Charles Walker welcomes parliamentary procedure trial and considers the role of e-petitions

Speaking in the House of Commons

Charles Walker welcomes a trial which will change parliamentary procedure to give back bench MPs more opportunity to debate amendments. He also calls on the House of Commons to play a lead role in the petition system and for petitioners to be given support and guidance about reasonable expectations of the result of any petition.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): First, I want to thank the Leader of the House for being so expansive in his arguments and when explaining the reasons behind many of the Government’s positions. I will focus first on some of the Procedure Committee recommendations, and come on to the issues relating to e-petitions at the end of my short speech.

I think that the decision on Standing Order No. 33, which allows amendments to be called at the end of the Queen’s Speech, was made after consultation between the Leader of the House and interested parties. I think it reflects a certain maturity in his office, a willingness to listen to diverse views and, in the end, an ability to make the right decision. The Leader of the House knows that no decision will be met uniformly with acclaim. That is just not possible, but I think that what we have before us today is about the best result we could have hoped for. It reflects the original position put forward by the Procedure Committee after consultation with various interested parties, including the Speaker’s office, the Leader of the House’s office and the shadow Leader of the House. So the decision on Standing Order No. 33 is a step in the right direction and I welcome it.

The Procedure Committee has also made some recommendations around programming. I could spend the next 10 minutes focusing on those aspects of our report that the Government rejected and do not feel comfortable about, but that would be extremely churlish. Today, as we head towards the Prorogation of this Parliament, we should focus on the positives that have come out of our reports, not the negatives. I regard this as a journey and all journeys start with a step, and then baby steps along the way until eventually we reach our point of arrival. I might not be alive to see that point of arrival, but it is just possible that my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be able to celebrate that.

Our changes to programming come under the heading “Boring but important.” Anybody who reads The Week magazine, which makes us all instant experts—give it 10 minutes of our time and we become a world expert on what is going on in Ukraine, South Africa or Brazil—will know it has a section headed “Boring but important”, and I think that that applies to our changes to programming. They might be boring but they are very, very important.

Mr Harper: And very exciting.

Mr Walker: And quite exciting. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) for that useful intervention from a sedentary position.

As things currently stand, let us imagine what would happen if we were taking the Report stage of a Bill on a Thursday. Colleagues will remember that there were occasions when we did consider Government business on a Thursday. We do not do that any more and many see that as an advance.

I greatly enjoy the opportunity to have Backbench Business Committee debates and to hear from informed colleagues about the subjects that matter to them and their constituents, so I am not harking back nostalgically to having Report stages on Thursdays. Rather, I am just asking us to imagine what the process would look like were we doing a Report stage on a Thursday now. On Tuesday night, amendments and new clauses would need to be tabled by 7.30 pm, when the House rises. On Wednesday morning amendments and new clauses would appear on the Order Paper. That evening the Government, following discussions with the usual channels, would table a supplementary programme motion dividing the time between the various new clauses and amendments. I am afraid that, at present, the supplementary programme motions are often informed guesswork. On that Thursday morning the selection and grouping would be circulated to Members, but the problem is that the supplementary programme motion is tabled before selection and grouping appears so it cannot take account of that selection and grouping. Therefore we get the inefficient allocation of time that creates difficulties for Members.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con) rose—

Mr Walker: If I have made a terrible mistake, I give way reluctantly to my hon. Friend.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and he certainly has not made a mistake. It just occurred to me that if the Government are aware of these matters slightly earlier in the proceedings, they may be able to use that information to their advantage to stop debate on things that they find inconvenient.

Mr Walker: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, mostly because it was not targeted at me.

Let me explain what we are proposing. I think it is important that anybody who takes an interest in our debates or in parliamentary procedure or who reads Hansard should know what these changes mean. As of the next Session, on Monday the amendments and new clauses would be tabled. On Tuesday the amendments and new clauses would appear on the Order Paper. On Wednesday morning the draft selection and grouping would be done by the Speaker, and after that the supplementary programme motion would be tabled, and we would have the Report stage on Thursday.

