Salter Speaks Wright Committee (and Lies about fellow Labour MP)

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
It was a great pleasure to serve as a member of what is now known as the Wright Committee under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend Dr. Wright. I thought that he made a superb speech tonight and set out a powerful case for the modest package of reforms that the Committee put together in the short space of time that was given to it.
I put particular emphasis on the elected nature of the Wright Committee’s membership. I say to my right hon. Friend Hilary Armstrong that when she did not vote for me as one of Labour’s representatives on the-
Hilary Armstrong (North West Durham, Labour)
That is not true-and I thought it was a secret ballot.
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
When anyone on the Labour Benches did not vote for me or for any other candidate, I hope that they did so on the basis of careful consideration of the reform credentials of all the candidates who put themselves forward for election. Once and for all, we need to nail this nonsense that somehow the election of the Wright Committee was fundamentally flawed. You cannot comb your hair in this House-you cannot utter a single word without it appearing on the internet, in a speech, in Hansard, on a blog or somewhere else. There is no excuse for anybody who voted for any member of the Wright Committee not knowing exactly where those candidates stood on the issue of parliamentary reform. I am delighted that the balance of force and opinion on that Committee was in favour of reformers. The recommendations of the Wright Committee are testament to that.
The Prime Minister himself clearly supports the Wright report. I worried at times about that as there appeared to be some ambiguity in some of the announcements and pronouncements that were made, particularly on procedure, which I shall come to in a moment. However, the Prime Minister said of our recommendations in his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on 2 February:
“These reforms will increase the ability and the legitimacy of Parliament to hold the Government to account-as I believe that the proper role of Parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive, it should be given all the necessary powers and tools to do so.”
The guy at the top is in favour of this, and I hope that an awful lot of the people who work for him are in favour of it.
I certainly know that the proposals have been welcomed in the sensible realms of Her Majesty’s media. On 24 November, Peter Riddell wrote in The Times:
“We need our MPs to be not only honest but also effective in raising our concerns and scrutinising the Government. The former has obviously got the most attention with the expenses row. But the latter is crucial if confidence in Parliament is to be revived. That is why this morning’s report, ‘Rebuilding the House’ from a special Commons reform committee, chaired by Tony Wright, matters.”
We had endorsements from the Financial Times and from The Guardian, which stated:
“Dr Wright’s committee focuses on three subjects that may seem like Westminster arcana but which, separately and together, go to the heart of much that exasperates and angers the public about the workings of parliament…A debate is promised, which is good, but there is no guarantee of a vote, which is…bad. Ministers must get off the fence. They must give unambiguous support to the Wright committee report”-
and said that they must “Do it now.” We appear to have unambiguous support for the recommendations as a result of the helpful statement from the Leader of the House, who has agreed to facilitate a debate on all the matters contained in the 50 recommendations made by the Committee.
Greg Knight (East Yorkshire, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman has told the House that the reform proposals have the support of the Prime Minister, but that might not be enough. Can he tell us whether they have the support of the Labour Chief Whip?
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
It is unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman came late into the debate, because we had an exchange earlier about the ambivalence shown by the Whips on both sides of the House, but it would be churlish to dwell on that. We are moving forward in a consensual bubble and we should seek to capture the mood.
I strongly welcome the endorsement of the recommendations from the Hansard Society and from the six major organisations that have been involved with constitutional and parliamentary reform issues. The letter and the communications that they have put out to Members of Parliament have been helpful and will be useful in focusing people’s minds.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)
As a Member who stood unsuccessfully for election to the Wright Committee, I welcome the work of my hon. Friend and his colleagues. He spoke about the consensual bubble that has existed during this debate, but I am concerned that, with very few dissenting voices, the people who are attending the debate this evening are enthusiasts for the Wright Committee report-
John Mann (Bassetlaw, Labour)
Not all of us.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)
I accept that not all are, but generally those who have spoken or intervened have been enthusiasts. I am anxious that the consensual atmosphere will not sustain itself on Thursday 4 March, and that we might see the same thing that we saw with the Cook reforms, when those who had been most involved in the debate got overridden by organised votes at the end. My hon. Friend has a great tradition of organising for progressive courses, so can he offer some words of comfort to the House on that matter?
