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Sir George Young: Giving power back to Parliament

Conference, I’m delighted to be back in the front line and opening this session on repairing broken politics. I knew David was committed to the environment, and he has proved this by recycling a former Shadow Leader of the House.

Before I go any further, I should like to say how grateful I am to my predecessor, Alan Duncan, for doing the job before me in what has been one of the most challenging times for Parliament in decades, and for handing over the portfolio in good shape. As a result of this reshuffle, the average age and height of the Shadow Cabinet has risen a notch or two.

Shailesh Vara provides continuity as a loyal and supportive deputy.

Harriet Harman is my opposite number who seems, unassisted, to generate her own opposition. As a feisty champion of women’s interests, how could she have left Margaret Thatcher out of the list of women in politics?

Margaret was the greatest woman leader of the 20th century, airbrushed from history by someone who might, with luck, become the second woman Leader of the Opposition.

And will her enthusiasm for all-women short lists survive if husband Jack applies for a seat in the Commons?

And, Harriet, the job of a deputy leader, when the boss is under siege, is to back him, not join the race to take over.

In neither of her speeches from the Labour platform last week did she even touch on strengthening Parliament.

My boss - unlike Tony Blair or Gordon Brown – wants to strengthen Parliament. I’m looking forward to working with David to create a more independent, a more effective and a more relevant House of Commons. A House of Commons that stands up for itself

is better able to stand up for the people we represent. More bulldog, less poodle.

So today I want to outline to you the three values that will guide the Conservative Party’s reform of Parliament and help build a stronger bond between politicians and people. Transparency. Accountability. And Economy.

First: transparency.

On expenses, we MPs let the public down and I want to say today that I understand your anger.

I know how difficult it has been for the many activists and candidates who do so much for the party, who have seen their hard work made harder by the actions of a few.

We need to apologise, put right what went wrong; and get back to the job you expect us to do.

Fighting for our constituents. And holding the Government to account.

The House of Commons got it seriously wrong. Our rules were too lax and the actions of some MPs were unacceptable at best and possibly fraudulent at worst.

And when the stories began to leak into the press, week in, week out, Parliament and Government tried everything in their power to prevent the information from getting out.

When all the details were finally published, it wasn’t by the House of Commons. But by the Daily Telegraph. Parliament was scooped.

It’s been bad for some individually – although it’s worth remembering that many MPs did nothing wrong.

But parliament itself has been hit the hardest.

Last year there was a financial crisis and the banks needed to be recapitalised to regain public confidence. This year, there has been a political crisis, and Parliament needs to be recapitalised.

Some of what went wrong is now being addressed by the police and some by Parliament’s own disciplinary procedures. An external audit of every receipt claimed for accommodation over the last five years will be published soon, along with an independent review of what the future expenses regime might look like.

Under David Cameron’s leadership the Conservatives did not wait around for an outside body to establish a set of new rules. We made immediate changes to what we claim and how we claim it, with every frontbencher publishing every claim and receipt, however small, online and in real time.

That’s the kind of transparency we want to see applied to every layer of government. So it’s absolutely right that we apply it also to ourselves.

One of the main jobs of the House is to scrutinise what we do with your taxes. Our allowance and expenses regime is public money. We need to be every bit as exacting and rigorous with this as we are with the rest of public spending.

And this brings me to my second point. Accountability.

People were angry because they were already feeling disillusioned with the political process, disconnected from Parliament and disenfranchised from decision-making. The expenses scandal confirmed their suspicions.

The public feels as though they don’t have a voice in Parliament when it comes to the big decisions that affect their lives.

Over the last decade, Parliament has surrendered too much power to the Executive. This has made it increasingly difficult for ordinary MPs to cross-examine Ministers on the important issues that really matter to people.

I believe that giving more power to Parliament gives more power to people. Making life harder for the government will make life easier for the citizen.

Some recent reforms have been good and we will keep the sensible changes that reflect what has happened in the world outside and those that have enabled us to do the job better.

But those have been overshadowed by the way this Government has marginalised, side-lined and neutered Parliament. Our political currency has been devalued, as well as the pound sterling.

The last time we took over from Labour, in 1979, we didn’t just strengthen the economy – we strengthened Parliament. We established the current Select Committee system – one of the most effective mechanisms for holding Ministers to account.

So today I want to set out how the next Conservative government, led by David Cameron, will begin to reform Parliament to make it more effective, accountable and relevant. We operate nowadays in a 24/7 media world but we haven’t adapted. We are an analogue Parliament in a digital world.

Without telling Parliament how to run itself, we can loosen the stranglehold of the executive and restore to Parliament some of the powers it has lost. We can give the House of Commons the opportunity to lead, and not just the obligation to follow.

Some of these reforms were developed when I sat on David Cameron’s Democracy Task Force and I pay tribute to the insights and wisdom of my colleagues Ken Clarke, Andrew Tyrie, Laura Sandys and others.

