§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now -adjourn.—[Mr. Michael Brown.]10.44 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science, for agreeing to answer this short debate. I am particularly grateful since I know that the luck of the draw has landed him with this additional burden in an exceptionally busy week. For my hon. Friend to have made the transition so successfully from the secret society of the Whips Office to the Department of open government gives me real hope that my arguments, which seek a substantial change in establishment attitudes, will not fall on deaf ears tonight.
I should make it plain from the start that my contention is in no sense partisan. If I appear critical of some aspects of parliamentary procedure, or indeed of Government procedures, my purpose is to put on the agenda of public debate the effectiveness or propriety of some of the ways in which this country is currently governed—ways that would be adopted by any Government of whatever political complexion, but which in my view need to be questioned. Professor Crick's book was published in 1964, and in 1976 the Labour Government set up a Select Committee for what in some ways was the last serious look at the functions of Parliament. Lord Hailsham's "Elective Dictatorship" was published in the same year. So this is hardly a matter to be laid at the door of any one Administration or party.
"Consultation in advance of legislation" is Table Office speak—distilled with all the inventiveness and courtesy of that ingenious office to enable me to use the Adjournment debate slot to raise matters that are seldom debated in this place. It is strangely hard to achieve such a debate because in practice Governments tend to control Parliament, although in theory the Members do. I believe that there are weaknesses in the ways in which Governments consult in advance of legislation, not least that they tend to ask the questions and then process the answers in ways that create no chance for the consultees to build on each other's contributions. There is a strong argument for more policy questions to be posed to the public as questions rather than as draft solutions to a problem, as is usual at present. The public are capable of making much more sophisticated contributions than they are usually encouraged to do.
My main question is this. What, in effect, is to be the role of a Member of Parliament in the 21st century? Its trigger is what contribution a modern Member should make to the formulation and communication of policy. Let me explain. In the past 40 years or so, huge changes have come over our world. Communication to any part of the world or any chosen group of people has become instant. Not only verbal, but visual messages can be shared in microseconds. As a result, our constituents no longer expect to learn of great events from their representatives, but directly from the media. That is one reason why the well-attended public meeting is such a rarity. Yet in this place we fall between two stools and, like all who do that, we end up in something of a mess. Our procedures pretend that policy will be announced first to Parliament and only then to the world outside. Yet as we all know, in practice that is increasingly rare. The first that most Back-Bench Members know of policy announcements is when they hear 252 them on the radio or are rung up by a journalist for a comment. In the case of most announcements, the average Back Bencher can not even comment knowledgeably because the machinery for acquainting him or her with the news is so archaic. If the House is sitting, news that has been given to the media at 11 o'clock in the morning may reach a Member's pigeon hole by 5.30 pm, to be picked up if the Member happens to pass through the Members' Lobby. If the House is in recess, even that device fails. A statement may percolate through the mail to the Member's office for onward transmission via a secretary. By that time, the news story has been put to bed, and any subsequent comment is likely to appear such old hat that the journalists will not use it. That simply will not do.
I understand that Ministers—who are extraordinarily busy people, with a country to run—may well feel that they have quite enough to do in informing the media of their policies, without taking on the additional burden of simultaneously informing Members of Parliament, some of whom may be hostile to the policy. I sympathise. The burden on modern Ministers is indeed enormous. The feeling should be resisted, however. Our constituents do not send us here to be treated as second-class citizens; they are entitled to expect their representatives not only to be given prompt information about policy, but to be able to comment on it as it may affect them.
That brings me to a basic question: what is to be the role of Back-Bench Members of Parliament in the 21st century? We are confronted by a paradox. There has never been a time in the history of this ancient Parliament when so many Members have devoted such a large proportion of their time to serving their constituencies, or working in this place. The part-time Member is fading fast. Whether that is for good or bad is material for a separate debate; what cannot be denied, however, is that most Back Benchers now regard themselves as full time.
Yet it is arguable that these full-time paid servants of the public have never had less influence, and I believe that the public sense that. It is not—as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury suggested—that the intrusion of the television cameras has lowered our reputation in the country, so much as that the cameras have simply revealed to the country just how little its representatives are able to affect policy. That revelation is made more shocking each time a Member of Parliament has to confess to a journalist that the first time he heard of a policy announcement was when the journalist raised it with him.
I have one or two sugestions to make to my hon. Friend the Minister. I shall not weep if he tells me that he cannot commit himself to supporting them tonight, but I shall be disappointed if he does not take my arguments seriously. The first suggestion is simple: why, in this technically advanced age, cannot Members of Parliament be informed of press conferences at the same time as the press, and why cannot a room be set aside here in the Palace to provide closed-circuit television coverage for any Member of Parliament who cares to watch it? That would ensure that the press conference was not disrupted—or even interrupted—by Members, while simultaneously ensuring that those who were free to do so could comment on the policy announcement afterwards with as much knowledge as the media. Arrangements rather more modern than the 19th-century board on which we currently rely could be made for the distribution of documents.
