LILLEY INTRODUCES BILL TO SET PARLIAMENT FREE TO SCRUTINISE GOVERNMENT PROPERLY AGAIN

- Wednesday, 17th June 2009

 

 

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE RT HON PETER LILLEY MP

Wednesday June 17th 2009

LILLEY INTRODUCES BILL TO SET PARLIAMENT FREE TO SCRUTINISE GOVERNMENT PROPERLY AGAIN.

 

Peter Lilley, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, wants to remove the government’s power to put a time limit on debates in the House of Commons unless it allows Parliament to sit as long as it used to, so that members have more opportunities to scrutinise legislation.

He is today introducing a Bill to stop government guillotining debates unless they let the Commons sit as long as they did in the past.

Peter Lilley said: “The government has decided that Parliament will sit for fewer days this year than in any year since 1945.

“But it is still using powers – once reserved for exceptional cases – to restrict the time available for debate on every single Bill.

“As a result, large swathes of legislation leave the Commons without ever having been scrutinised at all.

“My Bill will stop future governments curtailing debate if parliament is scheduled to sit for fewer days than the average of recent years.

“Sizeable chunks of legislation receive grossly inadequate consideration, and thousands of pieces of secondary legislation go through without even a vote.

“In the present climate people assume that this proves MPs are lazy as well as greedy.

“But far from being lazy, most MPs are eager to scrutinise legislation, hold ministers to account and debate the Opposition’s alternative policies.   It is Ministers, not backbench MPs, who prefer to send parliament away for as long as possible – because all governments (not just this one) find it disagreeable being scrutinised, criticised and held to account.

“I believe scrutiny is good for good government.

“A government with good policies, with confidence in those policies and with the humility to respond to constructive criticism has nothing to fear and much to gain from a full and thorough Parliamentary examination of its proposals.”

* A copy of Peter Lilley's speech is attached

ENDS


PROGRAMMING OF BILLS (SUSPENSION) BILL

Mr speaker, I beg leave to bring in a bill to provide for the suspension of programming of bills when the house of commons is scheduled to meet for fewer than a prescribed number of days in any specified period; and for connected purposes.

The only possible justification for guillotining debate and preventing thorough scrutiny of legislation by this house is a shortage of parliamentary time.

Yet the government has decided that parliament will sit fewer days this year than in any year since 1945.

But they are still using powers – once reserved for exceptional cases – to restrict the time available for debate on every single bill.

As a result, large swathes of legislation leave this place without ever having been scrutinised at all.

My bill will mean that in future no government could restrict the time available for debate on bills if parliament is scheduled to sit for, say, fewer days than the average of recent years.

This will free parliament to do what it is supposed to do – scrutinise legislation thoroughly and hold the government to account.

I regularly invite everyone on the electoral register in a cluster of streets in my constituency to visit parliament.   They come in large numbers.    One question they often ask is: “isn’t parliament just a talking shop and a waste of time?”

They are right that it is a talking shop. .

The very word parliament comes from the french; parler – to talk. That’s what we do.

But they’re wrong to say that’s a waste of time

There are only two ways to govern a country.   One is where the government says “these are the laws – obey them; these are the taxes – pay them; you have no say in the matter”.

The second way, which we have developed in this place over a thousand years, is that no law may be introduced and no tax imposed until it has been discussed and debated in this house and a majority of the representatives of the british people have given it their assent.

That is what this place is for – to debate and discuss exhaustively whether each bill is right in principle and whether it will work in practice in the light of all the submissions we receive from our constituents and others affected by it.

That takes time.

So the idea of curtailing debate is one that has always been alien to this house.

An alien thing, given an alien name - “the guillotine” - when parliament accepted the need, in extremis, to put a time limit on debate.

It has since been invoked only sparingly.

The last conservative government only guillotined between 4 and 5 bills a year.

However, this government decided early on that all bills should be guillotined –renamed “programming” in new labour newspeak.

Programming was supposed to ensure that every bill would receive full consideration.

That hasn’t happened.

All too many bills leave this house with sizeable chunks never debated in standing committee and with grotesquely inadequate consideration by the whole house at report stage.

