Government is interested in modernising Parliament. But Parliament does not need modernising so much as strengthening. And I’m not sure their heart is in it.
JOINED UP GOVERNMENT.
As I said at the beginning, joined up Government needs a joined-up House of Commons.
Joined-up Government, shorn of the spin, predicates the breaking down of administrative boundaries to provide a seamless service to the citizen. Dealing holistically with the drug problem, which Tony Newton did so well – a matter which concerns the Home Office, the Department of Health and the DFEE. Looking after the Under 5’s – Social Services who run Day Nurseries, DFEE who run Reception Classes the DSS who sponsor playgroups; tackling Social Exclusion, and the problems of the elderly; the problems of the disabled.
This Government is developing initiatives started by the last to break down the barriers. Do you remember City Challenge? A number of central Government departmental budgets were top-sliced, with LA’s then invited to bid for funds to develop their cities. Transport money could have been spent on housing; and vice versa.
We set up Government Offices in the Regions, pooling staff and budgets.
I support this, and the present Government has carried on, giving it a higher profile and strengthening the Cabinet Office to drive the agenda forward. The Cabinet Office produced an interesting report a few weeks ago “Wiring it Up” published by the Performance and Innovation Unit of the Cabinet Office. A very interesting publication, showing the Government is way ahead of Parliament, in that it very tactfully suggests a number of ways in which Parliament should change its procedures.
But the House of Commons has not responded. We vote money to Departments and hold Departments to account. We have Select Committees which shadow Government departments.
Parliament has been slow to respond to changes in Government. As Government breaks down the barriers in Government, we need to break down the same barriers reflected in our procedures and institutions.
Which Select Committee is looking after the Drug Czar? Public Administration? Health? Home Office? I am ashamed to say I don’t know. Who is seeing if the Government is living up to its claims on Social Exclusion?
I confess I don’t have the answer to this one; but until recently, no one here was even asking the question.
The present system tends to reinforce the introspection of Government departments, and to discourage risk and innovation. It also runs the risk of a burdensome series of overlapping audits. We have had one joint investigation so far, by the Education and Employment, and Health Select Committees; we need far more. The House of Lords has shown the way with cross cutting Select Committees, as Science & Technology.
There is an agenda here that needs working up.
How can MP’s make better use of their time?
The first thing to do is to knock out the claims on their time which are simply not a priority.
I can make this point best by a quick reference to the Braithwaite Report, which Tony Newton helped to supervise, on how the House of Commons is managed.
The most depressing section of the Braithwaite Report was on the Domestic Committees “Overall, however, the implementation of the Ibbs recommendation on the domestic committees has not been a success.”
Members of Parliament come to Westminster to represent their constituents; to support the Government or hold it to account; to specialise in particular policy areas that interest them; and to build a political career. There is growing pressure on MP’s time, which is unlikely to be reversed. MP’s do not come to Westminster to sit on the Catering Committee.
As the pressure on MP’s time has mounted, they have cut back on areas they do not see as priorities. Even some Select Committees are finding it difficult to maintain quorums; Absenteeism on Select Committees has increased from 25 per cent in 1995-96 to 34 per cent. in 1998-99. The figure for the Select Committee on Education and Employment is 50 per cent.
MP’s who want to come off Select Committees because of pressure on their time are told to stay on (because replacements cannot be found), but the Whips tell them they need not attend.
A fortnight ago, we debated in the Chamber an important report from the Administration Committee, to which only three of the nine members had put their name.
I would scrub all the Domestic Committees, introduce a streamlined management structure for the House, and free up a substantial amount of Member time.
I would reduce the size of the Select Committees. I don’t think you get added value above 12, where the law of diminishing returns begins to bite.
I would merge the Modernisation and Procedure Select Committees, as they are beginning to read on each other’s toes, and I wouldn’t have it chaired by a Cabinet Minister.
I think we should merge some Select Committees with Standing Committees to build up a core of members with real expertise on a Department and its legislative programme, and so even up the terms of trade between legislature and executive and make better use of MP’s time.
Paradoxically, reform of local Government, rather than central Government, could do much to relieve pressure on MP’s. Much of our casework relates to local Government. If local government reform focussed the attention of the citizen on a high profile local Mayor, he would get the letters that we now get.
Finally, I think that some of the issues I have been talking about raise a broader question about an alternative career structure in the House—which recognises that becoming a Minister is not the only way of serving; which recognises on the contrary, if Parliament is to do its job properly, it is important to have on both sides of the House who do not want to become Ministers; and which recognises the contributions of those hon. Members. Payment of the Chairman of Select Committees together with some of the other reforms might do this.
None of this is going to happen without MP’s wanting it to happen. They have no one to blame but themselves for where we are now.