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Mr. Tyler: I shall hold the hon. Gentleman to his forecast. However, at the drop of a hat, there would be an extraordinary situation, with a transfer bonus of £500,000 or £600,000 a year. Someone could be encouraged to make such a change, demonstrating the odd way in which this House operates and the fact that it has not caught up with the views of the electorate at large.
To give another example, there is no proper provision for the allocation of Opposition debates. It is ad hoc, arbitrary and pays no attention to parliamentary arithmetic, which, I remind the House, depends on the votes of the electorate.
The electorate send us here. They must expect in this place reasonable respect for the way in which they express party allegiance. My colleagues and I often complain that representation in the House is not as accurate as we would like. We accept that in Committees, for example, there is a careful allocation by party arithmetically, but that does not apply to the allocation of debates.The timing of these debates is entirely in the hands of Government Whips, for goodness sake, which is obviously ridiculous.
Mr. Tyler: I am interested to hear a Government Whip agree from a sedentary position. It is extraordinary that a Buggins's turn approach applies, particularly between the Whips' Offices. Members will recall that when we tried to release the nomination of Members to Select Committees, there was an unholy alliance between the Conservative and the Labour Whips' Offices because they wanted to hold on to that. I suspect that there is a suspicion on the Government Benches, but particularly in the Government Whips' Office, that one day they might be in Opposition againthe pendulum might swingso they would like to protect the position of the Official Opposition.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman remember that at one time the Liberal Democrats used to represent all the minority parties when it came to Select Committee selections? The minority parties have rebelled and no longer wish to be under the Buggins's turn arrangements of the Liberal Democrats.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is severely misinformed. We were enthusiastic for the Government to take on that responsibility. We might make recommendations, but ultimately it was in the Government's hands. The minority parties and the Liberal Democrats were at one in thinking that if the Government wanted to take responsibility, we were only too delighted for them to do so.
27 May 2004 : Column 1752
The number of days for debate is still effectively not represented in Standing Orders in a way that reflects the arithmetic of the House. What is more, the picking of the days remains in the Government Whips' hands. We complained when the Liberal Democrats were not allocated a day during the long period when the situation in Iraq was unravelling, because the Government were fearful that we would raise that issue and there would be substantial Government Back-Bench support and a major Labour rebellion.
Even in this debate, the situation is odd. On previous occasions, I have spoken towards the end of the debate and been able to respond, as I should like to, immediately before the Conservative spokesman and the Minister, to the interesting contributions from other hon. Members. Because of the way in which these matters are organised, it is still as though there are only two parties in the House.
All those examples and many more simply contribute to the public perception that we do not catch up with the real life of the body politic. Three major parties were represented in this House in 1997 and it became obvious that it was not just a flash in the pan, although I must confess that even some of my colleagues wondered whether we would come back after 1997 in such numbers. After 2001, it became absolutely apparent that, despite the inadequacy of the first-past-the-post system, the situation in the House was different. The voters buried the two-party system in 1997 and they danced on its grave in 2001.
There is a tendency when in governmentperhaps some Members still hanker for those daysto think that it is all very simple and that somehow or other there are only two sides to every issue. I remind the House that the big issues of this Parliament have not been simply between the two Front Benches. Distinguished Conservative Members voted with me and my colleagues against the invasion of Iraq, together with a substantial number of Government Members. On tuition fees, foundation hospitals and so many issues there is no longer a two-way stretch in the House. There certainly is not in the country.
Other parts of the building have adapted. Members who have had the interesting experience of speaking in Westminster Hall have found that Ministers are probed, questioned and chased as often by their own Back Benchers as by Opposition Members. On the whole, we have a much livelier discussion in the round.
I do not believe that the pendulum will swing again as it used to in my youth. It is absurd for the Government to think that if it does, they must hold on to the cash and privileges that presently attach to the Official Opposition, in expectation of that day. What a confession of weakness from the Government if they think they are about to reoccupy the Opposition Benches.
