BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 16.12.01

Interview: ROBIN COOK MP, Leader of the House of Commons

Explains how he wants to change the way Parliament works.

NICK ROBINSON: Robin Cook, you published proposals you say that will modernise and strengthen the House of Commons but do you accept that some people are going to find it very hard to believe that that's what they'll do, given that this is a government seen often to ride rough-shod over the will of Parliament and to be obsessed with control freaky. ROBIN COOK: Well I think they should look at the proposals on their merits. If they look at those proposals they will find that we are providing for longer, fuller scrutiny of Bills, earlier scrutiny of Bills, an awful lot more coming to the Members in draft, we're going to strengthen the Select Committees that scrutinise or hold to account ministers, we're going to give them more resources to do the job properly, professional back up, these are not the actions of a government that is trying to avoid scrutiny, on the contrary, what I am trying to do is to make sure Parliament can do an effective job, because only if Parliament is seen to do that effective job, we don't have the respect of the public. ROBINSON: So you are clear then, that this shouldn't be a make-over, a paint job, because some people have looked at your proposals and they see proposals to change the hours of the House of Commons and the sitting times for Prime Minister's Questions, and they say, these may be all very well, they may be valuable, but this is a paint job, it's a presentational gimmick. COOK: Well certainly not, and some other analysts have actually said that this is the very comprehensive package, more comprehensive than we've seen in the past, under government of either colour, it is not a cosmetic effort. The question of the hours I'll leave there, but they are only there so that we can make Parliament more effective. I do strongly believe if Parliament wants to set the political and public debate of the day it's got to meet it at the start of the day, that's why I want Parliament to start sitting earlier, and the hours that we are providing are hours so that we can carry out that bigger job of scrutiny that I provide for within that package. I don't see this as a conflict, a confrontation between government and parliament, we both need each other. As keep saying, the principle behind these proposals is that good scrutiny makes for good government. ROBINSON: Well let's put that to the test with one of the proposals you make, inevitably in the House of Commons, particularly one with a very large majority, there's a real limit to what the Opposition can do to oppose or even to change any legislation. Now one of the main ways they can do it is to get your backs to the wall, so that you know that you're going to lose your bell because you've run out of time and concessions can be made. Now we saw that this week on the Anti-Terrorism Bill and yet you're going to change the rules aren't you, so it's less easy for Bills to run out of time, less easy for the Opposition to do its work. COOK: Well the main complaint that the Opposition have made over the past two or three weeks is there was not enough time as they saw it to consider that Bill, it was rushed. Now I don't think that we should provide in the rules a system which ensures that we cannot provide adequate scrutiny for the Bills that are going through. I want to make sure that Bills do have that time for proper debate and proper exposure. That's why I'm suggesting this proposal that effectively each Bill should have twelve months before Parliament. Now that will long enough for Parliament to do a thorough job of scrutiny. So long as you include that deadline at the end of the year and you prevent us from carrying one Bill forward from one year to the next year, then Bills are going to be rushed because it's the only way of beating that deadline, and that's not good for Parliament and it doesn't make for good legislation. ROBINSON: On the other hand, people will see the government made changes to its Anti-Terrorism Law, dropped the idea of a law on religious hatred, why not, because they were persuaded by arguments, you heard plenty of arguments and the government ignored them, it was because in the end there was just that deadline and you had to either drop measures or you were going to lose the entire Bill and that's healthy for Parliament, isn't it? COOK: It's very healthy for Parliament to be able to debate measures and it's very healthy for Parliament to scrutinise measures, I think it's also important that Parliament should provide adequate opportunity to listen to the public health side as well. One of the provisions we have in our standing orders is for a committee that is going to consider a Bill, is to take evidence from the public before it considers the Bill. We hardly ever do that because we are in such a rush to get the Bill through to meet that deadline... ROBINSON: ...let's just... BOTH SPEAKING TOGETHER ROBINSON: ...let's stick with that, because Mark Fisher you've seen, we've just seen him in the film, he's a former Labour minister, he says the proposal you've got which effectively takes this deadline away, he says it takes away the weapon of power and time, and it's only time he says, that puts pressure on the government to make concessions and to compromise and what people worry is, there's the weapon, Robin Cook's taking it away. COOK: Yes but you can't on the one hand say that time is the great weapon and on the other hand, as Members of Parliament constantly do, including quite often, Mark Fisher, is complain that there is not enough time to look at a Bill. What I am trying to do is to respond to that demand that there should be more time for consideration. The Bills should be thoroughly debated, that there should be an opportunity to take evidence from the public and if that time is there then Mark, and anybody else, can make their considered view and explore where the Bill could be improved. ROBINSON: Well, some say, alright we hear what Robin Cook says about giving us more time, but what he should do in return for that, because the government gains a little, as I've been spelling out, is he should give us some control over how the time is allocated, instead of the government being able to say, we will decide