253 My point is that if the press can be notified, so can Members of Parliament. I believe that our constituents would like to feel that their representatives in the Palace of Westminster were given an indication of parliamentary news at least as early as they themselves in their homes in John O'Groats or Lands End.
My second point is more fundamental. Why cannot Members of Parliament be much more involved in the formulation of policy? There will, of course, be occasions when policy arises from a sudden emergency, and it would be difficult for Members of Parliament to make a serious contribution to its formulation. Yet, as we all know, in many instances policy grows incrementally in civil service files, and through years of correspondence, public or private reports and similar channels. For example, the Child Support Agency owes at least some of its parentage to the Finer committee of 20 years ago.
In many cases, there is nothing remotely worthy of a secret classification in such policy accretion; yet most Members of Parliament are kept in as much ignorance of it as would members of an anarchist movement. There is nothing remotely partisan about that. If the Labour party were ever to win an election, it would behave in precisely the same way. When I was a civil servant, one of the more entertaining jobs that I had to do was to draft replies to parliamentary questions in such a way that they were as true but as uninformative as possible. That that art is still alive and well in Whitehall is shown not only by the type of answers that one frequently elicits from Department, but by the frank admissions of the Cabinet Secretary to the Scott inquiry.
I believe that the inability to find effective ways of involving Back-Bench Members of Parliament in the formulation, execution or monitoring of policy is an impoverishment of our parliamentary system. It is demeaning to Back Benchers and, in effect, to their electorates. It also cuts Government off from a mass of experience, prejudice and representative opinion which could add considerably to its strength in the legislative process. What is the point of fighting one's way to the difficult, insecure and relatively badly paid position of Member of Parliament if, when one has got there, one's view is given no more weight than that of the director of a voluntary organisation or pressure group? Indeed, one of the changes that have come over our politics in recent years is that it is no longer especially profitable for outside organisations to approach Members of Parliament, as they commonly can make direct approaches to Ministers, who seldom share what they hear with parliamentary colleagues.
I realise that it is a tall order to ask Government to tackle such a matter. I know from my own observation just how time-consuming and frustrating it is to attempt even relatively minor changes in the way in which the establishment does its business. I also know, and pay tribute to, the very hard work put in by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster towards changing some elements in the public service culture.
What is at stake here is fundamental to the health of the nation. If we cannot find a better way of deploying the energy and imagination of Back-Bench Members of Parliament, we shall pay a heavy price. The present 254 tendency of Members of Parliament to turn more and more to the minutiae of their constituents' grievances or to foreign travel or to concentrate on a handful of sectional interests, fuelled by the well-resourced research efforts of single-issue lobby groups, whose influence on national politics seems sometimes disproportionate to their representativeness, will become more pronounced and the quality of debate about issues that affect the whole nation will become even more attenuated.
At first, that will be welcomed by Governments. They will find it ever easier to get their policies through without effective scrutiny and will be able to divide and rule with increasing ease. In the medium term, however, they will find it less satisfactory. It is indispensable to healthy democracy for Governments to carry Parliament with them. It is not enough simply to muster the necessary votes. The scrutiny of legislation is a part of winning support and at present it is woefully inadequate.
The Hansard commission report on the making of legislation was trenchant on that point, among others. Indeed, that report deserves much closer attention than it seems so far to have achieved. I believe, for example, that both in consultation before a Bill is drafted and in such devices as pre-legislation committees after a Bill has been published, there are potential merits which ought to be explored. The other effect will be that our constituents will be ever more disengaged from what they will perceive as ineffective parliamentary procedures and into the gap so caused there may well step undemocratic elements.
Our need to define more effectively a role for Back-Bench Members of Parliament has become even more pressing as a result of our membership of the European Union. The mechanisms in the House for scrutinising European legislation, no matter how fundamental its effects on this Parliament and no matter how much power that legislation may be sucking away from us, are avowedly ineffective. Why cannot Back-Bench Members be much more effectively deployed to help in that important and difficult task?
