A question for the Prime Minister

The Government control freaks are winning and the rights of backbenchers are under threat
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I ASKED Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Question Time last June for an assurance that he would distinguish his period in office by discouraging "fawning, obsequious, softball, well-rehearsed and planted questions" and ensure that loyal Labour Party backbenchers can provide scrutiny and accountability "without fear or favour and without showing partiality or affection".

Nine months on, the answer is becoming all too glaringly obvious. The control freak tendencies within the Government are winning and the rights of backbenchers are under threat. I did not know, when I put that question, that as I did so, select committee reports were being leaked to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Robin Cook.

The latest evidence that ministers are in a position to influence the committees came only last week when Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, admitted that his Parliamentary private secretary had received a leaked Select Committee report about the taxing of child benefit.

Answering my question, Mr Blair said he respected my "independence of mind and I shall do my very best to ensure that he retains it".

The Prime Minister has sought to blur two quite distinct, and not necessarily conflicting, obligations of Labour backbenchers. Of course, we are there to argue for, and advance the implementation of, our manifesto. But manifestos are short on detail and we have a duty to ensure that the crafting of the legislation, or the executive action taken by ministers, is within the party's policy pronouncements and our own Socialist aims and objectives.

Second, the Prime Minister chose to ignore the constitutional duty of MPs not on the payroll to help in providing the most rigorous scrutiny and accountability. This is part of Parliament's historic role of voting supply to the Crown, which is now done, at best, superficially.

Constituency activists rightly expect me to support the Government in the lobbies, and I do. But they also expect me to criticise and cajole, encourage and enthuse the Government in fulfilling our aims and aspirations, to make the executive accountable - the principle that is the cornerstone of our democracy.

If Tony Blair has to be reminded of the need for the executive to remain accountable, he should look no further than the favouritism and cronyism of the Commissioners who brought the whole Brussels show into disrepute last week. Without checks and balances - and the freedom of elected MPs to criticise - Westminster, too, will become a breeding-ground for the abuses of power that contributed to the downfall of the Major government.

Activists are dismayed by control-freakery. They do not understand why it is necessary for ministers' aides to create a new industry of planted questions and rehearsed supplementary questions. That is what has happened. Every day Parliamentary private secretaries canvass pre-typed questions around MPs, asking them to lob them into the daily ballot for ministerial questions to be answered two weeks later. It's as rehearsed as Have I Got News for You.

This diminishes the chances of those MPs who have taken the trouble to be the authors of their own questions from succeeding in the ballot. Partly as a consequence of this choreography, the opportunities for true scrutiny are now shifting - increasingly - to the select committees. They have become even more relevant as, inexorably, government has demonstrated a rapacious appetite for rushing through legislation, minimising debate, and arbitrarily using executive powers.

There is a presumption that in British politics "promotion" means becoming a minister. I hope we can create a culture in which it is seen that younger MPs aspiring to advancement might, instead of becoming ministers, wish to become chairs of Select Committees. There is a need to provide additional resources for the Select Committees so they can match the government departments and public bodies that they are charged with appraising.

The Select Committee system needs reinforcing, not undermining, by ministers. All evidence should be under oath - like the US Congressional committees - and it should be seen as a serious offence to nobble witnesses or members of the committees. They should also vet appointments such as the Monetary Committee of the Bank of England; the head of the new Strategic Rail Authority and the chairman of the new Countryside Agency. Each committee should have a powerful commissioner, comparable to the Comptroller and Auditor General, to help root out the facts. This is how Mr Blair should now answer the question I put to him in June.

The author is the Labour MP for Thurrock

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