House Business Committee

14th October 2014





That this House has considered the creation of a House Business Committee.

Welcome to the Chair, Mr Pritchard. It would probably be hard to think of anything more technical, boring or dry than a House Business Committee—that is what people would like you to think. But it is actually the heart of political power in respect of Parliament’s relationship to Government. It is amazing that in this day and age, at least 200 years since Montesquieu wrote “The Spirit of Laws”, which talked about the separation of powers, the good old United Kingdom still does not have a written settlement. It does not have something that we can all refer to so that we know what Parliament does, what Government do and what the judiciary does, and that keeps them separate.

The lesson learned at great cost in the French revolution, and enacted with some blood in the American revolution, has bypassed the United Kingdom. We still have a system that Charles I would recognise, in which the Executive have supreme control and what they say goes—only Charles I would see that instead of a monarch, we have a Government. They are benign, because we live in a democratic culture, and people are normally very nice to each other and quite polite. The reality, however, is that power is exercised by Government over Parliament, rather than Government seeing Parliament as a partner. That makes our system dysfunctional and incapable of providing a serious process of reconciliation or holding to account.

Of course, many people have vested interests in keeping the system exactly the way it is. I put it to the Government, at both ministerial and official level, that that is an immature way of viewing our politics. It weakens our politics and our governance, particularly in this day and age when people are so turned off by politics in general. This is a moment where we can win people back, and say, “You know what? We are going to listen to people. We do not always want to do what they tell us, but we will listen to them and their elected representatives because that is part of the warp and weft of our democracy.”

By doing that, we could bring people together and command greater consensus on our decision making. The decision-making process would be less arbitrary and much stronger if we had that level of maturity in our politics—if the Government did not cynically laugh up their sleeve and say, “We are going to ram this through if we possibly can, come what may, despite what people think,” rather than, “I wonder whether any of these people in Parliament who are not in government have a contribution to make. Shall we listen on the off-chance that they have?”

Perhaps if we had a proper Report stage in the House of Commons, we could find a way of making better law. Perhaps it would save us time, because we would not have to come back to things, as we infamously did on, I think, five occasions during one Parliament on a criminal justice Bill. If we listened to people, we would not have to swallow, give in or U-turn, but we could distinguish the good from the bad and help to make our system better. Doing so would make our politics and our democracy stronger, and it would certainly make our Parliament and governmental relationship stronger.

That is not the way we have chosen to do things so far, however. The Wright Committee suggested that we should have a House Business Committee. Why would we want such a thing? It would bring to the table Parliament and the respective Whips. In addition to those who work for the Government and the alternative Government, it would bring to the table some people from the institution—perhaps the leader of the 1922 committee, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, a couple of people elected from the Back Benches, someone from a minority party and a nominee of the Speaker. The committee could have a majority from the Government so that, having heard all the voices, the Government could still, if they wanted, ram through whatever they felt was convenient to their long-term interest, whoever was in power.

We would not lose a lot by having such a meeting once a week, and we would risk gaining an incredible amount. For instance, the 90 minutes allocated for the debate in the main Chamber tonight, which everybody seems to feel is incredibly important, on whether there should be a legally binding obligation on deficit reduction could be extended. We could use parliamentary time more effectively. Perhaps, Mr Gapes, someone of your distinguished history on that committee might say, “We are going to clear off early if we possibly can on Tuesday, and we will have only four people in the Chamber. Why don’t we use that time effectively to discuss important issues?” It would not be necessary to find a clerkly device to wangle one’s way on to the agenda and squeak in a few words to heckle the Executive steamroller; instead, we could have a proper debate on refugees, on the Redcar steelworks or on tax credits. We have just had such a debate in Westminster Hall, which is a well-attended but nonetheless secluded venue for something so important.

I do not raise this matter—yet again—in anger; I raise it in frustration at the fact that our governance is such that we would rather keep control than find a sensible way to conduct a modern and mature democracy.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Can the hon. Gentleman explain to me why in May 2009, the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, made a powerful speech about fixing broken politics, in which he said that there should be a business of the House committee; why he committed in the coalition agreement to establishing such a committee within three years of the Parliament; and why it never actually happened? What evil forces behind the scenes are stopping this?

Mr Allen: I do not believe that there are any evil forces. There is a desire when in government not to be bothered with explaining things any more than one has to. Governments want to get on and do business. There is a feeling that parliamentarians can be treated with contempt, because Parliament is a holding pen for the sheep who will troop through the Lobbies to enact measures that have been in a manifesto or on the Government’s agenda, and that is the way things are done. I do not think that people are evil, unpleasant or malicious; I think that they are simply missing an opportunity.