One of the most vital functions of Parliament is to scrutinise law. But one of Labour’s worst reforms has been to introduce a guillotine motion before a bill gets a second reading, automatically cutting short the time available, before we even know how complex or contentious the issues are or by how much the Government will amend them. Harriet is always there, with her knitting needles.

As a result, we send huge amounts of poor quality legislation through to the Lords. We don’t have time to do what we tell you to do – read the small print.

We believe in less regulation, so Conservatives will legislate less; but we will also legislate better. So today I can announce that we will abolish the practice of automatically guillotining Government Bills and give Parliament back the time it needs to make real improvements to the law.

We also need to make better use of our Select Committees, the watchdogs of Parliament. David Cameron has already adopted the Task Force policy to improve Select Committees’ independence and authority by giving backbenchers the chance to elect the chairmen, reducing the patronage of the Whips Office.

But we’ll go further and let them off the leash. Why should Ministers be the only people to make statements in the Commons in prime time? Select Committees often have a message of equal public interest so we will give their Chairmen the chance to launch their reports directly on the floor of the House, giving them equal status. So when there’s an issue that really matters, it’s not buried in a press release but given proper airtime in the chamber.

We’ll also make the diet of the House of Commons more relevant so we discuss the things that really matter to people. We can do this by swapping time spent on Opposition debates, when the Commons is often nearly empty and our proceedings go unreported, and oblige the government to give topical statements on the issues of the day – again in prime time.

Then, instead of government running the whole timetable, we’ll make sure that the Commons claws back some control of its agenda, giving them more power to represent the views of their constituents. Yes, a Government is entitled to the time it needs to deliver the manifesto on which it was elected. But that does not mean it should control every minute of the day.

You’ve probably never even heard of the Government’s new network of regional select committees. They’re supposed to be overseeing Labour’s layers of regional bureaucracy. At a cost of £1 million a year, just like the quangos they’re supposed to be scrutinising, they’re not value for money – so we will scrap them.

And let me give one final example of our reform agenda. When Labour got in, they set up the so-called Modernisation Select Committee, run by the Cabinet Member in charge of driving the Government’s programme through the Commons. A blatant conflict of interest if ever there was one. So we will abolish this New Labour device, and give back to a Select Committee chaired by a backbencher the responsibility for dealing with our procedures. Parliament does not need modernising by the Labour Party it needs strengthening by the Tories.

Will this all make life tougher for Government, my colleagues may ask me. You bet, I’ll tell them. But a good government has nothing to fear from a stronger and more confident House of Commons. If both raise their game, the citizen is the winner.

Restoring trust in politics is about tackling expenses; but it is about Parliament doing its job effectively – and efficiently.

Which brings me to my final topic. Saving money.

The next election will be about the difficult decisions we need to take to balance the books. We’re in no doubt about the scale of the challenge that we face and George Osborne will address that tomorrow.

The country won’t listen to politicians banging on about cutting costs if we haven’t cut the cost of politics. Last year, it cost £500 million to run Parliament. That’s double what it was in 1997. Have you seen double the benefits?

We’ve announced that a Conservative government will make the same economies as businesses and families across the country.

We’ll partly achieve that by cutting Labour’s bureaucracy and devolving power down to you. Caroline Spelman will be talking more about that to you this afternoon.

But there’s more that we can do.

For instance, we will scrap the Communications Allowance, introduced by Labour which, whatever the rules may say, in effect allows MP’s to campaign for re-election at your expense.

But if we are really serious about cutting the cost of politics, we must go further. We have more members of parliament per head of population than any other comparable democracy. The world’s largest democracy, India, currently makes do with 545 MPs. Next year, we’ll have 20 per cent more MPs; but still be only 1/20th of their population.

So we will instruct the Boundary Commission to set out detailed proposals to reduce the number of MPs by ten percent for the next General Election after this one.

At the moment, the Isle of Wight has 107,000 voters and one MP – Andrew Turner does a first class job representing them. After the next election and with the new boundaries, Shailesh Vara will still represent 83,000 voters. Our proposals would simply increase the average size to around 77,000 – the size of many constituencies today including my own.

But, crucially, we will address the disparities that exist between constituency populations. Because just as Conservatives believe in a fairer society, so we believe in a fairer type of politics.

So as well as reducing the number of MPs, we will change the law to ensure that every constituency is broadly the same size. Reducing the bill for politics, while also reducing the inequities.

Gordon Brown’s approach has been to call for a referendum on voting reform, something they promised back in 1997. Another referendum they forgot to hold.

Conference, I have outlined the reforms that we want to see change the way we do politics. Radical, practical, and cheaper.

I have sat as an MP in nine Parliaments. I want the tenth to be better than this one.

Politics needs a democratic stimulus to drag it out of recession. I look at our excellent candidates across the country and see over 450 reasons to be optimistic. Men and women, impatient for change, with a zeal for reform.

Many of you will remember that it was exactly this spirit that helped us meet the challenges before and transform Britain into a new economic power in 1979, when we emerged from the long dark tunnel into the sunlight. And this same spirit will help us to take Britain into a new democratic era in 2010.

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