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that this was not scripted, but you will certainly be aware of the need for organisation in the House, and I assure you and the House that a level of organisation will be put in place to provide clarity and guidance to those who wish to ensure that when they face the electorate on polling day, they will not be in danger of being cast as roadblocks to reform. I hope that that will give some comfort to my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart.
Hilary Armstrong (North West Durham, Labour)
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
I will not because I have been very generous in giving way, and I think that we have probably heard enough.
In many ways, this debate could have been entitled the “Robin Cook Memorial Debate”. For me, it was a huge pleasure to work with Robin Cook on parliamentary reform. He was, in my view, the greatest leader that the Labour party never had. That work went back to the disgraceful decision to try to exclude Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from their chairmanships of Select Committees by procedural wranglings, through to the internal processes that we adopted within the parliamentary Labour party that stopped the Executive from handing out Select Committee chairs as booby prizes to sacked Ministers. We had a ridiculous situation-it happened on both sides of the House-in which someone would be removed from Government and, as a consolation prize, given a Select Committee chair and they would then scrutinise the decisions that they had made some months previously. If there is one simple principle to which we should all adhere, it is that we cannot have those who would be scrutinised selecting their own scrutineers, and we certainly cannot have Government Ministers or former Government Ministers scrutinising their own decisions in that way. I am glad that we have moved on from that. In many ways, the changes that we have introduced within the parliamentary Labour party, through our internal elections, are reflected in the Wright Committee’s recommendations, and I am delighted that other parties are moving on.
It is worth giving more air time to a couple of other issues. I think that the game is up for us, as Members of Parliament, in terms of the validity of many of our procedures. It is time for us to be honest with the public and to say that early-day motions have become a con trick. They are political graffiti, and we sign too many of them. I am guilty of this; indeed, we all are. I sign too many of them; in many circumstances, I sign them to make people who write to me happy. I should be limited on the number of early-day motions that I may sign-we all should. Frankly, if we were allowed to sign only four or five a month, and if a debate on the Floor of the House were automatically triggered if 50, 60 or 70 per cent. of the House signed up to an early-day motion on a suitable cross-party basis, that would be a way in which the public could meaningfully drive the agenda of this place. Of course, we have to do better with petitions. In many ways, the Scottish Parliament is showing the way forward on that issue. What an absurd treatment of a petition and of the thousands of people who sign it to put it in a bag and forget about it. I cannot quite believe that we are having this debate in the 21st century. These reforms should have been introduced 200 years ago-but better late than never.
I conclude on a serious point. I am leaving this place in a few weeks’ time, but I want to say that this Parliament, of all Parliaments, has been tainted not by the actions of the majority of Members of Parliament who are, on the whole, diligent, hard-working and tremendously committed to the people who they represent, but has been let down by the actions of a minority. This Parliament of all Parliaments needs to show that it is capable of reform, but reform is not 50 recommendations of the Wright Committee, or resolutions tabled by Robin Cook or by Jopling; it is a continuous process, but it has stalled-and for far too long. We now have an opportunity, despite the procedural wranglings, to get the reform agenda back on track and to reconnect this place with the people who sent us here.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

Will my hon. Friend explain to me and to the House why electing the Chairs of Select Committees, which she says are one of the best things that we do here, would damage that process?

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire, Labour)

I am saying that it could damage that process.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

How?

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire, Labour)

The reason why I think it could damage the process is that the only time we have had an election by secret ballot of the whole House was recently, when we elected the Speaker of the House. That is the first and only time that we have done that. Rightly or wrongly, many Members felt that we on the Government Benches, as the ruling party with a Government majority, imposed on the other side of the House, the minority, somebody who was unpalatable to them. That, rightly or wrongly, is what many on the Opposition Benches felt.

Graham Allen (Nottingham North, Labour)

Was it true?

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire, Labour)

I do not know. If we duplicated that process in the election of Select Committee Chairs, we could have a situation in which the party in government imposes on the party of opposition somebody who is unpalatable to them.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

If my hon. Friend refreshes her memory of the report, she will see that we built into the recommendations provision for nominees to have a sufficient proportion of support from both sides of the House. The problem that she identifies has been dealt with in the recommendations of the Committee of which she was a member.

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Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 10:38 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Can you believe this story?

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    (NewsCore)

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