I want to mention the two most powerful people in the House of Commons: Roy Stone, the principal private secretary to the Chief Whip, and Mike Winter, the head of the Office of the Leader of the House. They are decent civil servants, but they could be told by an incoming Prime Minister, “This is simply not good enough. We are a laughing stock compared with other legislatures.”

We are elected on election day and the electorate give us legitimacy, which is sucked out of us by a Government who have no legitimacy of their own. They are not directly elected, so they have to get legitimacy from somewhere. It is rather like a scene from a science fiction film in which people are tied to a wall and pipes attached to their veins, so that they can give sustenance to a beast that sucks their blood. Government suck out the legitimacy that the electorate give to Parliament and leave us a shell, and we are the worse for it. Government stride off, pumped up with the legitimacy that is rightfully Parliament’s, because they have none of their own.

I do not blame any of the civil servants or incumbent Ministers, because that has been a feature of governance in this country—this includes Labour Governments and Labour Prime Ministers—for as long as I have been in Parliament. I am simply trying to put on the table yet again the fact that there is a better way of doing things, as a result of which we would not be held so much in contempt. If the Government involved Parliament and listened to people, they would act as a symbol to people out there that we are doing things in a different way.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important subject, as he has for many years. The lesson is that all Governments and Governments-in-waiting are power retentive, with an addiction to hanging on to every scrap of power. They think that, in setting up a House Business Committee through which the House decided its own business, they would lose a minute part of their power.

Because of the Petitions Committee, earlier this week this room was filled with members of the public, who were all allowed to use their iPads to send messages, intent on a subject of their choice through petition. That is one step forward but, unfortunately, it tends to end in disappointment because no decisions are taken at the end of those petition debates.

Mr Allen: Yes, the petitions question is one that my Select Committee—the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) was a distinguished member—looked at, along with all the Wright reforms. Indeed, one of my anxieties is that new Members coming to this place just assume that some of those bits of progress are part of the atmosphere here and have been for several hundred years—not true. Select Committee Chairs and members, some of whom are present today, have just been elected for only the second time in parliamentary history.

Before that, the Government—the very institution that is meant to be held to account—decided who went on those Committees. What an absolute nonsense that was! I was in the Whips Office; of course the people who the Whips think will do more appropriate things were put on Committees. They are not going to put difficult people into politically tender situations. People are going to be rewarded with Select Committee Chairs and so on. That is no way to run a democracy.

Fundamentally, GCSE-level politics says that unless we have a plurality of institutions, each with their own legitimacy, independence and standing, we cannot say that we have the structure of a genuine democracy. That is where we need to get to and where we will get to, either by kicking and screaming as the Union is dismembered, mass cynicism pervades the electorate and the concept of democracy starts to come under threat, or by using our brains to try to get people to pull together and act in partnership, in a plural way, to build the democracy that the country deserves and needs.

I just managed to squeak in, Mr Gapes, moments before your good self because I was on the Floor of the House where we were talking about devolution, democracy and giving people power. I welcome the Cities and Local Government Bill and the efforts of the Secretary of State who has done a fantastic job on it, perhaps to the alarm of some of my colleagues. But we need to spread that further. We need to say to people, “We cannot do this in little isolated blocks. We actually need to renew our democracy.” That is my ask of Government Ministers and officials.

I know there is a speech ready. I know it will say, “Have we have passed the test set by Mr Lansley? Yes we have. Blah blah.” There will be a defence that although it appeared in the coalition agreement and was reneged on, there were reasons for that. There will, no doubt, be a statement saying, “It was in the manifesto but we didn’t do it. The Prime Minister himself committed to serious reform and certain things got in the way.” I am not interested, to be honest. I would like the Minister to get to her feet and engage me in debate about why we cannot build a better way of running the relationship between Government and Parliament without it being a relationship of subordination and domination. Why can we not get that fantastic added value that we all get in our family affairs by having a properly balanced relationship where discussions happen and decisions are made when people come to a consensus?

I will put this matter on the agenda again if I can. There is a lot more to be said. I could say a lot more but it would be very repetitive because we have raised the issue since the Wright Committee. In other words, we have raised the issue with all parties in Government. We have raised this issue with coalition Governments, Labour Governments and Conservative Governments. At one point in this historical process—I hope I am still alive to see it and cheer: from afar, no doubt—the Government will accept that building an effective, honest and open partnership with Parliament is a better way to govern a democracy that to do what they do now, which is often to impose and to control.

<span 12.8px;="" line-height:="" 16.64px;"="">Let a thousand flowers bloom. Let a debate take place. Perhaps a House Business Committee—minor though that may be, and technical and dry though it may sound —could be a symbol of that new start.