I suggest that the time has come for all of us here including the Government, to take seriously that democratic deficit and to work on how it might be overcome. We might begin with the Hansard Society report on the making of legislation, together with the Jopling report, on which progresss is overdue. We shall need to go further, however, if we are to enter the 21st century fit to rule a modern society. I understand perfectly the argument that democratic politics cannot expect to be efficient in the way in which businesses aspire to be efficient, and I would not want our democracy even to try, but when 651 people have fought their way to Parliament against considerable odds and when they aspire to work here virtually full time it is expensive and unjustifiably incompetent to make such poor use of their talents.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. David Davis)
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) has raised a number of interesting points about the way in which we conduct business in the House. It is useful for the House to be able to debate such issues from time to time—and not only to provide competition for commentators and academics for whom the subject has become something of a light 255 industry. I congratulate my hon. Friend on providing us with such an opportunity and on providing some fresh—very fresh—perspectives.
Some of my hon. Friend's suggestions are procedural ones for the House itself to consider, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will take careful note of what has been said. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, in particular, will do so. My hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not respond now to each of the points that he made, but I shall say something about the process of consultation prior to legislation, which was the starting point for the debate.
Contrary to the criticisms that we sometimes hear, consultation is in fact the norm. Ministers and Departments will often consult widely whenever it is feasible and practical to do so prior to introducing legislation. It may be by means of consultation documents published specially for the purpose, by White or Green Papers, or by meetings with interested parties and groups. I can vouch for the fact that a great deal of time and effort are spent on such consultation. I cite just two examples from my own Department: we undertook a major consultation exercise prior to the science and technology White Paper "Realising our Potential"; and the Department is even now analysing and digesting the consultation responses that we have received to the White Paper on open government.
In addition, there are examples from other aspects of the Government's legislative programme. I outline a few that are before the House at the moment. The Local Government (Wales) Bill, which is now being considered in another place, followed a full and thorough consultation process which included the publication of no fewer than three consultation documents inviting views. One document dealt with the proposed new structure of unitary authorities, another with the internal management and structures of the authorities, and the third with community councils. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales also established and chaired a special Welsh consultative council to consider those issues. All that took place well in advance of the publication of the Bill last December.
The Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill contains a number of specific deregulation measures which are the responsibility of a number of Departments. Individual Departments carried out consultation on their specific proposals for the Bill before its introduction. On the deregulation order-making power, the Bill requires that there should be consultation with all parties likely to be substantially affected before any draft order can be brought before Parliament. As the House knows, two new committees are to be created so that full and careful scrutiny can be given to the proposals at the draft stage.
The two main parts of the Education Bill, which is also being considered in another place, were also the subject of wide consultation. On the teacher training proposals, a consultation document was sent to all institutions of higher education and others involved in teacher training in September last. A letter was sent to all schools inviting comment.
On the proposals relating to student unions, a similarly wide consultation process was initiated in July of last year. Further consultation is now under way following the views expressed in another place, which perhaps proves that consultation does not always guarantee an easy passage.
As the Member for Mid-Kent, my hon. Friend has been closely involved on behalf of his constituents in the 256 extensive consultation process on the route of the channel tunnel link. The consultation undertaken by Union Railways, the subsidiary of British Rail responsible for planning and operating the route, has been a major exercise involving some 650 meetings with local authorities and others, 90 exhibitions along the route and analysis of some 2,400 submissions and petitions.
I know that my hon. Friend was actively involved in pressing upon the Government the case for the mid-Kent long tunnel option. As the House will know, further consultation is now under way on the route, concerning two locations where decisions are yet to be taken—Ashford and Pepper Hill.
As I hope all that clearly demonstrates, much careful consultation takes place. It is open to any interested party to participate, either directly through the Department concerned or—more effectively, in my view—through the local Member of Parliament. Again, both as a Member of Parliament representing my constituents and as a Minister, on the receiving end, I can vouch for the fact that there is a constant flow of representation and comment on policy proposals from the Government.
It is an essential part of government to listen to what is said and to take note of it. I assure my hon. Friend that the views and advice of Back-Bench Members from both sides of the House—this is not necessarily a party political point —are listened to carefully. I have a feeling that when people complain of lack of consultation what they sometimes mean is that the Government end up by taking a view different from their own, rather than that there was no opportunity to comment or to participate.
On purely practical grounds, at a certain point the Government have to draw a line under the consultation process and to decide how to reflect the results in definite proposals or draft legislation. It is then Parliament's job to take a view of those proposals. It would be both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect further formal external consultation after that point, except perhaps the occasional consultation of experts on technical clauses. That is not, of course, to say that once a Bill has been published there is any reason why interested parties should not make their views known to Members of both Houses. They do, Members represent those views, and the process can be most effective in influencing policy.
It will be clear from what I have said about the consultation process that I do not share my hon. Friend's picture of policy growing quietly and secretly in departmental files, only to spring fully formed on to an unsuspecting world. The process is more complex than that, and involves much discussion and public debate. Hon. Members can and do play an important part in it, and it is up to all of us to ensure that we do so.
