William Hague – 2000 Speech on Lord Norton Report


Below is the text of the speech made by William Hague, the then Leader of the Opposition, on 10 July 2000.

A year ago, I asked Lord Norton of Louth to chair a Commission of distinguished parliamentarians and constitutional experts to `examine the cause of the decline in the effectiveness of Parliament in holding the Executive to account, and to make proposals for strong democratic control over the Government’.

In the months that followed, the members of the Commission took their responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. They took evidence from half a dozen ex-Cabinet Ministers, numerous ex-Ministers, journalists, academics, pressure groups, a former Speaker and a former Head of the Civil Service, as well as many current MPs of all major parties including – I am delighted to say – a former Minister of the current Labour Government and the current Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrats. No one can credibly claim that this has been a work of political partisanship.

One year later, the Norton Commission has produced its Report on Strengthening Parliament which is of outstanding quality and far-reaching vision. It is the most important contribution to the debate about parliamentary democracy in Britain in a generation.

The Norton Report takes a fresh look at what Parliament is for, and boldly reminds us why we need proper democratic accountability. It examines with great thoroughness Parliament’s decline under governments of all political persuasions, and sets out the case for radical reform. And, most usefully of all, it proposes many detailed recommendations that are not the stuff of fantasy, but are practical, workable and in sympathy with the history of our country’s institutions.

In short, Philip Norton and his fellow Commission members have done a first class job. I sincerely thank them for all their work, and I think Parliament should thank them too.

The Norton Report confirms what I have long feared: that Parliament is no longer able properly to hold the Executive to account, that legislation does not receive the quality of scrutiny necessary for good governance, and that the House of Commons has become less and less the focus of national political debate.

This is something every Briton should be concerned about. For only in a country with a strong Parliament is there genuine representative democracy; only with a strong Parliament is government genuinely accountable; only with a strong Parliament is political decision making both robust and sensitive; and only with a strong Parliament do the people of that country have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

However, the Norton Report also confirms what I have long hoped: that the decline is not irreversible, that there are practical reforms we can make which will revive representative democracy, make government genuinely accountable and put a stronger Parliament back where it belongs – at the very heart of our national political life.

The Report is 66 pages long and it contains almost 90 major recommendations for reform.

The recommendations cover everything from the format of oral questions, to the timetabling of legislation, to the composition and powers of Select Committees, to the publication of draft Bills, to the handling of exclusively English laws, to the career structures of Members of Parliament, to the facilities available to the media, to the number of Government Ministers and the overall size of the House of Commons.

It would be an insult to the work of the Commission to announce within minutes of the Report’s publication which recommendations my Party accepts, and which we reject. Each one of these recommendations deserve careful consideration not just within the Conservative Party, but, I would hope, within all political parties.

For the future of Parliament does not belong to one political leader or one political party – it belongs to all parliamentarians, who hold our democracy in trust, and who, I believe, owe a responsibility to pass on to future generations a better and more effective Parliament than the one which they inherited.

However, I am conscious that previous Oppositions have launched policy commissions with great fanfares, and then conveniently left their reports on the shelf gathering dust when they return to Government. To make sure that that does not happen with the Norton Report, I can today make three specific commitments that will form part of our Manifesto for the next general election.

First, as Prime Minister, I will accept the Norton recommendation that the current single Question Time on a Wednesday should be replaced with two Prime Minister’s Questions a week.

As soon as he entered Downing Street and without consulting Parliament at all, Tony Blair cut Question Time down to once a week. It means that in the fast changing world of politics, Members of Parliament and the Opposition only get one chance to hold the most powerful person in the land to account.

Tony Blair’s decision to cut in half the number of times MPs could ask him questions showed his total disdain for the House of Commons and proper democratic accountability. I want to see the Prime Minister of the day held properly accountable to the representatives of the British people. Like the Norton Commission, I also want to see the Chamber of the House of Commons ‘restored to its position as the indisputable arena in which government can be challenged and embarrassed’. That is what democracy is all about. So, as Prime Minister, I will answer questions twice a week in the House of Commons, and I will do so for twenty minutes each time – which, over the course of the week, is longer than any Prime Minister before me.

A second principle which we can immediately accept is that appointments to Select Committees should no longer be controlled by party managers and whips.

Select Committees were proposed by the last Conservative Opposition and introduced shortly after we came to power. I agree with the Norton Report that they have been ‘a major success’ but that ‘in terms of parliamentary scrutiny, they represent the classic half full, half empty bottle’. The present Government has grossly abused the Select Committee system, with its own hand-picked members on Committees to leak Committee Reports to Ministers. The Norton Report makes a number of important changes to strengthen the work of departmental select committees, including changing the way in which the members are selected.

As a former member of a Select Committee, as a former Minister who has been cross-examined by them, I agree that we need to make them stronger and we need to start with the membership. For it must be wrong that the Government, through the Whips Office, chooses the people who are supposed to hold the very same Government to account. I am not alone in thinking this, for Parliament’s own all-party Liaison Committee has reached the same conclusion in its First Report.

So the next Conservative Government accepts the principle set out in the Norton Report and the Liaison Committee Report that appointment of Select Committee Members should be taken out of the hands of the whips and party managers. We will consult with all parties as to what appointment system we replace it with that guarantees the independence of Committee members.

The third commitment I can make today is much broader in nature. Although the specific recommendations of the Norton Report deserve fuller and further consideration, what I can announce is that the work of the Norton Commission will be the route map by which the next Conservative Government dramatically strengthens the powers of Parliament to hold the Executive to account.

Of course, we will be making a rod for our own back. That is why we will make our far-reaching changes to Parliament within weeks of a general election victory – and before ‘governmentitis’ sets in.

By making Parliament stronger, and democracy stronger, the next Conservative Government will stand in stark contrast to the present Government that has, from the moment it took office, sought to diminish our democracy and side-line our Parliament.

This week, we saw the latest instalment of that campaign with the Government-inspired proposals of the Labour-controlled Modernisation Select Committee. These include changing the voting procedures of the House of Commons in order dramatically to reduce the opportunities of the Opposition and the Government’s own backbenchers to scrutinise legislation and hold Ministers to account. The Modernisation Committees latest proposals on voting are a disgrace and we will have no part of them.

Instead, today we have, with the enormous contribution of the Norton Commission, put on the table proposals for reform that will make Parliament stronger and make Government more democratically accountable. We have also made specific commitments to reintroduce two longer Prime Ministers Questions and set the appointments to Select Committees free from the control of party managers.

For I believe the people of Britain deserve a stronger Parliament, better government and a revived and refreshed democracy, and I believe it is our duty to provide it.