precisely how long each of these Bills is debated for and when, do as they do in the Scottish Parliament, let all the parties influence how the time-tabling is done, are you tempted by that? COOK: Well first of all, can I just say that this is not something which government is going to gain from, it's where uniquely.. Parliament will also gain, it's in all our interests and we all have benefit in this, if there are those in the Opposition who want to say, well, we're willing to look at this change, we want to have this change, we can see the benefit of having longer time to debate Bills, but in exchange for agreeing to that we want some quid pro quo, well let them come and put that proposal to me, and obviously these are proposals for consultation, I am willing in the process of consultation to explore what they might want as a quid pro quo... ROBINSON: ...and if they quid pro quo it, as Paul Tyler of the Liberal Democrats says, we want to help determine the business of the Commons, when it meets, when it discusses and so on, will you concede that, will your Cabinet colleagues let it, because it's said that you asked them to do it and they said, come off it Robin, we're not giving that power up. COOK: ...when the......Cabinet approved the memorandum a week ago there was a lot of enthusiasm and support around the table... ROBINSON: ...not for that measure though, was it, you were forced to drop it as I understand it... COOK: ...yes but if I can come back to your point about the quid pro quo, if the Opposition, both of them, come to us and say look we can see the case for the carry over, we can see the case for not killing off every Bill at the end of the session because that means they're rushed through, we welcome the greater time that will be there fore debate, but we want this in exchange for it, then all that's up for consideration, there's a consultation period, I'll listen to whatever they say, but first of all, I want to hear them say that yes, we recognise this case for the longer period of studying Bills. ROBINSON: It's a very interesting thing you've said there, but they may say to you, we're willing to offer this deal, I mean can you deliver the deal Robin Cook, can you go to the Cabinet and say this great power that governments like to keep, deciding when they time-table Bills, I want you to give it up. COOK: If I had a deal, and went with the deal, then I think there would be a very good prospect of getting agreement to the deal, but with respect Nick, we can't negotiate this through the television studio, we have to negotiate it with the Opposition, as yet they have not come and said this to us, indeed there is some indication that the Conservative Party themselves would not welcome the business committee, far less see it as something that they could accept and exchange. ROBINSON: Well, let's move on to an item of reform that you've said you're going to turn to, but haven't yet spelt out what you'll do and that of course is about the Select Committees. Again it's a bit hard, isn't it, having credibility as a parliamentary reformer, when you represent a government which nobbled the committees, tried to say to Parliament, this is who you can have as chairman and this is who you can't have as chairman. Now a lot of people have said they regret it, I assume you do too. COOK: Well if they tried to nobble it, they certainly did not succeed in nobbling it because there was a vote in the House and both those individuals were restored to Committee which is quite right, because it has ultimately to be a decision for Parliament. But that debate released an enormous amount of energy and interest in how we make sure we reform that system, that night I gave a commitment we would come forward with an independent authoritative system which would be independent of party influence... ROBINSON: ...meaning no influence for the Whips, just so we're clear what independent means, that MPs can choose who they like, and the Whips won't have a role at all. COOK: We have already reformed our system within the Parliamentary Labour Party. It's so that the system that was in use last Summer has gone and in the future it will be an election by all Members of Parliamentary Labour Party, but the question that remains to be resolved is how do those nominations from the party get presented to Parliament. Now what we are looking at in the Modernisation Committee and I hope to be able to report on this by the end of January, would be a system that would be independent of party influence, have no Whips on it, would be able to act as the referee, would be able to make sure that there had been fair play, that there had not been abuse of the rules and would only then submit the names to Parliament for Parliament itself to decide so that would clearly make it a Parliamentary process independent of party control. ROBINSON: Now that's how they get into those jobs, the question then is what powers they have when they are on Select Committees, or chairing them. Are you minded, I know you're not decided yet, but to pay committee chairman to say, we will make a career structure for committee chairmen and what's more we'll give them more staff too? COOK: But the point of the agreement is indeed in that last point, which is more staff, there needs to be much more support for the Select Committees to do their job of scrutiny, which often can be quite technical, for instance, the financial scrutiny does need to have support from financial experts, we are all committed in that and will be certainly recommending that. On the question of the pay for Chairs, the difficulty here is that the Chairs of the Select Committees themselves are divided as to whether or not they wish to be paid. We will be taking evidence in the course of this week from the Chair of the Liaison Committee, that's the body that brings together all the Chairs of the Select Committee, we want to hear very carefully what he says... ROBINSON: ...are you tempted to let them be paid? COOK: Our minds are not closed on it. If there was a demand for it, if there was a consensus among them I would certainly be willing to canvas putting it to the Senior Salary Review Board for their advice, but there is an important principle which many of them hold to which is all Members of Parliament are equal and all Members of Parliament should have equal pay. ROBINSON: ...although the argument against that as you know is that, this is not about making Select Committee Chairmen rich, what it is about saying is that the only way to progress in Parliament and to progress your salary too, isn't by having a Red Box, isn't by being a minister, or a bag carrier for a minister, but what you can do is be one of the chief scrutinisers of Parliament and so pay is a very important signal of that, isn't it? COOK: Status is also important and like many of those you are currently chairs of Select Committees I rather suspect would feel possibly...certainly surprised and possibly insulted if they were offered ministerial posts, it's far less a question of bag carrying. But look, this is an issue on which I have an open mind if the chairs of Select Committees can agree on this, certainly it is an issue on which we are prepared to act. The important issue is that we are going to make sure they have more resources, we are going to make sure that they have more opportunity to communicate with Parliament and to make sure that they carry out their job of scrutinising government. ROBINSON: Now this debate about how the Commons runs itself, isn't happening in a vacuum and that makes it a problem for you doesn't it. The Parliament is seen by many people to be struggling for its existence, its life really and they see ministers hands round Parliament's throat. They look at the Standards Watchdog, Elizabeth Filkin, and they say, what do they do when she caused a bit of trouble, they got rid of her. COOK: Well on the question of having ministers having their hands round the throat, I do think after the past two weeks, it's very difficult to say that ministers have their hands on Parliament's throat, nor do we want to. We need Parliament, we need Parliament to do a good job of scrutiny and make sure that we stay on our toes. On the question of Ms Filkin, Ms Filkin was not due to...was not got rid of, Ms Filkin is eligible for another period of re-appointment, we have decided that we should test the market to make sure we have the best candidate, we invited Ms Filkin to come forward on this short-list, she was guaranteed a place on it, if she was the best candidate, she would have been re-appointed. ROBINSON: But by in effect saying, you can't be automatically re-appointed, you gave a signal months in advance, you are not wanted, we don't like the way you are doing your job and what's more, by the way, we are going to review the question of whether you really need to spend as long doing your job as you say you do. COOK: Well, Sir Gordon Downey, who was her predecessor did of course write in the course of this week, that of course if you take an appointment on a fixed term, you have no guarantee of automatic reappointment. Nobody else in the world has that Nick. As to the question of days.... ROBINSON:'s a signal in a sense isn't it, Tony Wright is very clear about this, we've just heard him say it, he's a committee chairman from the Labour Party, he says it was - and I quote - "ruinous in terms of people's perception of Parliament". And you seem to be saying that the removal of Elizabeth Filkin, however it came about, was neither here or there. COOK: We were very keen to make sure that we had the best candidate for the job of the Commissioner for Standards and we have a very... ROBINSON: ...and she wasn't the best candidate for the job? COOK: We will never know that because she's declined to take our invitation to come forward for the short-list... ROBINSON: clearly thought she wasn't likely to be the best candidate for the job, otherwise you would have just re-appointed her. COOK: No, we never came to such a conclusion. We said that we wanted to have an open competition, I must say this seems to me, the more open, more transparent way to go about the process of re-appointment. ROBINSON: Now, some will say, that the only answer to what happened to Elizabeth Filkin is end self-regulation, that MPs can no longer be allowed to hire and fire the person meant to regulate them and interfere with her reports. If there is a proposal for self-regulation, the Committee on Standards and Public Life are looking at that, will this government bring it about? COOK: Well the Commission on Standards and Public Life to which you refer, used to be the Nolan Committee. They were the ones who devised the present system and indeed far from turning it down or watering it down, Parliament actually strengthened it. We gave more power to the Commission of Standards than had been recommended by Lord Nolan and his commission. If the current commission, under Sir Nigel Wicks, wishes to propose changes, then I would expect Parliament would be willing to accept those changes. We need to see what they are going to propose, but if they want to propose anything, we will of course listen with great care. ROBINSON: Finally, let me ask you this, a few minutes ago you said, how can anybody think that we were not in favour of a strong Parliament, given what's happened in the past two weeks, which of course are a whole series of defeats for the government in the House of Lords, people will open their newspapers and they'll read this from a Home Office source. It would be fair to say that reform of the Lords procedures has a very willing advocate in the Home Secretary, it's an absurdity that the will of the Commons can be frustrated in this way. Now, what people will read into this, is that when Parliament tries to scrutinise what the government does, you don't like it ... and what you say, if we will change the rules to stop you doing it. COOK: I think you are asking a bit much Nick, to expect ministers to like it when Parliament exercises that job of scrutinising it. What I was saying is that Parliament has exercised that job of scrutiny, there's certainly no evidence here as you yourself put it earlier, that ministers have their hands round Parliament's throat. ROBINSON: And Robin Cook wants to see more of that sort of scrutiny? COOK: I want to see Parliament able to carry out an effective job of scrutiny and I think that the better it can do that job of scrutiny, the better the legislation will get, the better the draft of the legislation will become. That's good for everybody and it's good for government as well. ROBINSON: Robin Cook, thank you very much indeed. COOK: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.