The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997-2001 Parliament

Mr Major’s Commons Speech on the Modernisation of Parliament – 22 July 2000

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons speech on the Modernisation of Parliament, made on the 22nd July 2000.

Mr Major: This was beginning to turn into a rather partisan debate. It is fortunate that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) moved away from that, because the debate affects all of us. It is essentially about the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. Many hon. Members, not only sitting on the Conservative Benches, believe that over a long period–I do not mean simply in this Parliament–the Executive have been getting stronger and the Commons has been getting weaker. That trend has now reached a stage where it should be reversed, and that is what the debate essentially is about.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Prime Minister took time out of the debate at the beginning of the afternoon for a statement that could just as easily have been made at the beginning of next week to permit more hon. Members to express their views on the procedures of the Commons. It was a foolish thing to do.
I am leaving the House at the general election, so I have no further ambitions here. There is nothing that the Prime Minister, or for that matter my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, can offer me that I wish to have. That puts me in an excellent position to express some home truths, and I intend to do so for the good of the House and for no other purpose.
The House of Commons has been a very large part of my life. I always wished to come here, and I have loved every moment–or, to be strictly honest, nearly every moment. As I prepare to leave the House I wish to see it thrive, because, for all its shortcomings, it remains the best and least corrupt system of government that I have ever seen.
Yet today this House and those of us who are privileged to be sent here to serve in it are held in less regard by our electors than I can ever recall. That is not true of Members of Parliament individually. There is still a great deal of affection for them in their constituencies. But it is true of Members of Parliament as a body and of the House as a whole. We are not popular out there, and that long-term trend has been worsening.
That must be changed. I do not believe that it will be changed if the House is perceived by the electorate to be as putty in the hands of any Government with a secure majority and a good whipping system. It is in the interests of the institution of Parliament itself that we should have reforms to begin to reverse that perception and that reality.
The main reform that we need is to change the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, which has become unbalanced over the past 20 or 25 years. I believe that we must begin to change the perception that any Government with a large majority and an efficient Whips Office is a five-year elected dictatorship. To do so, the House must have more power, Back Benchers must have more power and the Government must have less power. I am aware that I might well have done more about that, and I am prepared to accept the blame, but we must now look at the future of the House.
Many years ago, under a different Government, Lord Pym warned of the dangers of too large a majority. I think that we have seen that vividly demonstrated in this Parliament. Too much legislation is pushed through, too much of it poorly considered. We have had twice as many timetable motions of one sort or another in this Parliament as between 1990 and 1997.
Parliament is often ignored–it is bypassed. As Cabinet Government declines, special advisers proliferate. Statements in the House too often follow public announcements of policy rather than preceding them. Even the Prime Minister–who courteously told me that he has to be elsewhere now–went to Germany to announce his policy on hooligans and cashpoints rather than doing so in this House or in this country.
The Government press machine has been almost wholly politicised. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who is not in his seat at the moment, for tabling questions that reveal the scale and extent of that. No. 10 is being strengthened as the House is effectively being weakened.
I think that some of the proposals on modernisation are welcome, and I congratulate the Leader of the House on those–others I think are potty. However, the overall balance of those proposals threatens to turn the Commons into an irrelevance, with even the weapon of delay now to be stolen from the Opposition. That is a wretched situation. It may suit the Government, but Labour Back Benchers will not always be on the Government Benches.
It was a bad start to this Parliament when the Prime Minister decided that Prime Minister’s Question Time should take place once a week, not twice. There was no consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. I know–I was the Leader of the Opposition. There was no consultation with the leader of the Liberal Democrats or the other parties. The Prime Minister rang me up and told me what he had unilaterally decided about how and when he would present himself to this House for accountability. He should have consulted on such a change and the House should have voted on it, but it was imposed on the House. Taking questions once a week for 30 minutes is far less taxing, believe me, than taking them twice a week for 15 minutes, when contemporary events can be raised.
That has had a secondary malign effect. More often than not, once Prime Minister’s Question Time is over on a Wednesdays, the House is nearly deserted, The Marie Celeste was crowded compared with this House on many Thursdays and Fridays when there is no special business as there is today.
Lord Norton says that Prime Minister’s Question Time should be twice a week for 30 minutes. Good for Lord Norton–I am just glad that I will not be doing it. Two sessions a week of 15 minutes is enough. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition says that he will in due course do two sessions of 20 minutes. Well, good for him. As it might have been said in “Yes, Prime Minister”, that is a very courageous decision by my right hon. Friend.
The outcome of this debate should not just be that the Government outvote the Opposition. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the House should listen; they should set up consultations with Opposition parties and Back Benchers to consider changes.
In the circumstances that have developed over the years, more powerful Select Committees have become desirable. I would favour paying their Chairmen and allowing the House to elect their Chairmen and membership. If we can provide an alternative parliamentary career to parliamentarians, then Parliament will be strengthened instead of the Executive. That is the right direction.
I favour the announcement of the parliamentary programme for several years; the proposals should face pre-legislative scrutiny, with evidence taken in public. Many of the deficiencies in proposed legislation could thus be dealt with at an early stage. To persuade the Government to accept that suggestion, I offer the example of the poll tax. Under such a system, it would never have emerged in the form it took–nor would much other legislation.
We need such reforms. I would establish a Standing Committee of both Houses to consider constitutional reform. Before a Government just decide on such a matter, let that Committee examine it and take evidence. I would favour the Prime Minister breaking with past tradition and attending Select Committees to answer questions in a more clement atmosphere than that of Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House.
The problems did not all arise during this Parliament–that is not my case–but the style of the Labour Government and the scale of their majority have brought them into sharp relief and worsened them. When the Government were elected, they had unprecedented good will, a huge majority, a growing economy, low inflation and falling unemployment; and the fiscal position was returning to balance–although the Chancellor does not like to admit it. The Government had a golden opportunity. However, compared with the achievements of Parliament between 1945 and 1950, under the Attlee Government, or even between 1983 and 1987, under the Government of my right hon. and noble Friend Lady Thatcher, that opportunity has been squandered.
The Prime Minister can still retrieve the situation. Let him consult all the Opposition parties and his Back Benchers on reforms to strengthen the House. Let him sack the spin doctors, who so mislead, and the political press officers who are a stain on Parliament’s traditional procedures. Let him get rid of the advisers who have often become more influential than his Ministers. Let him instruct his Ministers that Parliament–this House–must be the first to be told of his policy developments. Let him begin to restore to the House of Commons the power that it has lost. For if he will not do so, it will be done for him–either in this or in another Parliament. If he will not do it, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition will do it for him, but whoever does it, the sooner it is done, the better.