“This talk is entitled ‘Parliamentary Reform: Year One Report.’ I hope you will find what I have to say a little less dry than that may imply.
I am pleased to announce that the Government has been persuaded by those within and beyond Parliament that there is an urgent need for a fundamental reshaping of the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. There can be no more appropriate proponent of this than my own Deputy, David Heath, who, until the last election led him into Government, consistently argued for such reform.
Just last year, in evidence to, and debates on, the Wright Committee, David described how ‘Executive control over the procedure of the House holds up the proper scrutiny and proper initiation of business’; that ‘Reform ought to be a tide coming in. …Reform of the House is necessary and urgent’ and ‘An Everest of reform is necessary if we are to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed – into the 21st century – and make it fit for purpose.’
More particularly, he argued that ‘It should not be for the Leader of the House – or the shadow Leader of the House, or me – to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business’, and ’Standing Order 14 is the obstacle to this House behaving like a responsible, sensible, modern House of Commons… It has got to go. Until it goes, we will not be able to make the progress that I think the House wants.’
I, and the Government, now agree with this analysis, and we will do all we properly can to remedy this situation. Those steps which are in the Government’s own hands will be taken promptly, and for those which are properly matters for the House itself to decide, we will do all necessary to facilitate them (as where legislation or motions are required), and pledge not to use our inbuilt numerical or procedural control to impede or frustrate such discussion and decisions the House as a whole wishes to make. My focus is the House of Commons, but I assume that change will impact directly or otherwise on the Upper House, and our new approach will apply to its different internal circumstances, and to relations between the two Houses.
1. The House’s agenda and sittings will no longer be determined almost exclusively by the Government. As the Wright Committee rightly said, the current system ‘infantilises Members and demonises Government.’ S.O. No. 14, and all other procedural rules and practices which entrench Executive control of the Commons calendar and agenda, need to be replaced at once. Some form of comprehensive Business Committee is required, and we now accept that there is no reason for this change not to be implemented, albeit on an interim basis, for the return of the House in January 2012 after the Christmas recess.
2. The archaic and presumptuous title of ‘Leader of the House’ will be replaced by the more appropriate ‘Minister for Parliamentary Business’, where I and my Deputy will focus on the job of supporting the Government’s proper role within the House.
3. The House of Commons Commission, which runs the institutional side of the House, should be reformed (a) to remove the front benches from membership, to ensure that it properly and effectively represents the whole House collectively, and not particular political parties or Governments or Oppositions, and (b) to enable it to manage the House, supported by a ‘fit-for-purpose’ staff organisation. In a modern accountable democracy, we believe that that the public should have a direct role in the running of its own representative assembly, whether by direct membership or otherwise.
4. We will support reforms to particular structures and procedures of the House that the House collectively wishes, including the extension of those which has evolved in specific areas over recent years, such as parity of membership between Government and Opposition in all committees; extension of the power beyond Ministers to initiate and pilot legislation; development of more effective methods of scrutiny of government and its policies, activities and conduct; inclusion of lay membership on appropriate internal House management and oversight bodies, and much wider public engagement in Parliament generally.
We are not laying down any details of particular reforms to structures, organisation, procedures or practice. That is for the House to decide, and we hope that the Speaker, the Commission and relevant committees and staff will urgently discuss how to establish promptly that process. We hope that this will be a fully open, transparent and evidence-based public process, with appropriate direct public engagement. Its activities should not preclude immediate changes, such as those I have announced here, even those of an interim nature. The Government, as a major participant in the operation and business of the House, will present its own proposals as appropriate, to be considered alongside those that emanate from all other sources within and beyond the House.
Parliament is the ultimate constitutional watchdog, because it scrutinises the Government of the country on behalf of the people. It is wholly illogical, inefficient and constitutionally improper for the very body being scrutinised to have the dominant say in how its watchdog is structured and operates. A more appropriate relationship between Parliament and Government – which also recognises the appropriate roles of Members individually and collectively, within political parties, House committees and otherwise – and, just as important, a more dynamic and meaningful relationship between these two institutions and the public they represent and serve, will be to the benefit of all. Not least, it will provide the environment for a more mature, accountable and responsible Parliament, which can earn the trust and confidence of the public.
I commend this approach to Parliament and the public, and hope the Constitution Unit will play its full part in the process. Thank you.”