Report from the House of Commons Reform Committee on Rebuilding the House

Charles supports separation of powers and calls for a stronger Parliament to stand up to the Executive.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to speak in this hugely important debate.

May I say, as a member of the Public Administration Committee, what a marvellous Chairman we have in the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)? He has brought his brilliance on the Public Administration Committee to bear on the Wright Committee report. Yes, it is a small step, but it is a fundamentally important step, and a very brave step that he has taken.

During this debate we have asked ourselves what is the role of a Member of Parliament. Of course, a Member of Parliament must be here to scrutinise legislation. We have a duty and obligation to ensure that our constituents are governed by good legislation, not just by any legislation. We have failed at times to ensure that. We must also hold the Government to account, regardless of whether or not they are drawn from our own party. Beyond that, we must be courageous and true to ourselves. We must be representatives of the people who elect us, not delegates.

It is interesting that over the past 30 years, the more we have done for our constituents and the more visible we are in our constituencies, the more people despise us. Gone are the days, 50 years ago, when a Member of Parliament would make a twice-yearly regal visit to the constituency to meet the mayor or go to a fête. We are now mostly based in our constituency for more than half of our time, and many of us make our primary home in our constituency. I am very concerned when I hear hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber talking about direct democracy. Have we lost faith in our own ability to be the effective representatives of those who elected us?

We have representative democracy in this country, and by and large it has served us well for 350 years. If we get it right, it will serve us well for the next 350 years, but radical changes need to be made. The current constitutional settlement is not working. We know and the public know that it is not working. If any good has come out of the expenses scandal, crisis, nightmare of the past nine months, it is that at last we will have a healthy distance between us as Back-Bench Members of Parliament and the Executive.

Our interests are not the interests of the Executive of this country. We have been led up a dead-end road over the past 30 years. We willingly followed and we should not be forgiven for that, but the Executive were prime movers in getting us into the position that we found ourselves in. We should not forget that.

We have a presidential style of government in this country. Do we have government by Cabinet any more? Of course not. We know that. Secretaries of State in the current Government would go to No. 10 to talk to the Prime Minister about policy, and he would turn to them and say, "Funnily enough, my special adviser disagrees with you on that. We're going to do something different." So we do not have government by Cabinet. We do not have a Prime Minister, a first Minister of the Cabinet: we have presidential government, and it is driven by 24-hour media.

We in this place know that only three people in any political party matter. They are the ones who make the weather. In the Government, it is the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and Lord Mandelson. In my party there are many people better qualified than I who will make that judgment, but I am convinced that only three people in each party make the weather.

Mr. Pelling: Is it possible that in the Conservative party one of those three is the former editor of the News of the World?

Mr. Walker: The hon. Gentleman is being ungenerous. There are only three parliamentarians who make the weather in our party, but that is the nature of 24-hour media, which is driving a presidential style of government. I am afraid the truth is that on most occasions we are just backdrop to the big issues of the day.

I have some time for the Prime Minister. I do not think that he is a bad man; he is mistaken in most things, but he is an honourable fellow. However, he came to the House and, with great pride, said, "We bailed out the banks without taking it to the Floor of this House." The decision on the greatest expenditure of public money in living history, or in history, was made without one minute of scrutiny in this place. That really is disgraceful, and it must not be allowed to continue. Our constituents are furious that we allowed it to happen.

Ms Abbott: Does not the complete absence of debate about the issue in this House reflect poorly on the British system and contrast with the extensive debate-whether or not we agree with what people have said-about the very same issue in the United States?

Mr. Walker: The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. We in this place sometimes forget why we are sent here-to represent those who elect us. Sometimes we forget that and spend too much time propping up the Executive of the day or making excuses for them. Let us be in no doubt that the expenses scandal of the past nine months has perversely played into the hands of the Executive, because they like nothing more than a weak and humiliated Parliament, and my word are we not weak and humiliated, bereft of any self-confidence?

I shall conclude with these thoughts, because I have had seven minutes. The public do not want their Members of Parliament to be their best friends or to act like minor celebrities, gurning at the camera week in, week out. We have tried that model for 20 years, and it does not work. What our constituents want more than anything is legislators whom they respect and trust-legislators whom they send to this place, and who they know will stand up for their interests. What is so sad about this place, however, is that so many good people come here with the best of intentions and then the poison of patronage takes over, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said. More than one in two Members hold Front-Bench positions, and when the press say, "We have so many Members of Parliament-646. Why do we need them?", they forget that we draw the Executive from Parliament.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), for whom I have a huge amount of time, I really am in favour of the separation of powers. I have had enough. I did not come here to make up the numbers, and I am afraid that I did not come here to be the lackey of the Whips. I came here to represent the people of Broxbourne. I am and always will be a Conservative, but the idea that one has to agree with every policy from one's Front Benchers, or with every policy in the manifesto, is total and utter nonsense.

Martin Salter: The hon. Gentleman is clearly not seeking preferment under a future Government. Does he not agree that, far from bellyaching and whining about the Whips, we parliamentarians must collectively get off our knees and use the powers that we already have? We can call Ministers and even shadow spokespeople to account if we act collectively and have the courage to organise in the Lobbies.

Mr. Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes a great point. We give the Whips their powers. If we chose to ignore them on occasions, they would have no power. If we chose to put a parliamentary career ahead of a ministerial career, they would have less power.

"Back Bencher" is now used as a term of derision by the public, by the press, and at times, shamefully, by our own Front Benchers. I am proud to be a Member of Parliament. Funnily enough, the leaders of the political parties are simply Members of Parliament. They should, on occasion, remember and recognise that, because I feel that the time is fast coming when we shall remind them of it.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: My hon. Friend is a wonderful Member of Parliament and an example to new Members coming into this House. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) that Back Benchers united can always defeat the Executive, and that that is what we should do?

Mr. Walker: I say this to my hon. Friend: we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more!

We are told by the press that the public want strong leadership and that that is what they deserve. In 1974, turnout in the general election was more than 80 per cent.; in 2005, it was just over 60 per cent. That is the answer that the public give to strong government. It has got to end, and it has got to end soon.

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