In three-quarters of bills last year this chamber was not allowed to debate all the groups of amendments selected for debate by the speaker.

The government deliberately restricted time for debate on the human fertilisation and embryology bill so that dozens of new clauses were not debated.

On the counter terrorism bill members had only three hours to discuss 16 new clauses and 60 amendments covering crucial issues like post-charge questioning and control orders.

On the climate change bill we were not allowed to debate the crucial amendment increasing the carbon reduction target from 60% to 80% - which doubled the bill’s cost and many supporters felt did not go far enough.

Moreover, the time saved on debating primary legislation has not been used to scrutinise secondary legislation which increasingly accounts for the substance of our laws.

The proportion of statutory instruments requiring the affirmatory procedure considered by the whole house has fallen from one third in the last three years of the major government to just 6% now. 

And of the thousands of statutory instruments subject to the negative procedure the number put to the vote in the chamber declined from one in 200 under the last government – bad enough - to only one in 1000 now.

In the present climate people assume that this proves mps are lazy as well as greedy.

I will say nothing of greed – other than that many honourable members backed my last 10 minute rule bill even though it was to cut mps’ pay whenever we give away powers to europe or the courts.

But, far from being lazy, most mps are eager to scrutinise legislation, hold ministers to account and debate the opposition’s alternative policies.

We would willingly do so for longer.   

It is ministers, not backbench mps, who prefer to send parliament away for as long as possible – because all governments (not just this one) find it disagreeable being scrutinised, criticised and held to account.

There is a myth, given a new lease of life by the recent crisis of confidence in parliament - that debates no longer matter; that mps are lobby fodder controlled by ever more powerful whips.

Commentators hark back to the golden age when mps were supposedly more independent minded, whips had less power and governments could only get legislation through by genuinely convincing their own supporters or winning over some opposition mps.

In fact, professor cowley’s evidence to the modernisation committee demonstrates that things have been moving in precisely the opposite direction.

When lord hailsham - back in 1957 - described the british constitution as ‘an elected dictatorship’, there was a lot of truth in his description.  

Between 1945 and 1970, there was not a single government defeat in the house of commons as a result of backbench dissent.  

There were two sessions in the 1950s during which not a single government mp defied their whip.

Yet, since then, back benchers have become increasingly independent minded in each successive parliament.

Over 4200 votes were cast against the conservative whip during margaret thatcher’s government and no fewer than 6500 votes cast against the labour whip in the same period of this government.

Despite new labour’s passion for discipline and its big majorities, it has faced the largest rebellions since the corn laws.

Time and again it has only been able to get legislation through by making concessions to critics on its own side, by winning the support of minor parties or by relying on the opposition.

And on issues like 42 days it ultimately had to back down.

As it did recently on the gurkhas.

And it may have to back down on the post office – just as john major’s cabinet did on the same issue.

One reason mps are more independent minded nowadays is that we are in continual dialogue with our constituents in ways that did not happen in the past.

They write to us, question us, email back to us, will not be fobbed off with the official party brief, and so force us to look at controversial issues in depth.

And, on occasion, in trying to convince our electors that our party’s line is correct we end up convincing ourselves that it needs to change.

I believe that is a good thing.

It means debate matters, scrutiny matters, parliament matters.

But those things require time.

I remember labour’s chief whip, the late lord cocks, telling me – “peter, time is the only weapon the opposition have; we can’t win the votes but given time we can win the argument; and given time we can drum those arguments in until your ministers loose confidence in their policies, you loose confidence in them and the public loose confidence in the lot of you.”

My bill will give future oppositions that time.

So i know i can count on the support of all those honourable members opposite who recognise that they may be sitting on these benches before too long.

By contrast, some of my honourable friends on the front bench may – have their doubts.

Scrutiny is uncomfortable.

The first instinct of every whip is to curtail it, if they can’t prevent it entirely.

But i believe scrutiny is good for good government.

A government with good policies, with confidence in its policies, and with the humility to respond positively to constructive criticism of its policies has nothing to fear and much to gain from full and thorough scrutiny in this place.

So i beg leave to bring in this bill.

[1425 words]

 

 

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