As was said earlier, this place does not enjoy the respect that it should. There are a number of reasons for that, but I have had time to touch on only one. Certainly, another is the extent to which we are an anomaly. Outside is a multi-party world that recognises three major parties, but this place has been left behind.
27 May 2004 : Column 1753
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. While some fellow Members have understandably disappeared to their constituencies, the remainder are free to wax lyrical on subjects close to their heart. In short, while the three-line Whip is away, Members can, to some extent, play.
An issue close to my heart is how to get people involved once again in the political process and directly in politics. It is about persuading people that politics matters, grabbing people when they are young and instilling in them the habit of getting involved in politics and the importance of making a difference. I shall not simply go over well-trodden ground in my arguments, nor focus on the importance of worthy but well-worn phrases, such as "democratic engagement". My appeal today to the House and those happy, select few who may chance upon these words is that we all have a responsibility to make politics sexy once again.
By sexy, I am not referring to Members' alleged or real extra-curricular activities in times past in some of the more colourful, late-night London establishments. Nor am I referring to the way in which members of the press sometimes focus on, for example, the footwear of Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons. Nor am I referring to the fan website of the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell), which describes her as
"by far the most glamorous doll in British politics since Baroness Thatcher was put out to pasture."
Nor am I referring to the popular preoccupation of the parliamentary estate and the fourth estate to engage in practices akin to political flagellation where we criticise ourselves to the nth degree for failing to use language that people understand, failing to dress cool or bling so that the youth vote can identify with us, or perpetuating in our strange parliamentary traditions that are deemed to turn people off. While all those issues have validity, they are constantly discussed and we return to them again and again masochistically. Valid as many of them are, they are essentially about style, not substance. They are about how we behave and conduct ourselves, not about what we do and can achieve.
In my brief contribution I shall focus on the substance. Politics itself, the seemingly dry and dusty business of this place, is inherently sexy. If we scratch under the spin of presentation, what we do when we do it well makes a real difference to the lives of people in the United Kingdom and across the world. Some would say that politics described as "sexy" is an oxymoron; I would argue that it is not. Members of this House and the media are generally responsible for making it seem like an obvious oxymoron, whereas the two words are in fact complementary. Sometimes we make ourselves feel guilty for talking about politics and for talking up politics. I shall be bold and state on the record for posterity that politics is something to be proud of and that politicians should be proud of their vocation.
If we asked a hundred people on the street what words and phrases they would use to describe politics and politicians, like the old quiz show that Les Dennis used to compere on television when five answers would appear on a screen, I suggest that the following would appear high on the list:
Recently, I have spoken to two young men and one woman who wanted to get into politics and had aspirations to become Members of this place and even to become the next Prime Minister. If I paid any heed to the current and consistent view of politics and politicians, I would be tempted to draw on Noel Coward for inspiration and say to themI will not sing, the House will be pleased to know"Don't put your daughter into politics, Mrs. Worthington. Don't put your daughter into politics. The profession's disreputable, the job is pretty tough, and admitting that she wants to change the world is not enough. She's a nice girl and though her heart's in the right place, I wouldn't want to see her in despair or in disgrace. So I repeat, Mrs. Worthington, sweet Mrs. Worthington, don't put your daughter in this place." My apologies to the author.
At least we can say that the mood of modern politics is truly international. The US author and commentator, Jedediya Purdy, believes that the common mood of cynicism in modern culture undermines the possibility of meaningful civic engagement: public service. Purdy argues that this mood of irony and cynicism, which one can even see in popular American television programmes such as "Late Night with David Letterman" and "Seinfeld", exemplifies the notion that it is impossible to take life seriously, and that all things are open to mockery and derision. Purdy observes that this seam of cynicism runs deepest among the better educated, which is especially damaging because these "cosmopolitans", as he calls them, are thus persuaded to strenuously avoid careers of public service.