I do not think that this will create a new nirvana for the House of Commons—that is an impossible aspiration—but let us just hope that this is a small improvement that pays some rather large dividends, because it is important for our constituents to know that their elected representatives will, if they feel strongly about something, get the chance to debate such issues or concerns on the Floor of the House during the Report stage. That is what we are proposing, and I am delighted that the Government have accepted it on a trial basis. I hope that it proves to be an enormous success.

Finally, I want to talk about e-petitions. The Procedure Committee is delighted to look at the issue. It has been bubbling away for a number of years and the systems we have, and have had, are by no means perfect. I hear the concerns raised by my fellow Select Committee Chairmen on the Opposition Benches. First, it is important that when we have e-petitions we do not set unrealistic expectations as to what can be achieved. We sit in a representative democracy; we are elected by our constituents to come here to represent them and our seats, and to raise their concerns in this place. We are not delegates; we are representatives and it is important to remember that. That is why an e-petitioning system that provides for additional debates in this place must not come at the cost of existing debates relating to Members of Parliament or those moved by Members of Parliament in approaches to the Backbench Business Committee. It is possible in the parliamentary weekly calendar to find more time for these debates to take place. Westminster Hall, for example, is still not fully utilised. Again, in bringing forward this additional time, we do need to set realistic expectations of what can be achieved. Having a debate in this place allows for issues of the day to be aired and for the Government to take note of those issues and go away and reflect on them, but it does not lead to a guarantee of legislation, and it is important that people entering the e-petition system understand that.

I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, that, ideally, the House of Commons will play a lead role in the petition system. I wish to see the wonderful officers of the House at the forefront of this process, guiding and explaining petitioners through the process, and explaining to them what they can hope to achieve from an e-petition. I very much see the House of Commons at the heart of this process, and that is not to be churlish to the Leader of the House or to the Government. I hope that the Procedure Committee will hear from the Government and from interested parties across the House and outside this place who want to see the best possible petition system put in place. The system should carry the confidence not only of the public, which is of course important, but critically of Members of Parliament, who will have to be at the forefront of taking a petition forward and moving it through the House of Commons.

That is really all I have to say. I thank the Clerk of my Committee and his team for all their hard work, and also those members of my Committee who have turned up today from beautiful places such as Birmingham, Somerset and Bury. What a fantastic effort it is for all these people to be here today supporting this Committee report when I know that they have pressing engagements in their own constituencies that they have had to put on hold.

Without detaining the House much further, I will make just one final point. There is one outstanding report left—it is outstanding because of its content and because it has not yet been dealt with—and that relates to private Members’ Bills. Our Committee is not suggesting anything revolutionary. We have come to a good agreement and compromise with the Government on what is achievable in the next Session, and I hope that we find time to debate that report on the Floor of the House before this Session ends in the next few days.

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Other interventions in the same debate

Mr Charles Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Petitions cannot be a panacea for the public. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have often received a communication from one individual that has spurred me into action, so powerful has it been. That has led to my approaching Government and colleagues in the House to ask for action to be taken.

Mr Allen: I agree, and I shall come on to the point about how we direct people to a better way of doing what they want to do.

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Mr Charles Walker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time; I will not detain him again. We must be careful to avoid promoting the idea that it is only through petitions that the House will debate matters of interest to our constituents. Whether I agree with the substance of the debates or not, we have had debates on badger culling, the spare room subsidy, Europe, immigration, and so on. Those subjects and many more have been debated on the Floor of the House. It may well be that our constituents do not like the outcome of those debates, or the decisions taken at the end of them, but actually very many debates of interest to our constituents happen anyway because we are in touch with our constituents, despite what the media would try and have them believe.

Mr Allen: Indeed many of those debates, and many of the 29 listed by the Leader of the House, did not arise from a petition.

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Mr Charles Walker: May I say to the hon. Lady, before she gets too depressed, that we have reached the shoulder of the mountain, but the summit remains to be conquered?

Helen Goodman: I am glad that the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who chairs it most ably, is showing once again his political nous in his attempts to corral us. I hope he is right and that, after this experiment, the Procedure Committee will be able to return to matter and see whether it has achieved its purpose. If not, I hope not only that the experiment will result in a permanent change to Standing Orders, but that all of the third report’s proposals will be fully implemented.

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