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The changes that are making a difference

By Western Gazette - Yeovil  |  Posted: November 15, 2012

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A CRISP autumnal day seems somehow right for Remembrance Day parades and services.

As usual, I attended Bruton in the morning, Wincanton in the afternoon and Frome for the evening service. It is a routine I've followed for many years now, and what I find gratifying is that the number of people participating each year seems to go up, rather than down. Part of that is, sadly, the fact that many will know or be related to those on active service or casualties of recent conflict. It is good, however, that we do remember. I would not want to live in a country that did not.

Several people came up to me on Sunday to offer congratulations (or sometimes commiserations) on my new ministerial appointment, but quite a few hadn't appreciated that in fact I've been a minister since 2010, albeit in the rather less high profile role as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. This proves to me yet again that most have no idea what that job entailed, and that includes many of my colleagues. I won't rehearse the details now, but I am glad that some of the reforms I instituted are really bearing fruit.

Under recent Governments, Parliament had become more and more a creature of Government. Ministers decided what was to be debated, and when, and then applied a strict timetable on debate and a whip on the result. As a consequence many of the more difficult and contentious issues were never discussed at all, and both MPs and the public they serve were often frustrated. That has now changed in two very important ways.

Firstly, the Government has given away control of about one day of week of Parliamentary time. The other four days are, rightly, taken up with scrutinising legislation, and it is important we have sufficient time to do that effectively, and for subjects chosen for debate by the official Opposition. But the remaining time is in the hands of backbenchers. A committee, the Back Bench Business Committee, decides what will be debated, and they do so on the basis of requests from backbenchers and certainly not for the convenience of the Government. And that's how it should be.

The second is the institution of the e-petition. Under the last Government, petitions went precisely nowhere. Now, if an online public petition gains signatures it will trigger a Government response, and if it passes the 100,000 signature mark it is eligible for a debate in the time given to backbenchers. That is precisely what happens, on a range of subjects which would never have been given time previously.

Of course there are still frustrations. Such motions aren't binding on government. But what is important is that the public and the backbench MP has the opportunity to raise things which are important, without a minister deciding whether it's politically convenient. And I think that's a very good thing.

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