Backbench Business — Valedictory Debate

Part of Elections for Positions in the House – in the House of Commons am 2:19 pm ar 26 Mawrth 2015.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Llafur, Blackburn 2:19, 26 Mawrth 2015

It is a pleasure to see Sir John Stanley in his place. I first stood for Parliament in February 1974; I was able to discover that there were 14,000 socialists in Tonbridge and Malling, but unfortunately they were 10,000 fewer than the number of Conservatives who voted for the right hon. Gentleman. I took his and his constituents’ advice and moved elsewhere, and it has been my privilege to have served as the Member for Blackburn for the past 36 years.

Blackburn is a singular town in many ways, one of which is that it has had only two Members of ParliamentBarbara Castle, my predecessor, and me—in the 70 years since the war. I learned a great deal from Barbara, not least that the first and most fundamental responsibility of any Member of Parliament is to his or her constituents, however high and mighty that Member thinks they are and whatever office of state they may hold. It is our constituents who are, as it were, our employers and grant us the extraordinary privilege of serving in this place.

When I finally came to the House in May 1979, the conditions of the country were harsh and difficult, yet there was a greater instinctive faith in our political system and respect for its representatives collectively than there is today. There is a paradox here: in the 36 years I have been in the House, this place has become more effective, not less, in holding Government to account. In turn, governance itself has become more responsive and transparent.

In the past, the processes of government were protected by secrecy; judicial review was a rarity; there were no Select Committees; many Back Benchers on both sides held down full-time jobs outside; and the regulation of Members’ interests was elementary. The demands of constituents were far fewer: in the Select Committee that I chaired, we had evidence that, in the 1960s, each Member of Parliament had an average post box of between 15 and 20 letters a week.

Parliament has become stronger, MPs have never been more hard-working and this place has never been more visited, yet cynicism about politics is more pervasive than I can recall. The age of deference has come to an end, which in many respects is no bad thing. We are no longer on a pedestal. But I am reminded of those lines by T.S. Eliot in “Burnt Norton”:

“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.”

We are now having to bear much reality. It would be good to see the prism through which this place and our politics are reported distorting the reality rather less often, but we have to examine the beam in our own eye as well.

The most urgent change needed by this place is in respect of Prime Minister’s questions. This is not a trivial matter about half an hour a week; it is part of the way in which people see our politics. Whatever purpose it served in the past, it now gives a terrible impression and rarely illuminates. It is time to change it. In the short term, we should go back to the 15 minutes on a Tuesday and Thursday; in the medium term, we should ask the Procedure Committee to look more closely at how it should be changed. I suggest that we also need to do something more about attendance in the Chamber. Perhaps we could consider Committee days and Chamber days, as happen elsewhere.

The average length of service for a Member of Parliament is 11 years, and I have been incredibly lucky to have served my constituents for three times that. For a big village, as we often describe ourselves, my town has had to change more than most others as it has absorbed a large Asian-heritage population, but it has done so with a generosity of spirit.

Deciding to leave was incredibly difficult. I love my constituency and I love this place. There has not been a day when, coming into this building, I have not marvelled at its inspiration. I thank my constituents for the privilege it has been to serve them; my wife and family for their unstinting support; my staff; and friends and colleagues on both sides.

This is a wondrous place. I felt that in May 1979 when I first arrived. I feel it still now, as I leave.