Yet, despite this gloom, Purdy, unlike many of his peers, insists that politics can be a territory where depth and moral courage can thrive and the common good can be promoted. At the risk of presenting myself as a self-righteous, sanctimonious prig, which is always a risk for politicians, I agree with the Purdy thesis. Let us call it, for the purposes of this speech, the Purdy principle. Politics can be a force for good. Politicians can be a force for good, too, and we should not be ashamed of standing up and saying that.
Politics matters. Cynicism is sometimes deserved, but increasingly cynicism is a downright lazy approach to public affairs by those who report on or observe our efforts. The reality of a politician rarely being able to deliver absolutely everything that he or she promises mutates into "They promise everything but deliver nothing", and then into "They're all a bunch of self-serving so-and-sos". The reality that there are occasionally politicians who may lie or cheat, just as there are bad apples in every walk of life, becomes "You can't trust any one of them an inch". The reality that we occasionally get things wrong becomes "They're all about as much use as a chocolate fireguard".
The first line of my job description says, "Must have broad shoulders". The second line says, "Must be able to laugh at himself daily and hourly". The third says, "Must not read the papers or watch politics on television, for fear of taking thingsor himselftoo seriously". Is politics so bad, so shameful, so deplorable? Should Mrs. Worthington send her daughter into the profession, or would she be better advised:
"Get thee to a nunnery",
"slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".
An elderly man comes to see me, very dignified and very reluctant to approach the MP. He explains that he has never sought the advice of the MP before. So what has happened in the 84 years that he has kept himself to himself and now brings himself to my office? It is a humbling experience simply to sit and meet such people. He is a former miner, one of a generation of south Wales men who, if they were not lucky enough, as some were, to get a scholarship, go away to university and pursue a different profession, spent their lives digging coal out of the rich but complex seams in south Wales.
In some ways the man has been fortunate in his life, because he has seen many of his friends into the grave. He has sung at too many funerals to remember. Because of a compensation scheme introduced by the present Government, the largest industrial compensation scheme in Europe and possibly in the world, he is able to apply for some payment for the chest disease that is a direct result of his time underground. Eventually he gets the payment. It is not a great amount, but he appreciates it. More importantly, his children and grandchildren will see the benefit of it. Politics has made a difference to that man's life.
That is not the end, however. The solicitor who handled the compensation case for the former minera solicitor based in the south of England, with whom I am very familiar, who has no relationship with coalfield areas and no knowledge of miners, their families or communitieshas deducted 15 per cent. of his compensation payment in what, in truly lawyerly fashion, he calls contingency fees. "Contingent on what?", I ask. It is not contingent on any risk to the law firm because the firm is guaranteed its payment under the generous Government compensation scheme. It is contingent on nothing. It is a fabrication of lawyerly words that masks pure unadulterated greed. The Government have already paid the solicitor's fees, regardless of whether that former miner is due compensation or not, but the law firm comes back for more. Not satisfied with a pound of flesh from the taxpayer and the Government, it wants a pound of flesh from the miner himself.
We battle. The Back Benchers battle. The Government are on our side and enlist the support of the Law Society to tackle those legal vultures. We battle again. The firm resists. We persist. The firm gives in and gives back the money. It is only a few hundred pounds, the price of a good night out for the solicitor and his wife in London. But they will not have it at the expense of my constituentnot at the expense of someone who has dug coal out of the rich seams of the south Wales coalfields. Not for the benefit of that solicitor has he done that, and not for the benefit of that solicitor is he living with chest disease for the rest of his life. So politics matters. Politics makes a difference to our lives.
27 May 2004 : Column 1756
When I ran for election in Ogmore, I remember knocking on doors in a council estate in the Ogmore valley. Council housing was one of the great achievements of successive Labour Governments, but we must recognise that despite many good examples, sometimes the quality of that housing or the management of the estates left much to be desired. There have always been council estates where the sense of community and pride in the housing were something to behold. The estate I visited was not one of them.
Outside a particular flat, grim and depressing, was a battered pram. The door was open and the child had just been lifted out of the pram and taken inside, out of the drizzling rain that had begun to fall. It rained for 30 days during that by-election, I remember.
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