It is certainly true that, as my hon. Friend says, the advice that civil servants give Ministers in the process of policy formation is kept confidential. That is a constitutional convention of long standing which relates to the political neutrality of the civil service. But that is not to say that there is not ample opportunity for Members of the House and others to contribute to policy formation.
No Minister that I know listens only to his civil servants, important though that may be. Indeed, from time to time, I have been sufficiently awkward with my civil servants to attract the occasional chastisement, of the most delicate kind. One once said to me, "Minister, you should 257 know that most good Ministers are difficult Ministers—but not all difficult Ministers are good Ministers." He made his point.
The business of government is a political process as much as a managerial process. Certainly we should look to business and industry for lessons on how to streamline the processes of government—above all, perhaps, in delivering public services. My hon. Friend has acknowledged the great steps forward that we have been able to take in that respect. However, when it comes to political judgment and assessing the views of the House and of the country, the views of individual Members of Parliament, informed by close and detailed knowledge of their constituencies, are of course vital.
As we were reminded only yesterday, the individual and personal views of hon. Members are paramount, and when the House considers fundamental matters of conscience and moral opinion, such as the law on homosexuality and on the death penalty, that is apparent. Similar free votes have taken place on abortion law and, more recently, on the principles of Sunday trading—the legislation on which was itself the outcome of a Back-Bench campaign that lasted a decade or more.
My hon. Friend has made several points about the way in which the House scrutinises legislation. If I may say so, I believe that he underestimates the importance and effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. I should be the last to deny that there have been times, in the middle of a long morning's duty in a Standing Committee on a Bill, when I too have wondered whether the process could not be gingered up a little, and have felt that there could be a bit more scrutiny and a bit less political posturing. However, it is up to the members of the Committee to make their scrutiny effective, and in many cases they do.
Few Bills emerge from a Standing Committee without any definite improvement. Some changes reflect political views of what law the country needs; others can result from the particular expertise or knowledge of members of a Committee. If the process seems to have involved a lot of political speeches, it is because making law is a political process, and important matters are at stake. There are genuine differences of view, and they need to be argued out.
As a piece of machinery, our Standing Commitee system is basically sound. The Government are, of course, always ready to consider suggestions for improvement and my hon. Friend has given us some food for thought. However, it is up to Members to operate it effectively. Perhaps my hon. Friend is being too modest in describing the influence that Back Benchers have in that process, not least his own influence.
My hon. Friend spoke about press briefings and statements to the press, the burden of which was that hon. Members are at a disadvantage compared with the media. I talked to two members of the media today and they put almost precisely the opposite viewpoint. It remains a 258 guiding principle that parliamentary papers and associated announcements are not released to the press before the House has been informed. However, it has also been a long-standing practice for advance material to be made available to the parliamentary media, but under a strict embargo to ensure that parliamentary privilege is not breached. That is purely a matter of logistics. The principle is one that the Government, as with Governments before them, take seriously and I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to uphold it.
I take it that my hon. Friend referred not so much to major announcements but to lesser matters that do not warrant a statement in the House or a written answer. I sympathise with him over the difficulty of always keeping up with events when, on any one day, there may be a number of press releases or press conferences going on which involve various Departments. Such press releases are always made available to Members and are sent electronically to the parliamentary on-line information service, the House database, and therefore are accessible throughout the network, if my hon. Friend uses it. I was intrigued by what he said about the potential for using new technology in that context, and in the context of improving our communications generally. That is more a matter for the House authorities to respond to than for me, and I know that some hon. Members are as attached to our somewhat archaic and sometimes arcane ways as my hon. Friend is enthusiastic about modernising them. There are some useful pointers in what he said for further thought on those matters.
While I would not agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said this evening—I do not think that he expected me to—I share his basic proposition that the House and the Government would be foolish not to draw on the knowledge, expertise and experience of all hon. Members. Members of Parliament are returned here on the basis of the views of constituencies of some 70,000 electors and I can assure my hon. Friend that Ministers give great weight to that and treat their opinions and views with the seriousness that they deserve.
My hon. Friend spoke at one point as if Members of Parliament were treated almost as automata, who were under the control of their party Whips. I speak carefully because there is a Whip on the Front Bench, but, as an ex-Whip, let me say that there have been times when I have been tempted to think "Would that that were so". I can assure my hon. Friend that it certainly does not feel like that from the Whips Office, and quite right too.
The House is made up of 651 robust individuals whose position gives them a powerful say in what the Executive can and cannot do. The powers of the House are sovereign and they have the ability to upset the best-laid plans of Ministers and of Government, which no Minister ever forgets, and nor should any Back Bencher.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.